Posts Tagged ‘healing arts’

Take some flour. Oh, I don’t know,
like two-three cups, and you cut
in the butter. Now some women
they make it with shortening,
but I say butter, even though
that means you had to have fish, see?

You cut up some apples. Not those
stupid sweet ones. Apples for the cake,
they have to have some bite, you know?
A little sour in the sweet, like love.
You slice them into little moons. 

(From:  “My Mother Gives Me her Recipe,” by Marge Piercy, Colors Passing Through Us, 2004).

I’ve been thinking a lot about food in the past few weeks.  No, not about eating or dieting, but about the history, the stories found in the recipes handed down from mother to daughter or son, grandmother to granddaughter or grandson.

It began in the class I took with local artist, Jane LaFazio, a few weeks ago. A day or two before the first class, Jane instructed us to bring  with us some ingredients for a favorite recipe in addition to our art materials.  I’d been experimenting with Japanese cooking , and I knew that the mackerel I’d served up a few nights earlier wasn’t the kind of thing I could carry to class.  Instead, I pulled an old lined green 3 x 5 index card from the back of an old cookbook.  Worn and stained from years of use, the card holds a recipe for “broccoli souffle,” the very first I copied from my mother-in-law’s file as a new bride.

On the way to class, I pulled into the parking lot of a nearby grocery store and bought a few of the necessary ingredients so that I’d have something to sketch and paint.  I had such fun doing it that even though it wasn’t the most well executed project, when I completed it two weeks later, I turned the illustrated recipe turned into color postcards to send to my daughters.  (Of course, I had to order a minimum of 50, so more than a few friends have been given recipe card for broccoli soufflé!)


That old family recipe hearkens back to a time of practical, easy meal preparation, when just about any side dish contained, as a primary ingredient, a can of Campbell’s mushroom soup.  It’s a far cry from the kind of cooking I prefer now, but it’s a recipe that has endured decades of use, multiple relocations, a second marriage, and countless family meals.  It’s now the traditional casserole we serve at every Christmas dinner, whether prepared by me or one of my daughters.  It’s always enjoyed (despite its high cholesterol and caloric content), and it’s laden with history and memories of people and Christmases past.

It’s true for all of us.  Foods lovingly prepared and served at family celebrations triggers memory; stories rediscovered as we take that first bite of soufflé, an aunt’s mincemeat pie, or the warm oatmeal and raisin cookies that once waited on the kitchen table with a glass of milk when we got home from school..

Food also plays a role in our histories—as individuals, and as a people.  This week marks the beginning of Passover, and many of my Jewish friends will prepare their traditional Seder meal, where each ingredient plays an important part in the retelling of the Exodus story.  My husband and I will celebrate an annual Easter dinner with friends, honoring other religious and historical traditions.  When I was young, we celebrated Easter Sundays with my father’s extended family:  dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins gathered together for a huge meal and  followed by our annual egg hunt in the hillsides of an uncle’s ranch.  For weeks afterwards, we’d find  boiled eggs in our lunch pails—not at all as enticing as the fun we’d had coloring them.

“Recipes can help bridge generations, reveal unexpected characteristics of a culture, or simply fill an afternoon.”  This statement appeared in the introduction to “Recipe for Writing” in The Time is Now newsletter published monthly by Poets & Writers’ Magazine.  Think about it.  Food enlivens our senses.  It’s little wonder a well-loved meal stimulates so many memories.  Writing a recipe can get my students thinking about how to detailing action in a narrative.  I sometimes hand out a blank 3 x 5 card in my writing groups and have participants  begin writing a recipe they remember from an earlier point in life, then after a few minutes, encouraging them to write the memories called up by the recipe.

This week, think about food, about the recipes that have been a part of your family traditions.  Or write about the first time you tried to follow a recipe, whether it was familiar or new to you.   You might write about the memory of a meal, of life around the dinner table, or the smells and objects in a grandmother’s kitchen.    Even food we once loved may become unpleasant  because of our associations with it.  Whatever it is, begin  writing whatever you can remember of a recipe from your childhood or another time in your past.  As  memories emerge, keep writing.   See where they take you.  (If you’re at all inclined to pull out your paints or colored pencils, you might even try, as I did, to illustrate your recipe!).

In the yellow kitchen her pink hands

play with creamy dough. Squares of sun frame

things that shine; spoons, cups, hair…


She boils water, opens wine, puts vegetables in pots

Lights click. Smells blossom.

Everything feels suddenly invited.


(From “Pasta,” by Kate Scott, Stitches, 2003)


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But you got to have friends
The feeling’s oh, so strong
You got to have friends
To make that day last long…

I can hear Bette Midler belting out that song about friends, one I played night after night in the wake of my first husband’s death many years ago.  It was a song that helped pull me up from the doldrums, reminding me,  that despite everything, I was blessed with good friends.  Far from my California roots and family ties, my Nova Scotia friends helped me weather the  grief and loneliness, always there whenever I needed them, and who celebrated as I regained my footing and created a new life for myself.

This morning, I remembered another dear friend and called to wish her a happy birthday.  Lynn and I  first met  in high school at a church youth fellowship event, then we met again in college two or three years later.  We’ve been close friends ever since, although we were often separated by living on different coasts and in different countries.

