Continuing in the fine Portland tradition, the reading with Lisa and STS was quite eclectic, ranging from audio recordings of naturalist excursions to alien pornography.
My contribution was an expanded version of this piece, edited for mature audiences.
The audience laughed at all the funny bits, gasped at the shocking bits, and shed a tear or several: quite the achievement in a room full of Brits.
After the event I hid behind my literary agent, distracting her from requests for a new book with reprobate tales, misleading promises, fragments of manuscripts. The presence of so many characters and stories from the past might have overwhelmed me with nostalgia for the life I abandoned in Portland, but I adore my agent, and she reminded me of all the reasons why I want to stay here.
It is hard to live so far from home, wrenching to be separated from friends and family. But I have never belonged anywhere, never wanted to be part of anything. The people I love the most are like me: scattered, wandering, wanting. I see them more as we travel than I would if we all still lived near the intersection of Alberta and Albina.
STLS departed for more tour dates on the continent, but Anna Ruby remained for the week, and we walked around this old city in the rain, remembering, talking. I told her the most shocking story from the recent round of cancer surgeries, and she laughed, because it is funny, and because there is nothing else to do.
Anna Ruby in the Non-Conformist cemetery:
One of my favourite things about the United Kingdom is the emotional repression. I knew that if I waited to see friends until I could smack makeup over the new scar, I could realistically expect that everyone would ignore the blazing reality of a third cancer diagnosis.
This hypothesis proved to be imperfect; hundreds of acquaintances and colleagues play along, but I have some good friends who actually care. They are not inclined to accept a wave of the hand and airy dismissals – they want to know the truth, even if it is painful.
I share this perspective, but I have nothing to contribute. If the best specialists in the world are baffled, how can I offer any assurances? I don’t know why this happened, and I don’t know what it means. The only available narrative involves the surgery, and that is a story that the average audience will not enjoy.
It is lucky that my friends are neither average nor an audience. The other night I went out with close friends for the first time since the surgery, determined to ignore the looks that would flicker across my forehead.
And, of course, the evening was beyond fine. Iain remains resolutely amused by my antics, no matter how extreme. Gita is brilliance personified. My literary agent listened intently, then pointed out that I have merely acquired another story to publish. And that she would really appreciate it if I give her a new book to sell.
The question is: what would I write about? I’m irritated by all of my standard topics. Poverty, violence, cancer, repeat, ad infinitum: ugh. Boring!
Portland descended on Paris for a festival weirdly advertised on billboards in all the Metro stations, launching friends on tours across Europe. Frolic and fulsome adventures washed across the channel to London, starting with an STLS show at Power Lunches.
Standing in a puddle of beer next to the drum kit, I was transported back to some of the best parts of the previous century, conducted in basements throughout the Northwest. I loathed being young, but I loved the music.
Lisa and STS:
The other night I went to a work event populated by writers and filmmakers, and inevitably found myself sitting next to the lone scientist. This is how it goes: for whatever reason of training, taste, or inclination, my social life is populated by people with vast intellectual prowess and limited social skills.
On this particular evening the seating plan was a relief, because people in the arts are notoriously avaricious. They steal whatever scrap of narrative or credit they can get their hands on, without compunction or acknowledgment. I’ve learned through long tedious experience that it is not wise to tell my stories to another writer, unless I’ve already published the piece. Even then the level of competition is obscene: is it really worth fighting over the crumbs of recognition available for such achievements as “living in Olympia in the 1980’s” “living in Portland in the 1990’s” or “vilified feminist writer”? In a word: no. I grew up in poverty, with cancer. I became a mother in my teens, survived an onslaught of violence, fought my way to safety, and immigrated to a new country. I’m no longer available for a victimization sweepstakes: I won that contest a long time ago, and I have better things to think about now. I’ve taken my tiara to a new tea party.
The scientist in question was the clinical and inquisitive sort who always manages to extract real information about my genetic disorder, multiple cancer diagnoses, and the underlying biological mysteries. Then he gestured to his own face and head, dappled by the flickering candlelight of the dinner party. “I like facial scars,” he said. “I have plenty of my own.”
I looked closer at his skin as he explained that a predilection for skateboarding, motorcycles, and rock climbing had slashed and burned him so many times he lost count of the injuries.
I sighed: he didn’t understand, though he was illustrating the point. It isn’t the scars themselves that matter, but instead, the stories the scars tell. The long thin line bisecting his forehead reminds him of some outrageous adrenaline high, an adventure gone awry but nevertheless something he chose, something he wanted.
