HOPE ON A PENDULUM

Murray, William Staite; Action and Inaction; York Museums Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/action-and-inaction-8316

Part of the THIS IS THE MOMENT series. 

January 29th, 2019

I got my second scan results, once again, through my sister-in-law who is a radiologist. She received my email at the beginning of her vacation (she doesn’t—can’t—take nearly enough time off), and promised to let me know how things looked as soon as she got back. When she did, I received a very brief email stating that things were “stable”: no new lesions, no growth of existing tumours. STABLE. I immediately replied, asking if that meant that nothing had shrunk, she replied again: yes, stable.

After processing her words a bit longer, I felt myself sliding down into a gutter of sadness. Of hopelessness. It was so precipitous, it was almost like the sweeping downward movement of a rollercoaster.

Wadsworth, Edward Alexander; Souvenir of Fiumicino; Manchester Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/souvenir-of-fiumicino-206329

So much for my bravado. My morale is wobbly and vulnerable. My mind was filled with a frantic salad of thoughts such as:

– “Stable” means the drugs are (already!) no longer having the desired effect on the tumours/

– “Stable” means the beginning of the end, because if the tumours aren’t shrinking anymore, then the second we stop treatment, they’ll spread everywhere/

 – “Stable” means the cancer has adapted; when I got the first scan results that were so favourable, there was a brief period when I thought: “Maybe I’m one of those people who will be “cured”, against all odds, of their stage 4 cancer. But I’m not./

 – Maybe I’ll be dead in a year…perhaps two years…I won’t be part of the future.

I was hurtling down a steep incline, having lost sight of all of the answers to the question: What am I afraid of?

Like mountain climbing when, after a near catastrophic fall, you struggle back up to where you set your carabiner, and you see that you’ve moved well beyond chemo base camp, and that the stakes now feel even greater.

Hughes, Lynda; Light, Hope and Dancing; Victoria Centre; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/light-hope-and-dancing-64368

Then I thought to go online and just look at what the American Cancer Society has to say on the matter. I found what I was looking for under the heading “Managing Cancer as a Chronic Illness.  I read through the sections several times and each time, it was like pushing my mind’s refresh button. Each time, things were slightly altered.

I think that I’ve arrived at a crucial place: I must now accept that stage 4 cancer (barring a medical miracle) is chronic cancer—if you’re lucky. If it doesn’t spread like wildfire. A cancer that you can live with for a while (…to be determined). And living with chronic cancer means several things, including the fact that the life that you had before you were diagnosed is GONE. It will not be resurrected. GONE. Got that?

This was so from day one but I hadn’t yet understood and absorbed it.

Amongst all of the daydreams that sweep things back and forth in my mind was this notion that perhaps, if I was very, very lucky, perhaps one day this life I have right now would all be gone and in its place, my old life—the one that contained my work, my physical strength and stamina, my greater independence, my ability to travel, and the plans I shared with my sons about the future—would return. That I would have a life after cancer.

I know differently now, and should have sooner, except that, apparently, my mind relinquishes its patterns reluctantly, and holds onto its schemas the way very small children cling to their parents. I live and hope to keep living with cancer. That’s my new narrative.

Organ, Bryan; Pendulum Number 3; Leicestershire County Council Artworks Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/pendulum-number-3-82559

Time is breaking down my resistances, and I can now see that I will be able to live with cancer for many months and, perhaps, years. This means a life lived close to hospitals, to medical care, to drugs and treatments. Regular medical intervention and supervision of my cancer and health, till I die. Freedom within those parameters.

This all coincided with bad news we received. Heartbreaking news, concerning a close member of our extended family; someone we haven’t known all that long but love deeply, who, at 53 years of age, has also been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer of a different type, but who had the news thrown at her in a manner I consider violent and without compassion.

These coinciding events—my scans and her scans—sent me reeling, creating such a mournful feeling in me.  I have lived seven more years than she. How can I not feel rent by this news?

It seems as though there will always be broken pieces to pick up and make room for in the mosaic of my life.

Yesterday, I was back at the CHUM for my routine pre-chemo tests, and spent a while with my oncologist, Dr. Aubin (whom I’ve mentioned before), who heads the clinical trial I’m participating in. I was waiting to see her before writing any of this to you.

Bentley, James; Helping Hands, Cancer Research Sponsored Walk, Buckley, 1st October 1994; Flintshire Museums Service; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/helping-hands-cancer-research-sponsored-walk-buckley-1st-october-1994-180360

She greeted me with a smile, and a cold, which she thinks she caught during her flight back from San Francisco where she and her team were presenting their work and findings so far. She was full of enthusiasm about the outlook of research in her field.

