Sunday, August 10, 2008

the restless train departs

*** Before diving into this post, let me just start by saying that the diarrhea is gone and my stomach is doing just fine.

Had things gone as planned, at this very moment I would have been aboard Amtrak's Maple Leaf 63 preparing to get off in about 30 minutes at the next stop - Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada - the first of many on my North American adventure. Like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the continent was there before me to explore. Instead, I find myself in the familiar environment of my home.

The mourning period is over . . . really. There were several days immediately following my doctor's news when I felt bemused and dispirited. Despite my mother's persistent nagging to get me to see if I could get refunds for all the reservations, I wavered for a number of days. Numbed by the recent news, I wasn't quite ready to begin the uninviting work of making endless calls and writing letters. At least not yet. I just needed a bit of time. But after a couple of days, I picked up the phone and began to make the necessary calls.

It's quite clear to me that since the mild chronic GVHD appeared about three weeks ago, my body hasn't been the same. My skin is more sensitive to UV light. Parts of my feet are numb. With these issues alone, the trip that I had imagined and planned for just couldn't be. I had accepted the reality that although my body has been incredibly resilient that it would have been folly to undertake such a trip with these issues lingering. I may have been able to salvage the eighth day excursion to Niagara Falls and Toronto, but I didn't attempt to do even that. My dream had already resigned to the more important news of my health.

With the next two months on the calendar open now, I've been contemplating about where I may want to go from here. In a strange and perhaps unexpected way, this break in my plans has spurred me to begin to think (sooner than I would have wanted) about what I may want to do in the immediate future. After about twelve months of coddling in the comfort of not being urged to make any bold moves about employment or school, I think the time may have arrived for such action (though it may be in short steps rather than lighting bursts). With the one year anniversary of my transplant only eleven days away perhaps my arrival at this fork in the road is most apt. How do I feel about where I am in my life right now? And where do I see myself going? What opportunities might there be for me to explore?

About two weeks ago as I was returning to my apartment building, I ran into a fellow named Bernard, who lives in one of the adjacent buildings. I don't see him very often, but whenever we see each other we always stop, say hello, and many times chat a bit. My parents know him and his family. It so happened that when I saw him this time I wasn't in the best of moods. My thoughts had been circling around my disappointment concerning the trip. He greeted me with his usual warmth and asked me how I was doing. The manner of my response, I think, suggested that I had had better moments. Undeterred, he gently moved our conversation into a more positive realm of discussion.

Unable to walk, Bernard, whom I guess is in his early 40s, gets around in a mobile scooter. I don't know how this happened, but in light of life's unfortunate twists and turns, he seems to have done pretty well for himself as an artist. Several years ago, he created a mural for the Nigerian consulate in Manhattan and has also created work for the Bronx Country Courthouse.

In response to his question, I told him that I was at a crossroads pondering what I wanted to do with my life. It's important to note that Bernard, like most folks in my rather tight-nit building where I've lived my entire life, remain unaware of my cancer history. I told him that amongst my interests, I had wondered increasingly if writing was something worth pursuing. A number of writing ideas have taken up residence in my noggin, I expressed to him, but I had yet to really tap them fully. Always optimistic, Bernard started to give me a pep talk. He encouraged me to take that next step. Philosophizing is wonderful, but if those grand thoughts are left alone in your head what good are they, he said. I needed to put these restless ideas into action, he said. I don't want to awaken suddenly at age 40 and wonder where the time had gone. This is my moment. This is my time. Don't tarry out of fear or complacency, but push forward now and try.

Citing his own challenges, he told me how he has pressed forward in life. For example, it took him a number of attempts before the Nigerian consulate offered him an audience and accepted his work.

There are rare, beautiful moments in life when one feels that a person's unexpected but timely arrival might not have been by mere chance. It is as if someone knew that at this moment of restless uncertainty I was in need of the uplifting words of some else. Moreover, the fact that this person too has suffered enormously, but has been able persevere with such inspirational strength just makes me and I'm sure others pause and ask, "Hey, if this guy can do all of this without the aid of his legs when I have mine, why can't I do the same?"

