Archive for the ‘writing for wellness’ Category

An insightful, experienced oncologist told me that cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter. Still, novelists know that some chapters inform all others. These are the chapters of your life that wallop you and teach you and bring you to tears, that invite you to step to the other side of the curtain, the one that divides those of us who must face our destiny sooner rather than later. –Alice Hoffman, Writers on WritingNew York Times, August 2000.

Cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter…  I often return to this sentence in Hoffman’s essay, written out of the experience of her struggle with cancer, and yesterday, as my Moores’ UCSD writing group mourned the loss of one of our members, Dave, to cancer, I did again.  As we remembered him, his presence in the group and the writing he had shared with us, I reminded everyone that his family had invited us all to his “Celebration of Life,” held on Saturday.

“I don’t understand,” Donna, recently here from Korea, furrowed her brow.  “Why is it a celebration and not a funeral?”

“Dave had a rich and full life before cancer,” I explained, “and rather than focus on his death, they want us all to remember his life.”

I read from Hoffman’s essay once again before inviting the group to  write.  Not surprisingly, memories of Dave were woven into the writing shared aloud and the difficult topic, his death, brought into the open to sit side by side with his life.  He, like others before him, lost his cancer battle, but his memory stays with us; his stories intermingle with our own, and his passing allowed us to speak openly of the shadow that trails after anyone living with metastatic cancer.

We come together to write, but as cancer patients and survivors, and for so long, cancer dominates the narrative or poetry that is written.  So much of the rest of our lives are not revealed until later, as we rediscover hope, gratitude or pleasure in the life we have.  Then  the other part of our book, the rest of our lives, begins to make its way into what is written and shared.

In “There is No Going Back,” Wendell Berry begins by telling the reader,

No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were…

It’s not just cancer that makes it less possible to be who we once were, nor is it the deaths of those we care about and love.  It’s life:  the process of aging, the necessary acceptance of physical and bodily changes, and the ways in which we see and respond to our constantly shifting worlds.  Yet some of those life experiences, as Hoffman stated, wallop us and change our lives more dramatically than the ups and downs are part of the average human life span.  Cancer is one of those;, bringing us up short like a horse’s snaffle bit and forcing us to pay attention, admit that the self we were before cancer is not the self we are now.  We must learn to pay attention to the present, to truly live for whatever time we have left.

Leroy Seivers, who had a long career as a journalist covering war, genocide and natural disasters, was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2006.  After decades of observing other people’s deaths, he contemplated his own by documenting his fight with cancer on the NPR blog, “My Cancer blog” and podcast.  “After that day, your life is never the same,” Seivers wrote. “That day” is the day the doctor tells you, ‘You have cancer …’ that sentence [your life is never the same]…only tells a fraction of the story.  As a cancer patient, there are so many days that change the course of your life…”

Despite the agony of treatments, waiting for scans, even hearing that he had more tumors, Seivers wasn’t ready to give up.  He quoted Hunter S. Thompson, “Buy the ticket; take the ride.”  His stomach may have been a little queasy, he admitted, but he wasn’t ready to get off the ride quite then.  “…it’s still life,” he said, “and it’s a life worth living.”

“There is no going back,” the first line of Berry’s poem echoes in my mind, and yet, there is much about life to cherish.   We learn to hold what was, those who were once part of our lives, even our younger or healthier selves, in our memories.   Their stories become part of our stories.  They intermingle and become, in a very real sense, part of who we have become.

More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you…

Berry reminds us, just as Larry Sievers did, that even though we cannot return to the selves we once were, our lives are worth living.  Indeed, it’s possible that in some ways, our lives are even fuller.

Now more than ever you can be
generous toward each day
that comes, young, to disappear
forever, and yet remain
uniting in the mind.
Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.

(From:  A Timbered Choir:  The Sabbath Poems, 1979 – 1997, by Wendell Berry)

At Dave’s memorial yesterday, some of his writing was read aloud, his life remembered, his pottery was on display, and for each of the people who came to honor him,  a piece of his pottery given to each person to take home.  It was completely fitting for a man who gave so much of himself to others, working to improve circumstances for Families from Afghanistan and the health and well-begin of the LGBTQ community in Chicago.  Dave showed us, even in death, what he had shown to others in his life:  compassion, generosity and grace.