One of the most wonderful things about our friendship is not only that we’ve shared the major events of our lives—accomplishments, love and loss, the births of my daughters, even having Lynn to officiate my second marriage—but that our relationship is filled with shared  laughter, the kind that comes from shared experience and perspectives.  As we rang off, Lynn tried to remember a quote she’d heard recently, “something about how shared humor is so important in sustaining a deep friendship,” she said.  We laughed because she couldn’t quite remember the words, then laughed again when she commented that  “memory is a team sport” as we age.  “I’m lucky,” I said to my husband after the call.  “I’ve had this wonderful person–this enduring friendship– in my life since we were teenagers.”  Despite all these years and geography between us, we’ve remained close.

“The good thing about friends,” Brian Jones’ poem, “About Friends,” begins “is not having to finish sentences.”   So true, but I’d add that the good thing about some friends is that they endure, that you can pick up the telephone and call, and within the first few words, you’re laughing together.  There’s comfort in old friends, the ones who know you well, who’ve shared so much of life with you and  despite time and distance, can pick up the conversation where it left off even though you’ve not seen one another for months , sometimes a year or two.

It’s something I think about a lot as my husband and I consider where we want to live in the next phase of our lives.  We’ve been mobile—and my daughters have too—and now that we have grandchildren, we want to be closer to them than the several thousand miles now between us all.  But we also know how important a community of friends is to our health and happiness, especially as we grow older.  You’ve got, as Bette Midler’s song reminds us, to have friends.

Friends matter in all kinds of ways.  They are important in helping us fight illness or depression.  They help us recover from illness, trauma and loss.  And in old age, it’s having friends that helps slowdown the aging process and prolong life.   In “What are Friends For?  A Longer Life,” a 2009 New York Times article, author Tara Parker Pope wrote that A 10 year Australian found that older people with a large circle of friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the study period than those with fewer friends. A  2007 study  an increase of nearly 60 percent in the risk for obesity among people whose friends gained weight. And last year, Harvard researchers reported that strong social ties could promote brain health as we age.

The Mayo Clinic staff agrees. “Good friends are good for your health.” They celebrate the good times and provide support in the tough times.  They keep us from being lonely, and we, as friends, return the gift of companionships.  Friends, the clinic staff state:

  • Increase your sense of belonging and purpose
  • Boost your happiness and reduce your stress
  • Improve your self-confidence and self-worth
  • Help you cope with traumas, such as divorce, serious illness, job loss or the death of a loved one
  • Encourage you to change or avoid unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as excessive drinking or lack of exercise

Remember the song “You’ve got a friend?”  Written and recorded by Carole King in 1971.  James Taylor’s recording of it the same year  was the number 1 song on Billboard’s “Hot 100.”  Since then, it’s been sung and recorded by dozens of vocalists, including those as diverse as Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Barry Manilow and Ella Fitzgerald, among many others, testimony to the importance of the enduring, and true friendships in our lives.

You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come runnin’, runnin, yeah, yeah,
to see you again
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there, yes I will

Now ain’t it good to know
that you’ve got a friend… 

This week, write about friends—the ones who matter, who’ve endured or been at your side in difficult or painful times.  What binds you together?  What is most important in your friendships with one another?  Write about a time that your friend{s} made a difference in your life.  Celebrate friendship.


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I took a day to breathe yesterday, a respite from an over-full life, each day filled with deadlines, papers to read, classes to prepare for and teach, meetings with colleagues, a stack of receipts from 2013 to organize for taxes…  I put my “to do” list aside, and focused on simpler things, listening quietly to favorite classical music, repairing the aftermath of the “busyness hurricane” in my office, weeding through belongings to donate to those in need, then sitting in the afternoon sunshine surrounded by the noisy chatter of birds in the trees.  By the end of the day, I was happier and more relaxed than I’d felt for weeks.

“It’s ironic that we forget so often how wonderful life really is,” novelist Anna Quindlen writes.  “Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of gray cement.  It would be wonderful if they came to us un-summoned, but particularly in lives as busy as the ones most of us lead now, that won’t happen.  We have to teach ourselves how to make room for them…”  (From:  A Short Guide to a Happy Life, Random House, 2000.  For more on Quindlen, see Brain Pickings Weekly,  

I’d fallen prey to the infectious disease of busyness, much too much of it, and little by little, it consumed my life these past many weeks.  What I took as the body’s betrayal, the aching back I wrote about in last week’s post, I now think was the body’s way of reminding me it was high time to slow down and take some time to recalibrate, to smell those roses—or just sit in my backyard on a springtime afternoon.

I should know better, of course.  A writer’s work is to notice, pay attention, but I still fall prey to old habits, putting my “to-do” list ahead of my life, filling my days with tasks that seem important at the time, but ultimately crowd out the simple pleasure of being present in the here and now.  We have to teach ourselves how to make room for them, to love them, and to live, really live.

Ted Kooser, former poet laureate of the U.S., knows this well.  In 1967, he was in treatment for prostate cancer, “depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing…”  He began a routine of early morning walks, and one November morning, surprised himself by “trying my hand at a poem.  Soon I was writing every day…”  He did more than just write.  He pasted his poems on the backs of postcards and sent them to his friend, author Jim Harrison.  The postcards ultimately became a collection of poetry, Winter Morning Walks:  One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison.

