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I think I should have no other mortal wants if I could always have plenty of music. It seems to infuse strength into my limbs and ideas into my brain. Life seems to go on without effort when I am filled with music.– George Bernard Shaw

It’s the holiday season, and everywhere I go, there are various renditions of familiar holiday carols playing loudly, some of them beautiful, others nostalgic, and more than a few, at times,  ear splittingly difficult to enjoy.  Last night, however, we attended a candlelight Christmas service and for over an hour, joined in singing one traditional Christmas carol after another.   “I remembered them all,” I laughed and said to my husband as  afterward, we walked back to the car and the first snow flurries dusted the streets.  We said little on the drive home, the music still alive in our minds and igniting the remembrance of Christmases past and the people who shared the holidays with us.  It was the music, , triggering old memories, raising our spirits, calming us in a rush, rush world and creating in us a sense of shared humanity through song.  For awhile, I wished I’d taken those voice lessons or spent more time practicing my piano lessons.

Despite the fact that I love music, I never pursued a musical career.  Yet all the years of piano lessons, singing in the church choir, dancing,  doing pliés to a piano accompaniment, or playing French horn in the marching band were actually more beneficial than I ever imagined they could be.  Not only can music enhance a young person’s self-esteem and academic performance, musical training can help protect mental sharpness and brain functioning.

During the last weeks of my mother’s life, before she died of Alzheimer’s disease, I witnessed the power of music to ignite long lost memories.  I visited her a shortly before her death, shocked at how unresponsive she was to my presence.  She sat listless in a wheelchair, her head bowed toward her chest, and mute.  I wheeled her out to the garden, placing her chair next to a towering bougainvillea plant, furious with red blooms.  At a loss, I took her hand and began singing a song she often sang to me in my childhood.

“Let me call you sweetheart,” I began, my voice quavering, “I’m in love with you…Let me hear you whisper…”

As I sang, my mother slowly raised her head and fixed her eyes on my face.  “Why, it’s Sharon,” she said slowly.

“Yes, Mom, it’s me, your eldest daughter.”  I squeezed her hand and wiped the tears from my eyes.

For a moment longer, she held my gaze,  slowly smiled and then as her eyelids began, again, to close, she murmured, “I’m happy.” before disappearing into the impenetrable darkness of her disease.  But I’m forever grateful for that small moment of recognition, somehow triggered by a long ago song.

Music has more than a few physiological benefits, and research has confirmed it can lighten mood, relieve stress and improve concentration.  But the benefits of music were known long before scientists began conducting research studies on its impact on health.  The ancient Greeks believed music could heal the body and the soul;  ancient Egyptians and Native peoples incorporated singing and chanting in their healing rituals.  Just take a look back over history, and you’ll find the power of music acknowledged for its many uses:  to relieve stress, build confidence or  ignite enthusiasm, and even, you may remember from kindergarten, help children learn their ABCs.  Today, you routinely hear soft music as you sit in the dentist’s chair, intended to calm you before the drilling begins, or, in a shopping mall, the background of nonstop music playing –not just for pleasure, but to entice you to buy.

Music therapy, now widely used in hospitals and cancer centers, was initially incorporated by the Veterans Administration as World War II ended and young shell-shocked soldiers returned home.  Then, as now, it helped to promote healing and enhance quality of life.   Music, Dr. Oliver Sacks stated in his book, Musicophilia  (2008), is good medicine.  “The power of music to integrate and cure is quite fundamental,” he wrote. “It is the profoundest non-chemical medication.”

Music is a therapy. It is a communication far more powerful than words, far more immediate, far more efficient. — Yehudi Menuhin, violinist

Music therapy is now commonly used in the treatment of cancer.  The effectiveness of its use with cancer patients has been documented in many studies supporting its benefits for patients, including reduction of anxiety, pain, fatigue and the beneficial physiological impact on heart rate, respiration and blood pressure.

