Chicken Shit

There is a Shambhala saying, “You do not just want to work with chicken shit, you want to work with the chicken itself.” I take these words to mean something like this: chicken shit may be messy and stinky and time consuming to deal with, but as a task it can almost invisibly become routinized, easy, predictable and satisfying. The chicken is another matter: flighty, opinionated, even though her opinions are impenetrable or rather the logic of her opinions seems to bear no relation to the material conditions of her existence. She imagines she is a queen and should be treated thus by loyal subjects, or she imagines she is hawk, a bird destined to prey on all smaller creatures and insects and even invisible beings who plague and torment and also add spice to her life. Or she may be perfectly healthy, apparently happy and cooing one moment, and then just like that, without warning, dead as a dodo. Understanding the chicken, loving her through thick and thin, is not always easy. Though you might say that this is all projection—human projection of our own or my own crankiness and unknowingness—onto the chicken. The Shambhala saying (Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s riff on the Buddhist maxim, “Work with the greatest defilements first”) is after all a saying, a dicho, a deployment of metaphor. To take it too literally is to stray into minefields of our own making, fields carefully cultivated with chicken shit and home-crafted, jerry-built landmines.

Many cultures and story telling traditions and philosophical orientations utilize animals in this way. Think of Aesop’s fables, think of African folk tales, think of a philosopher like Jacques Derrida. I remember hearing Derrida talk, over many weeks, about the cow, in the context of “eating the other.” And in Sydney, delivering a lecture on friendship he spoke about cats, taking a very concrete, quotidian experience to play with the notion of friendship. Well, he said, it’s irritating and a pain to deal with other cats in the building who come and eat your cat’s food. But you can work on your attitude and eventually see this cat as existing in a continuum with your cat. Instead of continuity breeding contempt and hostility and erecting domestic barricades you might eventually entertain the notion of a feline continuity, and welcome the other cat into your home, not grudgingly but with generosity of spirit. However, he said, and I remember how Derrida played out this moment dramatically, using the pause, the tilted head, the glinting eye and raised eyebrow: What if one day you hear a scratching at the door and you go to open it and you open it and there, sitting on the mat is a cat, but this cat is a lion. This image was so vivid, it has stayed with me as complex thread unraveling over time. Was this a metaphor? Or was it an example grounded in the material world? I think it was both. And so it is in many of these traditions or inflections of moral precepts, or teasing out of philosophical conundrums. The Lion and the Chicken are not to be taken literally, but neither are they merely metaphors. They are at once familiar, quotidian (the lion is a kind of cat, the chicken is connected to chicken shit), and their dramatic performance is surprising, unlikely, has the capacity to wake us up, to confront us with the surprising and unexpected and alien and difficult.

Chicken shit happens. Chickens, on the other hand, can take us by surprise, provoke unhappenings.

All I wanted when I first went to the Shambhala center at the end of my street was some help with meditation, some hints on how to integrate the body with a calming of the mind, some training in how to foster a practice, a routine. I wanted to subdue the panic, find some way of coping with illness. Trained in the hard knocks school of high theory I felt I did not need any more mind-training.

Today I pull Training the Mind off the book shelf, to check on that chicken shit reference, and two slogans printed on flimsy bits of paper fall out: “Work with the greatest defilements first” and “Don’t be so predictable.”

On the one hand there is sitting meditation, a concentration of the mind on the breath. On the other hand there is contemplative meditation. Theoretically the focus on breath, on the body, grounds one for contemplation. I still haven’t quite figured out where the practice of sitting-and-breathing-and-not-thinking intersects with sitting-and-breathing-and-thinking-about-things, about, say, the slogans. I just muddle along, helped by teachers, by the structure of the sangha.

Training the Mind by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche explicates the seven points of mind training (lojong) attributed to the Indian Buddhist teacher Atisha in 982 C.E. The list of fifty nine mind-training slogans are often referred to as the Atisha Slogans. Pithy, practical, a way of training our minds both through formal practice and through everyday life as a means of awakening. Waking up entails coming to realize the habitual nature of the self (not just the generalized self, but my self, uurgh), realizing the “other” as other. The slogans bear repetition because of their capacity to change: they double back, dodge and creep up on you from unexpected angles.