Kooser’s book portrays of a man whose life was consumed, for a time, by the ravages of illness and treatment, but reawakened by those small moments of beauty in the natural world.

The sky a pale yellow this morning

like the skin of an onion

and here at the center…

…A poet,

and cupped in his hands, the green shoot

of one word.

Kooser began to reclaim a life, those moments of “small pieces of glittering mica” that Quindlen describes.  Despite his recovery from cancer, it is life he shows his readers, its endless array of gifts and beauty, ones he remembered to again make time for, to notice.

I saw the season’s first bluebird
this morning, one month ahead
of its scheduled arrival.  Lucky I am
to go off to my cancer appointment
having been given a bluebird, and,
for a lifetime, have been given
this world.

There’s a worn out phrase rattling around in my brain today–“Life is short”—a reminder to not waste it, not let it be consumed by things that don’t make me happy or fulfilled.  Quindlen puts it another way, words I’m not likely to forget:

This is not a dress rehearsal…today is the only guarantee that you get…consider the lilies of the field…fuzz on a baby’s ear.  Read in the backyard with the sun on your face…And think of life as a terminal illness, because if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived.

Today, take time for the things in your life that truly matter, that give you joy.  You might try writing a poem about something you notice or, perhaps, begin with a phrase inspired by Anna Quindlen, “Life is a terminal illness…” and see where it takes you.

Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

(“The Thing Is, by Ellen Bass, In Mules of Love, BOA Editions, 2002)

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If you were  a fly on the wall in my writing groups for cancer patients and survivors, you might be surprised to discover how often we laugh.  Yep, you read it right:  LAUGH.  I hadn’t thought much about it, but a couple of weeks ago, as I was introducing a new member to my UCSD writing group, I said something that made everyone laugh.

“Oh,” the new member said, a note of relief in her voice, “you laugh in this group.”

“Oh yes, we do,” one of the group smiled, nodding at me.  “She likes to laugh.”

As a matter of fact, I do.  It’s a rare day when I don’t find something amusing in my life to laugh about.  I don’t do it consciously.  It’s just a habit, one I like to think I learned from my father.  While he didn’t have the happiest of lives, Dad loved a good story, a good joke, and always had a smile or a chuckle to share with his children.  It drew us closer to him; a smile or a shared joke was always more inviting than the stern and often punitive style of our mother’s.  It lightened a dark mood; it made life—or the chores we’d been assigned for one infraction or another—seem less serious, more bearable.

There are many emotions expressed in any of our writing sessions.  Cancer is no laughing matter, but laughter is good medicine.  I think of R., battling metastatic prostate cancer, walking into the group two weeks ago, his body weakened  the multiple rounds of chemotherapy, but with a little cartoon sticker stuck to the side of his bald head, immediately causing us to smile.  Or the fun we had, during an earlier series, when I challenged the group to talk back to cancer, but using only Shakespearean-style insults.  K. read hers aloud, entitling it, “Cancer, Thy Name is Maltworm,” with a sub-title, “Cursing cancer with help from the Bard:”  Here’s her first stanza:

Get back, beast.

thou villainous bag of boil-brained barnacles.

Go back to that special place in hell

reserved for you and your murderous kind.

Get out, out damn spot/shadow/lump.

Get out, out vilest of viles, rankest of ranks; thou pox-marked, toad-spotted, measle.

And come not back…

I  confess there were tears in the room as she read, but not of sadness.  We were laughing so hard that tears began to run down some of our faces.  It wasn’t just the wit and fun of the writing, there was community and healing in our shared laughter.

Think of Norman Cousins, former editor of the Saturday Review, given up to die and nearly completely paralyzed from “ankylosing spondylitis,” a degenerative disease that causes the breakdown of collagen, Cousins began watching Marx Brothers movies and enjoying plenty of hearty belly laughs daily, with the result that he began to  experience relief from his pain.  Gradually, he regained the use of his limbs, returned to his job, and wrote his book, Anatomy of An Illness.  In it, he asked, “is it possible that love, hope, faith, laughter, confidence and the will to live have therapeutic value?” I think they do.  

Some time ago, I read an article in Coping with Cancer Magazine, “Finding Humor in the Midst of Cancer,” by Jim Higley, a prostate cancer survivor and father of three.  When the news of his diagnosis spread, his telephone answering machine filled with messages of condolence:

Each message was a carbon copy of the previous one. “Jim, I just heard what’s going on. I am so sorry. But I know you’ll be fine. You’re strong. I know you’re buried right now, but call me when you can. And let me know if there is anything I can do for you.”

Finally, I found something that made me laugh.

These were messages oozing with love. I knew and appreciated that. I just found the quantity of calls funny. Crazy. Unexpected. Who gets 30 messages? Was I really going to call people back? And what was I supposed to tell people to do? There were probably so many things I did or would need, but I didn’t have a clue at that moment. What I did have was the return of my warped sense of humor.

