Joss Whedon made me think today

I’m confronted by a great deal of grand and worthy ambition from this student body. You want to be a politician, a social worker. You want to be an artist. Your body’s ambition: Mulch. Your body wants to make some babies and then go in the ground and fertilize things. That’s it. And that seems like a bit of a contradiction. It doesn’t seem fair. For one thing, we’re telling you, “Go out into the world!” exactly when your body is saying, “Hey, let’s bring it down a notch. Let’s take it down.”

– Joss Whedon, 2013 commencement address to Wesleyan

1982

I adored Joss Whedon’s commencement address, especially the way that he framed it by death. Right now, this year, and perhaps every year since I had a child and got cancer, I’ve been feeling that my body frames my ambition.

Two weeks ago my mom sent over some boxes that she’d carefully kept from my teen years. I opened them up and it felt like giving me the gift of myself, or of a forgotten self. I saw a person full of energy and curiosity. It’s been nice to remember, nice to look at the photographs of a girl in the middle of a welter of new experiences and see who she was. Even my old fantasy novels felt comfortable to my hand, it felt like home to pick them up and see all the worlds I lived inside of books, as much a part of my childhood as actually living.

It was strange to think about all the changes that have happened to me since.

2013

Having a child was an enormous change to my body. It made me realize that bodies have a lot more in common with compost heaps than with angels. Having cancer compounded this. After a reasonably invulnerable time in my 20s and 30s, cancer made me realize how much energy humans have to spend making sure their bodies are working right. It’s a little ridiculous to think about the sheer amount of self-absorption that this forces me to have (thank god insurance finally proved useful), but it’s also a good reality check. In this moment between my 30s and the rest of my life, it’s good to know that I’m already broken in to the inevitable.

Turning 40 feels like a fresh start, but one touched by the knowledge that Joss shares. I’m realizing that ambitions are something that might not ever be achieved, that accomplishment is often delayed until it becomes impossible, that the body in middle age cannot handle the dreams of the young. What’s left? A good fucking sense of humor.

So once you get here, halfway through (if you’re lucky), facing age — what then? For most of my 20s I did not pick up the strands of family and place woven around me. I took it all very lightly, and moved lightly through the world. At age 40, these bonds seem as necessary as they once were unnecessary.

Happy Memorial Day to those that are gone.

But Joss’s words helped me think through a lot of this, a lot of the feelings of being constrained by the body, by reality, by: “The contradiction between your body and your mind, between your mind and itself. I believe these contradictions and these tensions are the greatest gift that we have.”

I’ve lived a huge contradiction, and I am the result of it. I don’t have the luxury of having chosen a clean path, and I’ve wasted a fair bit of time doing shit-all (it was fun!), but in the process perhaps I picked up the bits of a dream-rich but people-starved childhood and wove in love and friendships, and healed myself a great deal. Have I actually achieved anything? Who knows.

Maybe that was all necessary too, part of becoming this person with cancer, with a child, with a family, with a job, with a garden.

Herb garden likes the rain!

Or perhaps, as Joss says, nobody is ever meant to find peace, but will always be struggling with the ache inside of themselves as they come to terms with everything that “I” means, or as Joss says:

This contradiction, and this tension … it never goes away. And if you think that achieving something, if you think that solving something, if you think a career or a relationship will quiet that voice, it will not. If you think that happiness means total peace, you will never be happy. Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that can never be at peace. It will always be in conflict. If you accept that, everything gets a lot better.

Yeah.

Sometimes the body needs to complain

I woke up allergic to myself. Swelling from the inside, coughing up a bunch of phlegm. Days like today I remember that chemotherapy only begins when they inject it in me. It keeps going until it’s out of my system entirely.

So here I sit at work, popping Sudafed, trying to focus. The coughing comes and goes, but mostly my body feels tired everywhere. It feels tired on the inside, as if all my cells are working extra hard to make everything function as usual.

I admit that I dislike doing this to my body. I work on health for the space between treatments, and then willingly sit in the chair to knock myself back. All of us with cancer are faced with this, our foe is inside of our own body, we battle ourselves to see who wins.

In the chemotherapy chair last Friday I sat beside an old man whose wife hovered over him anxiously. She fed him bananas, yogurt, vitamins, rice stew, anything to get him to eat. “He doesn’t want to eat anymore,” she said to me anxiously. “How do you keep healthy between treatments?”

