For more than a month I have been eating bland food–that’s when I’ve felt like eating anything at all. Saltine crackers, oatmeal, peaches & cottage cheese . . . But the last couple of days my appetite has begun to return. A colleague dropped off some loaves of bread from his favorite bakery the other day & toasted it was life-restoring. Tonight, Carole was up in Ottawa with our new dog Buckle getting her first scent detection certifications. She stopped at the Shawarma Palace for dinner & brought me a plain chicken shawarma sandwich. Real Food.
It was late when she got home & I didn’t want to tempt the nausea gods out of hiding, so I only ate a couple of bites. It is difficult for me to describe how good those bites of sandwich tasted. Singer Warren Zevon, then dying of cancer, in his last TV appearance with David Letterman, advised viewers to “enjoy every sandwich.” It’s a cliché, of course, a tossed off piece of carpe diem perfectly suited to Zevon’s persona; but at the same time–& I tell you this now from personal experience–it is achingly true. I’m looking forward to eating my chicken shawarma sandwich for breakfast. Talk about a morale boost.
A couple of days ago I wrote about lying awake beside our living room window & watching the moon rise for several consecutive nights. Here is a small (4 x 4 inch) mixed media (drawing & collage) that can serve as a sort of primitive illustration for those observations.
A frightening sunlit lightness of the body drifting upward as slowly as a bit of milkweed fluff on currents of warm air. Then off among the light-filled clouds. My old Zen teacher once said that for a realized being there would be no difference between one breath & the next, between breath & no breath.
For radiation therapy, the nurse & technician drew little targets with a pen on my abdomen & hip, then used those diagrams to write inside my body with radiation. The metaphor of writing (or, since Derrida, of inscribing) for these professional, routine physical actions feels in retrospect vitiated as well as pompous. Oh, he’s a professor—he can’t write about his treatment in plain terms. It’s not writing, then, though done with accuracy & precision. Both the pen strokes & the focusing & calibration of the photon beam.
The marker with which they drew the target left broad lines & was not cold to the touch during application. The mark, going on, felt slightly oily, not like an ordinary alcohol-based marker. Unlike the MRI, I felt nothing during the treatments themselves. (In the MRI I could actually feel warmth generated in my tissues as the magnets worked. The x-ray photons passed right through me–might as well have been neutrinos for all I could feel. But they had a noticeable effect on the tumor in the bone, shrinking it (I’m told) & thus relieving pressure & pain. My left hip is quite stiff but the back pain, especially while bending, has been reduced by ninety percent.
And here is a picture of the back pain itself. I drew it while lying on my back at night with the lights out, not looking at the pen or the paper, a day or two before the radiation treatments began. Tonight, perhaps, I’ll see if I can draw a picture of how that same area of my back feels now.
I’ve been doing a lot of drawing, much of it abstract, but also trying to get down the branchings of the trees I see while lying in bed & looking out the window. And just now I’m feeling my way toward the fundamental difference / similarity between drawing & writing. What I’m doing now, using a keyboard, is very obviously writing, but when I scrawl a note using a pencil (whether a line of poetry or a note when the pharmacist calls about how to take a new drug) that feels a little bit like drawing. And then of course there is drawing: I look out the window & try to capture the curve of a branch. What, then, of a drawing like the one above? Done without looking but trying to catch the phenomenon of a specific pain? And what was the nurse doing in making marks on which to line up a beam of high-energy photons? Her marks contained very precise information. Were they writing or drawing?
Finally, though we are far beyond the “picture theory” of language, even this writing done on a keyboard is a kind of drawing. I want you to see what I can barely see myself–for us to picture things together, with picture being a highly transitive & collaborative verb.
I was nodding off just now (see previous post) when I was awakened by a low rumble of thunder. Yesterday we had sunshine & mild air in South Colton, today rain. This rainy weather puts me in mind of certain mornings from my boyhood. My family lived in Santa Cruz, California, which one ordinarily associates with sunshine & surfing, but which I recall as green & foggy, with redwoods & live oaks. My family lived six or seven miles inland, in foothills. I liked the rain, it made things quiet. Or it made the long, labored silences of my mother & father (& myself) seem natural. A crashing psychological silence muffled by the wholly natural silence of the weather. My family’s silences sometimes found voice in shouts & smashed household objects; the weather too, in winter storms, would howl & break the furniture of the woods. My bedroom was in the tower, which gave me a 300 degree panorama of the weather.
As this sickness I have has become real to me, I have found myself recalling odd images from my boyhood. Not surprising, I suppose. The mind seeks comfort. But my boyhood was not particularly comforting, so that’s not exactly right. It’s more subtle. Even when I was very young I managed to find a way to create mitigating spots of safety. Most of these had to do with the natural–that is, the non-human–world. I was reminded of this the other day when I came across one of the few books I have managed to keep with me since childhood.
This book possesses a talismanic status for me. It must have been given to me when I was five or six years old, long before the text, elegantly written for a smart twelve-year-old, would have been fully available to me. But there was so much information folded into the paintings & charts, that I could spend hours shifting between staring out my bedroom windows & flipping through the pages of the large, satisfyingly heavy book. At a time when some of the uglier parts of the Bible were being driven into my consciousness, this Golden Treasury became an alternative sacred text.
And I could then put the book down, go downstairs & outside the big house pictured above. Walking toward the trees at the bottom of the photograph, I could go down into a ravine cut by Branceforte Creek & wander for hours, though to be truthful, the woods, raw nature, usually produced a kind of anxiety that would send me back to the house (with its own anxieties) & to my books & rock collections & (a little later) my weather instruments. My relation to these things was always more alchemical than scientific, more poetic than analytical. Poetry is always more about the weather than whatever might be happening underneath the weather.
On the cusp of retirement I had already been looking forward to returning to some of my armchair naturalist activities & with this illness I find myself drawn back to the pleasure I take in the weather, the woods & the words used to describe & evoke them. Poetry, to which I have not always been so faithful, has remained faithful to me & now I humbly return to it.
Until a couple of months ago I had never taken a sedative stronger than a couple of Valium & that a very long time ago. Without intending to minimize the severity of the current epidemic of opioid abuse, I do not understand the attraction. About an hour after taking two 5 mg tablets of Percocet, I experience a fifteen minute period of mild euphoria followed by drowsiness, but if I don’t catch that wave I move through the sleepiness to a state of comfortable alertness. After that, all bets are off. Sometimes the alertness will continue for an hour or so, sometimes I will simply fall into a deep sleep for three hours or so. But over the course of days, the cumulative effect is dull drowsiness that makes it difficult to write except in short bursts. The drug also slows down the digestive tract through which it passes, lending another cluster of unpleasant symptoms. The radiation treatments I begin tomorrow are supposed to relieve much of the pain in my back, which in turn will allow me to reduce the amount of Percocet I’m taking. I hope so. I have poems to finish.