Archive for the ‘writing for wellness’ Category

(Portions of today’s post previously appeared on July 14, 2013)

When our semi-conductor
Raised his baton, we sat there
Gaping at Marche Militaire,
Our mouth-opening number.
It seemed faintly familiar
(We’d rehearsed it all that winter),
But we attacked in such a blur,
No army anywhere
On its stomach or all fours
Could have squeezed though our cross fire…

By the last lost chord, our director
Looked older and soberer.
No doubt, in mind’s ear
Some band somewhere
In some Music of some Sphere
Was striking a note as pure
As the wishes of Franz Schubert,
But meanwhile here we were:
A lesson in everything minor,
Decomposing our first composer.

(From: “The Junior High School Band Concert,” by David Wagoner;  Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems.  University of Illinois Press, 1999)

I thought again of Wagoner’s poem this past week as I dusted off my old alto recorder, struggling to remember fingering and play a simple piece I’d once done easily.  I found the recorder and a stack of sheet music as I went through boxes of old belongings. When I opened the box and held the recorder it in my hands, my desire to play rekindled.  My first attempts were awkward and unmelodic.  I’d forgotten fingering, and my fingers lacked the agility I once had.  It wasn’t unlike how I felt when I first learned to play the French horn as a twelve-year-old.  I wanted to play in the band. Our music teacher and  band leader needed French horn players, so I volunteered.

It wasn’t the musical experience I hoped for, but I went on to become first horn throughout junior high and high school  The trouble was that the  bulk of my musical in the high school band was relegated to football , September through November.  I remember how the icy brass mouthpiece banged against my frozen lips as the band performed on the field at every halftime.  Worse, I was forced to wear a most unattractive uniform covered in shiny brass buttons and gold cord, which only made look like the toy soldier out of “The Nutcracker. “

So it’s little wonder that given the opportunity to “shine,” as it were, in our annual spring concert, we French horns quite literally blasted out the theme to Dvořák’s “The New World Symphony.”  We played with all the enthusiasm of musical students who’d been denied anything but the after beat in the dozens of marches that made up most of our repertoire.  Our fervor over-rode our appreciation for subtlety and modulation.  The look on our bandleader’s face has stayed with me all these years later.  His surprise, no, shock, registering on his face as we belted out those unforgettable bars in our few moments of glory.  I quickly gave up my career as a French horn player when I left for college.

It turns out that all those years of piano lessons, singing in the church choir, doing pliés while a pianist accompanied my ballet class,  playing French horn in the marching band–even playing in a recorder quintet as an adult– were beneficial in ways I didn’t realize at the time.  Not only can music enhance youthful self-esteem and academic performance, musical training helps protect our mental sharpness and brain functioning.  As I’ve aged, I’m now intent on maintaining my mental acuity for as long as possible.

It’s one of the reasons I signed up for classes in African drumming four years ago.  I’d never played a drum, but I’ve played with the same enthusiasm as that youthful horn player I once was.  I often joked that I’d remain in the beginner class indefinitely because an accidental  shoulder injury cut my drumming career short.  Now what?  I love music and rhythm.  Drumming in a community of other drummers was joyous and exhilarating.  But it’s not just drumming: Anything to do with music makes me feel better.  Music is good medicine.

“The power of music to integrate and cure is quite fundamental,” Dr. Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author of Awakenings wrote. “It is the profoundest non-chemical medication.” Music has a long history in medicine and healing. The ancient Greeks believed music could heal the body and the soul. Ancient Egyptians and Native Americans incorporated singing and chanting as part of their healing rituals. Even the U.S. Veterans Administration incorporated music an adjunct therapy for shell-shocked soldiers after World War II. Today, music therapy is widely used in hospitals and cancer centers to promote healing and enhance the quality of patients’ lives.

Google “music and healing,” and you’ll find a number of articles attesting to the physiological and emotional benefits of music.

  • It aids our autonomic nervous systems, positively affecting blood pressure, heartbeat and breathing.  In fact, music can actually improve the overall functioning of our cardiovascular systems.
  • It helps reduce stress, aid relaxation and alleviate depression.
  • In cancer patients, music can decrease anxiety. Together with anti-nausea drugs, music can help to ease nausea and vomiting accompanying chemotherapy.
  • It relieves short-term pain and decreases the need for pain medication.
  • It’s effective in diminishing pre-surgical anxiety and beneficial for patients with high blood pressure.
  • Music even plays a role in improving troubled teens’ self-esteem and academic performance.

