Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Getting Better All the Time

Towards the end of my radiotherapy sessions, Kristy told me about a woman also receiving treatment at the same time as me. She'd had chemotherapy and lost all her hair, but would turn up every day looking fabulous: a wig or a hat, make-up, beautiful clothes. Then one day she arrived looking pale and wan, in drab clothes. Kristy asked if she wasn't feeling so well, but she apparently replied in a deadpan voice: "First day back at work."

I can absolutely understand this, as I slowly wind my way back into a fuller programme of work (writing; supervisions; eight lectures; a conference in London; and a research trip over the twelve week semester that starts this week). I'm feeling very wary of slipping into old ways of taking on too much, and don't trust myself to be strong enough to protect myself. There's no doubt I'm over the most difficult parts of my treatment, but while I'm starting to feel physically stronger in lots of ways, it's quite clear to me that I haven't yet finished being sick. In one sense it's lovely to feel some energy returning, but it's so clear to me that I can't return to the same life I was living before September, when the little dimple appeared and called a halt to life in the academic fast lane. I'm almost sorry I don't have some more visible sign of illness to protect me.

This is contradictory, of course: ten days ago I was sitting in a lovely restaurant with my partner and son, my writing collaborator and another dear medievalist friend. We had toured the amazing Werribee Mansion, and were just sitting down to a crisp white tablecloth and local Shadowfax wines, before heading to Torquay beach for the afternoon, and then tea with my parents. All of a sudden, I announced with deep, clear and joyful conviction, that I didn't feel like a sick person anymore. And it's true: I don't. I'm walking along the creek every morning for about forty minutes; and while my right arm is sore after playing tennis on Sunday and trying too hard, too soon, to start working on my serve (the scar under my arm feels pulled and strained today), I was, nevertheless, running around the court, and not feeling too tired by the end.

But I still feel, very clearly, that I haven't finished my recovery. There are still huge and clear limits to my energy levels, especially when it comes to drawing on reserves of emotional and social energy. I feel I have no such reserves any more. I still need a nap most days; I still quickly feel overwhelmed and a little panicky. I'm sure it's not at all like having a nervous breakdown; and yet I do feel as if I have, indeed, lost my nerve. Literally, of course, this is exactly what's happened: I'm still numb and tingly in sections of my arm and shoulder where the nerves were cut as part of the lymph node biopsy. In this case, the bodily metaphor has a literal correlative.

It's difficult to write about this, since I don't want anyone reading this blog to feel they are imposing, or creating difficulties when I have agreed to do things. I am directly responsible, myself, for my health and the careful decisions I've made about teaching and other projects over the next few months; and am only doing things I want to do. So no one needs to worry about that.

The other difficult thing to think about, and it's something I've been very coy about until now, is that I've had to tackle the idea — ok, the fact — of menopause, rather earlier than I was anticipating. Because my tumour had a high rate of responsiveness to oestrogen and progesterone, the recommended treatment is to lock down the body's response to these hormones (this is what the Tamoxifen tablets do). I'm also having the further treatment of monthly injections of a drug that effectively shuts down my ovaries (ovarian ablation is the term here). Menopause came on pretty swiftly: my body gave up its menstrual cycle without a word; and I'm having periodic hot flushes (or 'flashes', as they are called in the US; or 'power surges', if you are feeling confident and strong), but also sometimes cold flashes. Oestrogen, it turns out, helps you regulate your body temperature.

So far, this hasn't actually been too bad, but it's another reason why I feel I've barely begun to process everything that's happened. I haven't finished reading all the cancer-diet books; we only got about a third of the way through Middlemarch; I'm only just beginning to establish the meditation routine I began in December; and I don't yet know how to make the changes I want to make in my life.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Conferences, collaboration and koalas

Home again, back at the desk after just over a week away in Adelaide. It was a lovely conference: Lawrence was incredibly lucky with the weather (I see it's going to be 38 there today and 40 both days of the weekend); papers were great; and people were charming. This is a group where I know lots of people, and normally go to heaps of papers and hang out at Simon's bookstand and at morning and afternoon teas. This year it was an abrupt re-immersion into public life after my illness, and it was tough at times. I certainly didn't have the energy to go to papers all day, so had to make some hard choices, and time a nap back at the hotel every day. I found it easier to sit down than stand up, and easier to sit outside in the quiet sun than inside with all the conversational buzz. Since coming out of the slump after radiation therapy a few weeks ago, I'm physically feeling a bit stronger all the time, but am still feeling fragile in lots of ways. One of the symptoms is distress if I can hear too many conversations going on around me. I've always been completely intolerant of hearing two pieces of music at the same time, even in snatches of song or a tiny musical theme on the radio; and this has now extended to conversation.

