Archive for the ‘writing for wellness’ Category

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

(“The Peace of Wild Things,” By Wendell Berry, in The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Copyright © 1998)

The day after the Roseburg, Oregon shooting, my friend Alecia posted Wendell Berry’s poem on her Facebook page.  I, as so many others, needed the comfort of his words to find some refuge from the constant assault of crises, war, and violence in the world.  Another shooting.  Another troubled human being whose actions seem inconceivable, and yet, as we were reminded how this country has become numb to these senseless acts of violence so prevalent in our society.  I too felt “despair for the world” enlarge and grow within me.  I needed respite from the woes of the world to regain my footing.

I live in a city, and escaping to a place of peace and quiet can sometimes be difficult.  But for the past year and a half, I have been taking refuge in the quiet of early mornings, six a.m. walks with my dog and a ritual of sitting in silence outdoors afterward.  It is there, and in that practice, that I regain a sense of peace and gratitude that comes with stillness.  I rest in the grace of the world.

 What is stillness?  According to Pico Iyer, travel writer and author of The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (2014), it’s not so much about meditation, but “sanity and balance…a chance to put things in perspective.”  “Going nowhere,” he states, “isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

(From:  “Keep Quiet” by Pablo Neruda (In: Extravagaria,  1974)

Perhaps our societal numbness to what the President called “routine” violence in our country is, in part, the constant motion and noise that fill our daily lives.  We race from meeting to meeting, social event to social event, respond to dozens of emails and texts each day, spend hours in front of screens when we’re alone, assaulted by the constant over-stimulation of news, trivia, games, retail offerings, advertisements, on and on.  “A big luxury for so many people today,” Iyer says, “ is a little blank space in the calendar where you collect yourself.”  It’s stillness, being quiet that allows us to care for our inner lives, to feed our malnourished spirits.

Writing for the New York Times in 2012, Iyer cited Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book, The Shallows:  What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.  Carr noted that Americans spend eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen and that the average American teenager sends or receives 75 test messages daily.  Ironically, it was many years ago that Canadian author Marshall McLuhan (The Medium is the Message, 1967), warned us, “When things come at you very fast, …you lose touch with yourself.”(From:  “The Joy of Quiet”).  Perhaps we weren’t listening.

Think about it.  It’s not unlike the noise in the rush of information and appointments that anyone with a cancer diagnosis experiences.  You’re overwhelmed, exhausted, and trying to navigate between opinions and deciding on treatment options.  The physicians’ voice may temporarily become your own.  But gradually, you regain the ability to listen to yourself, your heart.  You find your voice, clarity of what matters, what is important to you here and now.

But little by little,

…as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world…

(From:  “The Journey,” by Mary Oliver, in Dreamwork, 1986)

How do you find your voice–what you truly believe is important to you?  Stillness, being in the moment, can help.  Cancer, or any chronic illness, as Dr. Paul Brenner, MD states, “is Life:  You hope it can get better but fear it will get worse.  There is no choice other than to live into what is happening now.”  Those with cancer, he notes, live in the truth of the moment because that is all that exists.  It is, ultimately, about being present to the now, not living with regret for the past or worrying what the future holds.

Stillness, time to be fully present in the moment, can help us clear away the static,  clarify and discover what is truly important.  Meditation, yoga, tai chi—all help ground us in the present, the here and now and in quiet.  As Iyer reminds us, stillness–learning to be in the moment is periodically stepping away from your busy life “so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”  With clarity comes understanding.  With understanding, a sense of peace.

I have come to believe that stillness, being fully present to the here and now, is part of what heals us, whether we live with loss, cancer, or other chronic illness.  During a  2004 PBS  interview former poet laureate, Ted Kooser, spoke about his recovery from oral cancer in 1968.  During the period when I was in surgery and going through radiation, I really didn’t do any writing. But as I came up out of radiation and was trying to get myself back in some sort of physical shape, I would walk a couple of miles every morning and then find something along that route to write about…It was very important for me to see something from each day that I could do something with and find some order in, because I was surrounded by medical chaos or health chaos of some kind.

Kooser wrote over 100 poems about what he noticed on those solitary winter morning walks, pasting them on postcards and sending them to his friend, author Jim Harrison.  Kooser describes how his morning walks helped him heal:

“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…”  The result of those poems on postcards was his 2001 volume of poetry, Winter Morning Walks : 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison, 2001.

