There’s a very real way in which, once you enter Cancerland, you keep one foot there for life. I see that now. And not necessarily in the sense of an obsession with your own health, your own future. But in a sisterhood. There’s a line from The Little Prince that comes into my mind as the news sinks in that the friend who had the biopsy indeed has cancer for the second time. That line is “You are responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” In The Little Prince, this is what the fox says to the prince. “You are responsible for your flower.” He’s talking about love. I don't for the life of me know exactly why that sentence has resonated with me for over 20 years, why it's whispered itself in my ear unexpectedly from time to time. In my mind, the word “tamed” is open to multiple interpretations, and when it comes to cancer, I have to stretch even further to understand. Because I certainly haven’t tamed cancer, haven’t tamed my fear of it, my hatred of it, my anger at it. I hate cancer.
Today, “tamed” means to have looked at something deeply. To have truly seen it. To have looked without flinching. To have known it. Places in Prince William Sound are that way for me. During cancer treatment, I invented visualizations to put me to sleep or calm me down. I pictured a certain lagoon on Knight Island, a bight in Zaikof Bay, the base of an old hemlock tree on Squire Island, places I’d returned to for 24 years. I’d looked so deeply at those places, breathed them, let the rain dripping from their leaves and grasses soak me to the skin, slept in them, that they lived inside me. I could conjure in my memory the exact feel of my hand on the bark of the old tree, or against a damp rock face, or the smell of the earth when I pressed my nose into the moss. I’d been tamed by those places. In the case of Prince William Sound, tamed means made more wild, more like earth. In the case of cancer, perhaps it means made more naked and exposed to the toll, the heartbreak, of the disease. To the courage of spirit it takes to get up from the floor after the call comes, after the voice says, "I'm afraid it's cancer."
Detour. Stay with me. Early this morning, my poet-friend Liz drove me back from Provincetown to Brewster. This was after stopping by Race Point beach to watch dozens of North Atlantic right whales feeding and interacting with one another on a clear blue morning. There are 300-some of these whales left alive on earth, and to see them congregated in one place, that close to shore, on the edge of Cape Cod, was a wonder, a gift. Last night, with Liz and another Cape Cod writer, Robert Finch, I did a reading at the Provincetown library for Earth Day. Afterward, I slept in Liz and her partner Lisa’s little beach shack. It’s appropriately named “Refugia.” It was a refugia for me last year, an oasis of calm and clarity in the midst of cancer and summer chaos. So was quirky P-Town, where a bald woman in a head scarf blended in completely with the full throttle rainbow of human expression, male, female, gay, straight, transsexual, trans-gendered, and everything in between. There, I’d disappear into the night-time street scene of drag queens, tourists, and women bald just because. (In fact, there was a bald, young, healthy woman in the audience last night). Sadly, I learned that one of my favorite P-Town characters, 70+-year old Elli, a drag queen who sang with her portable sound system in the streets wearing long diaphanous gowns, had over the winter died of pancreatic cancer. Walking to the reading, we saw flowers for Elli on the town hall steps.
On the drive back to Brewster, Liz and I talked about nature writing, how to teach it, whether to teach it, what it was, why it failed to reach more people, to save more nature, to change more people’s minds. We decided that part of the aim should be teaching people how to look, to really look at what they love, so a Cape Cod sunrise isn’t just “magnificent” or “sublime” but gritty and real, lurid and ugly and gorgeous because it’s seen through one human being’s eyes, one person with a life like no other, one person who sees the dirt in the sunrise, the smudge, the indigo, the streaks, the thumbprints, one person who makes it real in a way it's never been before. A P-Town sunrise through Elli’s eyes, through mine, through Liz’s, each truly seen, in sickness, in health, in fear, in pain: that’s what I mean by being tamed by something. It's about being humbled and expanded and resurrected and brought to your knees.
You don’t tame anything like nature or cancer or a wild coyote or the baby mouse dying in a Tupperware container that my nephew rescued this morning from the cat. You are responsible, forever, for what you’ve looked at with your whole body, with your eyes and your soul, with your nose, with every inch of skin. I feel like I need to deconstruct the word “responsible” too. (So why do I love that sentence so much if I have to qualify two of its most important words? Who knows! Poetry’s like that, and poetry I love. Poetry is what I turn to when no human language can answer my need. And wave laps, and bird calls, and wind. The things I’ve been tamed by). What does it mean, to be responsible? It means, for me in this moment (I’m lying back against a pillow in the back seat of my sister’s car as we drive to Whole Foods), that I will be stand by this woman diagnosed again with breast cancer, not because I should or ought to, but because it’s as natural now as taking a breath. To support her in whatever way I can is supporting myself, is supporting all of us, and is as much a gift to me as dozens of endangered right whales surfacing off a beach upon which I happen to be standing. When all your people rally to help you save your own life, you want badly (at least I do) to pass something on. Even when I’m back in Alaska, I will find a way to be with her. I am with her now.
The cloud I see out the window, here above the stop sign: I latch my eyes to that cloud when the occurrences and recurrences down here, in this botched human panorama, get to be too much to bear. I lose myself in the cloud’s gray folds. It’s my Rock of Ages (Emmy Lou’s singing that song right now on my sister’s CD). It's my divine.
While I’m writing, Mara calls our friend and tells her “I just want you to know I’ll be a little cloud under you all the time, hovering hear, and you can rest on me when you need to.”
We ask her what she wants at Whole Foods. “Some cancer-ass-kicking stuff,” she says, feisty as always. So I run in, grab a basket, and start shopping. When we get back into the car, Phoebe, my niece loads the Glee soundtrack into the CD player, and this is the first song that plays:
Yeah, yeah, God is great. Yeah, yeah, God is good. Yeah, yeah, yeah, what if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on a bus, trying to make his way home? Not up in heaven all alone.
That’s what I believe. God is one of us, a slob, a stranger, me, you, a woman with an IV stuck in her arm, the nurse pushing the adriamycin in. It’s us, tamed and made wild by cancer, by catastrophe. When another woman is diagnosed, we rise, we gather. Now, six months post-treatment, 10, 20, 30 years from now. We arrive at her door with chocolate, blue glitter nail polish, a bottle of tumeric, bubble bath, green tea, and a pocketful of Lorazepam.
Last night, I read this poem in Provincetown for my newly re-diagnosed friend, for my friend still in treatment, and for the sisterhood. Running yesterday before the reading, I decided I wanted another title for it. I renamed it “Prayer Sent Above, Unanswered and Thus Retracted, Redirected Down to Earth.” A bit unwieldy, I know. But it will have to do.
A MOMENT AWAY FROM EDEN (the old title)
Your flawed creation, lay her down
among your rough low plants. Unbutton
her blouse. Wind, gust at that mark, thin
shadow of the surgeon’s path, death’s
exit. Lay strips of sphagnum across
the scalpel’s track. Gauze, fern by fern, a glade
upon the scar, wrap her torso, eye to ankle,
in autumn ditch flower, goldenrod, fleabane,
aster. Let her sink into bog, your body
pinned to her ruin, painting the story
in cranberry ink & lichen-scratch on her back.
Let her body be retouched by plant & mineral.
When she kneels at the pond’s edge & laps
like a deer from the stranger’s face licking back,
place your palm on her nape. Immerse her chin,
mouth, shoulder blades, push her all the way in.
Lift her out dripping. Place her on the earth’s skin.
Her fingers adorned with bones of deer, her mind
changed into the mind of a meadow. All this when
God’s ruthless eye turned a moment away from Eden.
This I know: the eyes of this earth never turn away.