More on the theme of bodies, wellness, and healing and our struggle in academia to find and connect with them… a guest post.
by Chelsey Hauge and Kate Reid
Chelsey is a media artist and writer, and is currently Visiting Assistant Professor at Mills College. She holds a Ph.D. in Education from the University of British Columbia and her research interests include digital literacy, youth media production, and girl-led activism. You can find out more about her here: www.chelseyhauge.com. Find her song and video here.
Kate Reid has a Master of Arts in Social Justice, and a Bachelor of Education from The University of British Columbia. She delivers keynotes, concerts, and workshops for secondary and post-secondary schools, and professional organizations. For more information about Kate, please visit www.katereid.net.
About a year before I (Chelsey) was scheduled to defend my dissertation, I found a lump in my breast. Shortly thereafter, I found myself formatting dissertation chapters from the chemotherapy chair. I dealt with my cancer by diving into my academic work. When that failed, I used my university library access to read everything I could about young women and breast malignancies, and I theorized my cancer. I identified and participated in cancer chats on Twitter and when I wasn’t writing about youth and media, I blogged about my treatment. I met other young women dealing with cancer by leveraging digital media, and I noticed that just as it had been for the youth in my research, social media was networking me in life-saving ways. Even though I was actively building a cancer-community, I felt isolated and invisible and angry. My grad school friends were on the job market and having babies while I made decisions about which body parts to amputate and amassed a wig collection- I couldn’t help but feel terribly left out. And that is why I turned to storytelling.
I was a little shell shocked when within weeks of my mastectomy, I defended my dissertation successfully. All of the sudden, everything was done. I was no longer a cancer patient. I was no longer a PhD student. I was exhausted, but couldn’t figure out if it was from months of cancer treatment or from years of dissertation writing. In the midst of my confusion, a grad school friend named Kate approached me and asked if I’d be interested making some music about my experience with cancer. She was a queer, feminist musical storyteller and she thought one of my blog posts would make a great song.
I saw my own work reflected in her request. For years, I have asked youth to trust me enough to make video stories about their lives. I believe in the power of collaborative storytelling and in the relationship between storytelling and social justice. And so even though I can’t sing even remotely in tune, I stepped out of my own comfort zone, and took her up on her offer.
What transpired was nothing short of magical. We sat on her living room couch and I told Kate my cancer story, and she listened. She really, deeply, carefully listened. And then she harmonized my stories, and we worked together to craft a song, Breast Cancer Pink, that beautifully narrated how much I hate the pink ribbon, how angry I felt about my cancer catastrophe and my nascent hope that I might actually survive the whole ordeal.
In my academic work I have written about youth voice in media programming, and about the idea that youth can experience agency by making digital stories. As Kate and I sat together and wrote that song, and later, as we recorded it in a professional music studio and eventually produced a music video for it, I felt like my voice was heard. I felt empowered. I felt agentive. I was experiencing the rush of possibility, the hopefulness, and incredible healing power of art-making that I have so often written about as an academic. And it was awesome.
I listened to the song on repeat. Again and again and again. Like four thousand times. There was something so incredibly healing about this musical artifact that so simply and so clearly communicated about this experience that had previously felt so shameful, so invisible, and so embarrassing. On the morning we were to shoot the music video, my grad school friends all showed up in downtown Vancouver to be part of the chorus I envisioned singing together at the end of the song. I wasn’t alone with the cancer anymore- in the making of this song and music video, I found a tangible way to share my story and bring my community into my experience.
As I reflect on the production of the song and music video alongside my academic work on youth and media, I can’t help but notice the synergy between the projects. I’ve always understood that media can facilitate something really magical for people with a story to tell, that media can make visible stories that have felt shameful or embarrassing, but Breast Cancer Pink gave me an entirely different and deeply embodied way to think about media art, healing, and community. And for that, all I can say is thank you, world, for conspiring to bring so much awesome into my life.