Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘life writing’ Category

I’ve been thinking about how, in the weeks of our Toronto winter, my mood, dampened by a bad case of bronchitis and nearly three weeks of coughing, doctor’s visits and antibiotics, my writing has mirrored my mood, floundering along with my physical discomfort, state, repetitive themes and forced prose that seems leaden and glum, just as surely as the coughing and overcast skies I’ve suffered through for days on end.  Not only was I bored, whatever I managed to put on the page was uninspired and dull.  Did I need some new life crisis in my life ignite my daily writing practice?  Somehow, that didn’t seem like anything I needed or wanted, lackluster writing or not.

Nevertheless, writing out of crisis, pain or suffering, has provided the inspiration for many works of great literature.  Novelists and poets alike have described their writing as a form of therapy, helping them heal from traumatic events in their lives in face, and  Louise DeSalvo states in her book, Writing as a Way of Healing, those traumatic events have inspired many of our greatest cultural creations.  Writer Paul Theroux once described writing like digging a deep hole and not knowing what you will find.  He admitted to feeling a sense of initial shock when reading authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene or William Styron, discovering powerful—and personal—themes of alienation or suffering in their work.  Fitzgerald described his battle with alcohol in The Crack-Up, Greene wrote of his manic-depression in A Sort of Life, and Styron examined his suicidal depression in Darkness Visible. Creativity, as so many writers have shown us, not infrequently is fueled by life crises, trauma or suffering.  Search for on Amazon’s book listings, and you’ll find dozens and dozens of books written out of personal suffering, illness, loss or other trauma.

Cancer is one of those personal crises that triggers intense and abundant writing and has, for many authors, resulted in books of poetry or memoir.  Writing Out the Storm, the title of Barbara Abercrombie’s memoir of her breast cancer experience,  is a great metaphor for writing out of a personal crisis.   A cancer diagnosis–or many other traumatic life experiences, can make you feel as if you’re in the midst of a storm.  You rage; you weep; you pour your emotions onto the page.  Writing becomes the calm, the eye of a hurricane, a kind of refuge while the storm continues to howl around you.  You may write desperately and furiously, revealing all your anguish on the pages of your notebooks.  The refuge I found in writing during an extended period of personal crisis and loss, and the solace I discovered in it ultimately led me to leading my first workshop for cancer survivors nearly 18 years ago.

Yet the cancer journey changes, just as the weather and seasons across the country.  As you move from the shock and pain of diagnosis, surgeries and chemotherapy toward recovery, winter–although it may not feel like it now–makes its retreat, and Spring arrives.  Your spirits are buoyed by  the promise of calmer and sunnier days emerging from the wreckage left by wild weather.  The first crocus poking through the last of the snow and the buds appearing on the trees, ignite a new sense of hope.  But what happens to your writing as the storm passes and life becomes more bearable?  Does your writing change, or do you stop writing?  Are you predominantly a “crisis writer,” preferring the intensity of a life crisis to fuel your writing or do you discover new inspiration as the sky clears and nature begins to blossom?

For a long time in the aftermath of my loss and grief, I was a crisis writer.  But gradually, I realized I’d begun to ruminate, replaying old questions and sorrow over and over on the pages of my notebook.  Instead of feeling better, I felt worse.  I was mired in the blues.  The monotony of my constant replays on the page weren’t helping me get on with life or writing.  While it’s true that to write, you must be willing to step into your shadows and confront your own darkness, but to remain there defeats the healing benefits writing can have.  It’s why, in my cancer writing workshops, the prompts and exercises I offer to the groups gradually move from the predominant theme of cancer to a person’s whole life.  Cancer isn’t anyone’s complete life story–only a part of it.

A few years ago, I was stuck in a winter’s funk–erroneously called “writer’s block,” something I have since banned from my vocabulary.  Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the U.S. and a favorite of mine, was speaking at a local university; I was determined to hear him speak.  I was glad I did.  Collins’ poetry and wry humor were good medicine for my sagging spirits.  After the reading, he took a few questions from the audience, and one person asked where he found his inspiration.  His answer was brief and to the point.  Collins replied that he finds his inspiration in noticing, by looking out the window.  Read his poetry, and you’ll quickly discover that even the most ordinary thing can contain the seed of a poem or a story.

The following morning, still inspired by Collins’ reading, I opened my notebook, gazed out the windows in our front room and began with a first sentence, “I wish I could write a poem like Billy Collins…”  It was enough.  The words began flowing freely, something to do with being present and paying attention I realized.  I thought of Naomi Shihab Nye’s delightful poem, “Valentine for Ernest Mann,” inspired by a request from a young man to write him a poem and send it to him.  “You can’t order a poem like you order a taco,” Nye began, ” Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two…”  She continued:

…I’ll tell a secret instead:

poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,

they are sleeping. They are the shadows

drifting across our ceilings the moment 

before we wake up. What we have to do

is live in a way that lets us find them.

(In:  Red Suitcase, 1994).

What we have to do is live in a way that lets us find them.  In Rita Dove’s wonderful poem, “Dawn Revisited,” she offers an invitation to awaken ourselves to the world around us to inspire the way we live and express our lives.

