So for three days now I’ve been rewriting the introduction and it is not going well. I have written I think one paragraph that I like. And I honestly do not know what else should go into it. Enough introduction. I am so heartily sick of writing the introduction.
The sun starts to hit the table where I work, in my brother’s kitchen, at about 3 pm, glaring off the screen and making it pretty uncomfortable to work. I took a long break and drove up into the Grand Mesa National Forest, which you can only access by miles of dirt road. Pretty awesome. The road starts out through a valley bordered by a rim of rock that runs along the hills, winding through ranches with airplane-sized watering tractors, and long bunches of cedar and scrubby brush, and then heads upward so steeply that even my brother’s enormous truck slipped on the gravel at times. I hadn’t put it into 4-wheel drive yet, trying to save gas. After about 10 miles the ranches dropped out and there was just open sagebrush sea and scrub, and up ahead in the far hills a forest of gold. And then I was in the aspen, all apricot shimmer and white trunks, and nearly hit a very black cow and its calf. On I drove over a road that got markedly worse, so bad that I had to slow down and roll over the rocks and valleys at 1 mile an hour.
I reached Bailey’s Reservoir at about 4. It is really just a lake nestled into the skirt of a small and barren valley. Beautiful, but dark. The sky was overcast, threatening to rain. There was one bright yellow aspen against the black-green firs. The ground was rust brown, mottled with cow-pies. Little breeze. I was away from the road, away from the truck, and tucked back into the woods, just the way I like to be. Not a sound except for one weird cry that could have been a coyote or a crazy human. I guess it spooked me, because I didn’t want to stay there. Maybe it was too quiet, deafeningly silent, after that. There was no breeze, and I was too far away from the cows to hear them. I regretted I had not brought the dogs. It was so quiet that my brain started to make up sounds–to hear the buzz of the highway, or cars, or other kinds of urban noise. These phantoms passed away. An airplane thundered pass and it took a long time for the sound to fade. But then it did, and all was silent again
I drove further down into the valley and headed back home. Then I began to feel irritated with my cowardice, turned around, and headed back up to the lake. But I couldn’t stay there.
I turned around again and drove downhill about a mile, across a rugged washboard road, got out, propped an easel against a rock, sat, and looked. I could see way down across the Grand Mesa and out towards the West Elk Mountains and the flat land where Highway 92 runs from Hotchkiss to Delta. I was way up on 3100 Road.
Even though I enjoyed the softness of the aspen trees that had already shed their leaves feathering up against the evergreens, and the broad swathes of gold behind them, and the valley spilling out below me; even though I was happily straddling a granite boulder like a horse, I couldn’t simply sit and be. Too edgy. I needed to move, get back, reach home before dark, before the rain. Plus in this spot I could hear the cattle lowing, and they annoyed me.
They annoyed me more on the way back down, because they all seemed to have decided to go somewhere on the road at the same time. Dinner? There must have been thirty or forty of them, all told, on the way back. All different colors, browns and tans, creams, and russets and blacks, bulls and cows and calves. They frequently stopped right in the middle of the road, turned their enormous bodies sideways and stared at the headlights. When I finally got through them all, and drove a little further down the mountain, I saw one pure white young cow grazing among the aspen.
I also saw hawks, and chipmunks, and deer. I think they were deer. Could have been elk. One froze by the roadside, so I stopped and looked into her eyes until she decided I was no threat and moved on. She had enormous ears.
Once I had a dream that three animals came to me, and when I awakened I fancied that they were my spirit animals, or totems. They were an owl, a jackal, and a doe. I saw the face of the doe this afternoon.
I’m making soup with last night’s creamed corn (I made it from fresh cobs), tomatoes that come from my brother’s garden here, caramelized onions and carrots, and sweet potato. The broth is water-based. Since I’ve sworn off all processed foods I couldn’t use a cube, so I took a chicken breast out of the freezer and popped it in to the slow-cooker. I made this before I left for my drive. When I got back the chicken was tender enough and cool enough to shred with my fingers. I poured another cup or so of water and about half a cup of wine into the broth, and it has been simmering for the past 40 minutes or so. I will have to let you know how it turned out.
