Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Now that spring has finally arrived, I’ve noticed a shift in my writing, one no doubt inspired by budding trees, flowers and sunshine.  It’s a sharp contrast to the writing I did during the winter, my mood dampened by grey days, cold and snow.  Life was too often defined by an aching knee, repeat doctor’s visits and antibiotics to treat a bad case of bronchitis.  My writing mirrored my mood, as grey as the days themselves, filled with repetitive themes and forced prose.  I wondered if I had become dependent on some new crisis to re-ignite my muse.  After several months of transition, change, and new medical challenges, I did not relish the idea of any kind of crisis, guilty of lackluster writing or not.

That’s the way writing often starts, a disaster or a catastrophe…by writing I rescue myself under all sorts of conditions…it relieves the feeling of distress.  –William Carlos Williams, physician & poet

But the thing is this: many great writers confirm that a crisis is often what triggers the initial desire to write.  Writing out of pain and suffering has provided inspiration for many of our works of great literature.  Novelists and poets have described their writing as a form of therapy, helping them heal from life’s traumatic events.  As Louise DeSalvo states in her book, Writing as a Way of Healing, those life crises have inspired many of our greatest cultural creations.  Author Paul Theroux once described writing like digging a deep hole and not knowing what you will find.  He admitted to feeling a sense of initial shock when he read authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene or William Styron, discovering powerful—and personal—themes of alienation or suffering in their work.  Fitzgerald memorably described his battle with alcohol in The Crack-Up; Greene wrote of his manic-depression in A Sort of Life, and Styron examined his suicidal depression in Darkness Visible.

Just as a novelist turns his anxiety into a story in order to be able to control it to a degree, so a sick person can make a story, a narrative, out of his illness as a way to detoxify it.  –Anatole Broyard, in Intoxicated by My Illness

Serious illness, loss, or a cancer diagnosis are crises that also can trigger intense and abundant writing, resulting in books of poetry, like Karin Miller’s The Cancer Poetry Project or memoir, such as The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan, In-Between Days, by Teva Harrison, or Barbara Abercrombie’s, Writing Out the Storm.  As Abercrombie demonstrates in her memoir, “storm” is an apt metaphor for writing inspired by a personal crisis.   Your days are full of turbulence, ups, downs and strong emotions.  You rage, weep, and sometimes, you may pour your emotions on the page.  Writing may become the calm for some, the eye of a hurricane, and a refuge as the storm howls around you.  Your writing may be raw and emotional, but that is often the first and necessary step to move toward understanding and insight.

During an extended period of personal crisis and loss many years ago, I discovered a kind of refuge in filling the pages of my notebooks with my feelings of despair and grief.  The solace I discovered in writing ultimately led me to initiating my first workshop for cancer survivors nearly 18 years ago.

When we see our suffering as story, we are saved. –Anais Nin, novelist, 1903-1977

Yet just as the weather and seasons change, so does the intensity of a crisis.  Gradually, there are moments of relative peace, good days, even moments of hope as the worst of the storm passes and life becomes more bearable. You gradually move from the shock of diagnosis, anxiety of surgeries and chemotherapy and toward recovery.  Your upheaval and turmoil begin to lessen, and you slowly adjust to a new normal.  If you’ve been writing about your cancer experience, your prose likely reflects the shift,  something I witness during every writing workshop series I lead for cancer patients and survivors.  Other life stories begin to emerge, not only those of cancer.  Hope shines through some of the poetry or prose that the group members share aloud.  The tissues are used less frequently, and there is often shared laughter.  All these are signs of healing, an improved ability to cope and weather whatever storms cancer creates in your life.

Gradually too, I encourage writing from other chapters of the group members’ lives, because it’s important to remember cancer isn’t your whole life story–only a part of it. To continue to repetitively write one’s sorrow and grief can easily become little more than rumination, the replay of old questions and sorrows that do little to improve your mood, perspective or ability to cope.  While it’s true that to write, you must be willing to step into your shadows and confront the darkness, to remain there defeats the healing benefits writing can have.  It’s why, in my cancer writing workshops, the prompts and exercises I offer to the groups gradually move from the predominant theme of cancer to a person’s whole life.

The real work of writing is to write under any sky, whether stormy or clear.  It’s how we capture the intricacy, the poetry, and stories our lives encompass.  It’s the work for everyone who wants to write for healing:  moving beyond the crisis and storm, see the world with new eyes, to awaken, notice and explore.  Perhaps you’ve been writing out of the storm called cancer, but ask yourself this:  as the sky clears, where will you find the inspiration and the motivation to keep writing?

A few years ago, I was stuck in a winter’s funk–erroneously called “writer’s block,” something I have since banned from my vocabulary.  Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the U.S., was speaking at a local university.  I bought tickets to the reading, eager to hear him speak again as I had several years earlier.  I was glad I did.  Collins’ poetry and wry humor were good medicine for my sagging muse and the “stuckness” in my writing.  Toward the end of the evening, Collins took a few questions from the audience. Asked by someone where he found his inspiration for his poetry, he paused only a moment before responding.  He found his inspiration, he said, by by simply noticing what’s in front of him, then describing himself as a poet who simply “looks out the window.”  If you read any of Collins’ work, you’ll quickly discover the most ordinary thing, like Cheerios, a teenage friend or his dog, contain the seeds of a delightful poem.

