Anyone who reads this blog knows I consider it a home away from home, a safe place to fall where I can put my feet up, have a beer, and listen to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers all day long if I feel like it. I don’t have to keep it clean. I don’t have to check the mail – I don’t even have to open the mail. If I don’t feel like company, I don’t have to answer the door. If I want to throw a party, I can invite people from all over the world. If I want to be alone with deep, angsty thoughts the way I did a million years ago, rambling into my diary in the wee hours, I can do that too. And, I just celebrated fifty-one years on this earth, so I’m entitled to a little corner of the blogosphere. Yes?
Mind you, the best part about this virtual world might be when, every once in a while, it collides with the real one. Magically, these known strangers are in real time, sitting across the table from me in a snug at The Crown Bar in Belfast or in a hotel bar in Washington DC or in a restaurant in my Phoenix neighborhood. Surreal and real, it is as if we have known each other a lifetime, our worlds at once expanding and narrowing right in front of us. Maybe Muriel Rukeyser was on to something when she pondered:
What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open.
I have never met Renn, who writes at The Big C and Me, but I have grown to know her since shortly after my breast cancer diagnosis in 2011. I found her the way I found many women diagnosed with cancer, through commenting on her writing about this ridiculous disease that alters a life in innumerable and immeasurable ways, bringing with it fear and pain and the very worst – along with the very best – in people.
So we navigate our way through the context and complexity of cancer country, encountering an ever-widening gulf between ourselves and others who may not or cannot understand the politics, the business, the norms of this new, strange culture. Cancer country – a strange land where within confidences shared between kindred spirits in hospital waiting rooms and in the advocacy for change that ripples through the words of women in a virtual world, I am at once a part, and more apart from the people who know me best.
When Ken died five months ago, it was to this space I retreated, this timeless space, peopled with some of the kindest women I may never meet, yet to whom I am forever bound. In mid-November, there were days when I could not speak. To anyone. It was as if I had swallowed the sharpest stone, and it remained lodged in my center. This is what grief feels like – so the experts say – and it can be a tenacious bastard.
In those early days, it was easier to wrestle with words on a computer screen – publicly – knowing that out of all the millions of words available to me, I would never find even one to adequately express neither my sorrow for my daughter who loved him so much nor my gratitude to my best friend who found his dead body – or – my utter unsuitability for “widowhood.” How was I ever going to figure out the rules of engagement in a life reshaped by the death of the one man who knew me better than anyone else, the man who told me twenty-something years ago that he was too old for me, (at the time, he was younger than I am today), the man who never let me leave the house without telling me I was some kind of wonderful, the man who would be the father of my only child? I’m learning, and here’s what I know. There. Are. No. Rules. There is only the remembering. And in remembering, there is grace. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who died this Thursday past, said that:
What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.
Naturally, this wouldn’t occur to me until I had no choice other than to remember! True, I am not crying every day, “grieving” for Ken every moment. In fact, sometimes I’m angry that he died before he taught Sophie how to drive or before I had a chance to say sorry for saying a hurtful thing or before I watched “No Country for Old Men” with him, so I could tell him that, yes, even though Cormac McCarthy annoys me with all his existentialist despair, it was a very good movie. I’m listening to my jeans tumble around in the dryer, and it occurs to me that the laundry and the remote and the music on the playlist is all up to me, now. Mundane bits and pieces, I know. The stuff of every day that doesn’t matter. At the same time, none of the bad stuff matters either. It just doesn’t. Spilt milk. Water under the bridge. All gone. Only the good remains. Now I know what Gabriel Garcia Marquez was talking about in Love in the Time of Cholera
. . . the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.
Because it is the remembering that matters, I choose to remember all that was wild and spontaneous and foolish and joyous when we were wild and spontaneous and foolish and joyous. It’s easy. Much easier than remembering the things we’d sooner forget. It’s right in front of me, all wrapped up in our daughter’s clear-eyed compassion, her irreverent sense of humor, and the way she walks out into the world every day. Her world. I love that.
When cancer came to call, it reminded me of my early days as an immigrant in the United States, making room for new customs and new words, words that had the power to transport me directly into and far away from apprehension. Fear and uncertainty moved in and – for too long – showed no sign of leaving, like the couple of friends who might show up on your doorstep and overstay their welcome. You know who they are – the unexpected visitors who infuriate us, missing all the dropped hints, seemingly unaware of the not-so-subtle signs that it really is time to be going. Wearily polite, we resign ourselves to the fact that, at the end of the day, it is the nobler thing to just wait for them to leave rather than ask them to go.
