I spent the week hiding in a corner of northern England, in the early 20th century. Downton Abbey's Dowager Countess and Mrs Patmore made me laugh out loud, while the tragedies of the aristocracy and their servants made me cry about things that have nothing to do with me, or let me cry about the things that do. I used them all as ropes, harnesses and carabiners to keep me from hitting bottom, or banging against the walls in the cancer crevice where I’m currently dangling.
It’s been a shitty week.
I tried to do some exercise. It’s getting me down that I’ve lain around for six months. I used to be a regular runner. I took a little 3.5k jog, and two walks, one up and down a steep hill. My lower back is hurting. My hips ache. I have shin splints on the right side. All this from doing what used to qualify as almost nothing. It’s hard to imagine it all feeling right again. I did attend two seders, cook a brisket, and make a pile of unleavened cookies, but I don’t rank that very high. I lost it when I forgot I was trying to bring egg whites to room temp in the sink, and turned on the faucet. I tried to write, but kept finding myself back in bed with Cousin Violet.
I’d written that first paragraph above, and popped onto Wikepedia to get some quick info on rock climbing equipment, because belaying, dangling by straps, things-that-keep-climbers-from-crashing was the metaphor that popped into my head (despite the fact that neither the Dowager nor the cook puts one in mind of such strenuous activity - although the work of a cook is plenty hard and physical.)
Somehow (well, I know perfectly well how) I got off course and found myself on Facebook. I came upon Rona Maynard’s post about the death of a superstar feminist Wikepedia editor Adrianne Wadewitz 37 - in a rock climbing accident.
As Rona suggested, before reading the NYT obit I went to Wadewitz's blog post on the profound lessons rock climbing had taught her about teaching, and especially about being a student learning something for which you have little or no aptitude. She had been a life-long athletic failure, who embraced the challenge of learning something worlds away from her skill and knowledge set.
While poking around on Wikepedia, I found out about rating systems for climbing routes.
Ratings, or grades, record and communicate consensus appraisals of difficulty. Systems of ratings are inherently subjective in nature, and variation of difficulty can be seen between two climbs of the same grade. Hence, there may be occasional disagreements arising from physiological or stylistic differences among climbers. The practice of rating a climb below its actual difficulty is known as sandbagging.
Sandbagging. Wow. I sandbag myself every day.
I often rate my cancer climb below its true level of difficulty. It’s fucking hard, but it sometimes feels like it oughtn’t to be, and while you can talk to others about their experiences, join chat groups, and read memoirs, no one else can rate my climb. I’m the only one climbing it, with my skills and handicaps, my baggage and equipment, my dried fruit and heavy water container.
I make things harder for myself by repeatedly pointing out all the stuff I’m not accomplishing – the cleaning, the taxes, the writing, the writing.
Then I thought about Adrianne Wadewitz and the beauty of recognizing and pulling oneself up by one's challenges. We choose some of what we come up against; the rest, we turn a corner and slam into. Regardless how we get to them, there we are, and there they are – the scheduled MRI, the loneliness, the watery egg whites, the unfinished novel.
I’m not sure I’ll ever stop sandbagging myself, whether it’s about cancer or anything else. But maybe I’ll know that’s what I’m doing, spot difficulty where it hides, and now and again, adjust the rating accordingly.
In the meantime, cancer is a game of unexpected backsliding with little such thing as an old pro, never mind a new one. And if in a mostly sunny sprouting spring week, in the energetic and normal-feeling part of the treatment cycle, leading up to my final chemo, I spend a week on my ass in Yorkshire, so be it.