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Archive for the ‘healing arts’ Category

August 6th, and I remember that on this day, my father was born 100 years ago.  I also remember how his death from lung cancer twenty-five years ago left his family torn apart with sorrow and grief, some of the wounds never fully healed.  Remembering how deeply we felt the loss of our father got me to thinking about the impact of losing a loved one.   I recalled when, on a summer’s evening some time ago, my husband and I ran into a friend at a jazz concert.  Divorced in his 50’s, he longed to find a partner to share the rest of his life and had begun dating in earnest again after a long hiatus.  He introduced us to his evening’s date, an engaging woman we chatted briefly, learning that she had lost her husband a year or so earlier.

After his companion left to find the restroom, our friend turned to me and sighed, “Another widow.”  He shrugged his shoulders and added,  “I don’t if I’m ready for this,”  “this” meaning the emotional roller coaster that often accompanies new romances or relationships after a spouse’s death.

“Be patient,” I said, “it takes so much longer than you think it will to recover from a husband’s death.”  I was remembering how, in the year after the sudden death of my first husband, I had begun dating again several months later , hoping it might ease the constant heartache I felt.  It didn’t work.  I made poor choices in the process before I acknowledged I was simply not ready to begin any new relationship.  Healing had its own time schedule, and it couldn’t be rushed. Eight years later, I met and later married my current husband, but even in our early years together, I experienced an exaggerated fear of loss.

Whether the loss of a spouse, a child or a friend from serious illnesses like cancer, ALS, heart attack, or other unexpected tragedies, much is written about dealing with the loss of a loved one yet it’s not something  well understood by those who haven’t experienced it.  Some may think of grief as a single instance or short time of pain or sadness in response to loss, but the American Cancer Society reminds us that the real process of grieving lasts much longer.

When we are in grief and mourning, it can be hard on friends or acquaintances, even our family members.  Our North American society isn’t as adept at allowing grief to take a normal course as some other cultures do.  It’s painful to see someone we care about dealing with the heartache and sorrow accompanying the death of another, but it’s very important the bereaved feel supported through the process and are allowed to express their grief.  It’s why we have bereavement support groups, therapists and pastors who specialize in grief counseling.  Grief, although similar to us all in a general way, is experienced differently by everyone.  It’s  important to accept and honor the way in which a bereaved person chooses to express sorrow and grief.

This morning, my husband and I talked about the process of grieving when a loved one’s life ends, recalling the agonizing four year battle with bladder cancer my husband’s brother in-law endured before he finally died.  I remember telephoning my sister-in-law the day after his death, rehearsing ahead what I could say that didn’t sound trite.  The telephone rang once, twice and two more times before she answered it.

“Hello?” I knew immediately she had been crying.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I just went into his room and saw how empty it is, and then…”  She began sobbing again. “He’s gone, Sharon.” Her voice was heavy with grief and exhaustion.  “He’s been my life for sixty-four years.”

I could only murmur, “Yes, I know…” and think about what it meant to be together for so long.

It is hard to give up after months of making lists,

phoning doctors, fighting entropy.  But when the end comes,

a bending takes over, empties the blood of opposition

and with a gentle skill, injects a blessed numbness…

According to the American Cancer Society,” studies have identified emotional states that people may go through during grief. The first feelings usually include shock or numbness. Then, as the person sees how his or her life is affected by the loss, emotions start to surface. The early sense of disbelief is often replaced by emotional upheaval, which can involve anger, loneliness, uncertainty, or denial. These feelings can come and go over a long period of time. The final phase of grief is the one in which people find ways to come to terms with and accept the loss.”

Perhaps this surrender foreshadows my own old age

when I have raged to exhaustion and finally have to go.  For now,

the numbness wears off.  I drive to the market, cook my own food,

take scant note of desire

with no one to consider or contradict my choices.

Something in me will never recover.  Something in me will go on.

(From “Numb,” by Florence Weinberger, in The Cancer Poetry Project, 2001)

After sixty-four years together with her husband, my sister-in-law died barely a year later from a recurrence of inflammatory breast cancer after a five year remission.  Life without her husband, despite having her adult children and grandchildren nearby, was hard for her without her husband, who had been the primary decision maker in all their years of married life.   She seemed to grow increasingly tired and depressed, as if her will to live was fading.  As many psychologists and psychiatrists know, there are few things in life more likely to lead to depression depression than losing a spouse, especially for seniors.

