I got up this morning with the intention of being an Art Monster, to write and write and write and do nothing but write all day. After morning ablutions, I sat down at the computer and nothing. Nothing at all. Not even a little bit was there. I fiddled about on the internet a bit more and thought for sure, now, things would start to flow, but no.
I played spider solitaire on the highest level while listening to Bach. That always works. Nothing. I switched to chess and BBC news. Nada. Zip. I tried pulling up draft ideas but it all felt stale or silly or not scratching the part of my brain that was itching.
I switched from chess to mahjongg and put on my favorite podcast, In Our Time. Now, In Our Time is a very special thing. I’ve found nothing like it anywhere on American public radio or British radio, from which it originates. It is, as the kids say, everything. It is a general knowledge discussion panel moderated by Melvyn Bragg and he is very good at his job. Various academics and public intellectuals sit around a table and discuss one topic. It isn’t yell-y. One does not come on the show with an agenda or one does not get invited back. The aim of the show is to explain and discuss bits of things to a wide listening audience. Bragg seeks to illuminate and make understood rather than to show off the distance between Oxford scholars and the common person. The cover everything, philosophy, history, culture, science, theology. Everything. The twenty-something years of available archives is something akin to an oral history of all extant human knowledge.
Since my cancer treatment began five years ago, I have spent many a day listening to hours of archives and then falling off into bits of things that caught my fancy. I spent time hunting down out-of-print texts on Norse myth or metaphysical poets or precambrian history, ordering them from musty charity shops, playing out my own version of 84 Charing Cross Road.
Nothing else had worked to knock loose the words and In Our Time almost always provokes and so, finally, this will be the thing. The first thing that came up was a discussion of death, then Shakespeare and King Lear, which is more death, and then there was something else about death. No. This won’t do. Won’t do at all.
In a last ditch effort to squeeze something out of my brain, I decided a good soak in the tub would be good. I prepared my bath and queued up one of my favorite discussions, The American Ideal. I settled in to listen and soak and exfoliate and hydrate but too late I realized the discussion choice was the wrong one. The show features Bragg talking with Christopher Buckley and Susan Sontag.
Buckley and Sontag are two of my favorite writers and thinkers, the former whom I always understood but hardly ever agreed with and Sontag whom I almost never understood but almost always agreed with. I always enjoyed reading them. All of this is past tense because they are both dead. And they both died of cancer. And my phone was out of reach.
It seems on this Good Friday, death will not leave me be. Cancer will not let me go. It never does. It is written across my face, like a map. It is in the unsteadiness of my walk, the tremor of the ice when I hold a cocktail. It is in the absence of things, too, the breasts I no longer have, the muscle and flesh that have been removed, the absence of expectation.
All of this weighed on my chest as I lay in the bathtub. It lay on my chest heavy and hard. So heavy, I thought it might force me underwater. But, I didn’t. Susan Sontag would be so pissed at me to let go now before I’m finished writing.
The moment passed and I realized I was going to have to write about this today. I was going to have to tell you about all of it, about my favorite radio and trivia secret weapon, about Sontag and cancer and how no matter how much I want to get away from it, cancer is always right there.
The five year anniversary of my diagnosis is coming up soon. It is a day I did not think I would see. I especially did not think I would see it in relatively okay condition, not in treatment, not in a hospice bed. Cancer will eventually circle back around to me, this is for certain. There are few other things in life as certain as this. I don’t know when my time will come but I know it isn’t now and that is enough.