Thursday, April 19, 2012

Chapter 3 of a Brief Hair Biography: A Crooked Letter

Last night, on sleep’s verge, a thought blew into my face flat and fast, like a door ripped off an old barn by a tornado and sent flying.  A big flat thought-bang slammed into the space behind my closed eyes, I guess what you could call, in psyche terms, a post-traumatic stress flash-back-forward-whallop.  I’d spent the afternoon searching through hundreds of old slides for possible images for my book, which is now “in production,” and I’d found some images of my younger self unclothed out in Prince William Sound, a two-breasted, long-haired younger self sprawled in muskegs or perched on a bunk or grinning behind the wheel of a boat.  Always a nature-girl, for decades a food-purist and reformed binge-drinker, decades sober, decades drug-free, clear-skinned, sans make-up, decades breathing cool, clean Alaskan air, decades eating wild salmon and beach greens and so many wild blueberries during the late season, it’s a wonder I didn’t turn inside-out and purple from all the anti-oxidants.  Of course, after the diagnosis, I asked why, asked my doctors if it could have been because of that or this (no nothing you did, they repeated), speculated with my sister about all the pesticides sprayed on the grapefields we worked in and lived next to; and the pesticides my father sprayed on his apple trees; and the pesticides sprayed on the cultivated strawberries we ate and ate without washing while picking them in the fields with my mother; and all the alcohol I downed in college before switching to mushrooms and pot (more pure I rationalized); and my father’s secondhand and my own-for-awhile firsthand cigarette smoke; and skinny-dipping in Lake Erie and eating its fish every Friday; and Three Mile Island upwind of my hometown; and all the drives through Lackawana, the now-abandoned steel city near Buffalo, my sister and I holding our noses and chanting “Lackawana P.U.” and staring out the car window at the row-houses grimed by smokestack spewage wondering how people lived there breathing always that stench; and all of the Latvian food, dairy and meat-heavy; and then packs and packs of sugarless gum trying to slim down from my Latvian childhood; and my chocolate addiction; and not having born a child; and the buried pain of childhood wounds.   I considered pretty much everything.  But never the kind of why that hit me out of nowhere last night, the why with a such a wail in it, like wind whistling through a slit between a cabin’s wall-logs.  A why finding its way in, past my defenses.  Why did I get breast cancer?  Why me?  And then the thought, the flat, hard shape of it end-over-ending away in another gust of wind.  I practiced my new anti-insomnia technique of shoring up the logs around my sleep-mind, mind swept of worry-debris, a log cabin around my inner silence, and finally I fell asleep.

Besides, as the late Dorothy Matkin, my mother-in-law, would say, Y is a crooked letter.  Why is a crooked question that leads you on a crooked trail that dead ends with a sign: Warning:  Impenetrable brush ahead.  Turn back.  Dorothy got diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer late in life, and I can’t be sure, but I’d guess she spent little if any time or energy batting that crooked letter around in her mind like a badminton birdie.  I doubt if she looked back and questioned the myriad ever-changing hair dyes of her life, or the perm chemicals, or the nail polish and lipstick shades, or the chilled wines, or the non-organic oranges and lemons growing in her back yard.  She died not of cancer, but of old age, at home, in her nineties, surrounded by family.  Even when her short-term memory went, even when her legs failed her, she never lost her sense of humor or her flair, her flash, her panache.  I think of Dorothy forever red-headed and wearing midnight blue, turquoise or royal purple, wherever she is now.  So let Dorothy be my segue back to hair, to the final chapter of my hair's cancer journey.

I've been, as I wrote before, a nature girl all my life, and not until I let those Latvian women have their chemical way with my hair did I ever use a fake color on my head.  I did have a couple of the requisite perms as a teen, aiming for that Farrah Fawcett loft, and gave in to the unfortunate urge to use blue or lavender eyeshadow (from lids to brows, I'm afraid) in high school, but in college, I threw away all of my make-up when I heard that it was made of whales and stopped cutting my hair.  

So it's pretty weird when I think about the fact that in the last two years, I've had more hair-does than in the previous 46 years combined.  Maybe even out-hair-doing Dorothy Matkin.

Baldness during the 90+ degree Cape Cod summer months of chemo was refreshing but psychologically hard.  Mostly, I covered my head with a scarf, and I started a head-covering collection, thanks to friends and family.  (I gave most of them away after).  I'm very happy that one friend, Tara, saved up a bunch of very cool, hip hats, but never got around to sending them until my hair grew back.  Yeah!  I could keep them, and wear them to this day.  

I was pretty self-conscious of my bald head, and forced myself at times to strip off my head scarf when I swam.  I literally was afraid of freaking little children out.  But one hot day on the Cape, my sister and her kids and I paddled a nylon raft to the middle of a pond and I pulled off my scarf and we dove and did back-flips and rolls on and off for hours in the cool water, and it felt like liberation.  I finally covered my head for fear of sunburn.  I loved that my niece and nephews and even some of their friends grew used to bald auntie, didn't mind when I flung off a headscarf in the house in exasperation.

This photo, which I posted a while back, was taken by my brother in the Bronx Botanical Garden, one of my early childhood haunts.  When you choose to wear a headscarf and not a wig as a cancer patient, you are indeed a marked woman.  Especially when a lack of eyebrows or lashes erases any doubt about whether the scarf is simply a bohemian fashion statement.  (I wore Indian headscarves in my twenties, but had a long ponytail trailing down my back).  Sometimes, the mark comes in handy, like, say, when you get stopped by the cops for rolling through a stop sign.  But mostly, you learn to wear invisible plexiglass walls around yourself when you go out in public.  And sometimes someone taps on a wall to say "Hey, I went through it too, and I'm fine," and that's a good thing.  But other times, it's an invitation for all kinds of bizarre reactions and comments from strangers, and those you hope will ping off the walls and land back in the tapper's face, but mostly, you just sputter some inane response, and then come up with excellent come-backs when it's too late.

And then it was fall, and then it was October, and then it was October 15, my last chemo infusion.  And my friend Margaret flew to Boston and met me at the hospital, where I was in a hospital bed woozy from Benadryl and having a particularly messy blood draw.  After hugging my infusion nurse Myrielle goodbye, and after a nap at the Beacon Inn, and after all the drug-dopiness wore off, to celebrate the end of chemo, Craig, Margaret and I went to dinner on Beacon Street, and then saw a Woody Allen movie in a vintage theatre, and then walked back to our cute room at the Beacon Inn and slept, and in the morning, Margaret bought me a boot.  One black bad-ass boot.  A book like a motorcycle mama would wear.  And so I had to buy the other boot to match.  And I walked down Beacon Street with Craig and Margaret feeling like I'd given cancer everything I had, the hardest kick inside me, and the boots would keep that kick alive.  And they would take me somewhere else, somewhere new.  Bad, black, ass-kicking fuck cancer boots.  

On the drive back from Boston to my sister's house, we stopped at a breast cancer supply boutique.  What else to call it?  That's what it is, basically, a place where you buy bras with special pockets for prostheses, where you get fitted for said prostheses, where you buy special swimsuits, wigs, scarves, hats, and lymphadema sleeves.  No, it's not like the Gap or J. Crew or Victoria's Secret.  Most of the bras and swimsuits are downright ugly.  I'll just say it.  They mostly suck.  Maximum coverage.  Like a lingerie shop for Puritans.  But we did our best, stocked up, and while I waited for my prosthesis to get boxed up, Margaret led me into a tiny room with mirrors, told me to sit down and said, "Eva, just try this on for me, please, just for fun." And because Margaret has said this to me countless times in clothing stores, holding up  some piece of clothing in a color or style I'd never choose for myself, and because she's always been right, I let work the auburn wig onto my head, and I stared at myself in the mirror and started laughing in this weird way that sounded like I was winded.  Maybe it's what they call guffawing, but it kind of had sobs in it, because suddenly, for the first time in six months, I looked almost normal.  I laugh-sobbed and stared at myself in disbelief.  And when Craig saw me he said, "Damn, I'm going to BUY that for you," and he did, and then we drove to the nearest Wall-Mart and bought fish-net stockings, and when I got back to Cape Cod wearing my regalia, and walked up to my sister, at first she actually didn't recognize me.  She really did.  She thought I was some friend of Margaret's.  And then my nephew Quinn's eyes got wide and this huge smile slowly spread across his face and he said, "Auntie Eve, you look awesome."  And I gave the ground a little kick with the toe of my boot.

 I never thought I would wear a wig.  I'm a very self-conscious person, as Craig can tell you.  I'm always hissing "Shhhh" in public, looking around to see if anyone is listening into our conversations.  I don't even like to dance in front of people, and I switched my major from music to biology because of terrible stage fright.  But after going bald, after months of headscarves and no eyebrows or lashes, and everybody knowing my business, I found myself just showing up at the UU church services suddenly with shoulder-length red hair, or at the Hot Chocolate Sparrow, or at the grocery store.  Knowing of course, people would know I hadn't grown this auburn head of hair overnight.  One thing breast cancer did for me was give me a tiny bit more pluck, a tad of "oh fuck it already" attitude, a "who cares what anybody thinks" demeanor, which was refreshing for someone like me.  I guess you could say it made me get over myself.  

One of my favorite wig-era encounters was at a little cafe I used to go to every time I visited my energy healers.  It's in a tiny place called Marstens Mills, and you can actually imagine there being a waterwheel somewhere, and an actual mill, and men in hemp clothing hauling sacks of freshly milled flour over their shoulders.  It's just a winding road through dense forests and suddenly a few business establishments, one of which is the cafe and one of which is a gift shop where I found several of my head scarves.  I had a few minutes to kill before my energy healer session, and so I  went in and ordered my favorite tea flavor and a corn muffin, and the woman behind the counter, who'd served me many times over the head-scarf months, said, in the most off-hand manner, quietly, "I love your hair.  You look great."  And then she told me that she'd admired me from afar, my courage in wearing a scarf, she said, not wearing a wig all through treatment.  She told me she'd had very early breast cancer herself, hadn't had chemo, but she said "I don't think I could have done it, worn a scarf like that."  Besides that bravery on my part had nothing to do with it, I loved that she never said a word for all those months.  That she made me feel like I was just another customer while I was at my sickest.  That she held her comments and thoughts close to her own chest, until I was on my way to recovery, until it was the right time.  And it was the right time.  She knew I'd made it through the fire, and she was there to say hello on the other side.

During radiation, a white infantile fluff began to grow on my head.  So I kept wearing scarves or the wig, depending on my mood of the day, or going bear-headed at home.  And then it was over.  On the day of my last radiation zap, Craig and I left the Cape and headed for Hawaii to recover the rest of the way.  There, I retired my wig for good.  I kept the scarf on for another month, as the white infantile fluff grew, turned grayer, and eventually turned into something more like hair.  Here I am with some dear Alaskan friends who visited during that transition time.

Those were the days of still going to bed by eight every night, of napping in the afternoons, of bone-weariness and tears and fits and sudden terrors and rages and a slow, slow recovery mimicked by the slow, slow growth of my hair.  Before returning to Homer, not wanting to hit town after a year away with a completely gray-white head, I went to a salon for a color job.  The guy said it was semi-permanent, semi-natural, but it was not.  He lied through his teeth.  I was a Latvian brassy red-head again.  Here I am in Prince William Sound on my 48th birthday:

In that place, Prince William Sound, love of my life, I stuck my fingers deep into the spongey wet earth.  I let rain soak my hair and saturate my skin and run down my face.  I did yoga on a black sand beach on my birthday, 48 sun salutations, alone while the tide licked in.  I lay face down on alpine bluff-tops.  I lifted my shirt and pressed my bare chest into the muskeg, into sphagnum moss, which was used as antiseptic bandage material during long-ago wars, I don't remember which.  I collected water in little blue bottles to send to my friend Lauren, going through a hot Cape Cod summer of chemotherapy.  I gathered all of the broken and scattered and crooked pieces of myself.  I crawled back into my animal body.  In my animal body, I knelt to drink, time and again, from streams, replacing every cell within.  Like someone rebuilding a crude hut blown down by a big wind.  I grew a new skin, and a new pelt.  This is where I go when the whys come careening by in the night.  I rebuild my hut, crooked stick by crooked stick, one for every crooked letter I discard.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Mountain Becoming the Mountain Becoming