I’ve got an idea, I thought to myself. Maybe I could tell all these people there is something they can do! I’ll tell them I’m registered! Brides do it. Even grooms do it. Why can’t a sick person?!

The absurdity of my idea made me laugh out loud. It was as if the release valve on a pressure cooker was finally opening up, and a bunch of steam was spewing out into the air.

I could only imagine the confusion on people’s faces if they actually heard this silliness. Most would know I was teasing, of course. But I’m sure a few people would be stumped – especially if I did a new greeting on my answer­ing machine:

“Hi, you’ve reached the Higley house. We’re swamped with all this cancer crap. For those of you wondering what you can do, I’m now registered at Crate and Barrel, Eddie Bauer, and the local hardware store. Thanks for your concern!”

Higley described the therapeutic effects of making himself—and others—laugh:… 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. (March/April 2012)

Laughter is good medicine.  And we all need it, no matter if it’s cancer, an over-busy and stressful life, remembering loved ones lost, or just being together with friends and loved ones.  We need to laugh together just as sometimes, we need to weep together. As Mark Twain said,  “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that’s laughter.  The moment it arises, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.”

It’s a sentiment captured in the Disney film, Mary Poppins.  I remember the lyrics Dick Van Dyke sang.  I was in college at the time, but even then, just singing along with him made me shed that self-important attitude of being a terribly serious college student and always, laugh out loud:

The more I laugh
The more I fill with glee
And the more the glee
The more I’m a merrier me
It’s embarrassing!
The more I’m a merrier me!

Find that sunny spirit in you–the “ha, ha” in your life.  And, if you’re inspired to do so, write about something that makes you smile—or laugh—each time you remember it.

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The theme of hope permeated my days this past week.  It began with my own predictable nervousness before a presentation to a new audience, although I was too buried in my pre-presentation angst to be aware of much more than wondering if I’d remember everything I intended to say or do.  Yet hope was there, hovering in the wings, as I made my way to Point Loma Nazarene University on Wednesday afternoon to lead a workshop at the annual Writers’ Symposium by-the-Sea.  “I hope it will go well,” I murmured to myself as I drove.  It did.  And woven throughout my talking points and quotations from established authors, hope for anyone who wants to write.

 I didn’t start writing until I was forty-seven.  I had always wanted to write but thought you needed a degree, or membership in a club nobody had asked me to join…It was a long time before I realized that you don’t have to start right, you just have to start.

–Abigail Thomas, author of A Three Dog Life

The evening before my workshop my husband went alone to hear an interview with Siddhartha Mukherjee, physician and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Emperor of All Maladies:  A Biography of Cancer, a presentation I’d gotten tickets for weeks earlier, before my workshop date was finalized.   “You go,” I said.  “I can’t take the time.”

As I was finishing my breakfast the next morning, he walked into the kitchen. “Mukherjee said something that really struck me last night,” he said.

“What’s that?” I asked as I walked toward the bedroom.  I was impatient, rushing to be ready for a full day of workshops:  a writing group at Moores UCSD Cancer Center in the morning and then racing to Pt. Loma for the afternoon.

“It was about hope,” he said.  I stopped.  He had my attention.  “Hope,’ Mukherjeee said, ‘is a vital organ.’  Isn’t that incredible?”

If a man die, it is because death

has first possessed his imagination.

(William Carlos Williams, in Mukherjee, p.306).

Later that morning, K., one of the writers in my Moores group, told us she’d also attended Mukherjee’s talk.  “He said something really profound,” she began.  She opened her notebook to read the words:  “Hope is a vital organ.”  Everyone around the table asked her to repeat it so they could write his words in their notebooks.

It’s little wonder they were so attentive.  According to Mukherjee, hope seems to give cancer patients added life force.  Is it any wonder that in the world of cancer, hope might be one of the most powerful medicines we possess?  Healing is the process of “becoming whole,” even in the face of a terminal diagnosis.  It is a transformation, and hope plays a central role. It is the expectation that something good can happen in the future.

Hope manifests itself in our lives in many situations.  Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle, a memoir of her childhood, talked about her life at Wednesday’s Symposium.  Her early years were what many would call tragic, a life defined by two dysfunctional parents, a nomadic existence, sometimes homeless, and forced, along with her siblings, to dig for food in garbage cans when their father, often drunk, would steal the grocery money and their mother left the children to fend for themselves.  Walls found the will and resources to leave home and create a successful life, but what was most surprising and captivating was the affection and generosity that she possesses for her parents.  As one friend said to me after hearing Walls’ story, “She gave me hope that I can find that kind of forgiveness and acceptance for what I experienced in my family.”

Anne LaMott’s Thursday evening conversation marked the conclusion of the Writers’ Symposium and was the most popular event of the week.  LaMott is a favorite for many who first read her book, Bird by Bird:  Instructions on Writing and Life.   It became a bible for new writers, offering hope for even the most timid.  Her most recent book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair again reveals her hallmark wit, wisdom and unvarnished candor.  Lamott reminds us what hope is in a world too often punctuated by reports of random shootings, car bombs, wars, natural disasters, hunger, disease, and sadness.  “Hope is a conversation,” she says.  What allows us to go on and find those small moments of goodness, are to be found in “attention, creation, love, and dessert.”  It turns out, I think,  that perhaps hope can also be found in a smile.

