PAMELA BOND CONTRACTOR has more than three decades of experience as a medical, academic, and technical editor and writer. Currently, she offers all levels of editorial and writing services for medical, academic, and other professional organizations and individuals. Pamela also provides support for professional and personal writers of nonfiction, creative nonfiction, memoir, and fiction. In addition, she provides editorial support for writers whose native language is other than English and is a volunteer ESL/EFL tutor and instructor.
As a peer health educator, Pamela owns, designs, and writes ThePatientPath.net and the sister site ThePatientsPath.net. A strong advocate for patient education as a means of fostering informed and empowered healthcare decision-making, she supplements her personal medical story of successfully managing uterine cancer, as well as the medical stories of others, with comprehensive, reliable resources to assist patients in finding the answers they need to ensure they get the treatment they deserve.
Pamela also designed, edits, and manages GlobalBusiness.blog, her husband Professor Farok Contractor’s website and blog exploring topics in international business from economic and cultural perspectives. She also designs and provides content for small business sites.
Previously, as a consultant to a philanthropic foundation for 10 years, Pamela served as developmental editor for numerous prestigious academic and scientific books, organized a number of high-level academic and scientific symposia, and managed more than $2.5 million in grant funds. Earlier, she was a consultant editor and writer in the technical, medical, and pharmaceutical fields, as well as editor of a biomedical engineering journal for 10 years.
Pamela has a bachelor’s degree in English literature from La Salle University, did graduate coursework in technical and science communication at Drexel University, and studied sociolinguistics at Temple University, all in Philadelphia.
The Writer’s Circle article offers sound advice for seeking and working with an independent editor.
Do your research: check the groups, such as the Editorial Freelancers Association; do an online search and scan editorial websites; query prospective editors and discuss sample edits; get recommendations from colleagues. Do whatever it takes to find the right editor to help you produce work you will be proud to publish.
Ellipsis Editing offers editorial services fof the academic and scientific communities.
Word Polishing offers editorial services for the creative writing community.
If, like me, you are a fan of redemption movies—and of Bill Murray—then yesterday you tuned into AMC and watched Groundhog Day . . . again . . . and again . . . and again.
My favorite part of the movie is near the end, when Phil (also the groundhog’s name) Connors finally gets it and starts living—and giving—in the ever-present moment. He hasn’t yet escaped the time warp he’s found himself in; but he has accepted his fate and lives a perfect day that only infinite re-dos and learning the ultimate lesson could make possible. And yet . . .
What is a “perfect” day? The message of the film is that this Scrooge-like guy learns about becoming his best self through genuine interest in and compassion for others—all with a comic and romantic twist (not unlike Bill’s other redemption movie, Scrooged). His reward for a lesson well learned on February 2nd? February 3rd.
But on the other side of the screen, we don’t get infinite re-dos. We need to learn as we go through time, not when we’re stuck in an endless loop. So how do we learn to live a “perfect” day on February 3rd after learning the lessons of our own February 2nd?
My personal February 2nd, so to speak, was in 2014. At this time last year, I was in the middle of my vaginal radiation treatments (brachytherapy) following a total hysterectomy for uterine cancer on December 13, 2013. And I was still in the “glow” of having survived a brush with fatality and having learned my lesson that all moments of life—even my life, which I have not always valued—are precious, if not eternal.
Or are they? This is a topic for another day, but perhaps all moments of time exist somewhere, in some treasure vault that we can revisit . . . and revisit . . . and revisit—if we learn the combination or find the key.
But what if we can’t unlock all of the secrets of the universe? (Who knows—maybe it’s only one secret.) These thoughts took me back to part of the lyrics of the 1967 song by the Youngbloods, “Get Together,” which I always thought held the deepest human secret:
You hold the key to love and fear
All in your trembling hand
Just one key unlocks them both
It’s there at you command
In an awesome and happy coincidence, a quick search for the lyrics took me to the February 3, 2015, post on the Huffington Post blog, “The Third Metric,” where the song is featured today: “Daily Meditation: Get Together.” Such coincidences seem to point to a cosmic connection, one that I don’t understand. Yet these occurrences whisper to me that perhaps we do hold a key that unlocks the secrets to at least our private universe.