She examined me, and then we discussed my recent scan results, and when I mentioned that I was disappointed, she looked at me and said no, no, that she was very happy with the results; that the cancer is being controlled and that there was, in fact some modest shrinkage, and that all was well. That these sorts of fluctuations were to be expected. And she said it all with a broad smile, so I believed her, and told her that I have finally understood that my disease is chronic. That I know what this means. And she nodded, and smiled.

Before we parted, she said to me that working in oncology is a real challenge, but that patients like me made things much brighter.

It’s hard not to feel buoyed by such words, and so I shall try to knock some sense into myself and repeat to myself that the future is unwritten, and I shall try to narrow the swings of the pendulum to which my hope is tethered.

Lassen, Jeanette; The Road to Health; NHS Lothian (Edinburgh & Lothian Health Foundation); http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-road-to-health-184508

 

 

 

 

 

 

HOPE DIARY

I finished off my previous post with the word HOPE.

When I typed it, it felt like the only way to end a piece that was otherwise defeating. It isn’t in me to be bleak. I can’t bear pessimism for too long before I’m torn asunder, and I couldn’t bring myself to pass the despondency along to you.

But my God, in the week since the MARCH IN JANUARY, the news coming out of the United States has drenched us all with such vile and gut wrenching ugliness that the effect of reading it has been emetic.

It’s reconnecting me with my formal academic training. I am (or was) an historian by trade and the dark clouds emerging over the United States and spreading beyond its borders to parts of Europe are reminiscent of so many sinister periods in history that only the ignorant or the malevolent can ignore them.

This week, an unbridled Trump and his men did as much as they possibly could to shred the social fabric of their vast and beautiful nation in order to maintain the privilege and status of their small, coagulated, self-interested cabal.

The effect of this week on millions of people has been galvanizing.

How good it feels to know that it’s Trump’s executive orders targeting refugees and immigrants from Muslim-majority nations that has just caused the pot to boil over in the country’s metropolises for the second time in one week.

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Watching the crowds, live online, at Dulles,  JFK, SFO and Logan airports yesterday chanting for hours and hours, selflessly and righteously in defense of the rights of ALL, got my pulse racing and overwhelmed me with an emotion that’s too complex to name.

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The day ended with a temporary victory as a federal judge granted the American Civil Liberties Union’s request for a nationwide temporary injunction that will block the deportation of all people stranded in U.S. airports under President Trump’s new Muslim ban.

NO BAN, NO WALL, SANCTUARY FOR ALL!

 NO HATE, NO FEAR, IMMIGRANTS ARE WELCOME HERE!

 NO BAN, NO WALL, NEW YORK CITY IS FOR ALL!

These were the chants in America’s big city airports—and the entreaties in countless hearts.

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As I watched my Facebook feeds, I imagined others, just like me, all over the internet, bursting with a desire to join those crowds, seeing a petite Elizabeth Warren’s face and hearing her clarion voice urging the echoing crowd: “Let’s make our voices heard all around this world”.

Elizabeth Warren at Logan airport, January 28th 2017
Elizabeth Warren at Logan airport, January 28th 2017

I know many of us were listening and watching, and checking in at regular intervals. I expect that many of my immigrant students were. I thought of my former student Nima—a lovely Iranian man who has settled in Montreal but has hopes of living in Boston someday soon—being made to see himself as something odious in the eyes of the Trump administration, and what that must feel like.

I was moved when a childhood friend of my sons—a boy who arrived in Montreal (Dorval) at the age of eight, speaking “only” Farsi, German and English, but who was fluent in French by the time he was thirteen, went on to med school at McGill and is now a practicing neonatologist in California—wrote this on his Facebook page yesterday:

I have always abstained to post political comments as I am aware that nothing I have to say will be influential. Those, including myself (maybe through denial), who were encouraged to give Trump the benefit of the doubt on what type of president he will be once elected in office, can now rest assured that all doubt has been removed. To live in a “democracy” and yet fear that my parents (Canadian citizens) may be denied entry into the US to visit me because they were born in Iran is frightening.

After having been spat at by the White House, he remains, in my opinion, far too polite, far too gracious for his own good. Still, if the measure of a man is in how he expresses himself in difficult times and what he contributes to society through his work, then the man in the White House doesn’t deserve to breathe the same air as this bright, young “immigrant”.

Volunteer lawyers at JFK preparing petitions for detainees, January 28th 2017
Volunteer lawyers at JFK preparing petitions for detainees, January 28th 2017

It means something more, that all of these expressions of resistance and human solidarity occurred the day after Holocaust Remembrance Day; that they happened on the Chinese lunar New Year.

The world has become as accessible as the closest internet connection. No borders can obviate the fact that on this improbable, beautiful blue planet, WE ARE ONE.

Learn this lesson quickly, Mr. Trump.

