When Writers Look Into The Abyss – The Dish | By Andrew Sullivan – The Daily Beast

Reflections marking the recent publication of Hitch’s Mortality, Emily Temple curated a selection of eminent writers on death.

Hitch in The Portable Atheist:

Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.

Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient:

We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.

I wish for all this to be marked on by body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography — to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness:

Droll thing life is — that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself — that comes too late — a crop of unextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable grayness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamor, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid skepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be.

When Writers Look Into The Abyss – The Dish | By Andrew Sullivan – The Daily Beast.


Week 34: All well

Not much new to report – which is good. Good walking weather that I am taking advantage of, some nice get togethers with people, and the usual activities and projects that continue to fill my day.

As part of my turning my blog into a book and preparing a Prezi, have been working on some graphics to capture the different stages.

While these largely reflect ‘linear’ views to be used in the more ‘parallel’ Prezi, fun to develop these, and experiment with colour, grouping and ‘layering’ using Keynote. Without the normal corporate constraints (e.g., templates, culture of bullets), enjoying having the latitude to try more information rich approaches, and encapsulate a lot of information that was presented to me in a more organic and step-by-step process at the time.

For those interested, some examples (Allo SCT Decision, Allo SCT – Salvage Chemo, Allo SCT – Recovery – First Six Months, Allo SCT – Counts Bouncing Back, and Auto SCT – Treatment Protocol). Any comments or feedback on how these can be more useful appreciated.

I have also been working on a piece trying to categorize the various terms people with cancer use to describe themselves: warrior, fighter, hero, survivor, student/intern/graduate, and victim.

Has been harder to put together than I thought, as it is more subjective, and changes throughout the cancer journey, than a technical and medical glossary. Forcing some good reflective thinking, helped by some friends, and hope to finalize this in the next few weeks. The intent is to have a piece that allows more reflection on why each of us gravitate to certain terms, and the possible implications of that choice.

Suggestions on any terms I have missed appreciated.

Finished the Ondaatje/Murch book The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. Really enjoyed it, and makes me want to re-see most of the movies mentioned as well as some that I haven’t seen (e.g., Orson Welles, A Touch of Evil, that Murch re-edited according to Welles’ wishes). Some favourite quotes:

I can think of no higher tribute to a film than … that you sense simultaneously that it’s crystalline and organic at the same time. Too crystalline and its lifeless, too organic and it’s spineless.


There’s that wonderful line of Rilke’s, “The point of life is to fail at greater and greater things.” Recognizing that all our achievements are doomed, in one sense – the earth will be consumed by the sun in a billion years or so – but in another sense the purpose of our journey is to go farther each time. …. I think we’re always failing, in Rilke’s sense – we know there’s more potential that we haven’t realized. But because we’re trying, we develop more and more talent, or muscles, or strategies to improve, each time.

When something is successful, everything that went into it, both the good and the bad, tends to get bundled up as the recipe for how to make a success. It becomes very difficult to separate out what was true and what was untrue, what was good and what was bad, what was superficial and what was profound.


The distortions of failure, of course, are the opposite: instead of having everything unjustly accepted, everything is rejected. Or that’s the risk, at any rate. Truly great lessons can be learned from work that fails, but failure is stamped on the product and there’s a tendency to think everything you did was wrong, and you vow not to go there again. You have to resist this impulse, just as you have to resist the syrupy entanglements of success. These are, almost, religious issues. What the world thinks is a success, what it rewards, has sometimes very little to do with the essential content of the work and how it relates to the author and his own development.

Helpful in my trying to develop some non-linear and more creative ways to tell stories and engage, as well as good reflections in themselves.

Not to mention a renewed appreciation for the importance of sound in movies, which juxtaposed with this short series of quotes on silence, from the book In Pursuit of Silence:

The Origin and Cultural Evolution of Silence

In watching A Dangerous Method, I found myself watching the editing more than usual, as the film itself did not really hold my attention (curious to know if the original play, A Talking Cure, worked better). Expect I will not watch movies quite the same way again, and now have a list of movies to watch again that Murch edited, to better understand some of the comments he made in the conversations.

Lastly, for those celebrating Easter or Passover, best wishes for this time of reflection and family.

Week 33: Life continues

Life continues and no major changes to report – all good.

As expected, back to normal seasonal temperatures so no cycling (apart from indoor) but lots of walks. And I treated myself to a good bike tune-up to be ready for the warm weather yet to come.

My hair was finally long enough – and mad professor enough (think Back to the Future) to get a haircut and I now have a more ‘corporate’ look.

 A great reader comment on my last weekly update:

Sounds like you’re doing great.  I always considered it a good sign when the oncologist started to let down “the wall” and treat me as if I was going to be around for a while!  I couldn’t blame him for keeping me at arm’s length in the beginning, but it sure encouraged me when he started being more personable and less business-like.

Delightful sense of black humour!

