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‘Tis the season…or so the ads proclaim.  Drive through the streets, and houses blaze with colored lights, some garish, others more tasteful.  Walk into any store and holiday decorations abound, but by now, weeks old now, my brain has been on strike, protesting against the commercial glitter and recorded Christmas carols playing since Halloween.  Although one might say, “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” the decorations and lights enticing us to buy, buy, buy, have grown wearisome.  I have avoided malls for the past several weeks to every extent possible, knowing I will only morph into a modern-day zombie unable to make any sort of decisions about gift choices.  My holiday spirit has taken cover from the full court press of commercialism, sadly unescapable in our society.  Add to that, I live in a place, unlike the places of my childhood or Canadian years where snow isn’t visible, even in the far off mountain tops.

But take heart.  This morning I baked some pumpkin spice scones for my husband’s birthday breakfast.  The kitchen was filled with the aroma of cinnamon, sugar and nutmeg.  “It’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas,” I sang as I pulled the pan of scones from the oven.  Last night, we set up our tree, ready to be decorated with our collection of ornaments, a hodge-podge of figures, shapes and colors, acquired each year of our daughter’s lives they had their children, and the tradition continues for each of our grandchildren.  The tree is fake, something we resorted to in our empty next holidays when, more often than not, we’d be traveling to spend the holidays with one or the other daughter.  I missed the smell of pine, so I placed a few pine boughs around the dining table, inhaling the fragrance and remembering the Christmases of childhood, climbing into my father’s pickup truck to head into the mountains to cut our tree.  I felt the first blush of holiday spirit.

Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived.  The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard.  Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief.  Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away. — Helen Keller

“The eyes have it,” we often hear, or do they?   Our ability to smell is highly linked to memory. A smell can trigger a flood of memories, influence moods and even affect work performance.   According to author Sarah Dowdey, “smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously.” Smell is our oldest sense, as Tom Stafford describes in a BBC online article.  It has its origins in the rudimentary senses for chemicals in air and water – senses that even bacteria have. Before sight or hearing, before even touch, creatures evolved to respond to chemicals around them. Smell is unique among our five senses.  Unlike the other four, smell enters directly, deep into the brain.

In the 1990 book, A Natural History of the Senses, author Diane Ackerman writes, “Our sense of smell can be extraordinarily precise, yet it’s almost impossible to describe how something smells to someone who hasn’t smelled it…

We see only where there is light enough, taste only when we put things into our mouths, touch only when we make contact with someone or something, hear only sounds that are loud enough to hear.  But we smell always and with every breath…Smells coat us, swirl around us, enter our bodies, emanate from us.  We live in a constant wash of them.  Still, when we try to describe a smell, words fail us…

The physiological links between the smell and language centers of the brain are pitifully weak.  Not so the links between the smell and the memory centers, a route that carries us nimbly across time and distance. A smell can be overwhelmingly nostalgic because it triggers powerful images and emotions before we have time to edit them…When we give perfume to someone, we give them liquid memory.  Kipling was right:  “Smells are surer than sights and sounds to make your heart-strings crack.”

 Ah, those cracking heart strings…All it took to finally enliven my holiday spirit, after weeks of Christmas advertisements and  carols playing everywhere, was the smell of a few pine boughs and pumpkin scones baking in the oven.  Memories of Christmases past flooded into my head.  Smells were doing the work of a Christmas spirit cheerleader.  Perhaps you have similar associations with pine and cinnamon, or perhaps it’s other smells, like the ones of Hanukkah, potato latkes sizzling in the pan or chocolate gelt, unwrapped, given after spinning the dreidel. Whether Christmas or Hanukkah,  smells  may bring up childhood memories or ones more recent, one that make you smile, ones that bring tears to your eyes.  Kipling was right: “Smells are surer than sights or sounds to make your heart-strings crack.” 

The candles flicker in the window.

Outside, ponderosa pines are tied in red bows.

If you squint,

the neighbors’ Christmas lights

look like the Omaha skyline.

 

The smell of oil is in the air.

We drift off to childhood

where we spent our gelt

on baseball cards and matinees,

cream sodas and knishes…

(From “Chanukah Lights Tonight,” by Steve Schneider, in: Prairie Air Show, 2000)

Let your nose guide you to inspiration  as you write this week.  List the smells you associate with the Christmas or Hanukkah. What memories do they invoke?  Write some.