If a man is to shed the light of the sun upon other men,  he must first of all have it within himself. -Romain Rolland

Addendum, Monday January 30th:

 I awoke this morning to the news that a twenty-seven year old Québécois university student entered a mosque in Quebec City last evening and started shooting. Six people died and 8 were injured. In a searing piece published in The Guardian, Nesrine Malik speaks of Islamophobia having burst its dams.

I start this day fearful of the waves ahead.

MARCH IN JANUARY

PROTEST Marjorie Hawke (1894-1979)
PROTEST
Marjorie Hawke (1894-1979)

On this grey Sunday morning in Montreal, all I seem to be able to do is sit in front of my computer screen.

I was up early and had some lonesome time here; time to search online for feedback from yesterday’s Women’s March in Washington, those across the US and the world, and also here at home.

The images I’ve turned up are marvelous. Some snapped by friends (thank you Gail, thank you Alice, thank you Cindy) but most are by amateur and professional photographers I’ve never met.

The Women's March in Montreal, January 21st, 2017 Photo by Cindy Canavan
The Women’s March in Montreal, January 21st, 2017
Photo by Cindy Canavan

It feels good to look at all of the faces. Many white women, for sure, but more than that.

I didn’t go to the March in downtown Montreal. My feelings about the marches were strangely unenthusiastic. And now, looking at all of the faces and placards in the photos online, I feel a pang of sadness and discomfort which comes at least in part from a sense of guilt.

I should have been there.

Should I have been there? Why didn’t I go? Why should I have gone?

I have to say that I feel relieved that so many mobilized yesterday. It HAD to be that way. Any other result would, I think, have been a counter-productive, booming, echoing failure with awful repercussions.

I feel immensely grateful to everyone who marched somewhere yesterday. THANK YOU.

SHE SHALL BE CALLED WOMAN George Frederic Watts (19th c.)
SHE SHALL BE CALLED WOMAN
George Frederic Watts (19th c.)

There is, in part, a contradiction, an incoherence in my absence from yesterday’s March in Montreal. For the past six months especially, what’s been happening in the United States has ulcerated me.  It has stained every single day and dredged up such intense feelings of dismay, despair and discouragement that I’ve felt both fearful and impotent.

The community of writers online has been furiously, obsessively expressing its outrage and resistance to the reign of Donald Trump and his dark entourage. At first, I couldn’t get enough of it. I read and read and read and commented and searched out more. I mentally fist pumped when I viewed merciless, bullseye parody, read especially caustic and effective zingers, or else brilliant pieces of journalism that laid out the facts of the sickness that now occupies the White House.

But with each week that has passed, I’ve grown tired of this same ocean of words. I’ve become wordlogged. I’ve started to feel myself being dragged down. Lost.

I’ve been reading less and responding less to the sentinel voices. Time to see something else. To feel something else. To see beyond.

Yesterday should have been my opportunity to ACT.

To DO SOMETHING.

Mobilizing must feel good. So, why didn’t I?

There was a certain defeatism in my passivity yesterday, as I imagined the grim, contemptuous and dismissive attitude of Trump, his people and the wider circle of opportunists buzzing around him now. Blowflies.

A GLEAM OF HOPE Joseph Wrightson MacIntyre (1842-1897)
A GLEAM OF HOPE
Joseph Wrightson MacIntyre (1842-1897)

A feeling that the movement expressing itself yesterday, its message, its energy, its spirit, will soon be tainted, respun, labeled and diminished by the new President and all of his men.

I wasn’t sure what it would be like out on the streets of Montreal yesterday. I wasn’t sure what the crowd’s ultimate message would be. I wasn’t sure how idealistic, how innocent or how angry it would be. I couldn’t predict how many ways it could be misconstrued.

So I stayed home and kept an eye on Facebook.

There was lots of self-protection in my choice to do other things yesterday.

There were the voices of all of the people who have always been there to say It won’t make any difference to the things that I’ve advocated for and fought for in my life (they’ve often been right: this dismays me).

There was waiting and seeing.

Where are we headed, the vast WE who cannot accept what is? How will our course be plotted? By whom?

I don’t want the truth of our intentions usurped or hijacked.

And so, I hover. And wait. And read. And write. And converse. And live. And hope.

 

SUNRISE OF HOPE John Miller (1931-2002)
SUNRISE OF HOPE
John Miller (1931-2002)

 

 

 

 

 

BEAUTIFUL LOOPS: a narrative in three parts

Part One

With my friend Louise, rue Mouffetard, Paris, 2012
With my friend Louise, rue Mouffetard, Paris, 2012

I sat down to write this blog post in the afternoon of Friday the 13th.  I meant it to be uplifting. I meant it to say something about cyclical patterns that we all can observe as we live; about how rather than unfolding, time creates loops. I meant to talk about some of the beautiful loops; the ones that carry lessons learned and passed along.

