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Archive for the ‘art and writing’ Category

When I began writing this newspaper column about cancer, I wondered how long it could last.  After all, how many story ideas about cancer could there be?  Seven years later, the ideas keep coming and I’m still writing.  I’ve decided that writing about cancer is writing about life.  Cancer is a lens that makes life appear in greater focus with added intensity.  (From:  “Writing About Cancer,” by Bob Riter, Ithaca Journal, Sept. 6, 2014)

In the coming week,  I’ll begin a new eight-week series of the “Writing Through Cancer” workshops I’ve been leading for many years in the U.S. and Canada.  I’m preparing for the first session, when a group of men and women will come together to write and share their stories of cancer.  Some of them may have written long before their illness began; others might offer an apologetic, “I’m not a writer but I thought this looked interesting,”  and I’ll gently remind them of poet William Stafford’s definition of a writer:  “A writer is someone who writes.”   We’ll begin at the beginning, the moment that they first heard the words, “I’m sorry, but …you have cancer.”

By the second meeting, any prompt or suggestion I offer to the group will result in writing that is powerful, descriptive, even beautiful.  Some in the group will be surprised at how moved their listeners are when they share what they have written.  By the third week, any prompt will result in the sound of pens racing across the page or the rapid click of a laptop keyboard, as if each person has more to write about their cancer experience than time will allow.  A diagnosis of cancer often triggers intense and abundant writing.

 “The knowledge you’re ill is one of the momentous experiences of life” (Anatole Broyard, Intoxicated by My Illness, 1993).

Like any unexpected hardship, a life-threatening illness thrusts you into new and unfamiliar territory, into a different chapter of life than the one you thought you were living.  So momentous, in fact, it sometimes overshadows everything that came before it.  Yet one thing is certain:  cancer changes you.  Arthur Frank, sociologist and cancer survivor, put it this way:  “Being ill is just another way of living…but by the time we have lived through it, we are living differently.” (At the Will of the Body, 2002).  At the end of the writing series, I encourage the group to look back over what they have written.  As they do, they discover that their words, their stories and poems are testament to their changes.   Each person is clearer about the things that truly matter; they appreciate life in ways they never did before, and no one wants to take life for granted again.

That’s the way writing often starts, a disaster or a catastrophe…by writing I rescue myself under all sorts of conditions…it relieves the feeling of distress.  –William Carlos Williams

During those periods of life when you experience hardship, serious illness or suffering, writing can be an important way to express and make sense of difficult emotions.  It’s a way to make sense of your life.  Often, that’s where writing begins.  While you may begin by writing for yourself in a period of upheaval, one that often leads to something greater.   As Louise DeSalvo noted in her book, Writing as a Way of Healing:  How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives (2000), crisis, suffering and are the inspiration behind many of our greatest cultural creations, including art, poetry and literature.  Novelists and poets alike have described their writing as a form of therapy, helping them to heal and articulate traumatic events in their lives.  Writers such as Paul Theroux referred to his writing as something like digging a deep hole and not knowing  what he would find.  Famous novelists like Graham Greene wrote of his manic depression A Sort of Life; F. Scott Fitzgerald described his battle with alcohol in The Crackup, and William Styron examined his suicidal depression in Darkness Visible.  Creativity, as many great writers have shown us, is often fueled by life crises, trauma and suffering, and there is no shortage of contemporary poets and writers’ whose personal struggles have inspired fiction, nonfiction or poetry.  Literature is, after all, about the human experience, and in reading the work of others, we often discover insights, even ways to articulate own experiences.

An insightful, experienced oncologist told me that cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter. (Alice Hoffman, New York Times, August 14, 2000).

Cancer may be where you begin when you first start writing after a diagnosis, but it is rare that cancer is the only thing expressed when you begin writing.  Old wounds, memories of earlier times, and the experience cancer all make up the landscape of “writing through cancer.”  In my workshops, a gradual shift in what is written and shared in the group occurs over the eight weeks we write together.  The first weeks are usually focused on one’s cancer experience, but as the weeks pass, everyone’s writing begins to shift.  Other life stories surface and are written; themes of gratitude and hope begin to emerge.  And the writing doesn’t stop at the end of the workshop series.  More than a few people continue to write after the group experience ends, but not only about cancer.  Other memories, stories from their lives, themes of gratitude and hope emerge.  Several of my former workshop writers have gone on continue writing in groups or enroll in writing classes.  Some have published poetry, memoir and narratives originally birthed in the writing workshops.

Cancer can wallop you and brings you to tears, but it also can help you see life more clearly and with greater appreciation.   Ultimately, it’s important to remember that cancer is not your only story.  It may be one that drives you to write, but as you do, you begin to remember r and appreciate the life you’ve lived , the one you are living now, and how many stories or poems are contained in your life that are waiting to be expressed.

You don’t need a “big” event or big idea to write.  Cancer might get you writing, but inspiration doesn’t need a crisis to keep you writing.  Rather, it awakens you, makes you more observant to life, and grateful for it.  Inspiration does not arrive with a big “aha!”  It is quieter, waiting, because it comes from living, noticing, and paying attention.

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…

(From:  “Directive,” by Ann E., former writing group member, personal communication)

I recall listening to poet Billy Collins several years ago, as he described how he found the inspiration to write volume after volume of poetry.  His inspiration, he told the audience,  came simply from looking out the window and noticing the world around him.  The most ordinary thing, he reminded us, may contain the seed of a poem (or for that matter, any kind of writing).

…Cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter.  You each have many more stories to write than cancer.  All that’s required is the desire to write and learning to pay attention and notice what’s just outside your window, waiting to be discovered.

…poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,

they are sleeping. They are the shadows

drifting across our ceilings the moment 

before we wake up. What we have to do

is live in a way that lets us find them…

Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us

we find poems. 

