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Last week, the spring series of the “Writing Through Cancer” expressive writing program at Gilda’s Club here in Toronto ended after eight weeks of writing together and sharing the stories of cancer and of life.  Despite nearly twenty years of leading these workshops, I always become a little choked up as we close each workshop series. I have never ceased to be humbled and inspired by the men and women who write with me each year–and I return home full of gratitude after every session for each person who has written so courageously and honestly.

As the group began to disband, holding the small collection of writing we print at the end of each series, they were already discussing how they remain in touch with one another and, perhaps, write together in the summer months.  One of the most healing aspects of writing together from the cancer experience is the sense of community that emerges from the workshops.  People discover that there is no need to explain what one feels or judgment of their writing, only the safety and support to write deeply, honestly, and to feel truly listened to and understood.

In the writing groups, we are all honoring the storytellers that we, as human beings, have always been.  No longer silenced by cancer, in the act of telling and sharing our stories, we begin to rediscover ourselves, who we were before cancer and who we are becoming. Our stories do much more than describe our experiences—they help to alleviate loneliness.  Stories are the language of community, and as we write together and share our stories of the cancer experience, we discover we are not alone.

“A patient is, at first, simply a storyteller,” Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote in The Emperor of Maladies:  A Biography of Cancer (2010), “a narrator of suffering—a traveler who has visited the kingdom of the ill.  To relieve an illness, one must begin, then, by unburdening its story” (p.46).

… one must begin, then, by unburdening its story. Writing and sharing your stories of cancer helps to repair the damage done to your lives, the sense of who you are, the disrupted futures you face.  “Decay is the beginning of all birth,” Kat Duff wrote in The Alchemy of Illness (2000).  We are our stories, and in the act of sharing them, we affirm our uniqueness and discover is most meaningful.  “I did not want my questions answered,” Arthur Frank wrote, describing, his illness in At the Will of the Body.  “I wanted my experience shared.”   While cancer–or any other serious illness–changes us, perhaps it has the capacity to “remodel us,” as poet Jane Hirshfield said, “for some new fate.”

“Recovery is only worth as much as what you learn about the life you’re regaining,” Frank said.   And it’s not just cancer that teaches us—any momentous, challenging chapter of our lives has the potential for significant learning.  Yet to learn from our experiences requires something of us:  courage.  As Maxine Hong Kingston tells war veterans who write with her, it requires that you “tell the truth.”  It’s difficult to do sometimes, because we have to be willing to dive deep beneath the surface of the events and do some hard soul searching.  Yet it is exactly that courage to go deep and tell our truth that, “in the exchange of stories, we help heal each other’s spirits,” Patrice Vecchione said in Writing and the Spiritual Life (2001).

Writing together with others who have experienced events and illnesses is beneficial, yes, but it is so much more.  As I witnessed again these past eight weeks with the group at Gilda’s Club, as you begin to write and share your experience, you  move beyond the shock, the fear, anger and sorrow, and gradually, your whole life makes its way into what is written, not only the cancer chapter.  The real treasure lies in the truth you discover, and in unearthing that truth, the potential for true healing begins.  Suffering, we remember, is part of the universal human condition, told and retold in literature, history and memoir.  The act of sharing your stories with one another is not only about telling your story, but about telling the human story—the one that has been told and retold throughout our existence.  It’s how you discover new insights and meaning from your experiences.

Because you are reading these blog posts, you probably like to write or at least, would like to do so. If you do not belong or are not near an organized writing program for cancer or other serious/debilitating life events, you can certainly write alone–each blog posted on this site  has writing suggestions to help you get started (and always a year of archived posts).  Of course, the shared motivation that inspires you to write is a benefit of writing with others.  The more difficult part is to keep it going, to not try to do too much too soon with your writing, and to continue the group commitment–but it’s worth a try!  One of my former writing groups still meets monthly as we did when I lived in San Diego, rotating the group leadership and continuing to write and share their words with one another–and the sense of a bonded writing community has grown and flourished. Alone or with others, you have everything you need to write.