In the afterglow of that “Whew! Narrow escape” feeling post-op and post-radiation last year, I am still figuring out how to incorporate the lessons of my February 2nd into February 3rd—my reward for having survived. Learning how to do this will require me to be awake, aware, and appreciative in all the days that follow until I run out of them.
On this February 3rd, as I see welcome sunlight turning ice into crystals on the bare limbs outside my window, I guess it is enough for me to realize that aftermaths and interims are just as important as great events. Or maybe they are the great events. Life is still happening in an amazing way even when we can’t quite feel the miracle of it after the emergency or major event has melted into the rest of our experience.
Life transitions often feel shallow, muddy, confusing, unfocused, unimportant. But without the respite from urgency that we experience during exciting or traumatic times, we wouldn’t have the chance to dive deeper into our own being. These times spent in semi-mist may actually be mystical. Change is creative. So transition isn’t really a dark place to be feared or avoided, but a space offering a chance to learn and become your own next great thing. As earth transits around the sun, transition is how we experience time . . . and all the times of our lives.
Alone in my personal space, I will celebrate February 3rd, knowing that the ice crystals will become leaf buds . . . in time. I hope you will have a quietly wonderful February 3rd, too.
Recently I received this cry of outrage and a request for clarity from a fellow book lover and avid reader of magazines and newspapers who is dismayed at the state of English usage in the media. A summary of her complaint, and my thoughts, follow. Comments are welcome.
Tell me if I’m wrong to object to the state of English usage in print and online media. I realize that I am either getting old or that I have read so much grammatically incorrect material that I don’t trust my own judgment anymore.
Case in point: I recently read this headline on the front page of the Star-Ledger: “Poll: Clueless as to whom should take over after Christie.”
My reaction when I read this was that when the paper reorganized they must have fired every editor. Did I overreact? I never thought I had trouble with “who” and “whom,” and my gut says “who” is correct because it’s the subject of “should take over.” But, again, the errors that make it into the media these days have become so prevalent that I’m no longer confident.
Obviously, I’m turning into a grump when I read, but I have found a few examples of sentences that are so bad they are incomprehensible. Here is another marvelous example, also from the Star-Ledger: “…the conviction should be reversed because the trial was wrought with errors.” This is a case of a “big word” heard somewhere that was not distinguished from the correct one it sounds like. I have been keeping little notes of these. In yet another example, it seems as if the CNN anchors have a particular predilection for trying to sound educated without knowing what the words they use mean.
Yes, I have become a curmudgeon, and I “hone” right in on the mistakes! (This error is so common it’s hardly worth mentioning—or is it?) Publications today are not only poorly edited, but they may not be edited at all. It seems the Star-Ledger is copying articles from its NJ.com site verbatim to the next day’s print edition—it’s fun to see first thing in the morning that there was flooding in North Jersey this afternoon. No editing is done for the transition to print, and since the material was first hastily prepared for online news, probably none then either. Increasingly, I wonder why should I waste my time reading what these uncaring journalists produce.
At some future date I plan to write a blog rant about examples of why it is no longer a rational idea to tell young readers to peruse news, printed or online, in order to improve vocabulary and grammar. When I went to school and they told us to read newspapers and magazines to improve our English usage, the teachers could never have foreseen that this would become disastrous advice.
But before I make a fool of myself in my own rant, tell me if I’m wrong. Sometimes I am afraid I may be out of touch with the times.
Thanks for your help!
Dear ~ M,
Oh, my. You address so many worthwhile examples of deteriorating language usage that it’s hard to know where to start.
Let’s begin with your first example: “who” versus “whom.” You are correct: “who” is the subject of the sentence, the one that “should take over.” Kudos (which, by the way, is a singular noun, not a plural—but I’m sure you knew that) to Leonard Cohen, who got it right in his lyrics to“Who by Fire” from the 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony: “And who shall I say is calling?”
The use of the objective pronoun “whom” in place of the subjective “who” is a case of overrefinement, or the incorrect use of grammar or terminology because it seems to “sound better” or “sound right” to the uninformed writer. This is somewhat surprising in the case of “whom,” which sounds almost hopelessly archaic and stilted in most contexts. Yet we have Tony Soprano’s Jersey paper trying (albeit not succeeding) to sound refined!
