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Archive for the ‘poetry and healing’ Category

…Do you note that the world has changed since you began

Your tatoo beneath my chest bone?  I would guess that, if

you do, you don’t care.

“Life is pretty simple,” you say, “and besides, I have my

work to do.”

 

(“To My Heart As I Go Along,” by Kenneth Koch, Poetry Magazine, 2000)

Wednesday is Valentine’s Day, and the retail world has reminded us of the date for weeks.  As a child, it was the anticipation of choosing a packet of 36 valentines to be addressed to my classmates and placed in the decorated cardboard box at the back of my classroom.  There was chocolate, of course, and those little decorated sugar candy hearts with messages stamped on them and, thanks to our mothers, a party with red and pink cupcakes.  We didn’t understand much beyond those exchanged valentines then, nor did we know much about anatomy and physiology when it came to our hearts.  The history of the symbolic significance of the heart was completely lost on us.  We didn’t know then that the heart, in religious texts, is a metaphor or attributed with the spiritual or divine, or that early philosophers and scientists believed the heart to be the seat of thought, reason or emotion.  Despite today’s scientific and medical knowledge, the heart continues to symbolize what we humans feel.

Take a look at http://www.poets.org, the website for the Academy of American Poets, enter “heart” in the advanced search, and you’ll get 734+ poems about the heart, whether filled with the joy of love or ache from love lost.  If you Google “heartache,” you’ll find a reference to the top 100 heartache songs,   like “Unbreak my Heart,” “How do You Mend a Broken Heart”, “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, or “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” all confirming the heart is where we feel not only love, but our pain, whether  love gone awry or sorrow for others in our lives.  In fact, the definition for “heartache” is “anguish of mind,” or “sorrow.”

It turns out that a broken heart is more than imagined and more than emotion.  In a June 5, 2010 post on his former blog, All Heart Matters, journalist and heart patient, James Borton, cited a number of research articles on “Broken Heart Syndrome,” a left ventricular dysfunction brought on by acute emotional or physical stress.  “Hearts actually can break,” he wrote, quoting an article in a recent edition of The Wall Street Journal, suggesting there is some emotional connection to our hearts.

Our hearts can break; they also ache.  As she thought about the death of a friend, the constant onslaught of bad news in the world, and challenges being faced by others in her life:  cancer, a brain tumor,  life and health challenges, former Kansas poet laureate, Caryn Mirriam Goldberg wrote,  “When I still myself and just feel what there is to feel, my heart hurts…” (Blog post, February 9, 2011).  One of Caryn’s poems came to mind, written after breast cancer and a double mastectomy, begins with the words:

I am still a woman

even if my heart hurts–

my whole chest aches with emptiness…

(“Reading the Body,” in Reading the Body, Mammoth Publications)

The heart–it knows love, and it knows heartache and so much more.  Our hearts.  The amazing organ pumping life-giving blood throughout our bodies.  I’ve certainly suffered from periods heartache and loss as many of you have, but I hadn’t thought about my physical heart much until a December afternoon in 2008, when I collapsed while walking my dog and ended up in the emergency room a short time later, dazed and confused.  It turned out I was experiencing a very different spin on “heartache.”  A day or two later, my family doctor appeared at my bedside.  “We think you’ve had a heart attack,” she said.  WHAT?  How could that be? I asked.  I’d just had an annual physical two weeks earlier.  She shook her head; she had no answers for me, saying “we don’t really know; it could be any number of things…”  My doctor held my hand as I wept, and told me nothing had been confirmed; a cardiologist was reviewing the battery of tests I’d had when I arrived and would shortly confirm or deny the diagnosis.  Two days later, I had officially become  a heart failure patient, with left ventricular dysfunction and atrial arrhythmia, and I had an ICD (implanted cardiac device) implanted, leaving a rounded lump on the left side of my chest, a constant reminder of how suddenly my life changed.

“It’s always something… “I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.

