Category : Current
“Unfortunately.” The word haunts me, like something misaligned within my inner planetology. It punctuated every meeting with my urology oncologist on November 16, one month ago.
There are certain red flag terms in the cancer world, words that seem to come out of the quotidienne everyday but in cancer talk light up with dread or hope because they translate to your chances of living beyond the year. Concerning. Not concerned. Highly concerning. Suspicious. Highly suspicious. Low suspicion. Worrisome. Aggressive. Highly aggressive. Radioactive buzzwords, their meaning spills out everywhere, infecting your consciousness and, I’m sure of it, your subconscious. They are the elevated moments in the novel of your life, the moment when Red Riding Hood realizes her dear grandmother is a wolf or Dorothy discovers the Great Oz is a weak, vulnerable, old man. Or they are the amulets, the symbols, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Bailey’s bright yellow shirt with blue parrots in Flannery O’Conner’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the secret keys that unlock a world of meaning.
Two weeks earlier, at the beginning of November, the pathology report from the tumor removed from my bladder at the University of Chicago Medical Center revealed I had a highly aggressive form of bladder cancer. Because I was in otherwise excellent health, I and my healers thought my chances of being cured were good. I rode that wave of hope (cautiously) to that word on November 16. “Unfortunately,” the oncologist said, “surgery is out of the question if the cancer has spread to your lungs.”
I had been scheduled for a series of aggressive chemotherapy treatments followed by a surgery to remove my bladder. But now this oncologist was saying all surgery bets were off. That is when I started spinning in a new orbit. My planets had misaligned and left me with a fate I could not comprehend. With a fresh new scan glowing on his screen, the oncologist waved his hand at some swollen lymph nodes and said if a lung biopsy confirmed spread, I would be incurable—terminal, stage four. All treatment would be aimed instead at making my life as comfortable as possible for the time I had left.
Then, fourteen days later, at the beginning of December, my compass changed once again. A lung biopsy showed no spread. But those intervening two weeks were some of the most sober and unflinchingly honest days I’ve spent with myself. Who was I without the accomplishments, the job, the social media accounts, my likes and dislikes, opinions and desires? Everything fell away. Any pause in the day or the spools of thought could be interrupted by the word “unfortunately.”
I’m a literary scholar with experience researching the history of science. “Unfortunate” and its opposite “fortunate” can be traced back to Ptolemaic astronomy. Individuals and nations were said to be “fortunate” when the planets aligned and “unfortunate” when they misaligned. These thoughts were still in existence in the Italian Renaissance especially in Machiavelli’s novel The Prince, whose 25th chapter used “fortuna” and its opposite to refer to the alignment or misalignment of the planets.
So, lately, as I go through chemo as a stage three and anticipate surgery, I find myself thinking about all the ways I am fortunate, whereby no intention or work of my own the heavens have aligned in my friends, my daughter, my husband, my broader family, my faith, and my curious artistic mind. In the past I would have been shy to announce my fortunes because it might seem like bragging. I don’t mind shining light on my gifts now. I have to.
Now that I’m in Chicago and not in Moscow, Idaho, where I spent the last four months during various lockdowns, I’m remembering how I felt a few years ago in October when my friend said it would be the last time we could ride the Chipman Trail, an eight-mile bike path between Pullman and Moscow. I was riding the path daily as a way to destress, and Thursday afternoons I felt light, free, sailing down the bike path after a week of teaching and lecture writing and meetings and sleep deprivation. The ride kept me sane. “It will be too dark,” he said and reminded me of that we would be turning back our clocks.
Now, after turning our clocks forward, I wonder about the words “turning back.” I wonder about this time, during the pandemic, and how all of us will turn back to this time and see how it has influenced us, changed us. How all of us, even now, are turning ahead to an uncertain future.
I recall the gloomy day every autumn when I turn back time, the day I am robbed of one bright evening hour and am supposed to call it “savings time.” Time is not money. You can’t save time, waste time, or spend time, even though the metaphors used to describe the two suggest it. Time don’t heal; it don’t change circumstances. Time itself don’t exist except in the now.
I also recall that the thought of daylight savings time closing in caused me to call another friend and say, “I want to ride that rail bed before they turn back the time.” I would have gone alone but I was afraid in this isolated place known as “channeled scabland.”
The rail bed is officially called the Columbia Chateau Trail. Constructed in the early 1900s by the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway Company for a steam train connecting the three cities, and then used by the Burlington Northern Company, the railway was simply abandoned in 1987. Washington State Parks took over then, turning it into a bike path that retains the spooky, edge-of-the-world loneliness characteristic of old train lines.
