being in relation & being outside the contours

“Why are you doing that?”

“Breast feeding isn’t all its chalked up to be. Trust me.”

Sometimes, the exercise study can be like a cocoon. Safe. Funny. Silly. A top secret gym with frosted windows. A place to exchange notes on mastectomy. A place to talk about tamoxifen. A place to be with other women who have breast cancer.Today, I went to coffee with some of them, trying to reach out beyond the normal younger few I congregate with. In the chatter, someone asked why I was having a mastectomy. Why, she implored, are you doing that? While it seems like that last place my choices should policed, it isn’t the first time- and this policing of my choices by other women with breast cancer is exactly why I congregate only with the younger few. I didn’t want to have to justify my decisions to this woman. Another followed up by stringing together an opinion about keeping the other breast to breast feed, peering out over her glasses and telling me “breast feeding isn’t all its chalked up to be. Trust me.” How different it would have been, if she had said, “For me, breast feeding wasn’t all it was chalked up to be. I struggled because….”

I wanted to shut them out. I wanted to go back to talking with the others about vegan mac’n’cheese and fake eyelashes. Someone piped up, explaining, justifying for me. But still. I didn’t go to lunch. There is an ache in my belly too deep. Of all people, these are the ones who should understand the way cancer severs choices, obliterates options, narrows possibilities. Of all people.

We do not live in each others’ bodies. We don’t get to extract our experiences and explain life to another, each of us has such radically unique experiences that attempting to compare, contrast, explain away is not productive, but rather, painful. I find that people all around me lately are drawing lines of comparison between their own experiences and my cancer experiences, which is preposterous- even if they have cancer! Sorry dudes and dudettes, but you don’t get to do that. It isn’t cool. I was so grateful for A and T, sitting around the table, standing up for my decisions. Those are the kind of people I want to surround myself with, the kind of people who center themselves in their own experiences in relation to me, not in comparison.

Being in relation. It means sitting with the unknown. I worked out next to a woman who said to me today, in relation to my blog, ‘some of the things, I was like, oh, yah, totally, and other things, I was like wow, that’s so different than my experience.’ I was so grateful at her recognition that we all have such nuanced experiences. Being in relation, not in comparison, means grasping at your own mis/understanding without using it to explain or justify or enforce. Being in relation isn’t about what you know of your own experience breast feeding, having a surgery, getting cancer, going into mastectomy. Being in relation is about knowing that what you know about any of these things is your own, and being in relation is about knowing that someone else could know something totally different, could want to grow their own knowing, could have a radically different experience than you. Being in relation is gentle, thoughtful, eyes wide full, curious. Being in relation is being open to surprise, thinking quietly, embodying namaste to the other.

But the problem, of course, is that being in relation has limits.

Community building- which I think the exercise study fosters for some- has edges. By definition, community building is about exclusion. It’s a community because someone is outside of the contours, and inside there is a familiarity. Today, I was outside of the contours of this breast cancer community. The lines were drawn, as they always are, in the off-handed comments no one remembers and the way shoulders shrug and the lifted eye brows. I was so clearly, so solidly, outside of the lines.

“Why are you doing that?”

“Breast feeding isn’t all its chalked up to be. Trust me.”

Trust me, she said. Trust me, and maybe you can come inside the contours of this community. Why are you doing that, she asked. Explain to me, she asked, and her painted-on-eyebrow never left its raised position. The contours of what fits, how it fits, who fits were crystallized in those moments. My choices, my body, me created a fissure to wide to hold the community gently together. Inside. Outside. Community. This isn’t mine.

“Why are you doing that?”

“Breast feeding isn’t all its chalked up to be. Trust me.”

My communities are fractured and reflected in facebook chats with people I only know through their digital presence, in epic text message conversations and coffee dates, on twitter and in chemo rooms when I breathe a sigh of relief to see someone sitting in the chair across from me who would be my friend in real life. 

I’m not sure I’d know these women otherwise. Some of them, I might. It’s not even really about age, but lifestyle. Some of us share particular ideas and dreams and experiences and habits. I’m excited I get to celebrate the end of chemo with my yoga-cancer-buddy. Her life has parallels with my own, there’s something there beyond the rapid division of cells. But today, as is often the case in groups of women with breast cancer, the lines were so clearly drawn, and I was outside of them.




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