Today, I'm sitting at a tiny square table in the Nambu Cafe, a fan spinning overhead, Bob Marley crooning in the background, my friend Carol, the proprietor of the cafe, checking out the announcement of the new I-Pad on her computer during a lull in customers. For some reason, I write best lately by situating myself in a different location each day: library, kava bar, coffee shop, shade house on the land. I wake up in the morning and listen to that squeaky inner voice telling me what she needs, so she'll give me a couple thousand words of writing in exchange. She's not a muse, she's more of a moody princess. Some days, she wants one of Carol's hot chai teas and green jewel lizards running over the computer keyboard. Some days, she wants stacks of library books to distract her. Some days, she wants a tall glass of lavender hibiscus iced tea. She's very demanding and persnickety.
We watched "Alice in Wonderland" last night, the version with Johnny Depp as the mad hatter. Funny that I wrote the words "fell down a very deep rabbit hole" in my last post, referring to tumbling into Cancerland last spring. I woke up this morning thinking about it, the movie (which was pretty lame), and the metaphor. You know how everybody talks about cancer. People die after a "heroic battle." Or they win. They are "survivors." I couldn't help but consider the image of Alice, sword in hand atop a precipice, battling the hideous Jabberwock, beheading it and thus vanquishing the dough-faced and perverse Red Queen. They chose to spin the tale with that old archetypal hero theme, Alice embracing her inner warrior to slay the monster. But it didn't seem to me that Alice had to overcome all that much. The movie was all jangle and spangle, the mad hatter insipid-mad, not dangerous-mad, the White Queen insipid-good, the Red Queen and the Jabberwock no worthy foes in the end. They tumbled with one swift sword slash. Cancerland, on the other hand, is a place of dangerous-mad, of a sly, crafty foe whose head grows back weirder and stronger each time its lopped off. The warrior metaphor doesn't work for me; it never has. I don't see myself, sword in hand, battling cancer, now or last year. When the chemicals were doing their work in my body, I felt like the vanquished. I didn't reach for a sword. I reached for a bottle of Lorazepan. I gladly went gentle into its good night.
But I realized, thinking about the movie and why it fell flat for me, that I do have a sword. My sword is my pen (or in this case, my keyboard). Facing a sly, cagey entity like cancer, the only time I truly feel a sense of power in its presence is when I write. It allows me to separate from the rawness, the fears, the "no guarantees," the unknowns, to speak from a voice that isn't exactly me, that's a step removed from the me who lives each day from moment to moment. Maybe it's the voice of that needy, demanding little muse. Maybe she's the one who stands in for me, the way hapless Alice stood in for the fluttery White Queen.
After the movie, I slept in and out of my own Underland of dreams and insomnia. I don't remember any details, just the feeling of being wrapped in coils, like thick mangrove roots. Coils of dreams. A few times I woke up, lay half-awake and the fear of cancer became the coil around me and I had to pull myself out of its grasp, to remind myself to catch hold of my mind and its coiling and focus on breathing. To rein my mind in. And something miraculous happened. I lay there, and for just a few seconds, I caught myself wondering how I'd write about it today. And it became, in that moment, my sword.