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Posts Tagged ‘healing arts’

when you are raised with the gift of laughter, as I was, it can’t stay suppressed forever… 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.  ( “Finding Humor in the Midst of Cancer,” By Jim Higley, In: Coping with Cancer Magazine, March/April 2012)

 

“You’re a lot perkier since you’ve gotten your dog,” a friend remarked last night as we sat together at an outdoor concert in a local park.  I laughed and said that my husband made the same observation a week or two earlier.  She laughed too as I described Maggie’s daily antics that keep me smiling– even laughing out loud–several times a day.  When I adopted her two months ago, it was soon after I had damaged my tailbone and right shoulder in a fall.  I was in pain, unable to sit for more than a few minutes and unable to participate in the African drumming classes I have come to love.  Worse, I was turning 70 and feeling as if overnight, I had joined the ranks of the aged and infirm.  Thankfully, it was only a temporary descent into “ain’t it awful,” but my funny little terrier helped pull me out of the doldrums.

The thing is, I like to laugh.  A lot.  On a class conference call with my UCLA writing students earlier this week, someone asked about teaching online vs. the classroom.  “I miss the classroom,” I said, adding that online is great; I can teach from anywhere at any time, but “I laugh more when I’m in the classroom.”

It’s true.  Whether it’s a writing workshop for cancer survivors or a regular creative writing class, a good deal of laughter is shared between us.  Shared laughter breaks the ice; it relaxes people and builds community.  We learn not to take ourselves quite so seriously, and more, even in the midst of something as horrible as a cancer diagnosis, there can still be things that make us smile.  Laughter brightens the day and our outlook.  We feel better.

Laughter is good medicine.  Author Norman Cousins used it to cure himself of a debilitating illness.  And long before Cousins, Mark Twain wrote, “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.”

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

It’s one reason I like being around children.  Last night I watched toddlers and kindergarteners frolic together on the grass at the outdoor concert.  I found myself smiling, laughing as they laughed, wishing my grandchildren were not as far away as they are.  Frankly, the laughter they bring to my life is  the primary reason I even check Facebook.  I love to read the funny and imaginative accounts of what comes out of their mouths.  Nathan, my five-year old grandson, offers regular doses of that particular brand of child humor  I find so delightful.  Several times a week, I read what he’s said and laugh out loud.  For example, as Claire drove her children home from a day at the beach this week, he announced: “Mommy, The Moon Master shot an egg into space, and it gave all the stars color. But it was really to send a message to Nathan, I; Nathan. He just said ‘ beee a gooood booyyy’ and so then I will get a white kitty, who is clean, and I will name her Tiger. You Mommy will put her in a basket, in the fridge but only the tail sticks out, so I can be surprised and find her and say ‘OH MY GOD, IT’S TIGER!’ Is that correct?”

I don’t think he’s going to find a white kitten in a basket in the refrigerator any time soon, but it was a good try, but what’s more, I began my day with laughter and a smile—the best medicine in the world.

There’s an old song my mother used to sing  as she did the household chores when I was a child, one made popular at by Louis Armstrong in 1929 and recorded over the years by many others, including Billie Holiday, Louis Prima, Frank Sinatra and more.   And no wonder.  Even singing the lyrics makes me happier.  It’s a good reminder that every day can be a little brighter if you find something to smile about.

When you’re smiling
When you’re smiling
The whole world smiles with you

When you’re laughing
When you’re laughing
The sun comes shining through…

(Lyrics by Larry Shay, Mark Fisher and Joe Goodwin)

Smiling and laughter, as the song reminds us, are contagious.  In a world so fraught with hardship and struggle, it’s good to find something—even a small thing—to smile or laugh about.  This week, write about something that makes you smile—or laugh out loud—each time you remember it.  Notice how a little “ha, ha” lifts your spirits.  Try laughing at least once each day.  It is, as Norman Cousins discovered, the best medicine.

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I awakened a half hour later than usual this morning.  Deep in a dream that ignited long ago memories of a kindergarten playmate, I awoke with a start and looked at the clock.  Six thirty.  “Oh no,” I murmured to my dog, asleep at the side of the bed, “I overslept.”

Normally, I awaken a few minutes before six a.m., but today, I slept well past my usual time.  I hurriedly threw back the covers and groggily made my way down the hall to pull on my walking clothes, brush my teeth and hair.  It took more time than usual to make the coffee, feed the dog, and do my regimen of stretching exercises before I was ready to fasten the leash to her collar, the signal that we’re ready to head out the door.  Normally she waits patiently, used to the routine of my mornings, but today, she found one of my Croc sandals in the hallway and managed to chew a chunk out of the strap before I realized what she’d done.  It seemed we both were unsettled by the disruption and predictability of our early morning routine.

In the poem, “Habit,” Jane Hirshfield describes small rituals that are part of our daily lives:

The shoes put on each time
left first, then right.

The morning potion’s teaspoon
of sweetness stirred always
for seven circlings, no fewer, no more,
into the cracked blue cup.

Touching the pocket for wallet,
for keys,
before closing the door.

How did we come
to believe these small rituals’ promise,
that we are today the selves we yesterday knew,
tomorrow will be?

(Excerpt from “Habit” by Jane Hirshfield, in Given Sugar, Given Salt)

My morning habits, the little rituals of each day, began during a time of difficult transitions, when I adrift in grief and turmoil, coming to terms with the death of a husband and a new life as a single mother.  Writing in the early mornings before my children awakened, became a life line, the port in my storm, the way I could make sense of the myriad of emotion that threatened to overwhelm me. 

There’s comfort in habit, the little rituals that become part of each day.  They allow us to feel connected to ourselves and to the world.  We create rituals around important life events—birth, puberty, marriage, death—a way of honoring our transitions from one chapter to the next.  In times of uncertainty and change, our rituals keep us grounded.    They help us navigate difficult times, provide a sense of familiarity and constancy.

Our daily rituals can even help us heal. They offer time to be quiet and focus on our intentions and actions.  They can also  function as talismen against fear, and give us the assurance we will be all right.

How did we come
to believe these small rituals’ promise,
that we are today the selves we yesterday knew,
tomorrow will be?

Author Barbara Biziou (www.joyofritual.com) writes that our healing rituals, the little habits that offer us solace or replenishment, allow us to be active participants in our healing process.  What defines a healing ritual?  They are the things we take solace in doing, a prayer or meditation, a solitary walk in the woods, working in the garden, listening to music, a massage, or sitting quietly at a window with a cup of tea or coffee..  It doesn’t matter what your healing rituals are.  What matter is that they help you renew and replenish your spirit and able to  hear what’s in your not only your mind, but your heart.

I still write each morning—letting my heart have equal time with my mind on the page.  I do it after my early morning walk with the dog, after she and I sit together on the porch swing and watch the sun creep across the canyon, after my first cup of freshly brewed coffee.  This is my daily meditation, a time of refuge and quiet before the day intrudes with its list of tasks and disruptions.  Without the constancy and regularity of my early morning rituals, I feel, as I did when I overslept this morning, slightly off kilter, not quite ready to take on the day.

What small habits or routines offer calm or comfort in your daily life?  How?  Why do they matter to you?  What do they teach you about yourself?  How, in the midst of pain or suffering, do they provide solace?  Write about those daily habits, the healing rituals, that are important to your life, your sense of well-being.

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SumerIsIcumenIn-line

Summer is i-cumin in—

   Lhude sing, cuccu!

 

I found myself humming the old medieval round, “Summer is i-cummin in” as I sat outside early this morning, watching the marine layer melt away as the sun burned through it, listening the chirp and chatter of birds that populate the trees in the canyon beneath our deck with my dog on my lap, my coffee in my hand.  It was a glorious summer’s morning, and I remembered the carefree spirit of the ancient tune.

The official arrival of summer, the summer solstice, occurred early yesterday morning, and while our newscasts were filled with the sobering and relentless news of crises in the mid-east, many other people in the world were celebrating the advent of summer.  For example, some celebrated by attending the annual festival at Stonehenge, one that dates back thousands of years, and still draws modern druids and many others who are there to witness summer ‘s first sunrise. In the Scandinavian countries, midsummer celebrations, roots also dating back to the pagan celebration of summer solstice, with festivities, dancing, and parades occurred in towns and villages across Scandinavia.

I do not remember any solstice celebration during my childhood.  As far as we were concerned, summer began on the last day of school—whatever the date.  We practically danced home from school, bags loaded with the remains of the year: used pencils and erasers, notebooks and a certificate declaring we’d move to the next grade in the fall.  We were filled with excitement and anticipation.  Summer meant two months of holiday, of long days and evenings when the sun lingered in the sky.  It meant running through the sprinklers on hot days, softball played until dusk on neighborhood streets, and after dinner drives to the local Fosters’ Freeze for soft ice cream.  Summer was picnics and watermelon.  It was Sundays spent swimming and boating on a nearby lake.  It was a time of abandonment and freedom.

Summer was synonymous with new adventures:  picking blackberries, catching butterflies and lizards, turning Manzanita bushes into fortresses, looking for buried treasure, or, with the gang of neighborhood children, creating summer theater, circus acts and parades for our parents.

Looking back, I am filled with longing for the freedom, the curiosity, and the sense of immortality that children possess, the utter joy in lying down in tall grasses to find faces or shapes in the clouds that dotted the blue sky above us.  We lived in the moment, and every summer’s day was rife with new possibility.

I think about those carefree days as summer begins, and how, in a climate that is dominated by sunshine, I know I will soon beg to escape to an air-conditioned room as the predictable heat waves arrive.  Summer, in these parts, is also synonymous with the danger of wildfires.  Couple that with the nightly news casts of drought or tornadoes, flooding and mudslides in other parts of the country, and summer loses some of the appeal I once remember.

It’s easy to forget what summer once held, what it promised when I was a child.  It’s much too easy, in adulthood, to become consumed by the demands of daily life,  far too easy to forget how precious life is, how glorious a sunny day can be, how much is changing in front of our eyes while we, heads down and eyes on our screens, barely notice.

“Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon?” Mary Oliver asks in her poem, “The Summer Day.”   As I read her words, I think that perhaps I should lie down in tall grasses, eat a popsicle and feel the juice drip down my chin, or simply sit on the porch swing and sing the song I once knew by heart:  “Summer is a ‘coming in, loudly sing cu-cu!”  What about you?  What will you do this summer, as Oliver challenges, with your one wild and precious life?

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

(In:  The Truro Bear and Other Adventures: Poems and Essays, Beacon Press, 2008).

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In our household, Father’s Day arrives just days after my birthday, and this year, the advent of my newest decade more than overshadowed any planning or celebration for my husband.  He’s stepfather to my daughters, and predictably, he “poo-poos” the event, saying, “it’s not important,” describing it as “just an excuse for commercialism,” but he “doth protest too much, methinks,” especially as I witness his complete delight as he opens a greeting card or hears a grandchild’s voice on the telephone recite the well-rehearsed “Happy Father’s Day Grandpa!”

In the article, “Father’s Day:  Even the cards are different,” which appeared in a 2008 edition of the San Diego Union Tribune, reporter Jenifer Godwin wrote:  Moms and dads are more equal parenting partners than ever before, with studies showing men do far more housework and spend more time with their children than previous generations.  Yet Father’s Day still doesn’t inspire the same need to bestow sentimental cards, gifts and dinners out as Mother’s Day.

Godwin cited a number of statistics to show the contrast between how we celebrate mothers and fathers, for example, more cards are sent to mothers on Mother’s Day and more money is spent on mothers’ gifts.  In fact, Father’s Day wasn’t even  an official holiday until 1972, over a half century after the official designation of Mother’s Day.  Add one more layer of complexity to this state of lesser remembrance, that of being a stepfather, and I suspect we’d find even greater disparity.

I guess it was the telephone call from one daughter early this morning, wishing J. a “Happy Father’s Day,” that got me reconsidering this post.  I always think of my father on this day, and I am just as certain my daughters pause to remember theirs, my first husband, whose life was cut short while the girls were still in elementary school.   But as I listened to J.’s laughter, his voice full of delight as he chatted with E. and our granddaughter, I began to think of the extraordinary influence he, as stepfather, has had both girls; how he so willingly embraced two teenagers into his life and weathered the “sturm und drang” of adolescence with as much commitment as any birth father.

We laugh together now about some of the stormier interactions, how one or the other daughter tested him at various times and fiercely reminded him that he was not “Dad” nor would he ever be.  Yet he responded with grace and the ability to dance that conflicted tango of step-fatherhood, of “I love you”—“don’t even think that I love you” that often defined those first years as a reconstituted family.  Little by little, the relationship between J. and the girls deepened and grew, and without any fanfare, their bond solidified.  “This is my father,” E. said as she introduced him to her high school French teacher three years later.  I stifled a gasp.  J. simply extended his hand to say hello, but I saw his eyes tear up for a moment.

J. has been instrumental in igniting one daughter’s interest and career in international community development.  When E. traveled to rural Thailand on her first work project, J. was working on a development project in Laos.  He made a 36 hour stop in Bangkok and took a twelve-hour bus trip to her village to share a meal together with her host family, before returning to Bangkok to fly on to Laos.  As our second daughter struggled with low self-esteem and fear of academia, he patiently accompanied her from community college to community college, until gradually, she had the courage to enroll.  He discussed readings and research with her as she steered her studies toward psychology and anthropology.  For the duration of her undergraduate years, C. never earned less than an “A” –even in the statistics courses she feared so much.  J. was coach and mentor, and I thrilled as I witnessed her blossoming and growing self-confidence.

This Father’s Day, I honor all fathers and their importance in our lives, but today,  I’ll be celebrating my husband with gratitude for  his patient and loving contribution to my daughters’ lives and my own.   He is friend, companion, mentor, and has become more father that anyone, including him, could have imagined.

He wasn’t hard on us kids,
never struck us…

He used to sing in the car
bought us root beers along the road.
He loved us with his deeds.

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

Today I remember how deeply important fathers have been in my life and my daughters’, and whether fond or complicated, the memories of our fathers are full of stories.  Write one.  And to all the fathers—whether those who helped to birth us or those who were “like” fathers–who had a lasting and loving influence in our lives, Happy Father’s Day.

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[C]ountering [Darwin's] view comes a new view of dog history, more in keeping with our own ostentatiously less man-centered world view. Dogs, we are now told, by a sequence of scientific speculators … domesticated themselves. They chose us.  (“Dog Story,” by Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, August 8, 2011)

She chose me.   She bears little resemblance to the canine companion I envisioned for myself, finally ready, after several months since our toy poodle’s death, to bring another dog into our house.  I enlisted the help of my neighbor, a former veterinary assistant and now, dog caretaker and spent hours each day for the past week or two, searching the pictures of homeless dogs posted by the many adoption sites in the San Diego area.  “Bigger than Kramer,” I said, eyeing the sites for Wheaten or West Highland terriers.  “Not neurotic,” I added, since Kramer, for all his lovability, was by far the most neurotic of all my dogs.  “Calm,” I said, wistfully remembering how Winston, the Westie who inhabited our lives until his death at 17, was content to lie at my feet while I wrote or plop on the footstool beside me in the evenings.   I filled out applications for four different animal rescue organizations and narrowed the search to three different dogs, a poodle-terrier mix, a miniature schnauzer (chosen for his cuteness factor), and a doe-eyed terrier mix of unknown origin.

“Why do you want another dog?”  My friend, S., posed the question as our Friday writing group was ending.  Why indeed?  Whatever answer I gave was disjointed and vague.  I did, that’s all.  I’ve always had a dog since we adopted Tico, a toy terrier mix, when I was just beginning high school.  He was more attached to my kid brother than anyone, and as small as he was, he  possessed a Napoleonic ego, taking on large German Shepards at regular intervals.  But Tico saved my brother’s life near the end of his own, awakening him when our family house caught fire, and minutes before his bedroom was engulfed in flame.

Bismarck, an adopted Irish setter, moved from California to Canada with me.  Many ears later, when we planned our return to California,  we found a home for Odie, part Bearded Collie and English Sheepdog, and months later, he was the featured dog in an article in a Canadian children’s magazine.  Winston, our adopted Westie, joined us two years later and became the companion for my muse, present during the intense weeks of writing on the Mendocino Coast as I worked on my first book and then the second.  Kramer, though beloved, was more my husband’s dog than mine, never content to sit still in my lap unless he could shower my face with dog kisses, and yet, when he died, my heart ached for weeks afterward.  Why did I want a dog?  Because I did…because I missed the companionship I feel with a dog.  It was as good of an answer as I could give my friend.

Cats or dogs, it hardly matters.  Our pets are good for us.  A recent post on the Web MD site states:  “… for nearly 25 years, research has shown that living with pets provides certain health benefits. Pets help lower blood pressure and lessen anxiety. They boost our immunity. They can even help you get dates.  Well, whether or not you’re looking for a way to meet a potential dating partner, pets do a lot for us besides helping us overcome shyness or isolation.

  • There’s evidence to suggest that exposure to a pet during infancy may reduce the risk of allergies.
  • The act of petting an animal can lower our blood pressure.
  • Dogs are de-stressors.”  Playing with a dog helps to relieve stress, increasing serotonin and dopamine, nerve transmitters with pleasurable and calming effects.
  • Heart attack patients who have pets survive longer than those without them.
  • Dog owners are to be more likely to exercise regularly, and among adolescents, having a dog can increase their level of activity.
  • Walking a dog or caring for a pet provides companionship and exercise for the elderly.  Even Alzheimer’s patients have fewer anxious outbursts if an animal is present.  Simply watching fish in an aquarium has helped to increase patients’ attentiveness.

But it wasn’t my health I was thinking about as I drove to a local Petco for the Saturday dog adoption.  I was meeting one of the dogs I’d applied for, that doe-eyed terrier mix.  You’ve guessed the rest by now.  Maggie (her new moniker) looks nothing like the dog I had imagined for myself.  She’s three, was abandoned with a litter of her puppies, and isn’t going to win any beauty contests.  Oh, her face is sweet, and those eyes?  Huge and captivating.  But she’s smaller than any dog I’ve ever had (except perhaps Tico).  Her fur defies grooming, and although I’m taking her to the dog groomer this week, I suspect V. will be as perplexed over what cut to give her as I am.  She’s  not well proportioned, the result of that “unknown” origin.  Small boned and petite, her mid-section resembles a dachshund’s.  And yet…and yet.  When I picked her up from the crate, she trembled violently until I held her in my arms.  Then she curled into my chest with her head resting on my shoulder, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.  I didn’t have any say in the matter.  Like I said before, she chose me.

He puts his cheek against mine

and makes small expressive sounds…

 

he turns upside-down, his four paws

in the air

and his eyes dark and fervent.

 

“Tell me you love me,” he says…

(From:  “Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night,” in Dog Songs, Poems by Mary Oliver,2013)

Maggie is asleep at my feet as I write this blog post, already cementing our daily habits.  Me, at the computer.  She, content to lie nearby until I push the chair back and stand.  Then she’s on her feet in seconds, ever attentive, tag wagging, and eyes searching my face.  “So what’s next,” she seems to say.  I smile and think back to the New Yorker essay by Adam Gopnik. “How does anyone live without a dog?” He asks as he concludes the article, before he answers:  “I can’t imagine.”

Maggie

Maggie

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To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

When the song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” was recorded released in 1965 by the rock group, The Byrds, I was a college student caught up in the idealism and fervor of the sixties.  The lyrics were nearly verbatim from Ecclesiastes (3:1) of the King James Version of the Bible, but the song captured the sentiments of the time and quickly became number one on Billboard’s “Hot 100.”  The Byrds weren’t the first to record the song.  Earlier versions  by the Limelighters and Pete Seeger preceded the Byrd’s hit recordingOver the next several years, many other artists recorded the song, including Judy Collins, Joe Cocker, The Seekers, Dolly Parton, and Nina Simone.  Is it any wonder?  The words from Ecclesiastes describe life’s journey, the inevitability of its cycles and seasons, the story of the entire lifespan.

Seasons have been on my mind a lot lately, triggered, in part, by witnessing the “coming out” of springtime in Toronto, realizing how much I miss the distinct change in seasons, and, later this month,  the passing of another decade in my life.  In the book, The Seasons of Life:  Our Dramatic Journey from Birth to Death, authors John Kotre and Elizabeth Hall describe how seasons are metaphors for life’s journey and how human life is intimately connected to the seasons of nature:  times of day, circling of the planets, phases of the moon, or growth and harvesting of the crops (University of Michigan Press, 1997).  In fact, the ancient Greeks used seasons to define life’s stages: childhood was spring; youth became summer; autumn described adulthood, and winter, the metaphor for old age.

The cyclical nature of life and living reflects what we witness in nature. I think of being in the autumn of my life now, described in a French Canadian film I saw many years ago as “the other side of spring.”  My life is still colorful, still vibrant, but I know the colors will gradually fade as I move toward winter, the years of elderhood and old age.

There are other aspects of life—and illness—that are described by seasons, including cancer.  In a 2009 article in Cure Today, Kenneth Miller, MD  described four distinct phases or “seasons” of cancer survivorship.

  1. Acute survivorship: when a person is diagnosed and treated.
  2. Transitional survivorship: when celebration is blended with worry and loss as a patient pulls away from the treatment team.
  3. Extended survivorship: includes those who are living with cancer as a chronic disease and individuals in remission because of ongoing treatment.
  4. Permanent survivorship: people who are in remission and asymptomatic, or,
    cancer-free but not free of cancer because of chronic late and long-term health or psychosocial problems. Others may even develop secondary cancers related to cancer treatment, or develop second cancers not related to the first cancer or its treatment.

Miller’s observations were informed not only by his patients’ experiences, but also by his wife’s.  He compared her stages of cancer and recovery to the seasons of nature:

I have learned just as much about cancer and the seasons of survivorship in my work as a medical oncologist as I have alongside my wife, Joan, he wrote, who was treated 10 years ago for acute leukemia and more recently for breast cancer. Her diagnosis was certainly like the cold, bleak winter, and transition like the rebirth of spring. And while each season was different than the others, each was beautiful in its own way. (http://www.curetoday.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/article.show/id/2/article_id/1142)

It turns out that seasons may be more than metaphors in the cancer journey.  In a 2007 study, researchers from Norway and Oregon found evidence suggesting that men diagnosed with prostate cancer in summer or autumn had better survival rates (see:http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/80625.php for more details).  Vitamin D—the sunshine vitamin–plays a part.  In other studies with early stage lung cancer patients,  high concentrations of Vitamin D appeared to contribute to a better survival rate post-surgery.  Patients whose surgeries occurred in sunny months (May – August) had a 30% higher survival rate than those who had surgery in winter. “Season,” epidemiologist David Christiani noted, “had a pretty strong effect.”

(http://www.direct-ms.org/pdf/VitDPopularArticles/SeasonAffectsCancer.pdf)

Whether we’re diagnosed or treated with cancer in summer or winter, the seasons of our illness can dominate our lives.  Marilyn Hacker’s 1994 collection of poetry, Winter Numbers, invokes the darkness and cold of winter as she details the loss of many of her friends to AIDS or cancer as she struggled with breast cancer.  Dan Matthews, using seasons as metaphor, chronicled the journey of his wife’s terminal breast cancer in a poetry collection,  Rain, Heavy at Times: Life in the Cancer Months (Arago Publishing, 2007).  John Sokol wrote about his cancer in a poetry collection entitled In the Summer of Cancer.  And in one of my favorite poems by Barbara Crocker, “For a Friend Lying in Intensive Care Waiting For Her White Blood Cells to Rejuvenate After a Bone Marrow Transplant,” the season of springtime signals a time renewal and rejuvenation:

The jonquils. They come back. They split the earth with

their green swords, bearing cups of light. ‘

The forsythia comes back, spraying its thin whips with

blossom, one loud yellow shout.

The robins. They come back. They pull the sun on the

silver thread of their song.

The iris come back. They dance in the soft air in silken

gowns of midnight blue.

The lilacs come back. They trail their perfume like a scarf

of violet chiffon.

And the leaves come back, on every tree and bush, millions

and millions of small green hands applauding your return.

(From:  The Cancer Poetry Project, 2007, www.cancerpoetryproject.com)

This week, think about how seasonal metaphors describe your life.  Write about the seasons of your life, whether the cancer journey, a marriage, loss and grief, adulthood– any of life’s seasons that have been important or significant to you in some way.

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For most of this past month, I have been in Toronto, the city that still has my heart.  I had time to spend with my daughter and granddaughter, visit a few old friends, and explore again, the neighborhoods I used to frequent on a daily basis.  When I first arrived there, the weather was still cool, and the trees barely sported buds, but by the time I left, sidewalks were shaded by canopies of green, and forsythia, tulips and rhododendrons bloomed.

In San Diego, Spring has been nearly nonexistent, and the continuing drought, some days of unseasonably high temperatures, and my husband’s forgetting to water the plants on our deck, left me feeling as dull and parched as the landscape that greeted me as I returned.  I was feeling sorry for myself, unable to “see” with an open heart or mind– until later in the day, as I began to sort through the pile of mail that had accumulated on my desk.

There were four postcards addressed to me and waiting to be read, the remnants of a writing exercise and “challenge” I’d offered my Moores UCSD Cancer Center writers several weeks ago, one that grew out of a favorite poet’s cancer experience, and one I’ve written about before in my blogs.

