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Then a door opens
and our leader rises
to introduce the night’s speaker
a young surgeon, his slide-tray at his side.
“Greetings, Gentlemen,” he grins
snapping on his slides, projecting
our organs onto the wall,
touching them with his pointer
in blunt precision,
warning us again of lymph nodes
cells outside the prostate
that can end our life.

 (From:  “Leaning Together in a Storm,” by Larry Smith)

A few years ago, I saw the film, “50/50.”  Although classified as a comedy about cancer and survival, its portrayal of the physician-patient interaction reminded me of the different experiences we have with our medical professionals.  27 year-old Adam struggles to comes to terms a diagnosis of a rare spinal cancer.  While he finds humor in unlikely places throughout his ordeal, all laughter aside, “50/50” doesn’t let the viewer forget about fear, upheaval, damage or the losses a cancer diagnosis produces in a person’s life. 

When Adam’s physician tells him that the pain in his back is the result of a rare and possibly fatal spinal cancer, his manner is impersonal and brusque.  He points to the illuminated image of Adam’s spine, the tumor, and delivers the news to him in a salvo of facts and medical terminology, all while Adam succumbs to shock and disbelief.  I remember that scene, because despite exaggerating the contrast between Adam and his physician, I’ve heard more than one similar account between a newly diagnosed cancer patient and a doctor.

Until recently, doctor and patient communication resided in the domain of physicians, reflecting, in large part, their medical school training.  Thankfully, there has been a steady increase in attention to and training in the quality of the patient-doctor interaction, informed by leaders such as Rita Charon in narrative medicine and the narratives of patients themselves.  All this has been informative, not only for the medical professionals, but for the rest of us too–exploring who our doctors are, why we choose the ones we do and the nature of our doctor-patient relationships.

Alice Trillin, an educator and film producer who died of lung cancer in 2001, reflected on the relationships between doctor and patient in a March 1981 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine:

First of all, we believe in the magic of doctors and medicine.  The purpose of a talisman is to give us control over the things we are afraid of.  Doctors and patients are accomplices in staging a kind of drama in which we pretend that doctors have the power to keep us well.
–“Of Dragons & Garden Peas:  A Cancer Patient Talks to Doctors”

The relationships we have with our doctors are complex, often profound, as Trillin noted.  Implicitly or directly, we’re asked to entrust our very lives with them.  We get poked, prodded and examined by our doctors, as Molly Redmond describes in “The Cancer Patient Talks Back,” and it can have a de-humanizing effect:

I have suddenly crossed the boundary line
of the risky circle called cancer.
It has made me public property, like being largely pregnant.
People invade – an assault of connections… -
The medical cadre, too.
Either way,
I am covered with fingerprints, with labels.

(“The Cancer Patient Talks Back,” In:  The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. 1)

But how often do we have the chance to examine those in the “medical cadre” whom we entrust with our lives?  How often do we stop to ask ourselves, “What do I want in a doctor?”

Literary critic Anatole Broyard, writing in the wake of his diagnosis of metastasized prostate cancer, did just that as he reflected on the relationship he had with his doctor:

Choosing a doctor is difficult because it is our first explicit confrontation of our illness…

The knowledge that you’re ill is one of the momentous experiences in life.  You expect that you’re going to go on forever, that you’re immortal…When the doctor told me I was ill it was like an immense electric shock.  I felt galvanized…and I was reduced to essence.  I began to look around me with new eyes, and the first thing I looked at was my doctor.

I had no reason to believe that he was not good.  He was in a good hospital…what turned me against him was what I saw as a lack of style or magic.  I realized I wanted my doctor to have magic as well as medical ability.  It was like having a “lucky” doctor.  (From: Intoxicated by My Illness and Other Writings of Life and Death).

“Now that I know I have cancer of the prostate, the lymph nodes and part of my skeleton,” Broyard asked, “what do I want in a doctor?”  He detailed several characteristics he would like in his physician, among them:

  • understands that beneath my surface cheerfulness, I feel…panic,
  • was a close reader of illness and a good critic of medicine,
  • would be bonded with me for a brief space, survey my soul as well as my flesh to get at my   illness,
  • can treat body and soul
  • gropes for my spirit as well as my prostate
  • knows that he is my patient too, and I have my diagnosis of him… 

Broyard got me to thinking about the doctors who’ve cared for me in times of serious illness.  I’ve been lucky:  a gifted neurosurgeon, cardiologist and many others—doctors who have demonstrated the capacity and compassion to understand me as well as the diagnoses that forced me to put my life in their hands.

