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…Use to be I just had arthritis and rheumatism, now—it’s a pain
in the neck—I got a convulsive heart. I come from
Twenty-second and Eighth, where I’m helping
my brother. For me that’s a long walk.
So I wait.
I used to climb mountains! she says.
I was young like you, she says…

(From “Unknown Neighbor” by Kate Light from Open Slowly, 2003, in Writers’ Almanac, August 13, 2017)

“How’s your knee?”  “Does your ankle hurt?” I’ve grown weary of my husband’s repetitive greeting every morning, and yet, I know he’s concerned and cares about my well-being.  For weeks, but I have brushed his questions aside with a terse, “I’m doing fine,” continued with my morning stretches, warming up my stiff muscles and joints for a daily walk with my dog.  But after many weeks of greater than average physical exertion (the wrong kind) of lifting, bending, pushing, and whatever else the process of packing up a house, unpacking and arranging our belongings in a new place involves.  And then there are the stairs…

Some mornings, however, it’s difficult to hide my frustration with a body that is, apparently, sometimes determined to complain more loudly than I want to hear.  My right knee, injured many years ago when I was hit by a car on a morning run, is now quite arthritic, and my Achilles tendon is chronically inflamed.  Coming to terms with the changing body isn’t something I enjoy gracefully, and particularly first thing in the morning.  When my husband quietly disappeared with the dog a few days ago as I was stretching and icing the aggravated knee and heel, I was in tears—touched by his concern, but completely frustrated.  When he returned from his walk, the dog happy and exercised, he explained, “I think it’s easier if I take her out in the morning, and you have time to get fully warmed up before a walk.”  It was something I had refused to consider, but walking and negotiating the stairs later in the day are easier than it is the first thing in the morning.  Still, it was difficult to admit that he was right, and that my long-established morning routine may need changing.

and the body, what about the body?
Sometimes it is my favorite child,
uncivilized. . .

And sometimes my body disgusts me.
Filling and emptying it disgusts me. . . .

This long struggle to be at home
in the body, this difficult friendship.

By Jane Kenyon (From: “Cages” in Otherwise:  New & Selected Poems, 1996)

Whether aging or confronting the bodily changes that accompany a serious or life-threatening illness, our bodies will, sooner or later, force us to re-evaluate our self-images and rethink our physical capabilitiesI’m guilty of taking my body for granted, despite some serious accidents in childhood, surgeries and illness.  I’ve pushed on, undeterred by these physical set-backs, undeterred until my body delivered a proverbial “listen up” whack on the side of my head..  Now I am being forced to accept I may have to make concessions I never considered.  Still, it’s a tough adjustment. This long struggle to be at home /in the body, this difficult friendship.

Sooner or later, our bodies fail us, whether in illness, the process of physical wear and tear or age-related change.  When it happens—and no one is exempt– it’s difficult to admit we’ve taken our physical health for granted—denied the inevitable aging or even ignored troubling symptoms.  The body, whether in illness or decline, is the subject of many poems, as Jane Kenyon’s “Cages,” or  Marilyn Hacker’s, “Cancer Winter,” where  she referred to her body as “self-betraying.”  Mark Doty, in “Atlantis,” described the body of a friend dying from AIDS:  “When I put my head to his chest/I can hear the virus humming/like a refrigerator”  (www.poets.org).

“On the Other Side of the Diagnosis,” an article by Mary-Jo Murphy, MS, RN, CDE, describes the moment of disbelief felt when faced with the prospect of cancer and an altered body.

…Moments later, as he stares at my report, his face is suddenly devoid of the professional composure that doctors are so practiced at. I know from his shocked expression that it isn’t nothing.

“I can’t believe it,” he says staring at the paper. “It’s squamous cell carcinoma. You have anal cancer.”

I don’t ask him to repeat my diagnosis. I’ve seen too much to ask the usual questions: Are you sure? Why me? My mind is replete with the experiences of people with cancer whom I’ve cared for. Denial has been trained out of me. Disbelief and terror are instantly transformed into the understanding that from this moment, from the speaking of those words, nothing will ever be the same for me.  (From:  Coping with Cancer Magazine, March/April 2012).

