The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on …*

Thanksgiving, perhaps this country’s most enduring holiday.   My husband and I will be among those weary travelers standing in long lines at the airport, cramming our bodies into crowded and uncomfortable cabins, while others pack the trunks of their cars with suitcases to drive for hours along our busy highways, all to celebrate the Thanksgiving, a time of remembering, of gratitude and family.

Thanksgiving and family are nearly synonymous in my mind.  I grew up in a small Northern California town where nearly all of my father’s extended family lived.  Thanksgiving was a time dominated by the Bray family:  it was common to have as many as fifty or sixty relatives gather for the Thanksgiving meal at my Aunt Jennie’s house.  The kitchen table was laden with food, perhaps the biggest turkey I’ve ever seen, bowls of grandmother’s oyster stuffing, side dishes, and what seemed to be an unending array of cakes and pies.  Jennie’s spacious living room was transformed into a dining hall for the occasion.  An assortment of tables and chairs were placed around the room, and everyone was assigned a seat by age group.  I remember how proud I was to be transferred to the adult table at age 13, leaving my younger cousins and siblings behind at the children’s tables.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women…

The adult table was a place of history and laughter, where I delighted in hearing the  stories told by my father and uncles, ones of great-grandparents, grandparents and the childhood adventures he and his rambunctious brothers and sisters shared.  There, as food was passed and eaten among the lively chatter, I learned about my heritage, what it meant to have a deeply held sense of place and belonging.  I didn’t know then how much I would miss those family Thanksgivings until after I became an adult, married and moved to Canada, far from the place I knew as home.  For years afterward, I experienced an unmistakable longing to return to California each November, sit again at the family table, and hear the family stories, ones I knew by heart.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks…

By the time my husband and I returned to California 23 years later, my cousins had married and had families of their own; my aunts and uncles were getting old, and some had died.  The Thanksgiving of my childhood was just a memory.  I felt the ache of loss for all the family celebrations I’d missed in the years I lived so far away.

The first Thanksgiving after our return, my parents drove 350 miles south to spend Thanksgiving with us in our new home.  My daughters were grown and, like I had once done, were living far from California.  As my parents arrived, they admired the persimmon trees growing along the front walkway of our  home, all of them heavy with ripe, orange fruit.  My mother was eager to take some home for her Christmas baking, and we were happy to give her as many as she wished.  While we set about preparing the Thanksgiving Day dinner, she charged my father with the task of picking the fruit.  He was nearly seventy-five, but still agile, and after muttering a few complaints under his breath, dutifully climbed the Fuji persimmon tree and went to work.  After an hour or so, he’d  filled several grocery bags with the harvest, leaving every branch but one bare of fruit.   A single ripe persimmon hung on the topmost branch, just out of my father’s reach.

Dad was a bit of a perfectionist, and his inability to pick that last persimmon gnawed at him.  He sat on the deck afterward, puffing on a cigarette and gazed at the tree.  His foot tapped impatiently on the tile as I  sat beside him.

“Damn it Sharon,” he said half-apologetically, “I sure wish I could havepicked that last persimmon.”

“But you got all the rest of the fruit, Dad. That’s amazing.”

“But I didn’t get that one,” he sighed, shaking his head.

That was the moment we saw the squirrel, his bushy tail twitching, sitting at the base of the tree and eyeing the persimmon.  Before either of us knew it, he scampered up the trunk to the top branch.  Holding the persimmon between his paws, he gave it a few tugs, wresting it free.  He clamped the fruit between his teeth and quickly disappeared down the side of the tree with his trophy.

My father chuckled and stubbed out his cigarette.  “Now,” he said, grinning at me, “I can relax.”

It was a moment between us I’ve never forgotten.  I had no way of knowing that just a year later, my father would die of lung cancer on Thanksgiving Day.  Even as the holiday approaches these many years later, my heart aches a little.  Like any of you who experiences the loss of a beloved parent, I wasn’t ready to lose him.  Yet when I recall that autumn day and remember my father conceding victory to a small red squirrel perched on the topmost branch of a persimmon tree, I always smile.

