Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Just Do It

I’ve been reading a book by Anne Lamott called Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I love writing, and, come to think of it, I love life a lot too, so it's probably no surprise that I'm thoroughly enjoying this book.

Last week, I Googled the author's name because I needed a visual of this woman who was making me laugh and learn so much. My Google search lead me to where Google searches most often lead me -- to Wikipedia. There, I found this quote by Anne Lamott: 

I try to write the books I would love to come upon, that are honest, concerned with real lives, human hearts, spiritual transformation, families, secrets, wonder, craziness—and that can make me laugh. When I am reading a book like this, I feel rich and profoundly relieved to be in the presence of someone who will share the truth with me, and throw the lights on a little, and I try to write these kinds of books. Books, for me, are medicine.

Even though I haven't written any books yet, I so deeply agree with what she says here.  

In one chapter of Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott gives advice about creating great fictional characters. She compares characters to trees and even though that may sound corny when I explain it, it was great when she did: 

When you write about your characters, we want to know all about their leaves and colors and growth. But we also want to know who they are when stripped of the surface show. So if you want to get to know your characters, you have to hang out with them long enough to see beyond all the things they aren't. ... 

Dying people can teach us this most directly. Often the attributes that define them drop away -- the hair, the shape, the skills, the cleverness. And then it turns out that the packaging is not who that person has really been all along. Without the package, another sort of beauty shines through. For instance, on a retail-therapy outing ten days before she died, my friend Pammy discovered that she could no long write her name on checks, and she turned to me and said, "What is the point of being alive when you can't even sign checks?" ...

One the first anniversary of her death, I visited a memorial garden at the radiation clinic where she had been treated, and discovered that someone had planted a yew tree there in her honor. ... Near the yew were tall flowering bushes -- some kind of poppy, perhaps. But almost all of the petals had fallen off, so mostly I just saw a thousand tangled stems growing skyward. Then I realized that the stems were actually connected, and that they bore seeds that would flower again in the spring. 

That's how real life works, in our daily lives as well as in the convalescent home and even at the deathbed, and this is what good writing allows us to notice sometimes. You can see the underlying essence only when you strip away the busyness, and then some surprising connections appear. 

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Tonight I want to ponder a question that I’ve asked myself several times lately, mostly when I'm walking to the train (in a future post, I'm likely to discuss why this question comes to mind on those walks). Anyways, the question is a simple one -- How has cancer really changed me? Truthfully, I don’t know, which is precisely why I want to write about it.

The first thing that I realize when I go to answer this question is how little I've hung out with pre-cancer me. I thought about this when I read the passage about fictional characters above. It's kind of pathetic to think that I've sat around thinking about other people's character -- or even fake characters' characters -- more than I've thought about my own. Well, there's one way that cancer has changed me -- I've hung out with myself a lot more. Mainly, I hang out with myself when I write, and thankfully, nine times out of 10, I don't end up totally hating the company. 

I don't have any sort of science background, but as I approached this question, I found myself considering concepts that I remembered from my high school science labs -- concepts that involve variables and constants, cause and effect. After some time just sitting and thinking, my mind wandered to this. 

In 2011, my friend Hannah and I were both associates at Ropes & Gray. One early September morning, we joined our client, Wendy, for a master calendar hearing in front of an immigration judge at the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Boston (I've already written about Wendy several times before, including at the link HERE and HERE).  

Hannah is a litigator while I'm a pretend-lawyer – you know, the corporate type. For this reason, and for the fact that Hannah was more experienced, and well, a heck of a lot smarter, we designated her as the “primary attorney” on Wendy’s case. I was really happy to have the primary attorney box checked off on Hannah’s representation form and not on mine because I was scared enough just being in that courtroom, never mind having primary responsibility for the life of a woman I really cared about.

A master calendar hearing involves the judge plowing through several cases – upwards of a dozen, or maybe even more, in the morning session alone. As we waited for Wendy's case to be called, Hannah and I sat in the back of the small and crowded courtroom. I was so nervous that I felt sick to my stomach, and my legs felt weak.

When the judge finally called us up, there were only two seats at the table on the lefthand side of the courtroom (the Department of Homeland Security attorney sat on the right side). Obviously those seats were for Hannah and Wendy. I stood behind them, hoping that no one could see me shaking.

Wendy's hearing that day lasted for no more than five minutes. Hannah was brilliant, just as I knew she would be, and I didn’t screw up the one sentence that I had to say – “My name is Tara Shuman and I am representing Ms. ___ pro bono, Your Honor.” Phew!

