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Archive for the ‘poetry and healing’ Category

A Lesson

By Judy Rohm

 

At a breast cancer rally she rises

Above sixteen positive lymph nodes

To tell the world that cancer is a wakeup call

That resonates to the cell level.

It’s a lesson taught by trembling hands

That squeeze from today a second cup of coffee

On a sunny deck with someone you love.

It is a slap that sends you flying from Michigan

To Cozumel because cancer teaches that snorkeling

Coral reefs pays greater dividends than a savings account

And mowing summer grass can be postponed

For bike rides past wild flowers and country streams,

And vacuuming the carpet and washing the windows

Are low priority items when a friend drops by to visit.

Cancer is not a gift but a lesson

Full of loving now and living presently.

(In:  The Cancer Poetry Project, V. 1, 2001)

“Cancer is not a gift, but a lesson…” Judy Rohm tells us in her poem.  We don’t wish for the pain of the lessons it teaches us, and yet, we’re often forced to re-examine our lives and change our perspectives.   Like it or not, life throws us curve balls, unexpected and difficult chapters in our lives we have trouble believing have happened.  Cancer is one of those, yet as more than a few survivors have said, “It is a great teacher.”

Cancer, like any life threatening illness, puts us face-to-face with the prospect of our mortality, perhaps sooner than anticipated.  It makes the lessons of our experience and the learning all the more potent.  Alice Hoffman, novelist, writing after her recovery from cancer,  aggressive cancer, expressed it this way:

“In my experience, ill people become more themselves, as if once the excess was stripped away only the truest core of themselves remained.   …novelists know that some chapters inform all others. These are the chapters of your life that wallop you and teach you and bring you to tears, that invite you to step to the other side of the curtain, the one that divides those of us who must face our destiny sooner rather than later.” (New York Times, August 14, 2000)

That transformation to one’s “truest core” was something I have been witnessing each week among those cancer patients and survivors who have written with me in the Fall session of the “Writing Through Cancer” workshop series I lead at Gilda’s Club here in Toronto.  This past Wednesday was our final meeting of the series, and I began the session by reading Judy Rohm’s “The Lesson,” using it to inspire the group to answer the question, “What have you learned from your cancer experience?”  Within moments, pens were moving quickly across their notebook pages.  When I asked who would like to share what they’d written aloud, one by one, each person shared aspects of their lives they wished to change, strengthen or enrich as a result of having and living with cancer.

As I listened to each person read, I remembered John, no longer living, but who had written with me at the Stanford Cancer Center several years ago.  John was a remarkable person,  diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2005, suffering a relapse in 2008 and undergoing a bone marrow transplant at Stanford that fall.  Two years later, he suffered another setback, and yet, his spirit and tenacity remained strong.  He continued to share his experience, writing honestly, humorously and with poignancy as his illness worsened, even  beginning a blog to share his experience with other patients, family and friends.   J. and I had stayed in touch despite his inability to travel and participate in the writing group.   Early in 2010, just months before he died, he sent me an essay entitled, “What I’ve Learned,”  saying he’d taken inspiration from Esquire Magazine’s then series by the same name.  Here are a few of the things John felt he’d learned from his cancer:

  • If you have a problem, admit it, then you can start to fix it.
  • Work at what you love, forget about the money.
  • Tell your wife how beautiful she is every day, and how much you love her.
  • Tell your kids that you love them, unconditionally. Hug them and encourage them to follow their dream.
  • Listen more and talk less. Be interested in other people’s stories.
  • Don’t assume what you see and believe is the same as what others see and believe. Respect other viewpoints.
  • In the end, all your physical beauty and prowess will leave you. You must still love that person in the mirror.
  • Travel light.
  • We all will die eventually, so find a way to face death without fear. Don’t dwell on death, but enjoy each day as best you can.

Other survivors have also reflected on cancer’s lessons. Writing for a January 2018 issue of Cure Today, cancer survivor Bonnie Annis described what she has learned:  … cancer taught me was to give myself permission to grieve …This did not happen suddenly. It took days and weeks and months, but gradually, the sadness grew less heavy…cancer taught me how to process my anger. At first, I didn’t realize I was angry. …as I thought about all I’d endured, I realized I was angry. I was bitter. I was hurt… And then cancer did the unexpected… [It] taught me how to find gratitude…gratitude can replace grief and anger… Cancer, even with all of its horrible ugliness, can be kind in the lessons we learn from it. But we have to be willing to look for the lessons.             

Author Jenny Nash, diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago, described her cancer experience in her book, The Victoria’s Secret Catalogue Never Stops Coming,” (Scribner, 2001). Each of the thirteen chapters bears the title of one Nash’s lessons.  Here are a few:

            Survival is a matter of instinct.
Bad news does less damage when it’s shared.
Caregivers are human.
Sometimes crying is the point.
Take the gifts people have to give.
Make the experience matter.

The power and lessons of the cancer experience aren’t reserved for survivors alone.  The experience of a loved one’s cancer diagnosis and treatment also affects those close to us. During a 2006 CBS television broadcast, National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, whose wife was treated for cancer, spoke from a spousal perspective:

     Now, forgive me for saying this, but cancer can also be …an amazing experience that forces us to make amends, to set things right… now I’ve changed, and for good. I appreciate what I have instead of lamenting what I don’t … a new life and a new way of seeing, all from one malicious lump.
On our drives home from the doctor, I’d often look around at stoplights. I’d see people talking on their cell phones, putting on makeup, eating. They’re all in a hurry. It all seems so important. But is it?
In the end, each of us has so little time… we try to make it all count now, appreciating every part of every day.  Sometimes, we sit together on our porch at sunset. We don’t talk much. We just hold hands. We listen to the crickets chirp, soft and cautious, as if they know that first frost might come tonight. We stay a while, until the last of the light is gone, until we can’t see anything. Until we’re just two hearts in the darkness. We’re in no hurry at all.
(CBS Sunday Morning, October 23, 2006).

