Secret Music

all about side effectsI have good news. Very good news. I have finished my cancer treatment. It consisted of eighteen weeks of chemotherapy beginning March 1 and ending July 6. Major abdominal “debulking” surgery on September 7 and six more weeks of chemotherapy that began October 12 and finished up in time for a week off before Thanksgiving.

Really, things could not have gone better. After that first week of the diagnosis where I just kept laying out the best case scenario and just kept getting hit with the worst case scenario, treatment went better than expected and the surgery was a complete success and the recovery not difficult and Wednesday, November 30, I learned that, as had been happening all along, the chemotherapy knocked my CA 125 marker down by halves each round, finishing up at 20.4. All that matters is that it was below 35, but I like that number. A friend said it reminds him of the little “26.2” stickers marathoners have in their car windows. The cancer treatment was certainly a marathon. And so now I am free to have the port removed and not required at the oncologist until the end of February, when I will have a scan and blood work to see where we are. Hopefully this monitoring will become routine and continue far into the future, with longer and longer intervals as we go along.

Yet I am a permanent member of the “living with cancer/survivorship” community. And I am glad to be a member. This fall, as I was getting ready for surgery, my college friend Phil Cantor’s teen daughter was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. I wanted to jump in and send her something, as so many people sent me gifts in those first days. I sent her a couple books, including a graphic novel by a cancer survivor  that may have been inappropriate for a teenager and my own book of poems. Here is Moey’s introduction of herself in a comic book she made about chemo side effects.

Moey Dworkin Cantor author page

This comic has a lot of information about side effects, including something I had not thought about. She informs her readers about the effect of chemo on the ears.

Moey ear ringing page

I had ringing in my ears, and the ghosts here really do it justice. The sound kind of swells and subsides and is in the far back of your ears. It doesn’t block out normal sounds. I came to associate it with low red blood counts and fatigue, but Moey is right, it probably had more to do with losing the little hairs in my ears.

This is the page I liked the best:

Moey Cantor ear side effects 2First of all, I’m not sure if this is a ghosties fiesta but it is the coolest drawing of the inner ear ever. And it also reminded me of the strange experience I had of hearing music while undergoing chemo. It happened three times.

Twice I was in bed and there were people talking downstairs. I knew the music was somehow a distortion of their voices, but it was gorgeous. The experience lasted a long time, and made me feel really peaceful and happy. I just lay there and listened to the music, a kind of jazz with multiple instruments and no dissonance, all harmony. The music was real enough to wonder if it was playing downstairs, but I knew it wasn’t. I had myself a private performance in my head– or in my inner ear.

The other time it happened was on the drive home after surgery. I told my parents: “I hear organ music.” I knew it was from the sound of driving on a highway with a metal median strip and wires. I could remember, of course, the normal sound outside the car of rushing through the landscape with other vehicles and tires on the ground and wind…

But for me, there was organ music. Rich and deep and again, comforting.

There is grace everywhere. Even in the odd, surreal world of chemotherapy. Thank you to Moey Dworkin Cantor for putting some science behind it for me. And for the incredible way she is creatively dealing with her disease and the terrible treatment. I’m grateful also for Phil, the way he is sharing his family’s journey with his friends on Facebook and helping all of us understand the life and love that are also present in this terrible, difficult time.

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Arrival (review)

arrival-posterSPOILER ALERT! I’m gonna tell you pretty much everything that happens in this film.

Thanksgiving weekend is a good time for movies, old and new. We saw Arrival two weeks ago, when it opened, and I started a review, but it was too early to give everything away. Now a lot of people have seen it and so it’s time for me to add my two cents. This review has two parts. The first explores the “aliens” plot, which is fantastic and worth the price of admission. However, I left the film feeling this really empty space in my stomach over what the film did not address about suffering. It kind of left us with a huge challenge and no way– within the context of the film– to address it.

But let me be clear– I love this film! It made me think and its framing of the alien encounter question in linguistics (how can we speak their language) was super compelling. I like to think and this film gave me a lot to think about. It’s deeply flawed, but also super cool.

I actually think Arrival is less about aliens than it is about our relationship to intelligence, particularly artificial intelligence.  It reminded me more of Her and Ex Machina than Close Encounters of the Third Kind. At its heart it is a film about the nature of intelligence (and in some ways about the morality of a cool, perfected intelligence).

