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In first grade Mrs. Lohr

said my purple teepee

wasn’t realistic enough,

that purple was no color

for a tent,

that purple was a color

for people who died,

that my drawing wasn’t 

good enough

to hang with the others…

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

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

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

I walked back to my seat

counting the swish swish swishes

of my baggy corduroy trousers.

With a black crayon

nightfall came

to my purple tent

in the middle

of an afternoon…

 

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

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

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

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

(From: Five Stages of Grief, 1978)

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

…Talk polite
Appropriate
Real nice

…Hold still
Hold it back
Hold it in

…Close-mouthed
Muzzled
Gagged
Garbled
Jammed up…

Shut-down

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

(From Tap Dancing for Big Mom, 1996)

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

In second grade Mr. Barta

said draw anything;

he didn’t care what.

I left my paper blank

and when he came around

to my desk

my heart beat like a tom tom.

He touched my head

with his big hand

and in a soft voice said

the snowfall

how clean

and white 

and beautiful

 

Writing Suggestions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caught off guard in the midst of my otherwise life,

Apocalypse entered and through me from the highest rooftop.

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

(K.M., 2013)

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

In the white office

oncologist in white coat

I brace for the wave

(V.S., 2014)

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

We have entered the country of Cancer

My body and I…

A foreign country

Unmapped

Unknown…

(J.E., 2010)

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

Cancer

Cancer

Cancer

Can Sir!

I Can Sir!

Yes I will heal it.  I can Sir!

Yes, I will survive it.  I can Sir!

(J. N, 2016)

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

Some cancers arrive with fanfare,

trumpets, an engraved invitation…

But some cancers know how to hide.

They defy the eye, the scope, the scan.

They are not the usual suspects…

(K. M., 2013)

 

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

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

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

If cancer is like a bird falling from the sky

Then cancer craves the immediate warmth of a gentle cupped hand

If cancer is a tremendous energy and force

That comes in the winter of our lives

Only to disappear after leaving its mark

Stimulating new growth

And hope

As we fight for Spring.

(T.E., 2014)

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

Writing Suggestions:

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

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

I 

Among twenty snowy mountains,   

The only moving thing   

Was the eye of the blackbird.   

 

II 

I was of three minds,   

Like a tree   

In which there are three blackbirds.   

 

III 

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.   

It was a small part of the pantomime.   

 

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

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

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She is alive.  Although her doctors said

there was nothing to be done, she is home,

planting her summer garden, is not dead

and plans to eat everything she has grown…

She will live beyond the harvest and what will not grow

is her tumor, its flowers held captive

and still beneath her heart.  Only the live

wire of her will separates her now from

the future…it will come

sooner or later, but this is her time

to cultivate and seed.  She is alive.

(From: “Seed,” by Floyd Skloot, in The Cancer Poetry Project, V.1, 2001)

At first I was afraid, I was petrifiedRemember the 1979 hit, “I will survive,” by Gloria Gaynor?  Decades later, it remains one of the most famous of disco songs and singer Gaynor’s single biggest hit.  In 1981, I nearly wore out my vinyl recording of it, a gift from a friend as I struggled with traumatic loss and becoming a single mother of two daughters.  Night after night, as my children slept, I retreated to the living room, turned on the stereo, and as Gaynor belted out her lyrics, danced wildly around the room in the dark, trying, for all I was worth, to believe that I, too, would survive:  And I grew strong and I learned how to get along

We all must learn to survive the hardships that life presents, whether loss, life-threatening illness, trauma and hardship.  For those who must face a diagnosis of cancer, survival dominates each day:  surviving the surgeries, treatments, and, hopefully, the cancer itself.  The term “survivor” has become part of the cancer lexicon and defines anyone living with cancer, terminal or not.  Yet  it is a term that can describe anyone at different times in our lives.  The definition of “survivor” in The Oxford American Dictionary is “a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died,” such as those 9/11 survivors or those who survived the sinking of the Titanic.  It is also a term that the Oxford defines as “a person who copes well with difficulties in… life,” practically synonymous with being human.

