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Here we go again.  It’s Super Bowl Sunday , and millions of people across the country will station themselves at the television set for the big game between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers.  It’s not just the annual excitement of the kick-off that has everyone’s attention.  Even this non-football fan has some interest in watching the “older” generation take on the “new,” and whether it will be Peyton Manning or Cam Newton who walks away with the MVP trophy.  The Super Bowl is more of a social event for me.   Despite my long history of shunning football games, I’ve sometimes been drawn in, whether because of the talk of “deflate-gate,” the showdown between an older athlete and a younger one, the entertaining half-time shows (I admit I tuned into Bruno Mars performance two years ago) or the sheer fun from the array of creative commercials.   Our neighbors are hosting a “Super Bowl Party,” and my husband and I will gather around the television set—at least for a while– to watch football with them, a past time I once knew as routine during my childhood.

Their jeans sparkled, cut off

way above the knee, and my

friends and I would watch them

from my porch, books of poems

lost in our laps, eyes wide as

tropical fish behind our glasses.

 

Their football flashed from hand

to hand, tennis shoes gripped

the asphalt, sweat’s spotlight on

their strong backs… 

(From:  “After School Street Football, Eighth Grade,” by Dennis Cooper, The World In Us: Lesbian and Gay Poetry of The Next Wave, 2008)

Because of my father, football reigned supreme at our house, and touch football was a neighborhood game played nearly every evening summer and fall.  I watched in rapt attention.  I wanted to play the game my father loved so much.  I pestered him to teach me how to pass the pigskin so I might join in the game.  My brother was still a preschooler, so I won my father’s assent and began my earnest practice as my father coached me, a bemused look on his face, no doubt mystified by his elder daughter’s desires.   I worked hard to impress my father with my talent, but he was not the one to give me the praise I longed to hear.  Rather, the local high school football star, Dick King, visiting his girlfriend, stopped to watch our neighborhood gang play football one autumn evening.  Instantly overcome with shyness, but acutely aware of his presence, I fired the ball in a perfect long pass to my buddy Marty.  “Man,” I heard King exclaim, “That girl can pass!”  I was elated.

My football prowess was short-lived.  Like it or not, football was reserved for boys, and my father’s attention soon turned to my kid brother.  I felt a little bereft as I watched father and son practice passing and blocking– lessons that paid off a few years later as my brother and nephew excelled as college football players and coaches.   I no longer shared in the sports talk or the knowledge of the game, and by the time my brother was playing college football, I was living in Canada where American style football was not as popular as ice hockey or soccer.  When we returned to California many years later, the language of football was lost on me.  I rarely watched a  game on television; I was hopelessly unfamiliar with the teams or players and became a puzzlement to my football-crazed siblings.

I still don’t understand much more than the most rudimentary aspects of a football game, and as someone who suffered a severe concussion in my teens, I wince with every bodily collision.  But I’ll watch the Super Bowl with our neighbors and try to share their enthusiasm while I attempt to translate the onslaught of sports talk that will infiltrate our conversation.

Sports and military metaphors are all too common in our daily language, whether we’re discussing politics, sports competitions or cancer.  Dhruv Khuller, writing in The Atlantic, referred to a 2010 study that found physicians use metaphors in nearly two-thirds of their conversations with patients with serious illness.  Since Richard Nixon declared the “war on cancer” back in the 1970’s, military metaphors have dominated the language of the cancer experience.  Sports metaphors are probably a close second.  As Khuller points out in his article, “Over the centuries, we’ve internalized these metaphors, so much so that we often may not recognize how they influence us.”

Military metaphors, like “war on cancer, “ battle “ or “win the fight” dominate how we conceptualize and talk about cancer.   Sports metaphors, like “our team,” ”end run” or “game plan” are also used, and, like a war, connote winning or losing.  The advantage of metaphors is that they quickly “condense our experiences into shorthand, illuminate complex issues and can paint a thousand words” (“Cancer as Metaphor,” The Oncologist 2004, pp.708-716).    We tend to use the same metaphors for many of life’s normal challenges and struggles, not only the cancer journey.   For example, “We’re going to win this one; you’re out of bounds; tackle the problem head on; step up to the plate; be a team player;  soldier through it; run with a good idea, or make an end run.”  While our metaphors are visual and illustrative, they also run the risk of creating stereotypes or confusion.