I used to sit at this kitchen table every morning writing in a journal, writing out the crap until poetry rose to the surface like foam from my mother’s boiling pig’s heads, soup of sustenance and the Latvian unprettified grit of myself out of something others would discard, never want to even look at.   The months before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, the Latvian in me knew something was up, something was fucked up, and rather than naming it breast cancer, she prepared.  I’m convinced she knew; she’s related afterall to a Latvian peasant grandmother who had second sight.  The Latvian peasant in me obsessively photographed, every morning,  the mountain I see across Kachemak Bay at this moment, Grace Ridge.  That spring, I photographed Grace in all kinds of weather.  I even photographed her when storms descended, when she became invisible.  Then, looking at the blue-black erasure of her, the darker smudge of water below, I had to trust she was still there.  I did this unquestioningly; I didn’t know why.  I wrote words too, but words weren’t the main thing; they felt paltry and self-conscious.  Maybe there were no words.  Just the mountain.  So I carried my camera wherever I went, and I photographed Grace behind power lines, above mudflats.   She was there, a steady thing, above everything moving, cars, and snow shrinking back off the landscape, and time, and the tumor growing in my breast, spreading its tendrils.  She stared back at me as she stares at me now, knowing something about all those things.  Knowing something about me.

Before that spring, I used to sit at this window writing poetry trying to talk to Grace.  All one year I wrote a poetry book that way.  Maybe that’s what I’m doing today, the same old thing, but why last night did I stay up too late writing about my hair?  And a voice inside, maybe it’s Grace herself, keeps repeating, “But this is what you are writing now.”    And I have my list of work that must get done today, respond to a grad student, edit my book manuscript, submit that proposal, but I sit down here and open this file and being typing, compelled by that voice that says “But this is what you’re writing now,” and I don’t know why, or what value, or if, or when, or what this will become in the end.   It’s a voice and it’s also my fingers, through which the words seem to come unbidden.  My fingers are like trees in a forest from which birds or leaves flutter out.  And my heart, or the seat of second sight inside me, the peasant grandmother place (her name was Veronika), is like the place in the sea where, Neruda surmised, waves come from.

The spring before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, something in me knew what was going on.  And that something compulsively collected images of Grace Ridge in every weather and filed them away for when they’d be needed, but the images themselves were not the thing, it was the moments, which were birds flying back into the forest of me, carrying Grace Ridge, rock by rock, to someplace inside of me, where she lodged, my protector, my mentor, my bedrock, through the months that were to come, when I lived thousands of miles from her, where I endured the thing called cancer treatment, which broke my body down, which stripped my surface away, removing rocks one by one, but not from the peasant grandmother place where the mountain lives.  Not from the Veronika in me.  And I felt at times truly angry and irrational; I loved Cape Cod and I hated it too, because nowhere was the kitchen table and a window and the view of Grace Ridge draped in heavy blue shadow over heavy wedding cake snow, the way it looks right now.  Nowhere on Cape Cod was the mountain.  And no, I didn’t remember to look inside for it; there was no mountain epiphany.  I bitched and moaned and railed and resisted and threw hate-darts at the pine forests of Cape Cod and sang sad Mary Gautier songs loudly as I drove and wrote crappy poems (or so I thought) and felt sorry for myself.  But all the time, quietly, the mountain was in me.  Otherwise, how could I have survived?  It’s like that, I think, bedrock forming within that we don’t recognize.  We are not strong on the surface, or wise, or brave.  Breast cancer doesn’t make us any of those things; we are ordinary, plain.  We are going through whatever it is as stumbling selves, while inside forces beyond our control and recognition reshape the geography.  

And hair.  What is that?  Snowfall?  Leaf fall?  Rock scree clatter?  Avalanche debris?  Just another tangible thing you can cut, twist, pull, shave, finger, hold, that is also more than itself, that has a second and third the fiftieth meaning.  And writing is the way to unearth it.  But it takes a bulldozer.  It hurts.

In The Chronology of Water Lidia Yuknavith writes about the word “chiasmus.”  She says it is “a world within a world where transformation is possible.  In the green world events and actions lose their origins.  Like in dreams.  Time loses itself.  The impossible happens as if it were ordinary.  First meanings are undone and remade by second meanings.”

I used to sit as this table every morning, looking out this window, watching Grace Ridge appear out of the blackness of night.  I used to write in a black journal, crap that sometimes gave way to a nascent poem, or one sentence of something bigger.  Writing is the hope that by the daily scrawling, composting, puking, sweating and bleeding of words on a page we might witness the impossible happening.  “But this is the writing you are doing now,” something inside me, mountain or muse or grandmother or voice of chiasmus insists, and yet this writing is the same as it’s ever been, taking the sordid ordinary trudge-by-trudge story of my life and undoing it, untying its strings, unlacing its stays, opening it like the unasked-for, even at times unwanted gift that it is.  The gift of second meanings hidden inside the ordinary moment, under the words.  Or the third.  The multiple.  The mountain becoming the mountain becoming the mountain becoming the mountain becoming me.  That’s what I hope and that's why I write.

(Chapter 3 of the hair biography coming later, in case you were sitting on the edge of your seat.  And now I’m laughing).

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Brief History of My Hair: Chapter 2

Pre-ja-vu #2:  Several years ago I started a hair farm.  The thing about my hair, besides its unruliness, is that it’s always been thick and fast-growing, like a cover crop.  It’s peasant hair, which I used to plait into a braid as thick as my wrist.  So one day I heard about an organization called “Locks for Love.”  I heard that a ten-inch ponytail was the appropriate length for a gift of hair to Locks for Love so they could use it to make wigs for cancer patients.  Hell, for me, a ten-inch harvest still left me with plenty.  So one day I shampooed my hair and my friend Tara measured ten inches from the bottom and she tied it off with a hair tie, then braided the hank and tied that off too, and then chop chop went the scissors and there was my braid in her hand.  And still my hair was below my shoulders.  I swished it around, enjoying the new lightness of being, then sent the braid off in a Ziploc.  And a year later, I did it again.  And about 18 months after that, again.

