Thursday, January 24, 2013

Waves (Part Two)

Usually when I sit down to write here, the words flow out of my fingertips as if they've been trapped and have finally broken free onto the computer screen to taste their first breath of freedom. Don't get me wrong, I edit each piece several times before I publish it, but that first draft is typically effortless. It's just an explanation of how I feel, and once it's out there for others to read, my brain is somehow lighter. Clearer. Freer.

I'm not used to getting stumped in this place, mostly because here, I'm my own boss. But since last Friday when I published Waves (Part One) I have been stumped, confused, and frustrated by my efforts to complete Part Two. I have typed more than six first drafts of that entry, but I deleted all of them. I typed sentences to express thoughts that I was sure of. Then I reread them, and doubted myself; wondered if what I thought was really what I thought.

I have lied awake in bed, moved with my laptop to various places around my house, and even watched some of my favorite TV shows while thinking about how to finish this post. When I couldn't decide on anything that felt right, I tried to figure out why that was. Truthfully, I still don't really know, but hopefully if I keep typing, keep thinking, I will finally figure it out. I know I could just forget about it and no one would even notice. But I would notice, and I'm my own boss, so giving up on it now isn't an option.  

Today I found myself back at a speech that I posted months ago (blog HERE, speech HERE). (The speaker's high praise for General Petraeus was not lost on me, by the way.) I vaguely remembered something in the speech about writers who write very slowly, and I needed some insight on this topic. I found this (I already published the first paragraph as a quote, but it's so good, here it goes again):

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

I used to have students who bragged to me about how fast they wrote their papers. I would tell them that the great German novelist Thomas Mann said that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. The best writers write much more slowly than everyone else, and the better they are, the slower they write. James Joyce wrote Ulysses, the greatest novel of the 20th century, at the rate of about a hundred words a day—half the length of the selection I read you earlier from Heart of Darkness—for seven years. T. S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets our country has ever produced, wrote about 150 pages of poetry over the course of his entire 25-year career. That’s half a page a month. So it is with any other form of thought. You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.

Now that’s the third time I’ve used that word, concentrating. Concentrating, focusing. You can just as easily consider this lecture to be about concentration as about solitude. Think about what the word means. It means gathering yourself together into a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere into a cloud of electronic and social input. It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like duty, honor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?

I sure as heck am no James Joyce but this excerpt helped me realize that while I feel like I am failing in my effort to write Part Two, perhaps I am, for the very first time in my blogging career, faced with the need to really concentrate. Darn. It's much easier when the words just pour out on their own. In other words, it's much easier when it's easy. 

Then again, I do love Thomas Mann's point -- A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. This post may officially mark the beginning of my writing career then, because its completion has felt just short of impossible. But I will resist the urge to pull out my new, soft, and fuzzy hair, and instead I'll be proud of writing at the speed of T. S. Eliot. Too bad he didn't have my chemo steroids. Wait, sorry, I'm missing the point. 

Anyways, you're probably wondering, What deep topic were you trying to write about that has you in such a tizzy -- copying quotes for us that you've already copied? Posting weird, mysterious blogs about watching waves? Fair questions. The answer is that I have been trying to write about being cancer-free. Seems kind of silly that Tara beats cancer can't find a way to write about beating cancer. But, well, silly I am.

"My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom."  

One of my many terrible drafts of this post had to do with photos that I often see on Facebook of a cancer patient holding up a handwritten sign that says something like, "I kicked cancer's butt." I have the utmost respect and admiration for anyone holding such a sign, especially when he or she is a child. Even though "Like" is a ridiculous simplification what I think of that image, I'm loose with my "Likes" (a Like slut?!?), so I usually click the button. When it came to being cancer-free, these proud smiles and poster board declarations were my first thoughts. But they weren't my own. 

So for more hours than I'd like to admit, I've sat here at my computer only mildly distracted by the "cloud of electronic and social input" that William Deresiewicz has warned me about. Sometimes for minutes on end, I have even been able to gather myself together into a single point and concentrate. Here's what I have decided. 

