FILTER-LESS

Part of the THIS IS THE MOMENT series.

Thursday, April 18th 2019

On Tuesday, April 15th, Notre-Dame de Paris, one of France’s greatest buildings and symbols, burned.

As is always the case in the 21st century, it was a catastrophic event that virtually everyone, everywhere, could watch. A disaster witnessed by human eyes on a planetary scale.

Human responses to its destruction by flame varied, people fitting the images being transmitted by every means possible to them into the critical context that made sense in their reality, whether it was religious, spiritual, political, cultural, economic, aesthetic…

I found it very hard to watch as the flames tore at the building, devouring it; billowing out, fed by the combustibles within and the oxygen provided by the ambient air. I wasn’t able to watch those scenes for very long. Something truly awful was happening in Paris, again, and for an instant, my thoughts veered to the possibility that this was one more nightmarish terrorist action, but they didn’t last. The day may come when extraordinary gathering places like the Dome of the Rock, or Hagia Sophia, or Notre-Dame de Paris fall to the same impulses that are tearing humans apart in the early 21st century, but surely, we’re not there yet.

It appears that, at least in the case of Notre-Dame de Paris, we were not.

I guess that by now, you’re taken aback by this post. What can this event possibly have to do with the very small, personal story of living with cancer that I’ve been telling, bit by bit and week by week, for the past 9 months, at this blog?

The impulse to write to you this time comes from a memory that was evoked as I watched the beautiful old cathedral suffering so much damage.

I’m not a traveler. I haven’t seen very much of the world with my own eyes. But I have seen all of Canada’s provinces except for Newfoundland (I’d love to correct that) and the territories to the north; and I’ve seen large swaths of the United States. I’ve also been to England (in the summer of 2015), and France (in the summer of 2012), each time, to visit one of my sons.

While in France, Simon, my friend Louise and I were based in Montpellier, where Simon was doing post-doctoral research. We branched out to Carcassonne, and also made sure to set aside three or four days to see some of Paris. I think we may have been a bit unlucky because we hit a heat wave, with temperatures between 31-34 Celsius that made almost everything exhausting and unpleasant (we spent most of our visit to the Louvre in the basement, trying not to pass out).

Then came the day we set off, on foot, to l’Île de la Cité, in the centre of Paris, on which Notre-Dame de Paris was built. It was the tourist season. There were crowds everywhere. The lineup to visit the cathedral had been forming for hours, the  long, serpentine gatherings of people stood right out in the baking sun, waiting, so we decided to begin our day by visiting the adjacent attraction, which was a guided exploration of the catacombs that run under the Cathedral grounds. We were so happy to find ourselves out of the sun and hidden away underground, where it was cool and quieter.

We emerged refreshed and ready to join the lineup for the cathedral itself. It seemed to move much faster than we had imagined and soon, we stepped out of the heat and into the fresher, darker atmosphere of Notre-Dame.

I had no expectations going in. None. It was packed. There were people everywhere, bunched together, moving around with no sense of place or of decorum. They were probably just happy to finally have something to do and see. It was all so strangely anti-climactic.

And then, moving further in, I looked up.

To the vaulted ceiling which my eyes followed up and up to the roof; to the rows and rows of breathtaking arches, so beautiful, so impossible…

And I started to cry. Not just a few wet sniffles. I was overtaken by emotion so intense and so full that all I could do was cry and cry and cry. The tears spilled out of me. As I continued through the building, pushed along by people, I felt utterly filter-less. Defenseless. What did I feel? What was this emotional spillover all about?

I remember looking at the vaults and thinking of the people who had built them, painstakingly, at tremendous personal cost. Hundreds and hundreds of lives over centuries. Generation upon generation, dedicated to a single purpose, day after day. The vaulted ceiling was so beautiful. There was such presence there.

While I no longer adhere to any specific religion, I am a spiritual person and I think that I was also responding to the presence of the numinous in that space.

I don’t know what the human soul is, or whether it exists, but I know that on that day at Notre-Dame de Paris, I was immersed in emotion that I can only call soulful.

What caught me most off guard on Tuesday, when the images of the fire began flooding the internet, was the remembrance of that outpouring of tears on that day in 2012, and the recognition that moments like this have been part of my life over and over since my cancer diagnosis.

Adams, Alicia Melamed; Tears; Ben Uri Gallery & Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/tears-191484

You see, one of the side effects of my new life with cancer is the sudden and surprising outpouring of tears and the constriction of my face and chest that accompany them. This has been happening to me from almost the very beginning. But they’re rarely tears of sadness, though I have those too. No, these tears are just like my Notre-Dame tears. They’re released unpredictably and they’re difficult to stop. I’m almost always with someone, in a conversation that, for whatever reason, veers to something small, or perhaps more substantive, that is just honest; true; real; and which becomes connected—even if only in me— to the ephemerality of my situation, to the essential nature of human life, to the deepest roots of love. It happens while I’m speaking. I just seem to melt into tears.

