Monday, April 28, 2008


Hola! glad to be back after last week, which was highly productive but pretty tough, mentally. More about that later. But first, an invitation:

I'm organizing a "field trip" from Madison to south Chicago on May 11 to attend services at Trinity UCC, where Rev. James Wright is now senior pastor. (See the March 31 post for a description of my trip to Trinity with my son.) Madison Jews and others upset by the anti-democratic "guilt by association" rhetoric that links Barack Obama through Rev. Wright to Louis Farrakhan, and who want to support the beleaguered congregation at Trinity, will be warmly welcomed at the 11 AM service.

We will head down to Chicago on Sunday morning and will return immediately after the service (which is about two hours long), stopping on the way back for lunch. We will travel by chartered bus; the cost, if the bus is full, will be $30 round-trip.

If you'd like to join us, or would like more information, please email me at (Email will work much better than a comment to the blog, which won't give me your name or email address!) To reserve your space on the bus, send a check for $30, made out to Judith Strasser, at 511 Sheldon Street, Madison 53711. We can take 29 people. At this point, enough people have expressed interest to fill about half the bus-- but only a few have sealed their commitment with a $30 check! Still I expect the bus to fill, on a first-come, first-served basis. So if you want to join us (and I hope you will), send in your reservation money ASAP!

Now, about the past week. I was, as I mentioned last time, at Edenfred, an artists' retreat in Madison. Although I went home at night, I worked very intensely from about 9:30 to 5 every day, Monday through Friday, revising my manuscript, Facing Fear. The retreat was a wonderful gift; I was able to make it almost the entire way through the manuscript, and I now feel confident that I will have the revisions finished before May 25, when I go up to Door County (northern Wisconsin) to teach poetry for a week at The Clearing.

But the week was exhausting, and emotionally difficult. For one thing, it was a very monastic existence, and I'm no monk. For another, the subject matter of the book is occasionally difficult. For a third, when I took short breaks to read a novel, the book I chose (because it was related to the subject of the last chapter of the monograph) was Lovely Green Eyes, by Arnost Lustig. Lustig is a terrific writer. He's a Holocaust survivor, and his many books of fiction, including Lovely Green Eyes, are accounts of life at Theresienstadt, the concentration camp where he was imprisoned. Not exactly escapist literature.

Also last week, I learned that a friend and fellow poet had been suddenly taken ill and was scheduled for very serious surgery in May. She sent me an email telling me about this, and explaining that she and her husband would likely not be able to go to Chicago with us, which they had been planning. But now, of course, it's difficult, or impossible, for her to make plans. When I wrote back, explaining that I understood completely about the way illness interferes with planning for the future--it's one of the really big losses I've experienced--I suddenly realized that this was precisely what I'd been struggling with all last week, without being really aware of it. I have no idea whether I'll be around to see Facing Fear when it is finally published. Which, in a way, calls into question all the work I was doing--because if I'm not around to market the book, it's unlikely to get into many readers' hands. (Hardly any books, these days, get sold without considerable marketing effort by the author.) Of course, that's why I didn't allow myself to think about this problem while I was at Edenfred--it could easily have paralyzed me, and then I wouldn't have accomplished anything. But sometimes it takes a lot of effort not to think.

Another friend pointed out that nobody can really plan how the future will take shape; people just think they can. Which is, of course, true. But I'd argue that those of us who live with existential uncertainty because of illness are a different breed. It's difficult to sit quietly and listen while friends plan their biking trips for next week, or their vacations next fall, or reserve hotel rooms for conferences next February, when these are events that I would, under different circumstances, also be involved in.

Last summer, when I had to cancel my plan to go to a chamber music retreat, I fell into a pit of despair, thinking I'd never be able to plan anything again. Soon enough, I climbed out of the pit by reasoning that I could plan to do things so long as, if I had to cancel, I wouldn't inconvenience other people. So, for example, last fall I recruited my friend and co-editor Robin to accompany me (and if necessary, substitute for me completely) on a speaking engagement in late April. Honestly, I didn't think I'd be around to give that talk. But last Tuesday evening, Robin and I drove happily off to Brookfield (near Milwaukee) and spoke to a group at the Unitarian church. Sold books, too!

Similarly, I now expect to be able to teach (with Robin) the last week in May in Door County; something I really questioned last fall, when we signed up. So planning is possible, but difficult.

As is quite obvious when I look out the window. Here it is, April 28, and it's snowing. Great big flakes.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Crocuses and My Voice

Finally! The sun came out today, and the three or four clumps of purple crocuses in my front yard, which have been up for about a week, opened today. They're gorgeous. Ever since they started showing purple, they've been tightly wrapped around themselves--like me hugging myself, trying to keep warm. (We actually had some snow on the ground Saturday evening.) But as I say, the sun is out, and it's warming up quickly--they say tomorrow and Wednesday the highs will be well into the 60s. All I want to do is sit out on the front stoop and admire the flowers. Oh, and pump up my bike tires to see if I can manage 15 minutes on the trail near my house.