A few years ago, as I was preparing for a “Writing Through Cancer” session at Scripps Green Cancer Center, Nadia, living with metastatic breast cancer, arrived early and quietly handed me an envelope.  “Wait to open it until everyone arrives,” she said.  A short time later, as everyone was seated, I opened N.’s card, surprised to see the words, “Happy Birthday” on the front of it.   It wasn’t my birthday or N’s.  “Wait and see,” she said.  “Everyone will have a birthday sometime.”  I opened the card and that’s when we heard Gloria Gaynor’s belting out “I will survive.”  Everyone in the room burst out laughing.  Nadia smiled.  “We’re all survivors,” she said.  Indeed we are.

What ignites our will to survive and helps us cope and keep going?  It’s different for all of us and yet, so much the same.  Hope is surely one of those things that keeps us going.  The support of friends and loved ones are also important to our will to survive.    I remember the December day in 2008 when my physician came to the hospital where I had been taken for observation and a battery of tests after passing out and collapsing on the sidewalk.  “We think it’s your heart,” she said, her gentle segue into the preliminary results of my tests.  I stared at her in disbelief and panic.

“Not my heart!” I cried.  “But I do all the right things.”  Tears filled my eyes.  “I can’t die yet,” I sobbed.  “I have a grandson ready to be born in two months.  I have to be there.”  The cardiologist arrived a short time later, and in a manner calm and reassuring, explained that I had heart failure, and as I began to cry, quietly smiled and said, “you’re going to live a long time, Sharon,” and we’ll make sure of that.”  Two months later, I held Nathan in my arms minutes after his birth.  Nathan, despite the love I have for all three grandchildren, has, perhaps, his grandmother’s heart most firmly in his grasp.

Ann, a beloved Scripps group member who died from metastatic cancer, demonstrated the courage and determination to live fully for as long as she could, filling her days with family, friends, travel, and joy.  She was determined to be on hand for her first grandchild’s birth, even though the odds were against her.  A month before her death, she was present for his birth and able to hold him in her arms for the time she had left.  I have no doubt that his impending arrival strengthened her will to live and experience the joy of his arrival.

During a session I led at the Stanford Cancer Center several years ago, I posed the question to the group of cancer writers:  “What keeps you intent on surviving cancer?” Ali, who has since recovered from colon cancer and now leads the Stanford group, wrote a poem entitled, “Why I Need to Survive,” using the words of her children, (who were quite young at the time):

Mommy, the trees look like boogers on sticks.
Mommy, can we walk to the sunset?
Mommy, how did God make the ocean?
Mommy, next time will you be my mommy?
Because I don’t want the other mommies.
I only want you.

John, another of the writers from my former Stanford group, survived acute lymphoblastic leukemia for a full five years after his diagnosis, intent on living as long as he possibly could.  He wrote poignantly, often humorously, and honestly about his cancer battle in the Stanford group and later, on his blog.  A year before his death, he sent me an essay titled “What I’ve Learned,” summarizing lessons learned during his cancer journey, ones that portrayed his will to survive despite a terminal disease.  Among the many bits of wisdom gained during his illness,  he reminded us that survival, no matter how lengthy, is about living fully, for as long as we have.  Among his survival tips were:

  • Work at what you love…
  • Travel light.
  • Do what the doctors tell you.
  • Offer support when you can and it will come back to you when you need it. ·
  • Cherish the ones you cherish.
  • In the end, all your physical beauty and prowess will leave you. You must still love that person in the mirror
  • We all will die eventually, so find a way to face death without fear. Don’t dwell on death, but enjoy each day as best you can.

Writing Suggestions:

This week, explore the topic of survival.

  • Why do you need to survive?
  • What life difficulties, illness or heartbreak have you overcome or endured?
  • What keeps you going?
  • What ignited your will, that indomitable human spirit that refuses to give up or give in?