Most of my entourage knows that I’m fine. I say that I’m not sad, but that I simply have no more filters. I tell them that I realise that there’s no point trying to bury my tears. I can’t. They just flow, and seem to do so only when conversation has reached a soulful place. Even if the exchange is about someone else, my filters can fail. The membrane that separates me from a river of emotions is foundering.

These moments are like my experience inside Notre-Dame de Paris. They’re moments when all of the fear, compassion, pain, worry, joy, wonder, gratitude and love are flowing one into the other, and I am overwhelmed.

Why hold them back? My life has come to this. To times when what I’m feeling is the essence of my existence. I think my tears appear when words are insufficient.

They feel GOOD.

Conroy, Stephen; The Garden; The Fleming Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-garden-218248

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AWAY FROM AND TOWARDS

Part of the THIS IS THE MOMENT series.

Monday, April 15th 2019

Spring has sprung a leak here, in Hudson, but no one’s complaining because winter has been chased away. The ground around the house is covered in a thin, tired old layer of dirty, disintegrating snow covered in old leaves and small twigs and branches from the trees (I suppose this is what pine detritus looks like—maples just wallop everything around them with large, heavy old branches that break free as they succumb to age and the damage done).

After a beautiful sunny and warm Sunday, Monday has brought rain. But I have Christian here for the day—for the next three days, in fact—and that brightens everything. And I need some of that light and lightness of heart.

I cried myself to sleep last night, or tried to, but wore out my eyes with all the tears and made the astonishing discovery that the rivulets of tears were so full of healthy materials that when I stopped and picked up a book, I could see everything clearly. EVERYTHING. Eight and a half months of chemo’s ophthalmic side effects washed away (they have, of course, returned this morning, and my vision is as goopy and inadequate as usual).

I had the blues. A somewhat mild but pervasive case of them. Their sadness has been niggling me for days. It’s been more than nine months since we moved in here, and the same amount of time since I’ve been living with the knowledge of my cancer. I’m now seasoned in the dynamics of such a life.

We’ve all heard of “two steps forward and one step back”, and while this semi-optimistic description of hard-won, slow progress resonates, it doesn’t capture life with cancer, or, to be more precise, the mind’s meandering assimilation of the reality of it.

I’ve come to see my efforts to live with cancer as a self-erasing pattern of advance and retreat, and it’s getting to me. I want to try to describe it to you. It’s of such importance, this thing I’m trying to figure out.

Thomas, Philippa Mary; Mrs Alington; Great Bardfield Historical Society; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/mrs-alington-2686

In the first place, in my mind, cancer is OF ME, but it’s also NOT ME. It’s separate from the person I am, the one who lives inside this skull and body. I AM NOT MY CANCER; and if this is so, then my task is to learn to co-exist with it. To be with it, as serenely as possible, to know it’s there, but also, to move away from it, in a constant, repeated ebb and flow, a forward and backing away movement, that allows my conscious mind to distance myself from it, so that I can live outside the uncertainty that it has splashed all over my life: so that I can find respite from the sadness and pain of imminent loss that darkens everything if I let it; so that sometimes, I can think and feel beyond the aches, pains, and alterations of my body that complicate my days and mess with my morale, isolating me from the joy of life and of being with others.

Cancer pulls and repels me ad infinitum, and this tide-like dynamic isn’t about progress. In some ways, it feels more like breathing: in and out—being sucked in, and then coming up for air. Or like sliding back and forth between two lives: the first, the one that extended itself far into the illusion of a future full of the promise of aging; and the second, the reality of a life occupied by certain, daily struggle and my far more imminent death and separation from the future of my loved ones.

How does this play itself out in my daily life? In a list of random thoughts and ways. Here’s a sampling:

  • The seeds of love are sown among human networks every day. Yesterday, I was with Penelope and Graeme, my 7 and 5-year-old grandchildren. Penelope was telling me about her swimming lessons, and what she does in grade one, and how the ballet school she attends has asked her to double or triple the number of weekly classes she takes because they want to move her to the advanced level, and how she’s willing to start with a one-week ballet workshop this summer and then, well see…
Eardley, Joan Kathleen Harding; Children and Chalked Wall No.2; Lakeland Arts Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/children-and-chalked-wall-no-2-145281

And her brother Graeme sat next to me as we read the Pokémon encyclopedia together, identifying the evolutions of most of the creatures, just an hour or so after we had returned from shopping, all of us together with his parents, for his birthday presents (because he turns 5 next week), during which he had been so reasonable and showed not a glimmer of greed or selfishness…