Music also improves memory functioning.  Think about it:  We associate songs and other musical pieces with the people, places and emotions we experienced in the past. Not only does music our trigger life stories, but it can enhance memory functioning and face-name recognition among Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. (http://clearinghouse.missouriwestern.edu/manuscripts/230.php).

My mother died of Alzheimer’s several years ago.  On one of my final visits with her, I was shocked by the physical and mental deterioration in the few weeks since I’d last  seen her.  Unresponsive and no longer able to walk, and she sat motionless in a wheelchair, her head bobbing listlessly to her chest. I tried to elicit a reaction from her, but without success.  I pushed the wheelchair outside and walked around and around the building, before finally stopping to rest, stationing her next to a Bougainvillea  furious with red blooms hoping to see a glimmer of life—some sign my mother was still inside her wasting body.  I took her hand in mine and impulsively began singing.  It was a song she often sang when I was a child.

“Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you,” I began, struggling to remember the lyrics.  “Let me hear you whisper…”  My eyes filled with tears, but I kept singing as much as I could remember.  Very slowly, my mother raised her head to fix her eyes on my face.  With great effort, she smiled.  “Why,” she said, struggling for words, “it’s Sha-ron!”  She nodded and smiled once more, closing her eyes.  “I’m hap-py,” she said.  So, as it happened, was I.

This week, think about music as medicine.  What role does music play in your life?  Have you used music as part of your healing during illness or loss?  How did it help?  What memories does a particular song ignite for you?  What stories?  Music, even a song like “Happy Birthday,” is also a powerful prompt for writing.   Here are a few suggestions for writing:

  • Perhaps there was some particular music that helped you through cancer treatment or another difficult time.  Listen to it again, closing your eyes, and try to remember that time and how the music made you feel.
  • Recall a lullaby from childhood, a favorite song, a bit of classical music, or even the somewhat dissonant music from your high school band. What memories or stories does the music trigger?
  • Take any favorite recording, classical, jazz, new age, or pop, and listen to it.  Keep your notebook nearby. As you listen, capture the random thoughts and associations that come to mind. Once the recording ends, open your notebook and begin free writing.  Do this for five minutes.  When you finish, re-read what you’ve written and underline the sentence that has the most power for you.  Use that sentence to begin writing again on a fresh page. Set the timer for 15 minutes and see where it takes you.

I think I should have no other mortal wants if I could always have plenty of music. It seems to infuse strength into my limbs and ideas into my brain. Life seems to go on without effort when I am filled with music.– George Bernard Shaw

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Preface:  Three weeks ago, my six-year-old grandson gave his sister, age 4, a haircut, “artfully” executed with his Sesame Street scissors.  My daughter was sleeping a little later than usual on a Sunday morning, and as far as she knew, her dynamic duo were playing quietly together. 

She awakened to find Emily’s long blonde locks wound around the brushes of the carpet sweeper—a careful clean-up job undertaken by her brother.  She greeted her mother with a huge smile and a rather uneven pixie cut, while Nathan held back, aware, I think, that his hairdressing skills weren’t quite up to snuff.  My daughter handled it with more grace than I might have.  When she suggested to Emily that perhaps they could go to the local hairdresser to “straighten it up a bit,” my granddaughter was adamant.  “NO Mommy!  My brother gave me a haircut.  I be cute now!” 

And so she was—with her long hair or without it.  Claire accepted her wishes.  “She’s happy,” she said, “so I’m happy.”  (Nathan did, however, lose possession of his very own scissors). 

This week’s post about having—and losing—hair was previously published March 12, 2012.

A dozen women, all living with cancer, were seated around the table with their notebooks open.  I had given them a short “warm-up” writing exercise, something I do at the beginning of a workshop.

“What’s on your mind this morning?  What thoughts or concerns have accompanied you to our group?” Write for five minutes; just keep the pen moving.  Don’t worry about what gets written.”  Notebooks opened and within seconds, only the sound of pens, moving across the pages, could be heard. “Who wants to read first?” I asked.  One woman, her head covered with a brightly colored scarf, raised her hand.

“I’m angry about losing my hair,” she said as she began to read what she’d written.  “My hair has been my signature, long and full…”  She looked up from her notebook and reached for a tissue.  Her eyes were red and teary.  Several of the women nodded sympathetically.  Two of them also wore headscarves or wigs, two others had removed theirs in favor of short, newly grown heads of hair, grateful chemotherapy was behind them.  I recalled my embarrassment when twice, as a teenager, I sported a bald head after neurosurgery, covering it with scarves when I returned to school and praying no one would laugh at me.  I felt unattractive and vulnerable to taunts or teasing, all from losing my hair.