I knew that surgery would be emotionally terrifying and physically painful. I knew that chemo would be a grind and after my allergic reaction, I knew that it would be even more of one. Part of me expected what would come next, too -- that once the chemo was done, I'd still be afraid; that I'd have to hold onto hope that my cancer doesn't come back. In fact, on the night before my last treatment, I wrote about that fear and that hope in a post linked HERE.

What I didn't expect, however, was how much effort it would take to hold onto that hope and let go of that fear. I didn't expect this part of the journey to still feel like such a battle. I thought the real fight would be over. That I could retire that Battle Mode t-shirt; that I'd have clearly won. 

But that stupid HER-2 protein makes this whole fight feel complicated and somewhat incomplete. Yes, I believe that my cancer is gone (although I thought there'd be some sort of test to confirm that -- apparently not). Four weeks after of my last chemo treatment, I figure that it's as gone as it could possibly be. Now the Herceptin has to continue to work its magic on HER-2 to make sure that the cancer never comes back. That's the next battle in this war.

The problem for me is that there's not much I can do to fight that battle. Bingo. That's what's been killing me (eek, poor word choice)... rather, that's what's been frustrating me so. I hate that there's nothing I can do in the next part of this fight. No surgeries to recover from; no treatments to power through; no white blood cell counts to watch diligently. Being brave isn't much more than being normal; sitting through some short infusions every three weeks and taking a little daily pill. 

Now that I've come to the realization that has been eluding me for days, I can't believe it took me so long to arrive at it. Subconsciously I must have known my own concern because in my last appointment with Dr. Bunnell, I asked him, Is there anything I can do to make sure it doesn't come back? Like usual, he cited a bunch of studies. He told me that eating well and exercising have been shown to decrease recurrence. But I've done that pretty much my whole life. He told me that studies show that drinking more than one alcoholic beverage a day can slightly increase the risk of recurrence. But I barely drink a few drinks a month so that didn't apply to me much either. Basically, I ended up realizing that recurrence is pretty much out of my control. And again, I hate feeling like I have no control.

As I've written about before, my control-freakishness makes flying on planes a death-defying adventure; one that requires the evasion of powerful winds, engine failure, engineering mistakes, human error, and terrorism. When I fly, I can barely do anything but focus on how much I want that plane to land safely. I think only about survival -- I concentrate like never before. For the past few months, that's what I've done with my cancer -- I've focused on survival. One-day-at-a-time kind of survival

Now, I'm supposedly a survivor. With an implied past tense. Like it's done; like my flight has landed safely. But I don't always feel like it's done, like I'm safely on the ground. Often, I feel like I'm still on a plane high in the sky surrounded by lots of scary things threatening to bring it down; bring me down. Only now, my time to focus on survival is up. Now I need to look away from the window and focus on other things. They are things that I love, but things that still feel scary to do. Because I did them all before, while cancer grew inside me. Betrayal is a hard thing to forgive, and an even harder thing to forget.

Countless revisions later, this space has helped me realize why transitioning into this next phase has seemed so difficult. I think it's because now, I need to act like a normal person, and like a survivor, even though oftentimes I don't feel like either. In fact, I'm not even sure what either of them really means.

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P.S. That entry was so darn difficult, I think I need to call Maggie so we can write our Beauty Blog -- The Breast of the Story. Forget concentration and studies about cancer recurrence. I think I need a drink and some good ole fashioned boob talk.


  1. This rings true for me... a year later, with hair and all, Tara. Last year I was sad and scared, this year angry and depressed, next year...? Well, next year I'm going to make sure Bernie and I are firmly planted poolside with umbrella drinks. I don't think I'll ever get to "survivor" because of the superstitious fear of declaring oneself Cancer-free just begs its return. (Also, how can any of us ever, really be "cancer free" if we will never, ever forget the trauma of it all?)

    But I'm thinking about you oodles. Loving what you write. Amazed by the beauty blog. Hoping we cross paths soon.



  2. Tara, I love this post; it's so very true. It's such a weird place to be trying to remember that it's probably more correct to say, "I had cancer," than to keep saying "I have cancer."

    Wishing you well as you adjust to this next phase.