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My husband and I will be celebrating another year of marriage this Sunday, a day after our anniversary date, since I’ll be returning home from Toronto. I managed, however, to surprise him by sending a bouquet of flowers through FTD with a note of affection and gratitude for all the years of our many adventures together. This time, he admitted he had forgotten to calendar the date, busy with readying our home for the stream of potential buyers who viewed it all week long. He is forgiven, because four years ago, I actually forgot our anniversary myself and had to scurry to make up for forgetting.

There have been many other anniversaries in our lives—losses of our parents, births of our grandchildren, birthdays of family and friends, and other dates that, when they arrive, trigger the remembrance of other important events in our lives—like the day I was rushed to the hospital after collapsing on the pavement with what was later diagnosed with heart failure, or that afternoon in May, seventeen years ago, when I first heard the word “cancerous” apply to my life and become part of my regular vocabulary. It was an important event, and it altered my life in ways I did not expect, opening the door to other discoveries and ways of being. I often think about how my life was changed—in good ways—in the years that followed. I’m grateful I had the chance to create a new chapter of life, grateful I had the love and support of my husband.

Anniversary dates have a particular poignancy attached to them, whether birth dates, weddings or the other events that alter our lives—cancer, a loved one’s death, a nation’s tragedy. Anniversaries serve as a reminder of who we were then, what we have endured or achieved, and how those events shaped or changed us.

In the first anniversaries of loss, trauma or tragedy, strong emotions are often re-ignited: grief, old fears, relief, or happiness. I’m a believer in rituals or celebrations to mark important anniversaries or milestones. My husband and I have one ritual, for example, we share each Thanksgiving Day, to honor my father, who died of lung cancer on Thanksgiving Day, 1992. In the days before his death, requested we celebrate invite all his existing family members and friends to a wake and toast his life with a glass of Jack Daniels whiskey, his perennial favorite. Now, each Thanksgiving, we remember him with that same ritual, toasting my father and sharing a favorite memory of him. It’s something that solidifies and preserves his memory each November, and inevitably, honors his life with story and laughter—just what he wanted.

Celebrations and rituals are important and meaningful in  healing, offering a way to acknowledge our experience and place it into the context of our larger lives. We remember. We’re reminded of who we were and how far we’ve come. We are reminded how much we have to be grateful for.

I no longer remember the day I heard the words, “it’s cancerous…” Mine was such an early stage diagnosis that it didn’t carry the same impact of those I now know whose lives have been profoundly altered by an aggressive cancer diagnosis. Yet, time softens the difficult memories, and some milestones even recede in importance as life goes on. The pain of loss diminishes. We discover new friends, new joys, even hope, and gradually, we move on to create new life chapters, no matter how long we live.

I often think of the words of novelist Alice Hoffman, who described her cancer experience in a 2001 New York Times article: “An insightful, experienced oncologist told me that cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter,” she said. That’s true of so many of the painful, sad or difficult chapters of our lives. As we heal, we have less need to mark the dates of suffering, instead, we live forward, fully immersed in life. It doesn’t mean we forget, but rather, we celebrate rather than mourn. We honor. We give thanks.

There are many ways to celebrate or honor important milestones in the in our lives. Here are some suggestions from Cancer Net, but they are applicable to many of the milestones and anniversary dates of life. 

Take time to reflect. Plan a quiet time to think about your cancer experience and reflect on the changes in your life.  Writing in a journal, taking a long walk through the redwoods, along the ocean, or anywhere you enjoy being, offers the quiet time for reflection.

Plan a special event.  One of the women in my writing groups celebrated with a trip to Costa Rica after completing her treatment for a recurrence.   Why not plan something special, like a hot air balloon ride a trip somewhere you’ve always wanted to take, or plan a gathering with family and friends.

Donate or volunteer. When I first joined the ranks of “cancer survivor,” I was the interim director for Breast Cancer Connections, a Palo Alto, CA nonprofit.  I was impressed by the number of cancer survivors who, daily, gave their time to volunteer at BCC.  Many cancer survivors find that donating or volunteering helps give positive meaning to their cancer experience.

Join an established celebration. Many of us have walked, run, or participated in support of one of the annual cancer survivor walks hosted by patient advocacy groups and cancer organizations. Communities and cancer centers around the country also celebrate National Cancer Survivors Day, which is the first Sunday in June.
Do something you truly enjoy. Celebrating can just be taking time to do something you enjoy, husband taking a walk along the seashore or through a public garden, going to a film or the theater with a friend, placing flowers on a loved one’s gravesite, or, as I will tomorrow, sharing a special dinner together with my spouse, grateful for this gentle man who so willingly embraced not only me, but my then adolescent daughters, weathering their storms in the wake of a father’s death to create a loving and enduring bond between them.
Writing Suggestions:

.  Of the anniversary dates are important to you, which do you remember most vividly?
.  What images or feelings do those dates evoke?
.  Write the story of that date. What happened?
.  Why was it important to you?
.  How did your life change because of it?

Dear Readers,

I am traveling this week and spending time with my eldest daughter and her daughter, my third grandchild.  I take pride in watching my daughter as a mother, and I hope that I have passed along lessons of love and wisdom as well as the recognition that mothering is both joyous and, at times, frustrating, challenging, sometimes full of self doubt, and surely the most important role one can have.  Our mothers are fundamental to the development and character of the children who grow to shape and lead the next generation.

As a mother and now a grandmother, I remember my mother and grandmothers, understanding now what I may not have fully understood about their struggles, achievements hard won, or even the lessons they strove to instill in a headstrong and yet tender-hearted young girl.  In honor of mothers everywhere, living or deceased,  l invite you to pause and remember, with gratitude, all that You’ve learned from your mothers.

Happy Mother’s Day.

(post previously published May, 2016)

WHAT WE LEARN FROM OUR MOTHERS

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

(From: “What I Learned from My Mother, by Julia Kasdorf, in:  Sleeping Preacher,  1992)

There’s much that I learned from my mother, just as you may have, much of it more useful as I grew into adulthood, but not the lessons she might have intended for me.  I learned less about the domestic tasks Kasdorf describes and more about my mother’s struggle with the prescribed roles of wife, mother and homemaker.

My mother had two faces and a frying pot   

where she cooked up her daughters 

into girls 

before she fixed our dinner…

(From:From the House of Yemanjá” by Audre Lorde, in:  The Selected Poems of Audre Lorde, 1997)

My mother was not like the mothers  my friends had.  She was different, even difficult.  She wasn’t the most versatile of cooks, nor did she  inherit her mother’s talent in the kitchen.  In truth, she took little pleasure in producing the daily meals for her family.  She preferred physical labor, daily scrubbing and housecleaning, yard work and gardening, and in turn, she believed those tasks were necessary to build good, solid character in her children.

We were assigned daily tasks and chores which had to be completed before school or play.  Every Saturday, we protested and complained as we were forced to scrub walls and floors while our friends waited impatiently for us outside.  Of my parents, Mother was the strict disciplinarian, and she prided herself on the role.  She was quick to remind us that any successes we had in school or life were due to the discipline she imposed.  My father, naturally playful and soft-hearted, had my heart; my mother had my obedience, but also my embarrassment and rebellion.

Many years later, as the mother of two strong-willed daughters, I began to understand some of my mother’s struggles more than I had in my earlier years.  I weathered the storms of adolescence as a single mother, experiencing their affection one day and rebelliousness the next, all while I attempted to parent, earn a living and build a career.  I developed greater empathy for much of my mother’s struggles—and much greater appreciation of what it meant to be a mother.

I see her doing something simple, paying bills,

or leafing through a magazine or book,

and wish that I could say, and she could hear,

 

that now I start to understand her love

for all of us, the fullness of it.

 

It burns there in the past, beyond my reach,

a modest lamp.

(“Mother’s Day,” by David Young, in:  Field of Light and Shadow, 2011)

A dozen years ago, my mother died peacefully in a home for Alzheimer’s patients.  Her descent into senility escalated as my father passed away from lung cancer.  The woman who was always in control of everything –or so we thought—wasn’t in control at all.  My father had quietly been covering the signs of her illness as best he could.  The irony was, of course, that as the disease progressed, my mother became docile, sweet and affectionate in ways we’d rarely experienced her.  Yet out of the darkness, a moment of clarity, the mother we remembered would reappear, if only for a few seconds.  She loved her children as ferociously as she attacked life, yet she remained critical of us even as her mind deteriorated.  She was proud of what we each had accomplished, and yet she had always expected more of us.  She left a legacy of conflicted feelings among her children, wounds that were never healed, and old jealousies bred in the competition she fostered between us.  But I realize now that my mother did the best she could do.  It wasn’t ideal or even good mothering at times, but she wanted the best for us always.

I choose, on this Mother’s Day to remember that she did the best she could and that although her kind of love was difficult sometimes, it was love just the same.  I recall one of the last times I visited her, a month or so before she died.  She had, by then, lost the ability to walk, and she wasn’t aware of much, including me.  I resorted to pushing her in her wheelchair, going round and round the garden of the Alzheimer’s home.  As I grew weary, I positioned her chair by a brilliant red Bougainvillea  and took her hand.  At a loss, I began singing, “Let me call you sweetheart…,” something she had often sung to us as children.  As I sang, she slowly raised her head and looked at me for several seconds before speaking.

“Why, it’s Sha-ron!”  She spoke my name slowly, elongating the syllables.

“Yes Mom, it’s me.  Your eldest daughter,” I said, tears filling my eyes.  I squeezed her hand.

“I’m…happy,” she said slowly, smiling a little, as she closed her eyes.  Then her head fell to her chest.  Once again, she had disappeared into her darkness.  A few weeks later, my mother passed away.

It’s taken me time to sift through all that my mother was and meant to me.  The relationships we have with our mothers can be complicated as well as close.  Mine was both.  Yet she was my mother, and I am her daughter.  There are mornings I look in the mirror and see something of her in my face or expression, just as each of her three children likely do.   If I could, I would tell her now all that’s in my heart, maybe write her that long overdue letter I always meant to write, but like Wallace Stegner, writing to his mother long after her death, it’s too little, “much too late.”

 “All you can do is try,” you used to tell me when I was scared of undertaking something.  You got me to undertake many things I would have not dared undertake without your encouragement.  You also taught me how to take defeat when it came, and it was bound to now and then.  You taught me that if it hadn’t killed me it was probably good for me…

(From: “Letter, Much Too Late, in: Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs:  Living and Writing in the West, 1992)

To all mothers everywhere, Happy Mother’s Day.

Writing Suggestions:

We learn from our mothers lessons of love and life, some of them not appreciated until we’re much older.  What lessons did your mother teach you?  How have those lessons or experiences influenced your life?  If you have since become a mother, do you find yourself acting in ways as you remember your mother did?  Write about the relationship you had with your mother.  Was it close?  Conflicted?  Distant?  Explore the things that made it so.  What do you want to say to your mother this Mother’s Day?

Dear Readers,

Our house went on the market this past week, and daily, my husband, our dog, and I vacate our home for a few hours to allow real estate agents to show the property to prospective buyers.  There’s no way to express the upheaval that accompanies this phase, and I doubt you’ll be surprised to learn that my sleep has been significantly disrupted in the stress of this entire–and lengthy–process of relocating to another city.  I awaken more than once during the night, check the clock and discover only an hour or at most, two, has passed since I last checked.  By 5 a.m., I give up and wearily shuffle to the kitchen to make the morning coffee, taking some comfort in the continuation of one small ritual:  grinding the beans, brewing the coffee, and settling into my favorite chair to write–even if the time to do it has been disrupted by the necessity to be out of the house during much of the day.

I’ve searched through the archive of my older posts and cobbled together this week’s piece on sleepless nights–something that afflicts many of us during times of stress, worry, and change.  I hope you enjoy it and find some inspiration to write about those nights you’ve lain awake too, unable to sleep.

–Sharon

For the Week of May 7, 2017:  Lying Awake in the Night

Even in the cave

of the night when you

wake…

you push with your eyes till forever

comes in its twisted figure eight

 

and lies down in your head…

 

(From:  “Waking at 3 a.m., by William Stafford)

3 a.m.  You’re awake.  A parade of thoughts marches through your mind: worry, to-do lists, a snippet of a conversation you replay again and again.   Perhaps you keep a notepad by the bed, like I do, hoping that if you jot down the persistent nagging by your brain, you might lull yourself back to sleep.  But you can’t get comfortable, or your husband is storing, or you remember something you forgot to add to the list.  You close your eyes again, trying to focus on little but a steady rhythm of deep breathing.  Perhaps you doze off, awakening a short time later and checking the clock, annoyed to find that barely a half hour has passed since you last checked the time.  Five, ten, twenty more minutes pass.  A seeming infinity.  It’s hopeless now; you’re wide awake and throw back the covers to pad into the kitchen and try the age-old remedy of drinking a glass of warm milk.  Finally, perhaps an hour or so later, you sleep, only to be jolted awake by the alarm clock all too soon.  It’s something I’ve been experiencing for the past few weeks, my head buzzing with “to do” lists and the kind of stress that comes with moving to another city.  But whatever the reason, sleeplessness happens to each of us at some time or another.  Whether it’s the result of a tough day at work, finances, worry about a loved one or yourself– even just eating a late dinner–sleep is elusive.  Even worse, during emotional upset, personal crises, or serious illness, sleep disruption can last for weeks.

Sleeplessness, the New York Times’ Health Guide suggests,  “can involve difficulty falling asleep…waking up too early in the morning, or waking up often during the night…or combinations of these patterns.” Everyone has an occasional sleepless night…as many as 25% of Americans report occasional sleeping problems. Chronic sleeping problems, however, affect about 10% of people. The lack of restful sleep can affect your ability to carry out daily responsibilities because you are too tired or have trouble concentrating. All types of insomnia can lead to daytime drowsiness, poor concentration, and the inability to feel refreshed and rested in the morning.”

