I decided to type this as my handwriting isn’t great. I find myself preparing Action Memos for Jacinta and then tearing them off the top of the pad and scrunching them up. I start again and wonder what’s been happening to my muscles, co-ordination, timing and sense of audience.
I have been writing in a journal and it’s pretty awful to look at. After a day or so I can neither recognize nor remember my own words. But that’s OK in my journal at the moment. It’s more important to write it down than to have it presentable.
The other day I was cleaning up my desk, which over two long years had taken on the aspect of the Western Front in mid—winter. I took great pleasure in collecting together all your lovely letters. They were all there, with one envelope that gave me your address. They were embedded with lots of cards and messages from our work colleagues, in piles at various places along the precarious ridge of desk-top. Still recognizable in this ruin were about fifteen preserving jars (for tomatoes, chutneys and olives), three sets committee papers posted to me out of courtesy and a treason of dispatches and coded messages to the pathology industry, the health fund and Medicare.
I have disassembled this war ruin and replaced it with my drawing table. On that I have now placed, front and centre, a pencil sketch of one of my Italian slippers in very soft calf. I think it’s the right foot. It’s a much nicer desk top now. And I can compose at the keyboard and stay away from handwriting.
On top of my computer table, as I write, is your perfect sketch of a lily pond, complete with frog’s eyes and sword grass and the text:
An old pond.
So much activity!
Age is never dull.”
I have framed it and delight in it often. Do you remember it?
And do you remember writing that “each day can be a universe of itself”? I can reach out and touch what you mean there. It’s like – now. That has been such a torturous realization for me. I am bogged down with 53 years of habit, expectation, poor judgment and hurt as I carry on my back the things I know I want to keep dry and free of mud. I am learning to put the backpack down and enjoy having with me the many things that I value. I can make a day out of that. Yes, each day is a universe in itself. From all the letters and cards, Tom, that’s what goes into my backpack.
I am feeling self-conscious here, because this is the first writing I’ve done other than in my journal. I am mulling and trawling and shining a torch into dark corners, sensing that something is about to happen soon. I’m getting interested, getting ready to put some energy into writing. Getting my mind clear to compose sentences that ring. I’m trying something out on you. I hope that’s OK.
I had a very difficult second half of 2008. I stopped treatment in July and spiralled into depression until late in the year. It’s a very strange thing that happens to a lot of people when they are untied from the medical industry and set adrift downstream to fend for themselves. Do you know the movie The Shawshank Redemption? A character in the movie is released from prison after a long-term sentence. He doesn’t deal well with life on the ‘outside’ and hangs himself. I don’t feel that despair, but I recognize the feeling of being exposed again, without all the physical, chemical and emotional attachments that had become my life for so long. And then I realised it’s something that happens to cancer survivors. It’s a ‘normal reaction to an abnormal situation’ as the cancer network mantra goes.
One thing that has come out of it for me is that I’ve entered into discussion with my hospital about starting a writer’s group there this year. They think it’s a wonderful idea. I realised that I needed to be in a writers group with other people mulling and trawling and shining lights into dark corners. I couldn’t find one in Melbourne and so I came to the conclusion that I had better start one. It’s the first time I have backed my own perception of things in a long time. It feels great. I have got a positive reaction from the hospital and I’m looking forward to it immensely. It’s a bonus that the CEO of the hospital is the daughter of the man who started World in Action and devised and produced the Seven Up documentary, which was then taken over by Michael Apted. My universe expanded hugely when his daughter said “As it happens…” Wow!
My idea is that there’s a place for a writer’s group, not as a therapy, but because it’s therapeutic. I don’t want to “cure your cancer by writing” or “resolve your issues in a supportive group” because like Susan Sontag, John Diamond and Pamela Bone (whose books I’d highly recommend) I have a growing intolerance for the New Age view of illness, cancer in particular. I forgot to mention earlier, that one of the items on the desk-top was a plastic bag full of apricot pips that I’d received in the mail some time in 2007. (See Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor for a complete destruction of the apricot pip therapy – it’s been completely and utterly discredited for 30 years, but I still got some in the mail!)
What I am interested in is the additional string to the bow of recovery that writing can provide. I’ve been researching it and there’s a wealth of material (lots from within the New Age paradigm, of course) to draw from and get something happening here in Melbourne. The journal writing and personal writing cultures are rich with material to draw from to mull, trawl and shine…
For me it’s also a reconnection with writing. I have published a fair bit (two books and lots of newspaper and magazine credits) but have steered away from it for more than a decade. It’s time to reclaim it as mine.
And you, Tom? I was disappointed (selfishly) when I heard you were retiring and it seemed to happen very quickly. But we agreed to keep in touch and I’m interested in how you are travelling. I’m sure there has been a significant process of change going on for you. And a lot of that can’t readily be communicated. I imagine it’s something that you would need to call your own shots about, fiercely protecting your instincts as each day presents you with the proforma for ‘retirement’. I know Mac feels that tension very deeply since his retirement. Nevertheless, how is life on the ‘outside’?
Regards to your family.
Cancer Council NSW would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we live and work.We would also like to pay respect to elders past and present and extend that respect to all other Aboriginal people.