Sunday, January 20, 2013

One Morning, Out Walking, the "S" Word Met the "W" Word

A writer is a person who writes.  A survivor is a person who survives.  Why did those two sentences suddenly alight on the same branch this morning?  As though scared out of the tall grass by my walk with poet Mary Ruefle’s book, when she said: “What I am trying to tell you is this: every time you write an unengaged letter, you are wasting another opportunity to be a writer.  The greater the disparity between the voice of your poems and the voice of your letters, the greater the circumference of the point you have missed.  The demands upon you, as a writer, are far greater than you could have guessed when you filled out your application form and mailed it.  How far are you willing to travel this love you profess to have for words?” 

It was my friend Sean who told me that a writer is a person who writes.  He told me that many people he knew said they wanted to write, but never got around to it.  He told me over and over again, when I first started writing in earnest, “Eva, you are a writer.”  He would come over and find me upstairs at my computer, typing the letters that formed words that formed sentences on the screen.  To this day, his words hound me, question me, reassure me.  I call myself a writer.  But am I writing?  Or, other days, I lament that I’m not writing what I think I should be writing; I’m writing something else that engages me at the moment.  I am writing.  I am being a writer. 

And since I’m a writer, I concern myself with words.  I puzzle over them, even unconsciously sometimes.  For example, I do not like the word “survivor” anymore.  It implies a hierarchy, and an agency, that doesn’t exist for me.  It implies that certain heroic people who continue to live a life after some disaster deserve this mantle.  While others, who succumbed, or crumbled, or struggled in obscurity, do not.  When it comes to cancer, it is even more fraught and dangerous a word.  Cancer actually brings up a lot of judgment from others.  I know people who still carry anger at loved ones for choices they made or didn’t make regarding treatment of cancer.  If only he/she didn’t wait so long … If only he/she didn’t get chemotherapy.  If only he/she listened to us.  The other day, working in the outdoor courtyard of the coffeeshop, I overheard such a conversation among a group of women.  Someone had received chemo and died anyway, not from the cancer, but from the chemo, was the implication.  I almost got up from my table and walked over to say “I am alive because of chemotherapy.”  And I know as these words form on the screen in front of me that some of my friends would argue with me vehemently.  I have heard their theories before.  That I am alive for some other reason, some approach I took, despite “Western” medicine.  And perhaps they are right.  I have no way of knowing why I am alive today, healthy today.  I believe surgery, chemotherapy and radiation stopped the advance of my aggressively advancing cancer.  And if one day I succumb, I will have no way of knowing why, either.  It is perhaps a characteristic of being human that we so badly want to know why.  It’s certainly a characteristic of writers.  Every poem and essay I write is driven by what my mother-in-law called the "crooked letter.”  Y.   So I can’t blame anyone who invents theories about cancer, that disease most resistant to answers.  Cancer is a crooked word, a crooked disease, and it elicits crooked attempts at answers.

I suppose I believe the hospital's oncology social worker (who’s herself survived two bouts of breast cancer) when she says “survival is a crapshoot.”  We survive or don’t, just like we stub our toe or don’t, or get rear-ended or don’t. Today I am healthy, because I feel that way, and that is what I know and can say about survival and breast cancer.  Tomorrow?  We’ll see.  I don’t want to be set apart from any of my sisters and brothers by the "S" word, either, even those who have died or are dying of the disease.  In the parlance of breast cancer, a woman is considered a survivor from the day of her diagnosis.  I think this is supposed to imply a democratic stance.  Until the day you die, you are a survivor.  But how does the woman diagnosed with metastatic cancer feel about that word?  I can’t say.  I can only say what it feels like to a woman who was diagnosed and treated for non-metastatic cancer that had nonetheless spread to her lymph nodes.  And perhaps it’s my long history as a mariner, or my Catholic childhood with its mystical aspects, or my dabbling as a 20-something in Wiccan rituals.  But it feels like baiting fate, dangerous, to say “I am a survivor” out loud.  Perhaps in my mirror, as an affirmation, one of those private things we say to bolster our flagging confidence in ourselves, and it would be okay.  Nonetheless, I celebrate every day of my life post-cancer, even the ones I tried to doze through, when I felt so sick from chemo, and couldn’t escape my body’s prison, even into sound sleep.  From this vantage, those worst days remind me of something my friend Lou Brown said once.

We were on a winter mountaineering trip in the Alaska Range.  Her husband Jon and I were graduate students.  Jon was a mountaineer, and ten years younger than Lou.  And while Lou was (and is) strong and fit and outdoorsy, Jon was of another order.  I still think Jon’s skeleton is like that of a raptor, or the frame of a ski-plane: light yet impossibly strong.  Once, at the end of a full day’s hard trek up a glacier, exhausted, we all dropped our packs and rested before we had to begin digging a snow cave for the night’s shelter.  Not Jon.  He charged up a steep slope, took off his climbing skins, and danced back down.  These were heavy metal-edged backcountry skis.  He didn’t execute the slow, exacting telemark turns those skis are made for, he kept them parallel, and he flitted.  I said he seemed to have the bones of a raptor, so I won’t say he moved like a flying fish or dragonfly or water-strider, but like a peregrine falcon.  More than two decades later, I can replay that vision of him, down to the bare rocks he dodged on his descent.  Well, that was Lou’s husband, and for Lou and I, it took a measure of fortitude to even arrive at that spot, with our fifty-pound packs.  It was my first or second mountaineering trip, and another moment that is just as vivid in my memory as Jon’s descent, is another, when Lou and I had stopped to rest and she was sharing some of her frozen butter cookies with me.  I couldn’t imagine trudging on for hours more and felt demoralized, sweaty, shoulders aching.  I’d been admiring the way she moved her body across the snow.  She didn’t flit, like Jon, she was more like a Sherpa, or a bear, taking short but steady strides across the surface, leaning slightly forward, not letting herself get too hot, like me.  Slow, determined.  She described to me another endurance trip with Jon, on foot, climbing a mountain.  She said something like this:  “I was struggling inside, hating it, and I finally realized that to get through it, I had to tell myself that it was one step at a time.  Every step brought me closer to the end, and that the whole distance was a series of single steps.”  Lou had studied meditation, and I recognized Buddhist philosophy at the heart of her approach.

So maybe that’s where I end up this morning, with this writing about the word “survivor.”  Perhaps it’s more helpful to think about "big" abstract (and even iconic) words like "writer" and "survivor" in a different form.  The verb form instead of the noun, the action instead of the label.  When I sit down to write – whether a letter, diary entry, essay, blog post, or poem – in a way that follows a trail of a question, one word at a time, I am being a writer.  I am embodying the role; I am engaged.  And in the same way, when I live my life by following a trail of questions, pursing my curiosity, focusing not on what’s in the future, but on the patch of earth at my feet, or the people sitting down to breakfast with me this morning, it doesn’t matter whether I am, literally, a cancer survivor, with a capital "S": lucky or cured or blessed.  Hell, none of us is a survivor in the end.  Yet I am being a survivor.  I am being alive. 


  1. Taking a break from writing I find this. Thank you. I am writing something that I have decided I can only get my brain around one fame at a time. One picture, made with words, described at a time. One step at a time. My Dad and I used to climb mountains and he said the same thing. My Mom said, bird by bird. Thanks Eva. Say hi to warm and vitamin d for me.

    1. I'm so glad to hear you are writing. "One frame at a time." Yes, that's the way I wrote my graduate thesis, and every difficult piece of writing since. Thanks for sharing this. I miss your writing!