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Archive for the ‘expressive writing’ Category

(A note from Sharon:  Yes, the post/writing suggestions for the coming week are early.  The reason?  I’m traveling for the next few days and will be away from my office and computer.   I’ll be back on regular Sunday postings April 30th.)

—————

I’m crossing a border this week, traveling from San Diego to Toronto, Canada for a short visit with my daughter and her family.  I’ve done this dozens of times over many years, so it’s slightly amusing to me that I’ve never gotten used the feeling of timidity that sweeps over me when I step forward and face a customs officer, whether the US or Canadian border.
“Passport please.” I hand over my passport and smile like an obedient first grader.  Some customs officials are welcoming, even smiling back at me.  Other times, their faces are stony and expressionless.  I want to reassure them.  I’m a nice person, I want to say, really I am.

“Reason for your visit?” I offer another smile.  I’m silently thanking the fact that I have gray hair and am no doubt seen as a senior citizen and the mother of adult daughters.

“I’m here to visit my daughter.”

“How long will you be staying?”

I answer appropriately, a week, a month, or in this case, just four days.  Thwack.  Thwack.  My passport is stamped.   “Enjoy your stay,” the customs official says as he hands me my passport.   I’m approved for entry.

Of course, I’m not quite free of the lines and the terminal.  I stand in the baggage area with other weary travelers waiting for my suitcase to appear.  Then I stand in line again, this time to hand in my customs form before I leave walk through the sliding doors to the throng of waiting families and friends.  I turn right and walk out of the terminal in a haze of long distance travel.   Despite the fact I’ve traveled frequently and far in the world, the first slap of culture shock, even mild, is always a surprise.  It takes me an hour to two to regain my sense of familiarity with a place I once lived.

But there are other border crossings that may not go as smoothly as a trip to this country’s northern neighbor.  These are ones that involve a major life transition or serious illness.  You move you’re your familiar life to an unfamiliar one in a matter of moments.  It’s often abrupt and thrust upon you with little warning–not unlike the moment you first heard these words from your doctor: “you have cancer.” You’re catapulted into an unfamiliar country, one Susan Sontag called “The Kingdom of the Sick.”

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place. (Susan Sontag, in The New York Times, Jan. 26, 1978)

In the “Kingdom of the Sick,” no one asks for your passport or offers a welcoming, “Enjoy your stay.”  You’re thrust into unfamiliar and rugged terrain.  Perhaps you’ve been given a roadmap of sorts, but it is a maze of choices to make, each of them branching into multiple—and equally confusing—pathways.  Worse, there’s the strange-sounding terminology to decipher –those colloquialisms and multi-syllabic utterances from your physician’s lips that leave you feeling dizzy and confused.  Cancer teaches you a new language.  You’re forced to leave behind what you took for granted, and cross into a new reality that you feel ill prepared for.

There’s a moment, not necessarily when you hear your diagnosis, maybe weeks later, when you cross that border and know in your heart and soul that this is really serious… The hardest thing is to leave yourself, the innocent, healthy you that never had to face her own mortality, at the border.  That old relationship with your body, careless but friendly, taken for granted, suddenly ends.  Your body becomes enemy territory …The sudden crossing over into illness or disability, becoming a patient, can feel like you’re landing on another planet, or entering another country… (Barbara Abercrombie, Writing Out the Storm, 2002).

This is the foreign territory of your body’s betrayal, where nothing seems quite real, and fear is your constant companion.  It’s lonely–You feel lost.  You’re traveling without an interpreter in a confusing and difficult place.  Try as you might, there’s no escape, no going back, no refund for your ticket.  You must learn how to cope and navigate your way through it all, and you must learn it quickly.  Your life may depend on it.

But along the way, a glimmer of hope—and you discover it as you find other travelers, men and women like you, who are also struggling to make sense of this foreboding landscape..  You feel discover comfort and support in the community of other survivors.  You feel less alone and together, find comfort in the sharing of fears and hopes, making them seem more manageable.  You join hands and together, begin to find your way through this dark and fearful kingdom.

Somewhere out there in that darkness are hundreds of thousands … like myself …new citizens of this other country… In one moment of discovery, these lives have been transformed, just as mine has been, as surely as if they had been  plucked from their native land and forced to survive in a hostile new landscape, fraught with dangers, real and imagined. (Musa Mayer, Examining Myself:  One Woman’s Story of Breast Cancer Treatment and Recovery, 1994.).      