Sooner or later, our bodies fail us, whether cancer, injury or the physical wear and tear from age related change.  When they do, as Murphy’s article illustrates, it’s a shock, coupled by the realization that we will no longer be the same and must learn acceptance and new ways to “be” in an altered body.  We also become clear about what matters most, as she expresses:  “Now, trapped inside a body with a diagnosis attached, the most unexpected thing happens.  Without conscious thought, words form into sentences that prioritize in an instant what my values are, what beliefs I took for granted.”

Yet it is May Swenson, perhaps, whose poem, “Question,” invites us to really consider the relationship we have with our bodies.  She reveals she is coming to terms with the inevitable demise of a body that has carried her through life, one she can no longer take for granted.  Swenson’s are the questions we must all ask as our lives develop and change, yet she reminds us to be grateful for the bodies that have carried  us this far, despite accidents and illness, and ones, we hope, continue to carry us for the years to come.

Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure…?

(From: New & Selected Things Taking Place, 1978)

 

Writing Suggestions:

This week, write about your body.

  • Pay tribute or complaint.
  • Write about its aches or pains or a time when you felt as if your body betrayed you.
  • How have you come to terms with a “new” normal?
  • How have you made peace with an altered or changing body?
  • What sometimes makes your relationship with your body into a “difficult friendship?”

 

Maggie and I made our usual stroll through the neighborhood park as we do each morning.  Although she’s much more interested in squirrel patrol than the other dogs who arrive with their owners for a romp in the off leash hours of early morning, we always stop to greet other dogs and people for a few minutes.  Invariably, the introductions begin, both human and canine, and with that, the frequent question to me:  “You mean you moved from California to Canada?”  Yes, I explain, we decided to return to Toronto after many years away.  “But the winter here; how could you leave a place with such great weather?”

My explanation is as familiar as the question I’ve been asked so many times.  I’ve longed for the changes and colors of four distinct seasons.  I felt, in a place of temperate year-round weather and seemingly constant sunshine, as arid and thirsty as the landscape.  For some, and I’m one, my spirit and creativity are fed by the predictability of Nature’s changing seasons—but then, I grew up in a place where all four seasons arrived on their designated calendar dates and each offered new discoveries, colors, smells, and adventure for a young girl. I feel more “at home” in a place where Nature’s colors and moods are more distinct, just as the little field mouse, Frederick, expressed when he recited his poem to his small companions during the long winter months:  “Aren’t we lucky the seasons are four?/Think of a year with one less…or one more!”(From:  Frederick, by Leo Lionni, 1967)

The Seasons of Life:  Our Dramatic Journey from Birth to Death, written by authors John Kotre and Elizabeth Hall in 1967, described how Nature’s seasons are not only metaphors for life’s journey, but how human life is intimately connected to the seasons, for example, the times of day, circling of the planets, phases of the moon, or growth and harvesting of the crops (University of Michigan Press, 1997).  The ancient Greeks defined life’s stages as seasons: childhood was spring; youth became summer; autumn described adulthood, and winter, the metaphor for old age.

This cyclical nature of life and living reflects what we witness in nature. I recall a French Canadian film the title long forgotten, where two characters were talking of aging, one, uncomfortable with growing older, but the other seeing their ages differently, as  autumn,  which she called “the other side of spring.”  I have thought of her definition often as I’ve grown older.  My life is still colorful and vibrant, but I also know life’s colors will gradually fade as I move toward elderhood and the winter of my life.

Seasons figure in discussions of the different stages of illness and cancer.  In a 2009 article in Cure Today, Kenneth Miller, MD, described four distinct phases or “seasons” of cancer survivorship.  His observations were informed by his patients’ experiences, and by his wife’s. In this excerpt, he compares her stages of cancer and recovery to the seasons of nature:

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

Miller then defined what he termed as the four distinct phases or “seasons” of cancer survivorship.

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

We use the metaphors of seasons to describe many things, but seasons may be more than just metaphorical when it comes to the cancer journey.  In a 2007 study, researchers from Norway and Oregon found evidence suggesting that men diagnosed with prostate cancer in summer or autumn had better survival rates.  Vitamin D—the sunshine vitamin–plays a part.  In other studies with early stage lung cancer patients, high concentrations of Vitamin D appeared to contribute to a better survival rate post-surgery.  Patients whose surgeries occurred in sunny months (May – August) had a 30% higher survival rate than those who had surgery in winter. “Season,” epidemiologist David Christiani noted, “had a pretty strong effect.”

