My palms sweat when my phone rings. That’s a sign that I’m waiting again, that there is news to come on the other end of the line and that I’m afraid.

This trip around Cancer Island has been more filled with empty time than the last one. Last time was a month from discovery of the lump, through diagnosis and surgery and treatment recommendations. It felt like forever, but on the calendar it was one miserable January.

This time has just stretched into the third month. Biopsies, scans, two surgeries. And still I’m waiting for the doctor to call and let me know—Did they get it all out? Did it travel to my lymph nodes this time? Probably I’ll hear tomorrow and then we’ll begin building a treatment plan. Until then, it’s questions layered on questions.

Over tea this morning with Melissa looking out at grey dawn or over coffee this afternoon with J in the leafy, rose-less rose garden, I have been trying to make sense of what, beyond the stretch of time, feels so different this second time around.

Last time felt like a fluke. I had devoted basically no energy for my first 43 years to not getting cancer. So getting it was a shocker, and also a reformation—now my energy would go to never getting cancer again, to killing whatever stray cells might be left with chemo, hormone therapy, supplements, diet, exercise. I would use magic and medicine to keep this thing away!

Only that didn’t work. As J points out, cancer is an emergent property—no one can make it come or not come. We can only try to shape the conditions as best as we can. But my sense of agency in that is now stretched, maybe broken. I followed the standard doctors’ advice, followed the alternative doctors’ advice, believed in the power of prayer and magic and meditation. And now what? I have lost my grip on how to keep cancer away. I can’t know what my next months are like from a treatment perspective. I don’t know what stage cancer this is yet. I will not know what my next years are like and whether the cancer will make another return, whether next time it’ll be deadly. And while some of those questions will come clear in the next week or two, some of them (like whether it will come back again) I hope to be unclear for decades.

So today we’ll turn to a wonderful old friend, Rilke and loving the questions. I’ve loved this passage and the poem Alice Walker wrote about it for the last 25 years, since I read Letters to a Young Poet in Michael Glaser’s senior seminar in 1991. I still don’t seem to love the questions as much as Rilke suggests, but on this sunny spring day in Wellington, I’m trying.


You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked in rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.


-Rainer Maria Rilke





I must love the questions


as Rilke said

like locked rooms

full of treasure

to which my blind

and groping key does not yet fit.


and await the answers

as unsealed


mailed with dubious intent

and written in a very foreign



and in the hourly making

of myself

no thought of Time

to force, to squeeze

the space

I grow into.


-Alice Walker



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