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Archive for the ‘healing arts’ Category

Because of my involvement in the cancer community, I’m the frequent recipient of unsolicited emails or Facebook invitations, all dealing, to a greater or lesser degree, with cancer, whether one individual’s journey or a cancer support organization.  Despite my work, I sometimes feel inundated by the amount of unsolicited requests I receive.  Occasionally, however, I stumble onto a treasure.  A few years ago, I received an email from Sister Anne Higgins, the author of a 2007 book of poetry and blog site, both entitled Scattered Showers in a Clear Sky. I was intrigued and explored her writing, discovering a beautiful blend of narrative, photographs and poetry.  She later sent me several of her poems, written during her cancer treatment, and one in particular, “At the Gettysburg Cancer Center,” triggered memories of the experience I had several years before.  It begins, “Here is the club you never want to join…”

I remembered a telephone call I received from a cancer survivor shortly after I was first diagnosed and scheduled to begin seven weeks of radiation therapy.  “You’ll find you belong to a private sorority,” she said, “one you never knew existed until now.”  While I appreciated her call, I certain I didn’t want any membership in that “private” club.  Never a joiner during high school and college, I assiduously avoided campus clubs and sororities.  This time, however, it turned out I didn’t have a choice.

I existed in a state of denial for weeks, refusing to accept that life had forced me into the cancer club.  It was only weeks later, in a summer creative writing class, that I acknowledged the fact of this new membership.  Given the prompt, “the hospital corridor was dimly lit,” I began writing.  “I turn left into the waiting room; a montage of faces greets me:  men, women, a teenage girl, a grade-school boy.  Some with hair; others without.  We are all members of a private club.  We meet each day at 3 p.m., wearing the pale blue hospital gowns, the uniforms of anonymity, as we sit in silence…”

How many times have you felt forced into circumstances—those unwanted “clubs”—by what life deals us from its deck of cards?  Joan, a former writing group member in treatment for kidney cancer, described the shock of being dealt the cancer card:

Hit me.

Two cards down.  Two more dealt and…the wild card, stark in your hand…the cancer card…you want your discard back; you want to fold…you were so certain you didn’t belong here, in this neighborhood, playing cards, but Oh-Yes-You-Do.

Cancer is one of the life cards we don’t want to be dealt, just like job loss, trauma, heart attack,  or sudden death of a loved one—the list is long.  We object to memberships or labels we didn’t choose:  cancer survivors, heart patients, war veterans, single parents, homeless, refugee, widows or widowers, living with disabilities, parents of children with developmental delays or special needs…and more.  We don’t want to join these clubs, but we sometimes find ourselves thrust into them and do our best to deny the labels we’ve been given, like “cancer patient.” Labels make us feel exposed, as if we’re different, not the people we’ve always been.  Molly Redmond describes these feelings in her poem, “The Cancer Patient Talks Back:”

It has made me public property, like being largely pregnant.

People invade—an assault of connections—

for reasons fair and foul.

Strangers on elevators. Acquaintances.

The medical cadre too.

Either way,

I am covered with fingerprints, with labels…

 

We protest, even deny we’re part of this new reality, as Kathleen Rogers’ poem, “A Woman Argues with the Casting Director,” portrays:

I don’t, don’t want the part.

I really don’t what this part.

I don’t, I don’t believe it will be glamorous.

It won’t be opera, no swooning diva,

No Violetta, no burst of aria…

 

I told you—didn’t I tell you?—

I don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t want

this part…

 

(Poetry from:  The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. 1, 2001, Karin Miller, Ed.)

There is a flip side to pulling the cancer (or another unwanted) card.  While I remain uncomfortable with any attempt to be classified into different groups like cancer survivor, heart patient, or even senior citizen, there may be some unexpected benefits to having the unwanted cancer card, as some survivors have discovered.

When you go through the experience of fighting cancer,” Jamie Bendola wrote in a 2014 Huffington Post article, “it is most likely the hardest thing that you will have to do in your life. It’s like a marathon (if marathons included surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy), but at the end there’s no shiny medal to hang around your neck.”

“You do, however, get to pull the “cancer card… I’m not saying you should cut people in line at the movie theater and say, “Well I had cancer so you can just wait behind me…” It doesn’t work that way. There are certain times though when you can pull this card for your benefit… different grants you can apply for, medical programs, etc.  When I had to have a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy performed last year, I pulled the cancer card and all of my procedures were covered by Susan G. Komen.”

Susan Guber, writing in the “Well” blog of the New York Times, pointed to stand-up comedian Robert Schimmel, a cancer survivor, speeding to the hospital with his wife, when a policeman stopped them.  “Mr. Schimmel imagined what the officer was thinking: “Damn. This guy looks like,” followed by an expletive. “What if he’s dying, chemo’s his only hope, and he misses his treatment because I’m writing him a speeding ticket? I might be costing him his life. Do I want that on my head? That could send me straight to hell.” Cancer lets Mr. Schimmel off the hook; it is “the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card.”

Guber continues:  “Many people living with cancer use it as a ticket to reform their lives, for example, by delegating stressful responsibilities. It gives them permission to engage in productive enterprises like starting a walking regimen or volunteering for a patient advocacy group… The C card, for others, “stands for carpe diem. Whether you love fly-fishing, pedicures, rock music, photography, Bora Bora, playing with the dog, drinking, bowling, or bowling while drinking, after a cancer diagnosis you may finally find the time to follow your desires.”

Guber offers us something to think about.  You don’t have to be forced into any “club” because of the C-card.  As unwanted and difficult as it may be to be dealt a bad card from the deck of life, what matters is what you do with it.  As Randy Pausch, former professor at Carnegie Mellon, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2008, famously said, “It’s not about the cards you’re dealt, but how you play the hand.”   (The Last Lecture, 2008)

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about the time life dealt you the cancer card or some other unwanted hand.  Explore the experience, how it felt, how you first reacted, and what you did with your new “membership” in a club you never asked to join.
  • How have you played the hand you’ve been dealt?  What advice do you have for others who have been dealt “bad” hands in life?

 

 

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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.

We’re still camping out in our new apartment in Toronto, waiting for our belongings to arrive at customs, then, once the paperwork is completed, delivered to us.  That’s only the beginning of re-settling.  There are numerous boxes to unpack, their contents organized and placed in different rooms, closets, drawers, shelves or hung on walls.  This transition, which began many weeks ago, is wearing on me in multiple ways, and this weekend, it was my back that finally spoke the loudest: “Enough!”  After much packing, bending, lifting, and, here in Toronto, assembling a few piece of Ikea furniture and sleeping on a queen sized airbed, the toll on my body is clear.  I’m hobbling about the apartment, sitting as little as possible, and lying on the floor for respite in frequent intervals.  But the effects of our move are not just disrupting my physical self.  I’m also hungry for that little corner called “my space” that allows me solitude and time for writing and reflection.  At the moment, my new desk is being shared with my husband, who is waiting for his to arrive with the moving trucks.  As the days without my usual solitude increase, so does my impatience and irritation.

“I am here alone for the first time in weeks,” May Sarton wrote at the beginning of A Journal of Solitude, “to take up my ‘real’ life again at last.”  Her words resonate with me this week.  As much as I love Toronto, whatever city we live in at the moment is less important that the space we shape for ourselves, one that offers that “room of one’s own,” whether a corner of the kitchen or a bedroom turned into office.  Remember Virginia Woolf’s, A Room of One’s Own?  Written at a time when women were not allowed into particular universities nor recognized in a literary world dominated by men.  Woolf famously said, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

Things have, happily, changed for women since Woolf’s time, but I find it amusing that I’m feeling “encroached” upon in my space by my spouse.  In fairness, we both need our space to work and create, and he’s trying to be as flexible as I am, although without a bad back!  I still think of Woolf’s words, however, important in making explicit how necessary it is to make space for our creative work—or simply a time for quiet and refueling ourselves.  When we can’t find time or space free of interruption or distractions, not only our creative work is compromised, but, I think, the kind of spiritual-fueling we all need.  After weeks of disruption in the process of selling our San Diego home and now re-settling in a new apartment, I am woefully in need of reclaiming my routine and the mental and emotional space needed to nurture my creative life.

