Friday, June 24, 2016

Hospital Scripture Study (part two)

A week or so ago, I wrote about focusing on a single passage while thinking about--though not reading--the scriptures. Zooming in on a (mostly) memorized passage is only one of many options, though. During the same hard hospitalization, I also spent time thinking about the whole Book of Mormon.

It worked like this. After years of reading, I know what the books of the Book of Mormon are and what order they come in. I also know roughly what's in each one. But in my regular reading, I'm too stuck in chapter and verse to think much about how they all fit together.

It was different in the hospital. It was a pain to pull up chapter and verse, but even lying down with eyes closed, I could just think through the books and kind of feel for a rhythm or shape to the whole book. I'd try to feel the rise or fall of each group of books and then play the shape in my head like music.

Trying to put it into words afterward, here's roughly what I noticed:


Origin Story: 1 Nephi, 2 Nephi, and Jacob cover the origin of the Lehites. There's a strong forward rhythm through 1 Nephi as they follow crazy faith to get to their promised land, then this shift to a slow, long notes feel as they try to lay out the core of their spiritual foundation for the new life in 2 Nephi and Jacob.

The Grind: Enos, Jarom, and Omni shift to a new rhythm. They take life for granted in the land, and the routines of everyday life--from hunting for food to fighting wars for survival--are just part of that life. Little strains of spiritual life streak out from time to time, but it's mostly about the grind: this is what we do, this is who we are. The musical phrases get shorter as you go as if to say "this is shorthand. This is shorthand for the song that never ends."

Complications and Reversals: Mosiah and Alma. It's almost like the song wants to talk back at itself. It's been saying "this is the same old, this is the same old..." and then all at once it splits into these different streams of new melody and starts intertwining them. It's saying that it's not just all the same old grind after all.
New songs. We've got people following a dream, a mirage, of claiming the old land of Nephi. But everything turns around. Zeniff is supposed to hate the Lamanites, but he sees good in them. Then he tries to trust them and things fall apart. Noah is a great king for building and prosperity, but spiritually empty. Abinadi compares him to a cloth dropped in flame, but it's Abinadi they burn. Then a bad priest named Alma turns good, but can't dodge the curses Abinadi prophesied. Except that for almost everyone, sooner or later, curses turn to deliverance. And did I mention half of this is told backwards in to a report to a man from a people our heroes thought had all died in a field of bones?
Never mind that. Get back to the story. By most of the way through Mosiah, all is set right. People have wandered in the woods, so to speak, but after the troubles four groups finally come together and there's a good king and a good priest and...the next generation is trying all kinds of crazy stuff out and their sons are at the head of it.
So then boom an angel and another big reversals, and now it's Alma #2 on God's side and trying to unwind the consequences of his past. Two-life father, two-life son and the histories of their people chugging on below them with equally dramatic reversals. Remember the constant war with the Lamanites that was the constant rhythm through the Grind? During Alma, so many people leave Nephites to join Lamanites or leave Lamanites to join Nephites it's almost impossible to tell who's who anymore.
And the mixed up rhythms of a new melody of war, where it's hard to tell where the real enemy lives--this snake of an enemy that works it way through Nephite and Lamanite nations, that wreaks havoc whenever there seems to be a chance for peace. The mixed up rhythms of the new war rise, and strains of the old origin melody of faith and courage shine through, and things resolve sort of neatly in the end with a new set of sons and new lands to disappear off to and the old generation passing reverently away. And it almost feels like it should stay that way, like the piece should pause at this moment of calm where the torch is passed and the hard won tranquility should stick. It almost feels like the song should end here.

