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Saturday, October 23, 2010

To love life

--

Inge and me after walking in the Making Strides event

This is my best friend, Inge. She is a breast cancer survivor. Today we walked a 5K from our state capitol for Making Strides Against Breast Cancer.

Inge. (Please say it in your mind's voice with a soft g, as in flying.) Inge is faithful, and disciplined; she loves language and reads voraciously when she isn't working too hard; she also loves numbers and being organized. She is fascinated by memory and why we remember some things, and not others. She has artistic, intelligent hand writing. Inge is a poet; she is German, with a steel-trap mind; her English is more proficient than many Americans I know. She has beautiful, dewy skin; she adores her 16-year-old son Piet; she is golden, with a golden heart. When we sit together, it's as if we are one person, with two sets of eyes. At lunch today after the walk Inge shared David Brooks' recent column "The Flock Comedies" describing friendship, saying that this passage quoting C.S. Lewis is how she sees ours. I agree:
Most essayistic celebrations of friendship have also been about the deep and total commitment that can exist between one person and another. In his book, “The Four Loves,” C.S. Lewis paints a wonderful picture of such an ideal: “It seems no wonder if our ancestors regarded Friendship as something that raised us almost above humanity. This love, free from instinct, free from all duties but those which love has freely assumed, almost wholly free from jealousy, and free without qualification from the need to be needed, is eminently spiritual. It is the sort of love one can imagine between angels.”

Warning: Mixed metaphors follow.

Seven years ago, Inge told me she had a malignant tumor. That "cosmic two-by-four," as she calls it, smacked her into an intense journey of chemo, radiation, and exploration of the soul. Shortly after the diagnosis, over lunch out of Bento boxes, she described her session that morning with an esoteric healer who was helping her go beyond medical treatment, toward inner wholeness. Hearing about it I practically jumped over the table into her lap with excitement. The moment was full, and I was eager, recognizing instantly that we would be doing this work together. I could feel an unseen world of mystery and beauty ready to flood us with its light, if we could just get the curtains open. For a couple of years we devoured every book that leapt off the shelf at us, starting with Eckhart Tolle's Power of Now, and on into meticulous inner excavations with Don Miguel Ruiz, Michael Brown, Osho, Krishnamurti, Rumi, Thomas Moore, John Hillman, Ken Wilber, Carl Jung, G. I. Gurdjieff, Rainer Maria Rilke, Mary Oliver, and others in snippets, poems and synchronicities. Even a mother beech tree in Ireland and a Scotch pine in a back yard were our teachers. We dug, scraped, chipped, whittled and brushed off caked-on layers of bad habits we'd accumulated, such as resentment, fear, judgment, dependence and jealousy. No matter where we looked, everything in every direction was vibrating: . . . Life! . . . Love! All seemed simultaneously more . . . and less important. An apple, a leaf or a bird were the center of the universe. The present moment was the only one, and it was eternal. Our conversations flowed with enthusiasm, discovery, and hunger for more. As frightening as Inge's cancer was (thank God I didn't lose her), I am grateful that it was the wrecking ball that knocked down my shabby, haphazard scaffolding, revealing a spare, quiet sunlit meadow of peace at the center of myself. The ugly scaffolding isn't gone completely, but the work isn't as aggressive now. It seems to happen on its own, like a hummingbird whose wings are moving, but almost imperceptibly, as if on a different plane.

Life keeps happening. We are healthy (I too, survived melanoma), but death hovers all around, through distant stories, and sometimes close to home. A couple of weeks ago, there was a terrible car wreck here. In one car three teenagers, and in the second car two grandparents lost their lives. One of the teenagers was a friend of Inge's son's and a former 4th grade student in my husband's class. There isn't much to say about such unthinkable sorrows. But a few days later, a rare morning when I failed to read my Writer's Almanac poem, Inge emailed it to me and said, Read this. Sometimes poems transcend the inadequacy of words, cutting right to your core. Love and life become a choice. This was the poem that day:


The Thing Is
by Ellen Bass

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you've held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

"The Thing Is" by Ellen Bass, from Mules of Love. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 2002.

-

75 comments:

lakeviewer said...

Oh my, this last poem is breath-taking.

The Solitary Walker said...

