Think of a dinosaur, Elizabeth says. Or a sabre-toothed tiger, or a woolly mammoth. These are the threats your mind has evolved to defend itself against.
In the two weeks before I am booked to go to Europe I have appointments with Elizabeth, a therapist my mum had been seeing and recommended in the wake of my diagnosis. The year before, I had been treated for a serious illness. Over the two weeks, I have two scheduled hours with Elizabeth. Her office is on the bottom floor of her Queensland home in Toowong and while we talk I can sometimes hear her son practising piano upstairs. I tell her about my fixation on the lack of closure I feel. That I can’t stop looking for reasons for it to have happened and when I come up with none, I feel angry and untrusting.
Elizabeth speaks to me calmly and in analogies. We are problem-solving creatures, she says. Your prehistoric brain is constantly on the lookout for the next sabre-toothed tiger, it’s constantly preparing itself for threats. This is natural but it gets in the way.
She asks me to imagine myself coming out of my cave and sitting next to a river. In the river there are leaves floating by, and each time an obtrusive thought occurs to me I should imagine taking it out of my head and placing it on a leaf and watching it float away. Earlier in the week I had read a news story about a product called edible water. Thick globs of water that could be chewed for hydration. As ridiculous as this concept was, it looked cool, and so I would sit in Elizabeth’s home office with my eyes closed, imagining myself pulling these round, transparent globs from my head with memories of myself reflected in their centre. I’d place each one on the leaf, sticky as honey, and watch it float away. Sometimes I would pull a thought out once and that would be it; other times I’d have to drag the same image from my head over and over. I’d keep a lingering eye on them as they floated all the way down the river and disappeared.
I took the trip to Europe because it was only a few months earlier that I had finished having chemo for the breast cancer that had sprouted a few days before my twenty-second birthday. It was an extremely unexpected diagnosis and something that upended my sense of self, and—in the simplest terms—it really scared me.
It took me a while to settle into the trip. For the first week I had the familiar travel anxieties of being unsure if I was doing it ‘right’. Was I seeing the best things or meeting enough people? Eventually I accepted that I was too exhausted to care anymore and I relaxed into the fact that all I wanted from this trip was to be alone in beautiful places. I was lucky just to have the opportunity and means to travel but lucky wasn’t a term I had felt capable of applying to myself for a long time. I walked around cities and read books and sat in train carriages with people speaking languages I couldn’t understand. It was this uniquely comforting sort of quiet—a gentle, incomprehensible noise.
Soon, emerging out of this, I began to notice a series of coincidences. In a Stockholm restaurant I was seated next to a petite, older woman in her sixties. When I started talking to her I learned that she was a retired American ballerina who was in Sweden to give a public lecture. As I wandered back to my hostel that night, I passed a dance museum advertising her lecture. In Berlin I met a family at random in a flea market whom my friend at home had au paired for. I would read something in a book about an artist I had never heard of and the next day I would find myself in a gallery showing a retrospective of their work. These were small coincidences but they forced me to start noticing things again, to look for more patterns and strange order.
While I was travelling I knew that Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, would be coming out. Maybe even more than arriving in the cities I was visiting, the release of this book was the event I was most excited about. Carrie has been the guitarist for bands like Excuse 17, Wild Flag, and most famously Sleater-Kinney, who emerged in the mid-nineties out of Olympia, Washington just after the riot grrrl movement. In the early days of Sleater-Kinney, Carrie and lead singer Corin Tucker’s brief relationship was unexpectedly ‘outed’ by a journalist for Spin Magazine. Following this, Carrie remained exceptionally private about her personal life.
I’ve never felt very certain or fixed on any aspect of my identity. When I was younger and first discovered Sleater-Kinney’s loud unapologetic music, my biggest uncertainty was about who I wanted to date. I couldn’t tell if my crushes on girls and boys were about wanting to be with them or be them. Carrie never talked about her sexuality in interviews. She was feminine and boyish and seemed to prefer the uncertainties and indefinites in her public persona. I think I connected to her in this way because my identity never felt determinately expressible either.
I was in Brussels the day her book was released and as soon as the e-book version started downloading I let out a little whoop of excitement. I was finally going to get to spend some intimate time with this notoriously private idol of mine. I went to a café at the end of my street. It was small and bright and fitted with blonde pine furniture. A sign behind the barista advertised that they served ‘Australian flat-whites’. I ordered a coffee and sat down to read.