You should work with whatever is your greatest obstacle first – whether it is aggression, passion, pride, arrogance, jealousy, or what have you. You should not just say “I will sit more first, and I will deal with that later.” Working with the greatest defilements means working with the highlights of your experience or your problems. You do not just want to work with chicken shit, you want to work with the chicken itself.

Good habits, repetition, the assurance of a routine, all this is necessary to maintain a meditative practice. It is very hard to learn to breath without this kind of structure. The structure facilitates: How much easier the day becomes if everyday you manage to find even a short time for slowing the mind, for breathing peacefully. But, but, but … (insists the voice of the skeptic, or looking at it differently, the Derridean) it is also all too easy to settle, via routine, into the fatness of certitude

his certitudes perched like fat chickens

How do you grapple with the tenacious grip of the ego and yet avoid positioning the other as the predictable obverse or prop to one’s glorious egolessness? How do you avoid interpreting the slogans through the lens of a moral universe? How to pre-empt the snarkiness, the judgement, the relentless drive to control everything, the frustration and irritation and despair with those around, with myself, with Israel’s assault on Gaza, with immigration policies in this country, with the global environmental catastrophe engulfing us all? How do you engage with the world, how do you avoid grand generalizations and self-righteous litanies of complaint about the bad other? For this we know: mindful shifting of the habitual can in itself become a habit, promoting a comforting quietude and detachment from politics both quotidian and public.

from the farmyard in which his certitudes perched like fat chickens, every night of the siege, one or two were carried off in the jaws of rationalism and despair.

Chicken shit happens. Chickens transmogrify. Between the cushion of contemplation and the world out there is an ocean, an ocean where we surf and are tossed by the stormy waves of birth, old age, global catastrophe, genocide, sickness and death.

It’s all very well to realize and to see the lion or the chicken as merely a projection of self. But to fully recognize the lion or the chicken as something other than a projection of self. Not so easy. Not so easy to do this off the cushion, out there or in here, in the world.

Oh the world, the world.

 

Notes

 There is a Shambhala saying …. Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving Kindness, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, p.150. Slogan: Work with the greatest defilements first.

from the farmyard in which his certitudes perched like fat chickens …. J.G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur, p. 211.

 

 

 

 

 

Some Musings on Metaphor

A good month, June. Feeling considerably better, with miles more energy. It has been amazing to look at the print out of my labs the last few weeks. Bloodwork shows much improvement, many items that were flagged too high or too low have settled into the normal category. Looking at the results each week (they come up on the computer a few hours after the labs these days) is like watching a soccer ball, soaring in slow motion, peeking and then descending. Hold your breath: where will it land, inside or outside the line?

My white blood cell count fell into the normal range fairly soon after starting treatment. But actually there are many kinds of white blood cells, and there are at least two kinds that are crucial indicators for CLL, or since each case is idiosyncratic let’s say for me at the moment. My neutrophils are slightly low – most likely induced by the revlimid. If they go much lower it means likely neutropenia (when you are dangerously at risk of infection, when you have to eat only cooked vegetables and fruit, wear a mask etc …. everyone probably knows someone who has had cancer and endured a period of neutropenia, induced by the chemo) but so far very borderline. Then there are lymphocytes. In the last month the absolute lymphocyte count has normalized. Marlene Millen, my primary care physician, said no wonder you are feeling better, when your lymphocyte count is up its like you have a constant virus, you are fighting it, day in and day out. My first reaction was Whoa, what would you know what it feels like. Stick to science, doctor, don’t presume to tell me how it feels. A flashback to hot flashes and the gynecologist (young, compassionate, efficient, female) who said, just think of it as a normal part of life, everyone gets hot, I get hot sometimes, and I just take a deep breath and drink some water and it passes. Well bully for you lady, may you wake one day in your best silk blouse suddenly sweating swinishly as you address a room full of bright-eyed and bushy tailed gynecology students. A moment ago they were hanging on your every word, now their eyes are fixed on the sweaty stained blouse clinging to your breasts. But Millen is not that gynecologist. She is tough and vigilant and frank. She is also a go-between, mediating between the various specialists I encounter, ping ponging from one to another. She was the one who really kicked me into treatment the first time. Listen, she said, Kipps will always say “it’s maybe time to start thinking about treatment, here are the options, of course it’s your choice.” “But I’m not Californian,” says Millen, “and not afraid to cut to the chase. You have put it off for long enough, and now you are saying well I think I’ll wait a while. You really need to start treatment NOW.” She must be about half my age, but she calls me “Sweetie.” “Well done Sweetie,” she will say when she thinks I have conquered the denial impulse and recognized some danger signal and given her a call. I find it very endearing to be called Sweetie. Bitter sweet like the Jane Campion movie.