Hair loss is one of the unfortunate side effects of chemotherapy that the majority of cancer patients experience.  While some of the newer, more targeted chemotherapy drugs don’t result in hair loss, the majority do.   Thankfully, the loss is temporary, and there’s solace in knowing that the drugs are helping you fight your illness, hair loss can have a powerful effect on our emotions.

Hair, whether male or female, losing it or not, affects the vast majority of us.    Consider how much time and money is spent in support of your hair, whether cut, colored, shampooed or styled, or waxed, tweezed and shaved.  Remember the rock musical “Hair?”  The styles of the sixties?  Long, full, permed, and wild, our hair was evidence of youthful freedom and rebellion.

Gimme’ a head with hair
Long beautiful hair
Shining, gleaming,
Streaming, flaxen, waxen

Give me down to there hair
Shoulder length or longer
Here baby, there mama
Everywhere daddy daddy

Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it
Long as God can grow it
My hair…

(Lyrics from  Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, by James Rado & Gerome Ragni)

Hair and hair styles are a distinctive feature of history.  Think of the powdered wigs from Mozart’s day, or the fashionable pony tails the men of Jefferson’s era.  Our stories of hair existed long before that sixties musical.  Remember the biblical story of Samson?  His power lay in his hair, giving him the strength to rip apart a lion or destroy temples with his bare hands.  He vowed never to never to have it cut.   His downfall came, of course, when he fell in love with Delilah.  Her powers of seduction gradually wore him down, and he revealed his secret:  if a razor were used on his head, he would lose his strength.  Delilah waited until Samson slept and ordered the servants to cut his hair.  When he awakened, his magnificent locks were gone, and with them, his strength, and he could no longer resist his captors.

Hair loss, whether the result of chemotherapy or genetic inheritance, affects men and women alike.  My husband’s hair has been thinning for years, and for a long time, he obsessed over his widening bald spot, yet resisting Rogaine treatments or comb-overs.  More than once, however, he returned from his hairdresser with a “new look,” an effort to mask the relentless disappearance of his hair.  Those attempts didn’t last—the fits of laughter induced by his new “do” from our daughters and me were enough to send him back to the barber for a less “hip” cut.  Thankfully, the bare head has become fashionable for men, and he’s embraced his shorn head with relief.

Gregory Corso, a Beat poet in the era of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, creates a kaleidoscope of images about how we treat and worry about our hair in his poem, simply entitled, “Hair.”

Come back, hair, come back!
I want to grow sideburns!
I want to wash you, comb you, sun you, love you!
As I ran from you wild before —
I thought surely this nineteen hundred and fifty-nine of now
that I need no longer bite my fingernails
but have handsome gray hair
to show how profoundly nervous I am.

(From Minefield:  New and Selected Poems)

The young woman from my writing group who mourned the loss of her hair that one morning has since recovered from her treatments.  Her hair has grown back, long and full.  She’s grateful, not just for her hair, but for enjoying a life without cancer.  In thinking about her, I remember a beautiful poem, “Farewell to Hair,” by Terradon.  She watches as her hair floats away in the breeze, but she finds solace—even gratitude—as she imagines how it might comfort other living creatures:

I stood outside on a windy day,
and ran my fingers through my hair.
Long strands of silky threads,
blew across the lawn…

I imagined a nest,
lined with my mane.
Woven by a mama bird…

Now on the wintry nights,
when my head is cold,
I pull my wool cap over my ears and smile.
As I dream of baby birds,
sleeping in my hair.

(In The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. 1, Karin Miller, Ed.)
Hair.  It’s a topic that invites an unending supply of opinions, discussion, stories or poems.  This week, why not write about hair:  having it, losing it, styling it, coloring, cutting or even a time you experienced a hair style disaster.  Open up your old high school yearbook and take a look at that young person whose face in framed in a hair style that was popular at the time.  Chances are if you’re like most of us, you have a story or two to tell about hair.

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This morning, as my husband read the humorous Father’s Day cards I bought for him, he laughed, but joked that the sentiments of Father’s Day cards don’t seem to carry the emotional impact of those for Mother’s Day.  I had to agree, since I’d perused the card racks for weeks before finally opting for sillier of those offered for purchase.  It turns out that it’s true.  In 2008, San Diego Union Tribune reporter, Jenifer Godwin, titled her article, “Father’s Day:  Even the cards are different.”  She stated:

     Moms and dads are more equal parenting partners than ever before, with studies showing men do far more housework and spend more time with their children than previous generations.

     Yet Father’s Day still doesn’t inspire the same need to bestow sentimental cards, gifts and dinners out as Mother’s Day.

