Where does strength come from? (Bigger on the inside)

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

Promise me.”

Amanda Palmer, Bigger on the Inside

12 Replies to “Where does strength come from? (Bigger on the inside)”

  1. Nat, I’m not sure if my message came through on your previous Blueberries post, but in any event – I’m here and am sending any bit of transferable energy/strength I can to you and Matt. Let me know what I can do to support you guys so that you can focus your energies where they need to go. xx

    1. Hello Zoe! Your Blueberries message did come through, thank you – it was a bit of a crazy month and I didn’t quite manage to ever get to reviewing comments. Thanks you both of for your lovely messages, and for all the energy and strength. Glad to have you in New York – it would be lovely to see you xo

  2. Hi Natalie
    Thank you for sharing your journey & reminding me about the beauty of the everyday.
    Sending you love & light
    Rebekah x

  3. The idea that when an old tree dies it sends its energy to the younger ones is a lovely theory. And also not dissimilar to the theory in physics that energy is neither created nor destroyed but transferred or changed from one form to another. Things change; they are never destroyed. Thank you for sharing some of your thoughts, and expressed so beautifully. x

    1. I think about that idea of preservation in physics often. Mary Oliver also put it beautifully in an interview on On Being: “Lucretius says just everything’s a little energy. You go back, and you’re these little bits of energy, and pretty soon you’re something else. Now that’s a continuance. It’s not the one we think of when we’re talking about the golden streets and the angels with how many wings and whatever, the hierarchy of angels. Even angels have a hierarchy. But it’s something quite wonderful.” Much love to you x

  4. Nat,
    If you were a tree,I know I would want to plant you in my garden to grow, flourish, beautify, be a special place for birds and something for me to stand back,gaze and marvel at.
    😊 xx

  5. Dear Natalie, you were with us yesterday for yoga in the common room. In words as Christina said hello from you to me and it would’ve been nothing out of the ordinary had you walked in to join us. The beauty of a shared space is that you don’t need to be there in person to be there in spirit. Your writing is a gift that I’m grateful for your sharing. May there be lots more of it xxx

    1. I miss those early mornings in the common room! It was always nourishing and spacious, and I’m delighted at the thought of being there in spirit. Sending you and your dearest huge love x

  6. So beautiful Nat. Have you heard of earthing or grounding? 💚🌳I love that we can receive and connect to energy from our earth 🌏🌏

    1. Thanks Darns! I definitely feel my heart lift when I feel connected to the earth – even just paying attention to the bare trees patiently awaiting spring xo

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