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Archive for the ‘writing for wellness’ Category

When you first hear the words, “you have cancer,” it’s likely you remember little else from that moment.  Cancer breeds fear, sparking our anxiety and turning it into flame.  Dr. Ann Partridge, cancer specialist at Dana-Farber, described it this way:  “When patients receive a diagnosis of cancer, it is that word – cancer – that rebounds across the room, suffocating all attempts at nuance.  The glass may be 99 percent full, but they grab onto the 1 percent “risk.”   Dr. Donna Greenberg, director of psychiatric oncology at Massachusetts General, explained: “The word cancer still carries with it the specter of death and suffering. It’s like a monster is coming into your house.” (“Fear Itself,” by Stephen Smith, Boston Globe, March 10, 2008)

Fear.  It’s the shadow that trails after you from diagnosis through treatment.  And it lingers, even after recovery begins.  There’s something called “scan anxiety,” which is the psychic distress experienced during ongoing tests and checkups.  “In the back of your mind,” colon cancer survivor Judith Rothman said, “it’s always there that the other shoe is going to drop, and that becomes more active in the days before that CAT scan until I hear what happened…I always think the worst.” (The Routine Fear for Cancer Patients, by Stacey Burling, The Philadelphia Inquirer,  March 11, 2009)

In his list poem, “Fear,” Raymond Carver begins with more irrational fears and  zeros into the “real” fear that dogs him:

Fear of seeing a police car pull into the drive.
Fear of falling asleep at night.
Fear of not falling asleep.
Fear of the past rising up.
Fear of the present taking flight.
Fear of the telephone that rings in the dead of night.
Fear of electrical storms.
Fear of the cleaning woman who has a spot on her cheek!

. . .
Fear of death.
Fear of living too long.
Fear of death.

I’ve said that.

(From “Fear,” by Raymond Carver, in All of Us, 2000)

It’s a bit of a catch-22.  On the one hand, Scott Siegel, a health psychologist, tells us that if you’re not worried after a cancer diagnosis, “it probably means you don’t understand the stakes.”   On the other, “there may be no correlation between how much you worry about your cancer and how dangerous it actually is.”  Yet in recent studies conducted at Tel Aviv University, researchers found that fear and stress may actually affect the recurrence of cancer.  “Psychological fear may be no less important than real physiological tissue damage in suppressing immune competence,” said Professor Ben-Eliyahu, a scientist in the emerging field of Psychoneuroimmunology.   

Fear is natural, yet it can be debilitating.  How do we learn to live with the fear cancer induces?  Can we learn to name it and let it go?  What helps us accept what we cannot control?  In her poem, “I Give You Back,” Joy Harjo describes how she releases her fear:

Oh, you have choked me, but I gave you the leash.
You have gutted me but I gave you the knife.
You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire.

I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won’t hold you in my hands.
You can’t live in my eyes, my ears, my voice
my belly, or in my heart my heart
my heart my heart.

But come here, fear
I am alive and you are so afraid
of dying.

(From:  She Had Some Horses, 1983)

We all experience fear from time to time.  It’s the body’s and the mind’s reaction to a perceived threat.  It kick starts our metabolism, useful in times of real fear, but not as useful if fear becomes a way of life.  Not only can prolonged fear suppress the immune system, it hinders our ability to be fully present to the here and now of our lives.  The challenge, especially when fear seems to move in with us like a roommate we can’t get rid of, is to keep it from diminishing our ability to live fully and enjoy the life we have.

I often turn to a favorite poem by William Stafford when my fears sneak up on me in the dark of a worrisome night.  Entitled, “For My Young Friends Who are Afraid,” Stafford reminds us that we have a choice of how we think of fear:

There is a country to cross you will
find in the corner of your eye, in
the quick slip of your foot–air far
down, a snap that might have caught.
And maybe for you, for me, a high, passing
voice that finds its way by being
afraid. That country is there, for us,
carried as it is crossed. What you fear
will not go away: it will take you into
yourself and bless you and keep you.
That’s the world, and we all live there. 

(From Ask Me:  100 Essential Poems, 2014)

What you fear will not go away…  Look fear in the face this week.  How does it visit you?  What do you do to hold it at bay?   Name the fears that lodge themselves deep in your gut.  Try writing a list poem like Carver’s.  Or,  once you have named your fears, then how have you let them go, releasing fear as Harjo described?  Or, do Stafford’s words have meaning for you?  Have you been able to turn fear into deeper self-awareness and benefit from it?  Write about fear.

