Weeping Woman: Living with Demons – days 7 and 8 of chemotherapy

This extraordinary  painting comes to mind when i think of the last two days. ‘Weeping Woman’   is the title of a favourite Picasso painting from the Spanish Civil War period which I have been lucky enough to see various times in my lifetime in different parts of the world.  [Once when making a BBC radio 4  documentary programme with producer Julian May about Basque culture we recorded a piece in Guernica, the place which inspired possibly Picasso’s greatest painting. It’s now in Madrid where i saw it a few years back].

The last time I saw Weeping Woman was in Seattle last October at a quite brilliant Picasso retrospective in the main art gallery there. I went with  my friend Sue and our host Joan [aside: who for the record is my mate Barbara’s mum – I met Barbara when she fleetingly came to Edinburgh  to study for a PhD,  soon realising with some prompting that doing it with  genial, genius anthropologist Steve Feld in Texas – OK this was what i would have loved to have done has i had my time again – was a much better bet: she  lives in Toronto now].  Barbara’s mum Joan, who is a hiker extraordinare and rather famous in Seattle for having written ‘the’  hikers guide book,  took us into her wondeful home to stay,  and took us hiking round snow covered Mount Rainier on one of those sunny God given days with iced flowers at the path side  and snow on the hills – it was just like being in southern Chile and indeed is on the same fault line …. Joan  took us by boat across to Bainbridge Island;  around Seattle’s famous Pike Place market and much more  … ah it was a perfect trip (thanks Joan and thanks Garry).

Sue and I were in Seattle  singing with the Forth Valley Chorus (FVC) at the huge Sweet Adeline’s Barber Shop convention: FVC  had won gold award at the UK  championship and part of the prize  is an invitaiton to sing at the ‘international’. It’s a kitsch event involving thousands of women in a culture which as much as it is fun and kind of light hearted (if intense –  everyone wants to win and there are 30 plus choruses involving on avergae 100+ women), it  is (as my mate Adrienne pointed out to me) also slightly if not completely  out of kilter with my usual style of activity and my usual musical taste as it is  mainstream, middle-of- the -road North American.  I do enjoy singing songs like Autumn Leaves and I’ll Be Seeing You which was one of my Dad’s favourites (so is a bit time waroed in the 40s and 50s), and lovely Scottish pieces like Iona Boat Song and pop pieces like Sisters (Are Doing It For Themselves)!   but Lulu,  Jolene, Hero  and quite a few more… argh – is stretching it somewhat for me, as implicitly they re-inforce  this vision of women being totally dependent on men and the male gaze and male attention of ‘any’ kind, FRankly for Jolene instead of pl4ading with the other woman,  she should be handing him over with the line ‘Shag  him if you can’… is any many worth pleading for who has betrayed you big time…? ).  I’m not putting all FVC repertoire down  for that (much!) but I admit I am totally ambivalant as on the whole  female barber-shop as while it celebrates women’s achievements and strengths on one level it  offers an  unrelentingly, unreflective and unreconstructed account of being a woman… naff  to say the least. Standards of performance are extremely high with musicianship revolving around pitch and polish of lyrics which are often completely banal, which means for the most part that any meaning other than the  sentimental gets little look in, if at all. It’s all about phrasing and stance and intense energy in everything one does. Extremely focused. There’s some fun choreography but it’s language is  fairly unchallenging, predictable and formulaic. Having said that, a Swedish chorus wearing androgynous sailor’s uniforms did come in the top eight which is some achivement in a world where  all women ‘fancy’ glitter/glam dress to the nines with faces completely re-forged with make-up and hair re-vamped with hair pieces: it re-inforces the idea that you just can’t risk being yourself – horrors that would be far too challenging. Even for weekly practices women are encouraged to wear their ‘face’ and a slap of colour on their cheeks and lipstick with  a bit of glitter round the neck  to distract the eye  from any featuees which might declare boldly that one is not in the full flush of ‘youth’.   That’s barber-shop culture.

I like the women of FVC – they’re inspiring, heterogneous in lifestyle, full of personality with many energetic devoted self-starters  who are incredibly committed,  perfectionist  and well supportive of each other.  The director of all these woman is  man (DAvid, married to a top chorus member) who is a great director with an amazing musical  ear who really prepares well for  rehearsal. The chorus boasts various quartets.  I joined as Sue told me about the chorus which sounded fun.  At the time I was fed up with singing lugubrious classical church style  music which I had been doing a lot of latterly (if not all my life). Now after a couple of years of FVC part of me Icraves the heightened  ‘meaning’ inherent in that classical music,  not to say it’s daunting musical challenges but if i left FVC I’d miss  the companionship of the women and their sociability.  They won Gold again this year at the UK Chamnionship and are at the moment raisng money for the next international Sweet Adeline’s competition somewhere like Denver in 2012.   In the interim distinguished  individual coaches will come from the USA for intensive weekends in preparation and everyone will need to raise a £1000 or so per person for the fare, hotels and other expenses  all to sing two songs in about 6 mins on the huge stage!  FVC will also give an Edinburgh Usher Hall concert in October 2011.