(It’s Always Something, by Gilda Radner, 1989)

After the shock and heightened fears of mortality settled down, I continued to read and research, looking for answers.  It wasn’t until five years later, when I stumbled on a 2013 study in the New England Journal of Medicine that found exposure of the heart to radiation during radiation therapy could increase the risk of heart disease among breast cancer patients later in life, particularly in women who were irradiated for cancer of the left breast.  I’d been treated aggressively for DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) in my left breast in 2000, and seven weeks of daily radiation therapy was a significant part of the prescribed treatment.  Eighteen years later, DCIS is treated somewhat differently; radiation doses have also been reduced and become more precise. Yet I wondered if the radiation I’d received was a possible explanation for why I now suffered from heart failure.

Ironically, it was only late in December 2017 that my new cardiologist raised and discussed the likely probability with me.  Her candor and knowledge of the research was gratifying; I felt as if I was getting some confirmation of all I had come to suspect.  Then, several weeks later, on February 1st, NBC evening news reported that the American Heart Association had just issued a warning about potential harmful effects of certain breast cancer treatments–including radiation.

“Any patient who is going to undergo breast cancer treatment…should be aware of the potential effects of the treatments on their heart,” Dr. Laxmi Mehta stated, director of the Women’s Cardiovascular Health Program at Ohio State University.  “This should not deter or scare patients from …treatment, but should allow them to make informed decisions with their doctor on the best cancer treatment for them.”

...allow them to make informed decisions with their doctor...” And there you have it, the importance of asking questions about treatment.   I wish I’d known and asked more questions eighteen years ago, but I didn’t.  The word “cancer” had paralyzed me–I operated in a fog for weeks after the diagnosis and numbly accepted the treatment regimen as “normal.”  Now I live with heart failure, and I am very aware that more older women die of heart disease than of breast cancer.  Thankfully, medicine and treatments continue to advance for both cancer and for heart disease treatments.  And for the continuing research, development, and new treatment available to any of us, whether cancer, heart disease, or other life-threatening illnesses, I am forever grateful.

Gratitude is, as it turns out, what Valentine’s Day has come to symbolize for me–not just for my loved ones and dear friends, but for all those healthcare professionals who have made a difference in my life–the gifted neurosurgeon who saved my life as a teenager, caring family physicians who showed compassion and concern in times of illness or crisis, my cardiologist, who literally breathes life into the examination room when she enters and discusses my condition in clear, direct terms.  Medicine is science, yes, but there’s art in the way in which it’s administered by those men and women who become our physicians and surgeons.

And Wednesday is Valentine’s Day, but I’m well beyond scribbling out “To Jane, From Sharon” on the paper envelopes into which those little dime store valentines were stuffed.  The excitement of exchanging valentines as we did as children disappeared a long time ago, but Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate with my husband the years of marriage, family and companionship over a dinner out.  We’ll toast together the ever-present matters of our hearts–gratitude for the romance, family, friendship, and life we have.   Happy Valentine’s Day!.

Carefully placed upon the future

it tips from the breeze and skims away,

frail thing of words, this valentine,

so far to sail.  And if you find it

caught in the reeds, its message blurred,

the thought that you are holding it

a moment is enough for me.

(“This Paper Boat,” by Ted Kooser, in Valentines, 2008)

Writing Suggestions:

Expressions of sentiment, captured in small verses or lace-trimmed cards, in letters or postcards, are a way to say “I appreciate you” or “I’m thinking of you,” or “I love you.”  1.  Write a valentine.  In a world full of suffering, war and economic downturns, taking the time to express your sentiments for family, friends, or others whose presence in your life you appreciate is a great gift.  In fact, you can do it anytime.  You don’t have to wait for February 14th!  The simple act of pausing to remember those we care about and those who have cared for us in times of struggle, hardship or illness, reminds us of what matters most in our lives:  people, friendship, love.

  • Write a valentine.  In a world full of suffering, war and economic downturns, taking the time to express your sentiments for family, friends, or others whose presence in your life you appreciate is a great gift.  In fact, you can do it anytime.  You don’t have to wait for February 14th!  The simple act of pausing to remember those we care about and those who have cared for us in times of struggle, hardship or illness, reminds us of what matters most in our lives:  people, friendship, love.
  • Perhaps there’s a poem, song or ode to your heart or some other body part you’d like to write. Why not try, whether serious or humorous, to send a valentine to some part of your body that does all the physical work of keeping you going?
  • “I carry your heart/ I carry it in my heart,” e.e. cummings wrote in his famous love poem. What do you carry in your heart?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…I’ll tell a secret instead:

poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,

they are sleeping. They are the shadows

drifting across our ceilings the moment 

before we wake up. What we have to do

is live in a way that lets us find them.

(In:  Red Suitcase, 1994).

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

Imagine you wake up 

with a second chance: The blue jay 

hawks his pretty wares 

and the oak still stands, spreading 

glorious shade. If you don’t look back, 

 

the future never happens. 

How good to rise in sunlight…

The whole sky is yours 

 

to write on, blown open 

to a blank page…

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


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

 

Writing Suggestions:

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

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

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

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

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

…I fear the gap between the platform and the train

I fear the onset of a murderous campaign…

 

I fear books will not survive the acid rain

I fear the ruler and the blackboard and the cane…

 

I fear the gremlins that have colonized my brain…

What else do I fear?  Let me begin again.

 

(From Selected Poems, 2001)

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

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

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

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

(From:  All of Us, 2000)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(From:  She Had Some Horses, 1983)

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

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

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

Writing Suggestions:

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

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

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

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

I will never be the same

knowing how effortlessly death

rests in the cells of my body,

yet with each step I am willing

to say yes to the chances I take,

to the hope no one can take from me

here in the midst of my recovery…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a spring he never thought to see.

Lean dusky Alaskan geese nibbling grass

seed in his field, early daffodils, three

fawns moving across his lawn in the last

of afternoon light…

He smells the hyacinth

and can feel hope with the terrible crack

of a thawing river loosen in his heart…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Suggestions:

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

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Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each. — Henry David Thoreau

I have a habit of waking before dawn, a time when the house is blessed by quiet, interrupted only briefly by the sound of the coffee grinder and the rattle of kibble against my dog’s dish.  We position ourselves, she and I, near the window to watch as the sky begins to lighten and turn the room bright in the early morning.  This is precious time, a chance to sit in quiet and write uninterrupted before the sound of the street below begins to make itself known.  I cherish winter mornings most, the chill in the air and the subtle beauty of darkness shifting into dawn.  For the many years I lived in Southern California, winter’s advent was barely discernible, save for the shortened days and dark mornings.

Yet this morning, as I did yesterday and the day before, I stared at the blank pages of my notebook, waiting in vain for something “original” or at the very least, enticing to explore on the page.  Nothing did.  “I’ve got the blues,” I wrote across the top of the page, followed by “I don’t have one creative thought in my head,” then another thought written out, “I’m bored by myself.”  I stared out the window, poured a second cup of coffee, and watched the sun cast a pink blush to the scattered clouds above.  I checked the temperature.  34 degrees outside.  Winter, I mused, is definitely on its way.  That’s when I realized I enjoy a kind of perverse comfort in the absence of what I termed “creative” or “worthwhile.”    There was something in those thoughts to explore.

I lobbied for our return to Canada for years, winters and all. For the time we lived in Southern California, it seemed like a losing battle.  My husband loved warmth and mild weather, but I languished.  I once described the climate as “relentless sunshine,” when a friend expressed puzzlement by my unenthusiastic feelings for living in what was once called an “ideal climate.”  “Ideal,” however, has recently come into question as the aridity, water shortages, and wild fires increase.  Our former neighbor, who called us Thanksgiving Day, told us t this year, he would be celebrating the family dinner in 90 degree heat.  I was grateful to be spared such late season sweltering this year.  After his call, I happily bundled up with mitts, coat, scarf and hat to walk to the neighborhood drugstore, grateful for the chill in the air, the barren trees, and feel of an approaching winter.

What is it about seasons and the human spirit?  In part, I suspect my affinity for the distinct four seasons was born growing up in a small Northern California town, where each season seemed to arrive on its designated calendar date, bringing a wealth of new sensations, sights and adventures for a girl.  In that climate, I felt close to Nature, my energy and spirit fed by the uniqueness of each season.