Another example of misguided overrefinement is, “I feel badly whenever I read a sentence with incorrect grammar or word usage.” No, I don’t—I feel “bad” because “feel” is a statement-of condition-verb and therefore takes an adjective, not an adverb.
You may be interested in reading the lengthy discussion of “who” and “whom” in Garner’s Modern American Usage(which is available online via subscription to the Oxford Dictionaries). Similarly, reading Leonard Cohen’s explanation of his “Who by Fire” lyrics should drive the point home that “who” is subjective. But, briefly, “who” is equivalent to the nominative pronouns “I, he, she,” whereas “whom” is equivalent to the objective pronouns “me, him, her.” But “you” can never go wrong (at least in English grammar) by resorting to “who” in contemporary usage. It’s much better than making an “arse out of oneself” by sounding archaic and overrefined.
As to your other examples, and more significantly your general complaint about the sad state of English-language usage, I can but sigh in commiseration. I understand very well through my brief study of linguistics (and by just being alive) that language does and must change. But “change” is not a synonym for “deteriorate.”
As amazing and wonderful as electronic media are, they make it so easy to create errors and to not care that you’re doing so. Even our smart phones auto-correct—or at least auto-retype, and not always correctly. (And we won’t even mention spellcheck. My spellchecker wanted to change “whom” to “who” in the title of this post, which is good; but later it wanted to change Leonard Cohen’s song to “Whom by Fire”—although maybe this is understandable out of context because of the use of “by.”) But the print media are not off the hook. For example, I just started reading a contemporary mystery book that was gorgeously produced to be a visual treat, designed with lovely typography and even printed on fancy patterned and deckled paper. Yet I found this on pages 17–18:
“. . . what is the matter?”
“THREE MURDERS ARE THE matter.”
Why on earth would they have capped everything but the last word? All you need to do is read this aloud to hear how the emphasis is totally lost in the error. I found other mistakes as well, and even though they were likely proofreading oversights, they marred what otherwise is an enjoyable book. These things distract me terribly, and just about every book I pick up is fraught with errors.
The one thing slovenly writers and careless editors don’t get is that their work loses credibility when they degrade language instead of elevating it. I try to be careful in any medium in which I write, including texts and emails—and of course this blog. Yet I recognize that the sheer speed that is available to us electronically is contributing to haste and sloppiness. Back in the day when you and I were in school, we were taught handwriting with fountain pens and typewriting on manual machines, both techniques requiring care and precision. Say “cursive” to kids in school today and they’ll likely think you’re swearing because your touch screen has you writing “Love to my little duster” when your phone attempts to “correct” your mistyping of “sister.” (To this day, my sister calls me “Big Duster.”)
The last bastion of good writing in print and online may be the remaining premier newspapers, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, and certain high-level magazines, such as National Geographic, The New Yorker, and The Economist.
Let’s home in on this in a future post. I hope you will contribute further examples not only of mistakes, but of excellence in writing. I know it’s out there somewhere. And we can at least set a good example in here.
Mid-January already! So much to write, so much not written. But I am being patient on the path as I sort through my list and take my to-dos all the way to dones.
While I gather my thoughts, I thought you would like to hear from someone who is showing great grace under health pressure. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Loveand The Signature of All Things (signed copies are available through her Two Buttons online shop), posted an update on Facebook the other day (1/14/15) about having to cancel a trip to India to take care of herself—take a look: “Trust the Timing of Your Life.” She was planning to attend a literary festival in Jaipur, a city I have visited. Not only did the title of Elizabeth’s Facebook post arrest me—because I can so relate to her message on several levels, having canceled my own trip to India last year to take care of myself (story here)—but today I saw this lovely image of Buddha by WordPress staff member Cheri Lucas Rowlands, taken on her recent trip to Hong Kong, where she visited Ngong Ping on Lantau Island. I thought of Elizabeth as soon as I saw Cheri’s post today. No doubt Elizabeth Gilbert would approve, and love, this image. She has quite a wonderful marble statue of Buddha outside her Frenchtown, New Jersey shop, Two Buttons (that’s me with the Buddha below), which contains troves of treasures from Asia, as well as signed copies of her books. And it’s right in my own backyard. I have visited the shop several times and brought home a few lovely items. My husband, who is from Mumbai (Bombay) and travels throughout Asia frequently,* was also very impressed and heartened by the authentic collection of mostly handcrafted objects from his favorite parts of the world.