And at one point, with P&G on either side of me on the couch, I took each of their hands and pressed them together over my lap, to show them that Graeme’s were already the same size as his sister’s. And it seemed like a good time to talk about such disparities, and what they might mean, as neither was sure whether it was a good or bad thing that sweet little Graeme has large strong hands…

And during every moment of these hours spent in such perfect company, I carried inside me the feeling of having been prematurely aged by cancer, and of not being as sure of myself as I once was with them. Cancer was there, in the room with us. It heightened my sense of separation from them because it took up space that has its own weight, its own gravity.

  • Several months ago, while watching the movie World War Z with Simon and Christian, in which infected, ravenous zombies are terrorizing the whole world and attacking every person in their path, I learned that I would have been spared. Sick people like me, with cancer and other diseases, were left alone by the zombies. Christian and I, upon realising this, looked at each other and smiled, even stifling a giggle. Quickly though, the other message of this scene hit me, then my sons: whether by disease or design, inclusion or exclusion, being culled is still being culled.

First, there was escape into a movie, then cancer pulled me away again.

  • I still have time to read. And I’ve been reading all over the place, trying to catch up with blogs posts I write for the Pointe-Claire Library and simply enjoying escaping into imaginary worlds. But reading has also provided one of the clearest, smoothest paths to approach cancer and dying, and I have found myself eagerly following it. It’s where I’ve most felt the sliding back and forth between lives and needs: between cancer and cancer-free thoughts.
de Ville, Nicholas; Still Life with Stools and Books; The Fitzwilliam Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/still-life-with-stools-and-books-5784

And so, despite everything I’ve written here, I do approach death and dying willingly, in ways that work for me. I must prepare. Denial is impossible for me. That’s why I’ve just picked up Maggie O’Farrell’s I AM, I AM, I AM, Seventeen Brushes with Death, which is getting rave reviews, and have just ordered Jayson Greene’s Once More We Saw Stars, in which he shares the story of the death of his tiny daughter, just a couple of years old, as the result of a freak accident.

I don’t find anything morbid in these books, nor do I find them depressing. What they allow me to do is to approach death over and over; examine its shape and its impact on those it touched; learn from the person who is dying or, finally, observe death’s survivors.

Every book I have read about death and dying so far has shown me families of survivors who are able to speak of their lost loved one with joy and still such an abundance of love. And this helps me to stay on the track that is leading me towards death knowing that it’s possible for me to leave life without causing irreversible suffering. The only prize worth keeping an eye on. Life goes on!

  • Every day, several times a day, I receive short quotes from an app named We Croak. Simon had originally heard its creator talk about it on CBC Radio, and I loved the idea of being reminded of my mortality at random daily intervals. This was many moons ago.

And then there was my cancer diagnosis. And when the first few quotes buzzed in on my phone, We Croak suddenly appeared to me in a different light. It was, briefly, macabre, and I wrestled with the impulse to deactivate it.

It still reminds me several times a day that I am mortal. Sometimes it does this philosophically, sometimes poetically, sometimes medically, sometimes religiously and sometimes brutally.

But I kept it as just one part of this path that I walk along now. It’s a path that backs me away from my cancer for essential, replenishing and escapist periods of time, and also leads me toward my cancer, from which I still have many lessons to learn.

This is the quote that buzzed on my We Croak phone app just minutes ago. It’s everything I’ve just written, delivered clear as day.

A dying person may book a vacation you know they will never take, plant a tree, buy a car, and shave their head. Make room for rage. Make room for clarity and insight, composure and acceptance, and throwing out a bedpan across a room.” Sallie Tisdale

May I continue this movement away from and towards what my cancer comes to deliver.

Paul, Celia; Study: My Mother and the Cross; Lakeland Arts Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/study-my-mother-and-the-cross-145440

 

 

THE UNPRESERVABLE TRAIL…

Maussion, Charles; Portrait; Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/portrait-1893

April 3rd, 2019

At breakfast with Christian and my friend Gail, yesterday, the conversation turned to memory, and what exactly memories are, and what they do for us, and what they mean to each person’s identity and how we think of ourselves: their weight, their influence…

We spoke of a common desire in this world to dig into the past, to search our childhoods for the trauma, for the pain, and also for those formative experiences that may still not sit easily within us, with which we may still not have made our peace.

