Where the light enters

finding meaning in mortality

Category: The Loveliness of Life

Drumming up some healing energy

I’ve always had an interest in drumming.  I learned the violin as a child, probably because my mother was more accepting of the noise a violin would make in a child’s hands than the sound of drums in… well, in anyone’s hands.  The violin was elegant from my mother’s perspective; she probably thought of drums as belonging to rock ‘n’ roll hoodlums or hippies (If you’re not already getting the picture, my mother was a very prim, straight-laced woman).  We also had a piano in the house which my mother played.  But despite her best efforts, I’ve always been drawn to the sound of drums.  Maybe it speaks to a primordial instinct within me, the drumbeat reverberating inside me almost like a second heartbeat.  I started taking tap dance lessons last year, I think in part because it felt as though I was beating a drumbeat with my feet (and also because I love the old Fred Astaire movies).

But after going to a benefit concert in November where there were several performers playing traditional drums such as the djembe and Native American hand drums (see my previous post), my interest in drumming has been renewed.  So on Cyber Monday, I took a leap:  I found a great deal online for a Djembe, which is defined as a rope-tuned, skin-covered drum played with the bare hands, originally from West Africa.  I was nervous buying it unseen since I don’t know the first thing about drums, but my fears faded away when it arrived.  The drum was lovely, and it had a nice resonant sound to it when I tentatively tested it out.  The poodle ran and hid the first few times I played it, but she eventually decided that it was safe to return (i.e. maybe mommy hasn’t entirely lost her mind), and now just lies next to me as I play, occasionally shooting me a questioning look with her big raised poodle eyebrows.

I found some great videos by World Drum Club on YouTube that provided me with my first djembe lessons.  I was immediately hooked.  Now I make sure to practice at least a little every day.  I’ve found more great videos to watch to learn new rhythms, and I’m contemplating working up the courage to join a drum circle.

As I googled information about the drum, I ran across some interesting online articles about using drums for healing purposes.  I found a good summary article on aboutreligion.  The article states that therapeutic rhythm techniques have been used for thousands of years to create and maintain physical, mental, and spiritual health.  It lists many different therapeutic drum benefits including the calming, focusing, and healing effects of drumming on Alzheimer’s patients, autistic children, emotionally disturbed teens, recovering addicts, trauma patients, and prison and homeless populations.  Study results demonstrate that drumming is a valuable treatment for stress, fatigue, anxiety, hypertension, asthma, chronic pain, arthritis, mental illness, migraines, cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, paralysis, emotional disorders, and a wide range of physical disabilities.  One study cited found that group drumming actually increases cancer-killing cells, which help the body combat cancer as well as other viruses, including AIDS.  

I was excited, but skeptical.  How could something as simple as playing a drum have such beneficial effects on the body?  According to the article, one theory as to why drumming is so beneficial is that drumming permeates the entire brain.  Vision for example is in one part of the brain, speech another, but drumming accesses the whole brain.  The sound of drumming generates dynamic neuronal connections in all parts of the brain even where there is significant damage or impairment such as in Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

I hadn’t realized any of this when I ordered my drum, but I had somehow sensed that creating my own energy through music might somehow help me.  I thought that not only would it help me relax, but maybe I could use it as a meditative device.  This idea apparently has some research behind it; a study by Barry Quinn, Ph.D., found that even a brief drumming session can double alpha brain wave activity, dramatically reducing stress.  The brain changes from Beta waves (focused concentration and activity) to Alpha waves (calm and relaxed), producing feelings of euphoria and well-being.  Alpha activity is associated with meditation, shamanic trance, and integrative modes of consciousness.

I definitely could use more alpha waves right now; having cancer is a seriously stressful situation to be in.  Not only is there the question of living or dying, but the stresses of the treatments themselves, the question of lumpectomy versus mastectomy, the financial drain (I have decent insurance, but there are so many things that aren’t covered, or are only partially covered), the inability to perform all of your job duties within the normal time frame, et cetera.   I would be very thankful for all the alpha brain waves I can get to counteract these stresses.  My monkey brain makes it hard to even sit for meditation on most days; maybe drumming will allow me to reach enough of a meditative state to return to daily sitting.

I feel thankful to the benefit concert for allowing me to see the possibilities of drumming up my own energy.  I will try to raise energy for my own healing process, and if I get good at drumming up energy, maybe I can eventually raise it for others as well.  That is, if the poodle can handle all the noise.

The mother of beauty

A few days ago I bribed my boyfriend into taking me to Oakland Cemetery’s fall festival, Sunday in the Park.  I had been once several years ago, and I remembered how much I enjoyed seeing people dressed as Victorians wandering through one of the oldest and most beautiful cemeteries in Atlanta.

