I was driving to radiation for breast cancer when I heard an interview with Eve Ensler, feminist, playwright, performer, social activist. The title of Eve’s interview was “The Body After Cancer.” Eve, author of “The Vagina Monologues,” had very aggressive uterine cancer. And though it nearly killed her she described it as an opportunity to truly live in her body for the first time.
I had been feeling the opposite: outside of my body looking in. I was in denial before the diagnosis. I was embarrassed by the invasive biopsies and mammograms. I cried on my way to surgery. I didn’t want to live in this body. I wanted to check out. I lost my wiry, thick hair and was spidery thin. Even my blood volume was shrinking. I felt like I was dragging a large dead animal behind me every time I mounted the stairs. I knew I was a dancer by Martha Graham’s standards: more than 10 years in the making. So how did I end up a zombie shadow of my former dancerly self?
Eve elaborated on the experience of being completely in her body, talked about cancer giving her perspective on what was really important to her. Something she said struck a nerve and I found myself sitting up at attention: “Capitalism engineers longing. This is not an accident. If we were content with our lives, it would be very hard to control us.” My inner rebel was ruffled. What’s controlling me, I wondered? Who’s cashing in on my insecurities? Is my cancer, burrowing its way into my bosom, a condition of the heart? How long had my body been sculpting that tumor? How had that tumor been sculpting my longing?
What do I want, I asked myself? What do I really long for?
I knew exactly what it was: a handbag.
With my dancer and teacher’s salary I have mostly avoided the upscale boutiques increasingly encroaching on our Mission District residence. But on a few occasions when I was going through cancer treatment, I had to splurge. Call it retail therapy, capitalism-engineered-longing, or living as if each day might be my last.
On one such day I got up the courage to walk into a handbag boutique, down the street, I had been eyeing for years. I was hiding my chemo-bald head under a fake fur hat with ears, as if I were some eccentric, rich cat lady. The man behind the desk looked up with kind eyes. “Welcome. I’m Basil. We make everything downstairs.”
In fact, I had a near-perfect handbag that I’d bought a while back for the hefty sum of $25, a thrift store splurge. But it was coming apart. I asked Basil if he had anything like it. He started to draw. Suggestions of pockets, flaps, magnets and straps were added to his hand-drawn design. I told him I was a dancer. It needed to convert to a backpack so it could rest just so beneath my shoulder blades. He laughed, “Then you’d better dance your ass off.” He wrote down the price: $575.
The rich cat lady in me lunged forward with my credit card in hand. When I got home I immediately confessed my outrageous purchase to my husband and kids who shared my sticker shock, especially considering that I had nothing except a drawing of a handbag to show for it. Part of me felt ashamed. Part of me didn’t care. Part of me thought I deserved it.
I visited Basil and the handbag-in-process regularly over the next several weeks. As he stained and hole-punched the leather straps I told him about cancer. He affectionately called me a cancer dancer. He asked me what I was working on. I told him I was starting to work on a new piece about the connection between capitalism and longing inspired by Eve Ensler.
The handbag was finally finished. It turned out even better than I expected. Basil donned the design the “Rowena Bag.” I continued to drop in from time to time, bringing egg tarts from the no-frills Grand Mission Bakery. Basil made us coffee and we chatted about art and life and death.
Over Christmas break I received an email from Basil. He told me his husband Graham had a family foundation. They needed to give away some money. They wanted to give me $1,000 to put towards my show. I couldn’t believe how this purse splurge was paying off.
And it was a good thing because the $5,000 of funding and production support I had secured to pay my assembled collaborators fell through. But we embraced our longing to make art without capital and persisted.
Then on my 46th birthday, I found a wallet in Dolores Park.
There was no ID in the wallet. There was a wad of cash. I counted out $355 and some loose change.
I brought the money into rehearsal to use as a prop. The money smelled like smoke, a blend of stale joints that were also stashed in the wallet, and the sage I burned to rid the cash of any bad juju. I pledged to put it to good use.
My collaborators and I were still $3,645 shy of our projected budget, but dreams and a story unfolded around the surprise Christmas gift from Basil, and the birthday money from Dolores Park. We began to wonder, were we in the red? Or were we coming out ahead?
We were moving, anyways. Right into a church. When I told my pastor Maggi Henderson of Old First Presbyterian Church that I was persisting with the project, she offered to chip in. “We don’t have a lot of money,” she said. “But we have space.”
In Old First’s stained-glass sanctuary, the emerging piece morphed into a service.
We considered giving the $355 away in a reverse offering, passing a plate full of money to be distributed. We envisioned dropping the bills from a balcony, “twenties from heaven.” We rewrote the Lord’s Prayer. Here’s how we started:
Our Dollar which art in pocket
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On Earth led by the G7
I also began a more earnest prayer practice. Buddhist, Christian, Hindu prayers, and the wisdom of Susan O’Malley through her book Advice From My 80-Year-Old Self. Each morning prayer session ends with an O’Malley affirmation such as THE HARDER ROAD IS THE ONE THAT MAKES YOU YOU and BE HERE NOW. Gradually, my sense of gratitude grew. I became more aware of how precious every moment is.
Toward the end of Eve Ensler’s interview, she talked about the second wind, “I love the idea of the second wind,” she said. “You’re running and running and running and then you get that next wind and you can keep going.”
It’s been two years since my cancer diagnosis and I am back in my body. And my body is strong and elated to have me back in it. I’m dancing at rehearsal at Old First, where our piece, “Dearly Gathered,” will premier in January. I’ve also been running in Dolores Park, sprinting hills and stairs with abandon. And that’s something I’ve discovered about the second wind: you have to be all in in the first place. You have to hang in there. Keep working to truly inhabit your body as if for the first time; trust the money will come when the funding falls through — and then the second wind comes upon you. When you are invested, the payoff is invaluable. Basil not only made me exactly what I longed for in a handbag. He made me a friend. He would make you a friend, too, if you had a moment to spend.
Cancer clarifies that the real currency is time. Capitalism, in Eve’s words, engineers “desire in us for what can be in the future.” It’s about how you must compete for a better future for yourself. But that separates
us from each other—makes the distance between us longer-–and it separates us from this moment, with the promise that there will always be more. Do we need more? I found I have enough already. When I devote my time to appreciating what it is to be alive right now, with my family and friends and artistic community, I am content. I am free. It’s in the bag.