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Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,

Old Time is still a-flying;

And this same flower that smiles today

Tomorrow will be dying…

(From: “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time, by Robert Herrick,  1591 – 1674)

“Gosh, it’s December already!  Where has the time gone?”  So began a conversation with one of my friends as we realized how much time had passed since we’d met one another for lunch.  I could account for the past two months—a trip to Florida to care for two of my grandchildren in their parents’ absence, and afterward, immediately traveling to Toronto for my daughter’s doctoral convocation.  November was a blur in the aftermath of the election and a much-needed rest from travel, but how did it suddenly become December?  It feels almost as if this last month of the year is poised at the starting line of a racetrack, eager to make it to the finish line, crowded with the demands of the holiday season, and ready to turn over the calendar to 2017 as quickly as possible.

“But I need more time!” I protest.  My “to-do” lists keep multiplying, and I seem to be  racing against clock and calendar from dawn to dusk, mailing packages, writing out holiday cards to friends far away, keeping various appointments, venturing into the crowded shops, and tending to household duties, only to wonder why it suddenly is well past my bedtime.   I have a sense of time racing by, made all the more fleeting by the rush of holiday activities.  Invitations have begun to multiply, and as they do, I quietly balk, wishing I had more time awaken to a quiet day without any appointments, deadlines, invitations or that never-ending list of “to-dos.”  I’m running as fast as I can, but as Barbara Crooker describes in her poem,  “In the Middle,”

One day you look out the window,
green summer, the next, and the leaves have already fallen,
and a grey sky lowers the horizon…

…Time is always ahead of us, running down the beach, urging
us on faster, faster…

(In:  Word Press, 1998.)

Where has the time gone?”  How many times have I heard someone ask that question this past week?  Too often to count.  I suspect you have also asked it more than once.  But put it another way, and the question becomes more specific:   “What have I done with my time?

In the 1989 Film, Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams played an unorthodox English teacher who challenged the traditions of an elite private school and his students with his unorthodox h teaching approaches.   “Believe it or not,” he tells his students, “each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die.”  Williams’ character’s students rallying cry becomes “carpe diem,” or “seize the day,”  a call to live life to its full potential.  I wonder, does living our lives fully make us more attentive to how we spend our time?

The phrase “carpe diem,”according to www.poets.org, originated in a long series of poems called “Odes,” composed by the Roman poet Horace in 65 B.C.E..

Scale back your long hopes

to a short period. While we
speak, time is envious and

is running away from us.
Seize the day, trusting
little in the future.

Time…is running away from ustrusting little in the future…  I wonder.  Are we paying attention to what time offers to us?  Or are we letting it get away from us?  Are there other ways to think about the role of time in our lives?  William Stafford invites the reader to rethink time in the poem, “The Gift.”

Time wants to show you a different country.  It’s the one
that your life conceals, the one waiting outside
when curtains are drawn, the one Grandmother hinted at
in her crochet design, the one almost found
over at the edge of the music, after the sermon.

It’s the way life is, and you have it, a few years given.
You get killed now and then, violated
in various ways.  (And sometimes it’s turn about.)
You get tired of that.  Long-suffering, you wait
and pray, and maybe good things come – maybe
the hurt slackens and you hardly feel it any more.
You have a breath without pain.  It is called happiness.

It’s a balance, the taking and passing along,
the composting of where you’ve been and how people
and weather treated you.  It’s a country where
you already are, bringing where you have been.
Time offers this gift in its millions of ways,
turning the world, moving the air, calling,
every morning, “Here, take it, it’s yours.”

(From:  The Way It Is, Graywolf Press, 1999)

“Here, take it, it’s yours.”  As your list of things to do intensifies in the crush of holiday shopping, socializing and gift giving, time may feel like it’s racing by, or, it might, if you’re waiting for something to happen, like the interminable wait  for Santa Claus you knew as children, when time seems to drag and stretch into forever.  Either way, we forget to “seize the day” or pay attention to time and life.

