<--'The Art of Peace, part 1'
When Maddie turned forty, she had a big party in a disused room at the back of an old pub. The room was octagonal, and had two pool tables, a juke box (which she made sure was packed with great dance music and old soul tracks) and a bar where we placed the plates of nibbles and dips we brought along.
The room was full of everyone – all her friends from wayback, most of the people from the improvisation theatre group she worked with (dancing and making a lot of noise around the pool tables, hooting and cheering at every ball sunk), people from her food co-op, neighbours from the street she lived in at the time, and a few family members, like Bruce and me, feeling a little young and out of place. (Forty was very old back then.)
The highlight of the party was when Jude her girlfriend brought out an iced pink cake shaped like a giant single breast, with a trembling chocolate nipple on top.
Before Maddie plunged the knife into the smooth fleshy surface and started cutting off slices, she carried it around the room and invited all the guests to have a lick of the nipple. The last person got to bite it.
Right after surgery I had a sense that I would never be able to bear missing that great well of sexual pleasure that I connected with my right breast. That sense has completely passed away, as I have come to realise that that well of feeling was within me… I can never lose that feeling because I own it, because it comes out of myself. I can attach it anywhere I want to, because my feelings are a part of me, my sorrow and my joy.
— Audre Lorde, from The Cancer Journals
Bruce and I have been invited to watch Maddie’s grading for her black belt.
She joined a Dojo up near where she lives about four years ago. She says that in Aikido, a person who reaches their first dan black belt is considered a beginner. The idea is that once you know enough of the basic structure and movements of Aikido and are thus able to deal with strong techniques by rolling out of them without getting hurt, then you can really begin learning. To symbolise this, for the past few months she has put away her purple belt and has returned to a white one.
Maddie says Aikido is about tuning in to the flow of things, being ready to step in and accept the challenge of the incoming force and move with its energy and learn from it, to create balance and harmony again. This is never something you do just once, but something you keep doing, over and over.
Enter when pulled, turn when pushed.
Unlike me: I keep putting my foot in the wrong spot (like in my mouth).
Like the day she rings me in tears. Bruce had been over to see her and had spent the whole visit trying to persuade her to do the full surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy thing, and to do it now.
I said, He’s concerned about you, Maddie. We all are.
There was a silence, and then she said quietly, I’m going to go now, and then I heard the purr of the dial-tone.
I stared at the phone, a deep pit of horror forming in my stomach. I dialled her number but it was busy. I waited a few minutes, my mouth dry but I was too afraid to move away from the phone to get a drink. I dialled again. Busy.
For the next hour I walk around the flat, barely daring to breathe. I dial; but all I get is the dead tone of the busy signal. Eventually I stand at the kitchen sink and force myself to drink a long glass of water, trying to dilute the remorse that fills every cell of my body, until at last I can cry.
When I dial again, this time she answers.
Maddie? I say. I wait for a moment, but when she says nothing I say, I’m sorry.
She sighs, a long exhale, and when she speaks I can hear the exhaustion in her voice: I just couldn’t stand it, not you, too.
— I am so sorry. I take a deep breath. — Can we start the conversation again?
She says, not tonight. And I say I understand.
But that night I sleep terribly, haunted by all the ways I could lose her.
At the Library I talk with a woman, Freya, who has had cancer, and she tells me that when someone close to you doubts the way you’re doing things, it can feel like betrayal. Or when people keep giving advice and suggestions of what you could do differently, it often just feels like criticism or judgement when that’s the last thing you need.
It’s hard enough, she says, dealing with cancer, without having to constantly fight a second battle with family and friends.
But what, I said, if you think what they’re doing is dangerous? What if what they’re doing or being told to do is wrong?
She said, Well, if you’re that certain then I guess you’d better make sure you tell her. But I wouldn’t mind if you’d give me Saturday’s Lotto numbers while you’re at it. I could do with a nice win.
She picked up our cups and took them to the sink. A small shaft of light, coming through the barred windows onto the street level, skimmed across the table, blending with the blurry pattern of the laminex.
On her way out she said, Look, everyone’s different. But for me, it was so hard to keep believing in myself and my ability to get through it, that sometimes even the slightest suggestion, given at the wrong moment, or in the wrong way, could feel like sabotage.
Well what is the right way? I whispered.
She said, Sometimes there’s no right way. It depends how you’re feeling. It depends who it is.
She said, You know, that was one of the most painful things I ever had to do, having to make a decision to cut off friends that I loved – when I most needed them — simply because I couldn’t trust them not to undermine me when I was feeling vulnerable.
When she left I nudged my handkerchief out of my pocket and blew my nose. I moved my chair into the little patch of sunlight and warmed my hands for a while before I went back to work.
Late in the afternoon, Freya came over while I was repairing some books and said, I’ve been thinking about it and sometimes people did have great suggestions or bits of information, and I really appreciated it.