Heart-wrenchingly real and beautiful, Ruth. Thank you for this. I won't resort to cliches. I'll just say: thank you again.

Ann said...

Congrats to you and Inge for doing the 5 Km.

I am wearing double bands of the Pink "share knowledge spread hope" . The little ones ask if I had cancer.

George said...

I loved this, Ruth, and, to be honest, I feel a great deal of love right now for both you and Inge. To have such a friendship is a gift beyond all riches. You are lucky to have one another, and to have the daily experience of growing with one another. I also loved the Ellen Bass poem. I will come back to this post on days that I feel lost. This is a story of courage, friendship, and transcendence. What could be better?

Lorenzo said...

A stunning post: the description of Inge, the tribute to the power and beauty of friendship, the celebration of the present moment. An ode to life and love of life. Your words and Ellen Bass' tremendous poem are cut from the same cloth.

deb said...

I have no words Ruth.

I love you.

Without logic. Saying yes. I do.

your Inge is beautiful.

The Bug said...

What a powerful poem. I've been weighted down this week - but, really, for me the only choice it to take that life-face in my hands and marry it again...

Inge said...

Thank you, my dear friend. I cried reading
this. I am blessed to have had your
beautiful soul along on this journey.
I love you.

Helena said...

You look great!

I also had a friend with breast cancer. It changed her whole womanhood and relationship. Extremely tough. Not just the cancer but losing the breast.

I salute Christina Applegate for doing such a brave thing!

Oh said...

Ruth, You are one of those dear people who opens my eyes, yes, across the miles. My mom does, too. My husband. Several friends.
But this,that you have shared here with you and Inge reading and experiencing and "scraping and chipping" away offers one of those flashes that one must capture and remember and do.
I'm headed to the back yard to watch the wind push the birdfeeder as the birds cling nevertheless and sing and eat.

Lovely.
Hugs to you and Inge.

Ruth said...

Lakeviewer, it is indeed a poem that takes your breath away. I am profoundly moved by it.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Robert, very much.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Ann. Those kids asking you about the bands of pink is exactly why we should wear them and raise awareness.

♥ Kathy said...

That was so beautiful Ruth. It made me cry. Thank you for posting it.

Ruth said...

George, thank you.

It was a challenge to condense our years of experience into a couple of paragraphs here. So I am most grateful that you feel what you feel in response to it, which tells me I was able to relay at least a taste of our life together.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Lorenzo. We never want terrible things to happen. When they do, we all do the best we can. Sometimes, what comes of such experiences is beautiful beyond imagining. It astonishes me that words can take others into our stories and touch them. Actually that really stuns me at this moment.

Ruth said...

Deb, when you have no words, saying I love you is a pretty great thing. Thank you. And honestly, I love you too.

Yes, Inge is beautiful, more than you can imagine.

Ruth said...

Dana, thank you. And thank you for your courage. I wish you a lighter week ahead.

Ruth said...

Ing, what would I do without you?

I love you.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Helena.

It is terribly sobering when women do what Christina Applegate did. I know a family of women who have so many cases of breast cancer in their family that the daughters, even in their twenties, were advised to have mastectomies, even with no cancer, as a preemptive measure.

Ruth said...

Dear Oh, the embrace of your words and feelings means so much to me. The world can be a deeply troubling place, but I am utterly convinced that we can meet it, together with loving friends and family, and find a way through it. I am terribly sorry for those who go through such things alone.

Ruth said...

♥ Kathy, thank you very much for connecting with what I've shared today, which is so important to me.

Robyn said...

I love this... this post is like a heart bursting at the seams with love.

I too am a lover of life.

best wishes for a long one
Robyn :)

J.G. said...

I used to keep my temper with my daughters by remembering that they needed my love the most when they were at their most UNloveable. Before your post and this poem, I never realized that life needs that kind of obstinate, accepting love, too. Thank you.

Gwen Buchanan said...

... such a strength it gives...

Pat said...

Congratulations on walking the 5K, with a wonderful friend, no less!

Inge sounds like a wonderful woman, and you are a wonderful friend. A brush with death certainly opens ones eyes to the beauty of life.

I enjoyed that poem.

rauf said...

Inge won and my mom lost. We die of something or the other Ruth. Sometimes chemotherapy itself causes cancer. i wish all the comfort for those who are suffering now and hope
cure for all cancers is found soon.