There you have it.   Godwin cited a number of statistics to show the contrast between how we celebrate mothers and fathers.  More cards are sent to mothers on Mother’s Day and more money is spent on mothers’ gifts.  One more ironic note my husband observed was in the flowers, roses sent to me on from my oldest daughter on Mother’s Day and those she sent to him today.  His were fresher and more beautiful.  Why?  “I think it’s because everyone sends flowers to their mothers on Mother’s Day,” he said.  “The florists are in a rush trying to meet demand, whereas on Father’s Day, there aren’t nearly as many people sending fathers a dozen or two rosebuds.”

I think he has a point.   Father’s Day wasn’t even an official holiday until 1972, when then president Richard Nixon made it official, over a half century after the designation of an official Mother’s Day.

Yet child-rearing has changed since I was a kid, and they were changing even as I reared my own children.  There have been more than subtle shifts in parenting assumptions between mothers and fathers.  I see it manifested between my daughters and husbands:  a shared partnership of child-rearing responsibility.

When I was young, my father wasn’t as involved in our day-to-day upbringing as my mother, but his influence was felt in other ways.  He provided the emotional glue that held our family together; he was an affectionate, easy-going, and fun-loving father who, whenever we stopped at his store to beg for an after school treat at the local drugstore , he always produced a quarter from his pocket.  Sometimes, just as we were at the door, ready to leave, he’d call out, “Hey Kiddo…how about I come with you?”

He wasn’t hard on us kids,
never struck us, took us to
doctors and dentists when needed.
He used to sing in the car
bought us root beers along the road.
He loved us with his deeds.

(From: “A Father’s Pain,” in A River Remains by Larry Smith)

Dad was the father upon whose feet I stood to dance with him around the living room to a favorite Glen Miller or Benny Goodman tune, who taught me how to pitch a baseball and even execute a decent pass with a football– even as my mother wished I’d choose more “feminine” activities.  A man raised by an exceptional cook, he never failed to praise my meager attempts to bake one of my grandmother’s famous berry pies, often with a too much flour and not near enough sugar.  Even if the pie bordered on inedible, he ate the entire ample slice I served, flashed me a big smile and said, “My, but this might be the best blackberry pie I ever tasted.”

When my father died of lung cancer on Thanksgiving Day, 1992,  three months following his diagnosis,  none of his children were ready to let him go. The emptiness I felt in the wake of his death lingered for months afterward.  Perhaps my father’s death—and life—is one of the reasons I gravitated to leading expressive writing groups for cancer survivors.  Maybe it was because of all those afternoons I sat by his side as he prepared to die as he filled my head and heart with the stories from his life.  Even on the day of his death, he managed to get to the table and, for a short time, share the meal with his family.  He even asked for a second piece of pumpkin pie, smiling at my mother as he finished eating, “I think that was the best pie I’ve ever eaten.”

In a couple of hours, I’ll take my husband out for a celebratory brunch.  We’ve already sent cards and made calls to the other fathers in our immediate family.   But amidst all the celebration, I will be remembering my father today.  In my mind, I still hear the echo of his chuckle, remember his love of a good story.  As Jim Harrison wrote in a poem, “Larson’s Holstein Bull,” death steals everything but our stories.  My father’s legacy lives on in  stories, the ones he told and re-told year after year, the memories cancer can never take away.

I miss you every day–the heartbeat
under your necktie, the hand cupped
on the back of my neck, Old Spice
in the air, your voice delighted with stories.

(From:  “Father” in Delights & Shadows by Ted Kooser)

This week, write about fathers: their memories, the stories, and legacies.  And to all fathers who may read this post, Happy Father’s Day!

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(This week’s post drawn from material originally published September 22, 2013 and June 10, 2012)

I celebrated another year of life this past Friday, reminding me that despite my resistance, advancing age is unavoidable.  I alternated between thinking I’d ignore the day altogether, yet peering in the mailbox to see there were any envelopes, greeting card size, with my name and address carefully written on each.  There were, but I had to laugh at myself.  Birthdays bring up the memories of that just-turned-six little girl I was so long ago, the one I see now in an old photograph.  Blonde hair curled for the occasion and topped with a giant hair ribbon.  The picnic table piled with gaily wrapped gifts and a chocolate cake in the center, six candles aflame.  My child’s face, lit by the candlelight, bears an ear-to-ear grin.  Those were the years when I eagerly counted the days until my next birthday, becoming a “big” girl with each year promising many more possibilities than the one before.  I was ready then, even impatient, to claim an older age.