Cancer is not the whole book, but it does impact our lives in many ways—some of them difficult and soul-wrenching, but in other ways too, ways that shape the life we want to live for however long we have.  We all die, sooner or later, but it’s not the fear of death that should occupy our waking moments.  The most important question is to ask ourselves how do we want to live? How do we give ourselves away each day?

This week, write about what have you learned from cancer. What has changed in the way you think about life?  How are you writing the next chapter of your life?

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In Worcester, Massachusetts,

I went with Aunt Consuelo

to keep her dentist’s appointment

and sat and waited for her

in the dentist’s waiting room.


(From “In the Waiting Room,” by Elizabeth Bishop The Complete Poems 1927-1979)

 I spent the better part of Tuesday in the outpatient waiting room this week,  while my husband, prepped and ready, waited behind closed doors, in a curtained cubicle outside the operating room.  We were there for a minor surgical procedure on his left hand.  We had just arrived at the check-in desk, when a nurse took him in for the pre-surgical preparations.  “Great,” I thought, “this is going to be quick.”  It wasn’t.  An hour passed, then two, and just as the hands on the clock moved toward a third hour spent in the waiting room, the nurse called me in.

“He’s all done,” she said.  John, still in the hospital gown,  held up a bandaged hand. “But first, you need to go down to pharmacy and get his prescription for pain medication.  We’ve already called it in.  It should be waiting for you.  We’ll get him dressed, and as soon as you have get the pills, just bring your car around to the entrance to Building C, and we’ll bring him out.”

I gave my husband a kiss.  “I’ll see you soon,” I said and left to get his medication.

I took the elevator down to the first floor, found the pharmacy and took my place in a long line of people, all waiting to have their prescriptions processed.  When my turn came, I presented the paperwork to the pharmacy associate.  She entered the information into the computer and politely smiled.   “It hasn’t been filled yet.  It will take about thirty minutes.   Have a seat and we’ll call you when it’s ready.”

I obediently sat down, foot twitching, and waited.  Meanwhile, upstairs, my husband was now waiting on me, dressed and ready to go home, but unable to do anything until I had gotten the medication and  parked at the entrance to the surgical wing.  An hour later, we were finally on our way.

What you do with time

is what a grandmother clock

does with it: strike twelve

and take its time doing it.

You’re the clock: time passes,

you remain. And wait.


(From:  “Mother,” by From The Plural of Happiness: Selected Poems of Herman de Coninck, 2006

Waiting.  We do a lot of it, and we’ve all been doing for a very long time.  Remember how eagerly you waited on Christmas eve, hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa?  Or that first crush you had on a boy or girl, waiting and hoping they might notice you?  As a young, expectant mother, I waited for my overdue daughter to be born, the one who, ironically, continues to keep me waiting even now.

Waiting dominates our daily lives.  We wait in lines for tickets or to get through security at the airport.  We wait to be served in restaurants or for a train in the subway station.  We wait for calls or letters from loved ones, for acceptances to schools, or the results of medical tests.  We wait in doctors’ waiting rooms for an appointment that was scheduled an hour earlier, thumbing impatiently through outdated magazines and checking the clock a dozen times.

We wait with hope; we wait with dread.  And if you’re anything like me, we wait impatiently, unable to concentrate on much of anything but the waiting

Some days will be rainy and you will sit waiting

And the letter you wait for won’t come,

And I will sit watching the sky tear off gray and gray

And the letter I wait for won’t come.


(From “Caboose Thoughts,” by Carl Sandburg, 1878 – 1967)

No amount of sighing and toe tapping diminishes the waiting.  I’ve learned that it does little good to pace the hallway or sit at the table, foot twitching restlessly, willing something or someone to speed up.  Time—and events—move as they will.  So if we allow impatience to be our master, how much of life do we fail to notice?

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.


(From The Four Quartets, by T.S. Eliot, 1943)

The faith and the love and the hope are … in the waiting.  These words remind me to reconsider why life seems to make us wait.  I am still learning, despite my age, to accept what I cannot control, to let things unfold as they will–even if it’s as simple as waiting for a perpetually tardy adult daughter to meet me at the door and say, “I’m ready.

What do you wait for?   Or do you remember a particular time when your life seemed to be consumed by waiting?  Write about waiting.