Annie Dillard, in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, offers a “recipe” for embracing stillness “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.

It is a practice I have embraced in my daily life, one that always helps me right myself and remember what is good and important in the world.  I have come to cherish stillness as my life has become more complex.  Perhaps you have discovered the power of it too.  Why not write about it?


A suggestion for writing:   For this week, consider how quiet and stillness have been part of your healing process.  What practices have helped you learn to embrace quiet and turn your attention to what is, instead of what was or could be?

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She’d been on my mind for days, her face and voice in my thoughts each morning as I sat in silence.  I lingered over the photograph her daughter posted on her Facebook page a week earlier:  Ann, her face wreathed in smiles, her grandson sleeping peacefully on her chest.  It stayed with me, and I sent her a note but messaged her daughter to ask how she was doing.  On Friday, I returned home from the “Writing through Cancer” workshop I lead to see the post.  Ann passed away that morning.

She wrote with me for years–during treatment and recovery–then in remission, she left the group for a lengthy time, returning last fall with metastatic cancer and her time  limited.  But Ann, spirited and positive,  entered the room each week, always with a smile on her face.  She wrote, during those weeks, about the love of family—hers and theirs—and her faith.  She was intent on living as fully as she possibly could.  She wasn’t going to let cancer get her down.  “Cancer, schmancer,” she often said, and so many times as she read her writing aloud, she’d end the piece with a grin and “Ding, dang!”  She kept us smiling, but if another group member was struggling, she was quick to offer comfort.  She understood, completely.

As the weeks worn on and we began the spring series,  the toll cancer was taking on her body was evident, but Ann never complained nor sought sympathy.  She was determined to live fully however long she had and be on hand for the birth of her first grandchild, due later in the summer.  Near the final weeks of the  series, she told us she would miss the next two meetings.    A devout Catholic, Ann and her husband were traveling to Lourdes.  “I’ve got to buy some time,” she said, “and get some of that water.”  When she returned, radiant and smiling, for our final meeting , she presented each of us with a small silver medal from Lourdes–a remembrance of her and how important her faith was to her life.

That morning, we concluded the workshop series as we always do, reading sections from the Navajo Night Chant (dating from 1000 B.C.) aloud, then forming a circle to offer the person next to us our words of gratitude and remembrance:

… May it be beautiful before me.
May it be beautiful behind me.
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beautiful above me.
May it be beautiful all around me.
…In beauty it is finished.

Ann was standing next to me.  I turned to face her and was overcome with emotion.  She was a remarkable teacher, showing us all how to live, truly live, with cancer.  Right to the final days of her life, she exuded love and life.  She was on hand to welcome her grandson into the world and had the entire summer with him and her family and close friends.  The smile on her face in the photograph with him nestled to her chest said it all.  She loved and was loved by everyone around her.

I thought I could write differently this morning, perhaps quote a few notables on death and dying, but when I was finally able to turn my attention to this post, I had only thoughts of Ann and the other lives I’ve witnessed and shared through the stories and poems written in the “Writing through Cancer” workshops.  I doubt I’ve expressed all I feel as I would have liked to—but despite a heavy heart, I feel gratitude.  I know why I continue to lead these groups, why I always return home with a full heart after each session.  I am humbled and honored to witness the lives of those people writing out of the pain and struggle of cancer.  They are my teachers.  My life is better—deeper and richer—because of the men and women who share so much of themselves through their writing.

For me, Ann’s death—as others before her—affirms how our lives are intertwined, not only by the shared experience of cancer, but the stories of our whole lives, the tenderness and vulnerability, honesty, tears and laughter.  I will miss this brave and loving woman deeply, as all those who knew and loved her will.  In beauty it is finished.  She exemplified a life full of beauty–faith, hope and love.

In 2008, a different Ann, a poet and writer from my workshops–who would lose her life to cancer in 2012–wrote a poem for one of our members who was in the hospital near death.  Her imagery captured the beauty in life and in life passing.  In remembrance of Ann, and all those whose lives cancer takes too soon, I offer it again this week.

Outside in the dark
deer are crossing the highway

to drink from the edge of the stream.
It’s quiet here

and you have only hours left
between this life and the next.

As you were once poured
into one vessel, now you

flow forward into the stream
flocked with deer,

their muzzles parting
the silver shimmering veil.