Like many common phrases of everyday language, metaphors are overused, phrases we seek to avoid in writing.  Yet they do serve a purpose between doctor and patient.  Dr. Jack Coulehan, Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine and Senior Fellow of the Center for Medical Humanities at Stony Brook University, writes:  Medicine abounds in image, symbol, and metaphor, all of which live in the minds of physicians, as well as patients. The art of medicine is grounded in empathy, trust, and shared beliefs; much of its healing power arises from image, metaphor, and ritual intended to benefit the patient. (Foreword, The Art of Medicine in Metaphors, 2013).  As described by the physicians interviewed for the 2004 Oncologist article, understanding the metaphors used by a patient and his or her family provides a common language, a sense by the patient that the doctor understands and is “there with them.”

Whether military or sports-inspired, what metaphors do you find useful in your interactions with your doctor?  When life “throws you a curve,” how do you communicate the experience or your determination to overcome any obstacles to your friends?  Do you “step up to the plate?” and take action?  How often do “over-used” metaphors creep into your conversation as you try to describe an event or your illness and treatment to someone else?

Writing Suggestion:

This week, “the ball is in your court.”  Consider the metaphors you use in your everyday life or in your cancer journey.  What purpose do they serve?  Or, perhaps your physician uses metaphors to describe your illness and treatment in ways that don’t resonate with you.  Use that as a jumping off place for writing.

Or why not have some fun as you watch the Super Bowl broadcast?  Laughter is good medicine, remember?  Listen for the sports talk, the metaphors used to describe the game.  Note them.  They can become your starting point for writing.  You might even search for an old copy of Sports Talk: A Dictionary of Sports Metaphors,  and by Robert Palmatier and Harold Ray , published in 1989.  It’s full of metaphors from many different sports and games.  Or try another, Talk Sporty to Me, by Jen Mueller, a book that promises to help you using Sports as a bridge to build personal and professional relationships!

 

Shift from your usual writing and purposely use these well-worn metaphors or clichés to write a short spoof or poem.  Sometimes even the most overused language can ignite a little creativity and humor.  So bring on the chips and guacamole!  Write a few of those choice phrases down.  Use them as your prompts for writing—wherever they take you.

Poets are like baseball pitchers.  Both have their moments.  The intervals are tough things.–Robert Frost

 

 

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It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone…

Later,
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing…

(From “Courage,” by Anne Sexton, In:  The Awful Rowing Toward God, 1975)

Imagine a shiny quarter.  On one side, the word “cancer,” and on the other, “courage.”  Search the internet, and cancer and courage are inextricably linked in hundreds of blogs, articles, and books, the stories of men and women whose bravery and tenacity in the face of life-threatening illness humbles each of us.  I doubt you need to look beyond your neighborhood or community to name more than one courageous cancer survivor, someone whose bravery in the face of a life-threatening illness has inspired you.  It’s a reminder of how prevalent and pervasive cancer is in our modern-day lives.  As I prepare to begin another expressive writing series at Scripps Green Cancer Center tomorrow, I remember other workshops and the faces of many who have survived and those whose lives were lost to cancer.  What they all share in common is courage, strength they find in themselves in the face of a life threatening disease.

I remember one of the writers in my Scripps group of several years ago. Diagnosed with breast cancer, G. first attended an afternoon workshop I led at another San Diego cancer center in 2008.  A year or more passed before I met her again, but she signed up and attended the expressive writing program at Scripps.  Her cancer had metastasized since our first encounter, but she demonstrated extraordinary determination and spirit.  Her writing had changed too, gaining depth and expressiveness, touching the hearts of her listeners when she read aloud.

“Writing is a courageous act,” I routinely tell the men and women who attend my workshops.  It requires we go deep into the unexplored regions of our own darkness, write honestly and authentically, and most importantly, that we tell the truth.  In these writing groups, the need to impress with showy descriptions or rich vocabulary quickly evaporates.  Cancer strips away all pretense.  Whether experienced writers or not, courage is a necessary requirement of being diagnosed with cancer.