…And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear.  What we need is here.

(From: “The Wild Geese,” In: Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1998)

Writing Together or Alone:  Some Suggestions

  • Where do you begin?   Don’t try to force a poem or a narrative into being, to make it “interesting” or “descriptive.”  Start with what you know.  Something as simple as your name and how you got it or what it means to you, or use a family photograph, one of your father or mother or your younger self.  Write about the moment you first heard the word, “cancer,” or simply make a list of “before cancer, I was…” and “after cancer, I am…” before choosing one and writing for a longer period.
  • Try writing for just 5 or 10 minutes a day. Set the timer and begin with anything, a word, a phrase, something you see. Write without stopping; go wherever it goes.  Now read it over.  Underline any phrase that stands out for whatever reason.  Use that phrase as your beginning and then write again as before, letting your words go where they may.  See what changes.
  • Write with a buddy or a small group. Some of my earlier writing groups have tried writing together after the program ends.  Many have been successful, but it takes commitment.
  • If you’ve formed a small writing group, pass the “facilitator” baton to one another for each meeting. For example, someone is responsible for bringing and introducing two writing prompts for the group to use as well as managing the time.  Keep the writing time short (10 – 20 minutes).  A reminder:  When you write together, don’t try to critique and judge.  The process is straightforward. You have come together to write, share your writing, and hear what in your work touches or engages others.  Offering critique is a very different group writing experience and comes much later.  Incorporated too soon, it can shut people down.
  • If you’re writing alone, that’s fine too, but without the motivation we sometimes get from writing together with others, it requires a bit more discipline. And you must try to keep your internal critic at bay!  The process is the same.  Start small.  Five to 10 minutes several times a week, preferably at a time you can “guarantee” a little space and quiet for yourself.  (In her early days of motherhood, Pulitzer Prize winner Carol Shields wrote while her children napped.)  Re-read what you’ve written.  Underline the words or phrases that seem to stand out.  Use one or more of those to write again for a short time, going deeper.

Stuck?  Drop me at email or post a comment on the blog site, and I’ll do my best to offer some suggestions.  It matters less what you write and as the members of my groups discover, that you write.  Your mind, in partnership with your pen, will take you where you “need” to go.

 

(This week’s post adapted from one previously published in June, 2015)

Tomorrow I’ll celebrate the completion of another year of life, my age increasing as it does each June, reminding me that despite my resistance, learning to gracefully accept the aging process is unavoidable.  I look forward to birthdays as my grandchildren do.  My youngest granddaughter, whose birthday is three weeks away, talks of little else now but the plans for her party in July.  I remember being like that a long time ago, recalling the just-turned-six little girl, blonde hair in ringlets, carefully prepared by my mother and topped with a giant hair ribbon.  In the photograph of that day in June, a picnic table is piled with gaily wrapped gifts and a chocolate layer cake sits in the center, six candles aflame.  My face, lit by the candlelight, bears an ear-to-ear grin.  Just as my granddaughter does now, I eagerly counted the days until my next birthday, becoming a “big” girl, each year promising many more possibilities than the one before.  I was ready and impatient to be an older age.

Not so much now.  I tell myself it’s best to stop counting. The smile on my face, when someone says “Happy Birthday!” may well be tinged with something other than enthusiasm.  I’ve resisted accepting the category of “senior citizen.”  But I remember a birthday three years ago, when my husband planned an early birthday dinner so we could attend a jazz event afterward, I protested.  “What?  It’s too early.  No one eats that early except…”  My voice trailed off before I could say “senior citizens.”  He was doing his best to orchestrate a celebratory evening, but it felt a little like a “blue plate special,” the early dinners aimed at the elder customers, because as we walked into the restaurant at 5:25 p.m., it was empty.  We were first to be seated; first to be served; first to leave.  It lacked the feel of “celebration,” because it reminded both of us of the relentless march toward old age.

