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I bought a portable stand up desk last week, part of a series of actions I’ve taken to manage the bouts of pain associated with my damaged tailbone.  It came, as so many of our household accessories do today, in several pieces, along with various sized screws, bolts, a small (highly ineffective) screwdriver and a set of instructions.  Instructions I tried my best to follow, since I tend toward the “plug and play” mentality and have, on numerous occasions, put together various sections of Ieka furniture backwards before reading those instructions with a more careful eye. 

Although compact, the desk took longer to assemble than it probably should have.  I made several trips to the garage to find other tools to help me put it together, since the small disposable screw driver was only minimally functional.  But I finally succeeded, and the desk sits in my home office, providing me with a way to vary and relieve the pressure of sitting while continuing to work.

Unlike “assemble-it-yourself” furniture, life doesn’t come with a set of instructions.  I remember devouring Benjamin Spock’s books on child-rearing when my first child was born, but a year later, quickly discovered that what worked with one baby didn’t necessarily have the same results with the younger one.  Several years later, as I was “getting” the hang of marriage (or so I thought), my marital status changed so quickly from “married” to “separated” to “widow” introducing an entirely new set of life circumstances, the best I could do was “play it by ear.”  It all worked out, of course, but then my daughters’ adolescence turned my apple cart upside down again, and I discovered life rarely remained neat and tidy for long.  Fast forward another ten years, and a diagnosis of early stage breast cancer did more than interrupt life; it changed mine forever.

In her poem, “There’s Not a Book On How To Do This,” Sharon Doyle reminds us that a cancer diagnosis, like so many of life’s difficult chapters, does not come with a set of instructions.  Sure, there’s treatment, but our lives are entirely disrupted and forever altered.  We are left to figure out things ourselves, hopefully with a little help from our friends and family, just what to do with this changed life.  Doyle uses the act of sketching the composition of her fall garden as a metaphor for creating new life and beauty after cancer:

There’s not a book on how to do this,
but there is an emphasis on composition.

The trucks that slug by under our window
hold trombones, mirrors, dictionaries.
It’s not my fault they invade
the calm of trees like cancer.  I

don’t have cancer anymore…

…I rarely remember the
uterus I don’t have.  One of my sons said,
“You were done with it right away, right, Mom?”
I guessed so…

Doyle plans her garden, but in the process, lets us see how loving gifts  –family, birdsong and flowers–offered hope, recovery and are symbolized in the design for her garden.  As the poem concludes, the design is completed, but among the flowers and colors, she leaves space to celebrate life:

I left vacant fourteen
trellis lightscapes for
balloons.

(from The Cancer Poetry Project, p. 52)

This week, think about your cancer—or another difficult and challenging–experience.  It’s unlikely you were handed a book of instructions for any of it.  What helped you navigate an altered body, a changed life?   Where did you find the resources, the knowledge, that offered you hope and new life?

when you are raised with the gift of laughter, as I was, it can’t stay suppressed forever… 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.  ( “Finding Humor in the Midst of Cancer,” By Jim Higley, In: Coping with Cancer Magazine, March/April 2012)

 

“You’re a lot perkier since you’ve gotten your dog,” a friend remarked last night as we sat together at an outdoor concert in a local park.  I laughed and said that my husband made the same observation a week or two earlier.  She laughed too as I described Maggie’s daily antics that keep me smiling– even laughing out loud–several times a day.  When I adopted her two months ago, it was soon after I had damaged my tailbone and right shoulder in a fall.  I was in pain, unable to sit for more than a few minutes and unable to participate in the African drumming classes I have come to love.  Worse, I was turning 70 and feeling as if overnight, I had joined the ranks of the aged and infirm.  Thankfully, it was only a temporary descent into “ain’t it awful,” but my funny little terrier helped pull me out of the doldrums.

The thing is, I like to laugh.  A lot.  On a class conference call with my UCLA writing students earlier this week, someone asked about teaching online vs. the classroom.  “I miss the classroom,” I said, adding that online is great; I can teach from anywhere at any time, but “I laugh more when I’m in the classroom.”

