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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But little by little,

…as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world…

(From:  “The Journey,” by Mary Oliver, in Dreamwork, 1986)

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

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

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

Writing Suggestions:

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

 

 

 

 

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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, 2007

I’ve been asking myself how we come to terms with the impermanence of life? How it constantly shifts and changes?  How do we come to terms with our own inevitable mortality or with the sudden and inexplicable losses suffered in a mass shooting, or the natural disasters of hurricanes and wildfires?

It’s difficult for me to begin this post this week, to find the words that will capture the thoughts and emotions triggered by the enormous losses of human lives, homes and belongings in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, three powerful hurricanes, and the wildfires raging in California.  This morning I learned that two of our friends lost their family home and all their belongings in the wine country wildfires.  Last week, I received the news of two dear friends diagnosed with cancer, and one of them metastatic.  The news shook me out of my daily zone of comfort and small, everyday worries, and the next day, the poem, “Elegy,” by Linda Pastan, appeared in my inbox–a daily “gift” from The Writers’ Almanac.

Our final dogwood leans
over the forest floor

offering berries
to the birds, the squirrels.

It’s a relic

of the days when dogwoods

flourished…

 

When I took for granted
that the world would remain

as it was, and I
would remain with it.

(From:  “Elegy” by Linda Pastan from Insomnia: Poems. © 2015)

Life has its seasons, ones we know well and expressed in Pastan’s poem; ones we observe in Nature annually; ones that are the metaphors for our lives, beginning, maturing, and gradually ending.  Yet the unexpected, the disruptions to this natural cycle throw us off-center, leaving us with questions we cannot answer, and wounds that take a long time to heal over–though some never do.  These are the times when one’s sense of mortality, of the certainty of life we thought we knew, changes abruptly and we are propelled into unwelcome fears of the outcome.

I remember the sudden loss of my first husband.  We’d separated and were navigating a push-pull round of emotions, never in sync with one another, when he died suddenly in a drowning accident.  I was overcome with emotions and questions that took years to resolve.  When I learned of our friends’ home being lost in a wildfire, it ignited the memories of the night my family’s home burned to the ground, and in the years that followed, how my parents never completely recovered from the loss.  Then, years later, I collapsed on the pavement a block from my home and was diagnosed with heart failure, something that, for months afterward, kept me tossing and turning at night, a fear of sudden mortality my regular visitor.

This too, is life.  Any unexpected hardship, life-threatening illness or loss thrusts us into new and unfamiliar territory, into a different chapter of life than the one we thought we were living.  “The knowledge you’re ill…” Anatole Broyard wrote “is one of the momentous experiences of life” (in: Intoxicated by My Illness, 1993).  So momentous, in fact, it sometimes overshadows everything that came before it.  It’s what I witness in every cancer writing group: shock, pain and yet, inevitably, the resilience of the men and women living with cancer.  When they first hear the word, “cancer,” it’s momentous and overwhelming.  Many will recover, but for some, it may signal their final chapter of life.  Yet I think of so many who, facing their final months of life, do not let cancer define them.

Cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter, Alice Hoffman said, writing about her cancer experience in a August 2000 New York Times article.   I often use her words in my groups, because they remind us that although our lives may be turned inside out by cancer—or any other sudden tragedy or life threatening event– loss, illness, or our belongings–it does not define who we are.  I think of A., a former member of a writing group, who died two years ago.  She often said, when introducing herself, “I may have cancer, but it doesn’t have me.”  What cancer taught her was to live as fully as she could, to be present to life, every single day of however long she had.

Any life threatening illness, significant loss or tragedy changes us.  As sociologist and cancer survivor Arthur Frank said, “…by the time we have lived through it, we are living differently” (in: At the Will of the Body, 2002).  Who we are, truly, may become more apparent how we choose to deal with our illness or loss.  This is what makes us uniquely human–our spirit, determination, resilience—and they are never more apparent than when illness or loss strips all pretense away.

Life will sometimes wallop us, brings us to our knees, to tears, and yet it is our greatest teacher too.  It says, “Listen up,” and teaches us something about ourselves.  All we know is that life will change again–and again.  We will be affected, perhaps multiple times, by a triggering event, whether tragedy, illness, unimaginable loss or awakening to the reality that we are moving toward the winter of our lives and the realization, as Pastan says, what we took for granted, “that the world would remain/as it was, and I/would remain with it.”

I don’t have answers–for myself or anyone else.  I’ve sat with the sorrow and losses of the past few days.  I’ve written about them, trying to make sense–yet again–of life and how it can change so dramatically in a single moment.  Yet I am reminded, as I have been before, of how precious life is, and how I constantly have to remind myself not to squander it–rather, to learn, again and again, to be mindful of how I live my life every single day.

Writing Suggestion:

What is the most significant event you’ve experienced thus far in your life?  Describe it in as much detail as you can.  Then take a break.  Re-read what you’ve written.  Turn to a fresh page.  Now reflect on how your life changed after that event and what you learned from it.  How does it continue to inform your present life?

