Like you, there have been many times in my life that questions seemed to dominate my thoughts far more frequently than answers. In my youth, my burning questions were often about whether or not some high school “love” interest “liked” me or not. I was terribly shy around the opposite sex, and at the time, as tall or taller than many of the boys in my class, which only increased my insecurities in the arena of teen-age romance. Then there were questions about college: Which one? Where? Would I do well? What if I didn’t?
Some years later and newly married, my first husband and I contemplated his choice of graduate schools. Questions dominated our conversations for months. In the end, we opted for adventure (it was the time of youthful idealism and protests) and ended up in Ottawa, where he began his doctoral studies. We were wholly unprepared for Canadian winters or the loneliness we felt at the time, but gradually, Canada began to be “home” to us, especially in the years after his death. Decades later, after returning to California for several years with my new husband, he announced his decision to retire from academic life. We had our own questions, but family, friends and acquaintances peppered us with their questions. “What are you two planning to do now?” “You’re returning to Canada? Why?” Their questions prompted our questions of one another: “But what would we do there?” “What about our friends?” “Will we sell our house?” “What if we spent six months there and six months here?”
Our transition revealed not only questions, but the realization that we didn’t always share the same wishes and wants for our “What’s Next?” chapter. Nights were often punctuated by restlessness, the questions invading my dreams. My notebook was filled with questions, a continuous loop of repetition, and I wasn’t finding any answers in what I wrote. I don’t quite remember how long it took or when, but we stumbled into a joint decision, downsized our lives, sold our home, and watched as the movers loaded up the van with our worldly belongings and set out, as we did, for Toronto.
This past weekend, I presented a workshop for Young Adult Cancer Canada (YACC) on the subject of writing for health and specifically, writing alone. The willingness to “live the questions,” to find yourself groping in the darkness, are part of what writing honestly demands. The answers, in life or in fiction, are revealed as you write, gradually writing yourself into knowing, but not without making your way through the dark before stumbling on a new insight.. E.L. Doctorow, author of the award novels Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, famously remarked that when one sits down to write a novel, “You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Life doesn’t come with a set of answers, but it is riddled with questions. It’s like making our journey in that darkness of the unknown at times. We navigate through it as best as we can, deal with unexpected events, difficult chapters, the illnesses and losses we experience. Cancer is one of those unwelcome chapters in your life, and the journey through it is not unlike what Doctorow describes. You survive the shock of diagnosis, the worry and after-effects of surgery and chemotherapy, roller coaster of recovery, but despite all that, you can’t see very far ahead. There are no certainties. Your life is punctuated by more questions than answers. “Has the treatment worked? How likely is my cancer to recur? What if it has metastasized and is lurking somewhere else in my body? Stage four? Then how long do I have?” No one can offer you certainty. You navigate through it all in the same way Doctorow described of writing, able to see only a short distance along the path, but gradually finding your way into the answers.
“Questions in the Mind of the Poet While She Washes Her Floors, “a poem by” Elena Georgiou, poses several questions, ones that play in in the poet’s mind, and like life, don’t come with answers. Here is an excerpt:
Am I a peninsula slowly turning into an island?
If I grew up gazing at the ocean would I think
life came in waves?
If I were a nomad would I measure time
by the length of a footstep?
If I can see a cup drop to the floor and shatter
why can’t I see it gather itself back together?
If a surgeon cut out my mistakes
would the scar be under my heart?
How much time will I spend protecting myself
from what the people I love call love?
Would my desires feel different if I lived forever?
(In: Mercy Mercy Me, © 2000)
Georgiou offers no answers to the reader. Nor did Austrian novelist and poet, Maria Rainer Rilke (1875-1926) when he offered advice to a youthful protégé, published in his wise little book, Letters to a Young Poet. “Don’t search for the answers,” he wrote, “which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
Live everything. Live the questions… Live the questions now. Live your way into the answer. I have often quoted Rilke to the men and women who attend my writing workshops. His words are as insightful now as they were over a century ago. Whether cancer or embarking on a significant change, living through the questions is not easy, yet it is all you can do. Your task is to be present, to pay attention and live life fully. Not surprisingly, when you do, you often stumble upon the answers you seek.
- Whether you’re wrestling with the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis or some other unexpected life challenge, make a list of the questions that keep replaying in your mind. Choose one and for 15 minutes, explore it as you write.
- Recall an earlier time in life when you faced the unknown. What questions did you have then, and how did you find your way into the answers? Are there insights that may pertain to your current challenges? Write about that time, the questions and how they were resolved.
- You might use one or two of the poet Elena Georgiou’s questions as your prompt. Choose it and again, writing nonstop for 15 minutes. Then read over what you’ve written, underline those words or phrases that stand out. In a day or two, you might begin with one of those phrases you underlined and explore it more deeply. You just might discover some wisdom that leads you to some of the answers you’ve been searching for.