Editors Note: Gregory Seizan Clark was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2019. ZPI published Snow Falling on Cedar in early 2020. Included with this reprint is ‘til morning, an update from Seizan and a “most appropriate response.”
Thank you for sharing, Greg. Deep bows of gratitude.
Snow Falling on Cedar
Some of you may know that I was very recently diagnosed with an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. As I write this, I’m in the chemo chair for my second round of chemo which lasts a full workweek. I’ll have chemo today and take home a pump to infuse me 24 hours a day until Thursday. Then I’ll check in to a hospital Thursday (Thanksgiving) for treatment there Thursday and Friday.
I have been thinking a lot lately about the sound that snow makes when it falls on cedar trees. Nature has always provided comfort to me. This is particularly true now that I have cancer which carries an uncertain prognosis. My Zen name is Seizan which means ‘Blue Mountain’. Karin Roshi gave it to me because she is aware of my fondness for nature and the mountains. I get outside whenever I can – taking long walks, skiing and other activities in which I can connect with our glorious planet. My favorite places are high mountain lakes and creeks, surrounded by dense deciduous and evergreen forests. I’ve read that trees are never lost. They know right where they are.
I also take my Zen name’s meaning to remind me to sit like a mountain; to be aware of this very moment. When I have the opportunity to be out in nature during a snow fall, I enjoy listening to the sound of snow falling gently on cedar and other trees. For me it is very calming and spiritual. Similar to the Japanese celebration of the ephemeral nature of our world as represented by cherry blossoms, the ephemeral nature of snow and the quiet and solitude that it brings helps ground me to that place and to myself. I feel less lost that way.
Life has taken on a certain quality of sweetness since my diagnosis. One reason for this might be the wonderful and amazing support that I’ve received from my friends, family, work colleagues and this Sangha. Another reason for this attitude is that I know this is possibly a fatal disease (though the doctors are cautiously optimistic for a cure). Every moment of every day is a gift which I shall not overlook. Before my cancer, I was always pushing hard for results at work, in sports, and for improvement in my cello playing. While I remain motivated to do well at work, to stay in shape and become a better musician, I am definitely slowing down to take time to be more observant of this very moment, not focused on some future goal. I have been spending quality time with my family, with my Zen practice and koan. My time with my family feels sweeter today than a couple months ago. I know, intellectually, that it was just as sweet then, but I was less observant of it then than today.
I truly hope to have a successful outcome to my treatment, one which includes retaining this new insight of mine about the present moment, how sweet it is and how important deep connections with friends and family are.
Cancer, One year on
Peter Pan told Wendy that to get to Neverland, pointed and said ‘There it is, Wendy. Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.’
I completed most of the treatment for lymphoma about this time last year and on discharge, it seemed like my physicians, nurses and psychologist told me ‘straight on ‘til morning’. Having faced a potentially fatal disease, going through treatment and keeping my head on straight was very challenging and I’ve written to you about it before. But, even more than I suspected, this experience proved to have more religious and spiritual meaning than I expected it to have.
I have stayed engaged in several cancer support groups, trying to provide comfort to other people going through similar treatments. I have been so heartened by some of the stories I’ve read and truly saddened by others. I feel so fortunate that I survived this when many people with whom I was acquainted in the support group were not nearly so lucky as me.
Straight on ‘til morning. Life goes on – My youngest child graduated, now in her first year of college. My son started his first post-college job and is in his first year of grad school. My family has been blessed with two new grandbabies. My family has also been hit with two divorces and severe illnesses of three family members.
One of the issues I struggled with during my illness and now that I’ve been given another chance of continuing on is similar, in my opinion to the question that a monk asked Yun Men, “What are the teachings of a whole lifetime?” Yun Men said, “An appropriate response.”
What is it for me that would constitute an appropriate response?
This year we have witnessed a terrible global pandemic, overt racism, a near melt-down of our government. My own personal suffering has granted me a rare glimpse into the suffering that I can only imagine others have experienced and has strengthened my resolve to bear witness and take action where I can. We’ve had aforementioned family crises and community issues that I’ve been involved in. My zen practice and experience with cancer directly informed my response to these situations, and I can only hope that my response has been appropriate.
As far as my personal practice goes, I continue to sit Zazen each morning and participate in weekly dokusan. In addition to my koan that I’m working on with Karin-Roshi, it seems like this appropriate response question continues to be my life koan. I’ve had two PET scans to ascertain if I remain in remission. Both scans have been negative and clinical lab tests suggest that I remain in remission. But this speaks to my third point about appropriate response – not knowing. I can’t possibly know whether I will remain in remission as much as I hope to do so. I have made a point of ensuring that people around me know my love for them as suggested by Steven Levine in ‘One Year to Live’. I don’t know what is coming, but living right now seems to me to be the best way to attend to an appropriate response to my new life koan.
Photo by Ilyas Aliev