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about crossing the border into the unknown territory of life threatening illness.
  • What was it like at first?
  • What old assumptions did you have to leave behind?
  • How did your relationship with your body changed?
  • What was most helpful to you as you entered “the kingdom of the sick?”

 

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It’s been over two weeks since the expressive writing program at Scripps Green Cancer Center came to a close, a program I have led for nearly eleven years.  As has been the tradition of our final session of every series, we spent the first half of the meeting working in silence, each of us engaged in creating a prayer stick, an activity inspired by a Native American tradition most often associated with the rituals and healing ceremonies of the Southwest tribes.  For the conclusion of a writing series, where each person’s experience of cancer and treatment has been so honestly explored and shared in their writing, the making of prayer sticks has proved to be deeply satisfying and meaningful conclusion to the many weeks of writing together.

For the task, each group member brought a tree branch they’d chosen, typically about 14 – 18 inches in length.  For the first hour, we focused on the creation of our prayer sticks, decorating and imbuing them with messages, prayers or hopes for healing for ourselves, loved ones or friends.  Once the prayer stick was completed, I invited the group to write about it—what their process was like and what had gone into its creation.  Without exception, the sharing of the sticks and the stories behind them were inspiring and truly meaningful for everyone.

As  always, I also made a prayer stick  with the group.  As I  began, I held  the faces of two dear friends in my mind, each with terminal cancer.  I began wrapping the stick, focused on the healing, courage and strength needed by each in their journey.  But soon, a sea of faces rose and occupied my thoughts as I worked.  I recalled so many of the writers in groups I’ve led the past sixteen years, here and elsewhere.  I especially remembered those who  lost their lives to cancer, fought valiantly and had, by sharing themselves so deeply and honesty,  touched my life and inspired me.

I continued to wrap my stick in many colors of yarn, each for those whose faces and stories still reside in my heart.  When it was my turn  to talk about creating my prayer stick, I could barely speak.  My eyes filled with tears, and I felt a rush of strong emotions, all triggered by  remembrances and my leave-taking as I depart from San Diego in a few weeks.  I felt sadness, yes, but gratitude far outweighed the sorrow.  As we rose to join hands in our closing circle and offered each other our hopes for healing,  I was acutely aware of how much I would miss each person and the stories written in our Monday morning sessions.  Yet I was gratified to know that many of them will continue to interact with and support one another—testimony to the power of community created by shared story.  I drove home later thinking how  very honored and grateful I have been to share in so many individuals’ cancer journeys.

As our final session came to a close, we read portions of “The Navajo Night Chant,” one of many Native American ceremonial chants and an important part of a healing ceremony intended to help cure those suffering from illnesses.  Here is a sample of its many stanzas:

An offering I make.

Restore my feet for me.
Restore my legs for me.
Restore my body for me.
Restore my mind for me.
Restore my voice for me…

May it be beautiful before me.
May it be beautiful behind me.
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beautiful above me.
May it be beautiful all around me…

“The Night Chant” takes on personal meaning for everyone in the writing group as we recite the stanzas and  offer one another a wish for strength, hope and healing.  Again, I choked up as I recited the last stanza to the group, which ends  with the words, “in beauty it is finished.”

Yet I–and the group members–still had something to be completed in the weeks following  our final session.  One of the important aspects of making a prayer stick is how one “releases” the prayers and hopes that are part of its creation.  For the prayers to be released, the stick must be returned to Nature, whether by wind, fire, water, or earth.  This past week, one group member shared a photograph of her prayer stick, wedged in a rock near Sedona, AZ.   It was a beautiful image and reminded me I had yet to give my prayer stick back to Nature.  Later that afternoon,  I walked to the edge of our back garden, a steep slope, that at the top offers a constant breeze and a view of the canyon below, a perfect place for my prayer stick.  I now see it from my office window, nestled in the branches of a large succulent,  feathers and yarn tassles waving in the breeze, a small Japanese chime ringing nearby.  As I positioned the prayer stick in the tree, I used the words of poet John O’Donohue as a kind of blessing, then asked the wind to carry the prayers and thoughts it contained to the the universe.   As small as this little ritual was, it was pause for thought, and a few moments of silence, serving as a  reminder of how these small rituals can be both meaningful and comforting—a way to express what’s in our hearts and minds that we sometimes have difficulty saying to those we care most about.