In solitude we give passionate attention to our lives, to our memories, to the details around us.—Virgina Woolf

In her delightful book of writing invitations, Room to Write (1996), Bonni Goldberg explains the choice of her book title as “creating room for your writing…  Making room in your life to write,” she adds, “generates even more room for your writing.”    Yes, I need the space and solitude for writing, but it’s much more than that.  Whatever feeds our inner lives, whether a hike through a canyon or forest, time sitting by a lake or stream, or simply finding time alone to do whatever we wish, we’re re-fueling ourselves and taking the time to pay attention to the things that matter most to us.  Quiet, solitude, even a space of one’s own:  these offer a different kind of nourishment and healing, no matter what change, turbulence or challenges life throws at us.

Writing Suggestions:

Do you value solitude?  How do you find it in the midst of a busy life?

Suppose you’ve been away for a time, in hospital or perhaps, taking care of an ill friend or family member.  What is it like to return to your own space after a busy day or time away?

Do you have a “room of your own” where you can engage in your creative work?  Describe it.  What do you like most about it?

 

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Understand, I was only a girl

living the days as they came.

I did not know I would leave…

 (From “Translation of my Life,” by Elizabeth Spires, In:  The Wave Maker, 2008)

We arrived back in Toronto just three days ago, weary from the weeks of preparing the house for sale, packing up our belongings, the history of much of our lives crammed into boxes, and flying across the continent with our small dog, Maggie, who was somewhat befuddled by her imprisonment in an “under the seat” Sherpa pet carrier.  Despite it all, I felt a sense of quiet satisfaction, of returning to a place I’ve been visiting regularly since I left for California several years ago, a place where, I remarked to a friend, “I feel grounded.”

As the airplane flew over the Midwest and into Canada, I remembered an evening when we were visiting Toronto two years ago.  I was lost in remembrance and sentimentality as my husband and I sat in a vine covered patio in the lingering daylight of long summer’s evenings here.  “You can’t go home again,” my husband said.  I reminded him that I’d already experienced the truth of Thomas Wolfe’s words when we’d left Canada for California many years ago.  The place I once called “home” had vanished.  After twenty-three years of maturing and living on Canadian soil, not only had my birthplace changed, so had I.

Even if you’ve never left a familiar place, the events of your life sometimes make you feel as if you no longer “at home” as you once were.  Cancer can have that effect, so can job loss, divorce, the death of a loved one, or other unexpected and difficult life events.  It’s as if you cross an invisible boundary into some new territory where what you took for granted no longer exists.  Whatever golden dreams I clung to about my home state were quickly tarnished by the reality that it was not and could no longer be “home.”

I guess I have to begin by admitting

I’m thankful today I don’t reside in a country

My country has chosen to liberate…

(From:  “Thanksgiving Letter from Harry” by Carl Dennis, in:  Unknown Friends, Penguin Press, 2007).

I admit the politics dominating the United States for the past year or two intensified my restlessness, no doubt influenced by the formative years of my young adulthood, when  my first husband and I embarked on a self-imposed exile to Canada in protest of the Vietnam war–an event mobilizing so many of our generation.  We were young and idealistic, never imagining how our sense of home would be altered and our lives changed.  Twenty-three years later, married to another native Californian, I returned to my birthplace full of hopes and expectations.  But like the protagonist in Thomas Wolfe’s novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, my homecoming was laced with disappointment.  What I discovered, like so many emigrants before me, was that “home” no longer existed in the ways I had imagined it.

You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood,  …back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.  (From: You Can’t Go Home Again, 1940)

Whatever golden dreams I clung to about my home state were quickly tarnished by the reality that it was not and could no longer be “home.”  The memories that that drew me back to the West were now elusive.  I felt like a stranger in the place I once called “home.”

In color photographs, my childhood house looks

fresh as an uncut sheet cake—

pale yellow buttercream, ribbons of white trim…

 Half a century later, I barely recognize it

when I search the address on Google Maps

and, via “Street view,” find myself face to face—

 foliage overgrown, facade remodeled and painted

a drab brown. ..

