This week my friend Jane has asked me about my relationship to Dread. She, no stranger to pain and difficulty, wondered if I’ve written about dread and how I make sense of it, and “if you have offered it up to your wise friends around the world to comment on, find poetry to make sense of, shed light or empathy or understanding on, frame in its potential paradoxes, find its silver lining, what have you. What Jennifer have you to say about dread? (Seems to me it gets too much a hold of you of late, beautiful friend.)” So I have been thinking hard about that question over the last couple of days and now am called to try to say something about it.
On the one hand, it’s odd to be up early on New Year’s Eve eve to write about dread with the dawn sun flooding through my living room windows. Dread is a moody dark sky, eerily quiet before the massive wind blows and the horizontal rain pelts the windows. Today is a beautiful summer’s day.
And yet, that’s the whole point of dread, isn’t it, that it takes a beautiful summer’s day and sucks the joy out of it. In fact, this morning as I watched the dawn stream through my windows, my first thought was: How beautiful! I love the dawn!
My second thought was: It’ll be winter soon. This house is so impossibly cold in the winter. From delight to dread in a millisecond.
I have long been a “forwards emotional planner,” as Keith likes to say, always feeling miserable in anticipation of a future event that might or might not make me miserable. I have been that person whose last few days of holiday are ruined because of the misery of the holiday ending, who feels the pain of separation well before the separation has begun. For me, dread is the force that ruins the present in anticipation of an unhappy future. Forward emotional planning creates present emotional distress.
But cancer offers that on a new scale, really. There is the dread of the treatment: the woes of menopause and the various side effects of radiotherapy. Those two can take me forward months or years in imagined misery. And there’s the dread of death itself. This dread is not about the end of a holiday in 48 hours, but the end of a life somewhere between next year and 2070. Feeling dread until I die seems rather unhelpful, so I have been working to loosen dread’s hold.
Jane is right, though, that the loosening isn’t working so well of late. Dread is perhaps the film that dulls and blurs the colours this festive season. I put off my rocket ship into menopause until after the holidays so I wouldn’t have the moodiness that would come along with the chemicals, but the dread of the moodiness is, well, making me moody.
Here I am framing dread itself as a misery, an emotion to expunge if possible. That’s never a good sign of multiple perspective taking. Each emotion is a harbinger of something useful, and each has shadow and light. Elimination isn’t the goal. But neither is the full surrender to those emotions that are not life-giving, and for me dread has been rather life-sapping of late.
So, a time for a new relationship to dread, and I’ve been considering what that relationship might be. If dread is “to anticipate with great apprehension or fear,” what’s the gift in that? I suppose there are times when the dread of something could keep us safer, make us more cautious. But cancer treatment isn’t like that—it’s safer to have the treatment, even if I dread it, and it’s hard to know how to totally stop the dread of the cancer’s return (especially since it has returned this time).
Perhaps it’s better to lean into an archaic meaning of dread: “To regard with great awe or reverence.” That sense of dread lets me know that those things we most fear are markers of what we most love. I fear the treatments because I like myself the way I am now—and that’s a wonderful thing. I fear dying because I love my life—also wonderful. If dread were the signal that helped me towards reverence rather than misery, that would be a big step forward.
Still, Jane, who wrote, has a chronic illness that causes her unspeakable pain. Of course she dreads the coming of the pain. I am looking at more medical intervention that is unsettling at best. Of course I dread the more intervention. Knowing that I love my life or that Jane loves being pain free isn’t a massive discovery.
Perhaps dread is a reminder of the majesty of life. Perhaps it is a reminder of the difficulties of change. Perhaps it is just a part of being human, a remnant of a thing that used to be useful, the vestigial tail of an emotion that has protected us in the past and is not helpful now. Even after thinking and walking and writing, I’m not sure.
Jane asked, “If you were a dancer, I wonder what your dread dance would look like. Or if you were a baker (which I recall you are) what would your baking antidote to dread be?”