Over the past few weeks, have ventured out to more group events. Issue is no longer  immunity but just being very tired after having to focus my hearing in a group and concentrate more when other languages spoken. Bit of a proxy for meetings and clearly not there yet – I am better one-on-one or in quiet locations.

I have taken up the challenge of my haematologist with Prezi. It does require a more imaginative way of presenting than the linear Powerpoint/Keynote decks that we are all used to. I find I have to doodle and sketch out some ideas, rather than working directly on the screen. But very cool how the navigation possibilities – forward, backward, sideways – are better suited to capturing complexity and the somewhat fragmented and iterative structure of my treatment and my related personal journey.

Interestingly, while my haematologist wanted me to apply this to some of the treatment slides, I am finding it more useful to integrate the personal and the medical. And finding the right balance between the linear and parallel modes of thinking – I need some of both – is proving a challenge, but a fair amount of fun.

To help me visualize this, and recognizing that a good use of Prezi has more in common with film making than a deck in many ways, have started to read Michael Ondaatje’s,  The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film (Murch was the editor of The English Patient as well as Apocalypse Now and many other films by Coppola and others).

Helps me understand some of the possibilities of going back and forth, yet within a coherent storyline, as well as being a great read on the creative process. I once did a report with lots of strong graphics and my boss at the time reminded me, wisely, to be ruthless on the cutting floor. Not quite there yet – still in the creative phase of getting all the ideas out.

A few sample quotes from Murch to give the flavour:

Somebody once asked W.H. Auden, “Is it true that you can write only what you know?” And he said, “Yes it is. But you don’t know what you know until you write it. Writing is a process of discovery of what you really do know. You can’t limit yourself in advance to what you know, because you don’t know everything you know.


Yes, that’s what I call the “Tragedy-of-Job moments” (referring to the cutting out of what initially appear to be key scenes). They are like the good man Job, who does everything – and more – that God requests of him, but God perversely afflicts him and not the bad person who is Job’s neighbour. Why me? Job asks. Well, it’s because God can see the whole that Job cannot see, and in some mysterious way these afflictions are for the good of the whole, in a way that is invisible to the person.

And lastly, my month stats on the most popular posts, apart from my weekly updates and views of my home page:

  1. The women behind ideological debates about abortion
  2. Why I Won’t Get a Colonoscopy | Scientific American Blog
  3. A Story About Care – YouTube
  4. A doctor’s letter to a patient with newly diagnosed cancer
  5. Faith

Some nice get togethers next week to reconnect. Looking forward to these, as well as my usual routine and projects.

Week 21: Rediscovering some unused muscles

Another good recovery week, with a clinic visit to confirm that I am on track. While I have not quite ‘graduated’ to the long-term (‘survivors’) clinic, one more regular clinic visit in two weeks and I should be done.

In chatting with the haematologist, he was not worried about some of the symptoms I am living with (lower energy, burbling stomach and more moderate appetite). On the first, he simply noted the need to monitor it (always the case in allo stem cell transplants), on the latter, given my weight remains stable, not a major issue.

As he was the haematologist most strongly advocating scans, we reviewed the question of scans and he is relaxed, again given that my treatment was ‘steered’ through stopping my immunosuppressants. Once when I see again the head of the clinic, I will have a process discussion, as it is still not clear to me how and who made the decisions, and I am curious even if pleased with the result.

I will start to be revaccinated next month and in good news, he agreed no sense to keep my Hickman line in, but noting wryly, ‘if we have trouble, we blame the Hickman, or if we have trouble, we blame taking it out too early’. However, as am at the 5 month mark and that the Hickman has not been used for almost 4 months, the time has come.

So a good boring visit!

Movie-wise, over the holidays we risked going out to see Tintin (Spielberg fun) and The Artist (enjoyable and beautifully filmed nostalgia to the era of silent film). A few videos as well: Midnight in Paris (pure enjoyment), Recount (reliving the 2000 election with great depiction of the ‘back room boys’ – and they were mainly ‘boys’), and the 1953 version of Julius Caesar with John Geilgud and Marlon Brando.

I have also started reading again, with the delightful The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. Like all his books, beautifully written, interesting characters, and wonderful weaving together of their lives.

And I started cross-country skiing again. Funny that every time I restart something, there is a fair amount of fear, like I was starting again from scratch. While I fell or almost fell a lot the first day, I felt a lot more stable the second, so it does come back. But all those muscles working together to keep one’s balance take time to get back in sync, and needless to say, I feel them for a few days afterwards.

And recalling the message of the clinic nurse who said I will know if I am pushing myself too hard it I can’t get out of bed the day after, I have noticed an additional hour of sleep required. All good, as pushing myself but not too much (2 hours or more I would start to worry!).

The house will be quieter with the end of the holidays, our son back at university, our daughter back at school. Weather permitting, hope to cross-country ski most days to balance the walks (and nicer than the indoor bike) although unlikely to try skating again this year – the balance thing.

So it looks like I am on the straight stretch of the roller coaster and hope to keep it that way.