I didn’t have the stamina to walk the entire cemetery on this trip (it’s about 48 acres), but I did hold out long enough to visit a good bit of the grounds, sample some tasty Angel Fire 7 barbecue from a food truck, and take photos of some of the spectacular marble citizens who live at Oakland.  I also visited Margaret Mitchell’s grave, and stood over her like one of the mute angels that pepper the landscape, wondering how one shows reverence for a favorite long-dead author.  I ended up taking a quick photo of her headstone like a good tourist and stepping out of the much-trampled grass so someone else could do the same.

Margaret Mitchell's headstone

I also visited the section of the cemetery called Confederate Memorial Grounds, where approximately 6,900 soldiers lie, regimented even in death, in neat rows of nondescript headstones.  Around 3,000 of these men were unidentified.  The Lion of Atlanta, a huge lion sculpted from a single block of Georgia marble, honors these unknown men.

Lion of Atlanta

Lion of Atlanta

There were vendors set up along the paths  selling an eclectic assortment of oddities.  Ghoulish paintings, vintage clothing, and photos of funerary cherubim somehow blended with children having their faces painted and live jazz music.

Ren and Helen Davis, the authors of the award-winning book Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery: An Illustrated History and Guide were there signing copies of their book, so of course I bought one.  Something both fascinating and a little bit creepy to read on these fabulous cool, fall evenings.

It was a great day for people-watching.  A lot of visitors had dressed for the occasion; some were wearing authentic-looking Victorian dress.  There was a flower-seller who looked like she could have come straight out of one of Dickens’ novels.  Some were dressed as dead Victorians.  Some were dressed as Victorians who had somehow had the misfortune of becoming vampires.  Some were dressed in what I can only describe as “gothic skank,” but they somehow fit into the theme of the day.  At any rate, it was highly entertaining to watch them all strolling side-by-side down the old brick-lined walkways.

I had briefly considered dressing up before abandoning the idea for pragmatic (i.e. sane) reasons.  Besides, in my bicentennial scarf, it’s possible that onlookers assumed that I lacked hair for a moribund (and thus spooky-enough) reason.  Which may or may not be true, so far as I know.  My stage-three tumor may or may not be the eventual death of me.  According to statistics, I have a seventy-five per cent change of being alive five years from now.  Which, of course, means that I have a twenty-five per cent chance of not being.

My mother survived just over five years from her diagnosis of breast cancer.  She survived just long enough to be counted as a “cancer survivor.”  And then she died.  Her tumor was also stage-three when it was found.

My oncologist tells me not to compare apples to oranges.  First of all, despite all the similarities, my mother’s cancer was quite different from mine.  Hers was what is referred to as “triple negative,” a cancer that recurs at a higher rate due to its not being responsive to estrogen, progesterone, or Herceptin.  Mine is highly sensitive to estrogen and progesterone, so its recurrence  can be hopefully prevented with hormone therapy down the road.  Her tumor was also of a type that tends to be more aggressive and  metastasizes with more frequency than mine.  If my cancer metastasizes, it will most likely go to my gastrointestinal tract or ovaries.  Her cancer was the type that goes mainly to the brain, lungs, liver, and bones, all of which it eventually did.  She was also quite a bit older than me and in poorer general health, which I suppose counts for something.

I try to listen to my oncologist and not compare my situation too much to that of my mother.  But it’s hard not to at least think about it, as it’s hard to not remember all the things that she went through in those last five years of her life.

So please forgive my morbid frame of mind as I walked the beautiful grounds of Oakland Cemetery, enjoying the loveliness of it all, but quite cognizant at the same time of my mortality.  It makes me think of a line from the poem “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens in which he says, Death is the mother of beauty.  The sure knowledge of our death, and that of every other living creature, is what fills our lives with meaning.   Except for death, we could take all of the world’s beauty for granted, and even with death looming in the background, we sometimes still do.

Thankfully, there’s a lot of beauty to treasure in this world that hopefully makes all the fuss over life and death worthwhile.  Again, I think of Wallace’s “Sunday Morning,” whose final lines tell us:

Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

Oakland Angel

The gift of friendship

I guess you never realize how many friends you truly have until something happens.  And by “until something happens,” I mean until something bad happens.  Like being diagnosed with a disease that is going to suck for at least the next six months, maybe longer.

I feel very lucky to say that since my diagnosis has “come out of the closet,” a lot of people have stepped forward and proven themselves worthy of the term “friend.”  Very worthy, I must say.

I have had so many sincere offers of help in the past few weeks that I feel overwhelmed.  Overwhelmed in a good way, mind you.  But the outpouring of concern and aid has really surprised me.