Suppose your life a folded telescope
Durationless, collapsed in just a flash
As from your mother’s womb you, bawling, drop
Into a nursing home…

Einstein was right. That would be too intense.
You need a chance to preen, to give a dull
Recital before an indifferent audience
Equally slow in jeering you and clapping…

Time takes its time unraveling. But, still, 

You’ll wonder when your life ends: Huh? What happened?

(From:  “The Purpose of Time is to Prevent Everything from Happening at Once,” by X.J. Kennedy, In: The Lords of Misrule:  Poems,  1992 -2001)

Writing Suggestion:

This week, consider time.  What is your relationship to time?  Do you feel you are running out of time or, conversely, twiddling your thumbs waiting for time to pass?  Write about your relationship to time.  What has time taught you about life?  What gifts has time offered you?

My husband and I spent our Thanksgiving holidays with friends—sharing meals and conversation on Thanksgiving Day, and on Black Friday, ignoring shopping centers to share, again, another meal with our neighborhood friends.  I was grateful for the company, sharing the holiday, and the fact we weren’t caught in the crush of people traveling by air or automobile for the holiday weekend.  Yet there was some turbulence amid the warmth of the holiday:  the inevitable discussions, often heated, over the outcome of the presidential election.  More than once, I excused myself from an emotional discussion to seek respite from all things political in an effort to retain the warmth and gratitude of a Thanksgiving celebration.

I would settle now for just one perfect day
anywhere at all, a day without
mosquitoes, or traffic, or newspapers
with their headlines.

A day without any kind of turbulence—…

(From:  “Three Perfect Days,” by Linda Pastan, in:  Traveling Light, 2011)

Yesterday, a winter’s storm moved into our area—ominous clouds preceding the wind and sheets of rain.  We don’t get much “weather” in this part of the country, and in a place increasingly arid from years of drought, rain is always welcome, but the gusty winds that toppled potted plants on our deck—hardly comparable to the hurricanes and typhoons other parts of the world experience—felt like an apt metaphor for the turbulence that permeated emotions during the election and in its aftermath.  Yet so dominant is our national discussion, it’s difficult to remember that turbulence is the current state of much of the world as unrest, suffering and devastation affect so many lives.

Don´t know why
There´s no sun up in the sky
Stormy weather…

Gloom and misery everywhere
Stormy weather, stormy weather
And I just can get my poor self together
Oh, I´m weary all of the time
The time, so weary all of the time

(“Stormy Weather,” lyrics by Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler, 1933)

Turbulence:   storms, upsetting events, unrest, conflict, intense emotion.  It’s a term used often to describe the upsetting or unexpected events of our lives and our world.  Google “storms,” “turbulence,” or “cancer,” and you’ll find more than a few blog posts, book titles and articles referring to turbulence written by those who have experienced serious and debilitating life events.

I’ve experienced turbulent emotions in past weeks, but the election has been only a part of my unsettled feelings.  Several weeks ago, a very dear friend was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, and earlier this month, another friend learned he has lymphoma—a friend who once gave me extraordinary support after the sudden death of my first husband.  Yet another friend wrote as her husband was sent to emergency following heart surgery, and I hoped and prayed he would be all right. (Happily, he’s back home and recovering).  Yesterday I had an appointment with my optometrist, and learned she was taking  a leave of absence.  When I expressed surprised, she told me she had been diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer and soon will undergo surgery and chemotherapy.

I returned home once again with a heavy heart.  For the many years I’ve been leading writing groups for cancer patients and survivors, the news that yet another friend or colleague has become a cancer patient never gets “routine.”  I felt as unsettled as the weather outside, remembering that anytime anyone hears those dreaded words, “you have cancer, “it’s as if a fierce storm has suddenly upheaved your life.

In the eye of the night I lie awake,

half-afraid, half in awe of the wind

penetrating every crack in my being.

I think of my brother and his wife

in the next town downwind,

open-eyed and clinging to each other

as the wind that mocks everything

to which we think we’re anchored

roars through our lives…

 

(“Windstorm,” by Larry Schug, in The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. 1, 2001)

How do you learn to navigate through the turbulence of daily life, much less having your life turned upside down as if struck by a tornado or hurricane?  It’s something I often ask the men and women in my writing groups.  The initial shock and disbelief are common, but gradually, most everyone finds their way of coping and riding out the storm.  The writing group, for those who attend, is one of the activities that helps them cope, but there are many others that are also helpful, for example, meditation, therapy groups, yoga, expressive art, gardening, the support of loved ones, being in nature, or prayer, all ways that can help you regain a greater sense of calm and navigate the rough waters of cancer treatment and recovery more successfully.

Writing has been an important life line for me throughout the stormy periods of life.  It offers me the safety to write out of strong emotion, make sense of what has happened and gradually, write my way into understanding and healing.  Writing has always helped me to navigate through upsetting life events that threatened to leave me adrift in rough waters.

Whether nonfiction, poetry or fiction writing is, for many, a way of making sense of life.  Commenting on  her debut novel, Eye of the Storm (2013), Irish author Julie McCoy said, “Writing has always been this for me: peeling back the visible layer to see the much more interesting and meaningful stuff underneath. But more than that, it is a coping mechanism, a way of setting this overwhelming world straight on a page, a way of dissecting tragedy, love, life and trying to make sense of it all.” (Posted on www.Writing.ie, 2013)

Barbara Abercrombie, breast cancer survivor and author of Writing Out the Storm:  Reading and Writing Your Way Through Serious Illness or Injury (2002), got the idea for her book from teaching a writing workshop for cancer survivors and caregivers at the Wellness Community in Los Angeles.  As she notes in her introduction, she quickly realized a traditional, genre-oriented workshop was not what the participants were looking for, but rather, a way to deal with a life-threatening illness through writing…”as a tool for finding voice in a situation that leaves you feeling as if you have no control, no voice…”

It’s why writing can be one way, a powerful way, to help you navigate through the storms and emotional turbulence of life’s difficult chapters.  As novelist Alice Hoffman so eloquently expressed in her essay, “Sustained by Fiction while Facing Life’s Facts (New York Times, August 2000):

An insightful, experienced oncologist told me that cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter. Still, novelists know that some chapters inform all others. These are the chapters of your life that wallop you and teach you and bring you to tears, that invite you to step to the other side of the curtain, the one that divides those of us who must face our destiny sooner rather than laterWhat I was looking for during 10 months of chemotherapy and radiation was a way to make sense of sorrow and loss… Once I got to my desk, once I started writing, I still believed anything was possible.  ( New York Times, August, 2000)

Writing Suggestion:

Coping, setting the world straight on a page, making sense of it–it’s why writing can be such a powerful way to help you cope with the stormy periods of life, whether cancer, other emotional or physical hardship, or loss.  This week, write about one of those turbulent chapters you’ve experienced.  What was the event?  Describe how it felt or what happened.  What helped you navigate through it all?

If the only prayer we say in our lifetime is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”

(–German philosopher Meister Eckhart )

In a time of so many world crises, a divisive national election, global warming,  poverty, famine, war or terrorist attacks on innocent people, and  living with a life threatening illness like cancer, it may be difficult, indeed, to remember gratitude.  It’s all too easy to feel anger, frustration, fear  or worry, emotions I find can seep too readily into my skin these days.    I work daily to consciously re-direct my thoughts to the things in life that keep me going, provide solace or moments of joy and gratitude.  In this season of Thanksgiving, gratitude becomes even more important.

“No school for four days, Gramma!” my 7-year-old grandson announced on a Skype call yesterday.  As far as he’s concerned, Thanksgiving is another name for the beginning of an extended holiday.  But for many of us, it is still remembered as a time of family, friends and traditions; of coming together to celebrate and share a Thanksgiving meal.  It’s part of this nation’s history, as every grade school child learns, a national holiday to commemorate  the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621.  But to a second grader who lived in Japan for five years  of his seven years and whose father is currently deployed to Afghanistan, the history and meaning of Thanksgiving are lost on him.

