Remains of a wild hail storm that deposited drifts of icy marbles on our porch and took hours to melt.

hail storm

Last Friday, I felt strong enough to make a shrimp pasta and salad for dinner. Richard and I would eat it outside in a park while watching a new opera called “The Song Poet” by a local composer and Hmong immigrant librettist. As we prepared to go, the sky turned black – so dark, streetlights popped on.

First the wind shook the trees sideways. Then, sheets of rain came down, so heavy, our street flooded.

We started to watch on the porch but quickly needed to escape indoors to watch the show, all the while checking our phones to see if the opera was still on for after the storm passed.

At one point, I looked up right as a blinding flash lit up the sky. Just as my lips formed the “wh” for the word “whoaaaaa…” a clap of thunder boomed so loudly, it rattled the house and my nerves.

Maybe this concert isn’t happening after all?

A friend texted to tell me I was wrong, that it takes the whole day to set up and there was no way they’d cancel.

But as I read that message, the hail began, quietly at first, almost indistinguishable from the rain’s clatter, then in a sudden release.

That’s it for me, my friend texted back, I’m in for the night.

being present

Each day, I move closer to being restored. The clots are getting absorbed, the scars are less red and angry, my mobility is returning enough to swim the backstroke, and I have more energy and no longer need a daily nap.

My mind, though, has yet to catch up. It flips from disbelief at how fast and furious this life changing event came on and decisions about my future, like just how soon can I get back on trail.

That whir of emotions is exhausting, pulling me out of the present and into a speculative and analyzing space that runs the risk of paralyzing me.

As a thru-hiker, I avoid that paralyzing space because there’s a kind of single-minded focus. It’s actually difficult to plan, at least specifically, too many days in advance. And even if I could, circumstances change and plans invariably have to change too.

There’s a practical piece to that as well as a spiritual one. Part of walking a long distance thru-hike is staying present with all of yourself – the good, the bad and the ugly – and not looking away or trying to distract yourself.

That might be why I am so attracted to thru-hiking as opposed to shorter backpack trips, because the activity forces a release of control and replaces it with a feeling of letting of the day unfold and being in the moment.

Encouraging origami for cancer patients given out at the clinic. I chose this one to keep me present through the experience and curious rather than certain.

curious rather than certain

The cancer “thru-hike” is tough because our minds long to be elsewhere, to be past it and normal again, to be given a clean bill of health, to be told all will be ok.

At the Breast Center, there was a basket of small art objects for those of us diagnosed with cancer. Each contained an origami crane and short message. Called “Cranes of Hope,” these trading cards are said to be for peace, hope and healing and follow the Japanese tradition of folding a thousand cranes to make a wish come true.

As you can imagine, I was less struck by the messages of courageous battle than with the messages more intangible. The one that fell into my hand reads “Just Bee” with a few buzzers surrounding a bird in the life-giving colors of yellow and green.

A friend of mine named Dave sent me a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies.’ He answers ‘Why do we humans have to be in this world?’ like this:

Because life here compels us, and because everything here
Seems to need us, all this fleetingness
That strangely entreats us. Us, the most fleeting…
Once for each thing, only once. Once and no more. And we, too,
Only once. Never again. But to have been
Once, even though only once:
This having been earthly seems lasting, beyond repeal. 

Dave points out that our purpose in being alive is to fully experience and give expression to all the animate and inanimate things we encounter, that we bring them into being by how we experience them.  

It’s not easy to heal because I’m torn between the past and the future while still managing the demands of the here and now. Like Rilke and my chosen crane, I try to be curious rather than certain, to use the lesson of staying in the present to experience fully the tiny victories and surprises as my body heals itself.

That doesn’t mean I’m not a planner! I have plenty of carpe diem in my blood. In fact, I ask myself every day what can I do right now to get me to where I want to be (bee)?

The best advice I received from the surgeon was to be as physically fit as possible before embarking of this cancer thru-hike. That, more than positivity, has grounded and helped me because I’ve united the physical with the mental and am more able to withstand the shock.

a precious summer night

Once it hailed, the opera presentation was postponed for the following night. When we made our way downtown with camp chairs and a small table, cloth napkins and that gourmet picnic, it was in the midst of a stunningly beautiful summer night. It was cool enough for a light sweater over a sundress and with no bugs as around 200 of us were transfixed by a world class performance .

The story entailed the life of a man from Laos who escaped during the war with his young wife and children, lived in a refugee camp for eight years and sacrificed much so his daughters could have a better life in Saint Paul.

When one of those daughters, the celebrated author and librettist Kao Kalia Yang introduced the show, she reminded us of how precious this late summer night was. It wasn’t lost on us that it must have been even more precious to a Laotian family learning to accustom themselves to bitter Minnesota winters.

We never know what each day will bring. It could be a frightening and life changing diagnosis, or the drama of a hail storm, or a perfect summer’s evening.

Allowing ourselves to just be with whatever life brings, can open us to a mystery being revealed. As American historian Alice Morse Earle points out, Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.

A comic strip by my friend Andy Singer says it all.


  1. Barbara Gehlen

    This message really had an impact on me! I allow myself to be so caught up in the minutiae of my day to day life, I forget to LIVE!
    I love to end letters with Live life to the fullest and then realize I’m not doing myself. Thanks for cold water to the face my friend. Just what I needed.

    • ooo, I love that! “live life to the fullest” It’s funny how we wait for big experiences to fill up our lives and yet just a simple walk in the morning light saying hello to neighbors and feeling the strength of my body healing is big in its own way. All good cold water, friend!

  2. James Baker

    Alison, your biographical essays reach deep into our hearts. I’m sure others as I take these as lessons which we use now or put away for when we face our own highs or lows. As I earlier told you, I think you have prepared much of your life for facing the present. Thanks for giving us all the encouragements we need to face our own realities.

    • you are so welcome! I am deeply touched and have always felt that what is hard for me to learn is worth sharing, in that vulnerable, I’m-not-sure-I-know-what-I’m-doing kind of way. So much self-help self-care talk has just pissed me off and I like to explore why it does and how it can sometimes feel blaming, like if I’m not positive every second, I’m doing it wrong or brought this one myself. That might be why I love dark humor and a book another cancer thriver gave me called “Fuck Cancer!” It’s hard not to just laugh out loud being cussedy about things!

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