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May 8, 2012
MARCH 8, 2012 8:21AM

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The ophthalmologist who diagnosed me with a retinal stroke called it “the canary in the mine” -early warning of worse things that might come, like a brain stoke. Last Wednesday I had an MRI to investigate what danger might be lurking down the tunnels of my arteries.

Apparently there was one. Some ominous blockage on the left side, but it was “not completely imaged.” An angiogram was immediately ordered.

As I awaited this new test, I took the arcane MRI report, whose jargon I will spare you, and like a fool sought to elucidate it by going online. Within minutes I was staring at horrors like Wallenberg syndrome. It can cause difficulty swallowing, until you need a feeding tube inserted. Or hiccups that can go on non-stop for months, driving you crazy. If I get those please just shoot me.

Maybe that wasn’t waiting for me. But what certainly was lurking was a bigger stroke, like my father had. After which he could barely walk, and couldn’t write any more.

Here’s the strange thing. I have suffered all my life from an anxiety disorderOne of its characteristics is a tendency to “catastrophizing.”  The smallest concern – a missed phone call, an awkward social moment, too few gigabytes left on my hard drive, no clean socks –often leads to a feeling of dread, that the world is coming to an end.

Yet here I was, faced by a serious, life-threatening condition, and I was almost calm. My father had told me about the boy who cried wolf and sternly warned me never to do that. Yet suffering as I do from anxiety, I’ve been crying wolf – at least inside – most of my life.

Now the wolf was actually scratching at my door.  Had been for some time, while I was busy crying over spilt milk, over chipped paint on the bathroom cabinets, a stain on the rug.

Canaries in mines, wolves at the door…the metaphor I prefer is someone shooting at me. At all of us. All the time. (Never mind who that someone might be. THAT’S another post.) Oh, I’d known intellectually that they were shooting. They’d slain a close friend last year. But now a bullet fragment had hit me in the eye. Seeing those MRI results I started hearing the bullets whizzing past.

Another could strike my brain at any moment. Paralyze me. Kill me.

My calm in the face of this knowledge was tinged with fatalism. The bullets were gonna hit or not, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it.

Fatalism, and sadness.  Suddenly I wanted more time. More time to spend more with my wife, children, and friends. More time to write.


The next day, after the angiogram, the doctor emailed me.  “This looks pretty good.”

Yes, I’d caught some shrapnel, but I felt like a large shell had just whizzed by my head.

Missed, you fuckers! Mrs. Muse said, “What should we do today?”  I looked at the weather. 70.  “Let’s go to Point Reyes –may be the last chance before we leave SF.”

For years I’ve read people’s accounts of surviving cancer.  They talk of being blessed with a new lease on life, which becomes deeper and richer. I never understood it. From my anxious perspective all I could think about was every moment fearing that the cancer might return. That didn’t sound deep and rich. It sounded like hell.

But here I was, driving up Sir Francis Drake boulevard, past the magical hills of Marin,


towards a favorite spot on Point Reyes, McClure’s Beach. And I could taste that deep and rich on the tip of my tongue. Something about seeing magical hills, knowing now it might just be for the last time, made them appear as if I was seeing them – seeing period –for the first time. Something like the first hours of my first trip on LSD, before all the crazy evil stuff that came later.

As we drove onto Point Reyes, saw more magical hills, the elks looking back at us,


a new calm descended on me. Not the sad, fatalistic calm of the day before, but one suffused with a subtle but sustained joy.  I remembered all the trips to favorite places we’d taken before. How the journey there was so often poisoned by a sick kind of anticipation – Is it going to be there when we arrive – that special thing? And then the place itself, always somehow disappointing. Too many bugs. Too hot, too cold. Too many people. Not as good as the first time. And so on.

But there was none of that this time.  As we hiked down the canyon,


got that first glimpse of the ocean,


yes –stopped and smelled the flowers –

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it was all perfect, just as it was.

Not a degree too hot or cold.


The perfect spot to eat simple sandwiches.

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Strange rocks. I love strange rocks.

Small mysteries.


What is that pelican doing there? Has he come all the way from Florida?


And what’s past that crack in the rock?


Another beach, even more deserted than this one, with a big strange rock.

Yet even my lifelong seeking for the mysterious, my longing for the surprising image, the new kick-ass sound, paled next to the experience of this day, this moment, now, walking barefoot on the beach with my honey.


That experience is the real goal of all the longing and the seeking, the striving and that sick anticipation.

For many people a fun day at the beach is an old story. This was the first time I’d ever really had one.

But all good things must come to an end.



We were driving away from McClure’s Beach when a hubcap popped off our car, skittered down the road and struck a young guy who just happened to be sitting by the road with his girlfriend, admiring a stream.


I jumped from the car. He didn’t seem to be bleeding. But he looked extremely freaked out.

“Are you all right?”

“Uh, yeah. It missed my head.”

He gave me an inscrutable look. As I turned to leave, he said one word. “Random.”