The fast and furious flurry of euphemisms that follow a cancer diagnosis or the death of of a spouse are gradually replaced by something more closely resembling the routine of someone forced into a kind of exile. For a time, I felt as though I had been banished to a new country that required me to be bolder and braver than ever before. The irony is not lost on me as an immigrant in America, a part of the Irish Diaspora scattered all over the globe. But like Rip Van Winkle, I am no longer as sure of what awaits when I wander down once-familiar roads.
But who wants to spend a happy hour talking about fear and uncertainty? Nobody. I don’t. So we don’t. It’s awkward. I don’t look afraid and uncertain. (But then you aren’t there in the morning when no-one but me is looking in the mirror).
So I write about it instead. Sometimes I make myself laugh out loud. I really do. Other times, I think I might break my own heart. How’s that for truth-telling? So when Renn asked me if I would join her in a world-wide Blog Tour to answer four simple questions about why and how we write, I accepted her invitation. Gladly. And honored to do so, because I am in the company of women who have lifted me up with their words – and without fail – since November 2011. Marie at Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer, from Dublin and currently on sabbatical in Australia, Jan in lovely Northern California, Catherine in Canada, Philippa The Feisty Blue Gecko in Myanmar, and Audrey in Scotland – I am forever in your debt.
1. What am I working on?
At the risk of sounding coy and cryptic, I can’t really tell you too much about what I’m working on. You might judge me. After all, it’s only been five months since Ken died. I don’t know when I stopped measuring the time in days – it would be 160 – but that is probably a good thing. I can even hear the clocks ticking again, and with that comes a realization that as cliched as it is, life is too short, and it is for living. There’s a sense of urgency now with fences to mend, and in spite of the conventional wisdom, there are some bridges to burn; there are walls to erect and barriers to tear down; stories to tell and secrets to reveal; loose ends to tie up and elephants in the living room that can no longer be ignored. There are places to go. There is a book to write. And, I am writing it. Finally, I have committed to it – out loud – as a creative project and grateful to have found an artistic collaborator with the time management and organization skills I lack.
Until the book is finished, you’ll find me here occasionally and also at IrishCentral.com where I am a contributing writer (albeit infrequently), sharing opinions that may not be popular, but that’s what keeps the conversation going. I also contribute to The Antrim Guardian – my hometown newspaper – as long as Liam, the nice editor, sends “a wee reminder” about the deadline every two weeks.
Q2: How does my work differ from others in its genre?
I’m not sure I would put my writing in a genre. Unless there is a genre for “you-cannot-make-this-shit-up-no-you-really-can’t” category, which some smart ass just informed me is creative non-fiction. I’ll take it. I suppose what makes it different is that, invariably, no matter what I’m writing about, there’s always a link to Northern Ireland. Usually, it involves the Troubles or Seamus Heaney or my mother’s wisdom, and always it confirms what Edna O’Brien calls those “themes of childhood” from which we never escape. I surprise even myself, when I begin a paragraph in the Arizona desert and finish it on the train from Dublin up to Sandyrow or on Cyprus or Fitzroy Avenues in Belfast. With Van Morrison. All the stories I tell here are completely true. Also true, is that not all the stories are complete. Is an omission a lie? Maybe. There are just some truths I cannot tell yet. Time and place matter, when it comes to truth-telling. And the right words. You know we just don’t have enough of those.
Q.3: Why do I write what I do?
Seriously, this blog was never supposed to be about me. Fueled by good intentions and my personal experience, it was supposed to be singularly about breast cancer, a place to advocate for others affected by the disease, where I would stay on top of the topic of cancer. I had presumed I might be instrumental in forcing a change in the national conversation about it by chronicling the injustices and indignities that simmer in its culture, if only half as well as so many women who have pulled me up more times than they will ever know. How they write! Boldly, audaciously, and tenaciously, some daily, they stay on point even when they claim to have run out of words – the Accidental Amazon, Nancy and her Point, the Pink Underbelly, Marie and the global cast of women whose blogs she rounds up every Friday at Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer, and the women and men who show up every Monday at 9pm ET at the #BCSM, Tweetchat, “ the intersection of breast cancer and all things social media,” where truths are conveyed at lightning speed in 140 characters or less.