There is no feeling, except the extremes of fear and grief, that does not find relief in music.  — George Eliot 1819-1880

Google “music and healing,” and you’ll find a number of articles attesting to the physiological and emotional benefits of music, for example:

  • Music aids our autonomic nervous systems, positively affecting blood pressure, heartbeat and breathing.  In fact, it can actually improve overall functioning of our cardiovascular systems.
  • It helps reduce stress and anxiety, aid relaxation and alleviate depression.
  • Together with anti-nausea drugs, music can help to ease the nausea and vomiting accompanying chemotherapy.
  • It relieves short term pain and decreases the need for pain medication.
  • It’s effective in diminishing pre-surgical anxiety and beneficial for patients with high blood pressure.
  • Music even plays a role in improving troubled teens’ self-esteem and academic performance.

As I write, I realize that I need more music in my life.  Here in Toronto, we’ve sung with the group, “Choir! Choir! Choir!” and are intent on doing it more regularly, enjoying the fun and the camaraderie music creates among a room full of strangers.  For three years when we lived in San Diego, I drummed–learning to play the djembe and later, the dununs, part of the family of West African drums.  While I joked I’d likely be in the beginner class indefinitely, each Monday evening was a time of laughter, joy, and community–all created through music and rhythm.

Music.  It’s good for your spirits.  It’s good for your health.  It doesn’t matter what kind of music you prefer as much as it matters that you have music in your life.  Whether it plays a therapeutic role in your healing or is imply makes you want to sing along, stand up and dance, or lose yourself in the memories triggered by any musical piece, it’s an important part of being human.  This week, as many of us begin celebrating Christmas or Hanukah, we will hear the traditional and even the less traditional music that is part of the holiday season.  Reflect on the music that is so much a part of this  season or any other important time in your life.

My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary. – Martin Luther

Writing Suggestions:

What role does music play in your life?  Has it helped you heal from physical or emotional pain?  How has music been beneficial to you in your life?  What memories does a particular song ignite for you?  What stories?  Music, even a song like “Happy Birthday,” is also a powerful prompt for writing.   Here are a few suggestions for writing:

  • Perhaps there was some particular music that helped to soothe your fears or anxiety during cancer treatment or another difficult time.  Listen to it again, closing your eyes, and try to remember that time and how the music made you feel.
  • Recall a lullaby from childhood, a favorite song, a bit of classical music, or even the somewhat dissonant music from your high school band. What memories or stories does the music trigger?
  • Take any favorite recording, classical, jazz, new age, or pop, and listen to it.  Keep your notebook nearby. As you listen, capture the random thoughts and associations that come to mind. Once the recording ends, open your notebook and begin free writing.  Do this for five minutes.  When you finish, re-read what you’ve written and underline the sentence that has the most power for you.  Use that sentence to begin writing again on a fresh page. Set the timer for 15 minutes and see where it takes you.

My pants could maybe fall down when I dive off the diving board.

My nose could maybe keep growing and never quit.

Miss Brearly could ask me to spell words like stomach and special.    

     (Stumick and speshul?)

(From:  “Fifteen, Maybe Sixteen Things to Worry About,” by Judith Viorst, in: If I Were in Charge of the World and Other Worries, 1981)

Worry.  None of us is immune to it.  Whether for ourselves or those you care about, everyone falls prey to worry many times over a lifetime.  I worried, as a teenager, if the boy I had a crush on “liked” me.  In college, I worried over exams and grades.  As a young mother of two daughters, I worried over their infant cries that seemed unending, sniffles and fevers, and later, times they suffered more serious illnesses.  I worried over job interviews, then about job-related challenges.  But those “everyday” worries felt trivial when my father diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, my mother began to suffer from Alzheimer’s, when my daughter suffered a miscarriage or, a few years later, a cardiologist told me I had heart failure.

This past weekend, however,  my worry was focused on my granddaughter.  She ran down the hallway in excitement and startled our small dog, bursting into tears when Maggie responded with her only defense–a loud, shrill bark.  Flora’s excitement turned to embarrassment and a desire to cut her morning play short.  She left, eyes still red from crying, with her mother a few minutes later.  I worried that her recent fear of dogs was going to be re-ignited for little more than a terrier’s startled response to her. That night,  as I replayed the little upset and realized I was, again, working myself up to worrying, the lyrics from a B.B. King Blues song began an endless loop in my head:

Worry worry worry

Worry is all I can do

Oh worry worry worry baby

Worry is all I can do…

Worrying is that state of feeling concerned or uneasy about some situation in your life.  While most of us experience a little worry or anxiety over things like an exam or a job interview,  a little worry can be helpful, actually helping you prepare for an upcoming situation.   Many years ago, I was involved in a community theater group, and learned, thanks to the wisdom of our director, that a little anxiety pre-performance actually energized our performance.  But excessive worrying has the opposite effect.  When it gets the better of you, like the long restless nights you cannot seem to banish worry to a dark corner, your body and mind goes into high gear.  You leap beyond what is to what might happen, and as your worry expands, so do your anxieties.  Excessive or chronic worrying can have negative emotional and physical impacts, interfering with your appetite, sleep, relationships, even job performance.

