I don’t remember when I first linked with Medicine Unboxed and Sam Guglani on twitter. I do remember noticing it when we were starting up Fun Palaces – while Fps are more actively hands-on participative/community-led and MU is an audience/speakers event, both are utterly about connection, both use arts & sciences links, both are about humanity at the core, both consider arts & science (ie ‘culture’ in Fun Palaces terms) as catalysts for connection & community rather than focusing on them as things in themselves. My own experiences of cancer mean I’m interested in the thinking of people who work in cancer as Sam does – and then I read Sam’s amazing book Histories, part short stories, part un/connected novel, all parts beautiful. So of course I was delighted to be asked to take part in this year’s Medicine Unboxed.
And nervous. It’s true, I’m always nervous about the things that matter – the speeches, the keynotes, the panels, the performances, the book readings, all the gigs. And given I rarely say yes to things that don’t matter … I’m always nervous. I don’t mind the nervousness. Since reading Rollo May’s The Meaning of Anxiety (the first quote, reproduced here especially) I’ve felt far more ok about the fierce anxiety I now feel preceding events (of course there are many other times with no connection to creativity!). Far more than when I was younger, far more since both of my cancers, far far more since the second cancer. Go figure – something rocked the core of my being and it changed how I feel about presenting myself in public. Well yes.
Anyway – I was nervous. Nervous because my aim is always to be honest and that requires vulnerability. Nervous because I wanted to offer connection but we cannot create connection, we can only create the conditions for it. Nervous because I wanted to live up to the astonishing people I’d already seen yesterday – I missed the first chunk of the day as I was on my way there, but everyone was outstanding and I was particularly touched by the personal honesty of Roger Kneebone on touch, Iona Heath and Raymond Tallis on the state of medicine today (vital and heartbreaking and activist-inciting!), Bruce Miller speaking of his own experience of illness as well as his palliative care work, and Satish Kumar on ahimsa and asking us to ‘be the change, communicate the change, ORGANISE the change” – which made it possible for me to be more open, more honest, more vulnerable in what I shared.
I knew I was going to do some of Learning to Swim in the Abyss but the point of this piece is that it is not written, it is not rehearsed, and while there are some elements I have repeated when I’ve shown it (8 times to date, sometimes 15 mins, sometimes just over an hour) it always changes. It is meant to change. It is meant to be as honest as I can being the moment, as responsive to whoever is in the room as I can be. And so, in response to hearing so many health professionals being honest about their own fears, their own concerns, their own vulnerabilities, I chose to concentrate on my vulnerability when patienting and cancering (I’m really not keen on the nouns – we’re all, always, so much more than the single noun that describes us at any one time – doctor, nurse, patient, therapist, survivor, counsellor, victim …) but also to include the moments of connection I’ve had in those cancer experiences. The look on my consultant’s face the second time he had to tell me I had cancer. The recovery nurse who was with me through 8 uncertain hours in recovery after 8 hours in surgery and her voice that kept guiding me back to being awake, staying awake. Staying conscious. The small and vital human connections that have peppered my cancer experiences from other people also cancering, from people doctoring, from people serving coffee. The theme of this year’s Medicine Unboxed was love. All of these connections have been love.
And the live connections yesterday were love too. The people nodding, smiling. The tears – theirs and mine. The members of the audience who reached out to hold my hands at the end and then, in the moment of still & silence after the end, one of the babies/tiny ones in the room squealing. Perhaps even more important because I’d talked (a very little) about chemo-induced infertility, it was even more lovely to have that coda, right then.
It is very dangerous to speak of finding the gifts in hard or dark times. It can make us, when we are struggling, feel like we’re not trying hard enough, not seeking gold hard enough. AND, regardless, sometimes there is gold. I no longer have much faith in the Hero’s Journey narrative (yes, even when circular, it still comes back to the ‘start’ to start again!), I doubt that I will stumble and find gold and bring it back to a rejoicing tribe, the idea of a linear quest simply doesn’t work for me. But the possibility that I am in and of the abyss, learning to swim in it, learning to be in it, and that sometimes, even in the darkest times, there are tiny connections, little glimmering moments of light – that is the gold for me. Right here, in the abyss, within what’s hard.
I am so grateful to all the people I met and connected with yesterday – and to those I connected with without meeting. Medicine Unboxed gave me a rare and precious thing, a reminder of my core values AND a chance to test and stretch them, live, with love.
It also gave me this, by Rose Wyatt.
Learning To Swim in the Abyss really is improvised. Feet and legs as mermaid tail was a strong element in my second solo show Breaststrokes (breast cancer and swimming). Yesterday, my feet and legs became tail, I was sitting on a chair on stage and my feet and legs just lifted up. My body was improvising with my brain and mouth catching up. I love that.
Ooh and even though I could only make one of the two days, I got to hear both Max Porter and Eley Williams read (gloriously) and a hug from the brilliant Christie Watson whose book The Language of Kindness remains one of the most important – and generous – things I’ve read this year.