Surviving Has Made ME Crazy

It has been eighteen years since I was first diagnosed with cancer and I have never been the same. In some ways, I am still stunned to be here. And but for a hiccup of God, I could be dead and one of those I’ve loved and lost along the way might be writing this to you. So, this is not a book on how to get past illness. I’ve never gotten past it. Rather, it has turned me inside out. More humbly, this is a blanket of twigs and berries gathered on my way through the long forest. They are the few things that haven’t gone bad. And no matter how little there seems to be, I now know, it is enough. There is plenty for everyone. If the twigs can light a fire and the berries feed you, something will have passed between us…

A word about this book, which has been ripening for a long time. Ever since I awoke from my surgeries, I have been learning how integrated and useful everything is. And so, this book is not separated into cancer poems and living poems. It is not arranged chronologically, but more as a mix of then and now, as they are never far from each other: the wound and the healing, the fear and the peace, the confusion and the clarity.

In essence, if blessed, some event or lack of event undoes us until we are broken open into honest living. For me, that event was cancer. But it could be anything, at any time. What opens us may differ, but what it is that opens and what such parting can do to us is the same. So, while this all starts with illness and refers back to its canyon and its precipice, the lessons that have come through and reshaped me with their scouring belong to everyone.

This is what I have to offer. You see, the handles to all my cups have been broken off, so that I might learn that to touch and to drink are the same thing. These poems are such handle-less cups.


Upon Seeking Tu Fu As A Guide

And so I asked him, how is it God is everywhere and nowhere? He circled me like a self I couldn’t reach, “Because humans refuse to live their lives.” I was confused. He continued, “You hover rather than enter.” I was still confused. He spoke in my ear, “God is only visible within your moment entered like a burning lake.” I grew frightened. He laughed, “Even now, you peer at me as if what you see and hear are not a part of you.” I grew angry. He ignored me, “You peer at the edge of your life, so frantic to know, so unwilling to believe.” Indeed, I was frantic. He was in my face, “And now that you have cancer, you ask to be spared.” I grew depressed. He took my shoulders, “For God’s sake! Enter your own life! Enter!”

Thoracic Surgery

It was like jumping
with full consent
into an empty well
so deep I only remember
falling in the dark
till falling without
direction put me to sleep.
Then I woke broken
and battered with no
memory of impact.
Ever since, it’s been
Impossible to let go
and I tire and ache.
When I do sleep, I
wake with this shoulder
burning or that flank of
muscle bound or the veter-
brae in my neck locked. Afraid
to let go. Never knowing how
or if I’ll wake. And true,
the trauma and pain echo
smaller and smaller. But
I’ve had to redefine
normal like putting
grit in paint. For
to breathe is sore;
to inhale, in-sore;
to exhale, out-sore;
to dream, bright
and sore. And now
after 12 injections
of morphine and
180 capsules of
codeine, I fear
the unanesthetized
days. Now I’m told
a side effect is
depression—the heart
grown sore. Now I must
strip the medicine
like clothes. The
depression, like
a zippered cloud
around my head.
Must nakedly
with full consent
jump back
into the world.
Everyone’s saying—
C’mon. Let’s go.
But I entered this
and nothing’s been
the same. How can I
jump on out and not
fear the world is
a broken cage?

Surviving Has Made Me Crazy

I eat flowers now and birds follow me.
I open myself like an inlet
and dolphin energies
swim on through.

Wherever I go, I remain silent
and the silence begins to glow
till one eye in the light
outsees two in the dark.

When asked, I now hesitate
for there are so many ways
to love the earth.

I water things now constantly:
water the hearts of dead friends with light,
the sores of the living with anything warm,
water the skies with a thousand affections
and follow the voices of animals
into grasses that move like ocean.

I eat flowers now and birds come.
I eat care and things to love arrive.
I eat time and as I age
whatever I swallow grows timeless.

I eat and undie
and water my doubts
with silence
and birds come.


"Mark Nepo is a Great Soul. His resonant heart--his frank and astonishing voice--befriend us mightily on this mysterious trail. These are words to live with, by and among--with deepest gratitude."
Naomi Shihab Nye, author of You and Yours, 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, and Red Suitcase

Setting down this new volume of Mark Nepo’s poetry, I feel a cascade of sensations: Hollowness in the belly, as if I am falling down and through, warmth circulating in the chest, a prior-to-speech pulsing in the throat. Together, in intimate accord, these poems offer articulate revelations about life, about being human, about what is most often left unexamined, unspoken, and therefore left unknown. This book is unrelenting, thrilling, achingly rough, palpable… a portal filled with life… to which I bow.
Saki Santorelli, author of Heal Thy Self: Lessons on Mindfulness in Medicine and Executive Director, Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School

How does it feel to walk beside someone who presumes an earthy, unfathomable grace within every single moment? Mark Nepo’s poems leech medicine from deep within each wound. They calibrate our heart’s careful attention so we may witness the reassuring alchemy that enables illness to live as healing; where brokenness emerges as wholeness. And most importantly, we feel how darkness, deliberately saturated with precise and loving awareness, can actually become light.
Wayne Muller, author of Learning to Pray, Sabbath, and How, Then, Shall We Live?

Mark Nepo’s poems challenge us to consider the therapeutic possibilities of language. Heart to heart, soul to soul, through a natural world as yet uncorrupted by the toxicities of enmity and cynicism, Nepo takes us on an unforgettable healing journey, revising medicalized pathology reports and their dire prognoses into a deeply humane narrative of suffering, forgiveness, and ultimately triumph. Surviving Has Made Me Crazy—yes, for love, for life, and for the unthinkable prospect of solace and peace.
Rafael Campo, MD, Director of the Harvard Program in the Medical Humanities and author of The Healing Art: A Doctor's Black Bag of Poetry and What the Body Told

These poems are medicine. They have offered me the gift of companionship and guidance as I sort through the meaning of my own loss, my own resistance to change, and the transformations of self and spirit that await if I am open to them.
Rich Frankel, Professor of Medicine, Indiana University Medical School

These poems attest to the quickening that comes with a spiritual love of life and all its manifold mysteries.
Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality & Practice

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