End of Term Revision

Teacher

It’s school holidays here in New Zealand. So this seems like a suitable juncture to pause and review what we have studied so far this semester. We’ve covered a lot of ground, and considered some pretty weighty issues. Here then, is a brief recap of the lessons learned so far. Pay attention. I will be asking questions later.

LESSON I

You can get used to almost anything if you have to

This has come as something of a revelation. It’s fair to say I’ve always been a raging hypochondriac. Every mild ache and vague pain a portent of some potentially life threatening affliction. I would limp around in my own private hell, convinced that a gruesome and lingering death was just around the corner, but too afraid to go to the doctor for the grim confirmation I knew was awaiting me there. The very act of walking into a dentist or doctor’s surgery would set me palpitating and hyperventilating. I avoided sick people like umm… well the plague. Even visiting a friend in hospital would leave me sweating and dry-mouthed.

Maybe all these years of neurotic rehearsal haven’t been entirely wasted. Now I have been confronted with my own mortality finally and unequivocally, I’m surprised to find myself on well-trodden territory. I’ve been to this lonely place many times in my imagination. It feels almost comfortable and familiar.

By accepting the incontrovertible evidence, that this time I really am gravely sick and not just fantasising, I also have to accept that to a large extent, my fate is out of my hands. Yes, I can think positive, try and keep fit, eat well, hug a crystal* etc. but mostly I have to put my faith in the very medical professionals I have always mistrusted and eschewed. Once I have accepted this paradox, there is a certain peace that comes with acquiescence. There is little point in worrying or trying to second-guess these jokers. I can either choose to accept their help, and trust that they have my best interests at heart, or not.

It’s a no-brainer really. I’ve always prided myself on being a pragmatic humanist and a man of science. To turn my back on all that now and go barking up some tie-died, new-age, metaphysical tree in terrified desperation would be to betray everything I have ever believed.

And so I take the medicine. I submit to the “procedures.” I swallow their video cameras, I swallow my pride. And fill their test-tubes with my precious blood. I bow down to their mighty machines, and I even eat their terrible food. If I want to continue living, I have no choice. So why worry?

Here endeth the first lesson.

LESSON II

Dying is just the same as living

Having cancer isn’t like being hit by a truck. It might feel a bit like that when you first get the phone call. But when you get home from the “I’ve got a spot of bad news for you” meeting, you’re still the same person. You don’t look or feel any different. The dog still wags when you walk up the path. The trash still needs taking out. Once the shock wears off, and the tears dry, it’s all business as usual.

There’s no special dispensations. No concessions. Nobody gives up their seat for me on the bus, or helps me across the road. The bills don’t suddenly stop arriving. Everything carries on as normal. This is an important lesson here. The world flatly refuses to revolve around me as it should. There’s a temptation to blurt out “Don’t you realise I’ve got cancer!” when some hapless telephone marketeer rings to ask my position on double-glazing. I remember shortly after my diagnosis, meeting a cheerful elderly couple walking along holding hands and feeling the bitter sting of resentment. How come they get to be old and happy? For a while I try and fill every minute of every day, determined to relish every moment and squander nothing. But even this compulsion passes after a while.

Bruegel

For most people, cancer is a slow, plodding process. It’s a gently outgoing tide, not a raging bush-fire. Incremental. As is the treatment. So far there have been few noticeable changes from one day to the next. Whether I get better or worse, it will be the result of a slow aggregation of tiny and imperceptible physical changes. I won’t just wake up one morning looking like something out of a Breugel painting. I spend a lot of time listening to my body. Carefully studying myself in the mirror. Seeking out any early signs of the beginning of a slow but inexorable decline.

It’s the same process that everyone goes through. We are all in decline. We are all aging from the day we are born. We are all of us dying. Imperceptibly slowly, one day at a time We all gaze into the same egotistical mirror, searching out the same gray hairs, the same yellowing teeth and creeping wrinkles. Entropy in action. Living, dying, it’s just two words for the same process.

And when all is said and done, that makes me just like you.

LESSON III

Make sure your telescope is the right way around

When yo look down the wrong end of a telescope, your field of view becomes very narrow. Restricted to a small, dim, focused area which falls off to darkness in every direction like a failing torch-beam in the night. And everything seems very, very distant. This is pretty much the story of my life. There has always been me, and then the rest of the world. And an unnavigable void in-between. It hasn’t been a ego thing. I don’t think I’m special in any way. I just seem to have had trouble jumping that gap. Making the necessary connections.

The nature of my chosen profession, in concert with an introverted, obsessive and perfectionist personality has resulted in me carelessly mislaying vast swathes of my life to whatever project was currently demanding my complete and unswerving attention. Days, nights, weekends, even holidays were recklessly abandoned. Sacrificed would be the wrong word, there was no element of hardship, for me at least. I have mostly loved my work, It’s just that I have found it all but imposable to ring-fence my vocation from the rest of my life. The important part. My family and friends.

For the best past of twenty-five years I have been like an absentee landlord. Just showing up from time to time to touch up the paintwork, check the inventory, and collect the emotional rent. I was A.W.L. for most of my marriage and my daughters childhood. In retrospect it was an untenable way of life. And selfish. But as I say, It’s amazing what you can get used to. Come to accept as normal.