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A friend is someone who likes you.
It can be a boy…
It can be a girl…
(From:  A Friend is Someone Who Likes You, by Joan Walsh Anglund, 1983)

This past Friday, I began another ten-week expressive writing series at Moores UCSD Cancer Center here in San Diego.  We were delayed in our start to the session since the workshop was held in a different room than we’ve previously met in—and finding it was a bit of a challenge for all of us.  But the late arrivals were punctuated with laughter and hellos, many participants returning for another series.   The first session is a time typically to get acquainted and together, begin to explore the experience of cancer.  But I couldn’t help notice the warmth and affection present in the room.  Writing, out of the shared experience of cancer, builds community and creates friendships between many of the participants.  So many of the men and women I write with tell me that cancer meant discovering who, among all those they called “friends,” were truly friends, people who stuck by them and offered care, love and support.

“But you got to have friends,” Bette Midler sang on her album, The Divine Miss M, “The feeling’s oh so strong. /You got to have friends/ to make that day last long…”  As we closed the session later that morning, I presented everyone with a small chocolate hearts and a short exercise to use “valentines” as the writing prompt for our final exercise.  A few wrote short poems; others wrote love letters to their spouses; some wrote about gratitude for the friends in their lives.

I thought about several of my friends over the years, but it was the photograph of my granddaughter, Flora, and her very best friend from pre-school, spending their Valentine’s Day together that got me remembering my first very best friend.

flora and friend

The obvious delight each girl has for the other in the other radiates in their smiles and faces.  They’re each wearing a “princess” dress and enacting fantasies of Elsa, the snow queen from Frozen.  I thought about their unabashed excitement—and of mine for a long ago friend when I was in kindergarten.

My very best friend in kindergarten was also named Sharon.  We did everything together.  Even in the class photograph, we sit together in the front row, she with short hair and long brown bangs, me with my then blonde  hair in braids wrapped around my head. I was enamored of Sharon, and she of me, but on Valentine’s Day, my affection for her was more than apparent to everyone.

The day before the Valentine’s party, we were buzzing with excitement in Mrs. Newton’s afternoon class.  Not only were we going to have a party, but for the very first time in our lives, we were exchanging Valentine’s cards.  We each decorated paper bags to hold our cards, decorating them in red and white construction paper, and pasting cut-out red hearts on them.  Our teacher was in charge of  our class mailbox—large enough to hold everyone’s valentines–and decorated in pink and red, the lid covered with lace doilies and red hearts.  She sent us home with a list of everyone’s names, and our mothers went to the 5 & 10 store to buy the cellophane packages of 36 valentines, ready for addressing to our classmates, with some parental assistance, of course.

Early the morning of February 14,  I tiptoed out of bed and made my way to the cardboard table in the front room of our apartment, where my package of  valentines lay waiting.  A blue ink pen was nearby.  Very carefully, I opened the package and quietly began addressing each card in my best printing:   “To Sharon H.,” I wrote, then misspelling a word, “Form Sharon B.”  Not just once, but over and over, one one card after the other.  By the time my mother awakened, I had addressed well over half of the cards and each to my best friend, Sharon.  Worse, I had done it all in ink.

I don’t remember how Mother got me off to school with  some kind of hastily manufactured valentines in my bag so I had something for everyone on the list, but the memory of Mrs. Newton passing out valentines that afternoon has stayed with me.  Again and again,  she reached in the big pink box,  looked over at me, then smiling turned to the class and said, “Why, here’s another valentine for Sharon H.”  I blushed furiously each time.

Sharon and I we grew apart by the time we entered high school.  Each of us had other best friends, some who endured; some who did not, but by graduation,  our sites were on college and getting out of our small town.  Sharon married her high school sweetheart, but became terribly ill soon afterward and died —the details of her death I no longer remember. But I do remember how important she was to me  those many years ago as my first best friend.   From her I learned something  about what it meant to have a special friend.   There would be other lessons to come on friendships,  as we grew into adolescence and adulthood, some difficult, others heartwarming.  I think  some friendships are meant to last decades.  Some are not.  Time, circumstance, unforeseen difficulties, distance—all intervene and challenge our friendships, yet each is important.  From them we learn more about ourselves and each other.