Not now.  I swear I’m going to stop counting.  The smile I wear, although pleased, as friends and family wish me a “Happy Birthday!” is tinged with something other than just enthusiasm.  I’ve resisted joining the category of “senior citizen.”  When I discovered that my husband planned an early birthday dinner on Friday evening so we could attend a jazz event afterward, one that began at 7:30, I protested.  “What?  It’s too early.  No one eats that early except…”  My voice trailed off.  Why complain?  He was doing his best to orchestrate a celebratory evening.  Yet as we walked into the restaurant at 5:25 p.m., it was empty.  We were the first  seated; the first served; the first to leave, reminding me of that slow, but relentless march toward older age, year after year, and life changing.

Are we ever ready for the changes life presents to us?  It’s never either/or.  Each stage has challenges, but there are rewards too.  I’m quite content to embrace the title, “Gramma,” for example,  but on the other hand, I am less enthusiastic about my physical changes—the relentless pull of gravity, loss of muscle tone, and the silvering of my hair.  I balk at regular visits to my cardiologist, reminding me of a condition I once thought belonged only others, elder others like my grandparents.  Ready or not, you can’t escape aging.

“Ready,” the title of a poem by Irene MacKinney, begins with a memory:

I remember a Sunday with the smell of food drifting
out the door of the cavernous kitchen and my serious
teenage sister and her girlfriends Jean and Marybelle
standing on the bank above the dirt road in their
white sandals ready to walk to the country church
a mile away, and ready to return to the fried
chicken, green beans and ham, and fresh bread
spread on the table…

Memories.  Every single birthday reminds me of others long past.  Memories come alive:  the scent of chocolate as my mother baked my birthday cake, the candle flames dancing as everyone sang to me, eyes shut, wishing as hard as I could for something I wanted to happen.  In a role reversal that made me smile, Flora, one of my four-year old granddaughters, belted out “Happy Birthday” over the telephone.  She sang with all the enthusiasm of a youngster who revels in celebrations, parties and birthdays.  She will, many years from now, hear that same song and as I do, remember the delights of her birthdays from much younger times.

There’s an exercise in Roger Rosenblatt’s wise little book, Unless It Moves the Human Heart (Harper Collins, 2011), a glimpse into his “Writing Everything” class, I’ve used in my writing groups, always with great results.  It began with Rosenblatt asking if anyone in his class had recently celebrated—or was about to–a birthday.

I…then burst into song:  “Happy Birthday to You.”  They [his students] give me the he’s-gone-nuts look I’ve come to cherish over the years.  I sing it again.  “Happy Birthday to You.  Anyone had a birthday recently?  Anyone about to have one?” …just sit back and see what comes of listening to this irritating, celebratory song you’ve heard all your lives” (pp.39-40).

I tried the same exercise with one of my writing groups.  They looked at me with curiosity as I began singing, laughing a little before joining in.  “Now write,” I said as the song ended.  “What memories does that tune inspire?”  I wrote with the group too, my mind flooded with recollections of other birthdays: the blue bicycle waiting for me the morning of my sixth birthday, the surprise party my husband and daughters managed to pull off few years ago, the headline in my small town newspaper’s society page:  “Sharon Ann Bray turns six today.”  (Never mind that my aunt was the society editor!)

What happened in the group, of course, was that everyone had a host of memories associated with the birthday song—like so many writers.  Rosenblatt isn’t the only writer who used birthdays for inspiration.  Go to www.poets.org and you’ll discover William Blake, Sylvia Plath, Christina Rossetti and many others inspired by birthdays, like Ted Kooser’s “A Happy Birthday,” a short poem that captures the introspection another year can bring:

This evening, I sat by an open window

and read till the light was gone and the book

was no more than a part of the darkness.

I could easily have switched on a lamp,

but I wanted to ride this day down into night,

to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page

with the pale gray ghost of my hand.

Poems about birthdays reflect the passage of time, aging, even the opportunity for change, for example, Joyce Sutphen’s “Crossroads:”

The second half of my life will be black 

to the white rind of the old and fading moon. 
The second half of my life will be water 
over the cracked floor of these desert years.

So try it.  Hum the tune, or if you’re feeling brave, sing it:  “Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday to you…”  Then take stock of the memories, good or bad, this traditional birthday ditty evokes  Whether you’ll soon have  a birthday, recently celebrated one, or joined in the birthday celebrations of family and friends, explore your memories of birthdays past as a way to inspire your writing.  In each memory lurks a story or a poem…   Write one.

