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Archive for the ‘poetry and healing’ Category

It’s been over two weeks since the expressive writing program at Scripps Green Cancer Center came to a close, a program I have led for nearly eleven years.  As has been the tradition of our final session of every series, we spent the first half of the meeting working in silence, each of us engaged in creating a prayer stick, an activity inspired by a Native American tradition most often associated with the rituals and healing ceremonies of the Southwest tribes.  For the conclusion of a writing series, where each person’s experience of cancer and treatment has been so honestly explored and shared in their writing, the making of prayer sticks has proved to be deeply satisfying and meaningful conclusion to the many weeks of writing together.

For the task, each group member brought a tree branch they’d chosen, typically about 14 – 18 inches in length.  For the first hour, we focused on the creation of our prayer sticks, decorating and imbuing them with messages, prayers or hopes for healing for ourselves, loved ones or friends.  Once the prayer stick was completed, I invited the group to write about it—what their process was like and what had gone into its creation.  Without exception, the sharing of the sticks and the stories behind them were inspiring and truly meaningful for everyone.

As  always, I also made a prayer stick  with the group.  As I  began, I held  the faces of two dear friends in my mind, each with terminal cancer.  I began wrapping the stick, focused on the healing, courage and strength needed by each in their journey.  But soon, a sea of faces rose and occupied my thoughts as I worked.  I recalled so many of the writers in groups I’ve led the past sixteen years, here and elsewhere.  I especially remembered those who  lost their lives to cancer, fought valiantly and had, by sharing themselves so deeply and honesty,  touched my life and inspired me.

I continued to wrap my stick in many colors of yarn, each for those whose faces and stories still reside in my heart.  When it was my turn  to talk about creating my prayer stick, I could barely speak.  My eyes filled with tears, and I felt a rush of strong emotions, all triggered by  remembrances and my leave-taking as I depart from San Diego in a few weeks.  I felt sadness, yes, but gratitude far outweighed the sorrow.  As we rose to join hands in our closing circle and offered each other our hopes for healing,  I was acutely aware of how much I would miss each person and the stories written in our Monday morning sessions.  Yet I was gratified to know that many of them will continue to interact with and support one another—testimony to the power of community created by shared story.  I drove home later thinking how  very honored and grateful I have been to share in so many individuals’ cancer journeys.

As our final session came to a close, we read portions of “The Navajo Night Chant,” one of many Native American ceremonial chants and an important part of a healing ceremony intended to help cure those suffering from illnesses.  Here is a sample of its many stanzas:

An offering I make.

Restore my feet for me.
Restore my legs for me.
Restore my body for me.
Restore my mind for me.
Restore my voice for me…

May it be beautiful before me.
May it be beautiful behind me.
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beautiful above me.
May it be beautiful all around me…

“The Night Chant” takes on personal meaning for everyone in the writing group as we recite the stanzas and  offer one another a wish for strength, hope and healing.  Again, I choked up as I recited the last stanza to the group, which ends  with the words, “in beauty it is finished.”

Yet I–and the group members–still had something to be completed in the weeks following  our final session.  One of the important aspects of making a prayer stick is how one “releases” the prayers and hopes that are part of its creation.  For the prayers to be released, the stick must be returned to Nature, whether by wind, fire, water, or earth.  This past week, one group member shared a photograph of her prayer stick, wedged in a rock near Sedona, AZ.   It was a beautiful image and reminded me I had yet to give my prayer stick back to Nature.  Later that afternoon,  I walked to the edge of our back garden, a steep slope, that at the top offers a constant breeze and a view of the canyon below, a perfect place for my prayer stick.  I now see it from my office window, nestled in the branches of a large succulent,  feathers and yarn tassles waving in the breeze, a small Japanese chime ringing nearby.  As I positioned the prayer stick in the tree, I used the words of poet John O’Donohue as a kind of blessing, then asked the wind to carry the prayers and thoughts it contained to the the universe.   As small as this little ritual was, it was pause for thought, and a few moments of silence, serving as a  reminder of how these small rituals can be both meaningful and comforting—a way to express what’s in our hearts and minds that we sometimes have difficulty saying to those we care most about.