Are we ever ready for the changes life presents to us?  It’s never either/or.  Each stage of life has its challenges as well as its rewards.  I’m quite content to be called “Gramma,” but on the other hand, I am less enthusiastic the relentless pull of gravity, loss of muscle tone, and graying of my hair.  I now have regular visits to my cardiologist, reminding me of a condition I once thought belonged only to elders like my grandparents.  I’ve been humbled and learned that while illness or heart conditions can happen at any age, ready or not, you can’t escape aging.

“Ready,” the title of a poem by Irene MacKinney, begins with a memory:

I remember a Sunday with the smell of food drifting
out the door of the cavernous kitchen and my serious

teenage sister and her girlfriends Jean and Marybelle
standing on the bank above the dirt road in their
white sandals ready to walk to the country church
a mile away, and ready to return to the fried
chicken, green beans and ham, and fresh bread
spread on the table…

Every birthday reminds me of others past.  Memories come alive:  the scent of chocolate as my mother baked my birthday cake, the candle flames dancing as everyone sang to me, eyes shut, wishing as hard as I could for something I wanted to happen.  I’ll watch as my youngest granddaughter makes her wish and blows out the seven candles on her cake in a few weeks.   And she, like me, will hear that same song many years from now and remember the delights of birthdays from her childhood.

There’s an exercise I’ve borrowed from Roger Rosenblatt’s wise little book, Unless It Moves the Human Heart (Harper Collins, 2011).  It’s a delightful read and a glimpse into his “Writing Everything” class.    It’s an exercise that began with Rosenblatt asking if anyone in his class had recently celebrated—or was about to–a birthday.  Several students raised their hands of course, and Rosenblatt describes what happened next:

I…then burst into song:  “Happy Birthday to You.”  They [his students] give me the he’s-gone-nuts look I’ve come to cherish over the years.  I sing it again.  “Happy Birthday to You.  Anyone had a birthday recently?  Anyone about to have one?” …just sit back and see what comes of listening to this irritating, celebratory song you’ve heard all your lives” (pp.39-40).

I tried the exercise out with one of my writing groups a few years ago.  They looked at me with curiosity as I began singing and laughing a little before joining in.“Now write,” I said as the song ended.  “What memories does that tune inspire?”  I wrote with the group too, mind flooded with memories of birthdays past: the blue bicycle waiting for me the morning of my sixth birthday, the surprise party my husband and daughters managed to pull off few years ago, the headline in my small town newspaper’s society page:  “Sharon Ann Bray turns six today.”  (It helped, I suppose, that my aunt was the “society” editor!)

What happened in my writing group was that everyone had a host of memories associated with the birthday song, as many writers have.  In fact, Rosenblatt isn’t the only writer who used birthdays for inspiration.  Go to www.poets.org and you’ll discover William Blake, Sylvia Plath, Christina Rossetti and many others used birthdays as a time for retrospection.  I’m especially fond of Ted Kooser’s “A Happy Birthday,” a short poem that captures the introspection triggered by one’s birthday:

This evening, I sat by an open window

and read till the light was gone and the book

was no more than a part of the darkness.

I could easily have switched on a lamp,

but I wanted to ride this day down into night,

to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page

with the pale gray ghost of my hand.

 

Poems about birthdays, particularly as we age, inspire our reflection on the passage of time, aging, even the opportunity for change, for example, Joyce Sutphen’s “Crossroads:”

The second half of my life will be black
to the white rind of the old and fading moon.
The second half of my life will be water
over the cracked floor of these desert years.

Tomorrow, I’ll make a list for myself, remembering years past, the birthday memories that linger in my mind, and I know I’ll  have enough material for several days of writing, if not more.  It’s a chance to look back, reflect on life’s lessons, its joys and sorrows, and  to consider what I intend for the coming year.  Birthdays.  Anniversaries.  They’re chock full of memories, markers of the passage of time, experiences, people–the stuff of life–the stories of who we were, who we are, how life and the weather have treated us.  If any of you are also celebrating a birthday in the coming days, “happy birthday” to you too.