Vagabonde said...

This is not a plain, ordinary post, Ruth. It is full of love and life. How tremendous that you have found each other. Friendship of this sort is very rare and very precious. The poem is strong and beautiful – I am going to copy it. I wish Inge a long and healthy life.

Tamara said...

Beautiful and moving - both the post and all these comments. I love visiting your blog Ruth because you allow your words to express,what so many of us keep inside. Without knowing you outside this blog, I Love You.
In honour of Margaret.

California Girl said...

Hi Ruth! The poem is great as is your post.

I keep promising myself I'll improve, discard my negativity, my critical outlook on things, my anxiety and angst. But I backslide all the time and it feels like failure. Then I read about a car wreck such as you describe and wonder "Why?". then I read a poem such as you've re-printed and I think "There isn't any answer. It's life and we go on."

freefalling said...

When I visit some blogs I skim through them.
I can't do that with yours.
It speaks to a deeper me.
I have to quiet my mind before I come and I have to have time to sit and absorb.
Sometimes that's a pain in the posterior!
But it's always rewarding.

Gwei Mui said...

Two amazing women. What a honour it is to meet Inge. Everyone should have an "Inge" in their life. Well done on the 5k walk. The poem is extra-ordinary.

jeannette said...

A friendship like you two have is a rare treasure -it's awesome!

Ruth said...

Robyn, I can see from your avatar that you are a lover of life. Thank you for reading this post and sharing this love. Thank you for your wishes for a long life. Let me return the wishes to you with all my heart.

Ruth said...

Bless you, J.G.. A lot of life is uncomely, isn't it? Too bad the media make us think everything should be perfect, and then we can love it. Thank you so much for sharing your priceless lesson.

Ruth said...

Gwen, yes. I'm glad you feel that way too. Love to you, and thanks, Gwen.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Pat! I realized what terrible shape I'm in about half-way through the walk when my hips started getting sore. I haven't been walking like I used to. When you're 54 you can't just stop like that. Bleh. But my dear Inge runs several miles a week, so she was giving me a pretty hard time.

Ruth said...

Your sweet mom, rauf. Makes me so sad. You made her very comfortable at the end of her life.

What makes me sort of crazy is how the things we know cause cancer are still manufactured and sold, and we buy them unwittingly. I just watched another Story of Stuff video on the Story of Cosmetics (storyofcosmetics.com) that Robyn posted at her blog. There's also a site for safecosmetics.com.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Vagabonde, for your very warm thoughts. I say with a lot of humility that I've learned about friendship from Inge. I don't know if it's her European background, but her faithfulness and persistence in friendship is not something I had had modeled with American friends. I'm not saying it can't or doesn't happen. But it hadn't happened for me. It was like that in Istanbul too, with my friends there. So I believe there is a different standard and expectation for friendship in other places, where meeting often and regularly is the norm.

Ruth said...

Dear Tamara, thank you for your kind and loving spirit, opened so beautifully here. (And thank you for the blog mention at Thyme for Tea too.) What powerful words that we don't say often enough: I love you. I love you too, Tamara.

I feel your love for Margaret. I'm sorry that you must have lost her. Inge and I noticed a group at the making strides walk yesterday wearing t-shirts for a woman whose name escapes me now, but not the other words on the shirt, which were: sister, mother, aunt, niece, friend. Each individual is a different relation to every other person in their life. And then when you multiply those individuals times how many are cancer victims, the impact one people's lives is vast.

Ruth said...

California Girl, good. I hope you don't spend too much energy and time on regret. I talked with a friend Friday who is struggling to stay in her marriage. In some ways it seems she should just leave her husband. But she is staying with him, just doing the best she can every day. I think that's all we can do, just the best we can at this moment. And I so agree that there is not much use to the question Why?

Ruth said...

My dear Letty girl. You think it's a pain to come here and read? Try being me! :|

I know you love me anyway. Because, well, you did read, didn't you.

You've been through this hell with your precious Vince. How you have shared that experience is a huge blessing to me. We share things differently, but we have love at our heart's core, and that's all that matters.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Gwei Mui, your warmth means so much to me.