(From “9773 Comanche Ave.,” by David Trinidad. 2010

The irony is, of course, that all the years I lived in Canada, I clung tenaciously to my dream of California, whose luster intensified in my imagination.  Yet all the while, Canada had quietly wrapped itself around my heart.  There, I grew into adulthood.  I became a wife, mother and widow.  I met and married my second husband.  I discovered friendships whose bonds were forged out of the steel of years of struggle and hardship, friendships that have endured despite time and distance. Canada became a part of me as surely as the California of my youth. But it took leaving it to realize how much my Canadian years had defined me.

“Home is where the heart is,” Gaius Plinius Secundas, wrote nearly two thousand years ago.   Countless authors, writing about home, have echoed it since.

Goethe once wrote that all writers are homesick, that all writers are really searching for home.  Being a writer is being on a constant search for where you belong.”  It “comes out of a place of memory, not geography.  (Mary Morris, “Looking for Home,” in:  A Place Called Home:  Twenty Writing Women Remember, 1996)

It comes down to change– in a place and in ourselves.  Even if we’ve never left a place, all that happens to us during our lives exerts an impact, whether cancer, loss, trauma, living in another country.  We are changed from these events, and it can make us feel as if we’ve suddenly become strangers to the very place we’ve considered as “home,” crossing some invisible border into strange, new territory without realizing it, a place where now, the customs and nuances are unfamiliar.   We long for home, the place we once knew by heart, but  discover, as Wolfe suggested,  that you can never be at home as you once were.

Writing Suggestions:

  • What does it mean to be “at home?”
  • Have you returned to a once familiar place to find that you are no longer part of it as you once were?  What did you learn?
  • Has an experience like cancer, loss, or other life challenges made it difficult to regain the sense of belonging to a place and its people—or cemented it?
  • How has “home” changed for you over the years?
  • Write about home, leaving, returning or finding it.

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A friend is someone who likes you.
It can be a boy…
It can be a girl…

These are the opening pages to Joan Walsh Anglund’s beloved little book, A Friend is Someone Who Likes You, first published in 1958, one that sat on my parents’ coffee table for years, one I read aloud to my fourth grade class the first year I taught.  I still have a copy of Anglund’s book on my shelves, because no matter our age or stage in life, we all need friends, whether in good times or bad.

I’ve written about this topic several times before, but friends and friendship were again on my mind as I awakened this morning, no doubt ignited by yesterday’s household belongings sale we held yesterday with our neighbors.  Our tables were filled with not just the ordinary accumulations one has for day-to-day living, like plates, glasses, trays or pans, but bits of history, items that once held sentimental value.  Decorations, artwork, mementos from travels, all things that held a memory of a time and place, also occupied places on the sales tables.  I surprised myself at how quickly I was able to let them go when a neighbor or stranger picked one or two of those things off the table and murmured, “Oh, I love this…”  Things, accumulated belongings, stuff—call it what you may, but I felt little but delight that someone else might use and enjoy what I once called “mine.”

We had help with the sale.  Alecia supervised the entire process of the garage sale.  Victoria simplified the pricing process.  Sue brought muffins and smoothies to help fuel us during the day.  Carrie provided tables and transport to Goodwill for leftover goods.  Neighbors conspired to have a small “farewell” party the night after the moving truck departs.  Other friends dropped by, less to peruse our tables, but more to offer good wishes and give us a farewell hug.  There were several moments where my eyes filled with tears, and I turned to a corner of the garage or walked inside our house to let my emotions settle.  Unlike once cherished objects, letting go and leaving friends and neighbors who have been part of my life here isn’t so simple.

“You gotta’ have friends,” Bette Midler crooned on her 1973 album, The Divine Miss M (Atlantic Records).  Yes, we all “gotta'” have friends.   I remembering singing along to Midler’s recording in the late seventies, when my life seemed to fall apart, and a few close friends were there to help me through a tumultuous and painful time of trauma and loss.  Of course, not all the people we call “friends” stick by us through  hard times, whether loss, a marriage break-up, cancer or other life hardships.  As Midler reminds us in the song:

I got some friends but they’re gone
Someone came and took them away…

It’s during those difficult times in our lives that we truly discover what friendship is—and what separates our friends from our acquaintances in life.  Friends endure.  We share history and stories, laughter and tears.  They remind us of who we were and who we are.  In times of upheaval, change and transition, they provide the continuity we need in our lives, and sometimes, as many of us so painfully discover, they are “there” for us when our immediate families may not be.

