“I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” (Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 1855).
“Yawp” as defined by Oxford Dictionaries:
a harsh or hoarse cry or yelp.
shout or exclaim hoarsely.
The news of David Bowie’s passing coupled with the release of his last studio album, “Blackstar,” has garnered an abundance of media attention over the last weeks. I’ve read multiple posts by people discussing how difficult it must have been for him to make such a complex, artistic masterpiece while undergoing treatment and facing his inevitable finitude. This lead me to consider the post-humous publication of Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s, “When Breath Becomes Air,” (http://paulkalanithi.com) written as he was dying from metastatic lung cancer. I think of Melissa Carroll’s raw, intimate, affecting portraits during the years preceding her death from complications of Ewing Sarcoma. As Bernie Siegel, M.D., internationally recognized expert in the field of cancer and holistic treatments writes “I and others have learned…that the side effects of cancer may not all be bad ones.”
Most of us, when envisioning the typical cancer patient, conjure images of the bald-headed, bedridden, vomiting, gasping invalid who can barely muster the strength to walk to the bathroom. Sometimes that’s it, but when you’re dealing with illness every day, it also becomes something you push through, mostly, except for the days when you don’t, and that’s when a cozy bed becomes the worlds greatest treasure. There is no more astounding motivation to be, and by “be” I mean exist to the best capacity of your human potential, than when the veil is lifted and we’re facing our mortality head on with the intimate realization of how little time we actually get to enjoy here. What better manifestation of our existence than to continue living, continue sharing our story, and allow others the opportunity to bear witness? Dr. Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer at the age of 36 as a resident neurosurgeon at Stanford Medical Center who had begun his education in English Literature, attempting to discover, through literature, what makes a meaningful and virtuous life. As a physician turned patient, he was able to dive into this question in his book “When Breath Becomes Air,” with a point of view he probably had not anticipated, and through a long love of literature and writing, dismiss himself from the world with some elegant and achingly insightful parting thoughts. Healing is done on more than just the physical plane.
While it might be surprising to someone who hasn’t undergone cancer treatments that inspiration and life force may thrive in the midst of punishing therapies and surgeries, I can tell you that I’ve never in my life been more motivated to live. Not everyday is created equally. Some days edible anti-nausea therapy (i.e., marijuana) and my bed are all I’ve got, but most days there’s enough extra that my medicine is creating, exploring and experiencing. I’m often surprised to hear that people are pleased to see me out in the world, because personally there’s no place else I really want to be. I’m experiencing a stunning renaissance of my senses through sight, touch, and sound. While my tastebuds continue to dull, I find that nature’s colors have never been more vivid. I am captivated by the sky and it’s vibrant blues during the day, and pink, purple, dreamy spectrum at dawn and dusk. I walk around touching tree trunks and grass and marvel at the energy and power coursing through and, not to be a total hippy, feeling it flow into my veins. The sound of the wind feels like the elements speaking to me. The world is so very alive, and it calls to be expressed. There’s a feeling that to sound a “barbaric yawp” takes absolute presence in the moment, and speaks to a raw emotional connection brought to the surface by an arduous diagnosis that demands to have a voice.
A few years ago I became aware of Melissa Carroll’s artwork through a random acquaintances Facebook page. This was prior to my diagnosis, and I was drawn in by this beautiful young woman and her portraits, then saddened by her death even though I never met her. After I was diagnosed my mind would often stray to her work, and the more I began to think of the way creativity stems from the sagacity of trauma, the more I was moved by the wisdom portrayed in her watercolors. When I wrote Melissa’s mother asking for permission to use one of Melissa’s pieces, she very kindly wrote me back and in the text mentioned that while Melissa was often in pain or discomfort she usually had an upcoming function that she would set as a goal. She would physically and mentally save up for these events, and then she would show up looking amazing and enjoy herself fully. In between the days were hard and the treatments punishing, but she continued to squeeze vitality out of her life, and I see both of these reflected in her work. I’ve actually seen this more and more often since getting diagnosed, and I think it’s one of the most important messages we can pass on to cancer patients. Explore every aspect of what you’re going through. Find your passion and practice it. Move your body so that it remembers its strengths. Exercise your mind so that it continues to seek. Pass on the hard-earned wisdom cancer brings whether to a tiny or gargantuan audience. People frequently mention how healthy I look, and while I know part of this has to do with a generally wholesome (don’t laugh) lifestyle, I also believe it has something to do with exploring my inner world through outward expression. To draw despite serious lack of skill, paint for the joy of subconscious to canvas, and write whatever happens to flow into my brain because it seems the thing to do is an epically fantastic way to unburden yourself. It takes years off when we lighten our emotional load, even better than a month at Canyon Ranch.
