What a weird title, right? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how so many conversations in my life, for me, are about cancer. Whether we’re talking about cancer or not.
This is water.
In 2005, David Foster Wallace gave a brilliant commencement address at Kenyon college in which he retold this short parable-esque story:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
He goes on to say:
The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance…
It’s a remarkable and touching commencement address that I’ve found particularly relevant after my diagnosis. You should really read (or listen to) it.
Of sailing, soaking, freezing and fracking…
This cancer/fluid metaphor started to take shape for me when I was thinking about how my diagnosis creates an unspoken subtext in so many conversations I have in daily life. It’s ever-present. I exist in it (and it, of course, exists in me). Sometimes I soak in it. In the early days I could even be said to have wallowed in it. At times it feels like a raging river with class VI rapids tossing, hurling, and bouncing me at will in whatever direction it pleases. On rare occasions, I wake up atop it. Floating gently in a sailboat. At sunrise.
Sure, a fluid like water (or air, even) has the potential to engulf us, to surround us, to push and pull us, even to drown us. But, maybe more insidious is the way it finds and exploits weaknesses. Take potholes, for example. Water soaks the surface of an asphalt road flowing into every little crack and crevice, pooling silently. When the temperature drops, it freezes, breaking a solid roadway into little bits and leaving holes just waiting to swallow your car’s wheel during a moment of inattention.
Or fracking. Pump a high pressure fluid miles underground, and it finds imperfections and microcracks in shale formations and expands them, breaking them apart. Heck, mix in a little sand, and the cracks even get held open to release trapped gas and oil.
The point is fluids are powerful. We often think of water as placid, refreshing, cleansing, soothing. (I still love the sound of flowing water that emanates from the nightlight Little R’s Nana gave him when he was a baby.) But, it also has this incredible ability to find even the tiniest weakness and exploit it, often to disastrous effect (roof leak, anyone?).
It’s exhausting to be dogged by this invisible fluid daily. It permeates every interaction and conversation. It’s constantly trying to settle into my microcracks, to freeze, expand, and pop at the most inopportune times. But hey, what better way to get stronger than to have something always probing for chinks in your armor?
The capital-T Truth
In his “This is Water” commencement address, Wallace argues that the alternative to education, to learning and knowing how to think, to awareness is going through life on the “default setting.” The “real world”, he says, exists quite apart from us, and it will not discourage us from blindly accepting the default settings, joining the rat race, if you will.
The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
“This is water”
In “What Punishments of God are Not Also Gifts?” I wrote about being grateful for the positive impacts of my diagnosis. It has certainly “educated” me in the sense that Wallace intends. In some ways, it’s almost a cheat. Not only is the terminal cancer diagnosis the water itself (whether soaking or fracking), it cannot help but engender in me a powerful sense of awareness of the real and the essential by its very nature. No reminding myself necessary.