(“Valentine for Ernest Mann,’ By Naomi Shihab-Nye, in: Red Suitcase, 1994)

Writing Suggestions:

  • Just starting to write?  Begin remembering the moment you first heard you had cancer.  Before you write, take a moment to close your eyes and visualize that day, that moment–where you were, the quality of light in the room, the facial expression of the doctor or nurse, what you were feeling seconds before he/she spoke and then afterward.  Then setting the timer for no more than 15 minutes, write, describing in as much detail as you can, the moment you first heard the word “cancer.”
  • Tess Gallagher, poet, described the telling of an act of by her husband, washing his dying mother in the poem, “Each Bird Walking.”  Her poem includes the narrator’s words to her husband:  “Tell me,” I said, “something I can’t forget.” Use Gallagher’s words, “tell me something I can’t forget” as your prompt, and begin writing.  Again, set your timer for 15 minutes and keep the pen moving.
  • Find a quiet time and place near a window–or, if your weather allows, find a similarly quiet place to sit outdoors.  Spend a few minutes simply noticing what is around you:  sights, sounds, colors, objects, life.  Take one thing you observe and let it become the trigger for your writing.  Write for 15 minutes.

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Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.–Joan Didion, A Year of Magical Thinking

The sky was overcast yesterday morning, typical March weather, but yet, a somber sky that seemed to reflect the heaviness felt by so many around the world in the aftermath of tragedy–lives lost; others permanently changed, and all in an instant.  The first was the crash of the Boeing 737 Max in Ethiopia that killed everyone aboard, and the second, and, perhaps, more difficult to comprehend, the fifty victims of mass shootings at the two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, until now, a country spared the kind of violence experienced in so many other countries.

The scale of the two tragedies was nearly incomprehensible, but the outpouring of shock, condemnation around the world in the aftermath of the New Zealand mosque shootings was immediate.  Such events are at odds with our fundamental beliefs, including “that we live in a just world, and that if we make good decisions, we’ll be safe,” according to Laura Wilson, PhD, co-author and editor of The Wiley Handbook of the Psychology of Mass Shootings. We may stand in solidarity with New Zealand and the victims, but the question remains:  how has our world become so dominated by hatred and violence?

When people experience life-threatening or other traumatic experiences, their focus is on survival and self-protection,  according to Bessel van der Kolk, MD, discussing the nature of trauma in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience (2000 Mar; 2(1): 7–22) The traumatic experience triggers a mixture of numbness, withdrawal, confusion, shock, and speechless terror. The National Center for PTSD estimates that 28 percent of people who witness a mass shooting develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and might be at greater risk for mental health difficulties compared with people who experience other types of trauma, such as natural disasters. The memory of the traumatic event may be replayed repeatedly, dominating victims’ consciousness. Abdul Aziz, a survivor of the mosque shootings, who’d also ran after the shooter and chased him away from the mosque, described how the event has traumatized  the survivors, “Each time we close our eyes,” he said, “we see all of the dead bodies around us.”

As I read different accounts of the shootings, I came across a poignant comment offered by an Australian news anchor, Waleed Aly,  also a Muslim.  He reflected on those who were in prayer at the mosques, moments before the first shots were heard:

“I was in the mosque today. I do that every Friday just like the people in those mosques in Christchurch today,” he said. “I know exactly what those moments before the shooting began would have been like. I know how quiet, how still, how introspective those people would have been before they were suddenly gunned down. How separated from the world they would have felt before the world came in and tore their lives apart.”

Shock and sadness will linger for a very long time among New Zealanders and many others around the globe, coupled with a sense of helplessness in the senseless, incomprehensible acts of hatred and violence that have become too frequent in our world.  Sadly, these events have become much too numerous to list in full, but for example, school shootings in the U.S., terrorist attacks of 9/11, the 2015 Paris and Beirut bombings, a resurgence of anti-Semitism, the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the 2011 Norway attacks by a lone gunman, on and on.  Yet while we may first experience shock and disbelief,  do we also become numbed by the magnitude of events like these, ones reported in the news with ever greater frequency, yet ones we do not experience personally?

As I often do, I  have turned to poetry as a way to find the words that might express what I feel in the  wake of these deeply sad and disturbing events.   I recalled that after the tragedy of 9/11, poems about it were difficult to find.  At the time, I copied down a quote from the American Academy of Poets website, which said, “There seemed to be pressure on well-known poets to produce a poem, or refuse the opportunity, as former US poet laureate, Billy Collins ,did, saying  “the occasion was “too stupendous” for a single poem to handle.” He said that the terrorists had done something “beyond language.”  Again, years later and many more acts of unbelievable violence later, perhaps we still struggle to find the words “big” enough to help us comprehend these horrible events.  I know I do.

When we live with cancer or another chronic and progressive condition like heart failure, we come closer to the fact of our mortality.  From time to time, I admit the little shadow of fear of a shortened life sneaks up on me, but the events of this past week have again put things in a different light.  As I think about the victims of the shootings and the airplane crash, of the grief and suffering of loved ones and survivors, I am reminded to live with gratitude for the life I have.   I have to find hope, as we all do , that we can find ways and take actions to help lessen the suffering of those who have experienced these horrible, incomprehensible events.  Even though the elusive state we call peace seems ever more out of reach, I remember the words of St. Francis of Assisi:

…That where there is hatred, I may bring love.
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony.
That where there is error, I may bring truth.
That where there is doubt, I may bring faith.
That where there is despair, I may bring hope.
That where there are shadows, I may bring light.
That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.

(From: The Peace Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi)

Writing Suggestions:

This week, I invite you to reflect on the events of these past many days.

  • Write about losses you have experienced and how they changed your life.
  • Write about your own reactions to a tragedy like a mass shooting.  Did anything change in your thinking or actions?
  • Write about any other traumatic event you or a loved one has experienced and what helped you  heal.