Today is another day of celebration and ritual for those who celebrate Easter and springtime, a time of hope, prayers and blessings.  For those of you reading this post, may you also find solace and inspiration from Nature, the Native traditions that have preceded us, the fresh signs of spring.  Perhaps in a world that often weighs us down with its unrest, violence and fear, these small rituals can help us find our footing and hope when we most need it.  On this springtime Sunday,  I offer you O’Donohue’s poem, “A Morning Offering.”   May you take comfort and meaning from his words as I have done.

 

A Morning Offering
by John O’Donohue

I bless the night that nourished my heart
To set the ghosts of longing free
Into the flow and figure of dream
That went to harvest from the dark
Bread for the hunger no one sees.

All that is eternal in me
Welcome the wonder of this day,
The field of brightness it creates
Offering time for each thing
To arise and illuminate.

I place on the altar of dawn:
The quiet loyalty of breath,
The tent of thought where I shelter,
Wave of desire I am shore to
And all beauty drawn to the eye.

May my mind come alive today
To the invisible geography
That invites me to new frontiers,
To break the dead shell of yesterdays,
To risk being disturbed and changed.

May I have the courage today
To live the life that I would love,
To postpone my dream no longer
But do at last what I came here for
And waste my heart on fear no more.

(From: To Bless the Space Between UsA  Book of Blessings, 2008)

Writing Suggestion:

What small rituals have helped you navigate the cancer journey?  Why are they important to you?  Tell the story behind the ritual–how you discovered it, made it your own, what purpose it serves.

 

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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)

Like many of you, my garage is filled with boxes, ones containing mementos from the past, old notebooks of writing, prints and paintings, and books—lots and lots of books.   They are things I’ve used and loved, kept in boxes and neatly stored on garage shelves, evidence of my life and my reluctance to let go of things I have loved and enjoyed. We’ve moved before, but these mementos, the artifacts from my past, have expanded, filling more boxes, taking up more space.  Now that we are faced with a cross country move and a smaller living space, I’ve been forced to the many boxes of belongings that, out of sight, were also out of mind.  It’s hasn’t been easy or quick.

Here’s the embarrassing truth:  I hadn’t realized just how much I’d accumulated over the years.  Sorting through all these boxes, I soon discovered, was an emotional process, particularly as I encountered the several containers of my old journals and notebooks, as I mentioned last week.  The process of remembering was sometimes embarrassing, sometimes humorous, and sometimes painful and difficult to read.  But the issues and questions, ones I had written about so passionately, were now simply memories of then, not part of the life I lead now.  I read through journal after journal, but ultimately, in a concrete process of letting go, destroyed the majority, hundreds of pages filled with emotional pain and suffering.  Yet I lingered over pages, remembering events, people, places and what I was thinking and feeling at the time.  It was a looking back to understand and acknowledge how my life has changed and grown, despite occasional bumps and challenges.

Moving is not only a process of packing up, but of letting go.  As I tore up hundreds of pages of old journals, it became a ritual acknowledgment that the turmoil and questions I experienced many years ago were no longer relevant to me—nor did I wish to have them accompany me into a new chapter of life.  I had, as poet Rainer Maria Rilke once advised a nineteen year old officer cadet, learned to live my questions to discover the answers I so fervently sought at one time.

And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.   (Rainer Maria Rilke,  Letters to a Young Poet, originally published in 1929).

Clinging to a past no longer relevant to our present only seeds depression or regret.    Learning to letting go of those worn out pieces of the past is a necessary process, something we have to do from time to time, not just when we’re packing up to make a move to another place.  It’s a bit like a spring cleaning, choosing what to discard, what to retain and what to carry forward as we go on with our lives.  Letting go is evidence we’ve learned from our experiences and have begun to revise our lives, something we do naturally to make sense out of events that alter the course of our lives.  Like the work of writing (which always includes rewriting), it’s an ongoing process allowing us to see our lives in a fresh light.  Revision is something that poet Naomi Shihab Nye described as “a beautiful word of hope… a new vision of something.”

Think about it:  we are constantly revising our life stories. Things happen to us; we make choices or take actions that influence events and outcomes, yet the story closest to us can be the most difficult to understand.  It’s one of the most important reasons I write, not simply to record my history, but to reflect and discover new insight and understanding, and ultimately, growth.