As I turned towards her, the sticky clear sheet I was using to cover a book slipped and buckled back over onto itself. I spent the rest of the conversation trying to peel it off so I could start again.
She said, But to me the golden rule is that you only give your opinion on what they’re doing if they ask for it.
She reached over and picked up the amethyst crystal on my desk. Maddie had given it to me last time I visited, because I had admired it. Freya turned it this way and that, watching the light bounce off its many facets.
If you want to offer information, she said, just be sensitive to when’s a good time, and offer it as information, not advice. You could say, ‘this is something that helped me’ or ‘I have a friend who you could talk with if you wanted’ or ‘I have some books at home I could bring over if you’re interested’. Just make sure, she said, placing the crystal carefully back onto the only clear spot on the desk, that you do it in a way that is totally easy for the person to take or leave. It’s when it takes effort to push away people’s offers of things – when they bring the books over without asking you first, and then you have to pick a time to give them back and hope to God they don’t ask if you read them or what you thought… Or if they keep giving information even though you’re obviously not taking it up.
I nod. (Thinking of Bruce, and his campaign of attrition.)
You could look at it this way, she says: only offer something if it’s perfectly okay with you if they don’t use it. If you are going to get miffed because they don’t take up your brilliant suggestion or superior wisdom – or eat your casserole, or return your call saying you’re thinking of them — then that’s a good sign that you probably shouldn’t do it.
I wanted to give Freya a hug, but I didn’t know her well enough, and all I could do was nod and say thank-you. And then she gave me another gift.
She said, Look, your heart’s obviously in the right place. It’s okay to make a mistake. Just swallow your pride and be prepared to learn. It only feels so hard for you because it’s a new thing. Just don’t you start avoiding her because you feel like a goof.
It was true, I had been creeping around, too afraid to ring Maddie and hoping I wouldn’t run into her somewhere. (Which was extremely paranoid, as she lives in the country.)
So I rang her again, and we had a long talk. I said, if there’s any way I can help..?
She said, Right now, I just need a cheer squad.
(Cheer squad, I wrote on my phone notepad, underlining the phrase about ten times and then drawing a little box around it with curly wands coming out of the corners.)
She said, I’ve got a few people who understand and support my strategy and who I can really talk the issues over with, and I guess I was trying to make you into one of those. I shouldn’t have done that. I didn’t realise you had such doubts about what I was doing.
—Well… (I started frantically adding little triangles along the sides of the box.)
She said, It’s ok for you to have doubts. I can’t stop you having doubts. And I know you’ll probably need to talk through them with others. But when you’re talking to me, I just need a cheer squad. I just need support.
—Okay. (I would have said more, but I felt like I had a small anvil in my throat. I filled in the two ‘e’s’ in ‘cheer’ and extended the ‘r’ like a big curly tongue.)
She said, But perhaps if you do have doubts, rather than always just talk about it with someone else who thinks I’m crazy – like Bruce — maybe you might find it useful sometimes to seek out someone who is on my side about this and ask them for more information. Or I could suggest some books if you wanted to read them, so maybe you might trust me more in what I’m doing. And maybe eventually you could be more than just a cheer squad.
That would be great, I started to say, but she cut me off.
No, she said, just go and think about it. I need a cheer squad, and if a cheer squad is all you feel capable of right now, or have time for, then that’s fine. Don’t do anything to please me, only do it if you want to. If you just do it to please me it’s going to go wrong down the track.
After we hung up I noticed that a storm had blown up while we’d been speaking. I sat and listened to the gutters pouring water into a tank up against the downstairs wall, and drew a page of leaf shapes that became paisleys with scalloped edges, and little curly loops and tongues, and spirals connecting them, and down the side of the page, a whole row of pretty raindrops.
Later when I have a talk with Gail and the girls in the flat across the hall about it, Gail says, I guess it’s like being a support person at a birth. You discuss with them a birthplan, and then if you agree to be their support person your job is to do everything to help them achieve this. While they’re overwhelmed in labour is not the time to start a discussion on the pros and cons of their choices and options — and its certainly not the time to try to push your own ideas or use emotional blackmail.
Bob (Roberta) says, Yeah, but that only works because you’ve discussed it fully beforehand, before labour begins. The difference with cancer is that you don’t really get that option. Most people don’t like talking about cancer when they’re well.
Gail says, Well maybe that’s exactly when we should be talking more about it.
Zoe disagrees, You can make a decision when you’re coldly rational, but then it’s a whole different ball game when it actually happens and you’re facing a possible death sentence.
Which is why, says Gail, you need your trusted support person to remind you that when you were thinking rationally, this is what you decided. And to help you get calm again, and then allow you to change your mind.
Coldly rational. I wonder, when Bruce is getting hot under the collar about these things, if this is how he sees himself?
I ring Jude, Maddie’s girlfriend, at a time when I know Maddie won’t be home and ask her to recommend some reading. She gives me a list of books and websites.
I asked her what she would do if the position was reversed: what if Bruce had cancer and he was going to have chemo and they were afraid about the information he was trusting?
Jude says, Ooh, yes, have been in that situation, with a friend I loved dearly. And I can tell you it was very hard. But, he’s a smart person and that’s what he wanted to do, so I zipped up.
— But what if he had bad consequences from it, and then found out afterwards that you always thought it was dangerous and knew of better alternatives and hadn’t warned him? Wouldn’t a true friend warn him?
She sighed. Look, it was a really hard decision. Watching him get sicker and sicker and just hoping he’d be able to pull through. But he did know what I thought about all this generally. If he wanted to talk it over with me he could’ve. But he didn’t. And I trusted his instincts. And he did pull through; he’s fine now.
She paused and then said: Look at Susan Sontag – given up for dead by her American doctors so she went to France and had the most full-on chemotherapy she could find, and she lived. Maybe some people need an extreme therapy to give them hope and push them into a healing state. Maybe they need to be taken to the brink.
I could hear a dog barking in the background.
But that’s the whole thing, Jude says, it is an extreme therapy, with very thin statistical back-up and a dodgey theoretical basis – to me it’s just not logical to do that to your body when it’s already malfunctioning. But sometimes the illogical works.
I don’t say much, trying to take this in.
Gotta go, Babe, she says. Dogs are hankering for a walk. How’s that boyfriend of yours?
At work I’m shelving some books when I come across A Cancer Source Book for Nurses and look up chemotherapy.
‘Whenever hazardous drugs are handled, care should always be taken to avoid spills and a spill kit should always be available… This includes a gown with long sleeves to the wrist, double gloves, respiratory protection, and an eye shield.’
Further down the writer comments: ‘Concern is extended not only to the hazardous drugs but also to the excreta of patients receiving the hazardous drugs. The accepted time frame for special handling of bodily fluids after receiving chemotherapy is 48 hours. This includes urine, feces, emesis, and sweat. Special precautions should be implemented when any of these body fluids are handled.’
Jude says, Where do those 30 billion dollars worth of chemotherapy chemicals go each year? Is this really the best way to make world safe from cancer?
In the small tender hours of the night, I lie curled with my back against Leo, his nose whistling lightly as he sleeps, like a little train engine.
A hundred kilometres west, I imagine Maddie curled in a tight ball behind a lightly snoring Jude, clutching to her chest a copy of Ralph Moss’s Questioning Chemotherapy. Holding it like a talisman, a shield, when doubts ambush her, as all the great and powerful forces of hospital based medicine send out their arrows and knives: it must be right because everyone does it, it must be right because all the best brains, it must be right because everyone knows someone… It must be right because what else is there?
On the bedside table, more books stand guard: Samuel Epstein’s The Politics of Cancer. Articles by Don Benjamin. A book called What You Should Know (But May Not Be Told) About Prevention, Diagnosis and Treatment. Sharon Batt’s Patient No More: The Politics of Breast Cancer.
On the floor, connecting us up in the dark: Petrea King. Ian Gawler. Grace Gawler. Audre Lorde. And the grandmother of them all, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
Ralph Moss began his career as an enthusiastic science writer in the Public Affairs Department of Memorial Sloan-Kettering (a famous cancer research institute in the United States) gradually becoming more and more disillusioned as he was asked to write glowing press releases about flawed studies and unwarranted speculation. He writes, ‘It amazes me how much of what passes for knowledge in cancer therapy turns out to be incomplete, inadequate, and anecdotal.’
On Oprah a prominent woman doctor scoffs about a recent study that concluded that there was no real evidence to show that mammogram screening saved lives, by saying that it wasn’t a real study, ‘just a review of all the previous studies’ (a meta-study – usually regarded as the most reliable type of study), and it was done (she says contemptuously) by statisticians
Petrea King says: in the end, it is peace of mind that cures cancer. So if having chemotherapy brings you peace of mind, then do it, but visualise it always as golden healing liquid going into every part of your body…
Jude says: Anyway, Babe, listening is always more important than telling.
She says, the main thing is to listen carefully to make sure they are doing it because they want to, not because they’re being bullied into it, or because they’re not being offered alternatives.
She says people soon realise if they can express doubts without you shutting them up or saying some kind of rote platitude. She says, being able to sit and hear this is actually a rare thing. So most of the time you don’t have to openly say anything but just be honest in your reactions to what they say, and willing to listen, and eventually if they want to know what you think they’ll ask. And then you can tell them. But it’s up to them what decision they make.
You have to wait till they come to the point, you see, Jude says, where they’re ready to hear it. Where it becomes useable to them. It has to be information that empowers, otherwise it’s wrong information, no matter how ‘true’ I think it is.
In my dream, Maddie comes into the room and puts a thought on a small side table: Just in case you ever want it, she says.
Bruce hovers over me with his present: Open it, open it! Put it on! Show me!