It’s true.  Whether it’s a writing workshop for cancer survivors or a regular creative writing class, a good deal of laughter is shared between us.  Shared laughter breaks the ice; it relaxes people and builds community.  We learn not to take ourselves quite so seriously, and more, even in the midst of something as horrible as a cancer diagnosis, there can still be things that make us smile.  Laughter brightens the day and our outlook.  We feel better.

Laughter is good medicine.  Author Norman Cousins used it to cure himself of a debilitating illness.  And long before Cousins, Mark Twain 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.”

We all need a little laughter in our lives, no matter if we’re dealing with cancer, an over-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 one reason I like being around children.  Last night I watched toddlers and kindergarteners frolic together on the grass at the outdoor concert.  I found myself smiling, laughing as they laughed, wishing my grandchildren were not as far away as they are.  Frankly, the laughter they bring to my life is  the primary reason I even check Facebook.  I love to read the funny and imaginative accounts of what comes out of their mouths.  Nathan, my five-year old grandson, offers regular doses of that particular brand of child humor  I find so delightful.  Several times a week, I read what he’s said and laugh out loud.  For example, as Claire drove her children home from a day at the beach this week, he announced: “Mommy, The Moon Master shot an egg into space, and it gave all the stars color. But it was really to send a message to Nathan, I; Nathan. He just said ‘ beee a gooood booyyy’ and so then I will get a white kitty, who is clean, and I will name her Tiger. You Mommy will put her in a basket, in the fridge but only the tail sticks out, so I can be surprised and find her and say ‘OH MY GOD, IT’S TIGER!’ Is that correct?”

I don’t think he’s going to find a white kitten in a basket in the refrigerator any time soon, but it was a good try, but what’s more, I began my day with laughter and a smile—the best medicine in the world.

There’s an old song my mother used to sing  as she did the household chores when I was a child, one made popular at by Louis Armstrong in 1929 and recorded over the years by many others, including Billie Holiday, Louis Prima, Frank Sinatra and more.   And no wonder.  Even singing the lyrics makes me happier.  It’s a good reminder that every day can be a little brighter if you find something to smile about.

When you’re smiling
When you’re smiling
The whole world smiles with you

When you’re laughing
When you’re laughing
The sun comes shining through…

(Lyrics by Larry Shay, Mark Fisher and Joe Goodwin)

Smiling and laughter, as the song reminds us, are contagious.  In a world so fraught with hardship and struggle, it’s good to find something—even a small thing—to smile or laugh about.  This week, write about something that makes you smile—or laugh out loud—each time you remember it.  Notice how a little “ha, ha” lifts your spirits.  Try laughing at least once each day.  It is, as Norman Cousins discovered, the best medicine.

“Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

(Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking)

His death was expected for these past many months, but now that it has happened, my heart is heavy as I think about my sister-in-law’s loss of her husband. Only yesterday afternoon, I drove to the airport to welcome my husband home after his long—and very delayed—flight from Okinawa, Japan, where he’d been visiting our daughter and her family.  Early morning, I returned him to the airport to fly north to Seattle to spend three days with his older sister, Joan.  It wasn’t a trip he’d planned or one he wanted to make under the circumstances, but during the long hours he was in the air, his flight already delayed by a day from a typhoon, his brother-in-law died after a four-year battle with bladder cancer.

I called Joan this morning after I’d taken him to the airport.  Her phone rang several times before I heard her voice, “Hello?”  She was crying and quickly apologized.  “I’m sorry,” she said, “I just went into his room and saw how empty it is, and…”  She began sobbing again.

“Your brother is on his way,” I said.  “He just left from the airport, and he’ll be there after lunch.”