Writers know the darkness of early morning hours well.  Long, sleepless nights have been a theme in countless stories or essays or poems, for example, “Sleep now, O sleep now,” James Joyce wrote in his poem by the same name, “A voice crying “Sleep now”/is heard in my heart…”  Charles Dickens suffered from sleepless nights too.  In an essay titled, “Lying Awake,” he wrote:

But, it happened to me the other night to be lying: not with my eyes half closed, but with my eyes wide open… my hair pitchforked and touzled all over the pillow; …glaringly, persistently, and obstinately, broad awake. Perhaps, with no scientific intention or invention, I was illustrating the theory of the Duality of the Brain; perhaps one part of my brain, being wakeful, sat up to watch the other part which was sleepy. Be that as it may, something in me was as desirous to go to sleep as it possibly could be, but something else in me WOULD NOT go to sleep, and was as obstinate as George the Third. http://www.online-literature.com/dickens/reprinted-pieces/8/

Like those who’ve written of the inability to sleep, cancer patients know sleepless nights well.  I recall how a few years ago when I was unable to sleep, I turned on my computer soon discovered  I was not alone.  An email arrived in my inbox from a woman in my cancer writing group who was undergoing a new treatment regimen for metastatic breast cancer.  She was awake and writing me in an attempt to capture the myriad thoughts about her illness and  life, thoughts that kept her tossing and turning in her bed, unable to fall asleep.

What she was experiencing was not unusual.  Sleep disorders are common among cancer patients.  Several recent studies have shown that 30 to 50% of cancer patients have trouble sleeping, compared to 15% in the general population (Oncolink, July 2016).   Even 2 to 5 years after treatment, symptoms of insomnia were found in 23 to 44% of patients.

A number of factors associated with cancer can contribute to sleeping difficulties:  physical pain, side effects of treatment, emotional stress, surgery and hospitalization.  The inability to go to sleep and stay asleep can have negative effects, including anxiety, depression, fatigue, headaches or even disrupt the body’s hormonal balance.  Stanford University’s David Spiegel and his colleagues found that those who suffer from troubled sleep are also more cancer prone.  When our circadian rhythms (the sleep/wake cycle) are disrupted, it can affect a person’s cancer prognosis.  “A good night’s sleep may be one weapon in the fight against cancer,” the research team concluded.  (Science Daily, October 1, 2003).

What can you do if you are one of those who suffer from sleepless nights or insomnia?  Here are a few helpful suggestions for a better night’s sleep from the MD Anderson Cancer Center:

  • Power down. The blue light from cell phones, tablets, TV and computer screens suppresses melatonin, which directly interferes with sleep.
  • Rituals.  Make sure you keep a bedtime and wake up ritual, even on the weekends.
  • Cool it down. Check the temperature of your bedroom. The optimum bedroom temperature should be between 65 to 72 degrees for sound sleep.
  • Leave the room. If you cannot sleep within 5 to 10 minutes of lying down, get out of bed and read a magazine or book that is soothing or boring. Spend time in prayer or meditation to calm the mind.
  • Limit your food and drink intake. Avoid heavy meals, alcohol, chocolate or caffeine products, such as soda, coffee or tea, three to four hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid naps. Keep your daytime naps to 30 minutes or less. And, don’t take a nap within several hours of bedtime.
  • Exercise.  The American Cancer Society recommends that cancer patients and survivors do at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week.
  • Pull down the shades. Your bedroom should be like a cave.  It should be dark, cool and quiet.  Cover clocks or other electronic devices that emit light in your bedroom.
  • Write it out. Keep a pen and paper by your bed if you are prone to wake up and worry about the next day’s events.

And just in case you think it’s only adults who suffer from sleep difficulties, perhaps there’s comfort in knowing that even the beloved Winnie the Pooh was afflicted with them:

But [Pooh] couldn’t sleep. The more he tried to sleep the more he couldn’t. He tried counting sheep, which is sometimes a good way of getting to sleep, and, as that was no good, he tried counting Heffalumps. And that was worse. Because every Heffalump that he counted was making straight for a pot of Pooh’s honey, and eating it all… Pooh could bear it no longer…
–A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh, 1926

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about sleepless nights. What do you remember most about a particular sleepless night? Describe it in as much detail as you can.
  • What thoughts or images invade your mind and keep you awake?
  • Have you ever “birthed” an idea for a poem or story in the darkness of the night?  Write it.
  • What’s helped you coax yourself back to sleep? Write about your rituals or calming practices that help you overcome the agony of a sleepless night.

 

Dear Readers,

Our house goes on the market this Wednesday, and for the past many days, we’ve been getting it ready to be shown—small repairs, removing personal objects, trimming the growth in the garden, rolling up rugs to expose the wooden floors, and a host of other time-consuming tasks.  Moving is, as everyone knows, nothing but stressful.  My husband and I have nipped at each other’s heels, just as our befuddled little dog has with strangers who come to the door—hired by us to repair or assist in heavy lifting.  We have had to remind ourselves that stress, whether from moving, empty nest, relationship mishaps, becoming parents, or the ups and downs of recovery from serious illness is real, but simply not good for either one of us.  So we’ve borrowed a lesson from Norman Cousins, who famously used laughter to cure himself from a serious illness many years ago.  Exhausted at the end of the day, we’ve developed a habit of watching comedies, whether films on Netflix, Amazon or reruns of “The Big Bang Theory.”  We laugh—a lot—together, and somehow, the anxiety and stress over the mountain of tasks that still await us each day, begin to recede, and we end the evening more relaxed and happy.

Since we’re swamped with getting the house ready for its market debut this coming week, my weekly blog posts are taking a back seat.  Instead, I’m offering a post from 2011 that, today, seems especially relevant.  I hope you enjoy it—and find some applicability to your life.

Sharon

 

Previously posted May 29 2011: “When You’re Smiling”

If you’ve ever begun even a small house improvement project, as I did two months ago, then spent weeks of frustration as workers failed to show up, my calls unreturned by the project manager, or, at the last-minute,  told that the granite counter top, the one you picked out nine weeks earlier, was no longer available–then you know the way frustration can escalate and infect your life.  I became irritable, wore a perpetual frown a between my eyebrows, and I began to think of little else.  I engaged in repetitive tirades about the lack of customer service each night over dinner. “Lighten up,” my husband remarked on more than one occasion.  As much as his comment annoyed me, he was right. The stress and frustration were unpleasant for him and worse, not good for me.

Of course, these things finally get sorted out, and the dark cloud that inhabited my days all these many weeks has vanished.  Our bathroom upgrade was completed yesterday morning. I fairly danced as the workers finished up and carried their tools to the truck. I was smiling the entire time, and I could see the surprise in their faces when, grinning from ear-to-ear, I handed them each a bag of homemade chocolate chip cookies.  That’s we began laughing together over the project mishaps—the frustration I felt with the project manager, and theirs, trying to make “right” his mistakes.  Shared smiles go a long way to smoothing out the wrinkles of daily living, even the frustration of a bathroom renovation.

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

When you’re cryin’,
You bring on the rain,
So, stop you’re sighin’,
Won’t you be happy again!

When you’re smiling,
Keep on smilin’
And the whole world smiles with you.

I hear Louis Armstrong’s gravelly voice in my head. He made the song, “When You’re Smiling,” popular decades ago, although I didn’t always like hearing it then.  My mother sang it to me whenever I cried over some disappointment or pouted and acted recalcitrant.  My reaction, like any child who resists their parent’s wisdom, was to put my hands over my ears.  I didn’t want to listen.  I wanted to wallow in my misery.

“The whole world smiles with you.”  Who would have imagined that these lyrics, first recorded by Armstrong in 1929, would later be supported by scientific research?  The fact is that a smile can brighten up a room. Studies have shown us that people who frequently smile are perceived as more in control, at ease and attractive than those who don’t (Lau, 1982).  Smiles do more than that, however.  A genuine smile not only improves our appearance but there is a strong connection between smiling and health. Here are a few things smiling does for us:

We feel better. Smiling lifts our spirits. A study conducted by the British Dental Health Foundation showed the act of smiling dramatically improves your mood. Dr. Nigel Carter, the Foundation’s CEO, stated, “A healthy smile can improve your confidence, help you make friends and help you to succeed in your career.”

Smile and its positive effects multiplies among others. Smiling connects us to people. Those who smile have a more positive effect on their environment and are better received by people around them (Abel, MH, Hester, R. (2002). Workers who serve customers with a smile receive larger tips (Tidd & Lockard, 1978) and repeat business (Tsai, 2001).

Smiling also helps to shift our focus away from negative emotions.  It reduces stress and the symptoms associated with anxiety.  We know chronic stress does significant damage to our bodies and minds, but smiling and laughter offer us physical and emotional release–lower blood pressure, improved digestion, and lessening of negative effects of prolonged anxiety. 

I did a lot of smiling and laughing last night.  My husband and I went out to dinner with friends, a mini-celebration of a tiresome project completed.  “The human race,” Mark Twain wrote, “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.” Despite my late evening, I awakened this morning feeling lighter.  The irritation of all the past few weeks is gone.
Why not do a little experiment this week?  Feeling glum?  Try smiling. Feel better? Or, if you encounter someone who’s irritable or grim-faced, what happens when you flash a big smile at them? Chances are a smile will brighten up your life or someone else’s.  Smiling helps us reframe the way we’re feeling, even find humor in what can otherwise seem insurmountable. Find reasons to smile.  Write about something that always makes you smile whenever you think about it. Remember, “When you’re smiling, keep on smilin’, and the whole world smiles with you.”

Writing Suggestion:

  • Write about a time you felt overwhelmed, glum or stressed and what helped you “lighten up” and deal more effectively with the tension, worry or frustration you were feeling?
  • Fill in the blank, ________________  is the best medicine and keep writing for 15 or 20 minutes.  Were there any surprises?

(A note from Sharon:  Yes, the post/writing suggestions for the coming week are early.  The reason?  I’m traveling for the next few days and will be away from my office and computer.   I’ll be back on regular Sunday postings April 30th.)

—————

I’m crossing a border this week, traveling from San Diego to Toronto, Canada for a short visit with my daughter and her family.  I’ve done this dozens of times over many years, so it’s slightly amusing to me that I’ve never gotten used the feeling of timidity that sweeps over me when I step forward and face a customs officer, whether the US or Canadian border.
“Passport please.” I hand over my passport and smile like an obedient first grader.  Some customs officials are welcoming, even smiling back at me.  Other times, their faces are stony and expressionless.  I want to reassure them.  I’m a nice person, I want to say, really I am.