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Prologue:  Yesterday I had the privilege of attending an adult Bat Mitzvah, invited by a friend whom I first met a few years ago when I led a women’s writing group at Jewish Family Services.  Her son had died suddenly at age 16, and she had come to the group in hopes  writing could provide a way to express her grief.  Yesterday, a journey inspired by her son, she celebrated her Bat Mitzvah.   It was a moving and joyful celebration, and I felt grateful to have  witnessed her journey from suffering to healing.  When she stood to share her story–her journey to fully embrace Judaism–I was moved to tears, remembering the first day I met her and yesterday, seeing the transformation in her joy and radiant smile as the ceremony ended.   Faith, Spirituality–these are important antibodies in helping us  heal after tragedy, loss and serious illness.  Today’s prompt is one previously posted October 21, 2012.


Like so many Americans, I have become a lapsed church-goer over the years, discovering a different kind of meditation and prayer to sustain my daily life. It is my writing practice, a ritual that begins in the early morning—a walk with my dog followed by sitting in silence outdoors–before the tasks of the day intervene to pull me into their noisy demands.   I watch the sunlight embrace the trees, listen to the noisy serenade of the birds, and drink in the solitude before returning to the house to write.  There is gratitude waiting to be found in the early morning, and inspiration–poems, stories, insights–if only I sit quietly and notice.

When I go inside, I write,  opening the same notebook I’ve had for years, rubbing my fingers lightly over the Celtic knots engraved on the green leather cover, before picking up my pen.  Often the first words are no more than a response to the question, “what did you notice?” But it is enough.  Writing is my prayer, a door that opens to the deeper landscape of my interior life.  It is why, in part,  I encourage others to express and explore the experiences of their lives through writing, particularly those diagnosed with cancer.  It is humbling work, yet deeply gratifying, and for the many years I’ve been doing it, it has become a spiritual practice:  bearing witness and witnessing others’ lives.

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time—Thomas Merton

Faith and spirituality are often written about, so important to the quality of life among many cancer patients.

In his 2009 New York Times blog, “One Man’s Cancer,” editor Dana Jennings, after being diagnosed with an aggressive prostate cancer, wrote about the importance of “spiritual antibodies” in his cancer journey.

I converted to Judaism five years ago, after decades spent stumbling toward God. That faith has helped sustain me this past year, from the diagnosis of my prostate cancer, through surgery, and through radiation and hormone treatment when it was learned that I had an aggressive cancer.

I am not a fool. I am a patient with Stage T3B cancer and a Gleason score of 9. I need the skills and the insights of the nurses and doctors who care for me. But they don’t treat the whole man. Medicine cares about physical outcomes, not the soul. I also need — even crave — the spiritual antibodies of prayer, song and sacred study.

Whatever your religious or spiritual beliefs may be, faith and spirituality can provide strength and comfort during the difficult and painful chapters of life.   No one choses to suffer, to be diagnosed with cancer or suffer debilitating pain or trauma.  Those events may feel, at first, like a death sentence, and they can challenge your faith.  But the difficult chapters in our lives offer something else– a chance to deepen self-understanding and compassion, the opportunity to define what is essential and important in life, and to pay attention to and appreciate the ordinary gifts of each day.  “Each moment holds out the promise of revelation,” Jennings wrote.  (He survived his cancer ordeal and continues to enjoy life with his wife and sons).

As Jennings so eloquently expressed, the experience of cancer, of getting through treatment and recovery, is a deeply spiritual journey. Cancer forces us to pay attention, really pay attention, to what matters in our lives.  Your faith may deepen or you discover a nurturing spiritual practice. Oftentimes, when I ask the survivors in my writing groups to describe what sustains them during long months of surgery, treatment and recovery, I hear, “My faith grew, and I prayed a lot.”

While faith and spirituality are related, they’re not synonymous, yet whatever your beliefs may be, they can be an important source of strength and comfort.  Stephen Levine, best known for his work in death and dying, remarked, a 1989 interview with The Sun,  As part of our wholeness, we need our woundedness.  It seems written into spirituality that there’s a dark side to which we must expose ourselves.

Cancer—and other hardship–may plunge you into that dark night of the soul.  And while it may your faith may be challenged, it is an opportunity to explore what is truly essential—and soul nurturing—in your life. Meditation and prayer are a way to explore your faith or spirituality.  And so does writing, offering a door to enter and explore the deepest realms of our being.