“Every body is different. Whatever his body needs and wants,” I replied.  “I hope you can find it.”

My stomach doesn’t play nice between treatments either, and the less I eat for a few days, the better. Due to the nature of my cancer, digestion takes second place to coping with the treatment, and this gets uncomfortable. Still, I use what natural remedies I can, and sometimes it almost feels like a familiar (if slightly masochistic) routine.

What do I eat? Ginger, in all forms. Ginger tea, ginger candy. Khow mun gai (Thai rice cooked with ginger topped with chicken and ginger sauce). Ginger on top of ginger, but just enough to get me by. Then, I drink protein-rich smoothies, and when my stomach burbles in protest, ginger ale. Mint occasionally helps too, but not as much.

When the bloated and puffy feelings begin to subside, I try my best to exercise, a little each day. Yoga helps my joints so that I don’t get gout, and walking helps me reconnect to the world in my own ritual.

The new house is restful, and my family does what they can. I’m blessed in all kinds of ways, and sometimes counting all of these blessings is what helps most until my body bounces back enough for me to breathe again.

That terrible moment

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Mandi of the blog Making Nice in the Midwest

A blogger whom I’ve been reading for a while just found out that she has cancer. Her tumor-removal surgery turned into something worse, and now she’s in the middle of discovering the extent of it. Mandi wrote a paragraph that struck me so deeply that I had to post it here:

On Monday, while everyone else was playing April Fool’s jokes on each other, I was staring at my grandma laying in her casket and contemplating how to tell my family I have cancer as we all gathered together after Grandma’s unexpected death. I just wanted someone to shout ‘April Fools!’ and for Grandma to sit up in her coffin and for me to not have cancer any more. (Source)

Cancer changes everything. It nailed my awareness to the present rather than the future or past, and threw every second of my life into the sharpest relief, to the extent that even grocery shopping felt epic. I imagine that Mandi’s mind is spinning right now. How long, how far, how much pain, what next, and will I have to give up what I love? All of those questions crowded into my mind too, and for a while it was like living in a humid climate of sadness.

At the same time, I found that cancer inspired a lot of mental housekeeping. What am I living for? I need to do it, and enjoy the hell out of it, as much as I can. I need to reconnect to the people that I love, and make an effort to stay in touch. I need to maximize the joy, however I can.

I’m not sure what life is about, and never have been, but surely if it’s about anything, it’s about living in a spirit of love and joy. I wish that on you, Ms. Mandi, with all my heart.

Happy Mardi Gras, Grandma Paula

When people die, they leave stories behind. I stumble over these stories unexpectedly as I go about my life, as if they are invisible cats that brush against my attention.

There’s a tiny bit of pain when I pause and let the story remember itself, but there’s richness as well. Today is Mardi Gras, and because of that, my husband made a big pot of red beans. His mama taught him to make these beans, and they are full of the flavor of her hometown, Baton Rouge. This morning I stole a bite, and Paula stepped into my mind.

When I was pregnant with Alba, Paula made me enormous meals once a week. She wasn’t feeding me so much as feeding her grandchild, but my appetite was up for finishing every bite. (There’s a reason Alba was 8 pounds 6 ounces when she was born, and it was due to D and P’s cooking.) Paula was battling cancer during the time that I was pregnant, but she still kept on cooking.

The night that I went into labor, I sat at the dinner table at Paula’s house, and she fed me an enormous plate of eggplant lasagne. “You look like you’re about ready to pop,” she said. Perhaps it was the eggplant, or perhaps Alba decided that it was time to step out into the world, but Paula was right. On the drive home, I felt a ripple in my stomach, and at 4 PM the next day, Alba was born.

A month later, we were all sitting at a brew pub in Athens. Paula sat next to her grandchild, of course, and at one point reached over and put some of the beer foam from her cup onto Alba’s little tongue. “Now you can remember that I gave you your first beer,” she joked. There’s not much more Baton Rouge than that.

Laissez le bon temps rouler, Paula! We’ll eat our red beans and rice and remember you, today.


Here’s Emeril’s recipe for red beans and rice.

A damned fine year

hallway4

I’ve been rolling a thought around in my mind ever since a conversation I had yesterday with my pal Christi.

Christi was kind enough to go with me to the doctor’s office to hear the results of my latest endoscopy. This is always a difficult moment for me, made more difficult by the fact that my doctor told us a week ago that there were “irregularities” that he needed to biopsy.

