Yesterday I read a piece for a memorial service for a friend. I met her because of The Wobbly Bicycle—she told me how grateful she was that I’d articulated what she’d felt. She had had the same cancer I did, same stage. She was past year five—home free, as they say. Then it struck again. I saw her a number of times after that. She and her husband came for dinner and we had lunch together until she finally didn’t feel like eating. I did what I could think of to make the last of her life better. It was a bit like watching a mirror image of myself, what could be, what might be.
So, I was sitting there in the church looking at her urn on the altar table, with its jaunty red cap from Turkey (one of her favorite countries) on top. I was thinking, where’s the Morman Tabernacle Choir? Where’s the brass band? How do we acknowledge the preciousness of human life? We all blunder. We stand in the receiving line and try to think of what to say. We’re dumbstruck. I’m not talking about fear of death that may sometimes tie our tongues or make us turn away. I’m talking about when we look at it fully and are so struck by the passing of a life that there doesn’t seem an adequate way to express that. One little memorial service and it’s over. Of course not over. We keep remembering. Our heart hurts. We don’t have words, so we cry. We never do have any words.
Did I mention today is my birthday?
I’m reading The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure. The architect, who’s an atheist and by his own admission anti-Semitic, finds himself designing elaborate hiding holes for Jews in Paris during the Occupation. The more lives he saves, the more he plunges in to the task, the more he risks—and he increasingly risks everything—the more he cares. It’s gripping. I am thinking again about the preciousness of human life. I am thinking about my own life.
This has been a wrenching year. My father had his leg amputated, after many complications we moved him to Traverse City, my sister has had capital-M Major back surgery (again), my son has been facing some difficult family issues, Jerry has had ongoing digestive problems and has often felt bad. And I’ve fully shouldered responsibility for my father’s morass of financial papers. I’m tired. I cry easily.
As is true of all of us post-cancer, I worry when I’m tired. What does it mean? Should I be this tired? The answer is probably yes, I should be. For Pete’s sake, I was shot through with horrible chemicals, enough to almost kill me. My bone marrow is forever damaged. As emergencies and troubles appear, I have less to work with. Plus, lest I forget, I’m a year older.
So, back to the memorial service. I am intensely aware lately of the porousness of human life, how it’s made up of our projections, yet at the same time—and nonetheless—its preciousness. Every minute at some level I’m gripped by my aliveness—and aware that this seeing, hearing, feeling, touching, tasting, will end. I’m aware that it’s somehow deeply important that I AM, and that I live this life as well as I can. And, like the Paris architect, I’ve been sucked into work that saves lives. He knew that for sure, tangibly, and he knew agonizingly when he’d failed. I don’t know anything for sure, but I do know that what I write—that the writing life itself—is crucial. Even for those who fail, whose work is forgotten or overlooked. I couldn’t tell you how, but it is.
I was driving to Rehoboth Beach from Newark. I’d just given a reading at Acorn Books in Dover and was about to give another at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Lower Delaware is grassy, with meandering marshy rivers, the sky full of migrating plovers, sandpipers, and snow geese. The beach is stunning enough to attract vacationers from D.C. and all over. Northern Delaware, on the other hand, is more like Pennsylvania—woody, groomed—it reminds me of England.
I was having this feeling that I’d never left. Almost 30 years in the same place can hold you to it by the sheer accumulation of images in your head. Not to mention the many really good friends who are still there, only a little changed, as am I. There’s no awkwardness of reconnection.
Which leads me to think about time and space. Here we are, now, living in Northern Michigan. Loving it here, its beautiful waters (plural), its dunes and trees. And its people. I feel as anchored as I ever have.
The weird feeling is that there is no “here” or “there,” that it’s all present in me and that it was always within my mind that the sense of place and of people existed and exists. I feel that I’ve never left Delaware. I feel that I’ve never left Michigan.
Yet, of course there’s a difference, although I have not been able to put my finger on it exactly. I met a woman in Delaware who used to have a house on Torch Lake, here. She mentioned the word ”tone” before I did. Neither of us could figure how to say more without exaggerating. People are nice everywhere, and kind, and rude, and thoughtful, and nasty.