Perhaps the world will end here at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

My father loved a good story, and just weeks before his death, we laughed  together as we remembered that tenacious little squirrel.  Afterward, he was quiet, then he felt the need to repeat his wishes for how we dealt with his death.  “I don’t want you sitting around crying when I die,” he said.  “I want you to have a party.  Invite all my family and friends, and have plenty of Jack Daniels on hand.  Pour everyone a double Jack and tell stories, ones that will make you laugh.”   And we did, sharing stories and laughter  just as he wanted us to do.  There were tears, yes, but, the stories and laughter captured the essence of my father best.

I keep the memory of him and the day he picked the persimmons close to my heart.  We still raise a glass to my father at our Thanksgiving meal, but always, in late November, I buy a single Fuji persimmon.


Writing Suggestion:
A year ago, I gave a writing prompt to the participants in an autumn workshop as the Thanksgiving holidays grew near; it’s one I offer to you this week:  Imagine you are the last storyteller in your tribe.  What is the story you most want to tell?   Write that story; choose form the ones you carry in your heart.

I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving.

*(Excerpts from the poem, “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” by Joy Harjo.  In:  The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, 1994)

… what we loved dissolving in the skies,
Dear hands and feet and laughter-lighted face
And silk that hinted at the body’s grace.

(From:  “Aldershot Crematorium” by John Betjeman. from Collected Poems, 2006)

I walked outside this morning to a somber morning sky, overcast and gray, it mirrored my mood—sorrow mixing with fear in the aftermath of the bombings in Beirut and Paris.  The outpouring of condemnation and grief was largely devoted to the Paris bombings.  Beirut, where my daughter lived and worked for several years, and where we visited her twice, is no stranger to conflict and bombings; many of its buildings are still pock-marked from conflicts of many years ago.  This time, forty plus people living in a southern suburb, lost their lives as they went about their daily activities, just the day before the Paris bombings.  As the New York Times described it,

Ali Awad, 14, was chopping vegetables when the first bomb struck. Adel Tormous, who would die tackling the second bomber, was sitting at a nearby coffee stand. Khodr Alaa Deen, a registered nurse, was on his way to work his night shift at the teaching hospital of the American University at Beirut, in Lebanon.

All three lost their lives in a double suicide attack in Beirut on Thursday, along with 40 others, and much like the scores who died a day later in Paris, they were killed at random, in a bustling urban area, while going about their normal evening business. (Nov. 15, 2015)

Shock and sadness lingers in both cities and among us all.  Our nation expressed an outpouring of grief and solidarity with France, overshadowing the bombing in Beirut, but everywhere, shock, sorrow and a sense of vulnerability exists.  In Lebanon, once called the “Paris of the Middle East,” people expressed their shock that the kind of violence they have experienced so many times had occurred in the heart of a country they regarded much safer than their own.

I’ve spent the morning searching for poetry that captures something of what so many of us are feeling in the wake of these events.  What resonated with me were the words of Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate, after the tragedy of 9/11.  According to www.poets.org,

After the attacks of September 11, there was an outpouring of national grief and an uncharacteristic attention to poetry… There seemed to be pressure on well-known poets to produce a poem, or refuse the opportunity, as … Billy Collins did, saying … that the occasion was “too stupendous” for a single poem to handle. He said that the terrorists had done something “beyond language.” 

Collins wrote, Since the destruction of the World Trade Center, the media has tried to fill that hole, that vacuum, with talk and print, but unsuccessfully. Poetry will not fill that space either, but poetry creates its own space apart from such terrible emptiness. It’s not that poets should feel a responsibility to write about this calamity. All poetry stands in opposition to it. Pick a poem, any poem, from an anthology and you will see that it is speaking for life and therefore against the taking of it…  A poem about mushrooms or about a walk with the dog is a more eloquent response to Sept. 11 than a poem that announces that wholesale murder is a bad thing. (In: USA Today, Sept. 24, 2001).