I had hoped to catch the right words about breast cancer and save them in a jam-jar with holes poked in the lid, ready to release them whenever they were needed. But I am not up for the task that requires a commitment as mammoth as the hulking oppressor that is breast cancer itself.
As I said earlier, I used to write that it was breast cancer that had banished me to a strange land, thereby demanding a new level of boldness and bravery; that it had forced me into a kind of exile. That was true, but so too – and more important to me now – is this matter of my self as a voluntary exile in a global community that is smaller and more accessible now to those who left Mother Ireland as well as those who stayed. It is a blog about being home or maybe finding home. And there’s no place like home – its books and music, its warm fire, the sound of it settling, belonging in it . . .
Maybe I’m not unlike the woman Dublin poet, Paula Meehan, describes
I am a blind woman finding her way home by a map of a tune.
When the song that is in me is the song I hear from the world
I’ll be home. It’s not written down and I don’t remember the words.
I know when I hear it, I’ll have made it myself. I’ll be home.
Q4. How does my writing process work?
It doesn’t. If it worked, I would do it every day. With ease. Writing is neither quick nor easy for me. Often, so elusive are the ideas and then the words to attach to them, that I may as well be divining for water. For the better part of the last month, I just haven’t written anything. I have actually plagiarized myself. (I’m doing it right now). When an idea worth exploring comes my way, I hesitate to commit it to the blank screen in front of me, because its potential might be diminished by an ill-chosen word or a clumsy sentence. My reluctance amuses me, knowing I will begin to revise this very post, rework its sentences, reshape it, remove imprecise words, perhaps entirely rewrite it, shortly after I press “publish.” Because the first draft is never any good, a veritable struggle, perhaps this response should be entitled, “How does my rewriting process work?”
Until I encountered a 1977 interview she gave for the Paris Review, I presumed writing came easily to iconic writer, Joan Didion. It simply never occurred to me that she might struggle with the technicalities of getting started:
What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.
The first is the gesture, the second is the commitment.
Yes, and the last sentence in a piece is another adventure. It should open the piece up. It should make you go back and start reading from page one. That’s how it should be, but it doesn’t always work. I think of writing anything at all as a kind of high-wire act. The minute you start putting words on paper you’re eliminating possibilities. Unless you’re Henry James.”
But putting words on paper we must. You’re only stuck with that first draft if you don’t do anything with it. Writing and rewriting is where we find creativity, unbound by time, a fusion of labor and craft. As Lewis Hyde posits in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World :
Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus–these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify … writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms — these are labors.
Writing is invention: revision and reinvention too. While it is not what I do for a living, it is essential to my life. Revising paragraphs is time well spent, savored not necessarily scheduled, daily. Time spent very early in the morning or late at night, weighing words from a first draft, deleting them or rearranging them, helps illuminate for me who and how I am, what lies in front of me, what holds me back, what’s hidden beneath the surface.
I discovered writer, Anne Lamott, a few years before my daughter was born, some time before the internet, and long before I bumped into blogging. I’m reminded this evening of advice she gave in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, “We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid.
For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.
With that, I’ll pass the baton on to two bloggers I met in the real world. I am biased. They are both from Belfast, in my lovely, tragic Northern Ireland. The first, Fiona McLaughlin, writes at Me, Mine, and Other Bits . . . Trundling Along and lives in Belfast which she rightly describes as “a cold, grey sort of place where we look for the splashes of color.” Fiona is a splash of color herself. Here we are at a restaurant in Belfast (after several G & Ts over the course of an afternoon with Lesley Richardson who just completed this very activity on her fabulous blog Standing Naked at a Bus Stop.
Next, let me introduce you to Liz Barron, The Blarney Crone, self-described as “Irish, idiosyncratic, and in your face.” Liz hails from Belfast and now lives in Washington DC. When she and her sister took a trip to Arizona last year, she left a comment here on my blog – as you do – suggesting we meet up. Of course we did. Within seconds, the three of us had fallen into the rhythm of home – the colloquialisms and the craic not at all out of place in the desert southwest.
And I am back home again.
P.S. Here is Liz’s Blogging for Ireland on the World Tour post – it crackles with her trademark Norn Iron humor 🙂