Long before I was diagnosed, Tom and I had planned to circulate our paper for discussion prior to the conference, and this turned out to be a great idea, as we didn't have to stand up and talk. This is the first finished paper/chapter of the book we are writing on theories of medievalism and its relationship with medieval studies. Rather, Tom spoke for a few minutes; John gave his response (sympathetic, but also opening up some tricky avenues for future thought); and then there was time for a good discussion.

On my way to the paper, I passed a tutorial room and heard a familiar, dulcet voice explaining something. It was clearly a "teaching moment"; and it was also clearly Pavlov's Cat in full, eloquent flight, teaching a summer school. We met up with Paul as planned that night and it was a delight to see her looking so very well: her lovely face animated with conversation.

Adelaide turned on some beautiful restaurants and weather; then Tom and I hired a car and drove a group down to Port Willunga (long stretches of clean sand between magnificent cliffs and brilliant ocean), and then after the conference headed off with David and John towards Mt Gambier, where we put John on a tiny plane for his flight back to Adelaide. Medievalists on a three-day road trip! Fantastic weather; one or two exceptional meals; country hotels of mixed quality; and explorations into the volcanic and sandstone landscape along the coast: caves, sinkholes and craters one day; then cliffs and crumbling coastlines the next. A highlight was a dusk stop at Tower Hill, a volcanic site that is now a wildlife reserve: emus, kangaroos and koalas striking curious poses... We walked around the rim of one volcano in the heat, with just a frisson of uncertainty about whether we were on the right path or not, and were then rewarded when we came down with the sight of a koala and her baby taking a stroll then climbing up into the tree. Even later that day, as the setting sun was glowing off "London Bridge", a huge arched pile of sandstone on the way into Port Campbell, we also saw a little bandicoot on our path, exploring David's shoes, and then a young fox in the carpark. We were convinced it was playing hide-and-seek.

Generally, with one visitor from California, another from London and Philadelphia, and another from Cleveland and Iowa, I thought our fauna and flora put on a pretty spectacular show. We also made a stop at Penola, to research the life of Mary McKillop, Australia's only candidate for sainthood. I, of course, did not have a camera with me, but here is a picture of another pilgrimage site we visited: the sea wall at Portland where my father recently arranged this:



This Joel is my Joel's great-great-grandfather.


Since I've returned, I've re-written much of our grant application. Our whole team met in Adelaide, and worked through Sue's extensive comments. It was a classic case of initial resistance to many of her suggestions, before we realised just how canny and smart they were. I really hope we are just about done with it now. So much depends on these grants in this country. Sadly, one of the great incentives for applying is that once you get a grant, you don't have to apply again for another couple of years. Our team distinguised itself once again with its brilliant spirit of co-operation. I am now involved in three collaborative projects, and I am a total convert to their pleasures.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

I'm just starting to work on that now...

When I began this blog, I planned it in part as a record of the process of assembling an ARC grant application from the first hesitant germ of an idea to the highly polished 30+ page artefact that would sing sweetly to the readers and the panel alike. I did get some way into thinking about that new project, but then becoming ill meant deferring that project, and that grant, for a year, at least. I am currently, however, in the process of revising my collaborative application from last year's "near miss". With a great team and the efforts of Anne, our wonderful research assistant, the process hasn't been too bad, but I am nevertheless sitting at a computer on a hot Melbourne night reading and re-reading, tuning and fine tuning the draft, the budget, the justification for the budget, our track records, our justifications of our track records, our title, our summaries, our keywords, our codes.... We've changed the project slightly, and sharpened its conceptual frame considerably. Instead of looking at medievalist Australian literature alone, we're going to study Australian medievalism across four cultural fields. But every time we changed one thing, we had to change six more parts of the application that correspond to it. The ten-page "essay" got a whole lot longer, and then had to get shorter again to fit into the ten pages.

I have another couple of hard hours work to go on my end of it, and we are currently waiting for some colleagues to get back to us with feedback. Of course we want them to say it's wonderful, and that we don't need to make any changes. Paul is working on his own application tonight, and we will sit down and read each other's at some point tomorrow.

So instead of doing my round of revisions now, I'm sending a message of commiseration and fellow feeling to everyone else in Australia who's going through this annual torment. May GAMS remain easy of access; may your budget fall into place; may your ten pages stay ten pages; and may your keywords and codes bring you joy.

And a lovely p.s. to the snowglobe theme. Tom has arrived from Iowa this morning, bringing Joel a snowdome from Chicago (urban landscape; wooden base; plays music; glitter, not snow [which is increasingly rare in your modern dome] but lovely all the same). At LAX he was almost not allowed to bring it on the plane. As the security team pointed out to him, there's more than 3 fluid ounces of liquid in there...