It’s the Thanksgiving story we heard in elementary school each November.  The Pilgrims beat the odds:  surviving an arduous journey to a new country, suffering through hunger, illness and loss to create a new community and ultimately, a bountiful fall harvest, which ensured survival in the harsh New England winters.  Their governor proclaimed their day of thanks be shared with the Native Americans who were instrumental to their survival and the realization of a plentiful harvest.  It took two hundred years, however, before President Abraham Lincoln designated a national day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated during the month of November, a tradition which continues today.

I didn’t know I was grateful
for such late-autumn
bent-up cornfields

yellow in the after-harvest
sun before the
cold plow turns it all over
into never.

(“Home,” by Bruce Weigl, In:  The Unraveling Strangeness, 2003)

“Home,” a poem of nostalgia and of gratitude,   inspired, in part, by Weigl’s return home after the Vietnam War.  Thoughts of “home” also triggers my nostalgia, something that routinely surfaces around Thanksgiving.  It is the remembrance, in part, by losses—of family tradition and  my father.  All during my childhood, my father’s extended family lived in the same town.  Each Thanksgiving was a joyful time of togetherness, a family celebration of filled with aunts, uncles, cousins, a plentiful feast of traditional homemade dishes, a time of telling family stories, and a time of gratitude and blessings.  It seems ironic, somehow, that my father’s death from lung cancer occurred on Thanksgiving Day—but the loss is tempered by the knowledge that before he died, he managed to sit at the table and share in the Thanksgiving meal.  Later that night, as the family slept, the cancer took him.  As much as I mourned his death, it was  somehow comforting to know he  ended Thanksgiving day–and his life–with family at the table, and his stomach full of turkey, his favorite oyster dressing, and pumpkin pie.

My family Thanksgivings ended with my father’s death and the empty nest left by my globe-trotting daughters.  This holiday, as in recent years past, we’ll share  Thanksgiving dinner with friends, who, like us, have families scattered across the country.  It’s not the same, of course, yet I’m appreciative for the company of others and the spirit of gratitude.  Yet it’s increasingly difficult, in the press of contemporary life,  turbulence and struggle in the world and the unending hostility and violence, to remember that Thanksgiving began and was intended as a time of gratitude.  Instead, the ritual of giving thanks is often overshadowed by the stress and frustration of holiday travel or the frenzied atmosphere of shopping for turkey and trimmings at the supermarket.  Worse yet, this holiday is increasingly overshadowed by the rampant commercialism  in “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving and the biggest shopping day of the year.

Yet whatever your traditions are as the holiday approaches, I invite you to pause and remember the meaning of Thanksgiving:  an expression of gratitude, the one prayer in life that “would suffice.”   As cancer survivors, you too have beaten the odds–whether in full remission or the capacity to live longer with cancer than ever before possible.  Whatever your plans may be for this coming week, express the one prayer of “thank you,” and celebrate this Thanksgiving in a spirit of gratitude, as Eleanor Lerman reminds us  in her poem, “Starfish:”

This is what life does.  It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper…

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud…

…And then life lets you go home to think
about all this.  Which you do, for quite a long time.

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out.  This is life’s way of letting you know that you are lucky

(From:  Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds, 2005)

Writing Suggestion:

  • Make a list of things you are grateful for this November holiday, and writing about them.
  • Try beginning with Weigl’s words, , “I didn’t know I was grateful for…” and see what emerges.  You may discover new sources of gratitude.
  • Holiday celebrations are often a time when family stories are told and retold. Write one of your family stories—one that may often be retold at a family Thanksgiving dinner.

I wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving holiday.

The anchorwoman is unsmiling, even somber,
for her biggest stories are about death,
and even when she has a feature
on a twelve-year-old college student
or a gorilla who understands sign language,
there is something tentative about her relief:
she knows that the Great Antagonist
will strike again, and soon… 

(From “The Late News,” by David Kirby, In: I Think I Am Going to Call My Wife Paraguay: Selected Early Poems, 2004

We returned from our daughter’s doctoral convocation ceremonies at the University of Toronto the morning after the national election.  The mood was somber,  in the airport, on the plane and on the taxi ride home.  Even as I bought some Canadian maple syrup at an airport kiosk, the saleswoman’s reacted when I told her I lived in the United States.  “How am I going to explain what just happened in the United States to my daughter?”  She asked, her eyes filling with tears.

