Monday, November 23, 2015



Happy Thanksgiving Week!

Here's a link to an interview I did with CNA for my latest book, Stripped.

And here's a piece I was invited to write on the book, and spent several hours working up, and that the guy didn't like.

He could be right that the piece doesn't work. I really labored over it and sometimes that can be a good sign and sometimes that can be a bad sign.

I would have earned 25 cents a word (that's after 20 years of toiling at my craft) and of course now "earn" nothing.

Except that yesterday I rec'd a link (thank you, John Tallman) to a book called The Beethoven Factor: The New Positive Psychology of Hardiness, Happiness, Healing, and Hope  by Paul Pearsall. The blurb runs:

Conventional wisdom insists that the statement is false, that stress is a thief robbing us of our ability to relax and enjoy life to its fullest. But for centuries, poets and philosophers have celebrated the ups and downs of life as the very essence of living, the spice that enables us to taste life fully.

So who's right? The new, fast-emerging positive psychology movement is affirming the timeless wisdom of the philosophers by showing that it is not stress itself preventing us from enjoying life, but our negative reaction to stress that does the damage. Positive psychology confirms that rather than shrinking from adversity, we must become engaged by it-and thrive through it-before we can savor all the sweetness life has to offer.

This is something I've pondered a lot lately, the equating of "spirituality" with "equanimity": a kind of preternatural calm. As I ask in one of my books, was Van Gogh "sane"? Was Beethoven "calm"? No! The follower of Christ consents to live in ongoing TENSION. It's no feat to sit in a cave and shut the world out. The feat is to be kind to one another and to give everything we have and are to our work even when we're in terrible anxiety, fear, irritability etc. 

The feat is to be true to our inner compass--our faith, if you like--when we can't know how that being true will pan out. And when the stakes are life and death.

For the artist--for all of us if we're tuned in to drama of creation--the stakes are life and death for everything. 

I was reaching for something in the piece below that I maybe didn't quite reach. But I will stake my life on the reaching. The reaching--as apparently Pearsall's book corroborates--is beyond all price. 

So here you go!

Recently I attended a memorial service for a friend who had died of a heroin overdose. The intro was given by a meditation teacher. “There is no birth and no death,” she informed us.

That’s an attitude that strikes me as strangely hostile to life. It’s a stance that says I’m just going to block my ears and go lalalalalalalala and that way you can’t hurt me and wake me up when it’s over. Nothing matters because nothing ever really happens.

How very different from Catholicism that says, Birth is real, death is all, all too real.

How very different from Christ, who says: “Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come” [Mt. 24:42].

Staying awake means consenting to participate, minute by minute, in the almost unendurable tension of a drama the end of which we can’t know and can’t foresee.

That’s the story I tell in my latest memoir: Stripped: At the Intersection of Culture, Cancer, and Christ.

People see “cancer” and they tend to picture a story about chemo and radiation.

But my own story is this. In 2000, I was diagnosed with Stage 1, Grade 1 breast cancer. I weighed the risk of recurrence against the “benefits” of the proposed treatments—and after weeks of research, spiritual guidance and prayer I went against medical advice.  I had outpatient surgery and then I declined the recommended treatment: chemo, radiation, and a five year round of a heavy-duty estrogen drug called Tamoxifen.

At the time, the doctors told me in so many words that I was crazy. Fifteen years later, the medical community is now endorsing this same “wait and see” stance for early stage breast cancer.

But Stripped is no anti-medicine screed. Nor is it even a book about cancer, or only cancer. It’s a book about the contemplative life. It’s an invitation to ask ourselves what Master we serve.

Hearing the world “malignant” instantly stripped me down: emotionally, spiritually. Coming face to face so suddenly with my mortality pruned me, in a way I wouldn’t have asked for, from many old ideas and worldly attachments.

One phenomenon I pondered deeply in the weeks after my diagnosis was our cultural grounding in the paradigm of war: the war against poverty, the war against drugs, the war against cancer, the war against terror.

I didn’t notice us winning in any of those areas.

In fact, with over fifty percent of our discretionary national budget going to the military, with our manic insistence on gun ownership, with our craving for and fascination with violence, we were clearly only generating more violence, more massacres.

To be diagnosed with cancer is to be expected, like a good military-minded citizen, to fight a battle. I found I wasn’t much interested.

The opposite of fighting a battle doesn’t mean accepting the “unacceptable,” being a doormat, or lapsing into weary resignation: it means staying awake to reality. “Resist not evil,” Christ said, and I think he meant let’s not waste our energy fighting; let’s use our energy to live in alert, creative, love. Let’s direct our energy toward what we’re for, not what we’re against.

Far less does creative love mean the choice is between Jesus and the doctors. No, no, no. The question is whether we’re going to serve the master of fear or the Master of love.

The master of fear told me to go along with the harsh treatments even though, given my low risk of recurrence, my intuition and heart told me they’d do more harm than good. The Master of love said: Do the research, run your decision by people you trust and love, and continue to go out and spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

In the temple, Christ spoke “with authority.” In the end, that authority allowed me to go a different way than a culture that is increasingly based on the commodification of the human body, the human person.

One form that took was declining the proferred medical treatments.

But the deeper form was that, in the wake of my cancer diagnosis, I lost—let go of—my fourteen-year marriage.

In “Letter to a Young Poet,” Rainer Maria Rilke advised, Ask yourself in your deepest hour, Must I write? If the answer is yes, “then build your life according to this necessity.”

The answer was yes. That yes led me to face the fact that some women are able of two vocations: a marriage/family, and writing.

I wasn’t one of them.

Letting go of the worldly emotional and financial security, social status, and companionship of a marriage was a way harder decision than how to treat my cancer. But I wouldn’t trade the perpetual creative tension, the minute-by-minute adventure of the writing life, the terrible fear, as I age, of being cast out of the herd, for anything on earth.

Because the battle I HAVE been willing to fight is the battle St. Paul referred to in 2 Timothy 4:6-7:

For I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand.

I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.



  1. Yes. I would gladly pay you 25 cents a word for this piece, Heather. ... though I would need to borrow it from someone else at the moment.... but that's another story. Anyway, the piece might not have 'worked' for the editor-guy, but it sure as heck worked for me.... thank you for it...

  2. Thanks Heather I agree with you on our cultural need to use war terminology to define our battles. Resist not evil; resisting is stressful - moving on with life - Christ's yoke is easy His burden is light.


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