A year before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I flew to Latvia to live at a writers' residency.  That's right, my hair went back to its roots.  Only it turned out I didn't have Latvian hair.  Not by today's standards.  Latvian hair today is blonde, yes, but also red, blue, black, purple, orange, brass, platinum, strawberry, auburn, copper.  What Latvian hair is not is gray.  Unless you're a peasant.  Or a bumpkin.  Or a very old woman.  When I got to Latvia, I was between henna-ings, and some gray was streaking through.  My Latvian women friends pestered me until I relented and let them dye it.  They made it a party, with wine, cheese, platters of meat, cookies, and some boxes of serious product.  This stuff smelled like the Love Canal.  (And yes, I asked my oncologist, but he said no, Latvian hair dye did not give me breast cancer.  Nor did chewing too much sugarless gum).  In Latvian drugstores, an entire wall is devoted to hair dye.  There are almost as many boxes of hair dye in a Latvian drugstore as there are drugs.  It's an institution.  My Latvian friends loved my orange-ish hair and told me it made me look younger, so that made me happy.

So when I headed for Cape Cod two years ago for a routine family visit, the orange was growing out.  My hair was half brown, half orange.  My two-toned head and I went on a bit of a road trip that spring, first visiting my stepson Lars at Kenyon College, hanging out with his swimmer pals in their dorm suite.  This is me and my hair fake-playing beer pong with Lars' girl friend.  This two-toned goof by this point had some serious worry about a lump she'd found in her right breast, but it doesn't show on her face in this photo.  She is trying to maintain a measure of denial.  But if you listened to the mix tape she played incessantly on that road trip, a mix tape full of rather dark and portentous songs by people like Mary Gauthier, you would recognize it as a song track to her near future.

Next stop on the road trip:  Toronto, and my Tante Valija's house.  Here I am with my father's sister, a woman who became very important to me in the months to follow.  You see, over three years ago, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, went through surgery, chemo and radiation, and is, at this writing, doing fine.  During my chemo ordeal, I talked often to Tante Valija.  She gave me all kinds of advice, including directions for cooking chicken livers to up my red blood count.  I practiced a whole Latvian vocabulary related to cancer with this woman, who escaped Latvia during the Russian invasion of WWII, walking and hiding and stealing food and then spent five years in a DP camp.  In Canada, she learned English, cleaned houses, and raised two kids and four grandkids in that house in Toronto, and the families live there still, occupying three floors.  She survived an earlier cancer in her 70's only to be diagnosed in her 80's with pancreatic.  When I visited, three years post, she taught me to make kimenu maizites (caraway rolls) and her famous shrimp noodle salad.  She is my hero.  And not only because she has a smokin' (but non-Latvian) head of post-chemo hair.

And then came cancer.  To me.

They tell you quite exactly when your hair will fall out, how many days after your first infusion of Adriamycin/Cytoxan cocktail, affectionately known as A/C.  The A part affectionately known as the Red Devil.  (They also tell you not to worry; your hair will grow back.  But more on that half-lie later).  They tell you so you can be prepared.  They tell you it's traumatic to find wads of hair on your pillow one morning.  Or clumps in the shower drain.  They tell you so you can take preemptive measures, which I did.  I didn't want to relive the memories of those bald islands of seventh grade.  I went to a place called Hairology on Cape Cod and had my Latvian dye job cut off, a nice thick ten inch braid, which I again sent to Locks for Love, hoping they could do something with the weird color scheme.  Only this time, I included a note, explaining why the gift of my hair was particularly significant.  This is me post-surgery, post Hairology, in my sister's back yard.  I like this cut; I look pretty spunky, so I don't think I've had chemo yet.  Chemo smacked-down that spunk.  Before I went to Hairology, my niece Phoebe gave me some celebrity photos she'd cut out of In Style magazines to take with me to the salon.  Can you detect my inner Halle Berry beaming out of this photo?  I'm afraid Halle was too wimpy to withstand chemotherapy.  She high-tailed it back to Hollywood after the first round.  Note subtly arranged scarf hiding still-healing flat right chest.  And terrible extra-loose shirt bought special before surgery.  (I got rid of every last piece of cancer clothing after I left Cape Cod).  Not sure what to make of the apple.  

Somewhere around my second infusion, it began to thin.  And so my sister and I took preemptive measures again.  No chopper this time; Mara wielded the buzzer.

I look like my brothers when they were little and my mother kept them in brush cuts.  So it's a little Latvian in its own special way.  But it didn't last long, this hip style.  About a week later, Craig and I took a road trip to Darien, CT, to visit my oldest brother Andy.  Sitting at his dining room table with his family, my head began to itch like fury, so I went out on the stoop, bent over, and started scratching my head, and my hair just rained down.  So without a second thought, Andy got an electric hair shaver thingie and a towel.  And right there in that suburban neighborhood on the front step, he shaved the rest of my hair off, down to stubble, which Craig helped me shave to bare skin in the shower later. I wasn't alone in my new style, though, because my 23 year-old sweetheart of a rockin' nephew had shaved his own head in solidarity with me about a week before.  So we were two bald Latvians in Darien.  Here is Andy shaving it off:

I'll end Chapter 2 with this photo, in which I appear to be getting ready to enter a Buddhist monastery.  Which is not really all that far from the truth.    

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Brief History of My Hair: Chapter 1

A broody afternoon, gusty, intermittent rain, low gray sky, intermittent sun, constant snowmelt, house too hot from woodstove, intermittent motivation to clean a bathroom or cook beans or page through old photo albums, Sunday doldrums, blue-toned.  So I'm starting what I've thought about doing for awhile, writing the biography of my hair's breast cancer journey.  Breast cancer people talk a lot about hair.   I even found this quote in a New York Times article; I don't know what to think about it.  “Before cancer, I looked like the girl next door, like Jennifer Aniston.  Now I feel like I have Annie Lennox inside me.  It empowered me to bring out that aspect of my personality."  She's talking about her hair cut.  Aside from trying to wrap my head around this Jennifer Anniston plain old girl next door thing, maybe I'm wanting to speak up to this notion of empowerment via hairstyle, talking back to it.  I mean, we're talking about cancer here.  Versus the will to live.  