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

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

their green swords, bearing cups of light. ‘

The forsythia comes back, spraying its thin whips with

blossom, one loud yellow shout.

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

silver thread of their song.

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

gowns of midnight blue.

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

of violet chiffon.

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

and millions of small green hands applauding your return.

 

(From:  The Cancer Poetry Project, Volume 1, 2001)

For now, I look out my window across the street to the park, where trees are plentiful, offering a verdant canopy of shade and even, during a downpour (as Maggie and I discovered) a natural umbrella, and smile, remembering a favorite e.e.cummings’ poem:

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

(“I thank You God for this most amazing,” in Complete Poems, 1904-1962)

Whatever season or landscape that offers you solace and inspiration, or is an apt metaphor for whatever stage of life you are experiencing, why not write about it?

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about the seasons in your life, whether the cancer journey, a marriage, loss and grief, adulthood– any of life’s seasons that have been important or significant to you in some way.
  • If you are a cancer survivor, explore how Miller’s “Seasons of Survivorship” apply (or not) to your journey. Which “season” was the most difficult to endure?  Why?
  • Explore cancer in a poem, using seasonal metaphors to describe your experience.

I’ve been trying to re-establish a sense of normalcy and routine after a month or more of upheaval as we’ve weathered a house sale, moved our belongings across the country and settled into an apartment in Toronto.  For the past two weeks, it’s been an intense and exhausting process of arranging our furniture, clothing, decorative items, books and other belongings into some livable order.  Gradually, we’re beginning to “settle” now—a few wayward items await either buyers from Craigslist or donations to nonprofits.  I’m weary of the moving process, ready to settle into a “normal” life and more than ready to re-institute my morning routine, one that begins around six a.m.

Despite my good intentions, I awakened later than usual this morning.  Deep in a dream that ignited long ago memories of a kindergarten playmate, I awoke with a start and looked at the clock:  nearly seven a.m..  “Darn it,” I murmured to my dog, who had found her way to my side during the night, “I overslept.”

Normally, I awaken a few minutes before six a.m., but today, I slept nearly an hour later than usual.  I hurriedly threw back the cover and groggily made my way down the hall to spend a few minutes stretching my legs and back before putting  on my clothes, then brushing my teeth and hair.  I made the coffee and fed the coffee as quickly as I could, knowing the day would warm rapidly.  She sat at my feet, ears up and alert, ready for the signal we were ready to fasten her leash and head out the door and down the stairs.  It was only as we crossed the street and entered the park that I began to relax, appreciating the lush green of deciduous trees, the breeze and the comic activities of my dog as she began her daily squirrel patrol.  While I have yet to find the quiet space to re-establish a practice of writing each morning, I’ve begun finding my way back to normalcy.  And my dog, Maggie, seems to thrive in the regularity of our morning routine together just as I do.

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

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

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

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

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

(Excerpt from “Habit” by Jane Hirshfield, in Given Sugar, Given Salt, 2002)

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

Now what was refuge in a time of trouble has become a habit, a little daily ritual that offers a sense of comfort and calm before the busyness of the day begins.  Our habits—or little rituals–allow us to feel connected to ourselves and to the world.  Think about it:  we create rituals around important life events—birth, puberty, marriage, death—as a way of honoring transitions from one chapter or stage of life to the next.  While we know these rituals keep us grounded and offer solace in times of uncertainty and change, they do the same for us in our daily lives.  They not only help us navigate difficult times, but keep us grounded, and provide a sense of familiarity and constancy.

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

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

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

I still have some work to do to re-introduce myself to my regular writing practice each morning, giving my heart have equal time with my head on the page.  It’s something I need as surely as my dog needs a morning walk with me.  Time in Nature, a freshly brewed cup of coffee, a period without talk before my husband awakens, a time alone with pen and paper. This is my daily meditation, refuge and quiet before the day intrudes with its tasks and disruptions.  Without the constancy and regularity of my early morning rituals, I feel slightly off kilter, not quite ready to take on the day.