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

Although I spent my childhood in one small town, my adult life has been punctuated by several moves, and once again, my husband and I are packing our bags and heading back to the city where we met and married, where even now, both daughters consider it “home,” despite their many travels and living in different countries.  I have been lucky to have several dear friends in Canada and the West—friendships formed in early in life, ones enduring through all my trials, tribulations, and moves to the opposite side of the country.  When I grouse about how many times we’ve changed residences, I remind myself how rich my life is, due in large part to my enduring friendships with people scattered around the world.  These are people who shared the impulsiveness and turbulence of youth, stuck by me during difficult chapters of my life, showed up when I least expected it, embraced and welcomed me when I felt most alone.

We all need friends.  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, including lowered risk of coronary heart disease.  Strong friendships have been shown to benefit brain health as we age and increase longevity.  In a 2006 study of nurses diagnosed with breast cancer, those without close friends were far more likely to dies from their cancer than those with ten or more friends.  What’s more, proximity and amount of contact are less important than having good friends (“What are friends for?  A longer Life,” by Tara Parker Pope, New York Times, April 2009).

The good thing about friends, Brian Jones writes in his poem, “About Friends,” is not having to finish sentences ( From:  Spitfire on the Northern Line © 1985). That’s how it feels for me when I’m with my friends.  As I have experienced so many times, and again these past many days  preparing to leave San Diego, friends not only make our lives happier, richer and a lot more interesting, they show up to lend a hand or offer comfort when we most need it.  It was these enduring friendships I thought about this morning as I gazed out at the canyon early this morning, friends whose kindness and support have meant so much in my life.  I smiled as I remembered each, my heart filled with gratitude for their continuing presence in my life.

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

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about friendship this week, about having—perhaps even losing—friends.
  • When have friends made a difference in your life? How?
  • Begin with the phrase, “A friend is someone who…”
  • Or write about one important friend in your life—what makes him or her unique?

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He wasn’t hard on us kids,
never struck us…

He used to sing in the car


bought us root beers along the road.


He loved us with his deeds.

(From: “A Father’s Pain,” in A River Remains by Larry Smith)

It’s Father’s Day, and in countless households in North America and the UK, eager youngsters, like my grandchildren, will be excitedly honoring their fathers, whether with homemade art, a special meal, gifts or cards. My youngest  granddaughter excitedly told me about the “surprise breakfast” she and her mother were going to serve to my son-in-law—a breakfast-in-bed that has been a ritual each Father’s Day, so while it’s unlikely a surprise for her father, he will show as much excitement as he has before.

Acting as if whatever was presented to him was the most wonderful Father’s Day surprise is something my father also did.  Our offerings were meager, given long before commercialism inundated Father’s Day with ads for a variety of expensive gifts. Instead, we made our own cards since the Hallmark supplies were meager, or we baked with our mother’s supervision—cookies, cake or a pie—and my father’s enthusiasm made us feel as if we’d created something truly special for him.

Since then, Father’s Day celebrations have become popular and more expensive. In previous years, retailers made their big push to attract consumers on Mothers’ Day since Father’s Day seemed, in some ways, it seemed like an afterthought.  (The holiday was an American invention, made two years after Mother’s Day).  In our house, Dad went to work each morning and returned at suppertime. Mother managed the household and was the primary disciplinarian of three spirited children.

Child-rearing practice have since changed from those traditional 1950’s middle class households.  Even in the 1970’s and 80’s, as I began rearing my children, parenting practices were shifting.  Since then, there have been more than a few subtle shifts in parenting assumptions between mothers and fathers, manifested as a a partnership of shared child-rearing responsibility.   Even so, Father’s Day still lags behind the cards, gifts and special dinners that have become part of our Mother’s Day celebrations. More cards, flowers and gifts are traditionally bestowed on mothers than fathers. According to a 2016 article from BBC News.com, the National Retail Federation reported an average of $186 is spent on Mother’s Day compared to $136 for Father’s Day.   According to Kyle Murray of the Alberta School of Business, retailers made a big push for a long time on Mother’s Day because demand for gift-giving was strong, and Father’s Day’s seemed, by comparison, more of an afterthought.

As child rearing is more frequently a partnership between husband and wife, fathers do more hands-on parenting and have more emotional relationships with their children than they once did. Not surprisingly then, according to Professor Murray, there is increased emphasis on Father’s Day and retailers’ promotions of the occasion.

Kit Yarrow, psychologist at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, says that because fathers have a deeper and more emotional relationship with their children than in the past, it’s easier to buy presents for them (BBC News. com). Despite the fact my father wasn’t as involved in our day-to-day upbringing as my mother, he provided the emotional glue that held our family together.

My mother was a strong disciplinarian while Dad, was an easy-going, fun-loving and tender-hearted father, whose reluctance to discipline was the result of the physical punishments he endured as a rambunctious child living on a ranch in the 1920’s.  It never failed, whenever we stopped by his appliance store and begged for an after school treat at the local drugstore, that he’d produced a shiny quarter from his pants pocket and hand it to us.  And many times, just as we opened the door to exit the store, he’d call out, “Hey Kid…how about I come with you?”

Dad taught me many things, among them, the love of a good story and the joy in shared laughter.  I also learned to dance standing on my father’s feet as he moved around the living room to a favorite Glen Miller or Benny Goodman tune. He taught me how to pitch a baseball, execute a decent football pass, and fish— even though my mother might have wished I’d chosen more “feminine” activities. Raised by an exceptional cook, he never failed to praise my meager attempts to bake a pie like my grandmother did, often with a too much flour and not nearly enough sugar. Yet even if the pie bordered on inedible, he always ate the ample slice I served, flashed a big smile and said, “My, but this might be the best blackberry pie I ever tasted.”

When my father died of Stage Four lung cancer on Thanksgiving Day, 1992, just three months after his diagnosis, none of his children were ready to let him go. The emptiness I felt in the wake of his death lingered for months afterward. Perhaps my father’s death—and life—is one of the reasons I gravitated to leading expressive writing groups for cancer survivors. Maybe it was the result all those afternoons I sat by his side as he prepared to die and he filled my head and heart with stories from his life.  His unique brand of warmth persisted to the end.  Even on the day he died, he managed to get to the table for a short time and share the  traditional meal with family, even asking for a second piece of pumpkin pie.  In my mind, as sad as the day was, I can imagine him smiling as and saying, “I think that might have been the best pumpkin pie I’ve ever eaten.”

This Father’s Day, I’ll celebrate my husband and sons-in-law and but it’s my father’s memory which will be foremost in my mind.  I hear the echo of his chuckle yet and remember how he loved to tell a good story.  As Jim Harrison wrote in his poem, “Larson’s Holstein Bull,” “death steals everything but our stories.” My father’s legacy lives on in his stories,  memories even cancer can never take away.

I miss you everyday— the heartbeat


under your necktie, the hand cupped


on the back of my neck, Old Spice


in the air, your voice delighted with stories.

(From:  “Father” in Delights & Shadows by Ted Kooser)
Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about your father, his memories, stories and legacy—whether loving or painful. What do you remember most about him?
  • Write about being a father—what did you learn from your own? How has your father influenced the father you’ve become?
  • Write about the holiday, “Father’s Day.” What do you like about it? What annoys you about it? Why?

To all fathers who may read this week’s post, Happy Father’s Day!

 

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Today I write about a subject that I don’t often speak of, nor even give into its darkness very often.  Today I am lonely.  I wonder how many of you who also have Stage IV cancer are lonely.  I can’t be alone.

Lisa Masters, “The Loneliness of Cancer,” Huffington Post, March 6, 2014.

In “The Anatomy of Loneliness,” an essay written by novelist Thomas Wolfe in 1941, he wrote: “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”   Yet, there are periods in a person’s life that loneliness, while “inevitable,” is intensified by circumstance, for example, poverty, old age, loss of a partner or spouse, or having a serious or life-threatening illness that loneliness intensifies and worsens.  The experience of cancer, especially when we hear descriptors like “aggressive,” “terminal” or “progressive,” can thrust us into that state, once described by Susan Sontag as the “kingdom of the sick,” where we feel isolated and estranged, not only from those close to us, but from ourselves.