And so to G.  As the workshop series progressed, so did her cancer.  Little by little, the toll on her body was increasingly visible.  As she began to struggle to attend the sessions, another group member volunteered to drive her when she could no longer operate a car on her own.  When she lost the use of an arm, she brought a laptop and tapped out her stories with one hand.  One morning, G. lost her balance and fell as she tried to take her place at the table.  Several of us jumped up and rushed to her side, but she assured us she was fine, got to her feet, took her seat and opened her laptop to write.  By the final session of the series, G. was forced to give up her apartment and move to assisted living.  For the next several months, she was absent from the group.  We dedicated our series booklet, a collection of the group’s writing, to her, fearing she would not survive the summer.

Shortly before the fall series began, I was surprised to receive an email from G.  Wheelchair bound, she was now living in a nursing home, but she asked to participate in the group via email.   “Yes!” I wrote back.  We began, and weekly, she emailed her writing to me to share with the group.  They, in turn, responded to her via email. Her writing was rarely more than a single paragraph, but her tenacity, honesty, and humor were as present as ever in her words.  There was rarely a time everyone’s eyes didn’t tear up when I read aloud what she had written.

G’s courageousness is only one example of the courage I witness week after week among the men and women in my writing groups.  Courage,  defined in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (2004), is a quality that endures through difficult times, as G. so clearly showed us:

Courage is what makes someone capable of facing extreme danger and difficulty without retreating…it implies not only bravery and a dauntless spirit but the ability to endure in times of adversity.  (p. 187)

Courage endures.  It doesn’t retreat despite great difficulty or danger.  When G.’s life began to ebb well over a year later, she was surrounded by  many friends—women who had also known cancer  and whose lives had been touched by her indomitable spirit.  I have often wondered,  if faced with the same hardship as G. or others in my groups, would I be as courageous?

Writing Suggestion:

This week, turn that shiny quarter over and explore the other side of cancer:  courage.  What does it mean to you?  Have you discovered courage that you didn’t know you had?  Is there someone whose courage has inspired you?  Write about the the other  “c” word:   Courage.

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It’s impossible to escape the ongoing tragedies that have become part of the daily diet of the nightly news.  Shootings, car bombing, the terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut and San Bernardino, the Syrian crisis.  Even as I turn off the television to avoid the onslaught of disaster, I know that within a day or too, attention will turn back to the political wrangling and escalating attacks between this country’s presidential candidates, the tragedies of violence, loss and disaster fading from view and, perhaps, our consciousness.

I remember first few days following the massive earthquakes in northeast Japan which unleashed a devastating tsunami.   My pregnant daughter and her husband were leaving for a five-year stay in Okinawa, and were stranded with us in California as their departure date was postponed and flights cancelled.  They waited anxiously, wondering if my daughter would be forced to stay behind for my granddaughter’s  birth, since the window for her to travel was closing fast.

The nation’s attention was riveted on the Japanese for a time.  Newspaper headlines, radio and television news, and  possibilities for disaster relief consumed our attention.  But all too soon our waking hours were filled with the usual partisan wrangling, the Arab spring,  air strikes in Libya, and Osama Bin Laden’s death.  The devastation experienced by the Japanese receded from prominence, despite the extent of the tragedy.  Even years later, many have not recovered from the disaster.

I wrote my Japanese friends at the time of the tsunami and again, a few weeks later, simply to reach out and let them know they were still very much in my thoughts.  “You’ve touched my heart,” one friend wrote. “It is so reassuring to know we have not been forgotten.”

“It is so reassuring to know we have not been forgotten.”  Those words echo in my mind as I think of all the other natural and man-made disasters that have turned people’s lives upside down.  Aren’t things better now?  Back to normal?  Perhaps some people’s lives have improved, but many remain locked in suffering or hardship long tragedy strikes.  How quickly we forget.

I’ve seen and experienced the same tendency in the way people respond to one another in the first weeks after a cancer diagnosis, loss of a loved one, unexpected job loss or other hardship.  Initially, there’s often an immediate outpouring of sentiment and concern from family, friends and acquaintances.  That’s important, because concern and kindness are our lifelines, helping us cope in those first unsettling weeks.  But recovery from any unexpected tragedy or unexpected loss or illness takes more than a few weeks.  Much longer, it seems, that people around us expect.

