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

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

I have a habit of awakening before dawn, a time when the house is blessed by quiet, interrupted only briefly by the sound of the coffee grinder and the rattle of kibble against my dog’s dish.  We position ourselves, she and I, in the front room, blinds opened, to watch as the sky begins to lighten, blushing pink as the sun rises.  This is precious time, a chance to write uninterrupted, and then, as the neighborhood begins to come to life, to walk before the streets are noisy with cars.  I cherish the winter mornings most, the subtle beauty of darkness shifting into dawn, and the cool mornings even though  I live in a place where the advent of winter is barely discernible compared to other places I once called “home.”

Our window overlooks one of San Diego many canyons, and despite that it’s December, the colors of the hillsides changes little in this dry landscape.  The slopes remain a dull green, dotted by succulents, silk oaks, eucalyptus and palm trees.  Our bird of paradise plants and the Bougainvillea are in bloom.  My husband loves the mild climate, but my thoughts, each December, drift to times when the seasons were more distinct, autumn colors and the soft cascade of a first snow.  Yet winter still announces her arrival, but it is in the change of light, the dark mornings.  The angle of the sun has shifted, soon to be at its lowest arc in the sky.  The Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice occurs  on December 21st, when the sun reaches its farthest southward point, and we experience the shortest day and longest night of the year.

The advent of winter solstice signals not only a change in light and seasons, but a time of celebrations, no matter our religious heritage or beliefs.  The winter solstice was a time our ancestors associated with death and rebirth.  As the days grew shorter and the sun began to sink lower into the sky,  they feared the sun would completely disappear, leaving them to endure an existence of permanent cold and darkness.  Imagine the primitive fear that accompanied those dark winter mornings, a feeling echoed in the first stanza of “Winter Solstice,” a poem by Jody Aliesan.

When you startle awake in the dark morning
heart pounding breathing fast
sitting bolt upright staring into
dark whirlpool black hole
feeling its suction…

The solstice was considered a turning point.  It marked the gradual return of the sun and promise of warmer seasons.  Even though winter was far from over, the solstice a time of celebration, usually taking place  a few days later, the time many of us will celebrate the Christmas and Hanukkah holidays.

Aleisan’s poem echoes that same sense of promise the ancients associated with the solstice, something I experience in the darkness of winter mornings.  She reminds us of the comfort to be found in the beauty of darkness:   stars close together, winter moon rising, or an owl in the distance, and how, out of the darkness, a sense of rebirth emerges.

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

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

Writing Suggestions:

This week, why not use the metaphor of winter, of solstice, to reframe your experience with cancer or another difficult time in your life, a time when hope seemed to fade and you feared little more than darkness.

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

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

It’s comforting to look up from this roof

and feel that, while all changes, nothing’s lost,

to recollect that in antiquity the winter solstice fell in Capricorn

and that, in the Orion Nebula,

from swirling gas, new stars are being born.

“Toward the Winter Solstice” by Timothy Steele, from Toward the Winter Solstice. © Swallow Press, 2005.

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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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Hope is the thing with feathers 

That perches in the soul, 

And sings the tune without the words, 

And never stops at all…

(From: “Hope is the thing with feathers,” by Emily Dickinson)

 We face a presidential election this week, the conclusion to a season of political campaigns unlike any I can remember and one, I hope, I will not witness again.  I have been profoundly saddened and worried as the climate of divisiveness, name-calling, and hatred paint a disturbing portrait a country on the brink of a divide that seems increasingly unable to be bridged.

But I’ve had a reprieve from the soul dampening negativity.  For the past two weeks, I  turned away from it all—no television, no news casts, enacting a self-imposed reprieve from all the repetition of the toxicity that seems to be ailing us as a nation.  I was too busy, caring for two of my grandchildren, ages 7 and 5, as their mother, my daughter, realized a dream to trek in Nepal, and their father was deployed to Afghanistan.  The cares and heaviness of the world slipped away for a time as the days were filled with the sheer delight and demands of taking care of my energetic and delightful grandchildren.

