I didn’t know I was grateful

I didn’t know I was grateful
for such late-autumn
bent-up cornfields

yellow in the after-harvest
sun before the
cold plow turns it all over
into never.

(From The Unraveling Strangeness by Bruce Weigl,© 2003)

Thanksgiving week, perhaps this country’s most enduring holiday.  Weary travelers willingly stand in long lines at the airport, cram their bodies into crowded and uncomfortable cabins, or pack the trunks of their cars with suitcases to drive for hours along busy highways, all in honor of the Thanksgiving, a time of family, of remembering, and of gratitude.

Gratitude.  In a world besieged by global warming, poverty, the Ebola crisis in West Africa, terrorist attacks on innocent people, it’s hard to think about gratitude.  It’s all too easy to feel anger, frustration, or fear, emotions that can seep much too readily under our skins, and we have to consciously re-direct our attention to those things in life that keep us going, provide solace or moments of joy.   “ Count your blessings,” my mother said to me when, as a teenager, I complained about all that was wrong, like the clothes I had to wear, the  boy who didn’t return my affections, the mandatory weekend chores that came before time with my friends.  The last thing I wanted to hear from my parent was some worn out folk wisdom.

But there’s something to that old folk wisdom.  Gratitude.   “If the only prayer we say in our lifetime is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice,” German philosopher Meister Eckhart wrote.  Since his words, something called “happiness research” has evolved, documenting the importance of gratitude.  The scientific nature of gratitude, its causes and consequences for human health and well-being are the subjects of research by Robert Emmons, Ph.D. and his team at the University of California at Davis.  Here are some of their findings:

  • People with a strong disposition toward gratitude have a greater capacity to be empathetic toward others.
  • Grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality and optimism.                                                .  .
  • Individuals who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, and felt more optimistic about their lives.
  • Those who kept gratitude lists were more likely to progress toward important personal goals.
  • In a group of adults with neuromuscular disease, a gratitude intervention resulted in greater energy, positive moods, more optimism, and better sleep quality.  (For the full summary, go to:  http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/labs/emmons/)

Gratitude.  Bruce Weigl’s poem served as the prompt for this morning’s session at Scripps Cancer Center.  Cancer, like other life altering experiences, makes us more aware of those things that matter in our lives, the people, and the gifts of everyday that we realize we are deeply grateful for.

“Start with the line, “ “I didn’t know I was grateful for…” from Bruce Weigl’s poem, I said.  They wrote only for a few minutes, but the writing was poignant and strong, full of expressions of gratitude, reminding me of  poems I return to again and again.

In “Starfish,” Eleanor Lerman expresses gratitude for life and what it lets us do:

This is what life does.  It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper…

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud…

…And then life lets you go home to think
About all this.  Which you do, for quite a long time.

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out.  This is life’s way of letting you know that you are lucky…
(From:  Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds, 2005)

Marilyn Nelson, in her poem “Dusting,” expresses gratitude for a simple household chore:

My hand, my arm,
make sweeping circles.
Dust climbs the ladder of light.
for this infernal, endless chore,
for these eternal seeds of rain:
Thank you.  For dust.
(From:  Magnificat, 1994)

Mary Oliver, whose descriptions of the natural world are some of poetry’s most vivid, has written more than one poem entitled “Gratitude.”  In this one, she describes walking in a field flooded with water and looking up to see a hawk.  She expresses her gratitude, bound in the act of noticing, by concluding:

There are days when the field water and the slender grasses
and the wild hawks
have it all over the rest of us
Whether or not they make clear sense, ride the beautiful
long spine of grammar, whether or not they rhyme…
(From:  West Wind and Prose Poems, 1997)

Gratitude is, I think, about pausing to remember and to notice, which is the task of remembering what, in our lives, we are grateful for, as Sam Hamill notes in his book, Lives of a Poet:  Letter to Gary Snyder (1998):         
That is the real work—
reading books or bucking wood
or washing babies—
attentive lives all our days:
the real joy is gratitude.

