Strange days indeed: On choosing grace

Strange days indeed: On choosing grace

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Requisite mask photo. Photo by the author.

I have to be honest: this lingering cold is beginning to concern me. I’m starting to doubt my own conservative assumptions about just how much toilet paper we actually need. Dread is encroaching.

Last week, at my wife’s insistence, in the middle of a snow squall, we made our way to the grocery store to “stock up on supplies.” We bought cereal and canned vegetables and boxes of whole wheat pasta. We did something we never do at Whole Foods and bought three bags worth of groceries (you can do the math).

There tends to be a sweet giddiness to the kind of panic shopping people do ahead of a snowstorm, a shrugging sense of, “Oh well,” if the shelves are bare of some sundry or another. The kind of panic shopping we’ve all undoubtedly witnessed in recent days, is sharply different: there’s misery and determination on people’s faces, an unspoken, albeit palpable, urgency, a foreboding I’ve never seen before in, say, Basha’s.

After our panic shopping, my wife and I scrolled Netflix, noticing that films such as Contagion, Outbreak and 28 Days Later were trending. This means people are either seeking hope and guidance from fictional disease scenarios, or are looking to find, in themselves, the requisite amount of fear.

Years ago, when I first had cancer, I loved reading about the Black Plague. This was comforting to me. “Well,” I’d think, “at least you’re not lying in a sweaty, candelit bedroom with lice leaping off your withered body and a man in a bird mask coming to bleed you.” But now, as someone with stage 4 cancer, I already feel quite diseased. Coronavirus seems to merely pose an additional question to my current predicament: “Want some disease on that disease?” Kind of like the pizza guy offering you parmesan to put on top of your mozzarella. 

There’s a word people toss around when talking about the experience of having cancer, particularly breast cancer: journey. Though I understand that, in literature, journeys are fraught with uncertainty, obstacles, difficult choices and change, I hate the word as it applies to cancer. It makes the experience sound whimsical, which, I can assure you, it is not. At least in literature, journeys tend to have a resolution that favors the protagonist, but such is not necessarily the case with cancer, or pandemics. (Can you imagine calling COVID-19 a journey?)

In my high school world literature course, a theme is “journeys,” and in keeping with the theme, I have begun the past five years with Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. I find that coming-of-age stories, stories of “finding oneself” tend to lose their potency after 40, and I am quite exhausted with teaching this book. Nevertheless, my seniors connect with the slim novel that follows the life of a fictional character as he grows from spoiled rich kid to ascetic, to lover, to father and eventually, to enlightened ferryman.

A seminal moment in the book is when Siddhartha, trying to impress his love interest, lists his talents as, “I can think, I can wait, I can fast.” Naturally, this part always leads us into a conversation about what abilities we as a society value and what skills we take for granted.  

In this world, we emphasize speed, obedience, precision. The world—that of capital—measures our worth in terms of what we can do. How fast can you buy up the toilet paper? How readily can you follow a quarantine? How precisely can you approximate how many jars of spaghetti sauce you’ll need if the American infrastructure collapses?

Speed, obedience and precision are all fine and good, but amount to almost nothing when faced with real life: cancer, pandemics, social distancing.

Earlier this month, I had the first radiation treatment for the malignant lesion on my spine. This was a long process, in which I had to lie perfectly still while a heavy machine rotated around me like a mobile. I tried not to think too much about it, but when you’re laid up on a raised table under a huge radioactive beast for half an hour, you can’t help but think of how terribly far your health has fallen.

As the machine buzzed, I started to feel panic creeping in; I felt claustrophobic, as though I’d have to sit up, stop the treatment, ask for water and a valium. Then, without deliberate conjuring, Siddhartha leapt into my head: “I can think. I can wait.”

In the upcoming weeks and months, we’re going to have collective moments of panic, of claustrophobia. The stillness will sometimes feel unbearable, and the skills we’ve been taught to value (in the workplace, in school) will, at times, be rendered useless in light of our strange circumstances. We will need to resist our fear impulses, to root ourselves in peace wherever it can be found: in a glass of wine, FaceTime calls with loved ones, or in revisiting the wisdom of books that, like Siddhartha, maybe we’re burnt out on.

I firmly believe all human beings have the capacity to gracefully deal with the unimaginable. Grace is a choice, and all good choices come from good thinking. So maybe we can take advantage of these quiet, tense days to sharpen our ability to think. And when we feel like we can’t stand another day indoors, another day of isolation, we can remind ourselves, calmly, thoughtfully, “I can wait.”

Allison Gruber is an essayist and educator whose work has appeared in numerous literary journals including The Literary Review, Brevity Magazine, and The Sonora Review. Her debut collection of essays, You're Not Edith, was a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. She lives with her wife, Sarah, their menagerie of animals and teaches English and creative writing at Flagstaff Arts & Leadership Academy.

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