“Aren’t you better yet?” I remember the words of an impatient relative when I’d called long distance one late night, alone and grieving, just months after my first husband drowned.  I quickly regretted I’d called.  She launched into what she probably felt was a “pep talk,” her words peppered with “you should… and you should…”  Not surprisingly, it didn’t do much to assuage my sorrow and loneliness.  Her expectations of me were unrealistic, but the trouble was, I began to feel guilty.  Shouldn’t I be feeling better?  Be back to “normal?”

I’ve since realized grief and recovery don’t operate on a pre-determined timetable, although we may try to force fit our emotions into some erroneous notion of how long we “should” feel bad.  The night I called my relative, I needed understanding, some reassurance that my sorrow was real and normal.  I needed was to know I had not been forgotten, even living a continent apart.

“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”, in The Words Under The Words ©1994)

I was living in rural Nova Scotia at the time of my husband’s death, a place dominated by fishing villages and many who shared a long history of losing family and friends to the Atlantic’s turbulent waters.  They understood, perhaps, what my California relatives didn’t.  In that faraway place, many of those people–some I hardly knew–kept coming by, bringing food and friendship, willing to listen, care for my daughters or simply let me know I wasn’t alone.  I hadn’t been forgotten, but I had been seeking support from the wrong people.  At the time, my family was incapable of helping  me through my grief.  I discovered friendship and understanding from those who had experienced similar loss and sorrow themselves.  They  well knew that healing needed time and the support of others.  Since, I have  come to appreciate the wisdom of those cultures whose tradition is to take a full year to mourn the loss of a loved one.  I’ve never forgotten those Nova Scotia friends and how they offered such understanding and kindness as I navigated my way through a tragic loss.

“Aren’t you better yet?” Many of the men and women in my writing groups have talked about how difficult it is for loved ones or friends to understand what they are experiencing.  Our friends and family want us to get well or feel better, but it may translate as impatience or  a lack of concern.  It’s difficult for them too—watching a loved one suffer can make us feel helpless.  Instead we mask our fear or concern with the question, “Aren’t you feeling any better yet?” or advice, “You should try…”  Yet the result is that those responses only make us  feel isolated, even guilty for feeling bad.

Writing Suggestion:

“Aren’t you better yet?” Have you heard these words as you’ve struggled to make sense out of your illness or loss?  Have there been times that you’ve felt forgotten or misunderstood?  Write about the discoveries or disappointments in the nature of friendship in the wake of your illness, treatment or loss.  Write about discovering kindness, even new friendships, in unexpected places.

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A few weeks ago, I agreed to do a manuscript consultation for one of my former students.  She is writing a memoir, and in the process, discovering not only how much effort it takes to write a book, but how unexpected bouts of self-doubt and criticism descend on her without warning.  Self-doubt is something even experienced writers contend with. It’s difficult, when we’re so immersed in our own story, to know how a reader will experiences it.  Coming up for air and getting feedback allows us a chance to find out what our readers think, but also, to “see” our work from a fresh perspective.

“I believe in your story,” I wrote in my comments.   Five pages of detailed critique later, I repeated that statement once more.  I know how emotional an experience it can be to receive constructive comments on one’s writing.  I’ve been through it more than once, and it’s taught me how important it is to get see our writing –and sometimes, ourselves—from a different point of view. 

For several years, I worked on a memoir turned novel, sending it to  a few respected writers for review, and then revising multiple times.  The revisions, I realized several months later, were surface ones, concerned with descriptive details, grammatical nits, and developing a rounded character out of the protagonist, who, in real life, was me.  My writing dragged on, through four complete revisions—or rather, revisions I thought were complete.  Something wasn’t working. The story I thought I was writing wasn’t the real story.  In the process of making my life “fiction,” I turned my personal narrative into something that no longer bore any resemblance to my life.  “It’s become a fairy tale,” I complained to my writing buddies, and I put the novel aside in frustration,, knowing I had to begin again, writing myself “into knowing,” as author Patricia Hampl once said about the writing process.  I had to have the patience and discipline to slow down and allow my writing be a process of discovery.  This wasn’t a minor revision.  It meant a re-write, a complete re-visioning of my narrative.

I’ve been working on my rewrite, that’s right
I’m gonna change the ending
Gonna throw away my title
And toss it in the trash
Every minute after midnight
All the time I’m spending
It’s just for working on my rewrite…

(“Rewrite,” by Paul Simon, from the album, So Beautiful or So What?”)