Imagine you wake up 

with a second chance: The blue jay 

hawks his pretty wares 

and the oak still stands, spreading 

glorious shade. If you don’t look back, 

 

the future never happens. 

How good to rise in sunlight…

The whole sky is yours 

 

to write on, blown open 

to a blank page…

 (In:  On the Bus With Rosa Parks, 1999)


The whole sky is yours to write on, blown open to a blank page…  It’s a great image, and it reminds us that the real work of writing is to write under any sky, whether stormy or clear.  It’s is how we capture the intricacy, the poetry, and stories our lives encompass.  It’s the work for every writer—and, perhaps, for healing: to move beyond the crisis, storms, and see the world with new eyes, to awaken, notice and explore.  Perhaps you’ve been writing out of the storm called cancer, but ask yourself this:  as the sky clears, where will you find the inspiration and the motivation to keep writing?

 

Writing Suggestions:

  • Why not take a look out the window or go outside? Open your eyes and notice how alive the world is with new possibility.
  • Begin with a blank page and write about the sky above you, whether it’s stormy or sunny, gray or blue.
  • Start with the first thing that grabs your attention as you look out the window. Start with a single line, pay attention to what you notice and describe it. Then keep writing for 20 minutes and see where it takes you.
  • Write out of storm, or write about calm.  It doesn’t matter.  The whole sky is yours, the blank page is yours, a space for whatever you want to write. What matters most, is that you write.

Read Full Post »

There is a country to cross you will
find in the corner of your eye, in
the quick slip of your foot–air far
down, a snap that might have caught.
And maybe for you, for me, a high, passing
voice that finds its way by being
afraid.

(William Stafford,  “For My Young Friends Who are Afraid”)

Fear.  We all feel it; it’s both the body and the mind’s reaction to a perceived threat.  Fear is the emotion that kick starts the body’s metabolism, useful in times of real fear, but, as the research suggests, not as useful to us when fear becomes our way of life.  Not only does prolonged fear have the potential to suppress our immune system, but it hinders our ability to be fully present to the here and now of our lives.

What are you afraid of?   In the poem, “Fear,” Carson Ciaran illustrates the sometimes irrational aspect of fear:

…I fear the gap between the platform and the train

I fear the onset of a murderous campaign…

 

I fear books will not survive the acid rain

I fear the ruler and the blackboard and the cane…

 

I fear the gremlins that have colonized my brain…

What else do I fear?  Let me begin again.

 

(From Selected Poems, 2001)

Fear inhabits all of our minds at different times in a person’s life I’ve battled fear and anxiety more than once in mine, whether fear of jumping in the deep in of the pool as a child learning to swim, laying awake listening to my infant child’s cough as a young mother, fearing sudden mortality when I was first diagnosed with heart failure several years ago.  And in a world where so many people suffer from war and violence, fear is a constant companion.

Fear is also something ignited by serious illness, and more than many diseases, cancer ignites fear.  Quoted  The Boston Globe in 2008, Dr. Donna Greenberg, director of psychiatric oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital said, “The word cancer still carries with it the specter of death and suffering.  It’s like a monster coming into your house.”  A cancer diagnosis sparks anxieties and turns them into flame.  “The glass may be 99 percent full,” Dr. Ann Partridge, cancer specialist at Dana-Farber, remarked, “but they [patients] grab onto the 1 per cent risk.”

Having cancer affects your emotional health, according to the American Cancer Society.  A cancer diagnosis often has a huge impact on patients, families, and even caregivers. Feelings of depression, anxiety, and fear are common and normal.  The fear that cancer might progress or recur is one of the most common and devastating concerns of those living with cancer.  You live with the concerns of mortality–a life shortened by a cancer diagnosis.  In his well-known poem, “Fear,” Raymond Carver, poet and short story writer, who died of lung cancer at age 50, expresses the mix of irrational and real fear that can inhabit the mind.  Notice how the tension increases as the poem moves to its final lines.

Fear of seeing a police car pull into the drive.
Fear of falling asleep at night.
Fear of not falling asleep.
Fear of the past rising up.
Fear of the present taking flight.
Fear of the telephone that rings in the dead of night.
Fear of electrical storms.
Fear of the cleaning woman who has a spot on her cheek!
Fear of dogs I’ve been told won’t bite.
Fear of anxiety!
Fear of having to identify the body of a dead friend.
Fear of running out of money.
Fear of having too much, though people will not believe this.
Fear of psychological profiles.
Fear of being late and fear of arriving before anyone else.
Fear of my children’s handwriting on envelopes.
Fear they’ll die before I do, and I’ll feel guilty.
Fear of having to live with my mother in her old age, and mine.
Fear of confusion.
Fear this day will end on an unhappy note.
Fear of waking up to find you gone.
Fear of not loving and fear of not loving enough.
Fear that what I love will prove lethal to those I love.
Fear of death.
Fear of living too long.
Fear of death.
I’ve said that.