More than a few research studies have demonstrated that spousal bereavement is a major source of life stress and not infrequently, leaves people vulnerable to other problems like depression, chronic stress, and reduced life expectancy.   Studies conducted around the world that shown that the rate in mortality often goes up among grieving spouses after their loved one dies. One such study conducted in Israel found the risk of death during the first six months after losing a spouse increased by 50%. The phenomenon is common enough that it even has a scientific name:”Broken Heart Syndrome,” which is defined as an impermanent heart condition caused by stressful situations, like the death of a loved one.

All lives are accompanied, at some point, by mortality, but some losses are far more difficult to accept than others.  Death from a protracted illness, at least, has a cause that we understand and allows the patient and the loved ones time to come to terms with the inevitability of death.  But the unexpected losses, like the sudden death of a spouse or child, comes as a complete shock, defies our sense of what is “supposed” to happen in life, and can complicate and extend the grieving process for years.

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

(Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking)

My own emotional state in the aftermath of my first husband’s drowning involved a complicated grieving process that took years to fully heal.  But I also remember how his parents, now deceased, and two siblings never fully recovered from losing a son, an older brother.  Nor did my daughters, then nine and ten, ever fully recover from their father’s death.  Even now, over 30 years later, remnants of grief and loss still surface from time to time.

In the turbulent days following my first husband’s death, a friend offered  me the poem, “And Death Shall Have No Dominon,” by the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas,  to use in honoring my husband’s death with his family and closest friends.  Thomas’s poem celebrates the undying and everlasting strength of the human spirit, and reading and sharing it provided some solace in the face of tragedy, reminding me that even in death, our loved ones are not completely lost to us.  We carry them in our hearts, our memories and our stories.

And death shall have no dominion.

       Dead men naked they shall be one

       With the man in the wind and the west moon;

       When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,

       They shall have stars at elbow and foot;

       Though they go mad they shall be sane,

       Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;

       Though lovers be lost love shall not;

       And death shall have no dominion.

(From:  Twenty-Five Poems, 1936)

Writing Suggestions

This week, consider the process of grief and mourning:

  • Have you lost a loved one to cancer or an unexpected tragedy? Write the memory of the day someone you loved died.
  • What did you experience in the aftermath  of death? Write about the emotional ups and downs of grief.
  • What helped you deal with the loss and gave you the strength to go on? Write about the gradual process of healing from the death of a loved one.
  • Are you currently faced with a terminal diagnosis or is your loved one? Describe the process of grief and what, as you face a shortened life or potential loss of your loved one, gives you solace and the strength.
  • Write a favorite remembrance of a loved one who has passed on. What brings a smile to your face when you remember the person?  What qualities or traits do you remember most fondly?

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Earlier this morning I participated in a conference call with a group of medical professionals in the Canadian Heart Failure community, a group tasked with creating a joint paper on Heart Failure care guidelines in Canada.  I was invited to represent a patient perspective, but admittedly, I was taking copious notes in a conversation that, like most specialties, has its own lingo–acronyms and terms unique to the field but for me, akin to a foreign language.  At the conclusion of the call, the group was divided into sub-groups, each tasked with writing and submitting questions to be included in a national survey on heart failure treatment, care and transitions.   I was assigned to explore and formulate questions dealing with transitions for heart failure patients.

Ironically, just last week, I’d been part of a survivors’ retreat, “Transitions,” at Gilda’s Club here in Toronto, where I led a writing  workshop on the process of transitioning from patient to “survivor.”  After this morning’s call ended today, however,  I wondered how “transition,” in heart failure terms, differed from the way in which it was used in our workshop last week.

At the retreat, we used it synonymously with becoming a cancer survivor–someone who has been, if not cured, given a number of years of being “in remission.”  We all, of course,  still hope for a cure for cancer,  and new immunotherapies have given us more hope one will be found.  Yet heart failure, by contrast,  is a condition that isn’t cured by drugs, rather they are used to improve heart functioning for as long as possible.  Inevitably, the prognosis for heart failure patients has the upper hand, and the heart continues to weaken.  As I was assigned to explore questions for the category of “transitions” in a proposed model for heart failure care in Canada, I couldn’t help but think about the different implications what “transitions” between the way we’d used it a week ago at Gilda’s club and how, in this new effort to define a model of care for heart failure, a somewhat different meaning is implied.