Hope.  That vital organ that every human being needs to live.  This week, write about hope.  What is it?  Where have you found it?  How has it helped you face difficult times in your life?

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops – at all -
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea - 
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

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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…

(From “Dawn Revisited” by Rita Dove, On the Bus with Rosa Parks,)

A few years ago, I stumbled across a photograph in an advertisement for a Canadian insurance company.  A young man, wearily hoping for someone to offer him a ride, stands by the side of the road, his hair disheveled, wearing a worn sheepskin jacket, and holding a sign that reads “If I had a second chance, I’d be home by now.

if i had second chance

We’d all like a second chance from time to time—a “do-over,” the opportunity to make a different choice than before, a clean page to begin a new life chapter.  Maybe that’s why we routinely promise ourselves we’ll do better:  eat more fruits and vegetables, shed those extra ten pounds gained over the holidays, mend fences with an estranged family member, finish that novel we put aside months ago, walk at least thirty minutes a day, or finally get around to painting the hallway, grown weary looking with the years. Our self-improvement plans are constant promises we make to ourselves, some successful, others not, but most of us hope for a chance to improve our lives, one way or another.

Resolved: this year
I’m going to break my losing streak,
I’m going to stay alert, reach out,
speak when not spoken to,
read the minds of people in the streets.
I’m going to practice every day,
stay in training, and be moderate
in all things…
(From:  “New Year’s Resolution,” by Philip Appleman, New and Selected Poems, 1996)

Making good on our intentions, deciding what’s most important to tackle, requires not only action, but reflection, understanding which habits of our lives no longer serve us well, which we want to discard; which we want to continue.  “Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards,” Danish philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard advised.

The 2009 award-winning film, The Things We Carry,  tells the story of two sisters, estranged from each other by their mother’s addiction, and their journey through the San Fernando Valley to find a package left for them by their deceased mother.  As they travel together, old sibling wounds are exposed and recounted, but gradually, they find peace with one another.  “The key to moving forward,” the film’s tagline reads, “lies in the past.”

In Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 nonfiction bestseller, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, Louie Zamperini, an Olympian track star who became an Army Air Corps bombardier in 1941, crashes into the Pacific and survives for 47 days on a life raft before he’s taken captive by the Japanese.   Zamperini’s story is not only about survival and heroism, it’s about redemption, a second chance to put the brutal wounds of his past behind him.

If you don’t look back, the future never happens.  Whatever hardships lie in our past, we must find our own ways of coming to terms with them.  Everyone carries burdens in their lives, virtual knapsacks filled with old ways of being and believing, wounds or grievances, lingering pain or anger, even fear.  Writing can help.  Exposing our deepest feelings, reflecting on the past, gaining new insights, opening us to “seeing” the world and living differently.  A second chance is an opportunity to understand and discard those things that no longer serve us, weigh us down, or interfere with our healing.  It’s an opportunity to “wake up,”  be fully present to the gifts of life offered to us daily.

Like you, I have to remind myself of this from time to time, as I suspect we all do when life weighs us down.  It’s one of the main reasons I wake early each morning to walk, repeating the words of Ticht Nhat Hahn, Vietnamese Zen Master and poet, as I greet the dawn, his words first introduced to me The Spirited Walker guru, Carolyn Scott-Kortge.  Hahn’s words help me remember that each day is my second chance—or third or fourth—to live the life I want.

Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.

Imagine that you wake up with a second chance.  What would you do differently, given the opportunity? Why not begin your second chance today?


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And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear.  What we need is here.

From:  “The Wild Geese,” by Wendell Berry

 Yesterday, in a peaceful retreat center north of San Diego yesterday, I participated in a workshop on contemplative practices that enrich our lives.  My role was to invite  participants to consider the spiritual practice inherent in writing.  Like so many Americans, I’ve been a lapsed church-goer for the better part of my adult life.  I had dabbled with other religious traditions, tried meditation, but still, I couldn’t find the spiritual practice I longed for.  What I hadn’t realized is that I had already had the tool to enrich my spiritual life—writing.  I’d always written. During the years of a soul shattering time in early adulthood, writing was a refuge, my port in the storm, a virtual sanctuary.  I just hadn’t thought of it as a spiritual practice.  What we need is here…

Years later I was struggling with a near perfect storm of loss—my father’s death from lung cancer, Mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s, the task of downsizing a dying nonprofit, and my unexpected diagnosis of early stage breast cancer.  Writing was the lifesaver I clung to in that turbulent time.  It helped me cope, but more than that, it became an important daily routine. I realized it was fundamental to my spiritual life.

Writing is my spiritual practice, a ritual and meditation that begins in the early morning, before the outside world intervenes to pull me into its noisy demands.  It is in the stillness of early morning that I first open the pages of my notebook, the same leather-bound journal I’ve written in for years.  Like the dawn of a new day, a new page awaits, blank and inviting.  I think of Rita Dove’s line in “Dawn Revisited:”  “the whole sky is yours/ to write on, blown open/ to a blank page…”    I write without expectation, each day starting with one small observation, something noticed in the present moment—the fog lifting from the canyon floor, a trio of hummingbirds at the garden fountain, the red-tailed hawk’s wings spread as he glides just beyond our deck—whatever captures my attention.

