Saturday, June 14th
In just a few days, I am going to the Commonweal Cancer Program, an intensive 7-day program for people with cancer. The Commonweal Program is the premier program of its kind. It includes group therapy, bodywork, massage, yoga, sand tray work, art, writing, discussion of topics like death and dying, complementary therapies and the meaning of cancer in our lives. Claire, who has cooked for my retreats when I’ve taught writing at Commonweal, is the chef, which means we will be feasting on incredibly healthy and delicious, beautiful organic meals all week. I’m a little nervous about going, but glad for the opportunity to really focus on what this year has meant to me, and how I want to live now.
Monday, June 16, 2008, 4 PM
I’ve arrived at the Commonweal Retreat Center on the cliffs of Bolinas in Marin County for a weeklong retreat for people with cancer and their caregivers. I’ve taught writing retreats at Commonweal so I knew about the healing magic of the place, the incredible food, and their state-of-the-art cancer program. In fact, calling to reserve a place was one of the first things I did after my diagnosis. There is always a long waiting list for this program. And now, a year after cancer entered my life, I am here.
Nature is wild and beautiful all around us and the house we are staying in, Pacific House, is roomy and comfortable. The front door opens into a big living room full of comfortable furniture, a dining room always stocked with teas, chai, plums, cherries, apricots and other fresh fruits, and a tray of dates, dried pineapples, ginger squares, and tamari almonds. Upstairs, we each have a private room with a bed, a view, a dresser and in my case, a desk. Bathrooms are shared. On the property there are two others houses to meet in, a sauna, an outdoor shower, and a meditation hut. Access to the cliffs and the beach is just a few minutes away.
We had individual orientation sessions this morning as we arrived, then savored lunch—the first of many magnificent meals cooked by Claire Hart. Claire goes to the market everyday and plans her meals based on whatever organic produce is freshest that day. Today for lunch, we had the creamiest, sweetest yellow lentil soup I have ever eaten, fresh greens cooked with fava beans, and a bountiful green salad full of shredded yellow beets and nasturtium flowers. Two choices of magnificent bread. Simple, clean, beautiful, healthy food.
As someone who rarely feels hungry anymore, delicious tastes are a great way to get me to eat. At home I often eat only one meal or two. It’s easy to forget to eat when you don’t get hungry. Here, I’m sure I will savor each of the three meals a day that Claire will be cooking for us. Hell, I’m grateful when someone opens a can of soup for me. But to have someone cook healthy, living food with such love; it takes sustenance to a whole different level.
After lunch, the eight workshop participants sat in a circle with Michael Lerner, the director and founder of Commonweal. Outside our immediate circle was a second circle of the facilitators who will be guiding us during the week. We each introduced ourselves and described our relationship with cancer (6 patients, one wife, and one good friend). I have had the most recent diagnosis of cancer. Others have been living with cancer far longer; several have stage 4 metastatic disease.
After we introduced ourselves, the facilitators talked about how they were here to serve us and each one discussed the role they would play. Over the course of the week, we will participate in group sessions, evening discussion groups, individual counseling sessions, sand tray therapy, and much more. Each of us will receive three massages.
After the introductions, Michael gave a little background on the program, which he and Waz Thomas started over twenty years ago. This is the 142nd Cancer Help Program retreat that has been held at Commonweal. Great thought has been put into every aspect of the program to create as healing an environment as possible.
The sole reason for the program, Michael stressed, is not to make money, to do research or to be famous, but rather to create the best possible weeklong program for people with cancer and their significant others. That is their sole intention. And when that intention meets our intention—coming here because we thought it could make a difference in our lives—the synergy creates a container of tremendous power.
The reason there are only eight of us—and eight facilitators helping us along—is that eight is the ideal size for small group interaction. People come here to do deep healing work. The staff and the participants create the container, but it is the eight of us who will be the ones to have to do the work—inside ourselves and through supporting each other.
Michael went on. He said, “It’s as if you were a sponge who absorbed all the grittiness of daily life and we took you and dipped you over and over again in warm water until your body armor fell away. That’s when really deep insights can begin to emerge.”
Although this is an educational and not a medical program, Michael’s tells us that there’s a vitality that gets released in the healing process over the course of the week that many people believe is less conducive to cancer. So a cancer might stay in remission. It might progress more slowly. Many people have breakthroughs while attending. For some, it’s a quiet awakening. For others, a dramatic turning. Others ignite a spark that grows long after they get home. But everyone is deeply touched by the program.
Well, here I am and I’m open to whatever it is going to be. Grateful that my family allowed me to leave them and that I have the privilege of being here.
Now I am resting with my laptop in my room, looking out the window at trees genuflecting in the wind. I feel tired, relaxed, and happy, content now to rest, and eager to begin.