This past week I had lunch with my friend, Sue, both of us temporarily free of schedules that left little time for midday socializing.  Sue was my “first” friend when I moved to San Diego seven and a half years ago.  We’d met in Berkeley, when she attended my summer class on writing as a way of healing.  A gifted writer, her essays on her experience as a mother of a son fighting a war in Afghanistan, published in the , Christian Science Monitor, earned her a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize.  I knew none of that then, but when she learned I was relocating that fall, she followed up with a welcoming email and an essay she’d written about the San Diego area.  When I arrived that fall, she called and took me to an art show, featuring several local artists, some I soon got to know personally.

Sue and I lingered over lunch, recalling my first year in San Diego.  “I still think of you as a new friend,” she said, as we laughed over  shared likes and dislikes.

“Oh no,” I said, “I’m an old friend now.  It’s been more than seven years…”

“Has it been that long?”  I nodded; it had.  Time had, once again, flown by.

Our conversation  turned to the topic of friends, losing them and gaining new ones in all my many moves from California to Canada to New York, Washington and back to California.  Now as my husband and I consider a possible return, at least for half our time, to Canada, I admitted to Sue that I have mixed feelings–all because of friends.

“It’s more difficult to make new friends with each move,” I sighed.

Besides, I am well aware that as we get older, it’s friends—the ones who know you well–who make a place feel like home.  Like Bette Midler sang, we all need friends.

you got to have friends.
The feeling’s oh so strong.

You got to have friends
To make that day last long.

Despite our many moves, I’ve been lucky with friends.  Two weeks ago, Sharon, a friend from graduate school days, traveled west from New Hampshire to spend the weekend with us before heading to Silicon Valley to visit her son.  She and I were close during our doctoral study years, both of us single parents who’d elected to go back to school later in life.  In fact it was Sharon who first introduced me to John, who would, a few years later, become my husband.  Despite years apart and sometimes scant communication, she and I quickly fell into our old rhythms during her visit, shared conversations and long walks.  She remains as dear to me now as she was all those many years ago.

In two weeks, my daughter and granddaughter will be here, and Lynn, whom I met while in high school, will drive from Claremont to visit.  Lynn was always “Aunt Lynn” to my daughters, a constant presence in our lives, whether we lived in Nova Scotia, Toronto or California.  It hardly mattered.  Our friendship endured our mutual moves around the continent and periods of great physical distance between us over the years.  A phone call to Lynn was always enthusiastically received, and within a minute or two, we’d be laughing.

“The good thing about friends,” a poem by Brian Jones begins, “is not having to finish sentences” (“About Friends,” in The Spitfire on the Northern Line,1975).  Do you know that feeling?  It’s something I experience with Lynn, Sharon, or Sue, all among my dearest and most enduring friends.  Whenever we manage to pick up the telephone or meet, we’re laughing together within minutes in a conversation punctuated by unfinished sentences.   It’s a particular comfort shared with enduring friends, ones who know you by heart, who you’ve shared so much of life with and despite time and distance, can still pick up the conversation where it left off, even though you’ve not seen one another for months , sometimes years.

Friends matter in all kinds of ways.  They are important in helping us fight illness or depression.  They help us recover from illness, trauma and loss.  They celebrate our good times and offer support during the tough times.  They keep us from feeling lonely.  They often become closer than family, and they raise our spirits and keep us laughing.  No wonder friends are important in slowing down our aging process and prolonging life.  As Gail Caldwell describes finding a special friend in Let’s Take the Long Way Home, a story of her long friendship with author Gail Knapp, it’s “like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived..”

It was those enduring friendships I thought about this morning, grateful as I remembered each person’s face, their roles in my life, and knowing how much richer my life has been because of them.  Whatever and wherever my husband and I plan for our next chapter in life, I know that there are a handful of people whose friendships that will endure no matter what.

I remember the little round learned as a  Brownie Scout so long ago:

Make new friends, but keep the old.

One is silver and the other’s gold.

Think about friends or friendship this week and try writing about them.  Here are a few suggestions.  Describe a first meeting of a dear friend or a time when you discovered a friend in someone you never thought would become so close to you.  Tell how a friend has helped you through a difficult time.  Write a praise poem about a friend or friends.  Was there a time you lost a dear friend?  Write about that.   If you had to write a definition of friendship, what would it include?  What qualities matter most to you in a friend?

Through darkness, cold, and snow,
Wherever you may go,
You bear my friendship true, you bear my friendship true.