“At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world~ now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening.– Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk.

Now I will stop and be wholly attentive…Sometimes, a haiku poem emerges; other times, what I describe triggers a memory or a feeling that begs to be written.  It hardly matters.  What does matter is that I write, embracing the solitude of the morning and intertwining the external world with my internal one, going deeper into whatever I’m exploring on the page.  I write myself into “knowing.” 

Writing is a kind of meditation and it imy prayer.  It opens me, ensures I am “paying attention” to what is before me and what is inside me. It informs my intentions for each day and the work I do with others in my groups.  Although writing is my spiritual practice, anything that takes us into the quiet contemplation and deeper parts of ourselves can become a source of spiritual nourishment:   art, music, dance, yoga, T’ai Chi, meditation, prayer.  As Thomas Merton wrote, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time,”

One’s spirituality is not dependent on a specific religious belief or theology.  We all have spiritual needs and yearnings.  What matters is finding a way to nurture them, that we feed our souls as well as our bodies and minds.  It’s our spiritual lives, in times of hardship, life-threatening illness, or other suffering, that keep us from losing hope, that keep us whole. Dana Jennings, New York Times editor, was diagnosed with an aggressive prostate cancer several years ago, writing a series of blog posts for the Times.  I recall how he wrote  about his need for “spiritual antibodies” during treatment. 

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.

Medicine cares about physical outcomes, not the soul.  A cancer diagnosis may challenge all that you believed was right and true in your life.  Cancer–and many other painful experiences–may seem like a dark night of the soul, but it offers you the chance to deepen your self-understanding and compassion for others.   Isn’t this the spiritual journey?  I think so.  It’s one I witness it repeatedly in the writing groups I lead for cancer patients and survivors:  people deepening, clear about what is truly important to their lives, noticing the gifts present in every day they have.  

Through the exchange of stories, we help heal each other’s spirits…Isn’t this what a spiritual life is about?

Patrice Vecchione, Writing and the Spiritual Life

Life’s hardships, the losses and suffering we endure,  thrust us into what can only be defined as a deeply spiritual journey.  We may kick and scream, rail against the injustices of those events, but like it or not, we’re forced to re-examine our lives in ways we have not, perhaps, done before.  We begin to pay attention, really pay attention, to what truly matters to us. What we need is here…

Varda, who wrote with me throughout the last two years of her life, died of metastatic breast cancer.  She wrote about her cancer,  humorously,  poignantly, but always honestly, many times voicing what others were afraid to express.  Cancer, as she wrote in one of her last poems, “challenged her faith,” but she was unafraid to re-examine the meaning of the spiritual traditions in her life.  Her words touched us all profoundly.

…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.

(From:  “Faith,” by Varda Nowack Goldstein)

Varda may have been thrust into a journey that brought her to her knees, but she nurtured her “spiritual antibodies” by writing deeply about her life and learning from it.  She demonstrated enormous courage, helping others in the group, as she faced her inevitable death with grace, love, even shared laughter.  Surely this was the evidence of the depth and sustenance of her spiritual life.

What nourishes your spirituality?  What practices or rituals have helped sustain you in times of illness, hardship or struggle? Where have you found your solace, your strength, your source of “spiritual antibodies?”

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For he was small but brave of heart…

For when he slept he snored only a little.

For he could be silly and noble in the same moment…

For when he sniffed it was as if her were being

     pleased by every part of the world…

For he was a mixture of gravity and waggery…

For there was nothing sweeter than his peace

     when at rest…

For he loved me…

For when he lay down to enter sleep he did not argue…

(From:  “For I Will Consider My Dog Percy,” in Dog Songs: Poems, by Mary Oliver, 2013)

Back in November, I wrote about the comfort we humans take from pets, describing our dog, Kramer, an aging canine companion, a toy poodle-terrier mix… (he) has been at my side through cancer, heart failure, surgery and recovery, attentive to my every mood and eternally vigilant, a pint-sized protector who barks loudly when strangers come to the door.  We have …a strong and enduring bond… (from a previous post, November 17, 2013)

Kramer died this past Thursday, his demise sudden and unexpected, unlike the death of our Westie, Winston, who’d  lived for seventeen years, and, as I wrote before, likely kept alive for a couple of extra years by Kramer’s persistent adoration and enthusiasm for his older playmate.  In Winston’s final days, Kramer stood vigil, quiet and attentive, seemingly aware that his buddy was failing.  After Winston’s death, his grief was palpable.  He retreated to the shady spot underneath our deck where his older companion spent his final days, staying there a full week to grieve, only willing to come indoors in the evening.  Always faithful, he mourned Winston’s loss as deeply as we did.

I held Kramer in my arms in the final hour before his death, nuzzling his furry coat and weeping as he, ever attentive to my emotional state, kept licking my face as if to reassure me that everything was going to be all right.  And it will be of course, but the house seems empty and forlorn without him, and whenever I gaze out to the back garden from my office window, where Kramer’s body now rests a few yards from Winston’s, my eyes fill with tears again.