“When you’re caught up in writing…” poet Denise Levertov remarked in her final interview, “it can be a form of prayer.”  When we write from our lives, we must have the courage to take a deep dive into our inner lives.  “Tell the truth,” Maxine Hong Kingston tells her war veterans as they meet to write their stories of battle.  Writing, whether of cancer, war, or other painful events in our lives, cracks us open.  We embark on a deeply spiritual journey.  It’s why so many established writers will tell you, “writing is a courageous act.”
Varda, a writer in my first group, died of metastatic breast cancer several years ago.  She wrote throughout her cancer journey, often humorously, sometimes poignantly, but always honestly.  She became one of our most beloved group members.  Nearing the final weeks of her life, she wrote “Faith,” a poem that examined her relationship with God:

God and I always had a special relationship,

sealed in ancient Hebrew prayers

and stained glass windows. 

The Shofar blown on Yom Kippur. 

The Book of Life open for ten days a year,

and then my fate sealed.


But our relationship has changed.

 In asking me to surrender to this illness,

God has asked me to let go—to trust—float free. 

And I have found this to be a most precious time.


My cancer has challenged my faith,

and I have found an incredible well I did not know I had. 

I have found true surrender,

 enormous peace.


I have come home to God, and we have renewed

our friendship.

To trust—float free…an incredible well I did not know I had.  As you write this week, consider these questions:  Has your faith been challenged at difficult times in your life? What has sustained you in times of illness, hardship or struggle? Where have you found your solace, your strength?  Write about how cancer has challenged or deepened your faith or spirituality.  What “spiritual antibodies” were most nourishing and sustaining for you?

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(Originally posted October 18, 2009)

I let my husband talk me into it.   “Come to the T’ai Chi class this afternoon,” he said, “you won’t have any trouble.  The instructor moves slowly and demonstrates everything.”   I should have known better.  Of the two of us, although I am the more coordinated and aware of the intricacy of body movement, I am also the perfectionist.  The one who doesn’t like to appear clumsy or uncoordinated.

I’ll bet you can guess the outcome.  I was faced with the task of learning unfamiliar movements and the likelihood of feeling clumsy.  Worse, being the new person in class, I was required to stand in the front line, meaning that every misstep was in full view of the entire class.  I might as well have worn a neon sign that flashed, “I’m a Beginner!”

Henry, the instructor, was encouraging.  “T’ai Chi is gentle,” he advised.  “It relieves stress. If you feel pain, your chi is blocked.  Relax.  Be gentle.”  I nodded in appreciation.  I knew all about T’ai Chi’s beneficial effects on the body. Twenty-five years earlier, I had taken a class and learned all 108 moves.  But that was then, and besides not practicing for over two decades, Henry’s form was different from the one I’d learned years before.  But I reasoned it was like riding a bicycle.  My body would surely remember vestiges of the movements I had learned so long ago.

Not so.  Henry, trying to accommodate his instruction to an imperfect rectangular room, was often in the corner, his back to me, his hand movements hidden from view.  “Uh, oh,” I thought as he positioned himself and began calling out instructions, “make semi-circle, grasp bird’s tail,” demonstrating as the class followed along in flowing unison.   That is, most of the class followed in unison.  I was the notable exception.

I hadn’t the foggiest notion of what I was supposed to do.  I felt my body stiffen in protest.  I twisted one foot one way, keeping the other straight and craned my neck over my shoulder to get a glimpse of Henry.  Where were his shoulders placed?  What were his hands doing?  I snuck furtive glances at my classmates.  What were they doing?  In one panic-stricken moment, I wondered if I could quietly sneak out of the room.  Not possible.  I was in the front row.  Secretive departures were impossible.

I took a deep breath and resigned myself to suffering through the entire class.  I eyed the clock every few minutes, its hands moving in slow motion along with Henry’s students.  Time seemed interminable.  When the session finally ended I realized I’d been holding my breath for a good portion of it and exhaled with considerable relief. Out of the 108 moves in the T’ai Chi sequence, I hadn’t even done one move correctly.  As for those health benefits of gentle T’ai Chi, they were nowhere to be found.  I returned home with an ache in my lower back as though my entire spine was in revolt.

The whole experience was humbling.  I’ve never been a patient beginner—that perfectionistic streak invariably finds a way to resurface—but it got me to thinking about how serious illness, age, or any major life transition requires we learn—even relearn—different ways of being, even some things we once took for granted.  As human beings, we’re resilient, but coming to terms with our altered bodies and imperfect selves demands we re-evaluate who we are now. The image we once held of ourselves (usually our younger, healthier selves) is challenged.  We’re forced to recognize that we may have limitations–physical pain, issues of stamina, agility or even memory–that we once didn’t believe would ever apply to us.  Those ailments belonged to other people.

