I went to hear Joan Didion talk tonight. It was as I expected. She was birdlike, fragile. She had moments of wit and clarity, and others where she seemed to struggle to answer the interviewer’s questions. This may have been the result of an interviewer whose questions were at times less than fully formed, or of the struggle to find the words to make oneself understood that seems often to come with age. It’s one of the things that makes me saddest, watching people struggle to pick up the little pieces that make a picture out of a puzzle. Maybe because it is one of the things that frightens me the most. I don’t ever want my access to language barred.
The discussion went much as you would imagine. Talk about grief and mourning, people’s tendency to avoid talking about death. How many things we find ourselves wishing we had said after our people die. But at one point — I’m sure it was apropos of something, but I don’t know what — Margaret MacMillan (who was interviewing), or maybe it was Didion, brought up the rhetoric of illness and how much she disliked it, the battle tropes that suggest it is the sick person’s fault for dying instead of getting well. MacMillan said she didn’t like the language of survivorship either, to say someone is a survivor of illness, she said, is — Didion cut her off. It’s humiliating, she said. To be defined by an illness is humiliating.
I was chatting online with my Montreal Jodi last night (as opposed to my Toronto Jodi) and she asked about blogging and if I wished to write more, or write more often. And I wasn’t sure exactly how to answer. In a sense, I would like to post more frequently. There is a lot to be said still but I told her I sometimes feel I’ve said all I can say without getting too personal. And I’ve been pretty personal, but I am afraid if I am too personal I will read as damaged or bitter or unhappy or profoundly changed (and not for the better). And I’m trying to distance myself from that. Or distance other people’s impressions of me from that. I guess I don’t write much now, I said, because I want everyone to forget that I ever had cancer, and if I keep posting to my blog, no one will ever forget. Not that I think they will forget if I don’t post, but you know… I don’t want to keep reminding everyone.
Joan Didion recounted how she found herself crossing a street in New York about a year after her husband’s death, and realized that she hadn’t been thinking about him, or thinking about how she was mourning for him, and how she felt bad, as though she had done something wrong in that moment by forgetting to be mindful of the fact that she was grieving and that her husband was gone. She felt bad for forgetting to be sad. She called this an example of “incorrect thoughts” which may be familiar if you have ever been in therapy. They are the thoughts that we have that are wrong — that we can identify as wrong, even when we are having them — but which occur nevertheless. My sister reminded me of a magnet my roommate Anna gave me. It said Don’t believe everything you think, and it was so appropriate that I felt sheepish receiving it.
To be defined by an illness is humiliating. I am embarrassed for having cancer. This is incorrect thinking, I know, but it happens all the same. It feels like this thing that will always stand in my way. That I am failing — myself, others — in some way for having been ill. I am embarrassed because it is this thing that I am defined by, or that I feel I am defined by, and by which I sometimes define myself by, even though I hate for others to do so. I am embarrassed for being embarrassed.
An incorrect thought is like those tiny mushrooms that sprout up on your lawn, as if by magic, in the dark when the dew settles on the grass. And like some mushrooms, it can be poisonous. But when you bring it to light, it is fleeting and short-lived. You just have to be patient and endure it.