Friday, July 29, 2011

A Story About the Body

This poem by Robert Hass has always haunted me:

A Story About the Body

The young composer, working that summer at an artist's colony, had
watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and
he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was
like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly
when she made amused or considered answers to his questions. One
night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she
turned to him and said, "I think you would like to have me. I would like
that too, but I must tell you I have had a double mastectomy," and
when he didn't understand, "I've lost both my breasts." The radiance
that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity--like music--
withered, very quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said,
"I'm sorry. I don't think I could." He walked back to his own cabin
through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the
porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found
when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the
bowl--she must have swept them from the corners of her studio--was
full of dead bees.

This poem, which I’ve read so many times over the years, returned to me today.  I thought I’d read it in the past with compassion for the woman.  But I don’t know how deep my compassion truly ran.  How could I, the pre-breast cancer me, have understood her feelings in that moment?  Today after reading it, I cried.  I wonder if every woman who’s had a mastectomy has imagined such a moment with a lover, husband, or potential lover, that “radiance that he (or she) had carried around in his belly and chest cavity – like music –“ withering, very quickly.”  

I ask myself, who is more lonely in this poem, after it’s over, the man or the woman?    

My sister Mara and her 12 year-old daughter Phoebe read the poem, and they asked me if it could mean that the woman sees herself this way now:  having surface beauty, but carrying an awareness of death beneath.  “Is that the right way to read the poem?” Mara asked.  There is no right way to read a poem, I told her, and maybe that woman painter some days does feel that way:  the truth of her body and her life is hidden beneath a surface.  Her awareness of death, her body marked by it, sets her apart.  But isn’t death built into all of our bodies?  Right from the start?  We couldn’t live our lives if we accepted this fact 24/7, could we? Life, joyous, mundane, busy, distracted life, depends on forgetting.  It would be too intense otherwise.

The painter has no control over how another person interprets her body.  The composer has a story about her body, before and after she tells him about the mastectomy.  And she has a story about her body.  And the body is its own story.  How much of our deeper self is the body?  Breast cancer forces this question to step out from hiding in the shadows.  Aging does too.  Am I the same person without my long hair?  Am I the same without estrogen?  Without a breast?  To myself?  To others?  A friend not long ago told me that he was anxious about seeing me again post-breast cancer.  He told me he was afraid that “my beauty” would be gone.  He said he was relieved to see that it wasn’t.  What is/was my beauty? I ask myself, looking at the photographs people took during the writing residency.  What was the nature of my friend’s fear?  It’s actually his fear that sent me to the Internet looking for that poem, “A Story about The Body.”  It’s also a story about beauty.  When I look at recent photos of myself, I see a serious-looking, tallish, slender woman with Latvian cheekbones.  Is that my self, really?  The only beauty I know, the only beauty that matters to me, is how truly I can express with my life what’s deepest inside me.  My friend Lou from Fairbanks once framed a calligraphy statement for me, and I have it still, sitting in my bedroom window.  “I will make this day a work of beauty,” it says.  When my art is my life, when my life and art reflect each other as perfectly as a still pond reflects the evening sky, that’s beauty.  When I’m true to myself, that’s beauty.  Sometimes that means wearing the belt Phoebe and Mara bought me when they were here:  two flying birds painted on the buckle.  Sometimes that means wearing my black boots.  That is a kind of beauty too, when outside reflects inside.  My friend Asia is a painter.  Her sister Molly Lou is a poet.  They are the ones who taught me this truth about art:  it comes through you, and you give it form.  But when it comes through you and you also live it, that’s both art and beauty; that’s self as art. 

In the poem, the bowl the sculptor leaves on the composer’s doorstep I think of as art.  It’s a story about making art, turning life, turning pain, turning rejection, turning the inexpressible, turning self, into art.  What does that blue bowl of rose petals and dead bees say?  Much more than any words, I think.  It’s a story about the body, that bowl.  And it’s a story about a story about the body.  In a class I sat in on the other day during the residency in Anchorage, my friend and colleague, the poet Anne Caston asked us to freewrite something about the purpose of art.   This is what I wrote:

“A Story About the Body” speaks to me of the purpose of art:  to take a crucible, a knife tip, a wound, pain or damage, and to use its raw materials, the blood, the bone fragments, the hair, the tears, the torn clothing, the wrenched-open sternum, and to know all of those constituent parts, to hold them in your hands, in different kinds of light, and to construct something of them, something new, something beyond a specific story of a specific pain, into an artifact that is a suddenly thrust open door for reader and writer.  Like a pile of bones collected on the beach and reconstructed on the tundra as a hut with a low door.  Reader and writer step out of that hut into the wind of an entirely new landscape.  A reader stumbles across the hut and crawls inside and their own pain awakens, resonates, finds a mirror.  My friend Mary Biek, a sculptor who was my first field assistant out in Prince William Sound, lived through the Exxon Valdez oil spill with me.   The fall after, she went to Banff, an artist’s colony, and constructed a wooden sculpture she called “Memory House.”  It was a hut you could crawl into, shaped like an overturned skiff or a humpback whale’s back.  You crawled inside, and the ribbing of the structure was skeletal.  It was painted crude-oil black.  It reminds me at this moment of two stanzas near the end of the incredible poem by Adrienne Rich called “Diving into the Wreck:”

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and away into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

Beauty is what we make of the wreck:  the poem, the painting, the sculpture, the house, the life.  A friend asked me the other day if writing this blog kept me stuck in the past, kept me from moving on, kept me from living my life in the present.  I told her that it was the opposite.  Writing is the salt that scrapes away what’s inessential, so my life’s “threadbare beauty” can be revealed.  Beauty is what passes through my body and mind to emerge in some new form.   And then it flies away.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Hello Z it's Me

It's Friday morning, and I'm sitting at my desk in my dorm room on the University of Alaska campus, in Anchorage.  Since 6 am, I've been listening to the sound of traffic on a nearby freeway, which is strange, because the campus is surrounded by woods.  The traffic whizz and hum reminds me of the illusion:  I'm not in a woodland, but in a city.  The shouting and yelping of teens on the sidewalk three floors below my window heading to the Commons for breakfast, and the sunlight fingering its way through the young but tall birch trees in front of my window, and the pale blue sky, and one bird-shaped cloud perched on the summit of a smoke-blue mountain, all these things remind me it's summer, the heart of it.

The university is hosting, in addition to a cadre of writers, educational camps for kids.  We share dorm halls with them, and sometimes, their night-time revels keep us awake, grumpy, pillows over our heads.  Sometimes the late-night revels of the writers keep the kids and the counselors awake.  Yes, campus security has more than once knocked on the doors of the writers in this dorm, asking them to pipe down.  I'm in a quiet corner of my dorm hall, around a corner, off to myself.  I'm neither galavanting teen nor writer-Bohemian.  I'm a bit Emily Dickinson-ish, hiding out in this room of my own.  In years past, I've stayed up way too late with my writer-pals, unwilling to miss anything.  After the nightly faculty reading, which ends at 9:30 or 10:00, I've trailed after my friends to the Blue Fox bar.  I've even had a drink or too, and yes, my once-a-year cigarette with Derick, the poet, and Christine and Sherry the essayists.  Then I've walked home and sat down at my computer to write or work on a class or talk until 2 or 3 am, heartened when I've seen an e-mail from Derick come through in the wee hours, knowing he was doing the same thing.  Not this year.

This year I'm a bit of a reclusive, at least after 10 pm.  By then, after a whole day teaching, interacting, talking, listening, the "small animal of my body" (Mary Oliver's words), maybe my soul, craves solitude.  Pajamas.  Tea.  My books.  A decent night's sleep.  I feel some grief about this, I admit.  

In the university of life, I see myself as sometimes more closely aligned to the baffled looking teenagers in this dorm, not adults, not children, wandering in a limbo of in-between-land, on a cusp of becoming, of solidifying into something.  In the dining hall last night, a group of teens and their counselors gathered in a corner and shouted incomprehensible but vigorous call and response cheers with great gusto, drowning out my conversation with my friends N and J, both non-fiction writers like me, but of a far more venerable stature.  It's hard for me to think of myself as a peer to such women, such teachers and writers.  This is my third year teaching in this graduate program, and my confidence is definitely growing, but I still study my colleagues, attend their classes, and dream of one day growing up to be like them.  J talked yesterday about a writer/teacher friend of hers who was involved in a life-threatening accident several years ago.  "She still opens every talk by referring to the accident," J said, clearly annoyed by this woman's inability to let go of and move past a past wound.