The best way to quiet the mind and unlock your inner power is to start small when creating new daily rituals. Through the ancient teachings of yoga, we know that our thoughts lead to actions; our actions become habits; our habits form our character; and our character determines our destiny. Daily ritual is the act of taking positive thoughts and putting them into action. You are what you think, because what you think determines what you do. Once a positive ritual takes hold in your life, you don’t even need to think about it. Just like brushing your teeth—it just happens.–Bhava Ram, “Transform Your Life with the Power of Ritual,” The Chopra Center

Writing Suggestions:

  • What small habits or routines offer calm or comfort in your daily life?  How?
  • Why do they matter to you?
  • What do they teach you about yourself?
  • How, in the midst of pain or suffering, do they provide solace?

Write about those daily habits, the healing rituals, that are important to your life, your sense of well-being.

Because of my involvement in the cancer community, I’m the frequent recipient of unsolicited emails or Facebook invitations, all dealing, to a greater or lesser degree, with cancer, whether one individual’s journey or a cancer support organization.  Despite my work, I sometimes feel inundated by the amount of unsolicited requests I receive.  Occasionally, however, I stumble onto a treasure.  A few years ago, I received an email from Sister Anne Higgins, the author of a 2007 book of poetry and blog site, both entitled Scattered Showers in a Clear Sky. I was intrigued and explored her writing, discovering a beautiful blend of narrative, photographs and poetry.  She later sent me several of her poems, written during her cancer treatment, and one in particular, “At the Gettysburg Cancer Center,” triggered memories of the experience I had several years before.  It begins, “Here is the club you never want to join…”

I remembered a telephone call I received from a cancer survivor shortly after I was first diagnosed and scheduled to begin seven weeks of radiation therapy.  “You’ll find you belong to a private sorority,” she said, “one you never knew existed until now.”  While I appreciated her call, I certainly didn’t desire a membership in that “private” club.  Never a joiner during high school and college, I assiduously avoided campus clubs and sororities.  This time, however, it turned out I didn’t have a choice.

I existed in a state of denial for weeks, refusing to accept that life had forced me into the cancer club.  It was only weeks later, in a summer creative writing class, that I acknowledged the fact of this new membership.  Given the prompt, “the hospital corridor was dimly lit,” I began writing.  “I turn left into the waiting room; a montage of faces greets me:  men, women, a teenage girl, a grade-school boy.  Some with hair; others without.  We are all members of a private club.  We meet each day at 3 p.m., wearing the pale blue hospital gowns, the uniforms of anonymity, as we sit in silence…”

How many times have you felt forced into circumstances—those unwanted “clubs”—by what life deals from its deck of cards?  Joan, a former writing group member in treatment for kidney cancer, described the shock of being dealt the cancer card:

Hit me.

Two cards down.  Two more dealt and…the wild card, stark in your hand…the cancer card…you want your discard back; you want to fold…you were so certain you didn’t belong here, in this neighborhood, playing cards, but Oh-Yes-You-Do.

Cancer is one of the life cards we don’t want to be dealt, just like job loss, trauma, heart attack,  or sudden death of a loved one—the list is long.  We object to memberships or labels we didn’t choose:  cancer survivors, heart patients, war veterans, single parents, homeless, refugee, widows or widowers, living with disabilities, parents of children with developmental delays or special needs…and more.  We don’t want to join these clubs, but we sometimes find ourselves thrust into them and do our best to deny the labels we’ve been given, like “cancer patient.” Labels make us feel exposed, as if we’re different, not the people we’ve always been.  Molly Redmond describes these feelings in her poem, “The Cancer Patient Talks Back:”

It has made me public property, like being largely pregnant.

People invade—an assault of connections—

for reasons fair and foul.

Strangers on elevators. Acquaintances.

The medical cadre too.

Either way,

I am covered with fingerprints, with labels…

 

We protest, even deny we’re part of this new reality, as Kathleen Rogers’ poem, “A Woman Argues with the Casting Director,” portrays:

I don’t, don’t want the part.

I really don’t what this part.

I don’t, I don’t believe it will be glamorous.

It won’t be opera, no swooning diva,

No Violetta, no burst of aria…

 

I told you—didn’t I tell you?—

I don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t want

this part…

 

(Poetry from:  The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. 1, 2001, Karin Miller, Ed.)