We met on the Sunday at mile post 355 near my cabin, and, bundled in fleece, rain gear, and backpacks with food and water, started down the dark gravel rail bed that cat-scratches one-hundred and thirty miles of Ice Age floods along the north bank of the Snake River then curls into the northwest corner of Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, wrens, wood pewees, western bluebirds, yellow warblers, pygmy nuthatches, red crossbills and chipping sparrows.
We peddled in silence for hours along basalt rocks, quaking aspen, hidden lakes, harvested wheat fields, and ponds screaming with migratory birds, until felt like there was no turning back.
But then, when the sky began to darken and heavy-winged owl flew suddenly from the brush, we did.
“Is anyone else having trouble focusing?” I’ve talked with a few people these past weeks and months who’ve had difficulty with their writing. “I sat in front of my computer for three hours and only wrote one sentence,” someone noted on an online writing forum I follow. “Same,” another chimed in.
I’ve been stymied by an article on wilderness and literature that I signed a contract to write over a year ago with a deadline of May 30, 2020. But anything, everything, seems more important than writing. A fly landing on the curtain rod. The hum of the air conditioner. The dishes stacked in the sink. That old trunk I’ve been meaning to clean out for the last ten years. The easy chair on my front porch. Maybe I’ll sit there and read for a while. I plop down and my eyes close instantly.
My front porch writing space in Oak Park, IL
As the days pass, the article recedes into the nowhere of pandemic worry. I swallow my shame and loathing and write repeated messages to the editors—people I admire—requesting extensions. More than once I’ve struggled with dark moods that left me disoriented and paralyzed. When that happened before, I broke my work down into small segments, baby steps.
Which is how I’m finally able to get through this task. My process:
I first did a long free write without looking at notes or books. It helped me take stock of what I know and don’t know, helped me find a voice. Then I mapped it out.
Everything in one folder, previous writing and notes along with articles I’ve annotated.
I approach outlining like it’s a piece of art. I don’t outline everything I write, but when I do, I use OmniOutliner, which lets me move things around easily. With this piece of the outline, I didn’t care too much about the hierarchy. I was mostly interested in grouping ideas and quotations.
In between many naps and online shopping for things I don’t need like moss from Etsy and coyote urine to keep the squirrels away from my plants. This kind of radical editing takes a week or more. I also cleaned up the footnotes.
I read aloud several times to make sure the rhythms are just right. I also find a lot of repetition I can excise.
When I’m finished, what I realize is this: I love the discoveries, both intellectual and personal, I’ve made in the struggling and the writing.
What small, incremental steps are you taking to keep moving forward in your writing and work?
Supporting women’s writing with these newly released books–
Amy Klein, The Trying Game. I recommend Klein’s book, whether you’re going through fertility treatment or not. Especially in the midst of a pandemic, this book will give you comfort and joy. Klein’s ability to explain medical knowledge, not to mention her curious and unflinching look at the interface between her raw emotions and her medicalized body, is just the medicine we need right now. As her book makes clear, in times of medical emergency, we are all trying our best, even as the crisis is trying us. I adored her prose—funny, ironic, energetic, well-researched. She is one of those writers with perfect pacing, perfect pitch, who delivers information with such punch and verve. The parts where she narrates her own story are the best, for example the part when her doctor tells her, after yet another miscarriage, to “keep trying.” (Her response is perfect!) Twenty-five years ago, I did a stint with a fertility doctor. It was three years after my daughter was born, and–nothing. Nothing happened and I gave up. I had the vague knowledge that fertility was a mystery, and now, after reading Klein’s book, I can see what I was up against back then, which I found endlessly fascinating.
Jenn Hollmeyer, Orders of Protection. Hollmeyer’s book is amazing! What caught my eye is that the book won the prestigious Katherine Anne Porter prize. The stories are brief but they pack in tons of feeling and significance. All of the characters are looking for some kind of protection—how do they go about that? What do they find? One of my favorites is the “The Ice River History Museum, Formerly Saint Catherine’s Convent”—which has such stunning and evocative lines as: “The docent gestured to a headless mannequin modeling a faded habit.” I mean—this is an image out of a dream, dripping with symbolism but also thoroughly concrete in its place in the story. I won’t give away the end of this story, but it is beautiful and startling, as all of them are. This is my kind of book. Highly recommend.