In the book, You Must Revise Your Life (1986), 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…”

I like to think of the process of “letting go” is about paying attention to the current of our inner lives, the thoughts and desires that rise to the surface, often unbidden but are important in helping us move forward and embrace the unknown, whatever it contains.  We honor the stories we’ve lived, learn to let go of old ways of being or seeing the world that no longer serve us as we continue to move forward.  It’s a bit like thinking of your life as a giant canvas, gradually filling with color over the years.  We do what the artist does:  let the material of our life—all that happens to us–talk back to us so we may see it anew.  Stafford tells us that revising our lives 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.”

Letting go?  It’s not easy.  Change can be unsettling.  Learning to embrace whatever happens takes intention and courage.  I admit to having periods of utter overwhelm and doubt as I prepare for our move, but when I do, I pause, embrace moments of quiet and listen for the deeper current moving through me.  Like artists and writers I admire, I’m trying to work with the material of my life, letting go of what is no longer relevant, revising and seeing things in a fresh light, as I remind myself that we are progressing toward new possibilities.  I have questions, of course, but I’ll only get to the answers by living them, gradually finding my way into a new life chapter as I move forward.

So to you, Friend, I confide my secret:
to be a discoverer you hold close whatever
you find, and after a while you decide
what it is. Then, secure in where you have been,
you turn to the open sea and let go

(From:  “Security,” by William Stafford, In:  Passswords, 1991)
—————
Writing Suggestions:

  • This week, write about holding on and letting go.
  • Write about a time your life changed. What did you have to let go of or revise?
  • Have you cleaned out the “stuff” of life to embrace a new beginning? Write about it.
  • Think about how revision can be “a beautiful word of hope.” Have you discovered this in your life?  When?

 

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We all need friends.  Without them, our lives can seem empty and lonely, and there’s plenty of research that suggests that isolation and loneliness are often harbingers of emotional or physical illness.  Friendship, according to Rebecca Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships. Better health, a more positive outlook, longer lifespan and more hopeful attitude towards life are just some of the benefits of friendship.

“What Are Friends For?  A Longer Life,” the title of a New York Times article published in 2009 cited a ten-year study of older people which found those having a large circle of friends were less likely to die during the study than those with fewer friends.  Strong social ties have been proven to have other benefits too, like promoting brain health as we age.   In a 2006 study of nurses with breast cancer, the women without close friends were four times more likely to die from their cancer than those with ten or more friends.  Another interesting finding was that proximity and amount of contact were less important than simply having friends.   Having multiple friendships, as a six year study of 736 Swedish men demonstrated, helped lower the risk of heart attack and coronary heart disease than simply having attachment to only a one person.  We need our friends, and when we’re in the throes of life’s struggle and hardships or a life-threatening illness like cancer, we need our friends even more.  As Stacie Chevrier, writing for Cure Today stated, “What keeps us from drowning in the sea of change are the people in our lives who come to the rescue:  our friends and family.”

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

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

However, our friends can sometimes disappoint us.  If you have been given a cancer diagnosis, you may have experienced the unexpected loss of some people you counted as friends; those who didn’t reach out to you or seemed to disappear from your life.  It hurts, and yet, it’s a common experience among many cancer patients, echoed by blogger, Debra Sherman, in the Reuters feature, “Cancer in Context.”

When someone is diagnosed with cancer,” she writes, “it generates conflicted feelings that they want to avoid, so they don’t reach out.”  Hearing you have been diagnosed with cancer may ignite fears of illness among some of your friends, even fears of death even death, and the the sense “this could happen to me.”  It creates conflicted feelings for some, and ones they try to avoid.

It can feel awkward to others when a friend is first diagnosed with cancer, and something many struggle with, unsure how to respond, asking themselves, “What do I say to my friend?”  Fear of saying the wrong, clumsy or trite thing to a friend with cancer is another reason some shy away from face-to-face contact.  They may be afraid of upsetting you or disturbing you at a time you won’t feel like talking.  Whatever the reason for their withdrawal, it can feel like the bonds of friendship you’ve shared have suddenly and inexplicably been broken, and at a time you need your friends most.

Our lives until so recently

parallel and filled

with common details…

details still in my life

while you lie in an alien bed…

I want to speak; you want to speak

but we’ve lost our common language…

How can I know

how it feels to lose a beast

and fight to save lungs,

bones, and brain

when all I have to battle

is the traffic?

