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…I have learned that story assuages grief, and it also grants the chaos of our emotions some shape and order…Even as I watch my mother become more and more distant from the lives around her…I am doing what I have been preparing all my life to do:  listening again to the old stories and committing them to memory in order to preserve them.  I am still doing my work in terms of what I have come to believe defines immortality.  Being remembered.  (From:  The Cruel Country, by Judith Ortiz Cofer, ©2015. University of Georgia Press)

Every now and then, I’m sent a book to read with the request for a review or perhaps, quoting from it in my weekly blog posts.  I dutifully try to respond and incorporate as many quotes as are relevant to the theme I’ve chosen for the week.  Rarely, however, does a book arrive in the mail that not only speaks to the themes and issues faced by cancer survivors and others experiencing emotional pain and hardship, but envelops me as completely as Cofer’s new memoir on the loss of her mother and that uncharted territory of grief.  I am learning the alchemy of grief, she writes, how it must be carefully measured and doled out, inflicted—but I have not yet mastered this art.”

I am not sure any of us truly masters the “alchemy of grief,” because death, the loss of loved ones and friends, forces us to learn and re-learn what it means when someone’s life ends—whether anticipated, as often is the case in terminal cancer diagnoses, or unexpected, lives cut short by circumstances no one can predict.  So it has been with me this past week.

Robert, who had been part of my Moores UCSD Cancer Center writing group, died earlier in the month, but this week, we celebrated his life in a memorial service.  I was, I thought, “prepared” for Robert’s death.  He’d fought valiantly to live three years beyond the death sentence he’d been given with terminal prostate cancer.  But his death was the third in our writing group since December, preceded by Susan, then David, and as I walked into the chapel at his service, the skies outside unusually overcast and threatening rain, my heart was heavy with the weight of their combined losses.

The sky was again gray with cloud cover the next morning, mirroring my sorrow.  I stood on the front steps wondering if there was any chance of rain when I saw my elderly neighbor, Carroll, walking down the street toward our house.  I smiled and waved, “How are you?”  Then I noticed his face.  Something wasn’t right.  “I wanted you to know,” he said, “Mary passed away at four a.m. this morning in the hospital.”

“Oh no,” I gasped.  “What happened?”  I had visited them both at home just a few days earlier.   Without warning, tears streamed down my face.  “I’m so sorry,” I said, as we embraced, embarrassed that I was doing the sobbing as my neighbor comforted me after losing his wife of 65 years.

That afternoon, unable to write, I picked up Judith Ortiz Cofer’s book and began reading. Three hours later, I looked up at the clock, surprised to discover I’d read for nearly three hours. It was six o’clock, and I hadn’t prepared anything for dinner.  Still only halfway through her memoir, I’d underlined a dozen or more passages and tabbed several pages to re-read.  Among those pages, caught up in her eloquence and soulful writing, I was re-learning and remembering something about the “alchemy of grief” she described.

Mary’s service was yesterday afternoon.  The church was filled with their sons, daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, lifelong friends, and most of us who live in this little neighborhood.  Together, we celebrated her life just as I had experienced a few days before at Robert’s service, as his adventures and enduring humor were shared by friends and loved ones.  …what I have come to believe defines immortality.  Being remembered

As I considered what to write this morning, I thought about my father and how, when members of our extended Bray family died, he, along with my uncles, preferred to separate themselves from their grieving sisters or cousins, all crying together in another room, and instead recount stories from the deceased relative’s life—the greater share of them filled with humor.  I was in high school at one such family funeral, and after several stories had been told, he turned to me, serious for a moment, and said, “Sharon, promise me that when I die, you’ll have a party.  I don’t want any tears and weeping.  Just invite all my friends, serve them Jack Daniels and tell some good stories about me.”  He wanted only to be remembered—and most often, with a chuckle.

There were more than a few “good” stories about my father I discovered at his wake many years later, and hearing them made me smile, knowing that we were remembering him just as he wanted to be:  not as a man whose addiction to cigarettes hastened his death, but as a man who loved to laugh, play a good joke on his brothers and friends from time to time, and more than anything, tell a good story.  Those stories keep my father’s memory and his legacy of humor alive.

Death steals everything but our stories–the final line of Jim Harrison’s poem, “Larson’s Holstein Bull,” I quoted in my April 5th post,” Why Our Stories Matter.”  Our stories keep alive those we’ve loved and lost.  We remember them.  Grief is softened, even transformed, and one begins to heal.  As Cofer reminds us:  Writing transforms.  And on the page, it is always now.

This week, think about what has helped you navigate the dark ocean of grief in the wake of a loved one’s loss.  Try writing from the memories you have of a friend or family member you’ve lost.  Or, try answering the question, “How do you want to be remembered?”

Cancer is no laughing matter.

Yet if you happened to pass by the conference room in the cancer centers where I lead expressive writing programs for men and women living with cancer, you’ll often hear the sounds of laughter.  That’s right, even though we’re writing about the emotional impact accompanying a cancer diagnosis, laughter is no less frequent than tears.  Counterintuitive perhaps, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that laughter, like Norman Cousins told us in 1979 when he wrote Anatomy of an Illness, is good medicine.  Even before Cousins’ insights, Mark Twain advocated for the power of laughter:  “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that’s laughter,” he said.  “The moment it arises, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.”

I love to laugh, and in part, because when I do, I feel better.  Life looks brighter; gray moods dissipate, and others share in the smiles, so I wasn’t surprised to discover, according to author Jeannette  Moninger,  writing in the Winter 2015 issue of CURE, many hospitals across America offer laughter programs for cancer patients.  Moninger describes a few:  At North Kansas City Hospital, patients can watch funny movies…Duke Medicine offers a Laugh Mobile, a rolling cart from which adult patients in oncology wards can check out humorous books and silly items like whoopee cushions and rubber chickens.  And the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Program sends…clowns to 16 children’s hospitals nationwide to help put smiles on the faces of ill children… (pp. 26 – 29).

Even as far back as the 13th century, surgeons used humor to distract patients from the agony of painful medical procedures!  It turns out they were onto something, and many research studies have borne that out.  Laugh, and not only the world laughs with you, but your body releases endorphins, the “feel good hormones that function as the body’s natural painkillers, ”Moninger writes, the same hormones that create the “runner’s high.”  Endorphins also decrease the body’s levels of cortisol, the hormone associated with chronic stress.  Cortisol has a number of negative effects on our bodies, compromising our immune system, tensing up our muscles, elevating blood pressure—all of which laughter helps to counteract.  I don’t know about you, but I’d like to bottle up some laughter and always have it at the ready to counteract the stresses our rush-rush world.

We all need a little laughter in our lives, no matter if we’re dealing with cancer, an over-busy or stressful life, the loss of loved ones, or simply sharing time with friends and family.  We need to laugh just as much as sometimes, we need to cry.

when you are raised with the gift of laughter, as I was, it can’t stay suppressed forever. It’s too powerful. Thank goodness for that. I eventually could see bits of “ha-ha” in my own life. Certainly not in the cancer, but in the mind-blowing circumstances that suddenly consumed my life. And laughing at parts of those experiences made me feel a little more alive.  The funniest part of it all was that the more I allowed myself to laugh, the more therapeutic my tears became.  

(Jim Higley, “Finding Humor in the Midst of Cancer,” Coping with Cancer Magazine, March/April 2012)

Smiling and laughter are simply contagious.  I think of Louis Armstrong, that familiar gravelly voice always enough to make me smile, but in particular, singing:

When you’re smilin’ keep on smilin’
The whole world smiles with you
And when you’re laughin’ oh when you’re laughin’
The sun comes shinin’ through

Try it.  Whether during cancer treatment or simply living a world be constantly dominated by hardship and struggle, it’s good to find something—even a small thing—to smile or laugh about.  Dig back into your memories this week—the fun times, a time you laughed so hard, tears ran down your cheeks.  Take a break from writing about cancer or those other painful topics of life.  Try on a little humor.  Perhaps you have a few memories of times that made you smile, even laugh aloud whenever you think about them.  Write one, that funny story, and let a little “ha, ha” brighten your day.  After all, as Charlie Chaplin said, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.”