Nature’s seasons are metaphors for the human life cycle.  But winter, the least hospitable of the four, is often something we simply endure or avoid.  Yet it is a time important to our psyches, souls, and creative spirits.   A short time ago, a friend sent me a quotation written by Fabiana Fondevilla, a Buenos Aires journalist and children’s book author.  Her words touched a chord deep within me:

If we belong to the sun and its warmth, to the bud and the sprout, to the miraculous flower, we also belong to the wind, the naked branch, the cold.

The advent of winter cold is definitely here.  My husband has begun to groan and complain of the colder days and nights, the dark afternoons and mornings, while I find a strange contentment and energy in them, something akin to a spiritual hibernation.  Winter, as described by Jorge N. Ferrer and his colleagues in Kosmos, Journal for Global Transformation,  is a time of waiting, darkness, silence and, importantly, gestation–whether it’s a germinated seed  being nourished and developing roots to support its growth toward the light, or, as I complained in my notebook’s pages, our creative wells have seemed to disappear deep within.

Without doubt, human life cycles are affected by these seasonal changes.   When the light changes, as it does in the winter months, we slow down a little, find it more difficult to awaken in the dark mornings, and often feel a greater sense of fatigue. A survey reported in a past issue of Psychology Today, showed over 90% of respondents felt a difference in mood, energy or behavior with the change of seasons, even having sadness or depression triggered by them, just I described having the winter “blues” as I wrote in my notebook.

Yet blues aside, winter has an important role in our lives, defined, as Ferrer and  colleagues remind us, by the powerful forces at play in the darkness.  It is a time that nourishes and generates new creative impulses within us just as the emergence of new life is being readied for the buds and flowers appearing in springtime.  http://www.kosmosjournal.org/article/the-integral-creative-cycle/

Although the cold and snow have barely begun, it’s important to remember that in less than a month, the winter solstice arrives, marking a gradual return of the sun and promise of rebirth milder seasons ahead.  For the ancients the winter solstice was a time of celebration , occurring during the period many of us now celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah.  Winter darkness, as the solstice celebrations remind us, holds promise and hope.  In “Winter Solstice,” poet Jody Aliesan reminds us of the promise that resides in winter’s darkness and the comfort found in the beauty of stars close together, a winter moon rising, or an owl in the distance.  She describes how, out of that darkness, a sense of rebirth emerges.

already light is returning pairs of wings
lift softly off your eyelids one by one
each feathered edge clearer between you
and the pearl veil of day

you have nothing to do but live.

(From:  Grief Sweat, Broken Moon Press, 1990)

Darkness arrives, in the difficult periods of our lives–serious illness, depression or loss– like Winter does in Nature.  It affects the human spirit, ones triggering periods of emotional malaise, turmoil or depression.  Yet this is also what Life is, filled with highs and lows, calm and storm, flowering and death.  The difficulty for us lies in learning to accept those “seasons” as natural as ones Mother Nature controls.  Thanks to the many men and women who have shared their experiences so honestly in our writing groups, I have become more accepting and understanding of my dark periods, better able to put things in perspective, and always, to find my way to hope, light and renewal.

You look over all that the darkness
ripples across. More than has ever
been found comforts you. You open your
eyes in a vault that unlocks as fast
and as far as your thought can run.
A great snug wall goes around everything,
has always been there, will always
remain. It is a good world to be
lost in. It comforts you. It is
all right…

(From:  “Waking at 3 a.m.,” by William Stafford, in Someday, Maybe, 1973)

Writing Suggestions for the Week of November 27th:

This week, try using the metaphor of winter to reframe your experience with cancer or another difficult time in your life, a time when darkness seemed to envelope you for long periods, hope seemed to fade and you feared what was ahead.

  • Did your experience a kind of “death” and rebirth?
  • Move from darkness into light?
  • Discover a sense of life renewed?

Or, like me, perhaps you find comfort in the quiet of dark mornings.  Try describing something you love about dark winter mornings in a short poem.

 

 

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When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

(“The Peace of Wild Things,”By Wendell Berry, in The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Copyright © 1998)

There are poets and poems whose wisdom and eloquence I return to often when the world is too much with me.  William Stafford is one favorite; Wendell Berry is another.  I find comfort in their  words, a refuge from the constant assault of political wrangling, war, suffering and violence in the world.  In the past many weeks we’ve been inundated with the news of more refugee crises, hurricanes and their aftermath, wild fires and senseless acts of violence.  I’ve felt “despair for the world” taking hold of my mood, enlarging each day as I hear of another report of hardship, violence or people’s suffering.   I feel helpless in those moments, and as if I, too, need a respite from the world’s woes to regain an even footing.