The following morning, still inspired by Collins’ reading, I opened my notebook, gazed out the windows in our front room for several minutes before I wrote my first sentence:  “I wish I could write a poem like Billy Collins…”  It was enough.  The words began flowing freely, something, I realized, about being present and paying attention .  I remembered the wisdom in Naomi Shihab Nye’s delightful poem, “Valentine for Ernest Mann,” inspired by a request from a young man attending a poetry conference who asked her to write him a poem and send it to him.  Nye responed to his request in the beginning line, “You can’t order a poem like you order a taco / Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two…”  She then continued to describe the wonder of  poetry:

…I’ll tell a secret instead:

poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,

they are sleeping. They are the shadows

drifting across our ceilings the moment 

before we wake up. What we have to do

is live in a way that lets us find them.

 

(In:  Red Suitcase, 1994).

Cancer, other serious illnesses, trauma or loss  are shocks to our bodies and souls. When they happen, we need time to make sense of our emotions and come to terms with what life has presented to us.  Healing takes time; writing can help.  To move beyond the sorrow and pain, we must find a way to re-engage and  As we write, we begin to find new insights, capabilities we didn’t know we had, and move beyond our suffering.  What we have to do is live in a way that lets us find them. We learn to be present and grateful for the gifts of each new day and in doing so, we find glimmers of hope, happiness and of emotional healing.

Rita Dove, in her wonderful poem, “Dawn Revisited,” offers an invitation for us to awaken to the world and discover what it offers us:

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…

The whole sky is yours

to write on, blown open

to a blank page…

 

(From:  On the Bus with Rosa Parks, 1999)

Writing Suggestions:

The whole sky is yours / to write on…  It’s a great image, isn’t it?  Why not take a look out the window or go outside?  Open your eyes and notice how alive the world is with new possibility.  Afterwards, open your notebook to that blank page and begin with one thing you’ve noticed, one single thought or sentence.  Write out of your storm, or write of calm.  It doesn’t matter.  The whole sky is yours, whatever it holds.  Just write.

 

(Revised version from earlier post, Mother’s Day, 2016)

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, University of Pittsburgh Press, 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 of my friends.  We knew she was different, even difficult.  She wasn’t the most versatile of cooks; she did not inherit her mother’s talent in the kitchen nor take 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 felt those same tasks were necessary to build good character in her children.  We were assigned daily and chores which had to be completed before school or play, and every Saturday, we protested and complained as we scrubbed walls as floors while our friends waited impatiently for us to join them.  Of my parents, she was the strict disciplinarian and prided herself on the role.  Any successes we had in school or life, she was quick to remind us, were due to the discipline she imposed.  While my father, naturally playful and soft-hearted, had my heart, my mother had my obedience, 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 as I attempted to parent, earn a living and build a career.  I developed greater empathy for my mother—and much greater appreciation of what it meant to be a mother myself.

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 assumed—wasn’t in control at all.  My father had been quietly 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 experienced only rarely in our youth.  Yet out of the darkness, and in a fleeting moment of clarity, the mother we remembered reappeared.  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.  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 her children.  Yet I’m left with the feeling that my mother did the best she was capable of doing.  It wasn’t neither ideal nor even good mothering at times, but she wanted the best for us, that part is undeniable.  I choose, on this Mother’s Day, to remember that although her kind of love was difficult sometimes, it was love just the same.

During one of the last times I visited her before she died she no longer had the ability to walk, nor was she aware of much around her, including me.  I resorted to pushing her in her wheelchair, round and round the garden of the Alzheimer’s home before stopping to rest and sit with her next to a Bougainvillea full of brilliant red blooms.  She didn’t seem to notice anything, her eyes were closed and I thought she was dozing.  I took her hand and held it in mine and, feeling completely at a loss, began softly singing a song she often sang to us as children. “Let me call you sweetheart…,” I began, my voice tentative.  “I’m in love with you.  Let me hear you whisper that you love me too…”  She opened her eyes and slowly raised her head to look directly at me.  I saw the glimpse of recognition in her eyes.

“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…hap-py,” she said slowly, smiling a little.  She closed her eyes as her head nodded toward her chest, and she disappeared once more into her darkness.  It was only two or three weeks later that my mother passed away.

It’s taken me time to sift through all my mother was and meant to me.  Relationships with our mothers can sometimes be complicated, as mine was.  Yet she was my mother, and I am her daughter.  There are mornings I look in the mirror and see something of her there too, just as all of her adult children likely do.   If I could, I would now tell  all that’s in my heart, maybe write her the 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)

Today we honor our mothers and what it means to be a mother.  There are many stories to be told as you remember your own.  Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers and those who also took on a mothering role in our lives when we needed it most.

Writing Suggestions:

We learn from our mothers lessons of love and life, some of them not appreciated or understood completely 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?

Sometimes I have trouble listening to my body, but for the past two weeks, a flare-up of colitis, knee pain and another round of additional tests and medications for my heart failure were bodily aggravations too loud to ignore.  I unwillingly admitted that I was in no condition to dance, much less enjoy some brisk walks through the neighborhood with my dog.  I was grounded, and I wasn’t happy about it.  Whether it’s due to aging, illness or other physical aggravation, having one’s life impeded by one’s body has profound impact on mood and perspective.  By the end of the first week, I was dogged by a gray cloud of self-pity, worry and the blues.

I’m not a trained dancer, far from it, but I love to move, and there’s nothing better than my dance class to elevate my mood.  Led by a joyful and energetic instructor, I join a group of women called “The Vintage Dancers,” all of them in my age group, to dance.  Don’t be misled by the name.  This is no ordinary group of older women.  Our hour together is fast-paced, aerobic, learning and remembering new routines, and fun.  While I no longer move with the speed or the ease I had in my younger years,  I move–and I laugh–a lot.  I leave the class feeling energized, lighter in spirit, and despite the medical issues that have dogged me for the last few months, I feel healthier, younger, and more optimistic.