 

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The fields, the lakes, the forests, and the streams,

Ocean, and all the living things that dwell

Within the daedal earth; lightning, and rain,

Earthquake and fiery flood, and hurricane…

 

–From “Mont Blanc,” by Percy Blythe Shelley

The Midwest has tornadoes; the eastern seaboard has its hurricanes and super storms.  A large part of the country just dug out from another snow storm, while here in California, we’ve gone from an extended period of drought to swollen rivers, dams, mudslides, sinkholes and flooded interstates, all due to “The Pineapple Express, a “river of moisture” that has moved in from the Pacific and continued to drench the West coast.  Ironically, the complaints about the drought have given way to complaints about the wet and stormy weather.  Yet, as my husband and I plan for a return to Toronto, he has few complaints about our wet and blustery California winter, rather, he has re-voiced his reluctance to live in a place that, despite all the things he likes about it, has “real” winter, in other words, snowstorms, ice and cold.

Wherever we live, it seems to be human nature to complain about the weather.  California, of course, is normally blessed with mild winters, a temperate climate and plenty of sunshine.  I grew up in the northern part of the state, however, where four seasons existed along with the expectation, in the summer, that we might have to ration water or smell the scent of wildfires in the nearby mountains.  We were used to it and grateful that, unlike much of the rest of the state, the earth was likely to move from time to time.

For much of California, earthquakes are a predictable occurrence, just as tornadoes or hurricanes in other parts of the country, and never far from conscious thought.  It’s the risk of living along the earth’s fault lines, whether the San Andreas, Hayward, Oak Ridge or any number of smaller ones, and yet the cities continue to expand despite the occasional warnings of “the big one” likely to occur in the future.  What we know is that sooner or later, the earth will heave, the ground will undulate beneath our feet and sometimes, it will result in disaster.  Think of those memorable earthquakes that have demolished highways and buildings, as the 1989 Loma Prieta and 1992 Landers quakes in Northern and Southern California.

This potentially destructive movement is created by the sliding boundaries or fault lines which define the earth’s tectonic plates. California has a great many of these faults, and even though the plates move past one another a couple of inches each year due to their irregularity, we’re often unaware of their motion.  But as the plates continue to push against each other, they sometimes lock and may not move for years.  Then stress builds along the fault, and when the strain threshold is exceeded, energy is abruptly released, causing the plates slip several feet at once.  Waves are sent out in all directions and felt as tremors, or at worst, a damaging earthquake.

Did you ever think there might be a fault line
passing underneath your living room:
A place in which your life is lived in meeting
and in separating, wondering
and telling, unaware that just beneath
you is the unseen seam of great plates
that strain through time? And that your life,
already spilling over the brim, could be invaded,
sent off in a new direction, turned
aside by forces you were warned about
but not prepared for?

From:  “Fault Line” by Robert Walsh, In:  Noisy Stones:  A Meditation Manual, 1992

Early in 2007, I began teaching a course on writing for healing through the UCLA extension’s Writers’ Program, initially entitling it “Writing from the Fault Lines.”   Like many writers, the metaphors I use are almost unconsciously influenced by the landscape that shaped me and in which I spent my life into early adulthood.  Living along the West coast fault lines encouraged Tony Pfannensteil, a Portland poet, to found  Fault Lines Poetry Journal and place the first call for submissions in the fall of 2011.  Hundreds of poems were submitted by writers living along the Cascadia earthquake zone on the West coast, extending from San Francisco north to Vancouver, British Columbia.  Poet Eileen Walsh Duncan described Fault Lines as poetry that “ will create upheavals. The meticulously crafted world of what a poem should be will implode, opening fissures deep within your psyche.”

When I first began writing out of my own pain and hardship, terms like “the vulnerable landscape of the psyche,” “fissures opening,” of “stress building beneath the surface of my exterior,” and of the sudden and painful “jolts” of unexpected loss and trauma were frequent descriptions that appeared on my pages, words that seemed most able to describe the sense of shock and traumatic events that exposed my raw and tumultuous emotional interior.  I felt, in those periods, as if my life was being shattered or broken apart.  What I experienced emotionally was, it seemed, much like the earthquakes so common in my home state.

