Cancer, The Raven

March 30, 2012 § 3 Comments

raven totem on the haida gwaii,
bringer of light to the cosmos
trickster and dancer in black

the harbinger of messages

I know noble accents
And lucid inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

~ Wallace Stevens, VIII in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

A raven visited me this morning.  This isn’t the first time I’ve seen him. Most mornings he’s there above my bed in London: perching on the chimney, clawing from side to side, cawing to the light. Every once in a while, he hooks his head ever-so-slightly with one eye bent in my direction. I wonder if he’s been looking in at me through the skylight as I lie here and peer back at him.  “Why does he come?”  I wonder.

I’ve named him Jack. Jack Dawn.

“Is this raven an omen?” I ask myself,  “Is he bearing news from the dark side?  Is he in with the shadow of things?  Has he flown straight up from Hades?  Or is my Jack a harbinger of messages from cosmos, delivering hidden meanings in his chimney dance at dawn?”  I listen quietly for signals, songs, and signs from the bird; I lie silently for an utterance of Poe’s “nevermore.”  I wonder, “What’s this bird’s gig?”

Maybe the raven is my totem animal.  In Native American mythology, if an animal resonates with someone, visits her, intrigues her or follows her in her dreams, that animal comes with special meanings.  Maybe the raven perches on my chimney for a reason.  Maybe Jack Dawn is finally making himself known.

Ravens have been haunting me now for some time.  A few years back, a friend of mine gave me a gift of a raven. He sketched a crow on a t-shirt with the bird’s body perched from backside to front and its head pointing prophetically at my left breast. A year later with that raven shirt on my back, I traveled to The Queen Charlotte Islands, home to the Haida people, a tribe who honour the raven as a mythological trickster and bringer of light to the world. Fascinated by this bird since, I’ve been following the raven as symbol in myths and legends from Norse to Celtic and back again to the Canadian Northwest. My first-ever moniker was “blackbird” inspired by the Wallace Steven’s poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. I’ve even written a song about a raven.

And now, that blackbird, Jack Dawn, visits me every morning. Maybe all this time the bird, in his multiple visitations in the form of drawings on t-shirts and carvings in native masks, has been bearing the ill omen of that cancer growing unnoticed in my left breast. Maybe all those familiar fatalistic connotations we have of ravens are true. Maybe the raven was cawing at the rebel cells multiplying out of control. “Bad news!” it has been saying. “Illness!” “Death!”  After all, who when they first hear they have cancer doesn’t hear those same words. “You got the cancer!” cries the crow, “Caw! Caw! Caw!”

But maybe there’s another side to the raven’s cawing. In some cultures, the raven has been called upon for healing purposes.  He’s a keeper of secrets; he points us to areas of our lives we are unwilling to face, unveiling our inner depths. For Jung, the raven points to the dark side of the psyche, the shadow that needs be integrated, the dark parts of ourselves that must meet with light in order for wholeness to happen. The name crow itself may originate from Rhea Kronia, the Greek goddess who like the Indian goddess Kali, is the mother of Time, a form of the dark mother.  With ancestors of Kali and Rhea Kronia, my cancer raven may be reminding me my time is running out. Eventually I’ll all be swallowed and ravaged by the goddess herself. Even if I’m saved from the jaws of the outlaw cells, something will, in the end, kill me.

If the raven represents conflict, death and ill omens, it may also symbolizes metamorphosis, the necessary death that comes for change to occur. Is the raven calling out at the changes in my life that need to happen for me to be whole? Maybe each morning, perched on the chimney above me, Jack is cawing so that I might communicate with both sides of myself, darkness with light, at the bridge of nighttime and daytime.  For it is at dawn Jack Dawn the raven caws, and dawn and dusk have always been special times for communion.  Transition moments are said to be the most auspicious hours to hear omens from the otherworld.

So hear I am, on the other side of day, falling into night.  I think about my own wholeness and the changes that need to happen for my body, psyche and spirit to return to balance. I think of how all these years of yoga, following the yama-s and niyama-s, practicing meditation, exercising daily and eating whole foods have only brought me so far. Time is cawing out to me, and the crow is now forming in the crowing of a cancer. She is dark in her body and mysterious in her ways. I have no clue what has brought her here.  What is her message, this cancer of the breast?  How do I seek to integrate her?  How do I learn from her presence?