But what I'll spend time on, instead, is getting ready for a little in-town writing retreat next week, to work on revisions to the fear manuscript. I read through it last week (for the first time in two years), and was surprised and pleased to realize it won't take as much work as I--uh--feared. (To use the word loosely.) But I have a big pile of clippings and other material that's accumulated in the years since I finished the manuscript, and this week I plan to go through all that stuff and read it and sort it into folders related to each chapter. Next week, I'll just head every morning by 9 AM to Edenfred, the local artist's retreat where I've been generously offered a place to work, away from temptations like coffee with friends, the gym, email, and even this blog. So no post next Monday. Sorry, but if I don't completely clear the decks, I won't get the revisions done. Procrastination is my middle name. I should probably take solitaire off the laptop, too!

An email from an old friend who recently read my blog said it sounded like now I could talk, even on the phone. I realized that I haven't really made clear what's going on with my voice. It's true that the chemotherapy I've been on since last fall has improved matters significantly. My voice, as a number of people have commented in the past month or so, is much stronger. I attribute this (with no actual evidence) to the tumor on my vagus nerve letting loose its grip. I can breathe more easily, and speak more easily. But things are not perfect. I imagine the tumor is still there, hanging on a little. Or maybe it permanently damaged the nerve. The ENT doc I saw last fall said that sometimes paralyzed vocal folds recover completely; sometimes they don't, even if the cause (which could just be a virus, though obviously that wasn't my experience) disappears.

I can make myself heard fairly easily in relatively quiet places, but not in noisy restaurants or, say, on a busy street when a truck or bus is passing. I can have short phone conversations on good connections (usually land lines, but sometimes cell phones) with people who have no hearing problems (and you'd be surprised how many people, young and old, do--even if they're not aware of it). But I actually find even short conversations, like the one I'm about to make to schedule an oil change for my car, tiring. And the long, lovely conversations I used to have with friends and family are still quite impossible. I can speak in public with a microphone, but again, it's tiring, and I still need to share the podium with others, like my friend and co-editor Robin, who will come with me in the next couple of weeks when I have been asked to give two out-of-town talks about our retirement poems anthology.

What makes speaking tiring, I think, is partly psychological (will I make myself understood?) and partly physical. I just don't have enough breath to sustain a long sentence. I speak in phrases. I would like very much to be able to sing, for example, but when I tried it in the car a couple of days ago, I could only get out a word or two before I had to stop for breath. It's this limited aerobic capacity, also, which affects how much physical activity I can do. I'm much, much better than I was last fall, when I could only walk about a quarter of a city block before stopping, gasping to catch my breath. But on Friday night, when a friend and I parked and then walked a block uphill to a theater, I was very slow. Level is good--Robin and I walk for 45 minutes or an hour in the mall, and I don't gasp at all. Uphill is problematic. But I'm working on it. And I realize that if I were not working out several times a week, walking and going to strength training and spinning classes at the gym, I wouldn't be doing as well as I am.

And now, with the sun and the warmth, the crocuses and I have the whole outdoors to explore, at last!

Remember--no new blog post next Monday, but you can use the time to read old posts and post your own comments! And I'll see you back here on April 28. Cheers!

Monday, April 7, 2008

It's Spring....

...and in Madison that means that there are promising days, and not-so-promising. The piles of filthy snow are (mostly, but not completely) gone; the street-cleaning machines seem to be getting a lot of the sand and salt out of the gutters; people are raking their lawns, which are ever-so-slightly less brown; the temperature went into the 60s over the weekend... and today it is again cold and windy and gray.

It's sort of like life. (Heck, it is life.) I had my CT scan on Friday, and saw Dr. Holen, who reported that the tumors are smaller, and some of them are no longer visible! Hooray! But I also had chemo on Friday, and the after-effects laid me low for pretty much the entire weekend. It occurs to me that I try very hard to put on the best possible face, in this blog, and when I see and speak with friends and family, and for myself, too (in fact, mostly for myself)-- and a lot of people, as a result, think I'm "courageous" (which I'm not) and (probably) also insanely perky.

So here are a few sentences describing the downside, aka this past weekend. I felt fluish most of the time--nauseous, a little feverish, tired. Pretty much all I did on Saturday was sleep and put one load of laundry in the washer. Sunday was a little better: two more loads of laundry, and tidying the kitchen. Naps. Virtually the entire Sunday Times. A couple of chapters of Drew Gilpin Faust's history of how the Civil War changed Americans' understanding of death, This Republic of Suffering. It was beautiful outside, and I really wanted to take a walk, but I couldn't motivate myself to open the door until near sunset, when I saw my neighbors, who had brought over a piece of cake a couple of days earlier, walking past the house. I opened the door to return the plate. That was the extent of my "walk." I had a brief conversation with Kim (the neighbor); she was the only person I talked to the entire weekend, except for a couple of brief phone conversations with my friend Helen. Helen and I hoped to get together, but she's an MRI tech and was on call all weekend; worked all day Saturday and until 3 AM Sunday morning, and then went back to the hospital to work some more late Sunday morning. So getting together was out of the question.

I felt physically cruddy, and extremely sorry for myself.

Today is much better. I worked out at the gym this morning; I feel good; I'm getting some work done. Filed my income taxes, for example. Wrote this entry. Am about to read another chapter of the fear manuscript. And... there are purple crocuses blooming in my front yard!

Up, down, up. It's spring.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Tunic Pix

As promised....