On things

An orange I can manage. This sumo orange, with its pocky skin and bulbous shnozz. I feel its weight in my palm, watch the spray of juice as I tear into its flesh with a thumbnail. The fruit is sweet in my mouth, with a trace of sour, and when it’s gone, there is a ruin of rind and pith on the paper towel, like the shell of some creature who has crept away.

              It is increasingly toward things that I find my—I want to say “salvation,” but it is not as grand as all that, more like plain-faced solace. Things are comforting because they are manifest; their very obviousness reassures us. I think of Basho these days, of his frogs, peonies, and cicadas. “Fleas, lice/ a horse peeing near my pillow.” A haiku is a specific moment closely observed; it is the charged connection between the writer and the substance of the world. Tangible objects are ballast; they keep us tethered. You can trust a noun. For me, it’s computer keys, and printed pages, car fobs, and Milk-Bone biscuits. Concretion. Specificity. Weight. In the bedroom, the ceiling fan creaks; the sheets are rumpled and unwashed. My dog rolls onto her back, her belly against my hand like a warm drum.

            In the realm of objects by which I am connected, though, it must be said that the truest form of anchor for me these days consists of a clear plastic tube running from a bag of chemicals on an IV stand, into a needle stuck in my chest, into a port implanted beneath my right clavicle. Different drugs have made the trip in the last four years—taxotere, carboplatin, Herceptin, Perjeta, Kadcyla, taxol, Navelbine, Haloven,—all of which have contributed, with varying degrees of success, to my continued presence on the planet.

            This is a strange and different kind of anchoring, this business of syringes and cannulae. The chemo nurses spend most of their time opening plastic packets, assembling tubes, donning and discarding hazmat smocks, dispensing surgical masks, dabbing antiseptic, applying gauze. The array of necessary objects is daunting. Here, things are wholly utilitarian; they are not designed to be beautiful or indolent.

            I have a statue of a young Buddha in my living room. He is smooth and black, and his expression is peaceful, eyes closed, palms pressed together in front of a narrow chest. He is one of my favorite objects, but he is the opposite of the chemo paraphernalia. He has no bustling purpose in life, no service to render. For a noun, he is a bit squirrely; he invites the kind of thinking that leads quickly away from things, toward abstraction, and the nebulous contemplation of ideas, theories, and dreams.

            I have dwelled for most of my life in abstraction: as a lonely kid, reading stacks of library books; as an angry teenager, scribbling moody poetry and abject diary entries; as an impractical adult, pursuing a career as a fiction writer. What was right in front of me—my father’s legal pads, with its tidy penciled equations; my tangled hair and untied shoelaces; later, the disorder of clothes, bookbags, and my children’s toys strewn across the floor; my husband’s disappointed mustache—were unwelcome intrusions into a richer, more compelling, interior life. The things that anchored me then seemed burdensome, less ballast than bondage.

                                                  Nowadays, though, I am wary of abstraction. Just the facts, ma’am. Give me oranges, and dog fur and, yes, even needles, if you must. Anything less tangible, and I’m on shaky ground. Breast cancer has metastasized in my lungs and brain, manifested by lesions, tiny, but multiple, scattered like dwarf stars across a dark galaxy of scans. But to me, even confronted with the photographic evidence, cancer feels theoretical. My symptoms, the numb fingers and feet, the mouth sores, the cough, the dry eyes, and runny nose, are mostly caused by chemotherapy; as a practical matter, they are treated one by one. There are eye drops, and cough medicine, mouthwash, and exercises, while the disease itself, with its wild insinuations remains shifty and ungraspable.

            Death is the ultimate abstraction, of course. It spells the absence of all things, the falling away of materiality, and of consciousness. Because we do not know what happens after death, we can only contemplate, in the most cursory way, the moment we can no longer contemplate. So, while actual death is, in fact, material—my body will have to be dealt with; my things sorted through, dispatched—the anticipation of death is obscure. We cannot imagine an end to our own perceiving, our own self—mind and body—funneling down to nothing.

            The fact is that haiku are grounded as much by the consciousness of the observer, as they are by the objects they describe. Not just Basho’s frog jumping into a pond, but the splash in the ear of the listener. The thing observed immortalizes both the thing and the observer, and the beauty, (and melancholy), of the haiku form, stems from the ephemeral nature of the observation, with its attendant comprehension of the writer’s mortality. (The relevant question being, not, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear, does it make a noise?”, but, “If a tree falls in a forest, and I am not around to hear it, who cares?”)  

            It is the quality of my attention that connects me to the world, and, though it may be superstitious to believe that sticking to objects will keep me here any moment longer, it helps, somehow, to hew to the things closest at hand. These computer keys. This glass. The sound of rain outside the window. Small, but substantial solace.