Rising Toward Climax: But of course, it doesn't. Helman. Third Nephi. Fourth Nephi. How can it? When things are going well, for one thing, you naturally want to build on them. And sometimes you do that by building big, heavy castles in the air.
It's not just the same old song of human pride, though, because this time there's this urgent underbeat: the prophetic "the time is coming" from the rest of the book  is now "the time is almost here." And it gives this urgency and direction to the prophets' story. And in time with it, the stories of pride get faster, wilder, more desperate. Kishkumen running with a dagger bathed in blood. The secret oaths of Gadianton. Then more plots, more blood, more machinations and divisions and resolutions followed fast by collapses until WHOOSH the whole world seems to go up in flames and then descend into three days of darkness and a moan rises through the land.
And then in the midst of the moaning, there's a calming whisper. And in the midst of the darkness, darkness so thick you can feel it, there's a light. And then there, before you, is the promised Redeemer and there, on his hands, are the prophesied marks and he blesses the children who grew up in chaos and the peace of it flows through their families for generations.
And we've done it now. We've finally learned what it's like to live right and live well and live in peace.

Warnings: Except. Mormon, Ether, Moroni. Except.
Something melts in the melody of righteousness. Something small gives way, and then it all gives way, and then we're sliding fast again into an oblivion which we seem to want, which we seem willing to make all kinds of horrific sacrifices for. Not much of the faith-filled beat of the origin stories, not really any of the reversals of Mosiah and Alma. It's like the grind again, but this time under the grind is just something ugly. This rising and swelling will to meaningless power and through it to death. And over it, the only song is Mormon's lament for his people, his beautiful people, who gave themselves over piece by piece to the will of destruction.
And the tales that were hinted at early in the book: of the valley of bones, of the records found telling the tale of the people of bones--all that ancient history rises here to the foreground. For this people, and for the next people who will inherit it, the truth: that the will to meaningless power, the will to destruction, can consume an entire people. Yes, they all die at this part of the book. Everyone. Or rather: they were all dead to begin with wherever we started to look for something new. They had been great, like we strove to be, and they all killed each other as thoroughly as a nuclear holocaust.
And I'm alone now, says Moroni, through the layered memories of two dead peoples. A man sitting on the bones left by a people who sat on strangers' bones. And I will speak out from the grave to warn you and to give you what little teaching and ritual and spiritual gift I knew from a time when this fate was still something to be avoided.
And the day will come, Moroni says in the last plaintive note, when I will meet you before God oh people-who-lived-over-bones-and-bones. And then you will all know that what I tell you is true.


That is a long-ish written version of what the scripture-study-without-scriptures in my head felt like. I didn't do all the details every time, just started simply thinking about what the books feel like, and then ran through it again and again until it fell it the sort of loose groups or patterns I described above, and tried to just listen to them.

And the point was: to think. To remember. To engage in whatever way, whatever way I could come up with eyes closed stuck in the bed and in my head, with the book.

Because it's in that life of connection, not just in disciplined routine (though discipline is a great thing) that we come to know the scriptures.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Hospital Scripture Study (part one)

I've had a reputation in the wards I've live in as someone who knows the scriptures well. And while it is a tragedy, in some ways, that I will be remembered for this instead of for being really really ridiculously good-looking, I kind of like being the guy people text when they have a scripture question.

Because of my relative expertise, I am often asked during lessons on scripture study to divulge my study secrets. Unfortunately, unusual discipline about daily scripture reading is not one of them. I try to be pretty consistent for my kids, but my personal study habits have varied widely at different times in my life. Sometimes I do OK at reading a little each night (I've rarely even attempted to read in the mornings). Sometimes, I go an embarrassingly long time without reading scriptures on my own at all.

The most I can ever remember reading the scriptures is the month or so when I struggled with insomnia. I read the scriptures every night, focusing on books like Isaiah that have a reputation for being difficult. If I fell asleep reading, I counted it as a win. If I stayed awake for hours, increased scriptural literacy was an acceptable consolation prize.

I'm not convinced, though, that my familiarity with the scriptures comes from the occasional late nights we've spent together. What has mattered most, I believe, is the time I spend thinking and talking about the scriptures when I am not reading them.

For most of my life, I've spent time after I closed the book--or on days when I didn't even open the book--thinking about what a particular character went through or trying to imagine what they might have felt like in a given situation. I've spent a lot of time thinking through different teachings and wondering how they fit together. I even spend time thinking about the whole structure of a given book of scripture, trying to figure out how the parts contribute to the whole.

That's how I've gotten to know the scriptures so well. It's not just a matter of a physical habit. It's learning to let them linger.