Friends are curious and always asking: what is it like? Much of the time we look quite normal, when you go the CLL support group you might think you were in a room of perfectly healthy people, the swollen lymph nodes and spleens are not visible, nor the haywire white blood cells, cavorting platelets, nor the havoc being played in bone marrow. Nor the sense of utter exhaustion and fluishness. People often say to me “how are you? You look great!” On bad days this can be a trifle irritating, because typically they ask a question and answer it themselves, pronouncing you well and fine. This was a refrain after my dance with death just before our Boxing Day party, though on this occasion not in the least irritating. Boxing Day is the day after Christmas and this last year it was also the day after I came out of hospital. The cause was an infection that went haywire over night, landing me in the ER. Four nights in hospital and then I was fine, immensely relieved, and we went ahead with our Boxing day tamale party. Teddy Cruz gets the most delicious Guatamalan tamales from a source he refuses to reveal. They are wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Unwrapping is at once a delaying mechanism, a stringing out of anticipation, and a process of revelation. As you unwrap the smells start swirling, not just one smell but many. The masa (or corn dough) inside the banana leaf wrapping is in turn wrapped around the filling—pork or chicken—and a sauce that is beginning to ooze out so you have to lick your fingers to get a taste of what is to come. You pause, fingers in your mouth, imagining. And then you break into the tamale. Inside there is pork and a piece of fruit, and even though there is a melting moment flavors are distinct—sharp, sweet, meaty. You scoop a bite of tamale into in your mouth, and enter heaven.

I have never met this woman who works in her kitchen at home and conjures these magical tamales into being. Teddy is the go-between. But I do know something about her. A week before Christmas her husband, who had been living and working in San Diego for years, was walking along the street not far from our house when a Homeland Security van pulled up and stopped him, requesting his papers. He had none. He was pulled into the van and deported from the country.

Although I sometimes find the “you look great” refrain irritating, receiving it as vacuous routine politeness, actually I know that when people say this they are more often than not performing an act of sympathetic magic: they are wishing that all is well, they want you to be well, they want to believe that everything is fine. And you participate in the performance. You are relieved to be alive and want to look as normal as possible. On Boxing Day I was particularly glad to be alive and celebrating. But the scary thing is the knowledge that it could be something like this that will take me out. Most CLL deaths (because CLL is a disease of the immune system) are from simple infections that flare up quickly and can’t be controlled. This is what Millen has always been trying to impress upon me: be alert to the signals, act immediately, don’t be so cavalier. She was pregnant and on leave when this happened, but when she came back she said, “Well done Sweetie, you got yourself to ER in time.”

Millen offered the metaphor of living with a virus. There is an aptness to it, it’s graspable, something one can offer to others. Kipps offered another. After my first treatment I said to him It’s like a miracle. I had no idea how awful I had been feeling. For years. This is the real normal and it’s a great sensation! Kipps said many patients say exactly the same thing. And he offered a metaphor: it’s like hiking up a hill with a back pack on your back. You start with a few pebbles in your back sack and after a while you add a few more, and then after another few miles the gremlin at your back tosses in just one more stone, but this one is a little larger, heavier. And so it goes, and as you climb you accommodate to the weight and the difficulty, and you come to imagine this as normal.

