Life is even more beautiful from here.
Renewing post cancer, optimism rehab and photography
This time last year I was in hospital, recovering from surgery that was part of my treatment for colorectal cancer. I had five lines coming off my body, and was in the midst of nine days of not being able to sleep or keep food down. I was watching an insurrection unfold, as were all the doctors and nurses who came into my room. LA was in peak pre-vaccine covid, and the hospital was on lockdown, short staffed, wards reconfigured, everyone tired and on edge. Everything felt scary, and I’ve never felt weaker. The brain-gut connection is a wild thing; it’s now really apparent to me that if my digestion isn’t happy, everything looks glum. So I was pretty miserable. Even coffee and Marmite couldn’t solve it.
Which was challenging physically, but even more spiritually. I identify strongly as an optimist. My ‘why’ is to create from optimism. I relish seeing the good and potential everywhere. I would suck at my job if I didn’t — future design stemming from pessimism would lead to a short-lived career. Pervasive optimism is why enso makes things like #YouCanLearnAnything, Good Morning, the Work Happiness initiative. So to feel bleak —personally, and about the future of democracy, civilization and the planet — undermined everything I think I am, and why I exist.
Physically, things turned a corner after nine days. The digestion is somewhat mercurial; suddenly it was calm enough that I could sleep, and then I felt like eating again, and then I could walk around the block and rebuild from there. That sounds like it was just about waiting it out; in reality it took a lot of amazing care and emotional support, particularly from Kerry. Being consistently upbeat and constructive for someone who is consistently not, is saints’ work.
After 3 months with an ileostomy (#nofun), I had a second surgery in April, and since then I’ve had a series of clear tests and gradually rebuilt energy. Today, I did morning yoga and just finished a 3 hour bike ride, climbing faster than I did pre-cancer.
But what does optimism rehab look like? Some cultural things helped (thanks Joe! thanks vaccines!), but I certainly couldn’t look to the news for hope. This era is not exactly conducive for optimists.
For me, it started with seeing light. I’ve always been super sensitive to light: energized by the sun, and lethargic in flat light; I think it’s why I live in California.
My hospital room after the second surgery in April had stunning views of the LA hills; the blinds were left open so I was treated to beautiful sunsets and sunrises. Incidentally, I was surprised to learn that ‘hospitals are not a place you go to sleep’; you’re woken up throughout the day and night to check vitals… annoying at the time, but with my view, it had the nice side effect of seeing the landscape’s evolution. Between that, a sense of completion of the year-long journey, and some good drugs, I felt a sense of elation. My world was starting to shift.
Almost by mistake, just before that surgery I’d signed up for a Leica Akademie workshop with Stella Johnson to start in May. I imagined I’d enjoy hearing Stella talk about her career and art photography each week. So I was a little shocked when she asked for my images. I’d inadvertently signed up to send 15 images every week for a group of wonderful photographers to discuss and dissect. I love photography (other people’s), and grew up around it, but I’d never had any formal training or participated in anything like this, ever. I thought about not showing up.
But I did. Between Stella’s lovely guidance and innate curiosity, I started really enjoying going out on my bike every day looking to see. Really enjoying. Looking to see. As simple as that. It doesn’t hurt that I live near Venice Beach, where there’s so.much.life every day. Abundant weather, waves, relationships, art, struggles, joy, love. Abundant light.
I’ve read a lot less news in the past year. I spend zero hours commuting or flying to meetings. I work much less now — I almost never work beyond 4pm (it took me until this many years to realize more work = worse work). But what’s replaced all that is time on my bike, seeing. Meeting people (between the covid waves), seeing the wonder in people, seeing the wonder in nature. Re-finding my life, being inspired by the life in others. Finding life in light.
Around this time, some work enso was doing with Arc’teryx (Outer Peace) had us studying shinrin-yoku (forest bathing); time in nature is proven to reduce stress and anxiety, calm your heart and enhance your mood. My daily rides along the beach were making that very real to me. Leave a zoom-a-thon, ride to the beach, and really leave it, in a way that just logging off hadn’t done before. I look back on pre-covid times, of commuting from home to office and back again, completely disconnected from the weather, the tides, the neighborhood, the time of sunset, as such an imbalanced life. I’m glad to have left that behind.
Another thing we’ve been looking at deeply is wellbeing, and what drives it, for our work with Indeed (Work Happiness), one output of which is the largest dataset in the world on wellbeing at work. When people are asked what they think creates wellbeing at work, they rate compensation as the #1 driver, followed by flexibility (ie, the ability to not be at work!). But our research, as well as many other studies, shows that belonging is by far the most important driver (*this finding and other fun things were in the 2021 UN World Happiness Report). We are social animals. Again, I’ve found that the daily practice of seeing people, seeing a community do its thing, makes me much happier and more optimistic than reading about people through Twitter and the news. I feel like I’m a part of LA in a way I wasn’t for the previous 14 years of my time here.
So photography for me is about the journey and the end. The end matters to me: I am always chasing light to make images that convey the spirit I’m witnessing, and hopefully spread that through engaging images that people want to spend time with. But the chasing itself is cathartic to me — physically, mentally, spiritually. Photography has been a passport to a greater connection to the world, community, and through that, a restored sense of optimism.
I can’t say I’m more optimistic than ever, because covid, the climate, November elections and frayed social fabric scare me; but I can say I feel a different quality of optimism. Perhaps more grounded, more resilient.
I was talking with Talia Milgrom-Elcott this week —about the state of education, society, America, all this — and she shared an interesting provocation: ‘how do you love that which is broken?’
Partly the answer has to be re-finding optimism. Finding practices that disconnect us from the doom-fear-destruct cycle, and reconnect us with the joy-hope-trust-construct cycle. I hope to do my part in that.
“Sometimes hope is a radical act, sometimes a quietly merciful response, sometimes a second wind, or just an increased awareness of goodness and beauty. Maybe you didn’t get what you prayed for, but what you got instead was waking to the momentousness of life, the power of loving hearts.”
– Anne Lamott
Note: I know there’s an important role in the world for the cynics, recorders of hard truths and worst-case preparers — balance in all things — but I’ve learned that’s not me, it’s not where my energy is. It feels culturally like hope and optimism are in short supply right now, and that’s challenging for being able to move forward. If anyone knows of an optimism index for people, communities and society overall, please share it (I know there are things like ‘the country is heading in the right direction’, but that’s different than a personal sense of optimism); if it doesn’t exist, I’d like to create one.
p.p.p.s. — Stella’s running a similar workshop soon — find more here.
p.p.p.p.s. — writing this was partly sparked by reading a great profile of Tracey Emin’s journey since cancer. It’s worth a read.
“It’s almost like I’ve had a sabbatical,” she says of her period of illness. “Time to sit back and think: what is it all about? Why am I an artist? What am I doing? What’s it for? And… I’ve suddenly worked out what it’s for! I know what I’m doing. I want my art to make people’s lives better.”
“It’s like I’ve got some enthusiasm for living,” she admits. “Because before I was ill, I didn’t. Honestly, I just felt like I was dying all the time. So now I don’t have that thing in me — that darkness. It’s gone.” She still has moments of despair or fury, but she knows how to channel her energy better. “How to spend it? Don’t spend it on getting angry!”
P.s.²: if anyone’s going through a cancer rodeo like mine, and would like to talk, I’d be delighted to; just reach out.