The bridge across the creek isn’t picturesque. It’s built from chalk-grey metal, with traffic barriers for handrails and fencing angling down to the bank on each side. Water rushes under industrial grating. Downstream to the north, the flow widens slightly between the bottleneck of the bridge and a natural dam of fallen trees.

It’s a bright day and I’m leaning against the hot metal. Once, two or three years ago, I came here and saw a blue heron hunting in the pool. Today the place feels abandoned except for flies. The wetland has flooded recently, and tire marks rut the trail where debris has been shoveled and compacted by maintenance trucks. It’s all baked to beige now in the heat, but the smell lingers, saturation edging toward rot.

I’ve come to this wildlife refuge hoping to feel moved, or enchanted, or revitalized. All summer I’ve been dogged by a sense of numbness, jangling but dead like a sleeping limb. Now that I’m out here, I’m disillusioned by the emptiness and by the closeness of the city, airbrushed out in my memory. A high-rise condo peers over the western tree line. But the swollen creek is louder than the occasional roar of planes descending toward the airport two miles away, so I stand on the bridge, staring down at blankly dark ripples of water.

The first fish appears like the key to a code. I catch a glimpse of movement, something large holding position against the current. Nearby, I see the flash of a belly – and then, suddenly, dozens and hundreds of fish, their mud-brown silhouettes revealed between one breath and the next with the snap of a magic trick.

Some are small and narrow as my hand, darting in the rolling, glossy camouflage of refracted sunlight. Others are long as my forearm, slipping slow and heavy through deeper water. Below my feet is a full array of life and presence, where for long minutes I could only see murk. If I hadn’t stayed still long enough to break the concealing glamour of my expectations, I wouldn’t have noticed anything at all.

After a while, I move to the edge of the trail and crouch on a swath of dried muck. Flies feather across my legs and crawl over the flaking tire tracks. An airplane passes overhead, followed by the shadow of a vulture. I sit in the emptiness, counting fish, and practice seeing what’s beneath the surface.


Serpent dreams

I have an essay up this week on the Humanistic Paganism blog; it’s about myth, deity, naturalism, and snakes (sort of).

I never thought much about snakes, symbolically or literally, until I started reading about Brigid. Three years ago I came back to mythology and religion after nearly a decade of default atheism. I’d been reading some ancient philosophy, which bled into ancient religious culture, which brought up old interests in the occult and Paganism. My studies weren’t initially driven by a desire to reject atheism. The fascination was emerging from a part of me where atheism—or more specifically, materialism—was just beside the point.

This is the part of me responsible for weird dreams that feel true, for thoughts more accurately captured by symbols than by sentences. It’s the part of me that thrives on the fertile tension between what can be experienced and what can be proven.

The full essay is here.

14 chemo doses to a better you

Last week, I had another cancer scare.

I’ve been in remission from breast cancer for about two years now. Every six months, I get a scan to make sure there aren’t any new shenanigans going on at my cellular level. Of course, “sure” is a relative term; I have what’s medically referred to as dense breast tissue, which is a technical way of saying my boobs are fibrous as fuck.

After this most recent scan, my oncologist called. The images showed a suspicious area the size of a grain of rice. I needed to go back in for an MRI-guided biopsy. She reassured me that sometimes these tiny spots don’t even appear on the follow-up scan – they can be just imaging blips, or regular hormonal changes.

This is the general reality of being a cancer survivor: everything could be fine, or some minute part of you could be decidedly not fine, and you just won’t know until you know.

For two days, I practiced the art of acknowledging fear without actually freaking out. Chances were decent it was all nothing, but I was also looking ahead to how another round of cancer might feel. What would be the same, and what would be new? What decisions would I have to make? What would it be like to exist in the liminal space of illness for a second time?

When you get diagnosed with cancer, you find yourself the potential protagonist of a whole slew of pop culture narratives, from Livestrong hashtags to Christian religious awakenings. Most of these stories have been easy for me to shrug off; I don’t own any rubber bracelets, and I haven’t been to church in years.

There’s one story, though, that did worm its way firmly into my brain, so seamlessly I didn’t realize it was just as artificial as all the others.

That first night after I got the news, I lay in bed looking at the ceiling, as one does when one’s hypothetical mortality suddenly becomes a calendar full of real chemotherapy appointments. Most of my thoughts were cloudy and distant, but one was completely clear. Whatever happened next, I was going to become a different person than I’d been before.

Continue reading “14 chemo doses to a better you”