Why not ask yourself the question Broyard asked of himself?  Given the experiences you’ve had with your doctors, and what you know about yourself, what matters most to you?   Examine your own doctor-patient relationship.  What characteristics have been most important in your choice of a doctor in the past?  Which doctors made you feel “lucky,” as if they possessed that little bit of magic?  Why?  What characteristics would you like to have in your doctor?

I want to escape this torture by words,
but ask instead, “And what about the
radiation seed implants they’re doing in Seattle?”
He turns on me like a cop. “We’re doing those now.
So it’s a question, how big is your ego?”

Some smile at this, other know
how cold the knife is, how his words
cut across our lives, our wish to live
each breath, see morning spread
across our lawn, our grandchildren’s faces.
We all have this unspoken need
to pace our life
like a heart beat.

In the end we let it go
trade our feelings for facts
we already know,
“It’s a game of numbers,”
he says again, and I wonder
if these others want to drive
this witch doctor from the room
and gather warmth from the fire
we sit around, share our stories
together of going on.

(In:  A River Remains, by Larry Smith, 2006).

Take some flour. Oh, I don’t know,
like two-three cups, and you cut
in the butter. Now some women
they make it with shortening,
but I say butter, even though
that means you had to have fish, see?

You cut up some apples. Not those
stupid sweet ones. Apples for the cake,
they have to have some bite, you know?
A little sour in the sweet, like love.
You slice them into little moons. 

(From:  “My Mother Gives Me her Recipe,” by Marge Piercy, Colors Passing Through Us, 2004).

I’ve been thinking a lot about food in the past few weeks.  No, not about eating or dieting, but about the history, the stories found in the recipes handed down from mother to daughter or son, grandmother to granddaughter or grandson.

It began in the class I took with local artist, Jane LaFazio, a few weeks ago. A day or two before the first class, Jane instructed us to bring  with us some ingredients for a favorite recipe in addition to our art materials.  I’d been experimenting with Japanese cooking , and I knew that the mackerel I’d served up a few nights earlier wasn’t the kind of thing I could carry to class.  Instead, I pulled an old lined green 3 x 5 index card from the back of an old cookbook.  Worn and stained from years of use, the card holds a recipe for “broccoli souffle,” the very first I copied from my mother-in-law’s file as a new bride.

On the way to class, I pulled into the parking lot of a nearby grocery store and bought a few of the necessary ingredients so that I’d have something to sketch and paint.  I had such fun doing it that even though it wasn’t the most well executed project, when I completed it two weeks later, I turned the illustrated recipe turned into color postcards to send to my daughters.  (Of course, I had to order a minimum of 50, so more than a few friends have been given recipe card for broccoli soufflé!)

lst

That old family recipe hearkens back to a time of practical, easy meal preparation, when just about any side dish contained, as a primary ingredient, a can of Campbell’s mushroom soup.  It’s a far cry from the kind of cooking I prefer now, but it’s a recipe that has endured decades of use, multiple relocations, a second marriage, and countless family meals.  It’s now the traditional casserole we serve at every Christmas dinner, whether prepared by me or one of my daughters.  It’s always enjoyed (despite its high cholesterol and caloric content), and it’s laden with history and memories of people and Christmases past.

It’s true for all of us.  Foods lovingly prepared and served at family celebrations triggers memory; stories rediscovered as we take that first bite of soufflé, an aunt’s mincemeat pie, or the warm oatmeal and raisin cookies that once waited on the kitchen table with a glass of milk when we got home from school..

Food also plays a role in our histories—as individuals, and as a people.  This week marks the beginning of Passover, and many of my Jewish friends will prepare their traditional Seder meal, where each ingredient plays an important part in the retelling of the Exodus story.  My husband and I will celebrate an annual Easter dinner with friends, honoring other religious and historical traditions.  When I was young, we celebrated Easter Sundays with my father’s extended family:  dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins gathered together for a huge meal and  followed by our annual egg hunt in the hillsides of an uncle’s ranch.  For weeks afterwards, we’d find  boiled eggs in our lunch pails—not at all as enticing as the fun we’d had coloring them.