I recall the period when I was first diagnosed with early stage breast cancer, occurring in the midst of a difficult emotional time in my life—the loss of my parents, an unhappy and stressful career, and estrangement from my siblings, all rendering me numb.  A few years later, I collapsed on the pavement and was diagnosed with heart failure.  I filled page after page of my journals with disbelief, unanswerable questions and even guilt, as if I was somehow at blame, and old scars began to open to painful losses I’d soldiered through and buried many years earlier.  My “real” story was less about a treatable cancer or a weakened heart.  The story I needed to write and understand laid beneath the surface, where old wounds were buried, building up pressure, and begging for release.

I witness similar experiences in the writing groups I lead for men and women with cancer.   A diagnosis of brings you to your knees.  Life as you knew it is a thing of the past.  Yet beneath the surface, there are frequently other wounds, unresolved emotions, painful memories or traumatic events which have lain dormant, but, like the locked plates of the earth, building up pressure inside you.  Those events and emotions can be triggered by the most benign of writing prompts, and unleashed dams of old memories and painful emotions tumble onto the page.  Whether the cancer writing groups or the transformational writing course I continue to teach, writing for healing often takes us beyond the “presenting” hardship, into deeper territory and as people write, they begin to plumb the depths of their lives, bringing into the open what they were unable to do before.

Emotions can inspire you or hold you hostage.  Negative emotions–anger, fear or feelings of unworthiness–accumulate, just as pressure along the earth’s plates.  They weaken your ability to fend off illness, depression or disease.  Writing allows you, if you let it, to translate those negative emotions into words, make the connections between what you feel and why,  begin to understand or even forgive yourselves and others.  It is in the act of writing and sharing your stories that you may find a way to release the pressure of old wounds and begin to heal.

Writing Suggestion:

This week, think about the metaphors you use that are informed by the landscape and seasons where you live.   Whether fault lines or a different weather/landscape metaphor, use it to describe a difficult time in your life, whether cancer, loss, or other hardship, letting the metaphor take you deeper in your writing to explore what  lingers beneath the surface.

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Early this morning, I checked my emails and scanned the Facebook posts appearing from yesterday’s massive protest women’s marches across the country.  I kept returning to the images of the hundreds of thousands of women and men around the world who united to make their voices heard.  One, a photograph of my granddaughter, marching alongside her parents was especially touching, reminding me the many years ago, when her grandmother and grandfather joined in civil rights and anti-war protests.  Whatever one’s political preference, the right to peaceful assembly and to speak out, remains one of the most precious of our democratic rights.

I also received a photograph from Washington D.C. from a friend who made the trip to Washington to join the protest.  She lives with lung cancer and has written in my expressive writing groups for years.  She sent a few of us her selfie, decked out in pink, hat and tee-shirt, masses of marchers visible behind her.  It was a day of celebration and exhilaration as, after a divisive and troublesome period of political campaigns, women and men across the country mobilized in support of women’s rights—of human rights–and make their voices heard the day after the new president began his term.

I lingered over my friend’s photograph, inspired by her determination to travel across the country and join in the march at the capital and by her courage, like so many other men and women living with cancer have demonstrated in so many ways.  I recalled another Facebook photograph sent  recently by another member of my workshops, a woman who has written with me since 2009.  She lives with metastatic breast cancer and also, more recently, multiple sclerosis.  The photograph she sent was a celebratory one: her smiling face as she  completed a half marathon last week, another of her continuing participation in local walks or runs organized in support of the fight against breast cancer.  More than a few of us have been humbled by her courage and spirit in recent years.

When I think of the many marches in support of curing cancer it’s not just breast cancer that inspires people to participate.  Google “cancer walks and runs,” and you’ll find many different events and cancer organizations organized to publicize and raise funds for cancer research.   Survivors,  many living with metastatic cancer, and their friends and families participate, united in a fight for life and a cure for this relentless and dreaded disease–called “The Emperor of All Maladies”–which has reached nearly epidemic proportions.

