Category Archives: teaching

How to fail at everything and die of cancer

If you take your eyes off it, it grows.
The mighty dieffenbachia

Okay, now I have your attention, I’ll hasten to add that I have not had a cancer setback; my numbers are still excellent. I’m still in hearty, robust remission, and long may it continue. No, what’s happened is that I’ve failed to even get an interview for the full time version of a job I’ve been doing as a casual for nine years. People often tell me how well I do this job. Not even an interview.

So what I’m experiencing now is a fit of pique, an imaginative foray into spitting the dummy, a brooding, repetitive thought pattern that circles like a plane unable to land. The landing place is, of course, the city of Disappointment in the country of Humiliation. I must check in, once more, to Heartbreak Hotel. I must wander Disappointment’s crepuscular streets. I step over the body of a young man who has died of lítost. Lítost is a Czech word, defined by Milan Kundera as “a state of torment” brought about by “the realisation of one’s inadequacy or misery”. The young man has jumped from the high window above, but nobody has come to take his body back to his hometown because everyone else is dealing with their own lítost and there’s no energy to do the paperwork.  A doleful waitress – she might have been a star – doles out a plate of comfort food, beige and yellow. We exchange a rueful glance.

But then I think of the dieffenbachia in my living room. This is a plant that laps up being indoors and doesn’t mind long stretches without water. I would certainly never pot it up, fertilise it or change the soil. For ten years it has grown vigorously and fulsomely, shooting straight for the ceiling. It has produced two sturdy daughter plants. This plant knows nothing of failure. It is successful, and because it lives in my house, I can claim its success as my own. Look at the plant I’ve grown!

And I think of my friend Sue. We started treatment together, finished treatment together. My cancer didn’t come back, but hers did.  She’s in deep trouble. She has four children, three of them still teenagers at school. I could claim success in this vile race for survival but even my black humour can’t go quite that black.

Success is real, failure is real, but it’s clear that these are not, and never have been, fair. Okay, I’m not casting aspersions on my selection committee (although it is tempting in these hours of pique) but the bigger picture reminds us that it’s all bullshit, really. Some people are dieffenbachias. They sit there with their vegetable success and congratulate themselves. Others – like the ten year old Indigenous girl who committed suicide in Western Australia – are struggling to secure the basic requirements of a life worth living, and blame themselves.

Google has no idea about this, though. If you ask Google for advice – as we must, because Google seems to hold the Wisdom of the Ages, and because Google is always there, and we are lazy – you will get this:

– Why success always starts with failure
– 50 famously successful people who failed at first
– Failure Is Feedback: How 5 Billionaires had To Fail To Succeed

Note how we could only come up with five billionaires? Compared to how many people living on earth? The fact is that most of us are – and must be, by Google’s definition – losers. It’s a horrible word to apply to your aunt, your partner, your children, the waitress at your local cafe, the neighbour who checks your mail when you’re on holiday, the unpublished novelist, the bedroom singer-songwriter, the swimmer who came second, the Aboriginal kid living in the remote community next to the iron ore mine making billions for one of those five billionaires.

Oh the chip! The chip on my shoulder! I’m actually laughing at myself. Could be time for a third cup of instant and to finish reading Sarah Bakewell’s exquisite new book The Existentialist Cafe, dotted through with some exceedingly consoling crochet.

Another year

Wicket_cardAnother year down, and all is well! I’m still here and my numbers are still nice and low – 12 last time we looked. For this, I thank modern medicine and the wizardry of my two surgeons. I’m happy but never entirely out of the woods. I walk in the wooded valley of the shadow of the Rainbow Bridge. People think the Rainbow Bridge is just for pets but it’s not; it takes bookings from anyone. Actually none of us ever gets out of the woods. There’s always more woods. And woods are beautiful places, buzzing with life…

Anyway, I’m getting carried away by my own metaphors, so let’s move on.