Small cries welcoming you
to the lost fragrant woods…

Moments from now.

(Written by Ann Emerson, 2008)


As you write this week, ask yourself what  it means  to live, with  cancer?  Or without?  What truly matters to you?  What legacy do you want to leave behind?  Or, think of someone you’ve known whose life was taken too soon by cancer.  What did they teach you?

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“Wouldn’t these be fun for you to use as one of your writing prompts?”  My husband held up a handful of colored squares from the paint section of the hardware store.

I smiled.  “I’ve been using paint chips in my workshops for years.  The names alone are wonderful triggers to all kinds of writing.  Like these, “ I said, reciting the names of samples in a color fan: “sea sprite, spiced vinegar, red gumball, or intellectual gray!  Intellectual gray, now maybe that’s the color I need for my office,” I laughed. “Do you think I’d be more productive?”

He shook his head and turned back to the color samples.  We were trying to choose paint colors for each of our offices, the hallways and kitchen, all in need of a fresh look, but we were sidetracked by the imaginative names of the paint chips.  Choosing paint colors was once a simpler matter.  Now, grouped in complimentary palettes, they’re designed for “room to room harmony” in tones labeled “natural,” “urban,” “perfectly polished” or “quiet.”  All evoke images of walls painted with harmonious colors, but also moods and memories.

Color carries strong emotional associations with it.  I remember living along the Nova Scotia coast, and the images I recollect are filtered with gray, not just because of the overcast skies, but the loss and sorrow that was also part of that experience.  My moods have always been affected by the colors in the landscape around me.  When we returned to Southern California in mid-August after two weeks in Toronto, the contrast in the two places was stark.  I’d reveled in the lush greens of Toronto neighborhoods, the canopy of trees along city sidewalks.  Returning, I was confronted by the aridity of the land, drought-stricken and brown, confronted me.  It seemed to crackle with dryness and tones of yellow and brown were everywhere I looked.  Within days, I felt as if I too, was parched and dry.  I lacked energy;  I struggled with my writing.  It took several days for me to “right” myself.

Color offers plenty of inspiration for writing.  A box of 53 crayolas, a stack of paint samples, or the colors in Nature can evoke many memories and associations.  Some colors elicit nearly universal meaning, for example, blue.  It communicates calm, but also sadness.  Red, by contrast, expresses warmth, but also anger.  Whether in a poem, a love song, the hard beat of rap, or smoky voice of a jazz singer, the mention a color immediately evokes a feeling or a mood.  “I got the blues for my baby…”  “Baby’s in black…”  “Seeing red…”

Color even plays a role in cancer.  In a December 2009 Cure Today supplement, “The Color of Cancer,” the cover illustration depicted men and women of all skin colors while the supplement addressed the issues of cultural differences in cancer care and treatment, such as lack of healthcare access, early diagnosis and individualized treatment.

The supplement’s title, “The Color of Cancer,” sent me to the bookshelf and my well-read copy of  The Cancer Poetry Project, Volume I, edited by Karin Miller and published in 2007.  Color played a part in several poems, whether used to describe a loved one or communicate the complex emotions of the cancer experience.

In “Bi, Bye-Bye, Buy,” by Mary Milton, the poem’s title echoes the upcoming mastectomies she faced, and the advice of a friend:  “Don’t start buying stuff to compensate” for her approaching surgeries.

…a sheet of bed sheets dusty coral
so blood stains won’t show much…
and shirts that open in front
one short-sleeved white
bad choice of color but I liked
its spirited portrayal of zebras
galloping through ferns
and gold paint splats
Besides it was on sale…

Joan Annsfire, infuses her poem, “First Summer,” with color to describe the glory of the first summer after her recovery:

…the Oregon landscape
was a work of art, vivid and deep
slices of cloudless blue opened
into evergreen valleys
bounded by a massive,

In “Red,” Elizabeth Johnson paints a vivid image of the moment in her mother’s hair began to fall out during chemotherapy:

…We had pulled them out in handfuls,
big beautiful red spirals that swung
‘round your freckled face
that danced across the green in your eyes…

