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.
There are very few places in the known universe where a woman with two black eyes and a sliced up forehead can go without risking comment, stares, revulsion.
This weekend, I found one of those places.
I’m in Cardiff with my kid for the official Doctor Who Convention, which has been a fantastic adventure nearly beyond belief.
Every single one of my childhood dreams will be fulfilled. Systematically.
This morning that included transport to the film set, where I nearly melted with joy as I wandered around the Tardis:
Today the bandages came off for the first time.
I stared at myself in the mirror for awhile, then turned to Byron. I said “Normal people would be really upset right now, wouldn’t they?”
He looked, and sighed, and said “Yes.”
Lucky I’m not vain, or normal.
The surgeon was impeccably conservative, taking only the tissue that needed to be removed, and verifying each layer with diagnostic tests. The reconstruction was performed by a world class plastic surgeon, and he feels he achieved an “excellent result.”
Would you like to know what that looks like?
It looks like my face has been slashed open. Think duelling wounds, or fending off a knife attack.
I honestly don’t know or care what other people think of my appearance. I don’t care if you notice the scar, or what you think.
The only opinion that counts is my own, and this scar is disturbing because I can see it. Looking at it reminds me of things I prefer not to think about. This is simple, unavoidable, and awful.
Because, like I told the nurse in the recovery room, you can’t argue with cancer.
I was officially diagnosed with two different kinds of cancer in 1983. Since then, I’ve never gone more than three years without a biopsy, and subsequently, there is no nervous anticipation attached to the results.
The lab examines the tissue and confirms what we already know, repeat, ad infinitum.
Because of my history, the doctors take off a margin of flesh around all the suspected tumours. My ‘biopsies’ always, without exception, remove the entire cancerous lesion. Everything even vaguely suspicious comes off. This means I have some unnecessary scars, but never need follow-up surgery.
This is so normal to me I don’t even allocate time for the news. Today was no exception – I made plans to spend the day doing fun stuff with my daughter, with a brief stop to have the stitches taken out of my face.
It was quite surprising then to have the doctor usher me into an office, where he sat on the other side of a huge desk reading the histology report. The lab had found cancer, yes, but not the usual and expected variety. The doctor used some words I did not expect and do not like: malignant, rare, aggressive. He said this is a one in a million sort of tumour. He said “don’t worry.”
Then he said I would need “proper surgery” – immediately, not in the standard British 3-4 month wait list schedule. Within about three minutes the surgical suite was booked for next Wednesday, along with a plastic surgeon to put my face back together.
I walked out of the office into a bright, sunny, cursed day. My daughter was expecting lunch and we started to ramble through Marylebone. I explained, briefly, what the doctor said. I told her not to worry. I told myself not to worry.
I’m baffled, incredulous, and raging. But I’m not worried.
Observation: wandering around with a bandaged face is akin to having a superhero skill. I’m invisible! People look at me, and their eyes slide away. . .
Except, of course, the people who stare, point, and whisper.
I thought I was used to this sort of thing but I forgot, or refused to believe, what it always feels like. My default setting is to ignore whatever I cannot change and this would fall under that heading, but honestly, the whole thing is tedious.
I’ve been thinking I should write CANCER across the bandages. Just to, you know, clarify.