That’s it.  Our real joy:  gratitude.  This Thanksgiving week, take time to make your gratitude list.  Why not do as my group did this morning?  Begin with Weigl’s line, “I didn’t know I was grateful for…” and write about gratitude.

Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania,

Tell me a story.

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be Time,

But you must not pronounce its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight.

By Robert Penn Warren, From: “Tell Me a Story,” in New and Selected Poems 1923-1985

November, and my thoughts always return to my father,: his chuckle, the restless twitch of his foot—a sure give-away to his impatience with household tasks assigned to him by my mother, his conspiratorial wink at a joke shared between us, his strikingly handsome face in old photographs, and the weathered face of an older man whose addiction to cigarettes could not be quelled.

My father died of lung cancer in 1992, after the Thanksgiving meal and his traditional double Jack Daniels.  His death marked the end of family as I once knew it, and, although I didn’t realize it at the time, the loss of his stories, yarns spun from his childhood, enlarged and fabricated, threads of family history woven among his tall tales.  They were the stories we begged for at bedtime.  He didn’t like to read us books.  He was a storyteller, and our nighttime dreams  colored and enlarged by the tales he told, of “Big Chief,” his horse “Pard,” of a young Navy recruit in Hawaii during World War II, or my fun-loving grandmother’s practical jokes sprung on her husband.  I remember fragments of those stories, remember how, when I became a mother, he repeated the same humorous tales to my young daughters and how I would stand, listening outside their bedroom, smiling as I heard them laughing, begging him as we had done so many years before:  “Tell us another story, Grandpa!”

Oral storytelling has been part of humanity for thousands of years.  Stories were how we made sense of the world, how we passed traditions and wisdom from one generation to another.  “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel,” author Ursula LeGuin said, “but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”

I miss those family stories, the tradition of their telling and re-telling at every gathering of my father’s large extended family.  Perhaps sixty of us, all ages, gathered each year to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas.  There were tables set all around my aunt’s front room, grouping us by age, and the longest (and most coveted by the younger of us) the adult table, where aunts and uncles regaled everyone with stories passed from generation to generation.  As a recent article in The Atlantic stated, “Books contain narratives, but only family stories contain your family’s personal narratives. Fortunate children get both. They hear and read stories from books to become part of other people’s worlds, and they hear and tell stories of their family to understand who they are and from whence they came.”

In the years after my first husband’s death, my daughters and I spent many holidays alone before we began to invite other friends, similarly without family nearby, to share in our holiday meals.  It helped ease the loneliness; there was laughter and good food, but something was always missing:  the sense of family that came from the stories shared year after year.  My siblings and I grew apart in the years I lived in Canada and the tumultuous years after my father’s death and mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s.  It’s become chasm I can no longer traverse, and yet, I look back to those times we were truly a family, bound together, in part, by shared traditions and stories.

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.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

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

But I left, lived in another country, admitting my restlessness, the yearning to leave that small town and see the world, just as my father did as a young man.  History repeats itself.  Now, my daughters, like so many of their age, have traveled and resided in places thousands of miles away; our family get-togethers fewer, and, as their children arrived, even less has been possible, so dispersed we all are.  Yet I think about the power of family stories once shared around the table or at bedtime.  “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative,”  Bruce Feiler wrote in a 2013 New York Times article, “The Stories that Bind Us.” h

Citing research from Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University, Feiler wrote that children who know a lot about their families appear to do better when facing challenges.  “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”

I’m trying now to capture in writing the few stories I remember, ones my father told, to fill out the gaps in family history that resulted from distance and family losses.  In this world of our mobility, of Facebook, Skype and other forms of high-tech communication, I worry that my stories will be lost–stories that told me who my family was and what they experienced, stories that cemented my sense of place and belonging.

This week, imagine you are the last storyteller of your family tribe.  What is the story you most want to tell?  What other stories do you want to remember, the ones that define your legacy?  Why not write them?

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)

We all need a little laughter in our lives, whether we’re dealing with cancer, an overly-busy and stressful life, remembering those who’ve passed on, or simply sharing time with friends and loved ones.  We need to laugh just as much as sometimes, we need to cry.

