A (bald & precarious) New Year

Well folks, its 2014. That happened fast. I’ve been thinking about what to write since yesterday, since it seems New Years is somewhat of an obligatory bloggers’ day. It’s a day that marks, in a public way, the beginning of something hopeful, the trashing of the old and tired and useless, the ushering in of glitter and energy and a whole new world….

This year, of course, is markedly different from the other New Years for which I’ve donned oversize plastic glasses and tooted blow-horns and popped off fire crackers. In years past, I’ve resolved to do more yoga, to eat more kale, to sit down to write upon waking, to keep my nails manicured and to juice more regularly. I’m not too into resolutions this year, mostly because it seems like making a resolution is a horrible way to start the year. Really- resolutions are about picking apart the worst part of you and resolving to fix it. And even worse, everyone knows we often fail at this fixing! How about just deciding, oh, to consider ourselves good enough as we are? Care about ourselves as is, without picking apart, without vowing to fix, without identifying that which we hate?

In years past, I’ve gone out late with friends, danced until the wee hours, watched movies and popped popcorn, crafted and listened to live music, saw the ball drop and wandered the streets teeming with party-goers. This year, we wanted quiet. We had soup and salad and organic whiskey sours. My friend A and I talked about boys and hair and organic arugula. Sam watched Edward Scissor Hands and we played footsie with the cats. We ate grapes and talked about New Years wishes a la Mexicana. We took a long walk in the Vancouver mist, and marveled at the Christmas lights decorating the neighborhood.

And, it was precarious. Precarity, in Judith Butlers’ sense of the term, is about the conditions of possibility that threaten and constrain and make im/possible life for particular bodies; conditions which demand that folks can live or die in a moment. The role of the political and social institutions in the world- you know, the bodies that are supposed to care for these people- is then to reduce conditions of precarity such that the assumption that we will go on living feels pretty acceptable, achievable and routine, most of the time.

Of course, it’s more political than that (since we’re talking about JB here) and she writes that “precarity designates that politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death” (Butler, 2009, ii). OK, so basically those who don’t fit neatly and squarely into racist capitalist sexist heteronormative patriarchy (bell hooks) are systemically less able to access and enjoy the reduction of precarity that the social/political/cultural institutions provide. That makes being outside of the norm- ie, being of color, being queer, not having citizenship, being disabled, etc- a way of being in the world that carries with it a whole lot of risk of being much more exposed to injury, violence, and death. It’s a risk of not being recognized as someone to be protected- a subject of importance and belonging in the system worthy of protection from precarity.

Before breast cancer, I really never experienced precarity—- the systemic risk of being more exposed to injury/violence/death—- in significant ways. Certainly, I watched my dear Sammy struggle with the visa system, and I knew when we crossed borders, that his risk was entirely different than mine: in a moment, his visa could be denied at the border. While I could claim citizenship, and thus, protection, he could not. I could claim citizenship and  protection, and, as a white woman, be indignant about it while any anger on his part could quickly escalate to deportation, revoking of visas, all kinds of horrendous life-altering issues. My claim to rights via citizenship was how I could use those social and political institutions to protect me from risk. Legal as he was and is, there was no such recourse, especially not for an angry man with dark skin. So sure, I’ve made life-moves with Sam given our sometimes precarious decision to build a North American life, but my body has not ever been the one to encounter precarity. Not like this.

The set of discourses, practices, and beliefs that circulate around breast cancer situate me and my cancerous breast in a particular way. The pink ribbon campaign and the feel-good quality of the mastectomy dance viral video episode and the call to eat your greens to avoid cancer are all ways in which a belief system is built such that we could be an almost-cancer-free/delusionally celebrating nation. Problem is, I’m nowhere in that nation. Nothing speaks to me. I cannot claim cancer-free-success because I ate enough leafy greens or cheered the cancer walkers on with pink pom poms. Even worse, I don’t think cancer is inspirational, and I’m pissed off at capitalism and people who let the world come to this. I am outside of that set of feel-good discourses and practices that shape breast cancer all pink and pretty. Medically, too. There’s very little research in women under 35 with breast cancer. We’re outside the structure, as if we didn’t exist. There’s endless studies on older women with ER+ cancer, but in younger women- in women where ER+ cancer is thought to signify another biology entirely next to nothing. There’s all kinds of hemming and hawing about this treatment or that, and on how we might measure the risk and the benefit and the myriad of things that are big, giant, unknowns. In fact, I’m even receiving a treatment- chemo- that ends up helping less than 10% of women. Oh, and also, breast cancer is a life-threatening disease that could kill me. And its precarious as fuck.