“Reason for your visit?” I offer another smile.  I’m silently thanking the fact that I have gray hair and am no doubt seen as a senior citizen and the mother of adult daughters.

“I’m here to visit my daughter.”

“How long will you be staying?”

I answer appropriately, a week, a month, or in this case, just four days.  Thwack.  Thwack.  My passport is stamped.   “Enjoy your stay,” the customs official says as he hands me my passport.   I’m approved for entry.

Of course, I’m not quite free of the lines and the terminal.  I stand in the baggage area with other weary travelers waiting for my suitcase to appear.  Then I stand in line again, this time to hand in my customs form before I leave walk through the sliding doors to the throng of waiting families and friends.  I turn right and walk out of the terminal in a haze of long distance travel.   Despite the fact I’ve traveled frequently and far in the world, the first slap of culture shock, even mild, is always a surprise.  It takes me an hour to two to regain my sense of familiarity with a place I once lived.

But there are other border crossings that may not go as smoothly as a trip to this country’s northern neighbor.  These are ones that involve a major life transition or serious illness.  You move you’re your familiar life to an unfamiliar one in a matter of moments.  It’s often abrupt and thrust upon you with little warning–not unlike the moment you first heard these words from your doctor: “you have cancer.” You’re catapulted into an unfamiliar country, one Susan Sontag called “The Kingdom of the Sick.”

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place. (Susan Sontag, in The New York Times, Jan. 26, 1978)

In the “Kingdom of the Sick,” no one asks for your passport or offers a welcoming, “Enjoy your stay.”  You’re thrust into unfamiliar and rugged terrain.  Perhaps you’ve been given a roadmap of sorts, but it is a maze of choices to make, each of them branching into multiple—and equally confusing—pathways.  Worse, there’s the strange-sounding terminology to decipher –those colloquialisms and multi-syllabic utterances from your physician’s lips that leave you feeling dizzy and confused.  Cancer teaches you a new language.  You’re forced to leave behind what you took for granted, and cross into a new reality that you feel ill prepared for.

There’s a moment, not necessarily when you hear your diagnosis, maybe weeks later, when you cross that border and know in your heart and soul that this is really serious… The hardest thing is to leave yourself, the innocent, healthy you that never had to face her own mortality, at the border.  That old relationship with your body, careless but friendly, taken for granted, suddenly ends.  Your body becomes enemy territory …The sudden crossing over into illness or disability, becoming a patient, can feel like you’re landing on another planet, or entering another country… (Barbara Abercrombie, Writing Out the Storm, 2002).

This is the foreign territory of your body’s betrayal, where nothing seems quite real, and fear is your constant companion.  It’s lonely–You feel lost.  You’re traveling without an interpreter in a confusing and difficult place.  Try as you might, there’s no escape, no going back, no refund for your ticket.  You must learn how to cope and navigate your way through it all, and you must learn it quickly.  Your life may depend on it.

But along the way, a glimmer of hope—and you discover it as you find other travelers, men and women like you, who are also struggling to make sense of this foreboding landscape..  You feel discover comfort and support in the community of other survivors.  You feel less alone and together, find comfort in the sharing of fears and hopes, making them seem more manageable.  You join hands and together, begin to find your way through this dark and fearful kingdom.

Somewhere out there in that darkness are hundreds of thousands … like myself …new citizens of this other country… In one moment of discovery, these lives have been transformed, just as mine has been, as surely as if they had been  plucked from their native land and forced to survive in a hostile new landscape, fraught with dangers, real and imagined. (Musa Mayer, Examining Myself:  One Woman’s Story of Breast Cancer Treatment and Recovery, 1994.).      

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about crossing the border into the unknown territory of life threatening illness.
  • What was it like at first?
  • What old assumptions did you have to leave behind?
  • How did your relationship with your body changed?
  • What was most helpful to you as you entered “the kingdom of the sick?”

 

It’s been over two weeks since the expressive writing program at Scripps Green Cancer Center came to a close, a program I have led for nearly eleven years.  As has been the tradition of our final session of every series, we spent the first half of the meeting working in silence, each of us engaged in creating a prayer stick, an activity inspired by a Native American tradition most often associated with the rituals and healing ceremonies of the Southwest tribes.  For the conclusion of a writing series, where each person’s experience of cancer and treatment has been so honestly explored and shared in their writing, the making of prayer sticks has proved to be deeply satisfying and meaningful conclusion to the many weeks of writing together.

For the task, each group member brought a tree branch they’d chosen, typically about 14 – 18 inches in length.  For the first hour, we focused on the creation of our prayer sticks, decorating and imbuing them with messages, prayers or hopes for healing for ourselves, loved ones or friends.  Once the prayer stick was completed, I invited the group to write about it—what their process was like and what had gone into its creation.  Without exception, the sharing of the sticks and the stories behind them were inspiring and truly meaningful for everyone.