I had little solace to offer, unsettled as I was by the divisiveness and rancor so prevalent in the presidential campaign, reaching levels I never imagined possible.  For weeks, I’d been drawn in, tense and unsettled by the campaign, but that tension was exacerbated by my steady diet of tuning into the national news.  A month ago, I gave up watching or listening to the news, too busy with caring for my grandchildren and frankly, weary of the constant barrage of toxicity.  It wasn’t until I went on a news diet that I realized my attitude and emotions had become increasingly upset and negative.

Like it or not, the news isn’t very good for us,  and that’s something we’ve known long before the most recent political campaign.  According to the British Psychological Society, constant access to the relentless media reports of war, violence, and tragedy, has negative effects on our physical and mental health.  Add to that a vitriolic and constant verbal assault between candidates and political parties, and you’re bound to feel upset.  In 2009, the Society reported the results of a study where, after people were shown footage of four traumatic events, nearly 20% of them reported symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Frequency of exposure–the number of times they viewed the media events–was also factor in the viewer’s reactions.  Even more concerning is that none of the participants had experienced trauma in their personal lives!  “Acts of violence erode our sense of security and create intense feelings of anger, fear and helplessness,” the researchers said.  Watching these events and feeling the anguish of those who are directly experiencing them can impact on a certain percentage of individuals causing longer lasting effects.”

As Graham Davey, PhD, commented in a 2012 Psychology Today article, “The Psychological Effects of TV News,” “We’ve known for a very long time that the emotional content of films and television programs can affect your psychological health… directly affecting your mood, and your mood can then affect many aspects of your thinking and behaviour. “Stress can be transmitted through TV screen,” The Daily Telegraph’s website reported early in 2014, coupled with an image of a person watching a segment of the television series, Breaking Bad. The  television series may have been fictitious, but the people participating in the study were not fictional characters!

Whenever we’re faced with stress, our cortisol levels rise,” health coach Brandon Mentore commented quoted in a 2014  Huffington Post article. Simply watching a scary or emotionally draining movie raises cortisol.  We know that cortisol serves the function of our “fight or flight” readiness in response to stressful events, but when the body doesn’t have the chance to return to normal, we begin to suffer from chronic stress, and that has negative impact on our health.  In the constant barrage of negativity during the campaign and in the divisiveness that is now so prevalent, stress was becoming a constant companion in my daily life.  When I took a complete break from the news broadcasts, whether televised or on the radio, I was surprised how much better I began to feel.

Chronic stress and worry go hand in hand, and they render us less effective in all aspects of our daily life.  Worry is that state of feeling concerned or uneasy about some situation in our lives.  When it gets the better of us, our bodies and minds go into high gear.  We leap beyond what is to what might happen, and as our worry expands, so does our anxiety; so does our fear.  I turned again to the words of my favorite poet, William Stafford, as I pondered the events of this past week and my the undercurrent of fear I was feeling:

There is a country to cross you will
find in the corner of your eye, in
the quick slip of your foot–air far
down, a snap that might have caught.
And maybe for you, for me, a high, passing
voice that finds its way by being
afraid.
That country is there, for us,
carried as it is crossed. What you fear
will not go away: it will take you into
yourself and bless you and keep you.
That’s the world, and we all live there. 

(From:  “For My Young Friends Who Are Afraid, “in:  Ask Me; 100 Essential Poems, 2014 by the Estate of William Stafford)

I’ve felt that “high, passing voice” of fear for weeks, but  I hadn’t really stopped to figure out and articulate what, exactly, I was so fearful of.  The fear and stress I felt were having negative impact on my emotional and physical life.   I realized that to linger in that non-specific state of fear rendered me ineffective, whether in my writing, teaching, or how I began each day.  I cannot  change the outcome of the national election nor can I pretend it doesn’t affect me, but I can take steps to live without the weight of that constant barrage of “bad news” infecting my life.  I’ve kept the television news off, unwilling to listen to the post-election commentary or the reports of the first hundred days of the president-elect.  To do otherwise invites in the stress and agitation.   I can—and have—chosen how I want to live, what importance I give to events in my life, and how I respond to others.