While last year was all about taxol, carboplatin and long stretches of time on the couch, this year was a bit of whirl as I got back into Life at 100km an hour. Teaching was weird. I’m probably a bit like Samson, taking strength from my hair. I felt I didn’t have quite enough hair to stand in front of a room of 19 year olds and hold my own.  Meanwhile, I was sewing three giant turquoise dresses and learning my steps for the Invisible Body performance in May, where three of us did nifty moves on stage while someone else read out our personal accounts of living in bodies. We did this twice and then on the last day of the Bathurst outpost of the Sydney Writer’s Festival I got to be on a little panel of bloggers talking about our blogs. I said I blogged every Thursday, no matter what. This commitment has now begun to unravel, as you may have noticed.

What else went on this year? Check the photos on the computer. Oh, a LOT! There was a little campaign to save the Tremain silos in Keppel Street (saved!); Tracey Carpenter’s campaign for the state seat of Bathurst (retained by Paul Toole); the giant Diffenbacchia pot plant reached the level of the ceiling fan and then FELL OVER. I cut it off to its stump, leaving its two daughter plants to replace their mother (they are going very well); we had an Afternoon Teal to raise money for ovarian cancer at which Deb and Bernie, Max and Joey auctioned small items and we made lots of money (and Larissa baked cakes using the neighbour’s stove because ours was on the blink); there was the trip to Kandos to help Karen Golland poke pom poms into the ground, and then a day at Cementa; a school hols visit including nephews and a random kid they brought along; a trip to Shelley beach with Bertie and his cousin Wicket; painting ring-pulls for this year’s Waste to Art exhibition; an attempt to make sauerkraut (it looked the part but we never ate it); making Nicole Welch’s promotional video; getting more hair; going to TASMANIA (Maria Island and Hobart and a bit of the east coast) with Ranger Steve; experiencing a day of snow in the streets of Bathurst; experiencing, with all of Bathurst, the shock of the murder-suicide of cafe proprietor Elie Issa and beautiful real estate agent Nadia Cameron; more hair; following along as Mum constructed a separate wing at the back of Deb’s place to move in to; and then the grand flurry of the 200 Plants and Animals exhibition in the Bathurst CBD, followed by a battle to stop a gold mine sucking water out of the Macquarie River. Steve’s sudden obsession with kayaks. Whoa! No wonder I’m tired! And that’s not to mention the first steps into a PhD and the most amazing thing I haven’t mentioned yet but will mention now.

Over the last half of this year, I was mentored by the totally amazing and brilliant Charlotte Wood, author of The Submerged Cathedral and The Natural Way of Things as I made one last charge up over the trench and into the enemy lines of Finishing This Wretched Novel for Once and For All. (I’d finished it before, a couple of times, but not really. It still had essential problems, problems I was hoping some editor, somewhere, would help me fix.) Charlotte gave me some big guns. Howitzers. These will be handy in future battles. So as 2015 comes to a close The Lucky Galah, the novel I’ve been working on forever, is now really, truly, ruly finished, except for some typos and tiny touch-ups. And I’m so glad I didn’t settle for faulty earlier drafts. This novel is not quite the perfect thing I had in mind, but it is as good as it’s ever going to get, so that’s that. Done. Line ruled under. All over.

Meanwhile, out in the bigger picture, I just want to take a moment to savour the moment Tony Abbot was ousted. I know all the stuff about Malcolm carrying on most of the same policies, only in a more smooth-talking way, but I tell you what, that moment of waking up the next day was pure bliss. It was like a weight dropping off the shoulders of the nation.

Finally, little Wicket the long-haired dog really did step over the Rainbow Bridge recently. Vale Wicket. And Vonnie, my sister’s Mother in Law, with whom I spent many Christmas days. And thinking of Dad, too, who is sitting on a chair on a deck somewhere over the Rainbow Bridge, with his big white Maremma dog at his feet, looking through his binoculars at all the native Australian birds in the tree canopies.

