December 28, 2011
So, here I am, getting myself ready for my second chemotherapy infusion. The process itself started today, with oral medications that reduce the possibility of an allergic reaction to the chemo drugs. I’ve gotten out a little carry bag and packed supplies for tomorrow, and while I was doing it, I thought about writing (which I’ll get to later).
Into my little carry bag, I’ve packed a DVD (“Mamma Mia” – they have a big screen TV in the infusion room). Some knitting (the last sleeve of a multicolored sweater I’m knitting). Wipes (I’ve become a fanatic about hand washing). Hand cream (I’m trying to keep my hands soft through all the hand washing. Gum (I always have a dry mouth now and it truly helps.). Chocolates (treats for enduring chemo, eaten regularly during the few hours I’ll be there). Earplugs and sleep mask (I don’t want to see or hear what they call the “stick” when the nurse inserts a needle into the port in my chest for the infusion). Water (of course – hydration, essential). The book I’m reading (Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese – a magnificent book set in a hospital in Ethiopia; it’s written by a doctor and describes, not only the kind of procedures done there in detail, but also the history of Ethiopia during and after the Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign, including back-story about the Italian invasion; it’s the kind of book I’m preferring at this time – huge, epic, set in another country, filled with graphic descriptions of landscape, historical events, complex unforgettable characters). A very big picnic lunch (Roast Beef and Potato Salad on an Onion Roll and Carrot Sticks; I was the only patient eating during chemo last time; the nurse was thrilled – “We want you to have enough energy to walk out of here,” and I did). A scarf I’ve knit for my oncologist (I hope he likes it).
You might say that I’m prepared for tomorrow.
But of course I’m not prepared. Who could be? Lots of my friends have been telling me, “You’re doing such good work preparing yourself for this experience”; “You’re dealing with this so well”; “You’re such a good patient”. I want to disabuse them all of these false images because it perpetrates a sense that there are people who do this kind of thing well (me) and people who don’t (someone else). I don’t like those divisions, those dichotomies. I can say, and will, that I’m doing the best I can. But I can’t say that I’m prepared.
Because I’ve gone through this once, it’s not as scary as the last time, that’s for sure. But still, there’s no telling what will happen. So “prepared” isn’t the right word. Because as prepared as you think you are for whatever you’re encountering – partnership, childrearing, elder age, illness; grieving – you’re never prepared and you don’t know what will be what until you begin the process. I think I learned this during the past several years from reading all the war novels I’ve read. Once the first shot is fired, nothing ever goes according to plan, and if you’re in combat, you’re always in an ad hoc kind of world, prepared in some ways, and unprepared in others.
In thinking about what the right word might be for what I am at this point, the only word that I can come up with is the word “Ready”. I’ll have all my stuff (my talismans) with me. So let’s just say that I’m ready for tomorrow. Not prepared for tomorrow, by any means, but ready to respond, as best I can, to whatever happens. Notice that I’ve said respond “as best I can,” not “respond well,” for who can predict the future. I certainly can’t. (And I can tell you that it’s a terrible burden to someone to respond “well” to a difficult situation – “I know you’re do fine during chemo; you’re just that kind of person”. So that in addition to living through something tough, you’re expected to live through it well. “Johnny is taking his father’s death so well.” Why should he?)
While I was packing my special chemo carry bag, as I said before, I began thinking about writing while I was thinking about what I was trying to do in packing that little bag.
The truth is that when we sit down at our desks (or wherever we happen to be writing – in the subway, at a café, on a bench outside), we can kid ourselves into thinking we’re prepared to do the work of writing just as I could kid myself that I’m prepared for tomorrow. We have our story (we think). We have our set of skills (we’ve worked hard at them). We have our little or our big plan (an outline, or, in my case, my many outlines). We have our “deadline” in our head or written down (the book will be done by the end of the summer, by the end of September). And, of course if your writing life is anything like mine, even though we might think we’re prepared, we also carry with us all those threads of terror and doubt. Me, write something that makes sense? Me, finish a book?
I think that I will, in the future, try to think about how, when I sit down at my writing desk, I want to be, not prepared, but ready. That’s all. Ready. Ready to write. Ready to see what happens when I write. Ready to respond to what unfolds under my pen. Ready to duck and swerve the mental demons that make me want to stop writing. Ready to keep my concentration and not check my e-mail, the day’s news, and the latest dumb thing some cat did on You Tube. Ready to stay at my desk for the full half hour, hour, two hours, whatever. Ready, even, to let myself witness myself enjoying the process. Ready to change my plans, ready to change my narrative, ready to elaborate on something I hadn’t intended to. Ready to protect myself as a writer and walk away from the desk should I feel myself “reliving” an event rather than “writing about” it. Ready to walk away from a publication situation that starts to feel abusive.
Ready seems doable to me.
I started thinking about readiness in writing, actually, on Christmas Eve, when I read Nancy F. Koehn’s New York Times article, “Leadership Lessons from the Shackleton Expedition.” (I might write more about this soon.) On his attempt to reach the South Pole, Shackleton’s 1914-1916 expedition faced disaster upon disaster. Shackleton thought he was “prepared,” but he wasn’t. Yet, he did not lose one crewmember throughout the ordeal. And the reason was that Shackleton responded “constantly to changing circumstances”; he manifested the skill of “consistent reinvention.” Though his goal had been to reach the South Pole, he changed his goal to making sure all of his crewmembers survived. This entailed his ability to jettison his initial goals, to honestly assess his situation, to be “present” (rather than oblivious) to what he faced.
So, how’s this for a description of Writing Readiness? The ability to respond “constantly to changing circumstances”; manifesting the skill of “consistent reinvention”. I’m thinking that this is what I’ll work toward – in my chemo experience and in my writing – in this New Year.