Quest Cycles Applying the Hero Quest to the crises in our lives Linda S. Griggs

Scenes from a Hero Quest - Part 4 - Wheel of Fortune Phase

Details another year and a half full of ups and downs and lots of travel/learning,
with a focus on starting my own writing


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Wheel of Fortune Phase:
(March 1996 -- Oct. 1997)

Excerpt from Part 4

Wheel of Fortune -- by Mary Ellen McNaughton

Jupiter, new beginning, expansion, creativity, big breakthrough, self-realization, unexpected fortune.

In the midst of energy whirlwinds and lightning bolts turns the ten-spoked Wheel of Fortune. It is a symbol of wholeness, in constant motion yet unchanging in its completeness.

Gerd Ziegler, Tarot: Mirror of the Soul

Your fate is changing, rising and falling. Stay balanced through these changes. . . . Whatever you are seeking without is a manifestation of your desire to understand your own inner spirit.

Pamela Eakins, Tarot of the Spirit

 Holy Grail

The Grail is a mysterious and profound object -- . . . a vessel, a shallow dish, a stone, or a jewel -- that is worth giving up the whole of one's life to find. . . . The image of a sacred vessel existed in pre-Christian Celtic and Druidic myths as the Cauldron of the Goddess, through which rebirth, inspiration, and plenty would come. . . . If [the knight] finds the castle and asks the proper question, the [wounded fisher] king will be restored to health and the wasteland will turn green.

Jean Shinoda Bolen, Crossing to Avalon

New Mexico -- July 1 - 4, 1996

We drive to the retreat -- rimmed with Georgia's red, red cliffs; Maria's fine, gray clay. I stand on the bluff by our primitive cabana, breathing in the colors: Red! Purple! Blue! Yellow! Green! There's a storm brewing in the distance. Fifteen minutes later the sky is purple around me. Lightning! Thunder! Dirt and finally rain blown sideways by the wind. Downpour. Fifteen minutes later the hills are glowing golden in the sunlight, a double rainbow arching its way across the sky.

"How can I go inside with all this going on?"

My seminar group meets after dinner. It is large. Probably 25 or more people. We go around the room introducing ourselves. Everyone introduces themselves by where they're from, what they do for a living. Most of them are doctors or nurses or some other kind of health care professional. I cannot keep the names and specific professions straight. Most of them have been here before. Many times before. I am getting sweaty and cold as my turn gets closer and closer. I cannot breathe, my heart is bouncing around so hard and fast against my rib cage.

I tell them I was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly three years ago, and that I'm learning what that means and how to live with it, and that I think this seminar might be helpful. A young man across the room seems very interested in that. When it's his turn to speak, he introduces himself as the husband of a 27-year-old woman who died of breast cancer a year ago, right as he was taking final exams at med school. "We came here while she was doing chemo and then during her bone marrow transplant. This is my first year back without her." I swear he's looking straight at me the whole time he's speaking.

The next day, we go around and introduce ourselves again. "Listen to how the stories change," the leader says. People tell more about their hobbies and past times and families.

I remember to add where I'm from and that I write marketing stuff for a living. "And since my diagnosis I've read a lot and thought a lot about cancer and have come to believe there is a psychological component to it, even though none of my doctors buy it." I tell them I am fascinated by that possibility and am here to learn more about it. The moderator tells me the young med student across the room has something to show me. We smile at each other.

At the break, I ask him what he has to show me. He rolls up his t-shirt sleeve to reveal a tiny pink tattoo: the breast cancer ribbon. "It was adolescent. It really hurt. But it was my private reminder, my own private celebration." I think at first he's talking about the pain of losing his wife, about the power of being able to celebrate her life anyway, and I smile and say, "Yes! Yes!" Then I wonder if he's talking about having passed his medical boards. Or perhaps he means both.

One of the doctors comes over to me and asks me how I'm doing now, then proceeds to tell me that a lot of his patients believe as I do, "and I tell them that if they want to pursue that, fine, but I can't support it or be a cheerleader for it."

I can't believe I'm standing there smiling at him, letting him get away with that.