A few years ago a friend of mine sent a link to a video of a young woman, Tiffany Staropoli, diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer in May of 2013.  In addition to 3 surgeries, chemotherapy, a variety of alternative healing approaches, she also relied on her “personal brand of dance therapy,” and posted her video, “Dancing Through Cancer” on You Tube.

Her video went viral in no time–and no wonder!  I watched it three times through, laughing out loud at the unabashed exuberance and delight captured in the different scenes of Tiffany dancing to Great Big Sea’s “When I’m Up, I Can’t Get Down.”  She was always enthusiastic, if not necessarily graceful.  But she had a point to make.  “Even with something as traumatic as cancer,”she told the interviewer, “it’s still possible to have a good time.”  When asked what she thought of her dancing, she laughed, “It’s terrible…I crack myself up.”  Well, she cracked me up too—her fun and joy was infectious,  undoubtedly the reasib the video has been viewed by so many thousands of people.

“I’m not a professional dancer,” Tiffany states on her website.  “In fact, I’m a decidedly HORRIBLE dancer.  But over the years, when alone or with my undeniably patient husband, I would break out into an awkward and often bizarre dance to add a little flair to the moment.  A sprinkle of goofiness to lighten the mood or crack myself up.  It always lifted my spirits.  So I told my husband to force me to dance when I started to backslide.  And record it.”  And he did.   The”Dancing Through Cancer”video shows Tiffany dancing at the surgery center, hospital, and chemotherapy clinic.  It shows her dancing when she wanted to and sometimes, when she didn’t, but “always, always, ending up smiling by the end of it.”

Call it dance therapy or just a personal love of moving to music,  I get it.  I’ve danced my way through more than one difficult life chapter.  Soon after my first marriage ended with my husband’s death, I often danced after my daughters were asleep, turning out the lights in the living room, putting Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” on the turntable, and dancing crazily around the room until my spirits lightened, and I had exhausted myself and was ready to sleep.   Sometimes I cried as I danced, but tears didn’t last for long.  More often, I cracked myself up, like Tiffany, even though no one was watching or filming.   During that turbulent and painful time, my daughters and I also danced together, devising crazy routines to seventies’ hits, even performing them for family and friends, with the result of everyone breaking up in laughter.  It wasn’t about dance as much as it was about fun and having a good time.  It was an important element in helping  ourselves recover from grief and loss.

Susan Gubar, in her article, “Cancer Humor,” offers some examples of finding humor to help alleviate the burden of serious illness and periods of hardship.  “Cracking up,” she says, “may be a better option than breaking down.” She tells of author Nina Riggs, who later died of terminal cancer, and her memoir, The Bright Hour.  Riggs commiserated with a friend also dealing with breast and together, imagining a business called “Damaged Goods,” that would feature a line of morbid greeting cards with sentiments like:

Thank you for the taco casserole. It worked even better than my stool softeners.

Thoughts and prayers are great, but Ativan and pot are better.

 All your phone messages about how not knowing exactly what’s going on with me has stressed you out really helped me put things in perspective.

 In-Between Days, a graphic memoir by Teva Harrison, is an honest account of living with cancer, but it’s peppered with illustrations that also convey the author’s humor.  In one, after describing how she had to be positioned on a mold to her body, then further immobilized by shrink wrap, Harrison wrote that she felt like supermarket sushi and created a drawing titled,  “On A Platter.”  “The gift of these creative works,” Gubar explains, is that “they foster a sense of community with the living…we are not alone in what we go through.”

When we’re up, we can’t feel down… In the difficult period of becoming a single mother in 1981, I remember singing along to “Twenty Mile Zone,” a song written and performed by the former Dory Previn, composed after her divorce from composer Andre Previn. She described a woman alone in her car, screaming at the top of her lungs while she drove.  She is stopped by a police officer and questioned, but very soon they are both driving down the road and screaming–she in her car, he on his motorcycle–each relieving their frustrations!  Singing along with Previn not only helped relieve the stress I felt, it made me laugh.

Each of us has different activities that help to elevate our spirits.  Art, music, movement, meditation, play, writing poetry, yoga or a walk along the seashore or a trail are just a few activities known to be beneficial to our well-being.  Sharing some of those activities with others  has the impact of cheering us up.  I think of the women’s choir here in Toronto who performed last week.  It’s not a professional choir, just a group of women who love to sing together.  Their sense of community, the energy and fun were enough to want to make me sign up and join them.  (In fact, I did.)

Remember, having a good time doesn’t deny the reality of cancer or heart disease, but it does help us cope with illness more effectively.  Think of Gilda Radner of Saturday Night Live, Michael Landon, of Bonanza, at his final appearance on Johnny Carson’s show, or Jennie Nash, who wrote The Victoria’s Secret Catalogue Never Stops Coming.  Each reminds us of the importance of finding humor in our situation—and, despite everything, of having a good belly laugh now and then.  Like the Great Big Sea’s song says, “When I’m Up, I Can’t Get Down.  Having fun is good for us and infectious for those around us.  It’s essential to health and to life.

Writing Suggestions:

Write about the kinds of things that make you feel better when you’re down.  What helps life your spirits?  Is it something that makes you laugh out loud?  Does it make you smile in spite of yourself?  Give you solace or joy?  Laughter is good medicine, but so is any activity that gives us solace, pleasure, and happiness.

What activities give you joy?  Make you smile or laugh a little?  Dance?  Painting?  Yoga?  Singing?  Playing with grandchildren?  Watching silly movies?  Write about laughter, smiling, or just being silly, and why, when you’re up, you just can’t feel down.

Remember, laughter and having fun are contagious.  We all feel better for it.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

“The Peace of Wild Things,” by Wendell Berry, in The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Copyright © 1998)

These past many days have been sobering ones here in Toronto.  In the aftermath of the inconceivable actions of one person that resulted in ten deaths and a number of seriously wounded victims, I  felt the sense of “despair for the world” descend on my mood, a feeling I had all too often the years we lived in California and watched in horror the newscasts that too frequently often began with another school shooting or some other act of violence.  Returning here, to a city I love, offered a respite from those all too common events, a chance to regain my footing.  And then, tragedy struck here: a van attack by a troubled young man–and Toronto was in shock with the stark reminder that, in today’s world, no place is immune to these senseless acts of violence and the loss of innocent human lives.

Where does one find the kind of peace that Berry describes?  In our over-developed, crowded cities, where life seems to be defined by constant motion and noise, how can we reclaim the sense of peace, of gratitude for the world, so necessary for the human spirit to heal?   These past many days, I’ve followed this city’s response to a violent and unimaginable tragedy.   I’ve been touched by the way in which people came together to offer support and solace to one another and the families and victims of this tragedy.  Last night, thousands of citizens, national, provincial, and religious leaders of all faiths walked together along the route of the attack before joining in a vigil to honor and remember the victims of the attack.  Many expressed that coming together was not only a way to remember those lives lost in the tragedy, it was also a way to begin, somehow, to come to terms with the shock, grief, and loss, to begin to heal and find a sense of peace, to heal.  One person put it this way:  “I come because this is, I guess, a part of the healing process. I was here on the day of the accident, and now to get rid of those images, and to overcome those images, I believe this is the best way.”  Interspersed throughout the vigil were times of remembrance, prayer, silence and stillness–the necessary ingredients to begin the healing process, find peace and some sense of gratitude for the world.

What is stillness?  According to Pico Iyer, travel writer and author of The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (2014), it’s less about meditation and more about “sanity and balance…a chance to put things in perspective.”  We all need time to ourselves.  Time to be quiet, reflect, and gain some perspective.  Stillness offers that to us.   “Going nowhere,” Iyer states,  , “isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

(From:  “Keep Quiet” by Pablo Neruda (In:   Extravagaria,  1974)

Perhaps our increasing societal numbness to what former President Obama named as “routine” violence in the U.S. and so many other places in the world,  is, in part, a result of the constant motion and noise that fill our daily lives.  We race from meeting to meeting, social event to social event, respond to dozens of emails and texts each day, spend hours in front of screens when we’re alone.  There, we’re assaulted by constant over-stimulation:  news, trivia, games, retail offerings, advertisements, on and on.  “A big luxury for so many people today,” Iyer says, “ is a little blank space in the calendar where you collect yourself.”  That’s giving ourselves time for stillness, the opportunity to be quiet and allow us to care for our inner lives, and to feed our malnourished spirits.

(Illustration by Maurice Sendak, In:  Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Kraus, 2001)

 

Writing for the New York Times in 2012, Iyer cited Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book, The Shallows:  What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.  Carr noted that Americans spend eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen and that the average American teenager sends or receives 75 test messages daily.  And added to that is our continual exposure to the visual images of violence and suffering dominating the daily newscasts.  We’re numbed by the continual assault of information and images.  Iyer also recalled the wisdom of Canadian author Marshall McLuhan (The Medium is the Message) in 1967, when he warned his readers, saying “When things come at you very fast, …you lose touch with yourself.”

Think about it.  It’s not unlike the “noise” in your head as you navigate the rush of information and appointments when given a diagnosis of cancer or other serious or life threatening illness. You feel overwhelmed and exhausted, yet you keep trying to navigate between opinions and the best decision for your treatment options.  It’s quite common that, for a while, the physicians’ voice temporarily becomes your own. You need to give yourself some time to ponder and let things sink in without the clamor of medical opinions or the concerns of loved ones.  Only then can you regain the ability to listen to yourself and your heart.  Only in stillness can you find your voice, the clarity of what matters most and is important to you here and now.

But little by little,

…as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world…

(From:  “The Journey,” by Mary Oliver, in Dreamwork, 1986)

How do you find your voice? Giving yourself times to be still, quiet, and in the moment, can help.  Cancer, or any chronic illness, as Dr. Paul Brenner, MD states, “is Life:  You hope it can get better but fear it will get worse.  There is no choice other than to live into what is happening now.” Those with cancer, he notes, live in the truth of the moment because that is all that exists.  Living in what is ultimately is being present to the now, not living with regret for the past nor worrying what the future holds.  It’s not always easy, nor does it come naturally.  We have to learn to be comfortable with stillness, with the quiet and solitary time so necessary to having a sense of peace.

Stillness, the time to be fully present in the moment, can help us clear away the static,  clarify and discover what is truly important.  Prayer, meditation, yoga, tai chi, a solitary walk along a wooden trail, an ocean beach–these are things that can help ground us in the present, the here and now and quiet.  As Iyer reminds us, stillness–learning to be in the moment—isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.