There's an Adrienne Rich poem that says "the sea is not a question of power."  I'm still trying to figure out what she means by that, though I know she's right.  I think she's talking about the kind of power that holds sway over us here above the sea, like the power of hair, for example, or the power of youth or the power of skinny or the power of certain brands of boots and jeans or the power of a father or a priest.  The sea is power of another order, as is cancer and the life force.  But we don't live day-to-day with that perspective; we live by the lesser powers.  And that's why when, during the first chemo weeks,  when your hair falls out in clumps on your pillow or in the shower and leaves you bald, bald like maybe you've never been, even at birth, it's a big thing.  And when it grows back white and all curly and you look in the mirror and don't recognize that suddenly older, paler, thinner person, it's a big thing.  But it's not a question of power; hair just grows and grows of its own accord and reclaims your head and you do what you must.  Dye it or crop it or grow it or mousse it or peroxide it or henna it or kink it or straighten it or perm it or streak it but I don't know about any of it being empowering.  Or who this curly-headed person is inside me, hey, maybe Meg Ryan ... or Phyllis Diller.  When before I was merely Janis Joplin (you'd have to have seen me in a windstorm).  You tell me.

But I'll start a little closer to the beginning.

I've almost always been a long-haired gal, well, since I had a choice in matters.  As a child, pre-breasts, my hair was shaped by my mother to a bowl.  We called my mother's hairdresser "the chopper," but I think my mother was responsible for this early chopped cut:

Finally, in my tweenish years, my mother let me grow it, and down my back the tresses crept, but then when I was thirteen, a bizarre cancer pre-ja-vu: my hair began falling out, in patches, alopecia the dermatologist called it, probably stress-induced.  On my head formed big, palm-sized bald islands of scalp I tried to hide with comb-overs.  My little sister, then as later, was my protector, my Athena down the gauntlet high school hallways, fending off the taunts (the comb-overs, as they are wont to do, only called attention to what they were trying to hide, aided by the fact that the steroid ointment I smeared on the bald patches every morning greased the strands; nice).  I sought shelter, also, with the school nurse, who hid me in the sick-room and suggested counseling.  I didn't know about headscarves back then, or cute hats.  No, in desperation, after a third of my hair was off my head and tangling in the shag carpet strands, and clogging up the vacuum cleaner and sink drains and hairbrushes, my parents drove me to Buffalo, to Chippewa Street, where they heard you could buy wigs.  Lots of wig shops there, catering to the hookers who plied their trade on Chippewa in those days, even I knew it, at thirteen.  My mother and father and me in dim little wig shops with multi-toned head-i-cans by the hundreds on shelves and me refusing to look in the mirror as wig after wig was yanked into place, me just saying no, no, no, no.  And tears.  And finally leaving the last shop with a plastic bag containing a pelt of hair they called, ironically, "a fall." My parents bought it in desperation.  A hair piece, long, blond, somehow I was supposed to bobby pin in place to cover the biggest bald islands.  I threw it at the wall.  I never used it.  I comb-over-ed my way through seventh grade.  Once, years later, home from college, I found the fall in the dining room closet, and I practically screamed, as though it were a dead animal.  I kind of wish I still had it now so I could add it to my museum of head coverings.

My sister was there with me again the day when we fought and I banged the top of my head on the bed frame (somehow we were fighting under the bed, I don't know how or why or maybe I was hiding from my little sister who was pretty damn wiry and tough and could kick my ass if she wanted).  When I emerged, she freaked out to see a bruise already forming on the biggest bald island, and we called my mother, who determined it was hair at last growing back, and we three held each other and laughed and cried like we'd just made landfall after surviving a shipwreck.  And when my hair started to tuft out and look a new version of weird, like strange dark hummocks of turf amid rivers of long blonder hair, my mother offered to take me to Irene, "the chopper," but I said no way.  I insisted on a hip (for Silver Creek, NY) new, catering-to-teenagers salon in town, and because I had some pull having almost gone bald, having had numerous hysterical episodes, she took me there, and the hairdresser looked shocked, appalled, and asked my mother, "Who did this to her hair???" Accusingly, as though my mother were a child abuser.

So then it was long hair through the hippie years, with a brief feminist protest when I had a field assistant cut off my long hair with a pair of Swiss army knife scissors, leaving a long rat tail.  A boy-cut I returned to town with at the end of the field season and heard over and over men friends exclaim in actual horror and grief, "What did you do to your hair????  Why???"  And I smugly laughed and said, "I'll give it to you, I saved it, so you can stick it to your own head since you like it so much."  Well, I said that in my fantasies; I was never that spunky or brave.  And after a year or so I let it grow back, and that's how it stayed, as the gray strands appeared, and I experimented with henna, braids, and barrettes.  Here I am at 44 maybe a month before getting diagnosed with breast cancer just about two years ago:

I think I look pretty smug in this picture, don't you?   I look at it now and think, "Eva, you have cancer in this picture; wake up!"  But there I am smiling like a goon.

An now it's time to get back to my pot of beans ... boiling away in that same kitchen, with a lot of the same magnets and pictures on the fridge, and the same orchid in the window, and the same dish rack, and the same bowls high above the cupboards, and the same blue agate necklace dangling from my neck.  But a different me with a different story and a different do.  I'll leave the rest of it for Chapter 2 ... In which my hair will even be involved in a game of beer pong.

On Basket Caskets and Fish Net Stockings

This morning my brother-in-law send me a link to his friend Julia's blog.  She's a photographer and writer. Recently, another friend, an artist named Coco, asked Julia to photograph her nude right before she was to have a mastectomy.  This woman Coco had had breast cancer several years ago, and was about to reenter Cancerland a second time.  I looked at a black-and-white portrait of this stranger, hard into her eyes.  What was it I saw there? Bravery? Fear? Will? Defiance? The expression of cleaved stone? Joan of Arc? Truth? Beauty? Myself? Other? Of course all of these and more, coming back to the truth of a rocky headland pounded by waves, a taiga forest shaped by fire: this is life. Endurance in the face of the unrelenting, like wind, like spring, like winter, like weather, like erosion, like birthdays, like water.

Last night at a friend's 60th birthday party an acquaintance walked up to me and asked what I thought of our friend Mavis' latest art endeavor. Mavis is a fiber artist who makes impermanent art, who weaves baskets and myths and burns them with community as witness (see my blog posts about her burning baskets in Homer last fall), who believes in transience the way some believe in eternal life. Into the burning basket last September I Joan-of-Arced my beautiful body cast, the one my friend Deer helped me make right before my mastectomy.  (How I hate to say it and claim it, my mastectomy, just as I try not to say "my cancer," how I hate the medical term, the mass, the ect, the omy, the word actually turning ownership over to surgeons, to breastcancerland, not to me. I didn't wield the knife, so their mastectomy helped to save my life, and I don't mean to sound bitter or ungrateful or even disrespectful.  I'm grateful, and I was impossibly relieved when I woke up from anesthesia and knew the tumor was gone.  I cried and cried.

What was mine was loss. In the weeks before I lost my breast, my friend Deer helped me make a body cast.  She's the one who plastered the cloth strips to my naked chest. I stood there in front of her with my eyes closed. Later, I decorated the cast in Deer's basement. Looking at Coco's photograph, at her self-portraits painted during her previous treatment, I remembered the numb-drowned-sleepwalker weeks waiting for surgery, when were it not for my list (schedule bone scan, schedule CAT-scan, call healers, schedule MUGA scan, ask Deer about body cast, buy kale, schedule MRI) and my sister, I would have maybe wandered into the piney, sandy woods, forgetting my name and my way back out, stumbling my way to the ocean, and keeping on going.  So I look back on it now almost as if Deer led me by the hand to her basement studio, put both hands on either side of my head and directed my gaze down to the piles of tissue on the table, the pot of mod podge, the paint brushes, as if she closed my fingers around the paint brush.  Said now begin.  The pure white bandaged cast of my torso lying in front of me like some weird resurrection, the shape already a shadow's after-image, incipient memory, past body, ex-self.

The power of art to heal, writes photographer Julia about Coco's work. Last night at the party, as I started to say before, an acquaintance came up to me and asked, "How do you like Mavis's new work?" She meant Mavis's "casket baskets," woven grave cradles of spruce and birch and grass. And at first I wondered, I admit, why she was asking me. Why me? Did she think I should be shopping for a grave cradle? The question loaded with my own freight. Still too many "how are you doing, are you well now, wow, you look great" loaded questions and comments at a party like that, but at the same time, because of that freight, conversations about coffins, death, burial, and another woman who told me about her sister who'd undergone breast cancer treatment years ago, and was okay, but the friend who wasn't, and her anger years later at her friend's death at 32. And in the background, music, and people wandering around holding cups of beer wearing hippie/hottie/homesteader costumes (lots of knee-high boots) and raucous laughing and lights and fishnets and beads and wigs and death.

And then, a collective of tall-booted, fishnet-stockinged 50-somethings in corsets and short skirts and wigs serenaded the birthday boy before diving with him into a fake cake. And then our 50-something skinny friend Conrad in tight leather pants and a lavender muscle-tee dove in after and legs thrashed and there was screaming. There were a lot of dead people in that party-room too flitting or lurking, who were spoken of, and on the drive home Craig and I talked about some of them, the 32 year-old who died of breast cancer, and the mother of one of my students who died of some out-of-nowhere rare cancer, and the young mother environmentalist who died of ovarian cancer and it just seemed incredibly wrong in spite of that fact that so much cancer to so many incredibly wrong people must actually not be wrong but even weirdly normal, right?  And the sense that sometimes life seems like one big performance art spectacle in which you're a brave, daring actor naked on a tiny wooden stage.

And yet when it happens to you, that wrong thing, that cancer, that bottom dropping out of it all, there's that look on your face.  Even if it's never photographed, there's that look on your face and on the inside, that look on your soul, maybe, of stone, water, sand, glacial till, birch bark, and pure white plaster, the look of endurance and enduring and no and wrong and why and bring it on and fuck this shit too.  And I dare you to look into my eyes. And look at what they are taking away, what I am losing. And when you see that look on another's face, a stranger's face, or in a painting, it says no matter what happens, that bedrock is in you.  That bedrock is you.  Riven and rivered amen.

Thank you Julia, thank you Coco.        

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Bird, the Egg, the Light, the Hand: What Resurrection is To Me

April 12

Resurrection: The act of rising from the dead.

Resurrection: The rising again as from decay, disuse, etc.; revival.

Resurrection:  Resurgence, renascence.

Resurgence:  To rise again, as to new life, vigor.

Nascent:  Emerging.

Renascence:  The process of emerging again.

Resurrection:  The sometimes painful process of remerging in a new form after a cancer diagnosis.

Resurrection:  The name of a bay, a fjord, really, not far from Homer, the body of water we splash our boat into each spring.  Named by Russian settler Alexandr Baranov, who weathered out a bad storm one spring, around Easter-time; on Easter, the storm relented.  As happened to Craig and I, years ago.  A huge storm trapped us in Resurretion Bay for days; I hung Easter candy from everyone’s bunk as they slept on Easter morning.  We woke to snow on the deck. 

Resurrection:  Easter in coastal Alaska:  when winter often lets out one last big howl decrying spring, denouncing its demise.  Don’t worry winter, you will resurrect, too, soon enough.  Now step aside.

Resurrection:  Leaving it, the title of my first book.   Leaving any notion of some easy, instant fix.  A premonition?  Leaving aside the one-time, big-time, come-to-Jesus resurrection dream for the smaller resurrections tooled out of each day’s scuffing around in the woods, half-lost.  The stubborn tulip leaf spearing up through the half-frozen earth in my flower bed against the house wall.  The sticky cottonwood sheath still tight around the leaf.  The migratory snipe landing on top of my neighbor’s still-frozen pond.  His ducks laying eggs again.