(From:  All of Us, 2000)

Fear can linger too, even after treatment is completed and recovery begins.   “The Routine Fear for Cancer Patients,” an earlier article from The Philadelphia Inquirer, refers to “scan anxiety,” the psychic distress engendered by tests.  “In the back of your mind,” colon cancer survivor, Judith Rothman states, “it’s always there that the other shoe is going to drop, and that becomes more active in the days before that CAT scan until I hear what happened…I always think the worst.”

Fear.  We all feel it; it’s  the body and the mind’s reaction to a perceived threat.  It’s the emotion that kick starts the body’s metabolism, useful in times of real fear, but, as the research suggests, not as useful  when fear dominates our daily life.  Not only does prolonged fear have the potential to suppress your immune system, but it hinders your ability to be present to the here and now of your life.

How do you learn to live with the fear that cancer induces?  How do you name it and yet, let it go, accepting what you cannot control?

In “I Give You Back,” poet Joy Harjo describes releasing her fear:

Oh, you have choked me, but I gave you the leash.
You have gutted me but I gave you the knife.
You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire.

I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won’t hold you in my hands.
You can’t live in my eyes, my ears, my voice
my belly, or in my heart my heart
my heart my heart.

But come here, fear
I am alive and you are so afraid
of dying.

(From:  She Had Some Horses, 1983)

Fear is something we all live with, some of us, perhaps, more willing to admit it than others at times, but the challenge for anyone is to not let it prevent us from truly living.  As William Stafford reminds us,

What you fear
will not go away: it will take you into
yourself and bless you and keep you.
That’s the world, and we all live there

(In:   The Way It Is:  New & Selected Poems, 1999)

Writing Suggestions:

  • What do you fear? Try making a list in the style of Carver’s list poem.  Don’t stop to judge.  When you finish, read it over.  Highlight the fears that are most “real” for you.  Choose one or more and explore the fear.  Set the timer for 20 minutes and writing without stopping.
  • Look fear in the face this week. Create a character named “Fear.”  Talk back to it as Harjo did.
  • How or when does fear visit you?  What do you do to manage your fears?
  • Write about a time when you were truly fearful. What was the event?  What happened?  What did you do?  Write the story of the experience.

Read Full Post »

In the first session of my writing groups, members introduce themselves by name and if they wish, the kind of cancer they are living with.  In every group, some happily declare their treatment is behind them.  They are “in remission” or “cancer-free”–words everyone longs to be able to say as their treatment regimens conclude.  “In remission” signals a reprieve from the relentless routine of doctor’s appointments, scans, tests, surgeries and weeks, even months of treatment.  It declares one’s return to a so-called “normal” life, yet more often than not, “normal” does not have the same meaning it did before cancer.  Treatment provided structure, routine, and defined the days before them.  Now “in remission” is also readjustment.  Returning to life as it was before cancer is not easy–it may not even be possible.

“In remission.”  You‘re one of the lucky ones.  Cancer not only alters our bodies, it changes the way we experience the world.  Despite the wish you may have to do so, you realize it’s nearly impossible to return to your former life–you’re not the person you were before cancer.  You experience life differently than before.

Your treatment has been successful, at least for now, but you live with the knowledge that as a survivor, you may not be guaranteed a permanent state of grace.  You may have many years left to live; perhaps less.  One thing is certain: you never take anything for granted.

I will never be the same

knowing how effortlessly death

rests in the cells of my body,

yet with each step I am willing

to say yes to the chances I take,

to the hope no one can take from me

here in the midst of my recovery…

(“Hiking in the Anza-Borrego Desert After Surgery,” by Francine Sterle, in The Cancer Poetry Project, V. 1, 2001)

There’s something else.  You may even feel a little guilty, especially when, in your cancer support groups, you know many whose prognoses are less favorable and who may well lose their lives to cancer.  You’re relieved, yes, but it can seem unfair.  Why have you survived while others may not?

You may question your life, how you can make it matter, live in a way that “makes a difference.” And yet, what about learning, or re-learning, what it means to live in the present, to cultivate gratitude, to even give yourself time and space to re-discover the simple pleasures of living?

“I’ve gone from thinking, ‘Why me?’ to thinking, ‘Why not me,” a former writing group member said.  “In the beginning, it was comforting to think of fighting to survive…   I believe that I should have a powerful drive to accomplish something…a goal for which I need to continue to survive.  But,” she confessed “I don’t find that drive in me.”

Her words resonated with me.  I recalled the self who was so goal-driven before cancer, eyes always on what lay ahead, stressed and always racing from one thing to the next. Cancer was my “whack” on the side of my head.  I became aware of how I had been missing out on the joy of the present—the ordinary moments that are so much of what living is about.  If I was to learn anything from my experience, it was about slowing down and learning to be present in ways I’d all but forgotten how to do.  It was about learning to live again, but differently.

What is living about for those lucky enough to be “in remission?”  N., a former group member wrote, “I love the things I do day by day.  I hike with one beloved friend.  I spend time in the wonderful garden of another.  I meet others for coffee and conversation. I meet these friends with pleasure and leave them with a joy and benefit to my mind and spirit…”

Like so many of us, N. rediscovered comfort and meaning in the ebb and flow of everyday life, small pleasures of love, companionship or nature.  “It frees me from having to make every moment count,” she wrote.  “It takes off pressure that would exist if I had to accomplish something in particular before I die…”

This is a spring he never thought to see.

