Monday, March 18, 2013

Fear and Snow

Tonight I got to reading this really random article about Eskimo words for "snow." Here's an excerpt:

Central Siberian Yupik has 40 such terms [for snow], while the Inuit dialect spoken in Canada’s Nunavik region has at least 53, including “matsaaruti,” for wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners, and “pukak,” for the crystalline powder snow that looks like salt.

For many of these dialects, the vocabulary associated with sea ice is even richer. In the Inupiaq dialect of Wales, Alaska, [anthropologist Igor Krupnik] documented about 70 terms for ice that mark such distinctions as: “utuqaq,” ice that lasts year after year; “siguliaksraq,” the patchwork layer of crystals that forms as the sea begins to freeze; and “auniq,” ice that is filled with holes, like Swiss cheese.  ...

This kind of linguistic exuberance should come as no surprise, experts say, since languages evolve to suit the ideas and needs that are most crucial to the lives of their speakers. “These people need to know whether ice is fit to walk on or whether you will sink through it,” says linguist Willem de Reuse at the University of North Texas. “It’s a matter of life or death.”

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For those of you in the Northeast, you may think I got onto this topic tonight because of the impending snowstorm. Good guess, but that wasn't it. Instead, I got to thinking about the many different Eskimo words for snow when I started to try to answer a question that someone asked me today about fear.  

Earlier today, a local reporter asked me, How do you deal with fear? She emailed me the question, which was nice because I figured I'd think about it and try to sound smart in my answer. Then I  remembered that any time I've made it my goal to sound smart, I've ended up sounding like a total idiot. So I'll just address the question with the only two words my answer really needs. How do I deal with fear? I write. 

As I sat on the train home from work tonight still thinking about this question and how I'd expand on my answer if I needed to, I started to realize that while I've written a lot about fear in this blog, I've never really dissected the concept. Tonight, as a light sparkly kind of snow (pukak?) starts to fall outside, I'll write a bit more about the many different kinds of fear I have experienced since my diagnosis. 

1.  White-Out Fear

Have you ever driven through a really heavy snowstorm -- like the "white-out conditions" kind? If so, you'll probably join me in wholeheartedly not recommending the experience. 

I vividly remember my driving-through-a-blizzard experience, probably because it was the night of my Grandma's funeral. After the church ceremony, my family had gathered at her house for food, drinks, and reminiscing. We all knew that a serious snowstorm had begun outside and the worriers among us vigilantly kept an eye on the fast accumulation. Eventually, despite that we didn't want to break up the party, we knew that we had to. Those of us not staying at the house shoveled off our snow-covered cars and headed back to our hotel. 

What I remember most about our ride along the dark and curvy East Hampton road was that it felt like someone had draped a thick white blanket over our car. We couldn't see a thing and most of the time, we could barely tell if we were still on the road. We had our headlights on but somehow, the more we tried to see, the harder it was to do so. Funny, I could say the same thing about cancer sometimes, too.

No doubt, that ride was scary. Really scary. I remember feeling like I couldn't get my bearings; couldn't tell which way was forward and which way was back. I remember getting into this very introverted little zone and telling myself to just keep breathing; that we would get there eventually. Lucky I wasn't the one driving because I think my legs were almost paralyzed by my fear. 

Not that I want anyone reading this blog to feel the fear that cancer has caused me and others like me, but I do think that it may be useful to describe it. At the very least, it may be helpful to compare it to a car ride through white-out conditions.  

Luckily, I can count on one hand those times of paralyzing fear in my cancer battle. I've written about a few of them (for instance, HERE and HERE) and I'm very grateful to report that I have not faced this sort of intense fear in months -- even though several feet of snow fell around here in the meantime. 

2.  Easy-to-Shovel Fear

A whole different level of fear is the kind that's easy to scoop up and shovel away (or pack into a snow ball and throw at something). Luckily, a lot of my fear is this kind. It's the kind of fear that I can face, reason with, and conquer, at least, temporarily. For one small example, sometimes I had a fear about the pharmacy incorrectly preparing my chemo infusion bags and accidentally overdosing me. I knew this was silly and I could always start to shovel the thoughts away. They have procedures to ensure that the doses are correct. They will follow those procedures. Everything will be fine. Soon enough, shovel by shovel, the whole driveway in my mind would be clear. 

3.  Falling-Through-Thin-Ice Fear

As I wrapped up the paragraph above, I got an email from Maggie. I've written many times that Maggie is remarkably strong, but here's further proof. Maggie's email was a group invitation to an April fundraising event where she will stand alongside her oncologist, Dr. Ann Partridge, to raise money for Dana-Farber's Program for Young Women with Breast Cancer. 

As I read on through the email, I felt the thin ice underneath me start to crack. The email mentioned that the event was in honor of a young woman who had lost her battle with breast cancer at age 35. Splash! I was underwater and it was cold; numbingly cold. For a second or two, I felt like I may drown in that freezing water.

Then my instinct to swim, my instinct to fight to get to the surface, kicked in. Granted, my instincts to swim and to surface are far weaker than Maggie's, but they're at least strong enough that I didn't drown. Instead, I grabbed onto some thicker ice (utuqaq, or my laptop) and pulled myself up into the next paragraph. 

4.  Schools-Are-Still-Open Fear

This is the kind of fear I operate with on a daily basis. It's kind of like a light snow that falls on and off all day. It's not exactly a pretty kind of snow, but it doesn't make the day dreary either. It falls, but it doesn't accumulate. Principals and superintendents take note of it, watch it carefully, but they don't cancel school because of it. Is this type of snow, and fear, distracting and sometimes inconvenient? Absolutely. But if you drive carefully through it, and keep your eyes on the road ahead, you can still get exactly where you're going. 

5.  Two-Hour-Delay Fear

Last week, I learned a really important lesson about this kind of fear. After I had been at a work meeting at a Boston hospital nearby Dana-Farber, I desperately needed to write. It wasn't a Monday though, so I went back to my office and turned to my work. I was productive, but in a stubborn way. I was like that superintendant that should have delayed school but started on time anyways. I never understood why they do that because in the end, everyone is still going to be late. 

The next day, I still hadn't collected my thoughts into a blog post. I arrived at work anxious, distraught, and covered in matsaaruti, so to speak. Trying to learn from the day prior, I took a different approach. I called for a delay. Not a 2-hour delay with no afternoon kindergarten; just a short and simple 1-hour delay. In that hour, I wrote. I wrote about a terrible nightmare I had the night before and as I did so, my lingering, dreamlike fear dissipated. By 10am, I was done, and I felt like an enormous weight had been lifted off my shoulders. 

*  *  *

Later in the article that I cited above, Matthew Sturm, a geophysicist with the Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska, explained, “All languages find a way to say what they need to say." I think that's very true.

Maybe I don't know the right words for the many different kinds of fear that I feel because of my cancer, if those words even exist at all. Nonetheless, I'll find a way to say what I need to say because that's how I can make sure that I stay above the ice. Even if it's still the Swiss cheese kind.

A cardinal and a blue jay outside my Grandparents' house the morning after the storm. 

The sky on the ferry home from Grandma's funeral. 

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff Tara. I love it. I never tried to figure out the different types of fear but there are definitely different types, and some of them are probably good.