It’s not unlike life, I suppose.  So many times, in the midst of hardship, illness or loss, I’ve wished I could change my life, skip over the painful and difficult chapters, dump the old scripts and begin again, just like the Vietnam veteran in Simon’s song who wants to rewrite his life so it has a happy ending:

I’ll eliminate the pages
Where the father has a breakdown
And he has to leave the family
But he really meant no harm
Gonna substitute a car chase
And a race across the rooftops
When the father saves the children
And he holds them in his arms…

What if you could?  We all fantasize sometimes, look back and imagine how our lives might have been different, if only…but those are daydreams, not the realities of life.  Our difficult experiences, the struggles and hardships are still there when we open our eyes from the daydream.  We face what’s in front of us, one foot in front of the other, but if we’re paying attention, maybe we can learn from those difficult chapters, practice self-compassion, and create the opportunity to write a new script for the life we have yet to live. 

 In an interview  published in the Paris Review (Winter 1993), poet William Stafford defined the process of writing as a continuing encounter between self and the materials that distinguishes the practice of art, in other words, learning how to turn life into art.  When asked why he chose the title, You Must Revise Your Life (1967) for one of his few books of prose, Stafford remarked:

 “I wanted to use the word revise because so many books about writing make it sound as though you create a good poem by tinkering with the poem you’re working on. I think you create a good poem by revising your life… by living the kind of life that enables good poems to come about… A workshop may seem, to those who take part in it, a chance to revise the work they bring. I think it’s a chance to see how your life can be changed…”

Living the kind of life that enables good poems or good writing of any kind requires that we remain open to the possibility that our work—and we—can be changed for the better.  I think again of  the manuscript consultation with my former student.  She sought feedback because she wants to turn her life experiences into art.  I’d read some of her work  when she began her writing her book a couple of years ago.  The difference between the earlier pages and those written more recently was significant.  The newer writing was  more fluid, insightful and stronger than I experienced before.  Her writing has changed, reflecting the interaction between writer and the page in the writing process.  It’s a continual dialogue of discovery; gradually as the story shifts and changes, so does our perspective of the events we’re describing.  

It’s not something we plan for or think about when we first begin writing from the troublesome and challenging events life throws at us.  We write to pour ourselves and our emotions on the page, to release them from the body to the page.  Even then, there are moments of surprise when we read what we’ve written.  I often hear  “I didn’t know I was going there” when someone reads what they’ve written aloud.   The surprise is like an open door, beckoning to us to enter, and discover even more of the story.  It doesn’t happen all at once.  We write our imperfect first drafts, rewrite and revise again and again until we “see” what our story—our experience—truly means.  We’re given the opportunity to “re-vision,” see something anew, and learn from it so we may embrace the uniqueness of our lives and to live as we intend.    

They want a wilderness with a map—
but how about errors that give a new start?—
or leaves that are edging into the light?—
or the many places a road can’t find?

Maybe there’s a land where you have to sing
to explain anything: you blow a little whistle
just right and the next tree you meet is itself.
(And many a tree is not there yet.)

Things come toward you when you walk.
You go along singing a song that says
where you are going becomes its own
because you start. You blow a little whistle—

And a world begins under the map.

 

( “A Course in Creative Writing,” By William Stafford, In: A Glass Face in the Rain, 1982)

Writing Suggestion:

Given the chance, how would you rewrite your life?  Which parts?  Has writing out of hardship or illness changed you in any way?  What have you learned from those difficult life events that have prompted you to revise your life or embrace the life you have?

 

 

 

 

 

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For the past few years, I have followed a practice first introduced to me by a friend and writer.  At the beginning of each New Year, I choose a single word that acts as a goal, one that that defines my intention and guides my daily life.  It’s taken more time than usual this year.  Life has changed these past months with my husband’s retirement.  We’re still adjusting as we embark upon this new life chapter, our plans vague at best, and for certain, our preferences not always in sync with each other’s.

Even though this practice of choosing one meaningful word takes time, I much prefer it over a list of resolutions.  I used to write a list of those intended actions each New Year’s eve, more often than not, most of my good intentions had evaporated by February.  But these past few days, I admit I have spent much more time searching for my word for 2016, exploring—and discarding—more than a few in the process.

