Count me among the tens of thousands of cancer survivors who’ve said, “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but it’s one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

When I told friends, in 2004, that I had cancer, I got several pat answers:

  1. I know how you feel, I had (obscure organ) cancer and look at me (twirling), I’m fine now. (uh, we weren’t talking about you, were we?)
  2. You look fine, I would have never guessed. (as if I were pregnant but no belly bump yet)
  3. Er, uh, wow, jeesh, I don’t know what to say. (you got that right)
  4. Don’t worry, you’ll get through it and get right back to normal. (but…)

I wasn’t interested in either “back” or “normal.” The rupture to “normal” that cancer afforded me had liberated me from a lovely but repetitive, stale life.

“I don’t have a will to live,” I’d say, “I have a will to be alive.” To discover what ailed my soul and what could revive it, no matter whether I lived or died.

Today, as I get used to Joe Biden signing rational orders at the Resolute Desk and as I look forward in a week to my second Pfizer shot, I remember the newness I felt after a searing year of surgery, some chemo until I quit, and deep self-examination. On January 4, 2005, all my tests came up negative and I was officially out of cancer-land. I was empty but peaceful. Many of my old identities and habits had flaked off like dead skin. I had intimations of what new skin might grow but I wasn’t in a hurry to define my direction and get busy. In fact, there was nothing in the cupboard where I used to store my drive.

Many may feel this way now as we emerge from Covid and the Trump presidency – still somewhat skittish after 4 years of waking to ever crazier tweets, threats, and lies – yet cautiously hopeful.

What are we hoping for? Is there a normal to go back to? What has changed, in us and around us, since Covid settled into our collective lives, and took over 2 million of them? Commentators will remark on our zoom studios, solitary confinement or – maybe worse – crammed-together families both working and learning from home. We’ll get statistics, like what my doctor gave me: 45% chance of 5-year survival, that tell us nothing about how we feel. Statistics about deaths. Shots. Trends. Unemployment. Battles over masks. Over vaccines.

It’s like we have an incessant Pigpen cloud of opinions and assessments around us telling us what to think and how to feel, but how are we on the inside?

I am allowing myself to be disoriented for now, to see what new grass may grow under my feet, what new inclinations might come after a year of letting go and learning so much. While I feel great relief at the not-so-peaceful transfer of power, I don’t find myself drawing any early conclusions or wanting to make early assessments.

May I suggest that you allow this newness as well? What have you learned about yourself and our world this past year of losses, strange delights, dark shadows, new skills, shameful histories, and maddening polarization?

In March of 2020, I started a podcast called “What Could Possibly Go Right?” asking a range of guests to tell us what they see emerging as so much falls apart. We all practiced not knowing, not imposing old frames on this startling new situation but rather trying to see through our assumptions to reality. Wouldn’t it be a pity to relinquish what so many of us learned from this destabilizing year – and go “back to normal”? Some say they feel like they have PTSD; if we are rattled to that degree, shouldn’t we heal forward rather than fall back into old ruts of consumerism and familiar complaints?

Here’s one assurance from my experience with cancer: when I was declared cancer free, I was down to 2 pieces of furniture, 10 boxes of books, 4 linear feet of clothes and a computer. My old certainties were in storage somewhere, but my intuition was like a bright beacon, lighting my path. In the 16 years since, this seed of Self has grown a rich new life, quite different from the old one. There are new lives waiting for all of us post-Covid if we don’t scurry back into our shells. They can be subtle, like appreciating our loved ones more. They may include new jobs, loves, home cities. We may have to fight to hold the space for something new, given the undertow of “back to normal.”

Try our question, “what could possibly go right?”, as a way to keep fresh, soft, curious eyes on the forking roads ahead.

 

Teaser photo credit: Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash