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?