When it comes to public discourse, however, Maddie and Jude are a lot more forceful.
We never spat on the soldiers, Sweetie, Jude says, no matter what the history books say. But we did voice our opinions loudly, so that those young soldiers might have different options, and perhaps a different fate. Besides, they’re not the only ones whose feelings matter.
They invite me to come along one day to a working bee for a group called Bust Up.
How are you with an icing bag, Darling? Jude says.
They are planning to make cup-cakes iced to look like breasts, with pamphlets in the bottom of the little patty pans. Then hand them out at a gala charity function later in the year, sponsored by a chemical company. And send preview cup-cakes and pamphlets to the media too, of course.
Meanwhile I plough my way through Jude’s reading list, finding it shocking but fascinating.
I read about how chemotherapy has its origins in mustard gas from World War One. The art of surgery was honed in the American Civil War. And radiation, of course, is one of the legacies of the atom bomb. Ironic that we use something that is a known cause of cancer as a standard treatment for it.
I learn that there are no real alternatives to chemotherapy and radiotherapy offered to people with breast cancer for much the same reasons that we aren’t offered alternatives to using fossil fuels for powering our cars.
And few alternatives explored when acute international conflicts emerge, except to use ‘massive doses of violence’ as Martin Luther King once put it.
Now I have many roles. Maddie talks things over with me. I am part of her cheer squad. And I think about her a lot. I try to find time once a day to sit with my body very still and my thoughts focussed and calm, and beam her my energy.
And I’ve also found a role as the buffer between her and Bruce. A kind of cancer door-bitch. Sometimes my role is simply to keep him away. And other times, like today, to let him in if he has a good enough attitude.
— Bruce, we’re going as her cheer squad. You mustn’t talk about her therapy.
— What therapy? Chanting and herbs?
— Ok. Maybe we should just turn around right now..
Maddie has a new doctor, who uses non-toxic methods to treat cancer.
Dr Megan says that some of her patients die, and some live, in around the same proportions as for doctors who use conventional toxic treatments. The main difference is in how her patients die. She says that depending on the kind of cancer and where it has spread to, her patients usually have a good quality of life right up until a few days or weeks before they go, and they usually die fairly peacefully.
To Bruce anyone working outside the system, or counter to the system in such a way is no longer a ‘real’ doctor, and has forfeited any social authority. (Catch 22.)
Herbs! he scoffed when I told him (as we sat drinking short blacks in Lygon Street). As if I’d said that Maddie was putting a four leaf clover under her pillow and trusting in that to kill off some cancer cells. I think that was the first time I’d realised that Bruce was still back in the days of the Tarzan movies, where the witch doctor sprinkled powders and potions around which we educated little white children knew were totally fraudulent. As if a little powder or a potion could do anything… that is, unless it had the name of a pharmaceutical company stamped on the bottle.
(Those same pharmaceutical companies busy nowadays mining the knowledge of tribal people, scouring the rainforests in a rush to patent as many phytochemicals as they can.)
When I told Gail she said (as she picked a mouldy orange out of the fruit basket), Doesn’t he know about the history of medicine? Where does he think drugs originally came from?
Bob said (pouring another cup of tea and popping an aspirin out of a bubble pack), Wasn’t he the one you smoked your first joint with?
But Bruce has his own mantra: Treatments are getting better all the time.
He uses this whenever I relay back to him Maddie’s statistics and objections: the long list of toxic side-effects and the consequent increased death rates from other causes, such as heart disease, that offset the small gains.
Yes, Bruce says, yes but treatments have got better since those statistics were collected. It’s totally different now.
Maddie says — And what if they’re wrong this time too? What if the next batch of statistics, in ten years time, show that there is still minimal benefit? Or no benefit?
Well, treatments are improving all the time. (In ten years time, this too will be the old days: inbuilt statistical obsolescence.)
Maddie says — so all they are offering in effect is their belief that this treatment is better now than it used to be and that good statistics will eventually prove this. If I want faith-healing, she says, at least let me choose my faith.
But these days it’s precision bombing. Lumpectomies rather than mastectomies. Focussed laser radiation. High tech. Teams of experts to debate strategy. Minimal losses. Anti-nausea drugs to lessen the side effects (or at least the more obvious effects of the side effects). Brilliant methods of reconstruction.
It’s a winnable war again. Fear and cheer. You’d be mad not to take advantage of it.
And Bruce’s other mantra: Early detection saves lives
Maddie says — Sometimes only a very few lives, at great emotional cost to large numbers of people who end up having unnecessary treatments or never-ending tests and anxiety. Prevention saves lives. So why aren’t we lobbying to reduce the number of carcinogens we keep pumping out into our air and water and loading into our food? Instead of putting the bulk of research money into ever-new combinations and types of poison?
Bruce and I arrive a little late to the old RSL hall where Maddie’s grading is (ironically) taking place. So we’ve missed the warm-up exercises and the introduction. We grab some brochures and handouts at the front desk and tip-toe our way to some seats in the upstairs viewing gallery and try to locate Maddie in the sea of white gi clad bodies on the mats below, now facing each other in pairs.