So, a precarious New Year. It seems kind of silly to make resolutions at the moment, to pick apart what I hate about me and swear to fix it. I halfheartedly applaud those of you who have committed to a whole new you, or at least a little new you, while I also urge to you to simply accept who and what you are and where you are, now.I urge you to be OK in the now.

Precarity urges me to turn to the only fail-safe solution, which, it seems, is living my life fully, listening to my body, and kissing Sammy every chance I get. Precarity urges me to thinking about fighting bigger battles, and to actually feel the precious million moments that make up my day. Precarity makes me think again about what I want in the world, a re-scrambling of desire and hope and despair. Precarity repaints the world in shades of intensity I didn’t know existed, shades of intensity I associate most closely with bleeding-heart Mexican rancheros.

Today I took my precarious self to yoga. My buzz cut was really starting to go. Every time I ran my fingers over my head, there were short strands falling onto my collarbone and every time I took off my hat, more and more strands on the inside of the hat. Today I practiced behind a woman who used to teach often, and who’s classes I used to frequent. Months ago, I suspected this teacher, J, had breast cancer, or some other cancer. She stopped teaching, and suddenly what seemed to be a totally fantastic version of her hair didn’t seem to sweat when she practiced anymore (was it a wig? why was it so perfect even in yoga?), and there were rumors that she had breast cancer.

Today, her hair was short and curly where it used to be straight and long. I couldn’t help but stare at her, practicing perfectly and, I suspected, as close to healthy as “No Evidence of Disease” after breast cancer can approximate. I was seriously lagging, kneeling in between postures and taking savasana and wondering why the hell I couldn’t feel the fan, but I figured I should stay in class, mostly because this J, who I imagined to be “NED” and doing yoga, was there. If she was sticking it out, I might as well. I was fascinated with the fact that A) I could see no mastectomy sentinel node scars peeping from her yoga top even though my chest looks like a war zone, even in my yoga top and B) she must have been practicing while she was being treated for cancer, if my suspicions were true, because now, clearly, her hair was growing back. If I was right, she did yoga during chemo. Like me.

I would have never said a thing to her, too worried about tip-toeing around the impossible in such a public space, dancing around a shared knowing of terror with someone who I really don’t know beyond the cursory nod at the studio.  She approached me, and told me she heard what was going on, and that she had just been through it all, every single part of it. She could only do this because she’s been in this place of strange I now occupy. What followed was intense connection and conversation, made possible by our mutual sense of precarity. She told me about her hair, and her decision to wear a wig to yoga to avoid the prying questions and curious eyes. She told me about her surgery and her chemo and her radiation. She told me about which nausea drugs she hated and how she kick-boxed through treatment. She told me about how it felt to decide on a mastectomy, and she told me about what it feels like when the friends constantly checking in now get tired in the months to come. Sweaty, tired, at Bikram yoga, she totally got it. She could ask the questions that matter, and listen in a way that knit together the silences and feeling in my eyes. Feeling precarious, and knowing that feeling is shared, lent an intensity in which we hopelessly clung to the moment, unsure when again that could happen, uncertain about futures, knowing only in the moment.

It is impossible to understand a situation one has not embodied, lived, known intimately, though all the empathy in the world makes it a softer, kinder place. But that post-yoga-class connection, for which I am so grateful today, was the embodied, knowing, intimate kind. Sometimes you never know where that will happen, and I urge each of us, myself included, to open these spaces of intimacy and intensity and connection. They are risky: I would have never opened that space with J, but she did, and I’m immensely and endlessly grateful. Her model is my precarious new year.

It’s not a resolution, it’s a model for creating more intensity, for connecting deeper safe spaces, for holding fragility and risk together at once. It’s not something I need to fix about myself, rather, it is a holding of space I know to be real and an acknowledgment of shared precarity, of precious moments. And this world needs way more of that because you know what? I bet if we made a whole lot more spaces like J did today, we’d be a whole lot more prepared to do some serious political battling around issues of precarity.

And then I came home, and rubbed the hair off my head into a giant pile in the bathtub, and Sammy shaved what was left off, and now I am bald, and so we toasted with prosecco.

What a weird way to start the year.

Butler, J. June 8, 2009. Performativity, precarity, and sexual politics. Lecture given at Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Online here.


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