I have come to believe that stillness is an important part of what helps us heal, whether we live with loss, cancer, or other chronic illness.  During a  2004 PBS  interview former poet laureate, Ted Kooser, spoke about his recovery from oral cancer in 1968.  During the period when I was in surgery and going through radiation, I really didn’t do any writing. But as I came up out of radiation and was trying to get myself back in some sort of physical shape, I would walk a couple of miles every morning and then find something along that route to write about…It was very important for me to see something from each day that I could do something with and find some order in, because I was surrounded by medical chaos or health chaos of some kind.

Kooser wrote over 100 poems about what he noticed on those solitary winter morning walks, pasting them on postcards and sending them to his friend, author Jim Harrison.  In the introduction, Kooser describes how his morning walks helped him heal:

“During the previous summer, 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…  One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem.  Soon I was writing every day… I began pasting my morning poems on postcards and sending them to Jim…”The result of those poems on postcards was his volume of poetry, Winter Morning Walks : 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison, 2001)

Annie Dillard, in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, offers a “recipe” for embracing stillness“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.—

It is a practice I have embraced in the past many years, one that always helps me right myself and remember what is good and important in the world.  I have come to cherish stillness as life seems to be  more complex.  Perhaps you have discovered the power of it too.

Writing Suggestion

  • For this week, consider how quiet and stillness have been part of your healing process.
  • When did you discover the value of stillness?  What happened in your life at that time?
  • What practices have helped you learn to embrace quiet and turn your attention to what is, instead of what was or could be?

Perhaps it was Barbara Bush’s funeral that triggered the conversation my husband and I shared over lunch yesterday.  It wasn’t the former U.S. First Lady we talked about, but rather the loss we all suffer when family, friends, family or colleagues, disappear from our lives, whether due to illness and death, physical distance, passage of time, moves to other cities, or circumstances unknown to us.   With some, there’s simply curiosity, a question of “I wondered what happened to…?”  But with many, especially those who have died, there’s sorrow.  Grief is the emotional state that accompanies loss, and although normal, when there is no explanation or rationale for the loss or disappearance of people once close to us, we may discover the kind of sorrow that resides in one’s heart for a very long time.  Sorrow.  Grief.  How do we make sense of the losses we suffer?  I thought about Mrs. Bush’s funeral, the tributes and stories of her life and presence shared by her family and friends.  Then I recalled Judith Cofer’s The Cruel Country, a memoir about her return to her native Puerto Rico when her mother is diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. A deeply moving book, Cofer offers hard-earned wisdom on how we come to terms with loss and grief.  In it she writes:

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

Perhaps no one truly ever truly masters the sorrow that comes with loss, because death and the loss of loved ones and friends forces us to learn and re-learn what it means when someone’s life ends or they disappear from our lives in other ways, whether anticipated or unexpected.  Loss of those dear to us forces us to consider mortality–theirs and our own.  How do we remember the people who have mattered in our lives, and how others will remember us?

Nearly every year since I’ve been leading my “Writing Through Cancer” programs, cancer takes the life of a group member.  It’s something I worked to prepare myself for before I first began the groups nearly eighteen years ago, yet as I’ve learned each time a life is lost to this disease, I must confront my own grief as well as the collective grief of the group members.  In 2014, three individuals with terminal cancer died within weeks of one another. It was emotional time for the group, yet they demonstrated such care and support for their colleagues, despite the fear that a colleague’s death ignites for those who are also being treated for cancer.  Everyone had forged a strong and supportive community through the many weeks of writing and sharing their stories of the cancer experience and of their lives.  And in death, their hearts heavy with sorrow, many in the group were present at memorial services for our lost colleagues, listening to and sharing their stories of remembrance.

After the third memorial service that year, I was listless and sad, awakening with sorrow weighing on my chest.  As the group leader, my task is to hear and hold the sorrow of the members, to make it safe for them to express what they feel in the privacy of the group.  I hadn’t really allowed myself to grieve openly, and a day or two later, as  I leashed up my dog to take early morning walk and stepped outside,  I saw my elderly neighbor walking down the street toward me.  I smiled and waved, but I noticed that his normally smiling face was grim.  Something wasn’t right.  I walked down the porch steps and met him as he came up our walk.  He stopped and looked at the ground. “I wanted you to know,” he said, “M. (his wife) passed away in the hospital this morning at four a.m.”

I hadn’t expected this news at all.  I had visited with both of them only a few days earlier.  Without warning, tears streamed down my face.  “I’m so sorry,” I said, sobbing as we embraced.  And then, I apologized, horribly embarrassed that my neighbor, who had just lost his wife of more than sixty years, was comforting me.   The sorrow I’d been carrying inside welled up and spilled out.

I am learning the alchemy of grief, how it must be carefully measured and doled out, inflicted—but I have not yet mastered this art.”–Judith Ortiz Cofer

We attended M.’s memorial service a few days after her death.  Her husband, two sons, daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren sat in the front row, and behind them, the pews were filled with lifelong friends, and many of the people who lived in our little neighborhood.  M. was remembered with affection, tenderness, and pride.   We watched photographs of M. flash on a large screen, smiled as her family and friends recalled stories of her life, remembering her for her loving spirit, guidance, humor and faith.  Her life was celebrated with remembrance and stories — something I had also experienced at the services of our deceased writing group members.  …What I have come to believe defines immortality.  Being remembered.

 

I want to be remembered

As a voice that was made to be singing

The lullaby of shadows

As a child fades into a dream…

 

I want to be remembered

With a dark face absorbing all colors

And giving them back twice as brightly,

Like water remembering light.