“Oh,” she said, “thank you.”  Then, “I’m sorry…he must be so tired…”

I watched him walk toward the gate, exhausted and jet-lagged from the long flight from Japan, doing what he felt he had to do.  Although their lives rarely intersected, he knew Joan needed him, that his presence would be comforting to her.  She and Ed, her husband, were high school sweethearts, marrying early despite the disapproval of her parents.  They had sixty-four years together as man and wife, weathering hardship and setbacks for much of their marriage, yet remaining steadfastly devoted to one another.

Just weeks before Edwin learned he had an aggressive Stage Four bladder cancer, Joan was diagnosed with Stage Three inflammatory breast cancer Somehow, the crises ignited strength and determination in Joan we hadn’t before experienced.  Only in the past year or so did her newfound resilience flagged, as Ed endured surgery after surgery, one experimental procedure after another and the medical expenses continued to multiply.  Her days were spent driving to and from doctor’s appointments and the hospital.  Now and again, her children dropped by to help as they could.  Edwin seemed determined to do whatever it took to give him a chance at winning a battle already described as most definitely terminal.

Joan and their four sons and daughters were at his side when he took his last breath.  She called soon afterward. “He’s gone, Sharon,” her voice heavy with exhaustion,  “He’s been my life for sixty-four years.”

 

It is hard to give up after months of making lists,

phoning doctors, fighting entropy.  But when the end comes,

a bending takes over, empties the blood of opposition

and with a gentle skill, injects a blessed numbness…

(From “Numb,” by Florence Weinberger, in The Cancer Poetry Project, 2001)

 

There’s a great deal written about dealing with the loss of a loved one from cancer, and while some may think of grief as a single instance or short time of pain or sadness in response to the loss—like the tears shed at a loved one’s funeral—as the American Cancer Society reminds us, the real process of grieving lasts longer and involves the entire emotional process of coping with the loss.

It can be hard on those friends or acquaintances, even family members, to let grief takes its normal courses.  It’s painful, yes, but it’s important that those whose loved ones have died are allowed to express their grief and supported through the process.  It’s different for everyone, but most important is honoring however the bereaved person chooses to express their sorrow and grief.  John, brother and psychologist, understands that, and in this time of sorrow for his sister, he will be a source of quiet support and comfort for his sister.

After sixty-four years together with Ed, Joan may be grieving for a long time.  According to the American Cancer Society, studies have identified emotional states that people may go through while grieving. The first feelings usually include shock or numbness. Then, as the person sees how his or her life is affected by the loss, emotions start to surface. The early sense of disbelief is often replaced by emotional upheaval, which can involve anger, loneliness, uncertainty, or denial. These feelings can come and go over a long period of time. The final phase of grief is the one in which people find ways to come to terms with and accept the loss.

Joan’s tears finally came this morning with the realization that Ed is truly gone.  Her daughter had tended to the details, overseen the removal of Ed’s body and all the medical equipment which had become part of the landscape of his room for so long.  It was only this morning, as Joan went downstairs and entered the bedroom, now barren and empty of everything that had defined the past year or so of Ed’s life and hers that she broke down.  “It’s so empty,” she cried.

Today my thoughts are with my sister-in-law and all that she has endured and must face in the wake of her husband’s death.  I’m grateful her four children are nearby.  I’m grateful for the quiet and loving presence she will experience with my husband, her brother.  There is nothing easy in losing a loved one, even if you’ve lived with the certainty of death for months.  My hope is that she can begin, in the months ahead, to create a new life in this stage called “widowhood.”  But for now, I simply pray that she has the strength to put one foot in front of the other and go on.

 

Perhaps this surrender foreshadows my own old age

when I have raged to exhaustion and finally have to go.  For now,

the numbness wears off.  I drive to the market, cook my own food,

take scant note of desire

with no one to consider or contradict my choices.

Something in me will never recover.  Something in me will go on.

 

This week, consider the process of grief and mourning.  Have you lost a loved one to cancer?  What helped you deal with the loss?  Write about it.

