Wouldn't it be nice if going through something truly tough -- like cancer, or the death of a child or spouse or sibling, like caring for a parent with dementia, like the loss of a job or a dream -- wouldn't it be nice if surviving the hardest thing, coming through it battered and weakened, came with an envelope arriving in the mail, and in that envelope came a special ticket? Imagine this. You walk to the mailbox, feeling finally that you can take a deep and clear breath, feeling finally that you have begun to re-inhabit your body, that grief has eased up. You open your mailbox and inside you find a letter, a thin envelope. What could it be, something so slender, weighing no more than a leaf? You open it to find a ticket. It is a "get out of hard stuff free" ticket. Maybe it has an expiration date, maybe as soon as two years hence, but still. "For going through what you just went through, you are hereby given a break. This ticket buys you 24 months of smooth sailing." Cool, you think, pocketing the ticket. Nice.
But of course there is no such ticket. And if you're a writer (or any kind of applicant to anything), a slim envelope like that, arriving in the mail, is the opposite of a ticket to free happiness; likely it's a rejection letter. No, having survived cancer gives you one certain ticket: a pass back into the land of the living, back into life, with all of its heartbreaks and unanticipated joys. The slim rejection letter arrives in the mail, the phone rings in the middle of the night, the computer crashes, the commuter crashes into the back of your car. A loved one tells you that they're disappointed or hurt or frustrated with you and you feel ashamed and have to apologize more than once. And sometimes this happens all at the same time or in rapid succession. During the ordinary mundane disappointments of life, where is that "I survived cancer, this little thing doesn't matter, is surmountable, etc." perspective? The "water off a duck's back" and "roll with the punches" and "consider the source" and "don't sweat the small stuff" and "ommm" and "be the still pond" wisdom of cancer? And maybe you even secretly wish you could still play the old "cancer card" in moments of fumbling and screwing up. Thinking people will still cut you slack because you were, yes, a victim. But after two years, the cancer card has, at least for me, reached past its expiration date.
It's been one of those weeks, rejection letters, screw-ups with loved ones, apologies needed. And then, this morning, an email from a friend who is moving out of a long-term relationship, literally. Extricating her physical life from the life of a woman she loves and lived with for many years. My friend is 60; my friend will start a new life outside of Alaska, as a single woman. She is an artist, a writer. She wrote to ask her friends for "energy" to get her through the packing and grieving and leaving. I wrote back to her and for some reason a few of things people have said to me over the years about strength popped into my mind, and they led me back to a poem. My friend Sean always says "stay strong, Eva." Thinking of him saying that to me, I remembered a poem by Marge Piercy, "For Strong Women." So I went to my bookshelf and found it: perhaps the first poetry book I ever owned: The Moon is Always Female. This has been a kind of reference book, obviously, as evidenced by its broken spine, its water-stained pages, the warped corners, the faded and battered cover. The book falls (literally) open to "For Strong Women." The poem opens this way: "A strong woman is a woman who is straining." But the part I typed into an email to my friend was this:
A strong woman is a woman who loves
strongly and weeps strongly and is strongly
terrified and has strong needs.
And then these lines, from the last stanza :
What comforts her is others loving
her equally for the strength and for the weakness
from which it issues, lightning from a cloud.
Lightning stuns. In rain, the clouds disperse.
