The Fellowship of Survivors

Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels

There is a certain form of a secret handshake among survivors. A knowing nod. A recognizable depth to the eyes. When a person has gone to the edge of the unknowable and yet is still present in this world, that person cannot hold themselves the same.

Survivors speak the same language. Cancer has its own vocabulary. While some forms might require new terms or lingo, we still understand each other– like an American and a British person speaking to one another.

One afternoon I was in a doctor’s exam room. It is actually one of Paige’s doctors. This doctor in particular had advanced stage breast cancer and was absent from her practice for a long while. Eventually, she returned as a survivor but forever changed. On a checkup, Paige heard her story. Then when everything happened to me, Paige told her my story. The doctor and I actually have the same oncologist and radiation oncologist. I remember sitting in that chair and drifting in and out of sleep, exhausted from the high-dose steroid fatigue and lack of sleep.

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Suffering and Oneness

Despite some recent health setbacks, I’m not going to start up the weekly updates tab again. Instead, I’ve decided to write a post and then put some health updates at the end for those interested. If you’re mostly concerned with the health update, then jump down to the writing below the 2nd divider.


I’ve been thinking a lot about suffering since New Year’s Day. I’ve endured my own small form of suffering (more on that below the divider) and I’ve read some fascinating ideas about the subject. 

Previously, I’ve mentioned suffering in a post with some quotes and anecdotes from Maharajji. “I love suffering. It brings me closer to God,” he is quoted as saying. As I deal with my small issue and think about my trials since last April, I can realize the truth found in that statement. There is something very real about suffering. It forces you to be in the moment. I read recently that some mystics have thought that all suffering is the same, that there is only one suffering. When you suffer, it’s almost a sacred and communal act.

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John rambles about his health, Ram Dass, and 2020

I don’t have anything distilled to impart to you today. No book, no music, no movie. This time it’s just me, typing away about a few things I’ve been thinking about. Hopefully, one of them holds your attention.

My health has been relatively stable since passing out before Christmas. Nobody is really sure what happened to me. I think they threw the kitchen sink at me to get me healthy for Christmas, and it worked. (Kitchen sink = IV fluids, IV steroids, and 7 days of antibiotics.) I took a trip to Tampa with my daughter after Christmas and was there until New Year’s Eve. I started noticing something strange about my stomach and felt some slight head pain.

When I came back home I noticed the head pain was made worse by the cold weather. After some experimentation, I found that keeping my head nice and warm staves off this pain. So sometimes I’m now sporting unseasonably bulky head covers. Wool beanies are my favorite. At a December appointment I found out that there is an small open space between my skull and the titanium plate in my head. The plate is attached to the skull by 16 different screws. But my theory is that the space between my skull and the plate is especially sensitive to the cold and can cause some pain. So hats provide some nice coverage.

The stomach pains lasted for another week and I’m still dealing with them in a small way. It’s tough not to jump to the worst possible conclusion for what’s behind the pain. For me, there’s not much space between “This is nothing, it’ll pass,” and “The sky is falling!” In talking about this with Paige she captured it perfectly, “Ever since immunotherapy, your body is a question mark. So much of immunotherapy isn’t even understood yet, who knows what’s going on in there.” Yep. Today my stomach is feeling pretty good, strangely. Human bodies are weird.

I found out through Paige that Ram Dass passed away before Christmas. I’ve written about Ram Dass on this blog before. I have some of his books and have listened to a collection of his lectures (Experiments in Truth). I think he is a fascinating spiritual figure, drawn to different understandings of suffering, God, being and non-being. One of the anecdotes he tells in Experiments in Truth really sticks with me. He was talking about being on a speaking tour (I think) and checking into a hotel room, feeling exhausted and wishing he was home. In his hotel room, he stopped, and starting to think of himself and his surroundings in a cosmic sense. He started to zoom out from his point of view. The hotel room, the city, the state, the country, the continent, the world, the solar system, the galaxy, the entirety of space. Given the vastness of space, he realized there’s not too much difference between his hotel room and his actual home. This universe and everywhere in it was his home. If I can’t be at home in this universe, what’s the point? he thought. Then he decided to be home, there in the hotel room. He opened the hotel door and shouted into the hallway, “I’m home!” He learned to be home everywhere. That’s a lesson that sticks with me. Be home everywhere. On delayed flights, in doctor waiting rooms, in traffic, at parties when you don’t know anyone. Be home. And you know what? It freaks people out. Next time you’re at a party and you don’t know anyone, try to be home. You’ll see other people become uncomfortable on your behalf– it’s crazy. They’ll say or think, “Why isn’t he talking to anyone? Why isn’t he checking his phone? Why isn’t he anxious?” And suddenly they’ll start talking to you. They’ll leave quickly because you’re not buying into the dominant culture. But you can just continue to be home.

I like the way that Pete Holmes said it on his podcast. He doesn’t say Ram Dass died, but that he “left his body.” It’s like ice melting into water or a wave disappearing into the ocean. As a Harvard professor from a Jewish family, I think he distinquished himself from attention-obsessed pyschedelic drug adovcates like his one-time colleague Timothy Leary. Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) actually went to India to seek deeper spirituality. The appeal of the pyschedelic drugs were gone because they were superficial to begin with. He did not shy away from talking about Christ as someone who transcended all material things.

I do agree with Pete Homles that if you’re interested in his stuff, listen to his speaking as opposed to reading his books (at least, at first). He has stuff on youtube, and two collections of lectures: Experiments in Truth, and Love, Service, Devotion. There is a short Netflix documentary with him called Going Home. I need to see that.

And 2020 is here. I kept seeing all of these lists about the end of the decade. It didn’t feel like the end of a decade to me. But when I read stuff like Kotaku’s The Cost of Being a Woman Who Covers Video Games it’s a reminder of both how far things have come and how deep things have decended. Social change seems glacierly slow but I suppose when you can look back at a decade you can notice some positive advances.