Seventeen Syllable Medicine

Haiku and the great matterWendy Johnson

Waking up in the long indigo shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, my heart is granite. A beloved dharma sister and deep writing friend of 30 years has been diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia and has just entered an intensive treatment program at the Christus St. Vincent Regional Cancer Center of Northern New Mexico. I have come to keep her company for a week. Outside her home, the first honey blonde columbine of summer push into bloom, a glory I am too numb to celebrate.

My friend is a fierce warrior writer, an artist with four decades of training to bolster her spine and spirit. She comes from old Zen. In her words, “A bare cushion / A steel night / Nothing moving but the mountains / And the enormous sky.” Still, her diagnosis and the stark realization that she has been carrying this cancer in her body for 25 years is savage news.

This past winter I took up the study of haiku, teaching a public class on meditation and the poetry of Basho, also a favorite of my friend. In preparation for this class we talked on the phone, sucking red marrow out of the lean shank bones of Basho’s authentic verse. When my friend received her diagnosis in late winter, she called in this Basho haiku:

A bowel-freezing night of tears 
The sound of the oar
Striking the wave.
                           (Trans. R. H. Blyth)

Fortunately, Zen practice and good writing do not tolerate wallowing. In this regard, Basho is a bold guide. He lived in late medieval Japan for 50 short years, from 1644 to 1694. He practiced Zen without insignia or ordination. Every decade he experienced a catastrophic reordering of his life. “Let my name be ‘Traveler,’” he implored, following the narrow road of poetry to the far north. He shattered clever wordplay haiku to create a new mosaic of language, solitary and raw. “The old verse can be about willows,” he observed, “but haiku requires crows picking snails in a rice paddy.”

I had planned to write this column on haiku and flower viewing. Forget that. The only flower garden I am getting close to these days is the antiseptic infusion suite of the cancer center. Here, “infuse” goes back to the Latin infundere, meaning to pour in, saturate, permeate, souse, and fill up for eight hours, once a week, the pale blue veins of my gutsy friend with 2,000 units of monoclonal antibodies.

The medicine my friend is receiving is relatively new, approved in 2009, with the mythic-sounding name of ofatumumab. I learned this a few hours into her treatment, surrounded by dozens of cancer patients with chemotherapy and other drugs dripping into their bodies. It was quiet in the infusion suite, church quiet, resignation before the sermon. “The name of your meds sounds like Oh Fat Tuna Man,” I whispered to my supine friend. She opened one eye, a wise and ancient sea turtle coming up to the radiant surface of the ocean, schools of tuna far below. We began to laugh, timorously at first, then raucously. Patients rose up in their recliners to stare at us with a mixture of amusement and horror. I noticed a little balcony off the main treatment room where we received immediate permission to relocate. Thunderclouds and the memory of rain saturated the landscape. We whipped out paper and pens. “Ten haiku. Go!” my friend commanded. Five-seven-five: Basho, here we come!

And so we split open piety and prudence that afternoon to receive a new infusion at the dark rim of medicine and disease. “Don’t imitate me,” Basho commanded his followers. “It’s as boring as the two / halves of a melon.” In response my friend recited her blunt verse:

Rained last night
Slow drip into my veins 
Sixty-six with cancer.

We wrote and read to each other all afternoon. We ate brown rice and corn enchiladas and guzzled ginger kombucha. We reminisced about the battered green Chevy pickup under the cottonwood, and for long stretches of time we kept completely quiet. When the infusion was complete, I noticed with surprise that it felt like we had been gardening together. My friend told me then about Shiki, a modern haiku master who died of spinal tuberculosis at the age of 35. For Shiki, she said, the act of creation entailed alert stillness and infusion of intention. He dragged himself to the edge of his tatami mat to overlook the garden:

            One whole day
            Tilling the field 
            In the same place.
                               (Trans. Peter Washington)

Wendy Johnson is Tricycle’s longest-running columnist. She is the author of Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World.

Image: Myoung Ho Lee, Tree #1, 2006. From the series Tree. Archival inkjet print 50" x 40". Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, NYC. 

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Joey Connolly's picture

I think you and your friends will enjoy the Daily Issa ( David G. Lanoue) if you are not subscribed yet.
an autumn haiku by Issa-
another year closer
to sixty...
the cold night

catherine's picture

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I'm so moved by the moments you've shared with your friend -

Your sparkling love
Shimmering in digital space
Heart smiling

garygach's picture

aHO! Mighty medicine, indeed. Thank you SO much, Sister Wendy. This is THE best ( unrepeatable ) priceless haiku I've read in many a moon ( & on the eve of a rare hunter's / blood moon ), the whole fearless lovely article ... & its coherent resonance in the heart of the heart

-- & my two cents ? Well, I'd like to invite anyone and everyone, with or without CLL, to please come on by the haiku corner that Tricycle has most generously furnished us, which I've been honored to host. You can scroll across its waves, over seasons and five years now, & make yourself at home. There are currently about 5 active members. Howard Rheingold says, "What it is -- is -- up to you"

Well, that's one cent ... and the other, is a koan :

what is haiku ?

Nimrodscott's picture

Their drunken houses
stagger and lurch to the sea
one more time - - earthquake!

(Nimrod Scott (c) 1994)

Thank you Wendy for this article. Tis inspiring in so many ways.

jrzackin's picture

I just came across this article and as I was recently diagnosed (one month ago) with CLL, I am wondering how your friend could have had CLL without knowing it for 25 years. I am not sure how long I've had it. I am 49, and don't know how long I've had it as I don't get routine blood tests. Right now I am not in need of treatment but I am glad to know there are some new ones out there. If possible, I would like to message you privately but am not sure how.