Lean dusky Alaskan geese nibbling grass

seed in his field, early daffodils, three

fawns moving across his lawn in the last

of afternoon light…

He smells the hyacinth

and can feel hope with the terrible crack

of a thawing river loosen in his heart…

(“In Remission,” by Floyd Skloot, in The Cancer Poetry Project, V. 1, 2001)

I recall the wisdom of so many of the writing group members more than a few times each year, because, despite my resolve, it’s much too easy to slip into old habits of being, putting my daily life on fast forward or being consumed by a list of daily “to dos.”  It’s easy to forget the real task of being alive is to be present, pay attention, and re-discover the gratitude for my everyday life.

A., a member of one of my former writing groups for several years who subsequently died from rare form of leukemia in 2012, chose to spend her final years in the quiet beauty of the California redwoods, living and working in a small cabin in the Santa Cruz mountains, a source of inspiration and peace for her. She inspired in all who knew her a reverence for life, the beauty she saw in and expressed in how she experienced the  ordinary ebb and flow of each day.  Her poetry and words linger in my mind, luminous and alive.   In her poem, “Directive,” she reminds us how abundant the gifts of what we consider the ordinary are, of the joys found in those small moments of daily life.

Remember the commonplace, the wooden chair on the white planked deck,
trees kneeling in the rain and deer prints
leading into elegant rushes. A kinder place
cannot be found: where you sit at the top
of shadowy stairs, the window lifted…

Let me speak for you: there’s comfort
to be found in fatigue, in letting principles
fall like stones from your pockets…

Fall into the ordinary,
the rushes, the deer looking up into your heart,
risen, full in the silver hammered sky.

(From “Directive,” by A.E., 2010, personal communication)

Writing Suggestions:

  • “In Remission.”  Explore the term, what it means–or meant–to you.  What were the lessons of cancer?  Did you live your daily life differently than before cancer?
  • “Remember the commonplace…”  Re-read the excerpt of A.’s poem.  What in the ordinary aspects of daily life have you come to appreciate?
  • Practice gratitude.   Take notice; find gratitude for the simple joys of living.   Choose one small moment from any day, whether from nature, loved ones, your daily routine—a simple pleasure that sustains, inspires or offers you joy.  Describe it in as much detail as you can; perhaps you’ll find a poem or a story lurking there.

Read Full Post »

Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” —  Joan Didion, in The Year of Magical Thinking, 2005

In two days, I’m beginning a new “Writing Through Cancer” workshop series at Gilda’s Club here in Toronto, the expressive writing program I’ve been leading for over 17 years.  As often as I’ve led these groups, one would think that I’d have it down pat now, you know, like an dancer who knows every step of a dance by heart, or the actor, on stage as the lead character in a play that’s run on Broadway for years.  The choreography is as natural as walking; the lines of the play as fluid as a conversation with a friend.  In some ways, yes, the flow of the sessions are as familiar to me as old friends, but always, despite the emotions and stages common to the cancer experience, every single workshop series is different, the product of the mix of participants and their uniqueness as individuals and as a group.

It’s no surprise that I spent the better part of yesterday thinking about the session, wondering what the mix of participants will be, how I’ll introduce the workshop to them, and how I’ll frame the first writing prompt.  Where does one begin?  In my writing groups, it’s most often in those moments before the realization that their lives had changed, the instant they embarked on the cancer journey.  It’s the moment when, as Barbara Abercrombie describes in Writing Out the Storm (2002), “something happens, and then the world spins on a new axis.”

He opens the door

                and walks in,

his face and white coat

stiff with starch,

 

holds my hand, and

he says,

“I’m afraid.

 

I am afraid

you have cancer…”

(From: “Diagnosis,” by Majid Mohiuddin, in The Cancer Poetry Project, v. 1, 2001)

“You have cancer.”  The words sound like a cosmic bad joke or a death sentence.  Sometimes, like in the moment my father was told he had Stage 4 lung cancer, it is one.  Emotions rush in, competing for attention:  disbelief, sorrow, anger, fear, guilt.  You rail against the diagnosis in one moment and break down in tears the next.  You’re in the middle of a personal disaster.  Why is this happening?  What can I expect?  Will I die?

It’s those vivid memories and emotions that are important to describe in writing for healing.  To be healing, it doesn’t mean you write  in generalities about a traumatic or stressful event. Healing writing has particular characteristics, as psychologist James Pennebaker and his colleagues noted in their substantive research on writing’s health benefits.  Healing writing is concrete, vivid, and contains detailed descriptions of trauma, distress and emotion.

Whenever I ask people in our beginning session to recall the moment they first heard the word, “cancer,” no one ever responds with generalities.  Even if it’s several months or more since they were first diagnosed, the memory is vivid; emotions rise to the surface as they write and when they share what they’ve written.   The remembrance of that single moment evokes strong feelings among everyone as they each describe what it was like to be told, “you have cancer.”