I’ve consulted the usual sources, dictionary, thesaurus and favorite poems, hoping a word would suddenly be illuminated, leap off the page and be adopted word.  In years past, I’ve chosen “rewrite,” “reinvent,” “heart,” and even “choice.”  Each captured the essence of what I envisioned and wanted to achieve for each year.  This year, however, the ambiguity of our state of transition had all but clouded my vision.

Ah, there it was.  We’ve been asked dozens of times by well-meaning friends and family, “So what are your plans for your retirement?”  I’m quick to respond with something like “we haven’t made any decisions yet,” or “I’m continuing to teach,” while my husband is more honest.

“I don’t know,” he says, acknowledging that this life change involves far more thought and adjustment than he realized.  That’s true, but we are also very different in the way we deal with change.  I tend to planning; he tends to seeing how things transpire.  The result—for me—is a good deal of—you guessed it–ambiguity

One advantage in keeping a diary is that you become aware with reassuring clarity of the changes which you constantly suffer. —Franz Kafka

I’d written for an hour early this morning, feeling re-energized after a two-day cleaning and de-cluttering marathon in my office.  I cleaned out files, desk drawers, and a closet full of bins of writing group materials, intent on making my workspace as distraction free as possible.  “Tidying, Marie Kondo writes, is just a tool…to establish the lifestyle you want…” (The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, 2014, p. 21).

It seems my cleaning marathon was not only a tool, but a metaphor for what I seek for my life this year.  As I wrote, I described how invigorated I’d felt walking into my office this morning.  I remembered the words from “Advice to Writers,” by Billy Collins:

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.
The more you clean, the more brilliant
your writing will be…

(In:  Sailing Around the Room:  New and Selected Poems, 2002)

Hmmm.  Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration?  Apparently so, because by the end of the hour of writing, I had my word:  Clarity.  That’s not to say I can answer the question today, “So what are your plans for retirement?” any more definitively than I did last week, but my goal is to strive toward clarity—in my writing and my life.

Clarity is the most important thing.  I can compare clarity to pruning in gardening.  You know, you need to be clear. If you are not clear, nothing is going to happen. You have to be clear. Then you have to be confident about your vision. And after that, you just have to put a lot of work in. – –Diane Von Furstenberg, fashion designer.

Today I’m printing out the word “clarity” and placing it in a one inch square frame that sits next to my computer.  It will be a daily reminder of what I intend to achieve this year.  And next Sunday, at the first meeting in 2016 of the women’s writing group I lead, each person will come to share their chosen word and the explanation behind their choice.  The act of thinking about and choosing their one word will no doubt be as much about one’s intent for living as well as one’s writing in the coming year.   The process of considering and choosing one’s word always leads us into deeper waters, the territory beneath the water line so important to explore as a writer and someone living fully, a way of articulating what matters matter most to us and why.

Writing Suggestion:

Try choosing one word that reflects your intentions or goals for this new year?  Begin by writing it at the top of your page, then continue writing for 20 minutes, exploring its meaning, the memories or images it evokes in you.   You might even share your word choice in the comment section of this blog.  Or, do as my friends and I do.  Frame or post your word where you can see it on a daily basis and remind yourself of what you want to do this year, where you want to go, and why it matters.

The Way It Is
By William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

(In: The Way It Is, New & Selected Poems, 1998)

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I am running into a new year
and the old years blow back like a wind…
that I catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go…

(From:  “i am running into a new year,” by Lucille Clifton, in: Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980)

In a few days, 2016 will make its entrance to the annual fanfare and celebrations.  We’ll turn away from 2015 and look forward to a new year.  I’ve already begun  preparing for 2016, deciding which word I’ll choose to signify my intentions for the year ahead, making notes for goal-setting with my husband on New Year’s day, and, in the spirit of readiness for the new, taking the advice of Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying UpI’ve begun sifting through closets, files and books, creating stacks of “keepers” and “discards” in an effort to declutter and re-organize my belongings—aka, my life.  A dramatic reorganization of the home, Kondo writes in her introduction, causes correspondingly dramatic changes in lifestyle and perspective.  It is life transforming (p. 3).

I may have begun the process backwards though, first buying from Ikea  a bookcase and new desk for my office.  As much as I admire the economy, design and do-it-yourself construction of Ikea’s furniture, it’s rarely as easy as I think it will be.  “Don’t assemble the desk on your own,” my husband advised as he left the house this morning.  “Wait until I get back and can help you.”