But why am I so surprised?  I obviously have had the good fortune to know a lot of really fabulous, good-hearted individuals.  I think that working at a non-profit has helped introduce me to many kind and wonderful people (not that kind people don’t work at for-profit companies, but non-profits seem to draw them like flies to a cow’s patootie).

Many of these wonderful co-workers put together a gift package for me last week.  It’s somewhat of a misnomer to call it a “package” because it consisted of a large basket and three gigantic overflowing bags of goodies that they so thoughtfully curated for me.  There were far too many items to remember to list them all, but among the treasures were a snuggly plush blanket, a lovely soft wrap that buttons in front, a wine-colored scarf (that perfectly matches a new shirt I just bought), several books (including an inspiring one on friendship), a meditative coloring kit, a very cool water bottle by S’well, magazines, snacks, supplements, a beautiful soft-pink orchid, numerous lotions, shower gels, soaps, mouthwash (to battle the dry mouth that chemo will inevitably bring), drinks, a variety of teas, hand sanitizer, tissues, skin care oils, and many other items that I’m sure I’m leaving out.  Whew.

I think I’m fully prepared for any contingency that chemo can bring on, thanks to these awesome people that I’m so happy to call my friends.  They’ve fortified me physically as well as emotionally for what may come. When I returned to work on Tuesday, there was even an adorable felted animal on my desk with a note saying, “Just for you — a very rare southeastern bat squirrel!”  He even came with his own equally adorable felted pumpkin.

felted squirrel and pumpkin

That’s not to mention the offers of help… offers to accompany me to appointments, to cook meals for me, to clean my house, to just sit and talk, to be there.

Many times I have found myself wondering how can I ever repay these friends?.  Not that friendship can be calculated like a tit-for-tat scorecard, but really, what could I ever give them that could come close to what they’ve given me?

The short-story writer, Katherine Mansfield, once wrote in a letter to a friend, “I am treating you as my friend, asking you to share my present minuses in the hope that I can ask you to share my future plusses.”  My friends are sharing my present minuses like connoisseurs of tribulation.  Maybe one day, when I have successfully followed the crumbs that lead out of this dark forest, I will have “plusses” that I can share with them as well.

The new priorities

It seems apparent to me that my new cancer diagnosis has shifted my priorities.  It has added urgency to some of the things that I wanted to do in my life such as writing that unfinished novel (okay, writing the un-started novel).  But instead of the “Bucket List” that comes to mind for many people, it has shifted my attention away from the flashy things in life and has focused my consciousness on simpler things.  I have no interest in skydiving or traveling to exotic locales.  Instead I feel drawn to the things that have been with me all along.

There are so many mysteries in nature, so many dramas unfolding around you or just outside your window.  A spider web glistening with the morning’s dew, a cricket singing at night as you try to fall asleep.  Your dog’s excitement at seeing you begin to stir in the morning.  All of these things seem to hold more meaning to me at the moment than anything that might make someone’s list-of-things-to-do-before-I-die.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with wanting to see the Eiffel Tower before you die, or wanting to climb up to the summit of Mount Fuji.  It’s entirely possible that either of these trips could add meaning to your life.  But that kind of trip is few and far between to rely on for true meaning.  It would seem to say that your “normal” life was devoid of meaning which I don’t think is true at all.  I think our lives are likely full of meaningful moments if we only paid more attention.

Nature is a great place to start looking for meaning.  As Eckhart Tolle said, “Nature can bring you to stillness. That is its gift to you.”  Being still is talked about in lots of literature as being a healing practice in itself.  Stillness is where we connect with our deeper selves, and where we can connect to others as well.

Nature can bring you to stillness. That is its gift to you. – Eckhart Tolle


One of my new priorities is spending time with nature, just sitting and paying attention to what’s around me. Watching a dragonfly rest on a stone, or noticing the way the hummingbird and bumblebee dance with one another in competition for the same flower.  These simple acts that normally go unnoticed every day suddenly seem to have more significance for me.

I’ve also been evaluating my current lifestyle and finding that it comes up short from what I really want in my life.  My life lately has consisted of commuting an hour and a half, working at a computer, commuting another hour and a half, and then eating dinner in front of the television before going to bed.  I’ve been in a rut for a while now, and haven’t been motivated to climb out of it.  A new priority in my life will be to figure out how to change this cycle.  There has to be more to life than sitting in traffic and wondering what happened to my dreams.

Another new priority for me is being social.  I was very surprised by the outpouring of concern when I revealed my diagnosis.  So many people have been ready to help me, and have helped me more than I would have thought possible.  Even a text message from someone saying, “Thinking of you today” has meant worlds to me. Being social doesn’t come easily to me.  I’m a true introvert, one who gets satisfaction from within instead of from the outside world.  I don’t normally need to be validated by the opinions of others, and I don’t feel lonely just by being alone.  I’ve often preferred to be alone with my thoughts and my reading than to be included in a group.