I do wish everyone had an Inge. As for amazing-ness, we each just do the best we can, don't we? Each story is significant. I just love how you are working so incredibly hard to share yours, fighting upstream all the way. Bless you for that.

Ruth said...

Hi and welcome, Jeannette. Thank you for engaging with this friendship today and leaving your blessing.

Susan said...

Life is like that, isn't it? Sometimes it just up and smacks one upside the head, sometimes it knocks us to the ground and dares us to get up while standing on our chest. Lord knows I wouldn't have made it out of the pits of despair without my loved ones, friends and family both, gently pulling me up. That poem hit hard.

True friendship is a thing to be treasured and what a treasure you have with Inge, and she has in you.

Chipping, whittling, scraping....I need to do a lot of that.

loves

Ruth said...

Susie, my darling friend, life smacks hard in unimaginable, unthinkable and unbearable ways, as you know better than I wish you did. I thought of you in every kern of this post, and I wished not to bring any pain back into your heart.

My true friend, we are chipping together too, you and I. I love you.

cathyswatercolors said...

What a beautiful post Ruth. I have been missing my friend so much lately. I was glad to read your words on friendship. I am going to send this post to my other dear friend. I am also going check out your reading list. Thank you.

To be blessed with friends that love you endlessly and share your thoughts and inspirations,is a gift beyond compare. Is it the essence of life? Surely... xoxo

Ruth said...

Cathy, Inge almost moved away a while back. Well, she was thinking of a job in a different state. I tried not to think about what that would be like, and I didn't want it to affect her decision, obviously.

To recognize yourself in the mirror of another person is definitely the greatest joy.

Bonnie said...

This post touched me so deeply, I could not respond at first reading.

I have lived every line in the Ellen Bass poem, and though it cuts to the quick of recent lived experience, it truly inspires and reminds one to savor the life that is left.

How blessed you and Inge are to have found each other and contributed to each other's spiritual growth while standing on the precipice of mortality. I have had the privilege of such a journey with my eldest daughter - one I would not wish to re-experience, but one I will always treasure for its revitalization of life.

How wonderful that you both navigated your way across the chasm and are healthy in this moment.

ellen abbott said...

yes

*jean* said...

this post has moved me so, that i don't know what to say... except that i'm so glad i found this place, ruth, thank you...this is the third time i've been back to read the poem...i would read the book about yours and inge's journey and what you learned on the way...

Oliag said...

You may not believe this but I had already copied and pasted this poem from the Writer's Almanac into a document of saved favorite poems...I found it to be a poem of restoration for me...

My best friend and I do not tend toward "digging and chipping" often but I think I will go and give her a hug today:)

...and hugs to you and Inge for your completion of the 5K!...and for your survival:)

Susan said...

Bless you for this today - just the reminder I needed.

Friko said...

This is a post of the sort you read only too rarely; it has everything, kindness, friendship, hope, poetry, wisdom; all expressed beautifully, gently and without any preaching.

From a fellow German, a fellow Cancer (endometrial) survivor and a fellow lover of poetry, I am sending my very best wishes to Inge and much love and my thanks to you.

Marcie said...

This is so beautiful - all of it. From Inge's journey..to your own..and all of the parallels and metaphors that happen in between. The poem is absolutely magical. Thank-you for shedding light on it!

Friko said...

Ruth, I just saw that Inge has left a comment here but has no public blog address. Would you please be so very kind and give her my good wishes as expressed above.
Thank you.

freefalling said...

Ha!
That's what I say to Vince when he complains about living with me:
"try being me, it's exhausting!"

I only complain about coming to visit you, coz you pull at my heart strings and I like to maintain a stiff upper lip - you make it difficult.

Sidney said...

Thanks for sharing this. We always take life for granted... till things turns bad.
Glad you have such a good friend like Inge.

Ruth said...

Dear Bonnie, I know that for you this post must rekindle a very painful time, regarding your daughter's cancer. There is no way for me to begin to imagine what it must have been like, not with a daughter. And I will never forget your post from some time ago that I went back and read, about it, and how you came to think about death, which is one amazing life perspective, my friend. That you also still have your daughter is such a joy to me.

Ruth said...

Thank you for your affirmation, Ellen.

Ruth said...