There is a flip side to pulling the cancer (or another unwanted) card.  While I remain uncomfortable with any attempt to be classified into different groups like cancer survivor, heart patient, or even senior citizen, there may be some unexpected benefits to having the unwanted cancer card, as some survivors have discovered.

When you go through the experience of fighting cancer,” Jamie Bendola wrote in a 2014 Huffington Post article, “it is most likely the hardest thing that you will have to do in your life. It’s like a marathon (if marathons included surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy), but at the end there’s no shiny medal to hang around your neck.”

“You do, however, get to pull the “cancer card… I’m not saying you should cut people in line at the movie theater and say, “Well I had cancer so you can just wait behind me…” It doesn’t work that way. There are certain times though when you can pull this card for your benefit… different grants you can apply for, medical programs, etc.  When I had to have a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy performed last year, I pulled the cancer card and all of my procedures were covered by Susan G. Komen.”

Susan Guber, writing in the “Well” blog of the New York Times, pointed to stand-up comedian Robert Schimmel, a cancer survivor, speeding to the hospital with his wife, when a policeman stopped them.  “Mr. Schimmel imagined what the officer was thinking: “Damn. This guy looks like,” followed by an expletive. “What if he’s dying, chemo’s his only hope, and he misses his treatment because I’m writing him a speeding ticket? I might be costing him his life. Do I want that on my head? That could send me straight to hell.” Cancer lets Mr. Schimmel off the hook; it is “the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card.”

Guber continues:  “Many people living with cancer use it as a ticket to reform their lives, for example, by delegating stressful responsibilities. It gives them permission to engage in productive enterprises like starting a walking regimen or volunteering for a patient advocacy group… The C card, for others, “stands for carpe diem. Whether you love fly-fishing, pedicures, rock music, photography, Bora Bora, playing with the dog, drinking, bowling, or bowling while drinking, after a cancer diagnosis you may finally find the time to follow your desires.”

Guber offers us something to think about.  You don’t have to be forced into any “club” because of the C-card.  As unwanted and difficult as it may be to be dealt a bad card from the deck of life, what matters is what you do with it.  As Randy Pausch, former professor at Carnegie Mellon, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2008, famously said, “It’s not about the cards you’re dealt, but how you play the hand.”   (The Last Lecture, 2008)

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about the time life dealt you the cancer card or some other unwanted hand.  Explore the experience, how it felt, how you first reacted, and what you did with your new “membership” in a club you never asked to join.
  • How have you played the hand you’ve been dealt?  What advice do you have for others who have been dealt “bad” hands in life?

 

 

Dear Readers,

The moving truck filled with our belongings arrived late this week, and Thursday was devoted to directing the movers where to place each box or piece of furniture before the time-consuming task of unwrapping each box, paintings, sculptures, and anything else protected by layers of paper. Several hours later, all of us showing the signs of fatigue, they left, and we searched for somewhere, among all our belongings, to simply sit and catch a breath.

We’ve cleared some space, organized the kitchen and dining rooms, made a cursory attempt at establishing a semblance of order in our bedroom, but we are far from finished.  It’s not just the effort required to re-arrange our living space, find places for our things, but also the inevitable “re-discovery” of keepsakes and photographs, some in boxes for years before our move.  Each makes us pause, and most often say, “Oh, I remember when…” and a story emerges, the objects triggering memories of other times, places and people in our lives.

I don’t, as of yet, have any place to sit and write in peace, nor a desk to sit at and use my computer.  As I write this week, I’m sitting on the edge of the bed, laptop now occupying my lap for one of the few times since I’ve owned it.  I offer you a post and prompts originally published in 2012 for this week—all about objects and the stories they hold.  I hope you’ll find some inspiration for writing. — Sharon.

 Previously Posted April 27, 2012

Like my grandmother now, I save teabags for a second
cup.  String, stamps without postmarks, aluminum foil.
Wrapping paper, paper bags, bags of scrap fabric,
blue rubber bands, clothes hangers.  I save newspaper
clippings, recipes, bits of yarn, photographs in
shoeboxes, tins of buttons.  I save cancelled checks,
instruction manuals, warranties for appliances
long since thrown away.  Feathers, shells, pebbles,
acorns.