 

I want to be remembered

With a simple name, like Mama:

As an open door from creation,

As a picture of someone you know.

(From:  “Cover Photograph,” by Marilyn Nelson, In:  Mama’s Promises:  Poems, 1985)

I thought a lot about my father later that same afternoon, remembering how, after the funeral of one of his oldest sisters, he had excused himself from the parlor where a few of his siblings and other relatives were weeping and instead, sat in the living room next to her bereaved husband and shared a few fond and funny stories of the woman each had loved.  My grieving uncle relaxed and smiled, remembering along with my father, perhaps enjoying respite from the sadness and sorrow in the room.   Sometime later, my father made it clear how he wanted his passing to be celebrated.  “I don’t want any tears and crying.  Promise that when I die, you’ll have a party.  Invite all my friends, serve them Jack Daniels and tell some good stories.”  That’s exactly how we honored his death after he died from lung cancer several years later.  I won’t say we didn’t shed some tears, because we did–we loved our soft-hearted Dad.  But a defining characteristic of his was the love of a good story, and the more humorous the better.  My father wanted to be remembered in the way he enjoyed his life–with a chuckle.

“Death steals everything but our stories.”  This was the final line of a poem by Jim Harrison, “Larson’s Holstein Bull.”  It’s stayed with me.  We remember stories, and our stories help us remember people; they are an important aspect of healing from loss and grief.  In her article, “The Importance of Telling (and Listening) to the Story”  Kirsti A . Dyer, MD, describes why stories are an important way to help us understand and cope with loss and grief.

  • Stories are a way of translating memories in verbal or in written form, helping preserve culture.
  • They help us make sense of the world and the difficult events in our lives.
  • Storytelling is one of the oldest healing arts; used to help people to cope with loss.
  • Stories offer a way for doctors and patients to communicate, discover the meaning of illness and ways of coping and healing
  • The creation of personal stories helps us deal with and assimilate loss.
  • Telling (or writing) the story about your life experiences has beneficial effects on illness and physical and mental health.
  • Life stories are a way to make sense of and find meaning in loss; telling one’s story of grief helps the loss become real.
  • Personal stories of loss can inspire and provide hope.
  • Listening to a person’s story of loss or illness is central to grief support and helps healing & recovery.

Even now, when I think of my father, I remember his stories, the chuckle and wink of his eye as he told them.  And when I read through some of the writing shared in my groups in our end of series booklet, the memory of the writer comes alive, and I remember their faces, voices, and the many stories they shared.  It is our stories that keep alive those we’ve loved and lost.  We remember them as our grief is softened and transformed.  We begin to heal from the loss.  As Cofer reminds us:  Writing transforms.  And on the page, it is always now.

Writing Suggestions:

  • What has helped you navigate the dark ocean of grief in the wake of a loved one’s loss?
  • Write a story or poem inspired by the memories you have of a lost friend or family member.
  • Answer the question, “How do you want to be remembered?”

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes…

(From:  “i thank You God for most this amazing” by e.e. cummings, In:  Complete Poems, 1904-1962)

Every Spring, as the gray and frigid days of Winter finally mellow and the earth begins to come to life once again, I experience gratitude for the delight of new beginnings and renewed sense of hope it brings.  Invariably, I recall cummings’ exuberant poem of gratitude for the season and the joy it expresses.  But so far this year, the seasonal changes have yet to inspire those happy sentiments.   Springtime completely missed its appointed March 21st appearance, and in this part of the country, we’ve all grown cranky with the continuing cold and occasional snow flurries, impatient for warmer temperatures and sunshine.

Gratitude was nowhere in sight yesterday morning when I awakened to another cold and windy day–the worst in weeks.  The ground below our window was covered in white–a blanket of ice pellets from the freezing rain that began Saturday and continued into Sunday morning.  It was bitterly cold, overcast and before long, the wind began,  gusting upwards of 50 km at times outside our apartment building.  I sat and stared out the window, my coffee growing cold, my mood gloomy.  I half-hearted tried to honor my daily gratitude practice– each day making a list of five things I am grateful for –but my gratitude well was dry at first.  I felt little but frustration with the lingering winter weather.  I took solace in the fact that everyone I’ve encountered these past many days feels similarly.

I kept trying, however, because I’ve discovered that simply listing a few things I am grateful for each day improves my mood and outlook, particularly on days where worry or frustration threatens to overtake my spirit.   Writing a daily gratitude list is a practice I began some time ago, when life was bumpier than usual, and the blues were tagging along behind me like a persistent shadow as each day began.  I finally squeezed out five things to be grateful for, and I’m glad I did.  My mood improved.  And I’m not the first. Science confirms that gratitude is beneficial for us in a number of ways, among them:

.  Gratitude can make you more patient.

.  It might improve your relationship.

.  It improves self-care.

.  It can help you sleep.

.  It may stop you from overeating.

.  It can help ease depression.

.  It gives you happiness that lasts.

“Clinical trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life,” according to Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at University of California, Davis.  Among its many benefits are lower blood pressure, improved immune function and even better sleep.  But there’s more.  Another study conducted at UC San Diego’s School of Medicine found that grateful people actually had better heart health–less inflammation and healthier heart rhythms.  And other university research studies have also found that gratitude boosts our immune systems, reduces stress hormones and may reduce the effects of aging to the brain.  “Gratitude works,” says Dr. Emmons, “because…it recruits other positive emotions that have direct physical benefits.”

Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude. ― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Researchers have examined the role of gratitude plays in well-being in recent years, whether the impact is psychological, like increasing positive emotion, or physical, such as improving sleep.  Gratitude research has also extended to cancer patients.  Reported by Anne Moyer, PhD, in a 2016 Psychology Today article, one study was conducted among patients with cervical cancer that indicated fostering a mind-set of gratitude increased levels of positive emotion and reduced negative ones.  As a consequence, patients showed increased flexibility in thinking and, thus, improvement in their ability to cope with stress.

A second study with breast cancer patients utilized a gratitude intervention to address patients’ fear of recurrence and worry about death.  They were invited to spend 10 minutes weekly over a six-week period writing a letter to express their gratitude to someone who’d done something kind for them.  Those who practiced expressing gratitude to another experienced a decline in their worry about death.

If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.― Meister Eckhart

As I thought about gratitude and the men and women who have participated in my cancer writing groups, I recalled the conversation I had with a former group member.  She was diagnosed and treated for an aggressive salivary gland cancer, and after her cancer wass declared “in remission,” she rediscovered the comfort and meaning in the ebb and flow of everyday life, small pleasures of love, companionship or nature.  “It frees me from having to make every moment count,” she wrote in a note to me some months later.  “It takes off the pressure that would exist if I had to accomplish something in particular before I die…”

In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich. ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

What can you do to incorporate more gratitude into your life each day?  In a 2016 article appearing online in Forbes WomensMedia,  author Janet Miller, offered eight practical tips:

  1. Don’t be picky. Appreciate everything.  Gratitude doesn’t have to be about the big things.
  2. Find gratitude in your challenges. Difficult or negative experiences can teach us what we’re really thankful for.
  3. Practice mindfulness. Daily, think of five to ten things you are grateful for.  Doing this daily will actually “rewire” your brain to be more grateful, and you’ll feel happier.
  4. Keep a gratitude journal. Several researchers suggest writing the things you are grateful for on a daily basis, at bedtime.
  5. Volunteer. Give back to others in your community.  It increases your own well-being.
  6. Express yourself. Do more than just keep a journal.  Let people you care about know you are grateful for them.
  7. Spend time with loved ones, friends as well as family.
  8. Improve your happiness in other areas of your life.

What better teacher for me than Ann, who lost her life to cancer in 2012 and wrote in one of my groups for nearly six years. She discovered her gift for poetry after being diagnosed with a rare and terminal leukemia.  A couple of years before she died, she moved to live and write in a small cabin in the Santa Cruz mountains.  There, surrounded by the quiet beauty of the California redwoods, she discovered not only peace but an extraordinary source of inspiration in the natural world around her.  She wrote prolifically, and for all of us who knew her, she inspired gratitude and reverence for the life and beauty in the ordinary.   In her poem, “Directive,” one Ann sent to me before her death, she reminded us of how abundant the gifts of everyday life are, and how grateful we must be to experience them.

Remember the commonplace, the wooden chair on the white planked deck,
trees kneeling in the rain and deer prints
leading into elegant rushes. A kinder place
cannot be found: where you sit at the top
of shadowy stairs, the window lifted…

Let me speak for you: there’s comfort
to be found in fatigue, in letting principles
fall like stones from your pockets…

Fall into the ordinary,
the rushes, the deer looking up into your heart,
risen, full in the silver hammered sky.

(From: “Directive,” by Ann Emerson, personal communication)

As I awakened this morning, I discovered the freezing rain and ice pellets have been replaced by rain.  The blustery wind is less ferocious, but unwilling to disappear just yet.  The sidewalks and neighborhood streets are messy and slushy, and I’m not very eager to venture into the outdoors–which I must do in a few hours to go to a dental appointment.  Yet I find gratitude.  We didn’t lose power during the storm; the trees were magical  last night, the ice-coated branches shimmering in the streetlights, and despite the howling wind, we were comfortable and warm.  I am again reminded that even the mundane and ordinary can inspire gratitude.  All we have to do is notice.

Writing Suggestions:

  • Develop practice gratitude in the coming days.  Be intentional.  Use a journal to document your gratitude.  It doesn’t have to be a long list or very detailed.  Simply list 3 – 5 things you are grateful for.  Do this for a week, faithfully.  Do you notice any changes in yourself?  Continue the practice for another week or two, then reflect on it in more depth.  What changed?  Did it help you be more aware of the life around you?  Did you feel more positive? Calmer? Happier?
  • Remember the commonplace… Practice noticing and appreciating the ordinary as Ann described in her poem.  Find gratitude for the simple joys of living.   Choose one small moment from any day, whether from nature, loved ones, your daily routine—a simple pleasure that sustains, inspires or offers you joy.  Describe it in as much detail as you can; perhaps you’ll find a poem or a story lurking there.

Why should we travel back, who’ve come so far— 

We know who we are.  