What is survivorship about, really?  I think it’s about learning.  Stepping back into your old lives after cancer isn’t simple or even possible.  Not only do treatment regimens have adverse effects on the body, your life has changed too.   The ground beneath your feet might seem uncertain or at least, the steps you used to take with assurance feel clumsy and tentative now.  You’re faced with new learning, and not all of it may be pleasant.   It’s a bit like standing in the front row as the new student in a Tai Chi class, trying to understand and mimic every single movement everyone else seems to know by heart.  You feel little but awkwardness and uncertainty.

But this is about surviving—and thriving.   Whether cancer, the effects of aging, unexpected life transitions, you’ve proven, time after time, that you can adjust and move on.  Life changes in subtle and not so subtle ways, but you those new movements, necessary strategies and behaviors, and little by little, you begin to embrace the new life that lies before you.

This week, write about what it was like was to find your footing on uncertain ground and how you learned not only to survive but thrive and embrace the new life before you.

(Postscript:  I did return to T’ai Chi class, but one  for beginners, taught by Kathi, Henry’s protégé, and managed to achieve a modicum of grace with  a shorter series of moves!)  

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(Originally posted on May 27, 2012)

Last night, I impatiently flipped through television channel after channel, irritated by the preponderance of reality television programs.  Just as I decided to turn off the set, I stumbled on a video clip of Peter, Paul and Mary, a folk singing trio from the sixties, being featured on our local public radio station, KPBS. I was immediately transported back to the first time I saw the trio in concert in 1963.  As I watched the show, I also remembered how their music changed and reflected the social and political unrest of that time: civil rights marches, campus demonstrations and anti-war protests.  I watched, and I remembered, singing along to their songs, recalling my own stories as theirs were told.

In those days, my youthful idealism was dominated by a singular belief that war was wrong. I knew or understood little about the young men and women who, by choice or by the call of the draft, were sent into war.  It was, unlike the war my father fought in, one that polarized a nation at home, without ticker tape parades or welcoming crowds to celebrate the veterans returning from Vietnam, so divisive were the politics of the time.

Some things haven’t changed for me.  I am still a pacifist all these decades later, anti-war, and admittedly disheartened by the tenor of political debate in this country.  But I now realize, unlike the idealistic young student I was in the sixties, the staggering toll war has on the human spirit, on those who have fought in any war, for any nation.  That kind of service to one’s country, whatever I may feel about war itself, is an extraordinary sacrifice.  I am saddened by the costs of war—the losses and injuries that mark a human being forever, the ruin and devastation of countries in the wake of battle.  This morning, I’ve been listening to the veterans’ voices on NPR, their remembrances of war as we celebrate this Memorial Day Weekend.  I am touched by their bravery, humbled by their stories.

First celebrated as a national holiday on May 30, 1868, and called “Decoration Day,” it was intended to honor the soldiers who died in the Civil War.  General John Logan, the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, is said to have chosen the end of May as the official holiday because there would be more flowers in bloom, flowers that were ultimately placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers in an act of reconciliation at Arlington National Cemetery.  Today, Memorial Day is celebrated on the final Monday of May, and it honors all U.S. troops who have died in war.

As a child, I didn’t fully understand the meaning of Memorial Day.  For my siblings and me, it was simply a date meant to honor the dead—no matter how they died.  Every Memorial holiday, my father’s extended family, then numbering between forty or fifty aunts, uncles and cousins, gathered at the family graveside in Hornbrook, a small town in Northern California.  While my aunts and uncles paid tribute to our deceased relatives and placed flowers on their gravesites, we restless children turned the cemetery into an adventure, examining all the different gravesites dotting the grounds and challenging one another to find the headstone with the oldest dates engraved on it.  We knew nothing about the stories or the people whose remains lay beneath the earth.

Perhaps it’s why, as I consider the traditions of our national holiday, that I remember warriors, other battles—illness, unexpected tragedies or disasters–that have taken peoples’ lives.  Many of these individuals, like our soldiers, also faced danger, fear and uncertainty, like those who experienced the relentless stalking by the silent enemy called cancer.  They also have inspired those who knew and loved them, taught us how precious life is, even as we knew the odds were stacked against them.  They, like our soldiers, are heroes too.  I think of the chorus to Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings,”  Did you ever know that you’re my hero?”  For me, Memorial Day is a time to remember, a time to honor them all.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” calling upon all Americans to pause at 3 p.m., local time, on Memorial Day and remember those who died fighting for this country.  I plan to do that, but I’ll be remembering more than those who died fighting this country’s wars.  For a few moments tomorrow, on Memorial Day, I’ll pause to honor all those who, throughout history, have lost their lives to many kinds of  battles.  I invite you to remember along with me—whether in written or spoken words or simply honor each of your heroes with a moment of silence.

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