Arrival‘s premise is essentially this: language shapes the brain and the language or languages we know make us who we are. A superior, advanced, intelligent language, if we could learn it, could reshape our brains in a way that would make us kinder and more unified and also took us beyond the limits of the time continuum (our lives would no longer need to be linear).


The idea is explored through an alien encounter. Aliens arrive in giant, monolithic space ships that hover over 12 locations. A linguist, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), is brought to the site in Montana to make contact with and try to figure out the purpose of the visit. She is joined in this task by a physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). The question is the very human question always posed: are the aliens’ intentions toward us good or evil? The question itself reveals how humans are shaped: we ask this basic question of all “others.” Are you here to befriend us or destroy us?

Think about this question in terms of immigrants and it’s even more disturbing. Nationalists around the world seem to assume the newest population of immigrants are threatening until they become like us. And the way we expect them to become like us is to immediately learn our language.

Around the world, at the 12 sites, humans are learning how to “read” the alien language. The peoples of the world won’t share their knowledge with each other, and are portrayed using some very American stereotypes. The Americans are ahead of the game in doing this work, and the Chinese and Russians want to blow the aliens out of the sky.

Finally, all 12 sites are given a message. The aliens have brought a gift– or maybe a weapon. Or maybe an advantage. Translation is as always imprecise. The play of these three words: weapon/advantage/gift is key in seeing how language shapes our brains and guides our expectations of “encounters,” especially with others– and these aliens are brilliantly “other.” If you choose “gift,” the intention of the aliens is good. If you choose “advantage,” you are guided by competition. If you choose “weapon,” you think the aliens are bad. The aliens are clear– they are giving this gift/advantage/weapon to humans in the hopes that the humans will use it in a way that will someday save them. They need help in the future from humans and so have traveled to deliver this thing. They deliver it in 12 pieces. The gift is their language which, once learned, will give Louise the ability to achieve world peace. But the 12 nations need to share to put the puzzle of the language together. Louise uses a little trick (only possible if she understands the language) to get the nations to work together. And yes, this is a crazy privileging of Americans as the best and smartest humans on earth.

But what is this knowledge embedded in the alien language? We are in the Biblical garden here. But it is not the ability to discern good and evil that Louise learns. The language works its magic to free Louise from the time continuum. Her life is no longer linear. She “knows” her experience in total. In fact, she’s begun “knowing it” as she’s learned the language, which we thought were flashbacks and couldn’t understand why they were causing her such panic and confusion. And that is where (just like in Genesis) a moral dilemma is expressed. And, unfortunately, where the film ends.

Louise’s knowledge, her reshaped brain, cannot save her daughter, who dies at an early age of “a rare disease” that looks like leukemia. Being free from the time continuum doesn’t mean she can live multiple lives– she still gets one. But she can make some choices because, she realizes over the course of the encounter, the daughter is the result of her marriage to Ian, which has not happened yet.

Knowledge does not make her immortal. It does not free Louise from suffering and death, from grief, from all the things that lie ahead in life. And that is unsettling. Should she not have given birth to the daughter, knowing how she would die? Should she turn away from Ian and marry someone else? Does she still have the free will to act differently?

Throughout the film, we have seen, in the grey skies of the Pacific Northwest, Louise’s grief. Her loneliness. Her struggle to move forward from her daughter’s death and her divorce from Ian (angry that she knew what was coming for their daughter and didn’t let him in on the knowledge or engage him in the decisions).

Playing with time is always terribly problematic. The way this film plays with time makes us question our happy ending. World peace! World peace! And Louise doesn’t keep the knowledge to herself– we see her teaching others the language and sharing the gift. But her “ending” is the isolation and grief we’ve already witnessed– and which we thought was her “beginning.” We thought somehow the romance with Ian (which we all saw coming) would rescue her from that terrible divorce and the grief over her child’s death, not be a major contributing factor to her depressed state.

Some have questioned whether she was selfish in having the child knowing she would suffer and die young. As someone acquainted with suffering, I think this is bad thinking. The goal of life is not to avoid suffering. Suffering has a place in life and especially in relationships. Life’s purpose is loving others, and suffering teaches us a lot about love.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t explore this idea. It gives us moments and a puzzle. It gives us a main character who is supposed to be the epitome of enlightenment, the keeper of the gift, and she is consumed by a kind of grief that is lacking in mercy and/or redemption.

