Editor’s note: Aimee Prasek, a graduate student at the College of St. Catherine, is an Edge Life intern this fall. She brings a diverse writing perspective to her passion for holistic health promotion. Continue following Aimee’s three-part series in the December and January issues of Edge Life.
I never pictured myself attending a private, Catholic, all-women’s college-certainly not the largest women’s college in the nation. Initially, I thought St. Kate’s would just be another notch in my desk marking my hyperactive streak of enrollment in as many colleges as possible. I had initially wanted to enroll in the University of Minnesota for graduate study in kinesiology.
I was a scientific, concrete thinker-confident that I knew a lot about health. I had worked hard in my undergraduate studies to develop my understanding of anatomy and psychology. However, my educational path took a sharp curve when I realized that I had missed the U of M application deadline. Desperate to stay in school and fearful of the "real world," I earnestly looked for other programs in health-related fields. It was then that I found the Holistic Health Studies program at St. Kate’s. I did some research and found that this was one of a handful of holistic health M.A. programs in the nation. St. Kate’s has an impressive educational reputation and I sensed the program would be academically rigorous and respected by potential employers.
I wasn’t so sure about the whole "holistic" thing though. I’d never been to a complementary practitioner-not even a chiropractor. However, I did have an interest in alternative treatments for mood disorders, so I used that as my leverage in my application and I was accepted into the program.
On the first day of class, I sat nervously glancing around the room. Would I see a real-life witch? Are these people all psychic and know that I don’t belong here? I kept quiet that first day, but soon embarked on the most transforming, painful and transcendent journey of my life. I am indeed thankful for every moment.
Releasing my grip
My journey began when I released my relentless white-knuckle grip from many of the "truths" I had been holding onto. I began to challenge notions that kept me enslaved in my own suffering and ignorance. It was scary to be open to my true self, the mysteries of life and beliefs that were different than my own. To stay in this program meant I would have to search myself and make changes. I wasn’t sure I was up for the challenge. Thankfully, I found myself in a compassionate environment that invited me to surrender my hurts, fears, questions, truths and insecurities. It was through the surrendering of these experiences that I began to find my healing.
I was comforted by the wisdom of author Paula Giddings: "I am old enough to know that victory is often a thing deferred, and rarely at the summit of courage. What is at the summit of courage, I think, is freedom. The freedom that comes with the knowledge that no earthly thing can break you." Applying this lesson launched my understanding of what health really was about. This dynamic synergy of spiritual, emotional, mental and physical health opened up to me. I now honor health from a different perspective, and I feel called to collect stories about people who have experienced dis-ease, trauma and enlightenment.
The stories that I want to share with you are about two men living with cancer.
Falling back to my academic default mode, I began my study of cancer by reviewing a hefty amount of scientific literature. Unfortunately, this just made me feel bombarded and confused. I knew that these studies were telling only a chapter of the full story. If I was to truly understand what cancer was, I would need to go to the experts.
I wasn’t looking for the top oncologists or the traditional researchers who had poked at malignant tumors in petri dishes for the last 50 years. Instead, I was looking for the true experts on cancer. I needed to hear what it felt like, see where it hurt, feel the emotions and connect with the spiritual transformations. Instead of sitting down with a formal medical journal, a dictionary, the Physicians Desk Reference, a detailed map of the human body and a red bull (or three), I might instead grab a cup of chamomile tea, scoot my chair closer and with my heart and soul, listen to dear friends that have lived with this dis-ease.
Honoring the experts
Klink Weisen invited me into his home humbly.
"Glad you’re here, Aim," he said, "but I don’t know what you could learn from me about cancer-I’m no expert. I’m not a real intelligent person, you know, not a math whiz, not a college guy."
Klink’s words sat with me for a bit. Maybe he’s right; maybe I do need to talk to his oncologist to really understand his cancer. Klink led me to the kitchen table and I couldn’t help but notice all of the scars where he had endured countless numbers of needle pricks. Tickling these scars were colorful spirals coming alive from his tie-dye shirt. Klink looked like a healthy and lively hippie to me, I couldn’t believe he had chemo just yesterday.
I then noticed he had a cigarette in his hand. "I can’t believe he’s smoking while he’s going through cancer treatment," I thought to myself. Next to the kitchen table was a small library of books that addressed alternative cancer treatments. I was getting anxious to ask questions about these perceived conflictions that were flooding my senses.
Klink’s home was absolutely beautiful. Intricate tile work, boulders, warm colors and detailed woodwork made the small home expansive and comforting. Klink described how he had been the creator and laborer of this healing space,
"It’s home," he said. "Small, but if I could be anywhere, it would be right here. You know you can only be in one room at a time. Don’t need anymore than that."
Klink had done this artful labor in other homes from the time he left his service in Vietnam to his retirement a few years back. "I would take a rock and stack it on top of another rock and look back to see something beautiful."
I thought this image was so stunning in its simplicity. Klink paused for a moment and then brought his eyes-full of passion and sincerity-to meet mine. "You know, if I’m gonna die in six months, then I’m gonna live. Being afraid to die is no reason to live." After Klink shared this insight with me, I realized why I was sitting across from this amazing man. I had a lot to learn in the next few hours.
Living richly and fully
The second expert I visited with was Carleton Peterson. The first thing I noticed about Carleton was that he was dressed conservatively in warm, quiet tones. I couldn’t see any tattoos on Carleton, and I was pretty certain his language wouldn’t be quite as colorful as Klink’s. Carleton greeted me with a big smile and a hug in the lobby area of Bethany Covenant Church: "Hello Miss Aimee. So good to see you."
Our meeting space was a table in the center of the church’s library; the walls were filled with old Bibles and pictures documenting the church’s long history. Carleton was comfortable in this space; he has spent the majority of his life as a pastor.
Just as we got settled in our chairs, Carleton shared an understanding of healing I hadn’t expected from a pastor.
"A theology professor once told me," he said, "that in the Middle Ages cancer was the preferred way to die. It was preferred because when you knew you were dying from cancer, there was nothing you couldn’t do in that time. I have adopted that in my own life. What are the things I want to be about if my time is measured by cancer?"
Carleton leaned in towards me. "I see myself as my doctor. I have an oncologist and a radiation expert; I have an acupuncturist, a healing touch therapist, a chiropractor and a person who does massage. I try to coordinate these modalities to better my well-being. However, through all this, science continues to show that my cancer is progressing. So, I must honestly say that I might lose my life in this whole episode of cancer. But I can also say I’m living pretty richly and fully."
I knew that these men didn’t physically know one another, but there was a connectedness that I felt during these conversations. Carleton identified this intuition: "This cancer, it’s a whole lot bigger than I am." He was indeed right. This cancer has a bigger story to tell than just physical assault on two diagnosed bodies.
Is it possible that a seemingly rough-around-the-edges Vietnam vet and a silver-tongued pastor have come to such a similar place of transcendent wisdom through their cancer? Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow supported this possibility. "Self-actualizing people," he wrote, "have a deep feeling of identification, sympathy and affection for human beings in general. They feel kinship and connection, as if all people were members of a single family."
I invite you to follow the stories of these men in the December and January issues of Edge Life.