Heart Failure, which I have, is a growing — and all too silent — epidemic according to Dr. Paul Fedak, a cardiac surgeon at the University of Calgary.  He explains: “Heart failure is the end result of all cardiac disease.  You get heart failure from everything that goes wrong with your heart–all roads lead to heart failure.”  While cancer remains the leading cause of death in Canada, heart disease is the leading cause of premature death for women.  In the US,  heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women with cancer running a close second.    Yet I cannot help but consider the number and variety of support programs for cancer patients that are far more developed, available and varied in both countries. than resources for heart disease patients.

I’ve been part of the cancer community for nearly twenty years, and gratefully so.  When asked to introduce myself on this morning’s call, I said that I was someone whose practice has been focused on individuals living with cancer by supporting their emotional, spiritual and creative well-being through encouraging the writing and sharing of their illness stories.  The thing is that the prevalence of a variety of supportive care programs, such as we have in the cancer community, are scant by comparison in the heart failure community, although there are some recent efforts, like the HeartLife Foundation of Canada, working to provide information and resources as well as create a sense of community through social media.

I have come to realize now that my work with cancer patients and survivors has been my greatest teacher in  understanding the impact of serious or terminal illness on our lives.  My personal experience with cancer was not a  life threatening one.  But the negative side effect of my treatment didn’t make itself known until my diagnosis of heart failure eight years later.   It wasn’t until that incident,  perhaps, that I understood how the fear of premature mortality that can inhabit anyone’s mind who is diagnosed with cancer.  Heart disease and stroke kill seven times as many women as breast cancer, for example, and in Canada, a woman dies of heart disease in Canada every 20 minutes! According to the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation, women are five times more likely to die from heart disease than breast cancer. But it turns out that there are issues in research and treatment of heart disease and failure when it comes to gender.  Two-thirds of heart disease clinical research still focuses on men.  “Women are under-researched, un-diagnosed and under-treated, undersupported and under aware,” according to Yves Savoie, CEO.   “It’s unacceptable, and the situation has got to change–we need to smash this glass ceiling.”

Ironically, my cardiologist believes my heart failure was likely the result of radiation therapy I received for DCIS in my left breast eighteen years ago.  I was given “gold standard treatment,” as my oncologist described it, yet I didn’t feel like I was truly a cancer patient.  And I wasn’t, not really, because a short time later, DCIS was reclassified to “pre-cancerous,” so it was only after I collapsed  while walking my dog in December of 2008 and was diagnosed with heart failure, that I truly understood the words of Alice Hoffman, novelist, reflecting on her cancer experience:        

“Cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter. Still, novelists know that some chapters inform all others. These are the chapters of your life that wallop you and teach you and bring you to tears, that invite you to step to the other side of the curtain, the one that divides those of us who must face our destiny sooner rather than later.” (“Writers on Writing, “New York Times, August 2000).

Cancer treatments have gotten progressively more refined and better, and now with new advances in immunotherapy, there is even more reason to have hope for a cure.  Heart failure treatment continues to improve as well, although it isn’t about cure as much as it is in medication that can help to improve, for as long as possible, the heart’s functioning,  but the slope is still gradually downhill, and one’s “destiny” is never far from consciousness.

What strikes me now, as I continue to go to my cardiology appointments, have tests, receive new or increased medications and talk with my cardiologist (who is truly exceptional) is how solitary a journey having heart failure has felt like to me when I  consider the supportive care and community organized around  individuals living with cancer.

Or have I been in denial?  Perhaps, to some extent, but for the seven plus years I was being treated for this condition in California, other than one “educational” workshop on heart failure, which failed to do much to enlighten me, I never encountered or was told about other programs supportive to heart failure patients.  While I read research studies on heart failure, I do it in small doses, because my sleep is woefully interrupted by the facts and statistics.  Yet I am gratified to be pulled into action concerning the condition I and so many others have, or as my cardiologist would call it, “engagement.”  In fact, at my very first appointment with her back in December of 2017, she asked, “Do you want to just be retired or do you want to be engaged?”

I was perfectly clear.  “Engaged,” I said. “I have no idea what just being retired would look like.”