Daily, I was greeted with their enthusiastic “Gramma!” when they awakened each morning, with hugs and “I love yous” and the anticipation of each new school day.  At day’s end,  I was the recipient of more the smiles and hugs  as they bounded from the school bus and reported what they had experienced during the day.  Together, we tackled homework, laughed and read books aloud, and discussed what was happening the next day, whether ballet lessons, soccer practice or a game, a school field trip, or the Halloween storybook costume parade.  They had no worry or despair about the state of the world or the impending election.  Each day was filled with new discovery—and with hope.  “I’ve haven’t heard you sound this happy for months,” my husband remarked when I returned home.  My grandchildren’s unstoppable hope and optimism were good medicine for me.

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 in San Diego two years ago.  When one of the members of my “Writing Through Cancer” workshop told the group she’d heard him speak the night before our session, she told the group that  “Mukherjee said something really profound last night,” then opened her notebook to find his words she’d written down.  “Hope is a vital organ,” she read from her notes.  Everyone around the table listened intently and asked her to repeat his definition of hope once more so they could write it down in their notebooks.

It’s little wonder the words had such impact in a group of cancer patients and survivors.  According to Mukherjee, hope gives cancer patients added life force.  Is it any wonder then, that in the world of cancer or a troubled world, hope might be one of the most powerful healing agents we possess?

Healing, as you know, is more that medicine and treatments.  It is a process of “becoming whole,” even in the face of something as fearful as a terminal cancer diagnosis. Healing is a multi-faceted process of transformation–inside and out–and while medicine often plays a very important part, hope plays a central role.  In several studies exploring the impact of hope among cancer patients, researchers conclude that hope can help a patient decrease anxiety and increase their quality of life. Even among the terminally ill, hope is an essential resource that helps individuals cope during times of intense physical and psychological distress.

If a man die, it is because death

has first possessed his imagination.

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

Hope is an expectation that something good can happen in the future—and it is the expectation I witnessed in my grandchildren every single morning  these past two weeks.  They—and their eager anticipation of each day—were good medicine for me.  I was reminded that hope can be found—waiting, perhaps to be discovered–in many situations in our lives.  I think of Anne LaMott’s 2013 book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair, which illustrates how and the ways hope exists–even in a world punctuated by vitriolic political discourse, frequent reports of random shootings, car bombs, civilians being bombed in Syria, 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 random acts of kindness, a child’s delight in finding a tree frog as he explores his own yard or runs from the school bus to tell his grandmother he got “100%” on his book report.  It’s present in the test results that show a shrinking tumor or clinical trials of a new therapy; it’s hope we witness with the advent of every spring, when those determined crocuses poke their heads through the ice and snow at winter’s end.   It’s hope, that vital organ we all need to live—and yet, as many of us have felt from time to time, in the noise of crises, negative news reports or the constant thrum of divisive political discourse, hope sometimes seems out of reach…  But it isn’t.  Look around for those small moments of goodness, the daily reminders of that vital life force, hope.

“Hope.
It’s like a drop of honey, a field of tulips blooming in the springtime. It’s a fresh rain, a whispered promise, a cloudless sky, the perfect punctuation mark at the end of a sentence. And it’s the only thing in the world keeping me afloat.”
–Tahereh Mafi, Unravel Me

 

Writing Suggestion

This week, consider hope.  What role does hope play in your life?  Have you sometimes felt hopeless?  How did you rediscover or regain a sense of hope?  What gives you hope?  Write about it.

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School began for my grandchildren this past week, as it has for the children in my neighborhood.  The energy on the street in early morning punctuated with children’s voices, and the preponderance of and “back to school” displays in the department stores igniting my childhood memories of excitement:  the new shoes, school clothes, notebooks, rulers and pencils.  But I have already returned “to school,” as I began, in mid-July, teaching an online writing course for UCLA extension Writers’ Program.   Now, as the fall series of my “Writing Through Cancer” workshops begin soon,  I, like all instructors,  have again been busy with preparation.

Yesterday, however, despite a lengthy “to-do” list, I played hooky.   I put my work aside and focused on simpler things—re-organizing my office after moving in a new (and more ergonomic) desk, playing my favorite classical music as I weeded through closets and drawers, boxing clothing to donate, taking an hour to finish a novel, and  enjoying an iced tea as I sat quietly on the deck in the shade of the pergola.  By the end of the day, I felt more relaxed and happier than I’d been all week.