Madeline Dyer, This Vicious Way. As a teacher of creative writing and literature, I’m always looking for suggestions from my students, especially the categories of science fiction, fantasy, and thrillers—not usually my genre. With their promptings, I read Madeline Dyer’s This Vicious Way, and was blown away by the character development. At first I thought I wouldn’t understand the dystopian world, since this is Book Two in a series, and it makes use of the world Dyer built in an earlier series. Happily that wasn’t the case. Far from it. The world of epic struggle between the Untamed Ones and the Enhanced Ones is crystal clear; never once did I lose sight of the main character, Inga. I was hooked from the moment I was introduced to her in the first chapter swimming in an ocean as a young child, and in subsequent chapters when she’s grown and forced to become an assassin, to kill in gruesome ways. She struggles to turn the tables, to assassinate the assassins and reunite with her family (with plenty of heart-wrenching plot twists along the way). What I liked best about the book is how it toggles between past and present, how it even peers into Inga’s dreams and nightmares, which gave me an ever-evolving sense of Inga’s history and her motives. I empathized with her completely. I plan to include this in my syllabus next time I teach the prose fiction class.
Erin Khar, Strung Out. I loved this book. Khar is a companionable narrator, a voice I wanted to spend time with as she navigates the highs and lows of addiction, trauma, need, family, friendship, and parenthood. She’s searingly honest about deep-down parts of herself–she weaves moments of brutal loneliness with those of beautiful tenderness. I happened to read Strung Out during the current pandemic, so it’s no surprise that I was struck by her account of 9/11, the moment when she realizes her father may have been in one of the twin towers. I could relate especially to how she describes the “shock” and “paralysis” she feels during that event even as she goes about her routine tasks – a 12-step meeting and dinner with friends. What I loved about the book overall is how Khar delves into complex issues with an engaging, page-turning narrative style.
Rebecca Winn. One Hundred Daffodils. First, I want to say that this is a book I love holding in my hands. It’s opulantly produced, with a rich, creamy cover, the kind of book I like snuggling up with on my couch, in bed, outside on the porch (now that the weather is nice), and even in the car. It’s filled with beauty–both physically in the author’s garden and spiritually in her internal transformations–even amidst scenes of shattering and uncertainty. The book is a reminder that we can find hope right where you are, that small acts of attention bring peace.
Laura Zam, The Pleasure Plan. Every sentence in this book radiates goodwill, hope, and courage, even when she’s writing about dark topics. This crossover book (memoir, nonfiction, and self-help) moves forward at a lovely pace while it also flashes seamlessly back in time just when the reader needs backstory or insight. To get a sense of her wonderfully crisp and forthright prose, take a look at this passage where she talks about a moment when she reflected on men she’d dated. She felt as if she was “a monstrous creature, in the reptilian family, with cold skin and blood.” Hence, her journey toward self-discovery, intimate love, and sexual healing. I appreciated how Laura confronts her childhood abuse amidst her search for love. The story of meeting her husband (from her New York Times “Modern Love” column) is retold in the book, and it is just as tender and lovely as ever. She goes on to chronicle her recovery, her visits to gynecologists, psychologists, erotic healing practitioners, hypnotists, and other off-beat therapies with humor and a beautiful tenacity, one that also leads to self-awareness. I read this book over two days and I’m sure I’ll return to it again. Pure pleasure! (Please visit Laura Zam’s website where you’ll see all the other incredible activities this woman does.)
My dear friend Petra Kuppers and I are leading a “Practices of Hope” workshop this month, co-creating with others around the country via Zoom. Erasure, silence, absence was one of our practices this week.
If you’re looking for a way to create in a relaxing, non-stressful way, where you’re removing rather than generating and yet generating just the same, give this activity a try. It’s an apt way to work during these days of restrictions.
The poetry of erasure reveals that even though so much is being taken away, what remains can be even more meaningful, or meaningful in a different way.
News articles are so dreary these days, but often journalists home in on gloriously sensual and concrete details, like the feel of copper, stainless steel, and take out food bags.
From this USA Today article.
And check out this small survey of blackout or erasure art.
During the virus lockdown, Myron and I have been taking long walks in the Palouse hills near Moscow, Idaho. But even then, I’m restless, find myself wanting to make things, to turn the moments into something more touchable and stable and–though impossible–contained. Yesterday I took with me some rubbing paper and amber wax. I thought I might rub pieces of sidewalk or rocks. Instead I started documenting the trees along Pine Cone Road. I was at this for hours, running hands down the bark, pressed the paper against the tree trunk, so intimately, creating patterns. Trees share so much with us human beings – they have limbs and skin and little portals shaped like eyes. I only made images of the species I knew because right now it feels good to be able to name things.