So I’m listening to Mahler’s first symphony, which I love and have loved for all of my entire adult life. Or since I was 20. When does adult life begin? Hard to say. I’m about to turn 50 and still sometimes have trouble understanding myself as grown up. But what is the 1st symphony about? It is about life, the business of life, the joy and buzzing business of the bees and the flowers and the animals and the fervor of everything that never ends, even when some of us die.
But standing here on the verge of my fiftieth decade frightens me, not least because my mother died of colon cancer when she was 55. She was diagnosed when she was 54. There were signs before. The winter of her 53rd year we were in Sun Valley, and instead of skiing my mother stayed home, in agonizing pain that every one of us, my father, an orthopedic surgeon, my brother, my sister, and I interpreted as gas. How could we all have been so stupid? Yet we were. What do orthopedic surgeons know about the diseases of the internal organs?
So, she died. By the time we caught it, the cancer has metastasized and spread throughout her body, including her lungs. She died of asphyxiation, fluid from the cancer building up in her lungs. It took some time…enough time for us to go on a river-rafting trip down the Salmon River in Idaho. She had had the first eliminating surgery, and some chemotherapy. We were all pretending that she was going to recover, go into remission. But she was so short of breath. And my father knew. I didn’t. Not until the very end.
It was yuk. You can’t say how awful it was so you have to understate it. I remember driving around the hills of Santa Barbara on the days just after her death, madly playing polka music, which I didn’t actually like all that much, not least because it struck me as a kind of dance of death, that mad refusal to believe in the end, that the peasants of Bruegel or Defoe are dancing. I was driving in delirium, the furious round and round of the mind that cannot take in what is.
The thing about death-dealing sicknesses, or bills of death, sentences of death, in short, cancer, is that the mind does not go there. It refuses. And death or its prognosis never makes any kind of sense. It interrupts the rational. It fucks you up.
So here I am witnessing the sentence pronounced on my dear sister-in-being-and-love, MJ, who has just discovered that she has ovarian cancer. The silent killer of women. A sort of Jack-the-Ripper of the reproductive organs, a disease for which there are few reliable diagnostic tests, and fewer cures. When it is found in the body late, as it has been with my sister, the prognosis is not good.
Everyone said that my mother’s cancer was nothing to worry about. O, people recover from colon cancer all the time, they said. It’s one of the best cancers you can get. There are no good cancers. Each one of the is deadly. Every cancer spreads like a noxious weed, a plant that, thriving, chokes out the life in which it grows. And it flourished in my mother.
My mother did not acknowledge this flourishing. This bitter root spreading throughout her. Or she did, but thought that somehow thought could eradicate it. She believed that if she could heal every one of her significant relationships, her connections to her brothers and her children, that miraculously the cancer would die. This theory infuriated me because it located the source of the cancer in other people while blaming the victim. It seemed to be a kind of mental torture program masquerading as help. If she could only fix her relationships, she would recover. And we were all enlisted in this recovery, of course. We weren’t allowed to be negative
I took this philosophy to heart, and tried to be supportive, accommodating, helpful. I quit my job as Director of State Relations at NYU and moved home to be with her. I was pregnant. I needed my mother. Nothing worked. She died. But I was not permitted to acknowledge that she was dying. As a good daughter and caretaker, I was enlisted in a program of upbeat thoughts and morale building. It was worth a shot, of course. But I never got to say goodbye, because my mother never acknowledged that she was going. When she left, I felt it was my fault. If only I had tried harder, had believed more in the possibility of her recovery. If I had had that powerful faith, then it would have been enough.
Yes, I know. This was an unreasonable fantasy of power. But we are exhorted in our culture to have these fantasies, to pray, to believe in prayer, and to blame ourselves for not having prayed hard enough when our prayers fail to come true. I did not believe that she was going to recover. Was it therefore my fault that she died? Or am I to blame for not having been more “supportive” of the fiction that she committed herself to?
My mother seemed to be the victim of a false consciousness program propounded in books for people dying of cancer–a program that exhorted that if only the mind would change, the body would follow. This program sold lots of books but also made lots of people who ended up dying of the cancer they couldn’t control anyway feel like losers, like people who hadn’t tried hard enough. I hate this program.
