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Archive for the ‘life writing’ Category

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

—————

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

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

“I’m here to visit my daughter.”

“How long will you be staying?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Suggestions:

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

 

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The effects of moving are experienced in the body, in the imagination, in the realm of desire. What the eye sees, what the body feels, what the heart yearns for, what remains and what has been lost — these are difficult at first to describe.   ( Louise DeSalvoOn Moving: A Writer’s Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts, and Finding Home Again, 2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the book, You Must Revise Your Life (1986), William Stafford wrote, “My life in writing…comes to me as parts, like two rivers that blend.  One part is easy to tell:  the times, the places, events, and people.  The other part is mysterious; it is my thoughts, the flow of my inner life, the reveries and impulses that never get known—[it] wanders along at its own pace…”

I like to think of the process of “letting go” is about paying attention to the current of our inner lives, the thoughts and desires that rise to the surface, often unbidden but are important in helping us move forward and embrace the unknown, whatever it contains.  We honor the stories we’ve lived, learn to let go of old ways of being or seeing the world that no longer serve us as we continue to move forward.  It’s a bit like thinking of your life as a giant canvas, gradually filling with color over the years.  We do what the artist does:  let the material of our life—all that happens to us–talk back to us so we may see it anew.  Stafford tells us that revising our lives involves embracing whatever happens—in things and in language.   “The language changes,” he says, and “you change, the light changes…Dawn comes, and it comes for all, but not on demand.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our lives until so recently

parallel and filled

with common details…

details still in my life

while you lie in an alien bed…

I want to speak; you want to speak

but we’ve lost our common language…

How can I know

how it feels to lose a beast

and fight to save lungs,

bones, and brain

when all I have to battle

is the traffic?

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

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

Make new friends,

But keep the old.

One is silver

And the other gold…

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Suggestions:

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

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

 

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

 

 

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In first grade Mrs. Lohr

said my purple teepee

wasn’t realistic enough,

that purple was no color

for a tent,

that purple was a color

for people who died,

that my drawing wasn’t 

good enough

to hang with the others…

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

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

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

I walked back to my seat

counting the swish swish swishes

of my baggy corduroy trousers.

With a black crayon

nightfall came

to my purple tent

in the middle

of an afternoon…

 

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

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

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

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

(From: Five Stages of Grief, 1978)

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

…Talk polite
Appropriate
Real nice

…Hold still
Hold it back
Hold it in

…Close-mouthed
Muzzled
Gagged
Garbled
Jammed up…

Shut-down

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

(From Tap Dancing for Big Mom, 1996)

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

In second grade Mr. Barta

said draw anything;

he didn’t care what.

I left my paper blank

and when he came around

to my desk

my heart beat like a tom tom.

He touched my head

with his big hand

and in a soft voice said

the snowfall

how clean

and white 

and beautiful

 

Writing Suggestions:

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

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

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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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