The grading is for all levels of experience, from people going for their first belt through to those going for a black belt like Maddie; all ages from ten year olds up; all shapes and sizes.
At one end of the room, ceremonial swords are placed below a framed photograph of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido who died in 1969; referred to as O Sensei, ‘The Great Teacher’. It is said that even as old man in his eighties, O Sensei could disarm any foe, down any number of attackers, and pin an opponent with a single finger.
Maddie, wearing her white gi and purple belt, bows to her opponent (who also bows) — palms meeting, her thumbs lightly touch her heart centre, then she brings her forehead to brush the tips of her fingers (left and right, head and heart) — and steps onto the mat.
In Aikido the person doing the throwing is called the Nage (Nah-gay); the person thrown is the Uke (Ook-ay).
Bruce and I nudge each other and give approving nods when Maddie throws the senior student she is partnered with, a tall wirey guy a grade above her. Her movement looks so effortless. We’re not sure if we’re allowed to clap, so we do tiny fingertip ones. Until we see someone watching us with a faint look of disapproval, after which we sit on our hands and watch quietly. Although sometimes he whispers a question and I whisper back.
Maddie says that in Aikido, the first thing you do with an incoming threat is to move in and make firm contact, embrace it to you and move along side it. (When an opponent comes forward, move in and greet him.) This is the decisive moment. Only in this way can you get an understanding of what it is, what kind of thing it is, where it wants to take you. At the same time, this way you know precisely where it is, so as to be able to keep moving out of its direct path, and prevent it from doing you harm.
If you try to knock it away, or counter force with force, all that will happen is that the strongest will win for now (and that may or may not be you). You won’t know where it will come from next time, or anything more about it (why it attacked you). Even in you win in this instance, you have become more vulnerable.
If you try to stand your ground, defending a fixed position, you will either be defeated, or have to fight over and over again.
Maddie’s partner grabs her wrist, and instead of pulling away, she extends her fingers, steps in, turns and rolls around beside him (out of the line of the attack and into a place where she could easily deliver a punch or push to his face if needed); with the weight of her body, and the awkward twist this puts on his wrist, she effortlessly breaks his balance and positions herself strongly.
Maddie is not passive in the face of her cancer – she is already moving. Already different to who she was two weeks ago, already thinking differently, acting differently; different priorities and habits.
The way she looks at it, the cancer gets its strength from her stress and imbalance. If she moves away from that position she can weaken its ability to attack, and start to dissipate its energy. From her new position she can begin to apply immobilising techniques, to neutralise the harmful quality of its energy, and to redirect it towards creating healthy cells.
Maddie says she wants to respond energetically to the cancer, but it is important that she keep opening herself up – to change, to lessons, to greater flexibility – rather than shut down, put up inflexible barriers and take a rigid position. She doesn’t want to go into siege mode. Such a fine line between aggression and fear; each one can flip so quickly into the other.
Seeing me before him,
The enemy attacks,
But by that time
I am already standing
Safely behind him.
In the next technique, as the Uke throws his punch she moves in towards him, connecting, in such a way that it is as if she was the one touching him rather than the other way around. Then she turns so that her body moves alongside his, gently shifting him off balance and taking control of their now combined energy force. Finally with a flowing circular step the Uke’s hand is forced down and he is flipped into a diving forward roll in order to untwist the lock on his wrist and prevent it being broken.
Maddie says the idea is to move in such a way that your opponent has three choices: he can let go (stop attacking); he can come with you (allowing his energy to be redirected); or he can persist in his attack, in which case he could get badly hurt. But the choice is always his.
When I think how strong Maddie is, and how courageous, it hurts me to hear people say to her, Come on, be brave, have the treatment.
But without a headscarf covering baldness how are people to gauge her courage? How is anyone to identify her as a trooper, or to know to stop her in the street and wish her well? (To be reminded every time they see her at the supermarket to say that silent prayer?) There is no roster of people calling in to take her in to hospital treatments. And the get well phone calls have dropped off because… is she really getting well? It’s all so unfocussed, without those D-Days and regular test results. And she doesn’t look sick. (She looks healthier than I’ve ever seen her actually.) Neighbours don’t deposit casseroles on her doorstep. Why should they? She is perfectly able to cook for herself and Jude. (And how would they know what to cook, anyway, that funny health food she eats…)
She steps, pivots, graceful and precise, moving always from her centre, using her entire body in every technique.
I remember about a year ago I had some peculiar and annoying symptoms and I looked them up in a medical book at work and read that one of the possibilities was cancer. As I read the words I felt my knees turn to water and there was a rushing sound in my ears.
I had the same feeling five years ago when I rang my father in hospital to wish him happy father’s day and was told that he had just passed away – a matter of minutes.
