Beginning Backpacking Post Breast Cancer

Backpacking Gear in the Car

When one is facing an unexpected health crisis, the mind’s descent into some worst case scenario is but a few steps. During breast cancer treatment, I envisioned a number of sobering possibilities for my future, one of which was focused on backpacking. 

To back up a bit, preparations for my last backpacking trip b4 breast cancer inspired me to write an ode to ultralight gear (Bringing Down the Weight). During the spring of 2015, I probably dropped over $1000 as I collected the sort of equipment that would allow an older woman to backpack in, well… more comfort. That summer I spent a fabulous week on the John Muir Trail backpacking with friends. It wasn’t long before I had another trip in the works, this one focused on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. Unbeknown to me, however, a tumor was growing in my left breast. 

Breast cancer treatment threw my life into a tailspin. During those moments when my body felt the weakest, I wondered if I’d ever use any of that expensive gear again. This thought really got to me. It niggled at me. It made me wonder, “Why me?” “What a waste!”

Ringing the "I'm done!" bell in the radiation oncology unit at UCSD Medical.

Fortunately, most of my strength returned after I rang that final bell in the radiation oncology unit. Over time, I began working out again, hiking even. I got in a couple of car camping trips. Then last summer I committed to backpacking for the first time since treatment, a three-night trek along the Lost Coast in California. Yet when the trip fell through because we were all too busy, I actually felt relieved. I also felt guilty over not unpacking that wonderful equipment. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure where all this gear was. I hadn’t touched it in touched in four years.

Entrance to Mission Creek Preserve

Not long after I bailed on the Lost Coast trip, my friend, Pam Kersey, badgered me into taking a class she co-teaches with Robin Balch through the Desert Institute at Joshua Tree National Park: Beginning Backpacking for Women in Mission Creek Preserve. Though I’m not really a beginner, I said yes, thinking I could have some quality time with Pam and some other interesting women. I did spend quality time with these said women, but I also discovered a few things.

First of all, enrollment in this class forced me to track down all the essentials. I found myself hauling my backpack to REI, so they could remind me how it all fit together. I fingered my Big Agnes tent, wondering if I would remember how to set it up. Did my Jetboil stove still work? Did I need a bear canister? (Bear warnings came with the informational literature supplied by the Desert Institute.) Finally, though I had my SteriPen handy, we weren’t guaranteed a water supply out there. When it came time to hit the trail, I saddled up with more than four liters of water in my backpack, pondering one final question: how would I do carrying 41 pounds?

The trip proved to be gentle in some respects. The actual backpacking portion was only an overnight, though we did camp the night before. This gave us a chance to go over our gear, try things out, and discuss what should actually go with us–what should be left behind. Once we started walking, packs and all, we had a tentative goal of covering five miles. Tentative was the word. Robin insisted from the get-go, we would do what made sense for the group. 

The day proved to be pretty warm, yet I felt capable. As I hiked, emotions spiked more than once. I wasn’t wasting my gear any longer. Maybe backpacking would become a regular activity for me. I mulled over that earlier Lost Coast possibility. “Maybe next summer.”

Scenery in the desert

Sometime later, a few people began overheating, so we decided to stop at three miles and set up camp. When our cheerful tents finally dotted the dry landscape alongside an arroyo bed – ten of them – we moved into some additional hiking sans backpack through some striking territory.

I’m proud to say I probably could have completed the original five miles with my pack. Still, I felt pretty rusty with the nitty-gritty things. For example, I had to bond with my Jetboil all over again–I’d forgotten the easiest way to light it. My expensive ultralight pillow developed a fatal leak. I worried about making some terrible error having to do with a snake or a bear. In the thick of things, it occurred to me the beginner’s label was “just right.” 

Feeling strong

That said, I was thrilled when Pam came up to me toward the end of the trip to say, “It’s great to see you looking so strong.” I forgot to mention, Pam is a former oncology nurse. She saw me through my darkest hours on my breast cancer slog, so she had a benchmark. Now I can proudly note I’m a beginning backpacker. This isn’t to say I’m not planning something that will take a few more nights, a few more miles.