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The Midwest has tornadoes; the eastern seaboard has its hurricanes and super storms.  A large part of the country just dug out from another snow storm, while here in California, we’re wondering how long our water supply will sustain the state.  Wherever we live, we complain about the weather.  We look north, west, east or south and most often decide where we live is where we want to be.  But for those of us who have an enduring love affair with California, we remember droughts of the past, wildfires that occur year after year, and more, we expect the earth to move from time to time.  It’s not the sudden jolt of first love or attraction we might have felt for the golden state.  Rather, it’s a somewhat predictable occurrence, like tornadoes or hurricanes in other parts of the country, never far from conscious thought.  It’s the accepted risk of living along the earth’s fault lines, whether the San Andreas, Hayward, Oak Ridge or any number of smaller ones.  Sooner or later, we’ll feel the earth heave, the ground undulate beneath our feet and sometimes, disaster.  Some of the most memorable jolts have demolished highways and buildings, as in the 1989 Loma Prieta and 1992 Landers quakes in Northern and Southern California.

This potentially destructive movement is created by the sliding boundaries or fault lines which define the earth’s tectonic plates. California has many of these faults, and even though the plates move past one another a couple of inches each year due to their irregularity, we’re often unaware of the motion.  But as the plates continue to push against each other, they sometimes lock and may not move for years.  Stress builds along the fault, and the strain threshold is finally exceeded, energy is suddenly released, causing the plates slip several feet at once.  Waves are sent out in all directions and felt as tremors, or at worst, a damaging earthquake.

Several years ago, I began teaching a course on writing to heal for UCLA extension’s Writers’ Program, initially naming it “Writing from the Fault Lines.”  I chose the title because my language and the metaphors I use are influenced—like many writers– by the landscape where I live.  Writing out of difficult life events often reveals the vulnerable landscape of our psyches, where painful experiences of our pasts may be buried.  We cope and may seem “fine” on the surface, but when the stress created by something like a cancer diagnosis or unexpected loss or trauma, stress builds along our psychological fault lines, and we may experience the sudden tremor of raw and difficult emotions–fear, anger, grief—and the feeling that our lives are literally falling apart.

When I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer, followed by heart failure several years ago, I filled page after page of my journals with disbelief, unanswerable questions and even guilt, as if I was somehow to blame for my physical illness.  But it didn’t stop there.  Old scars opened to painful losses I’d soldiered through and buried years ago.  My “real” story was not about a very treatable cancer; it lay beneath the surface, where old wounds were buried, building up pressure, begging for release.

It’s something I witness frequently in my cancer writing groups.  The experience of cancer brings us to our knees.  Life as we knew it is a thing of the past.  Yet beneath the surface, there are often other unresolved emotions, other painful memories or traumatic events which have lain dormant but, like the locked plates of the earth, building up pressure inside us.  Those memories are often triggered by the most benign of writing prompts, rushing out like unleashed dams of emotion and tumbling to the page.  Whether in a cancer writing groups or the transformational writing course I continue to teach for UCLA extension (Transformational Writing:  Writing to Heal & Make Life into Art), writing our healing stories often takes us beyond the “presenting” hardship, and in writing, we begin to plumb the depths of our lives, bringing into the open what we could not do before.

Emotions can inspire us or hold us hostage.  Negative emotions–anger, fear or feelings of unworthiness–accumulate, just as pressure along the earth’s plates.  They weaken our ability to fend off illness, depression or disease.  Writing allows us, if we let it, to translate those negative emotions into words, make the connections between what we feel and why, and begin to understand or even forgive ourselves and others.  It is in the act of writing and sharing our stories that we release the pressure of old wounds, that we begin to heal.

This week, try going deeper in your writing; explore what stories linger beneath the surface.  Write from your fault lines.

 

In the dark times, will there also be singing?

Yes, there will be singing.

About the dark times.

(Bertolt Brecht)

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Silence is a great source of strength.  – Lao Tzu

I didn’t intend for her to lead me into a practice of morning meditation.  Maggie, my adopted Border Terrier, must have sensed what I needed at this stage of my life.  Over-committed with teaching, the press of deadlines, a list of “must dos” that seemed to grow exponentially, even my leisure activities—drumming, T’ai Chi– seemed to be adding more fatigue than pleasure.  I felt, at times, like that unhappy corporate executive I’d been so many years ago, stressed and agitated, running too fast to know how to slow down, even though the work I now do is truly satisfying, unlike the years of corporate life.