It’s true.  In the summer of 2013, I participated in the Omega Institute’s “Living Well with Cancer weekend.  At the closing event, the topics turned from treatment, nutrition, and spiritual matters to an evening of comedy.  Kathy LaTour, Cure Magazine editor, performed “One Mutant Cell,” a humorous account of her cancer journey, and comedian and cancer survivor, Scott Burton, a cancer offered comic relief with his juggling and stand-up act designed to confront the mystery and fear of chronic disease.  The laughter among the attendees, all living with cancer, filled the room.

Laughter is good for us.  It breaks the ice; relaxes us, builds community, and reminds us not to take ourselves quite so seriously.  Even in the midst of something as soul shattering as a cancer diagnosis, we can still find things that make us smile.  Laughter brightens the day and our outlook.  Laugh a little, and we all feel better.

It’s why, a week ago, I shared David Wagoner’s poem, “The Junior High School Band Concert” with one of my “Writing through Cancer” groups as the inspiration for writing that morning.

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…

I can never read Wagoner’s poem without laughing out loud, remembering all too well a particular band concert decades ago, when I and two other students comprised the French horn section in our high school band.  For much of the academic year, we were a marching band, parading around the football field as half-time entertainment, buttoned up in red and black uniforms, matching hats, all outfit adorned with gold braid.  I hated football season because of it—the brass mouthpiece like ice, bouncing against my lips, the monotony of the French horn accompaniment, a steady “um tah, um tah” on the after beat or a “ta, ti, ta, ti” while it seemed that all the other instruments were given more interesting and melodic parts.  To this day, I cringe at Souza marches, and I don’t follow football season.

In Springtime, however, life in the band improved.  We became a symphonic band—of sorts—and spring was preparation time for the regional high school band competition. That memorable year, we French horn players were to lead with the opening theme of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.”  We were positively beside ourselves, thrilled to finally have a brief, but major part in a musical score.  We practiced for weeks.

…And when the brass bulled forth
A blare fit to horn over
Jericho two bars sooner
Than Joshua’s harsh measures,
They still had the nerve to stare.

The day of the competition, we filed into the host school’s auditorium and onto the stage to take our places.  Our band leader, “Pop” Behnke, followed, looking proud and stately in his white uniform with the brass buttons and gold braid.  He tapped his baton against the music stand, we positioned our instruments and on cue, began playing.  Two of us had faithfully rehearsed for weeks, , but our third horn player, less inclined to regular practice, made up for the sour notes with an enthusiasm that overwhelmed us all.  We sounded the first notes of the “New World Symphony” like the horn blasts of a sinking ship…loud and without an ounce of modulation.  I glanced up and caught a glimpse of Pop Behnke’ s face—his look of shock, followed by a lopsided smile, the realization that any likelihood of our high school band walking away with the trophy had just evaporated.  Perhaps we knew we’d already lost then, but it seemed only to inspire us to play even more loudly, as if added volume could somehow tip the balance in our favor.  I still giggle when I think of it, although at the time, I don’t think we laughed much as the winners were announced– our band was not among them.

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 Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems. © University of Illinois Press, 1999)

During our workshop, we read first Wagoner’s poem aloud before everyone wrote about a humorous event in their lives. When the group shared their narratives, the mood lightened; we giggled and guffawed as the humorous mishaps in everyone’s life were recounted.  Everyone left the session with smiles on thier faces.  Laughter was very good medicine—its healing benefits experienced by everyone.

Remember Norman Cousins’ famous account of how he used laughter  to cure himself of a debilitating illness?  It turns out, he wasn’t the first to advocate for the power of laughter. Mark Twain, whose wit and wisdom is an established part of American lore, wrote:  “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that’s laughter.  The moment it arises, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.” Smiling and laughter are contagious.  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.

As you write this week, dig back into your memories—the fun times, a time, perhaps you laughed so hard, tears ran down your cheeks.  Take a break from writing about cancer and the more serious topics of life.  Instead, try writing about something that makes you smile, even laugh out loud each time you remember it.  Laugh a little.  You’ll feel better.

