Three colleagues from the Lithuanian American Community, Inc. National Board. From left: Board President Sigita Šimkuvienė, Laurynas Vismanas and Diana Vidutis.
Three colleagues from the Lithuanian American Community, Inc. National Board. From left: Board President Sigita Šimkuvienė, Laurynas Vismanas and Diana Vidutis. Laurynas was especially active in the New York Lithuanian American Community. He died of cancer in 2015.

DETOUR. A conversation with Diana Vidutis

Detour cover.
Detour cover.

Detour: A Side Trip Through Chemotherapy and Poetry evolved from nine months of emails as the author entered the world of Stage IIIB cancer treatment. Starting on her first day of chemotherapy, she describes the process with keen observation and some humor, delving into an arsenal that includes religion, philosophy, and nature. Written for friends and family (about 80 got her daily missives), these emails started out as a way to calm them down and keep them updated on her progress. Using denial as a shield, she eventually segues into reflections on the unexpected impact of cancer on her life, and then into the surprising comfort of poetry. A year later, someone suggested her positive experience might make a useful book.

Diana Vidutis is a Lithuanian activist living in the Washington DC area. She is President of Washington DC Chapter of the Lithuanian Community of America and heads the Public Affairs Committee of the National Board.  In 2016, Diana Vidutis was awarded the Gabrielė Petkevičaitė-Bitė medal “In Service to Lithuania” for her philanthropic work.

Draugas News correspondent Ramunė Kubilius spoke with Diana Vidutis by email about her new book, Detour.

Diana, tell us about your book and about how it came to be.

Thank you so much for your interest in Detour. I never intended to write a book. It came about pretty serendipitously.

Over Labor Day in 2013 at the beach, I started experiencing a phenomenon I thought I had aged out of 10 years before. I was in the best shape of my life at 62, so naturally, I figured I had fooled my body into thinking I was young again. But, just like the middle-aged mother in Thomas Mann’s Black Swan, “who falls in love with her son’s young tutor and is heartened to start menstruating again,” this was not a sign of youthful vigor. It was an indication of uterine cancer.

I went through everything that one goes through when visited by this unwanted guest, except that I had the Lithuanian-American Community around, in addition to family and friends. One of the members suggested I write a book about my experience, as I seem to have come out of it well.

I realized that over a period of nine months I had already written a book in the form of emails to friends. All it took was for me to reverse the chronology, add an introduction and a conclusion, and there it was.

I inquired of a few university and medical publishers, but they were not interested. So I used the internet to research others and quickly found a Christian publisher in Texas interested in “wholesome” books. The book did not have to be religious, but it had to be wholesome, and my story was nothing if not wholesome.

What I did not realize was that this “print-on-demand” publisher does not provide an editor or sends you galleys to proof. Or one whose books get reviewed by critics. They publish 90 books a year, so you get a half-week of attention, and that’s it. I was responsible for all editing and proofreading. You will find mistakes because, in the end, we had to design the cover and proof everything within 48 hours. I also had to obtain all the copyrights myself. But given the publisher’s never having dealt with so many outside sources before, much less making it look readable, I am more than satisfied with how the book turned out. I have learned not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

The book is in an “epistolary” format, using emails instead of formal letters. I was fortunate to have a loving group of good friends, who were worried about me as I embarked upon this journey of chemotherapy. I emailed them each evening to let them know what had happened that day, how I felt, and whatever else came into my mind. I kept it up after the chemo was over, and when I ran out of things to say, I quoted poetry.

With daughter Nida.
With daughter Nida.

Did you always feel inspired to write poetry or is this a recently discovered passion or talent?

Oh, this is not a book of poems by me! I quote other poets’ work. It’s almost like a Stealth Poetry 101 course. You think you’re reading a book about cancer, and then William Wordsworth and Robert Herrick and Walt Whitman show up.

Poetry takes sudden leaps and makes recognizable associations. It packages human experience into nugget form, and those nuggets are golden when you come across them. Sometimes they are just the turn of a phrase; other times, a complete vignette. But each contains its own “aha!” moment.

And nature just plain intruded itself into everything!

It really did. Those birds. That snow. Those canyons. The wind.

In the enforced solitude of disease, nature moved from background to foreground. It forced me to pause, to listen, to reflect. And poetry captured what I heard at that moment.

One is not alone. Grief, love, fear, and wonder are shared by us all.

Poetry leaves us feeling vulnerably human, yet validated in our humanity. Across centuries. Across continents. Across races. Across cultures.

I didn’t particularly like poetry before. I’m not even a writer. I was an English major, then got a Master’s Degree in Slavic Studies and administered international exchanges back in the days of the USSR and Eastern Europe for the National Academy of Sciences and the Fulbright program. After my kids were born (and after the Soviet Union fell apart) that job disappeared, and I turned to something more lucrative as a stopgap measure: being a legal secretary, which required only a high school degree. I’ve been doing that for the last 20 years. It pays the bills plus provides excellent health insurance. There is nothing like a regular income, even if from a job that is not so inspiring, to give you the freedom to pursue other interests.

