Archive for the ‘writing for wellness’ Category

“It’s a beautiful autumn day here,” my daughter said to me a week ago.  She had telephoned as she walked from her apartment in Toronto’s Annex neighborhood to the university.  I was sitting in my home office, bracing myself for another hot day, window shades closed and the fan running.  I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what she was seeing:  the air crisp, the brilliant blush of vibrant color as the leaves turn from green to red and yellow, a day perfect for walking—not like the arid and drought stricken Southern California landscape where I now live.

“I miss autumn,” I replied, remembering a line from a French-Canadian film I’d seen so many years ago at the Toronto Film Festival, when one of the actors described autumn “as the other side of spring.”

Two days after her call, the calendar proclaimed the end of summer and the beginning of fall.  “Not,” I grumbled, weary of the heat wave, “where I live.”  But within days, the heat abated and as it did, the hint of autumn was in the air.  True, it doesn’t wear as brilliant a coat as my former Canadian home, but as I stepped outside to walk my dog, an early morning routine, I felt my skin prickle.  The early morning air had a slight chill.  Where sunrise had been our companion just a week or two before, the mornings were now darker.  Autumn, San Diego style, was making an entrance.  All I had to do was pay attention.

In the autumn of 1968, Ted Kooser wrote in the preface to his book, Winter Morning Walks:  One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison,during my recovery from surgery and radiation for cancer, I began taking a two-mile walk each morning…hiking in the isolated country roads near where I live…During the previous summer, 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…  One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem.  Soon I was writing every day… I began pasting my morning poems on postcards and sending them to Jim…”

What struck me as I read Kooser’s poems was that he’d documented the reawakening of his spirit, his sensibilities as a poet, his awareness of and connection to the beauty of the natural world.  Cancer, despite his recovery, plays a barely noticeable role in his poems.  Rather, it’s what he notices as he walks that inspires each short poem.

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.

Paying attention, as writers like Kooser, Mary Oliver and Annie Dillard remind us, is about slowing down and being attentive to the present, to what’s right in front of our eyes, to discover the beauty, the meaning, and even the metaphors that inform our lives.  As Anne Lamott observed, “There is ecstasy in paying attention.”

Mary Oliver’s poem, “Gratitude,” in which she poses—and answers—eight simple questions, is a lesson in paying attention.  “What did you notice,” she asks and then responds:

“The dew snail;
the low-flying sparrow;
the bat, on the wind, in the dark…

What did you hear?

…the little bluebirds in their hot box;
the salty talk of the wren…

What did you admire?

The oaks, letting down their dark and hairy fruit;
the carrot, rising in its elongated waist…

What astonished you?
The swallows making their dip and turn over the water.
What would you like to see again?
My dog: her energy and exuberance, her willingness,
her language beyond all nimbleness of tongue…

What was most tender?
Queen Anne’s lace, with its parsnip root;
the everlasting in its bonnets of wool…
What was most wonderful?
…the sea lying back on its long athlete’s spine.
What did you think was happening?
 …so the gods shake us from our sleep.

(From:  What Do We Know: Poems, 2002)

Cancer–or any other serious illness or hardship–can keep us focused inward, on the crisis unfolding in our lives, on our bodies, on fear or all the potential and unwelcome possibilities of our illness.  It’s like we’re wearing blinders, forgetting to look out at the world around us and see all that gives us pleasure or comfort, however small.  Like Kooser’s short poems, add up those moments of noticing, of happiness or new insights, and they enlarge, helping us to feel more alive—shaken from our sleep—and grateful for those small, yet extraordinary moments of life that are available to us, only if we open our eyes and pay attention.

For today, I will memorize
the two trees now in end-of-summer light

and the drifts of wood asters as the yard slopes away toward
the black pond, blue

in the clouds that shine and float there, as if risen

from the bottom, unbidden…

The yard is a waiting room. I have my chair. You, yours…

(from “Solitudes,” by Margaret Gibson, in Broken Cup. © Louisiana State University Press, 2014.)