(“Blow, blow thou winter wind,” by Anonymous)

I had one of them last night:  a nighttime defined by restlessness, tossing and turning to get comfortable, eyeing the hands of the clock every fifteen minutes.  No matter how hard I tried, a parade of thoughts marched relentlessly through my mind.  I keep a notepad by my bed, a habit begun in college, hoping that if I jotted down the repetitive thoughts, the list of “don’t forgets,”  I could quiet my noisy brain and lull myself back to sleep.  When that failed, I tried meditating, focusing on each breath, until finally, I dozed off, only to waken an hour later and repeat the cycle.  I gave up at 5:30 a.m. and lay quietly until six, when my dog, who’s adopted my routine, stretched herself awake, ready for our early morning walk.

It happens to all of us at some time or another.  Whether it’s the result of the day’s work, worry about a loved one or the doctor’s appointment you have the next afternoon, anticipating all the day’s tasks that must be accomplished, sleep eludes you and you become a temporary insomniac.

A couple of years ago, I suffered from another of those sleepless nights, admitted defeat and got up to tiptoe into my office.  I figured that if I couldn’t sleep, I might as well get some writing done.  I discovered I was not alone.   Within minutes I received an email from a friend in the midst of treatment for metastatic breast cancer.   Unable to sleep, she had written about her illness and what it meant to be given a diagnosis of “terminal,” before sending it out on email to several of her friends.  I responded immediately, and for a time, we communicated via email—solace shared in the wee hours of morning.

Poets and writers know the darkness of early morning hours well.  Long, sleepless nights have been a theme in countless poems, stories or essays, as James Joyce’s poem, “Sleep Now, O Sleep Now,” exemplifies:

Sleep now, O sleep now,
O you unquiet heart!
A voice crying “Sleep now”
Is heard in my heart.

The voice of the winter
Is heard at the door.
O sleep, for the winter
Is crying “Sleep no more…

Charles Dickens also commented on sleepless nights, illustrating what he termed, “the duality of the brain:”

But, it happened to me the other night to be lying: not with my eyes half closed, but with my eyes wide open; not with my nightcap drawn almost down to my nose, for on sanitary principles I never wear a nightcap: but with my hair pitchforked and touzled all over the pillow; not just falling asleep by any means, but glaringly, persistently, and obstinately, broad awake. Perhaps, with no scientific intention or invention, I was illustrating the theory of the Duality of the Brain; perhaps one part of my brain, being wakeful, sat up to watch the other part which was sleepy. Be that as it may, something in me was as desirous to go to sleep as it possibly could be, but something else in me WOULD NOT go to sleep, and was as obstinate as George the Third.—(Excerpt from “Lying Awake,” by Charles Dickens.)

Sleeplessness, the New York Times’ Health Guide suggests,  “can involve difficulty falling asleep…waking up too early in the morning, or waking up often during the night…or combinations of these patterns. Everyone has an occasional sleepless night…as many as 25% of Americans report occasional sleeping problems. Chronic sleeping problems, however, affect about 10% of people. The lack of restful sleep can affect your ability to carry out daily responsibilities because you are too tired or have trouble concentrating. All types of insomnia can lead to daytime drowsiness, poor concentration, and the inability to feel refreshed and rested in the morning.”

It’s true; it’s only mid-morning as I write this post, but while my dog sleeps peacefully at my feet, I’m yawning and planning for a short afternoon nap to revive me—a habit of so-called “power napping” I developed during my corporate years and continued ever since.  Although I practice sleep inducing behaviors at night—mild exercise after supper, herbal tea, a good book–like Dickens, while one part of my brain longs for sleep, the other part is busy with random ideas, details or tasks I have before me, or, in the advent of the December holidays, a list of “to-dos” that expands daily—all contributing to my temporary life as an insomniac.  Drat!

In the black hours when I lie sleepless,
near drowning, dread-heavy, your face
is the bright lure I look for, love’s hook
piercing me, hauling me cleanly up.

(From “Mermaid Song” by Kim Addonizio, in Tell Me, 2000)

Do you suffer from nights where your brain refuses to be lulled into sleep?  Do you endure sleepless nights?   What thoughts or images invade your mind and keep you awake?  Do you birth poetry or prose in the darkness of the night?  Is there a period in your life when you suffered from more sleepless nights than restful ones?  Write about sleep—and sleeplessness.

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.

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