In a way, that’s a problem with our addiction to and ultimate privileging of knowledge (science). It needs to be balanced with a spiritual dimension (or maybe some poetry?). Otherwise, we’re likely to be left with a huge, unsettling hole in our center.

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Miso Soup

miso-soupI’ve been doing some serious larder cleaning the past few days. I’ve also been getting into soup season. We’re leaving for Chicago tonight to get ahead of the snow/sleet/freezing mixture moving in overnight. Like my mother, I like to leave an empty fridge behind!

I also attacked my crazy cookbook shelf in the kitchen. I now have my clothes down to the level that I can leave them out all seasons (well, I put some sweaters away…) but my cookbooks need seasonal shuffling. I made a stack to get rid of, another for “reading” that I don’t really cook from and can go upstairs for bedside reading, and then put the summer cookbooks (garden-based and/or preserving) in a high cabinet and the ones I’m most likely to use back on the shelf. Very satisfying.

Last night I went into the “Asian supplies drawer,” which is pretty full because I did not follow through with my Japanese cooking adventure plans last winter.

I made a miso soup without any real recipe. The principles are to build flavor and to not let the miso boil. The inspiration is the current “noodle bowl” craze. So any recipe would just be a suggestion.

When we sat down, I said: “This is a really cancer-prevention-friendly meal.” Sweet potato, carrot, ginger and kombu are all ingredients that show up in The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen cookbook. Buckwheat noodles instead of egg noodles and a handful of frozen kale would have upped it even farther and made it gluten free.

Sweet potato is a new ingredient for me– I still associate it with yucky sweet recipes and usually only make them at holiday time mashed with curry powder and butter. They are showing up more and more in soup recipes. I’ll include an easy carrot soup recipe below.

This soup was warm and flavorful and took about 20 minutes. I think it will make its way into our regular rotation this winter.

Miso Soup

1 8″ strip of kombu (a sturdy seaweed found in good Asian markets)
4-6 cups water
1 Tbs minced ginger
soy sauce to taste
2 Tbs miso paste (any kind, I had yellow)
dried mushrooms soaked in boiling water and cut in small pieces
2 carrots, sliced or diced
1 yam or sweet potato, sliced/quartered
2 nests of thin egg noodles, udon/buckwheat noodles, sobu, rice vermicelli, any thin noodle really
scallions, white and light green parts sliced
protein: chicken, tofu, shrimp

I began by setting the dried mushrooms in a small bowl with a cup or so of water from the kettle. I put the water and kombu in a medium-sized pot on the stove to boil. Then I chopped the carrots and sweet potato and peeled the shrimp. I didn’t have scallions.

When the kombu had boiled about 7 minutes, I took it out and put it in the compost. I dumped in the mushrooms and their broth, the sweet potato and carrots and cooked for 3 minutes. Then I turned down the heat and added the shrimp and noodles, soy sauce, ginger and miso. (You can dissolve the miso in water first, but I think it’s fine to just dissolve it in the hot broth from the tablespoon.) I also added a handful of garbanzo beans I had in the fridge. After a couple minutes would be a good time to add greens and scallions and taste for more soy sauce. When the shrimp pink up and the noodles are done, the soup is ready! (Note: Other noodles might take more time.)

Happy Slurping!

They don’t get easier than this soup, especially if you used bagged carrots. It is tasty, rich, gluten free and very cancer-fighting!

Easy Thai Carrot Soup

1 package of peeled baby carrots (2lbs) (or, 2 lbs regular carrots chopped)
1 peeled sweet potato cut in large pieces
1 coarsely chopped onion
3—4 cloves fresh garlic
1qt vegetable broth
salt/pepper to taste
4-5 Tbls. grated fresh ginger- or in chunks
1 can coconut milk
sweet chili sauce (optional)

Place carrots, potato, garlic and onion in a pan with the broth and simmer until soft. Add the ginger and taste for salt. Puree in a food processor, then stir in the coconut milk . Choose how thick you like your soup by holding back some of the broth or adding more for a thinner consistency.

If you like a bit more spice, stir a few spoons of Thai sweet chili sauce into the soup. [Every bottled sauce is different, so check for spiciness].