I asked my son later about it.  He said, “Yeah, I hear random a lot. It’s used in a negative context. Maybe because life for our generation seems so uncertain.”

Yesterday morning at 5:30 AM I felt the bed shake.  My first SF earthquake.  A small one, 4.0.  My friend Dan, who’s lived here 30 years, said, “Yeah, that was a small one. There’s always that moment when you wait – Is this the big one?”

Random.  Those bullets they’re shooting at me. At you, at all of us.

Maybe it takes one getting close, one hitting, to wake us up. Not to Amazing Grace. But this breath, this step, the typing of this sentence.

Ordinary grace.


sorrowjoydeathlifepoint reyesgrace




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Random, last year my close call was a random slip on the stairs. After the fall I did a little first aid to abet the swelling, which over the Memorial Day weekend went from pink to purple to blue and by Wednesday parts of it were black. I thought it might be blood poisoning, but from a little bruise and scratch??? I called a doctor and the nurse who answered his phone asked me to describe the wound and the symptoms. “You will go directly to the emergency room,” she said, “You will not pass go, you will not collect $200.”

Five hours later I was in surgery, seventeen days later after the second surgery I was released from the hospital, with over $120K in medical bills – no insurance… but here the catastrophe. According to the doctors if I’d waited another 48 to 72 hours, all that they could have done for me was to make me comfortable and watch me die. Since then I got to watch my grandson open his Christmas presents and I’m looking forward to his third birthday party in July.

Ordinary things and maybe a touch of Grace.

Ordinary grace – this sums up what I attempt everyday – living in and appreciating ordinary grace – not easy for those of us with chronic anxiousness (hope that is a word). Thanks for sharing this Muse
I’m glad it was random and you were spared. We become a lot more appreciative and deeper in our perceptiveness after such calls, don’t we? Every breath drawn in health is a blessing.
Mmmmmm, two of my favorite things–the coast and canyons of Marin, and being allowed to stay on the roller coaster ride for another spin. No more lip service that life is short. It is. Another thing–going to the periodontist for a little gum work becomes a cake walk. How great is that?!

It’s no random chance we are here my good friend.. We are here for a reason.

Both of us have had random moments but we still keep swinging for that is who we are. We do our best and fear not for when the big one comes we just have to go with the flow. All we can do.

And when we do it shall be larger than a 4.3 as the rumbles of our memory stones shall live forever in our loved ones minds.


This is a piece I think I’ll come back to from time to time.
“For many people a fun day at the beach is an old story. This was the first time I’d ever really had one.”
One revelation I love in this essay that is full of them. The phrase “ordinary grace” is one that will stay with me. I’m putting it in my pocket while I head out to clear the garden on the first “spring” day in my neck of the woods. Thank you.
This is a beautiful post. Full of grace and wisdom.
Extraordinary sharing of ordinary grace. Thank-you.
I’ve been wondering how you are since your comment on my last post…glad to see the fuckers missed.
I had to smile at your pelican comment, there’s a gorgeous spot north of where you are called Pelican Bay, they are so ubiquitous out here on the west coast…too bad some completely evil bureaucrats decided to put the max-security prison, Pelican Bay, right in this most stunning place. Facing the other direction, it is so amazing to see these huge flocks (flocks?) skimming the waves…
Thanks so much for these Point Reyes photos! a fun day at the beach is just wonderful, isn’t it? I’ve rarely had one on the east coast, almost always do out here…
It must be my favorite word.
Definitely my favorite experience, when it happens to land over my way…as it does, all of the time, when I remember how to look.
Take care of yourselves, you two…
I’d love to meet you two next visit!

that first glimpse of the ocean, simple sandwiches…with honey ~

a trifecta of power. thanks ~

This was beautiful. The writing, the photos, your views. I’m glad the fuckers missed too. I’m looking forward to reading much more from you. All the best,
I loved this piece John, because it radiated with warmth and hope. You truly DID take time to stop and smell the flowers. Thank you for sharing.
such beautiful writing. i like the idea of ordinary grace… very much
Ah Lumy (if I may), this was acknowledgement and wonder at its finest…
This is the kind of post in OS that gives me the tingles. You rock and I am so thankful for the grace you shared with me today.
Beautifully expressed. Grace–acccording to my spiritual practice–is the ability to surrender to the rhythm of the universe.
Grace – full post. Loving the photos and the sentiment. Keep on Truckin Muse..
And EP, love when one of my fave peeps gets one!~ Congrats.
So grateful you have been, as you say, spared. This was a lovely piece, full of beautiful grace.

“Random” is the new “weird.” My adult kids use this as well…whatever! There will always be some new slang du jour, created by each passing generation. “What – Ev – Er!” Another goodie!

So, you were in Marin! Dang! My backyard! You went to one of my favorite places on earth and am so lucky to live here. Long way from Mass. So glad you enjoyed your time here and got some good news to boot! Y’all take care now and safe trip back home.

Loved your post and photos, BTW!

