From Schrodinger’s Cat to Salisbury Cathedral, Prague castle to the Princess Royal Hospital, my cancer journey has come full circle, back to a strangely euphoric, possibly disease-free state. As I wrote in June, in the days just prior to my diagnosis, I felt both terminally ill and joyously alive; now, having just had an operation to remove four lymph nodes and a sphere of breast tissue at the site of the vanished tumour, but not yet the results, I will spend the weeks until Dec 23rd in a state of far gentler uncertainty.
The best case scenario, as my oncologist put it, is that yesterday cancer and I parted company – I left the hospital by the front door, and any cancer cells remaining in my body after the chemo were sent on their way to the lab. The worst case scenario is that all four nodes will be found to be diseased and/or cancer cells are found at the edge of the breast tissue (rather than safely isolated in the centre). If so, another minor operation will be needed, to remove more nodes, and/or a small slice more of the bap. After all I’ve been through so far, these are not traumatic possibilities. Recovering from surgery in my peaceful private room at the Princess Royal yesterday, I felt filled with a enormous sense of peace. I am now, or nearly am, cancer-free. And at the same time, all I’ve been through has enabled me to contemplate without panic far more difficult outcomes. To quote, if I may, my own poem ‘Winterpause’ about the German chanteuse Nico: ‘The winter sun has won her foggy struggle with the cold.’
I’m currently resting again, willing my eyelashes to grow back, and reflecting on the weekend: a post-chemo, pre-op energy window that framed me as traveller in a more familiar sense. Thanks to the kindness of the organisers, who drove me to Salisbury, I was able to attend the Muslim Institute’s annual Winter Gathering at Sarum College, an ecumenical conference centre just opposite the magnificent Salisbury cathedral. Last year I was invited to speak on my approach to Islamic SF, after which I became an MI Fellow. This year I attended as a guest, enjoying the company of activists and intellectuals from all over Britain, and hearing talks on the theme of ‘Blessed Are the Innovators’. Or are they? One hard question that arose was whether humanity has embraced change for the sake of change, heedless of the consequences for all living beings and the planet itself. Having dealt with Windows 10 and Outlook upgrades during my cancer treatment, as a result of which ‘improvements’ none of my devices can communicate with my laptop anymore, and I am no longer able to conduct a Keyword search on my university email, I am more inclined to that view than ever before!
It was hard to feel despairing though, in the presence of a group of people so deeply committed to dialogue and progressive values that a un-ironic Muslim singalong of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ was a highlight of the Saturday Culture Night. Another unexpected moment came in a talk by anti-extremist activist Usama Hasan from whom I learned that Wahhabi-Sufism is a thing – it turns out ISIS have hijacked not simply Islam but the sect of Wahhabism, the austerities of which can, as Usama’s life work proves, be lived in the context of love for all. It was in that deeply Islamic spirit that I felt welcomed again by the Winter Gathering. On Saturday night I read a new poem about cancer, healing and gratitude, ‘It Takes A Global Village’ joining a line-up including hard-hitting, big-hearted rapper Mizan the Poet, and multi-talented Hodan Yusuf-Pankhurst, who in her role as Reporter in Residence captured me reading from my tablet – for the second time, and for the second time having the text disappear from the screen as I stood in front of the audience. This time at least it had the courtesy to do so before I began reading! (I do say I’m an SF writer because I hate IT . . .)
As well as sharing powerful poems about race, refugees and belonging, Hodan tweeted, photographed and Storified the weekend in lavish detail. Please do check out the link – there’s a lot there, but while you may not be able to follow every thread, scrolling through gives a great flavour of the weekend, including the halal Full English breakfast! As my university department’s Equality and Diversity Champion, I was especially excited by the discussion of ‘inclusivity’ in relation to the Inclusive Mosque Initiative, a volunteer group who hold mixed-gender Friday prayers led by female Imams in various venues including interfaith churches. To paraphrase co-founder Naima Khan, being inclusive does not mean preaching a type of inclusivity, but housing it – letting people define themselves, and asking them to refrain from judgement of others. She and Imam Halima Hussain described holding Jummah (prayers) in a way that reminded me of the Quaker meetings I attended as a child – creating a sacred space in which everyone is allowed to speak without fear about whatever is on their mind. There’s so much to look forward to exploring when I’m fully recovered, but on another full circle seems a good place to pause . . .