Dealing with It

This second round of chemotherapy is not uncomfortable so far, the only pronounced side-effect being a pervasive sleepiness that leaves me unable to do much more than listen to audiobooks. (Have been listening to Andrea Wulf's magisterial The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World, which I found endlessly fascinating.) I remember the sleepiness from my first round of chemo & in comparison with that round this one has been pretty easy so far; but persistent sleepiness, while pleasant enough at first, gets pretty boring after a few days. I'll open my laptop with the idea of writing something & ten minutes later wake up staring at the screen, mouse still gripped in my right hand. I am missing that manic phase a few weeks ago where I wrote a long poem & revised many others, wrote long blog entries, etc. etc. Now all I can manage are these little squibs. I like to think my body is putting all its energy into dealing with cancer cells & doesn't have the reserves left over for intellectual activity--or is that just fanciful? Probably. Feeling a bit more alert this afternoon, so maybe this is a phase to be passed through. I would like to get back to doing some creative work, which is the one thing, really, that makes my situation tolerable. I'm really not interested in distractions, these days. I want to be working or sleeping, basically, with the two of them balanced in some kind of homeostasis. That & talking to friends give me a sense of well-being, the feeling, perhaps an illusion, that I have some control over my situation. And what is my situation? I've used the word half-a-dozen time above & it could, I realize, begin to sound like a euphemism for having cancer--an avoidance of the harder language. Actually, it's a term of art in Jean Paul Sartre's philosophy that means something like "the human condition applied one case at a time"--it is always particular, never general. So my situation is having cancer, but also of being able to do a large number of things not directly involved with my diagnosis & associated disability, especially my lack of easy mobility. I won't say that every trip to the kitchen or bathroom is a struggle, but every trip involves a walker & the inability to carry objects easily from one place to another. I use the walker because there is pain in my hip, but if it were only pain I would not use the walker; the pain is a signal of weakness & lets me know I cannot trust those particular muscles to support the weight of the left side of my body. (I'm sorry if this much description seems self-pitying--perhaps it is--but I indulge the descriptive language in an attempt to set out a phenomenological understanding of just what my situation is--to be clear about it.)[1. Ironically, such attempts at clarity often lead to twisted syntax & clotted meanings, with footnotes appended to parenthetical expressions. Language does not map directly or easily onto experience & often must be tricked into doing any mapping at all.] Continuing to use Sartre's language, one must pay attention to one's situation in order to keep from falling into "bad faith," or merely playing a game with one's situation. Sartre's humorous example of bad faith is the supercilious French waiter with his stiff yet condescending manners & neatly balanced tray falling into the game of pretending to be a supercilious French Waiter. In Zen, we often talk about acting spontaneously. Acting spontaneously, one cannot fall into bad faith; but to back up one micron from spontaneous action is to plunge headlong into bad faith. My sickness has made me acutely aware of the ease with which my situation can lead to bad faith--to being The Perfect Zen student, or the Good Patient, or any kind of exemplary role. So, I can be a Zen student, or a patient, or a grumpy old man, just so long as I am owning that identity at that moment. Aside: From the patient's perspective, it is very, very easy to see which of the medical staff is acting in good faith & which not. So obvious as to be comical. Enough existentialist navel-gazing for one afternoon. In some of these posts it feels as if I just keep circling the same set of irresolvables without being able to dive into the center of what becomes not much more than a semantic tangle. Well, that's what we language-heads do! [Throws up hands in mock disgust, then laughs--ironically?]

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.