You can do this! All you need is a piece of paper, a pencil or crayon, and a tree. And if you can’t identify the species, all the better. Get to know it without naming it.
Yesterday the man on a ladder outside my window teetered as he made little touch-ups to the paint along the eaves and softies. Two stories up, I sat at my desk writing, or, trying to write, and the man made the hardness of the writing melt into waves. A sensation buzzed from the space just above my head to the cranium itself and flowed down my head to my shoulders, my neck, shivers and tingles whirling up and down and I relaxed into the thought, the words, the sentences. I couldn’t see the man’s face. Only his shoes. But I could hear him. Some call this feeling ASMR. I’ve experienced it since I was a child. A feeling of being highly aware and totally relaxed at the same time. Being simultaneously awake and away, present and in some far off place. But like inspiration, like insight, it comes at unexpected times, by surprise, suddenly. It can’t be planned, can’t be brought on by YouTube videos of women whispering or men shining shoes. Can’t be forced. I could hear the man scraping methodically in the beautiful, careful rhythm that I’ve heard the times I’ve watched my craftsman father and brothers making shelves, fixing plumbing. When the awaken comes, it seems like a glimpse from another world.
I said this mood can’t be forced. But it can be cultivated, and I think everyone do it, find that highly aware relaxed, almost hypnagogic, creative space by paying attention to the beauty of delicate, deliberate sounds.
ASMR is linked to synesthesia, which I also experience. It has also been described as a kind of mindfulness. That’s the positive side. It’s also correlated with neuroticism and disagreeableness. Both of which I also own.
I’m aware of the way the fuzzy feeling has been mocked or used or analyzed in media and peer-reviewed journals. I’ve been keeping track.
For example, Billie Eilish. I’ve never heard her music, have never wanted to. I recently read she is incorporating ASMR into her songs. I wonder if it’s forced.
What would your list of mindfulness sounds look like?
Here are some of mine:
1. someone washing windows (obviously), painting a fence, or setting a table
2. someone speaking English with an accent different from mine, but speaking very slowly
3. someone shelving library books
4. a flight attendant going through pre-flight safety procedures
5. a cat watching a bug crawl up a wall
Walking today in the Idler’s Rest Nature park, I came upon a message from the molting ponderosas:
The Darkness Conference in Longyearbyen, Svalbard. I don’t know if I could ever get used to 24-hours of sun below the horizon, but maybe someday I will get the chance. At first I thought it was calming, soothing, not to be confronted with light and its pressure to get things done. But then I realized I just wanted to crawl into bed, found myself drooping and wilting, curling into hibernation position as soon as I opened the door to my hotel room. After five days, I was feeling suffocated by the dark. It was a shroud, like forest fire smoke every August, that I couldn’t shake off.
There were plenty of bright spots, though. One being the dogsled into the polar night. One being the bakery on Main Street. One being the ideas and interesting discussions during the panels. One being the aquamarine lights that danced outside my window all day and night. One being visiting Polar Permaculture Solutions and getting to plant herbs in bright purple dome.
We were at 79 degrees north in a three-masted ship called the Antigua sailing up the west coast of Svalbard. Thirty artists, people from all over the world, whose art took different forms. Painters, sculptors, photographers, those working in performance, installation, and mixed media, hand paper makers and writers, like me. Everyone was clicking a camera, jotting down a line, sketching something. The tools of art were never still.
And then someone said, “I think we need some quiet.” Seven of us piled into the rubber zodiac and set off on a meditation tour. The engine purred quietly as we moved through the ice, the only sound the chunks knocking against one another in a hollow fullness that felt like the center of our own souls. We were there to observe, we knew implicitly, to be with the water and the glacier and the sky and the air, to be apart from the incessant documenting. It was the last place, we had been told that morning, where there would be a lot of floating ice in the meltwater next to a glacier. It was a last chance to document, be we seven wanted it to be something less–a moment and that was all. Not a moment we were taking note of, not one we were narrating as we were living it.