This morning my mind keeps returning to the victims of the bombings in Paris and in Beirut.  For all those men, women and children who have died in these kinds of vicious and brutal attacks and who suffer from war and violence that seems unending, I grieve.  I am at a loss for words to capture the magnitude of tragedies we experience again and again.  The world seems a little more frightening each day.  I pray, as we all do, for an end to suffering, to brutality and violence. I pray for that elusive state called peace.

…That where there is hatred, I may bring love.
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony.
That where there is error, I may bring truth.
That where there is doubt, I may bring faith.
That where there is despair, I may bring hope.
That where there are shadows, I may bring light.
That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.

(From: The Peace Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi)


A friend is someone who likes you.
It can be a boy…
It can be a girl…

These are the opening pages to Joan Walsh Anglund’s beloved little book, A Friend is Someone Who Likes You, first published in 1958, one that sat on my parents’ coffee table for years, one I read aloud to my fourth grade class the first year I taught.  I still have a copy of Anglund’s book on my shelves, because no matter our age or stage in life, we all need friends, whether in good times or bad.

I’m grateful for my friends; they enrich my life.  Last weekend, my husband I spent the afternoon with my dear friend, Lynn, someone I met in high school, roomed with in college, and who, twenty-six years ago, married the two of us.  This past weekend, after leading a day long workshop for medical faculty and students at Stanford, I spent Saturday evening with another of my dear friends, Gingie.  Since I moved to San Diego a few years ago, the opportunities to have time together have diminished, yet although we hadn’t been together for a couple of years, time was no barrier.  When she greeted me at her door, we immediately fell into the warmth and easy conversation between us.

A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow. – William Shakespeare

Although I spent my childhood in one small town, my adult life has been punctuated by several moves: I’ve lived in California and Canada, on the east coast and the west, and yet, many of my long ago friendships remain.  When I grouse about how many times we’ve changed residences, I remind myself how rich my life is, due in large part to my enduring friendships with people scattered around the world.  These are people who stuck by me during difficult chapters of my life, showed up when I least expected it, embraced and welcomed me when I felt most alone.

To this day, I have enduring affection for a group of people in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, who gave their love and support to my daughters and me in the wake of my husband’s drowning.  I think of other times:  breast cancer, heart failure, a daughter’s miscarriage, and I remember how my friends showed up at the door with food, flowers or words of support, easing the heartache, lending a shoulder to lean on when needed.

We all need friends.  Isolation and loneliness are often harbingers of emotional or physical illness.  Friendship, according to Rebecca Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships. Better health, a more positive outlook, longer lifespan and more hopeful attitude towards life are just some of the benefits of friendship.

“What Are Friends For?  A Longer Life,” the title of a New York Times article published in 2009, cited a ten-year study of older people which found those having a large circle of friends were less likely to die during the study than those with fewer friends.  Strong social ties have been proven to have other benefits too, like promoting brain health as we age.   In a 2006 study of nurses with breast cancer, the women without close friends were four times more likely to die from their cancer than those with ten or more friends.  Another interesting finding was that proximity and amount of contact were less important than simply having friends.   Having multiple friendships, as a six-year study of 736 Swedish men demonstrated, helped lower the risk of heart attack and coronary heart disease than simply having attachment to only a one person.  We need our friends.  Remember Bette Midler’s song from her 1972 album, The Divine Miss M?  I can practically hear her belting the lyrics out now:

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

I’ll say.  The good thing about friends, Brian Jones writes in his poem, “About Friends,” is not having to finish sentences.  That’s one of the most delightful things I experience  when I’m with my friends.  We share experiences, laughter, meals together, our deepest feelings and convictions.  We’re real with one another.  Friends not only make my life happier and richer; they’ve shown up to lend a hand or offer comfort when I’ve needed it, as I have done for them.  With old friends, we share history, stories of the past; we remember who we were then, all those years ago.   I returned home from Silicon Valley today, grateful for the enjoyment of the workshop and being able to share an evening with a friend.  Bette Midler was right.

