“It’s the deepest truth I know: life only gets harder if we’re doing it right.” Historian and New York Times bestselling author Kate Bowler joins Zibby to not only talk about the process of writing her new memoir, No Cure for Being Human, but what her journey has been like living with stage four colon cancer at such a young age. The two discuss how they each wrestle with finitude, why Kate is anti-bucket list, and what shape motherhood has taken in her life in the face of her chronic condition.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kate. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss No Cure for Being Human: (And Other Truths I Need to Hear).

Kate Bowler: Thank you so much for having me. Hello.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I know I was just telling you this, but your book was so good. I expected nothing less because I had read your previous book and have sort of been following along for a long time. It even surpassed — your honesty, how in touch you are with what really matters in the world — that sounds hokey. It wasn’t hokey. Your writing ability, all of it combined, and it wasn’t too long, it’s the perfect book. I’m sorry you went through all this, but as a book, it’s the perfect book.

Kate: That absolutely makes my life. Thank you so much for saying that. When I write, I try so hard to get into a mental space when I’m saying, it’s usually either the hardest thing or the funniest thing that has happened, which usually hits me in the same way. It’s not usually something I say out loud to somebody. It feels really special to have people read it and then to feel really known in that. Thanks so much.

Zibby: Why don’t you explain about why you decided to write this memoir. I’m also just so curious, as you were going through this — this takes place over the course of your cancer treatment and journey and all of that. Journey’s so hokey. I keep saying all these hokey words. I’m sorry. Why in the midst of all that or when during that process did you also decide to put writing a memoir or your plate in addition to everything else?

Kate: I was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer when I was thirty-five. That just blew up the life that I had before. The life I had before was, I had so many dreams of being a fancy historian. I was going to have a lot of gargoyles in my presence. I imagined I’d be sipping port. I really thought I had a whole life. I’ve seen people retire at eighty-something with these glorious intellectual lives. I figured I just had decades to be that person that I’d hoped to be. Then when I very suddenly found out that I was not likely to survive the year, I had to really try to put together a version of what it would mean to live. At first, I was really struck by all the problems of a crisis where you’re like, why? Why is this happening? It’s so overwhelming. I had a two-year-old at the time who was just so smooshy and googly-eyed and this husband I had loved since I was fourteen. The intensity of that moment was really what started me writing in the first place because I realized that I was not equipped to deal with the fact that I suddenly felt like I was a problem that everyone was trying to explain. Because I’m a historian who studies cultural scripts, the stories that we tell, especially the spiritual stories that we tell, I just wanted to keep writing. As I moved from a crisis to a chronic condition, I realized that the advice never stopped. All of a sudden, it went from, why is this happening to you? to, just be present. You only live once. Make sure to empty that inbox and create that side hustle. I was like, oh, no, I will forever be attempted to be solved by green smoothies. I just kept writing to try to make sense of all the formulas I was being handed.

Zibby: Interesting. Were you literally writing alongside as everything happened? Did you just take notes? Did you do it at the end? When did it all happen?

Kate: I usually write in little snippets. My life is very surreal. I went from this massive “you’re probably going to die this year” to a series of life-threatening surgeries and then to a very prolonged sense that every — I still have them. Every six months, I have a big cliff I walk up to the edge of in terms of my health. In the midst of that, I found that I was going to have to learn how to pivot really fast, pivot between a hospital day and then clicking back in and trying to be a mom and also just not being a dink friend where you actually remember people’s birthdays and that they do need to talk about that boyfriend they need to break up with. In the pivoting fast, I found that my life was almost like — you know those little click, click, click — remember the slide view things from we were little?

Zibby: Yeah, yeah.

Kate: Every scene was so different. I think I was writing to try to make sense of how to live in so many different kinds of times, ordinary time and crisis time and just be a normal person at this kid’s birthday, that sort of thing, oh, and then pandemic time, I suppose.

Zibby: You also wove in with every one, these light commentaries or histories. You put it all in context or something. You very subtly drew back the lens and gave us some context and then zoomed back in again for a close-up, which is also really interesting. You can tell how great you are at research and everything, even all the stuff you were saying about digging into all the data and basically figuring out your own diagnosis at one point. I was like, I cannot believe she figured this out, that there could be such an error, that people could be so rushed that it would have to fall on you, the patient, and your giant brain to decipher all the data.

Kate: I think it’s one of the big burdens of being patient. You’re never sure if you’re supposed to be a patient — the word comes from “to endure” — and to be a person in the waiting room who does puzzles and just tries to get through a really hard day or whether you’re supposed to toggle to standing up for yourself, trying to learn more about your diagnosis and your treatment. I have such a rare medical situation because I have a kind of cancer that normally is reserved for, usually, old men. A lot of young people are getting cancer now. Also, the immunotherapy I took was so — I was in a clinical trial. I really found that I was in this very strange place. Sometimes it was just my job to learn how to take a nap, which I never learned, or I had to learn how to fight for my life. Being Canadian, which is to say not prone to using my healthy outdoor voice, it was a very, very intense time for me to learn to be the kind of person who believed I should live in a system that often makes you feel very disposable.

Zibby: Wow. You wrote many times about this concept of finitude, if that’s even how you pronounce it. Finitude, right?

Kate: Yeah, you’re right.

Zibby: We all have to wrestle with that from start to finish. We are all living in this uncomfortable place of, life will end. We do know this. Yet we must get out of bed and make the most of it every day. How do you reconcile that? How do you allocate your time in the present knowing all of these things without lingering in the past and fast-forwarding all the time to plans? Essentially, what you’re talking about is the crux of living, which is why No Cure for Being Human is the best title. You’re really saying, how are we supposed to live? Whether you have this diagnosis or not, this is a common affliction. We are all on our way to death at some point. We just can acknowledge it or not acknowledge it. We can know it’s coming sooner or it’s going to come without us knowing it. The denial that many people live with doesn’t make things any better, necessarily.

Kate: I just love the word finitude because I really like thinking about the problem we have of whether things feel like enough. We always want the math of our life to just add up to more and more and more. I think this is a really intense problem, especially for Americans, she said lovingly, because they’re so future-obsessed. Even if someone’s caught in a terrible thing they’ve done in the past — in those celebrity interviews, it’s always my favorite moment where they go, but it made me who I am today, as if the past is always just this inevitable rush into the present. Then from then, we’re always supposed to be pouring into our endless best life now, Little Orphan Annie, tomorrow, tomorrow. The solution to that, of course, is that there is no solution, especially as people who love lots of people. I know as a parent, I felt this so acutely because at first, I was like, oh, crap, I’m just a ticking bomb. Now I have to count my minutes. That attitude was never going to make me a better mom, a kinder friend because you really can’t transform all of your minutes into moments. Every sitting in traffic isn’t going to be an existential breakthrough for us. Maybe the wisdom to know the difference between the two, be like, all right, sometimes they’re just minutes. Other times are moments. Moments doesn’t mean that we have to be always carting our kid off to Disneyland or trying to make pancakes in the shape of a bear, though that is always, actually, a really good idea.

Zibby: I am not good at making pancakes in shapes. I have tried that. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I’m also afraid to put the cookie cutter on the pan because burn. That’s not a good idea.

Kate: You’re right. It just scrapes off the Teflon. Awful idea.

Zibby: I lack that. I envy the people out there who can make elaborate pancake things. Anyway, Kate, even the way you write — I have to say, I read a lot of this, but I also listened to a couple chapters when my daughter was in the car. I literally paused it. I was like, “Did you hear that sentence? Did you hear that?” She was like, “Yeah.” Hold on, let me try to find a couple examples because I dogeared like every other page here. Let’s see. I like this. “Today will be as ordinary as yesterday, days and weeks working out the consequences of the moments that came before. We like to imagine that we are starring in an extended morality play where lessons are learned and the hero never dies, but in fact, we must make do with the fact that there will be weddings and funerals again this year, and everyone will still spend most of their evenings watching Netflix. This is a kind of freedom. The only question is how we should live under the burden of it.” It’s this whole notion of making things count. Here, let me read another one. The produce drawer, oh, that was funny. Your mom stops traffic to talk about the apple.

Kate: She’s always interrupting some big moment to be like, “Girls, girls, girls, there are three kinds of apples.” I just thought it was absolutely delusional until I can hear it in myself every thirty seconds. Does everyone have what they need?

Zibby: This other scene, too, about your mom, you said, “My mother, no matter how grateful she is to good medicine, will always see my surgeons as butchers. They cut thick lines that crisscross under my clavicle, bisected my stomach, and swooped down from my sternum, and when she saw me lying on her couch, my shirt accidentally exposing the puckered seams of my scars, she couldn’t help herself. ‘If you don’t mind,’ she said quickly, and leaned over and kissed my stomach before I could reply. This is the burden of a mother’s love. How it must hover without landing.” Aw.

Kate: Moms, oh, my gosh.

Zibby: I’m sorry. It’s just so hard to read this and not cry and laugh. Oh, my gosh, your mom and your love for your son. Even your relationship with your dad, the dissertation and all his funny jokes, you two are obviously so on the same wavelength about everything. It’s just so funny. You’re like two little peas in a pod. The whole thing, it’s just amazing. I’m sorry you’re crying.

Kate: My dad’s a historian, and so then I became a historian. One of the great joys of my life is setting up Zoom for my dad and my son before bed. I can hear him asking the same ridiculous things I used to ask when I was little. Who was the meanest king of England? The beauty of our lives is in the storytelling. It’s in all the dumb details and being able to share a story with somebody, which is what love does, which is what history, if you’re a nerd like me, does. That always feels like I’m getting to the marrow of it.

Zibby: That’s so true. Even this podcast, I’m like, it isn’t about books, really. It’s about stories. That’s what everybody needs.

Kate: Yes, they do.

Zibby: That’s why I can talk about this all day, every day. When people talk about books and people love books and people love reading, it’s not that they love running their eyes across words on a page. It’s that we’re connecting with each other. I feel like a book like yours, it’s a shot of adrenaline, an infusion, if you will. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to just be lavishing praise for no reason. I was trying to, in my head, even think, why is it that this is such an amazing book? What did she do so well, aside from your powerful story? There are lots of stories of people getting sick, but that’s not it. It’s that you just so get the world. You write in these scenes. I’m rambling. I’m totally rambling.

Kate: This, I’m going to ponder in my little heart. The feeling I have that I probably had before but it just sort of burst when I got sick was the feeling of being broken open because my own pain made it impossible for me to hold onto my more cherished delusions, like, I’m independent. I can solve most of my own problems. My life is a series of choices. I’m just going to choose really well. Then when I could barely choose anything, I found I was trying so hard to say, you know, most of life will be determined by the things we won’t choose. The more that I felt desperately in love with the world and the more that we all love, the harder it gets because it makes it absolutely impossible for there ever to be enough. That’s the story I wanted to tell because it’s the deepest truth I know. I think life only gets harder if we’re doing it right. It’s just dumb love. It’s heart-exploding, dumb, beautiful love. I wanted to be there with everybody else just saying that even though it’s not the kind of thing that’s great at parties.

Zibby: I think this whole concept of things counting and all of the quantifying that you do in the book — how many minutes do I have left? How many seconds? How much time? Even how you refer back to units of measurement and how random that was with people on acres, how far your oxen can, I don’t even know, walk across and just how these random measurements of time become accepted and then become clung onto because what else do we have to hang our hat on other than the second hand and the units of measurement? Then we are so focused on distilling it down into little things that we can count that then you miss the broader picture.

Kate: Yes, that’s right, especially, too, when we want universal formulas for universal lives and absolutely nothing about our life really is universal. It’s only meaningful because you have that one old friend. You remember that one hilarious thing her boyfriend said. Then in a moment, you understand her humiliation when she fell out of a car by accident. I love the specificity of learning to love people. That’s the grand drama. There’s no generic life. This is a weird conclusion I got from reading the — I really enjoyed the Mindy Kaling book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? She was talking about how much she loves her friends and how funny they are. In reading that book, I realized I didn’t want her friends, that there was just truly going to be nothing ever better than the friends I already have because it’s all the details. How wonderful to be so stuck in our stories that we can’t be pulled out of them, not for any dumb self-help book, not ever.

Zibby: You talk about your friends a lot. They’re central characters. You’re obviously a good friend. You’re doing all the things, still, no matter what.

Kate: I wish there were more books on friendship. Once I knew I was kind of like a structurally unsound building, the window would fall off and the foundation would crack, this is my deep desire, for everyone to accept interdependence instead of this American hyper-individualism. I picture friends as being when, in the medieval era, they realized they wanted to build buildings taller and they’re like, gosh, we really could get this above three floors. Let’s try to get seven. It only works if you have external scaffolding. The flying buttresses that come off of cathedrals, I always thought, that is exactly what my friends are. That’s who I dedicated the book to, is my two best friends who I call my flying buttresses. It doesn’t roll off the tongue. Also, I forgot to tell them I dedicated the book to them. There was a lot of confusion and crying when I handed — I was like, oh, here, I wrote this book.

Zibby: What is like now that the book is out? How is that affecting your day-to-day life?

Kate: Because I’m an academic, it makes me so excited that I finally get to have all the arguments I want to have. I really want to have a lot of arguments. I want to have an argument about the genre of self-help, this convincing people, especially women, that they should be indestructible, side hustle, relationship-conquering monsters who do everything on their own. I love to complain about self-help. I love to complain about the problems of American individualism. I love talking about the nature of hope and how hope is different than optimism. The fact that I get to have all these arguments, honestly, it thrills me because I care so much about the consequence of these ideas for all of us. If it can be anything, I want it to be not about my story, but about the story we all need, which is that we are never going to be able to do this alone.

Zibby: Wow, I love that. From a health perspective, now that I feel like I deserve to know all the intimate details of your future health issues, what are we doing now? Are we waiting for the next scan? Is that where we are? Yes?

Kate: Yeah, that’s where we are. If there’s a health superhighway, I’m sort of on the bumpy adjacent road.

Zibby: Service road?

Kate: I’m on the service road, yes. Thank you, I’ll remember that. Yes, I’m on the service road. Things are always there. They’re so much better than before. I think, for me, cancer, like life, will just remain a chronic condition.

Zibby: I know you’re so anti-bucket list, for good reason. All of that is good. I know you don’t want to plan too much and get distracted, so I hesitate to even ask, what’s next? When you look even just in the next week or the next months or the next few minutes, what are you most looking forward to?

Kate: I’m very anti-bucket list because I do think it is just our endless sense of trying to finish our lives, but I love dreaming. I think it’s such a beautiful thing to even let ourselves dream. My dreams are usually really weird. I really like to write. I’d really like to write another book. I want to write essays about — lately, I was just so mad about how people were using the term manifesting. I’d like to write something like that. I wrote a little devotional book that’ll come out in February called Good Enough. I was trying to think about, what could we reach for instead of perfect? I was like, oh, good enough. That made me laugh. I’d really like to go out in my camper with my husband and son and see some ridiculous things like world’s largest golf ball kinds of stuff. Accommodating the limiting horizon of both health and the pandemic means I’d like to create some lovely joys that are about three to six months out of reach.

Zibby: The camper does not sound like a joy to me, but my son, my littlest guy, asks me all the time, “Can we go on a camper trip?” I don’t know, he must have seen it on YouTube or something. I’m kind of like, no, probably not.

Kate: No, we can have other dreams.

Zibby: If you want to pick up a New Yorker who will be like “where’s my iPad?” after five minutes in the camper, I’m sure you would have an eager participant in your travels.

Kate: I’ll roll on through. That’s awesome.

Zibby: What advice would you have to aspiring authors?

Kate: I think I only started writing when I gave up the pride that I had that I had to be good. I just realized it was okay to try. It was okay to experiment with something that I knew how to do without trying to imitate anyone else. One thing I practiced doing is, I just wrote funny little stories. I sent them to a friend. I found those little paragraphs really gave me a lot of confidence to write them into bigger, maybe more layered stories. That’s usually what I do if I either feel stuck or I’m not sure how to begin. I write things that strike me as either wonderful or ridiculous. I text them in a few paragraphs to a friend. I find that’s usually the beginning of something kind of good.

Zibby: Awesome. I love that. I feel like Instagram is like, you’re writing. Just write something funny.

Kate: Get on there. Totally.

Zibby: Mine the moments. Kate, thank you for this book. Thank you for sharing the pain that you went through in so many ways and the personal — thanks for opening up your door and letting us all in. I feel like we got to be a little fly. I looked for a better expression than fly on the wall. It’s like watching a really sad but uplifting movie where you’re just so rooting for the main character. You’re like, don’t talk to me while I watch the end of this movie. Go away. I have to see what happens. Then you kind of cry when it’s over because of the journey of it and also because of what happened. It makes us feel. That’s the best thing a book can do, is make you really feel.

Kate: Wow, thank you for rooting for me.

Zibby: I am. I am totally rooting for you. Good luck with everything. Keep writing.

Kate: Thanks so much.

Zibby: You should write for Moms Don’t Have Time to Write. If you ever have extra essays floating around, I have a whole Medium site.

Kate: That sounds great. Thanks, hun. Have a beautiful time.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Kate: You too. I’ll think of you while camping when it’s a bad idea. When it breaks down, I’ll think of you.

Zibby: Think of me while camping. If you want to trade kids, you know.

Kate: Yeah, dot, dot, dot. Take care. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.



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