07 May What will you change? Lessons from a crisis
Lessons from cancer and confinement
“This will be just a blip in the story of your life,” said the nurse.
A blip? A BLIP? How could having your breast chopped off be just a blip? I wanted to yell this to her, instead, I asked, “What do you mean?”
“What you have is not even cancer, it’s pre-cancer, and it’s contained in the milk ducts. After the mastectomy, you won’t need to worry about your health again. I’ve seen many cases like that.” She talked with a finality that didn’t admit arguments.
Although the nurse’s flippant comment made me mad at the time, in a way, she was right. That cancer diagnosis entailed five surgeries, a body turned other, and emotional scars that were the hardest to heal, but I stayed alive. I continued mothering my child, being a high performer at work, and deepening my relationships.
One thing, though, bugged me: Everybody says a health scare changes you, that it makes you reassess your life, but I hadn’t felt a transformation. Cancer came, I researched the heck out of it, I dealt with the consequences, and went back to work before my two weeks of leave were over, eager to put it behind me. Had I miss the gravy train of wisdom that’s supposed to balance out the suffering? It didn’t seem fair.
In hindsight, cancer taught me a lot, but it wasn’t instant learning. It was a slow, tortuous process of coming to terms with the new me, and reassessing where I put my self-worth.
I was reminded of this experience when I read the moving essay by chef Gabrielle Hamilton in the NY Times, My Restaurant Was My Life for 20 Years. Does the World Need It Anymore? Gabrielle not only writes beautifully, but she is also using this crisis to spur her transformation, asking herself tough but crucial questions. Is it worth weathering the loss of income, the piling debts, the uncertainty of when and how she will be able to re-open Prune or should she fold? If she re-opens, what should the new Prune be like? And can her restaurant be essential for the wellbeing of the world?
Prune went from a little neighborhood place “driven by the sensory, the human, the poetic, and the profane” with only six dinner services a week and Mondays off, to having 14 services 7 days a week and 30 employees, all with a razor thin margin of profit.
Propelled by her own success, Gabrielle found herself serving brunches on tiny tables to “fetishistic foodies” and influencers that whipped out their phone every two seconds, instead of offering, as she had intended, a neighborhood haven where people could have an excellent meal at an affordable price. If she reopened, she ponders, it wouldn’t be for business as usual. She would return to her original intention: offering creative food that gives her joy in a small neighborly place where people sit at large round tables connecting with each other.
I’d say we need this kind of restaurant more than ever, once confinement is over.
The last month I’ve asked myself questions similar to Gabrielle’s: “Is my memoir even necessary? What can it bring to the world?” I have been dragging my feet on submitting it to more literary agents. I’ve almost felt ashamed for wanting to put my story in front of people, when we are all dealing with life and death concerns, with the loss of income and contact, with the fear of how we will survive this moment. My book seems too small in comparison. Wouldn’t I be more useful serving meals in a food kitchen than fencing with words?
I work hard to hold the faith that what I write can bring value to someone’s life. Writing still excites me, and I hope that, like Prune, my stories will offer refuge to readers, even if it’s just a moment of entertainment, or seeing themselves in me and feeling less lonely.
As much as I try to reflect on how this crisis can transform me—or the world—, there are days when all I can do is get from morning to night without giving in to despair or eating excessive amounts of chocolate.
If you find yourself on survival mode, unable to plan, reflect, or find a silver lining to this crisis, don’t feel bad. We are all learning something that will change our life going forward, something that perhaps we won’t fully grasp until months or years down the line, like it happened to me with my cancer diagnosis. I just hope we can find a way to weather this time by leaning on our unique gifts and believing in ourselves a little more.