Enter Maggie.  Found in the brush with three puppies, scrawny and malnourished, her coat scruffy and untamed, she was an unlikely candidate for me to consider adopting.  To be honest, my heart sank when I first saw her in person.  I’d responded to her photograph,  advertised on a local dog rescue site.  But ever dutiful, I agreed to take a closer look.  I picked her up from the cage as she trembled with fear.  I stroked her fur and held her against my chest.  Within moments, she quieted, turned two big coal eyes to my face and quietly lay her head on my shoulder.  She needs me, I thought.  I agreed to take her home and paid the adoption fee.  That was last June, 2014.

“It’s love, they say.  You touch

the right one and a whole half of the universe

wakes up, a new half.

(William Stafford, “Choosing a Dog,” From: The Way It Is, 1998)

There’s little doubt that Maggie needed a loving home, but looking back on the past many months, I think that Maggie was quick to see that I needed her.  Our morning walks quickly established themselves as daily routine.  Up at six a.m., I’d grind the coffee beans and fill her dog dishes with kibble and water.  While she ate, I stretched and warmed up, all, I figured, in an effort to establish a fitter self.  Once warmed up, the leash attached to her collar, the two of us set out as the eastern horizon became streaked with lilacs and pinks, the sun lazily rising above the far off mountains.  Thirty minutes later, we returned, the day uncluttered by the noises of civilization, where we began to sit together on the deck after our walk.  I had my coffee; Maggie claimed my lap.  We sat in silence for another half hour or more—a departure from a years-long routine of having coffee while listening to the news on NPR.

Something happened in the process.  The quiet of our early mornings became a ritual—a walking meditation, followed by a practice of sitting in silence, Maggie curled in my lap, and  I began paying attention to the cast of sunlight on the trees, the hummingbirds’ frolic at the fountain,  a red-tail hawk gliding just feet from the edge of the deck, and the chorus of birdsong.  Each morning brought a poem with it, like a gift delivered on the breeze.

Time offers this gift in its millions of ways,
turning the world, moving the air, calling,
every morning, “Here, take it, it’s yours.”

(William Stafford, “The Gift,” From: My Name is William Tell, 1992)

There are many research studies that support the health and therapeutic benefits of having a pet.  Research has demonstrated that animals can improve human cardiovascular health, reduce stress, decrease loneliness and depression, and facilitate social interactions among people. In fact, some years ago, our Westie, Winston, was a trained therapy pet, accompanying my husband to hospitals and nursing homes, where his willingness to curl up with patients and elders for a little TLC brought smiles to more than a few individuals.

Maggie has been good for my health—I suffered from heart failure a few years ago, and the daily exercise I get in our morning and afternoon walks has clear physical benefits.  But she’s been a little canine spiritual guide for me too.  Learning to sit in silence, begin my day with the natural beauty just outside my door instead of daily reports of war, racism and violence, has fed not only my soul, but my creativity.  In our rush-rush, technology-dependent world, silence and solitude, once so normal in the human experience, are replaced by a constant thrum of noise and social communication.  Silence reintroduces us to ourselves, to awareness of the present; there’s even evidence that combining solitude with a walk in nature increases our brain growth and functioning.

Maybe Maggie is, after all, a muse and a spiritual guide, leading me gently but persistently, back to the peace and quiet joy found in early morning, my eyes and heart opened and ready to receive the gifts that the world offers each day.

Accept what comes from silence.

Make the best you can of it.

Of the little words that come

out of the silence, like prayers,

prayed back to the one who prays,

make a poem that does not disturb

the silence from which it came.

(Wendell Berry, “How to Be A Poet,” From:  Given, 2005)

This week, sit in silence for a period of time, either outdoors or near a window, where you can observe what’s outside.  Try this for 15 to 30 minutes.  Try to empty your mind and simply be present to what is happening around you.  Notice.  Once you’ve done this, write, describing what you observed.  Let the observation lead you into more writing.

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Edith Piaf had none.

Frank Sinatra admitted to a few.

And in The Remains of the Day, the dutiful manservant, Stevens, is haunted by them.

(From:  “Regret Haunts Baby Boomers,” by David Graham, Toronto Star, December 1, 2007)

Regret.  How many times have you looked back over your life and said, “if only I’d …?” I know I have, unwittingly catching myself in the midst of a conversation and musing, “If only we’d…”  We all do it from time to time, and we’ve likely been told to “get over it” by loved ones or well-meaning friends.  But here’s the thing:  Regret, researchers suggest, is second only to love in the emotions we most often feel and reference.