And I’m not alone. I look around me and see so many of my friends and peers living the same mad, bad existence. Fourteen hour days. Mind-numbing commutes. Hurried desk-lunches. Home too late to put the kids to bed. Just time for a swift bottle of wine the dull the senses and take away the fear for a couple of hours, and a bolted dinner followed by a bout of late-night indigestion and insomnia. And that’s a good day. A normal day. Absolute fucking insanity. The only surprise is that it took me fifty years to cultivate a tumor. It’s a miracle any of us survive.

If I hadn’t been forced to stop this lunacy by my own bodies intervention, it probably would never have occurred to me to turn the telescope around. To finally see the world how it really is. Suddenly my field of view is so much brighter and wider. I can take in the entire broad vista, and suddenly the distance has closed up. I’m no longer just an outside observer, I’m finally part of the big picture. I feel part of something much greater. Grander. The connections have finally been made and the circuits completed. And I know for sure I never want to be separate and “other” again. I don’t know if that’s what is meant by enlightenment, but it’s good. Very good.

Almost worth getting cancer for.

Far Far Away

*I’m saving my observations on the various “alternative” cancer cures that some lovely and well-meaning but misguided acquaintances have suggested for another occasion. These range from the merely unlikely, through the downright dangerous, to the completely barking-mad.

 

 

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  1. Tricia Hollingum says:

    Amen to that!!!! I’m going to make sure Richard reads this one although he is as avid as me with your posts. Keep watching the funny movies whilst munching on broccoli though… you know it makes sense. xxxxxxx

    • Linds says:

      I’m sure there’s nothing here that Richard hasn’t already worked out for himself. The problem is unless you’re forced off at gunpoint like I was, It’s difficult to slow the gravy-train down enough to get off the damn thing. (See Will’s comments above for more on the paradox of the creative mind. Lx

  2. will atkinson says:

    Hi Linds,

    WOW, that was a brain dump and a half. And very true-a lot of what you write in lesson 3 chimes with my life. However, don’t beat yourself up about it. We’re lucky, we’re having the best fun you can have with your clothes on, and our families wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s not selfish, it just is. And it’s not specific to our professions – everyone has the same madness, just expressed in different ways.

    In our chosen profession of ‘creativity’ I’ve always believed we are the (willing) victims of the tyranny of the idea. I feel that we don’t have ideas, ideas HAVE us. We are mere receptors. Trouble is, these ideas can have us at any time, day or night.And when they arrive it’s like a drunk at a party, loud and raucous and wanting everything to happen RIGHT NOW!

    Our job is to take these indisciplined louts and wrestle them into something we can actually use. It takes superhuman strength and a cunning stealth to weld these wonton hussies to our own devious machinations. Oh yes, wrestling an idea is like taking on a rabid grizzly in the dark with nowt on but your skimpies.

    But look at the rewards -this madness buys us and our families – houses, clothes, education, holidays (Cambodia/Vietnam last year, Borneo and Urang Utangs this year) and wine, and beer and fun stuff.

    But of course, the greatest pleasure is being connected. But I really doubt that you ever weren’t, it just feels that way. (Yep, I missed my son growing up, but he never noticed anyway and still good mates.) I guess that’s just called love.

    Anyway, I’m writing this on a weekend as displacement activity for writing stuff for money. That’s the trouble with freelance, you never say no. So maybe you’re right all along.

    On a different note you might enjoy an album by Tom Russell called Hotwalker. I say album because that’s what it really is – a concept album even,. It’s Russell’s take on a lost America, and much of it is spoken word. You need to listen to it in order , in one take. (Make a welcome break from Lee Child). Not only is it beautifully written and played, the production is fantastic. The piece about Dave van Ronk is my favourite. Anyway, if you’re sitting around looking for something new, give it a go.

    I also hear the new Tom Waits record is pretty decent though have’t heard yet.

    Reading this back I realise it’s a bit of a burble. But that’s just me trying NOT to work on a Saturday evening.

    Keep on.

    Will

    • Linds says:

      “Willing victims of the tyranny of the idea”. Very good. You should be writer Will. Oh! wait…
      Yeas, sorry about the brain-dump, I should really start thinking about what I’m going to write before I sit down at the keyboard. I’m afraid I approach writing like I do drawing. Just start in one corner, and work my way across the page with no particular plan in mind. Some times it works out ok, sometimes it’s just gibberish.

      Will definitely check out Tom Russell, we obviously share similar taste in music. Also downloaded a James Lee Burke novel last night on the iPad. (Late light shopping at the Kindle store from the comfort of your own bed. Instant gratification at it’s finest.) “Tin Roof Blowdown”. Chosen at random because I liked the tittle. Pretty good so far…

      Tell Jim I’ve got his message and will write back as soon as I get the chance. Big day here, the AB’s play France in the Rugby World Cup final this evening.

      Linds

  3. Kim M Millwood says:

    Pro-found.

  4. Jo 2 says:

    Yes well…. all I can say is you two are both an excellent read! I am pretending to be an English teacher. I can see that now. I think if you sit there and think about it first Linds, it doesn’t ever get started. Your process is exactly what all the writers seem to say at those reader/writer festivals when asked about how to become a writer. “Just write! Get writing!” Starting at the corner and working your way across the page works beautifully for you!

  5. will atkinson says:

    26 letters and an imagination. That’s all writing is.

    • Linds says:

      Ahh, but it’s getting the letters in the right order, that’s the trick. Then of course there’s the punctuation, that’s the bit that mystifies me.



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