Archive for the ‘writing for wellness’ Category

(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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Dear Readers,

Cancer or other chronic or life-threatening illness doesn’t respect our need for holidays,  taking a breather from all those pressing worries, appointments, tests or surgeries.  But we all welcome a break, a chance to get away from the stress and worry, even for a day or two, a time to enjoy family and friends and not think about the ever-present shadow of illness.  In my expressive writing groups for cancer survivors, we gradually shift the focus from writing about cancer to writing about life, no matter what diagnoses we’ve been given.  Call it a little break, a self-imposed holiday from illness, or simply recess, we all need to refuel and replenish, to consider what’s most important to us for however long we have to live.

For the next several weeks, I’m taking the advice I often offer to students in my creative writing classes. Take a break.  Let things percolate.  Keep writing, but without the interference of thinking about editing, shaping or publication.  In other words, let your muse out to play and, in the process, discover new angles, new subjects, a new slant on work you’ve been agonizing over for weeks or months…  Take a little vacation. I’m taking a break.  

I’ve been posting g a weekly writing reflection and prompt on this site since 2006, and for the summer months,  I’ll be taking time to travel a bit, play around with words and ideas,  return to a folder of unfinished stories, or even (maybe) pick up that novel I put aside a few years ago and take another look…In the meantime,  I’ll draw from nine years of weekly writing prompts and re-posting them on this site.   For this week, I’m choosing one from April 24, 2011:  Rewriting Your Life.   Happy Summer ahead–and keep writing!


For the past several months, I’ve been re-writing sections of a novel begun a couple of years ago.  When I began, since this was my fifth revision, I didn’t intend to change as much of the story as I have.  “Since it’s a fifth revision,” I thought.  “I’ll have this done in no time.”

I couldn’t have been more mistaken.  The story, lying fallow for the better part of last year, has changed.  The beginning is completely altered; I’ve dumped a couple of characters; a new character surfaced.  It’s no minor revision.  It’s a complete rewrite.

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

 Paul Simon’s “Rewrite,” the fourth song on his latest album, So Beautiful or So What?, has become my theme song, blasting from my car’s speakers as I run errands around town.  There’s more to the lyrics that a process of writerly revision, though, and probably one of the reasons Simon’s song lyrics were published in a recent edition of The New Yorker under the heading, “Poetry.”  Listen to the complete song, and you realize it’s a story of a man, a Vietnam vet who’s had hard times, asking for help to rewrite his life, to create a happy ending.

Think about it. How many times have you, in the midst of hardship, illness or loss, wished you could change the life you have, that you could dump those old pages of script and start with a clean sheet of paper?  How many times have you said to yourself, “if only I could go back and do that differently?” Well, what if you could?

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

We can all fantasize.  Look back and imagine how our lives might have been different, but that’s the stuff of old dreams and wishes, of fiction instead of reality.  What we can do is honor the uniqueness, even the struggles, of our lives, learn from them and perhaps, write a new script for the life we have in front of us.

In an interview by William Young, published in the Winter, 1993 issue of The Paris Review, William Stafford commented on the choice of the title of his book, You Must Revise Your Life.  “I wanted to use the word revise because so many books about writing make it sound as though you create a good poem by tinkering with the poem you’re working on. I think you create a good poem by revising your life… by living the kind of life that enables good poems to come about.”

To love life, to love it even

When you have no stomach for it

And everything you’ve held dear

Crumbles like burnt paper in your hands…

When grief weights you like your own flesh

…you think, How can a body withstand this?

Then you  hold life like a face

Between your palms…

And you say, yes, I will take you

I will love you again.

(“The Thing Is,” from: Mules of Love, 2002)

Ellen Bass’s poem hangs, printed and framed, above my desk.  I re-read her last two lines on those mornings my old sorrows hover nearby. “I will take you.  I will love you again.”  No rewrites here, just the acknowledgment that life offers me the chance to learn from what has gone before, to live differently, if I choose, from here on out.

Given the chance, would you rewrite your life?  How have the events of your life prompted you to revise your life or embrace the one you have?

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There was little time for me to think about Mother’s Day this past weekend.  I flew to Northern California on Friday afternoon, reluctantly boarding the airplane with the beginnings of a head cold, waiting nearly three hours for my delayed flight in the crowded and noisy Terminal One at San Diego International, and, after picking up the rental car, sinking into a hotel bed exhausted, wondering how I’d lead the all-day writing workshop with faculty, students and alumni of the Stanford Medical School the following day.