Back at my seat, an elderly minister reveals that his wife had a mastectomy 20 years ago, and a precancerous lump removed lately. He confides that the first lump appeared 4 months after they'd moved. "They say it's related to stress," he leans in to tell me.

"Yes, was there a lot of stress for her with that move?"

"Yes, lots of good friends missed."

I ask him if it has changed her. Yes, she's much more easy going now. And has it changed or affected him? He looks at me dumbfounded.

During the rest of the session, I don't say anything, just do my usual Virgo note-taking thing. A woman across the way is weaving a basket. Winding and wrapping and shaping and forming. It grows taller and wider and deeper and fuller by the hour.

The young med student talks about his wife and her treatments and her "beautiful, beautiful head." He passes around pictures of her: her arms thrown around her father's neck -- matching smiles, matching eyes, under matching bald, bald heads; lying in bed with her cats -- her IV pole and other paraphernalia crowding the sides of the photo; her skeleton face the day she died.

At the end of the session, a woman comes over to me and says that she lost a breast to cancer 8 years ago. I ask her if she thinks it had anything to do with stress or a conflicted body image. "Yes!" she exclaims. "I always thought my breasts were too small. I hated them." She confides that she has not had her breast reconstructed. I ask her if she's read Silent Wound. "I couldn't get into it."

An older man approaches me and my husband at dinner to tell me about his sister who had breast cancer ten years ago and is doing fine. "How old was she?" I ask.

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe in her 60s. But she's healthy as an ox now."

"That's good. But you know, it's a different disease among younger women."

"You mean because of the cosmetic thing."

"No, because of the hormones."

"You mean because younger women think that losing a breast is more serious than older women do."

"No, because their hormones are still flowing, feeding it."

I can see he has no idea what I'm talking about. My husband motions me away.

At the night session, we introduce ourselves again. By now the stories have gotten very long and involved, and I'm struggling to think what else I can possibly say to match this group's dynamic. Something finally comes to me in time to speak: "I make my living writing marketing stuff, but I've recently come to realize that my life's work is to write fiction. Since my diagnosis, I've had more peak experiences, more moments of pure pleasure, than I ever had before, because I'm trying to live with the metaphor of cancer as a gift."

Big smiles all around, but I sense that they are smiles of condescension, smiles of people who feel so sorry for someone my age who is trying to be so brave in the shadow of the inevitable.

The group spends the session floundering around discussing their particular bugaboos about the healthcare industry: overworked doctors, underpaid staff, patients not getting enough attention.

I'm fidgeting. Can hardly wait until it's over. I hurry out at the end.

An older woman hurries out after me, taking my arm and pulling be off to the side. "I feel so close to you," she says. "My grandson has a big scar down his throat and chest where they removed his clavicle and half his rib cage for cancer. I'm going to tell him about you."

I cannot understand what she thinks she could possibly know about me. I have not spoken 50 words.

Back at our cabana, my husband asks me if I'm getting what I came for out of the seminar.
"Not really. They all seem to be on a different wavelength. I'd really like to change the direction of the group somehow."

"Be careful. These people have been meeting together for years. You're the odd man out. Why set yourself up to their ridicule? They won't get it. They don't want to get it."

"But what about all these people sidling up to tell me about their personal illnesses? What's that about?"

The next morning, an older couple from the group walks me into the session. "Are you getting what you want out of the sessions?" they ask me.

"Not really."

"Why don't you speak up?"

"The group is sort of intimidating."

"Look to me for support," the woman says. "In fact, I'll sit right beside you and push you into it."

So when the leader opens with, "I've heard some rumblings that the group is rather large and intimidating and some people who haven't spoken up much would like a chance to talk," I assume someone has leaked my complaints to her, figure she is waiting for me to jump in, so I do.

"I'm a writer, so it's not usually my way to speak up in front of large groups," I say, clearing my proverbial throat. "I prefer to sit and observe and then go away and write about it. And what I've observed is that I keep introducing myself by my disease -- perhaps just because it's so new to me and I've been consumed with understanding what it means -- but I wonder why no one else has picked up that ball and run with it in their introduction.

