As part of Canisia Lubrin’s (Dis)Order: The Single Question Series, Priscila Uppal answers a single question about her work.
I always thought I listened to my body. I’m an extremely active person; some consider me an athlete. I produce a lot of creative work because I listen to my internal and external rhythms to formulate routines of activity that allow for beneficial efficiency in physical as well as creative realms. I thought I had achieved a fine balance between things like competitive running and household errands and academic duties and creative writing time. I felt energized, sometimes even invincible.
Then a shocking diagnosis: a tiny cyst originally misdiagnosed as a mild hernia returned from the lab as “unknown” and then later, after a battery of more tests and more bewildered doctors, as a rare and aggressive form of cancer called synovial sarcoma, a cancer that tends to strike extremely physically fit and healthy young people who are not at risk for cancer. I needed radical surgery—involving removing my entire abdominal wall (just in case the original surgeon looking for a non-existent hernia accidentally spread cells invisible to the naked eye), replacing it with biologic mesh and then a large donation from my thigh to form a reconstructed flap, and an additional donation from my buttocks to help patch up my thigh. Then six weeks of bed rest. Then the horror of discovering cancer cells had metastasized to my lungs and I would require what the doctors called “young people’s chemo,” so potent they could only administer it because I was in such prime physical shape from my running.
What had gone wrong? The question tormented me. I wanted answers. More than answers, I wanted to live. In fact, most of my friends were so shocked by the diagnosis because, they said, I am someone who so clearly loves and appreciates life. And here I was now begging for it, with every aspect of my being, and every aspect of my being includes my creative self.
A dear friend who was diagnosed around the same age with what doctors said was an incurable disease (now that disease has literally no trace in her blood system—a medical miracle), told me to pick up two books: Spontaneous Healing by Dr. Andrew Weil and Creative Visualization by Shakti Gawain. While I found the new-age quality of Creative Visualization initially off-putting, I know as a creative writer the power of visualization and so when Dr. Andrew Weil (I tend to respond more immediately favourably to scientific-based evidence) discussed the benefits of enlisting a Creative Visualization Therapist to help talk to one’s body to find out why it might be ill, I called on a friend in the University Hospital Network to put me in touch with one.
There must be multiple ways to talk to the body and multiple ways of listening, and I needed to learn a few more.
Dr. Mary Jane Esplen, who happened to write her PhD on this subject, also happens to be the Director of the De Souza Institute, the largest cancer care training centre in Canada. She told me she didn’t usually engage in one-on-one visualization therapy any longer but she was intrigued to work with an established creative writer. She came to my hospital room while I was on chemo and took me through breathing exercises and guided meditations to a trance-like state, not unlike the state of being in the flow of creative writing, when it’s really going well, and your ego and all its willpower to “write well” fades away behind the waves of effortless word flow.
I didn’t know what to expect exactly. I was pretty sure my abdomen and my lungs weren’t all of the sudden going to start speaking in perfectly rational and coherent paragraphs or sing and dance like in hygiene videos for children, but I was open to whatever was going to happen, whatever way my body chose to talk to me. I felt I needed to try something different because it was obvious either my body did not know how to convey to me that it was in jeopardy or I didn’t know how to listen in the same way that I knew how to listen for when it was ready to write or nap or go for a long run or a speed session. There must be multiple ways to talk to the body and multiple ways of listening, and I needed to learn a few more.
Imagine you are in an empty theatre. Put whatever you like on the stage.
I put a rug, a couch, and a lamp.
A couch? Sounds like someone is coming to visit. Who’s visiting you?
Linda. It’s Linda. My friend, Linda Griffiths, the legendary Canadian actress and playwright who recently passed away from breast cancer. She’s wearing a pink pashmina shawl that she gave to me before she died.
Is she saying something?
She said, I live here now.
I said, I miss you.
The conversation continued.
Later that night, in my hospital room, hooked up to a cocktail of various poisons I hoped would help save my life, I opened my notebook and wrote “What Linda Said” on the top and transcribed the conversation. Then for the next three months, I continued these conversations, printing them out for Dr. Esplen, and we discussed what we thought they meant. I joked that I had found an OHIP covered way to conduct a writing workshop.
Those conversations became the play What Linda Said. It is a surreal, imaginative, funny, and honest play—just like those conversations. It did enable me to talk to my body and to listen to it. It also enabled me to talk to Linda.
I used to think death was death and that was the end of it. Near the close of the play, Priscila asks Linda if she is alive or dead. I no longer think the answer to that question is an easy one. But how do we listen to the living and the dead? This requires a different sort of speaking and a different sort of listening. I believe art can help us learn this vital and beautiful language.