This (invisible) body

It’s ten to eleven pm on a Thursday night. Am I really going to start my post at this late hour? I suppose the answer is yes. I’m still limping around, Googling “meniscus”, rubbing my right knee. My moment with the 422 bus continues to haunt me. It’s funny – having survived much worse bodily assaults over the past year or so, it’s this minor injury that’s getting me down. I don’t like to limp. I like to dart. I like to dart across the room when a student calls me over to their computer so we can peer at the thing that won’t work together. I like to dart from one end of the house to go and get the thing I forgot to bring from the other room, and dart again because I got distracted and still didn’t bring it. I like to jump into the car with nine seconds to spare, get there, slam the car door and hurtle into whatever it is with no seconds to spare, breathing hard from the exertion. All of that has been impossible over the past ten days or so. I have to move slowly and limp. This body. This &^%$# body. This temple, this vale of tears, this jewel, this England. Nar, not England. Just knee. Stiff. Sore. Making me limp. Making me feel more like the other slow, stiff, limping people of the world. They come out after morning rush hour to do a bit of slow shopping, a bit of slow post office and bank.

I walk slowly across campus and meet two juvenile magpies who don’t bother to move because such a slow-moving being is unlikely to be dangerous.

A lot of other people have bad knees. They’re all over the Internet, next to pictures of knees with red halos of pain.

Meanwhile, I’m supposed to be rehearsing for Invisible Body, a short  performance piece three of us are doing for the Bathurst outpost of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. I’ve been learning my part by sitting on a chair, doing the movements from the waist up. If worst comes to worst, I’ll do it on stage like that, on a stool. But I do want to be up on both legs for this one. And then on the Sunday, I’ll be part of a panel titled The Joy of Blogging. Note that blogging isn’t always a joy. Sometimes it’s oh-hell-it’s-Thursday-and-I-have-to-write-something. But mostly it’s a joy.

Oh yes, and not one but two people in my Thursday morning TAFE class have only one knee. Both have prostheses for their other leg. There’s always someone worse off, as they say. But then, there’s always Arlo Guthrie’s last guy. The one for whom there’s absolutely nobody worse off. Here it is on YouTube. He starts talking about the last guy at about 2.22 minutes in on this clip.

Twenty things

It’s Friday afternoon already. Where have I been? It’s hard to say.

In an effort to answer this question, I’m going to give a list of twenty things – animal, vegetable, possibly mineral – that might help me to recall some of the hours of my own life.

Gascoyne River in flood.
Gascoyne in flood, March 2000.

1. I’ve been watching the Gascoyne River come down, in real time. Excitement had been building for days, as big rains in northern Western Australia began making the rivers flow. The brown water spread out across thousands of kilometres of red-brown land, eventually sending feelers into the dry gravely riverbed near Carnarvon. As the lead waters began to flow, people went out to have a look, as they’ve always done and as we used to do. Children splashing excitedly in water. Eels flipping in the shallow lead waters. I followed all this on Facebook. Locals have been posting updates and photographs on the “I Grew Up in Carnarvon” page so all of us, Carnarvonites and ex-Carnarvonites alike, could follow along. It’s nothing like being there – the smell of the air, the heat, the crunch of gravel, the sounds of the bush and the birds – but it’s a way of remembering, of sharing the excitement.

***

That’s one thing. I don’t think I’m going to get to twenty. But let’s at least get to two.

2. I have been feeding Sebastianne, a friend’s tortoiseshell cat. She is mottled all over. Her nose is mottled. She yowls when I arrive, hisses when I try to leave, doesn’t seem to eat much. Her mistress has left out five – yes five – litter trays for her to choose from. This is because Sebastianne doesn’t like to revisit a used litter tray. This morning she was rolling on her back, rubbing herself against the warm terracotta brick paving just outside the back door. Beside her were giant zucchini leaves and yellow flowers.

3. I have been drinking many cups of tea.

4. I’ve been teaching at CSU. First week of session. First days back after a year off sick. One class on Wednesday, one on Thursday. As we went round the room introducing ourselves, I asked Wednesday’s class to say their names, their area of specialty, and one other word – could be any word. These (below) are the words given by the students, in the order in which they were said:

5. Potato.

6. Couch. (Yes! I’m cheating on my Twenty Things! I’m going to borrow the students’ words!)

7. Yellow.

8. Mango.

9. Pen.

10. Room.

11. Alpaca.

12. Ottoman. (I asked whether he meant footstool or empire – he meant empire.)

13. Platypus.

14. Turtle.

15. Beach.

16. Hypotenuse.

17. Hot.

18. I find this list interesting. Some words seem to be inspired by the words that came before (eg potato/couch and platypus/turtle/beach), while others seem to spring out of nowhere, like Ottoman and Hypotenuse. Most are nouns. Most of them trigger clear mental images. I didn’t ask Thursday’s class to give me a word. I regret that.