I live in a city, and escaping to a place of peace and quiet can sometimes be difficult.  But I take my refuge in the quiet of dawn, a ritual of writing, clearing my mind in the stillness of early morning as my pen races across the page.  My dog awakens with me, patiently sleeping at my side until I signal it’s time for a walk among the trees in the park nearby.   It’s a habit, a practice that helps me regain a sense of peace, even hope and gratitude that seems to arrive quietly, unannounced, in these moments of stillness.  I rest in the grace of the world.

What is stillness?  According to Pico Iyer, travel writer and author of the wonderful little book, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (2014), it’s not so much about meditation, but “sanity and balance…a chance to put things in perspective.”  “Going nowhere,” he states, “isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

(From:  “Keep Quiet” by Pablo Neruda (In: Extravagaria,  1974)

Perhaps what sometimes seems to be increasing societal numbness to something akin to “routine” violence and hardship in the world is a result of the constant motion and noise that fill our daily lives.  My life is less hectic now that my husband and I are entering a state of so-called “retirement.”  While I enjoy the quieter pace my husband and I share, the old habit of “busy-ness” is an addiction that can be difficult to break.  It’s a habit I used to know well but now witness now in our younger family members and friends — their days filled with running from meeting to meeting, social event to social event, responding to dozens of emails and texts in a day, spending hours staring at screens and sites like Facebook, and all the while, experiencing the constant stream of news, trivia, games, retail offerings, advertisements–“noise” of the modern world.   I was asked by a woman a few days ago what I did all day now that I’d “retired.”  She was unaware of the quiet I need in my life to continue to write and teach, yet for a moment, I struggled to answer–so far removed have I become from the whirlwind life I once lived in the corporate world.   I wish, all those years ago, I’d had Iyer’s book to read– he speaks so succinctly to what I then experienced daily:  “A big luxury for so many people today, is a little blank space in the calendar where you collect yourself,” he wrote.   A big luxury... Think about it.  It’s so easy to lose touch with ourselves in our demanding, rush-rush world.  Yet we need this thing called  stillness, the space and time for quiet that  allows us to care for our inner lives and feed our malnourished spirits.

Writing for the New York Times in 2012, Iyer cited Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book, The Shallows:  What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.  Carr noted that Americans spend eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen and that the average American teenager sends or receives 75 test messages daily.  Yet it was fifty years ago that Canadian author Marshall McLuhan warned “When things come at you very fast, …you lose touch with yourself” (The Medium is the Message, 1967).

“When things come at you very fast…”  This past week, my husband’s sister , who was treated for inflammatory breast cancer five years ago, was hospitalized after a niggling difficulty swallowing which had worsened to the point she could not ingest food.   Tests revealed a growth on her esophagus, and a small surgical procedure performed.  Once she was able to eat again, she was sent home, only to be re-admitted days later with bleeding and unbearable pain.  She is undergoing tests, but early indications are revealing what is most likely evidence of metastatic cancer, and frequent doses of morphine have done little to lessen her pain.  She and her family are navigating between preliminary test results, treatment implications, and clinging to any threads of hope they can find in the doctors’ words.

It’s an experience so many cancer patients and their families know well.  Emotions run high; test results can be confusing, diagnoses conflicted, and the fear of death a constant companion.  The medical team’s voices may temporarily overshadow the patients’ and their families’.  The reality of a terminal diagnosis, clarity about what matters most, and, and what the families and patients truly want for themselves in this final chapter of life are fraught with contradictory emotions and difficult discussions. Where can you find the stillness amid the prodding, tests, diagnoses, medications, pain, prognoses–all of it–to listen to yourself, to know what’s in your heart, and the clarity of what matters most to you here and now?