This week, why not use color as your inspiration?  Color is a great means to express what we feel, whether poetry or prose.  Visualize your feelings as colors on an artist’s palette.  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Head to the paint store and grab a few colored chips. Use either the color or the name of the paint as your prompt.  Try it two ways:
  1. Try combining the visual with the verbal. Begin with a 4 x 6 inch blank index card, and using crayons, magic markers, torn tissue paper or whatever you have on hand, try creating a mini-collage.  Draw, paint or paste colors on your card, ones that symbolize your feelings—whether fear, anger, a punch to the gut, desolation, boredom, or even hope.
  1. After you’ve created your mini-collage, study it for a few minutes before brainstorming words that come to mind. Then, start writing, capturing lines, images, comparisons–however color expresses itself in your writing.  Write for twenty minutes—longer if you wish. Maybe you will, as I have done from time to time, discover a poem or a story that begins with the inspiration of a single color,.


Purple as tulips in May, mauve

into lush velvet, purple

as the stain blackberries leave

on the lips, on the hands,

the purple of ripe grapes

sunlit and warm as flesh…


Red as henna, as cinnamon,

as coals after the fire is banked,

the cardinal in the feeder,

the roses tumbling on the arbor

their weight bending the wood

the red of the syrup I make from petals…


Here is my box of new crayons at your feet.


Green as mint jelly, green

as a frog on a lily pad twanging,

the green of cos lettuce upright

about to bolt into opulent towers,

green as Grand Chartreuse in a clear

glass, green as wine bottles.


Blue as cornflowers, delphiniums,

bachelors’ buttons. Blue as Roquefort,

blue as Saga. Blue as still water.

Blue as the eyes of a Siamese cat.

Blue as shadows on new snow, as a spring

azure sipping from a puddle on the blacktop…


(Excerpt: “Colors Passing Through Us,” by Marge Piercy, From: Colors Passing Through Us, 2003).




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We had a heat wave this past week in Southern California.  Each day the temperature climbed, and the nights remained warm.  As someone who has never tolerated heat well, I grew crankier by the day, stuck indoors close to the air conditioner and as the week progressed, increasingly sleep deprived.  I was—and am—more than ready for summer to move aside and make way for cooler weather.

This morning, I awakened much too early, but with seasons and writing on my mind.  I remembered a different season from the past, when storms lashed the Nova Scotia coast and my emotional life.  It was—or seemed–never-ending.  For several years, my life was as unsettled as the Atlantic winters.  I was in the midst of a personal crisis:  an unhappy marriage, the death of my husband, and fearful of the impact on my two young daughters.  For the next decade, my life was in turmoil, dominated by themes of loss, betrayal and illness—my parents’ and my own.  It seemed I lived in the midst of a never-ending storm.

What helped me navigate those rough waters was writing.  I became a crisis writer, filling dozens and dozens of journals, pouring out my angst onto the page.  Despite all that happened in that period of my life, I felt the root of all my suffering lay in those early years of marriage, betrayal and sudden loss.  I decided to write a memoir of that time.  What I didn’t notice that in making that decision, my writing took a significant turn toward writing that could help me heal.  Instead of venting, rumination, and emotional outpourings on the page, I began to shape my experience into a story.  I signed up for memoir classes, worked under the guidance of three different teachers, before deciding to fictionalize my personal story into a novel.  Now I sought out other writers I admired and began my novel.  Three years and 400 pages later, I was stalled.  Stuck in a story that had turned into something I no longer recognized as mine; one I was weary of; one that seemed less and less compelling.  I announced to my writing buddies that I was putting the novel aside and letting the story lie fallow for a time hoping I might return to the draft invigorated.  I didn’t.  Instead, I realized it was high time to move on from the old painful narrative I’d carried with me for years.

Writing out of crisis, pain or suffering is often the inspiration for many great works of literature.  As Louise DeSalvo states in her book, Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, (2000), many of our greatest cultural creations were created out of pain, crisis and loss.   Novelists and poets have often described writing as a form of therapy, helping them  to express and gain insight from traumatic life events, just as I was trying to do.  Authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene or William Styron wrote with powerful—and personal—themes of alienation or suffering in their work.  Fitzgerald described his battle with alcohol in The Crack-Up, Greene wrote of his manic-depression in A Sort of Life, and Styron examined his suicidal depression in Darkness Visible. Creativity, as so many writers have shown us, is often fueled by our life crises, trauma or suffering.