“Recipes can help bridge generations, reveal unexpected characteristics of a culture, or simply fill an afternoon.”  This statement appeared in the introduction to “Recipe for Writing” in The Time is Now newsletter published monthly by Poets & Writers’ Magazine.  Think about it.  Food enlivens our senses.  It’s little wonder a well-loved meal stimulates so many memories.  Writing a recipe can get my students thinking about how to detailing action in a narrative.  I sometimes hand out a blank 3 x 5 card in my writing groups and have participants  begin writing a recipe they remember from an earlier point in life, then after a few minutes, encouraging them to write the memories called up by the recipe.

This week, think about food, about the recipes that have been a part of your family traditions.  Or write about the first time you tried to follow a recipe, whether it was familiar or new to you.   You might write about the memory of a meal, of life around the dinner table, or the smells and objects in a grandmother’s kitchen.    Even food we once loved may become unpleasant  because of our associations with it.  Whatever it is, begin  writing whatever you can remember of a recipe from your childhood or another time in your past.  As  memories emerge, keep writing.   See where they take you.  (If you’re at all inclined to pull out your paints or colored pencils, you might even try, as I did, to illustrate your recipe!).

In the yellow kitchen her pink hands

play with creamy dough. Squares of sun frame

things that shine; spoons, cups, hair…

 

She boils water, opens wine, puts vegetables in pots

Lights click. Smells blossom.

Everything feels suddenly invited.

 

(From “Pasta,” by Kate Scott, Stitches, 2003)

 

While women sip their daiquiris by the pool,
and men blow smoke into the jacarandas,
the radio plays “Fly Me to the Moon…”

A child nearby, on finding a dead bee…

Some fathers offer ice cubes from their highballs,
the station plays “Volare,” and the bee
swings up to heaven on its single wing.

“Fifties Music “by Leslie Monsour, The Alarming Beauty of the Sky, 2005).

Around 6:30 a.m. this morning, I prepared to write this week’s prompt, building on themes that emerged in the writing shared by my Moores UCSD’ “Writing Through Cancer” group earlier this week.  I settled myself into my usual spot, a comfortable chair at the window, looked out at the cloudless sky and wrote, “What a beautiful morning…”  It was enough to send me back in time.  I remembered my mother, mopping the blue linoleum tiles of the kitchen floor, singing the chorus of a song from the musical, Oklahoma! by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Oh, what a beautiful mornin’
Oh, what a beautiful day.
I’ve got a beautiful feelin’
Everything’s goin’ my way.

That one memory was enough to ignite an hour’s worth of writing, trying to recall the few facts of my mother’s youth that I knew:  born in Oklahoma, moved to Texas, worked in the cotton fields of the family farm, embarrassed by her meager beginnings…  Little by little, other details emerged, names of great-uncles, of my grandfather’s wealth lost in the depression,  letters written to me by my great-uncle Charles that, no doubt, contained some of the family history that was rapidly being forgotten.  Letters that burned along with my parents’ house during my first graduate year in university.  I couldn’t write fast enough to capture it all.

It’s no secret that music can trigger powerful recollections.  “What seems to happen,” says Dr. Peter Janata, cognitive neuroscientist at University of California, Davis, “is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movies that starts playing in our head.  It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye.”  Janata refers to this as “musical evoked autobiographical memories.”

His study mapped the brain activity of a group of student subjects while they listened to samples from the “Top 100” music charts from their youth. The subjects signaled researchers when a musical sample triggered a specific memory, and immediately following the MRI session, filled in the details of those memories. Janata discovered that the region of the brain where we retrieve the memories of our past serves as a hub linking familiar music, memories and emotion.  This same area is one of the last of the brain to atrophy, which helps to explain why music often elicits strong responses from Alzheimer’s patients.

Music has other benefits too, and 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.  “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.

