Tuesday, July 19, 2011

6 cities in 6 months

The six-month run-up to my diagnosis was a blur of activity, and, in hindsight, I see it as a frantic search for meaning. I had just left a pretty serious relationship, because, like most of my previous relationships, my man-friend and I just seemed to hit an emotional wall and not know where to go from there.

Despite the best efforts of therapists and self-help books and programs, I had reverted to my habitual emotional stagnation, finding myself in romances with men who were just like me. After a certain level of intimacy, neither of us had the know-how or inclination to take the next step into the messy places of the heart.

So, once again, I set romance aside and started “doing stuff.” That was my default mode. Lonely? Go dancing. Sad? Take a bike ride. It’s a much better choice than sitting on the couch and stuffing your face or drinking yourself into oblivion. But activity, as I was to learn the hard way, is not always an option.

At that time, however, activity was both an effective way for me to soothe my feelings and a functional tool of meaning-making and self-expression.

I visited six cities in six months, and each of them seemed to contain a theme. The trip to New York City was all about art.

In July I visited my friend, Suzanne, who was staying at her sister’s 12th-floor apartment on Park Avenue South. It’s the fanciest address I’ve ever had in New York, with its spectacular view up Central Park and the grand buildings alongside it. Suzanne was studying acting for the summer and working at a caviar boutique up the street. Suzanne is very cool.

We went to see a revival of “Chicago,” which she didn’t like because she hates musicals, and which I loved, because Bebe Neuwirth (Lilith on “Frasier”) played Vilma and because I just love “Chicago.” The music totally rocks: “Razzle Dazzle,” “Cell Block Tango.” “When You’re Good to Mama” has to be the only song in history that finds a way to rhyme “reciprocity” with “love me.” What’s not to love?

We also went to see “Villa Villa” by an Argentinean dance-theater company called De La Guardia. Beautiful boys and girls (Dancers are always called boys and girls regardless of how old they are.) performed on wires and pulleys overhead, while the audience stood the whole time, craning to look up and around at dancers on balconies and in midair. I went to see the lush and colorful Bonnard show at the Museum of Modern Art. Suzanne, her friend Neal and I went to the Cloisters climbed to a bell tower at The Riverside Church in Harlem to see their amazing carillon.

Suzanne and I went to “Slamnation,” a film about poetry slams, and to the Nuyorican Poets CafĂ©, a famous venue for slam poetry, spoken word and hip hop on the lower East Side. She and I were both slammers at the time. We were going to try to get on the bill, but I couldn’t stay up that late. I was crashing, just beginning to feel the degradation of my previously prodigious energy. I was having a hard time keeping up with Suzanne, and this was new for me.

Next week, we go to Austin to compete in the National Poetry Slam, and try to keep up with lovely people half our age, then on to Yogaville in Virginia, to Kansas City and Cherokee.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Single Ouch

The Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”
This journey begins with a single “Ouch!”, the one that I yelped on Dr. Rawlings’ table during a routine pelvic exam. She poked again. I yelped again.
“There’s definitely something going on,” she said. I didn’t like what was going on, for sure, and things didn’t go much better for about a year after that.
This was the beginning of my journey into the world of cancer, treatment and, finally, healing.
Some people dread and fear cancer all of their lives, but I never imagined that I would get cancer – many other things, perhaps, and I had already overcome addiction to alcohol and other drugs, but a diagnosis of cancer had never entered my mind.
After all, I was healthy. Seriously. I ate right, mostly. I exercised. In fact, I loved to exercise. Dancing. Biking. In my new home in North Carolina, I was hiking nearly every weekend. I hadn’t drunk alcohol or smoked anything for years.
The irony – and also the blessing – that would follow me every step of the way on this new journey was that I was perfectly healthy, strong and fit, except, oh, by the way, I had cancer. I was in my late 40s, at the peak of my career as a journalist. I had just bought my first house. I was surrounded by beloved friends and family. Sort of.
And I had cancer. Only I didn’t know it yet.
After more poking at her end and more yelping at mine, Dr. Rawlings said I could get up and get dressed. I haven’t seen her for 10 years, but I’ll never forget her. She was petite, blonde and impossibly young, dealing with a slightly manic 48-year-old woman who she thought might have cancer.
She recommended a sonogram and sent me home. I was thinking I had fibroid tumors. I’m glad I didn’t know what she was thinking.
At the time, I was preoccupied with work, running a 13-person features department at a good, mid-size newspaper. I love journalists. We are nutty, neurotic and egotistical but each in our own unique way, so going to work was always diverting. I had recently returned from a national features-editor conference in Kansas City feeling inspired and second-rate by turns as I always did after those meetings.
I was also participating in the slam-poetry scene that was sweeping the nation and had been to Austin in August with the local team. More of the same personality types only more-so. Since poets are full-blown artists their neuroses are even more fully evolved than those of journalists.
I had broken up with a pretty serious boyfriend the previous July after an 18-month relationship. I wasn’t exactly at loose ends, because I had plenty of things happening in my life: all of the above, and I’d been to a Yoga ashram in Virginia Labor Day weekend; I was getting ready to go to a 12-step conference in Cherokee sponsored by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, taking contemporary dance lessons, and going to contra- and swing dances.
But something was not right with me, and on some level I knew it. Despite my high level of activity, I felt bone-tired when I stopped to rest. I was sleeping 12 hours on weekend nights. My belly seemed big and kind of hard, despite maintaining my normal weight. My low back hurt. I was having abdominal discomfort that made me hold my breath, not only against the pain but also in fear. My period had stopped, and I felt sad.
I would feel a lot more sadness, pain and fear before it was all over.