But turning life into art is no easy matter.  And not every personal experience of suffering and illness warrants publication, yet those events do need to be expressed, whether in art, writing or traditional “talk” therapy.  Why?  Because writing can help us heal from those traumatic and painful life events.  But healing also implies we move on from those old, painful stories and find new inspiration in the present.

A cancer diagnosis is a life crisis that often triggers intense and abundant writing.  It’s important to have the freedom and safety to express those raw emotions, and creating that safety is an important element of the workshops I offer to cancer patients.  In a supportive environment, people come together to write and make sense of the upheaval which accompanies cancer.  I intentionally titled  the series Writing Through Cancer, because I knew that healing implies movement, not staying stuck in the cancer narrative.  I recalled reading Barbara Abercrombie’s memoir of breast cancer, Writing Out the Storm (2002), several years ago, and thinking how powerful a metaphor her book title was, capturing the emotional intensity that defines cancer.  Writing becomes the calm, the eye of a hurricane, a kind of refuge while the storm howls around you.  You may write desperately and furiously, revealing your anguish on the pages of your journals, but it offers you release, a chance to begin to see your way through the shock, rage and grief, to recovery and a new normal.

In my expressive writing workshops, people move at their own pace.  It’s not uncommon that those with chronic cancer conditions or a terminal diagnosis will return to write for several series, but their writing usually shifts to poetry or story instead of the raw, emotional writing that is typical of those in the midst of treatment and surgeries for the first time.  But it’s when people return to the workshop well beyond the point of “no evidence of disease” to continue to write about their cancer experience that concerns me as a group leader.  I remember the years I re-hashed my own sorrowful story, and doing so kept me with one foot in the past, kept me from being fully present to the life I was living.  It kept me from healing.

In less than a week, I’ll begin leading another series of “Writing Through Cancer” workshops at two different cancer centers.  The participants will be a mix of those newly diagnosed to those further along in their treatment and recovery.  A few of my most beloved writers will not be part of the group.  They are the ones beyond recovery and with “no evidence of disease,”  but there are others, though living with terminal diagnoses,  determined to focus their time on the present and living fully.  They all have, in one way or another, moved beyond the storm into healing and acceptance.  They still write, but cancer rarely makes its way onto the page.

I used to be a crisis writer, but my writing changed as I found healing.  I know the real work of writing is to write under any sky,  stormy or clear.  In that way, we capture the intricacy, the poetry, and stories our whole lives encompass. Perhaps you’ve been writing out of the storm called cancer, but as the sky clears, where will you look for the inspiration and motivation to continue writing?

That’s the work for every writer—and, perhaps, the work of healing–to move beyond the crisis, the storm, and see the world with new eyes.  I recall when Billy Collins, answering questions posed by the audience at a local Writers’ Symposium, said he finds inspiration by simply looking out the window.  Even the ordinary can contain the seed of a poem or a story.  His words inspired me to return to my writing after that lengthy post-novel drought.   The following morning I opened my notebook and began with a line “I wish I could write a poem like Billy Collins…”  The words flowed freely along with some laughter.  I had my eyes on the present.  I didn’t have to write about the old sorrows and suffering.  I was more than ready to move on and find new inspiration for my writing.

In “Dawn Revisited,”  Rita Dove offers us an invitation to awaken ourselves to the world around us and write.

The whole sky is yours
to write on, blown open
to a blank page.

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

It’s a great image, isn’t it?  Sunshine or storm clouds, all we need to do is a look out the window and notice how  the world offers us new possibilities every day.  Write about the sky above you, whether it’s stormy or sunny, gray or blue.  Write out of a storm, or write of calm.  Write out of pain or write about what’s in front of you.  It doesn’t matter.  The whole sky is yours, whatever it holds.  What matters is that you write—and when you’ve ready to let go of the old, painful stories, there’s so much more just waiting for you to notice.  The whole sky is yours to write on…  Why not write something today?

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I wrote a dear friend in Gig Harbor, Washington this week to let him and his wife know that we’ve postponed our plans to visit them this month.  My husband, now an official retiree as of  this past Tuesday, has busily turned his attention to the myriad of small household repairs that have been, like our trip, postponed dozens of times.  Not only that, but we realized that after our trip to Toronto last month, we were tired of travel.  With our impending trip to Japan in November, neither of us was eager to step on an airplane again quite so soon.  “I’m really tired of being a tourist,” I complained.  “Besides, air travel just isn’t any fun anymore.”  But neither did I welcome a long road trip.  We’d taken one to Sedona and Flagstaff at the beginning of summer, and as pleasant as it was, we were both happy to return home and sleep in our own beds.