Writing Suggestion:

Hum the tune, or if you’re feeling brave, sing it:  “Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday to you…”  List the memories, good or bad, that this traditional birthday ditty evokes.  Whether you’ll soon have  a birthday, recently celebrated one, or joined in the birthday celebrations of family and friends, explore your memories of birthdays past as a way to inspire your writing.  In each memory of a birthday or anniversary lurks a story or a poem.  Why not write one?

I’m gonna’ sit right down and write myself a letter

And make believe it came from you…

(song by Fred E. Ahlert & Joe Young, 1935)

You know the kind, a letter in which you pour out your heart, one where you tell the potential recipient what you feel, honestly and openly?  Many of us have, and it’s probably one of the reasons the song, “I’m Gonna’ Sit Right Down & Write Myself a Letter,” first recorded by Fats Waller in 1935  became a standard of the Great American Songbook .  The song has been recorded by more than a few vocalists over the years, including Billy Williams, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Paul McCartney and Madeline Peyroux.

There’s truth in those lyrics.  A letter written to yourself or one you write to another person but never intend to send can make you feel better.  Why?  Not only does it give you the freedom to express strong or difficult emotions, simply doing so helps to relieve stress,  often a culprit in illness and health problems.

Writing, we know, has many health benefits, but the most healing kind of writing is honest, writing that acknowledges your emotions openly.  In fact, the ability to feel and name both positive and negative emotions is critical to healing.  Sometimes, however, you may be reluctant to write honestly, worried that you’ll feel worse or guilty, especially when what we want really want to say involves admitting feelings about things or others that you’ve never fully expressed.

Psychologist James Pennebaker explained it this way:  writing honestly and openly about how you feel can be a bit like the experience of seeing a sad movie.  You come out of the theatre feeling bad; maybe you even cried during the film.  But you’re wiser.  You understand the character’s issues and struggles in a way, perhaps that you didn’t when the movie began.  It is in the expression of those feelings of sorrow or anger that you can begin to stand back, re-read and examine what you’ve written.  You have a chance to reflect on it and in doing so, understand yourself and the sources of your pain better than you did before.  There is relief in that realization–and there is the possibility for insight.

In “Letter, Much Too Late,” Wallace Stegner, Pulitzer Prize winning author, addressed his dead mother.  Stegner felt very close to his mother, who always tried to protect him from the cruelty of his father, even though she was rendered helpless in the face of her husband’s abusive personality.  While he was a graduate student, his mother died from breast cancer.  He nursed her in her final days and sat at her side as she took her last breath. “Letter, Much Too Late” was written fifty-five years after her death.   In it, he remembers her, asks for forgiveness and remembers her as a mother with enduring love for her son.  He wrote:

 “In the more than fifty years I have been writing books and stories, I have tried several times to do you justice, and have never been satisfied with what I did. . . .I am afraid I let your selfish and violent husband, my father, steal the scene from you and push you into the background in the novels as he did in life. Somehow I should have been able to say how strong and resilient you were, what a patient and abiding and bonding force, the softness that proved in the long run stronger than what it seemed to yield to.” (In:  Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, by Wallace Stegner,1992)

Writing, as Stegner’s letter illustrates,  offers the opportunity to “think to” another, whether it is yourself, your body, or someone with whom you have unresolved issues.  Imagining another and addressing your writing to that person encourages you to write naturally.  Even if you never show it or send it to anyone, writing to that imagined other has the effect of making your words more powerfully felt. It gives you the freedom to  say what you really want to say.   You can even “talk back,” writing to another, your illness or yourself.  One of the exercises I’ve used in my writing groups is to invite the members to address their letters to their cancers or their bodies.  “What,” I ask, “do you want to say to yourself?  Your cancer?  Your body?”  Here are two responses from former group members:

Cancer:  You entered my life without my permission. You tried to turn my body against me, leaving pain and uncertainty in your wake…Because of you I wondered if I would see my children grow up… You made me feel like less of a woman…You took my hair and scarred my body. You made me cringe at my own reflection in the mirror. Others see a warrior. I see someone wounded – broken by the battle…(2013 “Writing Through Cancer” workshop participant)