Reading Sacks’ comment took me back again to a period of my life, one where music played a significant part in my emotional healing.  In the years after my first husband’s drowning, I spent many nights alone, after I tucked my daughters in bed, lying on the floor next to the stereo speakers, listening to favorite songs pulled from our musical library, often times with tears streaming down my face.  Two years later, after seeking the safety of a therapist’s office to navigate the complexity of my emotions in the wake of loss, I recorded a mix of the songs marking each chapter of my life: courtship, marriage, motherhood, widowhood and, ultimately, healing.  It was the accompanying soundtrack to those fifteen years of my life.  I made a copy and presented the tape to my therapist at our final meeting along with a chapbook of poetry written throughout the therapeutic relationship—many of the poems inspired by memories triggered by the songs I’d recorded.  Music was instrumental to my healing process.

Why is it that music
At its most beautiful
Opens a wound in us
An ache a desolation
Deep as a homesickness
For some far-off
And half-forgotten country

(“Music,” by Anne Porter, Living Things:  Collected Poems, 2006)

Do you have songs  that capture the themes of any particular period of your life? Remember, memories and emotions are linked in the same region of our brains.  Music helps us recall not only the memory, but the mood—the emotions—we felt at the time.  You can use it just like filmmakers use soundtracks to enhance the suspense, drama or comedic moments being portrayed on the screen. What if you recorded a soundtrack for your life?  What music would you choose for different periods?  What memories are triggered by different songs?  What feelings?

This week, use music as your writing prompt.  Take any favorite recording and listen to it.  Keep your notebook open, and as random images, thoughts or feelings emerge, jot them down.  Keep doing this until the music ends.  Re-read what you’ve written.  What stands out?  Now, begin writing again, this time recalling, in as much detail as you can, the memories associated with the music.  See where it takes you.

Memory
All alone in the moonlight
I can smile at the old days
I was beautiful then
I remember
The time I knew what happiness was
Let the memory live again…

(“Memory,” from the musical, CATS, by Andrew Lloyd Webber, 1981)

But you got to have friends
The feeling’s oh, so strong
You got to have friends
To make that day last long…

I can hear Bette Midler belting out that song about friends, one I played night after night in the wake of my first husband’s death many years ago.  It was a song that helped pull me up from the doldrums, reminding me,  that despite everything, I was blessed with good friends.  Far from my California roots and family ties, my Nova Scotia friends helped me weather the  grief and loneliness, always there whenever I needed them, and who celebrated as I regained my footing and created a new life for myself.

This morning, I remembered another dear friend and called to wish her a happy birthday.  Lynn and I  first met  in high school at a church youth fellowship event, then we met again in college two or three years later.  We’ve been close friends ever since, although we were often separated by living on different coasts and in different countries.

One of the most wonderful things about our friendship is not only that we’ve shared the major events of our lives—accomplishments, love and loss, the births of my daughters, even having Lynn to officiate my second marriage—but that our relationship is filled with shared  laughter, the kind that comes from shared experience and perspectives.  As we rang off, Lynn tried to remember a quote she’d heard recently, “something about how shared humor is so important in sustaining a deep friendship,” she said.  We laughed because she couldn’t quite remember the words, then laughed again when she commented that  “memory is a team sport” as we age.  “I’m lucky,” I said to my husband after the call.  “I’ve had this wonderful person–this enduring friendship– in my life since we were teenagers.”  Despite all these years and geography between us, we’ve remained close.

“The good thing about friends,” Brian Jones’ poem, “About Friends,” begins “is not having to finish sentences.”   So true, but I’d add that the good thing about some friends is that they endure, that you can pick up the telephone and call, and within the first few words, you’re laughing together.  There’s comfort in old friends, the ones who know you well, who’ve shared so much of life with you and  despite time and distance, can pick up the conversation where it left off even though you’ve not seen one another for months , sometimes a year or two.

It’s something I think about a lot as my husband and I consider where we want to live in the next phase of our lives.  We’ve been mobile—and my daughters have too—and now that we have grandchildren, we want to be closer to them than the several thousand miles now between us all.  But we also know how important a community of friends is to our health and happiness, especially as we grow older.  You’ve got, as Bette Midler’s song reminds us, to have friends.

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.  And in old age, it’s having friends that helps slowdown the aging process and prolong life.   In “What are Friends For?  A Longer Life,” a 2009 New York Times article, author Tara Parker Pope wrote that A 10 year Australian found that older people with a large circle of friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the study period than those with fewer friends. A  2007 study  an increase of nearly 60 percent in the risk for obesity among people whose friends gained weight. And last year, Harvard researchers reported that strong social ties could promote brain health as we age.