But surprisingly, my new outlook seems to include others more than it ever has.  I find myself drawn into conversations and social groups without feeling regret at putting the book I was reading down.  I’m even contemplating seeking out a support group to attend, even if it means missing out on a few hours of reading.

Which brings me to another new priority: reading.  I’ve always been a reader.  Ever since I learned to read at the age of three, I’ve gone nowhere without at least one book in my tote bag (and sometimes several).  But I realized when I was facing the possibility of a shortened life that there were so many unread books on my list. How could I possibly die without reading Joyce’s Ulysses or before I’ve read every single book that Charles Dickens ever wrote (and yes, this is really on my reading list)?  So I’ve re-worked my reading list to ensure that I’m reading the books that are most important to me first; the newest issue of Glamour that just arrived in the mail can wait.

It’s one thing to realize what is important in your life and quite another to actually change your life to incorporate the important things.  This will be my challenge now as I work toward a more meaningful life and attempt to put what’s important to me first on the day’s agenda.  Changing my reading list will be the easiest to accomplish; I’ve already decided that my chemo infusion times will be reading time.  I don’t think that joining social groups will prove too difficult.  But how to change a long commute?  How to get back to the dream of one day writing a novel?  Those will be the true challenges that I’ll have to face.  But I feel like I’m at least traveling in the right direction now with my new priorities leading the way.

My introduction to mortality

It’s amazing how a serious health diagnosis changes your life.  I don’t want to use an overly-simplified phrase like “It was a blessing in disguise” because I’m not there yet.  And I really don’t think it’s that simple.  I hear a lot of people throwing this phrase around, but it’s too new yet for me to assume that there will be a shiny silver lining in the middle of all the loss.  It’s too soon to try to imagine the ultimate change this will have on my life.  All I know at this point is that I would give good money to make it go away, to be able to wake tomorrow morning and find that it was all a horrible nightmare.

Being diagnosed with cancer at the age of forty-six seems surreal; maybe it would seem surreal at any age, but I never thought I would be face to face with my mortality in my mid-forties.  I figured I had at least another twenty years before I would have to confront this morbid reality.  But here I am contemplating things very dark and occasionally soul-crushing.

With these sorts of thoughts crowding into your skull, it’s hard to not feel that something has changed in how you view the world.  Already I can tell that my priorities are different.  Things that were once very important have been tossed to the side like clothes that no longer fit.  It doesn’t seem to matter anymore that I’ve lost a pound and a half or that the new Brahmin line of purses has a gorgeous tortoise pattern available.

I’ve been very emotional since my diagnosis; everything I’ve read tells me that this is normal, but it doesn’t feel normal to cry in the supermarket because the dark red globes of the beets are so beautiful.  Navigating Pinterest these days is like walking through a field strewn with land mines; there are far too many smiling dog faces or cute kittens doing cute things.  And I’m not normally an emotional person.  But these days the simplest, most mundane things are likely the things that will smear my face with mascara.

I find not only the possibility of death to be a constant companion, but the inevitability of change is also forever in my thoughts.  My treatment regimen will consist of chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, and hormone therapy, all of which will bring their own changes to the party.  Some of these changes will likely be temporary, but some will also be permanent.  Trying to envision how I will be at the end of it all seems as iffy as picking the right lotto numbers.


Years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to a poem of Rumi’s called “Childhood Friends.”  In the poem, a childhood friend brings Joseph a mirror as a gift and holds it up to him saying, I’ve brought you a mirror.  Look at yourself, and remember me…../Your defects are the ways that glory gets manifested./Whoever sees clearly what’s diseased in himself/begins to gallop on the way./…Don’t turn your head.  Keep looking/at the bandaged place.  That’s where/the light enters you.

Rumi was of course addressing the spiritual wounds, the defects in a man’s soul that he should be aware of and confront, but I think that if one can read it as including both physical and spiritual wounds, it’s an even more powerful message.  Instead of turning away from our wounds, we can confront them and accept them as part of us, for better or worse.  The Venus de Milo is no less beautiful because Aphrodite is missing her arms. There’s something lovely about the scars of an antique; many furniture makers work hard to get a “distressed” look for a new piece of furniture.  The scars and the blemishes show us that the piece has been used and loved over the years; it has witnessed decades of life and has survived into the present.

As I progress through this journey of disease and healing, I want to remind myself to not turn away from reality, to always face my illness with the full realization of what is happening.  I’m hopeful that if I’m able to keep looking at the bandaged place with enough clarity, one day I will be able to view it as the place where the light enters me.