758. The Transcendent Time Continuum of Hope

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Everything Happens for A Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, a book by Kate Bowler, came out last year from Random House and to considerable acclaim. At the age of 35 years, Bowler, an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School and mother of a young son, was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. Fortunately, her cancer is the “magic” kind, as Bowler likes to call it, meaning it responds to a new kind of cancer therapy known as immunotherapy. Take a look at her website and you’ll see her there in photos smiling and looking the picture of health.

The book was an interesting read for me because it gave a human face to therapies that I write about in my medical writing day job. For several years, a good part of my work has been writing about these therapies that help the person’s own immune system kill cancer cells. The book was an interesting and compelling read, also because it showed a person coming to terms with living in a state of great uncertainty about the future.

As Bowler writes,

“Plans are made. Plans come apart. New delights or tragedies pop up in their place. And nothing human or divine will map out this life, this life that has been more painful than I could have imagined. More beautiful than I could have imagined.”

Given that I’m writing a book about hope, I was also interested in how hope might be at play in her story. I found that while throughout the book, Bowler both struggled with and lived with hope, the topic of ‘hope’ per se was never overtly discussed. It felt a bit like a missing beat; I had wanted her to take on hope. Not that this at all takes away from her book or her story, it was just a perhaps selfish desire on my part to learn how she thought of hope.

Then the end of last month, Bowler had a cover story in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times. In “Hope Isn’t Only About the Future” (see below for link), she describes how her cancer diagnosis and treatment took away the future tense of her life and grounded her in the looped present comprised of treatment cycles. Hope as typically used, pointing to the future, seemed irrelevant when what she wanted was all now: life with her husband now, life with her son now. For her, hope had been a “kind of arsenic that needed to be carefully administered.”

She writes about trying to resolve the present:future dichotomous time continuum on which hope dwells for her as a person living with such uncertainty. Towards the end of the essay, however, she writes words that emerge from her personal struggle that spoke to me, and my guess is, they might speak to you as well.

“The terrible gift of terrible illness is that it has in fact taught me to live in the moment. But when I look at these mementos, I realize that I am learning more than to seize the day. In losing my future, the mundane began to sparkle. The things I love—the things I should love—become clearer, brighter. This is transcendence, the past and the future experienced together in moments where I can see a flicker of eternity.”

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Note: The essay’s title in the online version is “How Cancer Changes Hope.”

[Photo: Taken from a corner of the cover illustration in the article’s print version in The New York Times.]

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757. With thanks to Mary Oliver

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Mary Oliver, superlative poet and essayist, died this past week at the age of 83. I first started reading her work, particularly her essays, in mid-life when I was in graduate school. Reading her was like having a friend next to me, urging me on to pay attention, to pause, to look, to wonder, to praise. In Long Life: Essays and Other Writing, Oliver wrote:

“And that is just the point: how the world, moist and bountiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That's the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning, ‘Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?’"


When I heard that she had died, I took Long Life off my bookshelf and went through, re-reading the lines I’d starred and underlined.


Here are a few of the other lines my eyes landed on:

“What does it mean, say the words, that the earth is so beautiful? And what shall I do about it? What is the gift that I should bring to the world? What is the life that I should live?”


And this:

“I walk in the world to love it.”


And this:

"And here I build a platform, and live upon it, and think my thoughts, and aim high. To rise, I must have a field to rise from. To deepen, I must have a bedrock from which to descend." ( I had wanted to use this as an epigraph for Finding Livelihood but due to permission issue I had to cut it.)


This morning, here in Minneapolis, the sky is blue and sunny, the air cold. New snow, not much, is glistening white. Although the thermometer reads –1°, it is all so beautiful. Oliver wrote, “There is a rumor of total welcome among the frosts of the winter morning. Beauty has its purposes, which, all our lives and at every season, it is our opportunity, and our joy, to divine.”

May you divine much beauty, live the life yours to live, think thoughts and aim high, walk and love. I thank Mary Oliver for writing and sharing her deeply meaningful words. If you have some words of Oliver’s to share, I’d love to read them in the comments.

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I’m experimenting with providing an audio version of my posts. Let me know what you think!

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To read other posts I’ve written about Mary Oliver, click here.

[Photo: taken of a painting viewed at the Minnesota Museum of American Art: “March Idyll or Winter Landscape, Woodstock” by John Fabian Carlson; used with permission. I love that crack in the sky in the upper left corner that tells you the sun is about to break through. I think Mary Oliver would also have loved it.)

756. Let our soul breathe hope

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A reader of this blog/newsletter—a friend—recently recommended to me the book Praying with the Earth: A Prayerbook for Peace by John Philip Newell (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011). For each day of the week, morning and evening, the book includes a “prayer of awareness,” a “prayer for the life of the world,” and a “prayer of blessing,” as well as scripture and prompts for meditation. On this Monday morning, December 31, one of the prayers of the day seems so fitting for the New Year that I want to share it with you on this New Year’s Eve day.

For the freshness of this new day

thanks be to you, O God.

For morning’s gift of clarity

its light like the first day’s dawn

thanks be to you.

In this newborn light

let us see afresh.

In this gateway onto what has never been before

let our soul breathe hope

for the earth

for the creatures

for the human family.

Let our soul breathe hope.

Blessings to each of you in 2019!

~~~

[Photo: some wood ready for a New Year’s fire.]