(From: “To a Friend Now Separated From Me by Illness,” by Gretchen Fletcher, in:  The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. 1, 2001.)

What can you do if you find your friends behaving differently?  Cancer Net offers some advice.  You can begin by helping close friends understand your cancer and treatment.  Remember though, you are in charge of how much and what you want to tell them.  If they don’t bring it up, first decide what you want your friends to know, then, as you feel ready, discuss it with them.  For more casual friends, however, it’s probably best to stick to something simple, like, “I have cancer, but I’m getting treatment for it.”

Make new friends,

But keep the old.

One is silver

And the other gold…

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

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

Remember the song “You’ve Got a Friend?”  Written and recorded by Carole King in 1971.  James Taylor’s recording of it the same year  was the number 1 song on Billboard’s “Hot 100.”  Since then, it’s been sung and recorded by dozens of vocalists, including those as diverse as Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Barry Manilow and Ella Fitzgerald and others, testimony to the importance of friendship, the enduring and true ones we have in our lives.

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

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

Writing Suggestions:

This week, consider the topic of friendship.  Write about friends, having and even losing them.

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

 

Without a doubt, your friends can make your life a little better.  Write about friendship.

 

 

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In first grade Mrs. Lohr

said my purple teepee

wasn’t realistic enough,

that purple was no color

for a tent,

that purple was a color

for people who died,

that my drawing wasn’t 

good enough

to hang with the others…

(From:  “Purple,” by Alexis Rotella, in Step Lightly:  Poems for the Journey, Nancy Willard, Ed., 1998)

For the past several days, I’ve been consumed with the task of sifting through boxes of personal mementoes:  photographs, children’s drawings, letters from friends and family, scraps of paper in a young daughter’s hand, “I love you very much, Mom.”  It’s slow work, because each item I pull from the storage boxes ignites a flood of memories and emotion, and I pause, caught up in remembrances of the past, looking at and reading everything—the task of being a curator of family history.  I’ve separated these things into three piles:  what I keep, and what I send to each of my daughters.

Among their childish drawings and notes, I found a collection of report cards, grades for their achievement in core subjects, teachers’ notes on behavior—a few outstanding, “Excellent!” written in large letters, but others expressing disappointment in one or the other of my daughter’s progress.  And I remember, too, their bowed heads and reluctance to hand over the report cards when the news wasn’t as good as I—and they—hoped.  During those tender times, mediocre grades or written disappointments from their teachers seemed to take a greater toll, feeding insecurities and fears of not measuring up—not only for my daughters, but for me, as if I wasn’t a good parent.

I walked back to my seat

counting the swish swish swishes

of my baggy corduroy trousers.

With a black crayon

nightfall came

to my purple tent

in the middle

of an afternoon…

 

I still grade myself, whether I’m writing, teaching, housecleaning, parenting or simply trying to keep the weeds in the garden under control. My internal critic is loud and vociferous.  She is no wimp, no kindly bespectacled replica of my beloved first grade teacher.  She cracks the whip, harsh in her assessment of my performance.  But we all grade ourselves, even in dealing with the ups and downs of cancer treatment and recovery.  I’ve heard “I should” voiced more than a few times from cancer patients and survivors who come to my writing groups.  They express feelings that they “should” be stronger, better able to deal with their emotions, or able to spend more time caring for their loved ones.

It happens to everyone.  Those noisy, old internalized voices begin to chide you, “you could do better than that, you know.”  Or you hear the implied criticism from well-meaning friends and family:  “Aren’t you over that yet?”  “Shouldn’t you be doing something different?”  When you feel we’ve somehow disappointed others, fallen short of some unspoken level of attainment, or let yourselves down,  your internal critics are especially loud—a veritable Greek chorus.  Your sentences with begin with “I should… but…,” and you feel guilty and miserable for what you didn’t get done or the feeling as if you’ve let others down.

A little humor can help.  In her poem, “Marks,” Linda Pastan pokes fun at the frustration of being graded–whether by ourselves or others:

My husband gives me an A
for last night’s supper,
an incomplete for my ironing,
a B plus in bed.
My son says I am average,
an average mother, but if
I put my mind to it
I could improve.
My daughter believes
in Pass/Fail and tells me
I pass.  Wait ’til they learn
I’m dropping out.