It seems to me–and how I hope that will not need to practice what I preach here–that when something happens to us, especially when that thing is a medical condition that we have no control over and cannot understand, that we need to accept what is and step aside from the whole program that tells us to feel responsible for the fact that we got sick and that falsely promises that we have within the power to get unsick.
Now this is not to say that we shouldn’t try to maintain a healthy body/mind connection, or that we shouldn’t eat well and take our vitamins and get plenty of exercise. We are responsible for our health every day. But my mother was the healthiest person I knew, a moderate drinker, a light but hardly anorexic eater, and an active exerciser. She played tennis three or four times a week, walked vigorously for miles every day, had good friends, a relatively happy family. As a good if lapsed Seventh-Day Adventist, she avoided fatty foods and alcohol and caffeine and ate loads of fiber. But she still died of colon cancer. It wasn’t her fault. Nor was it mine. Or anyone else’s.
I just wish she had said goodbye, that she had let me know that she knew what was going on and that she had some kind of parting wisdom for me. But she didn’t. She just left. And I felt really guilty about it, because it seemed that I had not done everything that was capable of doing. If only I had prayed harder; if only I had believed in prayer.
It’s hard. You have this life, however short. My younger sister, with whom I have a difficult relationship I guess because we lost her, our mother at such different stages in our lives, directs everyone who receives email from her to live each day as though it were their last. Nice sentiment. What if you only had a year, or six months, or two weeks, to live? What would you do?
My first impulse is to say that I would keep on working on my book. Or I would try to paint at least one painting, that “tree of life”painting that I’ve had in my head for all these months. But what if I didn’t have the energy? What would I do then? I would like to think that I’d write letters to all the people I love, in order to tell them how much I appreciate them. I would explain what they mean to me, and how they have changed my life. Maybe I would do nothing.
My mother did not write any letters. She just left. But that is not quite right. She had been telling me all her life how much she loved me, how much I meant to her. What more could she say? Probably something. But that was not her style. She would have frowned, as I would, on some perfunctory expression of love, since she would have known that no singular declaration could possibly encompass all that she felt.
In short, we forgive the dead whom we have love, we make an effort to understand how they went, under what circumstances, and to appreciate them over the course of their lives. We do not measure them according to their last moments, or years. We remember them fondly, openly, with love.
Does everyone who leaves us remind us of this primal loss, the death of our mother, the woman who bore us into the world? Probably.
I don’t have the faintest idea of how to process this new confrontation with death, this reminder of my own mortality. How are any of us to know that we do or don’t have ovarian cancer, the silent killer of women? Why don’t we as a nation or world have better tests for detecting this killer? This, too, is a woman’s issue. Why should the silent killer go after one of the great woman leaders of my time, my friend and sister, MJ? How do I know that it has not also invaded my body? Why don’t we have better technological understanding of this disease?
I am frightened.
A former student made the following comment on an older, now-defunct blog that I thought I had deleted. It’s a very nice response to my blog entitled “Writing,” and I repeat it here because I like it. And also because hearing from students like Courtney means a lot to me.
hey, it’s former student Courtney – we run into each other from time to time when I am buying chocolate or on my way to work in Oakland. Just wanted to thank you for such an honest, beautiful post. Do you think some of that student resistance stems partly from the student population, or is more a shift in perspective over time? I remember when I was an undergraduate in the late nineties it seemed like most of us were there in order to engage and learn and grow, and grades, while important, weren’t owed… but there is definitely a shift happening. Regardless, I think you were, and still are, an amazing teacher and I never would have read Paradise Lost, and nominally understood it, without you!
So, tonight I woke up at a cocktail party and thought, ‘this is it; you have grown up and this is your life.’ So different from the way I grew up. But which is worse? to grow up again and again in new worlds with their own particular customs and rules, or to grow up in the same place, again and again, with the tiny group of people you have always known.
So many people choose the latter, it seems, for safety. I guess. But I could never make that choice. There is so little time left to me, I fear, and so much more to do, to see, to share. In this brief existence, surely we are meant to learn as much as possible from as many different people and cultures as we can. Surely we are supposed to try to understand and love one another. So we should travel, and converse with, and learn to love, as many different people as we possibly can. We should seek them out, and listen to their stories, and recognize our common divinity. We should learn to experience one another with our hearts open and not closed. I love to be on a bus or boat or train or plane in some place that is not home, and to encounter a person I would never have meant in my tiny little home world. Sometimes I resonate, admire, and even come to adore, as in love, that person, or the person whom that person led me to.