During the days since this fortuitous discussion with Bernard, I've tried to prepare the foundation from which that restless train can be set off in motion.

At different periods during the past year of my recovery, I've felt as if I haven't always been as productive as I should have been. At these times, mediocrity or just plain laziness has been the comfortable norm I've felt. Some have told me that I'm too hard on myself. This is true I know, because at the same time I believe I've been exceptionally good at keeping myself busy. Nevertheless, these thoughts of disappointment are not uncommon in moments of sulky depression or uneasiness.

Understanding fully well that during my recovery any semblance of a daily schedule has been shaped mostly by the limits of my own self-discipline, I know both the danger and beauty of such a situation. Believing that a more regular and structured daily schedule is an important first step in my effort to get that restless train ready and moving, I have begun to do just that. I have well over two dozen books in my room to read but until very recently, all but a few have been left untouched. Some have been in my possession for months and months. I read the newspapers and online sources religiously. I'm a bit a junkie in this respect, but I'm sad to state when it comes to books my motivation has faltered more than I'd like to admit. This is very vexing for someone like myself who loves to read and enjoys the stimulation of learning. In my effort to change things, close to two weeks ago I finished an engrossing book, Ladies and Gentleman, The Bronx Is Burning and then, completed McNamara's Old Bronx almost immediately afterwards. Presently, I'm about a third of the way through the national bestseller, The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto, which provides a revealing portrait of the founding of seventeenth century Dutch New Amsterdam and the larger Dutch legacy to the history of the United States. At the moment at least, I'm in a New York state of mind. Whether at home, a café, or in a library, I've tried to rededicate a part of my day to this very important and much missed activity.

Secondly, I need to write more. Write more, you say? Yes, I have this blog but most times my posts are only brief pieces of a much larger process that's going on in my head. As it stands, many times I feel like I spend too much time blogging, but if I were to blog about all the other pieces and more importantly, try to integrate these thoughts I'd have no life. This blog serves a wonderful purpose in that it allows me to record my thoughts and observations rather quickly in a linear manner. These posts serve as rough drafts to which I can return to expand upon at some point in the future.

Due to the constraints of time, I shorten some blog posts knowing that there's a lot more that can be tapped into and this is why I need to just sit down and do as Bernard encouraged me to do. Last week, I composed and submitted an essay to the Bone Marrow Foundation for its website. My brief essay describes my cancer experience and the valuable assistance that this generous organization has offered me during treatment. The organization is preparing to publish a new newsletter in the fall and so, I volunteered to write another essay when it's ready. Each of these actions are small but meaningful steps in my effort to tap further into this reservoir of mine. Most importantly perhaps, persistence in this endeavor will help to make this sometimes tepid writer more comfortable with the need to write more habitually and exhaustively.

Now that the BMF's essay is completed, I'm preparing to move on to the next idea, one that has been floating around for at least the past two to three months. For many months, I've been saving articles, essays, or studies published in the city's newspapers and local online blogs that deal with New York City life. In particular, I've become very interested in reading stories about some of the refreshing ways in which New Yorkers and visitors alike have provided us with new lenses through which we can see and revisit this great metropolis, which sometimes can seem but all too familiar. From history to nature to photography to fitness, these individuals (most of whom are average, working New Yorkers) have some remarkable stories to share.

Door Keeper on 79th St. Keeps Stories of Queens

Have Camera, Will Trespass, on Brooklyn's Waterfront

Using Prospect Park as a Yearlong Oasis for the City Soul

In Thousands of Images, a Photographer Builds a History in Harlem

East Village, Before the Gentry

The Last Picture Show

His View From the Bridge

Taking Boot Camp to the Next Level

The similarity between their stories and my own is clear to me. In essence, I've been doing the same thing. Throughout my photographic treks across the Harlem River and its bridges, I've documented the surprising charm and rich history of an area of the city that in my opinion receives little love. If I, a life-long resident of this area, didn't realize this until very recently, I can bet that most New Yorkers are equally unaware of what beauty lies here. New York City is indeed a city of neighborhoods.