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


Writing Suggestion:

Write about friendship this week, about having—perhaps even losing—friends.  When have friends made a difference in your life?  How?  You can even begin with the phrase, “A friend is someone who…”  Without a doubt, your friends make your life a little better.  Write about friendship.

I awoke an hour early this morning, my head throbbing in pain.  I’d dutifully turned the clock back an hour before bed last night, but my body maintained its regular clock, oblivious to “Fall back.”  By six a.m., sunlight was creeping into the bedroom, and my headache intensified.  I groaned and covered my head with my pillow.  Normally an early riser, this morning I only longed for a “do-over,” a replay of the night before.  You see, I am a recovering chocoholic.  Like my father, I love chocolate.  But unlike my father, too much of it, and it triggers a migraine headache.  I’ve all but vanquished the throbbing chocolate-induced headaches for years now by simply eating very little of it.  Unfortunately, that was not the case last night.

I blame Halloween for my relapse.  Our neighborhood has never had many trick or treaters come to our doors on Halloween night.  Yet year after year, fearful I might end up unprepared, I buy a variety of treats—mostly chocolate ones—in case we get an unexpected rush.  That way, I tell my husband, I’ll be prepared for little ghosts and goblins knocking at my door.

This Halloween was no exception.  I spent the afternoon making the front porch ready: a “Happy Halloween” welcome sign,  lighted jack-o-lantern,  spider web on the front door, and a small orange-draped table with a large basket of treats placed next to a skull with a sign inside its mouth:  “Help Yourself.”

Alas, no one did.  That is, no one but my husband and me later in the evening.  I knew better.  This morning, I’ve paid the price.  “If I could turn back time,” I could practically hear Cher’s voice in my head, the beat throbbing in time to my headache as I lay in bed with an ice pack on my forehead.  If I could turn back time, I wouldn’t have eaten that chocolate.  I wouldn’t have bought as much of it as I did…I wouldn’t have…  One “if only” led to another.  Then I remembered an old black and white film from childhood; the protagonist was able to turn time back a full year, relive her life and correct her mistakes.  I’d been fascinated by the film, and now and again I daydream what it might be like to re-play certain life  events, take that other road Robert Frost wrote about, make different choices or take different actions than I did when I was younger.

I’m not alone in lingering in those lazy daydreams, wondering “what if,” had I chosen or acted differently.  Ben Franklin may have been responsible for introducing the concept of daylight saving time and moving the clock ahead an hour, but novelists, filmmakers, singers, science fiction writers, even poets have all 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.

In 1962, when Neil Sedaka wrote and recorded his signature tune, “Turning Back the Hands of Time,” it quickly became a hit, the lyrics capturing the longing we sometimes experience when 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…It’s not just my migraine that has me wishing I could do it.  I have fantasized from time to time, wondering what it would be like to turn back time and relive some of the events in my life.  I try not to dwell in the past or regret, but occasionally I‘ll wonder, “what if I’d just…” or “if only I had…”

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.)

I doubt anyone will be meeting me in Istanbul, but I still have now, the present, and whatever choices I make will influence the path my life takes in the years ahead.  Maybe the wisdom gleaned from mistakes of the past will help me make better choices, or maybe, just maybe, I’ll find contentment, gratitude for the life I’ve lived.  As for my headache, I can’t turn the clock back to last night.  I’m living with the very bad choice to snack on Halloween chocolates, and the best I can do today is take two more Excedrin and vow not to repeat my foolishness again.

Writing Suggestion:

Imagine, this week, that you were given free rein to that longing, what you would do if you could turn back time?  Are there events in your life you like to replay or do differently, knowing what you know now?  Write about it, 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 insights, the lessons you’ve learned from your life.

The shoes put on each time
left first, then right.

The morning potion’s teaspoon
of sweetness stirred always
for seven circlings, no fewer, no more,
into the cracked blue cup.

Touching the pocket for wallet,
for keys,
before closing the door.

How did we come
to believe these small rituals’ promise,
that we are today the selves we yesterday knew,
tomorrow will be?

(Excerpt from “Habit” by Jane Hirshfield, in Given Sugar, Given Salt)

I awakened this morning to an aching body, one that I can only blame on myself.  After a month and a half of disruption, our home visited each day by a variety of contractors:  arborists, painters, plumbers, electricians, landscapers and roofers, this weekend was a chance to reorder the house and patio.

And re-order I did.  Against the advice of my husband (who was busy cleaning the garage) and my better judgment,  I set to work:  moving potted plants, chairs, creating a fountain from an old Chinese porcelain bowl, on and on.  I bent, pushed, and lifted—for hours.  As the afternoon sun began to set, I sat alone on the deck in quiet satisfaction,  feeling as if I’d reclaimed the necessary quiet and calm that I hunger for in my daily life.  It was worth the aches and pains, I told myself, the ones already beginning to throb in my knees and back.  I confess  I am a person of habit.   I needed to reclaim the space for my daily ritual, beginning each day outdoors, sitting in silence, drinking in the morning sunrise, birdsong and canyon view.  In the midst of our go-go world, I need the solace and comfort of this small ritual to begin each day with a sense of calm and gratitude.

Rituals not only calm, but they help us heal, and have been recognized as part of the healing process since ancient times.  They help us cope with life difficulties, but, As Jeanne Achtenberg and her colleagues tell us, rituals also provide significance to the normal passages of our lives.  They are our outer expressions of inner experiences, important in helping us relax, re-connect with ourselves and re-discover simple joys of everyday life (Rituals of Healing, 1994).

According to a 2013 article in Scientific American, even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing lossesdo alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence.  The article cited recent investigations by psychologists which demonstrated that rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  Some of their examples, taken from the world of sports revealed rituals were common among sports figures, for example:

Basketball superstar Michael Jordan wore his North Carolina shorts underneath his Chicago Bulls shorts in every game; Curtis Martin of the New York Jets reads Psalm 91 before every game. And Wade Boggs, former third baseman for the Boston Red Sox, woke up at the same time each day, ate chicken before each game, took exactly 117 ground balls in practice, took batting practice at 5:17, and ran sprints at 7:17. (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-rituals-work/)

Our personal rituals even function as talismans against fear in times of illness, offering a kind of assurance we will be all right.   Alice Trillin, describing her experience as a lung cancer patient in “Of Dragons and Garden Peas:  A Cancer Patient Talks to Doctors,” discussed how her reliance on ritual, talismans and personal will provided a constant source of renewal and a reminder of the constancy of everyday life throughout her illness(New England Journal of Medicine, 1981).

In “Girding for Battle, “cancer patient Amy Haddad described the talismans and rituals she used to go her doctor’s appointment during her treatment:

The tiny, silver Celtic goddess
placidly hangs from a burgundy cord
around my neck…

My husband’s shirt fastens the wrong way…
My last name stamped in black ink
inside his collar…
His idea to wear the shirt…

So I wear these talismans
to protect me in the doctor’s office.

(From:   The Poetry of Nursing, Judy Schaefer, Ed., 2006)

Rituals, whether to reduce anxiety, alleviate grief, bring “luck” to an athlete, or help us abate fear in the face of illness, and be active participants in our healing process.  Our rituals, as Trillin, Haddad, and others affirm, offer time for quiet and a time to focus ourselves.  They can help us feel connected—to the world, each other and ourselves.

Healing rituals can take many forms.  They may be ones of release, for example, drumming; of nurturance and self-care, like having a massage; or of healing, such as journaling, meditation or prayer.  What they have in common is that they help us find solace, feel grounded and replenished in the midst of life’s upheavals or  day-to-day living.  They don’t require a lot of preparation.  They can be as simple as a warm bath with candlelight, time for prayer or meditation, a solitary walk along in the woods, an afternoon run, listening to music, gardening or sitting quietly at a window with a cup of freshly brewed tea or coffee.  What matters most is that your healing ritual gives you the space or quiet to replenish your spirit and listen to what is in your heart and mind.  In the noisy and rush-rush world we live in today, our  daily habits, these healing rituals, help ground us, clear our minds and rediscover ourselves.

Writing Suggestion: 

This week, reflect on the habits or rituals that are most comforting or calming in your daily life.  Which have helped you in times of pain or illness?   What helped you find solace in the midst of doctors’ appointments and treatments or a period of time that threatened to consume you with its demands?,  Think about your habits, the small comforting rituals of your daily life.  Why do they matter to you?  Write about their importance in your daily life.

“What does it mean to heal?”   I posed the question to my writing group at Moores Cancer Center Friday morning.  Being healed.  It’s a topic never out of consciousness in the experience of cancer, used often in combination with terms like “treatment”, “recovery”, “cure”, or “in remission”.  Yet “healing” connotes deeper meaning, and what we consider healing may be entirely unique to each of us.

We began by reviewing the dictionary definition, “the natural process by which the body repairs itself,” “tending to cure or restore to health,” “improve or make better.”  Heal or healing is a word used frequently in many contexts.  Google it, and you’re confronted with multiple variations in its use whether by traditional medicine, psychology, religion, alternative healing methods or even “writing as a way of healing.”

In a 2005 article entitled “The Meaning of Healing:  Transcending Suffering,” appearing in the Annals of Family Medicine, author Thomas Egnew explored the meaning of healing and attempted to translate it into behaviors that could help doctors enhance their own abilities as healers. He includes three major themes in his definition:  wholeness (to become or make whole), narrative (a reinterpretation of life), and spirituality (the search to be human; to transcend).

Jeremy Geffen, MD and oncologist, defined seven different levels of healing in his 2006 book,  The Journey Through CancerHealing and Transforming the Whole Person, which he argued are necessary to regain our whole selves. They are:

  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

Geffen’s work, like Egnew’s, went beyond the traditional concept of healing, and both are particularly relevant to the cancer experience.  A serious illness like cancer threatens your very sense of self.  What you took for granted is turned upside down.  Your life is redefined, but so is your perspective on life, death and healing.  Who better, then,  to ask what it means to heal than a group of cancer patients and survivors?  Here are some of their responses emerging out of the writing last Friday morning:

“A process of making me whole”

“Peace with what is.”

“Three grandchildren.”

“My mind and soul at peace.”

“Acceptance of unknown challenges”

“Connecting the mind and body”

“Things that make me forget I need healing.”

“Wind chimes, homemade soup, a kitten’s purr”

“A gentle smile, a sunset, the smell of moist soil”

“leading me away from fear toward hope”

As we went around the table, I was touched by each person’s expression of what it meant to heal.  But one response in particular stayed with me.  M. began by telling us of the years she and her family lived in Japan where they learned about the Japanese legend of folding 1000 origami cranes to have one’s wishes granted.

In Japan, cranes are symbols of good luck and longevity, but after World War II, the act of making 1,000 cranes to grant wishes took on larger meaning:  a hope for world peace and healing.  It began with the work of a 12-year-old girl dying of leukemia due to radiation exposure from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  She was, apparently, determined to fold 1,000 cranes to have her wish, that she continue to live, granted, but sadly, she died with just over 600 cranes folded.  Her classmates finished folding the remaining cranes for her, and now, her statue stands at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, along with strings of paper cranes. (From:  “Paper cranes to bring message of healing,” by Robert Miller, Newstimes ,December 31, 2012,)

As it turns out, when M. was diagnosed with cancer, her daughter set to work and began folding paper cranes for her mother.  “It took her two years,” she said, “but she folded 1000 paper cranes for me.  Every time I look at them, I feel healed.”  M. had tears in her eyes as she read what she’d written aloud—and frankly, so did I.

Writing Suggestion:

This week, think about how you use the word “heal” in your life.  What does “healing” mean to you.  What, in your experience, has been a healing experience for you?  What people, places or activities have been important in your healing process?    Write about healing.

Like my grandmother now, I save teabags for a second
cup.  String, stamps without postmarks, aluminum foil.
Wrapping paper, paper bags, bags of scrap fabric,
blue rubber bands, clothes hangers.  I save newspaper
clippings, recipes, bits of yarn, photographs in
shoeboxes, tins of buttons.  I save cancelled checks,
instruction manuals, warranties for appliances
long since thrown away.  Feathers, shells, pebbles,

(From “What I Save,” by Cheryl Savageau, In:  Dirt Road Home, 1995)

Like many of you, I save things, but it’s not string, stamps or tins of buttons I keep.  It’s mementos from the past, old notebooks filled with writing, prints and paintings, and books—lots and lots of books—all things I love.  Don’t get me wrong, my house is neat, but the walls are covered in artwork, books.  What isn’t displayed or used is stored in the multiple boxes occupying the garage shelves.  Here’s the embarrassing truth:  I hadn’t realized just how much I’d accumulated until last week, when the painters arrived to applying a fresh paint and color on several of our interior walls.  It meant everything had to be removed from walls, shelves and desktops..  Small towers of my favorite belongings formed and stood on the floors of the two rooms not being re-painted.  As the house felt more “undone,” so did I.  Worse, another heat wave arrived, making it nearly intolerable to be inside or out.  My mind felt as cluttered as my house had become.

“I’m held hostage by heat and household repairs,” I complained to my husband.  He shrugged his shoulders and sighed.  There was little to do but endure; he was much less bothered by the temporary upheaval.  But surprisingly, once the walls were painted, I held back, hesitating to return the rooms to their prior state.  I hung fewer pictures; began to list the books to donate to the library or give away.  I even resisted sending another box out to the garage, realizing how our garage storage masks our years of household accumulation.  “Putting things away,” Marie Kondo writes in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, (Ten Speed Press, 2014)  “creates the illusion that the clutter problem has been solved.”

John and I began downsizing our living space a few years ago, but we haven’t been as successful in downsizing our lives, not really. Now that he has retired, we’re faced with a significant shift in lifestyle, and I am much more aware of what “letting go” means. Beloved things or not, I simply have too much stuff.

This week, I’ve begun a task that will take several weeks,  a process of tidying up.  This is no casual process of dusting and straightening.  It’s a change of life and habit.  Acknowledging a life change is not without its emotional challenges.  I know I will be tempted time and again to hang onto things I’ve loved, yet no longer have a place or a purpose in my daily life.  Kondo writes, “Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination.”  My final destination is a change of habit and lifestyle.

Yesterday a postcard arrived from  the nonprofit, AMVETS, seeking household donations for veterans’ assistance.  “We will be in your neighborhood next week,” it stated.  “Call to schedule a pick-up.”  Perfect timing.   I’ll be donating goods more than once to nonprofit organizations over the coming weeks.  Tidying up will take time; clearing out old, unused items is often about overcoming the urge to hang onto them.  “But I might use that next year…”  It also triggers reminiscence and discovery.  “Remember when she drew this picture in first grade?” or “I’ve wondered where this went…”

Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.

Clean the place as if the pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.

(From:  “Advice to Writers,” by Billy Collins, In:  The Apple That Astonished Paris, 1988)

I’m taking Collins’ advice.  I’m tidying up, because I know it’s also a process of preparing to write a new life chapter.  It will require a lot of  letting go, making necessary changes or difficult choices as we age, experience loss, illness, or a change in circumstance.  Every week,  I hear evidence of those difficult life choices in my writing groups.  This kind of tidying up is not easy.

But remember:  as our lives change, the story we tell about ourselves changes too. Clinging to a past that no longer applies to our present only seeds regret.   Letting go is a necessary process, like tidying up, choosing what to discard, what to retain and what to carry as we discover the new possibilities our lives now.

So to you, Friend, I confide my secret:
to be a discoverer you hold close whatever
you find, and after a while you decide
what it is. Then, secure in where you have been,
you turn to the open sea and let go

(From:  “Security,” by William Stafford, In:  Passswords, 1991)
Writing Suggestion:  This week, write about holding on and letting go, about cleaning out the old to embrace the new, about new beginnings that could alter the story of your life you’ve told before.


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