Some, like psychologist Neal Roese, author of If Only:  How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity, argues it’s better to embrace our regrets and use them to move on as smarter people.  Regret, he states, serves a necessary psychological purpose:  helping us to recognize opportunities for change and growth, even hope for a better future.  Like Terry Malloy, Marlon Brando’s character in On the Waterfront, regret drives us to work for change.  According to Roese, “Regret pushes us forward…helping us make better choices in the future.  It stimulates growth.”

Sounds great, doesn’t it?  But why does regret come to haunt us if our future has suddenly been cut short, like so many men and women who face aggressive cancer diagnoses and other debilitating illnesses or circumstances?  I often hear regrets voiced in our writing groups, and I remember how often regret came up in my father’s conversations after a diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer.  Given just three months to live, he began looking back over his life, often ending a memory with “I just wish I’d gone ahead and…when I had the chance,” or “if only I hadn’t…”  As sad as those conversations sometimes were, I had a rare glimpse into the life and feelings of my father.

I remember Varda, a member of my first writing group for cancer survivors.  She ultimately lost her battle with metastatic breast cancer, but for the many months she was part of the group, she was as fearless in her writing as she was in her determination to live as long as she could.  A few months before her death, she wrote about regret, imagining it as a dance partner:

Late in the night I dance with Regret, dipping and gliding through bad choices and unforgiven hurts…we glide past images of my parents …

Regret whispers that some things are no longer possible…my partner leans close to remind me of the time I should have spent as a sister and a mother, and that life is as illusionary as a soap-bubble floating lightly by and then gone…Regret has slipped into my corner and asked my memories to speak…my companion reminds me that those I loved are gone, and that I am dancing with a haunting and relentless suitor.

Before my illness, I viewed my life as a bright meadow rolling endlessly toward distant hills…Although I aged, I still view my future as a meadow without fences.

But when I awoke with cancer, Regret was my first visitor {and} will again be my faithful evening companion.…

(From:Dancing with Regret, by Varda Nowack Goldstein, in A Healing Journey by Sharon Bray, 2004)

Varda continued to write for as long as she could before the end of her life, and as she did, regret transitioned into a humorous and poignant looking back at her life with all its challenges, foibles and rewards.  In a final poem entitled “Faith,” regret is replaced by acceptance:  “My cancer has challenged my faith,” Varda wrote, “and I have found an incredible well/ I did not know I had…true surrender, enormous peace.”

Varda helped me understand the role regret played in my father’s final months.  His regrets served a purpose, much like they had in Varda’s final months.  He was remembering the whole of his life, who he had been, who he had become, and as he did, he was making peace with the inevitability of death.

But what if we’re given a second chance?  Cancer goes into remission; we recover and move back into life.  What do we do with the opportunity?  Linger in regret or find new meaning in our lives?  “Imagine you wake up with a second chance,” Rita Dove writes in, “Dawn Revisited:”

 Imagine you wake up

with a second chance: The blue jay

hawks his pretty wares

and the oak still stands, spreading

glorious shade. If you don’t look back,

 

the future never happens…

The whole sky is yours

 

to write on, blown open

to a blank page…

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

I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten second, third, maybe even fourth chances out of serious illness and hardship. Sometimes regret hovered in the shadows, but ultimately, it became the impetus to do things differently, take risks, and re-shape the life I was living.  I never would have begun leading writing groups for cancer survivors if I hadn’t had cancer myself.  Did I regret not doing it sooner?  Of course, but the life I led before cancer continues to inform the life I lead now in valuable ways.  Nothing, as poet Dorianne Laux reminds us, needs to be stored in our lives as regret.
Regret nothing.  Not the cruel novels you read to the end just to find out
who killed the cook.  Not the insipid movies that made you cry in the dark,
in spite of your intelligence, your sophistication.

Not the love you left quivering in a hotel parking lot, the one you beat
to the punch line, the door, or the one who left you …

You’ve walked those streets a thousand times and still you end up here.
Regret none of it…

(FromAntilamentation,” in The Book of Men, by Dorianne Laux, 2012)

Think about regrets this week, about all the times you’ve said or wondered “if only…”  How have you harnessed those regrets and moved forward differently?  What have you learned?  What has your life taught you about regret?  Write about regret.  Write about “if only.”  See where it takes you.

 

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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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