“I need an attitude adjustment,” I said to my husband.  We were driving downtown last night to share an evening of live jazz with friends.  He said little, a sure indication he agreed with my assessment, since I’d been less than jovial for much of the day.  “I’ll try to “right” myself,” I said.  “I don’t enjoy my crankiness any more than you do.”

It’d been an uneven week for me; my mood lopsided, leaning in the wrong direction despite my best efforts to right myself.  Whether fatigue at the end of teaching a time-consuming course, the continuing turbulence in the world, a sense of loss as my cancer writing workshops wind down in the next three weeks, or the impending decisions that come with my husband’s retirement in July and the life changes it signals for us, it’s difficult to say.  But the world was, it seemed, too much with me.

An evening of music helped soothe my troubled spirits, old familiar tunes from Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington, but the shared laughter and conversation with friends was especially good medicine.  By the time we returned home, my mood had lightened, and the fog of my spiritual malaise had dissipated, although none of the impending decisions have yet to be resolved.  But it was this morning as I shared the sunrise with my dog, sitting quietly on the deck, and the two of us serenaded by the community of birds calling and chirping to one another across the canyon.  I closed my eyes and remembered lines from a favorite poem by e.e. cummings:

may my heart always be open to little

birds who are the secrets of living

whatever they sing is better than to know

and if men should not hear them men are old

I bought a children’s book this week, a habit I acquired when my daughters were small but still persists, thanks to my three grandchildren.  It’s titled enormous SMALLNESSA story of E.E. Cummings, and written by Matthew Burgess.  I’d learned about from Maria Popova’s fine weekly newsletter, Brain Pickings Weekly.  Cummings’ ranks among my very favorite .  I’ve filled my volume of his complete poems with underlines, asterisks, and dog-eared pages.  Cummings, Burgess tells us, liked to “work and dream, peering out at the world above and the world below” from his third floor room.  While his poetry often broke the rules of rhythm and rhyme, which many found strange, they were fresh and thought-provoking.  Cummings’ poems, Burgess writes, “were his way of saying YES.  Yes to the heart and the roundness of the moon, to birds, elephants, trees and everything he loved.”

Yes.  Of course.  As cummings put it “yes is a pleasant country…”  It’s such a simple word, and yet, thinking about it seemed to open my mind to possibility instead of anxiety.  Yes.  Yes to life, to whatever changes ahead of us.  Yes to simply being alive and present in the world. His words echoed in my mind as I watched the sun creep across the canyon, listened to the birdsong and stroked the ears of my dog, peacefully curled in my lap.  Yes, I thought, and my heart opened, as e.e. cummings’ might have intended.  The poem continues:

may my mind stroll about hungry

and fearless and thirsty and supple

for even if it’s sunday may i be wrong

for whenever men are right they are not young…

(From:  “53” by E.E. Cummings, In  Complete Poems, 1904-1962, ©1994)

Maybe it’s the birds, the peace of early morning, the quiet that any of us need in the midst of this rush-rush world, but for me, his words, the riot of birdsong in the morning–it all reminds me to be grateful for the life I have, to let go of the trivial annoyances that sometimes grow beyond their size, to be grateful for each new day, the “twenty-four brand new hours” that Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh spoke of, and to always see the world with “new” eyes.  Yes.

yes is a pleasant country:
if’s wintry
(my lovely)
let’s open the year

both is the very weather
(not either)
my treasure,
when violets appear

love is a deeper season
than reason;
my sweet one
(and april’s where we’re)

(e.e. cummings, “yes is a pleasant country… (XXXVIII),” In: Complete Poems, 1904-1962, ©1994)

As you write this week, consider these questions:  What helps pull you from the doldrums?  What opens your heart?  How might “yes” be a pleasant country for you?  Do you have a favorite poem or poet in whose words you find comfort and inspiration?

She’s lived in my memory for sixty years.

Death steals everything except our stories.

These two final lines of Jim Harrison’s poem, “Larson’s Holstein Bull,” linger in my mind.  In the poem, the narrator remembers a young girl and her untimely death from being gored by a bull.  The poem is short, the descriptions lean and straightforward, but the impact of the final line is profound:  Death steals everything except our stories.