There are common themes among the lessons shared by cancer survivors, but it’s Sartore’s words that linger in my mind as he reminds us to “try to make it all count now, appreciating every part of every day.”  It’s about being present and living fully.  “Make the experience matter,” Jenny Nash advised.  If we don’t pause and consider what has changed in our lives and what we have learned, the tendency to lapse into old ways of being begins its slow and steady reclamation.   Life is short, and cancer or any other serious illnesses makes us sit up and pay attention to life, having it and being grateful for it.  Perhaps this is best expressed in a short poem written by As Ted Kooser, former poet laureate of the U.S., inspired by one of his long walks in the Nebraska countryside while he was recovering from cancer.

I saw the season’s first bluebird
this morning, one month ahead
of its scheduled arrival.  Lucky I am
to go off to my cancer appointment
having been given a bluebird, and,
for a lifetime, have been given
this world.

(In:  Winter Morning Walks:  One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison, 2001)

 Writing Suggestions:

  • Have you reflected upon and written about the lessons you’ve learned from cancer?  Why not set a timer for 15 minutes and, writing without stopping, list as many of the lessons cancer has taught you as you can.  Once you’ve finished your list, read it over and, noting the most important in the list, begin writing again, only this time, expand on those lessons.  Imagine you’re writing to a friend or someone who is experiencing cancer treatment.  What would you highlight as your greatest lessons from cancer?
  • “Cancer is a great teacher.” Do you agree?  Why or why not?  Elaborate.
  • What do you intend to do differently in your life as a cancer survivor?
  • Try writing a short poem in the style of Kooser’s that expresses the lessons of cancer and the gifts of your life.

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In one way or another, cancer impacts virtually all of our lives. On an individual level, it is a life-transforming experience that often challenges the mind, heart, and spirit of patients and family members as deeply—if not more deeply—than it challenges the physical body—Jeremy Geffen, MD, The Journey Through Cancer: Healing and Transforming the Whole Person, 2006

Cancer, or any other life threatening illness or trauma, changes you.  Not only is your life altered in different ways, even if you are pronounced “cured” or “healed,” you quickly discover that returning to the self, to the life you knew before cancer or trauma occurred, is virtually impossible.  Not only has your body been altered by treatment and surgeries, the way you think about yourself and your life has changed, whether you see yourself as “living with” cancer, “a survivor,” “in remission,” “a warrior”–as well as  how you experience people and situations that were part of your daily life before cancer.

You’ve suddenly been thrust into the necessity of revising the life you have known, the one you’ve been living.  Revision is not just reserved for writers in the process of creating a story or poem.  It’s a necessity for life.  Yet when you are challenged to change the way you live, it can be confusing and difficult to understand, let alone learning to accept some of the necessary changes in your life.  You’re thrust into a journey you wouldn’t have chosen to travel, but, as Mary Oliver describes in her poem, “The Journey,”

You knew what you had to do…

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little…

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…

You knew what you had to do…

(In:   Dreamwork, 1994)

In an interview by William Young, appearing in a 1993 issue of The Paris Review, William Stafford was asked to comment on his choice of a title of one of his books about writing: You Must Revise Your Life.  “I wanted to use the word revise because so many books about writing make it sound as though you create a good poem by tinkering with the poem you’re working on. I think you create a good poem by revising your life… by living the kind of life that enables good poems to come about.”

Several years ago, after the death of my first husband and the years spent being a single mother, I felt I was ready to unearth the story of that particularly painful and traumatic chapter of my life.  I began by starting a memoir, one I ultimately decided to turn into a novel.  I sent the manuscript to a few respected writers for review, and as it needed, revised multiple times.  Yet it took several months of rewriting and revision to acknowledge that I was still skating on the surface of the story, overly concerned with descriptive details, grammatical nits, and developing a rounded protagonist, who was, in real life, me.  (I never succeeded with her–my protagonist was just too “good.”)  The writing dragged on, through four complete revisions—or rather, revisions I thought were complete.  Yet something wasn’t working. The story was no longer my story, nor was it the real story “It’s become a fairy tale,” I complained to my writing buddies, and I put the novel aside in frustration.  I’d lost sight of my story, and in the process, had not written myself “into knowing,” as author Patricia Hampl once said about the writing process.  I was farther away from the truth, the real meaning in my story than ever.  I put the manuscript aside and faced the fact that the real revision was one of coming to terms with my life–before and after the trauma:  what, in me, had changed and how had it changed how I now approached the life I had now.  I had to do a complete re-visioning of my story.

I’ve been working on my rewrite, that’s right
I’m gonna change the ending
Gonna throw away my title
And toss it in the trash
Every minute after midnight
All the time I’m spending
It’s just for working on my rewrite…

(“Rewrite,” by Paul Simon, from the album, So Beautiful or So What?” 2011)

I discovered that there was much more to the process of writerly revision as Simon’s lyrics suggest, getting beyond the “happy” ending and digging deep for the meaning of those events in my life.  Simon hints at that in his song, and it’s likely one of the reasons his “Rewrite” lyrics were published in a recent edition of The New Yorker under the heading, “Poetry.”  Listen carefully, and you realize the real story is of a Vietnam vet who’s had hard times, and his rewrite is an attempt to create a happy ending for himself.

I’ll eliminate the pages
Where the father has a breakdown
And he has to leave the family
But he really meant no harm
Gonna’ substitute a car chase
And a race across the rooftops
When the father saves the children
And he holds them in his arms…

We all fantasize about how our lives might have been different, “if only if I’d done ___ instead of …,” but that’s the stuff of dreams and wishes, of fiction instead of reality.  Happy endings aren’t like the ones we remember from childhood fairy tales.  Life–cancer, loss, trauma, hardship–these events challenge us to revise our lives, to learn to honor our uniqueness, even our struggles and losses, and learn from them.  Only then can we truly begin a new script for the life we have ahead of us.

At a breast cancer rally she rises

Above sixteen positive lymph nodes

To tell the world that cancer is a wakeup call

That resonates to the cell level…

Cancer is not a gift but a lesson

Full of seeing now and living presently.

(“The Lesson, by Judy Rohm, in The Cancer Poetry Project, V.1, 2001)

      …”cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter. Still, novelists know that some chapters inform all others. These are the chapters of your life that wallop you and teach you and bring you to tears, that invite you to step to the other side of the curtain, the one that divides those of us who must face our destiny sooner rather than later.”  — Alice Hoffman, NYTimes, August 2000.

Cancer, any serious illness or trauma can teach us to revise our lives in a way that we are more “alive” to the world, to paying attention to what’s in front of us, discovering gratitude in slowing down and being fully present to our daily lives.  Yes, we have changed, but we still have the opportunity to be considered in our choices, to make certain that however long our lives may be, we learn to live fully and with gratitude for each day we’re given.

As I write this post, I recall the first weeks several years ago, after I’d finished my doctoral research (a study of instructor thinking during instruction in a professional school of landscape architecture).  One of my “subjects,” a particularly gifted instructor wrote a short account of his experience in the study.  Entitled “The White Rat Talks Back,” he began his narrative with an old Fleishmann’s margarine advertisement, “I’m just a guy … who had a heart attack.  I’m okay now, but I learned a lot.”

“I’m okay now, but I learned a lot.”  Well, as Frank Sinatra once sang, “that’s life (that’s life)…  We all have chapters–those difficult experiences–that challenge us.  Some we remember fondly; others are the ones we don’t wish to repeat, but like it or not, we have to face the fact that our lives have been altered in profound ways,  even in ways we never imagined nor wanted, and we are left to re-consider and revise the ways we live from here on out.   How have you challenged to revise your life, your way of seeing the world, by cancer, by any life hardship?

 

Writing Suggestions:

  • Imagine you had the power to rewrite your life, as the subject in Paul Simon’s song, “Rewrite” dreams of doing. What would be your “happy” ending?
  • What have you learned from the painful chapters of your life?
  • As you look back on the difficult times in your life, before cancer and after, how have you revised your life?  What changed?  What didn’t?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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August 6th, and I remember that on this day, my father was born 100 years ago.  I also remember how his death from lung cancer twenty-five years ago left his family torn apart with sorrow and grief, some of the wounds never fully healed.  Remembering how deeply we felt the loss of our father got me to thinking about the impact of losing a loved one.   I recalled when, on a summer’s evening some time ago, my husband and I ran into a friend at a jazz concert.  Divorced in his 50’s, he longed to find a partner to share the rest of his life and had begun dating in earnest again after a long hiatus.  He introduced us to his evening’s date, an engaging woman we chatted briefly, learning that she had lost her husband a year or so earlier.

After his companion left to find the restroom, our friend turned to me and sighed, “Another widow.”  He shrugged his shoulders and added,  “I don’t if I’m ready for this,”  “this” meaning the emotional roller coaster that often accompanies new romances or relationships after a spouse’s death.

“Be patient,” I said, “it takes so much longer than you think it will to recover from a husband’s death.”  I was remembering how, in the year after the sudden death of my first husband, I had begun dating again several months later , hoping it might ease the constant heartache I felt.  It didn’t work.  I made poor choices in the process before I acknowledged I was simply not ready to begin any new relationship.  Healing had its own time schedule, and it couldn’t be rushed. Eight years later, I met and later married my current husband, but even in our early years together, I experienced an exaggerated fear of loss.

Whether the loss of a spouse, a child or a friend from serious illnesses like cancer, ALS, heart attack, or other unexpected tragedies, much is written about dealing with the loss of a loved one yet it’s not something  well understood by those who haven’t experienced it.  Some may think of grief as a single instance or short time of pain or sadness in response to loss, but the American Cancer Society reminds us that the real process of grieving lasts much longer.

When we are in grief and mourning, it can be hard on friends or acquaintances, even our family members.  Our North American society isn’t as adept at allowing grief to take a normal course as some other cultures do.  It’s painful to see someone we care about dealing with the heartache and sorrow accompanying the death of another, but it’s very important the bereaved feel supported through the process and are allowed to express their grief.  It’s why we have bereavement support groups, therapists and pastors who specialize in grief counseling.  Grief, although similar to us all in a general way, is experienced differently by everyone.  It’s  important to accept and honor the way in which a bereaved person chooses to express sorrow and grief.

This morning, my husband and I talked about the process of grieving when a loved one’s life ends, recalling the agonizing four year battle with bladder cancer my husband’s brother in-law endured before he finally died.  I remember telephoning my sister-in-law the day after his death, rehearsing ahead what I could say that didn’t sound trite.  The telephone rang once, twice and two more times before she answered it.

“Hello?” I knew immediately she had been crying.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I just went into his room and saw how empty it is, and then…”  She began sobbing again. “He’s gone, Sharon.” Her voice was heavy with grief and exhaustion.  “He’s been my life for sixty-four years.”

I could only murmur, “Yes, I know…” and think about what it meant to be together for so long.