Only the water of connection remains,
flowing through us. Strong is what we make
I have read many beautiful and artful poems in my life, but perhaps no other has taught me as much. I spent decades ashamed of my "weakness" and "neediness," decades questioning my own voice, as a writer and as a human being. And of course I still do. Cancer did nothing to assuage my self-doubt as a writer, my despair at every rejection, my fear of sending out my work because of it. Every rejection reenacts the old internal struggles, reawakens the old internal critics, throws me into a bottomless funk. When I read "For Strong Women" again this morning, once again it did its magic, reminding me of what it actually means to "be strong." And what a liberation, to be taught that it means, in many ways, to NOT be "strong." Actually, its an utter re-definition of the word "strong," including within it what's weak, and even futile, wrong-headed. Earlier in the poem, Piercy puts it this way: "She is trying to raise a manhole cover with her head, she is trying to butt her her way through a steel wall. Her head hurts." I once heard the poet Sharon Olds give a craft talk. She was a tiny, late-middle-aged woman in a blouse and plain knee-length skirt. She had nice slender legs and silver hair tied back simply in a ponytail, and she sat in a chair and talked to the audience as though to a group of intimate friends. Her speaking voice was surprisingly soft. One thing she said stayed with me through years and years. She said that through out her twenties, she kept doubting her poems, her claim to be a "poet." She felt terrified that she didn't understand what a poem really was (as decided by some vague coterie of "they," the editors of magazines, the judges of literary prizes, book publishers, and anthologists). She kept trying to write "poems" but what was a poem? Did she even know? Was she successfully writing one? One day, in her early thirties, she just gave up. She decided stop trying to write "poems," and to simply write what she needed to write. Now she is one of our most acclaimed (and also controversial), contemporary poets. (Controversial because some criticize the intensely personal subject matter she admits into her poems -- the raw material of her own life). What combination of forces gave her the strength to claim her voice, her right to put her life to the page in her own way? I don't know, but her words come back to me, give me strength, when I think to myself, "I don't even know what a poem/essay is anymore. I've forgotten how to write one." So I can't help but think that another's words (maybe Marge Piercy's?) gave her strength too, way back when.
"For Strong Women" ends this way: "Until we are all strong together, a strong woman is strongly afraid." Is there any truer sentence for people who have experienced breast cancer? But today it spoke to me in my post-breast cancer existence. After reading an email rejection, crying for a while, feeling sorry for myself (damn it, where is my ticket?!), telling Craig how much I HATED being a writer, how I BADLY wanted to quit; after getting the note from my friend about struggling through her splitting-up ordeal; after finding Marge Piercy's poem, I felt driven to write. I came here, to the place where I write out of urgency, not caring if it's literary, it it's an essay, a prose poem, a self-absorbed journal entry. In another poem in The Moon is Always Female, Piercy writes " Don't think because I speak strong words that I am always strong." The poem is called "Complaint of the Exhausted Author."
In a way, there is a ticket after cancer, redeemable at odd and random
moments. I wrote about it in my last post. It's the ticket to be
deliriously happy just to be alive and well, from time to time slayed by the luck of it. But that's a ticket given and taken away. It's valid for the space of minutes or hours. The harder work is what we do in the long stretches without tickets. So what else can I do? When I think of the graduate students I mentor in creative writing, who will someday open those slim rejection envelopes too? Send my essays out again, send my poems, make myself strong for them. When I think of the loved ones I've recently frustrated, disappointed, angered, what can I do? Suck it up. Say I'm sorry, again. Forgive myself. Let it go. Here is the last stanza of one of the last poems in Piercy's book; it is ostensibly about the speaker's mother. But perhaps it's about all of us, our failures, the often dark and despairing places from which art, like a watermelon vine from a compost heap, arises. It's called "Crescent Moon Like a Canoe:"
My muse, your voice on the phone wavers with tears.
The life you gave me burns its acetylene
of buried anger, unused talents, rotted wishes,
the compost of discontent, flaring into words
strong for other women under your waning moon.
Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Mortality. It’s pretty much a cliché that a diagnosis of cancer causes a person to say something like “I’ve faced my mortality.” Mortality is, if not totally concrete to a person who’s had cancer, then is quite a bit less abstract than it was before. For me, in the concrete, tangible moments of my life, my mortality asserts itself as a prickling under my armpits, or a sudden gasp of breath, of a strange thought like “I want this song playing in my ear when I die,” or terror clenching me so tight in its grip that all I can do is curl up in a ball and wait for it to let go and pass, or even a twinge along the thin red scar on my chest. It’s like a cold flash. Afterward, I get up and go about my business. Just now mortality came to me when I played a certain chant I love called “Ong Namo.” I’d come back to my room after drinking coffee and chatting with students, and I wanted some music in the background while I worked on writing my lecture for tomorrow. The chant begins this way: “Oh my beloved, kindness of the heart, breath of life, I bow to you. And I’m coming home. (Repeat 4x). And then the Pali chant begins with a flute, drums, etc. I was putting some dishes away from lunch, and the part of my mind which acknowledges my mortality imagined those words playing at the hour of my death. Who thinks that??? the part of my brain that believes I’m immortal asked then. Who is that morbid??? Cut out the Eastern European darkness, damn it. Be an American, damn it! And then, as I continued to do my chores, washing out my coffee cup in the sink, it struck me that one doesn’t face mortality. Mortality is, in my imagination, as un-faceable as the burning bush, as a nuclear flash, as (for me, anyway) Phillipe Petit’s very first step onto the high wire stretched between the World Trade Towers in the pre-dawn twilight. Or the moment when he lies down on that wire, out in the middle of its sway, in the wind above NY City. I can’t describe the face of my own mortality, or the abstract face of everyone’s Mortality. The abstract idea is like some stone monument of poetry and philosophy that’s out on a vast desert, and no one’s ever found it. Mortality has not stared me in the face. I wouldn’t recognize the face of mortality if it cornered me in Safeway.