I worried a lot…

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,

can I do better?

…Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,

am I going to get rheumatism,

lockjaw, dementia?

(from “I Worried,” by Mary Oliver, Swan: Poems & Prose Poems, 2012)

Excessive worrying is one symptom of stress and anxiety, whether induced by a cancer diagnosis or some other upsetting event. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, some worry and anxiety is a common response to a cancer diagnosis and typically greatest while waiting for test results, at the time of diagnosis or waiting for treatment to begin.  But as anxiety increases, it may result in excessive worrying as well as a number of physical symptoms such as:

  • muscle tension
  • restlessness
  • fast heartbeat, trembling, shortness of breath, chest tightness, nausea, dizziness or high blood pressure
  • tiredness or exhaustion
  • trouble concentrating
  • irritability
  • impatience
  • trouble sleeping or getting too much sleep

 

Sleep can be lost as

easily as a house key…

— From “No Worry,” by Cole Swenson, In: New Math, © 1988

In a 2001 study published by Psycho-Oncology, researchers investigated the effect of “cancer-specific worries” or “cancer-specific stress” in women considered high-risk for developing breast cancer.  The results confirmed what prior studies had concluded:   “cancer-specific” worries and the resulting anxiety interfered with the quality of the women’s daily lives.

Chronic worrying, according to Web MD, can have negative impact on anyone’s daily life, not just those at risk for breast cancer.  Chronic worry and stress, as you know, is harmful to your health and may have even more serious consequences, including immune system suppression, digestive disorders, and coronary disease.  So how can you keep your worries and anxiety from spinning out of control?

Here are some practical and manageable options:

  • Talk to your doctor.
  • Seek help from a therapist.
  • Exercise daily.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet
  • Drink caffeine in moderation.
  • Be conscious of your worries!  (Set aside 15 minutes a day to focus on your problems and fears—then let them go after your 15 minutes is up.  It’s a way to remind yourself not to dwell on your worries.)
  • Practice relaxation techniques.
  • Meditate.
  • Enjoy the company of family and friends.

As for the worry I had over my granddaughter’s tearful response to the dog on Saturday morning, I wrote about it the next morning, a habit I have for clearing away the static of daily life.   Writing is, even with little worries, often a useful way to vanquish any budding or exaggerated worry and make sense out of my sometimes chaotic or noisy thoughts, find my way into insight and understanding–even self-deprecating humor–making my little worries vanish or become more manageable.   I suppose it’s why I smiled as I re-read the final stanza of Mary Oliver’s poem, “I Worried.”

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.

And gave it up.  And took my old body

and went out into the morning,

and sang.

Writing Suggestions

  • “Worry, worry, worry…”  What do you worry most about?  What are the triggers that incite your worrying?
  • Describe how you felt when you first were diagnosed with cancer.  How would you describe the worry that you felt?  What, ultimately, most helped you manage your anxiety?
  • What helps you manage those ordinary life events that may trigger your worry?  How do you keep from worry overtaking your life?

Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each. — Henry David Thoreau

I have a habit of waking before dawn, a time when the house is blessed by quiet, interrupted only briefly by the sound of the coffee grinder and the rattle of kibble against my dog’s dish.  We position ourselves, she and I, near the window to watch as the sky begins to lighten and turn the room bright in the early morning.  This is precious time, a chance to sit in quiet and write uninterrupted before the sound of the street below begins to make itself known.  I cherish winter mornings most, the chill in the air and the subtle beauty of darkness shifting into dawn.  For the many years I lived in Southern California, winter’s advent was barely discernible, save for the shortened days and dark mornings.

Yet this morning, as I did yesterday and the day before, I stared at the blank pages of my notebook, waiting in vain for something “original” or at the very least, enticing to explore on the page.  Nothing did.  “I’ve got the blues,” I wrote across the top of the page, followed by “I don’t have one creative thought in my head,” then another thought written out, “I’m bored by myself.”  I stared out the window, poured a second cup of coffee, and watched the sun cast a pink blush to the scattered clouds above.  I checked the temperature.  34 degrees outside.  Winter, I mused, is definitely on its way.  That’s when I realized I enjoy a kind of perverse comfort in the absence of what I termed “creative” or “worthwhile.”    There was something in those thoughts to explore.

I lobbied for our return to Canada for years, winters and all. For the time we lived in Southern California, it seemed like a losing battle.  My husband loved warmth and mild weather, but I languished.  I once described the climate as “relentless sunshine,” when a friend expressed puzzlement by my unenthusiastic feelings for living in what was once called an “ideal climate.”  “Ideal,” however, has recently come into question as the aridity, water shortages, and wild fires increase.  Our former neighbor, who called us Thanksgiving Day, told us t this year, he would be celebrating the family dinner in 90 degree heat.  I was grateful to be spared such late season sweltering this year.  After his call, I happily bundled up with mitts, coat, scarf and hat to walk to the neighborhood drugstore, grateful for the chill in the air, the barren trees, and feel of an approaching winter.

What is it about seasons and the human spirit?  In part, I suspect my affinity for the distinct four seasons was born growing up in a small Northern California town, where each season seemed to arrive on its designated calendar date, bringing a wealth of new sensations, sights and adventures for a girl.  In that climate, I felt close to Nature, my energy and spirit fed by the uniqueness of each season.

Nature’s seasons are metaphors for the human life cycle.  But winter, the least hospitable of the four, is often something we simply endure or avoid.  Yet it is a time important to our psyches, souls, and creative spirits.   A short time ago, a friend sent me a quotation written by Fabiana Fondevilla, a Buenos Aires journalist and children’s book author.  Her words touched a chord deep within me:

If we belong to the sun and its warmth, to the bud and the sprout, to the miraculous flower, we also belong to the wind, the naked branch, the cold.

The advent of winter cold is definitely here.  My husband has begun to groan and complain of the colder days and nights, the dark afternoons and mornings, while I find a strange contentment and energy in them, something akin to a spiritual hibernation.  Winter, as described by Jorge N. Ferrer and his colleagues in Kosmos, Journal for Global Transformation,  is a time of waiting, darkness, silence and, importantly, gestation–whether it’s a germinated seed  being nourished and developing roots to support its growth toward the light, or, as I complained in my notebook’s pages, our creative wells have seemed to disappear deep within.

Without doubt, human life cycles are affected by these seasonal changes.   When the light changes, as it does in the winter months, we slow down a little, find it more difficult to awaken in the dark mornings, and often feel a greater sense of fatigue. A survey reported in a past issue of Psychology Today, showed over 90% of respondents felt a difference in mood, energy or behavior with the change of seasons, even having sadness or depression triggered by them, just I described having the winter “blues” as I wrote in my notebook.

Yet blues aside, winter has an important role in our lives, defined, as Ferrer and  colleagues remind us, by the powerful forces at play in the darkness.  It is a time that nourishes and generates new creative impulses within us just as the emergence of new life is being readied for the buds and flowers appearing in springtime.  http://www.kosmosjournal.org/article/the-integral-creative-cycle/

Although the cold and snow have barely begun, it’s important to remember that in less than a month, the winter solstice arrives, marking a gradual return of the sun and promise of rebirth milder seasons ahead.  For the ancients the winter solstice was a time of celebration , occurring during the period many of us now celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah.  Winter darkness, as the solstice celebrations remind us, holds promise and hope.  In “Winter Solstice,” poet Jody Aliesan reminds us of the promise that resides in winter’s darkness and the comfort found in the beauty of stars close together, a winter moon rising, or an owl in the distance.  She describes how, out of that darkness, a sense of rebirth emerges.

already light is returning pairs of wings
lift softly off your eyelids one by one
each feathered edge clearer between you
and the pearl veil of day

you have nothing to do but live.