Carrie opens her memoir with a scene backstage at a venue in Brussels called Le Botanique. Exhausted from touring, anxiety, and a bout of shingles, Carrie is breaking down and lashing out at herself. She slaps herself in an unhinged frenzy. She doesn’t want to go on. The band is the thing she loves most in the world but she can’t do it anymore. Something’s changed. She needs a break. I stopped reading and looked up and out the window of the café. Across the road was a concrete façade with French graffiti scribbled across its columns. Atop these columns was a large sign: Le Botanique. The venue that Carrie was writing about was directly opposite the café I was sitting in.
I felt electric. My body was energised again, not just in a physical sense, but as though the profound disbelief that I had been steeped in for the past year had finally lifted. I had the tingly assurance that I was in the exact right spot I needed to be. This coincidence, like everything on the trip, was small, easily explainable—but after the big, random, terrible surprise that was cancer, these tiny coincidences gave me momentum again, like a monkey swinging between vines. The more chances I could grab onto, the more confident I felt that life was on the right track again, that the bad part was over.
While I was having chemo, the Sleater-Kinney box set of records came out and I bought it. When I opened it though, one of the records was missing—a final cruelty at the time—and I was too tired to go back to the store to ask for a replacement. Still, I listened to the other six LPs all the time. They were intense, emotional songs, and it was a fitting soundtrack to six months of lying on my bed, thinking “Why me?”
The title of Carrie’s autobiography comes from the song ‘Modern Girl’ off the album The Woods, their final studio album before hiatus, and the one that was left out of my box set. As I had spent my chemo months listening only to the vinyl, I hadn’t played The Woods in its entirety in a long time. After hours sitting in the café across from Le Botanique, I went back to my Airbnb apartment and played it from start to finish on Spotify.
‘Modern Girl’ is the fifth song on a ten-track album. Coming after ‘Jumpers’, a fraught song inspired by Golden Gate Bridge suicides, ‘Modern Girl’ stands out all the more. It’s the only happy sounding song on the record, even though the lyrics are sarcastic and dry. Carrie sings “My baby loves me / I’m so happy” and “My baby left me / I’m so angry” in the same unimpressed voice. This balancing act between pessimism and optimism was deeply recognisable to me. When she sings “Took my money and bought a doughnut / the hole’s the size of this entire world”, it was the tension I felt. How could something so tiny change so much? It felt like this record had been held from me until this moment when I could really listen to it.
When I asked my surgeon whether I was going to live, she told me she couldn’t say. I could put the details of your diagnosis into a computer program and get a statistic, she said, but that wouldn’t mean much to you because you’re younger than all of the women they study for these things. Even within the already senseless disease of cancer, I was an anomaly. Breast cancer shouldn’t have happened to me. As the doctors and nurses who cared for me kept saying, “I was too young”. Their disbelief, as well meaning and appreciated as it was, never helped me. I just wanted someone to tell me why it had happened.
Humans spend so much time looking for patterns or systems. They help us predict what’s coming next. They help us prepare for the next threat to pass by our cave. When we see the pieces falling into place the way we’d expected, it’s reassuring. I went to the other side of the world and, in a café with a book and a song, in this really quiet way, I found a sense of relief in their surprising connections. As Carrie sings, “My whole life / Was like a picture of a sunny day”. Or at least it was until it suddenly wasn’t. I don’t believe in fate or destiny but I think these coincidences, like listening to a song at the exact moment you need to hear it, can often be the vines between which we swing, and with which we make meaning for ourselves.
Listening to ‘Modern Girl’ that night, I lay back and thought about where I was, my whole world the size of a hole in a doughnut or a tiny apartment in Brussels, as the case may be. I didn’t have to find a way to be okay with what had happened—it was an objectively shit time—but it was over. I could sink into the momentum and rhythms of my life. I could let the leaves float down the stream, messy but oddly habitual.
This piece was originally published in The Lifted Brow 34. You can purchase a copy here.
Chloë Reeson is the creator and screenwriter of Homecoming Queens, a web series on SBS on Demand. Their fiction and nonfiction has appeared with publications such as The Lifted Brow, Voiceworks, Bumf, Stilts, Yen Magazine and Scum.