Those words “you have cancer,” are ones you hear for the first time and yet, for the physician, these are words delivered to a patient many times over one’s medical career.  What goes through a physician’s mind in the moment before a patient is given the diagnosis?   Jennifer Frank, MD, describes the moment before she delivers a cancer diagnosis to a patient:

I want to be straightforward but not blunt.  I want to be compassionate but remain professional.  I slow myself down, remind myself that the words I’m about to say are ones that I’ve said before, many times, but that the words I’m about to say are also ones you’ve never heard before[underlining is mine]   (From:  “A Piece of My Mind,”  JAMA, March 7, 2012, v.307. no.9).

The words “you’ve never heard before…”  Writing in the New York Times in 2000, novelist Alice Hoffman described what it was like to hear those words when her doctor telephoned her with the results of her biopsy:

I was certain my doctor was phoning me to tell me the biopsy had come back negative…but then she said, “Alice, I’m so sorry.” …In a single moment the world as I knew it dropped away from me, leaving me on a far and distant planet, where…nothing made sense anymore. (From: “Sustained by Fiction While Facing Life’s Facts,” August 2000.)

This first moment, the moment life began to spin on a different axis, when nothing seems to make sense, is the beginning of each person’s stories of the cancer experience.  It’s an important one to begin with, because once described, it opens the door to all that begs to be written and expressed about living with cancer.  It’s an invitation to examine and make sense of, your stories of illness, but in doing so, we remember  these are also the stories of being human, of life, because cancer can happen to anyone, and, as Alice Hoffman wrote in her NYTimes article, it does not have to be your whole book, only a chapter.

It’s part of the reason I love leading these groups, why I am always inspired and humbled by the power and beauty of what the men and women write and share in the workshop sessions.  We remember; we cry; we laugh; we share our stories around the table and honor, together, what it means to be human.

Writing Suggestion:

  • Start at the beginning.  Whether cancer or any other unexpected or traumatic moment in your life, go back to the day, the setting, the people, the moment that your world began to spin on a different axis, the moment something happened that changed the world as you knew it.
  • You can begin with phrases like, “I remember…,” or “The day that ____ happened, I…”  It doesn’t matter.
  • Do try writing without pause.  What’s important is that you write freely, without your internal critic whispering in your ear.
  • Set the timer for 20 minutes and begin.  Keep the pen moving.
  • When time is up, read over what you’ve written, first simply writing the piece all the way through without stopping.  Then read it a second time, underlining phrases and words that stand out, “glow” from the page.
  • Now, write again for 20 minutes, but this time, begin with one of the phrases you’ve underlined.  Chances are the writing will intensify, become more specific and descriptive.

 

Read Full Post »

We don’t receive wisdom we must discover it for ourselves.― Marcel Proust

It’s become a ritual of sorts, a practice begun several years ago together with my writing buddies, one I dutifully begin as the old year nears its end and a new year beckons.  There are no lists of New Year’s resolutions constructed, ones that, however unintentionally, are abandoned within a month or two.  Rather it’s the choice of a single word, one that signifies what I hope and intend my new year to be, one that serves as a reminder of what I hope to achieve, and one that sits, framed, on my desk where daily, I am reminded to take the actions this word implies.

I was nudged into the annual process of finding my guiding word after a post-Christmas visit with a dear friend, who is recovering from several months of cancer treatment.  “I think this will be my year of healing,” she said.  Yes, I thought, healing is such a powerful word, one that holds so much meaning and implied action for anyone who’s experienced the months of surgeries and treatment for cancer.  I was inspired by her comment and after my husband and I returned home, I began thinking about what word I would choose to set the tone and define the actions I want to take as the New Year begins.

There’s something elegant and honest about finding a single, meaningful word, but the process of choosing it is not easy, no matter how many words have preceded this New Year’s selection.  I began, as I always do,  making lists of potential contenders, consulting the dictionary, my thesaurus, and words of wisdom from poets and philosophers–all in the hope something written or described might jump off the page and announce, “I’m it!  I’m your word!”  Of course, it never happens that way.  I reviewed my word choices of years past, hoping inspiration might be hidden among them.  Instead, I discovered I had a distinct tendency to choose words beginning with the prefix, “re,” such as “renew,” “revise” or “rewrite,” each suggesting a “do-over,” an intention named but failed from an earlier year.  I looked at my list-in-process for 2018.  Yep, I had a definite majority of “re” words written down.  I started a new list, obviously needing more effort to come up with something new.

The seeker embarks on a journey to find what he wants and discovers, along the way, what he needs. ―Wally Lamb, The Hour I First Believed 

I returned to last year’s “word,” a phrase of “step-by-step.”  I’d framed it together with an image of stepping stones in a pool of water.  It was a choice that became a mantra, because in 2017 we decided to move back to Toronto from San Diego, and at times, the entire process was nearly overwhelming.  My 2017 “step by step” helped me breathe, realizing that achieving our dream was a process of many steps. On June 29th, we boarded the plane, our belongings following later, and turned that dream into reality.  Yet there were many more steps to take before we were finally settled.  How, I wondered as I looked to 2018, could I equal last year’s choice of a guiding set of words?  My mind was sluggish and everything I tried seemed unoriginal.  Still, I wrote every morning, searching for that one shining word, one that would symbolize how I want to live and what I hopeto accomplish this new year.

