I think I am struggling with fear, but I am not. I am struggling with something else. Fear is a smokescreen. These last three weeks, worried about an ache in my side, I’ve been dragged down by the feet into a vaporous place. Unfocused. Numb. Yet scared. All the logic, self-talk, and advice can’t bump me up and out of this place. It’s not that simple. It takes more work, digging, clawing my way, not out, but deeper in. I am trying to see beyond the smoke. My brother-in-law last night said, “When you are afraid, go into your fear, go deeper, and it will dissipate.”
Today I am on another airplane. I’m on my way home after five days in Encinitas. Craig and I flew down for a poetry reading in LA, and to visit family. Every day, I ran or walked, sometimes in sun, sometimes under low clouds. I was drawn to the beach, a stretch of flat sand tracked by gulls, whimbrels, sanderlings and their kin. A low-sloping beach sheened by the vitreous leavings of waves. A flat horizon, next landfall, Hawaii. Surfers in black wetsuits floating like seals, waiting for swells, which crested Coke-bottle green, shadows of kelp backlit for a moment before breakage. On the beach, displaced bull kelp lay in heaps, coils, spirals, snakes. Human beings walked, ran, biked, or sat with eyes closed, meditating. I like to be alone among humans. It is private and soothing to be a stranger, taking off my shoes, running along the waterline, waves sloshing against my ankles and pulling back, dizzying me, no one saying hello. The way back to my family’s house took me up a steep hill, alongside a small park with trees and benches. There I’d pause, winded from the climb. I’d sit under a flowering tree, alone there with my fear. The fear which had run with me like a companion, keeping up its end of a conversation in my head, my mind scrolling through the possibilities: Muscle pull? Pleurisy? Cancer recurrence? Yesterday, sitting there, I tried to brush the smokescreen away. If cancer has come back, so what? What good will my fear have done? I wanted to cry for every unappreciated moment of feeling completely strong and healthy in my body these last three years. Had I wasted time? Was my body speaking to me, warning me, asking something of me? Or simply uttering a cry to itself? What if the voice of my body, this ache, that pain, is not meant to be heeded at all? What if it’s not telling me anything? And if cancer comes back, so what? That’s the question that circled back, again and again. In that question, there seems to be some secret, some key to my sense of being lost, isolated, these last three weeks. Or some key to this whole dilemma of life – After? With? – breast cancer. I don’t know my fate.
On the plane, over the serrated, snow-striated mountains of British Columbia, I finish reading Terry Tempest Williams’ When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice. At the end of this book-length essay, she writes of her diagnosis of a cavernous hemangioma, a tangle of vessels in the part of her brain called Wernicke’s, “the home of language comprehensions, where metaphor and the patterned mind live.” She had a bleed there, with transient symptoms. It could bleed again, but likely not. She was offered two choices: surgery or “wait and watch.” A doctor asked her “How well do you live with uncertainty?”
I have written recently that I do no live well with uncertainty. Or, more accurately, lately, I have not been living well with uncertainty. My fears and untamed thoughts have been living my life for me. Williams quotes from Loren Eiseley’s essay “The Judgment of Birds” near the end of her book. He describes once waking in the woods to terrible cries. A raven has grabbed a nestling, and the parent birds were circling and shrieking. “The sleek black monster was indifferent to them. He gulped, whetted his beak on the dead branch a moment and sat still.” And then other birds arrived and began to sing. “And he, the murderer, sat on there, unmoving, unperturbed, untouchable.” What a perfect description of cancer this is. Or the grim, feathered reaper in general. Eiseley writes, of the other birds singing, that it was a judgment: “It was the judgment of life against death.” Song sparrows arrived one by one and began to sing. “They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.”
How can one not think of the deaths and maimings in Boston, reading these sentences? The monster, and the singers – all those who offered comfort.
“To be numb to the world is another form of suicide,” Williams writes. I have been numb. This smokescreen is a manifestation of numbness, of sleep-walking through my life. Fear hides this truth from me. Fear is a distraction from more important questions, like another one Williams asks: “How do we move beyond our own diagnosis?” I have not moved beyond my diagnosis. I don’t know how to move beyond it, but I know I must try harder. I am being hard on myself, I know. My writing has been a process to trying to plow forward, to feel my way, with my eyes closed. I am feeling my way into uncertainty.
Williams writes “This vascular malformation could bleed and burst. Or I can simply go on living, appreciating my condition as a vulnerable human being in a vulnerable world . . . “ A vulnerable world. That is our birthright. But, Williams writes, “there are so many ways to change the sentences we have been given.”
How do I change the sentences I have been given? The sentences of breast cancer? And all of my other sentences, the ones I drag behind me, from nearly fifty years of living? In a month I’ll be fifty. How shall I live? That is the question behind fear’s smokescreen. Not “Will I die?” Not “What is wrong with me?” Not “What is my prognosis?” Not “What are my chances?” Not “How much time?”
The answer to the question “Have I wasted time?” is yes. I have woken morning after morning failing to ask the most important question. Not “How do I feel?” But “How shall I live? How shall I live today?” What will I do with it, this ribald ruby sunrise, or this subtle dove-gray one, handed to me on a platter called Kachemak Bay, or the Pacific, hidden by a snow squall, or gleaming under moonlight, or shattering in sun? What will I do with it? Don’t let me waste it.
Terry Tempest Williams’ mother wrote this: “There are two important days in a woman’s life: the day she is born and the day she finds out why.”
I want to find out why. Why and why and why, or die trying. Today, I know why I am writing this blog. It is not to chart anything. It is not to instruct or to impart. It is to say to some stranger, like those humans I passed on my beach runs, “You are not alone.” But more importantly, it is to ask myself, when fear comes, and when it doesn’t, the question “How shall I live?” And to hold myself accountable to the answer.