Cancer, you’re a wuss:  Do you know who you’re messing with? Do you know what I did to the last disease that dared enter this body? I don’t think you get it, how wrong you were to choose me of all people. I want to let you know that you may have gotten past my defenses, snuck in through the back door but I have my eye on you now and you aren’t going to get away with anything else…You won’t find me cowering in a corner, sniveling in fear and weighed down with depression…Bring it on, cancer. You won’t win this one. (J., 2014 workshop participant)

 Unsent letters are a great way of being able to say what we really want to say.  Whether during cancer or at other times in our lives, we all have the need to release the unspoken, to cleanse or reach out to another, whether living or dead, person or thing.  An unsent letter can be a tool to help express difficult or complicated feelings that might otherwise not be expressed.

Although I have incorporated the “unsent letter” as a prompt several times in my cancer writing workshops over the years, one participant’s experience with the exercise stands out.  She had, the day before our group met, received news her cancer had metastasized and that she had, at best, only a few months left to live.   G. used our unsent letter exercise to write to her doctor, who had cared for her throughout thirteen-year cancer journey.  After writing, she shared her letter aloud with the group.  It was strong and beautifully written, and expressed her feelings clearly.  She revealed how hurt she’d felt when her doctor didn’t establish eye contact with her as he conveyed her recent test results.  After she’d read, she remarked that she felt better, saying, “It’s helped just to write down what I feel, even if I’m not going to send it to him.”  Unlike most times I’ve offered the exercise, however, G. took the letter one step further

The following meeting, G. told the group she decided  to read her “unsent” letter aloud to her doctor at her follow-up appointment.  She described how visibly moved he became, and how he confessed he had struggled to tell her the news at her previous appointment, not trusting himself to keep his composure as he did conveyed the results.   He apologized to G. and thanked her for having the courage to share her letter with him.  We were humbled by G.’s courage in sharing her letter with her doctor, but it was an important moment between doctor and patient.

Of course, in this high tech, instant communication world of email, Facebook and Twitter, the “safety net” that writing an unsent letter offers is all but irrelevant.  Consider recent jabs, name calling, and racial comments and repercussions that result after an angry or shocking tweet going viral.  Even among many leaders, the unsent letter has been judiciously used to cool the anger experienced in the many retorts from critics or opponents.    According to journalist Maria Konnikova, in her article, “The Lost Art of the Unsent Angry Letter,”

Whenever Abraham Lincoln felt the urge to tell someone off, he would compose what he called a “hot letter.” He’d pile all of his anger into a note, “put it aside until his emotions cooled down,” Doris Kearns Goodwin once explained on NPR, “and then write: ‘Never sent. Never signed.’ ” Which meant that Gen. George G. Meade, for one, would never hear from his commander in chief that Lincoln blamed him for letting Robert E. Lee escape after Gettysburg.

Lincoln was hardly unique. Among public figures who need to think twice about their choice of words, the unsent angry letter has a venerable tradition. Its purpose is twofold. It serves as a type of emotional catharsis, a way to let it all out without the repercussions of true engagement. And it acts as a strategic catharsis, an exercise in saying what you really think, which Mark Twain (himself a notable non-sender of correspondence) believed provided “unallowable frankness & freedom.”

The beauty of writing an unsent letter is that it allows us to express difficult emotions on paper, safely, and get them out of our minds and bodies.  It quiets us, cools us down, and gives us a chance to reflect from what we’ve so furiously written in the wake of strong emotions. In re-reading, we learn from what we’ve written—new insights, greater clarity or understanding, even, as G. was, be able to express ourselves to another with compassion for ourselves and the other person.

Writing Suggestions for This Week:

  • This week, try your own hand at writing an unsent letter.  You might write to a loved one, a physician, a higher power, your body or even, cancer.
  • Write with the assurance that you can say what is honestly in your heart and mind, that no one ever needs to see or hear what you have written.
  • What do you really want to say?

