A friend of mine came to town for a visit awhile back and arrived with a couple of lovely gifts: a long letter enclosed in a thoughtful card, some brie cheese infused with truffle (!!), and a book entitled “Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change”. Obviously, my post-chemo, radiated brain zoned in greedily on the cheese, which was nothing short of amazing. I have a special relationship with cheese. And truffles? Don’t get me started. This girl knew what would cheer me up!
Throughout chemo and radiation I found it impossible to read. I could handle magazines, but my brain was just not focused enough to start on any of the piles of books that people so kindly brought over after I was diagnosed, knowing how much time I was going to have on my hands. I am normally a voracious reader, and those who have been in my home know that there are no rooms here without some form of reading material piled up in a corner, on shelves, atop the piano, beside my bed, on the bathroom counter, etc, etc. We are a book family. It has bothered me to be away from it, and I’ve actually wondered lately if my taste for reading was going to abandon me forever, if I was permanently changed this way.
Just this past week, I’ve been slowing down when I walk past these piles of unread stories, and have picked one or two up, trying to decide what exactly I can handle right now, when I curl up to lose myself in someone else’s story for awhile. No cancer stories, nothing super heavy, something to wake my mind up. I came across the book Living Beautifully and decided to kill some time flipping through it while I figured out what I was actually going to read, and within minutes, I had my yellow stickies out, and armed with my pencil I was woken up, quite literally, and startled back into reading because this may just be the best-timed read of my life. (Yes, I have already thanked my friend.)
One thing that has happened in me over the course of the past nine months is a desperate need to clear my head of anything negative. To slough off any superfluous shit, for lack of a better word, and to let go of some pretty heavy baggage I’ve been carrying around for years. We all have it. It’s heavy, it slows us down, and sometimes it keeps us from being free to move in different directions. Sometimes those bags are so big they stop us from going through doors. Sometimes we curl up around those bags, longing for something they once held. Sometimes they’re so exhausting they stop us, completely, from moving forward.
An expression I’ve used a lot as of late is ‘putting someone in a box’. We all do this to a certain extent. Sometimes we do it out of ignorance; sometimes we do it out of fear. Sometimes it’s a defence mechanism; others it’s possibly our best offence. When we put people in boxes it’s safe. Very black-and-white. No further thought required. We don’t have to question our own thoughts, our own motives. We can do this to others, defining how we see them, and therefore how we react to them. We can put ourselves in a proverbial box as well, limiting ourselves to descriptors and characteristics that fit into that box with us.
Realizing you’re guilty of this is painful. Scary. Risky. I’ve been trying for several months now to articulate how intense it has been for me to literally change the way I see the world and the people around me because I’ve decided to let go of my past. And it’s really, really hard. It is impossible to explain, or so I thought.
And then this book.
The concept of ‘fixed identity’ and how a crisis (like Cancer, maybe) can take the first blow at your fixed identity was explored in the first chapter, and I was hooked. Someone was talking my language. It talks of ego-clinging, of unmasking, of taking off our armour, of tolerating uncertainty and opening ourselves up to new ways of thinking.
And it’s terrifying.
I daresay that no one who has been treated for Cancer would tell you they came out at the other end of treatment unchanged. Perhaps some would say it changed them for the worse. Some may cling to their fixed identity fuelled by the need to feel ‘normal’, meaning the same as they were before. I maintain that within this experience, this long, isolating, painful, scary experience, there lies the potential for real growth. Not the tumour kind. But real growth. I once heard a grown man inform someone that he was done with counselling. Had done that work.
With this new, changed perspective, I am realizing that I hope I am never done this work. We are all works in progress, as I have said before. I know I still have a lot of work to do. I hope I get the time to do it.