As I look at my life now, I’m grateful for the friendships that have continued despite years and the physical distances between us.  “Make new friends, but keep the old,” an old Brownie Scout song goes, “one is silver and the other gold.” Each time we’ve moved—more than I like—it means leaving old friends and again, making new ones.  The older we become, the more difficult making new ones seems to be, and yet “you got to have friends…”

Friendship, according to Rebecca Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than our family relationships. Besides better health, a more positive outlook, a longer lifespan and a more hopeful attitude towards life are benefits of friendships.

Not convinced?  Take a look at the New York Times article, “What Are Friends For?  A Longer Life,” published April 20, 2009.  One ten-year study of older people found those with a large circle of friends were less likely to die than those with fewer friends. Harvard researchers also found that strong social ties may promote brain health as we get older.  There’s more.  In a 2006 study of nurses with breast cancer, the women without close friends were four times as likely to die from it as those with ten or more friends.  Proximity and amount of contact were not important; just having friends was protective.  And In a six-year study of 736 Swedish men, friendships was more important in lowering the risk of heart attack and coronary heart disease than attachment to a single person.

Do you remember your first best friend?  Write about your first friend or another special friend.  What memories you retain about him or her, the importance they had in your life?

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The phone rang late yesterday afternoon just as I’d decided to postpone my weekly shopping for another day, unwilling to face the crowded aisles of the stores.  It was the framing shop, telling me my artwork, purchased while I was in Okinawa, was framed and ready for pick-up.  It took only seconds for me to drop everything I was doing, hop in the car and drive to the mall.  I returned, oblivious to anything except getting my print, a colored woodblock by Japanese artist Hiroshi Gima, and famous for his body of work depicting the life and traditions of Okinawa.


(Hiroshi Gima, woodcut, “Woman from Okinawa”)

I drove straight home and spent the rest of the afternoon hanging, then admiring Gima’s woodcut.  It was my second, the first acquired during  the fall of 2013, when I first saw his work.   On the suggestion of a friend, I visited the small shop in Naha where the owner, an elder Okinawan woman conversed in Japanese in my daughter while carefully showing me several prints.  I choose one of an Okinawan boy and carried it home.  This trip,  when Claire asked me what I wanted to see or do, I had three requests:  1) to spend as much time as possible with my grandchildren, 2) to tag along with her as she traveled the island to teach, and 3) to return to the shop to see Gima’s prints again.  All three requests were honored, and my only purchase on the trip was a another small woodcut.

What is it about mementos–whatever form they take?  With them,  we carry back the memories of our travels, the remembrances of special times.  Among my  mementos from three trips to Okinawa are a pair of Shisa dogs  believed to protect one from  evils, a small pottery vase, and a salt charm to ensure my safe travel home, all gifts given from my daughter’s friends.  This morning I sat and studied the newly framed art and recalled the graciousness of the shopkeeper, her quiet pride in showing me Gima’s woodcuts, and how she repeatedly thanked me and wished me a safe journey home, bowing respectfully as I left the shop.

It’s been nearly two weeks since I returned to San Diego, my heart full, yet reluctant to re-enter the pace and culture that is Southern California.  I think of all I experienced in Okinawa often, and in small ways, try to capture remnants of what was so meaningful into my daily life here–things like simplicity, gratitude for a simple meal,  carefully prepared and artistically presented, the kindness, shared laughter and warmth of Claire’s Okinawan friends, the respect I continually witnessed for elders.

I spent one joyful afternoon at a senior day care program where my daughter volunteers each month.  Among the group, all over 85 years old, were three centenarians, and of these, the oldest was 103.  We sat in a circle as , they practiced simple English conversation, “How are you?”  “It is nice to see you,” together with Claire, laughing at their mistakes and, because I was a newcomer to the group, showing far more interest in me, my age, and how I cared for my skin!  Afterwards, they cheered me on as I tried my hand at writing my name in Kanji—much more difficult than I imagined.  I left smiling and grateful for the experience, hoping I will share as much laughter and respect with others in my elder years.