When Maddie first told me she had cancer, I couldn’t find my voice. It was like I’d forgotten how it worked.
I wonder if she felt that rushing in her ears, felt her limbs and joints dissolve? A breeze blows the curtain aside and for a moment we have a little glimpse.
When being pushed, turn, when pulled, enter…
Maddie and her partner bow to each other and then move to retrieve their bokken (wooden swords) that have been placed at the edge of the mat. Aikido techniques have their deep origins in the sword practice of the Samurai’s – as do most forms of Budo (martial arts), so using the swords correctly is a part of the training and part of the grading process. Feeling the weight in your hands, the power of the sword extending out from your centre, the correct posture and balance that comes with precise flowing movements, a strong grip, and a narrow profile; and learning to sense where the opponent’s sword will move next.
Budo means ‘stop the spear’. To defend her body from the cancer Maddie must overcome the fear within herself – for this fear is the opening that allows the cancer to be destructive (allows the spear to enter).
Or you could go further than that: fear is that which contracts and separates (the opposite to love, which embraces and joins), so fear is what creates the spear in the world, as well as that which makes it potent.
The wooden ‘clunks’ as the swords connect and are deflected has an almost musical quality as it is played out across the room.
I have noticed that my ears have become more attuned to the words death, dying, dead, died.
I hear Gail talking about something in the garden and my heart flutters. The newsreaders use it every night on the news. It leaps out at me from the covers of books. Song titles. When I walk past the cemetery I cross to the other side of the street. And the Italian women in black who carry flowers and small vases, when I pass them there is a part of me that reaches out, and another part that speeds up: quick, create distance, in a moment they will be out of sight.
Maddie says that the problem with the way we usually think of cancer is that it sets up a notion of it as something Other to yourself, an alien invading enemy, taking over and destroying you if you don’t root it out and kill it. A foreign evil taking up residence in your body.
She says, but the way I understand it, the cancer is simply one of your own cells that has lost the plot, mutated, and is now replicating itself and crowding out the healthy cells, messing up the system.
Normally, in a healthy body, individual cells that are damaged or mutated are quickly cleaned up and neutralised by the immune system. But in an overloaded body, one too stressed from constantly dealing with toxins and not getting steady proper nourishment, or a body-system energetically weakened by an emotional blow (or series of blows), the cancered cell is overlooked. And so it starts to replicate. Gradually becoming, as it divides and replicates (each cell dividing and reproducing again, and each of those cells…), too much for the already stressed immune system to deal with. And things begin to get out of control.
It divides over and over until it gradually forms a tumor. And then if something happens so that one of those cells breaks off, and if it travels through the blood stream without the immune system catching it and cleaning it up, it can lodge somewhere new and then it too starts to reproduce and form another tumor.
When they finish with the swords, they come back to the hand to hand techniques again, although this time she performs one while on her knees, with the Uke standing. Toes flexed under her, she moves even from this position with a sureness and grace, and within a few seconds the Uke is diving forward into a roll to escape injury.
Maddie says, if you see it as a contest, there is the possibility of defeat. If there is the possibility of defeat, then you’ve already lost in a way, in some part of your mind. That is, if you have a deep attachment to not losing, you have a fear of losing – of being lost, and this is a fear that weakens your ability to recreate harmony.
Maddie wants to find a way to view her cancer so that there is no ‘defeat’ no matter what happens. No ‘losing the battle after a long struggle’. No ‘succumbing’. Just transition and flow.
A little girl sitting next to me gently prises open an old ice-cream container to fish out some crayons, and begins colouring in a book she has brought with her.
In a suburb just across from this one, I spent a summer many years ago working night shift in an ice-cream factory. The machine I was employed on was called the Vita-Line. There were six of us, and we’d be switched around every half hour onto different aspects of the production line. There would be two people loading the sticks into the stick-inserter as the liquid ice-creams in their moulds started chugging past underneath; one checking their wrappers as they plonked in two neat rows into the cutter; two more packing them into metal frames in four lots of eight so they could be boxed; and one strapping down the boxes and loading them onto a skiff for the guys to come and take them to the freezer.
The thing about the job was that if everything was working well, and if everyone was doing their part efficiently, it all functioned beautifully and was quite a pleasant job with time to chat or just get into the rhythm. But if anything was out of balance – if the temperature wasn’t set quite right or if the mix was a little wrong, so that the ice-creams froze a fraction too early or too late (so the sticks broke, or tipped and tilted); if the volume of the ice-cream was a little over so it split the wrappers slightly; or if the guys running the machine speeded it up a smidgen to try to increase production, then there would be a cascading effect of stress all down the line. The stick-filler might need to rush about manually fixing the sticks, so then she’d get behind with her job and it was always ten times harder to fill the stick-machine if it was down low than if it was kept topped up. And if things went wrong up that end then the checker would be working furiously to whip out the empty wrappers or the split bags (and watch those fingers!) before they headed up the line to the packers. And if the checker made errors, so that the ice-creams didn’t tip and fold to arrive neatly dovetailed for the packers to pick up, then they’d have to frantically work double-time trying to correct this and still get them packed into the metal frames. And if they messed up, then the box-machine would jam, or the boxes would come out bumpy and hard to strap down and then they too would start to pile up and push against each other while the strapper was trying to squash them into order. With both the packing and the box-checking, like the stick-filling, it was always heaps easier to keep up if you always began with a clean slate, but as soon as things started to pile up, it became harder and harder to fix.