“Well, we’re going to get you engaged,” she said emphatically.

And she did.  Four months later, I sat in a group meeting on Heart Failure Access in Canada, all the while wondering how on earth I could possibly contribute to the discussion in any meaningful way.  Yet perhaps now I’m realizing I can be helpful in offering a patient perspective as the committee works  to define an optimal model for Heart Failure Care in Canada.  And that has a lot to do with the past 18 or so years of facilitating expressive writing groups for men and women with cancer.  A vocation, I’ve said, that has always been dear to my heart…little did I realize how much.

Perhaps all that I have learned, cherished and experienced as part of the cancer community, and most of all, from the honesty and vulnerability of those who have come to write and share their stories and lives with me in the writing groups, will help be me a better patient and participant in this community of cardiologists, nurses and heart failure patients.

And perhaps I won’t feel, as I have in the past, as lonely in the journey of being a woman living with heart failure.

My outlook is it’s not how long you live, it’s what you put into your life.Simon Morgan, 58, ( dilated cardiomyopathy;  heart transplant patient, UK)

Writing suggestions:

  • Cancer or any serious illness can be a great teacher.  What have you learned from cancer or other major hardship?
  • In your cancer experience, think about the kinds of support and help you were given.  What was most helpful?  Describe it and explore why you found it as valuable as you did.
  • Think about transitions–the many times in your life you’ve experienced that “in-between” period during change from one part of your life to another.  What meaning does “transitions” imply for you?  Why?

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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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Last week, the spring series of the “Writing Through Cancer” expressive writing program at Gilda’s Club here in Toronto ended after eight weeks of writing together and sharing the stories of cancer and of life.  Despite nearly twenty years of leading these workshops, I always become a little choked up as we close each workshop series. I have never ceased to be humbled and inspired by the men and women who write with me each year–and I return home full of gratitude after every session for each person who has written so courageously and honestly.

As the group began to disband, holding the small collection of writing we print at the end of each series, they were already discussing how they remain in touch with one another and, perhaps, write together in the summer months.  One of the most healing aspects of writing together from the cancer experience is the sense of community that emerges from the workshops.  People discover that there is no need to explain what one feels or judgment of their writing, only the safety and support to write deeply, honestly, and to feel truly listened to and understood.

In the writing groups, we are all honoring the storytellers that we, as human beings, have always been.  No longer silenced by cancer, in the act of telling and sharing our stories, we begin to rediscover ourselves, who we were before cancer and who we are becoming. Our stories do much more than describe our experiences—they help to alleviate loneliness.  Stories are the language of community, and as we write together and share our stories of the cancer experience, we discover we are not alone.

“A patient is, at first, simply a storyteller,” Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote in The Emperor of Maladies:  A Biography of Cancer (2010), “a narrator of suffering—a traveler who has visited the kingdom of the ill.  To relieve an illness, one must begin, then, by unburdening its story” (p.46).

… one must begin, then, by unburdening its story. Writing and sharing your stories of cancer helps to repair the damage done to your lives, the sense of who you are, the disrupted futures you face.  “Decay is the beginning of all birth,” Kat Duff wrote in The Alchemy of Illness (2000).  We are our stories, and in the act of sharing them, we affirm our uniqueness and discover is most meaningful.  “I did not want my questions answered,” Arthur Frank wrote, describing, his illness in At the Will of the Body.  “I wanted my experience shared.”   While cancer–or any other serious illness–changes us, perhaps it has the capacity to “remodel us,” as poet Jane Hirshfield said, “for some new fate.”

“Recovery is only worth as much as what you learn about the life you’re regaining,” Frank said.   And it’s not just cancer that teaches us—any momentous, challenging chapter of our lives has the potential for significant learning.  Yet to learn from our experiences requires something of us:  courage.  As Maxine Hong Kingston tells war veterans who write with her, it requires that you “tell the truth.”  It’s difficult to do sometimes, because we have to be willing to dive deep beneath the surface of the events and do some hard soul searching.  Yet it is exactly that courage to go deep and tell our truth that, “in the exchange of stories, we help heal each other’s spirits,” Patrice Vecchione said in Writing and the Spiritual Life (2001).

