abreastinaboat.jpgFetishizing community only makes us blind to the ways we might intervene in the enactment of domination and exploitation. I see the practice of critique and in particular a critical relationship to community, as an ethical practice of community, as an important mode of participation. Miranda Joseph, Against the Romance of Community

Whereas I had thought, recently, that being a drag king was a remote possibility, it looks as if PINK is going to be my new Spring colour, and sporting drag queen accessories, like a pink wig, glasses and feather boa is distinctly more likely as a possible reincarnation.

Last night, I attended the Novices meeting of Abreast in a Boat (ABIAB), which is a Dragon Boat paddling organization of, and for, women living with breast cancer. Back in June, in those horrendous pre-mastectomy days (and very long nights) that were awash with tears and chock-ablock with doctors appointments, tests and more tests, I insisted that Janice and Sz take me to the Alcan Dragon Boat Festival. This popular annual Vancouver event attracts many thousands of spectators who crowd the shoreline of False Creek to watch dragon boat paddlers compete. One of the highlights of the event is the race between boats paddled by breast cancer survivors. These paddlers create a moving panorama of courage and compassion on the water as they bring their boats into a special formation after their race, holding carnations high into the air, each one representing a woman who lost her life to breast cancer, and finally, dropping the flowers into the water.

Last June, the very same day that I got the “Mary, you have breast cancer.” call on my cellphone while standing in the Westjet line at the Edmonton airport, I was invited to a potluck where I met M – a fellow breast cancer survivor. When she talked about the dragon boat paddling “for survivors” I experienced such an intense moment of identification with her that it reminded me of when I was really young, and met honest-to-goodness queer folks for the first time. My diagnosis just hours old, I noticed that I was mesmerized by M. I sat beside her throughout the party, and finally screwed up the nerve to ask her for an email address with some really weak and unlikely explanation. I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to ask M. I just needed to make a connection. I was awkward, unsure of what to say, or how to identify myself. What was the secret handshake? My need to create a network that was larger in size than the number 1 was palpable. I knew that I absolutely had to be present for the survivors’ dragon boat race a few weeks down the road, and in particular, for the moment of the carnations.

Watching the ABIAB paddlers race at the Alcan Festival, and then bring together their boats and raise their carnations in memory of the women who lost their lives to breast cancer that year was poignant. The affect was riveting. I made a decision that day, just two weeks prior to my mastectomy, that I would be present on the water the following year. And I was resolute about the fact that next year, unlike that day in June of 2007, I would not be sobbing, and I would not be a spectator.

Abreast in a Boat has an interesting history that represents, in its essential elements, the key features of many breast cancer stories. University of British Columbia Sports Medicine physician and researcher, Dr. Don McKenzie, in 1996, founded a research program designed to challenge then prevalent knowledge and perspectives concerning the impact of upper body exercise and women living with frequently occurring impacts of breast cancer surgery and treatment, like lymphedema (painful swelling of the arms). At that time, it was widely believed that following breast cancer treatment, women should seriously restrict physical activity. Au contraire. McKenzie’s pioneering research showed that a systematic approach to the introduction and maintenance of upper body activity has a positive impact on the health and lives of women living with breast cancer. Just over a decade later, thousands of breast cancer survivors the world over are enthusiastic paddlers dispersed over more than a hundred organizations like ABIAB.

The meeting yesterday was awash in identity narratives profferred as a mode of community building and performativity. ABIAB members told stories about survival, camaraderie, emotional support and the sustenance provided by the company of women. There was, of course, a logic of inclusion and intelligibility that structured these identity organizing narratives. And where there is a grammar of inclusion, there is, of necessity, one of disidentification and estrangement. The stories were also about “being women” or “ladies”, wearing pink with pride, and telling one another stories that “can’t be told to husbands”. I felt the familiar sting of enforced feminization deep inside, and likewise, the alienation from stories about husbands, and other “men in our lives we can’t talk to”. This is, of course, the stuff of community where the logic of “in the singular, plural, and alike”, fails abysmally. How does this group that is predicated on a logic of community practice hospitality to strangers?

I’ll keep you posted.