And I wondered, is that me?  Will that be me?  I even mentioned breast cancer in an off-handed way in my morning talk yesterday (see below) about braiding life into art.  Are there some things that shake us and shape us so powerfully that it takes a lifetime to get past them?  To understand them?  To pry the lessons from them?  Richard Rodriguez said, on his first day with us, "What wounds brought you here?"  It's our wounds, he meant, that bring us to writing.  It's our loneliness.  I imagine myself blindfolded in one of the Colorado River-country's slot canyons.  There's an enormous boulder suddenly blocking my way.  I can shimmy around it, but to find that slit, I have to feel my way with  my body and hands, inch by inching along the dry, abrasive surface of the boulder, toeing the ground under my bare feet.  Because this is what I want:  not only the path on the other side of the boulder be clear and new and unexpected but myself to be clear and new and unexpected and alive with a new vision and passion.

I feel at times like I move through life in a clear bubble.  I see out, and people can hear me when I talk.  But there's a membrane separating me from others.  I know that I write a lot of these blog posts convey what might seem a daily rising above my fears and uncertainties, but today, I'm just going to say it straight, and tell you that I have no sense of epiphany in the waiting at this moment, no good advice or wisdom.  Maybe I'm looking for it from outside myself today.  Does anyone have any?  I'm honestly afraid to talk about how I'm really doing to most people.  I'm afraid to talk about the boulder, the path, the blindfold.  Many conversations start out this way:

Sincere-appearing person sitting with me at dinner:  How are you doing?

Me:  I'm doing really well.

Sincere:  You're feeling okay?

Me:  As long as I get sleep, I feel great, actually.  Did I tell you about this great cleanse I did?  After I gave up caffeine and sugar, I felt so much more energy, blah, blah, blah, etc, etc, etc.

I imagined this morning a different answer.  I imagined my poet friend Z asking me how I was doing.  Z called me regularly all last year, through chemo, through radiation, through recovery.  Out of the blue, my cell phone would ring, every month or two, and I'd look down at the little screen and there it would be:  Z.

Which me would answer the call?  The one who wanted Z to see her as brave and heroic?  The one who respects Z's considerable artistic and intellectual talents and wants him to see her as an equal (though she feels far from equal to her erudite friend)?  The one who wants Z to witness the writer in her not cowed by chemicals, a phoenix?  The one who wants him to believe she's the same person he met at the university four years ago?  Or the one who wants, more than all of those things, a real friendship?

Let's say they are riding on a bus crowded with graduate students and a few faculty members driving north from Anchorage to a glacial-fed lake called Eklutna.

Z:  So how are you feeling?

E:  Do you want me to tell you honestly?

Z:  Of course.

E:  I'm really struggling, Z.  Honestly I feel quite isolated much of the time.  I miss my resilience, my ability to stay up late, drawing from some deep well of passion and energy.  My passion runs out after a 12 hour day, and it didn't used to, it felt boundless.  I'm afraid to test it.  I'm afraid, even, to drink a glass of wine or a cup of espresso for fear that I'll wake up some cancer cell.  My body feels fragile and untrustworthy.  I grieve what's happened to my body.  I try very hard to treat my new body with compassion and gentleness, but sometimes, I look in the mirror after a shower and I feel amputated, mutilated.  I know I'm 48 and maybe should be past these things, but I used to, before my diagnosis, feel sexy.  And now with one breast and a drug stopping my body's estrogen production and my long hair gone (do you know once a famous writer asked me if he could just put his face in my hair?), I'm afraid I'll never be or feel sexy again.  And I'm afraid people see me as fragile, set apart somehow, like there's a kind of haze of something unseemly around me, the haze cancer, the whiff of possible death.  (Maybe that's why I spritz on lotus flower perfume a few times a day).  And I see people approach me the way they approach a dog they don't know, a little scared, to ask me how I am doing.  And a couple friends even told me they were scared to reach out to me during my cancer treatment because it was just too intense.  So I'm afraid of being too intense and try not to talk about what I went through.  Or if I do, I joke about it.  I'm afraid people like J will think me too preoccupied with my cancer experience, obsessed even, unable to move on.  I'm afraid of being boring.  I'm afraid of being nothing.  And some mornings I wake up with such unease and turmoil inside me I lie there and count my breaths until the darkness lifts and I can launch myself out of bed, out of my thoughts, out of myself.