The Mayo Clinic staff agrees. “Good friends are good for your health.” They celebrate the good times and provide support in the tough times.  They keep us from being lonely, and we, as friends, return the gift of companionships.  Friends, the clinic staff state:

  • Increase your sense of belonging and purpose
  • Boost your happiness and reduce your stress
  • Improve your self-confidence and self-worth
  • Help you cope with traumas, such as divorce, serious illness, job loss or the death of a loved one
  • Encourage you to change or avoid unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as excessive drinking or lack of exercise

Remember the song “You’ve got a friend?”  Written and recorded by Carole King in 1971.  James Taylor’s recording of it the same year  was the number 1 song on Billboard’s “Hot 100.”  Since then, it’s been sung and recorded by dozens of vocalists, including those as diverse as Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Barry Manilow and Ella Fitzgerald, among many others, testimony to the importance of the enduring, and true friendships in our lives.

[Chorus:]
You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come runnin’, runnin, yeah, yeah,
to see you again
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there, yes I will

Now ain’t it good to know
that you’ve got a friend… 

This week, write about friends—the ones who matter, who’ve endured or been at your side in difficult or painful times.  What binds you together?  What is most important in your friendships with one another?  Write about a time that your friend{s} made a difference in your life.  Celebrate friendship.

 

I took a day to breathe yesterday, a respite from an over-full life, each day filled with deadlines, papers to read, classes to prepare for and teach, meetings with colleagues, a stack of receipts from 2013 to organize for taxes…  I put my “to do” list aside, and focused on simpler things, listening quietly to favorite classical music, repairing the aftermath of the “busyness hurricane” in my office, weeding through belongings to donate to those in need, then sitting in the afternoon sunshine surrounded by the noisy chatter of birds in the trees.  By the end of the day, I was happier and more relaxed than I’d felt for weeks.

“It’s ironic that we forget so often how wonderful life really is,” novelist Anna Quindlen writes.  “Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of gray cement.  It would be wonderful if they came to us un-summoned, but particularly in lives as busy as the ones most of us lead now, that won’t happen.  We have to teach ourselves how to make room for them…”  (From:  A Short Guide to a Happy Life, Random House, 2000.  For more on Quindlen, see Brain Pickings Weekly,  

I’d fallen prey to the infectious disease of busyness, much too much of it, and little by little, it consumed my life these past many weeks.  What I took as the body’s betrayal, the aching back I wrote about in last week’s post, I now think was the body’s way of reminding me it was high time to slow down and take some time to recalibrate, to smell those roses—or just sit in my backyard on a springtime afternoon.

I should know better, of course.  A writer’s work is to notice, pay attention, but I still fall prey to old habits, putting my “to-do” list ahead of my life, filling my days with tasks that seem important at the time, but ultimately crowd out the simple pleasure of being present in the here and now.  We have to teach ourselves how to make room for them, to love them, and to live, really live.

Ted Kooser, former poet laureate of the U.S., knows this well.  In 1967, he was in treatment for prostate cancer, “depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing…”  He began a routine of early morning walks, and one November morning, surprised himself by “trying my hand at a poem.  Soon I was writing every day…”  He did more than just write.  He pasted his poems on the backs of postcards and sent them to his friend, author Jim Harrison.  The postcards ultimately became a collection of poetry, Winter Morning Walks:  One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison.

Kooser’s book portrays of a man whose life was consumed, for a time, by the ravages of illness and treatment, but reawakened by those small moments of beauty in the natural world.

The sky a pale yellow this morning

like the skin of an onion

and here at the center…

…A poet,

and cupped in his hands, the green shoot

of one word.

Kooser began to reclaim a life, those moments of “small pieces of glittering mica” that Quindlen describes.  Despite his recovery from cancer, it is life he shows his readers, its endless array of gifts and beauty, ones he remembered to again make time for, to notice.

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

There’s a worn out phrase rattling around in my brain today–“Life is short”—a reminder to not waste it, not let it be consumed by things that don’t make me happy or fulfilled.  Quindlen puts it another way, words I’m not likely to forget:

This is not a dress rehearsal…today is the only guarantee that you get…consider the lilies of the field…fuzz on a baby’s ear.  Read in the backyard with the sun on your face…And 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.