It is hard to give up after months of making lists,

phoning doctors, fighting entropy.  But when the end comes,

a bending takes over, empties the blood of opposition

and with a gentle skill, injects a blessed numbness…

According to the American Cancer Society,” studies have identified emotional states that people may go through during grief. The first feelings usually include shock or numbness. Then, as the person sees how his or her life is affected by the loss, emotions start to surface. The early sense of disbelief is often replaced by emotional upheaval, which can involve anger, loneliness, uncertainty, or denial. These feelings can come and go over a long period of time. The final phase of grief is the one in which people find ways to come to terms with and accept the loss.”

Perhaps this surrender foreshadows my own old age

when I have raged to exhaustion and finally have to go.  For now,

the numbness wears off.  I drive to the market, cook my own food,

take scant note of desire

with no one to consider or contradict my choices.

Something in me will never recover.  Something in me will go on.

(From “Numb,” by Florence Weinberger, in The Cancer Poetry Project, 2001)

After sixty-four years together with her husband, my sister-in-law died barely a year later from a recurrence of inflammatory breast cancer after a five year remission.  Life without her husband, despite having her adult children and grandchildren nearby, was hard for her without her husband, who had been the primary decision maker in all their years of married life.   She seemed to grow increasingly tired and depressed, as if her will to live was fading.  As many psychologists and psychiatrists know, there are few things in life more likely to lead to depression depression than losing a spouse, especially for seniors.

More than a few research studies have demonstrated that spousal bereavement is a major source of life stress and not infrequently, leaves people vulnerable to other problems like depression, chronic stress, and reduced life expectancy.   Studies conducted around the world that shown that the rate in mortality often goes up among grieving spouses after their loved one dies. One such study conducted in Israel found the risk of death during the first six months after losing a spouse increased by 50%. The phenomenon is common enough that it even has a scientific name:”Broken Heart Syndrome,” which is defined as an impermanent heart condition caused by stressful situations, like the death of a loved one.

All lives are accompanied, at some point, by mortality, but some losses are far more difficult to accept than others.  Death from a protracted illness, at least, has a cause that we understand and allows the patient and the loved ones time to come to terms with the inevitability of death.  But the unexpected losses, like the sudden death of a spouse or child, comes as a complete shock, defies our sense of what is “supposed” to happen in life, and can complicate and extend the grieving process for years.

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

(Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking)

My own emotional state in the aftermath of my first husband’s drowning involved a complicated grieving process that took years to fully heal.  But I also remember how his parents, now deceased, and two siblings never fully recovered from losing a son, an older brother.  Nor did my daughters, then nine and ten, ever fully recover from their father’s death.  Even now, over 30 years later, remnants of grief and loss still surface from time to time.

In the turbulent days following my first husband’s death, a friend offered  me the poem, “And Death Shall Have No Dominon,” by the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas,  to use in honoring my husband’s death with his family and closest friends.  Thomas’s poem celebrates the undying and everlasting strength of the human spirit, and reading and sharing it provided some solace in the face of tragedy, reminding me that even in death, our loved ones are not completely lost to us.  We carry them in our hearts, our memories and our stories.

And death shall have no dominion.

       Dead men naked they shall be one

       With the man in the wind and the west moon;

       When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,

       They shall have stars at elbow and foot;

       Though they go mad they shall be sane,

       Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;

       Though lovers be lost love shall not;

       And death shall have no dominion.

(From:  Twenty-Five Poems, 1936)

Writing Suggestions

This week, consider the process of grief and mourning:

  • Have you lost a loved one to cancer or an unexpected tragedy? Write the memory of the day someone you loved died.
  • What did you experience in the aftermath  of death? Write about the emotional ups and downs of grief.
  • What helped you deal with the loss and gave you the strength to go on? Write about the gradual process of healing from the death of a loved one.
  • Are you currently faced with a terminal diagnosis or is your loved one? Describe the process of grief and what, as you face a shortened life or potential loss of your loved one, gives you solace and the strength.
  • Write a favorite remembrance of a loved one who has passed on. What brings a smile to your face when you remember the person?  What qualities or traits do you remember most fondly?

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The art of reading is in great part that of acquiring a better understanding of life from one’s encounter with it in a book. — André Maurois

It’s taken me the better part of three days to organize my books into some kind of order on my bookshelves.  In part, I have a lot of books, although far fewer than I used to when our move back to Toronto dictated some serious downsizing of our belongings.  Despite my reluctance to let many of them go, a feeling much like saying good-bye to old friends, I did, inviting writing group members to choose from the books tagged for donation, giving a few favorites to friends, and donating several boxes to the local library.  Yet I kept favorites, volumes of poetry, selected works of fiction, books on art and writing, and to my shock, I still had enough to fill three large bookcases.

The process of organizing was a slow one, alphabetizing poetry books, grouping fiction favorites and then nonfiction before several volumes on writing and poetry craft, even several favorite children’s books I have yet to let go of.  But as time-consuming as the basic task was,  I was further slowed in my progress by the constant desire to open a book to a dog-eared page, re-read the underlined passages, someone’s inscription on the title page, or if poetry, more than one of a poet’s collection.  I was often lost in remembering:  where I was, what was going on in my life, why I loved a book or a poem as much as I did.  My books, it turns out, have been as much a source of healing and happiness as they were about learning and growth.

“And death shall have no dominion,” Dylan Thomas wrote in his poem by the same name, his words offering me some measure of solace in the wake of my first husband’s drowning:

And death shall have no dominion.

They shall have stars at elbow and foot…

Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;

Those lovers be lost love shall not;

And death shall have no dominion…  

My volume of e.e. cummings Complete Poems 1904-1962 was filled with marked up passages, asterisks, and dog-eared pages, among them one that during my recovery from grief and loss offered me hope and a new way of living:

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young…

I pulled Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Angle of Repose (1971), sitting down to re-read several pages.  I remembered reading the novel shortly after I  moved my children and myself from Halifax to Toronto two years after my husband’s death to begin my doctoral studies.  I was aching from loss and longing for what I still called “home,” the small Northern Californian town where my father’s family had homesteaded, settled and where, each day of my childhood, I gazed at the beauty of Mt. Shasta, one of the volcanic peaks in the Cascade Range.