I admit that I have not fully recovered from nor digested the impact of the national election,  and I doubt the impact will be apparent for some time yet.  But  I have taken steps to restore the routines that are so important to my dwell-being.  Like you, I may have to force myself to get out of bed or resist the temptation to turn on the nightly news  from time to time, particularly knowing how deleterious continuous bad news  to the human spirit.   But I have happily reinstated my routine of rising before dawn to write and walk in the stillness of early morning.  It helps to clear my mind of distraction, lessen the weight of things I cannot change and instead, refocus my intention on gratitude for each new day:  gratitude for the many blessings in my life–my daughters, grandchildren, a loving husband, a small dog who adores me, friends, and more–the list continues to expand.

As I walk, I again repeat  the words of Ticht Nhat Hahn, Vietnamese Zen Master and poet, first introduced to me  by The Spirited Walker guru, Carolyn Scott-Kortge.  Hahn’s words help me remember that each day offers us a fresh chance to live and act with gratitude, compassion and kindness.  Repeating them  helps me to dispel the knot of fear or agitation I have felt during the many, many weeks of the negative news reports.  I close this post with his words; perhaps you will find them useful too.

Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.

Writing Suggestions:

  • “Spend it all,” Annie Dillard advised new writers.  Why not take her advice?  Simply pour out your thoughts, feelings and reactions to these latest national or world events without editing.  Then put what you’ve written aside for a day or two before returning to read it.  Use a yellow highlighter to mark those phrases or sentences that stand out.  Choose one of them as your beginning sentence and write—a poem, an essay, even a fictitious narrative that captures what you think and feel about recent events or news—good or bad.
  • What helps you restore your positive energy or to heal from wounding events, whether the national political campaign, life’s disappointments, hurt, or other bad news.  How do you deal with fear or sorrow in ways that help you regain a sense of perspective, understanding, even, perhaps,  gratitude.
  • Has there been a time that you’ve had to pull the plug on the television, or another stressful habit?  Describe the situation, what you did to change your behavior and the results.

Hope is the thing with feathers 

That perches in the soul, 

And sings the tune without the words, 

And never stops at all…

(From: “Hope is the thing with feathers,” by Emily Dickinson)

 We face a presidential election this week, the conclusion to a season of political campaigns unlike any I can remember and one, I hope, I will not witness again.  I have been profoundly saddened and worried as the climate of divisiveness, name-calling, and hatred paint a disturbing portrait a country on the brink of a divide that seems increasingly unable to be bridged.

But I’ve had a reprieve from the soul dampening negativity.  For the past two weeks, I  turned away from it all—no television, no news casts, enacting a self-imposed reprieve from all the repetition of the toxicity that seems to be ailing us as a nation.  I was too busy, caring for two of my grandchildren, ages 7 and 5, as their mother, my daughter, realized a dream to trek in Nepal, and their father was deployed to Afghanistan.  The cares and heaviness of the world slipped away for a time as the days were filled with the sheer delight and demands of taking care of my energetic and delightful grandchildren.

Daily, I was greeted with their enthusiastic “Gramma!” when they awakened each morning, with hugs and “I love yous” and the anticipation of each new school day.  At day’s end,  I was the recipient of more the smiles and hugs  as they bounded from the school bus and reported what they had experienced during the day.  Together, we tackled homework, laughed and read books aloud, and discussed what was happening the next day, whether ballet lessons, soccer practice or a game, a school field trip, or the Halloween storybook costume parade.  They had no worry or despair about the state of the world or the impending election.  Each day was filled with new discovery—and with hope.  “I’ve haven’t heard you sound this happy for months,” my husband remarked when I returned home.  My grandchildren’s unstoppable hope and optimism were good medicine for me.