I quote from Buddha to St. Bede to Shakespeare to Emily Dickinson to Dylan Thomas to Irving Berlin. I spent two years and over $3,000 just getting the rights to cite these poems. The publisher liked the story but wasn’t interested in the poetry. I thought they were essential, so it was up to me to get the permission for everything not in the public domain.

It was an amazing experience to contact writers to get their consent. I didn’t realize I had quoted Wendell Berry three times until I had to make an Excel spreadsheet to track all the poems and their provenance. I thought he was a 19th-century rural poet, but he’s alive and well and living in Kentucky. He let me use his poems for only $50 each. Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” was only $200, and Rita Dove, former Poet Laureate of the US, asked that I pay her whatever I paid my highest contributor, and then she would donate the fee to the Southern Poverty Law Conference. I deleted several poems because the author or the publishing house wanted too much money. The publisher of the late Pat Conroy’s “Prince of Tides” allowed me to quote a beautiful long passage at no charge, while the publicist of the works of the late Anne Frank insisted on payment.

Current owners of song lyrics were absolutely the hardest to track down. It was curious to discover the real composer as opposed to the singer typically associated with the song. For example, I thought for sure that Louis Armstrong had written “What a Wonderful World,” but he did not.

The only entry that I attribute to myself is “Ode to the Elm” about a tree in my yard that refused to die. A former English professor of mine, who reviewed this book, found a connection between that poem and my situation, which I had not noticed. And it was written years before my diagnosis.

I was happy to include the entire Užupis Constitution as it reads like a poem to me. [Užupis is a neighborhood of Vilnius once popular with artists due to its bohemian atmosphere. In 1997, the district declared itself an independent republic with its own constitution. — Ed.] I wanted so much to quote something from Kristijonas Donelaitis’ “Seasons” (Metai), and I have Peter Tempest’s 1985 English translation, but I could not find one stanza that had enough hope in it. So I quoted Willa Cather instead.

Diana Vidutis with her grandnephew Wesley, 2014.
Diana Vidutis with her grandnephew Wesley, 2014.

How did the healing and creative journey affect your Lithuanian-American activities? Did you pause your pursuits? Did you become more selective about where you put your energy?

My acupuncturist (and I recommend to anyone undergoing chemotherapy to have “adjuvant” therapy to help boost one’s immune system) says I did well because I stayed engaged. Not only did I continue to work full-time the weeks between chemotherapy sessions, but I enjoyed planning the local DC Lithuanian Independence Day celebration and our fall picnic. I also continued my duties on the National Board of the Lithuanian-American Community. I even participated in demonstrations in front of the White House and the Russian Embassy in support of Ukraine and considered traveling there as an election monitor. It was winter, and my head was bald, but my wig and fur hat would have kept me warm.

I found that denial worked very well for me. I did not believe I was going to die. But I also did not fear death. I was very grateful for the life I had had. My children were launched. I did not feel that I had missed out on anything. I had peace of mind.

That’s one reason why I changed the subject line of my emails from “journey” to “detour.” I didn’t intend to do more than go off the beaten path temporarily.

Normalcy is what you crave when you face a situation that could knock you out of the real world. At least that’s what I craved. Just get me back on the road I know. The best my friends could do for me was to treat me like everything is normal, and I love that they did.

Perhaps I’m not imaginative or brave enough to drop everything and see all those places you’re supposed to see before you die. I like where I am, and the life that I have, and to still be able to be a participant brings me great joy.

You were open about your medical travails. What message do you hope to send others going through similar difficult times?

I can now say that I feel lucky to have had the experience of cancer and embarrassingly fortunate to have gotten out alive, with no lasting side effects.

My experience tells me that when someone is diagnosed with cancer, they should know that it’s not necessarily a death sentence. Sometimes, I think the doctors feel obliged to give you the worst-case scenario.

And no matter how much you trust your doctor, do not be afraid or embarrassed about getting a second, third, and fourth opinion. A doctor worth their salt will not feel threatened or offended. In fact, in my case, the doctors served on the same tumor review panel and debated the various treatment options for me because they even differed among themselves.

Plus, it helps to read up on your disease. It was my research that led me to turn down radiation treatment. I know my doctor meant well, and she wanted to do absolutely everything so that her conscience could be clear that no stone had been left unturned. But if that additional treatment does not extend your life, why do it?

And it’s the quality of that extended life that counts. One should always ask, what does this treatment buy me? What damage can it do to me? And what happens if I don’t take it? Sometimes, the difference is not so great.

