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Thursday, July 31, 2014

A farewell to boobs

Yes, my shirt is falling down, and yes, those are drunk eyes (and yes my beautiful friend looks very amused by my silliness). It was my farewell to boobs party, two years ago tonight. After this I went and ate loads of french fries at Pomme Frites. I somehow tucked everything away and had a fucking fantastic time.

As evidenced by the drunk eyes and real (and spectacular) titties hanging out.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

And in short, I was afraid.

This week was the two year anniversary of my diagnosis, and to acknowledge the day, I planned to walk the circumference of Manhattan. I spent a lot of time thinking about what this act would mean or not mean. I thought about the way my dog circles me. I imagined walking a lasso around the island where I received my diagnosis and most of my treatment. But what does it mean? plagued me for while in the days leading up to the walk, until I settled on an answer: that it means whatever the fuck I say it means.

Satisfied with that, I thought about my route in the most basic of ways. That I would walk up the west side, along the Highline for its length, and let my feet guide the rest of the way. I would walk down the east side, maybe along 5th Avenue. I bought a backpack, and a fresh set of socks, and moleskins for my heels.

Morning of, I thought about how much water I should drink and how often. I thought about wearing my prosthetic, but left it out. It might get sweaty, and anyway maybe the day was about truth.

I thought about my hair, and braided it back as best I could, and wrapped an old chemo scarf around to hold it back. I thought about what those scarves were still doing in my drawer, a year and half after I stopped wearing them.

On the train into the city, I thought about the stares my body, one breasted, received. I wondered if it would be like that all day.

At the beginning of the walk, I thought about what a terrible, stupid idea this was. An hour in, progressing quickly, enjoying the rhythm and sweat, I changed my mind. I thought about finishing, tired and dirty, twelve hours later and taking the ferry home, sailing off into the sunset with the city at my back, while the credits rolled.

What I did not think about, was how I would feel if that didn't happen.

I did not think about how hot it was. I did not think about getting tired, and not knowing where to go. I did not think I could get lost on an uptown/downtown grid.

I did not think about the comforting pull of an icy subway car at the hottest part of the day. I did not think about the possibility of not finishing, because I am not a fucking quitter.

But late in the afternoon, just over halfway done, I'd somehow added something like 4 miles to my journey. It should have been about 17 at that point , but I was over 21. As I walked east in Inwood, I bought a coco helado that melted within seconds. I was heading east, but somehow I came to 10th Avenue and was confused. I continued and reached an oddly desolate Harlem River Drive. I got suddenly very hot, and sweat poured down, and I thought about what would happen if I fainted somewhere along that road in the middle of a weekday.

As I doubled back to the 1 train, and waited on the platform, I thought about what it meant to fail at this. That perhaps it meant, this (whatever it symbolizes) can't be accomplished in a day. That I can't do it alone. That the limits of the body are real. I rethought what I thought earlier in the day, in St. John the Divine, while considering the meaning of the Xu Bing phoenix sculptures installed in the nave.

At home, I stretched my muscles and felt hollow. I thought I would feel victorious. A friend texted and asked if anything surprised me during the walk. I wrote back that I did not expect to see blue herons and egrets splashing in Inwood Park. I thought they were catching fish, but it might have been garbage. It was impossible to tell which.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Walking Around the Center of the Universe

Or as the rest of the world knows it, Manhattan.

Two years ago today I found out I had cancer. So I'm circumnavigating Manhattan on foot. It's about 32 miles. So we'll see.

Follow me on facebook or twitter to watch my progress.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Blog Tour de France

Old me, Paris 2012
...Or just a blog tour I am participating in while wishing I was in France.


Who looks this gorgeous after a mastectomy? WHO??

The lovely Ann Marie Giannino-Otis, author of the funny and frank blog Stupid Dumb Breast Cancer, invited me to participate in this blog tour. I had the pleasure of meeting Ann Marie during a HuffPo Live segment she and I (and Angelo Merendino) did about photography and BC. I was honored when this fabulous lady asked me to join her in this blog chain!

The next part of this thingy is to share with you some of my blogging pals. Here are they are:

Olivia Howell - The Lovely Sisters

Liv and I go way back -- college, to be precise, when we lived in the same theme house. Olivia runs The Lovely Sisters with, you guessed it, her sister Jenny. It's a kick-ass lifestyle blog, so gorgeous photos abound, but it also comes with a healthy dose of wisdom and realness, as Olivia also documents her life as a working mom. There's a lot of Latin in there too -- shit you can use to sound real smart and impress da ladies, like this beauty: ad astra per aspera, or "to the stars through difficulties."

Ashley Lucas - Cupcakes + Owls

Ashley is a fantastic artist and illustrator (and fellow Jersey Citizen to boot!). She's written and illustrated numerous publications for kids, and her blog is full of adorable crafts and activities for kids and grown ups. What I'm most excited about is her upcoming very-cute-but-not-for-kids picture book, Angry Artist (illustration above). Oh, so much to relate to!!

D. Allen - The Body Connected

"In an environment where all bodies—even those declared “dead” or “damaged”—were useful, respected, and beautiful, I felt at home."

D. is poet and essayist I met during our residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts last fall. D's blog is full of gorgeous, life affirming essays on nature and the body, like the recent "Wild and Searching Forms," from which the above quote was taken. D's band, The Sweetness of Gone, will similarly slay you. So just be ready with your tissues and waterproof gear.

The theme of this tour is writing process, and I have some questions to answer for ya. (Thank god...otherwise you'd get another weird meander through my brain like I posted last week!) So here goes:

(1) What am I currently working on? 

I'm in the final throes of my first novel, a little middle grade historical number. It's got a sassafrass 12 year old narrator, and it takes place on a farm in the 1920's. Basically my fantasy life.

My other project is more amorphous, and it's a memoir/research project, about the cancer experience, family history, and the history of medicine. I plan to work on this during my workshop with Cheryl Strayed (FUCK YEAH) this August.

And, you know, this blog.

(2) How does my work differ from others of its genre? 

I'll talk about the memoir project for this one. By incorporating the histories, I hope to recontextualize my personal experience. What does it mean, for me and all my rituals of medicine, that my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother was a tried and convicted in the Salem witch trials? SOMETHING IMPORTANT, I'm sure.

(3) Why do I write what I write? 

It's all about understanding this madness. It's all about "You're okay, I'm okay." Or not okay, however it may be. It's about reaching out into the void, and screaming.

(4) How does my writing process work?

I don't drive, so I walk a lot. Phrases will materialize while I walk, and I repeat them as I step, branching off in strange directions. Those little nuggets can often become the nucleus of a piece.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Dead Duck Day

 When I was four, I rewound my favorite part of my favorite movie so many times that the video tape snapped. My dad had to performing emergency film splicing while I sobbed. (The movie, by the way, was Amadeus. I was a strange child.)

Growing up, we watched movies over and over. It's just what we did. Whole eras of my life are remembered not by things like who was president, but by which movies I watched over and over. In preschool, I made my brother run lines from Ghostbusters with me. In 4th grade, I saw Jurassic Park in the theater four times. I liked to watch City Slickers before my sporadic horseback riding lessons, because it would help me feel less afraid. There was one summer, before middle school, that I watched Apollo 13 every day. Actually every day. I tucked it in among the hours-long games of tag and planning a carnival for our little street, and sleepovers where my sister Miranda and my friend Dani and I would try to become psychic.

It wasn't just me; everyone in my family was this way. (Except my dad. poor guy.)

One of the films that had the honor of being one of our favorites was About a Boy. If you're not familiar, it's about a boy (obviously) who's struggling. He's made fun of in school, and he's lonely. His mom is depressed. A few minutes into the film, his mom sends him out with her friend and a dude (Will) his mom's friend is dating. The boy tries to feed some ducks in a pond, but winds up accidentally killing one with a giant loaf of bread. The adults take him home, where they find his mother has attempted suicide. Henceforth, the boy calls this day The Dead Duck Day. (Loads of other stuff happens should just see it, despite my incredibly dreary-seeming synopsis.)

The Dead Duck Day. For the boy, Marcus, it's the turning point. The moment after which things can never be the same. Story-wise, it's the catalyst for change. The Dead Duck Day doesn't have to be the lowest point -- though it can be, the process of change often results in several even lower lows for the hero to overcome.