According to the National Cancer Institute,  an estimated 1,685,210 new cases of cancer were diagnosed in the U.S. in 2016, and 595,690 people were projected to die from the disease.  It’s not just women’s rights that were highlighted in yesterday’s march, but among them, equal access for everyone to affordable healthcare.  Those already engaged in the battle against cancer, whether breast, lung or one of the many other cancers, know how very critical healthcare coverage is.

Killing a cancer cell in a test tube is not a particularly difficult task: the chemical world is packed with malevolent poisons that, even in infinitesimal quantities, can dispatch a cancer cell within minutes. The trouble lies in finding a selective poison—a drug that will kill cancer without annihilating the patient. (Siddhartha MukherjeeThe Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, 2009)

 Two weeks ago, I was asked by Cancer Resource Network, an online health magazine, if I would write a short statement about World Cancer Day, which occurs February 4, 2017.  I admit that I knew little about the event or its history and quickly looked for the website to learn more.  Established by the Paris Charter and adopted at the World Summit Against Cancer for the New Millennium in Paris, February 4, 2000, it’s a day for the world to promote research for a cure, the prevention of cancer, and upgrading patient services.  It is dedicated to informing and mobilizing the global community against the disease.  According to the website, 8.2 million people die from cancer worldwide every year, and 4 million of those between 30 and 69,  die prematurely.  It’s shocking.  Yet I doubt few people in the world have not been affected, in some way, by cancer.

In the United States, one in three women and one in two men will develop cancer during their lifetime. A quarter of all American deaths, and about 15 percent of all deaths worldwide, will be attributed to cancer. In some nations, cancer will surpass heart disease to become the most common cause of death.”   Siddhartha MukherjeeThe Emperor of All Maladies)

The World Cancer Day 2017 tagline is We can. I can.  It’s a call to action, intended to support how we, individually or collectively, can help “to reduce the global burden of cancer.”  As of this morning, the site’s “map of impact” shows 167 events happening around the world in support of World Cancer Day.

Just as the world witnessed the enormous solidarity in support of the Women’s March on Washington, the marches inspire us to consider what actions we can take beyond marches to ensure positive change,  whether for women’s rights or for the good of many different people in the world., including the prevention and cure of cancer.

How can you take action?  Just as cancer affects everyone in different ways, there are many ways to take action for families or communities that can have a positive impact on cancer, such as making healthy lifestyle choices, asking for support, advocating for yourself and others whose lives are affected by cancer, and making your voice heard by sharing you story of the cancer experience.

Whether in support of World Cancer Day or in the renewed energy generated by the Women’s March on Washington, we have much more to do.  Ask yourself, “What actions can I take individually or with others?”  There is still much to be done to a difference in our nation and our world.

I was deeply inspired by yesterday’s marches—but it’s only the beginning.  Just as the actions we take on a regular basis to ensure that basic human rights in this country are not violated, so too does finding a cancer cure require our ongoing involvement, advocacy and support in the fight for a cure.

Writing Suggestions:

  • This week, focus on the question: “What actions can I take?,” whether it is about cancer, human rights, or affordable healthcare, to name a few.  Then follow “what can I do” with “What I will do.
  • The Women’s March has inspired ten actions to take in the first 100 days of the new president’s term in office.
  • World Cancer Day is Saturday, February 4th. Why not get involved in a meaningful way?
  • Share your story. One of the actions suggested by the World Cancer Day site is advocate by sharing  your story–a way to offer support to others living with cancer and raise public awareness.  For starters, you can submit directly to the World Cancer Day site, or Cancer Knowledge Network, the online health magazine which encourages narratives (500 words) written in response my bi-monthly column, Writing Toward Wellness.  In fact, there are many possible cancer-related sites that invite cancer stories,  Health Talk Online, The Live Again Project, My LifeLine, and Caring Bridge, to name a few.

