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.