In actual life, there are many Dead Duck Days. Most of the time, you don't know that a day is a Dead Duck Day until a while later.

I realized that today is the anniversary of my personal Dead Duck Day. The thought floated through my head while editing photos as work. "The biopsy was The Dead Duck Day."

Two years ago today, I went for a mammogram. The tech showed me the microcalcifications, said I needed an ultrasound. That tech said I needed a biopsy. I lay in the darkened room, undressed from the waist up and covered in gel, and shook and shook, hands smacking against the table. The tech held me so the doctor could work. I was there for hours.

When I finally went home, I walked out into a biblically-proportioned thunderstorm. I was soaked within seconds; there were hailstones which, against the dark clouds, resembled the trouble spotted in the pictures of my breast.

At no point did I think, "This is the point after which nothing can be the same." Instead, I tucked the scrap of paper with radiologist's cell phone number in my pocket and thought, "What a nice woman."

But it was this day, and not the day I found the first spot of blood, or the day I was diagnosed, that was the last stop before cancer-land. That morning was the last time I was that other girl, the one who's presence I felt strongly for a while after, but who has since gone away.

I am in my coffee shop now, where I always come to write. Someone's phone just rang, and played the theme from Amelie, a film the other girl used to watch whenever she was sad.

I haven't done the over-and-over thing with a movie in a long time. Maybe that's why I feel so floaty and lost sometimes -- I don't have the same type of touchstone for my life the way I used to.

The thing about the Dead Duck is that it's a stand-in for the worst thing. The dead duck wasn't the most important thing that happened in Marcus's life that day, but it was how he accesses the truth about his mother. It was the moment just before the bad thing, that leads him in. Maybe that's why I remember my own narrative the same way, that the biopsy day was far scarier and kind of worse than the diagnosis day.

The Dead Duck is a way into the memory, but it's also a way out of it. There's a scene in which Marcus is yelling at his mom, about to bring up her suicide attempt in front of strangers, when Will swoops in and stops him by telling the duck story. Like the way I focus on my terror at the's a way to avoid the memory of the sadness five days later, I guess.

Narrative is always constructed after the fact, as a way to understand seemingly random and disconnected events. Meaning is not inherent, in anything. It is assigned. Marcus assigned the Dead Duck the weight of the suicide attempt, the way I have assigned the weight of the last two years to the biopsy.

In truth it was an awful, horrible experience. Many women feel that way about the biopsy process. But had it been negative, had I traveled on my merry way, I likely never really would have thought about it again. I might have gone home, watched a movie to take my mind off the pain, and found a new film for my rotation.

Monday, July 14, 2014

My body is a haunted house

Lately I've been feeling a bit under attack at home. Not by my two and four legged family, but by outside actors.

4th of July its amateur fireworks sent me closing windows and curtains in a fury, turning up the TV as loud as I could stand it, and cowering under a blanket with Pancho. Each explosion sent me jumping, starting, cursing all over the place.

Then, a few nights later, Pancho, Matt, and I were out walking. We were approaching our building when our neighbor's dog broke out of her collar and made a beeline for Pancho. (As in, "I'm going to destroy you.") Normally a nervous guy, he stood his ground while I tried to pick him up. My panic my him slippery. The other dog was bigger, and undoubtedly better at fighting, but he was going to go down with the ship. I got him into my arms in time, and she leapt up, snapping. I felt her claws on my back.

The nightmare that has recurred my entire life involves some kind of post-apocalyptic band of marauders laying siege to my home. It was terrifying and infuriating. (BTW most days I feel a mix of standard emotions + fury.) But upon waking, I was okay again.

But now the feelings are coming when I'm awake. When did my home stop feeling safe?

Around the time we discovered a little colony of tumors in my breast, I suppose. The body is like a home, and mine was pulling down its own walls.

After surgery, after tramadol, I would feel like I was being touched by things that weren't there. First just little taps, but by day three I felt someone clutching as my legs as I fell asleep. But I felt it from the inside.

Today I smudged the house with sage. I went from room to room with my smoking little bundle, thinking about my intentions. Safety, safety, safety. Clutching little pebbles, catching all the ashes. Washing both houses with smoke.