Stillness, being in the moment, can help.  Cancer, or any chronic illness, as Dr. Paul Brenner, MD states, “is Life:  You hope it can get better but fear it will get worse.  There is no choice other than to live into what is happening now.”  Those with cancer, he notes, live in the truth of the moment because that is all that exists.  It is, ultimately, about being present to the now, not living with regret for the past or worrying what the future holds.

Stillness, time to be fully present in the moment, can help us clear away the static,  clarify and discover what is truly important.  It’s tougher to find the quiet when one is also surrounding by the sometimes conflicting opinions of your doctors and family members.  Meditation, yoga, tai chi—all help ground you in the present, the here and now and in quiet.  As Iyer reminds us, stillness–learning to be in the moment—”isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”

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)

I have come to believe that stillness, being fully present to the here and now, is one of the important factors in what heals us, whether we live with loss, cancer, or other chronic illness.  It is deeply important to clear away the “noise” that comes from the external world, from well-meaning others, and listen to one’s self.  During a  2004 PBS  interview former poet laureate, Ted Kooser, spoke about his recovery from oral cancer in 1968.  … as I came up out of radiation and was trying to get myself back in some sort of physical shape, I would walk a couple of miles every morning and then find something along that route to write about…It was very important for me to see something from each day that I could do something with and find some order in, because I was surrounded by medical chaos or health chaos of some kind.

Annie Dillard, in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), offers a “recipe” for embracing stillness: “At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world~ now I am ready,. “Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening.—

I have come to cherish stillness in my life –and I now realize how very much I need to “rest in the grace of the world” to live a life that is meaningful and full, but more, to know my truth by being truly be able listen to what is in my heart and mind.   Perhaps you have discovered the power of stillness in your life, a way of being fully present in the world, a way to discover what truth lies in your heart.  Why not write about it?

Writing Suggestions:

  • For this week, consider how quiet and stillness have been part of your healing process.
  • What was the situation that triggered your need to “embrace stillness?”
  • What practices helped you learn to embrace quiet and turn your attention to “what is” instead of “what was” or  “what could be?”
  • How has creating or embracing stillness and quiet as part of your life helped you heal?

 

 

 

 

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Maggie and I made our usual stroll through the neighborhood park as we do each morning.  Although she’s much more interested in squirrel patrol than the other dogs who arrive with their owners for a romp in the off leash hours of early morning, we always stop to greet other dogs and people for a few minutes.  Invariably, the introductions begin, both human and canine, and with that, the frequent question to me:  “You mean you moved from California to Canada?”  Yes, I explain, we decided to return to Toronto after many years away.  “But the winter here; how could you leave a place with such great weather?”

My explanation is as familiar as the question I’ve been asked so many times.  I’ve longed for the changes and colors of four distinct seasons.  I felt, in a place of temperate year-round weather and seemingly constant sunshine, as arid and thirsty as the landscape.  For some, and I’m one, my spirit and creativity are fed by the predictability of Nature’s changing seasons—but then, I grew up in a place where all four seasons arrived on their designated calendar dates and each offered new discoveries, colors, smells, and adventure for a young girl. I feel more “at home” in a place where Nature’s colors and moods are more distinct, just as the little field mouse, Frederick, expressed when he recited his poem to his small companions during the long winter months:  “Aren’t we lucky the seasons are four?/Think of a year with one less…or one more!”(From:  Frederick, by Leo Lionni, 1967)

The Seasons of Life:  Our Dramatic Journey from Birth to Death, written by authors John Kotre and Elizabeth Hall in 1967, described how Nature’s seasons are not only metaphors for life’s journey, but how human life is intimately connected to the seasons, for example, the times of day, circling of the planets, phases of the moon, or growth and harvesting of the crops (University of Michigan Press, 1997).  The ancient Greeks defined life’s stages as seasons: childhood was spring; youth became summer; autumn described adulthood, and winter, the metaphor for old age.

This cyclical nature of life and living reflects what we witness in nature. I recall a French Canadian film the title long forgotten, where two characters were talking of aging, one, uncomfortable with growing older, but the other seeing their ages differently, as  autumn,  which she called “the other side of spring.”  I have thought of her definition often as I’ve grown older.  My life is still colorful and vibrant, but I also know life’s colors will gradually fade as I move toward elderhood and the winter of my life.