What would Z say to this?  I'm scared of the look I might see on Z's, or J's, or K's, or D's or A's face.  I'm afraid they'd avoid being alone with me after such a confession.  I'm afraid of being thought of as a bit of a crazy.  Or a downer.  Or self-absorbed.

So I give them my schtick about my energy level and my cleanse and they I spin the lens around:

E:  How are you doing?  Tell me about your writing.

This morning, before untangling myself from my twisted up blankets and sheets, I opened The Book of Awakening.  I didn't even know if I was reading the entry for the right date.  It said July 14.  But no matter.  The entry was called "To Know Someone Deeply."  It begins with this stanza:

To know someone deeply
is like hearing the moon through the ocean
or having a hawk lay bright leaves at your feet.
It seems impossible, even when it happens.

I thought of my sister.  A card arrived from her yesterday.  It was postmarked from Fritz Creek, Alaska.  She mailed it even before she left, when we were still together.  She wrote:  "You are and always will be my lifeline and my touchstone.  Even in what to you feels and is a dark and hard time, I learn from you and want to be there with you."  Rereading it, I pause in what Mark Nepo calls the impossibility of being known so deeply.  Nepo writes:  "It is always astonishing to me to find out that someone else sees what I have seen, and always humbling to learn that what I thought was my path and my mountain is everyone's."

He also writes this:  "And though we may find someone along the way who's been where we are going or going where we have been, we must never stop breaking our own trail up the mountain.  For only be daring to be ourselves can we deeply know others."

When did the prospect of true friendship get to be so frightening?

I want, in this moment, to smash my fist through the membrane of this fragile bubble.  Or to reach for my cell phone.


Z or J or A or N:  Hello?

E:  Hello, Z.  Hello J.  Hello.  It's me.

Monday, July 11, 2011

At Ground Zero in God's Novel

I’m in Anchorage for 12 days of teaching graduate students.  This year’s keynote speaker is non-fiction writer Richard Rodriguez, who wrote one of my favorite essays of all time, “Late Victorians.”  It weaves public and personal, culture, architecture, the AIDs epidemic, St. Augustine, death, sex, heaven, hell, youth, age, geography, language, comedy, tragedy, freedom, limits, ripening and decay.  It sounds like a hodge-podge, but like the very best collage or mosaic, every piece matters, and in the end it all coheres, like a sermon, like a prayer.  Reading that essay in graduate school taught me how much a single piece of writing can hold.  It taught me to weave ideas, to make connections.  I wrote about “Late Victorians” in graduate school, then years later, taught a seminar about its structure, which I think of as a spiral staircase, to my own graduate students. 

And this morning, the man was in the room with me.  He stood up and spoke to us, and it felt like he spoke not to a collective “us,” but to each of us individually.  To me.  Only occasionally glancing down at his yellow legal sheets of notes, he spoke for an hour.  It was Sunday.  It was church.  He spoke about books and words, language and music, with religious passion.  He said he began writing to talk back to life, which had slapped him around.  He said he wondered what sorrows had brought all of us to the page, to that room, to writing.  He described his impulse for writing as “the drama of loneliness.”  He argued that it’s our loneliness that connects us to other human beings.  I thought of myself crouched at the end of that tunnel I described in my last post, how it was the words of others that drew me out, that propelled me to my own page.

He wrote and read because he was lonely as a child.  He talked about Ground Zero, the hole, the nothing, the emptiness we write our way around.    He said “I became a writer because I was so sad, and broken.” 

Like a woman quoted in Hester Hill Schnipper’s book, After Breast Cancer, I write this blog because, like her, I feel the experience of cancer dismantled my life, and I sit here reconstructing it, brick by brick (or log by log, since I live in Alaska).  But no, not by log or brick.  I built it again, word by word.  Otherwise, I am sad, and broken, and frightened.

He told us to listen.  He stared out the window and pulled gray out of the sky and into his talk, and green from the birch trees.  He reached into the day before and pulled the memory of a boy he sat next to on the plane, a boy traveling alone, putting himself to sleep playing a video game.  He told us to read.  He reached back to the past , to how he, a Mexican-American boy, discovered D.H. Lawrence, recognized that Lawrence was a working class man, like his father, who understood the weight of a coffin.  Which reminded him of a time he attended a funeral with only two other mourners and he had to help carry the coffin, so he then understood its weight himself.  He said in his Mexican-American family, people died, while in America, they “pass on.”  He told us fight against euphemisms and dead language like that, to say it straight and true, to reject such labels as red or blue or green or black and white, to describe America or the dream of America. 

