loving kindness, my tenderhearts: before and after

Before I had cancer, I never said things like “loving kindness” and “tender-hearted,” unless, maybe, I was talking about orphaned bottle feeding kittens. I mean I fancy myself a good facilitator, one who opens spaces for young people to participate in social justice initiatives and media programs in risky, empowering, hopeful, terrifying, bold ways— but mostly, I fancy myself the facilitator. I like to be part of- ok, in charge of- moving and shaking initiatives, feminist power-house communities, youth organizers, creative media-makers.  So I might have told my youth to be gentle with each other, to tread carefully around the stories they shared with each other about social justice, to witness each others’ stories and the group process— but I wasn’t really one to get all up in the witness-y/tread gently/tender-hearted discourse around my own experiences of the world. I mean hey, I go to yoga, I eat good food, I bottle feed kittens and write about gender, media, and civic engagement. Isn’t that enough tender-gentle-things? Warm fuzzies all around, too, as long as I’m in charge. Of course, I’d give my speil about my experiences in order to model how I wanted youth to tell their stories with vulnerability, but I kind of thought grown-ups stopped doing that. Like once you out-grew the youth category, the group hugs and silly ice-breakers faded into the distance and were replaced with high-backed chairs and yellow notepads and people working in offices (oh, the horror!).

Enter cancer, at which point I ceased to be in charge of, like, everything, and then I met all these people who kept saying “loving kindness” and “tender this heart and tender that soul” and the like, until eventually I sort of started thinking (not saying, but maybe whispering and definitely writing) those things too. Even though I pretty much felt like I was dying last February, someone pointed me in the direction of Callanish and I went to a young adult cancer group there, and it was tender, and it was loving and it was kind and it was real. And in July, I went to a retreat, and it was also tender, and kind, and loving, and real, and careful, and magical. And today, I worked with the artist there on my breast casts, and it was tender, and kind, and loving, and real. See, I’m writing about loving kindness and tender moments, even if I’d rather hop on a roller coaster and whirl right through them in a blur so colourful and so fast no one would really be sure what was happening, not even me, but soon enough, we’d be on the other side, breathing hard and waving our hands to gesture at that one time, when I had a touch of breast cancer.

But since my fairy godmother apparently forgot to leave me a magic wand to grant myself these kinds of wishes, I’m left instead with an organization that cares, an artist who does work with girls in Nepal on the side and who stocks her art therapy studio with glitter and feathers and acrylics, two breast casts that my dear friends CJ and A made for me when we had the infamous “Goodbye Left Breast Gathering,” and a body that no longer fits into these two breast casts.

I literally no longer fit.

My breast is not that shape anymore. It can’t move and bend and squish into a pre-determined form the way a natural breast can, much less the form that was made from my old breast. Sounds kind of like my life trajectory, doesn’t it? Like pants you discover are too short five minutes before you need to leave for work when you’ve already picked out your top and your shoes and your earrings and they only match the now-too-short-pants. It’s a rushed, shocked, kind of not-fitting, but also the kind that can’t be given too much attention because there is too much else happening, too many other moments exploding and opportunities blinking and desires flashing, and also, you still have to find some other pants to wear because you can’t well go to work in your undies, even if they are sparkly and lacey, and you do have to go to work, because you need to pay the rent and your students need to learn about globalization and you want to go on a fancy vacation, which requires some ahead-of-time work, of course.

You know when it really hits me, this not-fitting, the absurdity of this fake-breast shoved under my pec muscle, albeit shoved skillfully by Dr. Yoga-Surgeon, an artist in her own right?  When I chop garlic. Weird, right? You see, I’m right-handed. So I smash the garlic cloves, with my right hand on the butt of the knife, and my left hand pressing down sideways on the sharp part, and the garlic peel curling off the clove underneath the side of the knife, and the smell erupting from underneath the knife and the kind of sticky garlic residue leaking onto my left hand. To do all that, I kind of lean into my left pec, and my hips press into the counter, and I’m sort of on my tippy-toes. And the breast imposter, what does it have to say about smashing garlic? It sears. It aches. It screams, “this is not how it is supposed to be.” The muscle is angry to be separated from my ribs, and yanks the whole boob-expander up my chest each time I crush a garlic clove, in what would be the weirdest “I can move my boobs on command” party trick ever.

So here I found myself, with the Art Therapist Who Presides Over Feathers and Sand and Acrylics, and the breast casts that seem frozen in a moment in time that is so wildly distant, a moment in time I so achingly want to inhabit. I painted the first one, the one we made as a practice, white. I know, I know. White. It’s the same color as the breast cast. Would you even know I painted it? Who cares if you know? It’s for me, anyway. And I added some silver and some blue, and more white. Inside, outside, white. Touch of silver. Maybe there was a touch of cancer underneath. I’m pretty sure the Art Therapist Who Presides Over Feathers and Sand and Acrylics doesn’t care if they’re white or plain or ugly or offensive, so why should you? I want to cut up the words from all the medical files, and stuff them inside of the breast as it was, plaster them on the breast pathologized and ruined, the breast that kept the cancer inside, and I want to splatter paint it with the pints of blood they drew from my poor veins, I want to trace the violence they enacted on my body on the faint lines of paper mache that tell the story of CJ and A, molding the breasts casts while everyone I love in Vancouver looked on.

It’s a tender evening. It’s a night we cooked together because we couldn’t bear to be far apart, and we smashed garlic for the arrabiata sauce, and we poured wine and bottle fed kittens and snuggled on the pink shaggy carpet in our living room. There is no roller coaster for me to hop on and make curlycues with instead of making my careful way through the cancer evidence, the breast casts and the fake boob, the scars and the friendships, the nausea and the memories. So maybe there is such a thing as loving kindness. They say there is. Maybe it’s like cuddling on the shag carpet and bottle feeding kittens and watching movies. Maybe grownups can still have group hugs and blue elaphants to sleep Maybe it’s like feeling tender and open and taking a bath and reading a novel (gasp!) instead of hacking away at the job letter. Maybe it’s just letting things be how they are. Maybe it’s just playing the ukelele with Sammy until the moonlight streams through the window.

Maybe.

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