Last summer, I also had the pleasure of hearing Elizabeth speak during our Hunterdon County, NJ, tricentennial celebration (check the calendar for August 9, 2014). Now that we know the title of her next book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, due out in September, I think she was giving us not only a glimpse into her creative process, but a peek into her near future. She gave an inspiring, heartwarming, magical-yet-down-to-earth talk, adjectives that describe Elizabeth herself. Soon after, I read and very much enjoyed The Signature of All Things. You can follow Elizabeth on any of her many social media sites. Do so—it’s worth bathing in the glow of her life, even when she is facing challenges. Her brand of serene joy leaps off of each page. And if you’ve ever had the delightful experience of hearing Elizabeth speak, you, too, will believe in magic. . . . Oh, yes—and read her books.
*In fact, he is leaving on Sunday, 1/18/16, for India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. I opted to wait until the next trip to accompany him to India—more about this later.
Today I received this cry for help from a fellow writer and editor who is so conscientious that he did his research before knocking on my virtual door this morning. A summary of his plight, and my opinion, follow (with his permission). Comments are welcome.
Here’s another thorny question for my editorial guru.
I woke up at about 2:50 this morning with this lowercasing question rattling around my brain.
With one colleague’s opinion in mind, I remain reluctant to immediately comply with a request from two of our other colleagues to lowercase their names in our school’s publications.
Editorial conventions exist in order to ease communication, enhance consistency, and avoid confusion. That’s why it’s been our standard practice to initial-cap first and last names. And these days, when so much content is derived from databases and other online sources, it’s very difficult to make exceptions because of technical limitations that make it harder to comply with these requests—for example, LinkedIn and other social sites automatically put members’ names in initial caps in profiles. Even if this can be changed, the nonstandard request may be difficult for some sites to grant.
Two respected and reliable sources, however, differ somewhat in their advice about this matter:
— The NY Times and most other publications choose to go with convention.
— However, Chicago supports the opinion that we should respect people’s wishes and lowercase names if they wish. They advise rewriting so that such names don’t begin sentences.
Pen names, such as bell hooks, and stage names, such as k.d. lang, are usually immediately recognizable. But I’m not sure that what our colleagues are asking falls into either category . . . and maybe it doesn’t matter. However, I still see our problem as maintaining consistency and avoiding confusion in our publications. Suppose, for example, a recording engineer named Mike or Mic insisted on lowercasing his name—we would have a hard time keeping things straight when writing about his approach to setting up sound equipment.
I think we can encourage people to present their names as they wish in all personal communications, but I think we should abide by our decision to continue initial-capping in our institutional publications. But when I suggested this to one colleague, she responded:
Is it that my name cannot be lowercased because technology won’t allow it, or is it an editorial decision? If it’s the former, I understand. If it’s the latter, I think our preferences for how we represent ourselves should trump editing.
Ouch. Now I feel as if I’m in a power struggle. It’s not as if I don’t agree that people should present themselves as they wish, but, if they represent an institution or organization, I believe they should do so outside of office hours, so to speak.
Thoughts, dear colleague?
Dear – r,
I have always believed that, friend to authors though editors may be, an editor’s primary responsibility is to the reader. Clarity is one of the BIG C’s of Expository Writing (which I will discuss at a later date).
Therefore, I tend to agree with you. The famous can stylize their names however they like with relative impunity. But for the not-so-famous, or just for the rest of us, this is harder to get away with—not only editorially, but technically, as you’ve already eloquently pointed out.
In personal use, such as invitations, correspondence, email addresses, signature lines, and whichever social media will let them, people should be permitted to style their names however they wish. In professional use, those who fly solo can also do whatever they like, especially in logos. But when employees are beholden to an organization, certain rules need to apply so that the institutional choir sings with one voice/One Voice/or ONE VOICE, as house style dictates.