Writing together with others who have experienced events and illnesses is beneficial, yes, but it is so much more.  As I witnessed again these past eight weeks with the group at Gilda’s Club, as you begin to write and share your experience, you  move beyond the shock, the fear, anger and sorrow, and gradually, your whole life makes its way into what is written, not only the cancer chapter.  The real treasure lies in the truth you discover, and in unearthing that truth, the potential for true healing begins.  Suffering, we remember, is part of the universal human condition, told and retold in literature, history and memoir.  The act of sharing your stories with one another is not only about telling your story, but about telling the human story—the one that has been told and retold throughout our existence.  It’s how you discover new insights and meaning from your experiences.

Because you are reading these blog posts, you probably like to write or at least, would like to do so. If you do not belong or are not near an organized writing program for cancer or other serious/debilitating life events, you can certainly write alone–each blog posted on this site  has writing suggestions to help you get started (and always a year of archived posts).  Of course, the shared motivation that inspires you to write is a benefit of writing with others.  The more difficult part is to keep it going, to not try to do too much too soon with your writing, and to continue the group commitment–but it’s worth a try!  One of my former writing groups still meets monthly as we did when I lived in San Diego, rotating the group leadership and continuing to write and share their words with one another–and the sense of a bonded writing community has grown and flourished. Alone or with others, you have everything you need to write.

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

(From: “The Wild Geese,” In: Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1998)

Writing Together or Alone:  Some Suggestions

  • Where do you begin?   Don’t try to force a poem or a narrative into being, to make it “interesting” or “descriptive.”  Start with what you know.  Something as simple as your name and how you got it or what it means to you, or use a family photograph, one of your father or mother or your younger self.  Write about the moment you first heard the word, “cancer,” or simply make a list of “before cancer, I was…” and “after cancer, I am…” before choosing one and writing for a longer period.
  • Try writing for just 5 or 10 minutes a day. Set the timer and begin with anything, a word, a phrase, something you see. Write without stopping; go wherever it goes.  Now read it over.  Underline any phrase that stands out for whatever reason.  Use that phrase as your beginning and then write again as before, letting your words go where they may.  See what changes.
  • Write with a buddy or a small group. Some of my earlier writing groups have tried writing together after the program ends.  Many have been successful, but it takes commitment.
  • If you’ve formed a small writing group, pass the “facilitator” baton to one another for each meeting. For example, someone is responsible for bringing and introducing two writing prompts for the group to use as well as managing the time.  Keep the writing time short (10 – 20 minutes).  A reminder:  When you write together, don’t try to critique and judge.  The process is straightforward. You have come together to write, share your writing, and hear what in your work touches or engages others.  Offering critique is a very different group writing experience and comes much later.  Incorporated too soon, it can shut people down.
  • If you’re writing alone, that’s fine too, but without the motivation we sometimes get from writing together with others, it requires a bit more discipline. And you must try to keep your internal critic at bay!  The process is the same.  Start small.  Five to 10 minutes several times a week, preferably at a time you can “guarantee” a little space and quiet for yourself.  (In her early days of motherhood, Pulitzer Prize winner Carol Shields wrote while her children napped.)  Re-read what you’ve written.  Underline the words or phrases that seem to stand out.  Use one or more of those to write again for a short time, going deeper.

Stuck?  Drop me at email or post a comment on the blog site, and I’ll do my best to offer some suggestions.  It matters less what you write and as the members of my groups discover, that you write.  Your mind, in partnership with your pen, will take you where you “need” to go.

 

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(This week’s post adapted from one previously published in June, 2015)

Tomorrow I’ll celebrate the completion of another year of life, my age increasing as it does each June, reminding me that despite my resistance, learning to gracefully accept the aging process is unavoidable.  I look forward to birthdays as my grandchildren do.  My youngest granddaughter, whose birthday is three weeks away, talks of little else now but the plans for her party in July.  I remember being like that a long time ago, recalling the just-turned-six little girl, blonde hair in ringlets, carefully prepared by my mother and topped with a giant hair ribbon.  In the photograph of that day in June, a picnic table is piled with gaily wrapped gifts and a chocolate layer cake sits in the center, six candles aflame.  My face, lit by the candlelight, bears an ear-to-ear grin.  Just as my granddaughter does now, I eagerly counted the days until my next birthday, becoming a “big” girl, each year promising many more possibilities than the one before.  I was ready and impatient to be an older age.