Resurrection: The epiphany that changes my mind in the instant and is soon covered over by a fresh dump of old snow sliding off the roof.  And the shovel I use to dig back down to bare ground.  Where was that insight?  Gone.  Begin again.

Resurrection:  Each blessed, bloody morning.

Resurrection:  The Easter of my youth remade for my Alaskan life, the Safeway bags of onion skins stored for years in our basement just for this purpose.  My friend’s old flannel nightgown cut into squares, tinted onion-skin burnt sienna from years and years of egg-dying, fabric squares laid out on the kitchen table for another round, another year.  The onion-skin tinted strings for tying the onion-skin- and cloth-swaddled egg bundles.  The April light, entirely unique, an ice-like quality to it, a flat radiance, the way it bathes the kitchen table in an evenness, like a snow-covered field without shadow, the kind of subtle but huge light that made me tie the drapes back in the breakfast nook.  A light that looks swept and scrubbed repeatedly like white pine farmhouse floor.  White-washed light.  A light like no other.  And in that light, we sat, my friend Asia, my stepdaughters Eve and Elli, Craig, and I, constructed our onion skin nests, laid lace across, or wrapped the eggs in embroidery floss, or pressed cilantro leaves to the shells.  Then the bundles boiling in the pot, the water red-brown bubbling soup of weird dumplings. 

Resurrection:  Untying the hot bundles with fast, burning fingers, too impatient to wait for them to cool, the ooh and ah and Craig claiming every good egg was his creation, and the basket of onion skin eggs we held out for the camera.  And my mother, at my sister’s house, watching other fingers tear open the cloth bundles, extract the surprises, what her own fingers once did for us.  This kind of resurrection hard.  The things that carry on with or without us, no longer attached to us, in their new forms, leaving us behind. 

Resurrection: New life, not the rebirth of what was before.  No going back to square one, no starting up where one left off.  So this ritual I learned from my mother flawed and altered.  The broken, marred, imperfect, ephemeral resurrections that I’m talking about, that I love.

Resurrection: The second anniversary of my cancer diagnosis falling on many different days, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter, because I just couldn’t get the date/day right in my head.  So it landed, like a shadow, on each April-lit day’s stretched-out meadow.  So it lingered long into the night, with the light that tinges the sky past 10 pm already.  So it begins a new year for me, carrying forward both the light and the shadow, walking toward who-knows-what.

Resurrection: New Year’s Day.  But not some given date, celebrated in tandem with hordes of others, but self-chosen. April 8.  My life a messy bundle constructed of saved bits, string, rags, onion skins, a nascent self I can enclose in one hand, like a caught bird  The bird, the egg, and light that bathes it all in a moment’s clarity.  And the hand slowly opening.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Run Toward the Darkness and Shine

April 6

My brain didn’t remember the exact anniversary of my cancer diagnosis; I had to look it up today.  I thought it was today, but it’s actually the 8th.  My body remembered, though.  Maybe it’s the light, the decaying snow on the ground, or some internal chronometer.  Whatever, it pinned me to the bed last night in an intense flashback as I tried to fall asleep.  What I’m trying to say is that I hadn’t been thinking about it.  And suddenly, there I was.  My heart pounding, reliving the memory of the moments before my breast biopsy, when, in the dark ultrasound room, the radiologist walked in and said, even before he’d inserted the needle into my breast, even before anyone had examined the tumor’s cells under a scope and typed the words “invasive ductal carcinoma” into a file bearing my name, days before the telephone call with its good and bad news (it was cancer; it was treatable; I’d lose my right breast; my left was clear), that white-coated bald little man walked into that room after examining the mammogram films and blurted, “I can tell you right now, breast conserving surgery will not be an option for you.”  It was well before I’d even considered any option at all; I still carried one tattered shred of hope that “the mass” was benign.  Long before I asked my head to wrap itself around the possibility that I might actually lose my breast.  So his words hit me with the force of some crazy-ass rogue wave barreling in and driving me under and holding me there, like one of those crazy-ass big wave surfers.  I can recall, effortlessly, instantaneously, the feeling, though I’ve never surfed in my life.  I’ve never been held under by a wave, rogue or otherwise.  I’ve never been in an earthquake where the ground turned liquid and began to roll.  But yes I have. I was held under.  The ground under my feet turned liquid and pitched and rolled.

Lying there in bed last night, I literally shook my head violently, trying to dislodge myself from that moment, bring myself back to the present, to the second floor of my house in Homer, Alaska, a waning moon leaking its light into the bedroom from between drawn curtains.  And then I had a hot flash. 

Somehow, sometime after, I fell asleep, and towards morning, I dreamed I was in a forest at night, a dense forest of tall trees with a dirt path cutting through, a straight line to a vanishing point of wilderness, a heart primeval.  There was a moon, but it was mighty dark, and the moonlit sky was a narrow river above me.   I knew that in the forest lived brown bears, and that they’d be roving about in the night, and I was alone and had to walk that path through the trees, the forest close on either side of me.  And it was danger.  I’d have to enter that forest and keep walking until I got to the other side, which was where Craig was, where home was.  I had no choice.  So I started walking and screaming, “Hello bears, hello bears” at the top of my lungs and panicking, my heart trying to beat its way out of my mouth.  I was filled with abject terror.  I don’t think, in my real life, I’ve ever experienced terror that immense.  Or I’ve never let myself.  Is that the fear of death?  When I woke from the dream, I felt no relief, nor residual fear.  Only recognition:  This was a big dream.  And I know that place.  That place is real.  It’s a real path I am, on some level, continually walking.  But what’s not real is the nature of those bears; they are not out to terrify and murder me; they form no gauntlet.  The gauntlet is formed by my thoughts, my imaginings, perhaps by deepest darkest worst projections of what death might be.  But is not.  The bears, my waking self knows, are simply bears, going about their nocturnal bruin rambles.  And yes, it’s terrifying to walk through this forest of unknowns, this life of uncertainty and yes, danger.  But the forest is mystery; it’s beautiful for that.  And it can be safe to walk there, at least in the ways that matter.  I believe the most sacred part of myself remained unscathed while being held under by an enormous wave.  In wild forest where I walk, my fiercely pounding heart perhaps warns me not so much of the presence of mortal danger, but reminds me that in its midst, I’m so damn alive.