I awakened with the light this morning, at first, thinking I’d overslept, but then remembering the time change.  For weeks, I’ve been waking and dressing in darkness before taking our terrier, Maggie, out for her morning walk.  But this morning was already light as we went outside.  Maggie trotted happily along, stopping to pick up seeds and stones to toss and chase as I smiled as we welcomed the sunrise.  Around us, the houses were quiet as neighbors slept, happy for an extra hour this Sunday morning as clocks everywhere were turned back an hour.

Cher’s voice, belting out the lyrics “If I could turn back time,” played in my mind as we began walking.  It made me wonder, as I do each autumn, how it might be to have a “do-over,” to really turn back time and live events in my life differently…like taking the other road at the fork Robert Frost wrote about, a different set of choices than the ones I made so long ago.  Maggie romped and I followed, indulging my daydreams, the “what ifs” of my life.  What if…I’d chosen a different university that the one I did, or if my first husband and I had taken the offer in Colorado instead of the one in Canada…  Or if I’d stayed in Halifax for graduate school instead of going to Toronto, or if my present husband and I hadn’t decided to return to California …or if…

I’m not alone in those lazy daydreams, wondering what life would have been like if I’d chosen or acted differently.  Ben Franklin may have been responsible for introducing daylight saving time, but novelists, filmmakers, singers, science fiction writers, and poets have long been intrigued with the idea of turning back time. Think of H.G. Wells’ 1895 novella, The Time Machine, adapted for film, radio and television many times since its publication, Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, or Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.  Fox’s character traveled to the past in an attempt to influence the outcomes of life in the future.  Murray’s arrogant, self-absorbed news reporter was doomed to repeat the same day over and over until he learned to care about others’ lives.  Ken Grimwood’s protagonist in his novel, Replay dies of a heart attack in 1988 and awakens as an eighteen year old in 1963 with a chance to relive his life, although his memories of the next twenty-five years remain intact.  He replays his life and death, each time awakening in 1963 before he realizes he can’t prevent his death, but he can change the events for himself and others before it happens.

When Neil Sedaka wrote and recorded his signature tune, “Turning Back the Hands of Time,” in 1962, it quickly became a hit, the lyrics capturing the longing many of us experience as we look back over our lives.

Turning back the hands of time

To see the house I lived in,

To see the streets I walked on…


To touch the face of friends and loved ones,

To hear the laughter and to feel the tears,

What a miracle this would be,

If only we can turn the hands of time…

If only we could turn back the hands of time…Let’s face it, we all daydream about it from time to time, but when we open our eyes, we’re still faced with the life we have now.  How many times have you begun a sentence with the words, “if only I had…” and wished you did something differently, could rediscover that “simpler time,” a place you loved, see old friends, a deceased parent or grandparent, or have a chance to choose differently that you did, return to a time before illness or loss dominated your daily life …if only you could turn back time.

Next time I won’t waste my heart
on anger; I won’t care about
being right. I’ll be willing to be
wrong about everything and to
concentrate on giving myself away.

Next time, I’ll rush up to people I love,
look into their eyes, and kiss them, quick…

and I will keep in touch with friends,
writing long letters when I wake from
a dream where they appear on the
Orient Express. “Meet me in Istanbul,”
I’ll say, and they will.

(“Next Time” by Joyce Sutphen, from After Words. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2013.)

Imagine, this week, that you were given free rein to that longing, write about what you would do if you could turn back time?  What events in your life would you replay?  What might you do differently, knowing what you know now?  Write about it—without constraint or apology, beginning with the line “If I could turn back the hands of time…” and let it take you into that memory or longing.  Once finished, read what you’ve written and then write again—but this time, with an eye to discovering the gratitude for the life you have.

“In remission,” “no evidence of cancer at this time…”  Words uttered tentatively, hopefully, as some members of my writing groups introduce themselves.  They’re grateful, of course.  “In remission” signals a reprieve from the relentless routine of doctor’s appointments, scans, tests, and weeks, even months of treatment regimens.  It means a return to a so-called “normal” life, but normal doesn’t have the same meaning it did before cancer, and that re-entry into normality now feels unfamiliar, almost surreal.  Treatment gave us structure, a routine that defined the days before us.  Now, “in remission,” the way you experience the world has changed, and you realize that returning to life as it was before cancer is nearly, if not completely, impossible.

