The Incredible Shrinking Main Street

The Incredible Shrinking Main Street

It takes an hour to get to the post office from my house. And it’s only two blocks away.

That’s because if you live in Upper Lake, California — population 900 — you’re going to run into a lot of people you know while you walk those two blocks. And you have to stop and say hello to each of them.

Sometimes it was Lynn and Bernie, who own the boutique hotel next door to our house. They bought that abandoned, dilapidated historic property and took it on like an oversized art project.

When my daughter Lauren was only 3, she’d toddle over to the garden at the back of Lynn and Bernie’s hotel and stuff her pockets with their cherry tomatoes. Then, smelling of basil and mint and other herbs she’d pilfered, she’d thunder her Big Wheel over wood plank sidewalks to make her getaway back to our house.

Other days, our walk to the post office took us by Richard and Joe, two regulars who sit on the park bench in front of our town’s antique shop. They often enjoy a “soda” concealed in brown paper bags.

At other times, we’d run into Susan who owns the local wine tasting room, or Lisa — a young beauty who does everything from dog sitting to paralegal work. Usually, the thundering Big Wheel with its pint-sized pilot was leading the way.

Gary and I moved to our tiny town from the big city when we found out I was pregnant. At that time, we wanted our world to be smaller, to constrict it into a glorious bubble that included just the two of us and our new baby. We loved our downsized life and the freedom it afforded.

Then my husband discovered my lump, and our world shrunk again. This time, though, Lauren was in school, her Big Wheel was parked, and the experience wasn’t so magical.

Despite traveling long distances for treatment, I felt sentenced to life within the walls of my house and the confines of our car. Even as they were saving my life, chemo meds squeezed my energy and commandeered my freedom. Neutropenic fever, a serious complication that sometimes happens to chemo patients, landed me at death’s door twice within the first month of my treatment.

Other things changed, too. My friend Shalene died suddenly in a way I couldn’t understand, and then two friends, one named Bobbi and one named Bonnie, both succumbed to cancer. My mom’s Alzheimer’s advanced, and I knew that by the time I’d be strong enough to visit, she’d no longer recognize me.

It was as if Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, had unleashed a wrecking ball — and I was his target.

Bald, emaciated, and desperate to get out, I decided one morning to walk to the post office with my husband. Can I make it? I thought so. I mentally visualized the steps in front of our local bank. I can rest there if I need to. And there’s the bench where Joe and Richard sit. Maybe the wine bar. Susan is nice.

I didn’t want to share these misgivings with my husband. I didn’t want to admit to myself or him that my world had minimized so much that the prospect of a two-block walk frightened me.

In her beautiful new book, “10-Mile Radius: Reframing Life on the Path Through Cancer,” Cat Gwynn captures this aspect of the cancer experience. Through photography, she takes us on her journey to a shrinking world, a place that somehow heightens the senses while it compresses its boundaries.

(Photo by Cat Gwynn)

A renown photographer with a triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis like mine, Cat’s lens document her experience, and although our universes are entirely different — hers urban and south, mine rural and north — her perspectives brought clarity to my own.

Cat’s cancer trapped her within the confines of a 10-mile radius in a gritty neighborhood in Southern California, and her book celebrates the beauty and contrasts she finds there. A streak of fuchsia paint on gray asphalt. A spiky yellow ball on soft green grass. Screens and windows that obscure views, and hints of untold stories. Microcosms of beauty camouflaged by the ordinary.

(Photos by Cat Gwynn)

Cat’s photos help me remember and treasure the richness of my own experience and the extraordinary blessing of being forced to see life up close.

Ultimately, Gary and I resumed our post office walks, that is, until we realized that our small town had drawbacks we needed to change. We wanted to be closer to bigger healthcare facilities and provide more opportunities for Lauren. Ultimately, we moved.

Cat’s photos echo famous wisdom from the Book of Ecclesiastics, that “there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.”

The walks? I miss them.

But I’m ready for whatever comes next.

(Photo by Cat Gwynn)



Note: Breast Cancer News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Breast Cancer News, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to breast cancer.

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