That afternoon is one part of what I carried home, along with a gift of Kanji script, to remind me of the senior center, the fun and happiness I experienced.  It’s no wonder that Okinawans live longer than anyone else in the world!   They also live better, with less heart disease, a fourth of the breast and prostate cancers, and lower rates of dementia.  While diet certainly is a factor—many Okinawans grow their own food–there’s more.  It’s something called“Ikagi,” which translated means “that which makes one’s life worth living.”  Craig Wilcox, author of the Okinawa Centenarian Study suggests that elder Okinawans’ strong sense of purpose may act as a buffer against stress and disease.

Laughter, joy, a sense of humor, the way that gratitude and respect infuse each day—a sense of a reason to keep on living–this is what I want to remember, what I want to retain, and what, I suppose, the small things carried home from Okinawa remind me of.  Whether memento or talisman, there are memories and stories in the objects I cherish.  They act as triggers, as reminders, as a way to remember the people and events so important in my life.  They may even, as I hope they will, remind me of the ways I want to live well into my elder years!

This week, find an object from one of your trips, a special event, a time in your life where you overcame an obstacle, or something given to you by a grandparent or long ago friend.  Study it.  What memories does it evoke?  Why do you keep it?  Tell its story.


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I take the snap from the center, fake to the right, fade back…

I’ve got protection. I’ve got a receiver open downfield…

What the hell is this? This isn’t a football, it’s a shoe, a man’s

brown leather oxford. A cousin to a football maybe, the same

skin, but not the same, a thing made for the earth, not the air.

I realize that this is a world where anything is possible and I

understand, also, that one often has to make do with what one

has. (From “Football,” by Louis Jenkins, ©1995)

It’s Super Bowl Sunday, and millions of people across the country will be glued to their television sets for pre-game commentary and the excitement of the kick-off today.  Super Bowl hype has dominated every news channel for the entire week– so it seemed to this jet-lagged traveler.  The Super Bowl, despite my disinterest in football, is more of a social event for me than anything.  Despite a long history of shunning football games, I’ve been drawn in, whether the talk of “deflate-gate,” the entertaining half-time shows (Okay, I admit I tuned into Bruno Mars performance a year ago) or the sheer fun from the array of creative commercials, I can’t escape the fact that most of our friends and colleagues will be gathering around the television set to watch the game together.  I’ll be there too, less interested in the game than the entertainment, despite growing up in a family where football reigned supreme (my brother recently retired from a long and successful career coaching college football).

I’ll confess that, as somewhat of a tomboy in my youth, I aspired to play football.  My father played during high school and never lost his love of the game.  While my brother was still a toddler, I began pestering him to show me how to pass the pigskin before taking my skills to the neighborhood touch football games, played in summer evenings and autumn afternoons on our street.  As much as I tried to impress my father with my talents, it wasn’t until Dick King, the reigning high school football star,who was dating a girl who lived across the street, stopped to watched one of our neighborhood games.  That day I earned the praise I’d longed for.  Suddenly shy but conscious of his presence, I fired the football in a perfect long pass to my buddy, Marty.  “Man,” Dick King said to his girlfriend, “look at that girl pass!”  I was elated.

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, ©2008)

But my youthful football prowess was short-lived.  By high school, football was reserved for boys; my father was teaching my brother, and instead, I was playing French horn in the band.  Being in the high school band was synonymous with marching during half-time at every home game.  Think of November, bitterly cold, and an icy brass mouthpiece banging against your lips.  I won’t even describe the toy soldier looking uniforms that every band member wore, a source of perpetual embarrassment.  Besides, marching music relegated the French horn to the monotony of notes played on the after beat.  I grew to dislike the high school sport that caused such discomfort and boredom on Friday nights and in college, stubbornly refused all invitations to attend football games.  I turned my back on the great American pastime of watching football.

But today, I’m readying myself for Super Bowl Sunday and girding myself for the onslaught of sports talk that infiltrates normal conversation.   I’m struck by how often sports talk is used as a metaphor for challenge, struggle, or winning or life.  Sports, like writing, has its own rhythm, pace, and language, but like so many catchy phrases, it creeps into our everyday language, and we end up almost unconsciously using “sports metaphors” to describe many experiences in our lives:  ”you’re ‘way out of bounds,” “tackle the problem head on,” “being a team player,” “run with a good idea,” or “make a pass at someone.”