Today is another day of celebration and ritual for those who celebrate Easter and springtime, a time of hope, prayers and blessings.  For those of you reading this post, may you also find solace and inspiration from Nature, the Native traditions that have preceded us, the fresh signs of spring.  Perhaps in a world that often weighs us down with its unrest, violence and fear, these small rituals can help us find our footing and hope when we most need it.  On this springtime Sunday,  I offer you O’Donohue’s poem, “A Morning Offering.”   May you take comfort and meaning from his words as I have done.

 

A Morning Offering
by John O’Donohue

I bless the night that nourished my heart
To set the ghosts of longing free
Into the flow and figure of dream
That went to harvest from the dark
Bread for the hunger no one sees.

All that is eternal in me
Welcome the wonder of this day,
The field of brightness it creates
Offering time for each thing
To arise and illuminate.

I place on the altar of dawn:
The quiet loyalty of breath,
The tent of thought where I shelter,
Wave of desire I am shore to
And all beauty drawn to the eye.

May my mind come alive today
To the invisible geography
That invites me to new frontiers,
To break the dead shell of yesterdays,
To risk being disturbed and changed.

May I have the courage today
To live the life that I would love,
To postpone my dream no longer
But do at last what I came here for
And waste my heart on fear no more.

(From: To Bless the Space Between UsA  Book of Blessings, 2008)

Writing Suggestion:

What small rituals have helped you navigate the cancer journey?  Why are they important to you?  Tell the story behind the ritual–how you discovered it, made it your own, what purpose it serves.

 

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In first grade Mrs. Lohr

said my purple teepee

wasn’t realistic enough,

that purple was no color

for a tent,

that purple was a color

for people who died,

that my drawing wasn’t 

good enough

to hang with the others…

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

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

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

I walked back to my seat

counting the swish swish swishes

of my baggy corduroy trousers.

With a black crayon

nightfall came

to my purple tent

in the middle

of an afternoon…

 

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

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

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

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

(From: Five Stages of Grief, 1978)

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

…Talk polite
Appropriate
Real nice

…Hold still
Hold it back
Hold it in

…Close-mouthed
Muzzled
Gagged
Garbled
Jammed up…

Shut-down

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

(From Tap Dancing for Big Mom, 1996)

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

In second grade Mr. Barta

said draw anything;

he didn’t care what.

I left my paper blank

and when he came around

to my desk

my heart beat like a tom tom.

He touched my head

with his big hand

and in a soft voice said

the snowfall

how clean

and white 

and beautiful

 

Writing Suggestions:

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

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

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We’ve been lucky here in San Diego.  After a deluge of winter rainstorms, the sun has finally become a regular presence in the days, so much so, that when I awakened to a foggy morning, the canyon shrouded in a fine mist, I felt my mood plummet—like it does, sometimes, when I eye the aging face (one that apparently belongs to me) in the mirror.  Grey, in those moments, is the color of blah, of aging, of the mood we call the “blues,” when in fact, it’s all about grey.

Grey also was on my mind yesterday.  As I cleaned out my office closet, I inadvertently spilled a box of crayons onto the floor, all fifty -two of them.   I knelt to pick them up and replace each in the box, thinking, as I did, about my grandchildren and how their paintings are filled with bold and vivid colors.  As I picked up the grey crayon I remembered a poem written by a third year student in a writing workshop I led for Stanford Medical School last year.  Grey–the same color older women do their best to avoid, the color I associate with long, grey Nova Scotia winters.

Grey, as Sarah defined it, is full of life.  Here is an excerpt from the poem she wrote and read aloud that Saturday afternoon:

 Grey is the color of “yes, life has been here,”

and “don’t you know I have a story to tell?”

Grey is the color of pregnant clouds,

waiting to gift us with all they’ve held up inside…

 

White is before, but give me the after

Give me the ninety-year-old under her old grey comforter.

Has she lived? Well, tell me the color of her soul.

Show me the spots of grey, and tell me how you’ve lived,

the story printed dark and true in the deepest, most imperfect,

ugliest and sweetest shade.

 

(From “Grey,” by Sarah Schlegel, April, 2016)

Colors, as we know, have strong emotional associations.  Some colors elicit almost universal meaning, for example, the blue spectrum can communicate calm, but also  sadness.  Red, by contrast, expresses warmth, but also anger.  Color is often found in the lyrics of popular songs, for example, “Red Dirt Girl,” “San Francisco Bay Blues,” “Green, Green Grass of Home,” or “Say it Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud.”  Whether a poem, love song, the hard beat of rap, or smoky voice of a jazz singer, the mention of a color immediately evokes feelings, memories or a mood.

Humans make all sorts of color choices, every day. We color-code our children’s genders from birth—blue caps for boys and pink caps for girls in the hospital nursery—and paint our bedrooms sea foam green and lemon meringue yellow for serenity. We are intimately familiar with Coca-Cola’s red script, McDonald’s golden arches, and Starbucks’ green mermaid. Red means “stop” and green means “go” in contexts far away from the traffic light—using the colors on food labels has been shown to lead people to make healthier choices. This just goes to show how deeply colors can become lodged in our mind.  (“How Color Shapes our Lives,” by Elijah Wolfson, The Atlantic, Jan. 29,2014)

But for each of us, some colors  have negative or unwarranted associations.  (I can’t look at a bottle of the pinkish-orange French dressing on grocery shelves without remember the bicycle accident and severe concussion I suffered in sixth grade).  And in the current climate of politics with issues of cultural differences and diversity are dominating the news, another color, “brown,” may have less than positive connotations for some individuals.  In the children’s book, Tan to Tamarind:  Poems about the Color Brown (2009) by Malathi Iyengar and Jamel Akib, young readers are asked, “when you look in the mirror, what do you see?” and in a series of poems, are offered fresh and enchanting ways to think about being brown and the color brown, just as Sarah’s poem about the color grey did for me.  Here are a few of Iyengar’s  images evoked by the color brown.

A mug of hot chocolate,

smooth and creamy brown…

 

Milk-tea brown

   Spicy sweet masala tea brown

 

Reddish brown mountains…

Strong, unyielding brown

Warm, abiding brown

 

Brown leaves crunch and

crackle under our shoes in fall

Acorns in October…

 

Color also plays a role in cancer,  in cultural differences and treatment as well as in the writing by cancer patients and survivors.  A 2009 article, “The Many Shades of Survivorship,” by Kathy Latour, appearing in Cure Today, December 2009, explored the issues of cultural differences in cancer care and treatment, including lack of healthcare access, early diagnosis and individualized treatment.

Have a read-through the two volumes of The Cancer Poetry Project, one of my favorite anthologies edited by Karin Miller, reveals that color is often used to explore the complex emotions of cancer and, sometimes, in unexpected ways, for example, in “Bi, Bye-Bye, Buy,” by Mary Milton, who infuses her poem with humor and color, inspired after a friend advised her “Don’t start buying stuff to compensate” as she prepared for her mastectomies.   She describes her purchase:

…a sheet of bed sheets dusty coral
so blood stains won’t show much…
and shirts that open in front
one short-sleeved white
bad choice of color but I liked
its spirited portrayal of zebras
galloping through ferns
and gold paint splats
Besides it was on sale…

(in: Volume One, 2001)

People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and its ends, but to me it’s quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations, with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spat blues. Murky darknesses.  (Marcus Zuzak, The Book Thief, 2005)

Writing Suggestions:

How does color affect or inspire you–whether in mood, belongings, cancer or skin color?  This week, explore colors in your life.

  • If you are person of color, write ways in which you have experienced any differences in treatment or care.
  • If you could describe cancer in color, what would it be like?
  • What colors hold the most emotion for you? Describe them.
  • Think of your favorite color. Step outside and find five to ten examples of that color in nature.  and try incorporating those images in a poem.
  • Here’s an exercise we’ve done in my cancer writing workshops: Draw, paint or paste colors on a blank page, one that symbolizes your feelings—whether fear, anger, a punch to the gut, desolation, boredom, or even hope.  Then brainstorm the words and images that come to mind before writing.   Write for twenty minutes—longer if you wish.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Caught off guard in the midst of my otherwise life,

Apocalypse entered and through me from the highest rooftop.

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

(K.M., 2013)

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

In the white office

oncologist in white coat

I brace for the wave

(V.S., 2014)

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

We have entered the country of Cancer

My body and I…

A foreign country

Unmapped

Unknown…

(J.E., 2010)

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

Cancer

Cancer

Cancer

Can Sir!

I Can Sir!

Yes I will heal it.  I can Sir!

Yes, I will survive it.  I can Sir!

(J. N, 2016)

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

Some cancers arrive with fanfare,

trumpets, an engraved invitation…

But some cancers know how to hide.

They defy the eye, the scope, the scan.