The scars on my face are a narrative of captivity, confinement, duress. When I look in the mirror I don’t mind that my face is fucked up, and I do not reflect on the negligence or skill of the surgeons. I do not feel shame, or repulsion, and I do not care what other people see or feel. No. When I look in the mirror I see proof that I have cancer, that I have always had cancer, that there are no answers and no solutions. I am sanguine, not satisfied.
However: it is always good to talk to people who are not frightened by their own mortality.
Did you know that belief in magical bunnies is mandatory if one wishes to receive baskets of treats? Even if you are, perhaps, a cynical teenager or sarcastic university student? True fact. This is especially crucial in countries where baskets of treats do not routinely materialize during spring feasts.
In other spring festival news, my very own magical mama is visiting to celebrate her 60th birthday. My mother kept me alive when I didn’t care enough to bother, and gave me the strength and anger to keep moving. I thank her with fervent sincerity for raising me with a wild and fierce love, then letting me go.
There are people in this world who want attention, and then there are people who just do their jobs, every day, no matter how difficult or woeful. My mother is an everyday hero: she has never had sufficient recognition or reward but she still keeps giving, across an entire lifetime.
I can never express the level of my gratitude and awe. I can only try to live up to her standards, and say, once again: thank you.
Alert! You have a rare opportunity to hear me read! One night only in London!
More information about the show:
Golden Brothers by STS
Golden Brothers is the debut novel of musician (The Haggard, Cadallaca), zine writer (Way Down Low, The Gay Hotel, Nightmare Girl) and Queercore activist STS. Eileen Myles says “Golden Brothers is made out of the strange uncommon beauty that fills the empty spaces outside of capitalism. Scenes change swiftly as music. Life and death are moments.
Fieldguided by Lisa Schonberg
In this book, entomologist Lisa Schonberg presents her research from summer 2010, through drawings, text, and sound recordings. Lisa is a drummer and played with the bands The Strangers, Kickball, Explode Into Colors, and STLS, among others. Her previous book, The DIY Guide to Drums, is also available.
Fuck You Seattle by Bee Lavender, from the Madonna & Me anthology
Bee is a zine publisher and activist from the Pacific Northwest who emigrated to England eight years ago. Her books include the critically acclaimed memoir Lessons in Taxidermy and the anthologies Breeder and Mamaphonic.
More information about the show: X Marks the Bokship
Note: STLS is also on tour! Check out the band as they maraud across Europe!
How does it feel to have three different and apparently unrelated kinds of cancer? Specifically, cancer that is characterised as “aggressive” and “rare”?
The summary: I do not feel special.
Cancer is neither rewarding nor entertaining. Chronic illness is tedious, annoying, objectionable. I have no patience for the attitude that there are moments of illumination; in fact, my experience has demonstrated the opposite.
I haven’t been to my favourite cafe, pizza takeaway, newsagent, or grocery since the cancer treatment started, because I know and like the people who work in those places. They will look at my face, and ask – what happened? Are you ok? They won’t be able to deal with the answer, and I won’t be able to handle their superficial sympathy or transitive grief.
I’ve been avoiding all of my friends, ignoring invitations, neglecting social obligations, not because I care about the new scar: no, quite the opposite. I hold my face up to the world, walk where I like, go to work every day, talk to colleagues and strangers without any qualms. My life doesn’t stop because another layer of skin has been stripped away. I have no fear and no hesitation as I wander through the world.
The only real problem in this whole mess is dealing with the people who love me. Most react in the stereotypical way: they vanish. I understand. Cancer is frightening. I’ve learned that it is easier to walk away first, before I get hurt, before we test the true limits of the friendship. I’ve learned to pretend that I don’t notice, learned to ignore what doesn’t happen, because lack of care is simply an empty space that can be filled.
And anyway, the people who run away are just scared. The next most common reaction is destructive: whether because vulnerability attracts vindictiveness, or because people are simply thoughtless, I do not know. I have just observed that grievances and grudges accumulated over years come to the surface only when I am recovering from surgery. This is baffling, but so juvenile I react exactly as I did in junior high: I turn up the music really loud.
There are a few people who are steadfast and true, who stay in touch and listen to my cracked stories, who know that it is okay to laugh. These people are rare and precious, and they are scattered all across the world. Some live nearby, some are far away. I miss them, and I want to be with them now, but I won’t pick up the phone.
Whatever I have endured or achieved, there is always a cost, and always a loss. I don’t impose on my friends, even when they want to help, even when I want help. There is nothing I could ask for, nothing that they could give.