Goethe once wrote that all writers are homesick, that all writers are really searching for home.  Being a writer is being on a constant search for where you belong.”– Mary Morris, “Looking for Home”

I’ve stubbornly refused to call San Diego “home” since relocating here in 2006.  Never one for crowded beaches, deserts and arid land, my heart finds no affinity with the landscape.  It’s little wonder, I suppose.  I was raised in rural northern California, a place where residents resented Southern California’s drain of our natural resources and periodically sought to secede and be the State of Jefferson.

I grew up among Jack pine and Douglas fir trees, in a small valley surrounded by mountains, part of the Cascade Range, and where summers were spent swimming in cold mountain lakes and rivers.  Yet I admit that as I waited in the Oakland airport to board a flight to San Diego on Friday evening, I was eager to get “home” to San Diego.  After a week of teaching in Berkeley, I was ready to sleep in my bed, sit in my easy chair, and resume the routines that mark my days:  walks with my dog, coffee on the deck while the birds cavort at the fountain and chatter in the treetops, writing in the quiet of early morning.

“I am here alone for the first time in weeks,” May Sarton wrote at the beginning of A Journal of Solitude, “to take up my ‘real’ life again at last.”  I suppose that’s how I felt in my return.  Whatever city we live in at the moment is less important that the space we shape for ourselves, one that offers that “room of one’s own,” whether a corner of the kitchen or a bedroom turned into office.  Remember Virginia Woolf’s, A Room of One’s Own?  Written at a time when women were not allowed into particular universities nor recognized in a literary world dominated by men.  Woolf famously said, A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

There are many analyses of the book, and while I am not a fiction writer, what I took from reading Woolf so many years ago was simply the necessity of making a place for my creative work.  Without one free of interruption or distractions, my creative work is compromised.  I love my teaching, but it consumes my energy, and when I turn to my writing, I am often spent.  Add to that the intensity of the week-long class, “Writing as a Healing Ministry,” one I’ve taught for over ten years and requires I travel to Berkeley each July and reside in faculty housing for the week.  At the end of the week,  I am all the more in need of reclaiming my routine, the mental and emotional space I need to nurture my creative life.

In solitude we give passionate attention to our lives, to our memories, to the details around us.—Virgina Woolf

In her delightful book of writing invitations, Room to Write, Bonni Goldberg explains the choice of her book title as “creating room for your writing…  Making room in your life to write,” She adds, “generates even more room for your writing.”  Creativity doesn’t just happen.  Our muses don’t just come whenever we beckon.  We have to create and protect the space needed to nurture creativity.  Only then will the artist within each of us be fully revealed.

This morning, my dog Maggie and I were once again up at 5:45 a.m. to walk.  She knows my routine by heart and seems to find nearly as much satisfaction in the certainty of that walk, as I do, even our time sitting on the deck, and as I prepare to write, in taking her place on a cushion near my feet.  We’re  at home again, stepping  into the comfort of routine and the place we call our own.  This morning, even the birds seemed to welcome us back.  Hummingbirds frolicked nearby at the fountain; a woodpecker set to work on the century plants below our deck, and a red tail hawk glided over our heads to fly across the canyon.  I sighed and smiled.  It was good to be here.  It was good to be back in place, in the place that is my own.

Think about what it’s like to return to your place after a busy day or time away, the “room of your own” that lets you bask in quiet and solitude, even briefly.  What is it like to have that place where you can be alone, and, as May Sarton described, take up your real life again?”

 

I’m on my way to Berkeley this week, teaching “Writing as a Healing Ministry, a week-long intensive course for clergy, seminary students and anyone interested in attending.  During the week, we’ll explore the arena of therapeutic writing, witness many different approaches to leading healing writing groups, and by week’s end, each person will define how writing can be a healing ministry – for themselves and for others.  Part of the course is to also experience what it is like to write, deeply and honestly, from the heartaches and struggles of one’s life.  Invariably, we segue into the spiritual aspects of writing to heal, and for many in the workshop, writing turns to prayer.