Until I learnt how to become a super-packer (a little trick taught to me by a beautiful calm Japanese student who worked the midnight shift with me), I used to have nightmares of those ice-creams inching their way up the slide towards me, becoming less compact and harder to deal with every second that I struggled to cram their slightly mal-adjusted brothers into the box-frame; overwhelming anything I could do until I had to yell for a tub and someone to help clear them out so I could start afresh. Which was always just a temporary solution (creating another chore for later), especially if the real problem was the machine settings in the first place…
Deepak Chopra says that greed is the mistake made by cancer cells. This, and the mistake of thinking they can go off on their own, that they’re not part of the whole.
O Sensei says: Opponents confront us continually, but actually there is no opponent. Enter deeply into an attack and neutralise it as you draw that misdirected force into your own sphere.
She steps in, connects, and pivots, so for a moment she is facing in the same direction as the Uke, seeing as he sees.
Her extended fingers interlock with the energy of the air, curling it in towards her navel centre (her Hara), and enclosing and locking the Uke’s wrist with it so that when she pivots to continue her journey he is drawn along like a rag doll.
Maddie says the key to this movement is to imagine the ki flowing from your centre and along your arm and extending out through your fingers in a stream, like water in a fire hose, or a mighty river, and to keep moving in the direction of this flow
Maddie is engaging with the problem of her cancering cells on a number of levels. She is using cancer-targeting herbs to reduce their amount and free up her immune system from being overwhelmed by this; she is juicing to detox her body from years of chemical overload and nutritional abuse; while boosting her immune system so it becomes the equivalent of a super-packer. And she is working at resetting and fine-tuning her overall body-mind, reducing her stress, clearing emotional problems and energy-blocks, and bringing it all back into balance.
(How do you defeat the enemy in the mirror?)
Do not stare into the eyes of your opponent: he may mesmerize you. Do not fix your gaze on his sword: he may intimidate you. Do not focus on your opponent at all: he may absorb your energy. The essence of training is to bring your opponent completely into your sphere. Then you can stand where you like.
As the Uke throws a punch she steps decisively in and to the side, grasping his wrist with first one then both of her hands, and as she pivots his arm is swung down, around and then up into the air, pushing him back off balance; and as she continues to move in a circular step she brings her hands down with the energy of her whole body, like an axe falling and, already off balance, the Uke is propelled forward into a fall. He tucks his head under and rolls out of it and away from her, ending in squat, ready to rise and begin again, from a new position.
They bow to each other, and it begins again.
Within the philosophy of Aikido, every conflict is an invitation to movement and change.
Maddie’s task is to honor, receive and redirect the opponent’s energy – turning it from a negative into a positive. Accepting it as an opportunity to explore and learn.
Thus the focus is on yourself, rather than your opponent, who is regarded as a teacher rather than an enemy. The assumption is that your original position must have been a vulnerable one, in relation to the overall situation, if it left you open to attack, and so you use the energy of the incoming force to move to a new and better position.
Acceptance, here, is an active not a passive attitude, an embracing and harnessing of the potential in the situation, rather than a resistance to it, and nostalgia for the past.
In Aikido, which draws on Eastern spiritual traditions such as Shinto, we are all ultimately one, with no concept of an exterior Other: thus surrender is to the forces of life. A powerful movement.
Maddie says that negative emotions are both caused by and in turn cause energy disruptions in the body, which can contribute to ill health or prevent healing from taking place. So although working on these (with kinesiology, gestalt therapy, journal writing, meditation and so on) is the most challenging and time consuming part of her strategy, she sees it as essential.
And anyway, she says, if I want to get the most out of having cancer, then it’s good to use it as a catalyst for spending time on myself in this way – guilt free time, when this kind of thing is usually pushed to the back as a luxury.
She says this is also one of the benefits of using herbs (rather than chemotherapy) because a good formula can work on a number of levels and have complex physical actions while also supporting your emotional growth.
For Maddie being healed from cancer is not about returning to her ‘old self’, but moving on and creating a new self, a sharper, clearer, better model. Shedding the things that were weighing her down.
She steps around firmly in a flowing circular move, and her body weight cascades over the fulcrum of his twisted wrist like a wave. The Uke crumples to his knees and slaps the mat hard with his free hand.
Maddie says that when a technique is applied correctly, the muscular effort involved in redirecting the Uke’s energy so he is thrown (even someone tall and strong) is about the same as required to pick up a house brick.