[The recipe makes enough for 6-8 people]


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Flageolet Beans for the First Snow


The first snow of the season came late, but it came on strong. Yesterday was our first blizzard, and anyone who could stayed home and hunkered down.

Seemed like a good day for a pot of beans! In my latest shipment from Rancho Gordo I received a pound of flageolet beans. Everywhere you read about them, they are lauded as special beans. Light green and delicate, the food sites recommend you enjoy them for what their inherent gorgeous bean-ness.

Hmm. These kinds of statements always remind me of my brother, the wine salesman, telling me about a particular white wine he put in my Christmas box: “It’s not so much what it is as what it is not.” To which I wanted to reply: “So, does it taste good?” I’m not that impressed with most bean-ness (though I gotta say, I can taste the difference between hummus made with canned beans and the hummus I made the other day with Rancho Gordo dried garbanzos. I’m gonna get ruined like my brother has ruined me for wines).

baconAfter surveying the wide range of recipes, I decided to not make soup but just cook a pot of beans in a good broth, and the secret flavor ingredient bacon.

I went out in the snow and brought in what I assume are the last of the fresh herbs: rosemary for the recipe, and also thyme and sage. I actually think the sage was a mistake– I’d use just the rosemary and thyme in the future.

late-herbsI hadn’t thought ahead to soak the beans overnight, so I brought the pot to a boil and then let it sit for a couple hours (quick soak). Then I drained and rinsed them and put them back in the pot and simmered for 30 minutes while I prepared the other ingredients. This also produced an excellent bean broth to which I added a vegetable broth bullion cube.

The recipe also called for fennel, which would be great, but I didn’t have any. So I substituted celery (diced and frozen from the Farmer’s Market).

First, render the bacon, then saute the mirepoix in bacon grease. Seriously.


The other change I made was to add a splash of white balsamic at the end. I got this from somewhere else, but I always love a splash of vinegar at the end as a flavor enhancer.

I had some thawed boneless chicken thighs, so I made some cutlets (didn’t bother breading them) marinated in lemon juice, cooked in more lemon juice and capers, served with sauteed mushrooms on top.

Here is the link to Ina Garten’s recipe. 



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Fragility 2

All day today I’ve been grappling. I guess I’ve been grappling for a week now. Finally I stood still and formed the question I’m grappling with: “How long after the last treatment do you know it’s the last treatment?”

I’m looking forward to my next oncology appointment on November 30. I am completely convinced that my CA-125 will be below 35 and that combined with the scan after my surgery will make me officially “cancer free.” After one round of chemotherapy the CA-125 had dropped from 118 to 43. So, after the second round, I expect it to be in line. Nevertheless, my oncologist has scheduled chemotherapy afterwards, just in case.

And if I am declared free and clear, my oncologist tells me, we will enter a phase of “watchful waiting.” He looked me in the eye when he used that phase, and I knew he meant: You are stage IV. We will be watching for when it comes back. My oncologist is a straight-talking realist. And though I know all this is in God’s hands, and I know I can do nothing but submit to my inability to control my future, I believe in my heart that it is gone. If not forever, for at least ten years. It is beat back good.

Still, I am waiting to know in my brain and heart that it is over.

One sign of it being over will be removal of the port. The port was installed in late February to facilitate the chemotherapy. I’ve been asking my mentors, two women who also have survived ovarian cancer, how long after chemotherapy they had their ports out. Neither of them had ports, even one woman who two years ago went through the same chemotherapy regimen I just completed. Basically, I will press to have the port removed before the end of the year. In part, the “rush” is about insurance, but also if I keep the port I have to go in every month to have it flushed. And I have to have it. In my body. Which I don’t want.

So when the port is out, will I know it is over?

gty-gwen-ifill-pbs-jc-161114_12x5_1600When I heard about Gwen Ifill’s death on Monday, I immediately went looking for the cause. Cancer. But I had trouble– it took me another day– finding the type of cancer. Diagnosed less than a year ago. In treatment all through the conventions, right up to the election. I’d noticed her absence that night but not thought too much about it. I had not gone looking to see if she was ill. But once I heard of her death I went looking for cancer, and then the type. Endometrial.

la-et-ms-sharon-jones-cancer-valerie-june-revi-002Tonight I learned that Sharon Jones died today. I knew it was coming, but it was still a shock. Only a few weeks ago I looked to see if she was still touring and saw a long, long line of dates. I knew she had been performing all summer despite neuropathy and flying back and forth from New York to get chemotherapy. I hoped the tour dates were a good sign. Pancreatic.