No, I realized, drying my hands on a towel, mortality is tiny. Mortality is inside me. A seed planted deep. The seed has always been there (I’m thinking of the lines of a poem right now, Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck,” when she says “There is a ladder. The ladder is always there, hanging innocently close to the side of the schooner." I'm thinking There is a seed. The seed is always there, planted innocently in the earth behind the solar plexus.) The seed is always there, yes, like the innocently dormant cancer cell, or the faulty gene, or the coding within each cell describing its senescence, or the life and death of the apple tree trapped within the seed, there at birth, in each and every one of us. But it is buried so deep, we forget it's there. Or we never knew. You can even eat an apple in such a way that you never see the seeds within it. But in the last two years, from time to time, I have seen the seed, felt its presence in various ways, as flat-out terror, as grief, as worry, as despair. But yesterday I felt it in a different way, and this is another aspect of the seed, another piece of its biology.
Some background: I’m in Anchorage right now, teaching for 12 days in the university’s low-residency MFA program in creative writing. So I have this little dorm room of my own. And being a nester, and having driven here in my friend’s spacious car, I packed along a ridiculous amount of stuff from home: about 25 lbs of books, about 25 lbs of organic carrots in a cooler, a juicer, a quilt, a yoga mat, several pairs of shoes, and the makings of a tiny altar. As usual, I sat cross-legged in front of that altar first thing yesterday morning to do my daily ritual, reading a little something from the Book of Awakening, writing out some intentions/prayers, writing out some gratitudes, sometimes now even a rote activity. But this time, for some reason, writing out what I was grateful for the previous day (i.e., eating Indian food with three writer friends, one of whom was poet Gary Snyder; for Derrick, Nancy, Rich, Kristine, Margaret, Greta, Zack, Sherry; for poetry; for my run; for my health; for my recovery; for spontaneous writing with a flash-mob by the pendulum in the UAA library that got me out of an ego-funk, etc.), I was suddenly overcome (if I weren’t on the floor I’d have likely dropped to it) with gratitude for being alive, for being a living, breathing creature on this earth, for getting to be here on earth, for two more years of friendship, writing, thinking, reading, being with whales, running, yoga, meals, gardens, travels, conversations, coffee, walks, misunderstandings, music, waking up beside my love, showers, hikes, trips to Prince William Sound, kayak paddles, rain storms. It felt like I was being swept up by a flash flood thick with memory. Maybe it’s that daily listing of gratitudes that had suddenly “lipped the orgiastic pool” as the poet Stanley Kunitz wrote in “King of the River” (which is about salmon but really about sex and mortality). I mean I started sobbing. I mean I started saying thank you over and over again, and I wanted to call someone (I actually did walk across the hall to knock on my friend Nancy’s door, but she was at breakfast, which is good, as I might have appeared slightly crazed, like the reincarnation of Christopher Smart dropping to his kneels in a public square chanting the praises of his cat Geoffrey). I wanted to tell someone how god damned lucky I felt.
To hold that seed, small, oval, mahogany-skinned. For a moment, to hold it in your hand. For a moment, to look right at it. Does it also look back? Because to look at mortality is not to look at death (who can, really?) but to look at life. And isn’t that just as scary? Because isn’t life just too rare to comprehend, doesn't it burn too brightly, isn't too incomprehensible, the unlikelihood that you’re alive at all, and that you get to hold a moment in your hand? Inside that moment, I was a person with no future, only a past, and that past spilled its banks, and carried me downstream. And I let it.