It was spring 2008. I sat broken and alone in my living room listening to a radio talk show. The woman being interviewed spoke about her own chronic health issues over the years and the excellent work she did in spite of those illnesses. She was a doctor, a teacher, an organizer, an entrepreneur and a healer. With the motivation to help so many more people than she could in her office, she wrote several books. The one being reviewed that day was KITCHEN TABLE WISDOM.
In 2005, I had been diagnosed with stage IV inflammatory breast cancer and a high-grade tumor in my head and neck. I endured dose dense chemo, non-skin sparing radiation, TomoTherapy, multiple surgeries, medications and invasive tests. I was in a breather of sorts. The doctors had me on oral medications that were intended to help me more passively continue the battle. To others, it looked like I was done. The wagons that had circled to shelter me through the worst of it had dispersed. I felt exposed in the barren landscape they still called my body. I was battered, broken, visibly and invisibly scarred, and unable to leave my house.
My children were in grade school, so I was alone all day everyday. The radio was seldom played, but on that day, I’m grateful it was. I sat in my chair softly sobbing for myself while I listened to the doctor tell her story so transparently. As you might have guessed already, her name was Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen.
Towards the end of the interview, I felt spent. I recognized my condition as depression, and found a glimmer of light in her story. I felt an intense need to read her book. I had my husband pick it up from the bookstore in town and began to read the very next day. As luck would have it, it wasn’t too long or complex so my chemo eyes and brain could stay relatively focused. The line that hit me the hardest was “Most of us are surviving our lives, and now we need to learn to live them.” Not wanting the book to end, I read the reference pages and found a listing for a cancer retreat center she had co-founded.
It was with a desperate urgency that I immediately phoned the center located in Bolinas, CA. The voice on the other end made me laugh for the first time in many, many months. Not because he said anything funny, but because his voice embodied happiness and laughter.
“I need to come and see you,” I said desperately holding the tears back.
With a trilly laugh the voice on the other end responded, “I’m happy to help. My name is Waz.”
There was much more dialogue than that, but it was his effervescent voice coupled with a deep compassion for my state that I will always remember. After he told me a short story about his name, Waz and I set to work securing my place in the October 2008 retreat. There was no ignoring the boost of energy he had sent me through the wires. When I hung up I had a deep desire to go outside and sit in the sun. It was the first time I had been outside of my own accord in months. I wondered if Waz knew how he had made me feel. With his first word “Hello,” I immediately felt protected in his warmth.
Six months later, my husband flew out to San Francisco with me. We spent a couple of days taking in the city before it was time for me to go it alone. He took a taxi to the airport and I took the rental car over the Golden Gate Bridge and headed west. The cliff side drive was intimidating in my compromised state, but I found my way to the base of the driveway at Commonweal and began to cry. I pulled myself together, got checked in and promptly started crying again. I cried off and on for four straight days. It was not a normal response for my often resilient nature, but there was no hiding the truth on those sacred grounds. I hungrily took in the individual and group therapy discussions, wished for more massage and sand tray time, and couldn’t wait for the walk to Jnani’s yoga classes. It was impossible to not smile when I saw her. She was like sunshine in human form.
On the morning of my fifth day, I woke up happy. I laughed out loud in my single room at the end of the hall and gazed out of the window at the path leading to the beach. We had been asked to stay away from it because it was difficult to traverse. Happily, I felt a piece of my old self surface and I decided to spend my free time that day making my way down to the beach. Before cancer, I was a mountain climber, rock climber, ice climber, wilderness camper and paddler. Surely, I could get down to the beach.
I didn’t have the proper shoes for such a little trek because I only packed sandals. So, I asked Lenore (Dear Lenore) if she knew where I could get a pair. I stood at least eight inches above her, but she wore the same size shoe! What were the odds? Anything seemed possible at Commonweal.
She loaned me her black tennis shoes and asked me to be safe “where ever it is you’re going.” She winked and off I went.
I felt like a little kid skipping down the path to the cliff’s edge where it dropped into a small canyon formed by the pounding ocean waves. There was a torn and tattered rope tied between the top and the bottom. I studied it for a minute and thought perhaps I had made a mistake. Then, a surfer and his dog popped up out of nowhere and bounced down the makeshift trail. I followed.
I reached the bottom and trotted to the water’s edge feeling sheer joy. I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt that. I hung out on the beach for a while and played with the dog and then made my way back up the rope. It was an empowering exercise and filled me with an indescribable joy. I had permanently reclaimed another little piece of myself.
Prior to cancer, advocacy was at my core. I worked in it, lived it and volunteered chronically. After my diagnosis, I abandoned it all. I stripped myself of who I was and let the treatment leave me a shell of my former self. At Commonweal, the word and concept of advocacy popped up during every one of my meditations or sand tray sessions. I didn’t know what it meant until I began to pay attention at group meals.
The food served to us was life generating. Before I had arrived, I was already practicing eating with the intention to heal, but I realized the other participants were not. They seemed to struggle with the menu and it got me thinking. I turned my meditations to what I could do to help others learn how to use food to fight cancer.
My one on one time with Michael Lerner gave me an opportunity to begin to work through some of my early thoughts. There was no clear vision at that point, but I could feel its glow coming nearer. My time at Commonweal was the spark that reignited my entrepreneurial spirit. Several months later, I decided to start a non-profit organization focused on using food as medicine. Now five years old, NuGenesis works everyday to teach all sectors of the community how to eat with the intention to heal. It is my firm belief that this is the true health care reform. I’m living proof that it works. My doctors released me from care three years before protocol dictated. With every scan, blood draw, and test I was subjected to, no indication of disease was found. My organs were recovering and in medical terms I was the picture of health. So, that was that.
It is in large part thanks to my inspiration at Commonweal, that NuGenesis is in full bloom working with nearly 900 volunteers to spread the message of how to use food as medicine.
On the eighth day, I left the womb of Commonweal. I felt empowered to act and stay true to Me. I had discovered the joy and comfort found in feeding myself spiritually. This year is the 10th anniversary since my first diagnosis. How blessed I am that Rachel Naomi Remen and Michael Lerner had the vision and compassion to give such a wonderful gift to us all.
January 15, 2015
Header photo by Corinne Bayley