I've spent a fair amount of time in hospitals lately, and it hasn't been conducive to sitting and reading hard texts. I've still thought about the scriptures a lot, though. One night, unable to sleep, I ran through what I remembered of the Lord's prayer dozens of times. Even though the simple language of the King James translation is hard to beat, I decided to come up with different wording for the ideas in my mind as a mental exercise in pondering their meaning. The next Sunday, having been discharged from the hospital, I wrote down my "translation" as well as I could remember it.

Here's the text from Matthew and from my hospital version. Matthew first:

The Lord's Prayer

Our Father
which art in heaven
hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come;
thy will be done
in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil:
for thine is the kingdom,
and the power,
and the glory,
for ever.

And then here's my exercise:

Jesus' Prayer

Let the holiness of your name
reach down into the dust beneath our feet.
Let your kingdom rise among us,
your will fill us to the brim.
Give us the day's bread to eat, Father,
and cancel yesterday's debts
as fully as we forgive each others'
unfulfilled promises.
Guard us from our weakness, Father--
save us from our darkest selves.
Because the kingdom is yours,
power is yours,
glory is yours
in the moment and eternity,

Looking back at both, I'm reminded that I like the version from Matthew much better. But I'm glad I took the time to come up with my own, that I thought hard enough about the scriptures to rephrase them.

I've read the scriptures before. Memorized some passages even. Having once put that time in, I didn't need to open them to continue the lifelong project of writing them on my heart.

Different techniques will work for different people. As a writer, mentally rewriting worked for me. Something else would certainly work better for someone else. But the time we let the scriptures pass through our minds when the books are closed does matter, and I hope we can all find ways to keep their words and stories active within us.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Back to chemo

In life, there are things you can change and things you just have to find a way to make it through.

I think modern American culture tends to make meaning in life mostly out of the first: we measure ourselves by the difference we made, the things we chose and accomplished. We tend to see the other things, from minor inconveniences to major problems, as distractions on the way to building the lives we want. A successful life is one where we finish the things we wanted to get done.

It seems to me, though, that older cultures--preserved in part through our religious cultures--take another view. While religions call for plenty of personal and community change, they seem to treat being alive as its own important challenge and to place significant value on learning to endure life well. A good life means more than the luxury of accomplishment: a good life is learning to carry a difficult world with some kind of grace.

I'm a modern American. I like to choose my path and make a difference. My religion has also given me more of a vocabulary and tool set for thinking about what it means to endure well, but it's not a skill set I have traditionally wanted to spend too much of my time and attention developing.

That is changing.

Last Wednesday, I got discharged from MD Anderson Hospital in Houston after five days of intensive chemotherapy. It was the first cycle in a new set of treatments, planned for the rest of the summer and into the fall, which are supposed to make up for the failure of three months of chemo early this year to finish the job. By the time I was let out of the hospital, I felt the familiar, insistent sorts of gross I've come to except: twenty-five pounds of retained fluid weight and three days of delayed bowel movements pressing down on my guts, numbness and tingling from damaged nerves in my feet making my steps strange, head a little dizzy and body more than a little weak.

I was not thinking particularly philosophically at the time. Just paying attention to the strangeness of my body and trying to get out of the building. Even through the fog of physical unease, I felt a patient's sort of gladness--a mixture of muted excitement and profound relief--to be going home. Since my house is maybe two thousand miles away from the hospital, "home" in this case meant my cousin Manju's house,* a more than welcome place to spend my two weeks off before the next round of treatment. And I felt all kinds of grateful to have my little sister Judith in town to help me do all the little things a patient is supposed to do, if also little embarrassed that our quality time together had, thus far, mostly consisted of her watching me lie around and moan or else shuffle around and moan.

It was raining on our way back: first gently, then in quantities that triggered flash flood warning text alerts. We made it back home just fine, despite the Houston monsoon, and I made it through the night OK, peeing off maybe ten pounds by morning. By Thursday a little before noon, I remember sitting on a couch and feeling surprisingly decent. For the first time in days, I could actually breathe deep and just think.

