As someone who teaches college courses on “writing the body,” I never cease to amaze myself with my ability to ignore mine. This effortless feat has long sabotaged this essay, which, unlike others, promises to invoke my body as a primary source. But, finally, I am called to write not only by my experience but also by the month that won’t let me escape it. October, the month of gold and russet, is now the month of pink. Seas of pink—ribbons, t-shirts, and in the case of one of my students, pink streaks in the hair—loom in the fringes of my vision. October, the month of breast cancer awareness, drives me back into my body, which flaunted its degeneration when I thought I was at the peak of physical health. But October is also the month in which I discovered that my body carried new life: twin boys, born prematurely the same year the cancer revealed itself. The location of our hospital’s cancer center is next door to the maternity ward; no longer ironic but convenient. The idea that one person can be full of contradictions took on new, material meaning.
Bearing the body in paradox, a body that regenerates and degenerates simultaneously, challenged me to rethink my understanding of selfhood—that sense of “me-ness”—which, I and other feminist scholars have claimed, is constituted in association with others.1 A complicated birth and illness taught me that there is an even broader context within which we (our)selves interact, a context that includes not only other human beings, but everything, human and non-human: environmental and technological forces, infectious and other agents of disease, plants and animals. My expansive take on selfhood has also been inspired by writers who focus on the vulnerability of the human and the massiveness and liveliness of that in which we are embedded. Privileging human interactions and ignoring the non-human in understanding the self means overlooking complex influences through which we negotiate both subjectivity and also the meaning of a single life and death.
Certainly, struggles between the self and structures of human design, like social and political contexts, play a constitutive role in how we experience selfhood. In the circumstances of breast cancer and pregnancy/birthing, both scholars and investigative journalists have noted the prevalence of power struggles between subjects and medical institutions/social establishments.2 Here, however, I explore the experience of pregnancy and illness in relationship to a different type of power struggle: the tension between the illusion of our control over our bodies and the material reality that proves this illusion false. As selves we participate in an incontrovertible condition we must all face: that we are all, as Nancy Mairs says, “bodies in trouble.”3 How we manage being a body, in all its unpredictable, frightening, and disorderly ways, plays a notable role in how we experience being a self. Additionally, narrating this messy management contributes to who we, and others, become. Other literary critics and philosophers, like Suzanne Bost and Susan Brison, have expressed similar positions on the topic.4 Bost explores how illness, disability, and pain are understood and experienced in the context of culture and contribute to the construction of identity, while Brison describes how the self is undone in the aftermath of violence and trauma but remade through the process of narration. What I add to the discussion is a story of how two conflicting bodily situations can impose an experience of selfhood that is undeniably embodied, yet shifting, imperfect, contingent, and ungovernable; a selfhood that humbly negotiates its agency with other people, but also with other lively yet sometimes destructive forces we cannot see or even name, forces that reside not only outside of but inside our bodies as well.
Within the lived experience of pregnancy and illness, especially when they happen concurrently, are stark, physical reminders of the thin line between, and interdependency of, self and other. But additionally, pregnancy and illness call on us to wrestle with the lack of power we have over ourselves as mortal bodies. We can control on some levels our birthing experiences and the speed at which our bodies decline, but ultimately we cannot stop them. Certainly we privilege mind over body in part because of this harsh reality. We believe that our minds can heal us, and are terribly disappointed when they do not. As Nancy Mairs says, reflecting on her experience with multiple sclerosis, illness “rammed [her] ‘self’ straight back into the body [she] had been trained to believe…[she] could, through high-minded acts and aspirations, rise above.”5 Mind over matter. Did I really used to tell people that I could will myself out of a cold? Not long after my cancer diagnosis, a friend told me to imagine my cancer cells as Pac-Dots followed by Pac-Man eating up every last pellet. Another told me of how her brother, when he had had cancer, imagined that chemotherapy was Inigo Montoya facing the ruthless Count Rugen in The Princess Bride, uttering that famous line (to the cancer, in this case), “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!” Could imagining myself sword fencing my cancer to its demise lead me to recovery? I don’t want to dismiss my friends’ touching efforts, but when I see those shirts that say, “I fought like a girl, and won,” I think about all those brave warrior women who did not “win,” and it was not for lack of effort or will. Neither Pac-Man nor Montoya will save us in the battle against mortality. And neither will I, neither will any of us. Therefore, it behooves us to create a space to grieve and embrace this loss and subsequently consider a type of agency that might follow when we do.