Everyone seems more fragile to me. Everything seems fragile. I’ve been thinking about cooking over Christmas. I’ve been hoping my tastebuds will be well enough to enjoy pie.

I know my tastebuds may or may not give me the pleasure of chocolate back. But I hope they give me back the joy of pie. Pie!

When I can taste pie, or almost every other thing, will I know it is over? When I have back the feeling in my feet? I don’t know. But every day I move toward that knowing.


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The Underground Railroad (review)

underground-railroad-coverJust yesterday I wrote a review of Colson Whitehead’s amazing novel, The Underground Railroad, on Goodreads. And today I hear he won the National Book Award.

I actually reviewed two books on Goodreads yesterday. The second was the photographer Sally Mann’s memoir, Hold StillWhat might be surprising is how both of these books helped me think about race in America.

One is a novel set in the 1850s, following the journey of Cora, a runaway slave who takes a literal underground railway (with conductors, trains, and tunnels) to get north. Her experience, told in a realistic narrative style, explores the exploitation, murder, and varied experience of discrimination suffered by African Americans (not just Africans in America). Reading it builds empathy for the current fears of African Americans.

While I was reading it, I also watched a video blog by a woman in Kansas who recounts the story of how her great-grandfather established her current farm as a pioneer in the 1870s. He was born in the 1850s in Tennessee, a time and place recounted in The Underground Railroad. That is how close this history is to us. Also, many things that happen in the novel are recognizable in recent history. The establishment of Jim Crow, medical experimentation and exploitation, establishment of the role of the black housekeeper and nanny. Let us not say– “That was so long ago it’s no longer relevant.” Let us not think, also, that this is not our history, too.

hold-still-sally-mann-coverSally Mann had a black nanny. I picked up Mann’s memoir because I have always loved the photos she took of her children. And indeed, the best part of the book is the section where she discusses these photos (with lots of reproductions of photos including “drafts”) and recounts her experience of her connection with the land where her family lives and of being a mother. The descriptions of and discussion of artistic process are inspiring and revealing. Her stories of the fears involved raising children in such a wild place are equally engaging.

After those chapters, though, she dives into the story of The South. She travels, making landscape photos for a large project. And everywhere she is photographing the “haunted South,” haunted by plantations and hanging trees and the spot where Emmett Till’s body was thrown off a bridge, near the place where a historical marker is riddled with bullet holes.

Gee-Gee holding Sally Mann as a baby

Gee-Gee holding Sally Mann as a baby

She also tells the story of her nanny, Gee-Gee, their love for each other and its limits. The way that Gee-Gee could not come inside Howard Johnson’s with them when they traveled, and seemed to never use the bathroom, and the way the family accepted this. What Mann writes is this: “I loved Gee-Gee the way other people love their parents, and no matter how many historical demons stalked that relationship, I know that Gee-Gee loved me back.”  It is 14 pages before she tells us “It is likely that her mother died in childbirth because as an infant, Gee-Gee, born Virginia Cornelia Franklin, was brought to Lexington [Virginia] and raised by her mother’s sister, Mary Franklin.” She tells what she knows and can discern of Gee-Gee’s life, and acknowledges her family’s “blindness and silence.” (To read an early draft of this chapter, click here.) Gee-Gee’s experience and Cora’s experience in 1850 in a “free” South Carolina (one chapter of Whitehead’s novel) are very close.

emmett-till-memorial-sign-720x405My husband and I, in one of our many recent conversations trying to discern the meaning of the presidential elections, were talking about the way the coasts and many urbanites write off working class people and huge swaths of the country, especially rural areas.  And we got to the issue of The South, and the feeling of many Southerners that they are written off or treated as stupid based solely on their accents. “Just look at the stereotype of the white sheriff, that caricature with the hick accent.”