Stories were part of our evening last night, as we attended a Passover Seder at our friends’ home.  I had experienced a Passover meal once before, but it was a new experience for my husband, one we both enjoyed—not just for the traditions inherent in the Jewish holiday, but for the re-telling of the Jewish story that is part of the celebration.  As I listened, I thought of the Easter holidays my family celebrated throughout my childhood.  We had traditions too, rooted in Christian beliefs and in my father’s extended family’s love of family get-togethers.  Like the Seder meal we enjoyed last night, Easter Sunday was dominated by a traditional meal, many of the recipes handed down from my grandmother to her daughters.  Hers, my aunts said, were passed along from her mother-in-law when as a new bride, it was quickly apparent my grandmother had little experience in the kitchen!

What I remember most about our family celebrations, whether Easter, Christmas or Thanksgiving, was the life around the table.  Aunts, uncles, and cousins filled the room and sat at designated tables.  Since I was one of the older grandchildren, born in between three young adult cousins and a batch of younger cousins born a few years after World War II, it meant I “graduated” to the adult table earlier than most—a privilege I quietly cherished.  At the adult table, I learned about family history, stories told and re-told  by my uncles at every celebration.  Their stories were embellished each year as my uncles repeated the tales of my grandparents’ years as homesteaders and ranchers in Northern California, and I never tired of hearing them.  These were stories of our family’s inheritance and legacy, stories well told and much enjoyed.  They mattered  to me because of the laughter, the history, and the sense of belonging I felt hearing them.  They were instrumental in my understanding of who I was, where I was from.

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on…

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers…

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks…

(From:  “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” in The Woman Who Fell From the Sky by Joy Harjo. 1994

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun… Another table, another group of friends, is also on my mind this morning.  I’m working on a booklet today, a collection of the stories written and shared by the men and women in my “Writing through Cancer” group at Moores UCSD.  As writing series winds down, everyone submits pieces of writing done during our ten weeks together.  Their stories are about cancer, yes, but much more.  They are ones that represent a whole life, not one solely defined by illness.

Cancer, novelist Alice Hoffman wrote in a New York Times essay, need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter… (August 14, 2000).  In the shock of a cancer diagnosis or the weeks of surgeries and treatments that follow, it’s easy to forget, for a time, we have more than cancer stories to tell.  We may be temporarily robbed of our voices, but as we write and share them with each other, we rediscover and honor our lives.

It’s cancer that brings people to my writing groups.  Cancer is the starting point, where we begin, but as the weeks progress, other stories emerge, ones of love, family, even childhood.  Writing and sharing our stories affirms our lives, our legacies.  Our stories say:  “This is my life.  This was important to me.  This is how I have become who I am.”

But in order to make you understand, to give you my life, I must tell you a story—and there are so many, and so many—stories of childhood, stories of school, love, marriage, and death…
–Virginia Woolf

 Our stories live long after our lives have ended.  Think of the stories you tell of your grandparents, parents or other loved ones who are no longer living.  It’s through story that we remember and honor them.  It’s through story that we say, This is who I am.  This is my life.  William Carlos Williams, physician and poet, offered important advice to a medical student:  Their stories, yours, mine—it’s what we carry with us on this trip we take…we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them.

It’s each person’s stories I carry with me long after the writing workshop ends and long after some of the writers’ lives are lost to cancer.  Through their stories, I learn from them.  I remember them–their faces, words, and lives.  It’s why our stories matter.  We are our stories.  They shape us and act as the lens through which we see the world. Through story, we make sense of our lives, reclaim our voices, and learn that our stories have the power to touch others’ hearts.  Cancer may be what brings everyone to my writing groups, but it’s in our shared stories we discover the glue that binds us together.

Stories—the small personal ones that bring us close as well as those of the larger world—foster compassion.  In the telling of our personal lives, we’re reminded of our basic, human qualities—our vulnerabilities and strengths, foolishness and wisdom, who we are…, through the exchange of stories, [you] help heal each other’s spirits.

–Patrice Vecchione, Writing and the Spiritual Life, 2001

 Your stories matter.  Why not write them?

 

When you first hear the words, “you have cancer,” it’s likely you remember little else from that moment.  Cancer breeds fear, sparking our anxiety and turning it into flame.  Dr. Ann Partridge, cancer specialist at Dana-Farber, described it this way:  “When patients receive a diagnosis of cancer, it is that word – cancer – that rebounds across the room, suffocating all attempts at nuance.  The glass may be 99 percent full, but they grab onto the 1 percent “risk.”   Dr. Donna Greenberg, director of psychiatric oncology at Massachusetts General, explained: “The word cancer still carries with it the specter of death and suffering. It’s like a monster is coming into your house.” (“Fear Itself,” by Stephen Smith, Boston Globe, March 10, 2008)

Fear.  It’s the shadow that trails after you from diagnosis through treatment.  And it lingers, even after recovery begins.  There’s something called “scan anxiety,” which is the psychic distress experienced during ongoing tests and checkups.  “In the back of your mind,” colon cancer survivor Judith Rothman said, “it’s always there that the other shoe is going to drop, and that becomes more active in the days before that CAT scan until I hear what happened…I always think the worst.” (The Routine Fear for Cancer Patients, by Stacey Burling, The Philadelphia Inquirer,  March 11, 2009)

In his list poem, “Fear,” Raymond Carver begins with more irrational fears and  zeros into the “real” fear that dogs him:

Fear of seeing a police car pull into the drive.
Fear of falling asleep at night.
Fear of not falling asleep.
Fear of the past rising up.
Fear of the present taking flight.
Fear of the telephone that rings in the dead of night.
Fear of electrical storms.
Fear of the cleaning woman who has a spot on her cheek!

. . .
Fear of death.
Fear of living too long.
Fear of death.

I’ve said that.

(From “Fear,” by Raymond Carver, in All of Us, 2000)

It’s a bit of a catch-22.  On the one hand, Scott Siegel, a health psychologist, tells us that if you’re not worried after a cancer diagnosis, “it probably means you don’t understand the stakes.”   On the other, “there may be no correlation between how much you worry about your cancer and how dangerous it actually is.”  Yet in recent studies conducted at Tel Aviv University, researchers found that fear and stress may actually affect the recurrence of cancer.  “Psychological fear may be no less important than real physiological tissue damage in suppressing immune competence,” said Professor Ben-Eliyahu, a scientist in the emerging field of Psychoneuroimmunology.   

Fear is natural, yet it can be debilitating.  How do we learn to live with the fear cancer induces?  Can we learn to name it and let it go?  What helps us accept what we cannot control?  In her poem, “I Give You Back,” Joy Harjo describes how she releases her fear:

Oh, you have choked me, but I gave you the leash.
You have gutted me but I gave you the knife.
You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire.

I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won’t hold you in my hands.
You can’t live in my eyes, my ears, my voice
my belly, or in my heart my heart
my heart my heart.

But come here, fear
I am alive and you are so afraid
of dying.

(From:  She Had Some Horses, 1983)

We all experience fear from time to time.  It’s the body’s and the mind’s reaction to a perceived threat.  It kick starts our metabolism, useful in times of real fear, but not as useful if fear becomes a way of life.  Not only can prolonged fear suppress the immune system, it hinders our ability to be fully present to the here and now of our lives.  The challenge, especially when fear seems to move in with us like a roommate we can’t get rid of, is to keep it from diminishing our ability to live fully and enjoy the life we have.

I often turn to a favorite poem by William Stafford when my fears sneak up on me in the dark of a worrisome night.  Entitled, “For My Young Friends Who are Afraid,” Stafford reminds us that we have a choice of how we think of fear:

There is a country to cross you will
find in the corner of your eye, in
the quick slip of your foot–air far
down, a snap that might have caught.
And maybe for you, for me, a high, passing
voice that finds its way by being
afraid. That country is there, for us,
carried as it is crossed. What you fear
will not go away: it will take you into
yourself and bless you and keep you.
That’s the world, and we all live there. 

(From Ask Me:  100 Essential Poems, 2014)

What you fear will not go away…  Look fear in the face this week.  How does it visit you?  What do you do to hold it at bay?   Name the fears that lodge themselves deep in your gut.  Try writing a list poem like Carver’s.  Or,  once you have named your fears, then how have you let them go, releasing fear as Harjo described?  Or, do Stafford’s words have meaning for you?  Have you been able to turn fear into deeper self-awareness and benefit from it?  Write about fear.

The Midwest has tornadoes; the eastern seaboard has its hurricanes and super storms.  A large part of the country just dug out from another snow storm, while here in California, we’re wondering how long our water supply will sustain the state.  Wherever we live, we complain about the weather.  We look north, west, east or south and most often decide where we live is where we want to be.  But for those of us who have an enduring love affair with California, we remember droughts of the past, wildfires that occur year after year, and more, we expect the earth to move from time to time.  It’s not the sudden jolt of first love or attraction we might have felt for the golden state.  Rather, it’s a somewhat predictable occurrence, like tornadoes or hurricanes in other parts of the country, never far from conscious thought.  It’s the accepted risk of living along the earth’s fault lines, whether the San Andreas, Hayward, Oak Ridge or any number of smaller ones.  Sooner or later, we’ll feel the earth heave, the ground undulate beneath our feet and sometimes, disaster.  Some of the most memorable jolts have demolished highways and buildings, as in the 1989 Loma Prieta and 1992 Landers quakes in Northern and Southern California.

This potentially destructive movement is created by the sliding boundaries or fault lines which define the earth’s tectonic plates. California has many of these faults, and even though the plates move past one another a couple of inches each year due to their irregularity, we’re often unaware of the motion.  But as the plates continue to push against each other, they sometimes lock and may not move for years.  Stress builds along the fault, and the strain threshold is finally exceeded, energy is suddenly released, causing the plates slip several feet at once.  Waves are sent out in all directions and felt as tremors, or at worst, a damaging earthquake.

Several years ago, I began teaching a course on writing to heal for UCLA extension’s Writers’ Program, initially naming it “Writing from the Fault Lines.”  I chose the title because my language and the metaphors I use are influenced—like many writers– by the landscape where I live.  Writing out of difficult life events often reveals the vulnerable landscape of our psyches, where painful experiences of our pasts may be buried.  We cope and may seem “fine” on the surface, but when the stress created by something like a cancer diagnosis or unexpected loss or trauma, stress builds along our psychological fault lines, and we may experience the sudden tremor of raw and difficult emotions–fear, anger, grief—and the feeling that our lives are literally falling apart.

When I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer, followed by heart failure several years ago, I filled page after page of my journals with disbelief, unanswerable questions and even guilt, as if I was somehow to blame for my physical illness.  But it didn’t stop there.  Old scars opened to painful losses I’d soldiered through and buried years ago.  My “real” story was not about a very treatable cancer; it lay beneath the surface, where old wounds were buried, building up pressure, begging for release.

It’s something I witness frequently in my cancer writing groups.  The experience of cancer brings us to our knees.  Life as we knew it is a thing of the past.  Yet beneath the surface, there are often other unresolved emotions, other painful memories or traumatic events which have lain dormant but, like the locked plates of the earth, building up pressure inside us.  Those memories are often triggered by the most benign of writing prompts, rushing out like unleashed dams of emotion and tumbling to the page.  Whether in a cancer writing groups or the transformational writing course I continue to teach for UCLA extension (Transformational Writing:  Writing to Heal & Make Life into Art), writing our healing stories often takes us beyond the “presenting” hardship, and in writing, we begin to plumb the depths of our lives, bringing into the open what we could not do before.

Emotions can inspire us or hold us hostage.  Negative emotions–anger, fear or feelings of unworthiness–accumulate, just as pressure along the earth’s plates.  They weaken our ability to fend off illness, depression or disease.  Writing allows us, if we let it, to translate those negative emotions into words, make the connections between what we feel and why, and begin to understand or even forgive ourselves and others.  It is in the act of writing and sharing our stories that we release the pressure of old wounds, that we begin to heal.

This week, try going deeper in your writing; explore what stories linger beneath the surface.  Write from your fault lines.

 

In the dark times, will there also be singing?

Yes, there will be singing.

About the dark times.

(Bertolt Brecht)

Silence is a great source of strength.  – Lao Tzu

I didn’t intend for her to lead me into a practice of morning meditation.  Maggie, my adopted Border Terrier, must have sensed what I needed at this stage of my life.  Over-committed with teaching, the press of deadlines, a list of “must dos” that seemed to grow exponentially, even my leisure activities—drumming, T’ai Chi– seemed to be adding more fatigue than pleasure.  I felt, at times, like that unhappy corporate executive I’d been so many years ago, stressed and agitated, running too fast to know how to slow down, even though the work I now do is truly satisfying, unlike the years of corporate life.

Enter Maggie.  Found in the brush with three puppies, scrawny and malnourished, her coat scruffy and untamed, she was an unlikely candidate for me to consider adopting.  To be honest, my heart sank when I first saw her in person.  I’d responded to her photograph,  advertised on a local dog rescue site.  But ever dutiful, I agreed to take a closer look.  I picked her up from the cage as she trembled with fear.  I stroked her fur and held her against my chest.  Within moments, she quieted, turned two big coal eyes to my face and quietly lay her head on my shoulder.  She needs me, I thought.  I agreed to take her home and paid the adoption fee.  That was last June, 2014.

“It’s love, they say.  You touch

the right one and a whole half of the universe

wakes up, a new half.

(William Stafford, “Choosing a Dog,” From: The Way It Is, 1998)

There’s little doubt that Maggie needed a loving home, but looking back on the past many months, I think that Maggie was quick to see that I needed her.  Our morning walks quickly established themselves as daily routine.  Up at six a.m., I’d grind the coffee beans and fill her dog dishes with kibble and water.  While she ate, I stretched and warmed up, all, I figured, in an effort to establish a fitter self.  Once warmed up, the leash attached to her collar, the two of us set out as the eastern horizon became streaked with lilacs and pinks, the sun lazily rising above the far off mountains.  Thirty minutes later, we returned, the day uncluttered by the noises of civilization, where we began to sit together on the deck after our walk.  I had my coffee; Maggie claimed my lap.  We sat in silence for another half hour or more—a departure from a years-long routine of having coffee while listening to the news on NPR.

Something happened in the process.  The quiet of our early mornings became a ritual—a walking meditation, followed by a practice of sitting in silence, Maggie curled in my lap, and  I began paying attention to the cast of sunlight on the trees, the hummingbirds’ frolic at the fountain,  a red-tail hawk gliding just feet from the edge of the deck, and the chorus of birdsong.  Each morning brought a poem with it, like a gift delivered on the breeze.

Time offers this gift in its millions of ways,
turning the world, moving the air, calling,
every morning, “Here, take it, it’s yours.”

(William Stafford, “The Gift,” From: My Name is William Tell, 1992)

There are many research studies that support the health and therapeutic benefits of having a pet.  Research has demonstrated that animals can improve human cardiovascular health, reduce stress, decrease loneliness and depression, and facilitate social interactions among people. In fact, some years ago, our Westie, Winston, was a trained therapy pet, accompanying my husband to hospitals and nursing homes, where his willingness to curl up with patients and elders for a little TLC brought smiles to more than a few individuals.

Maggie has been good for my health—I suffered from heart failure a few years ago, and the daily exercise I get in our morning and afternoon walks has clear physical benefits.  But she’s been a little canine spiritual guide for me too.  Learning to sit in silence, begin my day with the natural beauty just outside my door instead of daily reports of war, racism and violence, has fed not only my soul, but my creativity.  In our rush-rush, technology-dependent world, silence and solitude, once so normal in the human experience, are replaced by a constant thrum of noise and social communication.  Silence reintroduces us to ourselves, to awareness of the present; there’s even evidence that combining solitude with a walk in nature increases our brain growth and functioning.

Maybe Maggie is, after all, a muse and a spiritual guide, leading me gently but persistently, back to the peace and quiet joy found in early morning, my eyes and heart opened and ready to receive the gifts that the world offers each day.

Accept what comes from silence.

Make the best you can of it.

Of the little words that come

out of the silence, like prayers,

prayed back to the one who prays,

make a poem that does not disturb

the silence from which it came.

(Wendell Berry, “How to Be A Poet,” From:  Given, 2005)

This week, sit in silence for a period of time, either outdoors or near a window, where you can observe what’s outside.  Try this for 15 to 30 minutes.  Try to empty your mind and simply be present to what is happening around you.  Notice.  Once you’ve done this, write, describing what you observed.  Let the observation lead you into more writing.

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