 

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As 2017 begins, I’ve been propelled into transition.  My husband and I are deep in plans for our move across the country, and along with the excitement for what’s ahead, there is the bittersweet of letting go.   I‘ve begun examining bookshelves, closets, storage bins, and furnishings, deciding what we must leave behind and what we will carry with us as we relocate to a different city.  There’s eagerness to re-acquaint ourselves with old friends, be closer to family, but also, the sadness of leaving friends here.  And there’s other letting go that I must do—and it’s coupled with more than a little heartache.

This past week, I began the process of leaving the expressive writing programs I began in 2007 at two San Diego cancer centers, completing my final workshop in March. At the end of this month, I’ll lead my last workshop for medical students, faculty and staff at Stanford Medical School, something I’ve been doing for the past twelve years.

It’s bittersweet—letting go of things I love; I’ve done it multiple times before, but it never gets easier.  Once again, I’ve been propelled into a period of remembering and reflecting, looking back over the past many years, taking stock of accomplishments, disappointments and changes as I begin the transition to another life chapter.  These next few months will be emotional, sometimes stressful, and yet exciting—as transition periods always are, no matter the circumstances that plunge us into change and choices.

What do we leave behind?  What do we carry with us?  Every life event, positive or negative, thrusts us into change and demands choices.  We learn to let go of old ways of being, discard the things in our lives that no longer serve a purpose, and slowly, re-design our lives.  As difficult as change can be—particularly when it’s thrust upon us unexpectedly–it is also a time for reassessment and healing.

In a very real sense, the act of letting go is part of the process I witness time and time again in the cancer writing groups I lead.  So much of writing for healing is about expressing our deepest feelings and thoughts, but in doing so, we begin to let go of the pain and sorrow of the cancer journey.  We start to make sense out of the shock, fears, and loss of the cancer experience, and gradually discover new insights and meaning from our experience.  As the Danish philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard once said, “Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards.”

The 2009 award winning film, The Things We Carry, is a story of two sisters, whose lives are affected by their mother’s addiction.  Each choses a different way to deal with it, and, in the process, the sisters become estranged from one another.  The film explores their journey through the San Fernando Valley to a dingy motel, searching for a package their now deceased mother has left for them.  Old sibling wounds are re-exposed and recounted, but gradually, the sisters find peace, not only within themselves, but with each other.  “The key to moving forward,” the film’s tagline reads, “lies in the past.”

We learn more than we may realize life’s transitions and difficult chapters. Cancer is one of those.  “Cancer has been a great teacher,” a former writing group member remarked as she explored life before and after her illness.  Looking back helped her to make a choice to not “carry” the pain and suffering of the cancer experience into her life after recovery.  Instead, she chose to use the lessons learned to shape a new life for herself going forward.

 

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice,

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world…

(From “The Journey,” by Mary Oliver in Dreamwork, 1986)

Several years ago, one of the writing group members died from  metastatic breast cancer.  She was a gifted sculptor, but as is typical in the first weeks of the writing group, shared only her “status” as a cancer patient in the first few weeks.  .  It was mid-way through the series that we learned C.  was a sculptor, someone who created sensuous and striking forms from stone, treasured and displayed by collectors across the country.  After her death, her husband wrote a touching and beautiful remembrance of her.  He spoke of her life as mother, wife, and sculptor, using C.’s word to describe how she approached her artistic process:

At first the stone seems cold and hostile. As the shape emerges, the stone becomes warm and alive. The joy and pain involved in the carving process is …something akin to giving birth and seeing your creation change from a gawky adolescent to a sensuous adult…

I treasure her words, because they offer an apt metaphor life’s changes and transitions.   Now that I am contemplating the change my husband and I have chosen, I cannot help but think of the many men and women who’ve written with me during the cancer journey.  Again and again, I’ve witnessed them come to terms with the changes dictated by this illness, struggle to make sense of it, and gradually, learning to let go of , and aspects of the self they were before cancer to a new way of being after cancer..  It is difficult, at first, for anyone to imagine a new life, but little by little, just as the sculptor wielding a chisel, choices are made and a new life begins to emerge, with new meaning, possibilities, or intentions for however long a life they may have.  The choices all of us make change not only our worlds, but ourselves.