Surviving a complicated birth, motherhood, and illness, in all its humbling physical constraints, has given me stories that I attempt to tell with creativity and intention. But what happens to the words once they leave my lips or fingers tips is not fully up to me.
No, we cannot in many circumstances, control our bodies, but we can tell stories about them, and stories and words have palpable effects. As Brison says, “saying something about a memory does something to it.”6 Stories are integrated into the teller’s and the listener’s sense of self and worldview. According to philosophers Alexis Shotwell and Trevor Sangrey, “self-identification” is “a narrative that in its telling constitutes the self.”7 In other words, the stories we tell about ourselves become us; our reliving memories through language constitutes the experience of who I say I am and how I act, today. According to theorist AnaLouise Keating, “Stories and metaphors are as real as dogs, cats, baseball bats, the idea of God, nuclear fission, human beings, the chair you’re sitting on right now, Buddhism, and bricks.”8 She goes on to state that in the Indigenous philosophies she studies, which are the bases of a writing practice she calls, drawing from Gloria Anzaldúa, “poet-shaman aesthetics,” words and language can be a “causal” and “material(izing) force.”9 Surviving a complicated birth, motherhood, and illness, in all its humbling physical constraints, has given me stories that I attempt to tell with creativity and intention. But what happens to the words once they leave my lips or fingers tips is not fully up to me. Telling my story is not done in isolation; it is done with a reader in mind, with a listener, with you, someone to hear, but who might not always understand my words in the way I want them to be understood. That is a risk I take, for the story becomes more than mine in the act of sharing it. Storytelling, itself a continuous, relational act, serves as a process through which we, and others, become selves.
Three weeks after my first chemo treatment. A scorching Fourth of July afternoon. One of my barely one-year-old twins discovers that my hair comes out when he touches it, which gives him great pleasure, of course. I take part in the fun as well, running my fingers through my hair. My husband is mortified by this behavior, an all too literal reminder of my body’s diminishing condition. “I’m going to cut the grass,” he announces. After a while, I peer through the window to glimpse him and his mowing. In an impulsive move he cuts over a massive patch of ivy we’ve been meaning to get rid of since moving in. Without our noticing, it had gotten quite overgrown and was killing everything around it. Later that day, he announces that the garden he plans to create there will be called “Kelli’s Cancer-Free Garden.” The apostrophe can be read as a possessive or a contraction. Today, that garden, once barren and brown, is now thriving with Echinacea, Shasta daisies, zebra and purple fountain grass, and, yes, hair grass (there is such a thing). Not a trace of that invasive ivy. Knowing it might come back keeps me on the lookout, but in the meantime. . .
In the meantime I have boys to keep from bee stings and concussions. They romp through the garden, my garden, not yet aware that they too will take up a battle with Count Rugen, or some comparable force. Indeed, they already have. Three and four pounds when they were born at 30 weeks gestation, their own struggle to survive, each time I recall it, takes my breath away. Perhaps the journey that made me face my own demise began with their birth and not with my cancer. As I write this I realize that the line between bringing forth life and facing mortality is not necessarily a paradox at all. Both birth and cancer involve risk and suffering, as many of life’s most significant experiences do. The presence of the pregnancy and the cancer similarly surprised me; I could neither see nor feel them, at least not at first, and not without fancy medical equipment. They each involved, on some level, some sacrifice on my part. Most profoundly, each began as a single cell housed within my living, breathing, thinking body, going about its business of dividing, changing, and expanding without any conscious awareness or consent on my part. Indeed, in the year I endured pregnancy, birthing, and cancer, I became more conscious of my body than ever before, but succumbed to its mysteries and its reach beyond my will. My body is not just my own; I share it. Unwittingly and wittingly. More powerfully aware of the sheer physical nature of my being, I navigating life by my senses; it seems ancient yet here-and-now.