A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them. –William Stafford

Despite feeling I was coming up empty-handed, the beauty of the creative process is that one’s mind keeps working on a solution to the problem.  Three days ago, I put my notebook aside in disgust and walked to the kitchen to pour myself a second cup of coffee.  It was as I filled my cup that the word–my 2018 word–suddenly announced itself:  “discover.”  I raced back to my desk, opened the dictionary and checked the meaning:   “find unexpectedly or during a search,”  “become aware of,” “show interest in,” or “be the first to recognize potential” in something or someone.  I opened my notebook to a new page and began writing again, pen racing across the page, exploring all the ways in which “discover” could be the roadmap for a new year.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.

Marcel Proust

I’ve referred to Proust’s quote  many times over the years, but it seemed particularly relevant to this year’s guiding word choice.  My husband and I have recently returned to a city we once called home many years ago, and while much of it feels familiar, there is a great deal that is new and different.  Toronto a vibrant city, filled with places, activities, culture and people to be discovered.  I have changed from the younger and more ambitious person I was when we first lived here, but that is no deterrent to discovery.   We are older, mostly retired, and the implications of the aging process signals a new chapter of life–one we can merely endure or choose to discover new adventures and possibilities.   We have joyfully embraced being physically closer to one daughter and a granddaughter who has now become a regular part of our daily lives.  We’re discovering new friends and old ones too.  While I will begin a new writing workshop at Gilda’s Club later this month here in Toronto,  in the process, I am discovering Canadian writers who have experienced cancer, learning more about the resources for cancer patients and survivors here in Toronto, and without a doubt, my workshops will be informed by the uniqueness of what I am discovering here, just as they have been with each new series, each new sponsoring institution in the past.  What I didn’t realize is that I’d already begun taking actions implied by my 2018 guiding word!  Discovery is happening, and it’s only January 1st.

I didn’t know I liked rain

whether it falls like a fine net or splatters against the glass my

   heart leaves me tangled up in a net or trapped inside a drop

   and takes off for uncharted countries I didn’t know I loved

   rain but why did I suddenly discover all these passions…

 

the train plunges on through the pitch-black night

I never knew I liked the night pitch-black

sparks fly from the engine

I didn’t know I loved sparks

I didn’t know I loved so many things and I had to wait until sixty

   to find it out sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train.

–Nazim Hikmet (From:  Selected Poetry by Nazim Hikmet, translation copyright 1986)

Writing Suggestion:

This week, why not try choosing one word that reflects your intentions or goals for this new year?

  • Begin by writing the word at the top of a blank page.
  • Set the timer for twenty minutes.
  • Continue writing, exploring its meaning, memories or images it evokes in you.
  • Once you have done that, write a paragraph stating your word, what it means to you and why you’ve chosen it for 2018.

I invite you to share your word choice by replying to this post or perhaps with a friend or family member.  You might even frame or post your word where you can see it on a daily basis to be reminded of what actions you want to take during 2018.

I hope you will enjoy the process and find it as meaningful as I have over the past few years.

My good wishes to all of you who read and follow this blog for a year of healing, love, peace and new discoveries.

Happy New Year, 2018!

Read Full Post »

It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeer. But there were cats.
Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales

Our annual holiday celebrations have changed over the  years, like many of you whose children are adults with families of their own.  Many times, we’ve traveled to spend the holiday with one or the other daughter; or, depending on who is living where in the world, they have come to us.  This year will be the first in a long while, that we are not only staying put, but happily enjoying the holiday in place with our eldest daughter and her family, who live close by.  Our move back to Toronto signaled another change in family holiday traditions.  I divided the dozens of tree ornaments between both daughters, ones our family collected since their infancy, so they can carry on the tradition of hanging the old ornaments and share their memories with their children.  We have a tree ourselves, but it’s barely four feet tall and sits in front of the fireplace screen, scantily decorated with a  single string of lights and a handful of leftover ornaments neither daughter claimed.  (Granddaughter Flora helped us decorate the little tree, but she insists it be moved before Christmas eve.  “You’re blocking the fireplace, Gramma, and Santa will not be able to get in to your house!”)

Christmas trees lined like war refugees, 

a fallen army made to stand in their greens. 

Cut down at the foot, on their last leg, 

 

they pull themselves up, arms raised… 

 

given a single blanket, 

only water to drink, surrounded by joy. 

 

Forced to wear a gaudy gold star, 

to surrender their pride, 

they do their best to look alive.

(From “Christmas Tree Lots,” by Chris Green, Poetry, 2001)

The holiday season is also bittersweet in its way, reminding me of how much has changed as our daughters grew into adulthood, married, and had children of their own–and how, as my husband and I grow older, the family celebrations take on more poignancy and meaning.