Ted Kooser, the former poet laureate of the U.S. developed prostate cancer in the late 1990s, forcing him to give up his writing and his position as an insurance executive.  He was, as he described it, “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 taking early morning walks and before long, surprised himself by “trying my hand at a poem.  Soon,” he said, “I was writing every day…”

Kooser began pasting his daily poems on the backs of postcards and sending them to his longtime friend, author Jim Harrison.  The result was his collection of poems,   Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison published in 2000.  In the poems,Kooser did not refer directly to his cancer, but instead, inspired by what he observed on his walks, considered life and death through metaphor and simile.

March 18

Gusty and warm

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.

Kooser’s little book inspired me to become more observant as I walk in the early morning, noticing those small gifts of nature and beauty rather be preoccupied with the day’s tasks.  Now I have incorporated his routine, writing a short poem, rarely longer than five or seven lines, capturing something I’ve observed, something that leads to a metaphor or reflection for what I’m feeling or experiencing.

I’d picked up Kooser’s book again a few weeks ago, as I often do with many of the poetry books I have on my shelves, and re-read his poems.  Then I had an idea.  “Why not invite my writing group participants to write a postcard poem?”  Rather than focus on cancer, why not encourage everyone to take a single observation from nature and turn it into a short poem?

I introduced Kooser’s book and read from it before handing a postcard to each person–on one side, a picture, but on the other, blank, for writing a note.  The instructions were simple.  In the coming week, notice one thing in nature and from it, write a short poem, a haiku, free verse, it didn’t matter.  (The nice thing about postcards is that writing a poem inside the small space available makes poetry far less intimidating to try).  We’d share them the following week, I said, before adding, on impulse, “Send me a postcard poem, and I promise I’ll send you one back.”

“Really?”

Yes, I said, repeating the offer.  “Write me a postcard poem, and I’ll write one for you.”

Within a few days, postcard poems from several members of the group arrived in my mailbox.  Each bore the date and a short description of the weather, just as Kooser’s did, for example, “sunny & bright,” “windy, windy, windy,” or “hot and clear with fires.”  And on the back of each card, a poem, three lines to nine, all capturing a single moment of observation and coupled with a reflection.  True to my word, I wrote back on a postcard with poem of my own.

That was six weeks ago, and our writing group series has adjourned until September.   I didn’t expect  five more postcard poems would be waiting for me as I returned from my trip.  Some in the group are still finding inspiration and enjoyment in the little gifts of noticing and then sharing the poems that result.   For example, N. wrote about walking toward the entrance to the cancer center:

Sleepwalking, I remember to observe…

A tousled haired two-year old…

selects twigs for her bouquet.

Dead brush to me, possibilities

and wonder for her. 

 

And from R., a reflection on doing this year’s tax preparations during his cancer treatment:

 

I realize where I am.

And where I’ve been.

Once again I’ve have crossed into another first in my life

for now, for the first time,

I am happy to do taxes.

 

J., another in our group, began illustrating her cards, painting small watercolor flowers on one side and writing a poem on the other, inspiring me to use some of my sketches for mine.  I doubt the writers knew how their cards would bring me such joy—but they have.  Even now, as I write this blog post, the clouds have begun to disappear and the sunlight is blanketing the trees, making the view from my window come to life again…or is it the fact that I have remembered, thanks to the gifts of these postcard poems, to be present, to be fully aware and attentive to the beauty in front of me?

I have some postcard poems to write today.  I’ve even printed one of my sketchbook drawings to serve as a postcard picture, inspired by J.’s watercolors.  My jet lag seems to have disappeared.  My spirits have lightened.  And I’m smiling.

Why not try writing  a postcard poem and sharing it with someone?  In this world of texting, Facebook and Twitter, I sometimes feel our ability to be attentive to what is life-giving, how the extraordinary can be discovered in the ordinary, or how utterly beautiful nature can be, is  lost when our eyes are so focused on the screen and  shorthand our written communication has become.   Cancer or any other life-altering illness demands more than a text or a Facebook post to express its impact, how  lives are changed by it.  A short little postcard poem shared between friends or loved ones helps us remember how precious sour lives are , how remarkable the beauty is just outside our windows waiting to be discovered.

March 20

The vernal equinox

 

How important it must be

so someone

that I am alive, and walking,

and that I have written

these poems.

This morning the sun stood

right at the end of the road

and waited for me.

 

(Ted Kooser, Winter Morning Walks, 2000).

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