So glad you got good news and had a beautiful day. Those were some strange bare-footing prints on the beach…
Luminous: I have a strange mixture of emotion reading this. It is skillfully written and the content rich. I’m sorry you have to write the words you do. “Missed, you fuckers!” is the perfectly placed foil. Glad Mrs. Muse suggested that trip. I could almost taste the beach through your writing too. I can relate to the [catastrophizing] anxiety which has gotten much better over the years [for me] but still there are things it stops me, or I stop myself, from doing. Weird about the hubcap … very “random.” Having a young one myself, I know all about “awkward” or “random.” Or both. Take care of yourself and each other. This was full of insight and Grace. I’m staying really tuned to this page, John.
Yes . . . Unmerited favor . . . Grace
Gift . . . Yes. Sad and Sigh . . . Grace
One day I read a proverb I remember
It ask a reader to ‘Enjoy your bed rest
I often ponder. Wonder. What else . . .
I am not sure what to say. Take care . . .
I say that to myself. Life’s a Mystery . . .
Ric Threas (sp) always request that . . .
Where is that compassionate blogger?

Yes. I know that place. Haven’t been their in years. POUNDING SURF!! It make the earth rumble. Kaboom! Bolder at the land’s edge smoothed by the eternal ebb and flow. Rising and falling. The eh growl of the sea’s jaws. And then you can almost hear the mermaid sing as the ride the waves white mains blown back.

“I must go down to the sea now.
To the vagrant gypsy life.
To the gulls way and the whales way,
Where the wind ‘s like a whetted knife.

And then there are the Helicon days, the cry of the gulls, the delicate footprints of the piper washed away in the salty spume. The salt air in the nostrils.

Too bad we fail to appreciate it till we almost loose it and grace hands it back. But screw regrets. We must take our victories as we find them. So hard to learn in a world of getting and spending: just Be Here Now. Right here. Right now.

And let me salute your daring spirit! McClure’s Beach as I recall is quite a hike! Not for the faint of heart. It’s the most isolated and distant beach at Pt. Reyes. As I recall it’s technically almost two miles out to sea – which is why it’s got the must rugged surf.

And the back to the parking lot is the hardest. Somehow I just thought of the poem “Uphill” by Christina Rossetti. But put away the violin. You are STRONG! And a bit of a risk-taker to boot.

Nothing soothes the anxious soul like the spirit of Pt. Reyes and roaring drama of McClure’s. It is a balm in Gilead. I think it is time for a pilgrimage.

Ordinary grace is the potion we all need to survive these storms that lash about us. Beautifully told story. Wishing you a good outcome health-wise, Muse.

We are all strange rocks, aren’t we? And perfect.

I have had anxiety as well, and when your brain lies to you like that, you doubt everything it says. Chest palpitations? Must be anxiety, you liar! I hope one day to be able to trust myself again, because I have a feeling that one day not every symptom can be chalked up to anxiety.

Sorry that you have been ailing; however, from your serene prose to your gorgeous photos, you are finding the beauty around you. Thanks for sharing it with us.
Welcome to the club that smells the roses. Lovely, inspiring post.
What an artfully composed essay Luminous. You’re right that that billet might catch us any old day. I say count the blessings that thus far the enemy has been out of range or cursed with a dismal aim. Enjoy what you can and try not to leave behind too many big regrets when they come for you.

I am speechless and so glad you made this fine post. Remember the call of the wolf is sometimes out of kinship.

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☼(ˆ◡ˆ) ⋰ ⋮ ⋱(¯`•´¯)¸.(¯`•´¯).¸.(¯`•´¯)¸. ☼
(¯`•´¯)¸.(¯`•´¯).¸.(¯`•´¯)¸.(¯­`•´¯)¸.(¯`•´¯) ¸.(¯`•´¯).¸.(¯`•´¯)¸.Ŀ☼√Ξ ❤.
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A beautiful, graceful piece of writing. ~r
Incredibly beautiful and true. We are bombarded daily with catostrophe, is it any wonder you would catostrophize? Tomorrow is the anniversary of the Fukishima blast and the Tidal Wave. I think worriers and those prone to catastrophize calm down in the face of something real. My husband is the same way. I panicked after a nightmare experience at the airport. We were supposed to fly to Hawaii, but that paradise turned into a hell trap as I envisioned three more flights. But we cancelled (see my blog, “Driving Across America”) and turned out to have a blessed journey driving cross country. Grace comes randomly, yet it does come as regularly as the crocuses which are now blooming as early Spring visionaries. Blessings, and I hope your diagnosis turns out to be benign.
I loved this every word, every minute, rediscovery of life is such a wonderful thing to find 🙂
What a wonderful, pretty post. I’ve long known “they” were after you, and every near miss and moment of escape is a time for joy and celebration … my son and I find ourselves buying cupcakes quite frequently.
I love this post. It brings so much hope. r
A state of ordinary grace, what a lovely way to live.
Grace … ordinary grace … lovely lovely … grace …
imagine a lonely internet hiker finding this stunning post randomly; rarely has the OS cover shone so brightly
nice summary of something so hard to give words to. Thanks for this.

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