At the same time, I have the joy of celebrating holidays with grandchildren, reading The Night before Christmas together, baking cookies or gingerbread, adding clever little surprises to their stockings, and Christmas morning, sharing in the excitement of opening packages.  Yet there’s nostalgia too, and the season, no matter the traditions we celebrate, stirs up the memories of holidays past.

…Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. (From: “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” By Dylan Thomas)

Whether music, special food, the Festival of Lights and Hanukkah candles lit one by one or Christmas trees adorned with multi-colored lights and ornaments,  holiday traditions  ignite the memories of past celebrations.   As we drove home from an evening with friends on Friday evening and saw our neighborhood glowing and alive with colored lights and decorations, I felt a wave of nostalgia, my mind  filled with memories of long ago Christmas times, and how, as a child, our family would climb in our Ford station wagon each year, driving through our small Northern California town to admire the magic of houses adorned with multi-colored lights.

I kindled my eight little candles,
My Hanukkah candles, and lo!
Fair visions and dreams half-forgotten
Were rising of years long ago.

(From:  “Hanukkah Lights,” by Philip Raskin)

Yet the holiday memories are often tinged more than our remembrance of childish wonder.  There are wistful ones, tinged with sadness.  The holidays often carry other recollections besides those of comfort and joy.  I laugh about how we got our little three this year from the corner store, a far cry from my father’s traditional trek into the snowy wilderness nearby to cut the perfect tree–although it never was perfect enough for my exacting mother’s tastes, and there were annual complaints over its shape or placement of the lights.  Gradually, although none of us liked it at the time, our mother’s annual disappointment became as much of a part of our holiday traditions just as singing carols, hanging stockings or opening gifts on Christmas mornings.  They have now become part of the stories we tell—and re-tell every December when we decorate the tree.

As children, we knew there was more to it –
Why some men got drunk on Christmas Eve
Wasn’t explained, nor why we were so often
Near tears nor why the stars came down so close,

Why so much was lost. Those men and women
Who had died in wars started by others,
Did they come that night? Is that why the Christmas
tree
Trembled just before we opened the presents?

(From:  “A Christmas Poem,” by Robert Bly, in Morning Poems,1998)

Whatever your holiday traditions of celebration, this is a season full of memories and stories–ones that may even be told and re-told at every family holiday celebration.  What memories are triggered by the December holiday season?  The lighting of the Hanukkah candles, potato latkes, gingerbread, tree decorations or the smell of pine?  Remember  the holidays you celebrated as a child,  a particularly significant time, and as many of the details that come to mind:  sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch.  There is so much about the holidays that ignites our senses and our memories.

Our annual prairie Chanukah party— 

latkes, kugel, cherry blintzes. 

Friends arrive from nearby towns 

and dance the twist to “Chanukah Lights Tonight,” 

spin like a dreidel to a klezmer hit. 

 

The candles flicker in the window. 

Outside, ponderosa pines are tied in red bows. 

If you squint, 

the neighbors’ Christmas lights 

look like the Omaha skyline. 

(From: “Chanukah Lights Tonight,” by Steven Schneider, in: Prairie Air Show, 2000)

Writing Suggestion:

Let your memories be the inspiration to write about holidays past—traditions you remember fondly, the people who were important to you, the family celebrations or even the family celebrations that were unpleasant or memorable in other ways.  Begin by making a quick list of specific recollections that come to mind.  Read them over.  What are the stories attached to each?  Write the one that holds the most power for you.

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

I think I should have no other mortal wants if I could always have plenty of music. It seems to infuse strength into my limbs and ideas into my brain. Life seems to go on without effort when I am filled with music.– George Bernard Shaw

It’s the holiday season, and everywhere I go, there are various renditions of familiar holiday carols playing loudly, some of them beautiful, others nostalgic, and more than a few, at times,  ear splittingly difficult to enjoy.  Last night, however, we attended a candlelight Christmas service and for over an hour, joined in singing one traditional Christmas carol after another.   “I remembered them all,” I laughed and said to my husband as  afterward, we walked back to the car and the first snow flurries dusted the streets.  We said little on the drive home, the music still alive in our minds and igniting the remembrance of Christmases past and the people who shared the holidays with us.  It was the music, , triggering old memories, raising our spirits, calming us in a rush, rush world and creating in us a sense of shared humanity through song.  For awhile, I wished I’d taken those voice lessons or spent more time practicing my piano lessons.

Despite the fact that I love music, I never pursued a musical career.  Yet all the years of piano lessons, singing in the church choir, dancing,  doing pliés to a piano accompaniment, or playing French horn in the marching band were actually more beneficial than I ever imagined they could be.  Not only can music enhance a young person’s self-esteem and academic performance, musical training can help protect mental sharpness and brain functioning.

During the last weeks of my mother’s life, before she died of Alzheimer’s disease, I witnessed the power of music to ignite long lost memories.  I visited her a shortly before her death, shocked at how unresponsive she was to my presence.  She sat listless in a wheelchair, her head bowed toward her chest, and mute.  I wheeled her out to the garden, placing her chair next to a towering bougainvillea plant, furious with red blooms.  At a loss, I took her hand and began singing a song she often sang to me in my childhood.

