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.