I looked over at my sister. And then, without any warning, I started to cry. I felt totally overwhelmed and intimidated; just beaten down by the prospect of going through all the troubles and uncertainties of treatment again.

I'd been fairly patient through my prior months of chemo. I'd done a good job accepting it with a mixture of humility, humor, and really boring but important discipline. And yet, with a moment to think ahead, all that experience didn't feel like enough to carry me through again--especially given that the coming rounds are likely to be significantly physically harder.

It was after the panic that I got philosophical. Looking back, I think I've made it through cancer treatment before, both after the initial diagnosis in 2008 and the discovery of a metastized tumor in November of last year, by framing it mostly as a distraction.

As soon as I suspected I might have testicular cancer in 2008, I read about outcomes and focused my attention firmly on the 95+% survival rate. By the time the doctors gave me my diagnosis, I was already willing to think of this as something to go through on the way to other things. It was the same when doctors confirmed late last year that a colony had survived in my digestive system and decided, after seven years of keeping a low profile, to try to take over. I was fairly intimidated by the intensity of the coming treatment, but quite confident that after a few months of disruption I'd be back to my goal-driven life. "It's not going to be fun, but it is going to be fine" became our family motto. We were able to endure by looking for the light at the end of a not-too-long tunnel and pushing through. 

Then came scans in March and April that showed half of my tumor is left, wrapped around the main artery to the liver. It turns out to be an important artery, so surgery was out as anything but a last ditch option. It turns out more chemo, first in higher doses than I've had and then in higher doses than I could survive without a transplant of my own stored stem cells, is the best treatment option. The percentage chance that I will be fine is still quite high--probably in the upper 80s to low 90s--but given the length of treatment, it's getting hard to see cancer as a distraction I'm holding on through. It's starting to feel like this is my life for now.

 And maybe, as far as making meaning out of life is concerned, that is an acceptable thing. Maybe the work of learning to carry this difficulty is an important part of my time living in a body on earth.

I am trying to move forward with that mentality. Whatever I can endure, whatever I can learn, whatever humor I can find in absurdity and whatever beauty I can find, as it were, in ashes--those things can be my milestones.

It's been ten days since chemo.

One day I made it out of the house to walk and stood under a canopy of trees. This is my life, and it is good.

One day while lying on the couch, I watched my nine-year-old cousin Jasleen put together a puzzle of the presidents and told her stories of Ulysses S. Grant's bad driving and John Quincy Adams' secret to eavesdropping in the House of Representatives. This is my life, and it is good.

One day, I vomited and swore through the morning then felt good enough by 1 pm to go to church. I asked two men I barely knew to bless me, and they spoke not only with comfort from the Holy Ghost and eyes for eternity, but also about my two-thousand-miles distant children and the comfort I could be to them even in the midst of the stress my pain caused them. This is my life, and it is good.

One night, I woke up with a fever high enough to need to go into the hospital and did so despite my distaste for hospital stays. They found that my absolute neutrophil count (normal=1,500 to 8,000) was 6. I braced for a stay of many days. This is my life, and it is good.

One night, I struggled to ignore neuropathic pain in my feet, digestive pain, lower back aches from the hospital bed, fever, and body-wide exhaustion to finally get some overdue sleep. For hours, I failed. I started to wonder if the universe is really worth its suffering. I tried to pray, and failing to find words, settled for crying out in my mind, again and again, the single word "father" until I fell asleep in the midst of my many pains, the sharp sensation of ice against my neck dimming other stimuli just enough to let my mind go. This, too, is my life. And it, too, is good somehow.

 One night, having had more sleep and knowing my white blood cell count was improving, I took advantage of the hospital time to watch an NBA playoff game. The players danced across the court and in a few consecutive possessions seemed to execute each play flawlessly. I let my eyes follow them, then let my eyes rest. I felt proud to share a world with such mastery of a craft. Sometimes, findings ways to be grateful for this world is my life. And it is good.

*Manju is actually my mom's cousin, but is close to my age. Being from an older generation than me, she's happy to take on the role of overprotective auntie when needed. Because we remember playing as kids together, though, there's also a nice feeling of shared experience and comforting closeness. It's a great combination.


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