(From: Five Stages of Grief, 1978)

Here’s another poem, “Exorcism of Nice,” by Roseann Lloyd, in which the narrator takes aim at her internalized critics:

…Talk polite
Appropriate
Real nice

…Hold still
Hold it back
Hold it in

…Close-mouthed
Muzzled
Gagged
Garbled
Jammed up…

Shut-down

Oh, Wicked Mother of the Kingdom of Silence
I have obeyed you
long enough

(From Tap Dancing for Big Mom, 1996)

Chances are we all need to practice a little self-forgiveness from time to time, allowing ourselves the freedom to be messy, woefully imperfect, or terribly human.  We also need the support of those who truly understand, whether loved ones, a teacher or a physician when the going gets rough and we begin to doubt ourselves.   In the final stanza of Alexis Rotella’s poem, “Purple,” we discover how understanding and acceptance from someone, in this case her second grade teacher, can matter:

In second grade Mr. Barta

said draw anything;

he didn’t care what.

I left my paper blank

and when he came around

to my desk

my heart beat like a tom tom.

He touched my head

with his big hand

and in a soft voice said

the snowfall

how clean

and white 

and beautiful

 

Writing Suggestions:

This week, think about your internal critics, those negative self-evaluations when you experience self-doubt, insecurity or fear.

  • When have you given yourself a failing grade or felt like you’re being graded by others?
  • Was there a time you received a report card in childhood that you didn’t want to take home to your parents?  How did you feel?
  • Does your self-critic sometimes keep you from doing or saying what you truly want?
  • Try, as Pastan and Lloyd have done, silencing those tiresome internal voices with a little humor.
  • Or, was there someone, like a friend or teacher, who encouraged you and helped you overcome your self-doubt? Write about that person.

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We’ve been lucky here in San Diego.  After a deluge of winter rainstorms, the sun has finally become a regular presence in the days, so much so, that when I awakened to a foggy morning, the canyon shrouded in a fine mist, I felt my mood plummet—like it does, sometimes, when I eye the aging face (one that apparently belongs to me) in the mirror.  Grey, in those moments, is the color of blah, of aging, of the mood we call the “blues,” when in fact, it’s all about grey.

Grey also was on my mind yesterday.  As I cleaned out my office closet, I inadvertently spilled a box of crayons onto the floor, all fifty -two of them.   I knelt to pick them up and replace each in the box, thinking, as I did, about my grandchildren and how their paintings are filled with bold and vivid colors.  As I picked up the grey crayon I remembered a poem written by a third year student in a writing workshop I led for Stanford Medical School last year.  Grey–the same color older women do their best to avoid, the color I associate with long, grey Nova Scotia winters.

Grey, as Sarah defined it, is full of life.  Here is an excerpt from the poem she wrote and read aloud that Saturday afternoon:

 Grey is the color of “yes, life has been here,”

and “don’t you know I have a story to tell?”

Grey is the color of pregnant clouds,

waiting to gift us with all they’ve held up inside…

 

White is before, but give me the after

Give me the ninety-year-old under her old grey comforter.

Has she lived? Well, tell me the color of her soul.

Show me the spots of grey, and tell me how you’ve lived,

the story printed dark and true in the deepest, most imperfect,

ugliest and sweetest shade.

 

(From “Grey,” by Sarah Schlegel, April, 2016)

Colors, as we know, have strong emotional associations.  Some colors elicit almost universal meaning, for example, the blue spectrum can communicate calm, but also  sadness.  Red, by contrast, expresses warmth, but also anger.  Color is often found in the lyrics of popular songs, for example, “Red Dirt Girl,” “San Francisco Bay Blues,” “Green, Green Grass of Home,” or “Say it Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud.”  Whether a poem, love song, the hard beat of rap, or smoky voice of a jazz singer, the mention of a color immediately evokes feelings, memories or a mood.