After leaving my small Northern California town for The Netherlands as a high school exchange student, I was never content to stay put for very long.  I dreamed of travel, the excitement of visiting far-away places, of flying over the oceans to visit places I’d only read about.  When my first husband decided to go to graduate school in Ottawa, Canada, I never hesitated.  It was an adventure, and flying back to California seemed simple enough: buy a ticket, pack my bags, board the airplane and fly across the country.  When reality set in:  loneliness, winters that seemed to last forever, and the cost of travel on our meager income, the adventure began to sour.

Years later, I became a corporate executive, living in New York City.  Exciting at first, my eagerness for travel diminished greatly in the years I found myself flying back and forth between coasts and New York and Europe several times a month.  I grew weary of living out of suitcases, eating airline meals, and contending with what seemed to be a state of constant jet-lag.   Still, we spent our vacations traveling overseas:  Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, something we haven’t done for the past five years.  Not only are our trips now relegated to see our daughters and grandchildren (living in Toronto and Okinawa), despite our technological advances, travel is more difficult, crowded, expensive, and frankly, nerve-racking, which no doubt accounts for the endless lists of travel tips and guidebooks.

As someone who routinely travels back and forth between Southern and Northern California and has a defibrillator implanted in her chest, I am well acquainted with the TSA security checkpoint processes.  Even the TSA offers travel tips on their website to make your security screening process more “checkpoint friendly,” including tips such as how to dress and how to pack.  Despite the travel tips and advice travel is rarely a “no hassle” process, no matter what airline I might be flying.

Airplane travels aside, we each encounter many different journeys during our lives.  I think back to some of mine, and how much I wish I’d had a few roadmaps for events like single parenting, widowhood, illness or even this new journey called “retirement.”  I am now preparing to lead two “Writing Through Cancer” programs in less than two weeks, and I think of the men and women who’ve attended.  Part of the strength of the community that forms isn’t just about writing together, but about helping one another navigate through the cancer experience.  And although I am the group “leader,” the men and women who are living with cancer are teachers to me:  on illness, approaching death, or simply, living with gratitude.

In a discussion of the use of metaphors in cancer, authors Gary Reisfield and George Wilson discuss the “journey” metaphor as one that encompasses possibility: for exploration, struggle, hope, discovery, and change… The roads may be bumpy and poorly illuminated at times, and one may encounter forks, crossroads, roadblocks, U-turns, and detours. The pace, route and destinations of the journey may change, sometimes repeatedly.the journey… may ultimately imbue them … with a vision of a deeper meaning in life. (J. of Clinical Oncology, October, 2004)

Like anything, google “retirement” or “cancer,” and you’ll find dozens of sites with advice and tips.  All good, and yet, the amount of information can sometimes be overwhelming. Any of the sites may be helpful for the newly diagnosed, the newly retired, or the first-time you travel to a foreign country.  But we need the support—and advice—of friends and colleagues who’ve experienced these different journeys.  I have cherished the support and advice of so many friends who’ve traveled ahead of me in life.  They are invaluable resources to help us prepare and guide us through this unknown territory.

This week, extend the travel metaphor into your life.  Here are some questions to consider as you write:

  • What is it like to travel along this road named “cancer”? Or elderhood?  Job loss?  Retirement?
  • How do you move through the questions, confusion and potential roadblocks to the “new normal” of life and rediscover how to live fully?
  • What helpful hints, experiences and impressions might you offer the inexperienced traveler?
  • What is the most important piece of advice you’d give to someone who is just beginning their own journey defined by illness, loss, or new life stage?
  • What has been the single most important piece of advice someone gave you? Why?

…a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds…
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

(From “The Journey,” by Mary Oliver, in Dreamwork, 1986)


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Understand, I was only a girl

living the days as they came.

I did not know I would leave.

though I had a secret

I did not tell and will not ever,

I did not know I would leave.

