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Northern Exposure

Hello My Friends,

Last September Glenn and I went on an epic adventure to the great white north, returning "home" a month or so later in mid-October. I put home in quotation marks because we’ve been living in our RV since last April, so ‘home’ is wherever we’re parked. I’m not sure if I’ve written about this in a previous blog, and I’m too lazy to go back and look, but we made the decision last year to sell our condo and take a year out to reacquaint ourselves with life. It hasn’t turned out as we planned, but somehow it’s been even better than either of us expected.

Glenn has been wanting to do this for a few years now but it scared me, to be perfectly honest. Sell everything at our age and after a five-year battle with cancer that has left us in a tough spot financially? Retirement has already moved farther into the future, shouldn’t we be buckling down, working hard and saving money?

Whenever Glenn brought up the idea I’d protest, saying “I DON'T WANT TO DIE IN A HOUSE ON WHEELS!” But then something started to change in me and the thought of passing into the next life while sitting outside taking in the view, looking at a beautiful lake or a mountain seemed like the ideal way to go. Much better than being in a hospital bed listening to machines beeping and whirring all around me and people hovering over me crying. I imagine that I’d get tired of that scene pretty quickly and say something inappropriate like “I’m the one dying here, can you all just back up and give me room to do it?” or “Does anyone have a good joke they’d like to tell?”

We’ve never really been by-the-book kind of people though, so I finally came around, and it’s been the best decision we could have made. I was kind of laughing to myself the other day thinking “I have cancer, we’re living in our trailer and money is a little tight, but I can’t think of a darn thing wrong with my life.”

I laid low after returning home because I just wanted to let the experience of our trip sink in. We left Abbotsford on September 10th and travelled north, as far as Whitehorse in the Yukon. I’ve felt the pull to go north for a few years now but always allowed myself to be talked out of it because going south includes warmth and Disneyland, two things I enjoy very much. We finally did it though, and it did not disappoint. Every turn on the highway was a new treat for the eyes, as you can see from the pictures I’ve included.


What I thought of as an adventure became a much deeper experience for me though, and I understand now why I've been pulled in that direction. Something happened in me on that trip that I struggled to put into words, and wasn't ready to share until now, because I just wanted to hang onto it and let it just be mine for a little longer.

Anyway, we were a few hours north of Prince George and driving to Fort St. John to Glenn's brother's place. I was kind of bored so started looking at my phone and came across a poem by one of my favourite poets, Andrea Gibson. (By the way, I think someone should conduct a survey to see how many people with a terminal diagnosis suddenly get really into poetry, 'cause I know for a fact that I'm not the only one.) Even Andrea is someone who's living with cancer.

I'm not queer, but I relate to what she writes because I feel like I've had my own coming out of sorts over the last year or so.


Here it is:

When I first realized I was queer,

I thought I had to leave god,

And I had a permeating sense

Of loneliness for a long time

Wishing I was connected

To something greater.


Now I understand god differently.

It’s no longer a belief for me. It’s

An experience. I look at a tree and

It overtakes my being. And I can

Feel that the tree had to have been

Loved to have been made.


My trust in life comes from looking

At beauty of our world and feeling

A part of it. Feeling my heart

Pumping. Feeling my feet take steps.

And when I speak of god

I’m not speaking of something

Outside of us.

I mean the divine within us all.

I could replace the word god

With any of my friends’ names.

I looked up from reading that just as we crested a hill, and suddenly the view in front of us was wide open, vast, empty of cars and people, and absolutely beautiful. It took my breath away and the tears started to flow.

Saying that the last six years have been a journey just doesn't cut it, to be honest. Calling it a journey makes it sound easy and pleasant like I’ve been on vacation somewhere, but let me tell you, it has most definitely NOT been any of those things. It’s been a journey alright, one that I’ve made scrabbling and scraping, crawling along in the mud and dirt, desperately looking for an off-ramp. I’ve gotten rid of a lot of baggage and made peace with a lot of things though, and I feel much lighter and a whole lot more grateful just to have the gift of being alive.

Everything about me has changed, and yet somehow I've become the person I've always been. It's just that who I was deep down was not who I allowed the world to see. I had been living in protection mode for a very long time.


The one issue that’s been weighing on me lately is what I believe about God, or if I believe in God at all. I needed my faith to be my own and not just an inherited set of beliefs, handed down through the generations of my family. I feel like the circle is starting to close on that, and it's a huge relief, to be honest.