I don’t know how I would have heard that three months ago, but in the wake of reading those two books (and to be fair, I do often have this response), my response was: “No, that stereotype creates an ‘other’ out of Southern whites that lets other whites in America pretend that the racial history of the South is not everyone’s history.” I really believe that. Because when white Southerners are being stereotyped in this way, they are being seen as “the racists” and as backward in ways that primarily, I believe, have to do with the history of slavery and race. Maybe I’m wrong, but this is what I think. And so it is important to see Whitehead’s book, and Mann’s book, as about all of us, as about American identity. And to realize that as long as we make racism or the treatment of African Americans as a story about “others” (including the police), it’s not going to end.

This is the same approach I take to issues of sexual abuse and domestic violence in this country. As long as we see victimizers as “other,” and the issue as not about “us,” as long as we normalize and minimize, we continue in our “blindness and silence” even as we express outrage. I think outrage, actually, is just another way of looking away and saying it is not us. It is a form of condescension.

So let us not condescend with our outrage, and let us not dismiss by putting “in the past” the behavior of this country and its citizens. Let us read to understand the experience and reactions and expectations of African Americans and where they are coming from. Let white people, too, not dismiss it as stories about the past or the South but understand why we might should be treated with distrust. And let us work to change the systems that keep us all here.

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The Tree

tree-scar-1During these months and months of treatment, people have said a lot of things to me about my positive attitude. They’ve called me inspiring and said that if they were in my place they would most certainly feel sorry for themselves.

It is all just grace and the presence of the Holy Spirit. I’m more surprised than anyone else. And I’m grateful for all the prayers that have been a great part of the healing and of my ongoing sense of peace.

It has not been fake or forced. I keep waiting for the depression to descend, but it never does. Oh, sure, I’ve been frustrated a lot. I’ve been sad, especially the days I can’t do the things that were easy to do. I’ve felt helpless, and that is not a good feeling. I don’t feel like I’m pulling my weight (figuratively and literally) around here. But also I’ve just found deep reserves of acceptance at all levels. For the most part, the things I’ve feared most have not happened. Numbers have gone down and scans have become clear and in surgery no drastic actions were taken and no cancer was left behind.

One of the more popular posts I’ve written here is the one on resiliency. It was about believing we could keep our selves despite changes to our body shapes, physical compromise. For me, the real moment of truth was the surgery. I was worried about the scar, which would be formidable. I took photos of my stomach and my body, thin from chemo, so I would remember the “before.” I’m not vain and I’ve always had a complicated relationship with my belly! There was no point in my life when I desired or would have felt comfortable in a bikini. But still.

So one big surprise is how easily I have embraced the scar, the change to my body. Maybe it is, again, low expectations– hey, that’s not that bad. It’s even interesting, and kind of funny, with its little detour around my belly button.

About a week before surgery, Steve and I went for a walk in Eagle Park, a great small park with an eagle living at its center. Steve had burned the park’s prairie, which is basically the entire park. It also has beautiful oaks and very large slabs of granite poking out of the ground. The fire in the spring did its job of clearing weeds and making room for large stands of native grasses and flowers.

I took a photo of the tree above. I didn’t think of it as a photo of a scar. I took a photo of this tree because I thought it was interesting and beautiful. Is it possible I feel that way about my scarred belly, too?

Well, I won’t be putting on a bikini anytime soon. I am looking forward to building back my “physical confidence” and pushing my body on long walks and in exercise again. I have lost that confidence, so am looking forward to seeing all the things it can do.

Meanwhile, what grace, again, what outpouring of grace and mercy, that I can look at myself in the mirror and not grieve but see something interesting, and strong, like that oak.

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Limping to the Finish Line

I feel the need to post something to get that owl off my front page, but it is tough. I had a hard weekend with the effects of the chemotherapy. I had to drag myself out of bed for five days of shots (formerly Granix, now called Zarxio) to address my very low white blood count. And I have anemia– dizziness, ringing in my ears, tightness in my chest. But mostly I have just had about 3-4 days where I couldn’t do anything, not even read, because I’m in a weird bubble. Chemoland.

This morning, with the last Zarxio shot, we also drew blood because I might need a transfusion for the anemia. Tomorrow. I want to keep on track for the final chemotherapy on Wednesday.

The weather has been beautiful. Mostly what that has meant for me is my patio door in the bedroom has been open. And that has added a strange level to the Chemoland experience. The night the owl was killed both Steve and I were really upset. I went to bed and woke up, I swear, to hooting out beyond my patio door. I thought maybe it was the chickens cooing or clucking in their coop, but it definitely sounded like an owl. It made me think an owl was mourning the other, looking for its mate, circling the area.