Siddhartha Mukherjee, physician and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Emperor of All Maladies:  A Biography of Cancer (2011) defined hope as a “vital organ” in a lecture he delivered in San Diego two years ago.  When one of the members of my “Writing Through Cancer” workshop told the group she’d heard him speak the night before our session, she told the group that  “Mukherjee said something really profound last night,” then opened her notebook to find his words she’d written down.  “Hope is a vital organ,” she read from her notes.  Everyone around the table listened intently and asked her to repeat his definition of hope once more so they could write it down in their notebooks.

It’s little wonder the words had such impact in a group of cancer patients and survivors.  According to Mukherjee, hope gives cancer patients added life force.  Is it any wonder then, that in the world of cancer or a troubled world, hope might be one of the most powerful healing agents we possess?

Healing, as you know, is more that medicine and treatments.  It is a process of “becoming whole,” even in the face of something as fearful as a terminal cancer diagnosis. Healing is a multi-faceted process of transformation–inside and out–and while medicine often plays a very important part, hope plays a central role.  In several studies exploring the impact of hope among cancer patients, researchers conclude that hope can help a patient decrease anxiety and increase their quality of life. Even among the terminally ill, hope is an essential resource that helps individuals cope during times of intense physical and psychological distress.

If a man die, it is because death

has first possessed his imagination.

(William Carlos Williams, quoted in Mukherjee, p.306).

Hope is an expectation that something good can happen in the future—and it is the expectation I witnessed in my grandchildren every single morning  these past two weeks.  They—and their eager anticipation of each day—were good medicine for me.  I was reminded that hope can be found—waiting, perhaps to be discovered–in many situations in our lives.  I think of Anne LaMott’s 2013 book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair, which illustrates how and the ways hope exists–even in a world punctuated by vitriolic political discourse, frequent reports of random shootings, car bombs, civilians being bombed in Syria, natural disasters, hunger or life-threatening disease.  “Hope is a conversation,” LaMott states.  “What allows us to go on and find those small moments of goodness, are to be found in “attention, creation, love, and,” she adds with incomparable wit, “dessert.”

“…those small moments of goodness.”  Hope is what we experience in random acts of kindness, a child’s delight in finding a tree frog as he explores his own yard or runs from the school bus to tell his grandmother he got “100%” on his book report.  It’s present in the test results that show a shrinking tumor or clinical trials of a new therapy; it’s hope we witness with the advent of every spring, when those determined crocuses poke their heads through the ice and snow at winter’s end.   It’s hope, that vital organ we all need to live—and yet, as many of us have felt from time to time, in the noise of crises, negative news reports or the constant thrum of divisive political discourse, hope sometimes seems out of reach…  But it isn’t.  Look around for those small moments of goodness, the daily reminders of that vital life force, hope.

“Hope.
It’s like a drop of honey, a field of tulips blooming in the springtime. It’s a fresh rain, a whispered promise, a cloudless sky, the perfect punctuation mark at the end of a sentence. And it’s the only thing in the world keeping me afloat.”
–Tahereh Mafi, Unravel Me

 

Writing Suggestion

This week, consider hope.  What role does hope play in your life?  Have you sometimes felt hopeless?  How did you rediscover or regain a sense of hope?  What gives you hope?  Write about it.

Dear Readers,

For the next two weeks, I am “single grandparenting” Nathan (age 7) and Emily (age 5) while their parents are traveling internationally.  It means I don’t have quite the amount of quiet time to consider and write a weekly blog.  I invite you to access a year’s worth of writing prompts and posts from my archive.  I’ll be back online in early November.

Warmest wishes,

Sharon Bray

http://www.writingthroughcancer.com

Revision is a big part of my life  every day of the week.  For the past several days, I’ve been “tinkering” with some poems I’ve been writing–changing words, reworking a stanza, even deleting ones that earlier, I liked, but now, seem trite or not quite what I wanted to express.  Revision is  an integral part of writing, one that takes up the greater part of my writing life, and requires much more time that the first full draft!   I now accept that writing is really about rewriting, as many well known writers have stated.  It is the necessary work that allows you to see your essay, story or poem in a fresh light.