I remembered my childhood these past days and the first time we lost a pet, a cat named Snowball.  She had been a great teacher to us.  From Snowball, we learned about birth, standing vigil like little physician’s assistants to administer help as she bore her first and only litter of kittens.  We learned about love, and we learned about death and sorrow.  There were other pets as we grew–turtles, goldfish, lizards—each accorded a funeral when they died, always attended by our neighborhood playmates, and buried in the far end of the back yard where Snowball’s remains also lay.  Finally, our parents relented and let us have a dog, Tico, part Toy terrier, part Chihuahua, who had the heart of a warrior despite his small size.  It was Tico who saved my brother’s life when our family home burned to the ground, licking his face and barking to awaken him from a deep sleep as his bedroom caught fire.  Tico was ten, dying only a year later, but he had wrapped himself around our hearts so completely, and his death was deeply mourned by us all.  He was, as far as we were concerned, an extraordinary hero.

Our bonds with our pets are strong and deep, extolled in poetry, essays, memoirs and novels.  Our pets offer companionship, loyalty, unflinching devotion, comfort and joy.  Again, I turn to Mary Oliver’s essay about her dog:

We open the door and he glides away without a backward glance…running along the edge of the water, into the first pink suggestion of sunrise.  And we are caught by the old affinity, a joyfulness—his great and seemly pleasure in the physical world.  Because of the dog’s joyfulness our own is increased.  It is no small gift.  …What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass?  What would this world be like without dogs?  (From Dog Songs: Poems, Penguin Press, 2013.)

What would this world be like without…a dog, a cat, a pet we love?  Perhaps you have—or have had—a pet that is special in some way, who offered you comfort or joy.  Why not write about that pet this week?  Capture his or her attributes, behavior, the kinds of things that made you smile, the way he or she endeared themselves to you.  What memories do you have of that pet?

Kramer’s death is still fresh, my emotions still raw, and for a time yet, his absence will feel unfamiliar, a sharp stab of loss each time I enter the house.  Yet even as he died, he offered me a little reminder of his uniqueness, the thing about him that always made me smile.  His ears.  They were his hallmark, surely inherited from Yoda of Star Wars fame.  Kramer died, this funny little companion, with his ears fully erect, just as in life. The ears, his semaphore flags, always raised whenever he eyed us expectantly, signaling his perpetual question:  “So guys, what’s happening?”

Rest in peace, my friend.

Kramer earsFor Kramer, 2000 – 2014.

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For the better part of this month, I’ve been trying to come up with the single word that will guide my writing and daily my life, in 2014.  It’s a practice introduced to me by two of my writing buddies over a year ago, one they have shared for several years, and one I embraced wholeheartedly, as did the other two members in our monthly writing group.  There was something elegant and, in a real way, more honest, about choosing a single, meaningful word than making a list of resolutions (as I used to do), ones that often disappeared in a cloud of good intentions, by late February.

Here’s how it works:  at our first meeting of the New Year, we each bring our word and, one by one, share it and the reason for its choice.  It’s not something one does easily.  This year, as last, I agonized for days, consulting my dictionary, thesaurus, and favorite poems, hoping a word would suddenly be illuminated, virtually leaping off the page and saying, “Choose me.  Choose me.”  None did.

It was only as I was playing with our dog, a lovable but very neurotic toy poodle, that inspiration struck.  That’s the way the muse works, actually, sneaking up on us when we least expect it, but only after we’ve done the work to be ready for her arrival.  As Kramer cavorted at my feet, I burst into song (yes, I admit it, I dreamed of being a hit singer in my pre-pubescent years, and even now, a candlestick sometimes doubles as a microphone).  “You’ve gotta’ have heart,” I sang, startling the dog.  He backed away, staring at me as I belted out the lyrics, still remembered, from many years ago.

All you really need is heart

When the odds are sayin’

You’ll never win

That’s when a grin

Should start…

(From the 1955 musical comedy, Damn Yankees, by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross)

I had my word, “heart.”  It has particular significance for me, not the least being the implanted device in my chest, a reminder of the day my heart actually failed five years ago.  It’s also a word I often use in my writing workshops. “Write from the heart,” I frequently say when someone asks, “but what do I write about?”

I routinely begin with an  image of a heart on the first day of my annual summer class, “Writing as a Healing Ministry,” at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.  Now, it seemed,  it was my turn.  I consulted my thesaurus once again.  This time, I swear the word “heart” was practically glowing.  I scanned the list of meanings physical organ, emotions, compassion, enthusiasm, center, essence—and familiar usages like “by heart,” “do one’s heart good,” “ have a heart,”  “eat your heart out,” “take heart,” even “heartache.”  It is an extraordinarily rich word, and one that applies to my writing–the writing that matters to me the most–and to my life.

You’ve gotta have heart

Miles ‘n miles n’ miles of heart

Oh, it’s fine to be a genius of course

But keep that old horse

Before the cart

First you’ve gotta have heart…

This past Friday, our first meeting of the New Year, each of my writing friends shared their word and why they’d chosen it.  In every case, the words were as much about the way in which we wanted to live our lives this year as it was about our writing.  Our words led us into deeper waters as we talked, the territory beneath the water line that is so important to explore as a writer, the things that matter most to us and why.  All from one single word.