Prayer.   It’s interesting that in this day of modern medicine, something as basic as prayer has such beneficial impact on our health and well-being. Dr. Larry Dossey’s book, Healing Words:  The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, summarizes a number of studies demonstrating the positive influences of prayer on health and healing among patients with breast cancer, HIV, and coronary disease, among others.  “I believe that everyone’s prayers helped me make it through with grace and strength,” one former member of my writing groups once said.

We find prayer in every religion and culture, written in every language.  Studies have found that religion and spirituality are very important to the quality of life among many cancer patients.  Prayer sustains us and offers solace.  My daily writing practice is my meditation, my solace and my prayer.  Although religion and spirituality are related, they are not synonymous.  Religion refers to a specific set of beliefs and practices, usually within an organized group, while spirituality is more concerned with our beliefs about the meaning of life.  You may think of yourself as religious or spiritual or both.

Whatever our religious or spiritual beliefs, our faith or spirituality can provide strength and comfort.  “As part of our wholeness,” Stephen Levine said in a 1994 Sun interview, “we need our woundedness.  It seems written into spirituality that there’s a dark side to which we must expose ourselves.”

Cancer may seem like a dark night of the soul; it may even challenge your faith, but it may also offer you the chance to explore your spirituality by deepening your self-understanding and compassion for others. “My faith grew, and I prayed a lot,” said another.  Laura, who lost her struggle with metastatic cancer, wrote a prayer for mercy as she struggled through long periods of treatment:

A wad of pain
In the pit of my stomach
Lord have mercy

I focus on it
Lord have mercy
Lord have mercy
Lord have mercy…

Writing can be a form of prayer or meditation and it often becomes the prayer itself.  “When you’re caught up in writing…” poet Denise Levertov remarked in her final interview, “it can be a form of prayer.”  Writing takes us on a voyage of discovery, and in the wake of cancer or other life-threatening illnesses or suffering, it can become a deeply spiritual practice.  Writing offers a door into our spiritual journeys. During cancer treatment or other serious illnesses, we’re often face to face with our mortality.  That’s when the irrelevant and unnecessary falls away, revealing the meaning in our lives.  Call it what we will–hope, prayer, faith, or a meditation–we discover a higher consciousness, something larger than ourselves.

Varda, who died of metastatic breast cancer several years ago, wrote throughout her cancer journey, often humorously, sometimes poignantly.  As she neared her final weeks, she examined her faith, acknowledging that even though challenged by cancer, her faith had offered her strength and solace:

But our relationship has changed.  In asking me to surrender to this illness, God has asked me to let go—to trust—float free.  And I have found this to be a most precious time.  My cancer has challenged my faith, and I have found an incredible well I did not know I had.  I have found true surrender, enormous peace.

This week, think about those beliefs or practices that sustain you.  Write about prayer or meditation, about your faith or spiritual journey.  Perhaps your faith has been challenged like Varda’s.  Perhaps your illness or life struggles led you to a spiritual journey you didn’t anticipate.  Write about it.

Geese appear high over us, pass, and the sky closes.

Abandon, as in love or sleep, holds them to their way,

clear in the ancient faith: what we need is here. And we

pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart,

and in eye, clear. What we need is here.

(Wendell Berry, “What We Need is Here,” Collected Poems, 1957-1982)

 

So much died here last year

but last month rain forced

peach-red mouths out of balding sand,

and within weeks sun coaxed

tiny constellations of yellow,

purple, and white into sandy flats,

along rocky dirt roads . . .

I will never be the same

knowing how effortlessly death

rests in the cells of my body,

yet with each step I am willing

to say yes to the chances I take,

to the hope no one can take from me

here in the midst of my recovery

now that I’ve seen what can thrive

in the bankrupt landscape of the heart.