 

Remember how far you’ve come, not just how far you have to go. You may not be where you want to be, but neither are you where you used to be. — Stuart Scott

Siri, that monotonous virtual voice of iPhone assistance, has proven unreliable.  Where I dreamed of asking for directions to my desired destination and then be guided by her unflappable female voice through the streets and freeways of my city, assured of making the correct exit and turns to arrive without getting lost, I have been offered, more times than not, directions to places not even in Toronto, like a city in Oklahoma or somewhere north of Algonquin Park.  Siri remains entirely unflappable but I, on the other hand, end up talking back like a crazy woman to that impersonal Siri voice as if there’s a real being, miniaturized of course, living in my iPhone.   I confess that I’ve uttered more than a few expletives in Siri’s direction.

How, I wonder, did I ever get from point A to point B in the years I was consulting with organizations scattered all over greater Toronto or the multitude of new technology firms in Silicon Valley?  I recall having street maps and written directions dictated over the telephone by clients.  I did just fine with those directions, writing them down before I got in the car, but  I was thrilled when Google first introduced online maps with turn-by-turn directions.  I made occasional wrong turns from time as the early maps were refined and corrected, but when I got lost, I’d simply stop and ask for help.  Once in a great while, I arrived late, but I always got to where I intended to go, all without any assistance from a GPS or Siri guiding me to my destination.

We’ve become seekers of directions on just about anything in life.  We live in a world that abounds with instructions, whether you’re seeking to find out how to cook a certain vegetable or fish, find directions to a place you haven’t been before, assemble furniture, fill out necessary forms and documents, or deal with health and emotional complaints.  Not only will you likely find dozens of sites and articles on any topic by perusing the web, but Amazon’s bookshelves contain titles for every aspect of life–and illness.  The preponderance of self-help books on the market represents an industry worth over $10 billion annually according to the article, “The Problem with the Self Help Industry,” appearing in a 2011 issue of The Huffington Post.  Whether you seek to initiate change or you’re forced to change your life due to unexpected illness, hardship or loss, there’s likely a book, podcast or DVD out there that guide you in a step-by-step explanation on how to do it.   Dr. Jim Taylor, author of the article states, “… Contrary to the assertions of just about every self-help book that has ever been written, change takes incredible commitment, time, energy and effort. Someone might be able to show you the way, but you have to make the journey yourself.”  Making the journey yourself, in many ways, also applies to the cancer journey.

Teva Harrison’s book, In-Between Days (Anasi, 2016), a graphic memoir about living with terminal cancer is worth a read for anyone living with–and learning to navigate through–cancer.  She writes, “When I was first diagnosed, I made all these frantic lifestyle changes, as if I could turn back time, undo my bad luck.  I think a lot of us do that…I was frantic, driven by panic…”   As her cancer has progressed, however, her treatment has also changed, and she has come to terms with her reality of living with advanced and terminal cancer, writing, “If we manage to stabilize it, it’s only stable for an indeterminate while…it’s only a matter of time before it finds a way around the barricades and begins to grow again…”  Harrison’s journey requires she adapt to and navigate her life through constant change, yet even in the face of a terminal and progressive illness,   she looks for ways to enjoy what she can. “I mean, the cancer is here, and I have a life to live.  And sometimes living well includes eating something made with sugar or having a glass of wine with dinner.  I’m not going to be hard on myself.  I’m going to enjoy every minute I can.”

Harrison describes the importance of friends, family members, and medical professionals and specialists who continue to help her with the reality of her illness, complexities of treatment, support and care.  But the changes in her life from “before” cancer  to “after” cancer are those she has learned to come to terms with in her own way.

There are also sometimes costs to our post-cancer lives:  bodily after-effects of treatment or surgeries that may last for years or force us to come to terms with a permanently altered body.   According to the Cancer Council of Australia, “Studies on people who have survived cancer are limited compared with studies about preventing cancer… research does suggest that a healthy lifestyle can stop or slow the development of many cancers… It also shows that some people who have had cancer may be at an increased risk of other health problems, such as heart disease, lung problems or diabetes.”