They are not the usual suspects…

(K. M., 2013)

 

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

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

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

If cancer is like a bird falling from the sky

Then cancer craves the immediate warmth of a gentle cupped hand

If cancer is a tremendous energy and force

That comes in the winter of our lives

Only to disappear after leaving its mark

Stimulating new growth

And hope

As we fight for Spring.

(T.E., 2014)

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

Writing Suggestions:

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

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

I 

Among twenty snowy mountains,   

The only moving thing   

Was the eye of the blackbird.   

 

II 

I was of three minds,   

Like a tree   

In which there are three blackbirds.   

 

III 

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.   

It was a small part of the pantomime.   

 

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

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

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

Ocean, and all the living things that dwell

Within the daedal earth; lightning, and rain,

Earthquake and fiery flood, and hurricane…

 

–From “Mont Blanc,” by Percy Blythe Shelley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Suggestion:

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

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Inside every patient, there’s a poet trying to get out.—Anatole Broyard, 1990

Poetry and medicine share a long history, dating back to the Greek god Apollo, who was responsible for both healing and poetry.  Today, The use of metaphor, a poetic tool and figure of speech comparing two things seemingly unrelated, is common not only in poetry, but illness and everyday life.  Consider the sports talk that dominates this Super Bowl Sunday, one example of how metaphors permeate our everyday lives, in the language we use and in the way they influence our thoughts and actions.  For example, we use sports metaphors almost unconsciously to describe experiences in our daily life.  In the workplace, you strive to be  a “team player” or be encouraged to “run with a good idea.”  In budding romance, a boy might ” “make a pass at someone,” or in an emotional argument between two people, one is told he or she is “way out of bounds.”

There’s little doubt that our metaphors are visual and illustrative, but they also run the risk of creating stereotypes or confusion, even becoming clichés.   Some, like sports and military metaphors are so common in our daily language, they are used routinely to describe medical experience.  In “The Trouble with Medicines’ Metaphors,” (The Atlantic, August, 2014)  author Dhruv Khullar, MD, wrote:

The words we choose to describe illness are powerful. They carry weight and valence, creating the milieu in which goals of care are discussed and treatment plans designed. In medicine, the use of metaphor is pervasive. Antibiotics clog up bacterial machinery by disrupting the supply chain. Diabetes coats red blood cells with sugar until they’re little glazed donuts. Life with chronic disease is a marathon, not a sprint, with bumps on the road and frequent detours...  Military metaphors are among the oldest in medicine and they remain among the most common. Long before Louis Pasteur deployed imagery of invaders to explain germ theory in the 1860s, John Donne ruminated  on the “miserable condition of man,” describing illness as a “siege…a rebellious heat, [that] will blow up the heart, like a Myne” and a “Canon [that] batters all, overthrowes all, demolishes all…destroyes us in an instant.”

As Khullar points out, “…we’ve internalized these metaphors, so much so that we often may not recognize how they influence us.”  Yet metaphors help us understand one another.  They offer a way to make sense of the emotional chaos accompanying a cancer diagnosis and communicate our feelings to others. Khuller referred to a 2010 study that found physicians use metaphors in nearly two-thirds of their conversations with patients with serious illness.  “Physicians who used more metaphors were seen as better communicators. Patients reported less trouble understanding them, and felt as though their doctor made sure they understood their conditions.”

Metaphors get our attention.  They’re visual, sometimes visceral and offer us a shorthand route to emotions and a vivid way to communicate and understand the experience of illness.  They help the listener or reader understand and appreciate what we are experiencing.

Consider the poem, “The Ship Pounding,” by former poet laureate, Donald Hall.  He offers us a glimpse into the final months of poet Jane Kenyon (his wife) and her struggle with leukemia through metaphor, creating a visual image of a ship filled with passengers, heaving in rough waters:

Each morning I made my way   

among gangways, elevators,   

and nurses’ pods to Jane’s room   

to interrogate the grave helpers   

who tended her through the night   

while the ship’s massive engines   

kept its propellers turning…

At first, the narrator is hopeful:

The passengers on this voyage   

wore masks or cannulae

or dangled devices that dripped   

chemicals into their wrists.   

I believed that the ship

traveled to a harbor

of breakfast, work, and love.   

But Kenyon’s illness cannot be cured, evident in the final lines, as the narrator waits to hear his wife call and knows he must be ready to:

… make the agitated

drive to Emergency again

for readmission to the huge

vessel that heaves water month   

after month, without leaving   

port, without moving a knot,   

without arrival or destination,   

its great engines pounding.

 

(From “The Ship Pounding,” In Without, 1998))

Hall has given us a powerful image in his metaphor, and by comparing one thing to another, we see and understand it conceptually and emotionally.

When Anatole Broyard, whose book, Intoxicated by My Illness and Other Writings on Life and Death (1993), his experience of terminal prostate cancer, wrote:  Always in emergencies we invent narratives. . . Metaphor was one of my symptoms.  I saw my illness as a visit to a disturbed country. . . I imagined it as a love affair with a demented woman who demanded things I had never done before. . .   When the cancer threatened my sexuality, my mind became immediately erect. 

Arthur Frank, sociologist and author of At the Will of the Body:  Reflections on Illness (1991), a memoir of his experiences of cancer and heart attack, describes his illness and recovery as a “marathon.”  Not surprisingly, Frank is a runner, and the physical and mental demands of the marathon were apt comparisons to describe his experiences of illness.

Kat Duff, diagnosed with chronic fatigue and immune system dysfunction syndrome, wrote The Alchemy of Illness, (1993) exploring illness narratives as a way to gain insight into the nature of illness.   She compared her illness to a landscape, a wilderness, or coral reef, and health as an adventurous voyage through it.

Macklin Smith, diagnosed with leukemia, compares the hospital to a prison in his poem, “Independence:”

Even incarcerated men and women can achieve some independence
Through their choice of TV programming, wardrobes, even e-mail,
Depending on the warden’s policy and type of prison,
Although in the super-max federal system they cannot choose
Any of these things: they’re in solitary 23 hours a day, strip searched
prior to their hour of exercise, and never go outside, no
window, and they’re under artificial lighting night and day…

(In:  Transplant, 2002).

These are only a few examples of the metaphors others have used to describe and communicate their experience of illness, but, as Anatole Broyard reminds us, metaphors do not belong solely to the world of poetry and literature, rather,  “Metaphors may be as necessary to illness as they are to literature, as comforting to the patient as his own bathrobe and slippers.”

Writing Suggestion:

  • This week, explore the metaphors you use to describe your cancer experience—or any other difficult and painful chapter of life. What images do our metaphors convey?
  • Begin with a phrase such as “Cancer is a…” or “illness is like a…” and finish the thought, noting what image or word emerges.  Remember, write quickly, without editing.  Set the timer for five or ten minutes and keep your pen (or fingers) moving.
  • Once you’ve finished, read over what you’ve written.   What surprises you?  Do you discover any unexpected metaphors?  How do they help to describe and explain your experience of illness or hardship? Perhaps your metaphors can inspire a poem or a story that describes your experience of illness or hardship in greater detail.

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My husband and I spent our Thanksgiving holidays with friends—sharing meals and conversation on Thanksgiving Day, and on Black Friday, ignoring shopping centers to share, again, another meal with our neighborhood friends.  I was grateful for the company, sharing the holiday, and the fact we weren’t caught in the crush of people traveling by air or automobile for the holiday weekend.  Yet there was some turbulence amid the warmth of the holiday:  the inevitable discussions, often heated, over the outcome of the presidential election.  More than once, I excused myself from an emotional discussion to seek respite from all things political in an effort to retain the warmth and gratitude of a Thanksgiving celebration.

I would settle now for just one perfect day
anywhere at all, a day without
mosquitoes, or traffic, or newspapers
with their headlines.

A day without any kind of turbulence—…

(From:  “Three Perfect Days,” by Linda Pastan, in:  Traveling Light, 2011)

Yesterday, a winter’s storm moved into our area—ominous clouds preceding the wind and sheets of rain.  We don’t get much “weather” in this part of the country, and in a place increasingly arid from years of drought, rain is always welcome, but the gusty winds that toppled potted plants on our deck—hardly comparable to the hurricanes and typhoons other parts of the world experience—felt like an apt metaphor for the turbulence that permeated emotions during the election and in its aftermath.  Yet so dominant is our national discussion, it’s difficult to remember that turbulence is the current state of much of the world as unrest, suffering and devastation affect so many lives.