Towards the end of our five minutes, the judge assigned us the date for Wendy’s merits hearing – the full-day chance to prove her asylum claim. February 5, 2013. Ultimately, that would be the day that the judge granted Wendy asylum, and the chance to build a new life here in the United States. It would also be my first official day back at work from my six month medical leave. But I'm getting ahead of myself -- or just repeating myself -- I'm not sure. Anyways, at the end of those five minutes back in September 2011, I felt like I had run a marathon, which I'd imagine would be really exhausting, and hurt my knees. It always amazes me how physically draining it is to be nervous.

I’ve already written much about how this story unfolded – that in 2012, Hannah and I both left Ropes to join other law firms – that Hannah had resigned from the case when she left Ropes but joined again after I was diagnosed so that she could help me and the new Ropes & Gray associate navigate unfamiliar waters.

When Hannah left Ropes, I was next in line in terms of experience on Wendy's case. So when I filled out a new representation form for the court, I became Wendy’s primary attorney. When I checked that box months before my diagnosis, it terrified me. I had no idea how I would ever find the courage to lead Wendy through that hearing in February 2013.

Then came cancer. After my diagnosis, I backed off of several commitments that meant a lot to me, including work I was doing for Teddy and Annabel’s school, which I loved. But I knew that I had to get focused on beating cancer.

Even in my darkest days of last August when I reduced my responsibilities down to the bare bones, I knew I wouldn’t quit on Wendy's case. I couldn't quit. She had been to Hell and back and in my mind, even complicated cancer treatment was not a reason to step away. Still, I didn't feel comfortable forging ahead powered by so much sheer stubbornness. I needed to know that Wendy would be OK even if I wasn't, and once Hannah joined us again, I knew that Wendy's case would be handled by the best.

Starting after my first chemo, except for a few complicated weeks (like the one I spent in the hospital), we met with Wendy almost every week. We prepared and prepared and prepared. And without me even realizing it, all of my fear about Wendy's hearing was disappearing. 

I remember the night before we headed to court. I stayed up late to go over all of my notes, and then I took those notes to bed to review them one more time. I set two different alarm clocks for 5am so that even a freak alarm clock malfunction would not cause me to be late. But notes and alarm clocks are boring. More importantly, something happened that night that really surprised me, and made me think that maybe cancer really had changed me. What happened? It was simple -- I wasn't scared at all. 

That night, I had no doubt in my mind about how I would perform the next day. I don't mean that I knew that Wendy would be granted asylum, because to be honest, I had no idea what the outcome would be. I didn't know how Wendy would do on the stand, either, (we had some trouble during a few practice sessions), and I didn't know how the judge or the government attorney would behave. But I didn't think about all of those things. I just remember thinking -- I know exactly what I will do. I wasn't thinking about what I should do or could do or really, really wanted to do. My mind was focused on the will do, and the next day, I did what I believed I would do. 

I'll never know if the difference in my confidence and my courage from September 2011 to February 2013 had anything to do with cancer. Part of me thinks that it does. But not necessarily in the way that I'd have originally thought. 

I don't think that cancer necessarily gave me something that I didn't have before (aside from all of those dandy side effects including the infections that I have been enjoying along my eye lids again as my eye lashes struggle to regrow). But I do think that cancer did something like what Anne Lamott was talking about in her book above. 

For me, cancer stripped away some of the busyness in my mind. Sure, it added some other busyness, too, and I've written about that (the drinking water analogy comes to mind). More so, however, cancer made me stop focusing on what I should do or could do, shouldn't do or couldn't do. It made me move beyond the point of declaring what I really, really want to do. And cancer made me just do it. 

I love Anne Lamott's tangled branches analogy because it fits me now -- cancer didn't necessarily untangle every little tangled thing in my life. I wish I could say that little things don't bother me anymore but I'm human and they do. (For proof, last night as Brian and I were going to bed, I told him that I was having anxiety about the silliest thing. Some papers had fallen behind the drawer of my file cabinet so that every time I opened the drawer, I heard the papers crinkle. I tried to extract the paper but I failed. So at 11pm, Brian went downstairs to ease my ridiculous anxiety. With a screwdriver and some tongs, he removed the papers and made my file drawer crinkle free. He's my hero. And I'm a huge pain in the ass.) 

Anyways, I'm still tangled sometimes. But other times, cancer has helped me strip away the busyness and see with great clarity something that was there before, just covered up. It helped me stand up and advocate, it helped me write, and it helped me create an idea that I have been building piece by piece every day. 

I love Adidas sneakers and I'll choose them over Nike brand for the rest of my life. Nevertheless, I'll always cherish Nike's famous slogan. Just do it. OK. I will. 

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Tomorrow is a Herceptin and therapy lady day. I worked on Monday instead of Wednesday this week since tomorrow, I'll be busy at Dana-Farber until lunchtime. After lunch, I'll head home and Sean is going to help me with some work for Writing Saves Lives. I've made some great progress on my idea these past few weeks and I'll provide an update -- as well as an opportunity for you to get involved -- very soon. Please stay tuned!

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