Jean, it means a lot to me that you left a comment, even when you didn't know what to say. Having you connect with our story, and the poem, which is really such a pause in life, and that you would be interested in more of our story, is a real blessing to me.

Ruth said...

Oliag, of course I believe it! I think this poem must meet anyone who has experienced grief, such as you experienced with your sister.

Thank you for your warm hugs, for Inge and me, and for your friend. I return them to you many-fold.

Ruth said...

Susan, thank you. I'm glad you found what you needed here.

Ruth said...

Friko, I feel very touched by your warm and generous words and sentiments. Thank you so much. I have forwarded your comments to Inge, which I'm sure will also touch her warmly.

I am terribly grateful that you survived your cancer. You are a gift to me, to all of us who know you.

Ruth said...

Marcie, thank you for reading and for your lovely comments. It means so much to me that you connected with it.

Ruth said...

Letty, I know. And I have no wish to pull back any of your painful memories, which I know this did. Thanks, Letty.

Ruth said...

Sidney, thank you so much for being present for our story, and for your kind comment.

Margaret Bednar said...

True wisdom seems to happen after events of sorrow and extreme effort. My life has, of yet, remained fairly unscathed. I will tuck these poems and words and examples away and hold them close. Someday is here for everyone, for that is life. Being "happy" and thankful in the midst of difficult times is what I believe we are all truly to strive for. A handful of people do it well. C . S. Lewis was one of the first "philosophy" writers I read when I was 20ish. I think I have all his books and I think it is time to revisit that old friend. I love your poem - the imagery is beautiful.

Terresa said...

The Bass poem is one of my favorites of all time. Doesn't it speak life, truth, and everything that is? And is so transcendent, so opening despite the thick, heavy weight of life.

Lovely picture of you & Inge, and how you explained your friendship as one person with two sets of eyes. I feel that way with a dear friend of mine, A. We have been through so much together, and as the years pass, even more unimaginable happenings in both of our families. And yet, our friendship remains constant. It is a source of joy and beauty (and amazement) to me.

Sandy said...

What a wonderful post. I was excited reading it because I've been there with all those authors and your words somehow reflected what I have gone through for the last twenty plus years (minus the cancer personally although those in my family dealt with it). You have such a way to describe your experiences. Wow.

I love that photo above of the tractor. I sketched that out way back in June I believe. I loved that photo but of course I couldn't do it justice! It's the whole "feel" of the image that drew me to it.

Jeanie said...

Oh, Ruth -- what is it about your words that finds me sitting at my office computer, eyes damp, heart full?

Your friendship with Inge and her journey reminds me very much of a time in my life when I was privileged to have much the same role. And it is a privilege to walk this journey with another, although its never easy for anyone. My heart is full at your story and I thank you so very much for sharing it with me.

The poem. I must print this one out and keep forever. I will need this one day. Hopefully not soon. But one day.

Ginnie said...

I love seeing you and Inge together in this image, Ruth, knowing how much you have been through together. You may be right about the difference in European vs. American friendships. I'm learning about this, pondering it in my heart. I feel extremely lucky that my best friend, European, is now my wife. She is especially NOT jealous or possessive. I wonder if that's the big difference?

After reading the C.S. Lewis quote, I couldn't help but think of his comment to Sheldon Vanauken about "a severe mercy" sometimes when tradegy, like death, happens. I'm not sure I understand that, because so often there is no answer at all. But it, too, is what I ponder.

Thank God Inge is still with you. I know you cherish every day you have together.

Claudia said...

Oh, this moved me beyond words, Ruth.
For so many reasons...

dutchbaby said...

I have come here several times these past few day - speechless each time. My throat was filled with the silt of grief as I recall the dear friends I've lost. Bass' words touched me deeply. I thank you for bringing them here.

I lost my best friend of eleven years at age 24. It took years for me to shed enough of that "obesity of grief" before I dared to have another deep friendship like that. I've been fortunate to have found soul mates again and again. More than my fair share. Though I lost more friends along the way, I now have the wisdom to know and appreciate their love even after their passing. Having lost also means that you have a greater appreciation of what you have. I am so blessed to know what great friends I have and I thank you, dear friend, for this unbridled celebration of friendship.

RoSe said...

Once again I am so moved by your post Ruth, you are so brilliant. Your words, your spirit. Thank you.