by Lynn Clement
In a prior post I wrote about my dedication to reading this year and I am happy to announce that I did reach my goal of completing 40 books. I ended on a high note by reading Tara Westover’s memoir entitled Educated. I greatly enjoyed this elegantly written reflection on the author’s unique upbringing and the tough choices she was forced to make as her academic quest conflicted with her family’s beliefs. I read a lot of memoirs this year, which is ironic since I spent most of the year refusing to think too deeply about my own life. (There were many quotes from Westover’s book that resonated with me and I’ve interspersed some here where I felt they summarize my feelings better than I ever could.)
I think this is one of the reasons I asked for a hiatus from my contributions to this blog when I was diagnosed with cancer is March. Much of the year was spent actively avoiding reflection for mental self-preservation. “…I closed my journal and put it away. Journaling is contemplative, and I didn’t want to contemplate anything.” However, my ultimate return to writing was for the same reason.
Despite my apprehension about contemplation in 2019, I learned more this year than I’d like to admit. I learned how to live my life when I was told I might lose it.
When I first met my oncologist, on a sunny day, in April, I was ridiculously optimistic, almost flippant, about what I was about to undergo. The disease had just been found but I’d had no symptoms. I assumed, falsely, that they’d caught it early and that I’d be training for another marathon in no-time. When, instead, I heard the words “stage IV” and “aggressive treatment” and that if I chose to forego treatment I’d likely be gone in “3 to 6 months” the floor went out from under me. I don’t know if he was looking at the wrong file (sometimes I still wonder) or if he was exaggerating to make sure I was listening (terrible yet effective), but either way I knew things were going to change.
“The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self.
You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal.
I call it an education.”
The first transformation, perhaps obviously, was my relationship with time. My daily life changed very little this year: I still get my kid ready for school, I still go to work, I still watch tv and play games on my phone, I still talk to my husband about the major (and minor) plot points of our favorite TV shows. However, I am much more protective of how I spend my time.
Being an adjunct means always hustling. Finding new places to teach and expanding one’s contact list is essential for cobbling together enough classes to make ends meet, and this continues to be my reality despite cancer. Recently I was stood up for an interview by a department head, twice. Prior to this years’ experience I would have agreed to a third, fourth, maybe even fifth chance at an interview. I’m an adjunct and having my time devalued is part of the game, but not this year. I knew it meant giving up a chance at more income, but more importantly, my new consciousness of time has manifest in a deeper respect for myself and a demand that my time be respected. “It has never occurred to you, he said, that you might have as much right to be here as anyone.” It does now. I’m happy to say that I’ve also become more respectful of other people’s time and priorities. This has not just be a reflection inward, but also outward.
In Raquelle’s most recent post she recounts a beautiful experience at a silent retreat. That time of self-examination allowed her to reflect on how she is not entirely defined by her work and how she is able to find fulfillment in other areas of her life. My own experiences this year have led me to a similar conclusion. The problem with this new approach to time is the horrible pressured to live life to the fullest, while simultaneously acting like you’re totally fine. I don’t enjoy roller coasters so jumping out a plane was always out of the question, but prioritizing fulfillment was necessary. I realized that those mundane daily activities were what I wanted and needed: both the normalcy and the contentment of teaching students, but also reading and spending time with myself, my family, and my friends. These are things I would never regret devoting precious time to.
My relationship with my body and exercise has also changed. Like the wisdom written in Angela’s post it’s now less about numbers and crazy goals and more about getting it done to stay happy with body and mind. I continue to be amazed that despite poisoning it for 4 months and then bombarding it with beams for 2 that I remain strong and well. I get on the elliptical almost every day. I don’t go as fast or as far as I used to, but I can feel my muscles strengthen, my heart pump, my lungs expand, and that is enough. To do it at all is a success.
My relationship with people has perhaps been the largest transformation. “All my life those instincts had been instructing me in this single doctrine—that the odds are better if you rely only on yourself.” Independent, self-sufficient, and private were words I lived by, but triumphing treatment truly took a village. Tanya, in her timely Thanksgivng post, wrote about gratitude and I, too, reflect upon this greatly this year. Recently a doctor asked how I was able to maintain such a good attitude through all this and the answer came easily; I am surrounded by the most amazing people. Family and friends took care of me: they dropped off dinners, sent care packages, and sent me words and music of encouragement. Nurses watched over me and doctors healed me. My students brought me ginger candies to help with the nausea and my co-workers supported me in countless ways. To say that I am grateful is an understatement and there aren’t enough days in this year or the next 20 for me to show how thankful I am, but I still try and am much more open with my words and my gratitude.
For 2020 I have a lot of hopes: to be cancer free, to be done with this journey, and to finally be able to write about something other than my illness! I also want to take what I’ve learned from this experience and build upon it rather than avoid it like I tried to do this year. Despite the scare, I know I’ll be well. I still don’t have any symptoms aside from those caused by treatment, I still feel strong, and the same oncologist that had once warned of my demise now expects full remission. On Dec. 20th I will undergo the last phase of my journey: surgery. Recovery will be difficult, but I plan on beating the odds.
“To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both. It is a frailty, but in this frailty there is strength: the conviction to live in your own mind, and not in someone else’s.”
Onward and Upward.