“In remission.”  You‘re one of the lucky ones.  Your treatment has been successful, at least for now, because cancer, we know, is capricious and unpredictable.  You live with the knowledge that as a survivor, you may not be guaranteed a permanent state of grace.  You may have many years left to live; perhaps less.  One thing is certain: you never take anything for granted.

There’s something else.  You may even feel a little guilty, especially when, in your cancer support groups, you know many whose prognoses are less favorable and who might lose their lives to cancer.  You’re relieved, yes, but it can seem unfair.  Why have you survived while others may not?  You may question your life, how you can make it matter, live in a way that “makes a difference.”

“I’ve gone from thinking, ‘Why me?’ to thinking, ‘Why not me,” a former writing group member said.  “In the beginning, it was comforting to think of fighting to survive…   I believe that I should have a powerful drive to accomplish something…a goal for which I need to continue to survive.  But,” she confessed “I don’t find that drive in me.”

Her words resonated with me.  That self who was so goal-driven before cancer, eyes always on what lay ahead, has all but disappeared.  I was missing out on the joy of the present—moments that are ordinary and yet, so much of what living is about.  If we are to learn anything from being “in remission,” it’s about living and enjoying each day of the life we have been granted, however long that may be.

What is living about for those lucky enough to be “in remission?”  Nancy, a former group member wrote, “I love the things I do day by day.  I hike with one beloved friend.  I spend time in the wonderful garden of another.  I meet others for coffee and conversation. I meet these friends with pleasure and leave them with a joy and benefit to my mind and spirit…”

Like so many of us, Nancy rediscovered comfort and meaning in the ebb and flow of everyday life, small pleasures of love, companionship or nature.  “It frees me from having to make every moment count, she wrote.  It takes off pressure that would exist if I had to accomplish something in particular before I die…”

It is a kind of love, is it not?
How the cup holds the tea,
How the chair stands sturdy and foursquare,
How the floor receives the bottoms of shoes
Or toes. How soles of feet know
Where they’re supposed to be…

From the skin of the back.
And the lovely repetition of stairs.
And what is more generous than a window?

(From:  “The Patience of Ordinary Things,” by Pat Schneider, in Another River:  New and Selected Poems, 2005)

I remember Nancy’s words to from time to time because despite my resolve, I sometimes slip into old habits of being, putting my daily life on fast forward as my list of “to dos” grows.  It’s easy, I realize, to forget that the real task of being alive is to be present and pay attention to what is right in front of my nose, those little moments of beauty, joy, or laughter.  A morning walk with my dog—who finds pleasure every single day, despite the predictability of our route, or the daily frolic of a group of humming birds at our fountain are enough to remind me to pay attention and discover the inspiration waiting,  the simple pleasures found in the commonplace.

Ann, who wrote with me at the Stanford Cancer Center for several years, losing her life to cancer in 2012, sent me a poem several years ago while she lived and wrote in a small cabin in the Santa Cruz mountains, choosing to spend the final year or two of her life in the quiet beauty of the California redwoods, her source of inspiration and peace.  She was much loved by many of us, inspiring in us a reverence for life, the beauty found in the ordinary of each day.  Her poems linger in my mind, luminous and alive, even though Ann is no longer here to read them to us.  In the poem, “Directive,” she reminds us how precious life is, how abundant the gifts of what we consider commonplace:

Remember the commonplace, the wooden chair on the white planked deck,
trees kneeling in the rain and deer prints
leading into elegant rushes. A kinder place
cannot be found: where you sit at the top
of shadowy stairs, the window lifted…

Let me speak for you: there’s comfort
to be found in fatigue, in letting principles
fall like stones from your pockets…

Fall into the ordinary,
the rushes, the deer looking up into your heart,
risen, full in the silver hammered sky.

(From “Directive,” by Ann Emerson)

Remember the commonplace… Take notice; find gratitude for the simple joys of living.   Choose one small moment from any day, whether from nature, loved ones, your daily routine—a simple pleasure that sustains, inspires or offers you joy.  Describe it in as much detail as you can; perhaps you’ll find a poem or a story lurking there.