After we adjourned, I returned to my office and opened up the small two-inch by three-inch frame that’s held the image of my 2013 choice, “rewrite,” and replaced it with the picture of a small red heart on a blue background.  It sits to the left of my keyboard where, as I work, I glance at it multiple times a day, reminding me of author Judith Campbell’s oft-repeated quote, “When your heart speaks, take good notes.”  That’s my intent, staying on course, writing about and focusing on what truly matters in life, giving my heart at least equal time with my head!

This week, why not choose one word that holds meaning for you?  Then begin with that one word and write for 20 minutes.  Explore the meanings, memories, even the images that spring to mind.  You might even share your word choice and what it means for you in the comment section of this blog.  Or, do as my friends and I do.  Frame or post your word where you can see it on a daily basis.  Let it remind you of your intentions for this New Year.

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I called my friend, C. a few days ago to tease him about his upcoming birthday.  Was he going to celebrate in a memorable way? I asked. After all, this year marks the beginning of a new decade, and one that deserves some recognition.  “Besides,” I joked, “I’m so much younger than you are, and I called to see how my old friend,” emphasizing the word, “old,” is doing.  We had a good laugh.  The truth is I can only call myself younger than him for six months, but it’s our standing joke.  We’ve been friends since high school and shared each other’s different life chapters for several decades now, including the joys and sorrows, graying of hair and stiffening of joints—the inevitable signs of aging both of us would like to forget.

We’ve also shared something else:  cancer.  A different kind of chapter, an unwelcome and unexpected one, where one’s sense of mortality, of the certainty of the life we thought we knew, changed and for a time, we were propelled into unwelcome fears of the outcome—and a greater appreciation for the life we each enjoy.

It’s true for all of us.  Any unexpected hardship, life-threatening illness or loss thrusts us into new and unfamiliar territory, into a different chapter of life than the one we thought we were living.  “The knowledge you’re ill…” Anatole Broyard wrote “is one of the momentous experiences of life” (in Intoxicated by My Illness and Other Writings on Life & Death, 1993).  So momentous, in fact, it sometimes overshadows everything that came before it

I witness, year in and year out, the shock, pain and yet, resilience, of men and women who are living with cancer.  It’s a momentous and overwhelming chapter of life, and for some, the final chapter,  And yet, I think of so many who, facing their final months of life, do not, in the end, let cancer define them.  Novelist Alice Hoffman, writing about her cancer experience, remembered the wisdom offered to her by her oncologist:

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. (New York Times, August 14, 2000).

Cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter.   I’ve quoted Hoffman innumerable times because she reminds us that although our lives are often turned inside out by cancer—or any other life threatening illness–it is not who we are.  Cancer is not our identity.  I think of A., one of the writers in my Scripps groups, who often said, “I may have cancer, but it doesn’t have me.”  Her spirit and determination to live as fully as possible for whatever time she had remaining inspired us all.

But cancer changes us.  As sociologist and cancer survivor Arthur Frank said, “Being ill is just another way of living…but by the time we have lived through it, we are living differently” (in At the Will of the Body; Reflections on Illness, 2002).  Who we are, truly, is revealed as we confront a life threatening illness like cancer.   Our uniqueness, our humanity, is more apparent when illness strips any pretense away.

In the weekly meetings of my cancer writing groups, I witness the struggle, sorrow, vulnerability and courage among the individuals who attend.  For a time, cancer dominates what gets written, but gradually—and this is a sign of healing, of becoming whole—other chapters of life begin to be expressed.

I remember P., a member of the Stanford group, who struggled valiantly with an aggressive cancer that ultimately took her life.  Yet as the months wore on and her cancer spread, she wrote less about cancer and more about all she had lived and endured.  It was an act of bearing witness to her life—and being witnessed by those of us in the group.  Raised in Sri Lanka, she had endured unimaginable hardship during the civil war, but after coming to the U.S., found freedom, academic success and love.  Her stories revealed the depth of her courage and a legacy of life that would live well beyond her death.  Everyone felt a deeper appreciation for who she was—not a cancer patient, but a remarkable young woman whose life was a testament to her courage and resilience.

Cancer wallops us, brings us to tears, but it teaches us, just as the other chapters of life have taught us something about ourselves.  If I look back over my life, my chapters are less defined by decades and more by those events—difficult, challenging, and momentous—that taught me something deep and lasting about myself.

In a short poem, “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters, “Portia Nelson creates a humorous, yet insightful, brief portrait of her life.

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

Chapter 1

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter 4

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter 5

I walk down another street.

           (From:  There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self Discovery, Atria Books, 1994)

Consider the chapters of your life.  Suppose you were asked to write a book proposal for an autobiography of your life.  One of the elements to include is an outline of chapters you envision for the entire book.  Make your outline.  Give each chapter a title.  Then try writing a short autobiography in the style of Portia Nelson’s or, if you prefer, choose just one chapter and describe the event that defines it.  What did you learn from it?  Your stories are your legacy, evidence of the life you’ve lived, who you were then and, as you reflect, how you became the person you are now.  Besides, if you don’t tell your story, who will?

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