I spent a week convinced that my cancer was worse. After the first time around when I “had no cancer”, and then it returned, I’ve tried to hope for the best yet expect the worst. What could it be this time? This thought weighed pretty heavily on my mind for the past week.

“Sock it to me,” I said, the second my gastrointestinal doctor entered the exam room.

“No sign of lymphoma,” he said in his totally deadpan voice. I was expecting such bad news that I made him repeat it.

“I no longer see the signs of growing lymphoma that I saw four months ago.”

How can I describe the feeling I had then? It’s as though someone took me to the top of a mountain with a box on my head, and then suddenly removed the box. I felt like I could see for miles, into the future and the past, and I was light as a feather.

This diagnosis means that the treatment works! I’m going to keep up the Rituximab therapy, just in case any lingering “lazy” cancer cells haven’t woken up yet (Rituximab only kills dividing cells). I’ll continue to get chemotherapy every few months for a year-ish, but I know that when I do, it’s doing good things!

After the doctor, Christi and I went to get lunch at a diner. We dug into eggs, and I said, “If I’ve had cancer for a reason, it’s to kick my ass into doing all the things I want to do, because I’m a lazy procrastinator.”

“I’d rather not think of illness as ‘for a reason,'” Christi said, “Because then I get into the habit of thinking that if I do certain things, illness will go away. Illness can’t be controlled like that.”

This thought was interesting, because I cannot count the number of people who asked me how I figured out that I had cancer, along with the next question, “Do you know how you got it?” In the case of lung cancer, the victim blaming can be immediate: “Ah, it’s because they smoked.” In my case, it’s much harder to figure out how cancer snuck down into that one little section of my body. Believe me, the “how the hell did that happen?” has been on my mind too.

This blog has sometimes been about my search for natural means to help my body combat cancer. Much like Kris Carr (whom I critiqued a little in this article I wrote for XOJane), I believe that it’s a good idea to live healthily and avoid animal proteins as much as possible because they feed cancer cells. But cancer is not a tame disease. One excellent critique of the “be as healthy as possible” method comes from a woman named Abigale. She has a variation of Kris Carr’s cancer, and essentially says, this technique is great but it doesn’t actually combat cancer. In fact, she began to blame herself when it didn’t work for her, thinking she wasn’t strict enough or good enough with her diet, right up until she realized that Kris Carr’s cancer was a rare type that metastasizes more slowly than hers.

I was discouraged too when I realized that my cancer returned. The first time through, I did it the healthy way (without even knowing about Kris Carr). I avoided meat, meditated, and exercised hard, and the cancer STILL returned. The second time, I kept to my normal routine. I didn’t avoid meat or animal protein (in the form of my Starbucks addiction), I skated but didn’t increase my weekly amount of yoga, and I took my scheduled Rituximab. The cancer was equally treated.

What does this prove? That we don’t know much of anything yet about cancer. It’s great to be healthy for the sake of being healthy, but there are no miracle cures, and even keeping to the strictest of exercise, diet, and meditation regimes might or might not be useful to combat cancer (although strengthening the body is never bad).

I think it comes back to the idea that I’d somehow “earned” or “deserved” cancer, or that I had it “for a reason.” If all of these are true and it came back, then surely I was still “on the wrong path” and needed to be on the right one.

I reject all of this now. Cancer is just cancer, and I’ll deal with it in whatever way necessary, but (thanks to the words from Christi) I no longer feel the need to blame myself for it, or think, “If only I did __, I wouldn’t have cancer.”

The sad thing about our world is that we’re making it more cancerous every day. Perhaps in the end, the only true way to eliminate cancer is to help the world be toxin free, in whatever ways we can.

But after I got back to work from my meeting with the doctor, I felt so good that I didn’t wanna stay. The weather was beautiful and with my boss’s approval (thanks!) I was soon speeding down the highway, singing at the top of my lungs.

I was feeling sick, I was losing my mind
I heard about these treatments from a good friend of mine
He was always happy, smile on his face
He said he had a great time at the place…

Peace and love is here to stay and now I can wake up and face the day
Happy happy happy all the time, shock treatment, I’m doing fine

Gimme gimme shock treatment, Gimme gimme shock treatment
Gimme gimme shock treatment, I wanna, wanna shock treatment