I’ve been passing judgment on others’ writing.  It’s known by another name, grading.  It’s how I’ve spent my weekend, reading and commenting on the students’ submissions for my current course for UCLA extension Writers’ Program.  I won’t lie.  It’s complicated.  On the one hand, I have to model the balanced feedback I require from them, a blend of positive and constructive, all with the intent that feedback—which is always received emotionally—will be instructional, helpful in their quest to improve upon and develop their creative writing craft.  On the other, I’m sometimes impatient, reading a submission that doesn’t come close to my expectations for students at their level.  That’s when the agony begins.  I have to curb my impatience, silence the ever-present critic which threatens to fill someone’s submission with red marks, and call up the more benevolent, but instructional self.

I remember how I felt (and still feel) when I received critique.  I’m back in grade four, Mrs. Herfindahl’s class, and I’ve written my version of the biblical Christmas story in my most careful penmanship, careful to use quotation marks when someone speaks, to indent my paragraphs, to stay true to the story I’d been told in Sunday school countless times.  Perhaps I plagiarized a bit, opening up my brand new King James Version and copying a few phrases here and there, but surely, I thought, I had handed in a story worthy of an “A.”

In first grade Mrs. Lohr

said my purple teepee

wasn’t realistic enough,

that purple was no color

for a tent,

that purple was a color

for people who died,

that my drawing wasn’t 

good enough

to hang with the others.


I walked back to my seat

counting the swish swish swishes

of my baggy corduroy trousers.

With a black crayon

nightfall came

to my purple tent

in the middle

of an afternoon.

(From:  “Purple,” by Alexis Rotella, in Step Lightly:  Poems for the Journey, by Nancy Willard, Ed., 1998.)

My paper wasn’t worthy of that “A,” at least not in Mrs. Herfindahl’s opinion.  When it was returned, a “B+” glared back at me in bright red ink, and throughout my carefully penned story, a host of red marks.  I felt terrible, and to this day, I imagine my students feeling similarly when my comments are less than glowing.  Ouch!  Writing, I have since discovered many times, is an act of living with rejection many times over, and yet, I keep on writing, because it’s what I’m driven to do, what I love doing, and I learn it’s possible to improve as I begin work on another version..

As it turns out, it’s not our grade school teachers, the magazine editors or our creative writing instructors who are our fiercest critics.  Sure, we may have suffered a few harsh evaluations along the way, grown up with a demanding parent telling us repeatedly we were capable of so much more or better.  But take a look in the mirror.  Your most vociferous critic lives inside your head.  You’re looking at her.

We all judge ourselves, whether we’re trying to write, paint, perform on stage, or, more likely, parent our firstborn child or juggle the many balls in the air of our busy lives, even as we cope with cancer and the effects it has on our lives–especially when we complete treatment and recovery, returning to the altered and new “normal.”  It’s when we feel we’ve somehow disappointed others, fallen short of some unspoken level of attainment, or let ourselves down,  our self-recriminations  become especially loud—a veritable Greek chorus.  And we all have them, those noisy, old internalized voices that chide us from time to time, saying “you should do better than that, you know.”

How do we silence those critics, especially those who live in our heads?  How do we practice a little self-forgiveness and allow ourselves the freedom to be messy, woefully imperfect, or terribly human?  A little humor can help.   In a poem guaranteed to make you smile, Kaylin Haught asks God for permission to be herself—and not worry about punctuation!

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is… 

Thanks God I said

And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

(From:  The Palm of Your Hand, 1995)

In “Marks,” Linda Pastan pokes some fun at the frustration of being graded as a wife and mother by her family members:

My husband gives me an A
for last night’s supper,
an incomplete for my ironing,
a B plus in bed.
My son says I am average,
an average mother, but if
I put my mind to it
I could improve.
My daughter believes
in Pass/Fail and tells me
I pass.  Wait ’til they learn
I’m dropping out.