I didn’t feel any better when morning came, but thanks to a great group of writers, a little decongestant and cough suppressant, the workshop went off as planned.  That evening, I drove over the Santa Cruz Mountains to Aptos for a short visit with two dear friends.  They had anticipated my fatigue.  I was greeted with the warmth of a fireplace, appetizers and a light supper, then shown to the guest room, where cough drops and a vaporizer had already been set up for my ailing self. Honestly, I felt mothered—taken care of and loved.

By the time I returned home yesterday afternoon—again, on a delayed flight—I wasn’t even thinking of Mother’s Day, but cards and flowers from my daughters and husband were there to greet me—along with some cough syrup, aspirin, and a vaporizer filled and ready to go, something my husband had retrieved from the garage and set up in the bedroom.  “We’ll celebrate tomorrow,” he said, as I slipped beneath the covers and inhaled the familiar set of Vicks Vapor Rub.  Memories overtook me.  My mother’s hand on my fevered brow when, as a child, I suffered through colds, flu, fevers and assorted other childhood illnesses.  Vick’s was always part of the care, part of the healing, and something my daughters came to know during the worrisome nights when their anxious mother laid awake listening to the sound of their coughs, and rising two or three times in the night to place my hand on their foreheads just as my mother had done with me.  It’s a ritual of motherly caring that they now practice with their own children when they are ill.

Mother’s Day has passed, and yet, the scent of Vick’s has me remembering so many little things about the way my mother cared for me and in turn, my first years as an anxious, worried parent living thousands of miles away from my mother and father.  There are stories in each of those memories, some funny, some tender, and others tinged with sorrow or regret.  Each offers many writing possibilities.  Here are some suggestions from my 2014 Mother’s Day post:

.  Think about your mother (or anyone who was like a mother to you) and the role she has played in your life.   What are some of your most important memories of your mother?  What qualities or anecdotes best describe your mother?  How can you bring your mother’s character to life on the page?
.  How we feel about our mothers—and ourselves as mothers–—is complex.  Remember the poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stevens? In each stanza, the reader is offered something like a snapshot, all different but always, the word, “blackbird,” appearing in each.
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime…

One writing suggestion is to try imitating Stevens’ structure and write thirteen ways of looking at a mother (or motherhood) and see what happens.

.  Of course, mothers also give us advice, lots of it; some that we appreciate; some we don’t want to hear.  In a delightful essay entitled, “Advice from My Grandmother,” Alice Hoffman creates an unmistakable portrait of her grandmother, Lillie Lutkin, by offering the reader all the advice given to her by her:

Cook badly.  Even if you’re already a bad cook, make it worse.  Trust me, it’s easy.  Throw in anything you want.  Too much salt, too much pepper.  Feed him and see what he says.  A complaint means he’s thinking about himself, and always will.  A compliment means he’ll never make a living.  But a man who says, “Let’s go to a restaurant,” now he’s a real man.  Order expensive and see what he’s got to say then.  (In Family:  American Writers Remember Their Own, 1996).

.  We learn from our mothers lessons of love and life, many of them not appreciated until we’re much older.  What a mother teaches us can become material for a character portrait as Julia Kasdorf creates in the poem, “What I Learned from my Mother.”

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point…

(From: Sleeping Preacher, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992)

Today and this week, write about mothers, yours, your mother’s or anyone who has played the role of mother in your life.  Write from whatever idea or memory comes to mind.  Remember your mother in as many ways as you can.

Mother’s Day may be over, but how we think of and communicate our appreciation and love for our mothers and grandmothers is, I hope, not limited to one day of greeting cards.  Remember mothers and motherhood—and the stories you have of yours.

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The garage has not been allowed to breathe
for months now. The smell of moving,
uprooting, cures in the arid Texas heat—
scents that cannot be romanticized, but must be
handled carefully so that no boxes topple.
We are looking for “The Middle Passage,”
first we must clear a walking path…

This is how we will find him:
on our hands and knees
combing over flailed books—sea shells
beneath a forgotten tide.
Occasionally we’ll wrench something up,
not what we are looking for, and read it anyway.

(From:  “Search for Robert Hayden,”for Charles Rowell, In:  The Listening, by Kyle G. Dargan, 2004)

Each spring, I begin cleaning out closets and the accumulated items we “store” in our garage.  It’s an onerous task.  Somehow, despite our good intentions, the order and labeling I meticulously execute each year dissolves into clutter—things intended for donation, assorted pillows, folding beds and blankets still piled in a corner, placed there in January after one family member’s visit, old journals, keepsakes, clothing intended for colder climates we occasionally visit…

Invariably, as I did yesterday, I stand in the center of the garage feeling completely overwhelmed, wondering how in the world we managed to create disorder out of what was so carefully ordered a year ago.  Good intentions aside, my plan for cleaning out garage shelves quickly fell apart as I shifted boxes around, opening a few to examine the contents before deciding what needed to be available for access, what didn’t, and what could be donated to Am Vets or another nonprofit organization.

I didn’t make much progress.  Some of the boxes, when opened, yielded evidence of our past lives:  keepsakes collected on international trips, a misplaced journal filled with my writing and a few comic sketches from my final year in the corporate world, drawings from grandchildren—well, more like scribbles—executed as they were first learning to hold a crayon, a few old photographs, misplaced among the many black and white postcards of images I use in my writing groups, a luggage tag in my father’s handwriting, something of his I found after his death.  The garage never did get cleaned yesterday.  I managed only to move a few boxes around, lost in the memories contained in those few I opened.  Before I knew it, the day had passed.

In his 2009 memoir, Unpacking the Boxes:  A Memoir of a Life in Poetry, former U.S. poet laureate, Donald Hall begins his story as he unpacks seventy or eighty boxes, stored in his home and cottage since 1994, shortly after his mother’s death and a year before his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, died from leukemia.

For a longtime, I could not open them… From [the] … boxes my childhood rose like a smoke of moths–a 78 of Connee Boswell singing “The Kerry Dance”; all the letters I ever wrote my father and mother; photographs of my young parents on the boardwalk at Atlantic City; my father’s colorless Kodachromes of Long Island Sound, snapshots of cats dead for fifty years; model airplanes and toy cars and a Boy Scout manual, a baseball, and a baseball glove with its oiled pocket chewed by mice.  I felt the shock and exultation of exhumation… Remembered scenes flashed like film clips… (pp. 2, 3, 10)

Whether stacked in a garage or closet, tucked under the bed, or stored in our minds, we all have boxes filled with fragments and memories of our pasts. We turn to them sometimes, remembering feelings, smiles, nostalgia, even heartache, all reminding us of who we were then.  But there are other boxes, those virtual ones, tucked into the far corners of our mind, taped shut, yet always carried.  These are the ones we are reluctant to open, fearing what we might find.

Author Sue Diaz, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, opens her 2010 memoir, Minefields of the Heart, A Mother’s Stories of a Son at War with a reference to those boxes:

This is a story about boxes. Mine contains news clippings about that day in Iraq — what led up to it and what came after. It’s a brown leather box where I’ve also stored notebooks, journal entries, essays published with my byline, photos, letters, and printouts of online conversations. A scrapbox of sorts, filled with bits-and-pieces connected mostly to Roman and to the past few years.

My son has his box, too. It is the one that soldiers returning from war carry within themselves, the box that holds everything a combat vet has seen and felt and heard and done in the line of duty.

As the daughter of a World War II veteran, I know it’s not uncommon for vets to want to keep the lid on their memories. Opening up can take some time. Years, for some. Decades, for others. Many never do.

But it’s important to try. …

Sue’s memoir is a touching portrayal of a mother’s experience of a son fighting in a distant and dangerous war.  That experience led her to lead writing groups for war veterans, and not infrequently, the stories written in her groups, were ones never shared before, even though it had been years, even decades, since several veterans’ war experience.

What they’ve written in their spiral notebooks on those Wednesdays has given me a glimpse into the boxes they have carried with them from places like Danang and Fallujah, Saigon and Sadr City. 

The words “Open at Your Own Risk” are stamped all over their boxes, because what’s inside can be scary as hell.

Scary as hell. Those are the boxes that contain memories of the difficult chapters of our lives, whether  trauma endured as a child or an adult, whether war, horrific events like 9/11, the bombing in Oklahoma City or the shock of hearing, “I’m sorry…  It’s cancer.”  We also know that there are real costs to health when traumatic, painful memories remain locked inside of us.  Healing takes time, often in small steps, but to begin, we have to summon the courage to open those boxes.  It’s important to try.