The coyotes were also active out in the woods. They sound close, and like a large pack. Their first round was hunting– you hear the rabbit or whatever it is after squealing along with the howling. About 2 a.m. something started that sounded like a drag race– one car after another revving up and speeding, Nascar sounds. The coyotes joined the noise and took up howling again.

The whole natural world was active, not calm. Everything was very still, and I felt like I was dream traveling in that world. I pulled on my comforter, for the weight and sense of protection, though it wasn’t cold.

Yesterday I had Steve kill Fred and clean and treat the coop for possible mites or lice. I just couldn’t cope, and was having visions of her freezing to death in the barn. It is unseasonably warm, but that won’t last. Even if we successfully treated her for mites, the feathers don’t grow back quickly. I also wouldn’t put a sick chicken in the barn for winter with the other chickens. In another year, I would have been on it and done the treatment. But not this year.

It might sound heartless. I’m trying to think like a farmer– it’s a chicken, though we didn’t eat her because I don’t know what was wrong with her. I will get more chicks in the spring. And the other three chickens are beautiful, successfully molted and ready for winter. I’m not sad about her. I’m just tired.

It has been a strange year of ups and downs.

My book was published, and I was diagnosed with cancer at almost the same time.

The Cubs won the World Series (I’m not a big fan, but I am from a Chicago suburb and have lived in Chicago as an adult), and the election season has been so rancorous and suggests such deep anger in our country (no matter who wins).

And cancer itself has been a nightmare and a blessing. Knowing so many people love me, and reconciliation with my sister is something I would never trade. But, cancer and chemotherapy and major surgery and all that entails.

I have made plans and bought tickets to go to Long Beach, California and to Seattle/Tacoma for three weeks in January-February. A lot of cancer survivor materials talk about the need to rebuild physical confidence. I plan on long walks and yoga and good food and visits with friends. And hopefully writing, too.

And definitely checking in with you, my friends. Definitely blogging.

When I come home it will be time to start the leeks on the windowsill.


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Bird Trouble

We’ve had some bird trouble lately. I suppose it is to be expected out here in the country.

Today’s bird trouble is very sad and tragic, because it involves a wild bird. Not just any wild bird, the most majestic and special of them all: an owl. Tonight we are mourning the loss of the owl. Steve said it will give him nightmares– he’s second-guessing his actions and wishing he’d realized before it was too late that it was an owl, and what kind of trouble it was in, before he shot what he thought was a skunk or raccoon out to get our chickens, and out during the day (which suggests rabidity).


Last night Steve heard “a large creature” near the chicken pen rooting around and making some noise. It was pitch dark and he didn’t have a flashlight, so he shut all the chicken doors (pen and coop) and hoped for the best.

But this morning, when the creature was still there, he got serious. Whatever it was– raccoon? skunk? It shouldn’t be hanging around there and might be tunneling under the coop. It was still nearly dark at 7:15 a.m. He came inside, got his pistol and shot it.


And only then did he realize it was a bird, a big bird. It shouldn’t be stuck down there struggling under the pine tree either. But on closer inspection, he could see it was a large brown owl, and its leg had been caught in a trap. Look at that beautiful wing. We also knew this owl, sort of. We had seen it perched in a dead tree by the pond, about 30 feet away.

The trap was sizable, and not set by anyone we know– certainly not anyone on the farm. Steve tends to set basket traps to capture the occasional skunk that is tearing up the commons or his seedling area. Those pests also suffer a gunshot. But they are pests. No one would shoot an owl on purpose.

Steve went to work right after letting the chickens out, so it was late this afternoon when we went to inspect the owl. He did the right thing– its leg was nearly severed and it had been struggling for at least twelve hours out there. Trying to take it to a rescue would have been dangerous– it is a big creature with one set of talons intact and I doubt we could have gotten it anywhere safely. Still, as the evening wore on, he second-guessed, we both did. If only he’d thrown a bag over it, maybe gotten it into a box that way, we could have taken it to the Pecks, a couple who might have saved it.

It is hard to blame a guy leaving for a landscaping job at 7:30 and returning home at 5:30, just to turn around and be at a pitch meeting for a prairie project from 7-9 p.m. Before going to sleep with nightmares of owls.