Maussion, Charles; Head and Shoulders; Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/head-and-shoulders-1890

And Christian likened past experience and memory to a great tree with so many ramifications that it’s impossible to know where each is ultimately leading to, or emanated from, or how they all come together from a trunk and its roots…

And Gail, who is a Zen practitioner, smiled at that image and said that she had been reminded many a time that to look too long to the past is to get lost inside your head because, in truth, there is only ever the present moment, and though we carry with us imprinted memories of our own past, we can only every really BE HERE, NOW. There’s no going back, and the future is as intangible as space. She likened memory to the vapour trail we see tailing high flying airplanes, which is very thick where it first emerges, but which thins till it disappears off into nothingness.

Unpreservable.

At 60, I’ve stored enough memories to see the truth of both of those images, and to realise that by and large, I remember just enough to remain my continuous self, someone who walks in the world with a personal identity, i.e. I adore my children and grandchildren, I’m Canadian, a Montrealer; the people I love are…The foods I enjoy are…During this past year, I’ve moved to a new town, into a new home…I’m very sick…

But I also know, now more than ever, as I grow older, that the memories we hold onto with an iron grip are really the pain. We envelop those in such a tough, protective shell that sometimes they become virtually inaccessible to us, lost in lock down. It’s the memory of pain that seems to have the longest shelf life.

* * *

 

I’m just reaching the end of Philippe Lançon’s 2018 book, Le Lambeau (a word which means, in the book’s context, a flap of flesh). Lançon is a writer/journalist who survived the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, January 7th, 2015. He was in the conference room at the moment of the attack and had the lower part of his face shot off, as well as sustaining damage to his arms. He was left disfigured, and suffered two years of hospitalisation, of treatments, surgery, more treatments, more reconstructive surgery, and still more treatments and pain…

It’s a gorgeous and profound five-hundred-plus page book, that covers the actual shooting very briefly, but lingers for a very long time on the life that came next. The survival. In French, the meaning is deeper, because to live is vivre, and to survive is survivre, words which, for Lançon, also refer to his two lives: the one before the attack, and the one after. Ma vie, et ma survie.

unknown artist; Les massacres de la guerre; The University of York; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/les-massacres-de-la-guerre-8914

What Lançon examines with fascination, precision, and disarming honesty, is how the man he was for more than fifty years, and the life he had, have become almost an afterthought in his new present. He isn’t so much describing a disconnect between his former life and his present “survival” as he is eloquently making a case for the former’s irrelevance.As I’ve read through his book, Lançon has taken me from the somewhat unconscious, automatic life that was his before January 7th, 2015, to one that was stripped down to the bareness of hospital rooms, pain, drugs, drool, drains, nurses, doctors, surgeries, opioids, fear and dependency.

And what struck me, all the way through his account, are the parallels that can be drawn between his experience and that of anyone who has suffered the violent or sudden shock of a life-threatening event, including war: a physical attack (as in Lançon’s case); a medical diagnosis that promises suffering and eventual death, or any unpredictable occurrence that moves a person’s life out of the public world of home, work and freedom of movement, into medical care and the enveloping necessity of hospitals and treatment.

In fact, I’m shocked that I not only feel empathy toward him (who wouldn’t? his tragic story is one of martyrdom), but that I also understand so many of his reactions, such as his progressive  withdrawal from the world outside (this is a writer and journalist who has lived and travelled in Romania, the Middle East, South and Central America, all over the world, in fact) which took the form of not reading the papers or watching television news; seeking refuge in music, mostly Bach…almost always Bach…for hours and hours; feeling the burden of having become a patient—the weight of that dependency; veins that seek only to escape the piercing needle; the alteration of the physical self and the mirror that returns such alien images; the desire to remain cocooned…

Philippe Lançon
Philippe Lançon

I think of myself, moving between our house and the CHUM, and how it’s becoming easier to feel comfortable in this new, smaller life of mine. I realize that I, too, have become reluctant to take on the news of the world at the rate I did before learning I have cancer. My desire to listen to music has not evaporated, but it’s often music of a certain type—all of Max Richter, for example—largely instrumental music that is expansive and elegiac, that fills up the whole house when I’m alone and which envelops me in the emotions that I feel and want to keep feeling but cannot always share with others; looking at myself in the mirror, the way Lançon did and certainly still must, and accepting anew, each time, that the person being reflected back is the one who is here, now, and that any other incarnation is gone—lost to the past.

For many of us, the sense of awareness of a “before life” and “after life” will only develop as a result of aging. Memories will be explored, evoking both a sense of loss, appreciation, and the sense of continuity. But for the many others, the acceptance of la vie and la survie, of two distinct lives created in a moment, and divided irrevocably, will mean leaving behind the unpreservable trail.

For many, first there was life, and then, survival.

Gerrard, Kaff; In the Twilight, in the Evening; Canterbury City Council Museums and Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/in-the-twilight-in-the-evening-75760