Anna Donald: What makes me feel good?

Anna Donald This blog is in response to a fourth question from Richard Smith: “What makes you feel good?” The question stymied me a bit. Not because there aren’t oodles of things that make me feel good. But because I don’t have a coherent way of laying them all out. A list? In the end I’ve resorted to those that felt most important. Forgive me for a long and rather shambly blog.

What feels good: seeing friends and relatives. People you love. Showing love. Receiving love. Love beats everything. We all know that already. But it’s useful to remind oneself of just what a powerful force it is. Love never dies, it never diminishes even after you’re dead, and it unfolds inside you forever. It’s not a force like gravity, so what on earth is it? I’ll write about that another time.

Just being with people feels good. It doesn’t need to be exciting. The local library is good. I don’t have to talk to people and they don’t have to talk to me. But it’s comforting to know that there are people like me who like reading and sitting with fellow-readers (I spent a lot of my childhood in the corners of our local library). I’m a social animal. I don’t mind spending quite a bit of time on my own, but, like a big dog, get low in spirits if I’m completely on my own for too long and start whining and scuffing the skirting board.
It feels good to meet people who have survived 10 or more years from stage IV cancer. I’m realising that surviving for long periods is not nearly as rare as I’d imagined.

Food is good. Nothing fancy, just small, nice things that punctuate the day: coffee (decaf, soy cappuccino). Very small squares of dark, non-dairy chocolate. Tuna and corn salad. Japanese food of any description (cheap and widespread in Sydney). I even like a weird but yummy sort of ice-cream concoction of blended and therefore emulsified frozen raspberries, soy milk, pomegranate juice, banana and flax seed oil, which is the only way I can be persuaded to eat the recommended anti-cancer dose of 2 tablespoons of flaxseed (linseed) oil per day. (For me, linseed oil is for oiling cricket bats.) Conquering cancer doesn’t give you much leeway for exciting food. Occasionally I break the rules (fresh fruit and veg, no salt, no sugar, no meat, no dairy, no fried food). I had a meat pie the other day. It was the best thing I’d eaten in ages.

Breaking the rules. Not much, but enough to know you’ve not internally succumbed to being a ‘patient’ in the medical-and-complementary machine. I’m not talking about skipping medicines, not attending appointments and generally going awol, but I do mean not panicking when you realise you’ve missed a dose of medicine; eating the odd meat pie (with tomato sauce); being occasionally late for things. Not being available for everything. Praying to the wild and crazy God that s/he is and gleefully recognising your own wildness and craziness coming from that part of the Divine. Recognising the arbitrariness of the cut of history you’ve landed yourself in and that its particular and peculiar anxieties will pass. It’s a waste of cosmic time to get too het up about them.

Breaking the occasional rule doesn’t just feel good; it’s important as a survival strategy. Why? Because beyond the rules, regulations and exhortations from mainstream and complementary medicine you need a robust will of your own to live. It must come from within you, not from other people’s prescriptions for you, though of course you need to consider them carefully. It means honouring what makes you get up in the morning and what makes you you. Not what any external institution or idea would have you be. What put you on the earth in the first place.

It feels good to be reminded that you belong. Smells are primal and transporting. They remind me that I belong to the earth; specifically, to the foreshores of Sydney harbour. I was born in an old maternity hospital in King’s Cross, overlooking Rushcutter’s Bay. For my first few months I lived in Rose Bay, a gently sweeping bay that lies close to the wide ocean mouth of the harbour. The next few months were spent in Annandale, a decaying Victorian suburb with wide streets still filled with huge old houses with ornate railings and fireplaces. The smells from these places are very specific. And now we live just a few miles from both, in the middle, sort of. I still love the smells I’ve forgotten from 20 years living abroad: the eucalyptus dust carried along in the afternoon breeze; the morning dew through lavender and sage bushes and wild roses growing, often in a perfumed tangle, in the pretty front gardens of the old terraces that line the hillsides of Glebe and Annandale. The salt and diesel smells of the yachts, fishing boats, cargo supertankers; cruisers and tiny skiffs that crisscross the harbour. The salty-fishy smell of the beaches and the feeling of wet sand between your toes.