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“Why is loneliness so toxic?”  It’s the question posed in a 2018 headline from  an article by Wendy Leung in the Health section of The Globe & Mail, Canada’s national newspaper.  Loneliness, according to Leung, in the context of cancer or any debilitating illness, is common. She describes a 2107 research study conducted  by a team at Rice University, which studied loneliness among ill people.  The findings suggested that “loneliness puts people at risk for premature mortality and all kinds of other physical illnesses.”  Why?  It’s a source of stress, but perhaps even more importantly, “a sense of being cared for and loved is a crucial factor in our well being.”

Loneliness often accompanies  cancer diagnosis and treatment.  Lisa Masters, living with metastatic breast cancer, offered a poignant description of the kind of loneliness she experienced in a 2014 Huffington Post article:

I am by nature an optimist. I am strong. I usually keep the sadness of myself to myself. I tell you that I’m not terminal and that I believe a cure will be found in time. I so want that to be true. I have Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer.

Today I write about a subject that I don’t often speak of, nor even give into its darkness very often.  Today I am lonely.  I wonder how many of you who also have Stage IV cancer are lonely.  I can’t be alone. I know I have my friends and my family who love me. They would do anything I needed them to do. All I need to do is ask. But, they really do not understand how alone someone with cancer can often be…

Today… it’s dark, it’s raining and I feel the loneliness of my cancer.  

So why is loneliness so toxic?  According to Ruth Livingston, PhD, founder and direction of Living with Medical Conditions, writing in a 2011 Psychology Today article, “Curing the Loneliness of Illness:

Being lonely can itself be dangerous to one’s health. Loneliness can double a person’s chances of catching a cold and, worse, lonely people are four times more likely to have a heart attack and, once they do, four times more likely to die from it…Further,… loneliness has an effect on the immune system: …it reduces antibody production and antiviral responses, protective against health risks. Loneliness, then —all alone — is a hazard. 

Summarizing the analysis of 70 studies on loneliness conducted at Brigham Young University,  Dr. Veronique Desaulniers reported that feelings of loneliness can increase an individual’s chance of dying by 26%.  Why?  Loneliness creates is stressful, and overtime, may lead to long-term stress, the “fight or flight” reactions that can have negative impact on our immune system functioning.

 

MacMillan Cancer Support, based in the UK, estimated loneliness put cancer patients’ recovery at risk, finding that cancer patients who are lonely are three times more likely to struggle with treatment plans than those who aren’t lonely,  skipping treatment appointments, not taking medications as prescribed, refusing certain types of treatment or skipping it altogether.   Commenting on the research, Ciaran Devane, CEO at MacMillan Cancer Support said, “We already know loneliness may be as harmful as smoking, but this research shows…it is particularly toxic to cancer patients.” https://www.macmillan.org.uk/aboutus/news/latest_news/lonelycancerpatientsthreetimesmorelikelytostrugglewithtreatment.aspx

Themes of loneliness often make their way into the writing shared by tcancer patients who attend my expressive writing workshops.  These are similar to those described by the National Cancer Institute:

  • Friends may have a hard time dealing with your diagnosis and not call or visit as they once did.
  • You feel sick post-treatments and aren’t able to participate in activities or social events as you once did.
  • It’s common to feel as if those around you—friends and loved ones—don’t understand what you are going through.
  • And even when treatment is over, you may suffer from loneliness, missing the support and understanding you received from your medical team and feeling vulnerable as your “safety net” of regular appointments is taken away from you.

Feelings of social inclusion and support, however, are an important factor in disease resistance.  Dr. Lisa Jaremka, a member of the Rice University research team, discussed the wealth of research showing that a sense of being cared for and loved is crucial to  well-being.  “The need to belong is a fundamental part of being human.  It’s like the air we breathe.  We need oxygen and we need healthy, thriving relationships equally as much.”

So what can you do to combat or overcome loneliness?  Although it’s a feeling we all may have at different points in our lives, it can be particularly prevalent during during cancer treatment and recovery, but let’s face it, it’s also unique to each person, and one works to alleviate loneliness in one person may be ineffective with another.  Overcoming loneliness requires many different approaches to discovering the emotional support we need to help contend with loneliness and its negative health effects.  When you’re feeling lonely, it can sometimes seem as if it’s just too much effort to reach out to others, so what are your options?

Thanks to The Globe & Mail article, I learned about Marissa Korda’s unique online community, “The Loneliness Project,”  initiated in the fall of 2017.  Korda, a Toronto graphic designer, invited people to share their stories and experiences of loneliness on her site.  It has inspired more than a few stories and grown into something much larger than she originally anticipated.  You can read more about Korda’s site and her inspiration for it here.  Writing, together with sharing their stories with one another, as participants in my writing groups will attest, is one antidote for loneliness.  An online community like Korda’s may be one way to to share your experience while sticking your toe in the water of reaching out and finding those important social connections that help you combat loneliness.

City of Hope, a leading research and treatment center for cancer, diabetes and other life-threatening diseases in Southern California, offers seven practical suggestions for helping to overcome the loneliness of cancer:

  • Ask for practical help, such as transportation, financial support or child care by telling your doctor, nurse or other support staff
  • Reach out to your loved ones and friends. Be honest about your feelings but be understanding of their schedules and limitations.
  • Find a support group. Whether a therapeutic support group or an expressive writing group, online or in person, it is an opportunity to share your experiences, hear those of other cancer patients, and learn from them too.
  • Talk to a therapist or your pastor or rabbi. Open up about your feelings in a safe and confidential place with a trained professional.
  • Join a spiritual or religious group to help relieve the loneliness of your cancer journey.
  • Find activities you can enjoy, staying busy as your energy and time allows. Whether a book club, yoga, meditation, expressive arts, taking an online class, or just having fun with a friend.