According to Ruth Livingston, PhD, founder and direction of Living with Medical Conditions, writing in a 2011 article “Curing the Loneliness of Illness,

Being lonely can itself be dangerous to one’s health. Loneliness can double a person’s chances of catching a cold and, worse, lonely people are four times more likely to have a heart attack and, once they do, four times more likely to die from it…Further,… loneliness has an effect on the immune system: it increases genetic activity related to inflammation, a risk factor for heart disease and cancer; and it reduces antibody production and antiviral responses, protective against health risks. Such patterns of gene expression are not, according to researchers, linked to other negative feelings such as depression.  Loneliness, then —all alone — is a hazard. 

In 2014, UK-based MacMillan Cancer Support estimated loneliness put cancer patients’ recovery at risk, finding that cancer patients who are lonely are three times more likely to struggle with treatment plans than those who aren’t.  For example, lonely patients skip treatment appointments, do not take medications as prescribed, refuse certain types of treatment or skip treatment altogether.  Ciaran Devane, MacMillan CEO, commenting on the research, said, “We already know loneliness may be as harmful as smoking, but this research shows…it is particularly toxic to cancer patients.”

Illness is solitary, because suffering is something you always do alone.  It impacts phenomenally on your world view and on your experiences and on how you see the external world.

Author Peter Hobbs, commenting in a 2008 Granta Magazine interview

In his book, The Lonely Patient:  How We Experience Illness (2008), Michael Stein, MD, wrote, “health is comfortable, predictable, unnoticed.  …illness seems to come out of nowhere.  It’s become the unknown, and we’re all frightened by the unknown.”  He noticed that the effect on many of his patients was a kind of withdrawal, becoming physically unavailable for a time, and asking the question, “Why me?”  Loneliness, he concluded, “is a word that captures the inward spiritual condition…by its very nature, it excludes others.  The patient begins to feel out-of-place, lonely, and loneliness if made worse by the severity of the illness.

Loneliness is not an accident or a choice.

It’s an uninvited and uncreated companion.

It slips in beside you when you are not aware…

It takes your hand and walks with you.  It lies down

with you.  It sits beside you.  It’s as dark as a shadow

but it has substance that is familiar…

(“Loneliness,” by Fanny Howe, in Second Childhood, 2014)

Loneliness is a theme expressed regularly in the cancer writing groups I lead.  There are common triggers to loneliness often shared among the members and echoed by the National Cancer Institute:

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

Remember, although loneliness is common, that “inevitable fact” of being human, it’s not good for your health.  We all need emotional support during cancer treatment and recovery, but each of us has different ways of finding the emotional support we need.  When you’re feeling lonely and blue, it may seem like it takes too much effort, yet it’s important to find something that can help you diminish your loneliness, whether an expressive writing, support or art therapy group or an activity, like yoga.   Perhaps it’s a long chat with a close friend, a loved one or even your pastor, rabbi or a counselor.  Even simple activities like taking a walk or sitting in the sunlight in the garden can help combat your loneliness.  Take it a step at a time, but do take steps to re-engage with the things that normally, make you feel better.

Writing is an antidote for loneliness. –Steven Berkoff

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about what it is to experience loneliness, whether a poem or a narrative. What images or metaphors best capture what it is to be lonely?
  • Did you experience loneliness after treatment had ended? Describe what it was like.
  • What has helped you diminish the feelings of loneliness during cancer or another serious illness? What advice do you have for the newly diagnosed cancer patient or the cancer survivor completing treatment?

 

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My husband and I will be celebrating another year of marriage this Sunday, a day after our anniversary date, since I’ll be returning home from Toronto. I managed, however, to surprise him by sending a bouquet of flowers through FTD with a note of affection and gratitude for all the years of our many adventures together. This time, he admitted he had forgotten to calendar the date, busy with readying our home for the stream of potential buyers who viewed it all week long. He is forgiven, because four years ago, I actually forgot our anniversary myself and had to scurry to make up for forgetting.

There have been many other anniversaries in our lives—losses of our parents, births of our grandchildren, birthdays of family and friends, and other dates that, when they arrive, trigger the remembrance of other important events in our lives—like the day I was rushed to the hospital after collapsing on the pavement with what was later diagnosed with heart failure, or that afternoon in May, seventeen years ago, when I first heard the word “cancerous” apply to my life and become part of my regular vocabulary. It was an important event, and it altered my life in ways I did not expect, opening the door to other discoveries and ways of being. I often think about how my life was changed—in good ways—in the years that followed. I’m grateful I had the chance to create a new chapter of life, grateful I had the love and support of my husband.