What more matters, after all, than to have a good friend in life, someone you can truly count on. A genuine friend who counts very few people amongst their real friends.
We don’t often meet people who, a) see us and b) respect us and c) call this and nothing other than this “love.” Not that it has to be a sexual love.
But how could you love someone who can’t or won’t really see you, and whom you don’t respect? That person might be in the category of just-met-and-really-fabulous, but you can never really love a person you don’t respect. And you can’t really become available to be loved until you respect yourself.
So you have to do some diving. You have to go down deep into what you call yourself and find out what it is that you really want, and how you really want to go about getting it. You almost always really want peace. But not death. So there is this problem, this paradox, from the very beginning, and you have to sort it through.
Well, this is a relief. I’ve had two good days in touch with my so-called real self, the scholar-writer person. I’ve been wondering about this particular persona for a while, since she’s been so out of touch. Did she still live, after all this time? Could we still talk, hang out? Would it feel the way it used to? Would the books still reassure me, communicate their serious love? Would I still feel serious love for them?
It was, I am happy to say, very much a good experience. I love to be in the library, especially when it is empty, as it is during spring break and summer. The elevator always comes promptly, and I don’t have to wade through the hordes, more like seals draped all over the the place, on the way to my blissfully set-apart study. And there I find these things, bound in plastic and string and god-knows-what kind of glue, that have carried me through these years. My friends. There is that one, who, like the other dear ones, has been with me through the whole terrible broken-from-the-start love-affair with X, and then after that through the heartache of Y, and then my father’s death, and the strange eye-in-the-storm calm that followed, when I was so busy with the estate, and felt, for a change, important, respected, needed.
I could go in to some inquiry about what precisely it is that makes teaching so horrible these days, so impersonal, so mechanical. Not that I feel like a machine. No, that’s the problem. It’s not just the institution, but the students, who want me to be like a machine. They want me to be like a tv program, or, better yet, like a music video, that fascinates and manipulates them, that robs them of their subjectivity. They only seem to experience their subjectivity these days when they are feeling outraged over having been denied some service that they are convinced they have already paid for.
Having to read, discuss and write thoughtfully about feminism is definitely not what they signed up for. And I’m not quite as trim as I used to be. I no longer wear those killer tight miniskirts and high heels. No, these days I’m more likely to show up in the only pair of jeans that still fits, a ski vest I’ve had for 12 years (Patagonia), and a long t-shirt. I think my ratings used to be higher. But I really don’t give a shit.
Yes, there are the few students, usually but not always women or gay men–sometimes heterosexual white men really come through, you know? There’s no reason to trash the entire genus. As I as saying, there are the few students who make it all good, who not only do the reading and follow what I’m saying but who for some totally inexplicable reason seem to live on the same planet as I do, and who, like the few people left who seem to be willing to declare themselves feminists, grasp that this is it, this cause, gender: understanding how we all participate in a world of predictable gendered patterns, and that we step outside of the normative patterns at our peril..
Not just the people who don’t fit into the heteronormative paradigm, the resolutely heterosexual people in the J. Crew catalog, are hurt by sexism, by narrow conceptions, rigidly enforced, of gender. No, even the pretend-people’s earthly representatives, the really, really, really, you-can’t-even-imagine-how-rich rich people, who benefit from these crude stereotypes, are limited and depressed by them and the system that they perpetuate. Okay so the pretend-people in the J.Crew catalog are better off than the women in Snoop Dogg music videos, and the men in those videos. At least the crude stereotype that they are personifying do not depict women as universally nymphomaniac, narcissistic slaves.
Ya, even the guys at the various apex points of the multi-dimensional power-grid that we all inhabit, unequally, are damaged by these narrow visions of sexual identity. Because these are so incredibly limiting. Men have so much more to offer than they are represented as offering in the media. And so do women. Obviously.
Yep. Think that’s where I’m gonna end this one.