If too much fur or too many feathers fly around your office as a result of imposing well-considered style guidelines, compromises can be sought. For example, in bylines, which stand apart from the text and are unlikely to cause confusion (perhaps just a momentary pause as readers decide whether the author is famous enough to lowercase his or her name), lowercasing might be generously permitted.
Simpler still, you could just put the stylized name in parentheses and quotation marks, which is commonly done for nicknames: “In examining the issue at hand, Tobias Larkin (“tobias larkin”), director of Public Relations, says the goal was to dedicate the week to the matter of gender and racial equity, civil rights, socioeconomic class, environmental justice, and so forth.”
Such a compromise may or may not satisfy your colleagues, but a moderate approach ensures readability and allows readers to recognize a stylized name as a preference without actually stating it as such—which might start to sound like pride. If you simply acceded to your colleagues’ personal preferences without using an editorial device, such as one of the examples above, you would be doing your readers a disservice.
As far as the comment that technology limitations are understandable but that editorial decisions should give way to personal preferences, I would have to draw the line there. Flexibility is one thing; anarchy is another. Also, colleagues should not denigrate what you do for a living any more than you could (or would) deride their choice of how they stylize their names.
In brief, I would recommend retaining house style in most cases. But leave a little room for creative negotiation—as long as it doesn’t interfere with readability. If you get push-back, gently but firmly remind your colleagues that, no, personal preference does not trump editorial decision-making and that the latter is an essential part of your job—and your responsibility to your institution. Then chime in with a reminder about singing in one voice, which is part of institutional branding.
Hold firm to house rule, but consider a compromise that doesn’t interfere with what you offer your readership. Again, an editor is the reader’s advocate. That’s your job, and it needs to be respected.
The Patient Path takes a literary detour “in keeping with the situation” . . . Christmas. View the only manuscript version of Dickens’ 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, housed at the (J. Pierpont) Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.
A Christmas Carolwas published 170 years ago today, on December 19, 1843. Click the book to view the only manuscript version of the novella, which is housed at the (J. Pierpont) Morgan Library & Museum in New York City. Do take a look–it’s a treasure.
Yesterday’s post, “Emotional Reflections in Blue Places,” was my attempt to connect my current medical story–which is so much more than a mere “organ recital”—and the deeper reality of my life. But more important than my personal experience is what anyone’s life–or life itself–is truly all about, as far as we mortals can understand it. As I mentioned yesterday, I defer to the three-ghost device Charles Dickens used in my favorite story—which, of course, is not just a Christmas tale—to try to figure out what is true and eternal and to put my limited understanding of temporal existence into the context of whatever that is.In my opinion, Dickens captured in his 1843 novella the essence of what it means to be human. And he did it by imagining what can be learned beyond the boundaries of time as we know it in our three-dimensional world—a fascinating prospect.
Reliving Dickens’ moral tale of “reclamation,” or redemption, is the very essence of Christmas for me. More than that, it exposes and explores the nature of what life is about here on Planet Earth—a very strange and wondrous place that often defies comprehension. The heart of the story is that it teaches us how to make the journey of life a bit easier for the others who are our “fellow-passengers to the grave,” those whose fragile hearts we carry in our hands as we walk along the roads of human experience–those traveled and those less so–together with them. Humans can be the most self-serving and cruel of creatures. But they can also be self-sacrificing and heroic, relieving the suffering of other people—and of animals—in moments of spiritual clarity when their better, higher natures guide their hands in healing what their lesser, lower natures may have harmed, intentionally or unconsciously. One moment of kindness can redeem a lifetime of pain. Why, then, do we indulge our small minds rather than expand our inflatable hearts?
How different things are this Christmas from last year. Then, I had no idea that the problems and worries that plagued me would be overshadowed months later by a life-threatening disease, which, thankfully, is now coming under control. How much precious life force do we expend in the worthless pursuit of self-centered concerns that are not only transitory, but trivial—as if time were at our command to spend and waste from a limitless supply of vital life force? In some ineffable way, I believe that whatever makes up the true basis of life is beyond the mere physical, which is confined within and dictated by the passage of time. Perhaps true experience—which, when you think of it, is quite an abstract thing—lies in a dimension where all things that have ever happened, are happening, and will happen co-exist, in a sort of matrix. I can’t pretend to know, but contemplating what may be possible leads me to believe that whereas biological life occurs in time, experiential life exists, somehow, beyond it.
