Metronomic dosing and the Great Divide.
Our wonderful hosts at the moment in Saranac Lake have a well-loved mob of aging hounds, one of whom is mostly blind and deaf but still managing to put one paw in front of the other and gamely carry on. He gets his evening treats like the others, but his come temporarily imprisoned in a 6 inch plastic ball w/ holes in it just large enough for one of the treats to fall out when the ball is rolled around and one happens to line up with its escape route. He still has a keen sense of smell, and appears to get no end of pleasure nosing the ball around the house and lapping up his reward whenever one is granted by the laws of probability. A shudder of recognition traveled up and down my spine the first time I witnessed this evening ritual.
At the time of my particular cancer diagnosis two and a half years ago, I was looking at an average survival rate of twelve to fourteen months. Statistics being what they are, I did my best to envision myself firmly within the band of outliers and exceptions who last longer. But the superficial potency of that bit of data, and the fact that ninety-four percent of my epidemiological cohort die within five years, changed my relationship with time, to say the least. Notwithstanding the vicissitudes of treatment and all the research required to make decisions regarding same, my mantra very soon became “quick, have fun”. This was a simple shorthand for “quick, spend time with loved ones”, “quick, spend time traveling and experiencing new things”, “quick, make paintings of lasting value”, and in general “quick, do something meaningful”! This is hardly unique. Few of us get through middle-age in general without confronting the naked fact that no one gets out of here alive. But a life-threatening disease has a way of bending and compressing time; heating it and folding it over and over on itself, until its been forged into an achingly sharp sword.
"Stir It Up" Digital photo, Walt Pascoe 2008
I was told once, only,
in a whisper,
"The blade is so sharp --
it cuts things together
-- not apart"
(David Whyte ~ from "No one told me")
So yeah, metronomic dosing. Pretty much what it sounds like: tick-tock, tick-tock.
There was a bar in Canton, New York, where I attended St. Lawrence University in the 1970’s, called The Tick Tock. I spent a great deal of time misbehaving there in various colorful ways. It was still in operation 30 years later when one of my daughters went to the same school. A lovely little knot in the space-time continuum.
By this past spring the inevitable law of diminishing returns from standard chemotherapy had already set in. It was no longer working as effectively as before, and all that traditional oncology had to offer was variations on a theme; essentially more of the same with small tweaks that might buy me a little more time, but at great cost to my overall health and well being, and of course a terrible impediment to the “quick, have fun” plan. But just then, as fate would have it, a good friend introduced me to the CEO of a biotech start-up whose company is completely re-framing the problem of managing late stage metastasis: essentially taking a synergistic, systems approach to intervening in the complex array of aberrant biochemical pathways that are hallmarks of the disease. Its complicated, but suffice to say the approach is in complete contradistinction to the standard allopathic model of temporarily killing off the bad stuff by bringing you to the brink of mortality infusing high doses of toxic meds, and then managing the extensive collateral damage as best as possible. An important aspect of this new paradigm is the use of smaller, non-toxic doses of multiple substances administered w/ great regularity 24/7, 365 days a year, as a gentler but relentless nudge back to the normal rhythm of cellular regulation. So despite the fact that I now take pills like its my job ( I have a spreadsheet! ) I actually feel pretty good, and as though I’ve finally found something that is more aligned with my own personal sense of the multivalent nature of the problem. Obviously the bottom line will be whether or not it works. But for now I have the energy to pursue the equally important psychological and spiritual aspects of achieving a healthy state of being. And at the very least, I’ll die with my boots on, attending to what matters most to me, rather than clinging desperately to some pale simulacrum of life and the false security of traditional treatment.
"Shipwreck" 36" x 48" Acrylic on panel, Walt Pascoe 2013
“Art can make a difference because it pulls people up short. It says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.” ~ Jeanette Winterson
It may sound like a difficult decision: to strike out more or less on your own with a treatment regimen that isn’t even in clinical trials yet, much less ready for prime time. But the fact is I’d already decided not to pursue a third round of chemo no matter what. And it was while in this dark and uncertain place that the serendipitous connection “fell into my lap”. A fascinating dynamic worthy of contemplation in and of itself. And although the future is as tenuous as ever in some respects, I’ve never felt the least doubt about this one aspect of my path forward. There are divides one comes upon, some more profound than others, and this instinctively felt like one of the more significant thresholds I’d crossed in a long time. So the long, strange trip gets at least a little longer, and most definitely stranger. Tick Tock.
"Saranac at Dawn" Digital photo, Walt Pascoe 2013
As you might expect, an awful lot of the conversation here in Saranac Lake revolves around local geography, and what hikes, paddles, or combination of the two had been undertaken that day, what your favorites are, where you’ve been before, and where you’re intending to explore next. Upper Saranac Lake, where we are, is beautifully situated near the high peaks of the Adirondacks, in upstate NY. Its an area I hiked extensively when I was at St. Lawrence University, which is only an hour and a half northwest of here. There’s something about using your body to move through the landscape that awakens a deep sympathy for, and interest in, the geology all around you. Its fascinating, for instance, to trace the regional watershed divides, smaller cousins of the Great Continental Divide that runs along the Rockies out west and determines the direction that water flows in its journey back to the ocean. Upper Saranac Lake is part of the Saranac River system, and these waters flow northeast, ultimately finding their way to Lake Champlain. The evidence of glacial activity is everywhere here. And Lake Champlain itself is the remains of the Champlain Sea, a temporary inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, created by retreating glaciers at the end of the last ice age. There is a palpable sense of the ancient and inexorable processes that molded the Earth’s crust in these worn down but still majestic mountains, which were once as high as the Himalayas. I find it extraordinarily restorative to be among them. And here, while putting one foot in front of the other, time becomes so incomprehensibly vast that it all but stops for me. I am finally released from the “quick” portion of the “quick have fun” protocol. The intensity of the pressure inside the crucible of my desire begins to ease, and with every step I worry less and less about whether or not I’ll be here next week, next month, next year... and know that this, now, is enough.
And when I finally return to the studio, I’ll bend to the ritual of work again as always, nosing my ball of tricks around until the laws of probability grant me a good idea... and trust there will be time enough on this side of the divide to get it all down on canvas. Tick Tock.
"Time Enough" 30" x 60" Acrylic on canvas, Walt Pascoe 2014
Part I of Savage Uncertainties on the Road Home was originally published on Melissa Johnston's wonderful site, Creative Thresholds, and can still be read there: http://creativethresholds.com/2012/12/21/savage-uncertainties-on-the-road-home/