Before and after.  Letting go and discovering the new.  It’s a time of transition, a time of learning, a time of change and new possibilities.  Lucille Clifton, former poet laureate of Maryland and a survivor of breast and ovarian cancer, captures it all in her poem, “I Am Running into a New Year:”

I am running into a new year
and the old years blow back like a wind…
that I catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what I said to myself
about myself
when I was sixteen and
twenty-six and thirty-six
even forty-six but
I am running into a new year
and I beg what I love and
I leave to forgive me.

(From: Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980)

Writing Suggestions:

  • Cancer is a great teacher.  How has cancer changed you?  What have you learned from the experience?
  • What choices have you made as a result of having and living with cancer?  What did you need to let go of?  What did you keep and bring with you into your changed life?
  • I beg what I love/ and I leave to forgive me.  A new year lies ahead of you.  How do you intend to shape the life you want out of the material of your past and present?

 

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The hard part is the moving, but maybe staying can be harder.

(Constance Woolson to Henry James, In The Master, by Colm Toíbín)

For the past week, I’ve been consulting dictionaries, thesauruses, poetry and books in hopes of finding the single word that serve as a guide for my writing and daily life.  It’s a practice I have written about for the past four or five years, originally introduced to me by two writing buddies and one I embraced wholeheartedly.  It’s an annual practice that has stuck.  There’s something elegant and honest about finding that single, meaningful word to frame my intentions for a new year than the lists of resolutions I’ve made in earlier years—ones often vanishing by February in a cloud of good, but diminishing intentions.

It’s not something one does easily, as I re-discover each year.  I agonize, make lists of possible candidates for my single word, and consult the dictionary, thesaurus, books and favorite poems, hoping “the” word is suddenly illuminated, virtually leaping off the page and tugging at my pen: “Choose me.  Choose me.”  But it never happens that way.

It’s more than simply finding that “right” word.  The search leads me into deeper territory, forcing me to articulate the reason behind the word and how it relates to the way in which I want to live or what I hope to accomplish in the New Year.  Over the past week, my notebook not only has several words listed on different pages, but quotes from poets and writers, musings on life and the past, and as much as one can, thoughts of what is ahead.

2017 is already shaping into an important and significant year of change for this country, but personally, for my husband and me.  We will be moving across the country, then north, to return to a place that we still love—Toronto–the place we met and married, a place that became “home” for myself and my daughters in the wake of their father’s sudden and tragic death.

I began the process by temporarily choosing “return,” but it lacked the meaning I was searching for, remembering instead Tom Wolfe’s famous dictum, “you can’t go home again.”  I lived the reality of those words when my husband and I returned to California twenty-six years ago.  The home I dreamt about and longed for in the first lonely years I lived as an expatriate nearly 4000 miles away from my family no longer existed.  I was a stranger in the very place I once had considered “home.”  Worse, I couldn’t find the intimacy, the sense of place that I sought.  My restlessness returned as the years passed, whether living in Northern or Southern California.

I decided to dispense with “return,” and tried out “moving,” which seemed more accurate.  But “moving” felt, well, boring.  I turned to my bookshelves; scanning titles about place and home, thinking I might find enlightenment between the pages of several volumes.  Then I spotted Louise DeSalvo’s On Moving: A Writer’s Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts, and Finding Home Again (Bloomsbury, 2009).  I eagerly pulled it from the shelf and began reading, underlining passages, dog-earring pages, realizing I was “on” to something in the first few pages.   In the introduction, DeSalvo writes:

Perhaps many of us living the in the United States are so transient because we are descended from those who’ve come from afar, hoping for a better life.  But whether our restlessness is part of our psychic makeup…or learned behavior, who can say. Perhaps we repeat family history…  For those of us choosing to move, the idea that somewhere there is “a domestic Eden”—D.H. Lawrence’s term for a place where you’ll finally feel at home, where your spirit will find peace and your life will blossom—seems to be deeply ingrained in our collective imagination.(p. 6)

My ancestors were transient:  pioneers, homesteaders, and people in search of that better life.  I once joked, as I was moving across the country  in the late sixties, that I was repeating my grandmother’s journey.  She went west, met my grandfather and remained in Northern California.  I was her modern day version, heading in the opposite direction with similar  hopes and dreams.