 

Breast Cancer is a finalist in the 2019 Eric Hoffer Book Awards

I’m pleased to note Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts has been listed as a finalist in the chapbook category of the 2019 Eric Hoffer Book Awards.

 

Swan Song

Amahl

Getting ready for Amahl and the Night Visitors – performed by the Porthole Players and the Newport Symphony Orchesta.

I just scrolled through my own Tweets to revisit “2018 in the Life of Kari Wergeland.” As a breast cancer survivor, I have vowed to live as fully as I can, to refuse to “go gentle into that good night.” Well, it’s been a good year. I launched my first “real” poetry chapbook—I published a handful of other poems in journals and anthologies. I received acceptances on two short stories and one essay (due out in 2019). I sang in a holiday concert with the Central Coast Chorale in Lincoln County, Oregon. And I joined the Porthole Players in conjunction with the Newport Symphony Orchestra to perform as a soprano shepherdess in Amahl and the Night Visitors.I also landed some adjunct librarian hours with Sacramento City College. This will allow me to move into a swan song phase of a career I’ve loved and participated in since I first took a paraprofessional position in the Ashland Branch Library (Ashland, Oregon). I was still in high school at the time.

I must confess, Amahl and the Night Visitors takes the prize in terms of personal satisfaction. I worked with a vocal coach (Rhodd Caldwell) and a director (Bonnie Ross) who were upbeat, supportive, and instructive. I shared this experience with an enthusiastic cast and a group of fine musicians, people who were kind, talented, professional, and a whole lot of fun. We performed to a full house both nights. It felt like we burst to life on opening night. I suspect our troupe came away feeling pretty good about the whole thing. If I never get to do this again, I can now say I checked that box. This was a bucket list item for me.

I continue to think about my bucket list, because my days seem permeated with more intensity than the life I lived prior to breast cancer treatment. It’s been over two years since my last radiation zap, and I’m still finding a heightened sense of meaning in almost everything I do. I don’t want to waste another minute. I try to toss out anything that feels extraneous. I continue to feel gratitude for the opportunities that come my way. Maybe I’m more often noticing what is worth living for at all. Small things like how the ocean looks silver beneath the midday sun. Or how a muted winter landscape reveals its own kind of magnificence. As we were preparing for Amahl and the Night Visitors, our director Bonnie made a point of telling us that people sometimes ask her, “Why do you direct plays?” She said she did it to put some beauty into the world. She followed that thought with another one, “The world really needs this right now.”

Aesthetic considerations may seem inconsequential in the face of political turmoil, wildfires, floods, war, and famine, but I’m with Bonnie on thinking about how we can achieve acts of beauty in a troubled world. As a writer, I continue to ponder the purpose of my voice. What do I need to say? How should I say it? All sorts of thoughts come to mind—some are on my bucket list. Yet no matter how I end up answering these questions, I’d like Bonnie’s sentiment on beauty to be amongst any other reason I might have for writing or singing (or Tweeting or dealing with the public from the reference desk). How a person chooses to use their voice – even in the face of terrible conflict – can potentially move us all toward that fabulous choir sound, which can include major dissonances and minor chords, even as it transcends stalemates born of cheap lines.

What to Reveal at the Book Launch—and Subsequent Readings

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Last month, I launched Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts in the backyard of my close friend, Patricia Santana, a writer in her own right. Patricia and her partner, Jack Madowitz, went all out with the food and drinks—the ambience. They set up extra tables and chairs. They took charge of my sales so I could mingle. And though it is difficult to relax into a party when you are the planned entertainment, I was able to enjoy the good wishes and hugs, the repast even. I hadn’t seen many of these folks since my retirement from Cuyamaca College, over a year ago, because I left San Diego County to embark on various adventures while also designing my next leg of life. It was nice to catch up—celebrate the summer, not to mention Patricia’s own more recent retirement from the school. Yes, they were expecting me to read—and then sign books. That was whole the point.