(“What I Save,” by Cheryl Savageau, in Dirt Road Home, 1995.)
“Every object is full of story,” the instructor said as she began taking objects from a basket and laying them on a white cloth.  “Objects are how the world comes to us.”  I was attending a week-long creative writing workshop taught by Pat Schneider, author of Writing Alone and With Others.  Pat knelt on the floor and one by one, filled the cloth with an assortment of things, worn from age and use: a set of old keys, a rosary, a wooden spoon, a shaving brush and many others.  I was doing what many of my writing students have done, venturing back into what I loved most—writing—after a long detour through the soul-destroying path of a corporate career.

I had just finished seven weeks’ of radiation therapy, my skin still red and tender, but cancer was not on my mind as I took my place in the circle of men and women who’d come to the workshop.  I was filled with anxiety.  What on earth was I going to write about?  When Pat emptied the basket, she invited us to choose an object and write, whatever it suggested to us.  Some people were quick to choose and begin writing, but I held back, my eyes moving back and forth over the assortment until I spotted an old half empty pack of Camel cigarettes.  I picked it up, looked inside, smelling the stale tobacco, and was transported back to the interior of an old Chevy pickup truck, my father seated behind the steering wheel, a cigarette in his left hand, driving along the back roads of Siskiyou County and spinning yarns from his childhood. “He tried them all,” I wrote, “Camels, Marlboros, Pall Malls…”  Memories clamored for attention. There were so many stories in one half-empty pack of cigarettes.

I’d all but forgotten about that morning until I read Maria Mutch’s essay in the latest issue of Poets and Writers’ Magazine.  “Ghost in the Machine:  A Typewriter, A Postcard, and the Objects of Memory,” tells the story of her search for an old black manual typewriter, not realizing that the memories of a friend were embedded in her search–a friend who had tried to give her the Smith Corona portable typewriter she owned just before committing suicide many years ago.   It’s a beautifully rendered essay, reminding us of how our memories, our stories, can be triggered by ordinary, everyday objects—trinkets, toys, utensils—from our past, objects dear to us for the memories they hold, but insignificant to others.

When I walk in my house I see pictures,

bought long ago, framed and hanging

—de Kooning, Arp, Laurencin, Henry Moore—

that I’ve cherished and stared at for years,

yet my eyes keep returning to the masters

of the trivial—a white stone perfectly round,

tiny lead models of baseball players, a cowbell,

a broken great-grandmother’s rocker,

a dead dog’s toy—valueless, unforgettable

detritus that my children will throw away

as I did my mother’s souvenirs ….
(“The Things,” by Donald Hall, In:  The Back Chamber, 2011.)


Objects, the everyday tools of our lives, tell stories, real or imagined.  We visit museums and gaze at the artifacts of ancient civilizations, of our ancestors, gleaning a bit of history, but we know little about the person or the events that are carried in what we see behind the glass.  What stories might those objects tell us, if only they could speak?

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes

on a pile of broken dishes by the house;

a tall man too, says the length of the bed

in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,

says the Bible with a broken back

on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;

but not a man for farming, say the fields

cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn…

 

Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves

and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.

And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.

It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

 

Something went wrong, says the empty house

in the weed-choked yard….

(“Abandoned Farmhouse,” by Ted Kooser, In: Sure Signs:  New & Selected Poems, 1980)

Significant Objects, published in 2012 by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, is a collection of stories resulting from of a literary experiment designed to answer the question, “Can a great story transform a worthless trinket into a significant object?”  The project’s team invited several well-known writers to invent stories about a collection of secondhand items gathered from yard sales and thrift stores, bought for a few cents to a dollar or two.  Over 200 writers contributed to the project, and the collection of objects was then auctioned off on eBay, the objects’ sale resulting in thousands of dollars, the proceeds donated to charity. But it was probably the surprising “cavalcade of responses” to the random junk that was the most surprising feature of the experiment.  That assortment of useless trinkets, the cast offs of yard sales and thrift shops, ignited an extraordinary amount of imagination.