Humans make all sorts of color choices, every day. We color-code our children’s genders from birth—blue caps for boys and pink caps for girls in the hospital nursery—and paint our bedrooms sea foam green and lemon meringue yellow for serenity. We are intimately familiar with Coca-Cola’s red script, McDonald’s golden arches, and Starbucks’ green mermaid. Red means “stop” and green means “go” in contexts far away from the traffic light—using the colors on food labels has been shown to lead people to make healthier choices. This just goes to show how deeply colors can become lodged in our mind.  (“How Color Shapes our Lives,” by Elijah Wolfson, The Atlantic, Jan. 29,2014)

But for each of us, some colors  have negative or unwarranted associations.  (I can’t look at a bottle of the pinkish-orange French dressing on grocery shelves without remember the bicycle accident and severe concussion I suffered in sixth grade).  And in the current climate of politics with issues of cultural differences and diversity are dominating the news, another color, “brown,” may have less than positive connotations for some individuals.  In the children’s book, Tan to Tamarind:  Poems about the Color Brown (2009) by Malathi Iyengar and Jamel Akib, young readers are asked, “when you look in the mirror, what do you see?” and in a series of poems, are offered fresh and enchanting ways to think about being brown and the color brown, just as Sarah’s poem about the color grey did for me.  Here are a few of Iyengar’s  images evoked by the color brown.

A mug of hot chocolate,

smooth and creamy brown…

 

Milk-tea brown

   Spicy sweet masala tea brown

 

Reddish brown mountains…

Strong, unyielding brown

Warm, abiding brown

 

Brown leaves crunch and

crackle under our shoes in fall

Acorns in October…

 

Color also plays a role in cancer,  in cultural differences and treatment as well as in the writing by cancer patients and survivors.  A 2009 article, “The Many Shades of Survivorship,” by Kathy Latour, appearing in Cure Today, December 2009, explored the issues of cultural differences in cancer care and treatment, including lack of healthcare access, early diagnosis and individualized treatment.

Have a read-through the two volumes of The Cancer Poetry Project, one of my favorite anthologies edited by Karin Miller, reveals that color is often used to explore the complex emotions of cancer and, sometimes, in unexpected ways, for example, in “Bi, Bye-Bye, Buy,” by Mary Milton, who infuses her poem with humor and color, inspired after a friend advised her “Don’t start buying stuff to compensate” as she prepared for her mastectomies.   She describes her purchase:

…a sheet of bed sheets dusty coral
so blood stains won’t show much…
and shirts that open in front
one short-sleeved white
bad choice of color but I liked
its spirited portrayal of zebras
galloping through ferns
and gold paint splats
Besides it was on sale…

(in: Volume One, 2001)

People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and its ends, but to me it’s quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations, with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spat blues. Murky darknesses.  (Marcus Zuzak, The Book Thief, 2005)

Writing Suggestions:

How does color affect or inspire you–whether in mood, belongings, cancer or skin color?  This week, explore colors in your life.

  • If you are person of color, write ways in which you have experienced any differences in treatment or care.
  • If you could describe cancer in color, what would it be like?
  • What colors hold the most emotion for you? Describe them.
  • Think of your favorite color. Step outside and find five to ten examples of that color in nature.  and try incorporating those images in a poem.
  • Here’s an exercise we’ve done in my cancer writing workshops: Draw, paint or paste colors on a blank page, one that symbolizes your feelings—whether fear, anger, a punch to the gut, desolation, boredom, or even hope.  Then brainstorm the words and images that come to mind before writing.   Write for twenty minutes—longer if you wish.

 

 

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For the past two weeks, I’ve been tackling the bins of belongings stored in our garage, a necessary task as we continue to prepare for a move.  Frankly, I’ve been shocked at how much of the boxes contained things that belong solely to me:  keepsakes I kept for reasons now not clear, photographs of sights seen on vacations, materials I used to use in my writing groups, and more than a few containers of journals, one dating back to high school, another to my undergraduate years, and many more,  prose and poetry that documented my life, especially those that documented particularly challenging or painful periods, a reminder to how writing has helped me heal and weather the difficult chapters of my life.

There was another carton, also filled with booklets of writing—not mine–but the stories and poetry written in the “Writing Through Cancer” workshops I’ve led over many years.  Some of my first group members’ writing was featured in both my books, A Healing Journey (2004) and When Words Heal (2006), but these were printed in booklets, compilations of the writing shared in the groups and printed for the participants at the end of each series.  I sat on the floor and through them yesterday afternoon, remembering faces, individuals’ cancer experiences, many who recovered, and some whose lives were taken by cancer.

