Deconstructing Time: From Chemotherapy to Quarantine

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When I was in chemo five years ago, I did a good bit of staring at the walls. Natural light used to flood our California apartment and I could see every bit of detail and texture. “Shadows and reflections are all that I see,” I wrote in a blog post. I recall this sentiment because living during the coronavirus seems to reflect that time, yet the effects of chemotherapy are casting long shadows into today’s landscape.

During treatment, I engaged with time in a different way than my friends and co-workers did. When they endured “work weeks” to relax on the weekend, I didn’t “work” since I was on convalescent leave. I marked time by chemo cycles and off weeks, routine blood draws, and afternoon naps. Since I was immunosuppressed, I was already “social distancing.” I lived this way for nine months — the amount of time it takes for a child to be born. The amount of time for me to finally look into the mirror and see myself as a whole person, a human, and not a commodity. I remembered my ambitions and my capacity to love. As I neared the end of chemotherapy, I knew that my understanding of time would shift again — back to the seven-day “work week/weekend” rhythm. It felt like I was waiting for a train.

When all of this time was distilled, I wondered: if I had a million years to live, or only a few days, what would I be doing? What would change, and why? When any emergency — like draining liters of fluid from my lungs during a stint with pneumonia — could potentially mean death, what would I do *now* to account for myself?

Time was deconstructed in a way that the notions of eternity and seconds became meaningless. In its wake was this mode of existential being; or, being aware of mortality, temporality, and a feeling of anxiety. In short, it’s what the world seems to be feeling on a more pronounced and mass scale, right now.

It’s too much to handle alone. For every listicle talking about creating daily routines during quarantine, there’s one about coming together and supporting each other. This response and realization echoes what Detroit activist and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs would call “critical connections.” In a time of rampant consumerism fueled by the worst that capitalism can muster (price gouging, hoarding, etc.) we are realizing that our current economic and social systems need to improve.

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Photo by Doug Zuba on Unsplash

Grace Lee Boggs used Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideas as touchstones to define revolution. The revolution that she imagines is not the one that might connote violence or a dramatic government coup. Her revolution centers on engaging ourselves, personally, with ongoing dialogue; creating a dialectic that asks how we can align our moral and spiritual values and enact them, especially locally.

While Martin Luther King Jr. has seemingly been portrayed in our schools as an uncomplicated figure meant to represent nonviolence/peace, it’s important to remember that he had been jailed and derided during the Civil Rights Movement. His life was challenged with anything but peace. Abiding the law does not always mean that a person is “morally correct.” A lot of people remember this — and a lot of people don’t.

Part of what drove Martin Luther King Jr. was his response to what he called a spiritual crisis. In America today, Martin Luther King Jr. would call us spiritually bereft. A clever and subversive advertising industry trained us as consumers to desire more, irrationally associating products with our emotions. We’ve become a society of desire instead of one concerned with our needs.

Building on Martin Luther King Jr.’s three central conflicts in the US — those of militarism, racism, and materialism — Grace Lee Boggs realized that our consumer-driven society had become fixated on “more” in an attempt to reach “critical mass.” Even today, we hear this term to connote an indicator of change or improvement. We refer to “critical mass” as a tipping point of sorts and think that without mass, we cannot improve.

However, growth followed by growth turns a blind eye to diminishing resources and maltreatment of our environment. As a cancer survivor, thoughts of having more for the sake of more and limitless accumulation touch a nerve. The language surrounding this economic approach suggests a sense of inevitability and negligence. Perhaps this negligence is what Grace Lee Boggs imagined as our moral and spiritual depravity.

Grace Lee Boggs countered the idea of “critical mass” with one of “critical connections.” In other words, people helping people. People caring for their neighbors who can’t risk a visit to the grocery store. People purchasing meals for those who need them. In other words, strengthening our communities and being good neighbors. In so many ways, marginalized communities — like those in Detroit — have already been responding to, and persevering despite, “invisible” enemies (like racism or redlining, to name a few). One of my neighbors, and long-time Detroit resident, told me “If my neighbor is sick, then I am sick. If my neighbor hurts, then I hurt.”

The biggest source of suffering for me during chemotherapy wasn’t so much the treatment itself, but reckoning with the fact that my life was cleaved in two: life before cancer and life after cancer. I felt pain wondering what life would have been like for me if cancer never happened at all. What does the knowledge of this tumor — something I’ve never even seen or held in my hands — change for me? What does it matter anyways? The only way is forward.

What the deconstruction of time gifts us is the possibility of change. If meaning is drained from structures like time or the economy — the structures that bind us together — then we can re-imagine them with meaning of our own making. From creating daily routines to scheduling zoom chats or conference calls, we can be intentional with what we choose to do. We’re served a reminder of our autonomy in the face of ambiguity and anxiety.

One day, we will wake up from this moment as if nothing happened. Anyways, we’re waiting for the train, aren’t we? The machine will groan back awake but we need to remember what we did during these months of quarantine. Remembering is the least we can do to honor the people we are before we slip back into the streets, back into the office, and through those revolving doors.

My life revolves around words. | www.27thletterbooks.com

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