Harmonica Lessons

by Susan English Fetcho

Susan English FetchoMy brother is a professional harmonica player. From him I’ve learned that the instrument is animated by two actions: blowing and sucking. Sounds rude, but it’s true. Inhale and exhale. Ebb and flow. Yin and yang. Life’s all about balance. When cancer shows up, you realize that yours has become—as in the film Koyaanisqatsi—a life out of balance, a microcosm of our planet’s crisis. Modern urban existence subjects us to a toxic soup our bodies struggle heroically to tolerate. Add stress and traffic, fast food and not enough exercise, lack of connection to the land and each other and beauty and rest. And, in some of our bodies, cancer dominates like a playground bully and the teeter totter of life crashes with a sickening thud.

    Suddenly you have a new identity. You are a “cancer patient.” A “breast cancer patient.” You recoil from the ugly, incomprehensible things they’re saying about you. You have a lesion, a mass, a lump. They will do a lumpectomy. That sounds like an operation some kid made up. Why not a “lesionectomy,” which sounds French and rolls more gracefully off the tongue?

    The conflict begins. The medical establishment has what they consider to be the real weapons. The materiel to wage war in the theatre of cancer. The surgical swat teams. The WMD’s. Radioactive angels fly in carefully calculated flight paths like surveillance satellites over your body. Then, after that first shock and awe barrage, the medics pull back their troops, and you are left to guard against any rebels still lurking in the hills.

    You have run the cancer gauntlet. You are reeling. Exhausted. Each morning you test the ground before you put your weight down, unsure if its solidity can be trusted. It takes months, but gradually you begin to believe that you’ve been given a clean slate. Born again. Here’s where the lesson from the lowly mouth harp really comes into play. Breath is everything, and life is pure gift.

    You resolve to excise the phrase “sometime we should . . .” from your vocabulary. You pray for deliverance from the demon of multi-tasking, discipling yourself to your zen-master dogs and your kindergarten students who practice presence in the now. You keep gratitude lists: Artichokes, Bebop, Bees, David, Family, Friends, Pesto, Tango, Zydeco. You become an omnivore, a slow food flexitarian, each colorful fruit and vegetable, grain and legume bringing unique cancer-blocking phytochemicals to the healing potluck. You sing your heart out, your attention so completely absorbed that time disappears. Ellington and Elvis. Balkan women’s music and Sacred Harp. You sail past Angel Island into the sunset and back to Berkeley under a sky full of stars, your gaze rising to meet the curved embrace of their flickering benediction. You give thanks for the ecology of kindness that has sustained you, and hope that the pursuit of balance, of work and rest, passion and play, mission and creativity might just save your life. You remember to breathe. Out and in. In and out.

Bio: Susan English Fetcho is a movement artist and educator, singer/songwriter, and video producer. She serves on the Performing Arts faculty at St. Paul’s Episcopal School (an urban K-8 school in Oakland, California.) She shares her 100-year-old home with her husband, David, and Tango and Bebop (her Belgian Tervuren dogs). Susan and David run foundlight tv, a video production company. She can be reached at: susan@foundlight.tv