(From “Translation of my Life,” by Elizabeth Spires)

“You can’t go home again,” my husband said.  We were enjoying a dinner in one of Toronto’s many restaurants three weeks ago, sitting outdoors in a vine-covered patio and enjoying the long summer’s evening.   We’d come to our former home city to visit family and consider options for retirement.  I was, as I had been many times over the two-week stay, saying how I wished we’d never left.  We’d seen old friends and found the conversation as lively and comfortable as if no time had passed between us.  Daily, we’d taken long walks around the city whose lush, tree-lined neighborhoods and streets, felt as familiar as they had twenty years ago.  I was suffering from a little bout of homesickness.

Toronto remains a city I love, one where after years of marital struggle and loneliness, I felt like I’d finally found myself. At the height of the Vietnam war,  I’d left the U.S. for Canada with my first husband, living first in Ottawa before moving to Nova Scotia, where, a few years later, he died suddenly in a drowning accident.  I left Halifax and moved with daughters to Toronto to return to graduate school.  There, I discovered a city that “fit” like no other had.  Yet the remembrance of the California I had grown up in lingered, and my desire to return to the West crystallized when I read Wallace Stegner’s 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Angle of Repose.  A multi-layered story of marriage, the narrator, confined by a wheelchair and abandoned by his wife, intends to turn his grandmother’s papers into a novel about her life, but instead, examines the difficult marriage between his grandparents , leading him into the shadows of his own life..  In a passage I’ve never forgotten, his east coast grandmother, a New York writer and artist, marries a mining engineer, who, she reluctantly admits, was “infected with the incurable Western disease.  He had his crosshairs set on the snow peaks of a vision.”

Stegner’s words lingered like a magnet, pulling me back west.  Perhaps it was because I’d followed my first husband to Canada, suffered through our separation and his drowning in Nova Scotia, and still dreamt, despite the many years in Canada, of my childhood and California home.  I longed to reclaim the sense of place I once knew.

Twenty-three years later, remarried to another native Californian, I returned full of hopes and expectations.  But like the protagonist in Thomas Wolfe’s novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, my homecoming was laced with disappointment.

You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood,  …back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.  (From: You Can’t Go Home Again)

What I discovered, like so many emigrants before me, was that “home” no longer existed in the ways I had imagined it.   It—and I—had changed.  The things that drew me back to the West were now elusive.

In color photographs, my childhood house looks

fresh as an uncut sheet cake—

pale yellow buttercream, ribbons of white trim…

 Half a century later, I barely recognize it

when I search the address on Google Maps

and, via “Street view,” find myself face to face—

 foliage overgrown, facade remodeled and painted

a drab brown. ..

(From “9773 Comanche Ave.,” by David Trinidad)

The irony is, of course, that all the years I lived in Canada, I refused to think of it as “home.”  I clung tenaciously to my golden dream of California, whose luster intensified in my imagination.  Yet all the while, Canada had quietly wrapped itself around my heart.  There, I grew into adulthood.  I became a wife, mother and widow.  I discovered friendships whose bonds were forged out of the steel of years of struggle and hardship, friendships that have endured despite time and distance. Canada became a part of me as surely as the California of my youth. But it took leaving it to realize how much my Canadian years had defined me.  It took leaving it and returning to the place I once called home.

We’ve now lived in California for as long as we lived in Canada.  The irony is that I never re-discovered that same sense of place and belonging I once took for granted.  We talk now of perhaps returning to Canada, at least for part of our time, but I wonder, can I rediscover that sense of belonging as I once did?  “Home is where the heart is,” Gaius Plinius Secundas, wrote nearly two thousand years ago.   Countless authors, writing about home, have echoed it since.

Goethe once wrote that all writers are homesick, that all writers are really searching for home.  Being a writer is being on a constant search for where you belong. It comes out of a place of memory, not geography. (Mary Morris, “Looking for Home”)

I guess it comes down to change– in a place and in ourselves.  Even if we’ve never left a place, the events of our lives can make us feel as if we’ve suddenly become strangers to it.   Cancer, loss, or trauma can have that same effect.   We feel as if we’ve crossed the border into some strange, new territory, where the customs and nuances are unfamiliar.   You long for home, the place you once knew by heart, but you discover that you can never, as Wolfe suggested, be at home as you once were.

What does it mean to be “at home?”  Have you returned to a once familiar place to find that you are no longer part of it as you once were?  What did you learn?  Has an experience like cancer, loss, or other life challenges made it difficult to regain the sense of belonging to a place and its people—or cemented it?  How has “home” changed for you over the years? Write about home, leaving, returning or finding it.


