Keeping What Is True Before Us

by Mark Nepo

Faith is not an insurance, but a constant effort, a constant listening to the eternal voice.
                                                                                                    — Abraham Heschel

Mark NepoI needed to have blood drawn for my annual physical and even though it’s been twenty years since I’ve been spit out from the mouth of the whale of cancer, it’s never very far. I kept telling myself that was then, this is now. But in the early morning waiting room, I could feel my breath speed up, higher in my chest, and below any conscious remembering, the many waiting room walls began to appear, dark friends who say they miss me.

Once in the little lab room, a young woman wrote my name on a small vial, asked me to make a fist, and as she poked the needle in my vein, I looked away; swallowing my whole journey which wants to rise through these little needle pricks any chance it can get.

It was over, for another year. I didn’t realize it but I had been holding my breath, way inside. As I opened the door back into the world, I exhaled from underneath my heart and suddenly began to cry; not heavily but the way our gutters overflow in spring when the ice thaws all at once.

I was surprised. After twenty years, I thought the alarm of all that suffering and almost dying would be knit more quietly in my skin. How come it keeps bursting forth when I least expect it? I’ve been told it’s a form of post-traumatic stress; a problem that can be addressed. As I drove to work, I made a vow to tend to this in the coming year.

The next day I was up early, before dawn, eager for my morning swim. On the way, at a light, it began to snow very lightly and the voice of the singer in the radio seemed, for an instant, to be falling like the snow on the windshield. It made me start to cry again in that overflowing way. It’s been a week since the little pin prick in my arm and I keep crying at simple things—the late cloud parting for the moon, the footprint of a small deer, even the fast food wrapper on the sidewalk. With each small cry, it feels less a release and more like an irrepressible, unfiltered tenderness at being fully here. The more of these moments I experience, the less a problem it seems. For isn’t this what I’ve been after: to be this close to life, to be pricked below the surface of things? Now it seems the damn needle is a gift! Now I wonder: isn’t anything that keeps us this close to life a gift? Now I want to learn the art of puncturing whatever grows in the way in order to feel that moment where everything touches everything else. I’m coming to see that keeping what is true before us reminds us that there was never a better time than now.

— Excerpted from Mark’s new book, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster, Fall 2012

Bio: Mark Nepo is a poet, philosopher and cancer survivor who has taught in the fields of poetry and spirituality for over thirty-five years.

Recent work includes his next book of spiritual inquiry, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen (Simon & Schuster, with audio book, Fall 2012); a new book of teaching stories, As Far As the Heart Can See; Finding Inner Courage; audio books of The Book of Awakening and Finding Inner Courage; and Staying Awake and Holding Nothing Back. His most recent book of poetry is Surviving Has Made Me Crazy. As a cancer survivor, Mark devotes his writing and teaching to the journey of inner transformation and the life of relationship. Please visit and