Where The Wild Things Are

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Like many children of the 70s, I love Maurice Sendak’s book Where the Wild Things Are. I was at a party a few weeks back, talking about the upcoming movie, when someone asked, “Why are they even making that into a movie? It’s such a short book!” My heart softened, remembering the story, and I answered, “Because it has everything: gluttony, imprisonment, adventure, domination, loneliness, longing, love, redemption!” A boy runs away from the discipline and restrictions of home and finds power and freedom, only to return for the comfort and love that he left behind… It’s a beautiful story, an allegory for everyone. No wonder we love it.

I have been thinking, throughout this journey, about this idea of “the other side” of disaster, of what recovery is. I read a poem post-9/11 by Judyth Hill called Wage Peace:

Learn to knit: make a hat.

Think of chaos as dancing raspberries.

Imagine grief

as the outbreak of beauty or gesture of fish.

Swim for the other side.

Swimming for the other side: it is exactly what it is like, this journey of recovery and survivorship, because it’s not the shore you just left that you must head for – it’s some other shore, on the other side of a great body of water. Your future suddenly changes, and a forest grows in your room; an ocean laps at your feet, and you must make a choice: swim or drown. Sometimes, you are lucky: a boat sails up, to carry you to the opposite shore, like Max. Sometimes, you are not so lucky: you must swim, or sink.

The journey of survivorship is not like putting one foot in front of the other, because you won’t die if you stop walking. It’s more like swimming, because stopping means sinking, into the dark waters that threaten to swallow you – depression, recurrence, metastasis. You must keep moving. Moving puts distance between you and the moment/experience that changed your life forever. You have to keep swimming for that other side, because it is the side where your new life awaits, where you can dry off, regroup, and regain your strength without being surrounded by collateral damage. Turning back for the shore you left will not (and, in fact, cannot) save you.

My roommate in Kaua’i often walked with me on weekends around a loop near our house, where there was a view of the ocean. Walking it, you were never more aware that you were on a rock, in the middle of the Pacific, miles from a major continent. I feel a little like Max now, like someone who sailed, over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day, to a place where wild things were, things with terrible teeth and terrible claws, that threatened to eat me up.

I have said it before: cancer does not play. It IS a Wild Thing, and it will eat you up if you let it. Perhaps this is what I am trying to do with my 40-by-40: to say BE STILL, and tame it with the magic trick of looking into its yellow eyes without blinking once. To let it know that I don’t play either, and frighten it into making me its King.

Yesterday, my doctor’s nurse told me my labs were normal, showing me the report with a flourish. “You should frame this!” she said, smiling. “You know, in this office, we get used to seeing levels that are not in the normal range, but when I saw yours, I said, ‘they’re all normal!’ look, no Hs (for ‘high’) or Ls (for ‘low’)!” Now, I don’t usually put much stock in statistics, but in that moment, it was as if, like Max, I could suddenly smell my next life, on the other side of this adventure, like a hot supper waiting for me. I told my sister this morning, “I feel more like myself again. Not like that fake-it-till-you-make-it positivity, that is just supposed to carry you through the hard part; it’s real, genuine optimism, the kind you have when you believe in your own power.” It’s the kind of self-assuredness, I think, that allows Max to say to the Wild Things when they protest his departure, NO, to wave good-bye and sail away without regret.

There are moments of calm (usually post-wild-rumpus) where I feel a kind of peace, knowing in my heart that the time to leave this place I have been in for nearly a year is out there, that the other side of my journey is waiting, like Max’s still-hot dinner, for my arrival. I once told my roommate, on a walk, that it felt like I had survived a shipwreck and was now floundering in the ocean, not knowing which direction to swim. She said, “Maybe you don’t have to know. Maybe you could just swim towards the place where you’re done with this part, and then think about your next leg once you get there.”

I swam and swam, and here I am: washed up on the shore of a kind of “Health Island.” Where the Wild Things Are.