Like many phrases in everyday language, sports metaphors are overused, falling into the category of the clichés we seek to avoid in writing.  Yet sometimes, the act of playing around with comparisons, metaphors and even clichés can offer us new insights, ways to “free” up our writing, discover new insights or simply have fun with a topic or an idea.

This week, try taking your inspiration from Super Bowl Sunday.  Listen to the phrases that occur again and again in the broadcasts.  Try incorporating some of those metaphors to describe a struggle or difficult life challenge like a cancer diagnosis.  Use the language, the metaphors, whether from football or some other sport you prefer.  Have fun.  Play around with sports words and metaphors.  Who knows?  You might even “hit the mark!”

Enjoy the day.

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

(This week’s prompt was inspired by the hype of Super Bowl Sunday and Bonni Goldberg’s great little book, Room to Write:  Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life, ©1996)

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Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.
― Orson Scott Card, Alvin Journeyman
Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.
― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
There are few things as toxic as a bad metaphor.  You can’t think without metaphors. 
  –Mary Catherine Bateson

Back in October, I wrote a post about metaphors—those intended or inadvertent comparisons we use in our daily lives.  At the time, I was exploring the metaphors we use to describe the “kingdom of the sick,” and how they exert a subtle or not so subtle influence on our daily lives.  How we think of or see a thing often influences the actions we take concerning it.

I was reminded that post on metaphors or comparisons again this Sunday morning, (late Saturday afternoon or early evening for those of you in North America) the day before I return home from Okinawa.   I was reading through my students’ responses to the first week of assigned readings for “Transformative Writing” an online course I teach for UCLA extension Writers’ Program.  We’re using Louise DeSalvo’s excellent book, Writing as a Way of Healing, as the text for the first half of the course.  Her first two chapters coupled with an article by psychologist James Pennebaker got students thinking more about how writing—no matter the form—can have health benefits, whether emotional or physical.   But it was in the use of metaphors two of the students responded with their reflections that got me thinking about how we use comparisons to describe something.

One student described negative emotions like “bad dinner guests.”  I wrote back, suggesting that the feelings we have out of woundedness or a life threatening illness are not so easily dismissed as an unpleasant dinner guest.  His response got me thinking how we sometimes use metaphors or comparisons without stopping to consider what they actually imply.   While poetry abounds with metaphor, the poet’s choice is a considered one, for through them, the poem’s meaning is conveyed.  If you were to trying to describe hurt, grief or fear—emotions that arise out of trauma and serious life situations, would you think of them as “bad dinner guests” or something more onerous or lasting?  What is the metaphor you’d use, and why?

The beauty of a metaphor is that it calls up an image and conveys meaning in a single word or two.  Even DeSalvo’s book is a comparison:  writing as a way of healing.  The second student wrote how DeSalvo’s chapters made her realize why writing is so important for her.  “Writing is breathing,” she said.  I understood immediately—for those of us who write, it is natural and necessary as breath.  I’ve often described my daily habit of writing as “a meditation” or “prayer.”   How would you describe any of your “life-giving” activities using a metaphor or comparison?

This week, think about the metaphors you use in the rhythm of daily living.  Are there ones you find yourself repeating?  Others that, as you stop to think about them,  they don’t quite convey what you intended?  How would you describe—using a metaphor or comparison—negative or painful emotions?  Or, if writing is important to you, then how would you convey that with a metaphor, e.g. writing is _________.   Think about the meaning behind the common comparisons you use.   Explore how you use metaphors.

I’ll be writing next week from my home office in California, my heart filled with gratitude for the time I’ve been able to spend in Okinawa with my daughter and my delightful, never-a-dull-moment two grandchildren, experiencing their lives, the culture in which they’re residing, and experiencing so many truly wonderful moments with their friends.  As for finding the metaphor or comparison that sums it all up, well, my heart is so full, the words don’t quite do justice to describe my experience just yet!  Yes, I think there are also times in life when no words quite capture what we experience or feel.

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Where do dreams come from? Do they
sneak in through torn screens at night
to light on the arm like mosquitoes?
Are they passed from mouth to ear
like gossip or dirty jokes? Do they
sprout from underground on damp
mornings like toadstools that form
fairy rings on dew tipped grasses?
No, they slink out of books, they lurk
in the stacks of libraries. Out of pages
turned they rise like the scent of peonies
and infect the brain with their promise…
(From: “Where Dreams Come From” by Marge Piercy, The Hunger Moon: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2010.)