The baked antidote of dread is a Honeypot, buttery, nutty bars that are so good I cannot make them often because I literally cannot resist them. When they are in the house, they are the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing at night. This year I have made them while I wait for Stan to call with a histology report in the hopes of either dampening the dread or dampening the unappeasable love of the honeypot (neither works, alas).
The dread dance would be heavy, somber, close to the ground. Dread, like low clouds on a windless day, gets stuck on the hills and washes everything in a grey chill. The opposite of that would be to see the dread, acknowledge it, and let it blow through. Yes, I am afraid. Yes, there are hard times ahead. But there are beautiful times inside and around and through the hard times.
New Years Eve eve is a gateway to dread for me. It was on this day, three years ago, that I found the lump that would change my life. I was showering and the soap passed oddly over my left breast. I felt with my fingers, and it seemed someone had put a golf ball in my breast overnight. I sat down on the shower floor, hot water running down my body, to catch my breath. Cancer was impossible, of course. It was Christmas, for goodness sake. Only one uncle in my enormous extended family had cancer, and there was no breast cancer anywhere. Until that moment, cancer hadn’t seemed likely enough for me to even dread it. Now it is.
In this season of personal and collective darkness, I have been rereading old novels, mostly Austen and Forster. Perhaps there’s something to learn about dread from the lovely Howards End. Here is one glittering highlight:
|“Looking back on the past six months, Margaret realized the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes.…
Our national morality… assumes that preparation against danger is in itself a good, and that men, like nations, are the better for staggering through life fully armed. The tragedy of preparedness has scarcely been handled, save by the Greeks.”
Here, perhaps is the lesson I’d like to learn about dread today. It is, for me, too often wasted calories, a film that dulls but neither reveals nor protects, the tragedy of preparedness. I did not dread cancer and yet there it was—and the lack of dreading wasn’t a problem at all. I did dread chemotherapy, but I made it through better than I’d ever imagined—the dreading it didn’t help (and I wrote this letter to other women to help them deal with their dread). It might be that dread contributes little to my life after all. It is simply staggering through my life fully armed. The passage from Howards End concludes, “Life is indeed dangerous, but not in the way morality would have us believe. It is indeed unmanageable, but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty. Margaret hoped that for the future she would be less cautious, not more cautious, than she had been in the past.” Perhaps that is the lesson.
I am finishing this blog, on another New Years Eve eve, in the hospital waiting room. Another specialist, another set of treatment plans, another frightening afternoon. My hands have started to shake and my stomach to tighten. This is what dread feels like, right here. Two hours ago, Michael and I were walking in the hills and looking out over a harbour with an almost infinite number of blues, the essence of romantic beauty. My hands were still and my heart beating fast only on the uphills. Dread is my sometime-companion, but it is not everything. I will leave at the end of this appointment and the sun will still be shining and my stomach will calm.
And perhaps I can find a way to dance it or bake it off (not with honeypots! I have yet to find the sugar free dread-banisher, but I’m pretty sure it has berries and coconut yogurt). Perhaps the true gift of dread is to notice it is there, to allow it to tell me what it tells me, and then to let the wind blow it away and to see the world sparkle again in its absence. Perhaps, like Margaret, I can learn from the dread to be less cautious, not more cautious, than I have been in the past.
So, wise friends from around the world. Anything you’d offer of your thinking or writing or reading about dread?
BTW, Dread, much more popular in the 1800s than now (but on the upsurge ), is a versatile little word. You can use it in myriad ways: as a verb (I dreaded that meeting), a noun (She was filled with dread as she thought about the doctor’s visit), and even an adjective (They all feared the spreading of the dread disease). I’ve checked, and I used it only once when talking about cancer the first time on my kiwibergers cancer blog (waiting for the original histology) and once in this dawn blog. Oh, and the appointment today was excellent—fabulous doctors, listened well. Treatment options still confusing.