Stegner’s book was a powerful read for me, and he became one of my favorite writers.  In Angle of Repose,  the protagonist, Lyman, a writer confined to a wheelchair, had been recently been abandoned by his wife.  He was filled with bitterness and a sense of defeat.  After moving into his grandparents’ house, he decided to chronicle his grandparents’  early days in the western frontier.  As he read through his grandmother’s letters, he discovered much more about their marriage, struggles and difficulties than he anticipated. Through their story, he learned not only of their lives, but his own.

I sampled passages from several of the pages, in awe of Stegner’s command of language, his deep understanding of the challenges of early life in the  West, and the way in which he artfully moved from the struggles of the grandparents to his protagonist’s.  There were lessons in the book had real impact for me at the time,  and I had underlined passage after passage.

  • Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend…” 
  • Hope was always out ahead of fact, possibility obscured the outlines of reality…” 
  • We must be reconciled, for what we left behind us can never be ours again…”
  • She saw in his face he had contracted the incurable Western disease. He set his crosshairs on the snowpeaks of a vision.

It’s no surprise, perhaps, but as my shelving slowed and I paused to page through one book after another of the books I’d loved, I was reminded that reading, perhaps as much as writing, was not only an important part of my daily life, but of healing and happiness.

“Medicines and surgery may cure, but only reading and writing poetry can heal.”                    J. Arroyo, author

It’s not a novel concept (no pun intended).  The notion that books can make us emotionally, psychologically and even physically better goes back to the ancient world.  “The Reading Cure,” published in a 2008 issue of The Guardian reminds us that Apollo was not only the Greek god of poetry, but also of healing.  Aristotle believed literature had healing benefits and could be used to treat illness.  Hospitals or health sanctuaries in ancient Greece were typically situated next to theatres, most famously at Epidaurus, where dramatic performances were considered part of the cure.

One sheds one’s sicknesses in books– D. H. Lawrence

A few months ago, a friend sent me a link to a 2015 New Yorker Magazine article “Can Reading Make You Happier?” by Ceridwen Dovey.  Dovey explores the origins of Bibliotherapy, which is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “an interaction between the reader and certain literature which is useful in aiding personal adjustment.”  Bibliotherapy is a therapeutic practice, widely used in the U.K., that uses words to soothe the emotions and alter thoughts and to help people deal with psychological, social and emotional problems.   Covey notes that the Ancient Greeks inscribed a library entrance  in Thebes as a “healing place for the soul, noting that Shakespeare, in the play “Titus Andronicus,” encourages the audience to  “Come, and take choice of all my library, And so beguile thy sorrow …”

Bibliotherapy came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century. Sigmund Freud began using literature during psychoanalysis sessions, famously remarking, “Whenever I get somewhere, a poet has been there first.”   Following World War I, as traumatized soldiers returned home from the front, they were often prescribed a course of reading. Later in the century, bibliotherapy was also used in hospitals and libraries, and since, the practice has been utilized by psychologists, social and aged-care workers, and doctors as a viable mode of adjunct therapy.

You may be interested to know that there is scientific research that supports health benefits of reading, for example, Covey cites a 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology that showed when we read about an experience in a novel, we draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings.  And other studies suggest that people who read a lot of fiction tend to be better at empathizing with others.  At the very least, reading does boost your brain power, like a good jog exercises your cardiovascular system, and it can help you relate to others feelings, particularly if you read literary fiction.  Reading helps us relax, and reading before bed even helps us sleep.

But perhaps the most important thing reading does for us is in its capacity to open our eyes, minds and hearts to the larger world, to immerse ourselves a world beyond our everyday lives, and to find ourselves among the words another has written on a page–words that speak to what we are experiencing, that remind us of hope and healing.  What good literature can do and does do best, for so many of us, is touch our souls.

From Great Expectations I learned the power the stories we tell ourselves have to do either harm and good, to ourselves and to others; from Death of a Salesman I learned the dangers of a corrupt version of the American Dream; from Madame Bovary, I learned to embrace the real world rather than escaping into flights of fancy; from Gulliver’s Travels I learned the profound limitations of my own finite perspective; and from Jane Eyre I learned how to be myself. These weren’t mere intellectual or moral lessons, although they certainly may have begun as such. Rather, the stories from these books and so many others became part of my life story and then, gradually, part of my very soul. –Karen Swallow Prior, The Atlantic, 2013. 

Writing Suggestions:

  • Consider how reading has played a role in your life.
  • What role does reading play in your life?
  • What kind of books or literature do you most prefer? Why?
  • Has reading helped you during difficult periods in your life? How?
  • What are some of your most memorable or enduring books or poetry you’ve experienced? Why?
  • Describe a difficult time in your life and a book or poem which offered you some solace and insight.

 

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Now that spring has finally arrived, I’ve noticed a shift in my writing, one no doubt inspired by budding trees, flowers and sunshine.  It’s a sharp contrast to the writing I did during the winter, my mood dampened by grey days, cold and snow.  Life was too often defined by an aching knee, repeat doctor’s visits and antibiotics to treat a bad case of bronchitis.  My writing mirrored my mood, as grey as the days themselves, filled with repetitive themes and forced prose.  I wondered if I had become dependent on some new crisis to re-ignite my muse.  After several months of transition, change, and new medical challenges, I did not relish the idea of any kind of crisis, guilty of lackluster writing or not.

That’s the way writing often starts, a disaster or a catastrophe…by writing I rescue myself under all sorts of conditions…it relieves the feeling of distress.  –William Carlos Williams, physician & poet

But the thing is this: many great writers confirm that a crisis is often what triggers the initial desire to write.  Writing out of pain and suffering has provided inspiration for many of our works of great literature.  Novelists and poets have described their writing as a form of therapy, helping them heal from life’s traumatic events.  As Louise DeSalvo states in her book, Writing as a Way of Healing, those life crises have inspired many of our greatest cultural creations.  Author 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 he read authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene or William Styron, discovering powerful—and personal—themes of alienation or suffering in their work.  Fitzgerald memorably 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.

Just as a novelist turns his anxiety into a story in order to be able to control it to a degree, so a sick person can make a story, a narrative, out of his illness as a way to detoxify it.  –Anatole Broyard, in Intoxicated by My Illness

Serious illness, loss, or a cancer diagnosis are crises that also can trigger intense and abundant writing, resulting in books of poetry, like Karin Miller’s The Cancer Poetry Project or memoir, such as The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan, In-Between Days, by Teva Harrison, or Barbara Abercrombie’s, Writing Out the Storm.  As Abercrombie demonstrates in her memoir, “storm” is an apt metaphor for writing inspired by a personal crisis.   Your days are full of turbulence, ups, downs and strong emotions.  You rage, weep, and sometimes, you may pour your emotions on the page.  Writing may become the calm for some, the eye of a hurricane, and a refuge as the storm howls around you.  Your writing may be raw and emotional, but that is often the first and necessary step to move toward understanding and insight.

During an extended period of personal crisis and loss many years ago, I discovered a kind of refuge in filling the pages of my notebooks with my feelings of despair and grief.  The solace I discovered in writing ultimately led me to initiating my first workshop for cancer survivors nearly 18 years ago.

When we see our suffering as story, we are saved. –Anais Nin, novelist, 1903-1977

Yet just as the weather and seasons change, so does the intensity of a crisis.  Gradually, there are moments of relative peace, good days, even moments of hope as the worst of the storm passes and life becomes more bearable. You gradually move from the shock of diagnosis, anxiety of surgeries and chemotherapy and toward recovery.  Your upheaval and turmoil begin to lessen, and you slowly adjust to a new normal.  If you’ve been writing about your cancer experience, your prose likely reflects the shift,  something I witness during every writing workshop series I lead for cancer patients and survivors.  Other life stories begin to emerge, not only those of cancer.  Hope shines through some of the poetry or prose that the group members share aloud.  The tissues are used less frequently, and there is often shared laughter.  All these are signs of healing, an improved ability to cope and weather whatever storms cancer creates in your life.

Gradually too, I encourage writing from other chapters of the group members’ lives, because it’s important to remember cancer isn’t your whole life story–only a part of it. To continue to repetitively write one’s sorrow and grief can easily become little more than rumination, the replay of old questions and sorrows that do little to improve your mood, perspective or ability to cope.  While it’s true that to write, you must be willing to step into your shadows and confront the darkness, 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.

The real work of writing is to write under any sky, whether stormy or clear.  It’s how we capture the intricacy, the poetry, and stories our lives encompass.  It’s the work for everyone who wants to write for healing:  moving beyond the crisis and storm, 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?

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., was speaking at a local university.  I bought tickets to the reading, eager to hear him speak again as I had several years earlier.  I was glad I did.  Collins’ poetry and wry humor were good medicine for my sagging muse and the “stuckness” in my writing.  Toward the end of the evening, Collins took a few questions from the audience. Asked by someone where he found his inspiration for his poetry, he paused only a moment before responding.  He found his inspiration, he said, by by simply noticing what’s in front of him, then describing himself as a poet who simply “looks out the window.”  If you read any of Collins’ work, you’ll quickly discover the most ordinary thing, like Cheerios, a teenage friend or his dog, contain the seeds of a delightful poem.

The following morning, still inspired by Collins’ reading, I opened my notebook, gazed out the windows in our front room for several minutes before I wrote my first sentence:  “I wish I could write a poem like Billy Collins…”  It was enough.  The words began flowing freely, something, I realized, about being present and paying attention .  I remembered the wisdom in Naomi Shihab Nye’s delightful poem, “Valentine for Ernest Mann,” inspired by a request from a young man attending a poetry conference who asked her to write him a poem and send it to him.  Nye responed to his request in the beginning line, “You can’t order a poem like you order a taco / Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two…”  She then continued to describe the wonder of  poetry:

…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).

Cancer, other serious illnesses, trauma or loss  are shocks to our bodies and souls. When they happen, we need time to make sense of our emotions and come to terms with what life has presented to us.  Healing takes time; writing can help.  To move beyond the sorrow and pain, we must find a way to re-engage and  As we write, we begin to find new insights, capabilities we didn’t know we had, and move beyond our suffering.  What we have to do is live in a way that lets us find them. We learn to be present and grateful for the gifts of each new day and in doing so, we find glimmers of hope, happiness and of emotional healing.

Rita Dove, in her wonderful poem, “Dawn Revisited,” offers an invitation for us to awaken to the world and discover what it offers us:

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…

The whole sky is yours

to write on, blown open

to a blank page…

 

(From:  On the Bus with Rosa Parks, 1999)

Writing Suggestions:

The whole sky is yours / to write on…  It’s a great image, isn’t it?  Why not take a look out the window or go outside?  Open your eyes and notice how alive the world is with new possibility.  Afterwards, open your notebook to that blank page and begin with one thing you’ve noticed, one single thought or sentence.  Write out of your storm, or write of calm.  It doesn’t matter.  The whole sky is yours, whatever it holds.  Just write.

 

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“It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.”  ― Rainer Maria Rilke

According to the calendar springtime arrived two weeks ago.  But for those of us watching the temperature climb barely about freezing, the days of sunshine chilled by the last blasts of March wind, we’re still waiting for the springtime season begin in earnest.  Nevertheless, as I gaze out the windows to the trees nearby, there are some hopeful signs of “almost spring” in the emerging buds on their branches, and the snow has disappeared from the parks and gardens.  In mid-March, even though we still donned winter coats to go outside, we were cheered by the emergence of snow flowers (Galanthus) poking their heads through the lawn of a friend’s house–a hopeful sign of new life, new beginnings and the promise of Springtime near.

“To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring,” poet and philosopher George Santayana wrote. Yet after Winter’s dark mornings, cold and inclement weather, springtime seems to enliven our senses and signal seasonal change in its newness, described by e.e. cummings  as a time “when the world is mud-luscious,” and “puddle-wonderful.”  Or, as Billy Collins imagined, “a spring day so perfect, so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze that it made you want to throw open all the windows in the house…”

“Nothing is so beautiful as Spring,” Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem, “Spring,” begins.  I love the spring, and as it returns, I recall my childhood and the exhilaration of the season. Springtime was joyous, filled with sounds of laughter and excited calls to neighborhood playmates,  eager to race outdoors and explore the fields and hills behind our houses. The world was full of promise:  new grass to romp through, the  fields and hills dotted with wildflowers.  We cast off winter coats for lighter sweaters, filled our afternoons and weekends with roller skating on sidewalks, climbing beneath barbed wire fences to re-discover favorite hiding places, imagining ourselves as great adventurers and discoverers of new lands, and returning home at dinnertime with flushed cheeks and fists full of yellow poppies and purple lupine for our mothers.  Our worlds were alive with promise.

“I can still bring into my body the joy I felt at seeing the first trillium of spring, which seemed to be telling me, “Never give up hope, spring will come.” 
― Jessica SternDenial: A Memoir of Terror (2010)

 It’s little wonder that Springtime is intricately intertwined with hope, renewal, a sense of possibility and new beginnings, according to Edward F. Mackey, director of the Mind-Body Institute of Applied Psychophysiology at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.  Norman Cousins, famous for using laughter to help cure himself from a crippling connective tissue disease, wrote that “hope may be our best medicine, the hidden ingredient in any prescription and a physician’s secret weapon (Head First: The Biology of Hope and the Healing Power of the Human Spirit, 1990).  A number of experts agree, arguing that hope may have a direct influence on the body’s chemical milieu and because of that, the power to stave off illness.

Anthony Scioli, PhD, co-author with Henry Biller of Hope in the Age of Anxiety (2009), explored some of the linkages between Springtime, hope and health in a 2012 Psychology Today article.  Springtime brings more sunshine, and the sunlight helps the body produce greater amounts of serotonin, an important chemical and neurotransmitter, and helps regulate important functions such as mood, appetite, digestion, sleep, and memory.  Low serotonin, in our bodies, is linked to depression.  He also cited a survey of oncologists, the majority of whom cited hope as the primary psychological factor impacting mortality.  Scioli stated that “while anecdotes outnumber rigorous empirical studies, there is enough evidence to suggest that a hopeful attitude has a real and measurable impact on health.”

The days here in Toronto are still chilly, but the buds on the trees and the increase in sunny days have already lifted my spirits.  Soon the tulips and crocus will bloom, the trees will bear new leaves, the “just-spring” color of green, and we’ll hear children shouting to one another as they play in the park across the street.  As if reinvigorated by the subtle shifts in the weather, the dogs romping about madly in the park each morning, as the new season tiptoes in and banishes winter from our days.

Hope, new life and return of Springtime are beautifully intertwined in Barbara Crooker’s poem, “For a Friend Lying in Intensive Care Waiting for Her White Blood Cells to Rejuvenate After a Bone Marrow Transplant:”

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…

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

     and millions of small green hands applauding your return.

(In:  The Cancer Poetry Project, V. 1, 2001)

 

 Writing Suggestions:

Reflect on springtime.  Do you notice changes in your energy, mood or outlook?  Do you feel more hopeful about life in general?  Explore the impact of spring on your mood and energy.

Is Spring a time of healing and of hope?  Explore the question.

What memories of springtime do you hold dear?  Write about a springtime in your childhood.  Capture the feelings, the sounds and sights of spring as vividly as you can.

Why not do as Georgia O’Keefe suggested:   hold a flower in your hand and let it become your world for a moment.  Perhaps you’ll find a poem waiting there.

Write about spring, wherever it takes you.

 

 

 

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This is not a dress rehearsal…today is the only guarantee that you get… think of life as a terminal illness, because if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived.–Anna Quindlen

For much of the past month, I accomplished little, succumbing to a nasty case of bronchitis that left me hacking and wheezing for nearly a full month.  Boredom was my companion after the first several days of my illness.  I didn’t feel well enough to do much except read or nap.  The regimen of new physio-therapy exercises for a case of Achilles tendonitis quickly fell by the wayside, and classes, social events and appointments were all canceled, rescheduled and canceled again as my illness lingered.  Then it changed.  Abruptly.

I finally recovered, and eager to resume a life, I’ve quickly jumped on the treadmill again–but not, unfortunately, the one at the gym.  It’s the other treadmill, the full of appointments, lists of “to dos”, deadlines and making up for the activities lost during a month of illness. Without realizing it, I’ve begun to feel as if I’m running as fast as I can from one thing to another, but there’s little to show for it at the end of the day.