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“My house sits on about 10-feet elevation so if the storm surge gets up to 12 feet it’s going to be a bit of a problem. If it’s 15 feet I’ll sit on the roof and surf my way into downtown Corpus. But I’m hunkered down. I’ve got food. I’ve got water. If my power goes out I’ll eat what’s in the fridge then eat stuff cold, out of a can. I’m a Boy Scout, so I’m prepared. I can ride this thing out.”(Wade Walker, quoted in “Hurricane Harvey is Scaring Everyone Away But These People,” by Alex Hannaford, Reuters, 08/26/17)

I rarely turn on the television news in the evening as I once did, unwilling to let the constant stream of negative news—violence, shootings, Washington politics, war and the suffering—consume my thoughts and mood.  But I followed the news of Hurricane Harvey on Friday and again last night, full of heartache for the many hundreds of people who suffered so much devastation and loss.  It will be days yet before the full extent of the damage will be assessed, but despite the losses, people are already coming together to help one another.  It’s that, in the midst of such sorrow and suffering, enables people find hope, something we witness again and again in the midst of tragedy and loss.

Hope is something we all need at so many different times in our lives.  It plays a major role in our healing, whether from tragedy, loss or serious illness.  Siddhartha Mukherjee, physician and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Emperor of All Maladies:  A Biography of Cancer (2011) defined hope as a “vital organ” in a lecture he delivered nearly three years ago at University of California, San Diego.  According to Mukherjee, hope gives cancer patients added life force.  Is it any wonder then, that in the world of cancer, loss and suffering, hope might be one of the most powerful medicines we possess?

If a man die, it is because death

has first possessed his imagination.

 (William Carlos Williams, in Mukherjee, p.306).

 

Hope is an expectation that something good can happen in the future—and in the midst of suffering or sorrow, we sometimes forget that hope is there, waiting to be discovered in many different situations in our lives.  Anne LaMott’s 2013 book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair, illustrates how hope exists–even in a world punctuated by vitriolic political discourse, frequent reports of random shootings, car bombs, wars, natural disasters, hunger or life-threatening disease.  “Hope is a conversation,” LaMott states.  “What allows us to go on and find those small moments of goodness, are to be found in “attention, creation, love, and,” she adds with incomparable wit, “dessert.”

“…those small moments of goodness.”  Hope is what we experience in the embrace of neighbors and friends, helping one another in the wake of devastation from hurricanes and tornados.  It is present in those acts of unexpected kindness from complete strangers.  Red Cross volunteers from the Dakotas, Arizona and many other states are already heading to Texas to offer assistance, and many organizations, like Airbnb, food banks– even diaper banks for those families with infants and toddlers–have already sprang into action, all of these efforts so necessary and vital in re-igniting hope and healing.

Healing, which is sometimes simplified in the way we think of it, is more than medicine and treatments.  Healing, in the truest sense of the word, is the process of “becoming whole,” whether from a natural disaster or a cancer diagnosis.  It is a multi-faceted process of transformation.  There is a strong connection of mind and body in healing, and hope plays a central role.  In studies exploring the impact of hope among cancer patients, researchers conclude that hope helps decrease patient anxiety and increase quality of life. Even among the terminally ill, hope is an essential resource.  It helps us cope during times of intense physical and psychological distress.

Where can we find hope?  It’s present in test results that show a shrinking tumor or promising clinical trials of a new therapy; it’s hope that’s ignited in those unexpected acts of kindness from strangers.  Hope resides a child’s delight in finding a tree frog as he explores his own yard, in an infant’s first smile, a young woman offering her seat on the subway to an elderly person, or a bouquet of summer dandelions picked for a mother by her child.  Hope waits to be discovered, like in springtime, when determined crocuses poke their heads through snow and ice at winter’s end or the brilliant explosion of color in autumn as mornings turn cool.

I know I sometimes have to stop and remember to look for those small moments of goodness—of hope—when I find my spirits sagging in the frustrations of daily life, human crises, or the constant thrum of divisive political discourse.  Hope sometimes seems to get lost.   But I can find it if I only stop to notice:  a hug from a grandchild, singing together with a random crowd of people at an evening of “Choir! Choir! Choir!” or walking my dog through the park and watching her unflagging hope of catching a squirrel (she never does, but she never gives up either).  It’s in these small moments of goodness and delight that reminds me of the resilience of the human spirit, and hope, then,” springs eternal.”

Tomorrow will be beautiful

For tomorrow comes out of the lake.

(“Hope,” by Emanuel Carnevali, in Poetry:  A Magazine of Verse, 1921)

 

Writing Suggestions:

  • This week, consider hope.  How would you define it if asked?
  • When have you felt as if you were losing hope?  Why?  What changed?
  • What helped you regain a sense hope?
  • When have you discovered hope in a “small moment of goodness? “Describe it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

their green swords, bearing cups of light. ‘

The forsythia comes back, spraying its thin whips with

blossom, one loud yellow shout.

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

silver thread of their song.

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

gowns of midnight blue.

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

of violet chiffon.

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

and millions of small green hands applauding your return.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Suggestions:

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

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Understand, I was only a girl

living the days as they came.

I did not know I would leave…

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

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

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

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

I guess I have to begin by admitting

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

My country has chosen to liberate…

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

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

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

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

In color photographs, my childhood house looks

fresh as an uncut sheet cake—

pale yellow buttercream, ribbons of white trim…

 Half a century later, I barely recognize it

when I search the address on Google Maps

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

 foliage overgrown, facade remodeled and painted

a drab brown. ..

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Suggestions:

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

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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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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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