Yet, “home is where the heart is,” as the Roman philosopher Gaius Plinius Secundus said nearly 2000 years ago.  It’s a sentiment I’ve experienced and one written about by many writers since.  Barry Lopez, in a 1997 essay, “The Literature of Place” explores how you can occupy a place and also have it occupy you—a reciprocity that, in many respects, echoes the necessity of home being an intertwining of heart with place.  His answer hit home for me:

The key, I think, is to become vulnerable to a place.  If you open yourself up, you can build intimacy.  Out of such intimacy may come a sense of belonging, a sense of not being isolated in the universe.

Perhaps it is that in the wake of a profound period of loss and heartache, I was most open to our new life in Toronto.  I felt embraced by the city to which we now plan to return.  I healed and flourished.  I loved the city, the access to the arts, the endless places to explore and experience.  By the time I returned to California, I was no longer a “Californian.”  I was the product of blending—half my life in California, but the other half in Canada—and I discovered that one foot remained firmly planted there.

If we…become conscious about why we want to move, and understand what we need rather than what we want, our moves will satisfy us deeply (DeSalvo, p. 183).

In the past many months, I’ve worked to define and articulate what I need in deciding where to move. I need a place I love, but there’s more.  I need to be closer to my daughters and grandchildren after so many years of living far apart.  One daughter and her family live in Toronto; the other, recently returned from five years in Okinawa, is currently in Florida—easier to get to from Toronto, but not a place that satisfies other needs.  Still, my daughters are Canuck through and through.  Canada, for them both, is home.

But moving is a significant change for us at any time in our lives, no matter how many times we do it.  It’s the conundrum Mark Doty described (in DeSalvo, p. 144) as “a fierce internal debate, between staying moored and drifting away, between holding on and letting go…”  “The effects of moving,” are experienced in the body, in the imagination, in the realm of desire,” DeSalvo writes.  I already know that a cross country move is not easy, and at times, I admit I have awakened feeling slightly unnerved by our decision.

There is work to do before we move, and for the next few months, I’ll be deep in the act of letting go—downsizing belongings, lingering over a lifetime of mementos, deciding what to take, what to leave, and bidding good-bye to the life we’ve had in over ten years in San Diego.  It’s why, inspired  by  DeSalvo’s book, I awakened at 5 a.m. this morning with my 2017 word clearly in mind.  Not “return” nor “moving,” but “step-by-step.”

“That’s three words,” my husband teased.

“I’m using it as one;” I replied.  “ it’s hyphenated.”

It hardly matters.  What does matter is the “step-by-step” reminds me that change cannot be rushed.  I need to honor the letting go, the emotions that will be aroused as I sift through belongings and the memories attached to them, that preparing to leave isn’t the only challenge ahead of us.  There’s the settling in at the other end, and that, too, will take time and patience.

Now I’ll do what I do each year.  Type out my 2017 word and put it in a small frame that sits on my desk, my word for the year in full view, serving as a daily reminder to take this next change in life one day, one step at a time.

Writing Suggestion:

  • This week, why not try the “one word” exercise yourself?  What  one word can serve to guide your intentions for the year ahead?  It may take successive attempts, cozying up to the dictionary or a thesaurus, but search for a single word that resonates and has meaning for you.
  • Once you’ve chosen your word, then write for 20 or 30 minutes and explore the “why” behind your word.
  • What meaning does it hold? What memories or images spring to mind?  I invite you to share your word choice and a few sentences about it in reply to this week’s blog.
  • Or, do as my friends and I do. Frame or post your word where you can see it on a daily basis.

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

By William Stafford, from The Way It Is, 1998

I wish you all a year of peace, healing, love, and new discoveries.

Happy New Year, 2017!

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