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Inside every patient, there’s a poet trying to get out.—Anatole Broyard, 1990

Poetry and medicine share a long history, dating back to the Greek god Apollo, who was responsible for both healing and poetry.  Today, The use of metaphor, a poetic tool and figure of speech comparing two things seemingly unrelated, is common not only in poetry, but illness and everyday life.  Consider the sports talk that dominates this Super Bowl Sunday, one example of how metaphors permeate our everyday lives, in the language we use and in the way they influence our thoughts and actions.  For example, we use sports metaphors almost unconsciously to describe experiences in our daily life.  In the workplace, you strive to be  a “team player” or be encouraged to “run with a good idea.”  In budding romance, a boy might ” “make a pass at someone,” or in an emotional argument between two people, one is told he or she is “way out of bounds.”

There’s little doubt that our metaphors are visual and illustrative, but they also run the risk of creating stereotypes or confusion, even becoming clichés.   Some, like sports and military metaphors are so common in our daily language, they are used routinely to describe medical experience.  In “The Trouble with Medicines’ Metaphors,” (The Atlantic, August, 2014)  author Dhruv Khullar, MD, wrote:

The words we choose to describe illness are powerful. They carry weight and valence, creating the milieu in which goals of care are discussed and treatment plans designed. In medicine, the use of metaphor is pervasive. Antibiotics clog up bacterial machinery by disrupting the supply chain. Diabetes coats red blood cells with sugar until they’re little glazed donuts. Life with chronic disease is a marathon, not a sprint, with bumps on the road and frequent detours...  Military metaphors are among the oldest in medicine and they remain among the most common. Long before Louis Pasteur deployed imagery of invaders to explain germ theory in the 1860s, John Donne ruminated  on the “miserable condition of man,” describing illness as a “siege…a rebellious heat, [that] will blow up the heart, like a Myne” and a “Canon [that] batters all, overthrowes all, demolishes all…destroyes us in an instant.”

As Khullar points out, “…we’ve internalized these metaphors, so much so that we often may not recognize how they influence us.”  Yet metaphors help us understand one another.  They offer a way to make sense of the emotional chaos accompanying a cancer diagnosis and communicate our feelings to others. Khuller referred to a 2010 study that found physicians use metaphors in nearly two-thirds of their conversations with patients with serious illness.  “Physicians who used more metaphors were seen as better communicators. Patients reported less trouble understanding them, and felt as though their doctor made sure they understood their conditions.”

Metaphors get our attention.  They’re visual, sometimes visceral and offer us a shorthand route to emotions and a vivid way to communicate and understand the experience of illness.  They help the listener or reader understand and appreciate what we are experiencing.

Consider the poem, “The Ship Pounding,” by former poet laureate, Donald Hall.  He offers us a glimpse into the final months of poet Jane Kenyon (his wife) and her struggle with leukemia through metaphor, creating a visual image of a ship filled with passengers, heaving in rough waters:

Each morning I made my way   

among gangways, elevators,   

and nurses’ pods to Jane’s room   

to interrogate the grave helpers   

who tended her through the night   

while the ship’s massive engines   

kept its propellers turning…

At first, the narrator is hopeful:

The passengers on this voyage   

wore masks or cannulae

or dangled devices that dripped   

chemicals into their wrists.   

I believed that the ship

traveled to a harbor

of breakfast, work, and love.   

But Kenyon’s illness cannot be cured, evident in the final lines, as the narrator waits to hear his wife call and knows he must be ready to:

… make the agitated

drive to Emergency again

for readmission to the huge

vessel that heaves water month   

after month, without leaving   

port, without moving a knot,   

without arrival or destination,   

its great engines pounding.

 

(From “The Ship Pounding,” In Without, 1998))

Hall has given us a powerful image in his metaphor, and by comparing one thing to another, we see and understand it conceptually and emotionally.

When Anatole Broyard, whose book, Intoxicated by My Illness and Other Writings on Life and Death (1993), his experience of terminal prostate cancer, wrote:  Always in emergencies we invent narratives. . . Metaphor was one of my symptoms.  I saw my illness as a visit to a disturbed country. . . I imagined it as a love affair with a demented woman who demanded things I had never done before. . .   When the cancer threatened my sexuality, my mind became immediately erect. 

Arthur Frank, sociologist and author of At the Will of the Body:  Reflections on Illness (1991), a memoir of his experiences of cancer and heart attack, describes his illness and recovery as a “marathon.”  Not surprisingly, Frank is a runner, and the physical and mental demands of the marathon were apt comparisons to describe his experiences of illness.

Kat Duff, diagnosed with chronic fatigue and immune system dysfunction syndrome, wrote The Alchemy of Illness, (1993) exploring illness narratives as a way to gain insight into the nature of illness.   She compared her illness to a landscape, a wilderness, or coral reef, and health as an adventurous voyage through it.

Macklin Smith, diagnosed with leukemia, compares the hospital to a prison in his poem, “Independence:”

Even incarcerated men and women can achieve some independence
Through their choice of TV programming, wardrobes, even e-mail,
Depending on the warden’s policy and type of prison,
Although in the super-max federal system they cannot choose
Any of these things: they’re in solitary 23 hours a day, strip searched
prior to their hour of exercise, and never go outside, no
window, and they’re under artificial lighting night and day…

(In:  Transplant, 2002).

These are only a few examples of the metaphors others have used to describe and communicate their experience of illness, but, as Anatole Broyard reminds us, metaphors do not belong solely to the world of poetry and literature, rather,  “Metaphors may be as necessary to illness as they are to literature, as comforting to the patient as his own bathrobe and slippers.”

Writing Suggestion:

  • This week, explore the metaphors you use to describe your cancer experience—or any other difficult and painful chapter of life. What images do our metaphors convey?
  • Begin with a phrase such as “Cancer is a…” or “illness is like a…” and finish the thought, noting what image or word emerges.  Remember, write quickly, without editing.  Set the timer for five or ten minutes and keep your pen (or fingers) moving.
  • Once you’ve finished, read over what you’ve written.   What surprises you?  Do you discover any unexpected metaphors?  How do they help to describe and explain your experience of illness or hardship? Perhaps your metaphors can inspire a poem or a story that describes your experience of illness or hardship in greater detail.

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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?

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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?

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

From:  “The Wild Geese,” by Wendell Berry

Throughout my childhood and undergraduate years, I was active in the Methodist church, involved in the youth groups and later, in the Methodist Student Movement, which was very involved in civil rights and social justice.  Some of my most enduring friendships were formed during that period, but for the better part of my adult life,  I’ve been a lapsed church-goer, craving a deeper spiritual practice than I experienced in the Sunday morning services.   For years, I dabbled with other religious traditions, tried practicing meditation, but nothing seemed to fill my need for the spiritual life I once knew.

Ironically, I’ve led workshops with the bereaved and the terminally ill, and in all of them, one’s faith and spirituality are central.  Still, I searched for something more in my life, even beginning a chaplaincy program several years ago, only to withdraw after a few weeks because, as I told the other participants, I didn’t feel I was “religious” enough to be a chaplain.

And yet, questions of spirituality and faith have always been important and central to my life.  It was only after a spiritual retreat I co-led a couple of years ago, I realized I had had overlooked the spiritual practice I’ve had for years:  a daily routine of writing—freely and deeply—something which began in my teens as I pondered life’s meaning and a later became a refuge, and a virtual sanctuary in my daily adult life.  Writing, as some writers have said, is like a kind of prayer, something I’d always felt about my daily writing practice, but I hadn’t acknowledged how it had, over a period of many years, become my spiritual practice.

Nearly twenty years ago,  I was struggling with a near perfect storm of losses—my father was dead from lung cancer, my mother had begun her descent into the darkness of Alzheimer’s disease, and our family’s dynamics resulted in my becoming estranged from my siblings.   At the same time, I was in the midst of a soul wrenching experience of having to downsize a dying nonprofit organization,  when an unexpected diagnosis of early stage breast cancer–while not life threatening–finally thrust me into a period of complete numbness.  Writing, as it had always been, was my refuge, the only way I could express the grief and heartache I felt,  The only way I could make sense of everything that was happening.  Writing not only helped me cope, it became a fundamental part of my spiritual life.

I have since maintained a daily writing practice, a ritual of quiet meditation that begins in the pre-dawn hours of each day, well before the outside world pulls me into its noisy demands.  I settle in my chair and open the pages of leather bound journal I’ve written in for years.  A new page awaits, blank and inviting, and I recall Rita Dove’s words in, “Dawn Revisited:”  the whole sky is yours/ to write on, blown open/ to a blank page…

The whole sky is yours to write on…  I write every morning, without expectation, beginning with one small observation–something I notice in the moment—fog lifting from the canyon floor, the red breasted hummingbird who appears each morning at the garden fountain, a hawk’s wings spread wide as he glides over the canyon below; the graceful movement of eucalyptus trees in the morning breeze, the smell of freshly brewed coffee—whatever captures my attention.

Sometimes, a short poem emerges on the page, and other times, it’s a feeling or memory, a door open into a longer narrative.  It matters less what I write than simply that I write, embracing the solitude, intertwining the external world with my internal one, exploring whatever words or sentences appear on the page.

“At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world~ now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening.                                         Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk.

Writing is my daily meditation and prayer.  It opens me, ensures I am “paying attention” to what is before me or inside me. It informs my intentions for each day and ultimately, the work I do.  Writing isn’t for everyone, and that hardly matters, because anything that opens you to quiet contemplation and the deeper parts of your lives can be a spiritual practice, for example, art, music, meditation, yoga, hiking, dance…  As Thomas Merton said, “Art enables us to find ourselves and and lose ourselves at the same time.”

Life’s hardships thrust us into what can only be defined as a deeply spiritual journey, although we may not recognize it as such.  We may kick and scream, rail against the injustices of those events, but like it or not, we’re forced to re-examine our lives in ways we have not done before.  We learn to pay attention, really pay attention, to what truly matters to us.   In times of hardship, life-threatening illness, or other suffering, it’s often our spiritual lives that keep us from losing hope, that keep us whole.  As New York Times editor, Dana Jennings, wrote in his blog “One Man’s Cancer,” our spiritual lives sustain us through life’s most challenging chapters:

I am not a fool. I am a patient with Stage T3B cancer and a Gleason score of 9. I need the skills and the insights of the nurses and doctors who care for me. But they don’t treat the whole man. Medicine cares about physical outcomes, not the soul. I also need — even crave — the spiritual antibodies of prayer, song and sacred study.  (New York Times, June 2009)

I also need—even crave–the spiritual antibodies of prayer, song and sacred study…  Among cancer patients, studies show that faith and spirituality are important factors in the quality of life. I witness this in my writing groups.  Faith or spirituality are  often expressed in the poetry and stories written and shared with each other.  As one member said “The community I am building with my fellow writers …is… a form of spirituality.”  Sharing the stories of one’s experience of cancer is one way our spiritual lives deepen and solidify.

Through the exchange of stories, we help heal each other’s spirits…Isn’t this what a spiritual life is about?          -–Patrice Vecchione, Writing and the Spiritual Life                                                                      

However you define your spiritual practice, it can comfort you in times of struggle, but it also gives you the opportunity to deepen your understanding and compassion for yourself and others.  You learn to pay attention to what, in your lives, truly matters, what is essential and important.  You learn to remember gratitude and appreciation for the ordinary gifts life offers you each day.

Varda, who died of metastatic breast cancer nearly fifteen years ago, wrote with me the last two years of her life.  I’ve never forgotten her writing, often humorously, sometimes poignant, but always honest, voicing what others were sometimes afraid to express.  Varda was thrust into a journey that may have brought her to her knees, but she continued to write deeply about her life, her faith and her cancer during the many remaining months of her life.  Her stories were her “spiritual antibodies”—not her cure, but part of her courage to face and help others face her death with grace, love, and even shared laughter.  It was the evidence of the depth of her spiritual life. Near the final weeks of her life, she wrote a poem expressing her spiritual journey:

God and I always had a special relationship,

sealed in ancient Hebrew prayers

and stained glass windows.

The Shofar blown on Yom Kippur.

The Book of Life open for ten days a year,

and then my fate sealed.

 

But our relationship has changed.

In asking me to surrender to this illness,

God has asked me to let go—to trust—float free.

And I have found this to be a most precious time.

 

My cancer has challenged my faith,

and I have found an incredible well I did not know I had.

I have found true surrender,

enormous peace.

(From:  “Faith,” by Varda Nowack Goldstein, in:  A Healing Journey:  Writing Together Through Breast Cancer, by Sharon Bray, 2004).)

Writing Suggestions:

  • What nourishes your spiritual life?
  • What spiritual practices or rituals have helped sustain you in times of illness, hardship or struggle?
  • Where have you found your solace, your strength, your source for “spiritual antibodies?”

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I teach a six week online course entitled “Transformational Writing:  Writing to Heal & Make Life into Art” for the UCLA extension Writers’ Program, which I’ve been doing since 2007.  Those who enroll do so to write and tell their stories of trauma, hardship, suffering or serious illness.  It’s something that novelists, memoirists and poets, famous and lesser known, have done for a very long time.  “Whenever I get somewhere,” Sigmund Freud complained, “a poet has been there first.”  And long before Dr. James Pennebaker’s groundbreaking studies on the health benefits of writing, Anais Nin already knew what his research would confirm decades later:  “When we see our suffering as story, we are saved,” she wrote.

As I read through this week’s discussion comments from the students in my UCLA class, one, in particular, stood out.  Writing about a serious illness, one woman wrote, “Even when I was in the midst of a five day in-patient ‘chemo’, 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.”

“The call to write,” Author John Lee tells us in Writing From the Body,  in “is a call that’s received in the body first.  Poets and writers have described the creative process as a physical urgency; it’s insistent.  It calls us to feel, to feel with every part of our lives. (Writing from the Body, Sondra Perl, in Felt Sense, Writing with the Body, states it another way:  There is a space inside of us that “holds within it all that is not yet said, what waits implicitly before words come.”

To write from the body, we need to learn allow it to open up, for the experiences held within the body offers new ideas and fresh ways of writing. The irony, of course, is that in the aftermath of a debilitating illness, loss or hardship, we’re numb.   We’ve learned to live in our heads—cutting off the nerve endings of pain and suffering.  Writing’s power to heal, in part, comes when you begin translating emotions into language.  Releasing your emotions through writing not only clarifies your thinking, it releases energy.  To write well requires you free up that energy and give it voice, and it necessitates allowing yourself to feel deep within your body.

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)

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 you honor that wisdom by releasing the memories and images stored in your body, powerful writing is often the result.

Something happens, and then the world spins on a new axis.”  Suzanne Berger writer in the prologue of Horizontal Woman:  The Story of A Body in Exile.  Berger, recounting her experience of becoming paralyzed, describes the sensation of suddenly unable to move:

“I am standing outside a shopping mall on a shimmering fall day in Chagrin Falls, Ohio…I bend down to pick up my child, but the bending never finishes, breaks instead into spitting lights of pain that spread over a pool of half-consciousness.  A tearing is felt—heard almost—within the thickness of flesh, moving in seconds across the base of the spine.  The body instantly announces:  This is an important event; this is an event you will never forget.  I can’t get up.  The asphalt is icy.  Somehow I am wedged into a car.  The emergency room regrets not knowing what to do.”

In another memoir titled A Match to the Heart by Gretel Ehrlich, we read her account of being struck by lightning.  Erlich begins:

“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 it, 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.

Brenda Ueland, in her wise little book, If You Want to Write, 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.”

Time and time again, I witness the surprise from individuals who attend my writing groups for cancer survivors.  “I’m not a writer,” many of them often say at the beginning of the workshops, and yet, as they write from their cancer experience, something remarkable happens.  Their writing takes on power.  It’s strong, vivid and visceral.  The group listens in rapt attention, moved by what a participant reads aloud.  “I didn’t know I was going there,” the individual often says.  “I didn’t know I could write like this.”

“What is important, “Audre Lorde wrote in The Cancer Journals, “must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”  Writing honestly and authentically takes real courage, the willingness to go deep and tell the truth of your experience.  Writing out of pain, trauma, and illness helps you to reclaim and express those difficult feelings as part of yourself.  What happens as you do is not healing, but a process of unmistakable growth as a writer.

“In every patient,” Anatole Broyard wrote in his memoir, Intoxicated by My Illness, “is a poet trying to get out.”  How can you let the poet, the writer inside you get out?

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 more 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.  Tell the story of the 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 the body.

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For the Week of February 21, 2106:  Only Kindness

The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the greatest intention.–Kahlil Gibran

Kindness.  I have been focusing on this word each morning, remembering that life is truly measured in the everyday, momentary interactions we have with others.  It’s about the offer to help carry a package, to give our place in line to another, send a card to someone who’s ill, and to treat one another with compassion and respect.  It helps me to think about kindness each day because, in the context of the contentious political environment in this country, where continual opposition, ridicule and volleys of verbal attacks have replaced any hope of rational debate, the American democratic values I was taught in grade school —ones I believed included fundamental human kindness– seem like distant memories.  Those values I once took for granted seem irrevocably lost in the current political circus, the violence and racism dominating the news each night.

“Before you know what kindness really is,” poet Naomi Shihab Nye tells us, “you must lose things…”

feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

(From “Kindness”, by Naomi Shihab-Nye in The Words Under The Words ©1994)

Kindness, the simple act of friendship, compassion and generosity to others, has a long history in humankind.  It was one of the “Knightly Virtues,”a set of ‘standards the Knights of the Middle Ages adhered to in daily living and their interactions with others.  Confucius urged his followers to “recompense kindness with kindness.  Despite the barrage of images from war, violence and suffering, acts of kindness have always been valued across cultures and religions. The Talmud claims that “deeds of kindness are equal in weight to all the commandments.”  Iman Musa Al-Kadhim, seventh after the prophet Mohammed, wrote that “Kindness is half of life.  Paul of Tarsus defined love as being “patient and kind”(I Corinthians), while in Buddhism,  Mettä, one of the Ten Perfections, is most often translated as “loving-kindness.”

Kindness is something we offer to others without expectation of reward or recompense.  In Aristotle’s Rhetoric, kindness is defined as “helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself…   Even the philosopher Friedrich Nietzche described kindness and love as “the most curative herbs and agents in human intercourse.”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kindness)

Many of us have discovered the healing power of kindness during times of serious illness, life hardship, or just a day when things don’t seem to go right.  We often discover kindness when we least expect it, from people we may not even know.  Yet it’s these small acts, the little gestures that are easily overlooked or barely noticed, that we discover hope and gratitude.

Kindness goes hand in hand with gratitude.  If I begin my day by remembering the little kindnesses I experienced in the previous 24 hours, I feel gratitude.  All I have to do is pay attention—get out of my head, my little worries or complaints, and start my day with an attitude of kindness, a practice helped by a meditation of Thich Nhat Hanh:

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.

Compassion and kindness are illustrated in the poem, “Finding God At Montefiore Hospital,” by cancer survivor Lorraine Ryan.  She describes the nightly visits from a hospital worker, Juan, who mops her room at night:

I remember the rhythm of the dunking;

The mop going into the pail

Juan squeezing the mop

The mop hitting the floor with a whoosh…

With every move, he looked up:

“How’s it really going?”

“Did your boy come up today?”

“How is he doing without you at home?”

 

Sometimes I couldn’t lift my head

off the pillow—

when vomiting and mouth sores

wouldn’t let me speak—

the swish of his mop

bestowed the final blessing

of the night…

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

As Ryan’s poem illustrates, kindness helps us find our way out of darkness to heal.   Juan manifests kindness in his concern:  How’s it really going?  This is what kindness is—sincere, real, and deeply human, small everyday acts of compassion.  Kindness also provides solace.  Hope finds a way back into our daily lives.  We become better and kinder human beings for experiencing it.

Writing Suggestion:

First, take a blank sheet of paper and list all the acts of kindness you remember, ones that brightened your day, eased your pain, and made a difference in your day.  Perhaps you played it forward—because of the kindness you received, you were motivated to reach out to other friends, acquaintances or even strangers in need.  Write about how an act of kindness eased your dampened spirit, sadness or loneliness.

Once we rediscover kindness in our lives, as Naomi Shihab-Nye tells us:

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.

The world could use a little more kindness between people, don’t you think?

 

For the Week of February 21st:  First You Must Have the Quiet

I enjoyed a few days of solitude this past week, rare since my husband retired from academic life.  He traveled to Sacramento for the week for a short-term consulting project while I rediscovered the joy of a morning routine which began before sunrise and the solitude to write undisturbed in the morning stillness.  Without distractions, I found I was paying attention, being fully present to my outer and inner worlds.  It was a gift and a reminder of how important it is to sit in silence and be present to what is right in front of me vs. letting the day’s demands rush in to consume my thoughts.  I began each day in gratitude instead of worry or running through the list of tasks that needed attention.

I’ve written before how our attention and energies can be pulled in many, and often conflicting, directions by the  demands of a busy life or times of of illness, pain or hardship.  The solitude of writing offers a respite for me.  I quiet an overactive mind, reclaim a sense of calm, and find solace and healing.  Without it, I feel incomplete, or slightly off-center.

Writing has always been a refuge for me, particularly in difficult times, but not every kind of writing helps us heal. It’s not uncommon in times of serious illness, pain or suffering, that what has happened to us seems to defy understanding.  “An unsolved mystery is a thorn in the heart,” Joyce Carol Oates has said.  And some thorns in the heart may defy removal.  I remember how, in the first tumultuous years after my husband died in a drowning accident, I filled my journal pages night after night with a barrage of unanswerable questions, sorrow, anger and self-recrimination.  At first, the outpourings gave temporary relief from the turbulence of my conflicting emotions, but before long, I was a broken record, my notebooks filled with a vicious cycle of rumination.  I didn’t feel better.  I felt worse.  I finally put my journal aside and sought the help of a therapist.

At first, I did little more than weep and grieve in the safety of a supportive other, but soon, I began again to write, and as I did, my healing began.  It was different this time.  I wrote poetry—raw and wordy at first—and each week, I shared a new poem each with my therapist.  To his credit, he never attempted to dissect, interpret or question, instead, he simply responded with gratitude.   “Thank you,” he said.  Nothing more.  It was enough.   I felt affirmed, and I felt heard.  My poems took on new depth, descriptive quality and insight.  I began to get outside of my suffering and awaken to the world around me.  I re-discovered gratitude and a deep and abiding sense of what was most meaningful in my life.

It’s something  poets and writers have written about many times.  We write ourselves into knowing, discovery and healing.  Ted Kooser, cancer survivor and poet, writing the introduction to his book, Winter Morning Walks:  One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison said:

“In the autumn of 1968, during my recovery from surgery and radiation for cancer, I began taking a two-mile walk each morning…hiking in the isolated country roads near where I live…During the previous summer, depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing…  One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem.  Soon I was writing every day… I began pasting my morning poems on postcards and sending them to Jim…”

In his book, we find a touching portrayal of a poet recovering from the ravages of illness and treatment, whose spirit and sensibilities were reawakened in his solitary walks and captured in short, yet profound, poems.  He noticed life and the beauty of the natural world around him once more.  

I saw the season’s first bluebird
this morning, one month ahead
of its scheduled arrival.  Lucky I am
to go off to my cancer appointment
having been given a bluebird, and,
for a lifetime, have been given
this world.

Kooser reminds us of the importance of noticing, of paying attention, being fully present.  Through his poems, we witness his recovery, but it’s the spiritual recovery we are most touched by, not the physical one, and the friendship exemplified in the sharing of poems between friends.  Harrison and Kooser had long exchanged poems in the letters they wrote to one another, but after Kooser’s cancer diagnosis, Harrison described Kooser’s poetry as “overwhelmingly vivid.”  They began a correspondence made entirely of short poems “because that was the essence of what we wanted to say to each other,” Harrison said.  (From the book jacket of Braided Creek:  A Conversation in Poetry by Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser, 2003).

“Poetry…,” Robert McDowell states in Poetry as a Spiritual Practice “leads to stillness, the calm center where you are most open and alive.  Poetry…makes you more mindful, and as you become so, you gracefully reconnect with the natural world.”  The great poet, Robert Frost, according to McDowell, said that “poetry doesn’t so much tell us anything new, but reminds us of things that we need to know but forgot” (p.6).

Things we need to know but forgot… And I was in danger of forgetting  why I need the solitude to write each morningI don’t think of myself as a poet—far from it—but in the stillness of early morning, the ritual of writing helps me pay attention and appreciate the beauty of life happening just outside my window—a hummingbird’s frolic at the fountain, the swoop and glide of a red tail hawk over the canyon, the call and response of the doves as mating season nears.  Writing has become my meditation, a kind of prayer.  Through it, I am constantly reminded of how we are simply a part of something greater, of all living things.

In her poem, “Gratitude,” Mary Oliver, asks–and answers—eight simple questions.

What did you notice?

The dew snail;
the low-flying sparrow;
the bat, on the wind, in the dark…


The poem continues, in a pattern of a question of the narrator and her response, a treasure of richly described observations of the natural world.  At the end of the poem, she poses one last question:

What did you think was happening?

And answers: …so the gods shake us from our sleep.

(From:  What Do We Know: Poems and Prose Poems, 2003)

The poet Wendell Berry often spent his Sunday mornings in a walking meditation, observing the world and writing poetry which ultimately became his collection of  “Sabbath poems” spanning two decades of his Sunday morning walks.  In the preface Berry writes, “These poems were written in silence, in solitude, mainly out of doors…the poems are about moments when heart and mind are open and aware…”

Best of any song

is bird song

in the quiet, but first

you must have the quiet.

(In:  A Timbered Choir, 1998)

 

Paying attention, “capturing moments when heart and mind are open and aware” helps us rediscover and reclaim the sacred in our lives.  As Oliver and others remind us, it’s  about slowing down and being attentive to the present, to what’s inside or right in front of our eyes, opening ourselves to a process of spiritual exploration.  These past few days alone served as a reminder to me how very necessary it is to “have the quiet,” the solitude, to open my heart and mind and truly pay attention to what is around me. Although my husband has retired and is now at home in the mornings, his presence is not an excuse for not preserving my period of solitude and the quiet in my morning writing practice.  I was, I realized this past week, letting that precious quiet slip away.  I am grateful I had the chance to reclaim it.

Writing Suggestion:   Reclaim the sacred and spiritual in your life.  Embrace the quiet, the stillness.  Meander along a trail, near the sea, the woods, a long walk along city streets.  Take in the sights, sounds, smells, and movement.  Write about what you see—one single observation.  Describe it and let it take you wherever it takes you.

          “At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world,
Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive.
You empty yourself and wait, listening.”

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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There is no Frigate like a Book

To take us Lands away

Nor any Coursers like a Page

Of prancing Poetry –

This Traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of Toll –

How frugal is the Chariot

That bears the Human Soul –

(“There is no Frigate like a Book” (1286), By Emily Dickinson, 1830-86)

We had a new carpet installed in our living room this past week—a welcome change from the old one, faded and worn from the constant foot traffic to the outside deck.  It meant, however, that all the furniture had to be moved out of the room, and first, all the bookshelves and cabinets had emptied.  As wearisome as it was, I welcomed the task.  I’ve intended to sift through the dozens of books that have occupied the bookcases since we moved here, so when my husband hurriedly began re-shelving volumes after the installation was complete, I protested.

“I want to downsize my books,” I said.  “Let me do the re-shelving.”

Since the majority of the books are ones I’ve collected over the years, he agreed to leave me to the task of sorting and ordering.  That was four days ago.  I finished only last night, back aching, but the shelves neatly filled with my favorites,  poetry in one area, novels or nonfiction in another, art books on the bottom shelves, and so on.  Nearby, a large pile of discards waited to be boxed and donated—many that had been transported from house to house, country to country to end up here, in our California home.

“Why have you kept so many for so long?”  My husband is less attached to his books than I am, the majority of his given to the university when he retired.

“These books are like chapters of my life,” I said.  “I remember the stories, favorite passages and how they represented who I was becoming, what I was feeling and thinking at the time.”

Re-shelving took far more time than I anticipated.  With one book after another, I paused and sat down to page through them, all the while remembering the period a particular book came into my life.  There is the thick volume of e.e.cummings’ Complete Poems, its cover frayed and taped, pages dog-eared and marked by notes written in my hand.  I remember how I longed to have the volume so many years ago, and after a business trip to Boston, my first husband returned with it, a gift to me barely a year before his death.  In Alistair MacLeod’s Island, I recalled the years we lived in Cape Breton, the harshness of the long winters, and the loneliness I felt as a young mother.  Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem and Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning Angle of Repose once filled me with longing for the western landscape I’d left behind after we moved to Canada.  A half-dozen of Maurice Sendak’s wonderfully illustrated children’s books were favorites to read aloud to my daughters.  I took solace in William Stafford’s The Way It Is and the wisdom in his poetry during the deaths of my parents and any remaining familial closeness.  My books, I realized, provided a sense of stability, of something solid and tangible during periods of upheaval and personal transition.  Hours passed with little re-shelving accomplished as I paused to sit and page through favorite books, all the while remembering what it was like to be me.

“Without books how could I have become myself?”  Sharon Lynn Schwartz asked her book, Ruined by Reading:  A Life in Books (1996), a meditation on why we read and how what we read shapes us.  Schwartz reminds us how books we read can be formative, serving as touchstones and guides throughout our lives.  It’s why those of us who love books tend to give them as gifts, she says, just as one gives love or intimate information: “Here, read this; it is in my mind; it affected the way I breathed.”

When I was a child, books were magical.  I was thirsty to learn and escape into worlds and adventures of imagination and story.  Books fed not only my mind, but my soul as well.  They instilled the reverence I felt in the quiet of the local library and the musty, papery smell of treasured books lining shelf after shelf.  I cannot imagine a life without books.  Although I now read fiction on my kindle; it’s not the same.  I miss the feel of a book in my hands, the ability to turn down a page and return to it, the solidity of a paper book in a world that is increasingly fast-paced and dependent upon technology.  It’s why, I suspect, that the many books that continue to line my bookshelves will again be lovingly boxed up and transported whenever we find ourselves moving to another home.

I could never have dreamt that there were such goings-on
in the world between the covers of books,
such sandstorms and ice blasts of words,
such staggering peace, such enormous laughter,
such and so many blinding bright lights,                                                                                                     s
plashing all over the pages
in a million bits and pieces
all of which were words, words, words,
and each of which were alive forever
in its own delight and glory and oddity and light.

(Dylan Thomas, [essay] Notes on the Art of Poetry)

Writing Suggestion

Do you have favorite books that you’ve kept long after first reading them?  What books held particular meaning for you during your childhood or during a period of challenge and upheaval?  What did they offer to you than you needed at the time?  Write about a book or books that shaped you, ones that you hold dear, ones that ignite memories and stories each time you take it from your shelf.

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