Cancer log 193: Art.

When I was invited to participate in this breast cancer gallery exhibition, I wasn’t sure what kind of imagery I’d end up with for the finished piece. I felt a faint pressure to keep the work positive, uplifting, and that made me cranky, because my experience of breast cancer had plenty of darkness to it. I was a little tempted to slather black paint over the whole thing and have done with it.
But that’s not really me. I had one idea that I thought would work well, to build a harness to surround the torso, sort of a warrior woman kind of thing, calling back to Wonder Woman and Amazon mythology. But that wasn’t really me either — I didn’t experience cancer as a fight, a battle, the way it’s so often depicted.
In the end, I thought about what sustained me, through that difficult year, and I came up with three things: my garden, my writing, and my friends and family. They’re all represented here. I started with a blue background, the color of a sunny sky on a beautiful day. I added marbleized gold and gold glitter — that’s my friends (both online and off, and even a few total strangers) and family, who gave so much support in so many different ways.
Then I added a poem, “Tornado,” that I wrote during the year of treatment, a difficult poem, but a hopeful one too. I gathered flowers and leaves from my garden and the grocery store and pressed them, and then placed them on the piece. The front and back were approached differently — I started with bougainvillea petals on the left breast, where the cancer had been, because bougainvillea will always mean Sri Lanka to me, and that’s a piece of my heart. They scatter outward from there, pansies and hydrangea and mums and even a poisonous oleander blossom, as if picked up and tossed about in the storm.
On the back, I composed a little differently — a crown of hydrangea blooms above what looks a little like a face, or a mask. Sometimes, cancer felt like that — as if I were overexposed, with all the world knowing what was happening to me, and all I wanted was to disappear, to hide. And then roses, for the people who live in my heart, with a scattering of petals and greenery beneath. Green for life, and healthy growth emerging.
I didn’t have to make something pretty, but in the end, I’m glad I did. That’s important to me, and is what I’m often trying to do as a writer — to take pain and try to make beauty from it, when I can.
We knew it would rain today, but
driving to the first chemo appointment,
the radio upgrades the warnings –
thunderstorms, yes, the drops hammer
against the windshield. But hail too,
strong winds, the chance of a tornado.
The garden is waking slowly, early snowdrops
giving way to scilla and chiondoxa,
tiny and tough. With rising warmth, bluebells
and crocus emerge, daffodils open. Cool whites
and blues are joined by warmer tones; pink
hyacinths release their scent –
washed away in today’s storms.
Some flowers may survive. Others will be beaten
down, petals tattered, leaves and stems dragging
in the mud. Tomorrow I will walk my garden
and count the toll of devastation, mourn each
brave blossom – my hands dug them in,
planted them deep, for this?
But roots survive, the bulbs beneath the soil.
Most daffodils still hold themselves tight-budded,
will open when the sun returns; the tulips
will spring forth, straight and proud and tall.
Into every life a little rain must fall. Last night,
we read over the lists of symptoms and side effects.
No toxins in my soil, but we still pour them
into my body, to fight this strange unwanted growth.
At garden club, I ask, despairing, what to do
about the burdock – I dig and dig, but it keeps
coming back, the bastard. A long taproot, tenacious.
She says even eco-conscious sorts
may resort to poison in the end. But rather
than pouring it over the plant, the soil,
they paint it on, delicately, with a paintbrush.
The new drugs work like a paintbrush – focused,
targeted. We hope their poisonous effects
will be lessened and contained. There will still,
undoubtedly, be some damage.
We ask the universe for a favor today.
Let the worst of the storms pass us by,
let the tornado touch down, lightly, and rise again.
Let the winds dissipate
while there are still flowers on the bud.
Let the sun return.
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Press On

Accompaniments done, on to rice and breads. A little slower than anticipated, because I had a flower pressing emergency. Huzzah for the microwave, but it still took some time to get through the first wave. Also spent a little while pruning the hellstrip. V. satisfying, rehabilitating some of the damage from the road construction. It’s going to look very nice in a week or so, when it’s all done.

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First dahlia of the season, a little late, because I was busier than usual in May, and so I didn’t get them into the ground until June. That’s all right, but it makes me a little sad to see how small the plant is. I started planting dahlias about six years ago, putting them in the ground in spring, lifting them out in fall, right after first frost. Storing the tubers carefully in a cool, dry place, to replant again the next spring. Each year, the tubers got bigger, and the plants put out more stalks, more flowers. After three years, I was able to gather great big bouquets for the house, and still have plenty of flowers left on the plant for the neighbors to enjoy.

But in 2015, chemo was followed by surgery was followed by radiation, and I was too harried and exhausted to keep track of everything — I could have gotten help, but I completely forgot to ask someone to dig out my dahlias at the right time. So they all died, rotting in the ground. I was so angry with myself when it happened.