We have phenomenal examples of people who have not just carried on, but have delved deep into themselves to demonstrate this reality of cancer’s creative yawp, because no matter what, it is a “harsh or hoarse cry.” The elegance and magnificence that seems to be inherent in works stemming from desolation is very much a part of the human condition. Dr. Kalanithi writes, “Years ago, it had occurred to me that Darwin and Nietzsche agreed on one thing: the defining characteristic of the organism is striving.” And this is rarely more evident than in people who can see the end of the road. Melissa’s paintings are overwhelmingly powerful and vulnerable in their expression of her experience, her eyes sometimes mocking her situation and sometimes revealing sadness. Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s book about facing his mortality after years working as a resident neurosurgeon speaks to grief and death with the voice of someone who pondered these ideas long before his diagnosis. Bowie’s “Blackstar” will forever be one of the most powerful and moving farewell’s I’ve had the intense pleasure of luxuriating in. Every cancer patient could benefit from encouragement to explore the inner workings of their spirit so that they may more intimately understand the complexity of this messed up diagnosis. It seems like a good way to let the mind go and the soul lead.
As much as I’m sitting here today, connected to my port, trying to control my nausea, not caring whether or not I actually get out of bed at all, I am inordinately grateful that I’ve been given this last year to reestablish my relationship with inspiration. And not only reestablish the connection, but the love of seeking out inspiration, sitting down and showing up for it, and making space in my life to embrace it in many forms. For my birthday an old friend, Melissa D’Antoni, who is the Founder and Director of Fire Tree Studios (http://firetreestudios.com), invited me to join a workshop in Austin. Fire Tree Studios specializes in “intuitive, expressive and visionary painting experiences, integrated within a solid coaching framework.” It was phenomenal. I haven’t put a brush to canvas in approximately 30 years, maybe longer, and the beautiful thing about this method is that it isn’t focused on technique, skill, or talent (for the best in my case), but on a direct connection from soul to paper. Spending the day relishing the solitude of the space and time dedicated to this meditation felt really good and simply offered me one more experience that I previously probably would not have made space for. And painting is great for neuropathy, as is any technique that employees fine motor skills. Hard to go wrong here.
I love the myriad outlets available to tap into creative expression to address healing not only on a physical level, but an energetic and emotional one, as well. It’s entirely too easy to focus healing on an exclusively corporeal plane, thereby ignoring the inner process that is inevitably part of any chronic or burdensome disease. Between the scans, preps, blood work, infusions, surgeries, meds, and other treatments, the primary goal becomes eradicating the cancer, and this is a fantastic goal, but it seems like a really great idea to address the emotional aspect of all this, too. Talk therapy is always an option, and I’ve been pleased to have counseling offered often throughout this process, but it also hasn’t been something I’ve been inspired to do. In lieu of this, I’ve sought to tap in to my inner workings by departing from my normal routine to include a lot more left brain activity. These practices have provided an abundance of opportunities to comprehend the last year and how it’s changed me, and the motivation to make these changes permanent. I don’t want to go back to living to get by, which arguably looked pretty fun from the outside, and was also pretty fun from the inside, but devoid of the lavishness of being truly attentive to the passing moments. There are a million ways to pursue an expressive creative outlet, and here are a few of my favorites:
- Write it down. However much you want, even just two sentences a day, will provide a channel to rid yourself of some of the excess sludge or glory rolling about in your subconscious. Stream of consciousness is amazing, so write without thinking, and if you don’t want yourself or anyone else to ever see it, then burn it, flush it, rip it to shreds. The entire point is expressing yourself in a way that only takes you and your emotions into account. We spend way too much time trying to make others comfortable in order to make ourselves more comfortable. Don’t do that. Let it all go and see how you feel.
- Paint. Draw. Sculpt. Watercolor pencils are awesome, as are crayons, charcoals, pastels, and clay, to name 4 simple mediums. It doesn’t matter if you have an ounce of skill, sometimes it just feels good to get lost in the doing of it. You take out the middle man in this form of expression and enjoy the pure flow of subconscious material. A truly phenomenal way to purge.
- Adult coloring books. I hadn’t heard of this prior to all my time spent in medical environments, but apparently this is a big thing, and I love it! My aunt sent me my first coloring book and mentioned that while my uncle was undergoing his years of treatment for multiple myeloma, she was introduced to these books and found it therapeutic. Here are a couple of my favorites: https://www.etsy.com/shop/PixieRahDesigns (the profanity coloring book. coloring profanities is an absolutely delicious pastime. please google Dame Judi Dench’s favorite pastime of needlepointing profanities while on set). http://www.johannabasford.com (any and all of her coloring books are intricate, meditative, and fully absorbing).
- Dance, sing, flow. Simply moving your body is artistic and creative, especially when you don’t think at all about what you’re doing. And it feels good. There are days when I have 30 seconds of dancing in me, max, but those are 30 great seconds, and I always sit down, fall down, or lie down with a smile on my face afterwards. If nothing else, I have enjoyed one of my personal favorite pleasures and we should all sprinkle our day with little pleasures. It’s almost impossible to argue with this logic.
Regardless, it all comes down to this, and I think tapping in to the inner workings of our souls to sound a creative yawp is a staggering way to address the following massively important philosophy:
- What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust! Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal? –Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science: with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs