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

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

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

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

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

.  Gratitude can make you more patient.

.  It might improve your relationship.

.  It improves self-care.

.  It can help you sleep.

.  It may stop you from overeating.

.  It can help ease depression.

.  It gives you happiness that lasts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Suggestions:

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

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

We know who we are.  

How can we be the same 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look! We have all
turned into
ourselves.

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

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

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.”  ― Rainer Maria Rilke

According to the calendar springtime arrived two weeks ago.  But for those of us watching the temperature climb barely about freezing, the days of sunshine chilled by the last blasts of March wind, we’re still waiting for the springtime season begin in earnest.  Nevertheless, as I gaze out the windows to the trees nearby, there are some hopeful signs of “almost spring” in the emerging buds on their branches, and the snow has disappeared from the parks and gardens.  In mid-March, even though we still donned winter coats to go outside, we were cheered by the emergence of snow flowers (Galanthus) poking their heads through the lawn of a friend’s house–a hopeful sign of new life, new beginnings and the promise of Springtime near.

“To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring,” poet and philosopher George Santayana wrote. Yet after Winter’s dark mornings, cold and inclement weather, springtime seems to enliven our senses and signal seasonal change in its newness, described by e.e. cummings  as a time “when the world is mud-luscious,” and “puddle-wonderful.”  Or, as Billy Collins imagined, “a spring day so perfect, so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze that it made you want to throw open all the windows in the house…”

“Nothing is so beautiful as Spring,” Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem, “Spring,” begins.  I love the spring, and as it returns, I recall my childhood and the exhilaration of the season. Springtime was joyous, filled with sounds of laughter and excited calls to neighborhood playmates,  eager to race outdoors and explore the fields and hills behind our houses. The world was full of promise:  new grass to romp through, the  fields and hills dotted with wildflowers.  We cast off winter coats for lighter sweaters, filled our afternoons and weekends with roller skating on sidewalks, climbing beneath barbed wire fences to re-discover favorite hiding places, imagining ourselves as great adventurers and discoverers of new lands, and returning home at dinnertime with flushed cheeks and fists full of yellow poppies and purple lupine for our mothers.  Our worlds were alive with promise.

“I can still bring into my body the joy I felt at seeing the first trillium of spring, which seemed to be telling me, “Never give up hope, spring will come.” 
― Jessica SternDenial: A Memoir of Terror (2010)

 It’s little wonder that Springtime is intricately intertwined with hope, renewal, a sense of possibility and new beginnings, according to Edward F. Mackey, director of the Mind-Body Institute of Applied Psychophysiology at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.  Norman Cousins, famous for using laughter to help cure himself from a crippling connective tissue disease, wrote that “hope may be our best medicine, the hidden ingredient in any prescription and a physician’s secret weapon (Head First: The Biology of Hope and the Healing Power of the Human Spirit, 1990).  A number of experts agree, arguing that hope may have a direct influence on the body’s chemical milieu and because of that, the power to stave off illness.

Anthony Scioli, PhD, co-author with Henry Biller of Hope in the Age of Anxiety (2009), explored some of the linkages between Springtime, hope and health in a 2012 Psychology Today article.  Springtime brings more sunshine, and the sunlight helps the body produce greater amounts of serotonin, an important chemical and neurotransmitter, and helps regulate important functions such as mood, appetite, digestion, sleep, and memory.  Low serotonin, in our bodies, is linked to depression.  He also cited a survey of oncologists, the majority of whom cited hope as the primary psychological factor impacting mortality.  Scioli stated that “while anecdotes outnumber rigorous empirical studies, there is enough evidence to suggest that a hopeful attitude has a real and measurable impact on health.”

The days here in Toronto are still chilly, but the buds on the trees and the increase in sunny days have already lifted my spirits.  Soon the tulips and crocus will bloom, the trees will bear new leaves, the “just-spring” color of green, and we’ll hear children shouting to one another as they play in the park across the street.  As if reinvigorated by the subtle shifts in the weather, the dogs romping about madly in the park each morning, as the new season tiptoes in and banishes winter from our days.

Hope, new life and return of Springtime are beautifully intertwined in Barbara Crooker’s poem, “For a Friend Lying in Intensive Care Waiting for Her White Blood Cells to Rejuvenate After a Bone Marrow Transplant:”

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

     their green swords, bearing cups of light.

The forsythia comes back, spraying its thin whips with

     blossom, one loud yellow shout…

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

     and millions of small green hands applauding your return.

(In:  The Cancer Poetry Project, V. 1, 2001)

 

 Writing Suggestions:

Reflect on springtime.  Do you notice changes in your energy, mood or outlook?  Do you feel more hopeful about life in general?  Explore the impact of spring on your mood and energy.

Is Spring a time of healing and of hope?  Explore the question.

What memories of springtime do you hold dear?  Write about a springtime in your childhood.  Capture the feelings, the sounds and sights of spring as vividly as you can.

Why not do as Georgia O’Keefe suggested:   hold a flower in your hand and let it become your world for a moment.  Perhaps you’ll find a poem waiting there.

Write about spring, wherever it takes you.

 

 

 

Dear Readers,

This week’s prompt is a “reprint” of the article written last week for my bi-monthly column featured in the current issue of Cancer Knowledge Network, an online resource published by MultiMed Inc.  I’ve included it as this week’s post since the topic of friendship is an important one, and not just during cancer, but for the benefits they can have in our lives. — Sharon Bray

FRIENDS:  WHY THEY’RE GOOD FOR US

“Good friends are good for your health.” They celebrate the good times and provide support in the tough times.  They keep us from being lonely, and we, as friends, return the gift of companionship.” (The Mayo Clinic)

Friends.  It’s a topic that comes up often in my cancer writing groups, having them and, during cancer, losing some.  It’s an experience everyone shares during difficult times, when we discover what separates lasting friendships from our other, more transitory ones.   True friendships endure, in part, due to a sense of shared history, stories, laughter and even tears.  They remind us of who we were and who we have become.  In times of upheaval, change and our difficult life chapters, they provide the continuity we find so important.  Yet, as we can sometimes discover, sometimes the people we’ve counted as friends aren’t there for us when our lives are turned upside down.

A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow. – William Shakespeare

Although I spent my childhood in one small town, my adult life has been defined by several major moves.  This past summer my husband and I relocated again, returning to Toronto, where we met and married nearly 30 years ago.  I’ve sometimes complained about the many times we’ve changed addresses, but I’ve been fortunate to have many enduring friendships with people scattered around the world, friends who shared the impulsiveness and turbulence of youth, stuck by me during difficult times in my life, showed up when I least expected it, embraced and welcomed me when I felt most alone.

We all need friends.  Without them, not only can our lives seem lonely, but there’s plenty of research to suggest that isolation and loneliness are often harbingers of emotional or physical illness.  “In general, the role of friendship in our lives isn’t terribly well appreciated,” Professor Rebecca G. Adams stated in a 2009 New York Times article, “What Are Friends For? A Longer Life,” by Tara Parker-Pope.  Adams teaches sociology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.  “There is just scads of stuff on families and marriage,” she said, “but very little on friendship. It baffles me. Friendship has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships.”

What are some of the benefits of friendship?  Parker-Pope explored this question in her article and found they include better health, a more positive outlook, longer lifespan and more hopeful attitude towards life.  She cited a number of studies exploring the impact of friendship on health and longevity.  For example, one ten-year study of older adults found those with a large circle of friends were less likely to die during the study than those with fewer.  Researchers also discovered strong social ties have additional benefits, like promoting brain health as we age.  Having multiple friendships, as a six-year study Swedish men demonstrated, helped lower the risk of heart attack and coronary heart disease more than simply having attachment to only a one person.  And in a 2006 study of nurses with breast cancer, those without close friends were four times more likely to die from their cancer than those with ten or more friends.

For those of us whose friends are scattered over the continent and around the world, the researchers also found that proximity and amount of contact are less important than simply having friends.  “What keeps us from drowning in the sea of change,” columnist Stacie Chevrier wrote in a 2016 CURE TODAY post, “are the people in our lives who come to the rescue:  our friends and family.”  We need our friends, and when we’re in the throes of life struggles, hardships or a life-threatening illness like cancer, we need them even more.

But you got to have friends.
The feeling’s oh so strong.
You got to have friends
to make that day last long.
..

(From:  “Friends,” Bette Midler, The Divine Miss M, 1972, lyrics by Mark Klingman and Buzzy Linhart)

Yet sometimes friends can disappoint us.  When you find yourself in the midst a cancer diagnosis, some friends may not reach out to you as you thought they might; others unexpectedly drop away.  Chevrier commented on her experience of losing friends during her cancer.  “Cancer is so awkward. I’ve come to realize talking about cancer can make people very uncomfortable. However, I’ve also come to realize that the silence was not about me, but about their discomfort.”

It hurts to have friends unexpectedly disappear, and yet, it’s more common among many cancer patients than you might think. Debra Sherman, a “Cancer in Context” blogger, commented on this experience in 2014.  “When someone is diagnosed with cancer,” she wrote, “it generates conflicted feelings that they want to avoid, so they don’t reach out.  Hearing you have been diagnosed with cancer may ignite fears of illness among some of your friends, even fears of death, and the sense “this could happen to me.”

It can feel awkward to one’s friends when you are first diagnosed with cancer.  It’s something more than a few struggle with, uncertain how to respond, asking, “What do I say to my friend?”  Fear of saying a wrong, clumsy or trite thing to a friend with cancer can make some shy away from face-to-face contact.  They may be afraid of upsetting you or feel as if they can’t respond in any meaningful way.  It’s an experience Gretchen Fletcher describes in her poem, “To a Friend Now Separated From Me by Illness.”

Our lives until so recently

parallel and filled

with common details…

details still in my life

while you lie in an alien bed…

I want to speak; you want to speak

but we’ve lost our common language…

How can I know

how it feels to lose a beast

and fight to save lungs,

bones, and brain

when all I have to battle

is the traffic?

(In:  The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. 1, 2001.)

Whatever the reason for a friend’s withdrawal, it’s difficult to experience at a time you need friends the most.  Is there anything  you can you do if you find your friends behaving differently?  Cancer Net offers some advice.  You can help your close friends understand your cancer and treatment.  Remember though, you are in charge of how much and what you want to tell them.  If they don’t bring it up, first decide what you want your friends to know, then, as you feel ready, discuss it with them.  For more casual friends, however, it’s probably best to stick to something simple, like, “I have cancer, but I’m getting treatment for it.”

Make new friends,

But keep the old.

One is silver

And the other gold…

(From: “Make New Friends,” http://www.scoutsongs.com)

Some of your friendships may change, but in many cases, those changes will be positive ones.  You may become closer and find it easier to talk about the important things in one another’s life.  And you might also find, as so many in my writing groups do, that you make new friends, those who share the cancer journey with you.  You can openly share fears, the language, and emotional ups and downs that are unique to the cancer experience.  And those bonds that develop between you are often deep and long-lasting.

Remember the song “You’ve Got a Friend?”  Written and recorded by Carole King in 1971.  James Taylor’s recording of it the same year  was the number 1 song on Billboard’s “Hot 100.”  Since then, it’s been sung and recorded by dozens of vocalists, including those as diverse as Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Barry Manilow and Ella Fitzgerald and others, testimony to the importance of friendship, the enduring and true ones we have in our lives…Now ain’t it good to know/that you’ve got a friend?

Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there, yes I will

Now ain’t it good to know
that you’ve got a friend… 

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about friendS and the role they have played in your illness.
  • When have friends made a difference in your life? How?
  • Write about a friendship that matters deeply to you. Why?
  • Have you lost friends when you were diagnosed with cancer or during another difficult period in your life?
  • You might even borrow from Joan Walsh Angland’s little book, A Friend is Someone Who Likes You, first published in 1960 and begin with the phrase, “A friend is someone who…”  and generate a list of things about the things you consider important in your friendships.

And I grew strong and I learned how to get along… I will survive

(from “I Will Survive,” sung by Gloria Gaynor, lyrics by written by Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris) 

I’ve been learning, once again, to dance.  It hasn’t been as easy.  My body isn’t as willing to move in new ways as it once was.  But I persist because dancing has health benefits, and whether my body balks a bit or not, it’s about giving up or “just” surviving, whether it’s serious illness, injury, or other life challenges we’re dealing with.  Survival,  I’ve come to realize, is synonymous with learning.

As many of you were, my parents enrolled me in a variety of extracurricular activities a child.  Given my mother’s observation that I was destined to be tall, she quickly made certain clumsiness would not accompany my  growth surges.  First, I took ballet classes, outfitted with pink ballet slippers and a leotard and, once a week, pointing my toes and learning the fundamentals of the classical dance form.  That was followed by acrobatics, tap and ballroom dance as I began to grow taller.  Despite all that, around 7th grade my awkwardness surfaced.  It was less about the dance steps and more about the fact I towered over most of the boys in my classes.  (Try dancing a box step with your knees bent the entire time.)  Nevertheless, I persisted, enrolling in square dance,  folk and ballroom classes in college, but my height was bothersome once again. There were never enough men enrolled in the classes, and that meant I was assigned to dance the part of the male partner.  (To this day, I tend to avoid ballroom style dancing, unable to be led easily by any partner.)

I gave up on dance altogether save for the social dancing we did to seventies rock and roll music at parties until my daughters’ grew into their teenage years.  As my mother had done for me, I enrolled them in jazz and ballet classes.  But I was so enthused by their jazz dance routines, I decided to sign up for an adult class in jazz dance, dancing during the entire time I was completing my doctoral degree, and even performing in the dance show the following year  with my two daughters.  I danced with more enthusiasm, perhaps, than talent, but dance was invigorating, fun and a great way to diminish the stress of graduate school.  Besides, I kept fit, agile and energetic.

Enter the decades of career building, a few half-hearted attempts to take dance classes that never seemed to measure up to the ones I did during graduate school, and the inevitable fact of aging.  I didn’t seem to move as freely as I once had.  Was it the class or the pupil?  The latter wasn’t something I wanted to consider, so gradually, dance fell by the wayside.  My daughters were married, having children, and I was nose-deep in a stressful career.  Instead, I tried exercising at the gym, taking T’ai Chi and Pilates classes.  Each had benefits but none were as fun as dance had been for me.  I lost interest and didn’t sustain any of those activities for more than a year or two.

Fast forward to this past year.  I was completely sidelined by an injured knee and Achilles tendonitis, and it made me cranky, mildly depressed and discouraged.  Stiffness, pain and embarrassment about moving like an old woman were  constant companions.  I hated that my body hurt and how uncomfortable it was to move, much less easily or quickly, abilities I’d long taken for granted. Worse, I am a heart failure patient, and a regimen of regular physical activity is necessary for improved heart functioning.  But it hurt to walk or climb stairs.  I felt trapped by my bodily ailments..  Weeks of pain turned into two, then three months, until, after a frank discussion with my cardiologist,  I’d had to act.  I got a referral to a sports medicine physician, physiotherapist and Pilates instructor, donned ankle braces and used up numerous rolls of athletic tape and began walking as much as I could stand.  Then in February, when a friend invited me to join a group called “The Vintage Dancers”, I jumped, well actually, I limped, at the chance.

“Vintage,” as you might expect, meant the dancers were of my age group and older, but it did not mean the class moved at a slower pace.  At the first class I attended, I was left in the dust by an energetic and enthusiastic group of women dancers, some of whom had recently recovered from hip replacement surgery or other bodily ailments.  Yet despite the dancing I’d once done well, I kept beginning on the wrong foot or chasséing in the opposite direction as everyone else.  More than once, I stepped to the sidelines to catch my breath!

The whole experience was not just comic, it was humbling.  I’ve never been a patient beginner—I have a perfectionist streak that inevitably invades any new learning—but my clumsy first attempts at dancing again it got me to thinking about how age, serious illness, or any major life transition requires we learn—even relearn—different ways of being, including skills we once took for granted.  We’re resilient beings, yes, but coming to terms with altered bodies and imperfect selves demands we re-evaluate who we are now vs. who we might have been at an earlier time. The image we once held of our younger, healthier selves) is challenged.  We’re forced to recognize that we may have limitations–physical pain, issues of stamina, agility or even memory–ones we naively believed would never belong to us.  Those complaints and ailments belonged to other people, right?  Wrong.

Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go. ― (May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude)

What is surviving about, really?  It’s about learning to deal with and overcome–to the best of our ability–the impact of aging, injuries, surgeries or treatment regimens and the negative impact on our bodies and minds.  It’s acceptance our lives have changed, and we must continue to learn new ways of being and living.   The ground beneath our feet might seem uncertain, or we’re aware that the steps we used to take with assurance now feel clumsy and tentative,but surviving doesn’t mean giving up.   It means learning other ways of being,  remaining as active and engaged with living as we can–even if, sometimes, the new learning isn’t always easy or pleasant.  It’s a bit like standing in the front row  of a dance class, as I did,  as the only newcomer in the group, trying to understand and mimic the movements everyone else seems to know by heart. We feel like beginners, and we feel awkward and uncertain.  I know that’s how I’ve felt–but after that discussion with my cardiologist several weeks ago , and I shook myself out of the doldrums and got busy living.

No matter how old you are,
it helps to be young
when you’re coming to life,

(Joy Ladin, “Survival Guide,” in:  The Future Is Trying to Tell Us Something: New and Selected Poems 2017)

Life is more than just  surviving.  It’s thriving, enjoying, contributing, and living as fully as we possibly can.  Whether cancer, the effects of aging, major surgeries, or unexpected life transitions, we have to remind ourselves  that we’ve  proven, again and again, we can adjust to life’s challenges and move on.  Our lives change in subtle and not so subtle ways year after year, but we learn the new movements, necessary strategies and behaviors, and little by little, we again embrace the life before us–new, different, and ours.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,

determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save. 

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

Writing Suggestion:

  • Thinking about your own life, how would you define “survival?”
  • Describe a time when life knocked you down.  What kept you going?  What helped you survive?
  •  Write about what it was like was to find your footing on uncertain ground and not only to survive but thrive and embrace the new life before you.

When we see our suffering as story, we are saved.–Anais Nin

As happens with every “Writing Through Cancer” program I lead at various cancer centers and support organizations, the weeks fly by and before I know it, I’m preparing for the final writing session, as I have again these past few days.  It’s a time of reflection and gratitude for me to remember where people began and where their writing has taken them in the past eight weeks.  So much happens during our meetings. My notebook is filled with snatches of the phrases and descriptions from participants’ writing shared aloud, writing that has touched, surprised or left me breathless, so honest and beautiful are their words.

Whenever I get somewhere, a poet has been there first.  –Sigmund Freud

“The call to write,” “is a call that’s received in the body first. John Lee wrote in his book, Writing From the Body(1994).  I recall what one cancer survivor wrote in a creative writing course I was teaching several years ago:   Even when I was in the midst of a five day in-patient ‘chemo’,” she wrote,” I took notes. Some are frightening and some are funny – and I’m still writing. I think this …has shoved me into being a writer and admitting it, whether anyone ever reads it or not.

What she describes is not unlike how many poets and writers have described the creative process.  It’s a physical urgency and it’s insistent.  It calls us to feel with every part of our bodies.   In her memoir, A Match to the Heart (1994), Gretel Erhlich describes the moment she realizes she has been struck by lightning.

“Deep in an ocean, I am suspended motionless.  The water is gray.  That’s all there is, and before that?  My arms are held out straight, cruciate, my head and legs hang limp.  Nothing moves.  Brown kelp lies flat in mud and fish are buried in liquid clouds of dust.  There are no shadows or sounds.  Should there be?  I don’t know if I am alive, but if not, how do I know I am dead?  My body is leaden, heavier than gravity.  … A single heartbeat stirs gray water.  Blue trickles in, just a tiny stream.  Then a long silence. Another heartbeat.  This one is louder, as if amplified…. I can’t tell if I am moving…Another heartbeat drives through dead water, and another, until I am surrounded by blue…. I have been struck by lightning and I am alive.”

Erhlich is not only writing from the memory or remnants of a near death experience, she is writing from the experience of her body, a vivid, visceral account of the physical sensations felt in the aftermath of being struck by lightning.  She portrays the lived experience of the human body, drawing us into her story through our senses. As readers, we feel an almost physical awareness of what she experienced in those terrifying moments.

One of the most healing aspects of writing is that it helps us make sense of the chaos of emotions we feel when our lives are turned upside down by illness, tragedy or loss.  We stumble into insights and meaning as we release feelings on the page.  Time and time again in my writing groups, I’ll hear people react with surprise, saying “I had no idea I wrote that!”  as they read their writing aloud.  Tears may come without warning, laughter too, as they “hear” what they have actually written in the timed writing exercises.

Long before there were words…

long before this haze of lies this

swirl of stupid things said and done

the body knew… (Seibles, in Lee, p. 5-6)

John Lee writes of ancient wisdom that lies dormant in our bodies, of knowing deep inside, “how to get through the high grass without being devoured by lions.”  When we begin to release the memories and images we have stored in our bodies, powerful writing often results.  Brenda Ueland, in her wise little book, If You Want to Write (1938), counsels the would-be writer:

You must feel when you write…. You must disentangle all thought.  You must disconnect all shackles….  You can write as badly as you want to.  You can write anything you want to…just so you write it with honesty and gusto and try not to make somebody believe that you are smarter than you are.”

To write, we need to learn allow ourselves to open up. The experiences held within our bodies can take us into new ideas and fresh ways of writing.  It doesn’t happen easily at first, because in the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis, the sudden loss of a loved one, or other expected tragedy, the nerve endings of pain and suffering are numbed.  Sooner or later the emotional pain we feel becomes insistent, needing release.   Releasing our emotions through writing not only clarifies our thinking, it releases energy.  Writing requires we free up that energy and give it voice.  To do so, to write well, we must let ourselves be vulnerable, to feel deep within our bodies.

“What is important, “Audre Lorde wrote in The Cancer Journals (1980), “must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”  “Writing is a courageous act,” prize winning author of The Alchemist, Paul Coelho wrote.   We put ourselves, our lives, on paper.  Others interpret what we’ve written from their own experience.  Yet to write honestly and authentically requires we have the willingness to go deep and tell the truth of our experience.  Writing helps us reclaim and express the difficult feelings that are part of our humanness.  We begin to heal, but much more happens:  We embark on a process of unmistakable growth as writers.

These past eight weeks writing with the men and women who’ve attended my expressive writing program has, once again, reinforced my belief not only of writing’s healing power, but of the emergent power and beauty to be found by individuals who, at our first meeting, apologized and said,  “I’m not a writer, but…”  That myth has been discounted.  As literary critic Anatole Broyard wrote, “In every patient, is a poet trying to get out” (In:  Intoxicated by My Illness, 1992).   How can you give your poet, the writer inside you, permission to be released?

Writing Suggestion:

Begin slowly.  Start with a simple phrase, “I remember _____and describe that memory in detail.  Then, borrowing from Natalie Goldberg, continue for three minutes, writing as many single sentences as you can all beginning with “I remember…..”, for example, “I remember the day my grandmother died.”   Or “I remember seeing the pavement rushing up to meet me.”  Or “I remember the moment the doctor said_____”

Once you’ve filled a page with “I remember,” turn it over.  Begin again, only this time, start with “I don’t remember…” and again, write as many as you can in three minutes.  These memories may be more difficult to recall, but they yield much to explore in writing, for example, “I don’t remember why my mother and father stopped speaking; I don’t remember passing out on the sidewalk…  I don’t remember what it was about that morning that first upset me… 

When you’ve written as many of “I don’t remember” as you can in three minutes, choose one sentence from either side of your paper and explore it.  You have many memories that can result in a longer narrative or perhaps even a poem.  But focus on one and tell the story of that single memory, describing not only the event or setting, but what you were feeling in as much detail as possible.  Write from the “lived” experience of your body.

But it’s really fear you want to talk about

and cannot find the words

so you jeer at yourself 

you call yourself a coward

you wake at 2 a.m. thinking failure,

fool, unable to sleep, unable to sleep…

(From: “Insomnia,” by Alicia Ostriker, in: The Book of Seventy, 2009)


“Unable to sleep…”  It happens to me periodically, and I’ve written about it before, since it is one of those persistent afflictions that comes with life’s worries and aging.  It’s triggered by a distraction like my husband’s snoring or finding my dog has quietly leapt up and curled her body next to mine–taking up the better part of my side of the bed.  More often, there’s worry, whether for my loved ones or myself.  It happened just a couple of weeks ago, after a round of cardiac testing and a frank discussion with my cardiologist.  “We’re in this together,” she said, as I digested the results.  Later that night, however, the emotions I’d held at bay during the day kept me tossing and turning until the wee hours.

Paul Kennedy, in December 2017 CBC broadcast entitled “Have Insomnia?  Blame the Romantic Poets,” described a “culture of insomnia” as typical for this century, the Information Age we now live in. He quoted the work of Robert Vaughn, author of Bright Eyed:  Insomnia and its Cultures (2015), who wrote:  “We’ve naturalized insomnia and … valorized insomnia.  People boast about it, connecting to late capitalism’s idea that we are in a total state of productivity… We’ve created a dialogue in our heads that sleep is a kind of luxury. We’re expected to be on call 24/7.”

Whether a 24/7 work culture or the anxieties and worries of life, sleeplessness or restless nights are something most of us experience at some time or another.  Whether it’s the result of a tough day at work, deadlines, finances, worry about a loved one or just eating a late dinner–sleep may be, for a time, elusive.  Worse, however, are the times during emotional upset, personal crises, or serious illness, when sleep disruption can last for weeks.

You’re lying in bed trying to sleep, but you find yourself tossing and turning, unable to get comfortable…”  Ironically, it a message in this morning’s email that sparked this week’s prompt, leading me to the ad from the makers of “Privacy Pop,” a pop-up bed tent designed to promote  a solution for better sleep and “alone time” or simply, fun for children. I went to the site to unsubscribe and instead, ended up reading their blog, which offered  several practical tips on improving sleep, including, of course, the pop up tent, stating it “is a perfect method to develop and maintain the darkness necessary to promote the best possible sleep for your body.” (I bought one in December intended for the fun of my grandchildren’s sleepovers, but I now wondered if, during a restless night, I should try it!)

Sleeplessness, according to the New York Times’ Health Guide, involves “difficulty falling asleep…waking up too early in the morning, or waking up often during the night…or combinations of these patterns.”  …as many as 25% of Americans report occasional sleeping problems. Chronic sleeping problems, however, affect about 10% of people. The lack of restful sleep can affect your ability to carry out daily responsibilities because you are too tired or have trouble concentrating. All types of insomnia can lead to daytime drowsiness, poor concentration, and the inability to feel refreshed and rested in the morning.”

Sleep difficulties are common to most of us at some time or another, as evidenced in countless stories, essays or poems from literature.   “Sleep now, O sleep now,” James Joyce wrote in his poem by the same name, “A voice crying “Sleep now”/is heard in my heart…”  Charles Dickens, in an essay titled, “Lying Awake,” wrote:

But, it happened to me the other night to be lying: not with my eyes half closed, but with my eyes wide open… my hair pitchforked and touzled all over the pillow; …glaringly, persistently, and obstinately, broad awake. Perhaps, with no scientific intention or invention, I was illustrating the theory of the Duality of the Brain; perhaps one part of my brain, being wakeful, sat up to watch the other part which was sleepy. Be that as it may, something in me was as desirous to go to sleep as it possibly could be, but something else in me WOULD NOT go to sleep, and was as obstinate as George the Third.

Even the beloved children’s character,Winnie the Pooh, had sleep problems:

But [Pooh] couldn’t sleep. The more he tried to sleep the more he couldn’t. He tried counting Sheep, which is sometimes a good way of getting to sleep, and, as that was no good, he tried counting Heffalumps. And that was worse. Because every Heffalump that he counted was making straight for a pot of Pooh’s honey, and eating it all… Pooh could bear it no longer.
― A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh, 1926

Among cancer patients, sleep disorders are common.  A few years ago, unable to sleep, I tiptoed to my desk in the pre-dawn hours and turned on my computer.  I was not alone.  An email arrived in my inbox moments later from a member of one of my cancer writing groups.  She was beginning a new treatment for metastatic breast cancer and unable to sleep, had been writing in an attempt to capture the myriad thoughts about her illness and life, ones making her sleep elusive.  Several recent studies show 30 to 50% of cancer patients have trouble sleeping, compared to 15% in the general population. Even 2 to 5 years post-treatment, symptoms of insomnia were present in 23 to 44% of study participants. Several factors contributed to patients’ sleeping difficulties:  physical pain, side effects of treatment, emotional stress, surgery and hospitalization.

The inability to go to sleep and stay asleep has negative effects on us all, including anxiety, depression, fatigue, headaches or disruption in the body’s hormonal balance, but perhaps more than we anticipate. In an earlier study, David Spiegel and his colleagues found that those who suffer from troubled sleep are also more cancer prone.  When one’s circadian rhythm is disrupted, a person’s cancer prognosis can be affected.  As a result, the researchers concluded “A good night’s sleep may be one weapon in the fight against cancer.” (Science Daily, October 1, 2003).

What can you do if you are one of those who suffer from sleepless nights or insomnia?  MD Anderson Cancer Center offers suggestions to help you achieve a better night’s sleep.

  • Power down. The blue light from cell phones, tablets, TV and computer screens suppresses melatonin, which directly interferes with sleep.
  • Rituals.  Make sure you keep a bedtime and wake up ritual, even on the weekends.
  • Cool it down. Check the temperature of your bedroom. The optimum bedroom temperature should be between 65 to 72 degrees for sound sleep.
  • Leave the room. If you cannot sleep within 5 to 10 minutes of lying down, get out of bed and read a magazine or book that is soothing or boring. Spend time in prayer or meditation to calm the mind.
  • Limit your food and drink intake. Avoid heavy meals, alcohol, chocolate or caffeine products, such as soda, coffee or tea, three to four hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid naps. Keep your daytime naps to 30 minutes or less. And, don’t take a nap within several hours of bedtime.
  • Exercise.  The American Cancer Society recommends that cancer patients and survivors do at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week.
  • Pull down the shades. Your bedroom more like a cave, dark, cool and quiet.  Cover clocks or other electronic devices that emit light in your bedroom.
  • Write it out. Keep a pen and paper by your bed if you are prone to wake up and worry about the next day’s events.

It appears that every man’s insomnia is as different from his neighbor’s as are their daytime hopes and aspirations. —F. Scott Fitzgerald

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about sleepless nights. What keeps you awake at night? Explore it.
  • What do you remember most about a particular sleepless night? Describe it in as much detail as you can.
  • What fears or other emotions often resurface and keep you tossing and turning?
  • Have you ever “birthed” an idea for a poem or story in the darkness of the night?  Write it.
  • What’s helps you coax yourself back to sleep? Write about your rituals or calming practices that help you overcome the agony of a sleepless night.