Yet here I am, healthy again. In spring, I bought some dahlias again, put them in the ground. This one is Claudette, a variety I particularly liked, that I decided to repeat; the others are new. Claudette is lovely, even if she is a little small and spindly this year. She’ll grow. Sometimes, everything burns down, and you just have to start over. It’s okay.

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Autumn Tapestry

This is the first year I’ve had colchicums (fall-blooming bulbs, a little larger than crocuses), and the first year I’ve had hardy mums that came back, probably twice as big as when I planted them last year. Love how they look together, with the silvery artemisia between.

When I first moved into the house, I concentrated on a spring garden (ephemeral bulbs, daffodils, tulips, bleeding heart), then after a few years, added more for summer (roses and clematis and lilies and hostas), and now, I’ve started focusing on the autumn garden, trying to create a tapestry of color.

Eventually, I’ll get to working on the winter garden too — maybe next year; I need to put in some evergreens, I think. I get impatient sometimes, wanting it all done at once, and must remind myself that there will be time. “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”

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Signs of autumn

Signs of autumn.


And look, cotton! I haven’t seen that in the store before, v. cool.

It’s nice to have the house full of flowers again — I usually don’t do much with indoor arrangements over the summer, but as we head into the darker part of the year, the need for brightness emerges.

Winter is coming. But it’s not here yet!

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Supplemental Programming

The Garden Club is experimenting with adding some weekend programming to our calendar — hope you can join us:

Sun October 1, 1:30 – 3:00, Oak Park Main Library, Community Engagement Space: “Planting Bulbs for Winter and Spring: paperwhites and amaryllis, spring ephemerals, daffodils and tulips and more.”

Sat February 17, 10 – 11:30, Oak Park Main Library, Small Meeting Room: “Seed starting for vegetable gardens.”

Sun April 22, 3 – 4:30 p.m., Oak Park Main Library, Veterans Room: “Dahlias! Planning dahlias for late autumn blooms.”

Light refreshments will be served; all are welcome.

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Spent half an hour weeding and cleaning up the hellstrip this morning. The autumn sedum have started to bloom; I think this one might be Autumn Joy, but not positive. It’ll bloom from now until November, is drought-tolerant and generally requires nothing more from you than that you enjoy it.
I also continue to really enjoy the pink achillea / yarrow — it mostly went brown a month or so ago, but I trimmed those off, and it’s now put out a second big flush with lots of bright pink blooms.
I may have gone a little pink-heavy in the hellstrip, given that the Fairy rose is also blooming there, but that’s okay. I should think about what would be blooming blue or purple there at this time for next year. It’s not quite dahlia time yet.
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Moving Day

This is some variety of beardtongue / penstemon, prairie native, new this year, and I totally underestimated how tall it would grow — it’s almost 4 feet, I think, and completely blocks my bench. Oops. Will move it. I was talking to a neighbor earlier today, as I moved an iris, and she said she didn’t realize you could just move things this time of year.

So thought it was worth noting that I move things all the time, to create better effects, or to put them in a happier spot for them. But moving is traumatic, so you have to be prepared to baby them for a little while afterwards, which mostly means lots of water. Saturating the ground before the move helps, so the roots soak up lots of water (which also makes it easier to dig), and digging a nice wide hole, so you grab a bunch of dirt around the roots, disturbing them as little as possible in the move. And of course, if you’re going to be moving things in summer, best to do it in the coolest part of the day, early morning or evening, and on an overcast day if possible.

But I really do move things all the time, and mostly they survive it. I accept a certain (fairly small) percentage of loss as a result. f I didn’t risk it, I’d never be able to remember where things were or why I wanted to move them; I need to see them in bloom, because my note-taking just isn’t that good. If I were more organized…

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GC meet-ups

I’m pleased to note that the OPRF garden club is going to add some casual meet-and-greets in the next year — six of them, hopefully. They’ll have loose themes, with perhaps a 15-minute presentation, but we’ll also be encouraging people to simply bring their garden questions, ideas, thoughts, or simple interest in meeting other gardeners. Light refreshments will be served, and they’ll probably mostly take place at the libraries.

I’ll be working on the schedule in the next week, so if you have preferences for dates (we’re aiming for evenings or weekends, in contrast with the regular Garden Club meetings, which are on Wednesdays @ noon), now is the time to say so.

Also, if you have ideas / requests for topics to cover, please suggest them here! I have some ideas, but totally willing to toss them for better suggestions. 🙂

June: “Is This a Weed or a Flower?” (At Mary Anne’s house.)

August: “Planning your spring bulb garden: crocuses, daffodils, tulips, and more.”

October: “Forcing paperwhites and amaryllises for winter indoor blooms.”

December: Holiday meet-up!

February: Topic?

April: “Planning dahlias for late autumn blooms.”

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