The Ghost of Christmas Past has the job of leading us to a place beyond time where we can think about our lives. For me this year, that has taken on a new meaning, now that my life—which I have not always valued–has been threatened. Yet I know there can be worse diagnoses than cancer. In the span of my 61 years, I have experienced many things that have eroded my love of life and interfered with my ability to appreciate it: parental separation and eventual divorce; the loss of a baby sister to a “death” that turned out to be an adoption (see My Sister’s Story a difficult and lonely childhood that led to a terribly insecure and painful adolescence and young adulthood; a misguided first marriage that eventually ended in divorce; years of infertility that were, however, followed by the blessed birth of my only child (Matt); single motherhood accompanied by identity crisis and profound confusion leading to inept parenting of my beloved son and even worse management of my own life; remarriage requiring sometimes bewildering adjustments; the death of my father (I will be writing My Father’s Story soon); the death of my childhood friend not long after (see My Friend’s Story); the loss of, or distancing from, many other friends over the years; job and career challenges that were always far beyond what I thought I could handle and that consumed so much of my life’s misdirected energy; recurrent crippling depression, anxiety, and loneliness; chronic serious weight issues–a factor in uterine cancer, other health problems, and most of all in not developing a strong sense of self, which may have helped me make fewer errors; the loss of jobs–and eventually my career as I knew it–which profoundly altered my sense of who I am in the world and destroyed any hint of financial security; near bankruptcy with no clear plan to resume solvency; and, recently, potentially fatal illness that I am still grappling with. And I’ve left a lot out!
Notice, of course, that many gifts are woven throughout this litany of challenges. I’ve also left out so much good. It is the lesson of the Ghost of Christmas Past during pre-Christmas reflection to help us realize that every challenge is one side of the coin of life, the one imprinted with the mask of tragedy (unhappiness and pain); but, of course, the mask of comedy (happiness and good) lies on the other side. No matter what transpires in our lives, that coin is always going to flip to the other side in the continual motion of happenstance. Lucky is the one who can direct some of this motion in his or her favor; blessed is the one who can accept and work with whatever flips his or her way. Coins roll, and so should we. And I believe the Ghost of Christmas Present will help me acknowledge the beauties among the beasts.
For now, the Ghost of Christmas Past is beckoning me to the holiday of 1983. At that time, and for the first (and last?) time, I felt as if my notion of who I thought I was completely merged with the actuality of who I truly was, if only for the moments beyond time when I could sense that I was an inextricable part of the fabric of life. I was no longer just an observer: I had become a full participant. I remember spending glowing moments in front of the fire in our next-door neighbors’ living room. They had invited another thirty-something couple over for Christmas cheer, and we were happily chatting in a warm, convivial atmosphere that I believed would not end, they drinking wine, I drinking ginger ale. I was protecting the contents of my (now absent) womb, which for that shining moment was doing what it was destined to do. Two-and-a-half months pregnant with my first and only child, I felt like the most important woman on the face of the earth–and the most sanctified of mothers.
This madonna-like impression of myself, of course, faded pretty quickly. But it left a permanent change in me because I felt I was sharing in the profound experience of bringing forth life, accomplishing what I think of as my most important mission, then or ever. Sitting there talking about my hard-won pregnancy, and then drifting to a dreamy place where I felt connected to every other person—and, especially, to every to other woman—was transcendent. Yet, even as I write this—and believe it—in no way do I mean that women who have not borne children are themselves any less the children of the universe. Birth takes many forms. And nurturing—of babies, fellow creatures, or ideas—is the highest endeavor of every human soul.
Thank you, Ghost of Christmas Past, for reminding me that what I recently lost had already fulfilled its consecrated purpose. I have no reason to mourn, and a marvelous 29-year-old reason, among many others, to rejoice—as I’m sure the The Ghost of Christmas Present will remind me.
Yesterday I wrote about my one-year “to the day” anniversary of being diagnosed with uterine (endometrial) cancer. Today is my one-year “to the date” marker. And I am lucky.