Seasons figure in discussions of the different stages of illness and cancer.  In a 2009 article in Cure Today, Kenneth Miller, MD, described four distinct phases or “seasons” of cancer survivorship.  His observations were informed by his patients’ experiences, and by his wife’s. In this excerpt, he compares her stages of cancer and recovery to the seasons of nature:

I have learned just as much about cancer and the seasons of survivorship in my work as a medical oncologist as I have alongside my wife, Joan, he wrote, who was treated 10 years ago for acute leukemia and more recently for breast cancer. Her diagnosis was certainly like the cold, bleak winter, and transition like the rebirth of spring. And while each season was different than the others, each was beautiful in its own way. (http://www.curetoday.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/article.show/id/2/article_id/1142)

Miller then defined what he termed as the four distinct phases or “seasons” of cancer survivorship.

  1. Acute survivorship: when a person is diagnosed and treated.
  2. Transitional survivorship: when celebration is blended with worry and loss as a patient pulls away from the treatment team.
  3. Extended survivorship: includes those who are living with cancer as a chronic disease and individuals in remission because of ongoing treatment.
  4. Permanent survivorship: people who are in remission and asymptomatic, or,
    cancer-free but not free of cancer because of chronic late and long-term health or psychosocial problems. Others may even develop secondary cancers related to cancer treatment, or develop second cancers not related to the first cancer or its treatment.

We use the metaphors of seasons to describe many things, but seasons may be more than just metaphorical when it comes to the cancer journey.  In a 2007 study, researchers from Norway and Oregon found evidence suggesting that men diagnosed with prostate cancer in summer or autumn had better survival rates.  Vitamin D—the sunshine vitamin–plays a part.  In other studies with early stage lung cancer patients, high concentrations of Vitamin D appeared to contribute to a better survival rate post-surgery.  Patients whose surgeries occurred in sunny months (May – August) had a 30% higher survival rate than those who had surgery in winter. “Season,” epidemiologist David Christiani noted, “had a pretty strong effect.”

Whether diagnosed or treated with cancer in summer or winter, the seasons of an illness may dominate our lives and how we think of our experiences.   Marilyn Hacker’s 1994 collection of poetry, Winter Numbers, invokes the darkness and cold of winter as she details the loss of many of her friends to AIDS or cancer as she struggled with breast cancer.  Dan Matthews, using seasons as metaphor, chronicled the journey of his wife’s terminal breast cancer in a poetry collection:   Rain, Heavy at Times: Life in the Cancer Months (Aragon Publishing, 2007).  John Sokol wrote about his cancer in a poetry collection entitled In the Summer of Cancer.  And in one of my favorite poems by Barbara Crooker, “For a Friend Lying in Intensive Care Waiting For Her White Blood Cells to Rejuvenate After a Bone Marrow Transplant,” the season of springtime signals a time renewal and rejuvenation:

The jonquils. They come back. They split the earth with

their green swords, bearing cups of light. ‘

The forsythia comes back, spraying its thin whips with

blossom, one loud yellow shout.

The robins. They come back. They pull the sun on the

silver thread of their song.

The iris come back. They dance in the soft air in silken

gowns of midnight blue.

The lilacs come back. They trail their perfume like a scarf

of violet chiffon.

And the leaves come back, on every tree and bush, millions

and millions of small green hands applauding your return.

 

(From:  The Cancer Poetry Project, Volume 1, 2001)

For now, I look out my window across the street to the park, where trees are plentiful, offering a verdant canopy of shade and even, during a downpour (as Maggie and I discovered) a natural umbrella, and smile, remembering a favorite e.e.cummings’ poem:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(“I thank You God for this most amazing,” in Complete Poems, 1904-1962)

Whatever season or landscape that offers you solace and inspiration, or is an apt metaphor for whatever stage of life you are experiencing, why not write about it?

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about the seasons in your life, whether the cancer journey, a marriage, loss and grief, adulthood– any of life’s seasons that have been important or significant to you in some way.
  • If you are a cancer survivor, explore how Miller’s “Seasons of Survivorship” apply (or not) to your journey. Which “season” was the most difficult to endure?  Why?
  • Explore cancer in a poem, using seasonal metaphors to describe your experience.

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