Hello friends - this is Jess Smith with my second installment on fitness and writing. Thank you all for your thoughts on last week's piece.
For the next few weeks I'll be exploring the connection between physical fitness and writing. Long obsessed with both, I'm hoping to examine the relationship between the body and the pursuit of writing from many angles - why are so many of the most exciting poets I know also obsessive runners? Why are so many of the poets I know former hardcore athletes, some of them even flirting with professional status? Alternately, why do some writers slyly criticize the pursuit of physical fitness? Is fitness an addiction like anything else, and we poets are somehow more prone to be seduced by its high?
And, as with any work, I'm excited to explore questions I've long had about myself and my own dogged pursuit of fitness, often at the sacrifice of sitting down to write. I look forward to posting here and to hearing your thoughts on the matter, all you poet-athletes out there.
For my second post, a meditation on illness, family, and how I dealt with my body and my writing when my mother was sick. That's her holding my hand at her wedding in 1988. Big hair = big love. Happy reading and happy weekend.
First, she said it was a stomach bug. Nothing to worry about. Then she called me to say, okay, it’s a lump. A lump I have to have removed. Three days later, finally, she said it: cancer.
Sometimes, when you have a horrible suspicion, it almost feels good to have it confirmed. The relief of substantiation.
While I do not always write about my mother, she is present in everything that I write. She has often struggled with her appearance in my work. Ever my biggest supporter and number one fan, it’s still not easy to be criticized or dramatized by your daughter. I’ve also appropriated some of her stories - mostly because they are so totally amazing and crazy - but I’ve never known how to just write about her. It’s always around her, next to her, or she’s operating as an overseer, some high Southern priestess hovering above my work. A mentor whose mother passed away when he was a teenager put this phenomenon well when he told me “No matter what poem I’m writing, my mother is always dead in that poem.”
Though I have a large and exceptionally close family, my mother is the epicenter of my writing world. For many reasons (all of them sad), my father has not been a part of my life since I was a child. My mother and I had a few hardscrabble years in there where it was her and me against the world. I don’t think either one of us has quite lost that sensation.
Because poetry begins where words fail us, it is the only medium in which I’ve ever adequately been able to approximate my devotion to her, my worry for her, and - sometimes - my anger.
When she received her diagnosis, the oncologists were roundly optimistic. The tumor was small and caught very early. She was young. Though they could not say it would be an easy process, it would be easier than most. And, most importantly, her chances of survival were excellent, virtually foolproof. Barring complications, of course.
I felt relieved, gratified. I felt like we’d all been sleeping next door to a bar with a neon sign flashing cancer at all hours, keeping us awake and afraid, and now we could close the blinds and get a little rest.
I fantasized about her recovery, how she would take up running and yoga. How bright her skin would be. How her sweet, skinny little arms would get the shadow of definition. I read up on the long-term benefits of exercise. I force-fed her journal studies on heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and all manner of cancer. She had always been a sporadic gym-goer but once she got well, I believed, working out would serve as both atonement and salvation.
Communication is big vat of pressurized steam: if it can’t find its way out in words, it will find it way out in tears. Or laughter. Or sex. Or violence. If we refuse our need to share with each other, it will grow and deform inside of us. No matter how often we lie, the body does not.
When students or friends have said to me “I just don’t get poetry,” I want to yell. Or laugh. Or jump on them and shake their shoulders and say of course you do. There is more than one way to understand a thing.
“Poetry speaks to the ways we are silent with each other,” said the poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Everyone knows this silence. Poetry creates communion by exploring it.
My silence, when my mother was ill, manifested itself as incessant chatter, an unbroken conversation about fitness loud enough that I wouldn’t be able to hear anything else over the din.
Mostly my mother smiled and asked for ice chips when I rambled on about green juices and marathon training. She fell asleep a few times, at which point I would go for a very long run. During the month I was home after her surgery, it seemed I could do nothing but exercise, read about exercise, and tell other people about exercise. I did not write or pick up a book or even watch television that demanded anything of me beyond passive observance (think What Not to Wear and old Dick Van Dyke Show reruns). I didn’t practice yoga once.