“No problem,” I replied cheerily.  “I’ll assemble the little bookcase while you’re gone.  I’ve done one like it before.”

It turns out that prior assembly experience wasn’t as helpful as I thought.  Twice I took apart what I’d screwed together; by the time my husband returned an hour and a half later, I was still laboring to put the bookcase put together.

“It’s a metaphor for life, isn’t it?” I laughed, thinking how apropos it seemed for us.  We’re in the midst of creating a new life chapter in the wake of my husband’s retirement.  It’s already clear that even with all the advice offered or available, we’re forging our own path as we go.  Despite our efforts to anticipate and plan, we know that some things won’t go as smoothly as we hope.  There will be unexpected events, twists and turns in the path we can’t anticipate, even new possibilities we haven’t yet considered.

It’s not just this life stage that demands choices, letting go or re-designing our lives.  The new year is also opportunity for all of us, to embrace change, healing, leave behind old sorrows or ways of being that no longer work, turn to a fresh page and begin anew.  As Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said, Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards.

In an independent, 2009 award-winning film The Things We Carry, two sisters, pushed apart by how they each chose to deal with an addict mother, meet in a dingy motel in the San Fernando Valley in search of a package left for them by their dead mother.  As the sister come together, old sibling wounds are exposed and recounted before they discover peace within themselves and with each other.  “The key to moving forward,” the film’s tagline reads, echoing the words of Kierkegaard, “lies in the past.”

Moving forward and seeing things anew requires choices, trying new things and learning from the outcomes.  Carol, who died of metastatic cancer in 2008, was a sculptor who created sensuous and striking forms from stone.  In her obituary, her husband quoted Carol’s description of her artistic process.  I couldn’t help but think how aptly it also portrayed life and how we re-create or re-shape our lives out of changing circumstances, illness, loss or hardship.  She said:  At first the stone seems cold and hostile. As the shape emerges, the stone becomes warm and alive. The joy and pain involved in the carving process is …something akin to giving birth and seeing your creation change from a gawky adolescent to a sensuous adult… Carol  knew that the carving process involved constant dialogue between the stone and choices made with chisel and hammer.

I’m  a writer,  not a sculptor, but there are similarities between how we approach our work.   The blank page is formidable at times, but writing is always a process of discovery and choices.  Like the sculptor wielding the chisel, a writer needs patience and focus, dialogue between self and the page to discover the “real” meaning or form as the story or poem  begins to emerge. We learn to let “our darlings” go, retain certain passages, expand or simplify others.  Gradually, we create art from out of our words.

I know that what my husband and I want or envision in this next chapter of life will involve making choices, a process of give and take. Each of us will have to discard some old ways of being but also embrace the new.  I know we’ll linger over mementos before deciding what to keep, what to let go and what  to carry into the new year and a new life chapter.  Together, we’ll find our way and create what I trust will be a fulfilling and new adventure together–not without its challenges, but that is life, isn’t it?   I remember lines from  Rita Dove’s poem, “Dawn Revisited:”

Imagine you wake up

with a second chance: The blue jay

hawks his pretty wares

and the oak still stands, spreading

glorious shade… If you don’t look back,

the future never happens…

The whole sky is yours

to write on, blown open

to a blank page… 

(In: On the Bus with Rosa Parks, 1999)

 

That’s how I think of the coming year, like having a blank page in front of me.  It’s a time to look back and celebrate where I’ve been, a time to look forward to the coming year, discover new opportunities and adventures, and a time for us to begin writing a new life chapter.

Writing Suggestion:

What hopes, dreams and goals do you have for the coming year?  What will you discard from your old life?  What will you keep?  If you don’t look back/the future never happens…Take some time to reflect on the past year, what you learned from it and what you hope for the coming year.  The whole sky is yours to write on…  Why not turn to a new page for the coming year?

Happy New Year to everyone.

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Christmas doesn’t come from a store, maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more....

Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas

I admit it.  I haven’t quite realized Christmas is upon us; the lingering effects of our trip to Japan at Thanksgiving, the nostalgia for our time there after our return, and a sense of disbelief, “What?  It’s already December 21st?”  In years past, I’ve been much more organized in my holiday preparations, including a long-standing tradition of sending holiday greetings by mail to friends and family around the world.  This year, I’ll be sending New Year’s wishes instead, since I’ve failed to get any Christmas cards written and mailed.  Even though fewer and fewer of our friends or acquaintances maintain the tradition of sending holiday greetings by mail, I love the Christmas cards we continue to receive.  In this rush-rush world of ours, where communication is dominated by email or texts sent electronically, I cherish the notes, photographs and messages from old friends.  They re-kindle memories and connections, experiences shared together in years past.

This week we received a card sent from Germany, a greeting from a friend of our daughter’s, remembering the one Christmas he spent at our house in California several years ago, far from his home in England. That year was also the last Christmas holiday that we—my daughters, husband and I— celebrated Christmas all together. Just one year later,  Elinor called from Beirut to say “Merry Christmas,” and the following year,  Claire  traveled to Florida to spend the holidays with her ailing grandparents and meet the man who would become her husband.

Since that time, my husband and I have traveled to spend Christmas with one daughter or the other.  Depending on who is living where in the world, one or the other sometimes comes to us.   But now they are creating traditions and memories with their husbands and children, while we are  less willing to join the crowds of holiday travelers or brave the winter weather.   This Christmas, we’ll content ourselves with visiting friends and sharing greetings with our grandchildren via Skype.

It’s a bittersweet time for me.  There’s nothing more joyous that celebrating the holidays with my grandchildren, reading  Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, baking cookies, stuffing stockings with clever little surprises, and sharing in the children’s excited shrieks as they discover what Santa left under the tree Christmas morning.  There’s nostalgia too, the ones tied to Christmases long past.

…Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept. 

(From: “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” By Dylan Thomas)

Last night, after a day and evening spent with friends we drove home to our neighborhood, alive with colored lights and decorations.   I couldn’t help but remember how, when I was a child, we’d climb into our old Ford station wagon  to drive through our small town and admire the display of lights and decorations each year, or how we’d made the annual trek into snowy wilderness with Dad to cut the perfect tree.  Our tree was adorned with bubble lights and themed decorations, packages piled beneath the branches–ones we would try to feel or shake days before they were to be opened.  And always, there was Christmas day, when  dozens of cousins, aunts and uncles gathered together for the holiday meal– all of us singing carols.

There are other memories—ones less romantic but yet,  every bit a part of our family’s Christmas traditions.   Yearly, I was assigned the task of painting a Christmas scene in our large picture window, my mother ever hopeful we would win a prize in the “best Christmas window decoration” contest each year.  My artwork was colorful but untrained, and I was mildly embarrassed to have my work on such public display.  The honorable mention I earned one year only reinforced my fear that, despite my desire to be, I wasn’t really an artist.  And there were annual rituals, like my mother always registering her disappointment when we came home with the freshly cut tree.  It was never perfect enough to her liking, and after we got it in the house, there was the inevitable argument over the correct placement of lights.  My father agonized over a Christmas gift to buy her each year;  I remember only one year that she actually liked what he’d gotten for her.  And all three of us held our breaths each year as my father offered his present to her.  As much as I disliked these regular bits of unpleasantness, they were part of our annual Christmas traditions, and years later, became part of the family stories we told each year, just as woven into the fabric of our holidays as the carols we sang, the stockings we hung from the mantle or excitement we shared on Christmas morning that were remembered as well.

As children, we knew there was more to it –
why some men got drunk on Christmas Eve
wasn’t explained, nor why we were so often
wear tears nor why the stars came down so close,

Why so much was lost. Those men and women
who had died in wars started by others,
Did they come that night? Is that why the Christmas
tree
trembled just before we opened the presents?

There was something about angels. Angels we
have heard on high Sweetly singing o’er
the plain. The angels were certain. But we could not
be certain whether our family was worthy tonight.

(From:  “A Christmas Poem,” by Robert Bly, in Morning Poems,1998)

 Whatever your holiday traditions, reflect on those family celebrations you shared.  What memories are most fond?  What’s most vivid or poignant?  Write about holidays past—family traditions you remember fondly or even those you don’t.  Family holidays and the memories of them offer rich material for stories

May your holidays be filled with friends and family, a time of remembering what truly matters, a time of gratitude, a time of peace.

 

 

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