Don´t know why
There´s no sun up in the sky
Stormy weather…

Gloom and misery everywhere
Stormy weather, stormy weather
And I just can get my poor self together
Oh, I´m weary all of the time
The time, so weary all of the time

(“Stormy Weather,” lyrics by Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler, 1933)

Turbulence:   storms, upsetting events, unrest, conflict, intense emotion.  It’s a term used often to describe the upsetting or unexpected events of our lives and our world.  Google “storms,” “turbulence,” or “cancer,” and you’ll find more than a few blog posts, book titles and articles referring to turbulence written by those who have experienced serious and debilitating life events.

I’ve experienced turbulent emotions in past weeks, but the election has been only a part of my unsettled feelings.  Several weeks ago, a very dear friend was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, and earlier this month, another friend learned he has lymphoma—a friend who once gave me extraordinary support after the sudden death of my first husband.  Yet another friend wrote as her husband was sent to emergency following heart surgery, and I hoped and prayed he would be all right. (Happily, he’s back home and recovering).  Yesterday I had an appointment with my optometrist, and learned she was taking  a leave of absence.  When I expressed surprised, she told me she had been diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer and soon will undergo surgery and chemotherapy.

I returned home once again with a heavy heart.  For the many years I’ve been leading writing groups for cancer patients and survivors, the news that yet another friend or colleague has become a cancer patient never gets “routine.”  I felt as unsettled as the weather outside, remembering that anytime anyone hears those dreaded words, “you have cancer, “it’s as if a fierce storm has suddenly upheaved your life.

In the eye of the night I lie awake,

half-afraid, half in awe of the wind

penetrating every crack in my being.

I think of my brother and his wife

in the next town downwind,

open-eyed and clinging to each other

as the wind that mocks everything

to which we think we’re anchored

roars through our lives…

 

(“Windstorm,” by Larry Schug, in The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. 1, 2001)

How do you learn to navigate through the turbulence of daily life, much less having your life turned upside down as if struck by a tornado or hurricane?  It’s something I often ask the men and women in my writing groups.  The initial shock and disbelief are common, but gradually, most everyone finds their way of coping and riding out the storm.  The writing group, for those who attend, is one of the activities that helps them cope, but there are many others that are also helpful, for example, meditation, therapy groups, yoga, expressive art, gardening, the support of loved ones, being in nature, or prayer, all ways that can help you regain a greater sense of calm and navigate the rough waters of cancer treatment and recovery more successfully.

Writing has been an important life line for me throughout the stormy periods of life.  It offers me the safety to write out of strong emotion, make sense of what has happened and gradually, write my way into understanding and healing.  Writing has always helped me to navigate through upsetting life events that threatened to leave me adrift in rough waters.

Whether nonfiction, poetry or fiction writing is, for many, a way of making sense of life.  Commenting on  her debut novel, Eye of the Storm (2013), Irish author Julie McCoy said, “Writing has always been this for me: peeling back the visible layer to see the much more interesting and meaningful stuff underneath. But more than that, it is a coping mechanism, a way of setting this overwhelming world straight on a page, a way of dissecting tragedy, love, life and trying to make sense of it all.” (Posted on www.Writing.ie, 2013)

Barbara Abercrombie, breast cancer survivor and author of Writing Out the Storm:  Reading and Writing Your Way Through Serious Illness or Injury (2002), got the idea for her book from teaching a writing workshop for cancer survivors and caregivers at the Wellness Community in Los Angeles.  As she notes in her introduction, she quickly realized a traditional, genre-oriented workshop was not what the participants were looking for, but rather, a way to deal with a life-threatening illness through writing…”as a tool for finding voice in a situation that leaves you feeling as if you have no control, no voice…”

It’s why writing can be one way, a powerful way, to help you navigate through the storms and emotional turbulence of life’s difficult chapters.  As novelist Alice Hoffman so eloquently expressed in her essay, “Sustained by Fiction while Facing Life’s Facts (New York Times, August 2000):

An insightful, experienced oncologist told me that 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 laterWhat I was looking for during 10 months of chemotherapy and radiation was a way to make sense of sorrow and loss… Once I got to my desk, once I started writing, I still believed anything was possible.  ( New York Times, August, 2000)

Writing Suggestion:

Coping, setting the world straight on a page, making sense of it–it’s why writing can be such a powerful way to help you cope with the stormy periods of life, whether cancer, other emotional or physical hardship, or loss.  This week, write about one of those turbulent chapters you’ve experienced.  What was the event?  Describe how it felt or what happened.  What helped you navigate through it all?

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