Watching the evening news last night, November 3, I saw three stories about people who have lived lives that were, yes, challenged by cancer, but more importantly were full of significance, influence, and inspiration. Today I wish to pay homage to them with a brief acknowledgment here:
It is easy to toss around words such as grace, dignity, and courage. It is not so easy to live them. At this writing, Lauren is still with us. No matter what you believe, don’t believe, or don’t know that (or what or whether) you believe, please hold them in your heart and send loving thoughts their way, whether you call them prayers, meditations, or good wishes.
Toward the end of the book, one of the characters is eulogizing another, talking about the infinite numbers (carried to many decimal points) that reside between the bigger numbers we recognize in everyday life. The final words of the tribute speak to the unknown worlds and existences that transcend the boundaries of our circumscribed lives as creatures of earth:
. . . I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. . . . You gave me a forever within the numbered days.
Here’s to you, Brittany, Oscar, and Lauren. I hope to meet you all on the infinite walkway that takes us through and beyond our numbered days that we do not know how to count. Thank you for walking among us during our time-bound existence on earth.
Godspeed as you continue on your journeys, wherever infinity takes you.
“Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.”
On the Monday after we turned back our clocks in 2013 (November 4), I received a phone call at 9:17 AM, about the time I am writing this post the Monday after we turned back our clocks in 2014. You tend to store certain moments as if they’re in an ice-cube tray in your freezer. But time cubes don’t melt. They remain sparkling and whole for us to either love or learn from—and maybe both.
A year ago at this time, I wasn’t projecting into the future to imagine how I would feel on my one-year anniversary. What I recall is having an intensity of focus on the problem just presented to me as if everything I’d ever learned or accomplished needed to be mustered to the front lines to do battle with my microscopic enemy. Attacking my attacker—uterine cancer—became my job. Actually, I had two microscopic enemies: the one in my womb, and the one on my scalp, which were diagnosed—and treated—in the same months.* So now, with a cancer-free dent in my scalp, I am gearing up to repeat my colposcopy and my mammogram, both of which have thus far been negative. So I hope I am cancer free all over. I don’t have a lot more to say that I haven’t already said in these blog pages except that I never did feel like a cancer patient. Ironically, considering my lack of paid employment these days, I have felt like somebody going to work—on a repair job. But what I will say is that the fear of having a repeat problem hovers in a thought balloon that travels around with me. Others have told me the same thing. But perhaps no one has dealt so eloquently with the progression and recurrence of cancer as John Green. So rather than explore my interior world of spiraling thoughts, I refer you to his wildly popular young-adult bestseller, The Fault in Our Stars.
The youngest member of our reading group recommended this January 2012 book, and I’ve just finished reading it. Our local library also showed the film version from June 2014 last week. What I’ve come to realize is that “young adult” refers to the age of the characters a whole lot more than it does to the themes explored in their stories. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is another good example of this. This is not a book review, but it is a citation of excellence. Green’s protagonist Augustus, opening his heart to Hazel, the story’s narrator, managed to capture what for me was the message and the meaning of the book:
I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.
Cancer be damned, he seems to be saying. I’m alive and I’m in love. Nothing else matters. A bit later, he explains a bit more about his take on “oblivion”:
Sure, I fear earthly oblivion. But, I mean . . . I believe humans have souls. . . . The oblivion fear is something else . . . that I won’t be able to give anything in exchange for my life. If you don’t live a life in service of a greater good, you’ve gotta at least die a death in service of a greater good. . . .
Love and the greater good are fiercer and more powerful than the threat or even the reality of death. That’s what I hear him (Augustus/Green) saying. Beliefs are personal . . . and much too complex to discuss here. Read the book for more clues about John Green’s own belief system (he evidently intended to become an Episcopal priest at one time). The point here is that these young people, traveling down a dark road without any high beams, were not their disease. They were themselves, their physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual selves. That’s the lesson of illness: that endangered life is still life. And it’s all we have and all we really know from within our own experience. Certainly, we all travel through time as packages of individual existence. But something—life—is better than nothing (at least in the absence of extremely suffering or cruelty). And perhaps the best we can do as captives of the clock is to give ourselves the gift of untying somebody else’s ribbons and seeing a little bit of what is inside their package. That act alone defies the notion of meaninglessness.