Meanwhile, Fred is not doing well. Several weeks ago I thought Fred was carried off by a hawk in a daytime capture, but it turned out it was one of the other chickens– both my white-breasted chickens were still around. But now Fred, clearly Fred, is losing all her feathers! She has not been cast out by the other chickens, and watching them eat and move around it is clear they are not pecking her. What is most likely is that she has mites (not keeping up on your dirt baths, Fred??) or lice. After some research, the plan is to clean and disinfect the coop, and sprinkle Fred liberally with a chemical that is made specifically for poultry (or for vegetable plants! Reading that and those instructions– it is very toxic to humans and children should not be in any distance where they could inhale it! Why would you put that on your veggie plants??)

Right now she looks like she had a very bad moult. It’s particularly bad on her neck and around her butt (even as a chick, she didn’t keep it clean down there, which is how she got her name and bad reputation). The other chickens, which have put on their full winter plumage, are twice her size. It’s just pathetic and really difficult to see. The hope is that with treatment and some extra protein in her diet she will grow back enough feathers to survive the winter. The idea of her freezing to death in the barn is really more than I can face.


I hate to say it, but I’ve been fantasizing and thinking very seriously lately about trying to shoot a pheasant. There are four males who have been hiding out every morning right in our front yard in the prairie grass. Then they move quite boldly to the commons area and on to the prairie behind the house. They squawk all day, tempting me. We don’t need that many males, and I love pheasant stew— marinating the meat in wine for two days then cooking it a few hours with garden veggies. I haven’t gone out there yet– I don’t actually know how to shoot our rifles. Though I have shot a .22 rifle once at a shooting range– on a Super Bowl Sunday in Chicago in the late 1990s with my dear departed friend Rocco. If Steve would go hunting with me, I could learn.

So, birds. They break your heart just like all the other critters. They take your breath away. You raise them for the eggs or meat and fall in love with them. And here we are. And with guns, and critters, and dark, life is less simple. There are terrible tragedies.

I just keep thinking of the opening of Robinson Jeffers’ poem “Hurt Hawks”

I’d sooner– except the penalties–kill a man than a hawk.

I looked up the rest: in the end he shoots the hawk, but not before trying to save it…


I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk;
but the great redtail
Had nothing left but unable misery
From the bone too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under his talons when he moved.

We had fed him six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
Implacable arrogance.

I gave him the lead gift in the twilight.
What fell was relaxed, Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.

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Ethiopian Food in St. Cloud


One of the benefits of new immigrant groups in an area is the arrival of good new cuisines. Steve and I have made an effort to find Somalian food in St. Cloud, eating at two small restaurants, and a few weeks ago Steve found this Ethiopian “deli” in a convenient store in St. Cloud.

fantaThere used to be an excellent gyros place in this spot. Steve’s daughter’s boyfriend, Chris, referred us to it. It closed down, but Steve stopped to see if anything had filled the space. It’s not a place you would find on your own. Sure, there’s a banner saying “we serve hot food,” but that’s vague enough to mean hot dogs on rollers and burritos in a microwave.

The convenient store stocks Fanta in bottles, to complete the African atmosphere, and some very spicy looking chips with a name I didn’t recognize. And no Smartfood popcorn (in case you were wondering).


One thing you learn right away about these places is that the menu is meaningless. You can order goat, but you will get beef. You can order the platter, but it won’t look like the platter in the photo. Best just to say, “Can you make us a platter for three?” and see what comes. The proprietor told us: “I have tibs, and I will make you some special dishes.”

We asked the proprietor about his ethnicity– this area has more Somali, and he does not look like the “typical” Ethiopian I’ve met here, in Chicago, and in New York. He said he is Oromo, the largest ethnic group, followed closely by the Amhara. He said other things, political things about war and independence, which were hard to follow. Of course, it is war that brings any ethnic groups from anywhere to our shores. This man worked in maintenance for St. Paul public schools for 30 years before “retiring” here to run this restaurant with his wife– open seven days a week from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m.


Next time we will ask for more of the vegetarian dishes and a little less tibs. They were excellent, but the bean/dal dishes were even better– fewer peppers and perfectly spiced. They make the injera (bread used to eat the food) on site, and it was fresh.

The platter was listed at $15.99, and we were happily charged $24 for the three of us. We left full and happy for $8/each. And we’ll be back.

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