So this morning, after telling Craig about the dream, and drinking coffee, and firing off emails, and heading to yoga class, during shivasana, my friend Asia, the instructor, read a poem by Hafiz.  And within it was a caption to my dream:

In the overpowering felt splendor
Every sane mind knows
When it realizes – our life dance
Is only for a few magic
From the heart saying,
“I am so damn

And to end a day that now, at 9 pm, feels like one continuous dream, here is the inscription visiting writer Steve Almond wrote in a book I had him sign this evening after his talk and reading:  “Run toward the darkness – and shine.”    

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The 101st River Crossing

Spring.  Will it always be a season of recall?  A year ago I was writing about radiation recall in this blog.  My body remembering its ordeal.  A red rash on my face, arms and chest.  Now almost two years have passed since I was diagnosed with breast cancer in April of 2010.  And this morning I recalled a couple women – strangers -- I met along that year’s weird, difficult way.  It’s been a whole year since I returned to Alaska after months on Cape Cod, returned a different person, inside and out.  Returned not to reclaim or re-inhabit a life, but to figure out exactly what that life was about, what it looked like, what it meant.  My home, Alaska, was my mirror.  Into its face I gazed every morning through my kitchen window for some glimpse of my own new face.  On my daily walks and runs I breathed its breath, trying to understand the composition of my own breath.  Its birdcalls and branch-clatters and wind-sighs echoed tiny new-formed sounds of a soul reconstructing itself (as I wrote in a poem, out of nothing more than sticks and paper, it seemed), a big empty within gradually being refilled:  bare ground upon which sprouts appear, and prints of animals, and suddenly it’s summer.  It took a year.  A year for a forest to grow up.  It happened so fast, it left a part of me behind.  Now that part is wandering in the new-growth forest, drawing maps, writing field guides to plants, animal tracks, trees, birds, mushrooms.  Testing the waters.  Studying the rocks and ice formations.  Underneath the work I’m doing on the surface of things, the teaching, the writing, is this other work, a natural history investigation.

My hair is a symbol of this, I suddenly realize.  It’s now thick again, curly, a bit wild and unkempt, in need of a trim.  A tangle, like an alder patch, the stuff that grows up when the earth’s damaged, when the ground’s been disturbed.  After glacial scour, avalanche, tsunami, it’s alder:  the colonizer, the scrapper.  That’s how life – the forest around me – feels.  I can’t completely believe it’s mine.  And yet, that woman I was at 46, that woman lying on an examining table, mind racing far, far ahead of the words issuing forth from doctors’ and nurses’ mouths, watching, like clouds, the looks crossing their faces, worry, dismay, that woman is not me either.  Her life is not mine any longer.  I left her back there, it seems.  The language of cancer careering  past her like a gale.  She is lying on the table, and at the same time she is lying on the earth, looking past that wind, above it, so her soul can escape.  Her soul left her body during those day, caught itself in a branch.  It is safe there.  Safe from chemotherapy, needles, radiation beams, IVs.  A poet I know has a book with a title that’s always haunted me:  And Her Soul Out of Nothing.  Sticks, paper.  Wind.  Bird call.  Snow flake, raindrop.  Soul out of melt, out of shadow and leaf-fall and gravel.

Talking to my sister-in-law MiSook this morning, I recalled two strangers from that time of treatment.  Suddenly they appeared, one, then the other, in my memory’s field.  Out of the many faces of my breast cancer year, theirs, vivid, clear. When I close my eyes they are standing in front of me.  One, in the foyer of the Dennis yoga studio where I practiced a sweaty, cleansing form called Bikram in the five weeks leading up to my surgery, and where I practiced gentler forms as I went through chemo.  I was bald, wearing a head scarf that day, and after class, as I was putting on my jacket, this woman said, out of the blue, “I know what you’re going through.”  I looked at her.  She was petite, dark-haired, in her thirties, olive skin, beautiful, that pure no-make-up natural beautiful, and I’d noticed during the class the suppleness of her body.  She radiated health, yoga-glow.  She told me that five years before, she’d been diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer after giving birth to a child; she’d gone through chemo with an infant in arms.  “I’m fine now,” she said, with utter confidence.  “And you will be too.”  At the time, it was like talking to someone across a river.  Do you remember the scene in the movie Into the Wild, when the half-starved, half-crazed main character finally decides to make a break for civilization, hikes to the riverbank, but finds it in full flood, water racing, angry, turbid, concrete-gray, deep?  That kind of river.  And that woman was standing on the other side, in another landscape, a landscape that to me felt utterly inaccessible.  A landscape that looked a lot like the one I inhabited, but was not. Cancerland is where I stood, that other place, the land of illness and treatment.  And while the words of many others, and the experiences of my body, flowed past, beneath my watching but detached soul, that woman and her words brought my soul back into my body for a moment.  Her words didn’t flow past so quickly.  They entered my body.  “I’m fine now.  You will be too.”  What she didn’t say was what fine meant, what place I’d come to inhabit, what it was like, that landscape on the river’s other side. 

Now I stand here and look back across the other way.  The wind is blowing through my crazy post-chemo hair. I scan the opposite shoreline through binoculars.  In case there’s a woman standing there looking lost in her head scarf, in her wig, with her lymphadema sleeve, with her pathology report, with her scars and fears.  And there, I spot her.  She’s just about across the river, actually.  It’s Denice, who commented on my Facebook photo today, how all the hair on my head gave her hope.  “Denice,” I call from across the water.  “Over here.  Denice, it’s me.  I know what you’re going through.  I’m fine now.  And you will be too.”

Getting ready to post this, I saw that it's #101.  And just like all the other river crossings I've made in the last two years, I didn't know until it was already done, that I was on another bank.  In a new century.  All I can say so far:  there are great horned owls on this side of this river.  Calling at dawn in the woods around my house.  In this new century, snow melts off the roof all night.  And the earth under a basement window cracks as a green shoot breaks out.  I like it here.