Remember Pandora and the box she was warned never to open? How curiosity got the better of her, and as she lifted the lid, evil escaped and spread over the earth?  It’s a good metaphor for the boxes filled with painful or frightening memories we sometimes hesitate to pry open ourselves, because remember too, that after the evil escaped, Pandora discovered one last thing left lying at the bottom of the forbidden boxHope.

This week, explore your boxes, whether real and tucked into a corner in your attic or garage, or one pushed back into a far corner of your mind. Take one out. Open the lid. Explore the contents:  the memories—sights, sounds, smells—and the emotions they evoke. Write the memories, the stories, evoked by the contents of your box.


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…I have learned that story assuages grief, and it also grants the chaos of our emotions some shape and order…Even as I watch my mother become more and more distant from the lives around her…I am doing what I have been preparing all my life to do:  listening again to the old stories and committing them to memory in order to preserve them.  I am still doing my work in terms of what I have come to believe defines immortality.  Being remembered.  (From:  The Cruel Country, by Judith Ortiz Cofer, ©2015. University of Georgia Press)

Every now and then, I’m sent a book to read with the request for a review or perhaps, quoting from it in my weekly blog posts.  I dutifully try to respond and incorporate as many quotes as are relevant to the theme I’ve chosen for the week.  Rarely, however, does a book arrive in the mail that not only speaks to the themes and issues faced by cancer survivors and others experiencing emotional pain and hardship, but envelops me as completely as Cofer’s new memoir on the loss of her mother and that uncharted territory of grief.  I am learning the alchemy of grief, she writes, how it must be carefully measured and doled out, inflicted—but I have not yet mastered this art.”

I am not sure any of us truly masters the “alchemy of grief,” because death, the loss of loved ones and friends, forces us to learn and re-learn what it means when someone’s life ends—whether anticipated, as often is the case in terminal cancer diagnoses, or unexpected, lives cut short by circumstances no one can predict.  So it has been with me this past week.

Robert, who had been part of my Moores UCSD Cancer Center writing group, died earlier in the month, but this week, we celebrated his life in a memorial service.  I was, I thought, “prepared” for Robert’s death.  He’d fought valiantly to live three years beyond the death sentence he’d been given with terminal prostate cancer.  But his death was the third in our writing group since December, preceded by Susan, then David, and as I walked into the chapel at his service, the skies outside unusually overcast and threatening rain, my heart was heavy with the weight of their combined losses.

The sky was again gray with cloud cover the next morning, mirroring my sorrow.  I stood on the front steps wondering if there was any chance of rain when I saw my elderly neighbor, Carroll, walking down the street toward our house.  I smiled and waved, “How are you?”  Then I noticed his face.  Something wasn’t right.  “I wanted you to know,” he said, “Mary passed away at four a.m. this morning in the hospital.”

“Oh no,” I gasped.  “What happened?”  I had visited them both at home just a few days earlier.   Without warning, tears streamed down my face.  “I’m so sorry,” I said, as we embraced, embarrassed that I was doing the sobbing as my neighbor comforted me after losing his wife of 65 years.

That afternoon, unable to write, I picked up Judith Ortiz Cofer’s book and began reading. Three hours later, I looked up at the clock, surprised to discover I’d read for nearly three hours. It was six o’clock, and I hadn’t prepared anything for dinner.  Still only halfway through her memoir, I’d underlined a dozen or more passages and tabbed several pages to re-read.  Among those pages, caught up in her eloquence and soulful writing, I was re-learning and remembering something about the “alchemy of grief” she described.

Mary’s service was yesterday afternoon.  The church was filled with their sons, daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, lifelong friends, and most of us who live in this little neighborhood.  Together, we celebrated her life just as I had experienced a few days before at Robert’s service, as his adventures and enduring humor were shared by friends and loved ones.  …what I have come to believe defines immortality.  Being remembered

As I considered what to write this morning, I thought about my father and how, when members of our extended Bray family died, he, along with my uncles, preferred to separate themselves from their grieving sisters or cousins, all crying together in another room, and instead recount stories from the deceased relative’s life—the greater share of them filled with humor.  I was in high school at one such family funeral, and after several stories had been told, he turned to me, serious for a moment, and said, “Sharon, promise me that when I die, you’ll have a party.  I don’t want any tears and weeping.  Just invite all my friends, serve them Jack Daniels and tell some good stories about me.”  He wanted only to be remembered—and most often, with a chuckle.