“Let me call you sweetheart,” I began, my voice quavering, “I’m in love with you…Let me hear you whisper…”

As I sang, my mother slowly raised her head and fixed her eyes on my face.  “Why, it’s Sharon,” she said slowly.

“Yes, Mom, it’s me, your eldest daughter.”  I squeezed her hand and wiped the tears from my eyes.

For a moment longer, she held my gaze,  slowly smiled and then as her eyelids began, again, to close, she murmured, “I’m happy.” before disappearing into the impenetrable darkness of her disease.  But I’m forever grateful for that small moment of recognition, somehow triggered by a long ago song.

Music has more than a few physiological benefits, and research has confirmed it can lighten mood, relieve stress and improve concentration.  But the benefits of music were known long before scientists began conducting research studies on its impact on health.  The ancient Greeks believed music could heal the body and the soul;  ancient Egyptians and Native peoples incorporated singing and chanting in their healing rituals.  Just take a look back over history, and you’ll find the power of music acknowledged for its many uses:  to relieve stress, build confidence or  ignite enthusiasm, and even, you may remember from kindergarten, help children learn their ABCs.  Today, you routinely hear soft music as you sit in the dentist’s chair, intended to calm you before the drilling begins, or, in a shopping mall, the background of nonstop music playing –not just for pleasure, but to entice you to buy.

Music therapy, now widely used in hospitals and cancer centers, was initially incorporated by the Veterans Administration as World War II ended and young shell-shocked soldiers returned home.  Then, as now, it helped to promote healing and enhance quality of life.   Music, Dr. Oliver Sacks stated in his book, Musicophilia  (2008), is good medicine.  “The power of music to integrate and cure is quite fundamental,” he wrote. “It is the profoundest non-chemical medication.”

Music is a therapy. It is a communication far more powerful than words, far more immediate, far more efficient. — Yehudi Menuhin, violinist

Music therapy is now commonly used in the treatment of cancer.  The effectiveness of its use with cancer patients has been documented in many studies supporting its benefits for patients, including reduction of anxiety, pain, fatigue and the beneficial physiological impact on heart rate, respiration and blood pressure.

There is no feeling, except the extremes of fear and grief, that does not find relief in music.  — George Eliot 1819-1880

Google “music and healing,” and you’ll find a number of articles attesting to the physiological and emotional benefits of music, for example:

  • Music aids our autonomic nervous systems, positively affecting blood pressure, heartbeat and breathing.  In fact, it can actually improve overall functioning of our cardiovascular systems.
  • It helps reduce stress and anxiety, aid relaxation and alleviate depression.
  • Together with anti-nausea drugs, music can help to ease the nausea and vomiting accompanying chemotherapy.
  • It relieves short term pain and decreases the need for pain medication.
  • It’s effective in diminishing pre-surgical anxiety and beneficial for patients with high blood pressure.
  • Music even plays a role in improving troubled teens’ self-esteem and academic performance.

As I write, I realize that I need more music in my life.  Here in Toronto, we’ve sung with the group, “Choir! Choir! Choir!” and are intent on doing it more regularly, enjoying the fun and the camaraderie music creates among a room full of strangers.  For three years when we lived in San Diego, I drummed–learning to play the djembe and later, the dununs, part of the family of West African drums.  While I joked I’d likely be in the beginner class indefinitely, each Monday evening was a time of laughter, joy, and community–all created through music and rhythm.

Music.  It’s good for your spirits.  It’s good for your health.  It doesn’t matter what kind of music you prefer as much as it matters that you have music in your life.  Whether it plays a therapeutic role in your healing or is imply makes you want to sing along, stand up and dance, or lose yourself in the memories triggered by any musical piece, it’s an important part of being human.  This week, as many of us begin celebrating Christmas or Hanukah, we will hear the traditional and even the less traditional music that is part of the holiday season.  Reflect on the music that is so much a part of this  season or any other important time in your life.

My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary. – Martin Luther

Writing Suggestions:

What role does music play in your life?  Has it helped you heal from physical or emotional pain?  How has music been beneficial to you in your life?  What memories does a particular song ignite for you?  What stories?  Music, even a song like “Happy Birthday,” is also a powerful prompt for writing.   Here are a few suggestions for writing:

  • Perhaps there was some particular music that helped to soothe your fears or anxiety during cancer treatment or another difficult time.  Listen to it again, closing your eyes, and try to remember that time and how the music made you feel.
  • Recall a lullaby from childhood, a favorite song, a bit of classical music, or even the somewhat dissonant music from your high school band. What memories or stories does the music trigger?
  • Take any favorite recording, classical, jazz, new age, or pop, and listen to it.  Keep your notebook nearby. As you listen, capture the random thoughts and associations that come to mind. Once the recording ends, open your notebook and begin free writing.  Do this for five minutes.  When you finish, re-read what you’ve written and underline the sentence that has the most power for you.  Use that sentence to begin writing again on a fresh page. Set the timer for 15 minutes and see where it takes you.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »