I’ve been thinking about change:  how life can change in an instant or slowly and gradually, yet how the reality of change seems to descend all at once.  That’s the kind of change I’m currently experiencing.    My husband retires at the end of the month, something that has been long in coming.  It signals a new chapter for him, but also a new chapter for both of us and our life together.  I’ve entered that phase that author Bill Bridges once defined as “the neutral zone” in  Managing Transitions, his book about corporate and personal transitions (1991).  I always resisted the term, as I am doing now, because transition is anything but neutral, although Bridges defined it as a state of limbo or in-between time, where it can sometimes feel as if there is nothing to hold onto.

For me, it’s like riding on a virtual elevator, one that moves between different floors or parts of my life, stopping suddenly and without warning.  One moment, I’m preparing a course for the fall; the next I’m talking retirement budgeting with my husband, and just as quickly, thrust into the wilderness of “what’s next in our lives?”  My life continues, in some ways, as it has before.  In others, it’s riddled with questions and an undercurrent of anxiety—a need to have the answers now, now.

Human beings are complex.  Unlike other members of the animal kingdom, our lives involve much more than basic need.  We have the unique capacity to live more than one life at a time.  As Patrice Vecchione describes in her book, Writing and the Spiritual Life, we live our lives on more than one plane.  Our inner and outer lives interact; they affect and inform each other as we move between our different worlds throughout each day, each involving particular aspects of ourselves.

“I know I walk in and out of several worlds every day,” poet Joy Harjo wrote in her essay, “Ordinary Spirit.”  Although Harjo is referring to her mixed race, in part, and the struggle to “unify” her different worlds, we all, in many ways, seek to “unify” the different worlds we inhabit each day.  Yet we sometimes move between our different worlds as if they are separate, assuming—without even thinking about it–different roles as other aspects of ourselves come into play.

It’s a bit like being on an elevator, one that is constantly in motion, traveling between floors.  Push a button, elevator moves up or down, then comes to a stop.  The doors open. “Second floor, family life.”  Push another, “Third floor, workplace,” and another, “Fourth floor, Exercise and Fitness.”  On another floor, perhaps we step into a world of friendships or even a classroom, where for an hour or two each week, we become students again.   Another floor might open to our spiritual worlds:  quiet, meditation and solitude.  In our busy lives, we move between our worlds without much thought, and one can seem far removed from the other.

Add a significant life change, whether cancer, hardship or even something called “retirement” to the daily worlds we inhabit, and the boundaries between our inner and outer lives, the several “worlds” we inhabit daily, blur.  As Harjo expressed, we begin to realize that it is “only an illusion that any of the worlds we inhabit are separate.”  This “new” world, the one where we suddenly wear labels like “patient, “survivor,” “widow,” or “retiree,” affects all the others.  The predictability or routine of our daily life is thrown asunder.  While we might have felt some control over the course of our lives, we’re thrust into free fall, overwhelmed and confused, riding s in a wayward elevator moving randomly between floors.

Everything in our lives is affected by the triggering event, whether illness, loss or awakening to the reality that yes, we are moving toward “elderhood.”  All that we have thought ourselves to be–mind, body, and spirit–is thrust into a state of upheaval.  It’s life, which is never static, but certain events, like debilitating illness, loss of a job or loved one, even this chapter labeled “retirement” demands we enter a new normal.  So we stumble out of that elevator and try to make sense of where we’ve landed and how we want to live from this point forward.

When I look back over my life and all the changes—painful, scary, and difficult– I’ve experienced, ones I never anticipated but managed to adjust my life to them, I scratch my head in puzzlement.  Why is this change, this impending stage of “retirement” so confounding to me?  Is it that I’m facing a new stage of life that also signals the reality of aging and my mortality?  I don’t have the answers yet, but I am trying–once again– to practice Rilke’s wisdom in the advice he gave so many years ago to a young poet:

…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves … Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday …, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.  (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 1903)

 Suggestions for Writing:  How many worlds do you occupy in your life?  When has an unexpected event thrust you into a significant period of change and a “new normal?”  How have you managed the transition?  What questions did you have?  How did you “live” your way into the answers you sought?  Looking back, what did you learn from the experience?

Hello again, Readers!  After short hiatus while we visited friends and family in Canada,  “Writing Through Cancer” begins its weekly posts/writing prompts today.



You entered my life without my permission. You tried to turn my body against me, leaving pain and uncertainty in your wake…  Because of you I wondered if I would see my children grow up… You made me feel like less of a woman …You took my hair and scarred my body. You made me cringe at my own reflection in the mirror. Others see a warrior. I see someone wounded – broken by the battle…(2013 “Writing Through Cancer” workshop participant)

Writing during the experience of cancer or other life difficulties can make us feel better.  It offers us the freedom to dive beneath the water line and express difficult emotions, something that helps to relieve stress, often a culprit in illness and health problems.

Of course, the most healing kind of writing is honest, the kind that acknowledges our emotions openly.  Our ability to feel and name both positive and negative emotions is critical to our healing.  Sometimes, we might be reluctant to write honestly, worried that we’ll feel worse or even guilty, especially when what we want really want to say might feel like a confessional:  feelings about things or others that we’ve never fully expressed.

Psychologist James Pennebaker explained it this way:  writing honestly and openly about how you feel can be a bit like the experience of seeing a sad movie.  You come out of the theatre feeling bad; maybe you even cried during the film.  But you’re wiser.  You understand the character’s issues and struggles in a way, perhaps that you didn’t when the movie began.  It is in the expression of those feelings of sorrow or anger that we are able to stand back, re-read and examine what we’ve written, and that’s when we begin to understand ourselves and the sources of our pain better than we did before.  There is relief in that realization.  And there is the possibility for insight.

Writing offers us the opportunity to “think to” another, whether it is yourself, your body, or someone with whom you have unresolved issues.  Imagining another and addressing your writing to that person encourages you to write naturally.  Even if you never show it or send it to anyone, writing to an imagined other has the effect of making your words more powerfully felt. What’s more, you can say what you really want to say.

In poetic terms, there’s a figure of speech called an “apostrophe,” in which someone absent or dead, or even an object or abstract idea, is addressed directly.  Examples can be found in Walt Whitman’s poem to the dead Abraham Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain!,” in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, “God’s World,” which begins “O World, I cannot hold thee close enough…”

Unsent letters are a more common form of saying what we really want to say.  Whether during cancer or at other times in our lives, we all have the need to release the unspoken, to cleanse or reach out to another, whether living or dead, person or thing.  An unsent letter can be a tool to help express difficult or complicated feelings that might otherwise not be expressed.

In his essay, “Letter, Much Too Late,” Pulitzer Prize winning author Wallace Stegner addressed his dead mother.  Stegner was close to his mother, who always tried to protect him from his father, even though she was rendered helpless in the face of her husband’s abusive personality.  While he was a graduate student, his beloved mother died from breast cancer.  He nursed her in her final days and sat at her side as she took her last breath. “Letter, Much Too Late” was written fifty-five years after her death.   In it, he remembers her, asks for forgiveness and remembers her as a mother with enduring love for her son.  He writes:

 “In the more than fifty years I have been writing books and stories, I have tried several times to do you justice, and have never been satisfied with what I did. . . .I am afraid I let your selfish and violent husband, my father, steal the scene from you and push you into the background in the novels as he did in life. Somehow I should have been able to say how strong and resilient you were, what a patient and abiding and bonding force, the softness that proved in the long run stronger than what it seemed to yield to.” (In:  Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, by Wallace Stegner, 1992)

I have used the “unsent letter” exercise many times in my workshops, but one time in particular stands out.  A few years ago, G., who had only just received the news earlier that week that her cancer had spread and was terminal, used the unsent letter exercise to write to her doctor, who had cared for her throughout her ten-year cancer journey.  Afterward, she shared her letter aloud with us.  It was strong and beautifully written, and expressed her feelings clearly. In it, she explained how hurt she’d felt when her doctor couldn’t look her in the eyes as he conveyed her recent test results.  After she’d read, she said,  “I feel better.  It’s helped just to write down what I felt, even if I’m not going to send it to him.”

That’s the beauty of the form of the unsent letter.  It allows us to express difficult emotions on paper, safely, and get them out of our minds and bodies.  In re-reading them, we can learn from what we’ve written—new insights, greater clarity or understanding—all without the need to send it on to the person to whom we’ve written.  Unlike most times I’ve offered the exercise, however, G. took the letter one step further.

At the next group meeting, she shared that she had taken her “unsent” letter with her to her appointment and read it aloud to her doctor.  She described how visibly moved he became, confessing that he had struggled to tell her the news, not trusting he could keep his composure as he did.  He apologized to G. and thanked her for having the courage to share her letter with him.  It took courage on her part, but it was an important moment between doctor and patient.

This week, try your own hand at writing an unsent letter.  You might write to a loved one, a physician, a higher power, your body or even, cancer.  Write with the assurance that you can say what is honestly in your heart and mind, that no one ever needs to see or hear what you have written.  What do you really want to say?

Dear Readers,

Spotty wi-fi, a visit with daughter and granddaughter, and living out of a suitcase will mean a vacation from my weekly posts.  Please do peruse the archive for posts from the past year.  Perhaps you will find new inspiration from previous topics and prompts.

I will be back on line after August 11th.

Happy writing and happy summer.

Sharon Bray

(Portions of this week’s post previously published on May 26, 2013)

Paying attention, the act of being fully present to our outer and inner worlds is the writer’s work.  Susan Sontag advised aspiring writers to learn to “pay attention to the world,” calling it the most important skill of storytelling. Silence, she argued, “invites us to pay selfless and unselfconscious attention to the world the artist is creating” (Maria Popova, Brain Pickings Weekly).  But it’s not that easy to be silent in the noisy world we live in.  I’ve come to embrace silence, but I had to practice it intentionally at first.  Like so many, I was mired in the demands of my busy life, the rush-rush world that our culture is with its emphasis on speed, efficiency and instant communication.  My attention was pulled in a dozen different directions.  Even my writing suffered.

Embracing silence, learning how to be quiet, has become an important discipline for me.  Just as writing is healing, so is silence and learning to be truly present in the world around us.  My noisy mind quiets; I regain a sense of calm and openness, and I notice things I had previously overlooked.  Little by little, I have learned how important silence is to my writing and well-being.  It’s why, every morning, you’ll find me on our deck sitting in silence, my only companion a small, affectionate terrier.  It is my ritual now, beginning the day in silence and watching the world awaken, listening to the chatter and chirp of  birds, noticing the changing moods of nature in the early morning light. These mornings have become my meditation, my prayer,  a practice of embracing silence and paying attention. It is a ritual that buoys my spirit and informs my writing, opening my mind to new ideas and insights.

My experience isn’t unique.  I was experiencing something that poets had always known.  Ted Kooser, writing the introduction to his book, Winter Morning Walks:  One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison said:

“In the autumn of 1968, during my recovery from surgery and radiation for cancer, I began taking a two-mile walk each morning…hiking in the isolated country roads near where I live…During the previous summer, depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing…  One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem.  Soon I was writing every day… I began pasting my morning poems on postcards and sending them to Jim…”

As a poet, the act of writing each day was important to Kooser’s healing, but so was his routine of walking in the early morning.  Throughout his book, we discover a touching portrayal of a poet recovering from the ravages of illness and treatment, whose spirit and sensibilities were reawakened in his solitary walks.  He too began to notice life around him once again and the beauty of the natural world.

I saw the season’s first bluebird
this morning, one month ahead
of its scheduled arrival.  Lucky I am
to go off to my cancer appointment
having been given a bluebird, and,
for a lifetime, have been given
this world.

Kooser reminds us of the importance of noticing, of paying attention, and being fully present and attentive.  As he began to notice the life around him again, we “see” his recovery, but it’s the spiritual recovery we are most touched by, not the physical one.

The poet Wendell Berry habitually spent his Sunday mornings in a kind of walking meditation, observing the world and writing poems that became his collection of “Sabbath poems” which spanned two decades.  In the preface Berry writes, “These poems were written in silence, in solitude, mainly out of doors…the poems are about moments when heart and mind are open and aware…”

Best of any song

is bird song

in the quiet, but first

you must have the quiet.

(In:  A Timbered Choir, 1998)

…but first you must have the quiet.  Quiet—embracing silence—invites us to pay attention, to opens our hearts and minds to all that is around us.  In the poem, “Gratitude,” Mary Oliver, asks–and answers—eight simple questions.

What did you notice?

The dew snail;
the low-flying sparrow;
the bat, on the wind, in the dark…

The poem continues, in a pattern of a question of the narrator and her response, a treasure of richly described observations of the natural world.  At the end of the poem, she poses one last question:

What did you think was happening?

And answers: …so the gods shake us from our sleep.

(From:  What Do We Know: Poems And Prose Poems, 2003)

Whether shaking us from our sleep or rescuing us from the demands of an over-busy, over-hurried life, paying attention, as Oliver and others remind us,  is about slowing down and being attentive to the present, to what’s inside or right in front of our eyes.  For the artist, the poet and writer, silence is indispensable, but for all of us, artist or not, we need these moments of solitude and of silence.  In Open House for Butterflies, a children’s book written by Ruth Krause and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, there’s one particularly lovely drawing of a small boy sitting by a stream.  The caption reads:  “Everybody should be quiet near a little stream and listen.”

Why not re-discover the gift of quiet?  Meander along a wooded trail, near the sea, sit by a stream or take a long early morning walk in your neighborhood.  Take in the sights, sounds, smells, and movement.  Write about what you see—one single observation.  Describe it and let it take you wherever it takes you.

At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world,
Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive.
You empty yourself and wait, listening.

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

“How’s your knee?” This is my husband’s repetitive greeting each morning.  I know he’s concerned, but I typically brush his questions aside with something like “Okay for now…” and continue with my morning routine, warming up my body for the daily dog walk.  This morning, however, I couldn’t hide my frustration with a body that is, apparently, determined to speak far more loudly with complaint than I am willing to hear.  My knee, injured many years ago when I was hit by a car on a morning run, made climbing our front steps an exercise in pain and discomfort, even though I’ve been wearing a knee brace since the arthritis flared up again.  Since I favor the injured knee, the sciatic nerve in my left side is also complaining.  Aging gracefully, I’ve decided, is no mean feat.  Coming to terms with the changing body isn’t something I’m enjoying, certainly not today.  When John asked (again) how I was feeling this morning, I burst into tears.  It was less about pain and more about frustration.

and the body, what about the body?
Sometimes it is my favorite child,
uncivilized. . .

And sometimes my body disgusts me.
Filling and emptying it disgusts me. . . .

This long struggle to be at home
in the body, this difficult friendship.

By Jane Kenyon (From: “Cages” in Otherwise:  New & Selected Poems, 1996)

I managed a wan smile.  “Let’s not talk about my body today,” I said, sniffling.  “I feel like it’s falling apart, and that depresses me.”  John took me in his arms while I wept a little, immersed in self-pity.  Just days ago, aching knee and stiffness aside, I received the diagnosis for a swollen left toe.  Fearful I’d broken it somehow, I submitted to an x-ray of my foot.  The verdict?  “Arthritic changes in the toe.”  Huh?  Arthritis of the toe?  Although I joked about it with my husband, it was one more thing, and enough to send my spirits plummeting.

The thing is, my body seems intent on challenging my self-image lately.  I have always been active and energetic, someone who shoves furniture around without thought or carries potted plants from one place on the deck to another without concern.  I ran; I danced; I walked briskly, feeling like a woman able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, or at least, tackle them with agility and determination.  But now I’m crying “Uncle!” as my body, bit by bit, or rather, joint by joint, is forcing me to make imposing revisions to my self-image—like it or not, it’s all about the undeniable process of aging.  This long struggle to be at home /in the body, this difficult friendship.

I’m admit it:  I’m guilty of taking my body for granted despite some serious accidents in childhood, surgeries and illness.  I’ve pushed on, undeterred by these physical set-backs, or at least undeterred until my body protested.  Now I am learning to accept I may have to make concessions I never considered.

Which body part will be the next
To make you think that you’re a wreck
That you’ve gone so far over the hill
All you can do is take a pill

From:  Body Parts:  A Collection of Poems about Aging, by Janet Cameron Hoult, 2010)

Sooner or later, our bodies fail us, whether in illness the process of physical wear or tear and age-related change.  When they do, it’s difficult to admit we’ve taken our physical health for granted—even denied their inevitable aging. Our bodies, in illness or decline, are the subject of many poems, as Kenyon Jane Kenyon’s “Cages,” or  Marilyn Hacker’s, “Cancer Winter,” for example, where  she referred to her body as “self-betraying.”  Mark Doty, in “Atlantis,” described the body of a friend dying from AIDS:  “When I put my head to his chest/I can hear the virus humming/like a refrigerator”  (www.poets.org).   But it is May Swenson, perhaps, whose poem, “Question,” I find most thought-provoking as I consider my body this week.   In it, she comes to terms with the inevitable demise of a body that has carried her through life, a life she can no longer take for granted.  She writes the questions we all contend with as our lives develop and change.  I read it and remember to be grateful for the body that has carried me this far—and will continue to carry me in years to come.

Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure…?

(From: New & Selected Things Taking Place, 1978)

I’m learning to bow to the demands of my body, but it’s a process of balancing what’s good with the body without giving up what’s good for the soul.  Acupuncture, massage, chiropractic, physical therapy, daily exercise—I do it all.  I’m may not be entirely at peace with the aches and complaints of the body I inhabit, but it’s mine, the only one I’ve got, and I plan to use it for a good many more years.

Has your body spoken too loudly at times?  Betrayed you?  Let you down?  Forced you to come to terms with a “new” normal?  What precipitated the change?  How did you feel?  How have you made peace with an altered or changing body?  Write about the body.

(Portions of today’s post previously appeared on July 14, 2013)

When our semi-conductor
Raised his baton, we sat there
Gaping at Marche Militaire,
Our mouth-opening number.
It seemed faintly familiar
(We’d rehearsed it all that winter),
But we attacked in such a blur,
No army anywhere
On its stomach or all fours
Could have squeezed though our cross fire…

By the last lost chord, our director
Looked older and soberer.
No doubt, in mind’s ear
Some band somewhere
In some Music of some Sphere
Was striking a note as pure
As the wishes of Franz Schubert,
But meanwhile here we were:
A lesson in everything minor,
Decomposing our first composer.

(From: “The Junior High School Band Concert,” by David Wagoner;  Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems.  University of Illinois Press, 1999)

I thought again of Wagoner’s poem this past week as I dusted off my old alto recorder, struggling to remember fingering and play a simple piece I’d once done easily.  I found the recorder and a stack of sheet music as I went through boxes of old belongings. When I opened the box and held the recorder it in my hands, my desire to play rekindled.  My first attempts were awkward and unmelodic.  I’d forgotten fingering, and my fingers lacked the agility I once had.  It wasn’t unlike how I felt when I first learned to play the French horn as a twelve-year-old.  I wanted to play in the band. Our music teacher and  band leader needed French horn players, so I volunteered.

It wasn’t the musical experience I hoped for, but I went on to become first horn throughout junior high and high school  The trouble was that the  bulk of my musical in the high school band was relegated to football , September through November.  I remember how the icy brass mouthpiece banged against my frozen lips as the band performed on the field at every halftime.  Worse, I was forced to wear a most unattractive uniform covered in shiny brass buttons and gold cord, which only made look like the toy soldier out of “The Nutcracker. “

So it’s little wonder that given the opportunity to “shine,” as it were, in our annual spring concert, we French horns quite literally blasted out the theme to Dvořák’s “The New World Symphony.”  We played with all the enthusiasm of musical students who’d been denied anything but the after beat in the dozens of marches that made up most of our repertoire.  Our fervor over-rode our appreciation for subtlety and modulation.  The look on our bandleader’s face has stayed with me all these years later.  His surprise, no, shock, registering on his face as we belted out those unforgettable bars in our few moments of glory.  I quickly gave up my career as a French horn player when I left for college.

It turns out that all those years of piano lessons, singing in the church choir, doing pliés while a pianist accompanied my ballet class,  playing French horn in the marching band–even playing in a recorder quintet as an adult– were beneficial in ways I didn’t realize at the time.  Not only can music enhance youthful self-esteem and academic performance, musical training helps protect our mental sharpness and brain functioning.  As I’ve aged, I’m now intent on maintaining my mental acuity for as long as possible.

It’s one of the reasons I signed up for classes in African drumming four years ago.  I’d never played a drum, but I’ve played with the same enthusiasm as that youthful horn player I once was.  I often joked that I’d remain in the beginner class indefinitely because an accidental  shoulder injury cut my drumming career short.  Now what?  I love music and rhythm.  Drumming in a community of other drummers was joyous and exhilarating.  But it’s not just drumming: Anything to do with music makes me feel better.  Music is good medicine.

“The power of music to integrate and cure is quite fundamental,” Dr. Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author of Awakenings wrote. “It is the profoundest non-chemical medication.” Music has a long history in medicine and healing. The ancient Greeks believed music could heal the body and the soul. Ancient Egyptians and Native Americans incorporated singing and chanting as part of their healing rituals. Even the U.S. Veterans Administration incorporated music an adjunct therapy for shell-shocked soldiers after World War II. Today, music therapy is widely used in hospitals and cancer centers to promote healing and enhance the quality of patients’ lives.

Google “music and healing,” and you’ll find a number of articles attesting to the physiological and emotional benefits of music.

  • It aids our autonomic nervous systems, positively affecting blood pressure, heartbeat and breathing.  In fact, music can actually improve the overall functioning of our cardiovascular systems.
  • It helps reduce stress, aid relaxation and alleviate depression.
  • In cancer patients, music can decrease anxiety. Together with anti-nausea drugs, music can help to ease nausea and vomiting accompanying chemotherapy.
  • It relieves short-term pain and decreases the need for pain medication.
  • It’s effective in diminishing pre-surgical anxiety and beneficial for patients with high blood pressure.
  • Music even plays a role in improving troubled teens’ self-esteem and academic performance.

Music also improves memory functioning.  Think about it:  We associate songs and other musical pieces with the people, places and emotions we experienced in the past. Not only does music our trigger life stories, but it can enhance memory functioning and face-name recognition among Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. (http://clearinghouse.missouriwestern.edu/manuscripts/230.php).

My mother died of Alzheimer’s several years ago.  On one of my final visits with her, I was shocked by the physical and mental deterioration in the few weeks since I’d last  seen her.  Unresponsive and no longer able to walk, and she sat motionless in a wheelchair, her head bobbing listlessly to her chest. I tried to elicit a reaction from her, but without success.  I pushed the wheelchair outside and walked around and around the building, before finally stopping to rest, stationing her next to a Bougainvillea  furious with red blooms hoping to see a glimmer of life—some sign my mother was still inside her wasting body.  I took her hand in mine and impulsively began singing.  It was a song she often sang when I was a child.

“Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you,” I began, struggling to remember the lyrics.  “Let me hear you whisper…”  My eyes filled with tears, but I kept singing as much as I could remember.  Very slowly, my mother raised her head to fix her eyes on my face.  With great effort, she smiled.  “Why,” she said, struggling for words, “it’s Sha-ron!”  She nodded and smiled once more, closing her eyes.  “I’m hap-py,” she said.  So, as it happened, was I.

This week, think about music as medicine.  What role does music play in your life?  Have you used music as part of your healing during illness or loss?  How did it help?  What memories does a particular song ignite for you?  What stories?  Music, even a song like “Happy Birthday,” is also a powerful prompt for writing.   Here are a few suggestions for writing:

  • Perhaps there was some particular music that helped you through cancer treatment or another difficult time.  Listen to it again, closing your eyes, and try to remember that time and how the music made you feel.
  • Recall a lullaby from childhood, a favorite song, a bit of classical music, or even the somewhat dissonant music from your high school band. What memories or stories does the music trigger?
  • Take any favorite recording, classical, jazz, new age, or pop, and listen to it.  Keep your notebook nearby. As you listen, capture the random thoughts and associations that come to mind. Once the recording ends, open your notebook and begin free writing.  Do this for five minutes.  When you finish, re-read what you’ve written and underline the sentence that has the most power for you.  Use that sentence to begin writing again on a fresh page. Set the timer for 15 minutes and see where it takes you.

I think I should have no other mortal wants if I could always have plenty of music. It seems to infuse strength into my limbs and ideas into my brain. Life seems to go on without effort when I am filled with music.– George Bernard Shaw

Preface:  Three weeks ago, my six-year-old grandson gave his sister, age 4, a haircut, “artfully” executed with his Sesame Street scissors.  My daughter was sleeping a little later than usual on a Sunday morning, and as far as she knew, her dynamic duo were playing quietly together. 

She awakened to find Emily’s long blonde locks wound around the brushes of the carpet sweeper—a careful clean-up job undertaken by her brother.  She greeted her mother with a huge smile and a rather uneven pixie cut, while Nathan held back, aware, I think, that his hairdressing skills weren’t quite up to snuff.  My daughter handled it with more grace than I might have.  When she suggested to Emily that perhaps they could go to the local hairdresser to “straighten it up a bit,” my granddaughter was adamant.  “NO Mommy!  My brother gave me a haircut.  I be cute now!” 

And so she was—with her long hair or without it.  Claire accepted her wishes.  “She’s happy,” she said, “so I’m happy.”  (Nathan did, however, lose possession of his very own scissors). 

This week’s post about having—and losing—hair was previously published March 12, 2012.

A dozen women, all living with cancer, were seated around the table with their notebooks open.  I had given them a short “warm-up” writing exercise, something I do at the beginning of a workshop.

“What’s on your mind this morning?  What thoughts or concerns have accompanied you to our group?” Write for five minutes; just keep the pen moving.  Don’t worry about what gets written.”  Notebooks opened and within seconds, only the sound of pens, moving across the pages, could be heard. “Who wants to read first?” I asked.  One woman, her head covered with a brightly colored scarf, raised her hand.

“I’m angry about losing my hair,” she said as she began to read what she’d written.  “My hair has been my signature, long and full…”  She looked up from her notebook and reached for a tissue.  Her eyes were red and teary.  Several of the women nodded sympathetically.  Two of them also wore headscarves or wigs, two others had removed theirs in favor of short, newly grown heads of hair, grateful chemotherapy was behind them.  I recalled my embarrassment when twice, as a teenager, I sported a bald head after neurosurgery, covering it with scarves when I returned to school and praying no one would laugh at me.  I felt unattractive and vulnerable to taunts or teasing, all from losing my hair.

Hair loss is one of the unfortunate side effects of chemotherapy that the majority of cancer patients experience.  While some of the newer, more targeted chemotherapy drugs don’t result in hair loss, the majority do.   Thankfully, the loss is temporary, and there’s solace in knowing that the drugs are helping you fight your illness, hair loss can have a powerful effect on our emotions.

Hair, whether male or female, losing it or not, affects the vast majority of us.    Consider how much time and money is spent in support of your hair, whether cut, colored, shampooed or styled, or waxed, tweezed and shaved.  Remember the rock musical “Hair?”  The styles of the sixties?  Long, full, permed, and wild, our hair was evidence of youthful freedom and rebellion.

Gimme’ a head with hair
Long beautiful hair
Shining, gleaming,
Streaming, flaxen, waxen

Give me down to there hair
Shoulder length or longer
Here baby, there mama
Everywhere daddy daddy

Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it
Long as God can grow it
My hair…

(Lyrics from  Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, by James Rado & Gerome Ragni)

Hair and hair styles are a distinctive feature of history.  Think of the powdered wigs from Mozart’s day, or the fashionable pony tails the men of Jefferson’s era.  Our stories of hair existed long before that sixties musical.  Remember the biblical story of Samson?  His power lay in his hair, giving him the strength to rip apart a lion or destroy temples with his bare hands.  He vowed never to never to have it cut.   His downfall came, of course, when he fell in love with Delilah.  Her powers of seduction gradually wore him down, and he revealed his secret:  if a razor were used on his head, he would lose his strength.  Delilah waited until Samson slept and ordered the servants to cut his hair.  When he awakened, his magnificent locks were gone, and with them, his strength, and he could no longer resist his captors.

Hair loss, whether the result of chemotherapy or genetic inheritance, affects men and women alike.  My husband’s hair has been thinning for years, and for a long time, he obsessed over his widening bald spot, yet resisting Rogaine treatments or comb-overs.  More than once, however, he returned from his hairdresser with a “new look,” an effort to mask the relentless disappearance of his hair.  Those attempts didn’t last—the fits of laughter induced by his new “do” from our daughters and me were enough to send him back to the barber for a less “hip” cut.  Thankfully, the bare head has become fashionable for men, and he’s embraced his shorn head with relief.

Gregory Corso, a Beat poet in the era of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, creates a kaleidoscope of images about how we treat and worry about our hair in his poem, simply entitled, “Hair.”

Come back, hair, come back!
I want to grow sideburns!
I want to wash you, comb you, sun you, love you!
As I ran from you wild before —
I thought surely this nineteen hundred and fifty-nine of now
that I need no longer bite my fingernails
but have handsome gray hair
to show how profoundly nervous I am.

(From Minefield:  New and Selected Poems)

The young woman from my writing group who mourned the loss of her hair that one morning has since recovered from her treatments.  Her hair has grown back, long and full.  She’s grateful, not just for her hair, but for enjoying a life without cancer.  In thinking about her, I remember a beautiful poem, “Farewell to Hair,” by Terradon.  She watches as her hair floats away in the breeze, but she finds solace—even gratitude—as she imagines how it might comfort other living creatures:

I stood outside on a windy day,
and ran my fingers through my hair.
Long strands of silky threads,
blew across the lawn…

I imagined a nest,
lined with my mane.
Woven by a mama bird…

Now on the wintry nights,
when my head is cold,
I pull my wool cap over my ears and smile.
As I dream of baby birds,
sleeping in my hair.

(In The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. 1, Karin Miller, Ed.)
Hair.  It’s a topic that invites an unending supply of opinions, discussion, stories or poems.  This week, why not write about hair:  having it, losing it, styling it, coloring, cutting or even a time you experienced a hair style disaster.  Open up your old high school yearbook and take a look at that young person whose face in framed in a hair style that was popular at the time.  Chances are if you’re like most of us, you have a story or two to tell about hair.


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