Remember, having social connections, particularly during the journey of cancer, is important to our health and well-being.  It’s important to have contact with friends, family and others to help diminish loneliness.   Start small:  even simple activities like taking a walk or sitting in the sunlight in a garden be a start to helping you combat loneliness.  Take it a step at a time, but gradually,  re-engage with the things and people that normally, help you feel better.  Reach out; reconnect with life and people.  It’s good for your health and a powerful way to overcome the debilitating effects of loneliness.  I remember how, during a very difficult period in my life, I turned to music, listening well into the late night after my daughters were in bed.  I had a favorite song and repeatedly listened to (and sang along with) Bette Midler’s “Friends” from her 1972 album, The Divine Miss M.:

...And I am all alone
There is no one here beside me
And my problems have all gone
There is no one to deride me

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

I doubt Midler ever realized how much positive impact that one song had on my spirits–and my resolve to reach out to friends during a time I often felt like simply going to bed and covering my head with a pillow.  My friends helped me get through a tough time.  I’ve never forgotten how important to my healing they were.

Reach out; reconnect with life and people.  It’s good for your health and a powerful way to overcome the debilitating effects of loneliness.

Writing Suggestions:

  • What is your experience of loneliness? How did it feel?  What helped you overcome it?  What it was like to be lonely?  Write about it.
  • What images or metaphors best capture your experience or feelings of loneliness. Expand on them and create a poem.
  • Did you experience loneliness even after treatment had ended? Describe what it was like.
  • What has helped you diminish the feelings of loneliness during cancer or another serious illness?
  • How did friends and loved one help you combat loneliness?
  • What advice do you have for the newly diagnosed cancer patient or the cancer survivor completing treatment?

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“I guess I’ve become a cancer survivor,” my husband announced over our morning coffee.  It seemed strange to hear him say it, even though his use of the label is correct.  The National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship (NCCS) originally defined survivor as “any person diagnosed with cancer, from the time of initial diagnosis until his or her death.”  Less than two weeks after his surgery, he’d joined the ranks of those living with cancer, a survivor.

We received his pathologist’s report earlier last week, learning that his chances of recurrence in the next five years were lower than we expected, although he will be participating in a clinical trial at the recommendation of the doctor, which he readily agreed to do.  Minus one of his two kidneys post-surgery, you’d hardly know that a month ago, he was dogged by fear and worry.  Now, his mood is lighter, his humor has returned, and he’s begun to resume normal activity.  But our conversations are different–quieter in tone, deeper in subject matter, with a stronger sense of gratitude for the life we have and a determination to live as fully as we possibly can for as long as we can.

Cancer teaches us, whether we are the patient or the caregiver, about what’s important in our lives–what truly matters.   My husband, who rarely shows emotion, is much more likely to exhibit his softer side, whether he is relating a touching life story heard in his Toastmasters Club or has written notes of gratitude to the several Toronto friends who have offered their help and support to us in the past weeks.   Life, I think, seems much more precious to him in the wake of his cancer experience.

In the preface of her book, Survival Lessons (2015), Alice Hoffman wrote of her cancer journey and becoming a survivor, saying I forgot that our lives are made up of equal parts sorrow and joy, and that it is impossible to have one without the other.  This is what makes us human…I wrote to remind myself that in the darkest hour the roses still bloom, the stars still come out at night.  And to remind myself that, despite everything that was happening to me, there were still choices I could make.

Lynne Eldridge, MD, in her recent article about positive changes in people after a cancer diagnosis, stated “Research tells us that most people experience some degree of “post traumatic growth”…describing these changes with words and phrases such as:

  • Silver linings
  • The benefits of cancer
  • “What cancer has taught me”
  • Meaning making, sense-making, or benefit finding
  • Life transforming changes
  • The blessings of cancer

While she acknowledges not all cancer survivors experience positive personal growth, “one-half to two-thirds of survivors admit to some positive changes,” and find more the longer the time since their diagnoses.   Examples of these positive growth changes include:

A greater appreciation for life, enriched personal relationships, compassion for others, deepening spirituality and the discovery of “benefits”–or silver linings–in one’s cancer journey.  As one person said, “I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone, but looking back, there are ways that I’m a better person than if I’d never had cancer.”

Dana Jennings, a New York Times editor, who published regular blog posts throughout his diagnosis, surgery and treatment for prostate cancer, reflected on life after cancer, saying, Living in the shadow of cancer has granted me a kind of high-definition gratitude. I’ve found that when you’re grateful, the world turns from funereal gray to incandescent Technicolor…The small moments of gratitude are the most poignant to me because they indicate that I’m still paying close attention to the life I’m living, that I haven’t yet succumbed to numbing obliviousness.

When you have cancer, when you’re being cut open and radiated and who knows what else, it can take a great effort to be thankful for the gift of the one life that we have been blessed with. Believe me, I know.

And sometimes, in the amnesia of sickness, we forget to be grateful. But if we let our cancers consume our spirits in addition to our bodies, then we risk forgetting who we truly are, of contracting a kind of Alzheimer’s of the soul.

And so to our lives. My husband and I are more aware now of our mortality, the reality of being human, growing older, and having survived more than one serious illness.  There’s a sense of peacefulness, perhaps, that has become more present in our day-to-day living than we knew in the years of chasing careers, moving across the country four times, and running as fast as we could.  Serious illness teaches you to slow down, smell those roses, and enjoy, truly enjoy, the simple pleasures found in your daily life.

We’re grateful for the fact that my husband’s cancer surgery was successful and for the fact that his chances of recurrence are slimmer than we thought.  We are focused more on the simple pleasures of living and being together, reminded again of the preciousness of life, family, and friends.  “Cancer is not a gift/but a lesson,” Judy Rohm writes in her poem, “The Lesson, “full of seeing now and living presently.”  (In:  The Cancer Poetry Project, V. 1, 2001).  Living fully, presently, is what we are striving to do in our lives.

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

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

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

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

(In:   Our Post Soviet History Unfolds, 2005)

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about being a survivor of cancer and how having experienced cancer has change you:  your life, your outlook, how you approach each day.
  • Have you become more or less grateful for your life post-cancer?  Why?
  • What matters most to you in life now?  Try capturing your sentiments in a poem or personal essay.
  • A way to begin?  Try making a list of “Before Cancer, I was…” then do the same with “After Cancer, I am…”  Choose one or two and develop those feelings into a narrative.

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The art of reading is in great part that of acquiring a better understanding of life from one’s encounter with it in a book. — André Maurois

It’s taken me the better part of three days to organize my books into some kind of order on my bookshelves.  In part, I have a lot of books, although far fewer than I used to when our move back to Toronto dictated some serious downsizing of our belongings.  Despite my reluctance to let many of them go, a feeling much like saying good-bye to old friends, I did, inviting writing group members to choose from the books tagged for donation, giving a few favorites to friends, and donating several boxes to the local library.  Yet I kept favorites, volumes of poetry, selected works of fiction, books on art and writing, and to my shock, I still had enough to fill three large bookcases.

The process of organizing was a slow one, alphabetizing poetry books, grouping fiction favorites and then nonfiction before several volumes on writing and poetry craft, even several favorite children’s books I have yet to let go of.  But as time-consuming as the basic task was,  I was further slowed in my progress by the constant desire to open a book to a dog-eared page, re-read the underlined passages, someone’s inscription on the title page, or if poetry, more than one of a poet’s collection.  I was often lost in remembering:  where I was, what was going on in my life, why I loved a book or a poem as much as I did.  My books, it turns out, have been as much a source of healing and happiness as they were about learning and growth.

“And death shall have no dominion,” Dylan Thomas wrote in his poem by the same name, his words offering me some measure of solace in the wake of my first husband’s drowning:

And death shall have no dominion.

They shall have stars at elbow and foot…

Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;

Those lovers be lost love shall not;

And death shall have no dominion…  

My volume of e.e. cummings Complete Poems 1904-1962 was filled with marked up passages, asterisks, and dog-eared pages, among them one that during my recovery from grief and loss offered me hope and a new way of living:

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young…

I pulled Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Angle of Repose (1971), sitting down to re-read several pages.  I remembered reading the novel shortly after I  moved my children and myself from Halifax to Toronto two years after my husband’s death to begin my doctoral studies.  I was aching from loss and longing for what I still called “home,” the small Northern Californian town where my father’s family had homesteaded, settled and where, each day of my childhood, I gazed at the beauty of Mt. Shasta, one of the volcanic peaks in the Cascade Range.

Stegner’s book was a powerful read for me, and he became one of my favorite writers.  In Angle of Repose,  the protagonist, Lyman, a writer confined to a wheelchair, had been recently been abandoned by his wife.  He was filled with bitterness and a sense of defeat.  After moving into his grandparents’ house, he decided to chronicle his grandparents’  early days in the western frontier.  As he read through his grandmother’s letters, he discovered much more about their marriage, struggles and difficulties than he anticipated. Through their story, he learned not only of their lives, but his own.

I sampled passages from several of the pages, in awe of Stegner’s command of language, his deep understanding of the challenges of early life in the  West, and the way in which he artfully moved from the struggles of the grandparents to his protagonist’s.  There were lessons in the book had real impact for me at the time,  and I had underlined passage after passage.

  • Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend…” 
  • Hope was always out ahead of fact, possibility obscured the outlines of reality…” 
  • We must be reconciled, for what we left behind us can never be ours again…”
  • She saw in his face he had contracted the incurable Western disease. He set his crosshairs on the snowpeaks of a vision.

It’s no surprise, perhaps, but as my shelving slowed and I paused to page through one book after another of the books I’d loved, I was reminded that reading, perhaps as much as writing, was not only an important part of my daily life, but of healing and happiness.

“Medicines and surgery may cure, but only reading and writing poetry can heal.”                    J. Arroyo, author

It’s not a novel concept (no pun intended).  The notion that books can make us emotionally, psychologically and even physically better goes back to the ancient world.  “The Reading Cure,” published in a 2008 issue of The Guardian reminds us that Apollo was not only the Greek god of poetry, but also of healing.  Aristotle believed literature had healing benefits and could be used to treat illness.  Hospitals or health sanctuaries in ancient Greece were typically situated next to theatres, most famously at Epidaurus, where dramatic performances were considered part of the cure.

One sheds one’s sicknesses in books– D. H. Lawrence

A few months ago, a friend sent me a link to a 2015 New Yorker Magazine article “Can Reading Make You Happier?” by Ceridwen Dovey.  Dovey explores the origins of Bibliotherapy, which is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “an interaction between the reader and certain literature which is useful in aiding personal adjustment.”  Bibliotherapy is a therapeutic practice, widely used in the U.K., that uses words to soothe the emotions and alter thoughts and to help people deal with psychological, social and emotional problems.   Covey notes that the Ancient Greeks inscribed a library entrance  in Thebes as a “healing place for the soul, noting that Shakespeare, in the play “Titus Andronicus,” encourages the audience to  “Come, and take choice of all my library, And so beguile thy sorrow …”

Bibliotherapy came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century. Sigmund Freud began using literature during psychoanalysis sessions, famously remarking, “Whenever I get somewhere, a poet has been there first.”   Following World War I, as traumatized soldiers returned home from the front, they were often prescribed a course of reading. Later in the century, bibliotherapy was also used in hospitals and libraries, and since, the practice has been utilized by psychologists, social and aged-care workers, and doctors as a viable mode of adjunct therapy.

You may be interested to know that there is scientific research that supports health benefits of reading, for example, Covey cites a 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology that showed when we read about an experience in a novel, we draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings.  And other studies suggest that people who read a lot of fiction tend to be better at empathizing with others.  At the very least, reading does boost your brain power, like a good jog exercises your cardiovascular system, and it can help you relate to others feelings, particularly if you read literary fiction.  Reading helps us relax, and reading before bed even helps us sleep.

But perhaps the most important thing reading does for us is in its capacity to open our eyes, minds and hearts to the larger world, to immerse ourselves a world beyond our everyday lives, and to find ourselves among the words another has written on a page–words that speak to what we are experiencing, that remind us of hope and healing.  What good literature can do and does do best, for so many of us, is touch our souls.

From Great Expectations I learned the power the stories we tell ourselves have to do either harm and good, to ourselves and to others; from Death of a Salesman I learned the dangers of a corrupt version of the American Dream; from Madame Bovary, I learned to embrace the real world rather than escaping into flights of fancy; from Gulliver’s Travels I learned the profound limitations of my own finite perspective; and from Jane Eyre I learned how to be myself. These weren’t mere intellectual or moral lessons, although they certainly may have begun as such. Rather, the stories from these books and so many others became part of my life story and then, gradually, part of my very soul. –Karen Swallow Prior, The Atlantic, 2013. 

Writing Suggestions:

  • Consider how reading has played a role in your life.
  • What role does reading play in your life?
  • What kind of books or literature do you most prefer? Why?
  • Has reading helped you during difficult periods in your life? How?
  • What are some of your most memorable or enduring books or poetry you’ve experienced? Why?
  • Describe a difficult time in your life and a book or poem which offered you some solace and insight.

 

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One year ago, my husband and I, with the help of friends, sat in the San Diego sunshine, tables and bookcases filled with the artifacts of our lives–old dishes, vases, kitchen goods, a few paintings, plants, pottery–all a blur now as I try to recall that Saturday afternoon.  The week before, we’d sold furniture–indoor and outdoor–that we knew would not transition well from a house to a city apartment in Toronto, pleased with our downsizing, and yet, feeling an odd sense of loss we couldn’t name.

“The effects of moving are experienced in the body, in the imagination, in the realm of desire. What the eye sees, what the body feels, what the heart yearns for, what remains and what has been lost — these are difficult at first to describe.” 
― Louise DeSalvoOn Moving:  A Writer’s Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts and Finding Home Again, 2009.

We arrived in Toronto days later, our downsized belongings in transit.  Once they were delivered by the movers, we discovered, again, we were not done shedding ourselves of furniture and a number of odds and ends we had optimistically packed into the boxes arriving at our Toronto apartment.  It took weeks to settle in and arrange our lives and belongings into a three bedroom apartment after decades of home ownership.  We were packed in tightly, but finally, we could shut the doors to crammed closets and get on with life.  Now, almost exactly one year later, we are moving again.

As author Louise DeSalvo explored in her 2009 book, On Moving, and  what many of us experience, the pain, hope, and turmoil in moving from place to place are nearly universal.  We move with conflicted emotions:  hope a new home will be a positive change yet fear it may not, nostalgia coupled feelings of loss, yet the excitement of change.  We were happy to return to Toronto, the city where we’d met and married, where one daughter and her family live, and where we discovered a sense of “home”  still palpable.  Yet we missed our friends, the larger space of living in a house, and our deck that hung out over one of San Diego’s many canyons.  Our new digs, spacious by apartment standards, seemed confining and small.  But gradually, we adjusted and found there was so much in our favorite city to explore or re-acquaint ourselves with besides the long-awaited regular time with our daughter and granddaughter.  We began to reclaim our lives as “Torontonians.”

It’s not a transcontinental move we’re doing this year.  Our new apartment is located only a short distance from our current building, and is far more convenient for the two of us than our third floor walk-up has proven to be.  As eager as we are to have some amenities lacking in this older building, we are faced with somewhat smaller space and the task of downsizing more belongings, packing our lives into containers, and living, for the next few days, among stacks of packing boxes.  The most difficult part, just as it was last year, is not the physical labor, rather, it’s the sentimental aspect of sorting through mementoes and objects accumulated through our lives, ones containing memories and personal meaning.

“Every object is full of story.”  These are words I recall from the summer writing workshop I attended eighteen years ago in Berkeley.  Pat Schneider, author of Writing Alone and With Others (2003), was taking objects from a wicker basket and placing them on a white cloth before us.  I was there to venture back into what I loved most—writing—after a long detour through the soul-destroying path of a corporate career.  “Objects are how the world comes to us,” she said while we all sat quietly, watching as she placed random things on the cloth:  a metal hook, a rosary, shaving brush, wooden spoon…soon the cloth was covered in objects from the past, and Pat invited us to choose one, something that drew us to it without stopping to questioning why.

Just one week earlier, I had  just finished seven weeks’ of radiation therapy, and while my skin was still red and tender, cancer was not on my mind as as I listened to Pat’s instructions.  Most people were quick to choose, but I held back,  slowly scanning the diminishing collection of objects.  I felt a wave of anxiety as  others began writing.  What on earth was I going to write about?  That’s when I spotted a half empty pack of old Camel cigarettes.  I picked it up, smelled the odor of stale tobacco, and memories flooded back.   An image of my father, seated behind the steering wheel of an old Chevy pickup truck, a cigarette in his left hand filled my mind.  I remembered how, when I was in high school, a the two of us traveled the back roads of rural Siskiyou County to deliver a washer or refrigerator to a customer.  I loved those trips, although I was of little help to him, because I had my father to myself, and I listened with rapt attention as he told me stories from his childhood.  He died of lung cancer just eight years before the workshop I now sat in, pen poised over my notebook.  I began writing, “He tried them all, Camels, Marlboros, Pall Malls…”  Memories of my father clamored for attention. My pen raced across the page.  There were so many stories to be captured in one half-empty pack of cigarettes.

This past week, as I’ve gone through drawers, boxes and bookshelves, I’ve stopped frequently, pausing to examine pictures and little things wrapped in tissue, tucked into the corners of those drawers, cabinets and boxes.  It’s slow work, because without warning, some small object or picture triggers a memory, a story, the recollection of another time in my life, reminding me of what it was like to be me then, before now.  The  stories from my life and the people who were important to me are captured in those small mementoes.  I rememberd reading Maria Mutch’s 2014 essay,  “Ghost in the Machine:  A Typewriter, A Postcard, and the Objects of Memory,” which told of her search for an old black manual typewriter, not aware until later that the memories of a dead friend–one who had committed suicide years earlier–were embedded in her search.  Her friend had, just before her death, tried to give Mutch her Smith Corona portable typewriter.  It’s a beautifully rendered essay, reminding us of how our memories and stories can be triggered by ordinary, everyday objects—trinkets, toys, utensils—from our pasts, objects that while insignificant to others, are dear to us for the memories they hold.

Objects, the everyday tools of our lives, are the triggers for stories, real or imagined.  We visit museums and gaze at the artifacts of ancient civilizations and of our ancestors, gleaning a bit of history as we do, but little about the person or the events that are part of what we see behind the glass.  What stories might those objects tell us, if only they could speak?

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes

on a pile of broken dishes by the house;

a tall man too, says the length of the bed

in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,

says the Bible with a broken back

on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;

but not a man for farming, say the fields

cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn…

 

Something went wrong, says the empty house

in the weed-choked yard….

(“Abandoned Farmhouse,” by Ted Kooser, In: Sure Signs:  New & Selected Poems, 1980)

 

Significant Objects (2012) is a pictorial collection of random objects coupled with fabricated stories, edited by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn.  It’s the result of a literary experiment designed to answer the question, “Can a great story transform a worthless trinket into a significant object?”  The project team invited several well-known writers to invent stories about a collection of secondhand items gathered from yard sales and thrift stores, bought for no more than a few cents to a dollar or two.  Over 200 writers contributed to the project, and the collection of objects was auctioned off on eBay.  Coupled with a story, those same objects now sold for considerably more than their original price, resulting in thousands of dollars donated to charity!

I sit at my desk as I write this post, half empty packing boxes a few feet away, and memorabilia scattered on the floor nearby.  There’s a plastic luggage tag, my father’s name and address written on the card inside in his fine, slanted hand.  Next to it, a round fabric emblem made with gold thread, rhinestones and stitching to create a monster’s face–originally sewn on the jacket of the character “The Hooded Fang,” appearing in Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre’s first production of Mordecai Richler’s children’s novel, Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, originally published in 1975I loved the book about as much as the children I read it to–my two young daughters and elementary school students among them!  I was lucky enough to get the Hooded Fang’s jacket emblem from a close friend, who was also the costume designer for the production.  Perhaps you understand now why I began packing three weeks ahead of the our moving date. Going through the keepsakes and mementoes slows my progress as  I reach for my notebook to jot down yet another story from my life I want to remember.

When I walk in my house I see pictures,

bought long ago, framed and hanging

—de Kooning, Arp, Laurencin, Henry Moore—

that I’ve cherished and stared at for years,

yet my eyes keep returning to the masters

of the trivial—a white stone perfectly round,

tiny lead models of baseball players, a cowbell,

a broken great-grandmother’s rocker,

a dead dog’s toy—valueless, unforgettable

detritus that my children will throw away

as I did my mother’s souvenirs …

(“The Things,” by Donald Hall, In:  The Back Chamber, 2011.)

Writing Suggestions:  I’ve just paused, again, to gaze at the collection of little memorabilia on the bookshelf near where I sit each morning to write:  a piece of obsidian from the lava beds in Siskiyou County where I spent my childhood, a small clay bird, a roughly sculpted ballet slipper made by a child…  Every object has meaning, and each has its story to tell.

  • What objects or keepsakes do you have tucked away in drawers or placed on shelves or tables?  What memories and meaning do they hold?  Think of those objects as the keepers of stories.  Choose one (or more) and write the story, the memories that each represents.
  • Begin with one object or photograph.  Hold it and examine it closely using all the senses you can.  Let the object or photo take you to the story or poem contained within it.  You might be surprised at how much you have to write about.

 

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Now that spring has finally arrived, I’ve noticed a shift in my writing, one no doubt inspired by budding trees, flowers and sunshine.  It’s a sharp contrast to the writing I did during the winter, my mood dampened by grey days, cold and snow.  Life was too often defined by an aching knee, repeat doctor’s visits and antibiotics to treat a bad case of bronchitis.  My writing mirrored my mood, as grey as the days themselves, filled with repetitive themes and forced prose.  I wondered if I had become dependent on some new crisis to re-ignite my muse.  After several months of transition, change, and new medical challenges, I did not relish the idea of any kind of crisis, guilty of lackluster writing or not.

That’s the way writing often starts, a disaster or a catastrophe…by writing I rescue myself under all sorts of conditions…it relieves the feeling of distress.  –William Carlos Williams, physician & poet

But the thing is this: many great writers confirm that a crisis is often what triggers the initial desire to write.  Writing out of pain and suffering has provided inspiration for many of our works of great literature.  Novelists and poets have described their writing as a form of therapy, helping them heal from life’s traumatic events.  As Louise DeSalvo states in her book, Writing as a Way of Healing, those life crises have inspired many of our greatest cultural creations.  Author Paul Theroux once described writing like digging a deep hole and not knowing what you will find.  He admitted to feeling a sense of initial shock when he read authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene or William Styron, discovering powerful—and personal—themes of alienation or suffering in their work.  Fitzgerald memorably described his battle with alcohol in The Crack-Up; Greene wrote of his manic-depression in A Sort of Life, and Styron examined his suicidal depression in Darkness Visible.