My online calendar has become an annoyance of sorts.  While I’m grateful it issues daily reminders of whatever I’ve planned, committed to, or have to complete, it seems as if it’s gone from being a benign virtual presence in my life to a relentless taskmaster.  But it’s no one’s fault but my own.  The truth is, I’m over optimistic about my time, and routinely pack too much into my days.  When this happens, I veer into negligence:  not noticing, not being present and enjoying the little moments in my daily life.

It’s nothing, of course, for the time taken up by a cancer diagnosis and the way in which it dominates every waking moment–even one’s dreams.  Time seems interminable as you wait for test results; there’s the time it takes for doctors’ appointments, getting referrals to the necessary specialists, preparing for and recovering from surgeries, chemotherapy, and a host of other demands on your time and energy that extends well beyond one’s initial treatment.  Life, as you once knew it, disappears, and your time, it seems, is dominated by the demands of living with cancer.  Months pass by; you barely notice anything around you for weeks at a time, until, as Barbara Crooker describes, “in the middle/of a life that’s…complicated…/struggling for balance, juggling time…”

One day you look out the window,
green summer, the next, and the leaves have already fallen,
and a grey sky lowers the horizon…

Each day, we must learn
again how to love, between morning’s quick coffee

and evening’s slow return. Steam from a pot of soup rises,
mixing with the yeasty smell of baking bread.

(From:  “In the Middle,” In:  Yarrow, 2005)

Each day we must learn…there’s more to that phrase than we think.  Whether we’re choosing to fill our lives with busy-ness or forced to fill it with the details of cancer treatment and recovery, we slip into habits, feelings that we’re constantly “running out of time,” and forgetting to pay more attention to how we use the time we have each day.  To step off the treadmill suddenly might send us flying;  the landing would be abrupt and hard.  If we can learn to slow the speed gradually, however, take a few deep breaths and pay attention to the world around us, the rewards are great.  The re-learning, though, takes time and attention.

We are what we repeatedly do, Aristotle once proclaimed.  I came across this quote in a 2014 post from Brain Pickings Weekly that explored how long it takes for us to form new habits.  If Aristotle is right, and I continue to constantly overbook my life, building internal pressure and stress, do I become that harried, rush-rush, stressed person?  Apparently so.  William James, one of our first psychologists, agreed, stating:  Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to here conduct while in the plastic state.  For most of us, our “plasticity” isn’t as great as it was in our youth, but change is still possible, if we’re serious about slowing down, noticing life around us, and paying attention.  It takes more than just resolving to say “No” to an overscheduled self.

According to the article I read in Brain Pickings Weekly,  it takes more than resolve for  a new habit to take root in a person.  According to a study conducted at University College in London, it takes 66 days of consistent behavior before a habit is formed, and in cases of well entrenched and complex behaviors like my tendency to constantly overbook my time, it could well take much longer!

I’ve often written about paying attention, the act of being fully present to our outer and inner worlds.  It is the writer’s work, yet even though I consciously try to pay attention to life around me, I can get pulled in a dozen different directions before I realize it.  I’ve gotten better about this in the past few years, but I often have to remind myself to quiet my mind, notice and be attentive to the gifts life offers.  It’s harder than we think to slow down and pay attention when we’re so used to the busy-ness in modern day life.

Ted Kooser, former poet laureate and a cancer survivor, knows even a poet can be distracted by life’s demands and by cancer.   Winter Morning Walks:  One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison, published in  2001was created from postcards Kooser began writing and sending to his friend as he recovered from cancer surgery and treatment.  He described how the book came to be in the preface:

“In the autumn of 1968, during my recovery from surgery and radiation for cancer, I began taking a two-mile walk each morning…hiking in the isolated country roads near where I live…During the previous summer, depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing…  One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem.  Soon I was writing every day…

The poems reveal a touching portrayal of a man recovering from the ravages of illness and treatment, whose spirit and sensibilities were reawakened in his habit of making time for morning walks and once again, noticing the life around him, slowing himself and time down to take pleasure in the beauty of the natural world.  Cancer is mentioned only briefly, for example:

…filling my lungs with hope

on this, my granddaughter’s

birthday, her first, and the day

of my quarterly cancer tests.

 

Instead, Kooser nourishes his spirit and his poetry by slowing down and paying attention to the small moments of beauty and delight in nature.  The final poem in the book celebrates the healing that has come with his habit of walking, slowing down, and paying attention, capturing those small moments in poetry.  In his final poem in the book, Kooser writes:

How important it must be

to someone

that I am alive, and walking,

and that I have written

these poems.

This morning the sun stood

right at the end of the road

and waited for me.

Kooser’s poetry inspired me to initiate a different habit several years ago.  While my days can still become exercises in racing from one thing to the next, I very seldom miss taking time in the early morning to sit in quiet and write, usually beginning with one observation of a single moment in nature.  It helps to quiet my mind when life feels lopsided and too demanding, and more importantly, it helps me remember gratitude and the importance of paying attention.

Where has the time gone?  It’s a question any of us may find ourselves much too frequently.  Think about what time can offer to us if we truly pay attention, because, as William Stafford reminded us:

Time wants to show you a different country.  It’s the one
that your life conceals, the one waiting outside
when curtains are drawn, the one Grandmother hinted at
in her crochet design, the one almost found
over at the edge of the music, after the sermon…

Time offers this gift in its millions of ways,
turning the world, moving the air, calling,
every morning, “Here, take it, it’s yours.”

(From: “The Gift,” by William Stafford, In:The Way It Is, Graywolf Press, 1999)

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about time: What are you doing with yours?
  • What demands do you encounter daily on your time?
  • Explore how time seems to run ahead of you, how you may be squandering it–
  • Or how you have learned to slow down and make your time each day more fulfilling or meaningful.
  • What practices do you find helpful to making time for yourself?

 

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