(From Five Stages of Grief, 1978)

What about you?  How do you grade yourself?  When does your internal critic get in the way?  What kind of permission do you want to give yourself?  This week, write about grades, grading yourself, being graded by others–and as you do, try silencing those tiresome voices with a bit of humor!

Loss.  It’s something that seems to dog you at every turn when you are dealing with cancer.  It’s a persistent shadow, sorrow that accompanies the awareness of how your life is changed, and not in ways you wished for or anticipated.  Larry Smith, poet and cancer survivor expresses the sense of loss in his poem, “What You Realize When Cancer Comes:”

You will not live forever—No,
you will not, for a ceiling of clouds
hovers in the sky.

You are not as brave
as you once thought.
Sounds of death
echo in your chest.

You feel the bite of pain,
the taste of it running
through you.

Following the telling to friends
comes a silence of
felt goodbyes. You come to know
the welling of tears…

Loss is a predominant theme in the beginning weeks of my “Writing Through Cancer”workshops.  A few years ago, I began a session with a short warm, inviting the group to write about anything on their minds for a few minutes.  When I asked who wished to read aloud, one young woman quickly volunteered.

“I’m angry about losing my hair,” she began.  “It’s been my signature, long and full…”  She looked up from her notebook.  Her eyes were red and teary.  Several women nodded sympathetically, while I recalled my own embarrassment, when, as a teenager, I sported a bald head after neurosurgery, covering it with scarves as I returned to school, feeling unattractive and vulnerable and praying no one would laugh at me.

It grew back, of course, and so did the young woman’s, becoming full and long over time.  But the feelings of loss are synonymous with cancer, and the losses involve much more than hair.

In a recent workshop, I invited the participants to write about the losses experienced because of cancer.  Besides hair, the losses included breasts and other body parts, the sense of self each once felt; even friends, along with dreams, hopes, and loved ones.  As the list of losses grew, it seemed cancer was like living in a barren landscape of overwhelming loss, hopelessness and grief.

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth…

(From “Kindness”, by Naomi Shihab-Nye in The Words Under The Words ©1994)

“Feel the future dissolve in a moment…”  A diagnosis of cancer undoes us at first, like being tossed into a maelstrom of fear and loss.  The very word can temporarily rob us of hope and joy, replacing them with fear and sorrow.  Gradually, as treatment and recovery progress, something else happens.  We find things:  new strength, new self-understanding, and new awareness of the world around us.

Your children are stronger
than you thought and
closer to your skin.

The beauty of animals
birds on telephone lines,
dogs who look into your eyes,
all bring you peace…

Songs can move you now, so that
you want to hold onto the words
like the hands of children.

Your own hands look good to you.
old and familiar
as water…

(From:  A River Remains:  Poems, by Larry Smith, 2006)

After my group members read the lists of losses aloud to one another, we didn’t stop there.  I invited them to write again, this time asking,  “What have you found?”

Would it surprise you to know that the list of meaningful things discovered or found overshadowed the losses?  Their lists included new friends, faith, even strength they didn’t know they had, greater love with spouses, clarity about what truly matters in their lives, new dreams, a sense of freedom and awakening and, as one person put it, “the realization that I am not my body.” All the losses were coupled with new discoveries, new knowledge, self-insight and understanding, new facets of themselves to explore and cherish.  Cancer, as someone remarked in an earlier session, can be a great teacher.

This is not a dress rehearsal…today is the only guarantee that you get… think of life as a terminal illness, because if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived.

–Anna Quindlen

We all suffer losses throughout our lives.  It’s not just those of us who’ve experienced cancer that discover the gift of each day we’re given.  Life, as Anna Quindlen suggests, is like living with a terminal illness.   We must learn to balance our losses with new discoveries, new joy, and a passion for each day we live.  As William Stafford described in the poem, “The Gift:”

It’s a balance, the taking and passing along,
the composting of where you’ve been and how people
and weather treated you.  It’s a country where
you already are, bringing where you have been.

(From: My Name is William Tell, 1992)

Create your balance sheet this week.  On one side of the page, list the losses in your life since cancer; on the other, list the gains.  Write about not only the things you’ve lost since cancer, but now, write about what you’ve gained.  Which do you want to emphasize in your life?


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