There were more than a few “good” stories about my father I discovered at his wake many years later, and hearing them made me smile, knowing that we were remembering him just as he wanted to be:  not as a man whose addiction to cigarettes hastened his death, but as a man who loved to laugh, play a good joke on his brothers and friends from time to time, and more than anything, tell a good story.  Those stories keep my father’s memory and his legacy of humor alive.

Death steals everything but our stories–the final line of Jim Harrison’s poem, “Larson’s Holstein Bull,” I quoted in my April 5th post,” Why Our Stories Matter.”  Our stories keep alive those we’ve loved and lost.  We remember them.  Grief is softened, even transformed, and one begins to heal.  As Cofer reminds us:  Writing transforms.  And on the page, it is always now.

This week, think about what has helped you navigate the dark ocean of grief in the wake of a loved one’s loss.  Try writing from the memories you have of a friend or family member you’ve lost.  Or, try answering the question, “How do you want to be remembered?”

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Cancer is no laughing matter.

Yet if you happened to pass by the conference room in the cancer centers where I lead expressive writing programs for men and women living with cancer, you’ll often hear the sounds of laughter.  That’s right, even though we’re writing about the emotional impact accompanying a cancer diagnosis, laughter is no less frequent than tears.  Counterintuitive perhaps, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that laughter, like Norman Cousins told us in 1979 when he wrote Anatomy of an Illness, is good medicine.  Even before Cousins’ insights, Mark Twain advocated for the power of laughter:  “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that’s laughter,” he said.  “The moment it arises, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.”

I love to laugh, and in part, because when I do, I feel better.  Life looks brighter; gray moods dissipate, and others share in the smiles, so I wasn’t surprised to discover, according to author Jeannette  Moninger,  writing in the Winter 2015 issue of CURE, many hospitals across America offer laughter programs for cancer patients.  Moninger describes a few:  At North Kansas City Hospital, patients can watch funny movies…Duke Medicine offers a Laugh Mobile, a rolling cart from which adult patients in oncology wards can check out humorous books and silly items like whoopee cushions and rubber chickens.  And the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Program sends…clowns to 16 children’s hospitals nationwide to help put smiles on the faces of ill children… (pp. 26 – 29).

Even as far back as the 13th century, surgeons used humor to distract patients from the agony of painful medical procedures!  It turns out they were onto something, and many research studies have borne that out.  Laugh, and not only the world laughs with you, but your body releases endorphins, the “feel good hormones that function as the body’s natural painkillers, ”Moninger writes, the same hormones that create the “runner’s high.”  Endorphins also decrease the body’s levels of cortisol, the hormone associated with chronic stress.  Cortisol has a number of negative effects on our bodies, compromising our immune system, tensing up our muscles, elevating blood pressure—all of which laughter helps to counteract.  I don’t know about you, but I’d like to bottle up some laughter and always have it at the ready to counteract the stresses our rush-rush world.

We all need a little laughter in our lives, no matter if we’re dealing with cancer, an over-busy or stressful life, the loss of loved ones, or simply sharing time with friends and family.  We need to laugh just as much as sometimes, we need to cry.

when you are raised with the gift of laughter, as I was, it can’t stay suppressed forever. It’s too powerful. Thank goodness for that. I eventually could see bits of “ha-ha” in my own life. Certainly not in the cancer, but in the mind-blowing circumstances that suddenly consumed my life. And laughing at parts of those experiences made me feel a little more alive.  The funniest part of it all was that the more I allowed myself to laugh, the more therapeutic my tears became.  

(Jim Higley, “Finding Humor in the Midst of Cancer,” Coping with Cancer Magazine, March/April 2012)

Smiling and laughter are simply contagious.  I think of Louis Armstrong, that familiar gravelly voice always enough to make me smile, but in particular, singing:

When you’re smilin’ keep on smilin’
The whole world smiles with you
And when you’re laughin’ oh when you’re laughin’
The sun comes shinin’ through

Try it.  Whether during cancer treatment or simply living a world be constantly dominated by hardship and struggle, it’s good to find something—even a small thing—to smile or laugh about.  Dig back into your memories this week—the fun times, a time you laughed so hard, tears ran down your cheeks.  Take a break from writing about cancer or those other painful topics of life.  Try on a little humor.  Perhaps you have a few memories of times that made you smile, even laugh aloud whenever you think about them.  Write one, that funny story, and let a little “ha, ha” brighten your day.  After all, as Charlie Chaplin said, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.”

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“I need an attitude adjustment,” I said to my husband.  We were driving downtown last night to share an evening of live jazz with friends.  He said little, a sure indication he agreed with my assessment, since I’d been less than jovial for much of the day.  “I’ll try to “right” myself,” I said.  “I don’t enjoy my crankiness any more than you do.”

It’d been an uneven week for me; my mood lopsided, leaning in the wrong direction despite my best efforts to right myself.  Whether fatigue at the end of teaching a time-consuming course, the continuing turbulence in the world, a sense of loss as my cancer writing workshops wind down in the next three weeks, or the impending decisions that come with my husband’s retirement in July and the life changes it signals for us, it’s difficult to say.  But the world was, it seemed, too much with me.

An evening of music helped soothe my troubled spirits, old familiar tunes from Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington, but the shared laughter and conversation with friends was especially good medicine.  By the time we returned home, my mood had lightened, and the fog of my spiritual malaise had dissipated, although none of the impending decisions have yet to be resolved.  But it was this morning as I shared the sunrise with my dog, sitting quietly on the deck, and the two of us serenaded by the community of birds calling and chirping to one another across the canyon.  I closed my eyes and remembered lines from a favorite poem by e.e. cummings:

may my heart always be open to little

birds who are the secrets of living

whatever they sing is better than to know

and if men should not hear them men are old

I bought a children’s book this week, a habit I acquired when my daughters were small but still persists, thanks to my three grandchildren.  It’s titled enormous SMALLNESSA story of E.E. Cummings, and written by Matthew Burgess.  I’d learned about from Maria Popova’s fine weekly newsletter, Brain Pickings Weekly.  Cummings’ ranks among my very favorite .  I’ve filled my volume of his complete poems with underlines, asterisks, and dog-eared pages.  Cummings, Burgess tells us, liked to “work and dream, peering out at the world above and the world below” from his third floor room.  While his poetry often broke the rules of rhythm and rhyme, which many found strange, they were fresh and thought-provoking.  Cummings’ poems, Burgess writes, “were his way of saying YES.  Yes to the heart and the roundness of the moon, to birds, elephants, trees and everything he loved.”

Yes.  Of course.  As cummings put it “yes is a pleasant country…”  It’s such a simple word, and yet, thinking about it seemed to open my mind to possibility instead of anxiety.  Yes.  Yes to life, to whatever changes ahead of us.  Yes to simply being alive and present in the world. His words echoed in my mind as I watched the sun creep across the canyon, listened to the birdsong and stroked the ears of my dog, peacefully curled in my lap.  Yes, I thought, and my heart opened, as e.e. cummings’ might have intended.  The poem continues:

may my mind stroll about hungry

and fearless and thirsty and supple

for even if it’s sunday may i be wrong

for whenever men are right they are not young…

(From:  “53” by E.E. Cummings, In  Complete Poems, 1904-1962, ©1994)

Maybe it’s the birds, the peace of early morning, the quiet that any of us need in the midst of this rush-rush world, but for me, his words, the riot of birdsong in the morning–it all reminds me to be grateful for the life I have, to let go of the trivial annoyances that sometimes grow beyond their size, to be grateful for each new day, the “twenty-four brand new hours” that Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh spoke of, and to always see the world with “new” eyes.  Yes.

yes is a pleasant country:
if’s wintry
(my lovely)
let’s open the year

both is the very weather
(not either)
my treasure,
when violets appear

love is a deeper season
than reason;
my sweet one
(and april’s where we’re)

(e.e. cummings, “yes is a pleasant country… (XXXVIII),” In: Complete Poems, 1904-1962, ©1994)

As you write this week, consider these questions:  What helps pull you from the doldrums?  What opens your heart?  How might “yes” be a pleasant country for you?  Do you have a favorite poem or poet in whose words you find comfort and inspiration?

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