Not so much now.  I tell myself it’s best to stop counting. The smile on my face, when someone says “Happy Birthday!” may well be tinged with something other than enthusiasm.  I’ve resisted accepting the category of “senior citizen.”  But I remember a birthday three years ago, when my husband planned an early birthday dinner so we could attend a jazz event afterward, I protested.  “What?  It’s too early.  No one eats that early except…”  My voice trailed off before I could say “senior citizens.”  He was doing his best to orchestrate a celebratory evening, but it felt a little like a “blue plate special,” the early dinners aimed at the elder customers, because as we walked into the restaurant at 5:25 p.m., it was empty.  We were first to be seated; first to be served; first to leave.  It lacked the feel of “celebration,” because it reminded both of us of the relentless march toward old age.

Are we ever ready for the changes life presents to us?  It’s never either/or.  Each stage of life has its challenges as well as its rewards.  I’m quite content to be called “Gramma,” but on the other hand, I am less enthusiastic the relentless pull of gravity, loss of muscle tone, and graying of my hair.  I now have regular visits to my cardiologist, reminding me of a condition I once thought belonged only to elders like my grandparents.  I’ve been humbled and learned that while illness or heart conditions can happen at any age, ready or not, you can’t escape aging.

“Ready,” the title of a poem by Irene MacKinney, begins with a memory:

I remember a Sunday with the smell of food drifting
out the door of the cavernous kitchen and my serious

teenage sister and her girlfriends Jean and Marybelle
standing on the bank above the dirt road in their
white sandals ready to walk to the country church
a mile away, and ready to return to the fried
chicken, green beans and ham, and fresh bread
spread on the table…

Every birthday reminds me of others past.  Memories come alive:  the scent of chocolate as my mother baked my birthday cake, the candle flames dancing as everyone sang to me, eyes shut, wishing as hard as I could for something I wanted to happen.  I’ll watch as my youngest granddaughter makes her wish and blows out the seven candles on her cake in a few weeks.   And she, like me, will hear that same song many years from now and remember the delights of birthdays from her childhood.

There’s an exercise I’ve borrowed from Roger Rosenblatt’s wise little book, Unless It Moves the Human Heart (Harper Collins, 2011).  It’s a delightful read and a glimpse into his “Writing Everything” class.    It’s an exercise that began with Rosenblatt asking if anyone in his class had recently celebrated—or was about to–a birthday.  Several students raised their hands of course, and Rosenblatt describes what happened next:

I…then burst into song:  “Happy Birthday to You.”  They [his students] give me the he’s-gone-nuts look I’ve come to cherish over the years.  I sing it again.  “Happy Birthday to You.  Anyone had a birthday recently?  Anyone about to have one?” …just sit back and see what comes of listening to this irritating, celebratory song you’ve heard all your lives” (pp.39-40).

I tried the exercise out with one of my writing groups a few years ago.  They looked at me with curiosity as I began singing and laughing a little before joining in.“Now write,” I said as the song ended.  “What memories does that tune inspire?”  I wrote with the group too, mind flooded with memories of birthdays past: the blue bicycle waiting for me the morning of my sixth birthday, the surprise party my husband and daughters managed to pull off few years ago, the headline in my small town newspaper’s society page:  “Sharon Ann Bray turns six today.”  (It helped, I suppose, that my aunt was the “society” editor!)

What happened in my writing group was that everyone had a host of memories associated with the birthday song, as many writers have.  In fact, Rosenblatt isn’t the only writer who used birthdays for inspiration.  Go to www.poets.org and you’ll discover William Blake, Sylvia Plath, Christina Rossetti and many others used birthdays as a time for retrospection.  I’m especially fond of Ted Kooser’s “A Happy Birthday,” a short poem that captures the introspection triggered by one’s birthday:

This evening, I sat by an open window

and read till the light was gone and the book

was no more than a part of the darkness.

I could easily have switched on a lamp,

but I wanted to ride this day down into night,

to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page

with the pale gray ghost of my hand.

 

Poems about birthdays, particularly as we age, inspire our reflection on the passage of time, aging, even the opportunity for change, for example, Joyce Sutphen’s “Crossroads:”

The second half of my life will be black
to the white rind of the old and fading moon.
The second half of my life will be water
over the cracked floor of these desert years.

