I wear two hats (at least). As Alice Hardesty, I am a poet, writer, and busy citizen living in Portland, Oregon. My activities in Portland are many and varied. They include dog-walking, tai chi, singing in the St. Michael’s Singers, and interviewing classical musicians. I am also an activist for social and environmental causes, chairing a committee called “Advocacy Action” at St. Michael and All Angels Church in Portland. And, because my husband, Jack, had an amazing healing from a usually fatal form of cancer, I’ve spent quite a bit of time investigating alternative and complimentary healing processes.
As Alice H. Suter, Ph.D., I am an audiologist with a specialty in the effects of noise on hearing, consulting to government agencies, universities, and employers of noise exposed workers. My jobs with the federal government included the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). At various times in these jobs I performed research, developed criteria, or set standards for noise exposure. I’m still active as a consultant, and, alas, the world is still noisy.
Because I married late, I kept my family name for business and professional purposes, but I’ve always preferred my husband’s name, Hardesty, so that’s what I use socially and for my writing. I love to write and consider it a spiritual practice — a necessary nutrient in the diet of life.
How did I get to be a writer? That question has puzzled me, so recently I’ve taken a look at my writing past. I’ve studied writing with many fine teachers: Judith Barrington and Martha Gies in Oregon, and Mary Pierce Brosmer in Ohio. I’ve also attended workshops taught by renowned poets like Paulann Petersen, Stephen Dobyns, Marvin Bell, and Dorianne Laux. Inspiration and valuable practice has also come from my friend Dawn Thompson of Portland Women Writers, who teaches poetry classes in my home.
I’ve always been an enthusiastic reader, but I read slowly, so I don’t spend much time on books that don’t interest me or are poorly written. In high school I loved English classes, so that when my parents took me to England for graduation, I insisted on two pilgrimages: one to Stratford-on-Avon, and the other to 50 Wimpole Street, the house where Robert Browning stole Elizabeth Barrett from her domineering father.
I didn’t major in English at Mt. Holyoke because I was sure I couldn’t keep up with the reading assignments. Also, I found freshman English tedious and lacking the juice that I had enjoyed in novels and plays. I did take a class in creative writing my junior year, but the professor was so discouraging it soured me on the whole process for more than two decades. So I majored in religion, always having been drawn to the numinous, but that too was disappointing, and I ended up doing the Bible on a speed-reading machine. Studying the existential theologians was a worthy challenge, but there wasn’t much a woman could do in those days with a B.A. in religion. So I took a master’s degree in deaf education and then a Ph.D. in audiology, a field where I’ve had a long and rewarding career.
Jack and I lived in the Washington D.C. area for many years, where we both worked for the government. I started out working for the D.C. Department of Health, then to the U.S. EPA followed by OSHA in the Labor Department, and later, NIOSH in the Department of Health and Human Services. My work has always involved technical report-writing, even long tomes like monographs and preambles to regulations (mostly about noise exposure). My articles about noise have also been published in popular venues like MIT’s Technology Review and The Washington Post. I found myself gravitating toward jobs like writing newsletters, editing other people’s technical reports, and teaching graduate students in audiology how to write research papers. I had discovered that explaining things clearly and succinctly helped me as well as the reader understand complex problems more easily.
Meeting the Poet
By 1988 Jack had retired early from his government job and I had a nice offer for a job at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Cincinnati, so we moved there. One day I happened to go to a reading by a local poet, Mary Pierce Brosmer. I still remember the first line of the first poem she read that afternoon. It was in the voice of an entitled husband saying, “Here, put this in your purse.” The name of the poem was “Universal Donor.” I’m not sure what I had expected, but it certainly wasn’t something so surprisingly straightforward, so powerful, and so feminist! This poem didn’t need to be abstract to be poetic. It spoke of action and reaction, of relationship, of emotions of real people in real time. It used words loaded with meaning — words that went straight to the heart.
I signed up for Mary’s weekly workshop, “Women Writing for (a) Change,” and learned a completely new approach to writing, the kind of writing where I dared expose my deepest feelings. It was not about having to be perfect, or brilliant, or even correct. It was about being authentic and finding the best words to express that. At the same time I could experiment with language, metaphor, and the beautiful pictures and sounds of words. I could be funny, political, mournful, or however I felt. It was a whole new world, and I was hooked.
Writing in Ashland
Our stay in Cincinnati was meant to be temporary, on the way to Oregon, which had been our plan when we left D.C. So in 1993 I said good-bye to Mary and our other friends, and Jack and I moved to our new home. Ashland is a small city in Southern Oregon known for its vibrant cultural life and home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The first thing I did was to sign up for writing workshops and make connections with other writers. Within a few months I had organized a women’s writing group, loosely patterned after Mary’s model. We would meet every Tuesday, devote a brief period to catching up, eat some snacks (of course), then write for about half an hour, after which we would read aloud what we had written. Sharing was always optional, although we all usually shared, and we had agreed to confidentiality from the start. We took turns hosting the group and providing writing prompts (suggestions for topics), although we were always free to write whatever was currently on our minds. Writing with a group of friends provides an opportunity to share one’s authentic self and to know others at a depth that is not accessible in ordinary communication. It is a blessing, a gift.
After a few years, I decided it was time to gather my notes and memories from the journey Jack and I had taken through his “terminal” cancer prognosis to healing. I needed to make them into a memoir. Thus, every Tuesday I would ignore the current prompt, and I wrote a new chapter or added to the previous one. After a little more than a year, the first draft had emerged. Since that time there have been several more drafts, but the bones were assembled on those Tuesdays, and my faithful Ashland women writers were the book’s first audience.
Writing in Portland
Jack survived twenty-four years after his initial diagnosis of esophageal cancer, and twenty years after his last treatment, apparently cancer free. In 2006 he died suddenly of a heart attack. I depended on writing to help me through my grief. A friend gave me a journal on the front cover of which she had written “Dear Jack,” and, turning it upside down, on the back cover she had written, “Dear Alice.” It was a way for me to write to him and imagine his response. Sometimes it felt as though Jack was guiding my hand to form responses that were so much like what he would have said.
After three years I decided to move to Portland for a new beginning. Although I have kept on steadily with my consulting practice in occupational and environmental audiology, I have never been without some kind of writing activity. I now have a Portland writing group, which is an important part of my life. I still write poetry when the spirit moves me. Several of my poems have been published, and some have won prizes. But I usually write poetry for its own sake. I also write essays, letters-to-the editor, journal entries, occasional rants (mostly unsent), elegies for dead pets and eulogies for the living ones, and now this memoir, An Uncommon Cancer Journey: The Cosmic Kick That Healed Our Lives.
Writing will always be a spiritual practice for me, one that feeds my soul.