But environment makes a difference. It’s quieter here. No I-95 cutting a roaring swath through our lives. It feels far from the cauldron of politics, although politics are pretty hot, here. It is absolutely true that people smile more and the smiles feel utterly genuine. I think, I suspect, on the whole, that people are happier here. Not so much competition and crowdedness? I don’t know. An agrarian holdover, everyone helping everyone? I don’t know. These are only my impressions.
When I was in Delaware last week I felt surrounded by friends and affection. It’s not that.
Maybe where there are a LOT of people, each one seems a tiny bit more expendable. If you piss this one off, well, there’s another. Around here, where we live now, whatever you do is likely to return to bite you. Or kiss you.
I had a fantasy of living in Delaware again, at the beach, among some of my old friends. (Jerry wouldn’t share this fantasy because, for one thing, he doesn’t like salt air.) In any case, I imagined how it would be. What surprised me is that I felt that I could be equally happy, and that the base level of my happiness wouldn’t change no matter where I lived.
I’m so glad to live here. I love our friends, our Bay, our cottage, our lake. I love our condo, but has my level of happiness increased by moving to this gloriously beautiful space? I doubt it. Has my level of happiness increased by finding out I’m free of cancer for now? Yep. For sure. The thought of staying alive a while longer is a cheery one. I like being alive.
What is this about? It’s about that weird feeling that I’m not rooted in time and space, that there is, really, no rootedness in the way we think about it. That we cling to impressions.
How can I leave this post without mentioning politics? Yesterday. How our impressions can so often rule, can lead us into catastrophic choices.
We’re in New Jersey visiting my son Scott and his family. (Then on to Delaware on Sunday where I’ll give three readings—one in Dover, one in Rehoboth Beach, and one at the University.) I went to the gym with Scott first thing this morning, part of my effort to get my body back into better shape. An internal voice has spoken. “Now,” it’s said. “It’s time to quit going easy on yourself and start pushing harder.” That babying gets to be a mindset, I think, when you’ve had a serious illness. “Take care,” people say.
We favor one thing over the other. Then realize, oh, I’d better pay attention to this over here, too. Not so much deliberate alternation as a forgetting of one, then remembering.
Or, is it my body that feels strong enough now for more? Lord knows I’m taking a pile of supplements. Monday I had acupuncture for the first time. I think it made a difference in my energy level.
Where do the rhythms of paying attention come from? Is it a spontaneous concert of the mind/body?
I’ve been reading Diane Ackerman’s amazing book, A Natural History of the Senses. While Jerry and I were driving here yesterday, I read to him from the section called “Hearing,” about how time and space are measured in music. We started talking about the comfort of our Western 4/4 time, how it locks down time and space. Space, because the breath is cut off into portions and the measures are predictably spaced out on a page.
Music, Ackerman says, is really on the page. “Much of musical composition is tonal problem solving on a very complex scale, an effort undertaken entirely in the mind of the composer,” she says. What happens with it after that is an inferior version, skewed by the orchestra, the conductor, etc. Which is why Beethoven could go ahead with the Fifth Symphony when he was deaf. He “heard” how it would ideally go.
Ta-Dah-Dah-DUM. Ta-Dah-Dah-DUM. Fe-Fi-Fo-Fum. Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound. A Narrow Fellow in the Grass, The Yellow Rose of Texas. . . . .
We were talking about the comfort of that 4/4 containment, if it keeps on. Nursery rhymes. Beethoven pushes against that, of course. Anything that establishes a pattern and pushes against it piles up energy. But then I started looking up hymns on my phone and we started singing them—it turns out many of them are ¾ and 6/8 time. Such as “All Creatures of Our God and King,” “Come Thou Almighty King,” “Oh For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” Jerry mentioned that the ¾ is a waltz rhythm. The more somber, stately ones are 4/4. Which came first, the emotional impulse or the choice of meter?