I was pretty relaxed as I stood, book in hand, about to deliver sections to an audience for the first time. I felt honored to be introduced by a writer I admire, particularly for her willingness to be honest. I’m certainly proud to be her friend. What I wasn’t expecting, though, was this on-the-spot realization I’d opened myself up for personal questions. In writing the book, I’d had complete control over what I focused on and what I left out. Besides, a book becomes an organic boundary between writer and reader, a place to stow painful revelations that don’t have to be openly discussed.

As I scanned the familiar faces, the thought came to me that anything could come up during Q & A. While this may seem like a no-brainer, I hadn’t contemplated how it would feel to discuss the finer points of what medical personnel did to my left breast—this to a group of colleagues and friends. I made the decision then and there to lean toward openness. I did wonder if I’d regret it later, squelching the bout of awkwardness that flared as I rambled into my “time for questions” line. I found myself signaling a willingness to answer things about my medical situation in order to put people at ease. If a person needed clarification about some aspect of this painful disease, I was going to try and offer it. I was the one who’d opened the door to this possibility.

I was already finding the evening a bit of a balancing act—being sensitive to those I knew had gone through breast cancer (or were going through it) while also responding to those who’d never dealt with the disease. I’m well aware breast cancer victims have varying experiences with their treatment. I also know my situation isn’t the most painful case on record. I didn’t want to upset anyone whose condition was worse than mine.

People went easy on me. Maybe they felt awkward, too. Most questions were of a philosophical nature, “How have things changed about the way you view your life, now that you’ve gone through breast cancer?” Or something to that effect. I was happy to explore this territory instead of inquiries like, “Did chemo make you puke?” Still, I haven’t changed my mind about answering the puke question—or ones like it (though I’m sure I’ll discover where my line falls, should I continue to share this book in person). I don’t want to tuck this side of my life out of public view, because I’ve learned so much from the nitty gritty tales that unrolled before me as I began heading down this road. I’m still collecting anecdotes and probably always will. Some people’s stories allowed me to mentally prepare, some helped me work through specific aspects of treatment, and some diverged from what I actually experienced. All were worthy of contemplation, maybe a stick of incense. There is a certain density to this sort of storytelling that has the capacity to cushion cancer victims, not to mention those who love them.

Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts is in the World!

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Order now through Finishing Line Press! Also available through Amazon and Ingram.

 

 

And yet one more on… The Writing Life

I gave up a six-figure salary to live the writing life. Breast cancer made me do it. Now I have a chapbook coming out. But that’s not all. Since the first of the year, I’ve had a short story, an essay, and two poems accepted. I was also named a semifinalist in a fiction contest. Though the submission process has become a cattle call (I do envy writers from earlier eras), the writing life is working out for me in a modest way.

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My poetry chapbook is about an issue of the day—breast cancer. At the request of my publisher, I dutifully sent out PR to various media outlets, as well as libraries and cancer organizations. I’ve had moments of worry about what I’ve unleashed. I might be called to talk about my cancer story, and I must say I’m not that interested in the sort of fanfare some writers have come to cherish. I probably wouldn’t be a disaster, though. I’m willing to make a perky effort on account of my book—to accept the performance side of the writing life—because I worry even more about the whole thing falling flat, my PR, ignored.

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Last weekend, I marked up the first set of galleys for the chapbook. Now I’m waiting for final proofs. Copies of this little book will soon be in the mail to those who’ve preordered it. The book will also become available through Amazon and Ingram. And once I receive my own copies, I’ll begin entering it in a few contests. Meanwhile, I’ll probably be tweeting photos of the final product, continuing to bring attention to the darn thing. I avoided Twitter like the plague until a college professor told me how everyone is using it to prove they are publishing, not perishing. This chapbook is the reason I joined the tweet-o-sphere, though I suspect I’ll stay with Twitter as my writing life works on its tango with the 21stcentury.