How can we be the same 

As those quaint ancestors we have left behind, who share our name— 

(From:  “Written on the eve of my 20th high school reunion, which I was not able to attend” by A.E. Stallings, In:  Poetry, 2008)

The Facebook privacy debacle has me considering whether or not to delete my personal Facebook page, and this morning’s news that the former co-founder of  Apple, Steve Wozniak had joined the “delete Facebook” chorus, triggered another bout of “should I or shouldn’t I?  It’s been ten years since I joined the social networking giant, done at the suggestion of my daughters.  With our immediate family spread over three different countries, it was a great way of keeping up with the photographs and anecdotes of our three young grandchildren as well as their parents’ adventures.  Gradually, however, the fun of connecting became increasingly cluttered with unwanted political commentary, humorous posts–some of questionable taste–shared publicly, a constant flurry of ads, news flashes and requests for “friending” from dozens of people I never knew.  That’s when I gradually began “downsizing” my posts and increasing my privacy settings.  With the addition of Facebook’s messenger, I was hopeful that I could engage with family and a few friends more privately, but that quickly changed. Everyone, it seemed, whose name was on my “Friends” list were listed as contacts on my Messenger list–uninvited and unwanted.  The growing clutter of names, shared posts, ads, questionable “news” and the constant search for ways to minimize all intrusions had become a nuisance.  Then the news broke over Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s intrusions into its followers’ privacy.

Last night I revisited all my privacy settings for the umpteenth time before deciding to download all the information Facebook had accumulated on me.  Were it not for the fact that my younger daughter and her family are returning to Japan for a minimum of three years, I likely would have hit the “delete my account” button after the Facebook download, but I hesitated. Our Facebook chats and shared photos became a rich source of connectedness during the family’s previous five year stay in Okinawa.  I dawdled, putting off any decision.  Without any intent to do so,  I’d ambled into the territory of the Facebook sites of old high school friends, and as I wandered from one person’s page to another, a short note “Hi Sharon!” appeared in real time from a high school buddy I’d lost contact with decades ago.  He’d seen a comment I made on a mutual friend’s recent post and replied to me.  The result?  I was soon mired in a nostalgic quest of “Whatever happened to______?”  Two hours passed by as I searched for and mused over the photographs and profiles of old high school classmates, people whose faces still bore familiar features despite silver hair and tell-tale signs of older age.

It became a plunge into the past and the memories that remain, despite many years that have passed,  vivid and rooted in shared our childhoods, teenage angst, and a sense of place and history nurtured by growing up together in one small town.  I was fascinated by what my classmates had achieved and become.  Among my graduating class members were professors, engineers, teachers, authors, ranchers, photographers, artists, and pastors.   Most have retired; some have passed on.  Many have grandchildren; some remain in my hometown, many are living in the Western half of the U.S., some even farther away.  The rush of remembrance stayed with me long after I closed my computer.  I’d been transported back in time and to who I was then and the person I have become, shaped by not only my upbringing, but the life adventures, hardships and choices I’d experienced in my adulthood.  I wondered if there were signs then, nascent and budding, of who we would become as we set our sights on the future and journeyed into the world.

We come to hear the endings
of all the stories
in our anthology
of false starts:

how the girl who seemed
as hard as nails
was hammered
into shape;
how the athletes ran
out of races;
how under the skin
our skulls rise
to the surface
like rocks in the bed
of a drying stream.

Look! We have all
turned into
ourselves.

 (“25th High School Reunion” by Linda Pastan, from Carnival Evening 1968-1998: New and Selected Poems)

We didn’t know then, that some classmates would die early or unexpectedly while others would blossom and thrive in ways never imagined.  Some would go to war and return to write about it, while others lost their lives in the jungles of Vietnam.  Some would find their true life partner, marry only once and settle down into raising a family while others focused more on career, success or adventure.  A few married their high school sweethearts and happily remained in our hometown.  More than a few left for other places, returning only for family visits or high school reunions if at all.  Some never looked back; others maintained friendships over time and distance.  And so many of us made choices that changed our lives in ways we could not have foreseen at the time.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

(From:  “The Road Not Taken,” In:  The Poetry of Robert Frost, 1962)

I felt no wistfulness during the time I spent looking at the pages and photos of my friends from long ago.  Rather, I wondered what stories they might tell about their lives and the lessons learned from their experiences.  Despite our physical changes, illnesses, marriages and divorces, places lived, career choices made, it seemed that everyone’s lives have been interesting, sometimes challenging, but rich and full as my own has been.

Today, I am no closer whether or not to opt out of Facebook.  For several years, it served as an enjoyable way to reconnect and stay connected with people I’ve befriended over the years and continue to care about.  Yet perhaps I’m ready to re-calibrate, simplify, and rely on what has become somewhat old-fashioned in my lifetime: letters, cards, phone calls, even personal emails that contain more than a sentence or two created in the rush of today’s fast-paced world!

As I closed my computer last night, my mind was filled with memories of those youthful times shared with others from kindergarten through high school.  I felt  grateful to have grown up in a small town and still have friends today with whom I shared my childhood and teenaged years. I was reminded of how far I’ve traveled in my life and they in theirs, how choices made along the way took us in directions we never imagined, and how, despite the bumps, hardships and challenges  encountered, we’ve enjoyed a life full of discovery, adventure and the delight of wonderful friends at every turn.  The Facebook pages of my former classmates told some of their stories too, a testament of sorts to they once were and who they are now,  a way of saying “This is my life.  This is who I’ve become.”

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

(“Love after Love,” by Derek Walcott. Collected Poems, 1948-1984)

Facebook aside, this week, take a step back into who you once were and who you are now.  First, peruse your high school yearbook or find a photograph of yourself and some friends from your elementary or high school years.

  • Study it, the people, their eyes, smiles, perhaps haircut or the outfits you all wore. Study the younger selves that look back at you.
  • Take some of those memories and turn them into stories or poems.
  • Ask yourself: What was it like to be you then?
  • What hopes and dreams did you have?
  • What desires? What worries?
  • Try writing a letter to your younger self? What would you say to her or him?
  • How would you describe the person you’ve become from the one you were then?