My cancer, a raven, calls out to the darkest spaces within myself.  She calls out to my to my fears of loss and of dying. I fear losing my breast, my fertility, and my sexuality. I fear losing my wholeness in the shape of my body.  I fear losing friends, a potential for my own family, futures I had foolishly planned. For perhaps God is laughing now. Cancer calls out to my fears of facing this all alone, but ultimately it is alone I must face this cancer, as she caws out to me only a few centimeters from my beating heart. The raven cancer calls out to the memory of my mother who lost this same battle; it calls out to the twelve-year-old girl, who was left lost at the death of her mother. Cancer caws out in the night when I most fear the caller: she is “the silken sad uncertain rustling” that forces me “dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before” until “my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor / shall be lifted – nevermore.” Or at least that’s the way it feels sometimes.

At other times, cancer calls out to my greatest courage.  I have no time to waste.  I have no time to lie worrying under my covers, desiring only to fall into dreams to avoid facing this cancer in her cawing.  I have only so much time on earth, cancer or no cancer. My raven, cawing quietly around me in my days, is teaching me to cross the grass slowly and barefoot; to lie down in Hampstead Heath all afternoon in the sun doing reiki; to spend less time online chatting and more time in silence; to express gratitude for the dirt, the berries, and the leaves. For as much as the cancer is cawing at me to contemplate the passing of time, she is cawing in way that slows time down just enough for me to savour her.

I have stopped worrying quite so much what other people think of me.  I have nearly ceased brooding about what my career will look like in five years.  I have stopped caring quite so much how other people will perceive me and my dharma in this world. I have stopped concerning myself about some guy who couldn’t love me right. I have stopped caring about that girl whom I angered just by being myself. I have stopped aspiring to be perfect and started, in small ways, to aspire to be whole.

However, the raven is still cawing, and still there exists so much shadow with which to sit in that audible song. I still sit wondering what it is that has caused this cancer. The literature I’ve been reading on healing tells me I can kill all the cancer cells I want with knives and chemicals, but no cutting and poisoning will cure the cancer at its source. And what is the source? A mutated gene? An imbalanced heart? Unexpressed feelings? Love unfelt? A spirit undernourished? A voice waiting to be heard? The raven sits above my heart, calling out for me to hear her.  Dear raven, my life is in your hands, and I’m listening.

jack dawn on my chimney


Dancing with Cancer

March 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

{view original post here }

just after my diagnosis, f**k cancer

My Mother

It’s Mother’s Day in London, and it’s a day that comes for me with a whole spectrum of feelings.  At 41, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Images of her arise now, especially of the times we bathed together, those of her before me, a crimson line crossing across her chest where her left breast had once been. Thinking of her, I feel sweetness, grief and love.

After her mastectomy to remove the tumour, her cancer went into remission.  Years later, long after the word “cancer” fell from our quivering lips, my mother, still in her 40s, hand’t entirely won the battle.

When I was ten, my friend Carys and I made our own Halloween costumes: we cut out ears of cardboard, drew black whiskers across our cheeks, and wore paper-cone noses that twitched.

“Guess who we are?” I said to my mother as she unloaded dishes from the washer in the kitchen.

She turned around. She stared at us as if a white sheet had fallen over her eyes.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“We’re mice,” I said, “I’m Mickey and she’s Minnie.”

I remember her looking at us, pale and mute, her hazel eyes empty ovals blinking.

“What are mice?” She asked.

I felt hot and uncomfortable at first in front of my friend; I was embarrassed. Why was she pretending she didn’t know what mice were?

A tumour in her brain wasn’t allowing her to access specific words, specific knowledge with specific words. The cancer had spread, furtively upward, and was now taking hold of how she processed the world. Through the following months, she went through chemotherapy and radiation and all the ghastly side effects: hair loss, weight loss, and loss of vitality. She experienced pain and fatigue. Now and again, she lost her personality.

Then it killed her, that cancer, creeping as menacingly as mice would, furtively, into her liver.

My Diagnosis

Today, in London, Mother’s Day has taken on a whole new orbit of feelings for me. Two days ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I felt the lump several months ago, but I hadn’t suspected this would happen to me. I thought I was too healthy, too careful. When my gynecologist last examined my breasts, she had told me that I had cysts, and those persistent little pebble-like pieces there weren’t cancerous. Over time, pain increased in my left breast; a hard gritty mass felt stuck inside, and my nipple flattened and shifted in one direction.

I went to the hospital, just to be sure.

The mammogram felt itself like the beginning of a dance.  Folding my body across the machine, the nurse positioned me, the dancer, on the hospital room’s stage, lifting my hand softly upward and letting it fall back into a pose.  My arm shaped like a crescent moon caressed a night sky ripe with the unknown beneath me. I lie there draped across the cold metal like a lover enveloping another, squeezed in tightly, held in care of the nurse and the cold machine.