19. After my Thursday class I went for my first meeting with my PhD supervisors. Yes, for better or for worse, I’m embarking on a PhD. My PhD is going to relate in some way to crocheting my abdominal organs through ovarian cancer and treatment and how this relates to Life, the Universe and Everything. We had an invigorating discussion. I felt hopelessly ignorant. My brain has been teeming, screaming and running in circles ever since.

20. Last Sunday I sat with a small group of women at Vi’s house in Lambert Street and crocheted a flower-thing (actually it was part flower, part tiny body organs) to add to Prudence Mapstone’s giant crocheted blanket to  commemorate the 1960s flower power movement.

That’s twenty things! I cheated, but I’m going to let myself off the hook.

Hair!

It’s time to consider my hair. Oh – there’s that well-used phrase of the past couple of weeks. It’s Time. Okay, so I’ll start with Gough: I thank the Whitlam government for abolishing tertiary tuition fees. As a result, this daughter of a truck driver and seamstress grew up thinking it would be perfectly reasonable to go to university after high school. Which I did, followed by my sister. A few years later Mum, who hadn’t finished high school herself, got in on the act. We’re all now bristling with degrees and diplomas. At the time, we assumed this was just part of the march of progress; we had no idea that this door was on a spring; that it was always ready to slam shut again. And then there’s free universal health care, and ditto. The latest encroachment on Medicare is the proposal to let private health insurers run agencies that would oversee the work of GPs in Medicare Local services. In other words, the privatisation of Medicare, a reversal of one of the outstanding reforms of the Whitlam government.

In amongst the orgy of nostalgia and Whitlam worship there are those pointing out that Whitlam was rising a wave of radicalism driven by people’s movements all through the 1960s. Whitlam’s reforms weren’t entirely down to Whitlam himself (although his leadership and strength of character were an essential part of the mix). Feminism, civil rights, Aboriginal rights, student activism … It was the spirit of the times, as expressed in the musical Hair.

So now I can segue quite nicely back to hair. My hair.

Yesterday, I went to the first face to face meeting with colleagues since I was struck down by cancer diagnosis in February. In February I had long straight brown hair. By July every single strand of hair on my body had disappeared. Now, I have a greying stubble, a tufty regrowth. I look in the mirror and don’t quite recognise myself. I’ve been wearing hats and occasionally a brown wig (or a pink one) and sometimes scarves, although I find the scarves tend to shift around a lot and I spend all day fiddling with them. For a while now I’ve been working from home (marking); but yesterday I needed to Go In. In through the Door of Workplace. At 8.30am yesterday morning I was dithering around, wondering what I should look like. Should I be out and proud, an obvious cancer survivor? Should I wear a cheerful turban? Hat? Wig? In the end I decided on the brown wig. I had the idea that I should invoke continuity with my former, pre-illness self. This would show that I was ready to simply step back in, business-as-usual. I regretted this almost immediately, but it was too late to turn back. The wig was itchy. I kept fiddling with it. The meeting was a video conference. Up there on the screen you could see not only the people around the table in Wagga, but a mirror-like image of ourselves around our own table here in Bathurst. My hair looked deeply wig-like. I looked like someone who had come back to work in a wig after having chemotherapy. Worse, I felt I looked like someone who wasn’t owning up to a year of illness and struggle. After all my bold sharing of details like my colostomy bag on this blog, I was retreating to a position of trying to pretend that everything was normal. When I should be breaking down the stigma, the barriers, by turning up boldly in a hat or scarf or greying tufty stubble. I followed along and participated in the meeting, but I never forgot my hair.

Anyway, funnily enough, the meeting wasn’t all about me. It was about something else entirely. It’s quite possible that what I was wearing on my head wasn’t an issue for anyone else in Bathurst or Wagga.

I still haven’t decided what I look like. Continuity or a revolutionary break with the past? It’s only hair. But hair means so much.