Rather than being affronted by Kipps’ simile, or his presumption in describing my sensations, I experienced a surprising sense of gratitude. His image was not exactly intricate or poetic, and certainly far from scientific. Perhaps though this is precisely the key to understanding how it works. How a simple metaphor describing an illness can spark delight. Why, I wonder. Clearly, on one level it’s because of recognition. It offers a mirror image, a confirmation of identity. Thus, it might be argued, it doesn’t do much to shift anything, simply confirms the way things are, the way you feel. And although I hate the kind of feel-good triumphalism that validates every feeling as evidence of self-worth nevertheless I think there is something crucial that happens when the language of medicine or science is blurred by the poetic impulse of metaphor. Many illnesses, particularly chronic ones, as well as many psychological states, are isolating, for the patient it’s hard to situate what they “feel” as anything other than ultra-personal. There are times when you think maybe it’s all in my head, or maybe I am inducing this illness because of the way I feel. So to have an image flashed up, from elsewhere, from someone else, that is evocative and feels accurate – this is like getting a hit of immunoglobulin. You want to shout out Yes! That’s it! Something surges through your system, is energizing, and it isn’t a drug. This kind of metaphor differs from the destructive metaphors that Susan Sontag so brilliantly described in Metaphor as Illness. Metaphor literally means a bridge between two things, two words, two images. The more unlikely the linkage the more powerful the metaphor, and the more it can be spun out the greater its capacity to inspire intrigue and wonder. But in addition to confirming the way you feel, metaphor has the potential to perform an intricate dance of difference. There is always that space of difference, of something incommensurate that stretches between the two unlikely images. A patient is and is not a hiker. In that tension, in the surprise, in the fact that the image flashes up from elsewhere – it is in this process that metaphor has the capacity to open your eyes, to introduce not just sameness and recognition, but newness. The drugs serve to lighten the load, but words too.

Newness and surprise are great medicines.

Much of the time I swim through Kipps’ language, feeling an idiot because I haven’t done my homework and there is still so much I do not understand, and sometimes despair that I ever will. And there’s not much time. And how will I ever make the right decisions about which therapy if I’m so clueless? He has a lot of patients to see on this one day of the week when he isn’t doing research or flying around the world talking about CLL. Often I call up Sheila Hoff, our CLL nurse and case manager, and she patiently spends hours going over it all, translating, helping with decisions by giving examples, and always she says, think about what kind of a person you are, how you want to live your life, which treatment will suit you best. Or I turn to a patient advocate site on the internet, like that of Chaya Venkat. Sadly she has announced this week that she is retiring. Her husband died of CLL. Though not a medical doctor she is a science writer and she started the site (http://updates.clltopics.org) to link her husband’s journey with others’, to mediate between the scientific community (and scientific language) and patients. For twelve years (eight while her husband was alive, four after, by herself) she has done a quite amazing job as a patient advocate, and as a magician of words. Understanding the language, yes, but something more. Finding the words. Saying the words. Her retirement blog is very poignant.

When I was looking for good crime novels (when not?), the kind you can lose yourself in, Patricia Montoya, my friend and neighbor (who has herself recently been through hell, survived a rough stem cell transplant, now back for the summer in her bitter-sweet home, Medellin), suggested I read Tijuana Straits. It’s a surf noir novel set primarily in the Tijuana River Valley, the area that stretches from Imperial Beach in the northeast corner of the Valley (and the US) along the border with Mexico. Twenty minutes from where I live. It begins in the Estuary, with the main protagonist whose charge is protecting certain migratory birds (most notably the western snowy plover and the light-footed clapper rail) discovering in the early morning dawn a woman in distress, who seems to have crossed by an illegal route where the border fence cuts the valley in half. Kem Nunn evokes the area vividly: the crashing surf, the Lighthouse in Las Playas on the Mexican side of the fence, Yogurt Canyon, Smuggler’s Gulch, the routes through the Valley on this side – Monument Road at the edge of Border Field State Park, Hollister Drive, Dairy Mart Road – and the maze of dirt roads and horse trails. I started reading the novel after a particularly hairy infusion, and experienced a peculiar delight in recognizing these places, even seeing these names in print, saying them out loud. There is the comfort of familiarity of course, but also there is always a slight, maybe infintesimal, mismatch between the image offered and your memories. There is a pleasure in puzzling out how the images cohere, form a landscape, in imagining even when you can’t be there. Nunn wrote this novel shortly before Homeland Security hacked into the landscape in 2003 so brutally, demolishing a mesa, filling in a canyon and building a new, second wall flanked by a perfectly asphalted wide road, a road where no one drives except the occasional border patrol vehicle. So sometimes he describes a landscape I hardly knew, and I try to conjure it, ripping out the new steel fence, and the asphalt road, and restoring the canyon in my mind.

You picture and imagine a landscape, a configuration of space shadowed always by various histories, some quite personal others social, unfolding oblivious to your personal existence. It is like this too with simple metaphors, thrown up in the haze of misrecognition, when you do not know how to make sense of this place where you find yourself.

For me the Boxing Day party was a celebration of being alive, of having escaped again, of friendship. The house was packed, the air was festive, people drifted in and out of the garden, unlikely people became entranced by the chickens and entered into chicken conversations. The tamales, however, as well as being delicious were a reminder that cancer is a card you can carry, it’s like having papers, if you are lucky enough to have medical care people are basically on your side, they want everything to be fine, they want you to be well. Of course you live with the fear of sudden, or slow, death. But as people who have cancer and Buddhists and even total strangers with whom you strike up a conversation in the long queque at the pharmacy remark: we are all going to die, death is a part of life, and anyway who knows you might walk under a bus tomorrow. True no doubt. But it is also the case that many people in this country live without any papers at all, let alone a cancer card, and they live in real and daily fear of a chasm opening up when and if the Homeland Security van pulls up one day as they stroll to work, to the shop, to neighborhood park.

Chicken Joke

A man believes that he is a grain of seed. He is taken to a mental institution, where the doctors do their best finally to convince him that he is not a grain, but a man. No sooner has he left the hospital than he comes back, very scared, claiming that there is a chicken outside the door, and he is afraid that it will eat him. “Dear fellow,” says his doctor, “you know very well that you are not a grain of seed, but a man.” “Of course I know that,” replies the patient, “but does the chicken?”

This joke is told by Alenka Zupancic in The Odd One In: On Comedy. She says that what is at stake here is the post Enlightenment assertion: I know very well, but nevertheless…. (I know very well that there is no God, nevertheless I pray that God will save me from this awful situation, pluck me out of this shit hole). She traces a thread of connection between Hegel and Lacan, between the Phenomenology of Spirit and the concept of the Other. Her twisting of the skeins is provocative, she takes a paradox and plays it as though it were a queen of hearts or seven of spades, the paradoxes proliferate, the tricks are blindingly spectacular. Is it sleight of hand or logic refined to the nth degree?

Yet there is something left over for me, something that she doesn’t directly address though perhaps it lurks and swims around in the lower depths of the joke. What is left over is fear, a kind of fear embedded in category confusion and realized most obviously in phobias, but also in simple fears like the fear of dying. It’s not just me and the chicken, me and the other, but there is a third term: this thing, this grain of seed or let’s call it a corn kernel. Self and Other, these terms are mobilized in a circuit of exchange involving Other Things, and at some stage this circuit involves (or threatens) consumption, and disappearance or annihilation.

I came to chickens and to Buddhism at roughly the same time. Not entirely true, I grew up with chickens, and as an adult have had chickens in my life whenever possible, so in part I was enacting a repetition of the familiar (rather than the sense of discovery implied in the notion of “coming to.” But my relation to chickens has been very different this time). Buddhism was not familiar. After coming to political consciousness as a teenager I settled into an habitual semi-conscious cynicism about religion, or let’s just say faith, or spirit with either a small or large S. But in Shambhala I have found myself sometimes in a not-unfamiliar place. Not the place of religion, but of therapy, specifically psycho-therapy. Another form of repetition, therefore.

Chickens became an obsession when I was pretty unwell and heading into my first treatment. It was hard to work and to write and to do research, actually it was simply hard to find the energy to focus for long on anything. But oddly enough I was able not only to focus on chickens but to allow the chicken world to consume me. It became a totally encompassing obsession. (You can read about this in the piece “Chickens saved my Life”). Obsession, I’m convinced, is potentially curative. It is a form of denial certainly, a delusional projection, an enactment of repetition in the face of death. But it works. Sometimes it works. It takes your mind off things, prevents you from succumbing to another competing repetition, to the mantra of despair, or worse – of resignation.

If we want to use the language of psychoanalysis we might say that chickens are the way the subject’s unconscious (and her relation to herself) are externalized.