 (From “Hiking in the Anza-Borrego Desert after Surgery,” by Francine Sterle.  In: The Cancer Poetry Project, Karin Miller, Ed., 2001)

 

“Healing” is a word I frequently use. My cancer writing groups were inspired, in part, by the research on writing’s healing benefits.  Both my books on the subject contain the words “heal” or “healing” in their titles.  But I have new respect for what it means, at this stage in my life, to heal.  Like you, I’ve experienced emotional and physical healing more times in my life than I care to admit.  But for the past several weeks, my life has been concerned with the long, slow process of physical healing.

In early April, I suffered a bruised tailbone when landed on the hardwood floor as my desk chair rolled out from under me when I sat down.  A week later, I strained the muscles in my right arm badly when I threw caution to the wind and lifted one too many potted plants on our deck.  Days before I was headed to spend the month of May in Toronto, I fell, rather badly, as I backed up to take a photograph of my husband and his new car.  I confess my eyes were on the camera, not where I was stepping, and my back heel caught on a garden stone.  I took a fine photograph of the sky and telephone wires as I fell, landing hard on my already bruised tailbone and shoulder before my head hit the pavement.  I felt more embarrassment than injury at the time; the pain came later.  All of this preceded, I might add, the advent of my seventieth birthday.  Not only my body was damaged, but so was my self-image.   I’ve been forced to accept that as I age, I need to be more considered about some of the physical tasks I undertake—or at the very least, pay attention to where I’m stepping!

Healing from all of these mishaps has taken far longer than my body ever required to recover from the bumps and bruises of a rough and tumble childhood—and it’s given me pause for thought.  I’ve seen doctors, been to acupuncture and worked with a physiotherapist.  But my body refuses to be rushed in its healing process, and that new reality is forcing me to learn a tough lesson of patience.

What does it mean to heal?   Obviously, time is involved, but google the word “healing,” and you’ll be confronted with more variations on it than you can possibly read, whether from traditional medicine, psychology, religion, or the alternative healing arts.  Look up “healing” in the dictionary, and you’ll find  “the natural process by which the body repairs itself,” and “tending to cure or restore to health.”

In my cancer writing groups, “healing” has more of an emotional and spiritual context.  During the experience of cancer, terms like “recovery”, “in remission,” and, for some, “cure,” are more commonly used to describe the body’s process of repair during treatment.  “Healing,” on the other hand, carries multiple meanings, and what each person considers as healing is unique to their lives and situation.

It’s not just the body that needs healing during cancer.  A cancer diagnosis threatens our sense of wholeness and of self.  We suffer, although out of that suffering, we may gain new insights into what it means to be human and what truly matters to us—which can be a prelude to healing.  Healing is more than physical repair; it involves transformation.  We emerge from the cancer experience in remission or with “no evidence of cancer,” but we aren’t the same people we were before it.  We’re changed. Our lives are redefined, and so is our sense of meaning.  To come to terms with that change, that altered self also takes time—it’s a process of healing, and it, too, cannot be rushed.

In a May 2005 article by Thomas Egnew,“The Meaning of Healing:  Transcending Suffering,” appearing in the Annals of Family Medicine, the author explored the meaning of healing and translated it into behaviors—all as a way  to help doctors enhance their abilities to be healers. Egnew included three major themes in his definition, and not surprisingly, they are ones that readily apply to anyone:  wholeness (to become or make whole), narrative (a reinterpretation of life), and spirituality (the search to be human; to transcend).

Healing requires that we have the courage to truly plumb the depths of who we are—who we have become as a result of cancer—or any other major life upheaval.  Last summer, I was among a group of presenters at the Omega Institute in New York along with oncologist and pioneer in integrative medicine, Jeremy Geffen, MD, the weekend’s featured speaker.  Dr. Geffen defined seven distinct levels of healing needed to regain wholeness.  According to Geffen, as he listened to his patients their concerns and questions over the years, he saw a pattern emerging,  Patients’ concerns fell into one of seven interwoven, yet distinct, areas.  Ultimately, he labeled them as “The Seven Levels of Healing.  They include:

  1. Information or knowledge
  2. Connecting with others
  3. Exploring safe and effective ways of tending to our health
  4. Emotional healing
  5. Harnessing the power of the mind
  6. Assessing our life’s purpose and meaning
  7. A spiritual connection

(The Journey Through CancerHealing and Transforming the Whole Person, by Jeremy Geffen, MD, 2006).