Today, take time for the things in your life that truly matter, that give you joy.  You might try writing a poem about something you notice or, perhaps, begin with a phrase inspired by Anna Quindlen, “Life is a terminal illness…” and see where it takes you.

Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

(“The Thing Is, by Ellen Bass, In Mules of Love, BOA Editions, 2002)

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

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

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

By Jane Kenyon (From: “Cages”)

Today I’m at odds with my body.  Or perhaps it’s at odds with me.

It began on Friday, a day too beautiful to spend inside.  Nevertheless, I sat at my desk all morning, as I usually do, reading students’ written submissions, making my comments, then shifting to preparations for a workshop.  After lunch, I’d had enough sitting, so I put on my sneakers and drove to the San Diego Zoo where I walked for much of the afternoon,  pausing only briefly to watch the many animals housed there.  As I made my way back to my car and drove home, I remembered I still had the house to vacuum before dinner.  Ah well, I reasoned, I’ll hurry and get it done in the next hour.  That was the beginning of my downfall.

As I tackled the living room carpet with the gusto of a whirling dervish, I felt a twinge in my back.  Ignoring it, I soldiered on, chiding myself for letting the household cleaning pile up for the past busy weeks.  I tugged at the vacuum and moved into the kitchen and dining room, occasionally aware that the twinge in my back had morphed into something akin to pain.  I pushed the irritation aside and kept on, determined to finish the job before me.  (You’ve guessed what’s coming by now, I’m sure.)  I did, rushing through the bedrooms and bathrooms, put the vacuum away and began cooking dinner.  It wasn’t until we settled down to watch the end of the first season of “House of Cards,” that I acknowledged that my back was, in fact, aching, but I soon forgot, riveted to the screen and the ongoing suspense of the series.  It was only when I rose from my chair to head to bed that I had trouble standing.  Ouch!

I’m well-known for ignoring the complaints of my body.  Despite the medical history I have, I like to think of myself as energetic, strong–you know, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, or at least, tackle them with agility and determination.  From time to time, however, and, as I age, more frequently, my body reminds me that I may need to impose some revisions on my self-image.  It’s a change I am hesitant to embrace.  This long struggle to be at home /in the body, this difficult friendship.

I admit it.  Today I’m in pain.  Writing this post has been an exercise of agony.  I’ve stood, sat, stretched, applied ice, walked around the house, but none of those activities made writing any easier.  My lower back insists on making its presence felt, and my ability to think, write, or even to make conversation with my husband is severely limited.  Do you know what I mean?

I’m stubborn, but I’m crying “Uncle!”  My body has spoken, and it’s a very loud, “No!”  It’s a lesson I continue to resist, but sooner or later, our body changes, betrays or fails us.  When it does, it’s difficult to admit  we’ve taken our physical health for granted—even denied its inevitable aging.  The body, in illness or decline, is often the subject of poetry:  Jane Kenyon’s “Cages,” or  Marilyn Hacker’s, “Cancer Winter,”where  she referred to her body as “self-betraying.”  But it is May Swenson’s poem, “Question,” that has my attention today.  She addresses her body as “my horse, my hound,” one which has carried her through life, but she realizes she cannot take for granted.

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

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

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead

How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye

With cloud for shift
how will I hide?

(From: New & Selected Things Taking Place)

This week, write about your body.  Pay tribute or complaint.  Write about its aches or pains or a time when you felt as if your body betrayed you.  How have you come to terms with a “new” normal?  How have you made peace with an altered or changing body?  What sometimes makes your relationship with your body into a “difficult friendship?”

If you were  a fly on the wall in my writing groups for cancer patients and survivors, you might be surprised to discover how often we laugh.  Yep, you read it right:  LAUGH.  I hadn’t thought much about it, but a couple of weeks ago, as I was introducing a new member to my UCSD writing group, I said something that made everyone laugh.

“Oh,” the new member said, a note of relief in her voice, “you laugh in this group.”

“Oh yes, we do,” one of the group smiled, nodding at me.  “She likes to laugh.”

As a matter of fact, I do.  It’s a rare day when I don’t find something amusing in my life to laugh about.  I don’t do it consciously.  It’s just a habit, one I like to think I learned from my father.  While he didn’t have the happiest of lives, Dad loved a good story, a good joke, and always had a smile or a chuckle to share with his children.  It drew us closer to him; a smile or a shared joke was always more inviting than the stern and often punitive style of our mother’s.  It lightened a dark mood; it made life—or the chores we’d been assigned for one infraction or another—seem less serious, more bearable.