Like those above, I think I have a compelling story to share, one that I think people will be interested in reading. As a result, I'm beginning to work on an essay that I'm thinking about submitting to The New York Times' Metro or City Life sections.

These writing projects are just first steps. To what exactly, I don't know. Despite this, it's important that I undertake these initial forays into the unknown, because how else will I begin to find out what it is that I really want to do. Writing? Journalism? Back to academia? Or maybe something else entirely? We'll see. For the moment at least, this restless train is moving forward.


Comment Blogger Christine said...

Hi Duane,

The way I see it, you have already begun...Go for it...submit your writing...Many people want to read your story I know. I come back almost daily for many reasons, but mainly because I think you are interesting, inspiring, insightful, intelligent with an honest voice in a world of junk! New York needs you to share such a truly original New York story, hopefully pictures too because they can help people see "your" place in a whole new light.

4:55 PM  
Comment Blogger Cathy said...


Great blog post! Your train is on the right track :) Keep writing! I think it is wonderful that you are submitting your writing. That shows your confidence is building in that aspect. I enjoy your blog and think you photography is great! As I told you I also enjoy taking photos but I wish I spent more time with my camera. I am a big procrastinator! What I am trying to work on now is writing each day even if it is a paragraph. I don't do it enough.
Keep writing.....

10:09 PM  
Comment Blogger Kelly Kane said...

I say you should be a writer. Start networking or write a book, go back and take a few classes if you want, but I think that's your passion.


10:36 PM  
Comment Blogger Jim Anderson said...

I always suspected you were a writer in a cancer survivor's body. There can be no doubt that being so close to death changes your perspectives and outlook on life. Things that were once taken for granted can become unmistakably wondrous. If our lives are a path, then a near death experience is like being thrown off that path, causing us to reconsider everything and take for granted nothing.
Thanx for your kind words about the often forgotten benefits of 'Graft vs Tumor' in the xplant recovery process. I sincerely hope that the GVHD you are experiencing now, at this late stage in your recovery, is yet another sign that you have seen the last of Lymphoma.
Keep up the inspirational writing!

5:58 PM  
Comment Blogger laulausmamma said...

Hi Duane - I'm a big believer in "meant to bes" and meeting your neighbor when you did happened at the right time. His inspiration and encouragement gave you the push you needed to start on the next days/months/years of your life. You write and photograph from the heart...especially about the NY/Bronx that you love. Keep it up...and take it further. There are many who will be inspired by your work.

P.S....check out Adrienne's blog if you haven't'll love the great news she was given!!!!


11:48 PM  
Comment Blogger Duane said...

Thanks everyone. I'll be sure to keep you posted about my writings and possible NYT submission.

Susan: I just found out the INCREDIBLE news about Adrienne!! Thanks for the info. :)

1:26 AM  
Comment Blogger laulausmamma said...

I saw you posted in Alison's IT'S WORKING!!!!! thread shortly after I sent you there. Such heartwarming news for a very deserving family. Adrienne got her new puppy this weekend to celebrate her trial working and her 21st b'day on Monday. Lot's of happiness in that Las Vegas home : )


10:48 PM  
Comment Blogger Nathan Kensinger said...

Duane -

Thanks for including the NY Times piece about my photography in your list of inspirational articles from the NY Times... it was great to read the other stories, especially the ones about other photographers working on the streets of New York.

Also, it was inspiring for me to read about your own story. I definitely encourage you to keep pushing forward in your work as a photographer and writer.

I've been thinking of taking another trip up to High Bridge Park, on the Manhattan side of the Harlem River... there is a lot to explore and photograph there... Let me know if you would be interested in joining me!

Best wishes -

Nathan Kensinger

3:13 PM  

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