As  always, I also made a prayer stick  with the group.  As I  began, I held  the faces of two dear friends in my mind, each with terminal cancer.  I began wrapping the stick, focused on the healing, courage and strength needed by each in their journey.  But soon, a sea of faces rose and occupied my thoughts as I worked.  I recalled so many of the writers in groups I’ve led the past sixteen years, here and elsewhere.  I especially remembered those who  lost their lives to cancer, fought valiantly and had, by sharing themselves so deeply and honesty,  touched my life and inspired me.

I continued to wrap my stick in many colors of yarn, each for those whose faces and stories still reside in my heart.  When it was my turn  to talk about creating my prayer stick, I could barely speak.  My eyes filled with tears, and I felt a rush of strong emotions, all triggered by  remembrances and my leave-taking as I depart from San Diego in a few weeks.  I felt sadness, yes, but gratitude far outweighed the sorrow.  As we rose to join hands in our closing circle and offered each other our hopes for healing,  I was acutely aware of how much I would miss each person and the stories written in our Monday morning sessions.  Yet I was gratified to know that many of them will continue to interact with and support one another—testimony to the power of community created by shared story.  I drove home later thinking how  very honored and grateful I have been to share in so many individuals’ cancer journeys.

As our final session came to a close, we read portions of “The Navajo Night Chant,” one of many Native American ceremonial chants and an important part of a healing ceremony intended to help cure those suffering from illnesses.  Here is a sample of its many stanzas:

An offering I make.

Restore my feet for me.
Restore my legs for me.
Restore my body for me.
Restore my mind for me.
Restore my voice for me…

May it be beautiful before me.
May it be beautiful behind me.
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beautiful above me.
May it be beautiful all around me…

“The Night Chant” takes on personal meaning for everyone in the writing group as we recite the stanzas and  offer one another a wish for strength, hope and healing.  Again, I choked up as I recited the last stanza to the group, which ends  with the words, “in beauty it is finished.”

Yet I–and the group members–still had something to be completed in the weeks following  our final session.  One of the important aspects of making a prayer stick is how one “releases” the prayers and hopes that are part of its creation.  For the prayers to be released, the stick must be returned to Nature, whether by wind, fire, water, or earth.  This past week, one group member shared a photograph of her prayer stick, wedged in a rock near Sedona, AZ.   It was a beautiful image and reminded me I had yet to give my prayer stick back to Nature.  Later that afternoon,  I walked to the edge of our back garden, a steep slope, that at the top offers a constant breeze and a view of the canyon below, a perfect place for my prayer stick.  I now see it from my office window, nestled in the branches of a large succulent,  feathers and yarn tassles waving in the breeze, a small Japanese chime ringing nearby.  As I positioned the prayer stick in the tree, I used the words of poet John O’Donohue as a kind of blessing, then asked the wind to carry the prayers and thoughts it contained to the the universe.   As small as this little ritual was, it was pause for thought, and a few moments of silence, serving as a  reminder of how these small rituals can be both meaningful and comforting—a way to express what’s in our hearts and minds that we sometimes have difficulty saying to those we care most about.

Today is another day of celebration and ritual for those who celebrate Easter and springtime, a time of hope, prayers and blessings.  For those of you reading this post, may you also find solace and inspiration from Nature, the Native traditions that have preceded us, the fresh signs of spring.  Perhaps in a world that often weighs us down with its unrest, violence and fear, these small rituals can help us find our footing and hope when we most need it.  On this springtime Sunday,  I offer you O’Donohue’s poem, “A Morning Offering.”   May you take comfort and meaning from his words as I have done.

 

A Morning Offering
by John O’Donohue

I bless the night that nourished my heart
To set the ghosts of longing free
Into the flow and figure of dream
That went to harvest from the dark
Bread for the hunger no one sees.

All that is eternal in me
Welcome the wonder of this day,
The field of brightness it creates
Offering time for each thing
To arise and illuminate.

I place on the altar of dawn:
The quiet loyalty of breath,
The tent of thought where I shelter,
Wave of desire I am shore to
And all beauty drawn to the eye.

May my mind come alive today
To the invisible geography
That invites me to new frontiers,
To break the dead shell of yesterdays,
To risk being disturbed and changed.

May I have the courage today
To live the life that I would love,
To postpone my dream no longer
But do at last what I came here for
And waste my heart on fear no more.

(From: To Bless the Space Between UsA  Book of Blessings, 2008)

Writing Suggestion:

What small rituals have helped you navigate the cancer journey?  Why are they important to you?  Tell the story behind the ritual–how you discovered it, made it your own, what purpose it serves.

