by Walt Pascoe
And but so yeah.
Having recovered nicely from the insult of surgery to resect 10 inches of my large intestine, I was more or less happily bobbing back up to the surface of my murky little emotional pond. It had been disappointing to learn that cancer cells were already frolicking around my lymph system like unruly children, and that the tender wisdom of western medical modalities dictated a course of prophylactic chemo. But after a brief time for contemplation and acceptance I’d come to terms with “stage 3” and prepared myself accordingly. There was the relatively minor surgery to insert a semi-permanent, sub-cutaneous port in my chest for easy access to a major artery, and the inevitable institutional waltz w/ the doctors office and insurance company to pre-approve this gold-plated poisoning. And finally a couple more visits to the various scan-masters for more complete head to thigh reconnoitering of my tender corpus, in order to be doubly sure there were no other cancerous redoubts hidden under a rock somewhere. All this transpired in a relatively compressed time-frame, the doctors and staff proceeding w/ an admirable, if not entirely reassuring, sense of professional urgency. And so it came to pass that my oncologist only received the latest reports the night before I showed up to begin chemo infusions.
The six-month course of chemo for my particular cancer goes by the vaguely militaristic sounding acronym FOLFOX. Essentially it involves kicking back in the coolest recliner you’ve ever seen while various anti-nausea meds and the main chemical arsenal are deployed sequentially for a few hours. (What is it with all the battle metaphors?) One of the meds is more effective if administered in small bursts over 46 hours, so before you’re allowed to leave a pump is hooked up to your port and you wear this home. Its a robust little programmable squirt machine that looks more or less like the FedEx guys’ scanner, and you get to wear it on a belt around your waist or over your shoulder. So much for any shred of sartorial hipness I might have been clinging to in the waning years of middle age semi-decrepitude. On the bright side, the pump makes a rhythmic clicking sound which, while lying on the bed next to me at night, is not without a certain comforting intimacy…
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Turns out there was in fact a further metastasis. Stage 4. Another decent sized tumor wrapped around a bronchial tube near the entry point into my left lung, snuggly nestled next to my heart; a weirdly poetic location given the stressful mid-life transitions I’d been enduring of late, but one that rendered it inoperable. So a second biotherapy (a monoclonal antibody called Avastin) was added to the FOLFOX chemo regimen, all to be administered over a 6 month period…
“I always put lime on the people I kill. Wait… are you calling 911?” ~ Drunk guy in a Mexican restaurant, as related by my friend Melissa Johnston.
And so it seems that cancer has created the mother of all liminal spaces in my life. And it is from this strangely pregnant territory that I peer out into the… I want to say abyss… but like so many words now it seems inadequate, overused, and worked to within an inch of its word-ly life by the incessant hype culture hum we wallow in. The title of some crappy movie, complete with cross-licensed plastic action figures free w/ your next Happy Meal. And seriously, how many of us ever reaches beyond the tremulous shadow of the concept and endeavors to actually process this deep down inside our whirring, buzzing lizard-brains? It crouches at the center of your chest like a cold rock, pulling you down through the turbid water more effectively than the finest cement shoes. Who the heck would want to go there voluntarily? Who…
Blaise Pascal wrote in “Pensées,” “We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us from seeing it.”
It’s amazing how emotions flow just like weather.
I can go along doing what I think of as “well”: feeling optimistic, comfortable being alone, celebrating the liminal, accepting the transitory nature of things, handling the chemo, sensing health and wholeness on a walk in Whites Woods, meditating, reading, feeling a measured enthusiasm for the future w/o treating the present like just something to be got through, the master of silver linings, counting my blessings, deeply grateful for the love and support of my friends and family, acquaintances at the Post Office saying “hey, you look great”, relieved by the fact that I haven’t yet assumed the grayish-blue pallor of the wasting.
And then there will be this slow creeping intimation of unease, like a little darkening on the horizon. Just a few clouds on an otherwise sunny day…
Willem DeKooning referred to himself as a “slipping glimpser”.
As the storm gathers and starts to darken my interior landscape I can feel the slipping; the accumulation of tension in my heart and body. Fear, longing, and worry… a somatic ache that fluidly transmutes into a profound and painful spiritual dread if not checked quickly by some distraction. This is where it gets tricky being alone. It is so much easier to distract yourself from it when you are with other people. Just ignore and bury it in the cosmopolitan joy of human culture and friendship. Or loose yourself engineering a life.
“[...] almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it. Destiny has no beeper; destiny always leans trenchcoated out of an alley with some sort of ‘psst’ that you usually can’t even hear because you’re in such a rush to or from something important you’ve tried to engineer. ”
~ David Foster Wallace in “Infinite Jest”.
I guess this terror has always been present, and is for every human being. We do with it what we will. Tune it out. Turn it into art or literature. Transmogrify the brutal fact of our inevitable decay into infinite varieties of work and the illusion of progress. Am I thinking too much?! This is not always true. There are times when laughter and joy come in solitude and I can revel in it. But the laughter is hardened and forced when you are filled w/ grief at the prospect of loosing all you love… threatened in such an immediate, tangible way… I’m attached to my attachments! A lousy Buddhist if ever there was one! It’s amazing how I can go along feeling buoyant about the possibility of remission… and oh the delirious possibility of “durable remission”, held out there like the most seductive of outcomes. And then just tank for awhile… fall into the dark… gazing up into a night sky perversely ornamented with PET scan constellations of cancerous cells awash in radioactively tagged glucose, collaged all over my chest and neck, blinking out an inscrutable code… exhausted from the grasping after some more universal, ever-present , capital “L” Love. God. Some hopeful bulwark against the immensity of the void surrounding my fearful and trembling self. A glimpse perhaps…
The Real Work
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
~ Wendell Berry ~
And so it goes. Alone with the Alone. It is a choice. A pseudo-monastic exile, punctuated by genuinely caring and helpful visits from my loved ones and the logistics of the chemo rhythm. Simone Weil said “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”…
And what exactly is it that I am attending to now?
Seeking Now through mindful solitude. That word, though: seeking! Seeking itself one of the most seductive of attachments. After the briefest foray into the silence, I flee back into the endless loop of intellectual and aesthetic dialogue w/ the dead. With those I’ve chosen to valorize as artistic mentors for 30 years: David Smith and Charles Olson. And into the radiating web of endlessly fascinating threads that fan out from their volcanic productions. Back into yet another painting or drawing, searching searching searching, always searching… wading through a rich but terrifying uncertainty…
“Sometimes when I start a sculpture, I begin with only a realized part, the rest is travel to be unfolded much in the order of a dream. The conflict for realization is what makes art not its certainty, nor its technique or material.”
In Alex Stein and Yahia Lababidi’s wonderful conversation, “The Artist as Mystic”, Yahia quotes Heidegger: “Longing is the agony of the nearness of the distant.” This resonates now. Not just a little! The words vibrate in my chest as if I were standing alongside a huge, beautifully wrought bell being rung. Small pieces of the rock crouching there begin to fall…
Walt Pascoe is a Montreal-based visual artist who received a B.A. in Fine Art from St. Lawrence University in 1980. You can see more of his work at www.waltpascoe.com