One must also realize that cancer is fickle, and each person’s body reacts differently. The ifosfamide/paclitaxel chemotherapy combination that worked for me may not work for other patients with the same diagnosis. Go figure.

And everyone should respect that the journey someone takes with cancer is a very private one. You are facing your mortality, and that is pretty scary.

Some people will want to share the details of their diagnosis and treatment. Others will want people to ignore the wig they’re clearly wearing and not ask about it. Respect their choice, and don’t push your own experience or that of others onto them.

Which perhaps begs the question, why this book? Someone suggested that it might be helpful to others, as I seem to have had a positive experience with this very frightening thing called cancer. To show that such is possible. Without the encouragement, the contents certainly would have stayed just old emails to my friends.

Although I clung to the goal of working full-time as a way to deal with my disease, others find it healthier to cease devoting themselves to “making a living” and instead living out abundantly the time that they have left. After all, no one on their deathbed ever said, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.”

However you decide to deal with your diagnosis, be sure to love life. Experience as much of its beauty as possible, whether it be walking in the neighborhood or making a pilgrimage and hiking the 500 mile Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain. Feel your body in this world. Let it sense its wonders. We don’t have all that much time here and if it turns out that heaven was here on earth, what a pity it would have been not to have noticed and fully enjoyed it.

One suggestion I would make, however, is that this is the time to tell that person with cancer whom you know and love that you want them to live. It can make all the difference.

Are there any plans to translate your book into Lithuanian for distribution in Lithuania?

Oh, my goodness. Those copyright permissions were only for an English language version. I would have to pay all over again for them to appear in translation, and translating all those poems into Lithuanian would be incredibly difficult.

Furthermore, I don’t know if my book would be of any interest to people in Lithuania, although it does describe my visit there in the summer of 2014, and gives insights into the inner workings of a diaspora community. I’m very American in my values and attitudes and sense of humor, and that may be off-putting to some. Then again, all of the post-Soviet young people in Lithuania learned English by watching “Friends” and “Sex and the City,” so what am I worried about?

What are your plans for this book? Will there be a book tour? And what are your future creative and Lithuanian-American projects in the upcoming months?

The worst thing about being an author is having to market your own book. It’s embarrassing, but I understand I would have to do this even with a traditional publisher. I will plan some events in DC for my neighbors, my work colleagues, and my alumni association. I will also see if the DC Lithuanian American Community wants me to do something.

I had so much fun at Bethany Beach with the Vaičiulaitis sisters, Danutė, Joana, and Aldona, who had me discuss my book just after it had come out on the Fourth of July. They made me feel like I had something to say and that the poetry was well chosen.

On the other hand, the bookstores in Bethany Beach and Rehoboth,  Delaware, said “No thanks.” They were not interested in stocking it — “not a New York Times best-selling author,” and “not a good fit.”

One makes about $0.25 per book, except for the books one is entitled to buy at a discount and then resell oneself at full price. I would have to sell hundreds out of the trunk of my car just to cover the copyrights.

I was shocked the publisher priced it at $19.99. I was even more shocked that Amazon is selling it at that price.

But I feel inspired to go on with other pet projects, such as translating the three-volume World War I diary of Gabrielė-Petkevičaitė-Bitė into English, possibly via crowd-sourcing. It’s a massive undertaking, but it would be a great way for English-speaking Lithuanians all over the world to make a significant contribution to Lithuanian history, especially upon the 100th anniversary of Lithuanian Independence.

I am also working with the Bitė Association in Panevėžys and the Lithuanian Women’s League to get the Lithuanian government to assume responsibility for the Gabrielė-Petkevičaitė-Bitė home on St. Zita Street in Panevėžys. The Mayor and the City Council closed the museum to this wonderful woman in the home, where she spent the last 11 years of her life completing her wartime diary for publication and writing the novel, Ad Astra.

I wish there were a book club in the Washington, DC area, for those of us who should be reading more in Lithuanian, but don’t. For example, I just finished Musiškiai by Rūta Vanagaitė and would love to have a discussion of it in Lithuanian. It was straightforward to read and touched upon themes that are important.

I also need to read the Silva Rerum series by Kristina Sabaliauskaitė. Historical fiction is a favorite genre of mine, and I see lots of possibilities for that with a book club. Apart from the era that Sabaliauskaitė describes, there is so much material in late 19th century/early 20th century Lithuania life that is no less interesting than what fascinated Downton Abbey audiences about that same period.

As a middle-aged single woman, Gabrielė Petkevičaitė-Bitė bravely settled in the countryside for the duration of World War I, recording the trials and tribulations of daily life in a forest surrounded by Russian and German soldiers. Before this, she had found the women’s movement in Lithuania. In 1926, she ran for President. How has that not been used yet for a film?

Diana receives the Gabrielė Petkevičaitė-Bitė award and medal “In Service to Lithuania.”