John Green took his title from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act 1, Scene 2; Cassius):“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves. . . .” But he certainly didn’t take the meaning. By flipping it, he celebrated the blamelessness, the wisdom, and the divine spark of his young star-crossed lovers. And for me, he succeeded in stopping the clock. He enabled me to return to the young place inside myself that was also blameless and wise, a place where the divine spark of my life, and every life, exists beyond tears, beyond stars, and beyond time. A place where cancer fears to tread.
“Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.”
A year later, on that same Saturday, I visited my friend for the last time at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. She died just weeks later. My Friend’s Story – Leukemiarelates a bit about our 50-year friendship and the powerful connection my friend had with my sister.
After a week in which I’ve contemplated personal loss (as well as the precariousness of my own health), and a week in which the world lost two luminaries, Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall, it bears remembering that we live in a circle of life. Honoring my former husband and our son, his legacy . . . keeping in touch with my friend’s expanding family, her legacy . . . finding a sister after half a century of separation, destiny’s legacy . . . all are happy reminders of the cycle of birth, death, and life again.
These personal stories interconnect in a deeply meaningful way that, to me, seems cosmic . . . somewhere in the misty, mysterious spiral of time.
“I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free. Mankind will surely not deny to [me] what it concedes to the butterflies!” – fromBleak House, Charles Dickens.
If you’re not familiar with Bleak House, one of the most complex—and one of the most rewarding—of Dickens’ novels, perhaps you’ve heard this quotation in Butterflies Are Free, a 1972 film (based on a play by Leonard Gershe) about a young blind man, Don (Edward Albert), who rents his own apartment to become less dependent on his overprotective mother (Eileen Heckart). As she still struggles for control, he meets his neighbor, Jill (Goldie Hawn), a “free spirit” who inspires him to become his own person. After she tells him that the Dickens’ line is her favorite quotation, he writes a song about his spirit learning to fly.
For several years, long before I was diagnosed with and treated for uterine (endometrial) cancer, I have thought of the butterfly as a personal spiritual symbol. Many cultures and traditions turn to this beautiful winged creature to symbolize the soul and other essential aspects of life, such as metamorphosis. Few things top the list of shattering changes more than potentially life-threatening illness. Yet, even when it is serious, illness is only part of our life experience. True, it sometimes commands center stage. But in the next act—or even in the next scene—some other, deeper aspect of who we are takes its star turn.
By no means do I intend to diminish the supreme challenges faced by those who are debilitated by illness or injury or to dismiss uncaringly the anguish of those who have lost loved ones to terminal disease or early death. But the message of the butterfly is available to all, even to those who suffer. Because even if we sprout wings that don’t have the strength to free us from the pain and limitation of earthly life, they can still help our spirits to soar. If we don’t have the strength even for that, our spiritual wings can at least help us float gently on the soft winds of the universe as it continues on its infinite course, reminding us that we are part of all that is, ever was, or ever will be.
Having passed through the metamorphosis of serious illness, I think back to decisions I’ve made that both hurt me and helped me arrive at the place I now find myself. And I’ve had to face that many of the external markers of identity are now lost to time—reproductive status (first in menopause and now in the absence of organs), the joys and responsibilities of young motherhood (my only child is now a man), marriage and name change (one divorce behind me and a total of three last names), the comradeship of friends and colleagues (many losses and gains over the years), the pride and sustenance of career and income (gone and none at present), and so on. These things have shifted so significantly that at times I feel adrift in the cosmos, unanchored to earth or to anything that feels comfortable or familiar.
But these moments pass. And I realize that what remains after pseudo-identity is irrevocably altered is the emergence of what lies beneath and within, which can be surprising. Having lost so much, and having spent so much time alone confronting my very existence, I nevertheless have experienced an integration of the essential aspects of myself with how I navigate external life. I discussed some of these things in the March 14, 2014 post, “Reading & Writing as Therapy.” The message was simply this: Find, or rediscover, what you love. This tells you who you are.
It is my hope for all who face grave or passing illness, permanent or temporary loss, and terrible loneliness or even somber solitude that they can find their butterfly selves by turning inward to where they can see that the outward path is visible but ephemeral—and also by connecting with similarly affected, like-minded others, who can not only share their experience, but enter into it with them.