He had kidney cancer seven years ago, and he said the oncologists wouldn’t use the word “cancer.”  They spoke of a “growth,” and maybe it was “malignant.”  It was as if, he said, they feared uttering the word “cancer” might cause it to go wild, out of their control.

Last night I got up my courage to talk to him.  An erudite man in a suit and nice shoes and intense brown eyes, he was warm and welcoming.   He asked me what brought me here.  He asked me what adjective I’d use to describe Alaska.  Did it remind me of my childhood home?  Was it ancestral memory that brought me?   No, I said.  My childhood home was an ancestral memory of Latvia, which I recognized when I went there.  Alaska was something other.  Intimate, I said.  That’s the word I’d use.  He looked surprised and then pleased.  “I never would have said that,” he said.  “Tell me why.”  By his question, he led me to put something into words for the first time.  It’s a place that saw me, I said.  I hid as a child, I said, like you, and when I came here, I encountered a place where I allowed myself to be seen.   “Do you know the poem The Archaic Torso of Apollo?” I asked.  “For here there is no place that does not see you.”  Talking with him was like that too.

I told about the breast cancer.  He told me he’d had kidney cancer seven years ago.  And then it was time to go to his evening reading.

I stopped at my small dorm room to change, and Mara called me from Cape Cod to read me the passage that was her family’s supper-time prayer.  It was called “Resurrection,” and written by a woman named Molly Fumia.  “Resurrection:  The reversal of what was thought to be absolute.  The turning of … dying into living anew ….When we begin to believe in all that is endlessly possible.  May we be empowered by extraordinary second chances.” 

Each day is an extraordinary second chance to stand before the world, the way Richard Rodriguez stood before own his life yesterday morning, stood before his whole experience, and wove a sermon out of thin air, the way Rilke stood before the broken statue of a God.

And then today.  This morning.  He gave another talk  “There is nothing mundane about our lives,” he said, with intensity, to the audience of graduate students and teachers.  “You are in God’s novel,” he said.  “Everything is happening to you.  You must sit still.”

After his talk, I waited a few minutes while he talked to another faculty member about the desert.  I asked him to sign my book.  He handed it back to me and looked right into my eyes with his dark brown eyes.  “You’re going to be fine, you know,” he said.  I thought he was talking about my writing.  “You know that don’t you?”  I stared at him, and then I knew he wasn’t talking about writing.   He was talking about my life.  “You are going to be fine.  I’m sure of it.  I know these things.”  He placed a hand briefly on my cheek before turning to the next person waiting to talk to him.

Eyes that bore into me.  Bored past questions about writing and not writing to the thing that preoccupies me the most, past my sadness at friends afraid of me now, not knowing what to say about my journey with cancer, past my loneliness.

“You are going to be fine.  You understand?  I know these things.”

Past structures, past writing, past “Late Victorians,” past craft, past talent.  I think of a poem by Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks;

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.

Even past that.  Past everything, into a field of pure blessing.

The last line of one of my own poems says this:

Teach me how to live here.  Yes, my eyes are open.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

You Must Change Your Life

3 July, 7:15 am

A cloudy morning, the world outside lush, green, misty and still.  I’m sitting across the kitchen table from my sister, a kettle of water boiling on the stove.  She is writing in her journal.  My nephew Quinn, who’s eight, inspects the pieces of flint he collected on Bishop’s Beach at 11 pm last night.  He arranged them on top of the warm woodstove to dry, and now, he checks to see if overnight they turned red, a sure sign that they’ll make fire.  Frantically, he rubs them together, trying to strike a spark.  So far, he hasn’t set our house ablaze.