Cancer brought me to meditation. I signed up to Shambhala (a version of Buddhism) in order to learn some techniques for meditation. There is no doubt that meditation is a way of calming the body, reducing stress, promoting the anti-toxins, giving energy. Science tells us this though anyone who has meditated can tell you the same thing (still, the scientific writings are fascinating, keep a look out for the coming blog on the “bliss” app). But when I started going to Shambhala I found that the “techniques” of meditation were not so separable from the “ethos” of this version of Buddhism. One way of looking at this is to say that you bring into meditation a whole lot of baggage, and meditation itself shakes loose the careful packing (or repression), interferes with habitual patterns, throws into the unconscious—in slow motion—a Molotov cocktail. “Baggage” has become a remarkably familiar term in everyday language, it’s the kind of language that makes me squeamish. And indeed there are aspects of the Shambhala training that have induced squeemishness (many new age therapeutic models such as mindfulness training           draw on and are heavily influenced by varieties of Buddhism, and then in turn varieties of Buddhism adapted to a western environment, borrow the familiar new-age language). Sometimes I have yearned for a more severe practice, for what I imagine the spartanness of Zen to be. But then I remind myself that after all I am not Tibetan, like others in the room I am a predictable westerner looking to Buddhism to change something. So I tell myself this: suck it up.

I came to meditation hoping to find a way of being more at peace in the world (and therefore healthier, better able to fight the cancer). Of course once you start shaking that can of hope around the worms all come squirming out. And you find that you are faced with the phantoms of repetition. And you would like to change, quite simply (and even though it makes me squirm to say it) you would like to be a better person. Being more at peace might also have pay offs – for those around you, those who suffer the importunate blasts of bad temper, inveterate quibbling, acerbic barbs exploded randomly, not to mention hardly-muted envy.

Squirm and quease. Buddhism has in common with psycho-therapy a serious engagement with the unconscious (even though the word “unconscious” may not occur). Often the distinction is made between acknowledgement (just letting it come to the surface, letting it be) and analysis (analyzing dreams, jokes, stories, memories and so on). This distinction is hard to maintain but let us put aside this objection for the moment. Some of the Shambhala trainings are built on a dyadic structure. In a workshop you are given a question, or situation, and then the group divides into pairs. The first person has five minutes to speak (or not). The other person listens, they are not to respond in any way, they should not smile or offer encouragement, express agreement or approval or disagreement. And then you swap positions. And then there is five minutes for dialogue. The hard thing, the really hard thing, is not speaking, but listening in such a way as to resist solicitation.

Over and over again we repeat the same moves. We enter analysis (let’s say analysis, but perhaps we enter into other therapeutic spaces too—the sangha, the garden, the yoga studio, the church). You do this because you want to change, you want to break old habits, alter the way you relate to others or to the Other. Or you want to face life (and death) more fearlessly. Or both these things. But in analysis, as Zupancic points out, it isn’t enough for the analysand to become conscious of her unconscious. Often the belief is that the analyst will enable the analysand (through bringing to consciousness the patterns of repetition) to recognize their repetitious fatality. The analysand is prone to believing that when the therapy is over they will reemerge into the world and be liberated, “cured,” able to act differently. But actually nothing will change until the analysand fully recognizes the Other as something other than a projection of self. And this has to take place in the world.

In short, it is not simply that in analysis the subject has to shift her position (or even adapt herself); the major part of the analytic work consists precisely in shifting the external practices, in moving all those “chickens” in which the subject’s unconscious (and her relation to herself) are externalized.”(16)

I wonder sometimes if I am not Becoming Chicken, clucking and cooing and chirruping, grubbing around in the hedgerows looking for worms. Flapping around like Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush. Holly, Lula Mae, Sabrina (and Funny Face when she was alive) have coaxed from me a much more intimate relationship than I have ever before experienced with chickens. Is this identification? Have I wormed my way successfully into the being of the chicken? Or perhaps more profoundly found a way of acknowledging the otherness of Chicken-Being, realizing how the chicken thinks and feels, out there in the world, independent of my consciousness. I wish this were so, for it would mean a moving around of chickens, a changing of the way of being in the world. Often, as I sit in the garden at the end of the day and the chickens pick and peck and scratch I feel remarkably contented, at one with the world, grateful to have passed through the repetitive obsessive phase. And then Sabrina will suddenly extend her neck, cock her head and stare. Eyes glinting blackly she will dive at my leg and peck. It hurts. She thinks I am a corn kernel.

