People keep asking me how I am, and when I say “fine,” or “okay”, or “not bad”, they pause, look at me intensely for a moment, and then repeat the question: “But how are YOU, you know, IN YOURSELF?”, as though that wasn’t the question I was answering the first time around. I think what they really mean is, “What’s going on in your head? What are you thinking about now that you’ve got cancer?” They assume the answer can only be depressing, which is why I keep getting that appraising look everywhere I go. Am I really holding it all together? How close am I to cracking?
The boring truth is that my thoughts are much the same as always. I’m a contemplative person by nature. Introspective. I think about all sorts of stuff, and I always have. At the moment, cancer does, of course, feature on the list of topics bouncing around my brain, but not as extensively or intrusively as you might guess. During my 34 years of being a thoughtful and solitary introvert, I’ve had a lot of dark, morbid, weird, and/or pessimistic thoughts (along with a preponderance of positive, fun, amusing, and quirky ones, of course), so this is just par for the course–nothing I can’t handle.
To be honest, a larger difference of late is that I’m thinking a lot about poetry, and as a result, I’m thinking in poetry. It’s a strange thing, but not unwelcome. I used to be a poet, back in a former life before I became a scientist. Each of my scientific milestones pushed me further and further into the realm of prose, burying my inner poet ever deeper inside me. I was keenly aware of this process but felt powerless to stop it; it was just too difficult for my mind to swing from spreadsheets and stats and scatter plots to alliteration and symbolism and heart-rending turns of phrase.
But recently I went looking for a poem to send a friend, and in the middle of paging through Billy Collins and Mary Oliver, reveling in each of their straightforward but elegant styles, I suddenly realized how very must I missed that type of writing in my life–both as something to read and as something to write. I went on a book-buying spree and wound up with fives volumes of poetry that I read one after the other.
In hindsight, I may have read a bit too much a bit too fast. The night after I stayed up late to finish Billy Collins’ Aimless Love, I lay wide awake for hours, mentally composing fragments of poems and compiling lists of topics that I should address in future creations. It was as though I had been gestating hundreds of poems for a decade, and they were now all ready to be born simultaneously.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, my genre of choice is nature poetry, and many of the images that flashed through my mind that night involved recent memorable encounters with wildlife or habitats or processes of the natural world. The sound of a fox yipping in the woods in the middle of the night. The sight of dozens of shorebirds orienting themselves in exactly the same direction while huddling in the wetlands during a cold and windy morning. The feeling of the sun’s warmth on my back as its rays finally began peeking through the clouds at the end of an overcast day. The smell of seaside at low tide.
In the grand scheme of things, these may all seem like relatively simple observations and experiences, yet they all act as metaphors–the lifeblood of poetry. That fox in the night? A way of describing the thoughts that haunt you as you lie sleepless in the dark. The sunshine? That is hope, persisting regardless of the trials the world throws you. Or, you could dispense with literary devices altogether and just enjoy the loveliness of the images for their own sake. It is that loveliness that made those visions stick in my mind to begin with; they all brought a smile to my face and engendered a feeling of happiness, wonderment, peace.
I realize that poetry is not a genre that appeals to everyone. But I do think that everyone needs a boost at some point in their lives. If you aren’t the type to look for beauty and universal truths in the form of lyrical writing–or even to seek them actively at all–then perhaps you could merely give yourself the space and time to pause and passively appreciate the inherent loveliness in the world around you–the same world that inspired all those poets to begin with. It doesn’t even have to be the natural world, though it’s hard to deny the appeal of waterfalls, rustling fields of waving grasses, a singing thrush, or any of the nearly infinite number of natural experiences that have brought a lump to some human’s throat at some point in our species’ history. There is poetry also in the complex flow of cars in a roundabout, the glow of thousands of streetlights seen from an airplane flying over a city, the jumble of smells rising from a farmers’ market, the coordination of the many different players on a football pitch.
It doesn’t matter where you find loveliness, or when, or how; the point is that you do. Make a mental stockpile of those moments of zen so you can recall them when the world doesn’t seem like such a great place. Or, better yet, in those moments when you can’t see much beauty around you, force yourself to really look for it; that’s when it makes the biggest difference to your frame of mind. It’s no coincidence that I rediscovered poetry just after I was diagnosed with cancer, and it’s no coincidence that the poems I’ve read have moved me as much as they have. It’s also no coincidence that I’ve found myself watching birds more often, taking the scenic route when commuting, listening to certain songs on repeat, seeking out particularly favorite delicacies when I eat. I’ve been filling my life with poetic moments, to enjoy now and also to relive later.
Of all the poems I’ve read recently, there is one that sticks in my mind most for exploring why poetry is so appealing in moments like this, and why/how it resonates the way it does. That poem is Baby Listening, by Billy Collins:
According to the guest information directory,
baby listening is a service offered by this seaside hotel.
Baby-listening–not a baby who happens to be listening,
as I thought when I first checked in.
Leave the receiver off the hook,
The directory advises,
and your infant can be monitored by the staff,
though the staff, the entry continues,
cannot be held responsible for the well-being
of the baby in question.
Fair enough: someone to listen to the baby.
But the phrase did suggest a baby who is listening,
lying there in the room next to mine
listening to my pen scratching against the page,
or a more advanced baby who has crawled
down the hallway of the hotel
and is pressing its tiny, curious ear against my door.
Lucky for some of us,
poetry is a place where both are true at once,
where meaning only one thing at a time spells malfunction.
Poetry wants to have the baby who is listening at my door
as well as the baby who is being listened to,
quietly breathing into the nearby telephone.
And it also wants the baby
who is making sounds of distress
into the curved receiver lying in the crib
while the girl at reception has just stepped out
to have a smoke with her boyfriend
in the dark by the great wash and sway of the North Sea.
Poetry wants that baby, too,
even a little more than it wants the others.
I could write an entire blog entry dissecting this particular piece, but it’s that final thought that is most relevant here–the idea that poems are a place to consider tragic events and really mull them over in detail. Through the magic of metaphor and artfully chosen vocabulary and perfectly crafted rhythms, poets can sweep you off your feet with beauty while also helping you confront the reality that life is not always easy or pleasant or enjoyable. But the aesthetics of poetry make that message a little more bearable–as does the fact that the mere existence of these verses proves that you are not alone, that someone else has experienced these very same thoughts and feelings that currently consume you.
Beyond extolling the virtues of both Billy Collins and Mary Oliver–both truly gifted poets that I can’t recommend highly enough–all of this is a very long-winded way of saying that I really am fine. I pause to watch gulls hover on the wind; I stop to smell flowers growing by the sidewalk; I smile at the antics of dogs making friends with each other out on the street; I close my eyes to better enjoy the delicious flavor of fresh papaya. I am finding moments of zen everywhere I look, and sometimes they even find me and catch me unawares.
I may have cancer, but life is still filled with beauty. It is a poem, and I am living it.