As part of my struggle against cancer, I try to exercise when I can. My friend Jerry was a godsend when I first came home from the hospital, encouraging me to walk with him daily around a 2.5-mile loop. As my strength grew, I added more exercise including dog walks, climbing our local 1000-foot mountain once a week, and running a 3-mile route on Fridays.
Besides my walks with Jerry, which have diminished due to his own health reasons, I am in the woods alone. I do a shorter hike with my dog each morning along a “city route” by the water. It’s a course she loves, where she meets other dogs with sniff-able butts and homo-sapiens who tell her how beautiful she is. But during my other times, it is just me and the trees—oh, and the birds, and the chipmunks, and sometimes the deer. It is a good time to think, to listen to good novels or music. I think a lot about the big questions of life. Metaphysics, morals, society, nature, and of course God. It has nothing to do with having cancer as I’ve always had these thoughts and conversations inside my head or between God and myself.
While our island has a wonderful network of over 50 miles of wooded trails, and there are trails where you can be alone, some of the more popular ones are strewn with amblers, especially on a spring-like day amid an otherwise gloomy Pacific Northwest winter. It was on such a day a couple of weeks ago when I was climbing our mountain that I was slowly gaining on a woman climbing alone ahead of me. Me gaining on anyone is unusual because due to my anemia, the result of the ugly disease that co-inhabits my body with me, I am easily winded and slow. But as I methodically approached her to overtake her and pass her, she turned around and began yelling at me. I could tell she was stressed out.
“Why are you here? I came to the woods to get alone,” she said. “I’m sick of the news and all the garbage and just want to be left the hell alone! I heard you talking a mile back. I come to the woods for silence.”
Holding my hands up like I had a gun to my back, catching my slippery breath, I said, “I’m sorry … uh, but it wasn’t me talking … it was another group behind me. I haven’t said a word since I entered the woods two miles back.” I wasn’t talking audibly to God, was I?
I slowed down from my turtle’s pace to that of a snail, giving up my aspirations of passing her. However, with the distance between us spreading, she wasn’t done talking to me.
“You don’t know what’s it like being a woman alone in the woods,” she said. “You never know when some pervert man is going to show up. My father was a prison guard and I know about evil men. As a woman I have to constantly be on guard.”
I slowed down more, considering turning around and trying another route. I really didn’t want to be having this conversation. Unfortunately, she slowed too. For a woman who came to the wood to avoid conversation, she was quite talkative. I was trying to make a point by not saying another word.
She continued, “COVID for two years now this fucking war in Ukraine … I’m sick of it … all of it!”
I kept quiet trying to figure if she was going to let me pass her or not.
“And I’m a cancer survivor,” she suddenly exclaimed. “You don’t know what it’s like being a cancer survivor [and she certainly got that right as to be one, is just a fantasy of mine] and I heard you talking about cancer. That is so painful to someone like me who has had cancer.”
“That wasn’t me!” I said in a loud voice. “It was the group behind me. I have not said a word since entering the woods.”
Then she continued, “But you don’t know what it’s like having chemo and all that crap for cancer. It’s horrible and to hear people like you come to the woods and talk about these things is painful!”
“It wasn’t me! And yes, I do know what it is like but I rarely talk about it and certainly wasn’t today.”
We are stressed. I’ve had to block out the plethora of things that have been put on my personal plate over the past three years, just to maintain a sliver of sanity. But here we are, in a world war. That’s why I’ve learned to approach life as if it is a dark comedy, laughing is better than crying, at least at times.
They say that while a train wreck is hard to look at, yet, it is impossible to take your eyes away. That is how I see world disasters. They consume me, but not in a bad way. I think much of it has to do with how fortunate I was to have been a citizen of the world. I have worked in war-torn refugee camp in Afghanistan (1981), and where an earthquake destroyed countryside of Pakistan. I’ve worked in a garbage dump inhabited by sixty-thousand impoverished people. I’ve been lucky enough to feel the suffering of those dear souls but being blessed where I could fly out of those situations, back to peace and prosperity.
I felt the Ukrainian war coming. The American intelligence got it right this time. The night the missiles came into that peaceful country, I was glued to the TV and radio. I got up several times during the night for updates. This pace continued for days, only slowing down recently to one middle-of-the-night check up on the war. I’ve lost a lot of sleep. I’ve felt the stress.
I hate war. I hate suffering. It is like humanity is offered the opportunity to live in the state of heaven on earth, and somehow, we always choose a hellish nightmare instead. Murder each other. Burn down the entire planet. But it usually is not the victims’ choosing. It is usually one man, or group of men (never have seen a group of women start a war) who has some deeply personal sense of inadequacy. Weaned too early, perhaps? Born with a small dick? There’s something that causes them to have this black hole of insecurity. One rumor was Hitler’s inadequacy was not getting into art school. Give me a break. These insecure men, like Putin, think that going down in history as a conqueror, is the only thing that will redeem them. It is a pathological absence of empathy toward other human beings.
If I could be the lady on the trail’s therapist, I would tell her to turn off her TV, silence her car radio, and get into the woods. Find a good novel and cuddle up beside a fire. But that was what she was trying to do on that day wasn’t it? Maybe she needed more time in the woods. As I feel the stress of the war, I have thought it was time I did the same. But then I had second thoughts. News, bad news, should distress us. Being at ill-ease—is being human. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” I want to mourn. I want to feel the suffering of the Ukrainians in my soul. I wish I could help carry their burden, somehow. I shed tears for them. Yes, there are times when me must step away from the train wreck, to look the other way for our own sanity’s sake. But if these past three years have taught me anything is that our capacity to mourn, to feel pain, and then stay upright is higher than I ever thought possible
Written but not proofed.