I get up to make coffee for Mara, and tea for me.  A door opens upstairs, and Jon, my brother-in-law, appears on the stairs.  I fill the stovetop espresso maker, then sit back down.  Jon checks the news on the Internet, gives us a report.  Quinn can’t generate any sparks, asks if he can borrow a lighter.  “Well, it only works with friction,” I say.  Mara finishes her journal entry and her cup of coffee, and walks up the stairs to fold the laundry we hung all over the banister.  I walk up the stairs to help her, and we chat about the kids, and Sam’s face (he’s ten) appears at the top of the ladder leading to the little loft where the boys sleep.  “Good morning,” he says.  The door to our right opens.  It’s Craig.  Now the house is bustling with life.  Phoebe,  who’s twelve, practically a teen, sleeps on in my stepdaughter Elli’s old room.  It’s finally real, that this family is here with us in Alaska.  When they first pulled up in the driveway in a big brown van driven by Lars, my stepson, and piled out, it didn’t feel real.   When they sat around our table to eat bowls of seafood soup, it didn’t feel real.  When we walked down the hill to the birch tree swing, when we saw the young male moose grazing by the ball fields, when the house grew quiet as they all settled into sleep, it started to sink in.  The family who’d sheltered and nurtured me last year on Cape Cod was here, in my house, in my Alaskan life.

*                *                *

8 July

This morning in yoga, I cried onto my matt.  The body and mind slow down and the heart opens up.  That’s the way it is.  Mara and family leave tomorrow, I drive to Anchorage to teach graduate students with my friend Nancy for 12 days.   I cry for the same reason I cried yesterday when I told my brother-in-law how much I wanted their Alaskan trip to be perfect, to in some way express our gratitude for all they did for us last year.  But I realize that there’s no way to pay them back.   There’s no adequate expression for my gratitude.

Survivorship.  That word arose in my mind during yoga class.  It’s one thing to fear cancer recurrence or metastasis, to fear death.  In the acute moment of fearing death, of imagining a year to live in a healthy body, let’s say, or five years, or ten, that moment expands and gets wide, a Pacific of a moment, a wilderness of a moment, the wind in the birch leaves satisfying every need, the ink-wash of clouds so like Quinn’s paintings satisfying every need, the sound of my sister’s voice reading Harry Potter out loud to Quinn, the pop of a log in the wood stove, the smell of Natalia’s (our downstairs renter’s) burning cedar and sage, it expands to hold all of these things in my consciousness.  And then I breathe. 

But in every other moment, in the thick of living life, it’s such hard work to stay present, to transform old patterns, to resurrect.  For me, cancer meant no more business as usual.  I’m driven to change my ways, to release old habits, and I fall down again and again, and when I do, it hurts more.  In yoga this morning, I cried for that hurting.  Change your life, change your life, a voice inside me whispers, urgently.  There’s a poem that ends that way, Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.”

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit.  And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power.  Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star:  for here there is no place
that does not see you.  You must change your life.

Being in the moment, being quiet, whether in company or alone, focused on what’s right in front of me, a cup of tea, a pot of coffee, a poem, a birch tree, a photograph of a birch tree in the Pratt museum, being in Prince William Sound, I feel it: “there is no place/ that does not see you.”  But my old ways drive me forward, out of that moment, frantically trying to make everyone around me happy, afraid of failing.

My sister and I sit on my bed as I sort through clothes to pack for the residency in Anchorage.  “Do you think I’m doing okay?” I ask her.  “Because I’m not doing okay.  I feel sometimes that I’m at the end of a very long tunnel, and everyone else is outside of the tunnel, I feel so alone.  This part of the journey out of breast cancer is the hardest.”  I tell her that last night, crouched in that tunnel, trying to go to sleep, I reached for the one balm that soothes me in those moments, Hester Hill Schnipper’s book After Breast Cancer.  Hester Hill is my oncologist’s wife, a two-time breast cancer survivor and social worker at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, where I was treated.  I lay in bed, Craig asleep beside me, and I read the intro, written by my oncologist Lowell, then the first chapter.  It doesn’t matter that I’ve read those passages a dozen times.  They never cease to soothe me, to tell me that I’m not alone at the end of that tunnel.  That I don’t have to change my life.  It’s already changed.  Cancer changed it.  I will never be the same.  Survivorship is to carry that change forward, but first to catch up to it, to consider it, to take up habitation in a new country.  I tell Mara how hard that is, how scared I am.  Scared that my loved ones won’t like this person I’m becoming, a person who more than ever needs solitude and also needs support.  A person who says yes and also no.  A person whose work is writing and teaching and also healing.   We talk on the bed.  I tell the truth to my sister.  We hold each other and cry.  She gives me her hand and I crawl out of the tunnel into the new country that is my life.