And how is it different when there is no meter, as in Gregorian Chants?
By the way, I highly recommend this study of the senses. Good for the writing, for the awareness. It helps expand the range of what we’re aware of.
Touch. Did you know that massaged babies gain weight 50% faster than unmassaged ones? They’re more active, alert, responsive, better able to tolerate noise, they orient themselves faster and are emotionally more in control.
I’m rambling. The senses ramble. They pick up something here, something there, and synthesize. The more alert they are, the more pixels, the higher resolution.
What am I doing right now? My son Scott’s upstairs working—he works for IBM as a consultant, at home. Jen, my daughter-in-law, is at work. The children are at school. Jerry and I are each at our respective computers at the dining room table. New Jersey is dank and chilly today. The room smells like Murphy, their young Labradoodle, and like my cup of tea. Is this a moment in time? How can I stop it to call it that? I just did. Froze it like an ice cube. In my mind.
All this freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw, conscious-unconscious, pulled from the stream. Music, art, poetry, stories, none of it true in some absolute sense but gloriously textured, hooray for that, in a provisional sense.
I had a dream last night. I was teaching the essay form to a class of maybe 35-40 students, all breathlessly attentive. That’s how I knew it was a dream. I was reading them a passage, pointing out how we hardly realize how it’s accreting its feeling, you might say its meaning, until it’s accomplished it.
I’ve been reading Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being, which I think kept holding me when I fell asleep. How she manages to simultaneously make us aware of the constant turning of the soil, birthing and dying, humans and other creatures, while at the same time calling attention to our great importance in all this.
She’d been visiting the Chinese city of Xi’an with a group of writers. They were taken to a dig where archeologists were excavating life-sized clay soldiers that the first Chinese emperor had ordered made to accompany him to the afterlife instead of a living army of men—the custom of the time. She describes a leg, an arm, a face emerging from the loose, sandy soil. A full soldier. A horse’s head and neck breaking through sideways.
She describes walls on top of walls on top of walls, the earth building up, covering one era, the next building on top.
She later describes a hospital where newborns are being washed, an assembly line of sticky, bloody babies, being scrubbed, wrapped, and sent back to their mothers.
She describes what’s in Smith’s Recognizable Patterns of Human Malformation, by Kenneth Lyons Jones, which she says she cannot recommend for our prolonged attention. Bird-headed dwarfs, Hurler syndrome babies with claw hands, short necks, I.Q. of 50. Short lived. The ones with normal intelligence with eyes in the wrong place, no nose. She returns to the hospital, where one child is born with gills and a long tail. You have a sense of the awfulness of telling the parents.
After several chapters, you feel yourself in the middle of this turning and shifting. We’re the ones on top for now. Precious among the changes.
A quote: “There is now, living in New York City, a church-sanctioned hermit. Theresa Mancuso, who wrote recently, ‘The thing we desperately need to do is face the way it is.’”
So, I mention to my dream-class some other books, which I happen to have just re-read. Crime and Punishment, for one. Why does Raskolnikov murder the vile old pawnbroker? He says he wants to participate in the ultimate human degradation, to demonstrate to himself that he’s free, superior, not bound by human’s arbitrary rules. But he finds that guilt is unbearable. This is how it is. We aren’t a collection of concepts. We can’t control our minds. Or our hearts.
Then I bring up Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which I’ve also just re-read. Why? Jerry asked me that. You follow Marlowe into the heart of the Amazon to find Mr. Kurtz, a sensible, efficient Victorian manager of the sale of elephant tusks, who has reverted to the primitive, whose “darkest” traits have come to the fore, who keeps the heads of enemies, one atop each of his fence-posts. His last words are “The horror!”
The truth of the human heart, as Hawthorne would have put it, may be more accurately fictionalized than explained. What are we? I ask my perfect class this. They’re, after all, growing restless. I must be on the verge of waking, into the land of no-answers.
Another quote from Dillard: “When a person arrives in the world as a baby, says one Midrash, ‘his hands are clenched as though to say, ‘Everything is mine. I will inherit it all.’ When he departs from the world, his hands are open, as though to say, ‘I have acquired nothing from the world.’”
The beautiful and ugly and good and bad: can anyone accurately use those adjectives? As soon as we lock in on them, we lose the essence of what actually is. Just this.
But we have to use words. Words are as important as everything else. It seems like a very good thing to have Dillard’s wide and deep perspective, the way it highlights the preciousness of every thing. As it contributes to the whole, as Whitman would have said.
How do you turn a blog into a book? Can you turn a blog into a book? ”Writer’s Digest has all sorts of pointers, like, “find an angle and make sure your posts all fit that angle,” and “edit your posts.” Well. Sometimes I feel my age. If you have to be told that, what are you doing trying to write a book in the first place?
I suspect My Wobbly Bicycle is book material. I’ve put all the posts together, from my first announcement of my cancer diagnosis to the most recent when I say I’m basically living a normal life, again. I went through and took out all blog references. I contacted a writer-friend who’s been quite successful with a big press; she gave me the name of an editor/consultant who’s been very helpful to her. So I got in touch and hired this woman to read enough of what I have to tell me (1) if she thinks it could be a book; and, if so (2) what presses it would “fit.”
Yes, she said, but fill in character a bit more, put in more biographical material. Then she said in her experience, the big presses don’t want books about cancer unless they’re “How I Cured My Cancer with Ginkgo Biloba.” Or “Lance Armstrong’s Victory Over Cancer.”
“This is a university press book,” she said. Which I figured, anyway. It seems my fate NOT to write a blockbuster.
I pause a moment here to offer my gratefulness to university presses, who are the only large presses who are willing to take chances on material that’s not altogether mainstream.
I spent three intense days at the lake alone revising and adding to the manuscript. And since. I have learned a lot from this. Reading what I wrote, week after week, is a mirror of my mind.
Here’s what I see:
(1) I am full of it. I always think I have to pontificate, to say something profound. I suspect during the worst of the cancer treatment, I was trying to escape. In the same way that when things are awful, people turn to prayer, poetry, incantations—whatever will lift them away a bit from the awfulness. NOT that all those things, including my WISE BUDDHIST COMMENTS aren’t honest, accurate, and useful. But enough already. Say what is. Say what it feels like.
This tendency is not unlike what I’ve seen in young poetry students who want to throw the word God into the poem at the exact point where it gets hard to go down into the moment to see how it can reveal more.
(2) I assumed too much, that the reader (you) knew enough about me to just jump in where I was at that moment. Maybe a few of you do, but how much richer the material can be if you know more about me, the one who has the cancer, who’s writing about it. About my family, my children, their childhood and mine. And all this must be relevant to the subject, me with cancer.
(3) I repeat too much. Understandable in a blog post, I suppose, thinking the reader might be a first time reader. But as I comb through over and over, I see how often I tell you what I’ve already told you.
(4) Cancer isn’t everything. I can’t separate that strand from my writing life or my private life or my meditation. So, then, what’s my “angle” on this book? At the moment, this is the title, below. Please write to tell me if you think it works or if you have a better idea:
My Wobbly Bicycle: A Poet’s Guide to Cancer, Writing, and Meditation
I had only “a poet’s guide to cancer” in the subtitle at first. My editor/consultant loved the title. I’ve added “writing and meditation” since, since as I read what I have, it’s all a mix. Too much?
Why “guide”? I say in the manuscript that the person out front, who’s having the cancer or whatever, is always the guide. Not that we have to follow, but we see how one person has done it. I also thought “guide” might encourage someone to pick the book up.
I’ve added material about my previous marriages, as much as I felt I could use, and about my children’s lives. It was easy to work their lives in, since they visited me and I talk about their visits. So, a segue. I think I may be able to write more about my own history, but I came to a standstill. I’ve now given the manuscript to my long-suffering, kind, brilliant editor of a husband, who is reading what I have now. He’s already said to take out some of the earlier marriage material (!) Not relevant, he says.
When you’ve written a previous memoir (as in Driving With Dvořák), you frequently say to yourself, “I’ve said that already.” I am truly tired of talking about my eccentric, sometimes loveable, emotionally damaging father. I am tired of the words I’ve used to describe my mother, the few scenes that I hold onto that show how she was. What else can I say about my terribly brain damaged brother, my sister’s brain tumor (not related)? I had these vignettes in my mind’s eye. I’ve used them. I’ve written poems, essays.
So, if I stay with those vignettes, will they offer up more? More toward the central issue of my cancer? If I search my mind for others? So here’s point five, maybe: can I use the injunction to reveal myself more to break through my preconceptions of my past to see what else is there? What have I not seen? Yet.
Others have successfully written more than one memoir, usually by shifting genre, or angle, a bit. Which, I guess, is what I’m trying to do here.
I feel some urgency about getting this done. I’ve left the entries in the manuscript dated by month and year, and I want the reader to feel the immediacy of the cancer, not something long past.
Interesting, how doing this work removes the cancer from me even further. Where is it? In the book?
Do please write with thoughts about a title.
It’s quiet on the lake now. I wonder at the number of boats put in and taken out every year, yet many never seem to leave the dock. Or maybe once all summer. All those toys, like the ones piled in the toy box in our cottage, used for a few minutes, then tossed aside.
Speaking of our cottage, it’s uncharacteristically clean right now, a good time to show you pictures of the interior.
Here’s the living room. Uncle Richmond made the cots many (70? 80?) years ago out of which my sister Michelle and Jerry and I, bit by bit, constructed two sofas with arms and backs. I bought the fabric and my daughter-in-law Jen made the slipcovers, partly here at the lake, with my father’s old sewing machine. I re-covered the lampshades on both lamps. Jerry repainted all the floors. And the toy boxes, to match.
Here is what we call Aunt Cleone’s room, because in her last years she slept here. It’s the only room with a door, hence the ability to warm it with a portable radiator. We used to find her in the mornings, sitting on the edge of her bed, piles of trash around her she was sorting for recycling, although she forgot after she made the piles.
The bed’s a futon we brought from Delaware, on a platform made by Rob, the son of the local Bachmann’s Store (“If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”) owner. The living room used to have a pump organ (Aunt Cleone’s) but the room was so crowded we gave it to Rob, who’s stored it in his parents’ garage. It had a broken bellows anyway.
This is what used to be the dining room. We don’t have a name for this space. My sister Michelle ran a contest last year, but I’m not sure what won. (Interim? Hyphen? Intermezzo? ) You’re looking into what used to be the kitchen. We relocated it when we put in running water. The table is the library table that was in the old dining room.
To the far left is the ice box that used to be turned on its side, door-less, and used as shelves, with a curtain in front of them. Jerry refinished it, turned it right-side up, had new doors made, ordered authentic hardware.
I wanted to talk about this because of how rare and precious it seems, to have this depth-of-field, this past and present, present. It’s just the old cottage, no way to make it more than that, with its stone foundation, its tilting floors.
But. Here is the medicine cabinet, with Priscilla and John Alden. Why are they there? Who knows? Inside are perfectly preserved medicines from our grandparents’ time. We don’t bother it. We look at it now and then.
This isn’t a museum. In the summer the cottage is full of kids and grandkids, tracking sand, throwing wet towels, crying over something or other. And grownups (unlike the ancestors) drinking gin and tonic on the front porch.
Who were these ancestors, these people some of us remember, some not? We look at the hundreds of photos. We make them up in our heads. Sometimes I think, what would they think of what we think of them? They were just like us: anxious, loving, irritated, worried, tickled, afraid of dying. Having a good time, watching their kids have a good time. Their kids, who carried an image of this place with them all their lives. Whose children picked it up, changed it, and kept carrying it.
Not forever, of course. The cottage and the lake never were fixed in time, anyway. That was our idea of it. Whose idea? Mine? Grandmother’s? Kelly’s? Scott’s? No matter. I’m going swimming as soon as this day warms up. Without the big boat wakes to annoy me.