"And yet, several people have come up to me between sessions to discuss their particular illnesses, so I think there must be some interest in what I'd like to discuss: the metaphorical meaning of illness."

The words are tumbling out of my mouth. I'm just running with this.

I tell them about Ethel's and her husband's cancers -- how he hid his for years, forbidding anyone to mention, let alone discuss it; how Ethel blossomed with hers, even as it was swelling her throat shut, and how I thought that was the perfect manifestation of the constriction her husband's cancer had been to her all those years.

"This woman who had been such a mouse for 60, 70 years," I say, "suddenly came alive! Of course, her cancer had already spread to her vital organs by the time she was diagnosed, so she only lived another year or so. But man, did she live!"

The group is absolutely silent, leaning in listening, the way my students used to do when I'd get wrapped up discussing a story or poem.

"As for my friend's father," I continue, talking faster and faster, unable to get the words out fast enough to catch my speeding brain, "he continued to deteriorate, getting weaker and weaker, more and more dried up and tight -- just like his bladder that kept holding in, holding in, holding in. He lived another year beyond his wife, never admitting he was sick, let alone dying."

I'm debating how much I should reveal about myself. Decide that for this to work, I have to answer the question that I know is on every one of their minds: what ails you?

I take a deep breath, letting the words come as I'm breathing out. "I've always had difficulty nurturing myself, or nurturing others. I have a hard time giving or receiving love. I think my cancer -- striking me as it has, in my breast, at this most basic site of nurturance -- is the perfect metaphor for that." I tell them how, when I used to want to disagree with someone, I'd put my hand to my breast and say, "I don't know as much as you do about this, but. . . ." I tell them I think my cancer was my body's way of saying, "Stop that self-deprecation!"

I'm looking around the room, at those who've spoken to me about their illnesses, but not been able to share them with the group.

"I think it would be very interesting for us to introduce ourselves again, this time by our illnesses -- arthritis, migraines, heart trouble, kidney problems, bad back, whatever. And to think about the one thing you don't want anyone in this room to know about you. And what the connection between those two things might be. Because I think your secrets are what will make you sick. That's the thing your body will come up with a metaphor for -- just like dreams -- your subconscious is looking very hard to find a way to manifest that secret so you'll do something about it."

Their eyes are wide, intrigued, frightened.

"If you can name the problem, you can do something about it. If you don't name it, you'll just keep suffering with it. When I say my cancer is a gift, what I mean is how it woke me up to what I needed to love in myself, what I needed to let out for the rest of the world to love. While I was doing chemo, I'd wear these scarves with all these colors and it was like the colors were coming out of me -- somewhere deep inside was this beautiful person that wanted to get out. And that person is a writer. My outer shell has been so worried about 'making a living' all these years, it's finally dawned on me to just let myself be the writer I am. And just be alive. Stay in the moment and live every single moment. I may not live forever -- nobody can -- but I can be alive in the time I do have. Life is chronic. You've got to be vigilant. You've got to find your life and live it. Exactly the way you want. Every, every moment. That's a heavy, heavy responsibility."

I've finally run out of breath, adrenaline, power. I sink back in my seat. "That's all I have to say."

Silence. Absolute silence.

Then: "I have lock jaw and stomach ulcers -- the perfect metaphor for what I don't want to be, but that I am afraid I am: tight and nonexpansive."

"I have spastic colitis -- whenever I get angry."

"I get migraines -- whenever I worry too much about work."

"I have chronic fatigue syndrome, and I think my body is telling me to slow down, to do something else."

"I have a problem with authority. I can feel it all over my body."

"Our friend has multiple sclerosis. She has multiple personal problems."

"I'm a recovering alcoholic. The healing starts when you name it."

And so it goes around the room. They want to know what they can read about all this. I tell them I'll add a reference list to what I'm writing about my experience. They want to know when it will be finished, where it'll be published, how they can be sure to read it.

I feel myself being petted and preened and loved and welcomed into the flock.

The leader starts clapping. The others join in. "Every year the group gets a gift," she says. "You are this year's gift. Thank you. That was exquisite."

The woman who has been weaving the basket finishes and ties up her last stitch.

Then she walks over and hands it to me.

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