In a little while I will go out and scatter the ashes, bury the stones, say the word "safe," over and over.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Origin Story

Somewhere there's a color called serosanguinous. via flickr.

It started with a kiss.

It was two years ago today that my first symptom appeared, and first alarm bell rang. 

I've never really told that story here, because frankly, it's kind of embarrassing. Oh, for a chaste "found a lump during a BSE" story. (I'm kidding of course.)

Firstly there was no lump. There was what is referred to as "bloody nipple discharge." A dark pink fluid that presented itself at a most inopportune place and time: in our bedroom, as my husband was rounding second base.

Yes, my cancer story begins with a sex scene, and something resembling strawberry jam. As in, "Where did that jam come from?" followed by, "Uh, from my left tit." A long buried memory from high school health class surfaced, and a thought rang clear as a bell: this is bad.

I scurried off to the computer, planning to be reassured by Dr. Google. When that didn't happen, I emailed my actual doctor, asking if she thought I should come in, or if it could wait until my next physical.  

She said I should not wait. 

The next day, I saw her and she palpated my breast with the same result. She was reassuring, but sent me for an ultrasound and to see a breast surgeon. When the secretary made the appointment for the ultrasound, she was so so nice to me, and I knew. I called Matt. 

"She's being too nice, and I'm scared."

He knew what I meant, of course, and both of us were transported back to the moments after his diagnosis, when the secretary at the ENT's office spoke in hushed tones, and told him to try and eat something before his CT later that day. We did as we were told, and choked down scrambled eggs at a diner across the street.

People are nice to you when you have cancer. It should be listed as an official side effect.

I went home and we talked about how there was no way it was cancer. No way. What were the fucking odds, anyway? All the while I was reading things online that said "see a doctor right away if you experience the following," and listing a bunch of things, and I was on that list. All of a sudden, I was on that fucking list.

The next time we had sex, it was post-diagnosis, and I sobbed afterward. I thought to myself, "Good luck getting over this one, kid."

It started, so innocently, with a kiss.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Post op art

Here's that drawing that you didn't ask for. Me in bandages last week.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Rituel de me

I am sitting in the dark, perched near an open window. The storm outside is energetic, and right on top of us. Animals are all flushed out from their little caves, and with me in the living room.

I look at the window screen, and the water, which was moments before so formless, getting funneled into the squares of the screen. Organizing it, somehow. 

I've been doing this since I was four or five. Racing to the window at first rumble. Watching the raindrops slowly lose their wildness on the mesh. Listening to the cracks and rumbles, perpetrated by god, or angels, or giants. Something so huge you couldn't see it. It made me feel safe.

That I still do this run to the window routine, 25 years later says something, I guess, about me. That in highly charged moments, I resort to ritual.

This past friday was no different. I had a short surgery. (Fat grafting to my radiated left chest, with the aim of positioning the fat so that it can nourish the skin back to some kind of pliancy.)

I usually do a late night dinner the evening before, and cleaning frenzy day of. I did both this time, and added some new ones. The day before, a friend gave me a little totem to give me luck. I decided he needed friends so I went to the crystal store and picked some magic rocks with nice vibrations. Then I took a salty bath and went to bed.

I brought one of my crystals, an orange calcite, the next day. I rubbed its waxy gloss, heated it in my hand, placed it over my chest, while the hospital performed its own series of rites. Four people, two nurses, two doctors, had me repeat my name, birthday, and what surgery I was having where. My long list of allergies, too. Each wrote it on a brand new form, and tucked the form into a grimy white binder. The hospital gave me totems too -- special robes, and numerous bracelets which were checked and rechecked several times. 

My doctor made drawings, that looked a bit like crop circles, over my legs and flanks.

Somewhere in all this, a bit of my calcite chipped off, and I stuck the tiny pieces in my pocket. I took these with me into the O.R..

They led me in, and after one last check of the bracelets, laid me down. They piled on warm blankets; the anesthesiologist slipped in the I.V.; my surgeon cuffed me on the cheek. I closed my eyes and went to a familiar rocky shore, with golden light, and when I woke up I was shivering but not from cold or pain, just from being there.