“He seemed to be depressed, for he went on writing.” These words are from an ancient Japanese text quoted in poet Mary Ruefle’s essay “On Fear.” She also quotes Rilke: “I have taken action against fear. I sat up the whole night and wrote; and now I am as thoroughly tired as after a long walk in the fields at Ulsgaard.”
Last night, powerful rain woke me up at 2 am. The island is profoundly thirsty, and it soothed me to think of that water quenching the dry earth, saturating the porous soil, soaking deep to reach the roots of newly planted native trees and baby beets and beans in the garden. I thought also of the next day, when my new book would officially be published. The book, along with this blog, and my recent project of writing prayer-poems, represent my living out the truth of those quotes. Writing is the way I take action against the unknown, the void, the doubt, the terror. And it’s been that way since I can remember. As a child, I had two secret friends: Jesus and my journal.
Often in the midst of gravest duress, actually, I stop writing. When my mother suffered a brain aneurysm, I was so consumed with the daily coming to terms with that tragedy and its reverberations through our family, I couldn’t bring myself to recount each day’s horrible events. But during cancer treatment, my therapist urged me to write. Not even urged. It was my homework: to write poetry each week and read it to her. My baldness, my nausea, my homesickness, my fear, my acid reflux, my peeling skin, my steroid-induced breakdowns, the stifling heat of Cape Cod that summer, none of it struck me as the stuff of poetry. I was drowning in physicality. I was in no position to be transformed. I could recognize none of it as fodder for what a writer seeks: epiphany, meaning, insight. Writing didn’t bring relief. And yet, I believe, those words on a page, those discards – rinds, pits, skins, bruises, bitter leafy matter – formed the soil from which later writing would come. It took time, and rain, and words.
My oncologist asked me once if writing the blog didn't make things harder for me, and I told him it was the opposite. For me, to face my fear on the page, to write my way into and through, affords the only antidote I know to fear’s consuming power. Fear perhaps is some unnamed thirst inside me. It thirsts to be heard, witnessed. It thirsts to speak. To hear that choked whisper of a voice, I must be fully present, engaged with questions, ideas and my life.
Perhaps some of my loved ones’ concerns over my continuing to write about my experience with cancer for over two years, and for keeping the name “Alaskan in Cancerland” as the blog’s masthead, mirror the unknown Japanese author’s concern for his friend, who “seemed to be depressed, for he went on writing.” For the one who is afraid, and writes as balm, or writes because he or she has no other effective medicine, it is hard to explain this relationship. Don’t we want to chase fear or despair out from its hiding place in the corner and show it the door? The way this morning I swiped blow-in dirt off the window ledge and swept a panful of detritus from the floor beneath the window and tossed it out? Why engage with difficult emotional states? For me, it’s this way. Life will never cease unexpectedly storming on me. Dirt will blow in again to rime the furniture. My loved one will track muddy footprints across the wood floor. All of this coming at me: my impulse is to make something of it, all of it. For me, it is like paint or clay. It is my given material, what I have to work with, the ordinary detritus of a day, as well as the extraordinary mudslide of traumatic event. To approach fear is to approach the edge of the known inner world, my limit. The heart thumps, fear urges me forward, across the threshold, and line by line, a poem appears in my notebook, a paragraph coalesces out of a dark night.
So cancer found its way into my memoir about a vanishing orca family. So orcas found their way into my blog about cancer recovery. So invasive birds – saffron finches – found their way into yesterday’s poem about my mother. So this fine, almost invisible rain, falling now out of a dingy sky, finds its way here, at this point in the blog. As well as my empty coffee cup. And one white sailboat my love mistook for a moment to be a breaching humpback whale this morning. And the drum-skin the metal roof became last night, waking me. And me lying there, listening.
I am writing this for you, whoever you are, you who are about to enter, or are drowning in, or are crawling out of the experience of cancer. This is a dispatch from the other side, the side of life, however long. I will meet you here.