Tomorrow, I’ll make a list for myself, remembering years past, the birthday memories that linger in my mind, and I know I’ll  have enough material for several days of writing, if not more.  It’s a chance to look back, reflect on life’s lessons, its joys and sorrows, and  to consider what I intend for the coming year.  Birthdays.  Anniversaries.  They’re chock full of memories, markers of the passage of time, experiences, people–the stuff of life–the stories of who we were, who we are, how life and the weather have treated us.  If any of you are also celebrating a birthday in the coming days, “happy birthday” to you too.

Writing Suggestion:

Hum the tune, or if you’re feeling brave, sing it:  “Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday to you…”  List the memories, good or bad, that this traditional birthday ditty evokes.  Whether you’ll soon have  a birthday, recently celebrated one, or joined in the birthday celebrations of family and friends, explore your memories of birthdays past as a way to inspire your writing.  In each memory of a birthday or anniversary lurks a story or a poem.  Why not write one?

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I’m gonna’ sit right down and write myself a letter

And make believe it came from you…

(song by Fred E. Ahlert & Joe Young, 1935)

You know the kind, a letter in which you pour out your heart, one where you tell the potential recipient what you feel, honestly and openly?  Many of us have, and it’s probably one of the reasons the song, “I’m Gonna’ Sit Right Down & Write Myself a Letter,” first recorded by Fats Waller in 1935  became a standard of the Great American Songbook .  The song has been recorded by more than a few vocalists over the years, including Billy Williams, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Paul McCartney and Madeline Peyroux.

There’s truth in those lyrics.  A letter written to yourself or one you write to another person but never intend to send can make you feel better.  Why?  Not only does it give you the freedom to express strong or difficult emotions, simply doing so helps to relieve stress,  often a culprit in illness and health problems.

Writing, we know, has many health benefits, but the most healing kind of writing is honest, writing that acknowledges your emotions openly.  In fact, the ability to feel and name both positive and negative emotions is critical to healing.  Sometimes, however, you may be reluctant to write honestly, worried that you’ll feel worse or guilty, especially when what we want really want to say involves admitting feelings about things or others that you’ve never fully expressed.

Psychologist James Pennebaker explained it this way:  writing honestly and openly about how you feel can be a bit like the experience of seeing a sad movie.  You come out of the theatre feeling bad; maybe you even cried during the film.  But you’re wiser.  You understand the character’s issues and struggles in a way, perhaps that you didn’t when the movie began.  It is in the expression of those feelings of sorrow or anger that you can begin to stand back, re-read and examine what you’ve written.  You have a chance to reflect on it and in doing so, understand yourself and the sources of your pain better than you did before.  There is relief in that realization–and there is the possibility for insight.

In “Letter, Much Too Late,” Wallace Stegner, Pulitzer Prize winning author, addressed his dead mother.  Stegner felt very close to his mother, who always tried to protect him from the cruelty of his father, even though she was rendered helpless in the face of her husband’s abusive personality.  While he was a graduate student, his mother died from breast cancer.  He nursed her in her final days and sat at her side as she took her last breath. “Letter, Much Too Late” was written fifty-five years after her death.   In it, he remembers her, asks for forgiveness and remembers her as a mother with enduring love for her son.  He wrote:

 “In the more than fifty years I have been writing books and stories, I have tried several times to do you justice, and have never been satisfied with what I did. . . .I am afraid I let your selfish and violent husband, my father, steal the scene from you and push you into the background in the novels as he did in life. Somehow I should have been able to say how strong and resilient you were, what a patient and abiding and bonding force, the softness that proved in the long run stronger than what it seemed to yield to.” (In:  Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, by Wallace Stegner,1992)

Writing, as Stegner’s letter illustrates,  offers the opportunity to “think to” another, whether it is yourself, your body, or someone with whom you have unresolved issues.  Imagining another and addressing your writing to that person encourages you to write naturally.  Even if you never show it or send it to anyone, writing to that imagined other has the effect of making your words more powerfully felt. It gives you the freedom to  say what you really want to say.   You can even “talk back,” writing to another, your illness or yourself.  One of the exercises I’ve used in my writing groups is to invite the members to address their letters to their cancers or their bodies.  “What,” I ask, “do you want to say to yourself?  Your cancer?  Your body?”  Here are two responses from former group members:

Cancer:  You entered my life without my permission. You tried to turn my body against me, leaving pain and uncertainty in your wake…Because of you I wondered if I would see my children grow up… You made me feel like less of a woman…You took my hair and scarred my body. You made me cringe at my own reflection in the mirror. Others see a warrior. I see someone wounded – broken by the battle…(2013 “Writing Through Cancer” workshop participant)

Cancer, you’re a wuss:  Do you know who you’re messing with? Do you know what I did to the last disease that dared enter this body? I don’t think you get it, how wrong you were to choose me of all people. I want to let you know that you may have gotten past my defenses, snuck in through the back door but I have my eye on you now and you aren’t going to get away with anything else…You won’t find me cowering in a corner, sniveling in fear and weighed down with depression…Bring it on, cancer. You won’t win this one. (J., 2014 workshop participant)

 Unsent letters are a great way of being able to say what we really want to say.  Whether during cancer or at other times in our lives, we all have the need to release the unspoken, to cleanse or reach out to another, whether living or dead, person or thing.  An unsent letter can be a tool to help express difficult or complicated feelings that might otherwise not be expressed.

Although I have incorporated the “unsent letter” as a prompt several times in my cancer writing workshops over the years, one participant’s experience with the exercise stands out.  She had, the day before our group met, received news her cancer had metastasized and that she had, at best, only a few months left to live.   G. used our unsent letter exercise to write to her doctor, who had cared for her throughout thirteen-year cancer journey.  After writing, she shared her letter aloud with the group.  It was strong and beautifully written, and expressed her feelings clearly.  She revealed how hurt she’d felt when her doctor didn’t establish eye contact with her as he conveyed her recent test results.  After she’d read, she remarked that she felt better, saying, “It’s helped just to write down what I feel, even if I’m not going to send it to him.”  Unlike most times I’ve offered the exercise, however, G. took the letter one step further

The following meeting, G. told the group she decided  to read her “unsent” letter aloud to her doctor at her follow-up appointment.  She described how visibly moved he became, and how he confessed he had struggled to tell her the news at her previous appointment, not trusting himself to keep his composure as he did conveyed the results.   He apologized to G. and thanked her for having the courage to share her letter with him.  We were humbled by G.’s courage in sharing her letter with her doctor, but it was an important moment between doctor and patient.

Of course, in this high tech, instant communication world of email, Facebook and Twitter, the “safety net” that writing an unsent letter offers is all but irrelevant.  Consider recent jabs, name calling, and racial comments and repercussions that result after an angry or shocking tweet going viral.  Even among many leaders, the unsent letter has been judiciously used to cool the anger experienced in the many retorts from critics or opponents.    According to journalist Maria Konnikova, in her article, “The Lost Art of the Unsent Angry Letter,”

Whenever Abraham Lincoln felt the urge to tell someone off, he would compose what he called a “hot letter.” He’d pile all of his anger into a note, “put it aside until his emotions cooled down,” Doris Kearns Goodwin once explained on NPR, “and then write: ‘Never sent. Never signed.’ ” Which meant that Gen. George G. Meade, for one, would never hear from his commander in chief that Lincoln blamed him for letting Robert E. Lee escape after Gettysburg.

Lincoln was hardly unique. Among public figures who need to think twice about their choice of words, the unsent angry letter has a venerable tradition. Its purpose is twofold. It serves as a type of emotional catharsis, a way to let it all out without the repercussions of true engagement. And it acts as a strategic catharsis, an exercise in saying what you really think, which Mark Twain (himself a notable non-sender of correspondence) believed provided “unallowable frankness & freedom.”

The beauty of writing an unsent letter is that it allows us to express difficult emotions on paper, safely, and get them out of our minds and bodies.  It quiets us, cools us down, and gives us a chance to reflect from what we’ve so furiously written in the wake of strong emotions. In re-reading, we learn from what we’ve written—new insights, greater clarity or understanding, even, as G. was, be able to express ourselves to another with compassion for ourselves and the other person.

Writing Suggestions for This Week:

  • This week, try your own hand at writing an unsent letter.  You might write to a loved one, a physician, a higher power, your body or even, cancer.
  • Write with the assurance that you can say what is honestly in your heart and mind, that no one ever needs to see or hear what you have written.
  • What do you really want to say?

 

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