I know very well of course that I am not a kernel of corn. Nevertheless…

Life After Life

Life after Life is Kate Atkinson’s new novel – it’s long and gratifying. I have read a lot the last three weeks, mostly though not exclusively novels, the reading matter overseen and sat upon by Elvis. Reading is one of the things you can do while keeping your head very still so the world doesn’t spin, and if it’s engrossing you can be transported. You might think that the “second” life in the title is a replacement of the word and concept of “death.” Not really. On the most simple level the novel plays with the idea of the novel. The novel as a progression of seemingly inevitable events, of teleology, of the crocheting of character and description into the momentum of plot. But life too, as we live it day by day, entails plotting, dramatization and anticipation. Atkinson asks “what if”? What if, for instance, the baby had lived instead of dying, what if –that old chestnut—Hitler had been assassinated, what if the dog had a different name, what if the girl had kicked back? A writer can mess with events and this is what she does, giving us multiple versions or possibilities, or more accurately – unfoldings. But philosophically, she also spins a meditation – upon the eternal return. The idea that what exists after life is not death but more life, or more prosaically we could say people go on living, and the dead re-emerge in various incarnations according to different beliefs and modes of representation, and through the intricacies of memory. As always she is preoccupied with the concepts of déjà vu and amor fati, of history and the future, of memory and delusion. A minor but key character whose presence is woven through the book is a Buddhistic (come Nietzschean) psychoanalyst. In one of her incarnations, as a ten year old girl, Ursula is sent to see him.

 He had trained in Vienna (“Where else?) but trod, he said, his own path. He was no one’s disciple, he said, although he had studied “at the feet of all the teachers. One must nose forward,” he said. “Nudge one’s way through the chaos of our thoughts. Unite the divided self.” Ursula had no idea what he was talking about.

Atkinson also plays with the idea of the novel as a bourgeois form. Life After Life begins with a long idyllic evocation of upper middle class English life. She has said that it was Forster always at her back, but to me the angel at her back is Virginia Woolf, particularly Mrs Dalloway. As the story begins again and again on that snowy night in 1910 so the Merchant and Ivory scenario disintegrates and nostalgia is untethered, teased out, floats like seaweed in a bloody sea. Not just the Virginia Woolf of the novels but also the essayist and the woman who kept a diary full of quotidian details. While it is surely a false dichotomy to pose quotidian detail against the sweep of history, the trick is surely to understand and craft scale, through writing to mobilize that precarious, never stable, relation between scale and perspective. What the most intriguing novels and biographies do is illuminate not just details within the large sweep of history, but the sweep of history in the details. The new biography of Marx by Jonathan Sperber does this. I dipped in and out of it while out-of-it. Jeffrey read it voraciously from cover to cover (when it could be pried away from Elvis) and would relay the revelations, day by day, in between making endless supplies of chicken soup, a ministering Scheherazade.

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I always find myself (again, time after time, life after life) a better Buddhist when things are going well. “Better” of course is the wrong word, no I mean more inclined to be philosophically calm and accepting of fate, unperturbed by death. The last few days, before this awful smothering black blanket of nausea lifted I felt very despairing, as though I would never get better, even for a while. “This is it!” kind of a feeling. There is a simple line in Life After Life: “How sorry she felt for herself, as if she were someone else.” Somehow, as almost everyone must know, illness induces this as you see time falling through all the cracks in your life, never to be retrieved. Today, though, I feel grandiously like a besieged city that has been liberated. I woke up this morning feeling transformed, the nausea almost gone, euphoric. I hadn’t quite finished the Kate Atkinson and so got up, fed the cats (without experiencing that usual vomit-inducing odor as the tin of grain-free chicken-and-herring delight is prized open), let the chickens out in the dawn light, made a pot of tea and went back to bed and finished the novel – it felt so luxurious, reading not to allay sickness, but for pure pleasure. And of course I should know from the novel that after a besieged city is liberated (London and Berlin during the Second World War bombing) there isn’t immediate relief, what follows may be starvation, suicide, old age, mundanity. And yet …… and yet I loved the novel, it filled me with a peculiar happiness like Mrs Dalloway with her flowers. Atkinson has said you cannot write about happiness, that’s not what life is. It’s true the novel is not about finding happiness, I wept in parts and had to gloss over others that were too grim, and yet happiness is no less complex an emotion than say, despair, or misery, it’s just as implicated in the devious trajectories of desire. I’m glad I finished the novel on a high so I don’t always have it snuggled into bed, in a semi-illicit association with sickness.

