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Archive for the ‘life writing’ Category

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

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

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

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

Hit me.

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

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

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

People invade—an assault of connections—

for reasons fair and foul.

Strangers on elevators. Acquaintances.

The medical cadre too.

Either way,

I am covered with fingerprints, with labels…

 

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

I don’t, don’t want the part.

I really don’t what this part.

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

It won’t be opera, no swooning diva,

No Violetta, no burst of aria…

 

I told you—didn’t I tell you?—

I don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t want

this part…

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Suggestions:

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

 

 

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Dear Readers,

The moving truck filled with our belongings arrived late this week, and Thursday was devoted to directing the movers where to place each box or piece of furniture before the time-consuming task of unwrapping each box, paintings, sculptures, and anything else protected by layers of paper. Several hours later, all of us showing the signs of fatigue, they left, and we searched for somewhere, among all our belongings, to simply sit and catch a breath.

We’ve cleared some space, organized the kitchen and dining rooms, made a cursory attempt at establishing a semblance of order in our bedroom, but we are far from finished.  It’s not just the effort required to re-arrange our living space, find places for our things, but also the inevitable “re-discovery” of keepsakes and photographs, some in boxes for years before our move.  Each makes us pause, and most often say, “Oh, I remember when…” and a story emerges, the objects triggering memories of other times, places and people in our lives.

I don’t, as of yet, have any place to sit and write in peace, nor a desk to sit at and use my computer.  As I write this week, I’m sitting on the edge of the bed, laptop now occupying my lap for one of the few times since I’ve owned it.  I offer you a post and prompts originally published in 2012 for this week—all about objects and the stories they hold.  I hope you’ll find some inspiration for writing. — Sharon.

 Previously Posted April 27, 2012

Like my grandmother now, I save teabags for a second
cup.  String, stamps without postmarks, aluminum foil.
Wrapping paper, paper bags, bags of scrap fabric,
blue rubber bands, clothes hangers.  I save newspaper
clippings, recipes, bits of yarn, photographs in
shoeboxes, tins of buttons.  I save cancelled checks,
instruction manuals, warranties for appliances
long since thrown away.  Feathers, shells, pebbles,
acorns.

(“What I Save,” by Cheryl Savageau, in Dirt Road Home, 1995.)
“Every object is full of story,” the instructor said as she began taking objects from a basket and laying them on a white cloth.  “Objects are how the world comes to us.”  I was attending a week-long creative writing workshop taught by Pat Schneider, author of Writing Alone and With Others.  Pat knelt on the floor and one by one, filled the cloth with an assortment of things, worn from age and use: a set of old keys, a rosary, a wooden spoon, a shaving brush and many others.  I was doing what many of my writing students have done, venturing back into what I loved most—writing—after a long detour through the soul-destroying path of a corporate career.

I had just finished seven weeks’ of radiation therapy, my skin still red and tender, but cancer was not on my mind as I took my place in the circle of men and women who’d come to the workshop.  I was filled with anxiety.  What on earth was I going to write about?  When Pat emptied the basket, she invited us to choose an object and write, whatever it suggested to us.  Some people were quick to choose and begin writing, but I held back, my eyes moving back and forth over the assortment until I spotted an old half empty pack of Camel cigarettes.  I picked it up, looked inside, smelling the stale tobacco, and was transported back to the interior of an old Chevy pickup truck, my father seated behind the steering wheel, a cigarette in his left hand, driving along the back roads of Siskiyou County and spinning yarns from his childhood. “He tried them all,” I wrote, “Camels, Marlboros, Pall Malls…”  Memories clamored for attention. There were so many stories in one half-empty pack of cigarettes.

I’d all but forgotten about that morning until I read Maria Mutch’s essay in the latest issue of Poets and Writers’ Magazine.  “Ghost in the Machine:  A Typewriter, A Postcard, and the Objects of Memory,” tells the story of her search for an old black manual typewriter, not realizing that the memories of a friend were embedded in her search–a friend who had tried to give her the Smith Corona portable typewriter she owned just before committing suicide many years ago.   It’s a beautifully rendered essay, reminding us of how our memories, our stories, can be triggered by ordinary, everyday objects—trinkets, toys, utensils—from our past, objects dear to us for the memories they hold, but insignificant to others.

When I walk in my house I see pictures,

bought long ago, framed and hanging

—de Kooning, Arp, Laurencin, Henry Moore—

that I’ve cherished and stared at for years,

yet my eyes keep returning to the masters

of the trivial—a white stone perfectly round,

tiny lead models of baseball players, a cowbell,

a broken great-grandmother’s rocker,

a dead dog’s toy—valueless, unforgettable

detritus that my children will throw away

as I did my mother’s souvenirs ….
(“The Things,” by Donald Hall, In:  The Back Chamber, 2011.)


Objects, the everyday tools of our lives, tell stories, real or imagined.  We visit museums and gaze at the artifacts of ancient civilizations, of our ancestors, gleaning a bit of history, but we know little about the person or the events that are carried in what we see behind the glass.  What stories might those objects tell us, if only they could speak?

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes

on a pile of broken dishes by the house;

a tall man too, says the length of the bed

in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,

says the Bible with a broken back

on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;

but not a man for farming, say the fields

cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn…

 

Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves

and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.