But I was interrupted by the nightmarish carnage that tore into the social fabric of Paris yesterday. Which sickens me and which is an example of the other kind of loops. The kind that are amplified by their diffusion around the planet in a matter of minutes by this century’s information technology. The loops that fuel our predisposition to mistrust, to paranoia, and to knee-jerk reactions.  The kind that make the world instantly small, but in the worst possible way because they bring a feeling of menace to our doorstep. Because they nestle right inside our minds.

I’ve spent the first couple of hours of this quiet Saturday morning browsing online, looking for confirmation of what seemed likely last night, and searching out measured and thoughtful written responses that I’ll carry with me throughout the days to come.

They’ll feed my own meditation on the cyclical patterns that I wish we could destroy once and for all, but that instead fill so much of the space and time we occupy. On the heels of November 11th—Remembrance Day to some, Veterans’ Day to others—we seem to have learned nothing. We have so far to go and so many lessons to repeat and repeat and repeat before we have learned to live as one.

The Parisians and tourists who were at the Stade de France, the Petit Cambodge restaurant, or at the Bataclan watching Eagles of Death Metal (a group from California) perform, didn’t know that they would soon be caught in something bigger and more terrifying than they could possibly imagine. They were, instead, doing what humans do best—coming together to celebrate and share with others. In the huge and diverse city of Paris, they had likely experienced many moments of peaceful and trusting human interaction that day; evolutionary evidence that we are capable of learning better ways of living in community.

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Part two

Maybe it’s the right moment to tell you about one of life’s beautiful loops after all.

I’ve spent most of the past month traveling to different companies throughout Montreal to evaluate employees interested in taking French classes, supported by their employer

Icelandic passport
Icelandic passport

and sponsored by the Quebec government—my employer.

Ninety-five percent of them are immigrants. Most arrived recently, but some have been here ten years or more.

This week alone, I interviewed more that 70 people. They are, of course, as individual as their fingerprints. I met people from Iran, Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong; from Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, Britain, The United States, India, Israel, Israel by way of Eritrea, Romania, Russia and Bulgaria. I know I’ve forgotten a few.

It’s a counter-intuitive exercise.

A list of names is drawn up and handed to me when I arrive on site. I’m ushered to an empty conference room where I settle in with my stack of evaluation forms—one question grid per person.

I position myself facing the door, so that I can greet each of them with a smile.

Within minutes, the first candidate arrives. I have 10 minutes on average to assess their competency in French. The objective is to make sure they’re placed in the right group level so that they’ll learn, have a good time and won’t quit, and then go out into the office and the city and be able to live in French.

200px-Indian_PassportTen minutes is awfully short. You would think that it’s impossible to greet a stranger, make them feel welcome, put them at ease, create a line of comfortable communication, evaluate their linguistic ability and even give them a sense of excitement about learning a new language… in 600 seconds.

Amazingly, it happens almost every time.  We’re hardwired to connect, and in favourable circumstances, it’s almost as effortless as breathing.

One company stood out this week. It was the hardest destination to drive to, in a part of the city where the main arteries are a tangle of dead ends and strange exits. I was pulled over by a cop for driving in a lane reserved for buses (I was trying to read the addresses on the recessed buildings). He felt bad for me and tried to find the place I was looking for on his hand set. He couldn’t find it either.

I finally arrived, a little frayed, and was met by the company’s Accounts Payable Specialist who was visibly at least ten years younger than I had imagined him to be in our email exchanges. He greeted me with a warm handshake, a smile, and an offer of a cup of coffee or tea or water (many more offers followed during the three and a half hours I spent there).

Usually, I am then left to my own devices and simply wait for each candidate to show up. A system that often includes lulls.

But this time, my host took it upon himself to accompany each person to the door of my conference room as soon as the previous evaluation was done. This made things seamless and also invested the proceedings with a sense of solidarity and of importance.

When I was finally done, he of course appeared at the door, and we began to chat. It turns out that he arrived in Montreal as an eight-year-old child and found himself in Classes d’Accueil, the welcoming classes that help immigrant children transition into the regular French language school system here in Quebec, and the place where I began my career as teacher.

Once his French was good enough, he breezed through high school and college and university. I say breezed, but I know, of course, that he did this in his third language (he also speaks English and claims it’s better than his French, which is terrific!). I don’t know the circumstances that brought his family to Montreal, but I know that there was a period of culture shock and struggle.

And yet here he was: a perfect immigrant success story. In his mid-twenties and already managing a group of people a full generation older. Fulfilled in his Montreal life and fully integrated into Québécois society.

And eager to help the wheel make one more full turn for his colleagues.

*****

Part three

syrian_passport_820x418 

Soon, as many as 25 000 Syrian refugees will arrive in Canada. Our newly elected federal government has made it a priority. Six thousand of these are expected in Quebec. Seventy percent of them are likely to settle in Montreal.

May they be part of a new cycle of community-building and acceptance; may they create a new and beautiful loop.