“It’s ironic that we forget so often how wonderful life really is,” novelist Anna Quindlen writes.  “Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of gray cement.  It would be wonderful if they came to us un-summoned, but particularly in lives as busy as the ones most of us lead now, that won’t happen.  We have to teach ourselves how to make room for them…”  (From:  A Short Guide to a Happy Life, Random House, 2000.)

I admit it.  I routinely fall prey to the infectious disease of busyness too often, and when I do, it begins to consume my life.  I began to notice the aches and stiffness of an aging body.  I feel irritable and impatient—sure signs from my body reminding me to slow down and take some time to refocus my attention, notice and smell those roses, or allow myself a lazy afternoon of puttering, sitting in the backyard and listening to the perpetual chirping and tweeting of the birds.

When it comes to the hazards of my tendency to “busyness,” I know better, of course, but actually stopping to re-calibrate and truly pay attention, to life is sometimes more difficult than it should be.   I, like most of you, occasionally need a little whack on the side of the head.  Ironically, I hear myself telling students that “a writer’s work is to notice and pay attention, to make room for the quiet that creativity demands,” but meanwhile I’ve gradually reverted to old, bad behavior, putting my “to-do” list ahead of my life, adding unnecessary stress, and filling my days with tasks that seem important but often crowd out the simple pleasure of being present in the here and now.

We have to teach ourselves how to make room for them [those small moments] to love them, and to live, really live.

Ted Kooser, former poet laureate of the U.S., has written and published over ten books of poetry.   For 35 years he was also an insurance company executive, retiring after his treatment for oral cancer in 1998.  Even as a busy executive, Kooser  honored his art, each day rising at 4:30 or 5 a.m.  to write poetry before he had to get ready for work at 7 a.m.

During his cancer treatment, Kooser described himself as “depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself… During the period when I was in surgery and going through radiation, I really didn’t do any writing. But 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. (NPR interview, PBS News Hour, Oct. 21, 2004)

He began a routine of early morning walks, and one November morning, surprised himself by “trying my hand at a poem.  Soon I was writing every day…”  He did more than just write.  He pasted his poems on the backs of postcards and sent them to his friend, author Jim Harrison.  The postcards ultimately became a collection of poetry, Winter Morning Walks:  One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison, published in 2001 by Carnegie Mellon.

The early morning walks and poetry writing were good medicine for Kooser, as he noted in the NPR interview:   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.  His book portrays what most cancer patients experience,  a man whose life was consumed, for a time, by the ravages of illness and treatment before he reawakened to those small moments of beauty in the natural world–the ones so necessary for poetry.

The sky a pale yellow this morning

like the skin of an onion

and here at the center…

…A poet,

and cupped in his hands, the green shoot

of one word.

In Early Morning Walks,” we see Kooser reclaim his life as he begins again to notice  “the small pieces of glittering mica”  Quindlen describes, a life he began to make time for and notice again.  In his poems, we see not only his recovery from cancer, but life and its endless array of small gifts of beauty.  He reminds us how important it is—how fuller our lives are if only we stop to pay attention to the life all around us.

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

I heard from another cancer survivor last night, a friend, writer, and  former member of one of my cancer writing groups .  She lives with the knowledge that her cancer is “relentless,” despite being in remission for several years.  As she enters a new decade, she is more aware than ever that “life is short,” and that she—and we all—need to be reminded not to waste it, not to be consumed by things that don’t make us feel fulfilled or happy.  Quindlen puts it another way, and with words I’m not likely to forget:

This is not a dress rehearsal…today is the only guarantee that you get…consider the lilies of the field…fuzz on a baby’s ear.  Read in the backyard with the sun on your face…And think of life as a terminal illness, because if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived.

Life as a terminal illnessToday is the only guarantee you get.  Embrace the life you have and time for the things that truly matter and give you joy.  It’s good medicine; you’ll feel better.

Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

(“The Thing Is, by Ellen Bass, In Mules of Love, BOA Editions, 2002)

Writing Suggestions

  • Take an early morning walk—but without your cellphone, music or earphones. Notice at least three small moments of beauty.  Try writing a poem about one or more of them.
  • Use Quindlen’s phrase, “Life is a terminal illness…” and keep writing, without stopping, for twenty minutes. See where it goes.
  • Borrowing from Ellen Bass’s poem, how can you love your life again? Write about it.

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