This week, take a walk, sit in your yard, or gaze out the window.  Write about one thing you see, one single gift of nature, of autumn, that calls you to it.  Pay attention.  Let what you observe be your inspiration.

At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world,
Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive.
  You empty yourself and wait, listening.

–Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek


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Remember to get the weather in your god damned book—weather is very important.

(Ernest Hemingway (writing to John Dos Passos, from Selected Letters, 1917-1961)

The nightly newscasters must have taken Hemingway’s advice.  Hardly a day passes now without mention of the weather on national and local news.  Weather is news in today’s world, and the reports of its extremes have become more than a niggling concern.  2014, according to many scientists, is likely to be the hottest year on record, surpassing the record set in 2010.  In California, which is experiencing a severe drought, wildfires are burning all over the state.  Indoors and wilting in the heat wave last week, I broke my “fast” from the nightly news to stay updated on California’s wildfires, particularly those in Siskiyou County, where I spent my childhood.  I was horrified by the images.  Over 100,000 acres burning in Klamath National Forest, devastation in Weed, a small town near the base of Mount Shasta, and then, the King Fire, the largest, near Sacramento, set by an arsonist.  Heat, lightning, wind were fueling infernos.

She began as we huddled, six of us,

in the cellar, raising her voice above

those towering syllables…


Never mind she cried when storm candles

flickered, glass shattered upstairs.


(“An Octave Above Thunder,” by Carol Muske-Dukes, 1945)

It’s not just the drought, extreme heat or wildfires.  Across the country, the weather has been frightening and ferocious:  severe thunderstorms, high winds, flooding, tornadoes.  Images on television are heart-wrenching and terrifying.  And along the eastern seaboard, hurricane season has only just begun.

Has the water already

robbed us of our autumn food?

I climb the roof to look.


(“Flood,” by Miyazawa Kenji, in Selections, 2007)

Today, thousands of people in cities across the country will march in support of climate change.  “Sam Barratt, campaign director for the advocacy group Avaaz, said, “Climate change is no longer an environmental issue; it’s an everybody issue.”  An everybody issue:  Me. You. Us.

As 120 heads of state come together on Tuesday for this week’s United Nations Climate Summit, perhaps the sight of thousands, marching for climate change, will make a difference.  Yet we wonder:  Can the world’s nations actually agree on a path to avoid the increasingly devastating consequences of climate change, like sea-level rise, extreme drought and the fury of storms unlike any we’ve seen before?

According to the National Geographic News, the summit provides leaders a chance to signal how aggressive—or not—they will be in cutting emissions and in helping poor countries blunt the harm caused by droughts, sea-level rise, and other climate change effectsThe answer will not come, however, during the …summit.  This week’s summit is not a negotiating session for the next international agreement.  That happens next year when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meets in Paris and the when the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases (China, the United States and India) must to submit their plans to the UN.  Despite all the evidence of global warming and climate change, many worry that the current political climate between parties and countries make it unlikely the international community will ever reach a binding agreement on climate–a sobering thought for any of us.

What can we do?  We do what we can, consciously leaving less of a footprint than we’ve done in the past.  Perhaps we can save this beautiful blue and green planet from extinction before it’s too late.  Spend a few minutes and google “steps to save the earth” and you’ll find many small, but significant changes each of us can make in our daily life—changes that remind us never to take our world for granted.

This week, let the earth be your inspiration for writing.

“If the Earth,”

by Joe Miller

If the Earth were only a few feet in diameter, floating a few feet above a field somewhere, people would come from everywhere to marvel at it. People would walk around it marveling at its big pools of water, its little pools, and the water flowing between the pools. People would marvel at the bumps on it, and the holes in it, and they would marvel at the very thin layer of gas surrounding it and the water suspended in the gas. The people would marvel at all the creatures walking around the surface of the ball and at the creatures in the water. The people would declare it sacred because it was the only one, and they would protect it so that it would not be hurt. The ball would be the greatest wonder known, and people would come to pray to it, to be healed, to gain knowledge, to know beauty, and to wonder how it could be. People would love it and defend it with their lives because they would somehow know that their lives, their own roundness, could be nothing without it. If the Earth were only a few feet in diameter…”

(From:  Save the Earth, Jonathon Porritt. Ed., 1991)

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 “Before you know what kindness really is,” poet Naomi Shihab Nye tells us, “you must lose things…”

feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

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

When cancer or other serious illness strikes, life as we once knew it will never be the same.  In the loss that comes with the sense of self, the body we once took for granted, the landscape between those regions of kindness, does seem desolate.  But in small acts of compassion that we experience from others, hope somehow finds a way back in, solace is given, and we begin to heal and find our way back to life.  As Shihab-Nye says,

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Kindness, the simple act of friendship, compassion and generosity to others, has a long history in humankind.  It was one of the “Knightly Virtues,”a set of ‘standards the Knights of the Middle Ages adhered to in daily living and their interactions with others.  Confucius urged his followers to “recompense kindness with kindness. Across cultures and religions, acts of kindness are valued. The Talmud claims that “deeds of kindness are equal in weight to all the commandments.”  Iman Musa Al-Kadhim, seventh after the prophet Mohammed, wrote that “Kindness is half of life.  Paul of Tarsus defined love as being “patient and kind”(I Corinthians), while in Buddhism,  Mettä, one of the Ten Perfections, is most often translated as “loving-kindness.”

Kindness is defined as “helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself… “  In Aristotle’s Rhetoric.  Even the philosopher Friedrich Nietzche described kindness and love as “the most curative herbs and agents in human intercourse.” (Source:  Wikipedia)

As many of us have discovered during serious illness or life hardship, kindness can exert healing power to our wounded spirits.  If we’re paying attention, we often discover kindness when we least expect it, from people we may not even know.  It’s in those small acts of kindness that we discover hope and gratitude for the small gifts in life, ones we once overlooked or barely even noticed.

“Finding God At Montefiore Hospital,” a poem written by cancer survivor Lorraine Ryan, illustrates the power of kindness.  Ryan writes about a janitor, Juan, who mopped her hospital floor at night:

I remember the rhythm of the dunking;

The mop going into the pail

Juan squeezing the mop

The mop hitting the floor with a whoosh…

With every move, he looked up:

“How’s it really going?”

“Did your boy come up today?”

“How is he doing without you at home?”


Sometimes I couldn’t lift my head

off the pillow—

when vomiting and mouth sores

wouldn’t let me speak—

the swish of his mop

bestowed the final blessing

of the night…

 (In: The Cancer Poetry Project, Karin B. Miller, Ed., 2001)

As Ryan’s poem illustrates, kindness helps us find our way out of darkness.  It helps us heal.  Compassion and caring, are often manifested in small acts of concern:  How’s it really going?  This is kindness, the small everyday acts that go a long way to healing ourselves and others.  Kindness not only helps us heal; we become better—kinder ourselves– for experiencing it.  The world could use a little more kindness between people, don’t you think?

Here’s a suggestion for writing.  First, take a blank sheet of paper and list all the acts of kindness you remember, ones that brightened your day, eased your pain, and made a difference in your day.  Perhaps you played it forward—because of the kindness you received, you were motivated to reach out to other friends, acquaintances or even strangers in need.  Write about how an act of kindness eased the desolation, sadness or loneliness you experienced during a difficult time.

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The anchorwoman is unsmiling, even somber,
for her biggest stories are about death,
and even when she has a feature
on a twelve-year-old college student
or a gorilla who understands sign language,
there is something tentative about her relief:
she knows that the Great Antagonist
will strike again, and soon… 

I’m going on a diet.  Not a reduction in food intake, but a much less obvious pattern of an unhealthy lifestyle.  I’ll confess here:  I am a news junkie.  Every evening at 5:30 p.m., I have a date with Brian Williams and the NBC nightly news.  I’ve even been known to “compare” newscasts between NBC, CBS and ABC, which involves considerable repetition, not only of world events, but of the video segments that are so vivid, the images linger in my mind for hours afterward.

