re·nais·sance | ren-uh–sahns, –zahns, –sahns, ren–uh-sahns, -zahns, -sahns
- the activity, spirit, or time of the great revival of art, literature, and learning in Europe beginningin the 14th century and extending to the 17th century, marking the transition from the medieval to the modern world.
- the forms and treatments in art used during this period.
- any similar revival in the world of art and learning.
- a renewal of life, vigor, interest, etc.; rebirth; revival.
origin – French, from Middle French, rebirth, from Old French renaistre to be born again, from Latin renasci, from re- + nasci to be born
synonyms – rebirth, rejuvenation, renewal, resurgence, revitalization, revival, reawakening
The thing about a renaissance is that you can’t force it.
That’s the way it is with any birth, or rebirth. You can’t make it happen. If you’re the one being born or reborn or renewed or revived, you aren’t so much doing something as letting something happen, giving yourself over to forces larger than yourself, to hands not your own. You aren’t pushing yourself out into the world, you’re being pushed. And maybe pulled. You are being birthed.
Which isn’t to say you’re doing nothing at all. It’s just that you aren’t in control of the process or its outcome.
The European Renaissance was the result of many conditions, many hands, many minds. It didn’t happen all at once, the way some births do. It took root and unfurled and blossomed and flourished in different places and in different ways. As a rebirth, it managed to look backwards and forwards at the same time. The Renaissance was not a mere recapitulation or nostalgic rehashing of classical antiquity, nor was it a complete rupture with all that came before it (including the Middle Ages). It was the new, birthed from the old.
We arrived in Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance, on July 18 – Paul’s birthday, and the 18-month anniversary of my stage 4 leiomyosarcoma diagnosis. The next day, July 19, happened to be an anniversary as well – the anniversary of my misdiagnosis a full year before my diagnosis – meaning I’ve been living with stage 4 cancer for 2.5 years, in defiance of the statistics for metastatic soft tissue sarcoma.
We spent the evening of July 19 walking around the city with a local photographer, who took pictures of us at various iconic sites as well as in some off-the-beaten-path locations. I showed up without my wig, a sign of my intention: I wanted to claim July 19 as my renaissance. I wanted the day, and the place, and the pictures to mark a new beginning for me – a renewal of my body, my spirit, my mind.
But the thing is, you can’t force a rebirth. And when it happens, it doesn’t necessarily happen all at once. You can smile at the future, but still be scared of it at the same time.
And when you’re being reborn, who, exactly, gets to say what parts of your old life you get to keep, and what parts you have to let go? Who can predict what will emerge? Who can predict who you are going to become? Could anyone have predicted Brunelleschi’s dome before he dared to dream it?
Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. – Thomas Merton
If you’re going to open yourself up to a rebirth, you’re going to have to accept the fact that you are not in control. You don’t get to engineer your own renewal. You just get to show up for it, be present to it, be attentive to what it asks of you, and open yourself to what happens next.
It helps to surround yourself as much as possible with people who love you.
I do feel changed, renewed, revived, and, yes, reborn, by our time away. But it isn’t as linear or neat as the language of “before and after” implies. And I don’t have words for all of it yet.
What I do have is this. Three days ago, I got the astonishing news of my best CT scan since my diagnosis, including these words from my chest CT report: “without definitive evidence for thoracic metastatic disease.” My lungs essentially look like normal, healthy lungs. There is still evidence of disease in my liver and in my thigh (the primary tumor) but the disease in both places is small and asymptomatic. And these scans were done after my having been on a chemo break while we traveled. (Perhaps my new prescription should be for regular travel to Europe, yes?) I will keep going on my current treatment protocol for another two months, have more scans then, and see at that point if any new treatment decisions need to be made. Physically, I feel great.
What’s more, I feel I’ve turned a corner mentally as well, though I don’t yet have full or adequate words for what I mean. The weight of trauma, loss, and grief in my life over the last four years, and especially over the last 18 months, and most acutely over the last six months, has been profound. You can put an ocean between yourself and your reality, but you still carry the truth of it within you. On the other hand, having the time, the space, the means to shift focus – to see, to breathe, to think, to draw, to eat, to talk, to paint, to laugh, to relax, to walk and walk and walk – it can change things. It both requires a shift in perspective and can create further shifts in perspective. The hardest part of living with cancer is living with cancer. Which is to say that the hardest part of cancer, for me at least, is not physical but mental. And mentally, I do feel reborn.
I am grateful beyond words for the grant that made this sabbatical possible, and grateful beyond words to our congregation, for their blessing and love, and to the phenomenal staff and lay leaders whose work enables us to take this extended break. I’m grateful, too, that we still have a few more weeks left to reflect on and our process our experiences, as well as to rest.
I don’t yet know the full nature of my renaissance, but I’m excited to see how it unfolds.
For all that has been: Thanks. For all that is to come: Yes! – Dag Hammarsköld