I grew up going to church but like a lot of other people, I've been hurt by religion and needed to remove myself from that world in order to heal and find myself again. I'm not the 'ideal' of what a Christian woman is supposed to be, according to the experts who run the show, and honestly have no desire to be that. According to them I should sit down, shut up, and let the men handle the big decisions. Thankfully Glenn doesn't think that way at all, but I learned as a pastor's wife that who I was just wasn't acceptable to a lot of people. For one, I actually have thoughts and opinions of my own that are separate from Glenn’s (Yikes! Is that allowed?) and like to share them from time to time, out loud. I'm a little irreverent as well, so you can imagine what that was like for me. I did not go over well, so I rolled myself up into a more acceptable package, one that was sweet and nice, always smiling even when I was dying inside. I am sweet and nice, it’s a part of who I am, but not the whole. I love this quote from the book Women Who Run With the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes:


Like my kith and kin before me, I swagger-staggered in high heels, and I wore a dress and hat to church. But my fabulous tail often fell below my hemline, and my ears twitched until my hat pitched, at the very least, down over both my eyes, and sometimes clear across the room.”


That was me, trying and failing to be someone I wasn’t, denying the ‘bad’ parts of myself until I couldn’t any longer. Cancer came calling and I am not willing to die so that other people can be comfortable with the version of me that I've let them see, so I started to change.


Just because I no longer go to church on Sunday morning though doesn’t mean I’ve turned my back on God, or that I don’t have a deeply spiritual life. I needed to step away and get my bearings again, and it took 20+ years and a few experiences with magic mushrooms to get there. I believe in God about 75 - 80% of the time, the other 20-25% of the time I really struggle with all of it, wondering if God is just a construct that we humans have erected to give us a reason to be here in the first place, and then wondering "Does it really matter?" But isn't that what faith is supposed to be, rather than just following blindly?


There’s a story in the Bible called ‘The Prodigal Son’. I’d always understood it as a cautionary tale of what happens when you disobey and go your own way, but I understand it differently now. He left his father’s house to go and experience life, but it didn’t turn out well for him and he returned home broken and destitute, only to have his father run to greet him and welcome him home. Instead of making his son bow and scrape and beg for mercy the father put a ring on his finger and threw a big party. What no one ever talks about is the brother who stayed and played by the rules. It didn’t end well for him because he had always done the right thing, but now his father welcomed his brother back with open arms, throwing a party for all the neighbours and wanting to hear about his son’s experiences while he was away. The brother was angry about that so he left, and that’s all we ever hear of him. I think that what the story, told by Jesus by the way, is saying is that we need to wander in the desert for a while and experience life's ups and downs in order to appreciate what we have, which is a God that loves us no matter what. and is looking forward to hearing about what we’ve done with the life we’ve been given.

I've never been able to connect to God as a man who lives in the sky and grants all of our wishes. Isn’t that the Wizard of Oz? He turned out to be a sham in the end, so I don’t want to follow a God like that. Male pronouns feel a little problematic, given the damage that the patriarchy has done but I’ve also had a hard time connecting to the idea of “Mother God”. It didn’t resonate with me either, so the idea of God as an experience hit me between the eyes. YES! It just felt right to me, and I felt a feeling of warmth growing in my chest. I also like the idea of replacing the word God with a friend's name, because it's a reminder that the Divine is in all of us and not one of us is better than the other. It keeps our egos in check and doesn’t allow us to look down on someone else or see them as ‘other’.


I experienced a sense of God that day as I was struck by the beauty and scale of creation and that it was created with love and intention, just like Andrea writes about in the poem: "I look at a tree and it overtakes my being. And I can feel that the tree had to have been loved to have been made." The forest up north is dense and lines both sides of the highway. You could walk six feet into it and never be seen again, which frankly caused a little anxiety inside me for the first few days, but think how much love went into creating that. It struck me just now that love came first - the tree didn't have to earn it by behaving in any certain way.


I've become a tree hugger in the last year or so. Whenever I'm out for a walk I make a point of touching a tree and saying thank you, and if no one's around to see how crazy I've become I give it a big hug and take a few deep breaths. Maybe what I've been doing is connecting with God and saying thanks. I understand now that the need to go north was my search to reconnect with God. I wanted to see the northern lights because to me that was evidence of God at work, but I got something so much better.


That's how I connect to God. It's through nature, it always has been, and not from sitting in a church pew. It's in the quiet solitude of a walk in the forest or feeling the sun on my face. It’s also in simple things like hearing my granddaughter giggle or the goofy smile on a dog’s face. All of those things give me so much joy and a feeling of utter contentment. That’s when I know that I must have been loved to be made too.


Now I think that doubt and having questions is a good thing. It's healthy. I don't think I would have had that experience if I thought I already had it all figured out. I simply wouldn't have been open to it. And maybe that's what faith is, being open to the possibilities of God in spite of our doubts. I feel a growing sense of peace and belonging, and I have a sense of God's love in a way that I didn't before, one that is completely separate from the faith tradition that I grew up in and left me with all of these questions in the first place.

Also, and this is somewhat unrelated to what I just wrote, but it's been slowly dawning on me that I'm not dying yet and it doesn't appear to be happening anytime soon (although I am currently waiting for the results of my latest PET scan, so who knows?). It feels good, like another weight's been lifted off of my shoulders and I can breathe a bit more deeply. We never did see the Northern Lights, but in the end, it just doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s the universe’s way of telling me that I’ve still got time.












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