FOR WRITING:  This week, look around your home at those keepsakes, the objects that line your shelves or sit on your desk, a side table.  I’ve just turned to look at the assorted of memorabilia on the bookshelf next to the chair where I often sit and write:  a stone heart, a piece of obsidian from the lava beds in Siskiyou County, a glass paperweight, a small clay bird…  Every single object holds meaning for me.  Each has its story to tell.  Begin there, examining the talismans and trinkets you cherish.  Let them speak.  What memories do they carry?  What stories or poems lie within each?  Write them.

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.

We’re still camping out in our new apartment in Toronto, waiting for our belongings to arrive at customs, then, once the paperwork is completed, delivered to us.  That’s only the beginning of re-settling.  There are numerous boxes to unpack, their contents organized and placed in different rooms, closets, drawers, shelves or hung on walls.  This transition, which began many weeks ago, is wearing on me in multiple ways, and this weekend, it was my back that finally spoke the loudest: “Enough!”  After much packing, bending, lifting, and, here in Toronto, assembling a few piece of Ikea furniture and sleeping on a queen sized airbed, the toll on my body is clear.  I’m hobbling about the apartment, sitting as little as possible, and lying on the floor for respite in frequent intervals.  But the effects of our move are not just disrupting my physical self.  I’m also hungry for that little corner called “my space” that allows me solitude and time for writing and reflection.  At the moment, my new desk is being shared with my husband, who is waiting for his to arrive with the moving trucks.  As the days without my usual solitude increase, so does my impatience and irritation.

“I am here alone for the first time in weeks,” May Sarton wrote at the beginning of A Journal of Solitude, “to take up my ‘real’ life again at last.”  Her words resonate with me this week.  As much as I love Toronto, whatever city we live in at the moment is less important that the space we shape for ourselves, one that offers that “room of one’s own,” whether a corner of the kitchen or a bedroom turned into office.  Remember Virginia Woolf’s, A Room of One’s Own?  Written at a time when women were not allowed into particular universities nor recognized in a literary world dominated by men.  Woolf famously said, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

Things have, happily, changed for women since Woolf’s time, but I find it amusing that I’m feeling “encroached” upon in my space by my spouse.  In fairness, we both need our space to work and create, and he’s trying to be as flexible as I am, although without a bad back!  I still think of Woolf’s words, however, important in making explicit how necessary it is to make space for our creative work—or simply a time for quiet and refueling ourselves.  When we can’t find time or space free of interruption or distractions, not only our creative work is compromised, but, I think, the kind of spiritual-fueling we all need.  After weeks of disruption in the process of selling our San Diego home and now re-settling in a new apartment, I am woefully in need of reclaiming my routine and the mental and emotional space needed to nurture my creative life.

In solitude we give passionate attention to our lives, to our memories, to the details around us.—Virgina Woolf

In her delightful book of writing invitations, Room to Write (1996), Bonni Goldberg explains the choice of her book title as “creating room for your writing…  Making room in your life to write,” she adds, “generates even more room for your writing.”    Yes, I need the space and solitude for writing, but it’s much more than that.  Whatever feeds our inner lives, whether a hike through a canyon or forest, time sitting by a lake or stream, or simply finding time alone to do whatever we wish, we’re re-fueling ourselves and taking the time to pay attention to the things that matter most to us.  Quiet, solitude, even a space of one’s own:  these offer a different kind of nourishment and healing, no matter what change, turbulence or challenges life throws at us.

Writing Suggestions:

Do you value solitude?  How do you find it in the midst of a busy life?

Suppose you’ve been away for a time, in hospital or perhaps, taking care of an ill friend or family member.  What is it like to return to your own space after a busy day or time away?

Do you have a “room of your own” where you can engage in your creative work?  Describe it.  What do you like most about it?

 

Understand, I was only a girl

living the days as they came.

I did not know I would leave…

 (From “Translation of my Life,” by Elizabeth Spires, In:  The Wave Maker, 2008)

We arrived back in Toronto just three days ago, weary from the weeks of preparing the house for sale, packing up our belongings, the history of much of our lives crammed into boxes, and flying across the continent with our small dog, Maggie, who was somewhat befuddled by her imprisonment in an “under the seat” Sherpa pet carrier.  Despite it all, I felt a sense of quiet satisfaction, of returning to a place I’ve been visiting regularly since I left for California several years ago, a place where, I remarked to a friend, “I feel grounded.”