The biopsy felt like another kind of dance entirely: intrusive and bitter. The kind of dance where dizzying lights are flashing from the ceiling and techno music chaotically corrupts a peace you wish for so sincerely to keep but can’t. A needle stuck sharply through my skin, chemicals nullified any feeling in my breast, until the doctor thrust another needle in, then another, then another, each followed by a pop, jerk, leaving a wide purple bruise.

A week later, in front of the doctor holding the results of my test, he needn’t speak. I could see the news on his face: his eyes open and his body leaning forward, his face pale and preparing in that silence that hovers like an airplane waiting to land on the right words.

“I have cancer.” I said somewhere between a statement and a question.

He nodded. “Yes.” And then, “Blah, blah, blah” with words I couldn’t yet process fully.

My body shook; my lungs gasped for air.

“I am sorry,” I said.

For what,I was sorry, I’m not sure. For losing myself. For having cancer. For not knowing what to say.  I felt at that moment that I took flight from my body, and that an actress took over in that vulnerable position on the vinyl chair. She was someone I had never met before. The feelings I was experiencing were completely new, and I had no compass in which to navigate them: a corrosive loneliness, an stinging terror, an anger so confusing that it surrounded itself with denial, a sadness so anxious it locked itself in shame.  “This isn’t happening.” I thought. “This isn’t my life.”

It is my life now. I’m dancing with cancer.

I walked around that day feeling as if I had been thrown into a Salvador Dali painting, into a landscape that was part dream, part nightmare.  Clocks weren’t dripping from trees, but I had no reference point for my feelings.  I felt numb, as if something wouldn’t allow me to feel what was happening. The world felt surreal and unreachable. I seemed to be hovering above my body, unable to connect with my feet, my skin, the air, my hands.

“Where have I gone?” I asked, “Please bring me back.” I pleaded.

And then from my pelvis, a shuddering wave rose though my belly and into my sternum, shuddering my shoulders and wailing through my mouth into sobs and eyes into tears.  Crying threw me back into my body again, into feeling and sensing the experience.


A stranger on a train once told I should try reiki, that I had a calm, healing and focused presence that she could feel. When I signed up for a course to train in reiki a few weeks ago, I was unaware of the synchronicity of this training falling on the weekend after my diagnosis.

Reiki is a form of energy healing that originated in Japan. Rei means spirit and Ki means subtle energy, so the practitioner invokes the conscious healing energy in the universe in through the crown of her head through her chest and arms and hands to heal either herself or another. Diagnosed with spondylosis of the spine, my teacher went to reiki when he had lost mobility in his arms and legs, and his doctor told him his degenerative condition would eventually confine him a wheelchair.  Determined not to give up, he practiced three hours of self-healing a day and completely healed himself.

The teacher paired an intuitive and nearly psychic fellow student to work with me during the healing practice. After holding her hands over my tumour, calling upon the right universal healing energies, she saw colours of white and green, and the image of a dancer, dressed in white released and free from my core.  The teacher nodded, saying that he saw something similar when he had worked with me: a modern dancer dressed in an elegant white dress, freed, expressive, creative.

I had seen this dancer before. She appeared in a dance-theatre piece I wrote last summer, and again she arose in my mind as I biked to the course this morning.  I love dancing, and I often wish if I could live my life over, I would train professionally in dance. On one level, I feel this dancer is my own body wishing to free itself, to express, to flow through life with grace. I feel she is at the same time my creative spirit and my spirit of healing, energizing me and releasing me into the world. She is part of my healing, part my therapy; she is my guide and my soul. Or simply myself, waiting to happen.

Blocking creativity, especially if it is who you are in this world, can cause dis-ease. “You can not separate your creativity from you,” my reiki teacher says, “it is you.” Perhaps this cancer is as much a teacher as anything. It is forcing me to release myself from the limitations I put on my creative spirit. I have always danced this line between the artist I have always known myself to be, and the face I put in front of the world, the one who holds back from expressing herself.  This cancer maybe telling me, you’re not allowed to do that anymore, you can no longer sacrifice who you are.

And so here I am, dancing with cancer. I hope that you’ll in some way, in the ways you feel like, dance along with me, support me.  Perhaps the greatest support we can give anyone is to allow each other to be ourselves, fully alive, free in the dreams we have for ourselves and in forms that are dreaming us into this life.

Where Am I?

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