The expressive writing workshops are intended to help people write about the experience of cancer, however raw and unwieldy, and in whatever way most natural to each.  Some write narratives, others write poetry, but the form is inconsequential.  What matters is the act of expressing what cancer is for each person, finding ways to make sense of the chaotic emotional experience of it, and supporting their efforts to better cope.  Invariably, a vibrant community of cancer patients and survivors forms through the writing and shared stories—all of it beginning with that word, “cancer,” the one that turns your life upside down and inside out.  Writing for those in the groups, as it has also been for me, provides refuge, release and a way to help heal from the emotional upheaval of cancer.

“Think of the time you first heard that awful word, “cancer.”  This is the prompt that most often begins our first session.  As you might imagine, the descriptions of the moment and of cancer are as unique as the people who come to write and share their

One writer used the simple form of an alpha poem, each line beginning with a letter in the word “Cancer:”

Caught off guard in the midst of my otherwise life,

Apocalypse entered and through me from the highest rooftop.

Nothing I already know about anything prepared me for the fall…

(K.M., 2013)

Another writer communicated the moment of diagnosis in a short three line haiku, powerfully communicating her experience in seventeen syllables:

In the white office

oncologist in white coat

I brace for the wave

(V.S., 2014)

Often, as the workshop progresses, many writers portray cancer through metaphor, by making a comparison with something else.  In many ways, the metaphor not only creates a striking image, but it helps to defuse cancer’s emotional potency.  For example, one writer described her diagnosis as entering a foreign country:

We have entered the country of Cancer

My body and I…

A foreign country

Unmapped

Unknown…

(J.E., 2010)

Yet another writer described her cancer experience in a humorous, yet powerful, piece entitled “Cancer Boot Camp,” beginning with the patient standing at attention:

Cancer

Cancer

Cancer

Can Sir!

I Can Sir!

Yes I will heal it.  I can Sir!

Yes, I will survive it.  I can Sir!

(J. N, 2016)

“Cancer” also often becomes a character, allowing the writers to visualize it differently, even talk back to it.  Some cancers, this next writer tells us, are less common and more “hidden” in the body than others—and, thus, more frightening.

Some cancers arrive with fanfare,

trumpets, an engraved invitation…

But some cancers know how to hide.

They defy the eye, the scope, the scan.

They are not the usual suspects…

(K. M., 2013)

 

For another participant, cancer is “The Thief,” is stealthy and accomplished, who robs the writer of her security:

He is a thief.  Not an ordinary thief, who steals purses, jewelry or a car.  Instead he steals more person, more precious things.  Irreplaceable things…I see him finalizing his plan to steal my peace of mind, my security in believing I can control my health…                                                                        (N.S. 2014)

“If cancer is like a song sung off-key,” another group member wrote in a poem entitled, “The Metaphors of Cancer,” “then cancer interrupts the beautiful song of our hearts…”

If cancer is like a bird falling from the sky

Then cancer craves the immediate warmth of a gentle cupped hand

If cancer is a tremendous energy and force

That comes in the winter of our lives

Only to disappear after leaving its mark

Stimulating new growth

And hope

As we fight for Spring.

(T.E., 2014)

These are only a small sample of the many poignant, humorous, and powerful pieces of writing that are created and shared–all under a time limit!–in our expressive writing groups.  The writing that I  witness in those sessions is, undoubtedly, among the most moving  I’ve ever experienced.  Many participants come to the group saying, “I’m not a writer, but…”  And I quickly remind them that the great poet William Stafford had a wonderfully succinct way of describing a writer.  “A writer,” he said, “is someone who writes.”  And so they begin, finding a way to express what, in those first weeks after diagnosis, seems nearly unexpressible, and often surprising themselves by the beauty in their words, writing in ways that move us and touch our hearts.

Writing Suggestions:

How do you experience cancer?  What images and descriptions do you use?  Expand and explore them in a poem or short narrative.

Many times during the workshop, we begin by reading “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stephens, a collection of different ways of seeing or experiencing a blackbird.  Here is an excerpt:

I 

Among twenty snowy mountains,   

The only moving thing   

Was the eye of the blackbird.   

 

II 

I was of three minds,   

Like a tree   

In which there are three blackbirds.   

 

III 

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.   

It was a small part of the pantomime.   

 

(From:  The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, 1954)

After reading the poem, I invite the group to write their own poems, modeled after Stephens, but focused on cancer.  Trying writing your own poem in the manner of Stephens, describing thirteen different ways of looking cancer.

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