These days have been moving at an otherworldly pace, along with the weather. Now that I can leave my windows open, the birds have become persistent and musical. Add waves to the mix, and it’s a whirl of sound, which is great because I work at home. As a sole proprietor, I structure my time with regular writing, submission, and PR sessions. And when I’m all finished focusing a beam of thoughts into my laptop, I take a long walk. Spring has been opening up in blossoms, wildflowers, and lush green foliage. As I move through the town or along one of the beaches, new lines run inside my head. If I don’t want to lose something, I stop to type it into my phone; but usually I wait until I’m home to scrawl ideas on the back of an envelope or a scrap of paper.

Writing is truly a raison d’être for me, just feeling my thoughts in my fingers as I shape paragraphs or verses. I’ve been finding the courage to go deeper. I often disappear when I write—streams of words just flow. I feel joy when this happens. Needless to say, I’m hardly concerned about not having enough to do as a retiree.

In the last nine months, I’ve somehow managed to knock out another book—a collection of short stories. I’ve been diving into this manuscript since August, and now it’s almost finished. I’m not sure how the manuscript materialized, because I wasn’t expecting to write it. I had a handful of stories—and then I wrote another handful. At some point, I organized them into a collection. After workshopping the manuscript with David Ulin, I decided to link my stories. One morphed into a novelette. I pulled another out, on account of the fact that it was speculative fiction and didn’t quite fit. That story was just accepted by Calliope. I think some of the others are better, so I’ll accept this as a good sign.

Special note: You can still preorder Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts through Finishing Line Press.

Being the Drama of Breast Cancer

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Last month I pointed out how the theme of renewal serves as turn in my forthcoming chapbook, Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts. Zen practice is another strand moving through this memoir-in-verse. I did not attempt to write a dharma book. In fact, I’d very much prefer the genre label of Breast Cancerto be poetry or memoir-in-verse, if there must be one at all. However, I do have a Zen practice, such that it is, and I can’t help it when Zen themes creep into my work.

During the course of breast cancer treatment, I held on to a number of lifebuoy rings: yoga, movies, friendship, short walks, gardening, and most of all, the couch. As I’ve studied Zen for the last twenty years—ten with the late Charlotte Joko Beck—I also continued to make an attempt to practice with what was happening to me. Life as it is.Joko encouraged a daily sitting practice for most of her students. She also urged them to learn from ordinary life—the worldly stuff they encountered as they went about their days. While she is not named in the book, her influence on the speaking agent is present. She wanted her students to be with their life as they were working or driving or spending time with loved ones. If she’d been alive in 2016, I’m guessing she would have coached me to be the drama of breast cancer.

During my time with Joko, I learned to how stay with difficult mind states, to turn into them, watch them move around, play out—hurt even. I learned how to rest in the middle of pain or anger or fear. In time, I found even the toughest emotions and sensations do not hold firm. I would ask questions like: What is pain (physical or emotional)? What is anger? What is fear? In watching what my own mind was doing, I started to see how nothing is fixed, including what I felt. I also began to notice how being attached to any particular sensation, emotion, or drama held me back, tying up my life. Of course, this all sounds well and good, but it is far from easy. I can become attached to little scenes or big ones (little hurts or big ones)—like everybody else.

I did not sit every day as I moved through eight months of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, though I did pull out my meditation bench on occasion. When I could muster the effort, I worked on being present with my daily life. This proved to be a lot more difficult within a cloud of “chemical hum.” Yet even during chemotherapy, there was a place for Zen practice. My nurse practitioner actually encouraged me to structure my days during this difficult time. The couch was allowed and expected, but she also wanted me walking and coming up with an abbreviated schedule. Anything that reduced stress was encouraged. My nurse practitioner liked the idea that I had a meditation practice. As for being with life as it is, I found I was better able to be present as I underwent radiation therapy.

Now, when I look back on those months, I can still enter the darker emotions I experienced—the crazy fear that came over me when I first learned I had a suspicious mass, the days that called for holding on. Yet I do not feel I lost my life during that year. In some ways I moved more deeply into it, and the simple pleasures came to mean more. I can recall the fullness of them—many of my cancer memories remain illuminated. Some of these moments in are depicted in this poem.