It’s the last day of August, bright and sparkling, as if this summer had been warm and truly summery all along, rather than the chilly dull season we’ve had. I’m on the early morning train, heading to Montreal. The dew is still on the fields and the trees, giving them gleam and gloss in the slanting morning light.
When the conductor came by just now to check tickets we had a small exchange: “How is your day going?” I asked. “Ah it’s my Friday today, so the closer I get to Montreal the happier I am. I have five days off now, and the weather’s supposed to be beautiful all week.” He beamed.
I have a return ticket on Thursday evening, and in between I’ll spend a lot of time with a friend who has cancer and is dealing with doctors and chemo and the limitations and frustrations, as well as the fears, that go along with all this. She’s thoughtful and tenacious, but also a realist, so she’s not just following doctors’ orders but also making decisions about which treatments (and side-effects) she is and is not prepared to engage with.
I’m sure many of you have had contact of some kind with cancer. Like the tornado, a cancer diagnosis in someone we know is a reminder to live the day fully. From what she’s told me it doesn’t sound as if things have changed all that much since my mother died of breast cancer more than thirty years ago. Some breast cancers now seem to respond to treatment, but many are like my friend’s cancer: they gallop through, radiation leaves exhaustion and burns, chemo is harsh but still prescribed as some kind of longer-term palliative, and there’s nothing very useful to be done except to hope that there’s little pain and that the medical powers that be manage the pain with compassion and generosity.
So I think of my friend as some kind of prow of the ship, heading out into the deep waters that await us all, one way or another, leadng the way where I will eventually follow.
At every stage of life there are those who go first, the prow of the ship, carving a way forward: the first girl in the class to get her period, or to have a “real” boyfriend; the first girl to get pregnant, the first to marry, the first to get a phD; the first to lose a parent, the first in my highschool class to die (Eleanor Holt, of cancer, in her twenties), the first to have children, the first to have grandchildren, yikes!! and so on…
It helps to have models, to visualise a little, and in some way to participate in our imaginations before it’s our turn to embark.
I've just been reading an essay by Bernard Breytenbach reprinted in the September issue of Harper’s magazine. He writes that human history is a nomadic search for meaning. This is religion, and it can take many forms over time. One is taken up, adopted for awhile, then set aside for the next code or set of beliefs.
He goes on to talk about his deep mistrust of monotheism, which he says always leads to fundamentalism (I can’t disagree!). He includes globalism as a religion, the most recent, and both monotheistic in structure and fundamentalist in application. He talks about how it is exported by the developed world to the less developed, talks about the imperialism (though it’s not a word he uses) of developed countries that for example open a cultural centre in another country, exporting their culture. He points out that the citizens there must see it as an invasion or encroachment. (And similarly of course, the international businesses that open company branches, or mining operations, in the developing world are also invaders.) He wonders why, whenever there is such a cultural centre opened, there isn’t a complementary centre of the developing country’s culture opened in the first world country. After all, if this isn’t about exchange, and mutual understanding, then it is in fact proseletizing, working to convert the third world to the first world religion of global markets and business dominance.
Why did this strike me so forcefully? Well the writing is wonderfully clear, for one thing. But also the idea that the search for meaning has led the first world to this religion that is now being force-fed to the developing world is powerful and persuasive, as well as deeply distressing.
So is self-interest all that drives everything? Is it just a matter of understanding at what level the self-interest is operating? Am I going to see my friend in Montreal purely to be of help? or at some deeper level is there self-interest operating? Am I hoping to placate the universe in some way, so that when my turn comes to head into illness there will be people around to help?
I think that part of what takes me to Montreal, apart from wanting to have time with my friend, and wanting to be able to help a little, is in fact the larger self-interest or motivation that I talked about in my last post: It’s about participating in and sustaining the human network, the safety net of sociability and connection, that lets us all know that we are in good company, even if at some level we are each of us alone with our own life and destiny. It’s as part of the human project, somehow, that we help each other, that we try to come through as much as we can…
And on a more day-to-day note (though I hope not to have these kinds of small losses "daily"!) I have to report that the batch of blue potatoes (eyes saved from Noreen's potatoes from Grey County) that I planted in the spring, though they flourished and though we had one meal from them, are now all gone. They have been stolen, dug up and stolen, by the raccoons that nightly play marauders in the garden. So aggravating and unfair to lose an in-ground vegetable!
We've been eating plenty of potatoes, cooked in their skins and then stripped clean when cool (I often keep a large cooked batch in the frig, ready to be transformed into flavour and comfort in a matter of minutes). Last night we ate chicken cooked Dina's mother's way: four whole legs cooked in olive oil with three chopped onions until touched with brown, then with a little water added, and salt, simmered until meltingly tender, in the large Le Creuset pot. The potatoes I chopped, then heated in the large wok in hot oil with mustard seed, garlic, turmeric, curry leaves, and nigella seed.
We dug in, and thoughts of thieving raccoons, and other cares, drifted away.