Today I feel quite different, not sorry for my self at all, actually rather overwhelmed by the wonderful world I awoke into, but more convinced than ever that the self, though experienced materially, bodily, is a fiction. And what is it that constitutes feeling OK?

Being drug free is undoubtedly a big part of it. It surely must have been the combination of antibiotics with the chemo that made for such awfulness. Because of the initial searing gut pain and fever I diagnosed myself with a flare up of diverticulitis and my primary care Doctor agreed, urged antibiotics and since the fever and pain were subsiding, succumbed to my resistance to yet another Cat scan with contrast (time after time, too much radiation). I thought the antibiotics were working, but not really, the pain came and went. And the worst thing was the unrelenting nausea, dizziness, sensation of fainting even when lying still in bed. Kipps, my oncologist is inclined to think that this was clearly because of the piling up of chemicals (“we don’t know how the body will protest”) but also that the pain might not in fact have been provoked by an infection (and if this were the case, tho who’s to know, no need for antibiotics), but caused by tumor lysis. This refers to metabolic complications that can occur during cancer treatment, particularly in leukemia and lymphoma. Though the treatment is meant to reduce, say, the size and frequency of lymph nodes in fact it can do the opposite for a while. The lymph nodes in my gut area are increased in size and frequency and he guesses that this has put pressure on the colon. This makes sense but nevertheless I have a gut feeling (so apt a truism) that the chemicals are also ravaging my gut and so am drinking aloe vera juice an hour before eating, and also L-glutamin powder – both of which restore the mucous membrane of the colon stripped away by antibiotics as we know, but also by the other drugs. Acupuncture provided miraculous relief, but only for a short time (though it was amazing to see how color returned to my face during those sessions). However, my skin is so thin now. Thicker emotionally perhaps but in the end there is just that thin penumbra between you and the world.

Now I’m into the fourth round. Kipps decided not to up the dose because of the complications, though he is reluctant, and feels that it is only with an increased dose that some of the symptoms will abate and improvement register (white and red blood counts are miraculously in the normal zone, but others wonky). Still, it is underway and am feeling almost fine. Phew! With trepidation I have another immunoglobulin infusion this week, since an adverse reaction during the last one…

There are other things besides acupuncture that provided relief and forgetfulness. I thought I could drive myself to acupuncture one time but when I got out of bed realized that this wasn’t going to work. I called Tershia and she came and fetched me in her 1969 Porsche (a 912, 500,000 + miles, named “Lawrence” after T.E., as its first paint color was “Sand.”). Tershia turned it green. Just looking at it is a joy. It registers beauty—in its design, but also in that color, that delicious green that seems otherwise to have disappeared from the world, a green of mahjong pieces, of bathroom tiles and my grandmother’s kitchen. Nothing grandmotherly about that ride to the acupuncturist, however. Tershia drives her racing car as though it were a racing car. You might think that this would exacerbate nausea, but it was rather like entering into a dream. I loved being inside that greenness, whizzing through the city.

And then there was the poppy. Steve Ilott gave me, months ago, some white poppies he had started. We planted them out and waited and waited as they grew in a spindly fashion. Then one day as I lay languishing, feeling sorry for myself, Peggy—who was working in the garden, fighting the weeds which have gone beserk since people on the street started planting “low maintenance native” grasses—took a picture of the blooming poppy on her i-phone and sent it to me in the house. It was a totally unexpected apparition: a glorious white pom pom. I had been assuming that an old fashioned and elegant poppy would eventually bloom. Instead: the sheer exuberance and excess of that “Swansdown” startled me into delight. On the morning when I awoke feeling OK I opened the front door in the early morning and there were four white pompoms, gleaming in amongst the irises and salvia, roses and fennel, brash colors muted momentarily in the dawn, ceding glory to Swansdown.

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