(Note:  This week’s post is taken from an earlier post in October, 2013, when I was also visiting my daughter and her family in Okinawa.  I am again thousands of miles from my home and office and from the quiet I enjoy each morning.  Instead, I am awakened each morning by Nathan (almost six) and Emily (three & a half) for a morning cuddle and a story before breakfast–then the day begins, a whirlwind day of activity, and again, at bedtime a ritual of nighttime stories to be read each evening.   Even as I write this note, my grandson is pacing the hallway, checking my progress every minute or two, waiting impatiently to reclaim his grandmother for another day of fun.  Thus, tI offer this modified post from my last visit–still as relevant now as it was then.)

I’ve been in Okinawa for the month, helping my daughter as she recovers from surgery, the better part of my day and evening spent in the company her children, Nathan, age four and Emily, two. The day winds down each evening at seven p.m., as I guide them upstairs for our nightly routine of face washing, teeth brushing, and each of their choices for a nighttime story. Nathan chose Mousetronaut, written by former astronaut, Mark Kelly, the tale of a small mouse who wants nothing more than to travel to outer space. The children snuggled close to me as I began reading.

“Gramma,” Nathan stopped me after the first couple of pages. “I want to be an astronaut.”

“You do? Well, if you try hard enough, maybe you will be an astronaut someday.

“Yes, but wait,” he said, turning the pages until he reached the page with the picture of the space team, all wearing their orange NASA uniforms. “See Gramma?” He pointed at the tallest astronaut. “Like this. I want to be the COMMANDER.”

I left the room smiling, remembering some childish dreams of my own, some that never materialized; others that did, but not without some unexpected whacks on the side of the head—like the moment I heard the doctor say “cancer” or the day I passed out on the pavement and was diagnosed with heart failure.  I realized that if I truly wanted to turn those long-held dreams into reality, I had better take action. I

In the years since I’ve been leading groups for cancer patients and others, I’ve been inspired—and humbled—by many individuals who’ve faced hardship or odds that might have easily deterred them from their dreams.

There was Ann, diagnosed with a rare, terminal cancer, who kept beating the odds and lived nearly six years longer than anyone expected. That period turned into one of the most creative of her life. She blossomed into an extraordinary poet, studying with masters like Ellen Bass, Jane Hirshfield, Dorianne Laux, and Tony Hoagland, among . A number of her poems were published in literary journals before her death—artistry borne out of hardship and crisis. She touched many of us with her grace and her spirit, manifested in her poems.

Two years ago, L., a recently retired physician, was a student in a creative nonfiction class I taught for UCLA extension Writers’ Program. She was writing a memoir—and what a story she had! When L. was newly married and just beginning a medical career, she was in a horrific accident, resulting in the loss both legs and an arm. While many of us may have felt our dreams dissolve in that moment, she was undaunted and determined to live a full life, continuing with her medical career, having a child, and, with her husband, continuing to travel and experience new adventures. A year after the course had ended, L. me a photograph of an expedition taken with her husband—it pictured her wheelchair at the top of Machu Picchu. Nothing, it seemed, could keep her from realizing her dreams.

I am in awe of L. and people like her, inspired by their determination and resilience to overcome enormous odds to turn dreams into reality. They help me put my life in perspective. Life hands us all tough times, unexpected losses or difficult challenges, ones that threaten to extinguish our hopes or dreams. “Don’t you know that you’re my hero,” Bette Midler sang.  Ann, L. and so many others are my heroes.  I keep L.’s photograph of her wheelchair atop Machu Picchu tacked to my bulletin board because it inspires me to try a little harder.

I tucked Nathan and his sister into bed again last night, as I’ve done since I arrived here. He clutched a small plastic replica of the Okinawa superhero, Mabuyer. “I have the power, Gramma,” he said, holding up the figure.

“Yes, buddy, I think you do,” I smiled.

I said goodnight, kissed his forehead, then left the room thinking that we should all be so lucky to “have the power.”  Maybe then we’d never lose the determination to make our own dreams come true, no matter what obstacles we face in life.

Write about your dreams. When has life gotten in the way of them? What’s changed? What do you hope and dream for now?

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