It wasn’t any kind of sudden alarm that forced my decision, rather, a benign dinner conversation with my husband, who has a “habit” of his own:  listening to BBC podcasts while he walks the dog each evening.  I’m used to his coverage of the latest research read or heard, and while I find it interesting, what he reports rarely forces me to change my habits.  Friday night was different.  He began summarizing another recent podcast, one on the impact of news reports on health.  “I thought of you,” he said.  I sat a little straighter in my chair; just a short time before, I’d signed off with Diane Sawyer, third in the news lineup between 5:30 and 7 p.m.

According to the British Psychological Society, constant access to the relentless media reports of war, violence, and horrendous tragedy, has negative effects on our physical and mental health.  Ouch!  They reported a study where people were shown footage of four traumatic events and after viewing, nearly 20% of the 89 participants reported symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Frequency of exposure–the number of times they viewed the media events–was a factor in participants’ reactions.  What’s more, none of these participants had experienced trauma in their personal lives. “Acts of violence erode our sense of security and create intense feelings of anger, fear and helplessness,” the researchers said.  “Watching these events and feeling the anguish of those who are directly experiencing them can impact on a certain percentage of individuals causing longer lasting effects.”

The weatherman smiles a lot,
but he is making the best of a bad thing,
for the weather is necessary… 

“Stress can be transmitted through TV screen,” The Daily Telegraph‘s website reported earlier this year, showing an image of an individual watching a segment of the television series, “Breaking Bad.” But the study they were citing involved real people, not fictional characters.

In an experimental study, researchers measured people’s stress response to watching either a loved one, or a stranger of the opposite sex, in a stressful situation.  Around one in four “observers” (26%) experienced heightened stress levels – measured by using salivary cortisol levels – when watching the “targets.”  “Whenever we’re faced with stress, our cortisol levels rise,” said Brandon Mentore, health coach, quoted in a recent Huffington Post article. “Watching a scary or emotionally draining movie raises cortisol.”

We know that cortisol serves the function of our “fight or flight” readiness in response to stressful events, but when the body doesn’t have the chance to return to normal, we begin to suffer from chronic stress, and the impact on our health isn’t good.  And my habit of nightly and extended news viewing doesn’t come without costs.

Chronic stress and worry go hand in hand.  Worry is that state of feeling concerned or uneasy about some situation in our lives.  When it gets the better of us, our bodies and minds go into high gear.  We leap beyond what is to what might happen, and as our worry expands, so do our anxieties.  I don’t know about you, but my anxiety is heightened with all the news reports of terrorism threats, epidemics, and violence in our schools and on the streets.  By the time I turn the television off, I feel agitated, even frightened, and more than once, my anger is triggered when I hear the unending reports of the inability of our government to consider and work for the constituents who put them in office.  Even Jon Stewart’s Daily Show has become a source of agitation!  I doubt—no, I know—the steady diet of news reports is not good for my health.

Only the sportscaster is happy, for sports news
is good news: money always changes hands,
and if someone has lost that day, someone else has won… 

Maybe you’re not a news junkie like me, but chances are you have a habit that doesn’t do much good for your health or stress levels.  What is it?  As you write this week, consider what triggers that raise your stress levels.  What can you do to change or rid yourself of those triggers?  What helps you lessen the stress in your life?  How do you you manage the times when stress and worry threatens to consume you?

It’s Day Two of my self-imposed diet.  Last night I took my dog for a walk during the news hour.  This evening, I’ll be in a downtown movie theatre with my husband.  Tomorrow?  Well, I’ll get creative and keep the remote control out of sight between 5:30 and 7 p.m.  I already feel better just thinking about it.

…but you can make a ball out of anything,
and then all you need is a line to get it across
or a hoop to put it through.
The sportscaster knows how the world will end:
not with a whimper, not with a bang,
but with a cheer.


(From “The Late News,” By David Kirby, in The Writers’ Almanac, 12/04/2003)




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