I love the bright, sometimes searing light from a sky which, in all my travels, I’ve never seen anywhere other than Australia. Sydney’s sky is higher even than Nairobi’s and Tsavo’s, which you’d expect to be higher, being right on the equator. The sky’s high arc; the heavens soaring above you farther than you can see, transmits a depth of space both within and without.

Massage and most kinds of bodywork feel wonderful. Again, I am like a big lolloping labrador in this regard. I would blissfully lie by the fireplace and have my back tickled for as long as my long-suffering husband and mother can endure doing it. I have a fantastic masseur (and friend) who patiently rubs my ribby chest and scraggly legs once a week for up to two hours. And a few days each week, my mother rubs my red hands and feet, inflamed by chemotherapy, with moisturiser and anti-inflammatory gel.

There are beautiful things that fill me with awe and gratitude that sometimes take me by the throat and makes me cry. Like manifestations of, as John O’Donohue puts it, the Divine Imagination: spectacular sunsets, ancient trees, great cliffs, amazing flowers that spring out from tiny cracks in concrete wastelands.
It feels wonderful to get feedback to this blog. It’s a miracle that I can sit more than 10,000 miles from Britain and Boston and receive this unexpected surge of love and thoughtfulness – much of it from people I’ve never met.

It feels good to read and read and read. Not since childhood have I had the time or peace of mind to read as much as I’d have liked. I love sitting in bookshops, drinking tea and riffling through the latest publications and reviews. I am a publisher’s junkie. As a student I spent most of my spare time browsing in bookshops. I only read the full text of a fraction, but I know the first chapter of a great many. I’m an eclectic reader, reflecting, I suppose, my rather eclectic education and background, which means I’m happy in most sections of most bookshops and libraries. I’m as happy reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X or Taussig’s Mimesis and Alterity (current bedside reads) as the latest hints from Trinny and Susannah and Nigel Slater (Jamie Oliver’s Italian cookbook is pretty good too).

It feels good to faff (how to you spell that?) around on my iPod and re-organise for the 50th time my 8,600 songs and audiobooks. It feels better to listen to them. On sleepy chemo-swept days I potter around in a dressing gown with my iPod in its deep pocket, listening to different tracks (and frighten my family because I don’t hear the phone and doorbell and they fear the worst). As with books, I have a large and eclectic music collection, because sometimes you need Bach, sometimes Vaughan Williams, sometimes Radiohead, and sometimes James Brown. Or Arvo Pärt. Outkast, Placebo, Fatboy Slim or Kosheen when people or circumstances are driving you crazy. Moby (trance ambient), Goldfrapp, Fischerspooner, Nick Drake, Beck, The Pogues, Clap Your Hands, Tom Waits, Billy Bragg, Keith Jarrett …the list goes on and on. And then there’s all the incredible and often underrated World Music: D’Gary, Ismael Lo, Baaba Maal, Youssou N’Dour, Yma Sumac, Salif Kaita, Maryam Mursal. I’m a music junkie just as I’m a book junkie and a massage junkie.

It feels good to meditate, though I still struggle to make enough time for it. It’s incredible how much resistance I’ve still got despite having such a compelling reason to do it. A thousand years ago when I was well, I remember thinking that if I got terminal cancer I’d just meditate non-stop, because it would probably heal the cancer. I still think that’s probably true. But I often go shopping instead. My excuse is that we’ve just moved house and seem to need an ever-growing list of things: carpet and floorboard quotes; a heating/cooling system; acres of bookcases; rugs; a mantelpiece above the fire; mirrors. But that’s not really the reason I go shopping. It’s to be out into the world rather than lurking with Stage IV cancer in the shadows, like something out of Lord of the Rings.

Unfortunately, without make up and a wig, I look a bit like something out of Lord of the Rings (or more truthfully, the bald and blotchy Darth Vader, with his helmet off, from the third episode of Star Wars). So it feels good to play around with wigs, make up and clothes to see what I can do with what’s left of my eyebrowless face. I’ve discovered how easy it is to change and disguise your appearance. If I wear a different wig, people who know me quite well don’t recognise me. It might be fun to extend my repertoire. If you see a skinny, female Darth Vader wandering about central London in the spring, you’ll know who it is.

This is not an edifying note to end on but it is an overdue one as this blog is far too long. Thanks again to everyone for such lovely feedback to previous blogs.

Anna Donald’s 17th blog