I pause for a moment while writing this piece; I tense up with worry that if I read it to someone, to you, I will get choked up, that I will cry. Then I realize that if I do, it would be a good example of how one tells a story not just about the body but also through it. The shame at the possibility of my body speaking in some ancient, corporeal way is profound. But, despite my proclivity to deny it, “I am a body,” I don’t just have one, as Mairs says.10 I grasp at language in order to make sense of what my body tells me. I find myself drawn to writers who seamlessly bridge corporality and speech, writers who, as Suzanne Bost notes, do not “quarantine their messy bodies.”11 After all, writing is a bodily act. As Gloria Anzaldúa claims, “My ‘stories’ are acts encapsulated in time, ‘enacted’ every time they are spoken aloud or read silently. I like to think of them as performances and not as inert and ‘dead’ objects.”12 In this way, therefore, stories survive us; they have the potential for permanence that always outruns, but maintains traces of, the body.
“You should try the Raw Food Diet,” a friend says to me when I’m going through chemo. I signed up to receive the Happy Box, a collection of vegetables delivered to my door every Thursday evening from a local farm. With a book in one hand, and the bountiful box and blender before me, I see the less coordinated of my twins, out of the corner of my eye, making his way up the back of a rather tall piece of furniture. I then discover the other one beginning to attempt a self-constructed obstacle course on the stairs. To whom do I tend? Paralyzed by the idea that I can’t save each of us at once, in that moment or ever, I stand immobile, speechless, for what seems like forever before I leave the vegetables, run to the one whose position seems most immediately precarious, swoop him under my arm, then make my way through the obstacle course backwards toward the other. After dragging them both up the stairs, I plop them and myself, breathless, in the hallway, the three of us a chaotic mass, similar to but less messy than the day they were born. They both look at me surprised but oddly content. Although I obstructed their risky paths to independence that day, as toddlers, they still seemed to be completely satisfied with the their bodies’ close contact with mine. Since that time we’ve had several similar encounters, one that included my diving, head-first, down a dark cement stairway in order to keep one of them from doing so. No hesitation that time, just a pure, self-sacrificing, and false sense of parental control. The time-consuming vegetable concoction can always wait, and perhaps my health will pay the price for that somewhere down the road. But each day my body reacts within relationship to what’s around it. Sometimes those reactions feel like choices and sometimes not; most times it’s hard to tell.
To whom do I tend? Paralyzed by the idea that I can’t save each of us at once, in that moment or ever, I stand immobile, speechless, for what seems like forever.
Strangely enough, I experience freedom most when I resist the illusion that I can control the future of this body that is my self, a body that is contingent and impermanent. As Arthur W. Frank states, “The human body, for all its resilience, is fragile; breakdown is built into it.”13 Instead of plunging into the fears and panic that can accompany my thinking about the above, I am reminded that Inga Clendinnen says, “the clear prospect of death only makes living more engaging.”14 Certainly it makes our selves more engaging as well.
Bearing witness to incidents, even the smallest, that show us how life teeters on the brink of death, we place our interdependent and declining bodies at the forefront of how we construct the self. The line between self and other, even the physical one, blurs. In my experience of pregnancy, mothering babies, and facing cancer simultaneously, carving out a sense of “me-ness” became an everyday act coupled with survival. What it means to survive in the face of mortality can more easily be seen in the face of one’s children, can more easily be heard in the stories we pass down for others to read and to retell. These things are what survive when our mortal self no longer does. But even the physical body survives in our children, in our organ donations and gifts to science as research subjects. Although I experience life as a self, as a single, embodied person, that me-ness exists in a sea of relations that ebb and flow with and through the body. In an interview with Elizabeth Debold, psychologist Robert Kegan, author of The Evolving Self, describes the possibility of a sense of selfhood that ultimately “has become totally identified with the world.”15 Such a transformation that includes our bodies seems unimaginable, but when we consider all with which our bodies interact, even on an internal level, the experience of self becomes broader, more contingent, less controlled, and less easily defined. Consider, then, that survival itself might be a collective act that extends beyond the physical body, including the body in death; that survival becomes a gift, one that passes on through our stories and other exchanges, all of which bear materiality; that survival is a deep relationality in which we all participate, a sustaining and remaking of ourselves and each other, in the face of mourning and loss. When I imagine this concept of survival, I recall the first 12 lines of Hayden Carruth’s poem, Testament:
So often as it been displayed to us, the hourglass
with its grains of sand drifting down,
not as an object in our world
but as a sign, a symbol, our lives
drifting down grain by grain,
sifting away – I’m sure everyone must
see this emblem somewhere in the mind.
Yet not only our lives drift down. The stuff
of ego with which we began, the mass
in the upper chamber, filters away
as love accumulates below. Now
I am almost entirely love.16