I had brought my book of Buddha’s teahings. I opened it gently to a random page and read: “To think that there is one absolute truth, and all other views are inferior, the monks call a fetter.” I pondered the idea as I floated, the seawind on my cheek, my hands curled into my mittens. The ice was moving and crackling, the sun glowed on the water, setting it on fire, blazing between each individual chunk. The Arctic was melting, we could see it, but we couldn’t see how fast. We didn’t know what was normal melting and what was extreme, but we could feel something changing in those moments in the meditation raft.
To think that there is one absolute truth, and all other views are inferior, the monks call a fetter.
Today–a writing day, a revision of my book about the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. I’ve been working on this story for fifteen years and I finally think I know what it’s about. On long writing days I move venues every few hours, from dining room to study to family room to coffee shop. Today’s gorgeous weather and my 100-year-old grape made the perfect office.
I’ve been rereading Faulkner–The Sound and the Fury–and some Thomas Bernhard–The Loser. A study in contrasts! Faulkner is stingy with his reader (or that’s how I felt last night as I read in bed), and Bernhard generous, or maybe effusive is a better word, which is how he’s able to unravel something as ineffable as the death of someone you don’t know well:
So many in his circle had already died, he said, so many relatives, friends, acquaintances, none of these deaths ever shocked him, but Glenn’s death dealt him a deadly blow, he pronounced deadly with extraordinary precision. We don’t have to be with a person in order to feel bound to him as to no other, he said. Glenn’s death had hit him very hard, he said, I thought while standing in the inn. Although one could have predicted this death more certainly than any other, that goes without saying, so he said. Nonetheless we still can’t grasp it, we can’t comprehend, can’t grasp it.
Yesterday I pulled six sheets with embedded kelp I collected from the beach where William Blake lived for three years, from 1800 to 1803, on England’s south coast. I’m planning to make a tunnel book using his image of Newton, whose design–particularly the lichen and moss–resembles the kelp.
Rough draft of a block from my project called “Slime.” Kozo, abaca, embedded with seaweed I collected from Watchet, England, and lines from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner printed on regular typing paper.
Today I pulled some mitsumata sheets, which are drying downstairs in my Oak Park house. Mitsumata is a fiber used in Japanese paper making. The species is also called edgeworthia chrysantha after the 19th-century British writer Maria Edgeworth, whose brother was a botanist and worked for the East India Company. I embedded bits of gorgeous seaweed and kelp I’d collected on the beach at Felpham, a few yards from where William Blake lived and worked for three years. I adore Blake but I never could get very far with Edgeworth.
Sometimes–often, actually–being on screen and connected makes me feel queasy. I found this meme online (ironically!) and use it as a landing page to remind me to turn off and go for a walk.
My nonfiction essay “A Syntax of Splits and Ruptures” was published by the fantastic Superstition Review.
This article on marine algae has a couple of fascinating ideas: oxygen comes from slime; kelp is not a single plant but a group individuals; there are 7,000 species of algae, and they produce 330 billion tons of oxygen per year.
My nonfiction essay “A Syntax of Splits and Ruptures” was published by the fantastic Superstition Review.
The photographer Edgar Zippel has produced 100 images of young people from across Europe, including Portugal, Iceland, Italy, Germany, Albania, and England. The portraits are medium close-up. You can see head and torso, with background blurred.
The participants are aged 18-24. They look edgy and unsure, but also full of energy and grit. They are the face of the new Europe, the just-barely adults who will look in the mirror in 20 years having inherited a world. The Museum Europäischer Kulturen in Berlin ran the show in 2014, and now there is a book based on the show.
I’m most interested in Zippel’s use of oral history/ethnography along with the photos. I unfortunately couldn’t find much of the ethnography online, but I read in several reviews that he asked each person three questions: What do you want to do? What are you looking forward to? What are you afraid of? To the last question, one of the participants answered, “I’m not afraid of anything!” which became the title of the exhibition and book. The phrase is probably used ironically, but judging from the handful of images online, I’m not so sure. There’s something of optimism in it, too. Actually, the images communicate a lot of hope.
In fact, what I love about the questions is their thrust, their forward momentum. There is no pastness in them (except maybe the question about being afraid). Even though I’m squarely in middle age, I could feel something ignite, a spark of new, when I read the questions. The images themselves capture the now, the pure, momentary presence of these young people.
Walking alone in the dark. I headed into town instead of out of town, where I usually go, past the overfull creek, the old railroad ties, the new hospital, and ended at One World Cafe, hardly a soul in the place, but a guitarist was playing something light and soothing. I sipped peppermint tea, listened for a while, then slipped back into the dark, into a cold spring warmed by tea and music.
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