One afternoon I went in to check on her and tell her about some things she could do to help improve her circulation. Vascular recovery, I said. Inflammation. She nodded, green eyes half-closed, and said she would try whatever I suggested. Picturing myself a doctor or at the very least some romantic wartime nurse, I pulled back the covers took her calves into my hands. She was so thin, her muscles so atrophied, that her entire body felt as substantial as an earlobe. I almost dropped her from the shock.
Propping her legs up on pillows while she grimaced, moving her knees so that they were at the exact right angle, I went on and on about cell regeneration, stress hormones, adding green tea to your daily diet.
There is a line in the novel Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee where he writes that his protagonist, David Lurie, has “never been afraid to follow a thought down its winding track, and he isn’t afraid now.” I have always clung to this notion of the true intellectual, one who is not afraid of thoughts but only actions. That we must, in fact, entertain all manner of perverse, disturbing, overstimulating thoughts to understand anything to its fullest.
The one thought I cannot abide, though, the winding track I’ve never followed, is my own mother’s mortality. The boundary where she begins and I end is blurry, at best, and I’ve long felt responsible for the perpetuation of her existence. I write about her so often to show the world this extraordinary, maddening woman. To do her honor by recreating her in her many forms. To keep her alive forever.
It took me a long time to understand that I was angry at my mother for getting cancer, that I had silently been ticking off a list of her sins:
She drank too much Tab in 1992-93.
She stressed herself out over stupid things.
She didn’t eat enough vegetables.
She didn’t eat enough in general.
More than anything, I felt a well of fury that the idea of her death - unthinkable to me - seemed even remotely reasonable to her. That even the flicker of acquiescence had darkened her face. This fury did not take into account the terror she must have felt, the disconnection from her body which she could no longer trust, the fundamental unspeakability of illness. It was, like most rage, a position of pure selfishness.
My plans for her body, her post-cancer recovery, were a way of judging her. Wagging my terrified, fit finger at her and demanding she do it my way. So that I might be less afraid.
I heard Cheryl Strayed speak at a conference two summers ago about her own mother’s cancer. We were about the same age when our mothers got sick, but Strayed’s mother did not survive. She said that sometimes she still goes into a sort of fugue state she deemed squirrel-brain - as a squirrel searches for food thinking only nut nut nut, sometimes she catches the loop of her empty brain crying mommy mommy mommy.
I believe the best poetry has more to do with this mindset, with working to both escape and describe the impulsive heart trap, than it does with perfectly formed, measured thoughts. I wrote probably a hundred poems about my mother’s illness. I wrote about how it wasn’t so bad, how it was awful, and I wrote about how it just was. I wrote in the voice of my sisters, in the voice of my mother’s husband, in the voices of strangers. They were benedictions, they were formal letters of complaint to God, they were remedial worksheets in learning a new language: “the unwell form of the verb mother is conjugated as…” It was like fumbling around for a lightswitch in a windowless room only to find there’s no bulb dangling from the ceiling.
None of the poems were any good because I was still so far inside it. I’m not even sure I will ever write anything valuable about my mother because my feelings for her are so bright, so loud, so undisciplined.
Today my mother is in full remission. While she did not fit her plans for recovery into my manic fitness rubric, she did change her life. Something in her is quieter now, gentler without being afraid. As her own parents face their mortality, I watch her slip into the same squirrel-brain that I did when she was ill. Her eyes a little glassy, her breath slower for a moment. And I know we are all just holding our hands up to the future, hoping to press it back a few days, hours, minutes longer. I know I am writing to get beyond the fact that it will never be enough.
Originally from Georgia, Jess Smith now lives and works in New York City. Her work can be found in Sixth Finch, Phantom Limb, Ghost Town, The Best American Poetry Blog, Lumina, and other journals. She received her MFA from The New School in 2013.