As the airplane flew over the Midwest and into Canada, I remembered an evening when we were visiting Toronto two years ago.  I was lost in remembrance and sentimentality as my husband and I sat in a vine covered patio in the lingering daylight of long summer’s evenings here.  “You can’t go home again,” my husband said.  I reminded him that I’d already experienced the truth of Thomas Wolfe’s words when we’d left Canada for California many years ago.  The place I once called “home” had vanished.  After twenty-three years of maturing and living on Canadian soil, not only had my birthplace changed, so had I.

Even if you’ve never left a familiar place, the events of your life sometimes make you feel as if you no longer “at home” as you once were.  Cancer can have that effect, so can job loss, divorce, the death of a loved one, or other unexpected and difficult life events.  It’s as if you cross an invisible boundary into some new territory where what you took for granted no longer exists.  Whatever golden dreams I clung to about my home state were quickly tarnished by the reality that it was not and could no longer be “home.”

I guess I have to begin by admitting

I’m thankful today I don’t reside in a country

My country has chosen to liberate…

(From:  “Thanksgiving Letter from Harry” by Carl Dennis, in:  Unknown Friends, Penguin Press, 2007).

I admit the politics dominating the United States for the past year or two intensified my restlessness, no doubt influenced by the formative years of my young adulthood, when  my first husband and I embarked on a self-imposed exile to Canada in protest of the Vietnam war–an event mobilizing so many of our generation.  We were young and idealistic, never imagining how our sense of home would be altered and our lives changed.  Twenty-three years later, married to another native Californian, I returned to my birthplace full of hopes and expectations.  But like the protagonist in Thomas Wolfe’s novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, my homecoming was laced with disappointment.  What I discovered, like so many emigrants before me, was that “home” no longer existed in the ways I had imagined it.

You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood,  …back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.  (From: You Can’t Go Home Again, 1940)

Whatever golden dreams I clung to about my home state were quickly tarnished by the reality that it was not and could no longer be “home.”  The memories that that drew me back to the West were now elusive.  I felt like a stranger in the place I once called “home.”

In color photographs, my childhood house looks

fresh as an uncut sheet cake—

pale yellow buttercream, ribbons of white trim…

 Half a century later, I barely recognize it

when I search the address on Google Maps

and, via “Street view,” find myself face to face—

 foliage overgrown, facade remodeled and painted

a drab brown. ..

(From “9773 Comanche Ave.,” by David Trinidad. 2010

The irony is, of course, that all the years I lived in Canada, I clung tenaciously to my dream of California, whose luster intensified in my imagination.  Yet all the while, Canada had quietly wrapped itself around my heart.  There, I grew into adulthood.  I became a wife, mother and widow.  I met and married my second husband.  I discovered friendships whose bonds were forged out of the steel of years of struggle and hardship, friendships that have endured despite time and distance. Canada became a part of me as surely as the California of my youth. But it took leaving it to realize how much my Canadian years had defined me.

“Home is where the heart is,” Gaius Plinius Secundas, wrote nearly two thousand years ago.   Countless authors, writing about home, have echoed it since.

Goethe once wrote that all writers are homesick, that all writers are really searching for home.  Being a writer is being on a constant search for where you belong.”  It “comes out of a place of memory, not geography.  (Mary Morris, “Looking for Home,” in:  A Place Called Home:  Twenty Writing Women Remember, 1996)

It comes down to change– in a place and in ourselves.  Even if we’ve never left a place, all that happens to us during our lives exerts an impact, whether cancer, loss, trauma, living in another country.  We are changed from these events, and it can make us feel as if we’ve suddenly become strangers to the very place we’ve considered as “home,” crossing some invisible border into strange, new territory without realizing it, a place where now, the customs and nuances are unfamiliar.   We long for home, the place we once knew by heart, but  discover, as Wolfe suggested,  that you can never be at home as you once were.

Writing Suggestions:

  • What does it mean to be “at home?”
  • Have you returned to a once familiar place to find that you are no longer part of it as you once were?  What did you learn?
  • Has an experience like cancer, loss, or other life challenges made it difficult to regain the sense of belonging to a place and its people—or cemented it?
  • How has “home” changed for you over the years?
  • Write about home, leaving, returning or finding it.