On Discernment, Activism, and Alchemization

I organized a #writersresist event in January at our local bookstore around the time of the inauguration. We set the date in April, the weekend of the Earth Day. Election night still loomed in my consciousness like the last remnants of a virus. I have always had a precarious relationship to activism because it’s not my nature to confront or to tie myself to trees or lay down under tanks. I have often felt that by not doing these things I didn’t care enough, and then I felt ashamed and privileged. And then this election happened, and I went to local meetings and I gave all the money I could to everything — the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, ProPublica, Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Resources Defense Fund, KNAU, PBS — and then in February I found out I had colon cancer and by early March I was in a hospital in Scottsdale recovering from having 8” of my colon removed and a malignant 5 cm tumor excised. All I could do was get well. All I could do was step out of fear and into love. If I was afraid of my cancer, I’d be at war with my own body. If I was afraid of what might or might not happen next, I would be at war with the very nature of being alive. If I was afraid of change, I would be at war with our only constant. I cannot resist the reality in front of me because I now know my finite energy, and if all my energy is spent resisting I have none left for alchemy, and it's within alchemization that my own activism and power lies.

I am not willing to engage in conflict with my body. I am not willing to be at war with the future or with the past. I’m no longer willing to invest in fear as a motivator for doing anything. And as I lay in the hospital listening to my IV drip beeping and my vital signs buzzing I started to reconceive my activism. #45 and his cabal of fear will not take my life from me. I will not allow him to make me ill or anxious or frightened. I don’t want to wake up each day, click on the NYTimes or Washington Post or turn on NPR and hear the fear and take the chaos into my body. I can’t afford to do that. My body has made that clear. But I also will not do nothing. I will not stand by or claim blissful ignorance or stand in my privilege-bubble of being less impacted than others due to dumb luck of birth.

So what can I do that will matter? What can I do that is my activism, that allows me to maintain my health and keep getting stronger, but still impacts the direction of the country? Come to find out, it is my best thing — my only and forever companion — my words. Stories and poems and songs and essays and articles have always shaped the world’s cultures. Writers have been jailed, executed, censored, exiled, feared — not because what they do is irrelevant, but because it is profoundly important. It turns out the direction of the human heart can be altered through a poem, through a revelation in a novel, through an insight in a memoir or a piece of investigative journalism.

Fear contracts. Love expands. These were words my father wrote to me in my 9th birthday letter in 1977 after his first heart attack. I have wanted to talk to him so much these past months as I relearn how to be in my body. But I can talk to him because he wrote to me, and when I read those words 30 years after his death, I learn more about who I am. If I have gleaned anything so far on this cancer journey it is to hold nothing back. Give it all away. Do not die with your best thing still in you.

The first group of oncologists we saw wanted me to start on chemotherapy and radiation several weeks ago. My surgery had been successful. There is no metastasis at this time. My margins are negative. I told them no and they responded chaotically, with fear, with judgment, with contraction. When I looked at these doctors I knew in my bones they would not treat me. They could not help me. They attacked a label. They didn’t address a human. When we crossed the threshold of their offices, I got an instant flash of myself as a girl, in my favorite red dress and red Stride Rite sandals. I was crouched down with one hand over my face and the other hand, palm out, pushing away. I would listen to her. I would pay attention to my intuition.

I went to another doctor who consulted with my surgeon as well as a third oncologist and they all agreed that chemotherapy and radiation would be ill-advised at this time. “Instead,” the doctor said, “let’s build a biosphere and an ecosystem in which the cancer cells cannot thrive. Rather than blast them with an inexact weapon, let’s change the very expression of your body so the cancer cells won’t find nourishment.”

And within that framework, I move forward not only as someone managing cancer, but as a writer who is an activist, and my approach with my writing is to create an ecosystem in which the fear and duality and division of 45’s whirling dervish of chaos cannot thrive. This is what art does. Art changes the soil of our universe.

It may seem like we are doing nothing, scratching away on paper in our rooms. It may seem like our readers can’t find us or that our work lands in an empty canyon. It doesn’t matter. Write anyway. The very act of writing changes who you are. The very act of writing makes you more human, more open, more alive and more empathetic. Word by word, writers, we change souls, starting first with our own. Word by word, we write a new narrative for our bodies, our country, and word by word, if all of us do our work, these new narratives supplant the old ones. Write the stories that will till the soil of our planet for all of us to thrive.

Some of us have the gift of surgeon’s steel or a scientist’s gaze. Others are farmers, finding new ways to healthfully and sustainably provide sustenance and others still are engineers working on renewable energy technologies. What if they stopped just because the world wasn’t interested right now and the grant funding ran out? They won’t. And we won’t either because our work transcends us.

Our work is the ashes we leave behind for others to use to kindle a whole new world. Let's leave them seeds that nourish all beings. Let's leave them love, and when it’s time for us to go, we will have showered the planet with everything we were given to share, and when our eyes close for the final time, the covers of the book of our life, we will know we have emptied and can fly on.

Laraine Herring lives in Prescott, AZ. She has written many books, including Writing Begins with the Breath and On Being Stuck: Tapping Into the Creative Power of Writers Block, and she has loved many cats and humans. She’s a professor of psychology and creative writing at Yavapai College. You can find more at laraineherring.com.