Healing, true healing, is complex and multi-dimensional.  And it takes time.  I thought I understood that, at least during those “big” illnesses and surgeries I’ve endured.  The fact that some bruising and muscle sprains have required me to re-assess so much of what I’ve blithely taken for granted about my body has forced me, again, to slow down and reconsider what it means, this time, to heal.

What about you?  Do Geffen’s seven levels of healing resonate with your experience?  How would you define “healing” if asked by someone newly diagnosed with cancer?  What, in your experience, has been healing for you?  What people, places or activities have been important in your healing process?    Think about what it means to heal.  Write about it.

Blues a healer, all over the world
Blues a healer, healer, all over the world, all over the world
It healed me, it can heal you
The blues can heal you, early one morning

(“The Healer,” by John Lee Hooker & Santana)

The blues.  Their roots lie in African-American history, from Southern plantations of the 19th Century, sung by slaves and share croppers as they toiled in the cotton fields. The blues evolved, interacting with jazz and giving birth to rhythm ‘n blues and rock ‘n roll.

Nothing “blue” would have defined our evening last night as we attended a live performance by the San Diego blues band, 145th Street, as they paid tribute to the great slide guitarist and blues singer, Muddy Waters.  Instead, you would have witnessed a crowd of people, young and old, on their feet, moving and clapping to the hard rhythm of Waters’ best loved songs.

We had come close to not going to the show at all.  Yesterday was hot, and by day’s end, I was tired and irritable, wanting to do nothing more than sit near the air conditioner.  But we’d bought the tickets in advance, and it seemed a waste to not use them, so I dragged my wilted self out the door with my husband, and we drove downtown.  We arrived a full half hour before the performance began, but already, the room was crowded with fans.  Luckily we managed to snare two of the last available seats.  A short time later, the band filed on stage and launched into their first number.  Within moments, the irritability and lassitude I’d been feeling had disappeared.  The musicians rocked and, as it turned out, so did we all.

“When you are feeling particularly down or upset, make music your friend,” advised music therapist, Dr. Suzanne Hanser, in a recent article in Coping with Cancer Magazine.  “Begin your day with music. Music with a strong beat or dance rhythm might make you boogie out of bed…”  Well, I can’t vouch for wanting to boogie out of bed–I prefer quieter starts to my days– but I do know that music can elevate one’s mood and sense of well-being.

Mark, Sichel, LCSW, writing for Psychology Today, states:  “While music therapy  as a distinct field has been around a long time, it’s only recently that I’ve begun suggesting to patients that they sing their way out of the blues… Losing yourself in the right music is an immediate, unconscious and effortless way to reframe your situation.”  Hmmm.  Years ago,  I was a devotee of Donna Summer’s “I Will Survive” and the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want…,” belting out the lyrics right along with the recordings as I nursed a broken heart.

“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.

Add a little movement to the mix, as many in the crowd of people did last night, and you may find yourself smiling even more.  Dance or movement therapy is a newer expressive or healing art, and yet The American Cancer Society states that “Clinical reports suggest dance therapy may be effective in improving self-esteem and reducing stress. [It} can be useful for both physical and emotional aspects of quality of life.”  I used my version of dance therapy during the most difficult period after my first husband’s sudden death. I often played favorite rock’n’roll tunes and danced to them in our darkened living room once my children were asleep.  It was far more beneficial to my spirit to dance in the dark than sit alone and cry!

Let music be your muse this week.  Why not take time to listen to some of your favorite music?  Maybe you’ll feel like dancing, or perhaps you’ll find old memories ignited.  Perhaps certain music lulls you to sleep.  Whatever your experience, notice how music affects your mood, even how different selections trigger different feelings or memories.  Write about what happens when music is a part of your day.

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

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