The things our friends teach us

I woke up thinking about the film this morning. Fighting a desire to step into a world where I could be fantastic, a desire to ease into telling cancer simply and hopefully, a desire to be as at ease as they seemed yesterday. Sometimes I feel kind of lonely over here, because I don’t know how to do that, I don’t know how to perform the way everyone wants me to about cancer, the words feel foreign in my mouth. Sometimes I feel like I’m looking in, even unto the cancer world, an outsider still, unable to just be like everyone else who is so happy. 

I talked a lot of theory today, and I found myself eating lunch with three of my absolute favourite people, a spontaneous gathering on a warm spring day, and the love was plentiful among us. That’s pretty great, to look around and see people you love eating some random food you threw together. I want more of that. As the afternoon wore on, I worked on her scholarly project with my friend Kate, the singer-songwriter of the most infamous song. Again, so fortunate I felt to be able to think about ideas and theories and project and justice and change and art- because I have a friend who is into those things and writing on them, and wanted some idea-organizing help. I mean, really, who gets to do that? It’s awesome. As the theories came together and the methodologies settled and some of the decisions about what to include became clear, we shifted topics to the film.

I can’t be like them, I complained, tears stinging the backs of my eyes. I am being too critical, I worried, it’s not enough, it’s too much, they tell these stories and I feel so outside them, and I only ever want to listen to Breast Cancer Pink, and I feel so lonely. Maybe I should be more like them. There’s no one here except me. 

You’re not alone, actually. You know, she reminded me, that people love this song. They tell you. But I know it’s lonely. It’s lonely for me to sing the kind of songs I sing, too, it’s lonely when people don’t speak their truths. 

They do love The Song. People tell me all the time. But I still feel alone. Alone in anger about breast cancer, even if I don’t have enough fingers to count the cancer buddies who feel angry, too. Alone when they say cancer was a blessing, a gift.

I do have multiple, many, hundreds of gifts in my life. I have friends who show up to have lunch. I have people who offer to make me boob casts. I have buddies who come to appointments, folks who will listen for hours on the phone, friends who will listen and listen and listen, and who will even risk saying the wrong thing to say something at all. Those are blessings. They are gifts. They are awesome things. I have so much gratitude for the amazing community of people I am fortunate to call my friends and family.

But they are not cancer. Cancer is ugly. Cancer is IVs. Cancer is death. Cancer is fear. Cancer is hand sanitizer smell. Cancer is sad.

Today, Kate reminded me it’s only a conflation. There can be beauty alongside cancer. There can be friends and friendships and songs alongside cancer, and I can untangle the knot of “cancer is a gift,” and discover that I also have gifts, but I know they are born of a different world than cancer, made of something not cancer. Certainly, they came out in full force when I had cancer- they brought movies and g-chatted regularly and made dinners and did all kinds of loving. But I can’t conflate them with cancer. I need those friends, those gifts unto my world, those moments of love and kindness- I need them especially, in cancer. It seems like a simple thing, to be able to untangle “cancer is a gift,” and understand the gifts of love alongside cancer, gifts that are born of relationships we are grateful for, but gifts that might have accompanied us in life even if there was no cancer. I need to separate, to be clear, to untangle. Otherwise the stories feel so unwieldy, the ones I hear where cancer is a gift. They feel like chain necklaces all tangled up and unwearable, chain necklaces that when you tug on them, become only more tangled, more tightly wound, more confusing.

I can have both. Both! I need both. I need to hold onto cancer as angry, ugly, mean, and horrible. I need also to hold on to the beautiful friendships around me, the communities built on love, the extraordinary caring. I can have both! Both! I need to be able to tell the stories that are inside of my belly, and those stories are different than the stories I see around me, and that’s OK. I can tell them the ways I need to, in writing and in videos and in song and in little projects that come to me late at night when I cannot sleep. Kate tells stories that are not the stories everyone wants to hear, and it’s literally impossible not to listen to. Tonight, I am listening to her sing her other songs, just once through, before I put Breast Cancer Pink back on repeat. It’s brave, we could say. Or we could just call it honest. Knowing what’s in the pit of your own belly and letting it out. We could just say they are stories that couldn’t live without being told, and that she told them because she had too.

It’s lonely to be different. But there’s not really another way to be. 

It seems like a lesson you learn in the second grade. But really all the lessons, all the things about life, we’re just re-learning them, again and again, in different situations and with new people, in diverse communities and across random contexts. Behind the emotions and the fear and the laughter are really just lessons we learn over and over again, and they are the simplest ones. Be yourself. It’s hard sometimes. It’s lonely but what else is there?

Be yourself. It’s hard sometimes. It’s lonely but what else is there? Really, do you want to be a soccer mom with an apron baking cookies and not thinking and not reading, and taking a dog with bows in its hair to visit chemotherapy patients, because it’s a good thing to do? Because that’s what the not-lonely option is. Coiffed hair and normativity. 

The shivers. There’s no way I can fit into that. It’s not to pass judgement. Can I not want something, without judging? It’s just to say, there’s more than just happy. There’s lots of rich emotions, and lots of people to share them with, and diverse communities and people who come over for lunch. There’s little yarn worry dolls made carefully for friends and there’s dreams of big old houses and futures that are rich and full of love. And that vision has space for all kinds of stories, mine and others, told in song and in writing and in video and in the patterns of art projects.

That’s who I want to be. I want to live inside my own truth. I want to make things and write things and have time to make little sparkly things for the world, that make the world a little more… sparkly. I want to intervene and ride my bike in the sun and watch the ducks swim while I walk along the waters edge. I want to read books and try new recipes and love whole heartedly. I want to do things because I love them, because they are true for me, inside my body, today, now, always. I want to know I am moving forward in the world hopefully and in ways that only I can move forward in. You know sometimes, when you’re on your bike and its sunny and you’re going somewhere in the city, and you got some work in your panniers and you know it’s important work, and you know it’s work you care about and love, and you know you believe in it, a hundred times over? You know when you are on your bike and you can feel the wind running through your hair and you just know, you’re deciding things for you, and no one can take that away from you, because it’s so lodged so deeply inside your body no one could ever reach that deep inside of you and pull it out? That’s what I want, and I want it now, and I’m making it that way. That is all. So, that’s what I learned from my friend today. What’d your friend teach you today?

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