Here’s how bad it’s become. Yesterday afternoon, looking at my face in the mirror, I noticed that a fine line at the corner of the left side of my mouth traveled at a slightly different angle than the fine line at the right corner. My rabbit mind actually whispered/wondered if I might have had a tiny stroke. I scrutinized one side, then the other, rubbed my face, and then I burst out laughing. Silly, silly, rabbit you. But when I stared into my eyes, I saw there not mirth or relief but sadness and fear.
A few months ago, I watched a Utube clip of poet and rock musician Joy Harjo performing a version of her “Fear Poem.” It begins like this:
I release you, my beautiful and terrible
fear. I release you. You were my beloved
and hated twin, but now, I don’t know you
I left my last blog post with an image: an imaginary lynx stalking the edges of my yard, hunting snowshoe hares. I left that post with a wish, to wear an imaginary coat of lynx, embodying something strong and fearless. Unwittingly, I was, writing those words and imagining that beast, stalking the edge of something in myself, a truth. It turns out to have been a kind of premonition. Writing in this way is like dreaming. Symbols arise out of the depths, and we don’t know what they mean. Meaning opens not like a hand, but slowly like a buried bulb.
Hares and lynx cycle up and down here in southern Alaska, and for the last few years, hares have been on the rise. Dirty-white in winter, grizzled in summer, large-eared, they are handsome but destructive in their gnawing hunger. The land can’t support their numbers, and eventually they starve. They crash and burn. Last winter, they decimated our raspberry plants. Who can blame them? In the woods, they’re reduced, in winter, to eating spruce needles.
Joy Harjo sings to her fear: You are not my blood anymore.
Fear of lynx, of owls and gyrfalcons is in the snowshoe hare’s blood, in its cells. A shadow passes over and it bolts for cover. A branch breaks and it freezes, white against white, heart ahammer.
Scared like that. It pretty much describes how I’ve been since breast cancer: preyed upon, stalked, in the grip. It comes and goes, my fear, and the only thing predictable is that when it subsides, I know it will be back, triggered by some shadow, a phantom ache or pain, my 48 year-old body speaking to me, a body emerged from breast cancer treatment battered and fragile and given to complaint. Or some person's random comment. Or a story of someone who's died. Of course none of this is surprising. Google “fear of breast cancer recurrence” and you’ll never get to the end of the links and testimonials. The concept of “survivorship” is, to a large extent, concerned with managing this fear. The new normal of the post-cancer life. I know I am not alone. But my fear has become unmanageable, as they say in 12 step circles. If my psyche were a raspberry patch, it would be ripped and chewed, and the rotting snow on the ground would be trampled and yellowed and speckled with little brown droppings.
Still life with shadow passing perpetually over a patch of snow. Woman motionless, pressed against the ground, heart ahammer, holding her breath until the shadow passes on.
I release you, fear, because you hold
these scenes in front of me and I was born
with eyes that can never close.
Aside from the basics of caring for my body and soul, praying, listening to my doctors, and taking my medicine religiously, there is NOTHING I can do about cancer recurrence. Nothing. It will swoop down and snatch me or it won’t. Fear won't protect me. My counselor yesterday said surrender. Surrender to that fact. She said I sounded like someone being stalked. That was it exactly. I am being stalked by fear.
When I was in graduate school up in Fairbanks, where nights in winter are 20 hours long, I lived in a log cabin in the woods alone and was afraid of the dark. I’d ski or bike home at night by headlamp or moonlight, push open the thick cabin door, quickly switch on the kitchen light and look around before entering. Still in my outdoor gear, I’d yank open the closet door, look under the bed, behind the couch, heart ahammer. In the dark, later, I’d lie under the covers paralyzed. Any moment, I thought, I might hear a crunch of a footstep, the squeak of a door, a scratch on a screen, and the key was to not miss that moment. I wouldn't let myself be taken by surprise. I lay there vigilant, stock still, terrified to breathe or move. Ironically, this plank-like position was the opposite of the posture needed to fight off an attacker. The body I needed was lynx-like, relaxed and supple, flexible, fleet, breathing deep, calm, balanced. I got over my fear of the dark gradually, and it stalks me no more. But, as my counselor pointed out, I’ve replaced that stalker with another. It’s assumed another shape. Cancer. Just as that fear-of-the- dark stalker had replaced another, much older childhood fear.
Oh, you have choked me, but I gave you the leash.
You have gutted me but I gave you the knife.
You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire.
Death stalks us all, my counselor says. A snowshoe hare lives in a state of constant vigilance. A lynx is silent, stealthy, hungry also. How do prey animals do it? Live their lives that way? Wouldn’t you just lay down and give in, or die young of such eternal fright? But they do live. Their black eyes are bright as they stand on hind legs to reach for a raspberry branch to chew. Their black eyes are bright as they pause to groom their fur. The crash is coming, yet they mate, nestle down, birth their naked litters, tend their offspring, release them into the dangerous, treacherous, predatory world.
I am not afraid to be hungry.
I am not afraid to be full.
To see my fear as a stalker, to acknowledge it a version of an old fear, it is to begin to deprive it of some of its power, release it, ultimately of its stalker guise. I am still trying to understand what it means for me. I'm still watching myself be watchful and afraid. Right now, I just know to see fear in a new way is a game-changer. Metaphor is a game changer. It is that powerful. Poets know it. It shatters old ways of seeing the world, thus old ways of being. Even though our minds grasp and fail to translate that shattering into language, into something we could call knowing, or understanding, it is still shattered.
The shattering happens and we go on, tentatively feeling our way, barefoot, around the shards. I’m just sitting here writing by the light of a candle as another day gets born. I’m watching the forest outside my window lighten, watching darkness bleeding slowly away; it will retreat for only six hours. The darkness in December is deep. I’ve chosen to live in this place of extremes, extreme dark and light. I am not afraid of this outer dark anymore, though it holds as many dangerous possibilities as it ever did. How is that? That darkness hasn't changed. So I must have. And I can change again. This is, after all, the life I've chosen, and the life I've been given. My life in a place of wild darkness, forests stalked by predators. It is full of pain, and peril, and promise.
I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won't take you in my hands.
You can't live in my eye, my ears, my voice
my belly, or in my heart my heart
my heart my heart.
But come here, fear
I am alive and you are so afraid
I release you, Joy Harjo sings. But my song is different. My song arrives from far away, and I can barely make out the words. It arrives in snippets, in fragments, among bird calls and shadows. It will take a long time to understand, and to listen, and to change. I transform you, it think says. Fear, I give you another name.
Please watch this clip of Joy Harjo reciting her poem. I promise, you won’t regret it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DAYCf2Gdycc
(The Joy Harjo poem quoted here is from her poetry collection The Woman Who Fell From the Sky.)