BY LORAINE ANDERSON
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Fleda Brown finally took her first swim in Antrim County’s Intermediate Lake two weeks ago.
She even removed her swim cap for cancer patients so that her sister, Michelle, could take a photo — from a distance.
“I’m shy, obviously, about my head,” Brown wrote recently in “Fleda’s Blog,” her online journal. “I’m OK about being bald, but I don’t like to be stared at, or have eyes drop when they see my head. “
Brown is a Traverse City poet, writer, retired University of Delaware English professor and former poet laureate of Delaware who moved here in 2007 with husband Jerry Beasley, also a retired English professor, to be closer to the summer cottage.
Anyone who knows Brown or follows her blog realizes how important that belated July 13 swim was. The first dip in Intermediate Lake has been an “early-as-possible” tradition since her childhood summers at the cottage.
Brown was diagnosed Nov. 5 with Stage 3 metastatic endometrial cancer. Treatment and an unusually cool spring temporarily benched Brown from some of her activities from early December to June 18, but three rounds of chemotherapy, five weeks of daily radiation and three sessions of internal radiation didn’t silence her.
Far from it.
Words are Brown’s friends, the paints that color her canvas of life.
Brown is the author of eight books of poetry and essays. She writes a monthly Record-Eagle column on poetry, a Monday newsletter for the Traverse City Mindfulness Meditation Group that meets on Sunday evenings, and a Buddhist meditation blog for “Spirituality and Health,” a national magazine based in Traverse City.
She provides monthly commentary on poetry for Interlochen Public Radio’s “Michigan Writers on the Air” series. She also teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop low-residency Masters of Fine Arts program at Tacoma, Wash.
“Fleda’s Blog,” which she began a year ago, focused on writing and poetry for most of the first year. In early December, she realized that she had to write about the cancer, treatment and post-treatment if she wanted to remain honest with her readers.
Enter “My Wobbly Bicycle,” the name Brown gave her cancer posts at www.fledabrown.com/blog.
“We pretend there’s some solidity, some predictability,” she wrote, explaining the title. “But being alive is more like riding a bicycle, balancing on two thin tires. Eventually we’ll fall one way or the other, but for the moment, we’re upright. It’s exciting, sometimes frightening.”
“My Wobbly Bicycle” gave her a place to write about the diagnosis, white blood cell counts and the disappointment she felt when chemo had to be delayed a week, the fatigue, malaise and exhaustion of treatment as well as the beauty of nature and the day.
“Does anyone talk about POST-cancer-treatment?” she asked on July 10 in “My Wobbly Bicycle, 32,” three weeks after her final chemotherapy.
“Tired, yes … but I did not expect to feel something akin to post-traumatic stress,” she wrote. “I feel like wrapping myself in a blanket. For half a year, my body’s been almost poisoned to death. It’s been hit day after day with deadly radiation. Of course I registered all this at the time, but part of me was numbed, maybe had to be numbed. Now my body’s waking up …
“Something is grouchy. Irritable. I’ve had enough of stoicism,” she wrote. “I have not a sprout of hair, yet, and won’t have enough to blow-dry for months. My long naps mean my days are incredibly short.”
Readers comment, encourage and wish her well, suggest she get a Speedo swim cap and tell her that her posts validate their own cancer experiences. Some post poems.
She said she had “a fair number of subscribers” before she began the “Wobbly Bicycle” posts. Now hardly a day goes by without new subscribers signing on, she said.
For her, “Fleda’s Blog” became an important route to the world outside cancer.
“It felt like a lifeline to be able to let so many people in on what it was like for me,” she said. “It somehow connected me to the bigger world when everything was conspiring to keep me in this little world where I couldn’t do anything ... I felt still alive when the rest of me felt half dead.
She said writing has helped her “enormously.”
“Maybe part of it is not having to keep it so internalized,” she said in a recent Record-Eagle interview. “Maybe it’s instant gratification. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer and have been writing almost my whole life. To take this and shape it, gives me an art form.”
Her 27 years of Buddhist meditation practice also have helped her stay with the moment and see what is, without labeling it “good,” “bad,” or getting trapped in fear,” she said.
“I’ve spent so many years practicing staying with the moment that I know fear is only a physiological reaction,” she said. “It’s only when we attach all kinds of stories to it and then believe the stories that we get caught up in terrible fear.
“The practice is to not believe the stories when they come up,” she added. “The stories won’t go away, but you don’t believe them. You understand that what we do and what we believe is what’s true and what is here now. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t felt fear. I just haven’t gotten caught up in it.
“My meditation practice is to just look at what is and just let it be what it is,” she said. “I wish it hadn’t happened, but I haven’t been angry about it. It’s unfortunate and it is what it is.
“I recognize how serious this is, but I really believe I’ll be OK,” she added. “I feel positive about the future.”