Anniversary dates have a particular poignancy attached to them, whether birth dates, weddings or the other events that alter our lives—cancer, a loved one’s death, a nation’s tragedy. Anniversaries serve as a reminder of who we were then, what we have endured or achieved, and how those events shaped or changed us.

In the first anniversaries of loss, trauma or tragedy, strong emotions are often re-ignited: grief, old fears, relief, or happiness. I’m a believer in rituals or celebrations to mark important anniversaries or milestones. My husband and I have one ritual, for example, we share each Thanksgiving Day, to honor my father, who died of lung cancer on Thanksgiving Day, 1992. In the days before his death, requested we celebrate invite all his existing family members and friends to a wake and toast his life with a glass of Jack Daniels whiskey, his perennial favorite. Now, each Thanksgiving, we remember him with that same ritual, toasting my father and sharing a favorite memory of him. It’s something that solidifies and preserves his memory each November, and inevitably, honors his life with story and laughter—just what he wanted.

Celebrations and rituals are important and meaningful in  healing, offering a way to acknowledge our experience and place it into the context of our larger lives. We remember. We’re reminded of who we were and how far we’ve come. We are reminded how much we have to be grateful for.

I no longer remember the day I heard the words, “it’s cancerous…” Mine was such an early stage diagnosis that it didn’t carry the same impact of those I now know whose lives have been profoundly altered by an aggressive cancer diagnosis. Yet, time softens the difficult memories, and some milestones even recede in importance as life goes on. The pain of loss diminishes. We discover new friends, new joys, even hope, and gradually, we move on to create new life chapters, no matter how long we live.

I often think of the words of novelist Alice Hoffman, who described her cancer experience in a 2001 New York Times article: “An insightful, experienced oncologist told me that cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter,” she said. That’s true of so many of the painful, sad or difficult chapters of our lives. As we heal, we have less need to mark the dates of suffering, instead, we live forward, fully immersed in life. It doesn’t mean we forget, but rather, we celebrate rather than mourn. We honor. We give thanks.

There are many ways to celebrate or honor important milestones in the in our lives. Here are some suggestions from Cancer Net, but they are applicable to many of the milestones and anniversary dates of life. 

Take time to reflect. Plan a quiet time to think about your cancer experience and reflect on the changes in your life.  Writing in a journal, taking a long walk through the redwoods, along the ocean, or anywhere you enjoy being, offers the quiet time for reflection.

Plan a special event.  One of the women in my writing groups celebrated with a trip to Costa Rica after completing her treatment for a recurrence.   Why not plan something special, like a hot air balloon ride a trip somewhere you’ve always wanted to take, or plan a gathering with family and friends.

Donate or volunteer. When I first joined the ranks of “cancer survivor,” I was the interim director for Breast Cancer Connections, a Palo Alto, CA nonprofit.  I was impressed by the number of cancer survivors who, daily, gave their time to volunteer at BCC.  Many cancer survivors find that donating or volunteering helps give positive meaning to their cancer experience.

Join an established celebration. Many of us have walked, run, or participated in support of one of the annual cancer survivor walks hosted by patient advocacy groups and cancer organizations. Communities and cancer centers around the country also celebrate National Cancer Survivors Day, which is the first Sunday in June.
Do something you truly enjoy. Celebrating can just be taking time to do something you enjoy, husband taking a walk along the seashore or through a public garden, going to a film or the theater with a friend, placing flowers on a loved one’s gravesite, or, as I will tomorrow, sharing a special dinner together with my spouse, grateful for this gentle man who so willingly embraced not only me, but my then adolescent daughters, weathering their storms in the wake of a father’s death to create a loving and enduring bond between them.
Writing Suggestions:

.  Of the anniversary dates are important to you, which do you remember most vividly?
.  What images or feelings do those dates evoke?
.  Write the story of that date. What happened?
.  Why was it important to you?
.  How did your life change because of it?

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