And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.

It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

 

Something went wrong, says the empty house

in the weed-choked yard….

(“Abandoned Farmhouse,” by Ted Kooser, In: Sure Signs:  New & Selected Poems, 1980)

Significant Objects, published in 2012 by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, is a collection of stories resulting from of a literary experiment designed to answer the question, “Can a great story transform a worthless trinket into a significant object?”  The project’s team invited several well-known writers to invent stories about a collection of secondhand items gathered from yard sales and thrift stores, bought for a few cents to a dollar or two.  Over 200 writers contributed to the project, and the collection of objects was then auctioned off on eBay, the objects’ sale resulting in thousands of dollars, the proceeds donated to charity. But it was probably the surprising “cavalcade of responses” to the random junk that was the most surprising feature of the experiment.  That assortment of useless trinkets, the cast offs of yard sales and thrift shops, ignited an extraordinary amount of imagination.

FOR WRITING:  This week, look around your home at those keepsakes, the objects that line your shelves or sit on your desk, a side table.  I’ve just turned to look at the assorted of memorabilia on the bookshelf next to the chair where I often sit and write:  a stone heart, a piece of obsidian from the lava beds in Siskiyou County, a glass paperweight, a small clay bird…  Every single object holds meaning for me.  Each has its story to tell.  Begin there, examining the talismans and trinkets you cherish.  Let them speak.  What memories do they carry?  What stories or poems lie within each?  Write them.

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Understand, I was only a girl

living the days as they came.

I did not know I would leave…

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

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

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

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

I guess I have to begin by admitting

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

My country has chosen to liberate…

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

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

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

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

In color photographs, my childhood house looks

fresh as an uncut sheet cake—

pale yellow buttercream, ribbons of white trim…

 Half a century later, I barely recognize it

when I search the address on Google Maps

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

 foliage overgrown, facade remodeled and painted

a drab brown. ..

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Suggestions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all need friends.  Isolation and loneliness are often harbingers of emotional or physical illness.  Friendship, according to Rebecca Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships. Better health, a more positive outlook, longer lifespan and more hopeful attitude towards life are just some of the benefits of friendship, including lowered risk of coronary heart disease.  Strong friendships have been shown to benefit brain health as we age and increase longevity.  In a 2006 study of nurses diagnosed with breast cancer, those without close friends were far more likely to dies from their cancer than those with ten or more friends.  What’s more, proximity and amount of contact are less important than having good friends (“What are friends for?  A longer Life,” by Tara Parker Pope, New York Times, April 2009).

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

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

Writing Suggestions:

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

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

He used to sing in the car


bought us root beers along the road.


He loved us with his deeds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I miss you everyday— the heartbeat


under your necktie, the hand cupped


on the back of my neck, Old Spice


in the air, your voice delighted with stories.

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

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

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

 

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“It’s a surprise,” Flora told me as we sat in her parents’ sunroom together. “Can I tell you?”

I shook my head. “Oh please don’t tell me; I really, really want to be surprised.”

“Well, can I just tell you a little bit?” Obviously, she’s already excited about whatever her parents and she have planned for tomorrow, and I suspect it will be as much about her delight in hosting a little birthday party for her grandmother than anything. But that will be part of the fun—making different memories of my birthdays as I grow older.

“I’m hardly ever surprised,” I told her as she tried not reveal what was planned. Memories of birthdays past flashed in front of my mind’s eye. Memories of birthdays past flashed through my mind’s eye—the one genuine surprise my daughters managed to pull of over a decade ago, and the excitement of childhood celebrations between pre-school and perhaps, 3rd grade, even some dismal ones in young adulthood, before I had children and experienced the joy of their excitment. In each birthday memory, there is a story.

A few years ago, I read Roger Rosenblatt’s wise little book, Unless It Moves the Human Heart (Harper Collins, 2011), a glimpse into his “Writing Everything” class. Among the many nuggets of wisdom about teaching creative writing, he described one exercise that never failed to inspire his students’ writing:

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

Search the internet and you’ll quickly discover that Rosenblatt and his students weren’t the only ones using birthdays for inspiration. Go to www.poets.org and you’ll find poets like William Blake, Sylvia Plath, Christina Rossetti and many others who used their birthdays as inspiration and reflection. Ted Kooser’s “A Happy Birthday,” captures that moment of introspection triggered by his birthday:

This evening, I sat by an open window
and read till the light was gone and the book
was no more than a part of the darkness.
I could easily have switched on a lamp,
but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
with the pale gray ghost of my hand.

Poems about birthdays reflect the passage of time, aging, even the opportunity for change, for example, Joyce Sutphen’s “Crossroads:”

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

Although I am not ready to refer to this stage of my life as “desert years,”–far from it–I’ll confess that I’m at the stage in life where I’d rather the numbers are decreasing in size than increasing. Nevertheless, I’ll share in the delight of a birthday planned and hosted by a six year old granddaughter, and who knows, I might have something to write about after the celebration is over.

Writing Suggestion:

Whether you’re soon to be celebrating a birthday or waiting until 2018 to do so again, why not do what so many other poets and writers have done: used the advent of or a memory of a birthday already passed to inspire your own writing. “Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you…” What memories, good or bad, does that little traditional ditty evoke in you? Write about one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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