Friday, June 5, 2015

hair calendar

I reject the hair calendar.

When cancer treatment takes your hair, you have this naked pate that sticks to leather recliners and is always cold; you have no eyebrows or lashes to protect your eyes from light and dust; hair from other body locations falls out and makes you think alien sightings are actually time-traveling cancer patients from the near future who accidentally end up in the desert. When hair starts to grow up, the natural inclination for many is to cherish it, leave it be, and treat it nice. I do not enjoy having leg or armpit hair for tactile, personal reasons, but I left it there for six good months just because I was so happy it was back. But it is the hair growing off my head again that is treated with reverence.

I have trimmed my hair twice at particularly awkward stages of growth, reducing the funny duck tale flip in the back once and trimming a quarter inch of stringy wisps another time. Otherwise, my hair has been what it was for me in my days of purple liberty spikes and other such hairstyles: an outward expression of my internal life. This time, it's not a brightly-colored, glue-hardened punk situation, but a mop of soft, brown curls that thin out a little around my cowlick. Like so many of my peers, I am proud of my new hair and its significance as an easy way to mark time after treatment. I want to grow it long again, make use of my Pintrest-level braiding skills, have beachy mermaid hair. I know plenty of women who don't cut their post-chemo grow-out and I have been among them, giddily marking such milestones as "I can't see my scalp" and "I can kind of get my hair in pigtails," feeling like this keratin output is like a victory calendar. How long has it been since remission? This many inches of mane.

When I got to "it finally goes in a ponytail if I pin all these front pieces back," I realized I hated the way my hair looked and felt. The front was jaw-length and the back was brushing the nape of my neck. New hairs filling in at scalp level left the ends looking thin. I was french braiding all my hair into a ponytail that looked like an old paintbrush just to get the limp fringe in the back from being an annoying, sweaty mess at work. My boyfriend playfully called it a "fashion mullet." Finally, I woke up the other morning and the internal sound of "I don't want to look like this!" won out over the little voice that says, "I have to cherish every inch of hair I have because remember how great it felt when it started to grow back?" I was standing at the bathroom mirror, pinning and pulling and sweeping my hair into place and was overcome with irritation that even though I am TWENTY months into remission, cancer is getting a say in my decision making. The hair calendar is wonderful for a lot of people, but I can't do it anymore. I'm tired of cancer's slimy fingers getting to decide how I look on the outside, so I cut two inches off the back of my hair to make it even with the front and it looks fucking adorable.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

how cancer camp made me a better artist

I have been a participant and a volunteer staff for cancer camp, and the experiences all have led to tangible personal growth for me. Much of that growth has been related to my self-confidence and the way I interact with others, but along with that has been my growth as an artist. Camp Koru offers an art table, where supplies are made available for open-ended artistic endeavors. It was at that art table I ended a four-year stretch of keeping my lifelong love of art at arm's length and started painting again. Last fall, I opted out of a traditional career path in order to pursue my love of making art. The following are some of the things I learned from my time so far with Athletes for Cancer that have made my art more daring, more engaging, and more satisfying to make:

The soul speaks many languages, many have no words at all. It's hard enough for most of us to fully express ourselves with words alone. When you add chemo brain to the mix, there are times it feels nearly impossible to talk about how we feel, what we have been through, what we hope for. Thankfully, there is a plethora of other ways to get it all out. Music, adventure sports, creative high fives, theatre, photography, pantomime,  dance, painting, sand sculptures, and on and on and on. When you put your soul into something, you find you are speaking clearly without having to speak at all.

Open up and be vulnerable. Let them see your scars. Port scars, shingles scars, surgical scars, all the places your spirit tore and was stitched back together or left to heal on its own over time. Announce when you are scared, when you are frustrated, when you are filled with joy. Push past all your hang-ups, all the boxes you live in, all the ways you guard yourself. Put your story on the table. Tell the gross stories, the strange stories, the bodily function stories, the loss stories, the giddy pleasure stories, the gallows humor stories. Let go of what other people think about your stories. Someone outside your inner circle may need to hear what you have to say.Offer something of yourself to others so you can make room for their stories.

Close your mouth and open your ears and eyes. You have lived and you have a lot to share, but the same is true of the world around you. Turn off your inner monologue, set your own stories aside, and pay attention to the stories being told. Connect with friends, strangers, the pulse of the city, the rhythm of the ocean, the opera of a storm, the whispers of the trees. Really hear what's being said. Take it in. Ask questions. Turn a conversation into a an interview for "Most Interesting Person in the World Magazine," with the other party being your cover story. The things you will learn and the connections you will make will be significant.

Embrace silence, quiet, and pregnant pauses. Prolonged silence can channel new pathways of creative thought; quiet can lead to clarity; pregnant pauses and awkward silence can say so much more than the words not being spoken. All are important to human connection and artistic endeavors, but our own anxieties, eagerness, or misunderstandings about communication can cause us to undervalue such moments. Likewise, the "empty" areas in a piece have as much to say as the places one fills with detail or line or color.

Take breaks. Stretch. Eat a snack, hydrate, and reapply. It's amazing to paddle out and catch waves over and over and over, and it can be wonderful to sit at the drawing table for nine hours at a time, but you need to be nice to your body or you will get hurt. No matter what you are doing, you will do it better if you stop every once in a while to stretch well, refuel with something healthy, drink lots of water, and put on more sunscreen. Okay, maybe sunscreen isn't necessary for painting indoors, but it doesn't hurt to use a stretch break to also sweep eraser crumbs off the desk, walk the dog, or wash the dishes. You will come back to it reinvigorated and ready for more.

Challenge yourself. Push through discomfort. Standing up on that first wave, pushing past the crux on a climb, talking about things you are used to choking down; all of these take strength of will and a little faith in yourself and those around you to get to the next level. Similarly, sticking to what I am already comfortable with artistically tends to yield unsatisfying results. Taking on the challenge of improving my technique or learning a new discipline may be more difficult, but the reward of finally getting the hang of something new is a rush of small victory endorphins and another set of vocabulary with which to communicate. It's okay to suck. You probably won't stand up on your first wave, but you can't get to headstands and tandem rides without trying until you nail it. Every painting won't be a fact, maybe none of them will be. It doesn't matter. What matters is the trying, the little victories, the culmination of hard work and patience that leads to a breakthrough.

Art heals. Enough said.