Just as a novelist turns his anxiety into a story in order to be able to control it to a degree, so a sick person can make a story, a narrative, out of his illness as a way to detoxify it.  –Anatole Broyard, in Intoxicated by My Illness

Serious illness, loss, or a cancer diagnosis are crises that also can trigger intense and abundant writing, resulting in books of poetry, like Karin Miller’s The Cancer Poetry Project or memoir, such as The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan, In-Between Days, by Teva Harrison, or Barbara Abercrombie’s, Writing Out the Storm.  As Abercrombie demonstrates in her memoir, “storm” is an apt metaphor for writing inspired by a personal crisis.   Your days are full of turbulence, ups, downs and strong emotions.  You rage, weep, and sometimes, you may pour your emotions on the page.  Writing may become the calm for some, the eye of a hurricane, and a refuge as the storm howls around you.  Your writing may be raw and emotional, but that is often the first and necessary step to move toward understanding and insight.

During an extended period of personal crisis and loss many years ago, I discovered a kind of refuge in filling the pages of my notebooks with my feelings of despair and grief.  The solace I discovered in writing ultimately led me to initiating my first workshop for cancer survivors nearly 18 years ago.

When we see our suffering as story, we are saved. –Anais Nin, novelist, 1903-1977

Yet just as the weather and seasons change, so does the intensity of a crisis.  Gradually, there are moments of relative peace, good days, even moments of hope as the worst of the storm passes and life becomes more bearable. You gradually move from the shock of diagnosis, anxiety of surgeries and chemotherapy and toward recovery.  Your upheaval and turmoil begin to lessen, and you slowly adjust to a new normal.  If you’ve been writing about your cancer experience, your prose likely reflects the shift,  something I witness during every writing workshop series I lead for cancer patients and survivors.  Other life stories begin to emerge, not only those of cancer.  Hope shines through some of the poetry or prose that the group members share aloud.  The tissues are used less frequently, and there is often shared laughter.  All these are signs of healing, an improved ability to cope and weather whatever storms cancer creates in your life.

Gradually too, I encourage writing from other chapters of the group members’ lives, because it’s important to remember cancer isn’t your whole life story–only a part of it. To continue to repetitively write one’s sorrow and grief can easily become little more than rumination, the replay of old questions and sorrows that do little to improve your mood, perspective or ability to cope.  While it’s true that to write, you must be willing to step into your shadows and confront the darkness, to remain there defeats the healing benefits writing can have.  It’s why, in my cancer writing workshops, the prompts and exercises I offer to the groups gradually move from the predominant theme of cancer to a person’s whole life.

The real work of writing is to write under any sky, whether stormy or clear.  It’s how we capture the intricacy, the poetry, and stories our lives encompass.  It’s the work for everyone who wants to write for healing:  moving beyond the crisis and storm, see the world with new eyes, to awaken, notice and explore.  Perhaps you’ve been writing out of the storm called cancer, but ask yourself this:  as the sky clears, where will you find the inspiration and the motivation to keep writing?

A few years ago, I was stuck in a winter’s funk–erroneously called “writer’s block,” something I have since banned from my vocabulary.  Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the U.S., was speaking at a local university.  I bought tickets to the reading, eager to hear him speak again as I had several years earlier.  I was glad I did.  Collins’ poetry and wry humor were good medicine for my sagging muse and the “stuckness” in my writing.  Toward the end of the evening, Collins took a few questions from the audience. Asked by someone where he found his inspiration for his poetry, he paused only a moment before responding.  He found his inspiration, he said, by by simply noticing what’s in front of him, then describing himself as a poet who simply “looks out the window.”  If you read any of Collins’ work, you’ll quickly discover the most ordinary thing, like Cheerios, a teenage friend or his dog, contain the seeds of a delightful poem.

The following morning, still inspired by Collins’ reading, I opened my notebook, gazed out the windows in our front room for several minutes before I wrote my first sentence:  “I wish I could write a poem like Billy Collins…”  It was enough.  The words began flowing freely, something, I realized, about being present and paying attention .  I remembered the wisdom in Naomi Shihab Nye’s delightful poem, “Valentine for Ernest Mann,” inspired by a request from a young man attending a poetry conference who asked her to write him a poem and send it to him.  Nye responed to his request in the beginning line, “You can’t order a poem like you order a taco / Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two…”  She then continued to describe the wonder of  poetry:

…I’ll tell a secret instead:

poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,

they are sleeping. They are the shadows

drifting across our ceilings the moment 

before we wake up. What we have to do

is live in a way that lets us find them.

 

(In:  Red Suitcase, 1994).

Cancer, other serious illnesses, trauma or loss  are shocks to our bodies and souls. When they happen, we need time to make sense of our emotions and come to terms with what life has presented to us.  Healing takes time; writing can help.  To move beyond the sorrow and pain, we must find a way to re-engage and  As we write, we begin to find new insights, capabilities we didn’t know we had, and move beyond our suffering.  What we have to do is live in a way that lets us find them. We learn to be present and grateful for the gifts of each new day and in doing so, we find glimmers of hope, happiness and of emotional healing.

Rita Dove, in her wonderful poem, “Dawn Revisited,” offers an invitation for us to awaken to the world and discover what it offers us:

Imagine you wake up

with a second chance: The blue jay

hawks his pretty wares

and the oak still stands, spreading

glorious shade. If you don’t look back,

the future never happens…

The whole sky is yours

to write on, blown open

to a blank page…

 

(From:  On the Bus with Rosa Parks, 1999)

Writing Suggestions:

The whole sky is yours / to write on…  It’s a great image, isn’t it?  Why not take a look out the window or go outside?  Open your eyes and notice how alive the world is with new possibility.  Afterwards, open your notebook to that blank page and begin with one thing you’ve noticed, one single thought or sentence.  Write out of your storm, or write of calm.  It doesn’t matter.  The whole sky is yours, whatever it holds.  Just write.

 

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