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I’ve been thinking about change:  how life can change in an instant or slowly and gradually, yet how the reality of change seems to descend all at once.  That’s the kind of change I’m currently experiencing.    My husband retires at the end of the month, something that has been long in coming.  It signals a new chapter for him, but also a new chapter for both of us and our life together.  I’ve entered that phase that author Bill Bridges once defined as “the neutral zone” in  Managing Transitions, his book about corporate and personal transitions (1991).  I always resisted the term, as I am doing now, because transition is anything but neutral, although Bridges defined it as a state of limbo or in-between time, where it can sometimes feel as if there is nothing to hold onto.

For me, it’s like riding on a virtual elevator, one that moves between different floors or parts of my life, stopping suddenly and without warning.  One moment, I’m preparing a course for the fall; the next I’m talking retirement budgeting with my husband, and just as quickly, thrust into the wilderness of “what’s next in our lives?”  My life continues, in some ways, as it has before.  In others, it’s riddled with questions and an undercurrent of anxiety—a need to have the answers now, now.

Human beings are complex.  Unlike other members of the animal kingdom, our lives involve much more than basic need.  We have the unique capacity to live more than one life at a time.  As Patrice Vecchione describes in her book, Writing and the Spiritual Life, we live our lives on more than one plane.  Our inner and outer lives interact; they affect and inform each other as we move between our different worlds throughout each day, each involving particular aspects of ourselves.

“I know I walk in and out of several worlds every day,” poet Joy Harjo wrote in her essay, “Ordinary Spirit.”  Although Harjo is referring to her mixed race, in part, and the struggle to “unify” her different worlds, we all, in many ways, seek to “unify” the different worlds we inhabit each day.  Yet we sometimes move between our different worlds as if they are separate, assuming—without even thinking about it–different roles as other aspects of ourselves come into play.

It’s a bit like being on an elevator, one that is constantly in motion, traveling between floors.  Push a button, elevator moves up or down, then comes to a stop.  The doors open. “Second floor, family life.”  Push another, “Third floor, workplace,” and another, “Fourth floor, Exercise and Fitness.”  On another floor, perhaps we step into a world of friendships or even a classroom, where for an hour or two each week, we become students again.   Another floor might open to our spiritual worlds:  quiet, meditation and solitude.  In our busy lives, we move between our worlds without much thought, and one can seem far removed from the other.

Add a significant life change, whether cancer, hardship or even something called “retirement” to the daily worlds we inhabit, and the boundaries between our inner and outer lives, the several “worlds” we inhabit daily, blur.  As Harjo expressed, we begin to realize that it is “only an illusion that any of the worlds we inhabit are separate.”  This “new” world, the one where we suddenly wear labels like “patient, “survivor,” “widow,” or “retiree,” affects all the others.  The predictability or routine of our daily life is thrown asunder.  While we might have felt some control over the course of our lives, we’re thrust into free fall, overwhelmed and confused, riding s in a wayward elevator moving randomly between floors.

Everything in our lives is affected by the triggering event, whether illness, loss or awakening to the reality that yes, we are moving toward “elderhood.”  All that we have thought ourselves to be–mind, body, and spirit–is thrust into a state of upheaval.  It’s life, which is never static, but certain events, like debilitating illness, loss of a job or loved one, even this chapter labeled “retirement” demands we enter a new normal.  So we stumble out of that elevator and try to make sense of where we’ve landed and how we want to live from this point forward.

When I look back over my life and all the changes—painful, scary, and difficult– I’ve experienced, ones I never anticipated but managed to adjust my life to them, I scratch my head in puzzlement.  Why is this change, this impending stage of “retirement” so confounding to me?  Is it that I’m facing a new stage of life that also signals the reality of aging and my mortality?  I don’t have the answers yet, but I am trying–once again– to practice Rilke’s wisdom in the advice he gave so many years ago to a young poet:

…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves … Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday …, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.  (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 1903)

 Suggestions for Writing:  How many worlds do you occupy in your life?  When has an unexpected event thrust you into a significant period of change and a “new normal?”  How have you managed the transition?  What questions did you have?  How did you “live” your way into the answers you sought?  Looking back, what did you learn from the experience?

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