(From:  Grief Sweat, Broken Moon Press, 1990)

Darkness arrives, in the difficult periods of our lives–serious illness, depression or loss– like Winter does in Nature.  It affects the human spirit, ones triggering periods of emotional malaise, turmoil or depression.  Yet this is also what Life is, filled with highs and lows, calm and storm, flowering and death.  The difficulty for us lies in learning to accept those “seasons” as natural as ones Mother Nature controls.  Thanks to the many men and women who have shared their experiences so honestly in our writing groups, I have become more accepting and understanding of my dark periods, better able to put things in perspective, and always, to find my way to hope, light and renewal.

You look over all that the darkness
ripples across. More than has ever
been found comforts you. You open your
eyes in a vault that unlocks as fast
and as far as your thought can run.
A great snug wall goes around everything,
has always been there, will always
remain. It is a good world to be
lost in. It comforts you. It is
all right…

(From:  “Waking at 3 a.m.,” by William Stafford, in Someday, Maybe, 1973)

Writing Suggestions for the Week of November 27th:

This week, try using the metaphor of winter to reframe your experience with cancer or another difficult time in your life, a time when darkness seemed to envelope you for long periods, hope seemed to fade and you feared what was ahead.

  • Did your experience a kind of “death” and rebirth?
  • Move from darkness into light?
  • Discover a sense of life renewed?

Or, like me, perhaps you find comfort in the quiet of dark mornings.  Try describing something you love about dark winter mornings in a short poem.

 

 

The world begins at a kitchen table.  No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table.  So it has been since creation, and it will go on…


Thanksgiving, possibly the most enduring holiday in the United States.  Weary travelers willingly wait in long lines at the airport, cram their bodies into crowded and uncomfortable airplane cabins, or pack the trunks of cars with suitcases and drive long hours along busy highways, all to celebrate Thanksgiving, a time of remembering, of gratitude and family.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Although we celebrated the Canadian Thanksgiving in October,  memories of childhood Thanksgivings and the annual celebrations with my father’s family always make their way into my thoughts this time of year.  The Thanksgivings of my childhood were  a time of coming together, of forty or more Brays gathering to celebrate the holiday at our grandmother’s, and later, our Aunt Jennie’s home.  The smells of Thanksgiving dinner greeted us even before we entered her house.  There, the kitchen table was laden with turkey, stuffing, side dishes, pies and cakes.  Tables and chairs filled the living room, with seating at each determined by age group.  I remember how excited I was to graduate to the adult table when I turned twelve.   That was where my father and uncles regaled us with stories–many embellished– of their childhoods, grandparents and great-grandparents.

It was at the adult table where I most experienced  a sense of place and belonging as I discovered my family’s history through the family stories told and re-told each year.  Several years later, newly married and adventuresome, I moved with my husband to Canada–first to Ottawa, then  Nova Scotia. Each November, I was engulfed by homesickness and a fierce longing to return home, to sit again at the family table and hear the familiar stories told again, ones I already knew by heart.

Yet there are other memories tied to Thanksgiving, ones tinged by sorrow and loss.  My father died of lung cancer on Thanksgiving,  1992, soon after the traditional meal and his familiar  glass of Jack Daniels. Although I didn’t know it then, his death marked the end of family as I  knew it, and with his passing, the loss of stories, the yarns spun from childhood, enlarged and fabricated, threads of family history woven among his tall tales.  We had never seemed to tire of them, no matter how often they were told, and years later, whenever he visited us, I would hear my daughters plead, “Tell us another story, Grandpa!”

“The Stories that Bind Us, an essay written by Bruce Feiler and appearing in a 2013 issue of The Atlantic, highlighted the importance of family stories.  Books contain narratives, Feiler stated, but only family stories contain your family’s personal narratives. Fortunate children get both. They hear and read stories from books to become part of other people’s worlds, and they hear and tell stories of their family to understand who they are and from whence they came.

It’s a well established tradition.  Oral storytelling has been a part of being human for thousands of years.  Stories helped people make sense of the world.  They were the mechanism by which we passed traditions and wisdom from one generation to another.  “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel,” author Ursula LeGuin once said, “but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human.  We make men at it; we make women

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers…

I lived in Canada for 25 years, before returning, for a similar amount of time, to California.  I had, as my father had, yearned to leave the confines of a small town and see the world.  History repeats itself, I suppose, because just as I had done,  my daughters traveled and lived abroad before settling with their families thousands of miles across the continent.  Our family get-togethers quickly diminished in frequency as we  dispersed.  It’s no wonder I find such delight to once again now be living close to one of my two daughters, sharing meals and sharing stories from earlier years.  Yet I miss that big table, extended family sitting around it, passing platters of Thanksgiving fare and most of all, sharing the family stories.  Those stories, much more difficult to capture in our fast paced, instant communication world, are still important.  “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative,” Bruce Feiler wrote.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

Citing research from Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University, Feiler wrote that children who know a lot about their families appear to do better when facing challenges.  “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”

I’m now writing some of those oft-repeated family stories my father told to me, trying to capture some of our family history to pass on to my grandchildren.  It’s an attempt to fill out the gaps in family history that resulted from distance and family losses.  In this world of distance and mobility, Facebook, Skype or the countless apps to make long distance communication easier,  it seems all the more important to capture and re-tell so many of the stories that solidified the sense of our family’s history and belonging.

Perhaps the world will end here at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite. 

(From “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” by Joy Harjoin The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, 1994)

It’s important to remember, as Alice Hoffman once advised, that cancer–or other difficult chapters of our lives–does not become your whole book.  As beneficial as it is to express one’s stories of the cancer journey, it’s important that to recall your “whole book,” telling also the stories of your life and family history, whether humorous or sad, the family stories  shared and repeated over time.

When families come together, it is a time to remember, to celebrate the richness of your lives and give thanks as you come together and share your family stories.

To those of you celebrating with your families this Thursday, I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania,

Tell me a story…

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be Time.

By Robert Penn Warren, From: “Tell Me a Story,” in New and Selected Poems 1923-1985

 

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about your holiday celebrations, the stories that are part of each family gathering.
  • Imagine you are the last storyteller of your family tribe.  What is the story you most want to tell?
  • What other stories do you want to remember, the ones that define your legacy?  Why not write them?
  • Think of your life’s “whole book.”  What are the most important stories you want to capture?  Make a list and start writing them!

 

If someone is stuck in an angry state, what they’re essentially doing is being in a state of adrenaline. And some of the negative health consequences of not forgiving or being stuck there are high blood pressure, anxiety, depression,   not having a good immune response. You’re constantly putting your energy somewhere else.–Karen Swartz, MD

It’s not uncommon, during loss, tragedy or serious illness, that we may sometimes feel let down or hurt by others, whether family members, friends or co-workers.  In my cancer writing groups, participants often express feelings of loss or disappointment experienced during cancer treatment and recovery from people once considered close or counted on in times of difficulty.  I’ve felt those kinds of heartaches from time to time, whether from family members, being in positions of organizational leadership when tough decisions were part of the job, or even, so many years ago, when my first husband and I separated–the first of many marriages to fall apart–in a small university town.

It hurts, when people you have been close to let you down or take out their anger on you.  It’s difficult not to internalize that hurt and find fault with yourself, as if you caused the unkind behaviors you experience, and you lie awake, replaying moments, conversations, actions to try to understand what happened and why.  It’s hard to not blame yourself, but it’s often much more difficult to forgive the slights or unkind actions of those you once counted on.  And yet, you know that carrying anger or resentment inside yourself is not healthy.

I recall the extended difficult months with my siblings in the wake of our parents’ illnesses and deaths and how I experienced anger, resentment or blame as I attempted to honor our parents’ wishes fairly.  It became so onerous, I turned over executorship and power of attorney to an outside party.  That was years ago, but in the process of returning  to Canada a few months ago, I found myself sitting in the garage and paging through old journals from that tumultuous period.  There were pages of questions, hurt and disbelief expression, and self-questioning repeated dozens of times.  A quotation I’d copied caught my attention.  It was from a program I’d watched about the same time,  produced by the UC Davis Health System.

“It’s not a surgery; it’s not a medical treatment or a new medication, but this is a new healing process that doctors are convinced has many hidden benefits, something you can’t get in a pharmacy.  The process is forgiveness.  And more doctors believe that it heals.”  

Forgiveness was obviously on my mind.  I was struggling to stop the replay of hurt and disappointment, groping for a way to alleviate the sense of martyrdom, the shock of being wronged and treated so unfairly by my siblings.  The many months of trying to understand by writing and re-examine  the history I knew by heart, resulted only in rumination, taking me deeper into the pain.  What I needed to do was forgive.  And doing that was going to take some work.

Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting, nor does it mean that you’ve given the message that what someone did was okay. It just means that you’ve let go of the  anger or guilt towards someone, or towards yourself. But that can be easier said than done. If  forgiveness was easy, everyone would be doing it.

“The human mind,” psychologist Loren Toussaint stated, “is sometimes an instrument of misery.  When you’ve done wrong…and regret it, it bubbles up again and again.”  But it’s not only forgiveness of others that makes a difference.   The health benefits of forgiving ourselves for our past mistakes or wrongdoings can be considerable.

Forgiveness—for self or others–is a virtue embraced by almost every religious tradition.  Yet, if we’re honest about it, forgiveness is often difficult to embrace, but doing so is important to our well-being in so many ways.  Forgiveness is intimately tied to our physical health.   Even in the struggle of cancer, forgiveness plays an important role.  In a 1989 study reported in the Canadian Journal of Counselling, “forgiveness therapy” helped cancer patients attain catharsis and a greater sense of peace (v. 23, pp. 236-251).

Another group of researchers found that a self-forgiving attitude contributed to less mood disturbance and a better quality of life among women with breast cancer (J. of Behavioral Medicine, v. 29, pp. 29-36, 2006).  A growing body of research, much of it initiated by the Stanford Forgiveness Project, directed by Dr. Fred Luskin, suggests that forgiveness is good medicine for the body. Health benefits have been demonstrated in a number of “forgiveness interventions,” including improved cardiovascular function, diminished chronic pain, relief from depression and an overall improved quality of life among the very ill (M. Healy, L.A. Times, Jan. 12, 2008).

It’s not uncommon, following a cancer diagnosis or other serious illness that patients sometimes turn their anger inward, blaming themselves for contributing to their illness.  I know I did it, telling more than one close friend that I felt I partly responsible for my early stage diagnosis of breast cancer several years ago.  I hear the same self questioning in the newly diagnosed who attend my writing groups:   “What did I do to cause this?  What if I had only done this instead of that?” or say, “I feel like I’m partly to blame for my cancer…”

How do you forgive others and yourself?  Poet Maya Angelou put it this way:

 I don’t know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes- it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, ‘well, if I’d known better I’d have done better,’ that’s all. So you say to people who you think you may have injured, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then you say to yourself, ‘I’m sorry.’ If we all hold on to the mistake, we can’t see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can’t see what we’re capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one’s own self.

“We can’t see our own glory in the mirror…in the end, the real forgiveness is in one’s own self.”   Angelou’s words remind me of a passage from the poem,  “St. Francis and the Sow,” by Galway Kinnell:

Sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness
to put a hand on the brow of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely,
until it flowers again from within,
of self-blessing.

Forgiveness is, in part, a chance to “flower again from within of self-blessing”–a beautiful image to consider.  How then do we learn to forgive others and ourselves?  Karen Swartz, MD, a John Hopkins psychiatrist, suggests these steps:

Forgiveness training is a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and relaxation techniques, but the goal is the same: Identify the problem, give it time and get objective input. That input doesn’t have to come from a mental health professional. It could come from a close friend or a religious adviser.
•    
Identify what the problems are.
•    Work on relaxation techniques.
•    Challenge your own responses.
•    Change your thoughts from negative to positive
.

Writing Suggestion:

Focus on forgiveness this week.  Perhaps it’s a simple act of forgiving yourself, another, or even your body, changed by cancer.  Here are some questions to help you get started:

  • Who or what do you most want to learn to forgive?
  • Describe the event or the actions of someone that created pain and heartache for you.
  • Did your pain morph into self-blame or depression?  Pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that emerge as you write.
  • Where, in this week, do you have the opportunity to practice forgiveness?
  • How have you learned to forgive others and yourself?
  • Has learning to forgive helped you feel physically better, for example, improved sleep, energy, or mentally, have a more positive outlook?

It’s a journey . . . that I propose . . .

. . . I will be your fellow passenger . . .

. . . we must provide our own guide-posts . . .

. . . the road washes out sometimes

. . . I am not afraid . . .

(From:  A Journey, by Nikki Giovanni, 1943)

 

Last week we arrived in Florida to visit my younger daughter and her family after three days of travel, driving from Toronto to her home in the Florida Panhandle.  Along the way, we observed the changes in weather, temperature, foliage and landscape as we left Canada and traveled through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama before crossing into the state of Florida.

We hadn’t taken a road trip since last summer, when we drove north from San Diego to Gig Harbor, Washington.  As before, roadmaps, Google, and Siri’s somewhat mechanical voice were our constant guides, coupled with the many road signs along our route from north to south.  It was a  relatively uneventful yet enjoyable journey–made only slightly more complicated by having our dog, Maggie, traveling with us.  It wasn’t until I sat down to think about this week’s post that I thought many of the metaphors we use to describe our travel are also ones used for the journeys we travel in life.

Think about it. The word “journey” is a metaphor often used to describe the years between birth and death, its roots found in Homer’s epic poems or Dante Alighieris classic, The Inferno, and like those described by them, our  journeys are neither smooth nor predictable.  They are full of unexpected twists and turns, obstacles, and even periods of darkness.  When we attempt to describe those life experiences to others, we often invoke travel comparisons like “It’s been a bumpy ride;” “My life came to a full stop;” “I’m just taking it slow for a while.”  Even cancer, once commonly described by military metaphors like “battle,” “fight” or “war,” is now more often referred to as a journey, reminiscent of those life struggles found in Homer and Alighieri’s classic works.

Writing in the magazine, Slate, author Katy Waldman described the gradual shift away from reliance on military metaphors to describe cancer:  Journey, not nearly so grand or stirring, has a gentler virtue. Instead of focusing on outcomes—triumph or defeat—the word zeroes in on the everyday process of managing a chronic illness. It replaces the agon with mindfulness, a sensitivity to one’s needs and feelings, an understanding that the scenery might change.— (July 20, 2015)

Authors Gary Reisfield and George Wilson, discussing the use of metaphors in cancer, describe the “journey” metaphor as one that encompasses possibility: for exploration, struggle, hope, discovery, and change… The roads may be bumpy and poorly illuminated at times, and one may encounter forks, crossroads, roadblocks, U-turns, and detours. The pace, route and destinations of the journey may change, sometimes repeatedly.the journey… may ultimately imbue them … with a vision of a deeper meaning in life. (J. of Clinical Oncology, October, 2004)

Thankfully now, just as we have had the abundance of turn by turn directions to one city or interstate to another and advice from friends and family of places to stay or interesting spots to visit, there is no shortage of resources, advice and tips on navigating the cancer journey.  A single query on Google reveals dozens of sites with advice and tips from individuals and organizations alike.  It can be overwhelming as well as helpful, and it’s important to remember how valuable and necessary the support and advice can be from friends and colleagues who have experienced similar journeys.  Throughout my life–and even on a two-week road trip–I’ve cherished the support and advice of so many friends who’ve traveled ahead of me, whether in times of change, loss or illness.  They have been invaluable resources to help me prepare and find my way through the unknown territory I’ve encountered in life.

…a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds…
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

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


Writing Suggestions: 

This week, extend and explore how you use a travel or journey metaphor in your life.  Here are some questions to consider as you write:

  • What is it like to travel along this road named “cancer”? Or perhaps, another life change like death of a loved one, job loss,  retirement or another unexpected life change?
  • How do you move through the questions, confusion and potential roadblocks of cancer to the “new normal” of life and discover how to live fully?
  • What helpful hints, experiences and impressions might you offer the inexperienced traveler on this road?
  • What is the most important piece of advice you’d give to someone who is just beginning their own journey defined by illness, loss, or new life stage?
  • What has been the single most important piece of advice someone gave you that helped you navigate a difficult life journey? Why?
  • As a different way of writing, use common road signs like “dangerous curves head,” “bumpy  or slippery road ahead,”  “dead-end,” “wrong way”   to inspire a humorous account of your cancer or another life journey.

Dear Readers,

I am on the road this week, traveling south via car to visit my younger daughter and her family.  Please peruse the archive in the meantime.  I will post later in the week– after helping two grandchildren celebrate Halloween.

Warm wishes,

Sharon