There are many emotions expressed in any of our writing sessions.  Cancer is no laughing matter, but laughter is good medicine.  I think of R., battling metastatic prostate cancer, walking into the group two weeks ago, his body weakened  the multiple rounds of chemotherapy, but with a little cartoon sticker stuck to the side of his bald head, immediately causing us to smile.  Or the fun we had, during an earlier series, when I challenged the group to talk back to cancer, but using only Shakespearean-style insults.  K. read hers aloud, entitling it, “Cancer, Thy Name is Maltworm,” with a sub-title, “Cursing cancer with help from the Bard:”  Here’s her first stanza:

Get back, beast.

thou villainous bag of boil-brained barnacles.

Go back to that special place in hell

reserved for you and your murderous kind.

Get out, out damn spot/shadow/lump.

Get out, out vilest of viles, rankest of ranks; thou pox-marked, toad-spotted, measle.

And come not back…

I  confess there were tears in the room as she read, but not of sadness.  We were laughing so hard that tears began to run down some of our faces.  It wasn’t just the wit and fun of the writing, there was community and healing in our shared laughter.

Think of Norman Cousins, former editor of the Saturday Review, given up to die and nearly completely paralyzed from “ankylosing spondylitis,” a degenerative disease that causes the breakdown of collagen, Cousins began watching Marx Brothers movies and enjoying plenty of hearty belly laughs daily, with the result that he began to  experience relief from his pain.  Gradually, he regained the use of his limbs, returned to his job, and wrote his book, Anatomy of An Illness.  In it, he asked, “is it possible that love, hope, faith, laughter, confidence and the will to live have therapeutic value?” I think they do.  

Some time ago, I read an article in Coping with Cancer Magazine, “Finding Humor in the Midst of Cancer,” by Jim Higley, a prostate cancer survivor and father of three.  When the news of his diagnosis spread, his telephone answering machine filled with messages of condolence:

Each message was a carbon copy of the previous one. “Jim, I just heard what’s going on. I am so sorry. But I know you’ll be fine. You’re strong. I know you’re buried right now, but call me when you can. And let me know if there is anything I can do for you.”

Finally, I found something that made me laugh.

These were messages oozing with love. I knew and appreciated that. I just found the quantity of calls funny. Crazy. Unexpected. Who gets 30 messages? Was I really going to call people back? And what was I supposed to tell people to do? There were probably so many things I did or would need, but I didn’t have a clue at that moment. What I did have was the return of my warped sense of humor.

I’ve got an idea, I thought to myself. Maybe I could tell all these people there is something they can do! I’ll tell them I’m registered! Brides do it. Even grooms do it. Why can’t a sick person?!

The absurdity of my idea made me laugh out loud. It was as if the release valve on a pressure cooker was finally opening up, and a bunch of steam was spewing out into the air.

I could only imagine the confusion on people’s faces if they actually heard this silliness. Most would know I was teasing, of course. But I’m sure a few people would be stumped – especially if I did a new greeting on my answer­ing machine:

“Hi, you’ve reached the Higley house. We’re swamped with all this cancer crap. For those of you wondering what you can do, I’m now registered at Crate and Barrel, Eddie Bauer, and the local hardware store. Thanks for your concern!”

Higley described the therapeutic effects of making himself—and others—laugh:… 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. (March/April 2012)

Laughter is good medicine.  And we all need it, no matter if it’s cancer, an over-busy and stressful life, remembering loved ones lost, or just being together with friends and loved ones.  We need to laugh together just as sometimes, we need to weep together. As Mark Twain said,  “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.”

It’s a sentiment captured in the Disney film, Mary Poppins.  I remember the lyrics Dick Van Dyke sang.  I was in college at the time, but even then, just singing along with him made me shed that self-important attitude of being a terribly serious college student and always, laugh out loud:

The more I laugh
The more I fill with glee
And the more the glee
The more I’m a merrier me
It’s embarrassing!
The more I’m a merrier me!

Find that sunny spirit in you–the “ha, ha” in your life.  And, if you’re inspired to do so, write about something that makes you smile—or laugh—each time you remember it.

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