I considered myself lucky when I was diagnosed and treated for a very early stage of breast cancer eighteen years ago.  I followed the doctors’ treatment plan to the letter: two lumpectomies, tamoxifen, and seven weeks of daily radiation to my left breast.  Much later, I learned there were unexpected costs not fully understood nor anticipated at the time.  Although the changes are not visible,  I live with a body permanently altered by cancer and serious illness,

Eight years after my treatment, I collapsed on the pavement while walking my dog and was diagnosed with heart failure.  My doctors have told me it’s highly likely the radiation I’d had following my lumpectomies may have damaged my heart muscle.  After the diagnosis, I was in a state of shock for weeks.  Heart failure is a condition that does not improve, although medication, diet and exercise can help to slow the inevitable decline in heart functioning.  My treatment plan is routinely reviewed, and it changes from time to time as my condition requires.  My intent is to live as long as possible despite this condition, but initially my diagnosis challenged my self-perception  and expectations for a “normal” life.  Thankfully, I have an extraordinary cardiologist and with continued research and treatment innovation, there may be more hope for heart failure patients.  In Canada, heart disease is the number one cause of death for women over 55.

Yet despite excellent treatment, the increased knowledge and information available, I have moments when my worry and fears surface.  At those times, I stop searching for new research studies and avoid the invitations to online support groups so that I do not  weigh my days down preoccupied by worry or fear.  I focus, instead, on the work and activities I love–besides, as Gilda Radner, former SNL member who died of metastatic cancer, famously said, “It’s always something.” And so it is for all of us, and when we’re challenged by cancer, heart disease or any serious illness, we have to find the best ways for ourselves to navigate the reality of living with a body altered by illness.

In the poem, “There’s Not a Book On How To Do This,” cancer survivor Sharon Doyle reminds us of the challenge of discovering our own way through cancer and other serious illness as she sketches the composition of her fall garden after her cancer treatment has ended.

There’s not a book on how to do this,
but there is an emphasis on composition.

The trucks that slug by under our window
hold trombones, mirrors, dictionaries.
It’s not my fault they invade
the calm of trees like cancer.  I

don’t have cancer anymore…

…I rarely remember the
uterus I don’t have.  One of my sons said,
“You were done with it right away, right, Mom?”
I guessed so…

(In:  The Cancer Poetry Project, v. 1, 2001, Karin Miller, Ed.)

There’s not a book on how to do this…” Think about it.  Whether cancer, heart disease, divorce, the loss of a loved one, job loss—any major life challenge—we don’t have the luxury of a GPS or even an instruction booklet to help us navigate through our life’s upheavals, fears, or grief.  Yes, we have others’ advice.  We have the comfort of friends and family, of physicians and helping professionals, but ultimately, the journey is ours to navigate, the road full of unexpected twists and turns, conundrums and set-backs.  We begin composing a new life with each step we take—one that honors where we’ve been but also embraces what we have discovered about ourselves and our lives in our journey.

Doyle’s loving gifts from her family, the birdsong and flowers, are symbolic of the support that gave her courage and hope as she made her way back to health.  In the final stanza, though, the reader may smile as she describes her unique way to celebrate her recovery and her life after cancer:

I left vacant fourteen
trellis lightscapes for
balloons.

 

Writing Suggestions:

As you write, reflect on your own life journeys and life during and after cancer treatment.

  • What helped you navigate the rough waters of such profound and unexpected change?
  • What internal compass—your beliefs, aspirations, or faith—played a part in helping you rediscover hope and embrace a new life?
  • Based on your experience, what advice or suggestions might you offer someone just beginning the journey through cancer?

(Previously published in the May 2018 issue of Cancer Knowledge Network , “Writing for Wellness,” a bi-monthly column by Sharon Bray, EdD)

 

 

 

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.