Months ago, before the doctors found the tumors in my brain and hurriedly restarted treatment, I had purchased tickets to the launch of Maria Popova’s book ‘Figuring’. The event was scheduled for the Friday night after my first immunotherapy treatment, and I worried that I should give them up and spend the evening resting instead. But I was reluctant, as Popova’s events could be mesmerizing and profound – attending her inaugural Universe in Verse in 2017 was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in New York.
Maybe, too, I needed something different from rest. I was having trouble processing the return of my cancer and the urgent re-imposition of my status as “patient”. The brain metastases had already curtailed my life in many ways. After I fell out of bed one morning, Matt was (sensibly) monitoring me much of the time, worried about the extreme fatigue post radiation as well as problems with my balance. The drugs, headaches, and fatigue together conspired against my ability to concentrate. I needed to rest and look after my physical health, but I also felt that something in the middle of me was fading.
So Matt and I decided to go. Although we arrived early, half the seats were already taken. Popova was not the only attraction – she would be interviewed by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of numerous beloved books like the Signature of All Things and Big Magic (and, of course, the love-it-or-hate-it Eat, Pray, Love).
The event, in the end, was not an escape from my condition but instead gently suffused with grief and cancer. Elizabeth Gilbert has been mourning her partner, Rayya Elias, who died from pancreatic and liver cancer in 2018. Popova’s dear friend Emily Levine died from lung cancer on the day that ‘Figuring’ was published. The book itself describes the testimony Rachel Carson gave to Congress while her bones were crumbling from metastatic breast cancer.
At the end of the night, Amanda Palmer sung and strummed “Bigger on the Inside”, about her friends dying from cancer and a fan asking her “how do you keep fighting?”
Yet the event was also full of science, and vision, and love. Gilbert talked about mycorrhizal fungi, the barely visible fungus threads that connect the trees in enormous old forests (I first learned of mycorrhizae in the joyful and fascinating Mycophilia by Eugenia Bone). Mychorrizal fungi is essential to the life of a forest, a network that enables the trees to share nutrients and communicate with each other. Gilbert said that when the oldest tree in the forest dies, it sends its energy to the tree that is the youngest and most foreign. I couldn’t find another source for the information, but I loved all the ideas it contained: invisible interconnection, interdependence, wholeness.
Walking home with Matt through the cold February night afterwards, I felt strengthened. We talked about death, and what it means to be here alive for a limited time (Emily Levine introduced Maria Popova to poetry – what an enormous, rippling, joyful gift to the world).
The odds of me getting to be old are pretty low. Of course, there’s no any guarantee of that for any of us (as the Buddhist meditation goes: death is certain, the time of death is uncertain – what should I do?). And there’s plenty of old humans that don’t share their energy and wisdom, but let time close them up and disconnect them from mutual nourishment.
I’m a young tree – a sponge, still, for energy and knowledge and wisdom and poetry. I’m connected and vital and growing (as well as sick).
I don’t know where strength comes from. It’s not easy to tap into it at the moment, facing the psychological challenges of new tumors and more treatment. But I suspect most of it comes to me from other places: from the invisible network of interconnection and interdependence, from ideas, from fragments I can understand and from the enormous pulsating tapestry of everything I cannot grasp (from our earthly ecosystems to our unfathomably complex universe: even catching a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye makes me weak with wonder).
“We are so much bigger on the inside
You, me, everybody
Some day when you’re lying where I am
You’ll finally get it, beauty
We are so much bigger
Than another one can ever see
Trying is the point of life
So don’t stop trying
Amanda Palmer, Bigger on the Inside