I listened to Lemn Sissay on Desert Island Discs the other day. A poet, writer and playwright who has recently been elected as Chancellor of Manchester University, Lemn was fostered until he was 12 by a very religious family against his birth mother’s wishes. He was a very happy child who loved his foster family: ‘I thought everyone in the world smiled. I didn’t realise that it was me smiling at the world, smiling back at me.’ But when he was 12, on the verge of adolescence, his foster family put him into care and said that they would never write to him or contact him again, and he lived in a succession of children’s homes for the next five years. Poetry enabled him to articulate and process what had happened to him and he has been able to forgive his foster family for what they did. Towards the end of the programme, Kirsty Young asks him whether he is now at peace with his past and content with who he is. He responds, ‘The most important lesson I learned was to let go of anyone who doesn’t want to talk to me, and to accept anybody who does, not to hold onto this narrative and not to hug the bruise. I am not defined by my scars, but by the incredible ability to heal. You have to live in the present, not in the past or in the future.’ It’s a very powerful and moving interview which is well worth a listen.
This week I have been marveling at my body’s incredible ability to heal. Already the skin on my abdomen has knit together and the angry red wound is becoming a fainter pink scar. Already I am walking further and straighter than in those first few days at home. Some of the skin on my reconstruction broke down last week, but that too is beginning to heal. I am starting to coming to terms with the changes in my body and what will be my new normal. I am gradually getting less grumpy and reclusive, and more inclined to face the world. There’s a long way to go, of course. The other day we went to Pen Ponds in the middle of Richmond Park and I slowly walked from the car park to the water’s edge and back, wondering if I was going to make it, and all the while thinking that the last time I had been there was when I was passing through on a run to my friend’s house in Streatham Hill. It’s impossible not to be aware of those contrasts but I am trying to observe them with interest, rather than them becoming a comparison heavy with regret. I don’t think there’s any going back once you have had cancer. It’s not helpful to see your former achievements as a standard you have to regain. I really hope that I will get back into running, and I hope that will include long distances but that needs to be something that comes out of a future passion rather than trying to relive what I did in the past.
Like Lemn, I don’t want to be defined by my scars but I need to accept that I am now scarred by the experiences of this year. My healed body and soul will be different to the original, but that’s ok. My friend Lowell from Japan wrote to me a while ago about the pottery town that he lives in: ‘We have potters all around us, and people come from all over the world to learn pottery from these dedicated artists. The most beautiful pieces are the ones that appear broken. I inquired about these some time ago and they said the broken objects are of more value that the pristine and new ones. They even have a technique called Kintsugi, which is the art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered gold, treating breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.’ I don’t want to hug the bruise of cancer any longer than I need to, but I have to accept that living in the present is living with a healing body that’s in transition. It’s one that will always carry breakage and repair as part of its history, but Lowell’s words hint at the potential for that to be enriching rather than something to disguise.
Photo: Aida Muluneh © 2013 taken from Lemn Sissay’s website