Of course, revision doesn’t feel so good when we first get the necessary feedback on the need to do it. Poet Naomi Shihab Nye, who sees revision as ” a new vision” and meaning  ” you don’t have to be perfect the first time,  described how she once felt about the necessity of revision: 

If a teacher told me to revise, I thought that meant my writing was a broken-down car that needed to go to the repair shop. I felt insulted. I didn’t realize the teacher was saying, “Make it shine. It’s worth it.” Now I see revision as a beautiful word of hope. It’s a new vision of something. It means you don’t have to be perfect the first time. What a relief!

Open a dictionary and you’ll discover “revision” has been known about for a very long time. It’s borrowed from the French revision (1611), and derived from the Latin, “revīsere, meaning “to look, or see, again.”  Consult a thesaurus for synonyms of “revise,” and you’ll find words like reexamine, reassess, rethink, alter, modify and change.   Revision or “seeing again” is not limited to those who write; it’s a process we naturally undertake whenever we try to make sense out of something that has happened to us, like a job loss, relationship break-up, even learning to live with cancer.  Maybe “wisdom” or “understanding,” is simply a process of revision, of seeing something anew or at the very least, differently.

Half my life is an act of revision.  –John Irving

Look at it this way:  You are the author of your life story. Think of each day as having a blank page in your notebook. Things happen to you—good things and terrible things.  You make choices that will influence the events and their outcomes.  Despite that, the story closest to you, your own, is sometimes the most difficult to understand. In his wise book on writing, You Must Revise Your Life (1967), William Stafford wrote:

My life in writing…comes to me as parts, like two rivers that blend.  One part is easy to tell:  the times, the places, events, and people.  The other part is mysterious; it is my thoughts, the flow of my inner life, the reveries and impulses that never get known—[it] wanders along at its own pace…” 

It is precisely that undercurrent of our thoughts and emotions that is the more difficult part of your story to tell, yet, it is that deep river beneath the surface that holds the key to understanding.

Writing helps you tap into that inner life.  You begin to weave the people, places and events of your life with your thoughts and feelings, and a rich tapestry of stories is created, one that offers new understanding, new insights.  Revision is part of a creative process familiar to artists and writers.  It’s about letting the material of your lives talk back to you, to have the chance to see things differently.  According to Stafford, revising one’s life as a writer involves embracing whatever happens—in things and in language.   “The language changes,” he says, and “you change, the light changes…Dawn comes, and it comes for all, but not on demand.”

In a 1993 interview published in the Paris Review, Stafford was asked why he chose the title, You Must Revise Your Life  for one of his few books of prose.  He explained it this way:

 “I wanted to use the word revise because so many books about writing make it sound as though you create a good poem by tinkering with the poem you’re working on. I think you create a good poem by revising your life… by living the kind of life that enables good poems to come about… A workshop may seem, to those who take part in it, a chance to revise the work they bring. I think it’s a chance to see how your life can be changed…”

Revision isn’t just about writing; it’s much more.  It offers the opportunity to change your life.  Every day, life gives you material—and not all of it welcome.  Yet each day, each year, you “talk back” to life, ask questions, try to understand, and try to make sense of what has happened to you.  Revision, as Stafford said, is a chance to see how your life can be changed.

Writing Suggestion:

  • This week, try writing about how you’ve had to revise your life when the unexpected occurs, like a cancer diagnosis, or when you’ve begun something new, like a marriage, having children, or any new project.  How have these events prompted you to revise your life?
  • Another suggestion is to return to an earlier entry in your journal or notebook, something you wrote soon after your diagnosis, when you received unwelcome news about the prognosis of your illness, or during the upheaval of another difficult experience.  First, re-read what you wrote, highlighting the phrases that or words that stand out for you.  Now, write it again, but this time, focus on those highlighted phrases.  “Work” with your material.  Let it talk back to you as you recall the details of that event—sounds, smells, the quality of light, words said, what you were feeling–anything you can remember.  Rewrite it and compare the two versions.    What changed?  What did you see differently as a result of revision?
  • Answer the question:  Is revision a chance to see how your life can be changed?  What do you think?