Nsoromma, an Adinkra. One of the many West African Symbols for Guardianship – “Child of the Heavens”

Last week I went to New York City for my first post-diagnosis, post surgery, work-related visit. I absolutely love NYC and always approach the city with some mental and physical preparation much in the same way I prepare to hike a large mountain, paddle a long stretch of river or ski a 10 or 25K trail. I think of it as urban hiking. I love to get lost in NYC (actually I love being lost in general, scouring the remote regions of the world, knowing that, if prepared and not too foolish, I will always, eventually, find my way home. In many ways this completely earth-shattering event of two brain surgeries and stage III brain cancer diagnosis has offered a similar challenge. I am resolved to train myself for the road ahead, explore every aspect of the disease and arm myself with as much information as possible. I may get lost in this journey, but I know I will find my way home.

Among the many events we packed in a few days, including some very fine meals amidst some delicious conversation, Putney School colleagues Alison and Christie organized two moving and illuminating events for Putney School alumni. Friday evening nearly one-hundred Putney alumni and their families gathered in the hallowed and humbling Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights for a reception followed by a community sing. Putney School’s sing, held weekly at the school is always an event which gives me goosebumps. From shape-note songs to African spirituals, from old folk songs to English rounds, Sing is one of the more important traditions at Putney School, which was founded as the premier school of progressive education in 1935 by visionary Carmelita Hinton with a focus on academics, ethics, labor, community, the arts and stewardship of the land. (it was also, among many firsts, the first co-educational boarding school in the US) Voice or no voice, tone-deaf or musically inclined, everyone sings. And it is good for all. We are all the more healthier both as a community and as individuals.

The following morning we were given a private tour of the African Burial grounds on 290 Broadway. Led by alumna Peggy King Jorde, famed architect, who has been a major factor in the efforts to reclaim, save and honor the thousands of unnamed African dead buried beneath Manhattan, (among many other critical projects she has been and is involved with) we were provided with an insight into early American history which has sadly been deleted from our history books and classrooms. While it may come as no surprise to many, much of the City was built with slave labor. Many of the victims were buried on the Island of Manhattan, in this case, (in most cases, it appears) where the government had planned to simply build on top of the site, 419 human remains were recovered, given a proper resting place and honored. The museum and site are now one of the most popular historic museums in the country, revealing a hitherto untold aspect of our nation’s past. This effort has been called one of the “most important historic urban archaeological projects undertaken in the United States.”

Outside, along with several burial mounds which were left unmoved, is a moving tribute set in polished granite, to those of West African descent who were brought here as slaves and died the same. A rotunda contains etchings of many spiritual symbols from Native American, Christian and West African faiths. (among many) One which caught my eye, the Nsoromma, had me thinking about symbolism and how I wish to both honor and respect the powerful forces which, despite attempts to explain the unknown since humankind began, lie beyond our grasp. Nsoromma is a symbol of guardianship and I have been seriously considering having a small tattoo of this symbol discretely applied, perhaps on my upper arm. My inspiration has been another fellow brain cancer comrade who shares her tale of having an elaborate and striking octopus tattoo made to reflect her own journey. The Liz Army Blog is an inspirational site written by, as she describes a “cool chick with brain cancer.”

Tattoos leave me with many mixed emotions for a variety of reasons, many related to health, history, association and what it will look like down the road. But rather than delve into that abyss, I will try not to over think or intellectualize. I have friends with tattoos I admire and others which make me wince. It is purely a personal choice. Of course body modification has been with us since we discovered fire, so who am I to judge? Is there really any difference between ear-piercing, piercing in other places, tattoos and the wearing of perfume, makeup or jewelry? Anyone familiar with the stunning beauty of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics can appreciate the fact that such art did not always have negative connotations. This notion of a tattoo, and embracing a symbol which to me has deep meaning, is just another stone I am laying in the foundation I am building for a house in which I hope to live as long and as happily as I possibly can. Tattoo or not, I am moved and remain intrigued by what I saw in New York.

Part II- Update

3 radiation treatments down, 30 to go. I show up at Norris Cotton each afternoon, scan my “Radiation Card” with a laser pen to sign in and wait for the staff to call me back to the machines: HAL 1, 2 and 3 as well as a back-up. (my names, not theirs)

Again I am amazed at the high level of care at Dartmouth Hitchcock with this entire experience. Quite simply, everyone there seems to approach their role with kindness and professionalism. I am whisked into the radiation center and immediately lie down on the table. My feet are bound together with a large rubber band to help prevent movement and the mask, previously custom-made to my facial contours and features, is tightly but not painfully affixed and locked down.

The technicians talk me through each step and go into the next room to avoid unneccessary radiation exposure (each treatment is 180 units of radiation) The treatments themselves take no more than ten minutes. While they are painless, I am told that in a week or so, I will probably begin to experience fatigue and while I take medication one hour prior to treatment, I may also experience nausea, My insides, as well as steady headaches and completely shattered sleep patterns have been with me from the beginning of this mess, but I fight it with the knowledge that it indeed could always be worse. My face is already starting to blister and become red. Some days are worse than others but in general I feel strong. Indeed, I am trying to find that center and not allow myself to be short-tempered. I do find myself less willing to put up with anything that resembles a waste of time or that which appears to be negative energy field. I do have a protective, subcutaneous weapon buried deep within in which I am ready to say to anyone who messes with me or my family, “don’t mess with me, I have brain cancer.”I find it empowering but like all weapons, I realize I need to be very cautious about how and when to use it. No superhero I, nor Clint Eastwood, nor David Banner AKA the Incredible Hulk.

That hourglass is still full of sand but I want to make every grain slipping through to the bottom count. I have no time to waste. That said, I am also striving live more in the moment. A friend who is a practicing Buddhist and deeply familiar with meditation, healing and all things spiritual is going to help me learn how to meditate. I shared that this act alone may be as hard as dealing with the surgeries, treatment and cancer. My form of therapy has always been cycling, skiing, hiking, enjoying fine food and friends. I look forward to the next phase of this trek…and I will continue to dance…

“When the music changes, so does the dance” – West African Proverb


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8 Responses to Nsoromma

  1. I just surfed in…I like to lay in bed with my IPad to lull me off to sleep. There’s great meditation sites playing easy listening music flashing photos of serene places, or I will just read articles that don’t rile me up. Thinking of you, and wishing you well.

  2. Helen Stickney says:

    I have seen amazing physical and mental healing brought about by the practice of meditation. It makes me smile to think that you’re taking the time to try it out.

    Tattoos, if well done, don’t weather as badly as you might think.

    Oh, and the link to Liz’s blog is broken. The correct link is here: http://thelizarmy.com/2011/09/the-meaning-of-the-cancer-tattoo/

  3. Amanda Nelson says:

    Meditation and/or yoga are great for clarity. I wish I did both more.
    I had a weird thought the other day: I wonder what it was like before people had clocks and calendars. I would see my life so differently.
    Keep up the good work, son.

  4. Gregory Shin says:

    Mark, brave brave soul. I read an interesting article titled “Ayahuasca and Cancer” by Donald Topping. It addresses many of the issues you face in this your most difficult hour. Please google it and have a read and talk about if you wish. Love Greg

  5. Annie says:

    Meant to say, it was great to see you the other night, you’re as strong and powerful as ever — as they say in all the cheesy action movies “You can do this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

  6. Annie says:

    We’re all dancing with you sweetie, every step of the way…Annie xoxoxoxox

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