Back to the Weeping Woman analogy:  all this is just to say that days 7-10 of each cycle  or at least days 7-8  are pretty horrendous mentally never mind physically. I think it must be due to a build-up of chemicals  in the brain  because each cycle these demons emerge  inside my mind: it’s a mental state in which life feels apocalyptic, death feels just round the corner beckoning with fanged teeth and one feels totally  useless whatever anyone says to encourage one to feel differently.  It’s an overwhemling feeling. It’s like inhabiting a parrallel world so you can see people  and even, as I did yesterday to try and  get rid of these feelings,  make delicious cheese scones and have a good political chin-wag with my Chilean mate Carlos Arredondo (do see his amazing website Fabula which is  a history of Chile since the 1950s in itself). However underneath it all one just wants to mutely  scream and shout and one feels slightly intensely mad as these thoughts sail through the mind.

I now feel I may have an inkling of why the late Martyn Bennet, during his various prolonged cancer treatements, destroyed all his musical instruments including a priceless fiddle.  I knew Martyn from when he was very young, as his mother, the wonderful singer Margaret Bennet,  was  at the School of Scottish Studies when I was a PHD student there.  As a result of this demonic mood yesterday I  argued needlessly with my daughter Fran about nothing and then hada the cheek to cry!  – I felt ‘shite’ to say the least – I wept all day at everything  everyone told me good or bad – glas was very half empty! Every thought that went through my head reduced me to tears. I felt so far from everyone  going see baby Theo at the hospital in London (even though I  will go see him next week for four days). Everything got  horribly out of proportion:  thoughts flitted through my mind like I  might  as well be dead; that my life only mattered to me and no one else and what did that mean? that here i was alone at home and what did that mean?that it did not amount to anything and that I was an ace fraudster living in palatial luxury without any right to do so… everything was miserly and mean mean mean spiritted inside my hea.  These weren’t  ‘suicidal thoughts’,  I do not think so as i did not feel like doing anything silly. I  just felt trapped in these self-pitying, toally egocentric  thoughts. It has to be to do with side effects of the pills although there is nothing on any of the side-effects paperwork that mentions this. Lots of side effects are mentioned if minismised and i read those info sheets a lot.  I must discuss them with my oncologist: Dt Dawson ahoy there!!

So Friday and Saturday I wept wept wept: it’s like having a nervous breakdown (I had one after Chile – I  wept wept wept but that time I had survived a coup d’état and mad men looking for me and then left so many behind enduring infamy). Still these thoughts are   like  being in an unholy relationship with the most potent feelings of being  ‘sorry for yourself’ – it’s  the ‘why me?’, ‘why is this happening to me?’ syndrome writ large emotionally like an eneveloping black cloud  for which THERE IS NO WAY OUT and no answers!!! Why am i threatened with death at 62? aren’t we all in one way or another?

Happily and quite unbelievably  it is over today… just like that!!! the demons have vanished  and i am just going out to have tea with my mate Lucy and her husband musician  Dave  in their back garden and see Lucy’s  hens. .. which have stopped laying… an admire the plants and veggies  she grows so beautifully and her composting area which is exemplary. Lucy is a botanist and her husband similar extensive nature knowledge (and a famous  northern musician to boot) and they go bird watching and out to see  rare plants and flowers and such like.  Lovely folk and wonderful friends.

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About Jan Fairley

I am an experienced and passionate ethnomusicologist working as an arts and music journalist and broadcaster, writer and editor as well as researcher, lecturer, radio presenter and producer. I have a breadth of organising experience at home and abroad. I am a fluent Spanish speaker. I love travelling and have worked abroad (notably Chile 1971-3 and again in 1994) and researched in Cuba, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Finland.
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One Response to Weeping Woman: Living with Demons – days 7 and 8 of chemotherapy

  1. Barbara says:

    Jan , felt this one entirely… wordy…. but that’s par for the course.. rang true. Couldn’t cope with the one with all the needles talk – but then I’ve got a fear of them and nearly phobia of them… urrrgh! Take care lovely girl… xx

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