Bruce is getting a bit restless. He whispers in my ear, ‘This looks more like a dance than a martial art.’
Aikido can look deceptively tame at times, or at first. Too slow and polite to be of any use in the real world. Real attackers don’t stand just where you want them to stand, or move in predictable ways. But Maddie says that what it does is gradually retrain your whole self – your body, mind and spirit (your attitude, every muscle in your body, your nervous system) – to respond in these flowing, harmonising, but powerful ways whatever the conflict, whatever form it comes in.
She says it develops your sixth sense, so you become aware of the difference between a situation that is flowing and one that has the potential to turn into harm, and can act decisively right at the beginning, rather than after it has escalated or become entrenched.
Maddie also says that her partner might look like he is being a bit pooncey in his attack, but if he is breathing right and centred, he is standing and holding extremely firmly. It would take a great deal of physical strength to push him off balance by normal means.
She slides her hands to grasp the back of the Uke’s arm so that her thumbs push neatly into two pressure points, steering him over and down. Another time when he is on his knees with one hand on the mat, she nudges her thigh into a trigger point at the side of his chest and he arcs forward and across onto his stomach as if a secret switch had been flicked.
There are about a hundred students altogether, spread throughout the hall. The only sound they make as they move is a ‘Hai’ (‘Ha-ee’) — not like the loud high ‘khiaps’, of some of the more spectacular martial arts – but a sound from the Hara (the navel centre, or solar plexus), full of breath and body.
I start to feel some of the peaceful pleasure Maddie says she gets from her Aikido practice. Not just an absence of tension, but a positive feeling. A deep grounding. Like walking with your feet in the ocean, or standing on rocks in a flowing stream. Or touching the foliage of a deeply rooted tree.
Maddie says that Aikido, like meditation, is a psychophysiological practice, which changes the substance of the body, by changing its connection with everything around it, making it harder to displace, making it more ‘solid’.
Each time she completes a technique and before beginning the next, she pauses, breathes, calms and connects herself with her energy again.
I think the first time I saw Aikido being demonstrated was in a park in Bondi, at a peace rally at the start of the Gulf War in 1991. I remember thinking it looked all very well for the Sensei, standing talking to us while effortlessly moving and throwing students left and right as they came at him in various ways, but it didn’t seem much fun for the poor guys being thrown over and over again.
As if reading my thoughts, the Sensei said that for the students (or Ukes), once they accept the situation — stop attacking and stop resisting — the sense of being thrown can be exhilarating, like rolling with a wave in the surf on the ocean and standing up again at the end.
Maddie says that taking the part of the Uke is an important part of practice. It allows you to incorporate through your body the lesson of the self-defeating nature of aggressiveness, how much more energy it takes to resist the flow of life, and how vulnerable to injury it makes you. It teaches the importance of knowing when and how to let go completely and surrender, to accept one’s mistakes and learn from them. And how much safer and stronger it feels to return to harmony and balance.
Perhaps this is why it is so important that armies have all that order and precision and uniforms and gloss — a kind of mirage or desperate attempt at making something so disorderly and chaotic and uncertain into something that seems, at least on the surface, to be so controlled and neat and precise and scientific. The beautiful clean public face of militarism. And below this, under this, inside, the crazy mess of lines of men walking towards lines of men each holding out a gun with a bayonet fixed to it. Orderly and precise, right up to the moment when they clash…
Maddie says no-one really knows anything for sure about cancer treatments. All you can do is read the evidence and ask questions, weigh up the options, and then in the end you just have to make the final decision yourself by following your gut instinct, your values and your past experience. You have to use your head as your heart’s companion, and then you do what feels right.
The grading challenges are coming to an end. The senior students who have been wandering around, observing carefully, have moved up to join the Sensei at the front of the dojo to confer about the results.
Maddie and her partner bow to one another, then kneel at the side of the mat to await the assessment.
She says above all Aikido is about being flexible – about not ruling out any option.
The best strategy relies upon an unlimited set of responses.
She has decided for the moment to say no to chemotherapy in order to explore her options, because as long as it’s on the table it dominates and contaminates all other possibilities. But she sees this as a strategic decision, not a law that she must now be bound to forever. She says that down the track if chemotherapy felt right, she would certainly consider it. And then adds (before Bruce can start to look too hopeful), just as she might also consider bloodletting, if that was still in practice.
Best medical practice. What is routine and considered essential in one era is deemed barbaric in another. How do we know that this love-affair with chemicals and poisons, this fashion for waging war on the body in the name of health, won’t likewise pass away one day?
Maddie makes her way to the front. When her turn comes she steps forward and bows (left and right palms joined, head and heart) and receives her black belt.
I touch Bruce’s hand, and his fingers curl around and enclose mine. His hand is so warm, and comforting. I feel awash with him in a sea of pride and emotion, and helpless: the watchers on the benches, the family and friends.