 

The effects of moving are experienced in the body, in the imagination, in the realm of desire. What the eye sees, what the body feels, what the heart yearns for, what remains and what has been lost — these are difficult at first to describe.   ( Louise DeSalvoOn Moving: A Writer’s Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts, and Finding Home Again, 2009)

Like many of you, my garage is filled with boxes, ones containing mementos from the past, old notebooks of writing, prints and paintings, and books—lots and lots of books.   They are things I’ve used and loved, kept in boxes and neatly stored on garage shelves, evidence of my life and my reluctance to let go of things I have loved and enjoyed. We’ve moved before, but these mementos, the artifacts from my past, have expanded, filling more boxes, taking up more space.  Now that we are faced with a cross country move and a smaller living space, I’ve been forced to the many boxes of belongings that, out of sight, were also out of mind.  It’s hasn’t been easy or quick.

Here’s the embarrassing truth:  I hadn’t realized just how much I’d accumulated over the years.  Sorting through all these boxes, I soon discovered, was an emotional process, particularly as I encountered the several containers of my old journals and notebooks, as I mentioned last week.  The process of remembering was sometimes embarrassing, sometimes humorous, and sometimes painful and difficult to read.  But the issues and questions, ones I had written about so passionately, were now simply memories of then, not part of the life I lead now.  I read through journal after journal, but ultimately, in a concrete process of letting go, destroyed the majority, hundreds of pages filled with emotional pain and suffering.  Yet I lingered over pages, remembering events, people, places and what I was thinking and feeling at the time.  It was a looking back to understand and acknowledge how my life has changed and grown, despite occasional bumps and challenges.

Moving is not only a process of packing up, but of letting go.  As I tore up hundreds of pages of old journals, it became a ritual acknowledgment that the turmoil and questions I experienced many years ago were no longer relevant to me—nor did I wish to have them accompany me into a new chapter of life.  I had, as poet Rainer Maria Rilke once advised a nineteen year old officer cadet, learned to live my questions to discover the answers I so fervently sought at one time.

And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.   (Rainer Maria Rilke,  Letters to a Young Poet, originally published in 1929).

Clinging to a past no longer relevant to our present only seeds depression or regret.    Learning to letting go of those worn out pieces of the past is a necessary process, something we have to do from time to time, not just when we’re packing up to make a move to another place.  It’s a bit like a spring cleaning, choosing what to discard, what to retain and what to carry forward as we go on with our lives.  Letting go is evidence we’ve learned from our experiences and have begun to revise our lives, something we do naturally to make sense out of events that alter the course of our lives.  Like the work of writing (which always includes rewriting), it’s an ongoing process allowing us to see our lives in a fresh light.  Revision is something that poet Naomi Shihab Nye described as “a beautiful word of hope… a new vision of something.”

Think about it:  we are constantly revising our life stories. Things happen to us; we make choices or take actions that influence events and outcomes, yet the story closest to us can be the most difficult to understand.  It’s one of the most important reasons I write, not simply to record my history, but to reflect and discover new insight and understanding, and ultimately, growth.

In the book, You Must Revise Your Life (1986), William Stafford wrote, “My life in writing…comes to me as parts, like two rivers that blend.  One part is easy to tell:  the times, the places, events, and people.  The other part is mysterious; it is my thoughts, the flow of my inner life, the reveries and impulses that never get known—[it] wanders along at its own pace…”

I like to think of the process of “letting go” is about paying attention to the current of our inner lives, the thoughts and desires that rise to the surface, often unbidden but are important in helping us move forward and embrace the unknown, whatever it contains.  We honor the stories we’ve lived, learn to let go of old ways of being or seeing the world that no longer serve us as we continue to move forward.  It’s a bit like thinking of your life as a giant canvas, gradually filling with color over the years.  We do what the artist does:  let the material of our life—all that happens to us–talk back to us so we may see it anew.  Stafford tells us that revising our lives involves embracing whatever happens—in things and in language.   “The language changes,” he says, and “you change, the light changes…Dawn comes, and it comes for all, but not on demand.”

Letting go?  It’s not easy.  Change can be unsettling.  Learning to embrace whatever happens takes intention and courage.  I admit to having periods of utter overwhelm and doubt as I prepare for our move, but when I do, I pause, embrace moments of quiet and listen for the deeper current moving through me.  Like artists and writers I admire, I’m trying to work with the material of my life, letting go of what is no longer relevant, revising and seeing things in a fresh light, as I remind myself that we are progressing toward new possibilities.  I have questions, of course, but I’ll only get to the answers by living them, gradually finding my way into a new life chapter as I move forward.

So to you, Friend, I confide my secret:
to be a discoverer you hold close whatever
you find, and after a while you decide
what it is. Then, secure in where you have been,
you turn to the open sea and let go

(From:  “Security,” by William Stafford, In:  Passswords, 1991)
—————
Writing Suggestions:

  • This week, write about holding on and letting go.
  • Write about a time your life changed. What did you have to let go of or revise?
  • Have you cleaned out the “stuff” of life to embrace a new beginning? Write about it.
  • Think about how revision can be “a beautiful word of hope.” Have you discovered this in your life?  When?