Savage Uncertainties On The Road Home

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…

“Incantations on the Road Home” 48”x64” Graphite on gessoed panel

“Incantations on the Road Home” 48”x64” Graphite on gessoed panel

Wait… what?

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…

“Raven Gets In” 48”x60” Oil on canvas

“Raven Gets In” 48”x60” Oil on canvas

“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…

“Fatal Shore” 48”x64” Acrylic on canvas

“Fatal Shore” 48”x64” Acrylic on canvas

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…

Stillness and solitude in White’s Woods, Litchfield

Stillness and solitude in White’s Woods, Litchfield

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 ~

(Collected Poems)

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”…

"Exile Study No.4 ~ Perdita" ink and graphite on paper, 22"x 30",

“Exile Study No.4 ~ Perdita” ink and graphite on paper, 22″x 30″

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…

“The Secret Life of Wind” 48”x64” graphite on gessoed panel

“The Secret Life of Wind” 48”x64” graphite on gessoed panel

“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.”
–David Smith

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…

“The Chain of Memory is Resurrection I” 30”x40” graphite and acrylic on bristol board

“The Chain of Memory is Resurrection I” 30”x40” graphite and acrylic on bristol board

 

Walt PascoeWalt 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

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Categories: Art

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22 Comments on “Savage Uncertainties On The Road Home”

  1. December 21, 2012 at 2:35 am #

    Good to hear from you, Walt, my friend who I have never met. I don’t know what to say except that I feel your words and I feel myself walking beside you as I read them. Alone with you on this page. I offer you my blessings at this solstice. -Annie

    Like

  2. December 21, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

    Walt, what a beautifully written essay. Sometimes in darkness we achieve our greatest clarity; it opens us to what is most important, and I know you know what that “most important” is. May peace be with you during this holiday season. May love grace you always.

    Like

  3. December 21, 2012 at 2:56 pm #

    I feel compelled to respond, yet mute. This is an incredible piece, at once sharing something that makes the unknowable so close and at the same time, making clear just how unknowable. And but so, I love you, Walt.

    Like

  4. danielrmccarthy
    December 21, 2012 at 3:22 pm #

    What are we when our body betrays us? What we have always been, but with no confidence in becoming more. So the bravest of us embrace the moment, like a lifer who’s been paroled from a prison that is the only home he has ever known. The rest of us, the inmates of tomorrow, watch in mute admiration, wondering at the dignity of solitude.

    No cancer can devour the fineness that you have made.

    Like

  5. December 21, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

    A very thoughtful and heartwrenching essay and beautiful images Walt. Also quite funny that bit about being attached to your attachments.
    Whether or not intentional, it’s fitting to have posted this on the Solstice. A time of reflection. Thanks for sharing so much.

    Like

  6. Dean
    December 21, 2012 at 9:39 pm #

    Yes, but have you had any fish and chips lately?

    Like

  7. Vicky
    December 21, 2012 at 10:51 pm #

    and yet again Walt your writing touches on the profound, on truth with a capital “T” and you still have it in you to throw in some humour – the teachings you share through your writing exude Love for humanity with a capital “L”. I repeat…truly honoured to know you Walt and may the blessings be abundant during the holiday season!!!!

    Like

  8. December 22, 2012 at 3:54 pm #

    My computer froze as I was about to hit post comment. There is great energy here. Big bow dear Walt. Power flows through your words and art, that you kindly share with us from the soil of your experience. There is so much raw beauty, distilled wisdom, awareness. I am left sitting quietly, moved beyond myself, the way I feel when I encounter the sacred. Bless you.

    Like

  9. December 23, 2012 at 4:10 pm #

    Our collective heart, like the weight of a child we are only too glad to help carry, thank you my friend for being in this world.

    Like

  10. naomibacker
    December 29, 2012 at 9:34 pm #

    You go in and say what is so difficult to say and yet ~ you say it. Your expression, whether in image or word, achieves a totality and is filled with spirit deeply lived. Thank you, Walt, for going in and revealing the deepest levels of the self. Thank you for sharing and sounding the soul with its hidden complex orchestra so we can listen and untangle better those deepest silent hidden searching sounds within ourselves. Infinite blessings to you and yours this coming year!

    Like

  11. Trinka
    December 30, 2012 at 2:08 pm #

    Wow, Walt. This essay and the art work are both beautiful and moving, and both brought tears to my eyes. Please continue to share.

    Like

  12. karibaskets
    December 31, 2012 at 4:47 am #

    Reading your words, I am speechless. I think of your visit and the fun of nonstop talking and sharing … Sending love north to you. Kari

    Like

  13. Marilyn Farmer
    January 4, 2013 at 12:03 am #

    Believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it. (Rainer Marie Rilke) Thank you, Walt. Marilyn Farmer

    Like

  14. robin black
    January 17, 2013 at 2:38 am #

    This is stunning, as is the art. There is so much wisdom here, and so much openness. My thoughts and my gratitude are with you.

    Like

  15. January 21, 2013 at 3:26 pm #

    I’m so grateful to every one of you for your thoughtful comments. And especially to my friend Melissa, without whose support and encouragement I never would have found the thread. Thank you for keeping me company on the long march!

    Like

    • January 25, 2013 at 7:19 pm #

      Thank you so much, Walt, for sharing your journey with us. You have been inspiring in so many ways and I learn from you anew every time we interact.

      Thanks also to all the other commenters, who’ve been touched by Walt’s work as I have.

      Like

  16. Anthony Lawlor
    February 9, 2013 at 7:24 pm #

    Thank you Walt for speaking to us honestly and openly. Your courage in sharing the impenetrable mystery you face and the relentless cancer coursing through you is a great gift. To be thrown to the edge of life by life is a daunting, vital part of the human journey that is little discussed. Sharing it, as you have, breaks our hearts open and let’s us be closer to you, to each other and to ourselves. Thanks, brother.

    Like

  17. April 9, 2013 at 12:42 am #

    I’m just commenting to let you know of the great discovery my wife’s girl developed visiting the blog. She learned so many things, most notably what it is like to have an amazing giving spirit to make the rest with ease grasp a number of multifaceted subject matter. You truly exceeded our expectations. Thanks for delivering these important, healthy, revealing as well as cool tips on your topic to Kate

    Like

  18. December 30, 2015 at 4:38 pm #

    Reblogged this on Holly Friesen and commented:
    A beautiful post from my late beloved Walt Pascoe.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Tony Lawlor
    December 31, 2015 at 4:44 pm #

    Walt’s words are a courageous, tender, lovingly honest gift to the rest of us traveling the mystery of this human experience. They moved and nourished me profoundly. Thank you, Holly, for sharing them with us. Much love to you.

    Like

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  1. forgotten dreams | xn3art - May 8, 2013

    […] story that is our own. Stories light the way. And so it was not until I read a deeply moving essay Savage Uncertainties On The Road Home by artist, Walt Pascoe, that I was truly able to express my wrenching symptoms and emotions during […]

    Liked by 1 person

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