Katy was not my only companion on this retreat. Toward the end of the week Judi arrived with fresh fruit and veggies, followed the next day by John. Both went home after a couple of days so I could finish up the week in solitude.
In reality, I was never alone. I brought gifts to place on my altar:
- a teddy bear from Linda (her own breast cancer talisman, never far from her side for the past 16+ years)
- a dragonfly ornament from Judi
- a stained glass panel from Karen, made in her California studio as soon as she got the news and found out what colors I like best
- Nan Lu’s DVD on qigong for breast cancer, sent to me from a total stranger–a breast cancer survivor and acupuncture teacher/mentor of my friend and colleague Pat,
- who gave me a medallion quoting Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well”
- inspiration cards from Ginny, John’s sister
- a favorite piece of early art from each of my now-grown children
- photos of my husband, children, and grandson
- cards and letters from friends expressing their concern and support
- a shawl given to me years ago by Gardner, who died of AIDS a few days after we had one of the most moving conversations in my life, in which he convinced me that love really is all there is
My hill top house at WCT had a large window looking out to a small mountain through an open field–a peaceful, soothing view. I hung Karen’s stained glass panel in the window, along with Judi’s dragonfly. The coffee table in front of the window became the altar, upon which I placed the gifts, along with my special “breast rattle”, incense, some crystals, my wand, a candle, and a goblet of water over the shawl/altar cloth. I set a couple of drums next to the table.
(Maybe now’s the time to mention that I was heavy into “women’s spirituality” in my 30’s and 40’s, so I like to set up altars and know how to cast circles. I could write a whole blog about Isis.)
Ah, the breast rattle. I bought it in Taos almost 30 years ago, drawn to its unusual shape. It’s a large rattle made from a gourd that resembles the semi-flattened breast of a reclining woman. The stem forms a nipple. I liked the shape; I loved the sound. I used this rattle when I worked with the fire element. (Since you’re no doubt asking yourself: on the altar in my study back then I had an ocarina for “air,” a drum for “earth”, and a small rain stick for, yup, “water”. But I digress.) On a windy summer’s day about 25 years ago, the window next to this altar blew out (old house, strange windows, you’d have to have been there). The wood frame landed on the rattle, breaking it into about two dozen pieces. I grieved. Because it was a fire rattle, I decided to burn it in our fireplace as soon as the weather cooled. In the meantime, all the pieces and the stones that were inside remained on the altar.
It happens rarely–but often enough, alas, to reinforce my natural inclination–that procrastination pays off. Before I could return the rattle to its spiritual home (I do realize how silly that sounds), I met a man who makes drums and gourd rattles. When I described my rattle’s accident, he told me if I glued it back together with wood glue, it would be as strong as ever. So I did, and I took the opportunity to add some small quartz and celestite crystals to the stones within. The rattle now looks like a breast with scars all over it, but it’s whole, and it sounds amazing.
I grabbed the rattle automatically when gathering altar pieces for the retreat, not realizing until actually setting up the altar how perfect a choice it was. In Five Phase/Five Element theory of Chinese medicine, the Heart belongs to the Fire Phase. I needed to rid my body of Fire Toxins while strengthening my Heart Fire. Something else to ponder: Heart’s season is Summer. Who knows how long these tumors have been gathering mass in my breast. I wonder if they began the same summer when the rattle sustained a hit. What better instrument to use for my healing than a breast-shaped fire rattle that was once shattered by Wind (considered a major source of disease in Chinese medicine) and then made whole by my own hands?
What does an altar have to do with Chinese medicine, really?
Chinese medicine describes “spontaneous remission” as “the Heart Vaporizes Phlegm.” In a nutshell, when you open up to your Heart energy and focus it, nothing unwholesome can withstand its radiance. Most of us have heard tales of people coming out of prayer, meditation, retreat, or just a peaceful walk on a beautiful day in a garden, fully healed. You can label this phenomenon amazing Grace, the power of prayer, divine intervention, or whatever you wish. I prefer the Chinese metaphor. According to Chinese medical physiology, the Heart houses the Spirit. It’s all and always about Spirit. (Much much more about this later.)
I placed my altar in the center of the house to remind me that I love and am loved. There’s no better cure for the blues, and I believe there’s no cure for cancer that works without first engaging the Heart/Spirit.
In reality, we’re never alone.