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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…

(From:  “i thank You God for most this amazing” by e.e. cummings, In:  Complete Poems, 1904-1962)

Every Spring, as the gray and frigid days of Winter finally mellow and the earth begins to come to life once again, I experience gratitude for the delight of new beginnings and renewed sense of hope it brings.  Invariably, I recall cummings’ exuberant poem of gratitude for the season and the joy it expresses.  But so far this year, the seasonal changes have yet to inspire those happy sentiments.   Springtime completely missed its appointed March 21st appearance, and in this part of the country, we’ve all grown cranky with the continuing cold and occasional snow flurries, impatient for warmer temperatures and sunshine.

Gratitude was nowhere in sight yesterday morning when I awakened to another cold and windy day–the worst in weeks.  The ground below our window was covered in white–a blanket of ice pellets from the freezing rain that began Saturday and continued into Sunday morning.  It was bitterly cold, overcast and before long, the wind began,  gusting upwards of 50 km at times outside our apartment building.  I sat and stared out the window, my coffee growing cold, my mood gloomy.  I half-hearted tried to honor my daily gratitude practice– each day making a list of five things I am grateful for –but my gratitude well was dry at first.  I felt little but frustration with the lingering winter weather.  I took solace in the fact that everyone I’ve encountered these past many days feels similarly.

I kept trying, however, because I’ve discovered that simply listing a few things I am grateful for each day improves my mood and outlook, particularly on days where worry or frustration threatens to overtake my spirit.   Writing a daily gratitude list is a practice I began some time ago, when life was bumpier than usual, and the blues were tagging along behind me like a persistent shadow as each day began.  I finally squeezed out five things to be grateful for, and I’m glad I did.  My mood improved.  And I’m not the first. Science confirms that gratitude is beneficial for us in a number of ways, among them:

.  Gratitude can make you more patient.

.  It might improve your relationship.

.  It improves self-care.

.  It can help you sleep.

.  It may stop you from overeating.

.  It can help ease depression.

.  It gives you happiness that lasts.

“Clinical trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life,” according to Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at University of California, Davis.  Among its many benefits are lower blood pressure, improved immune function and even better sleep.  But there’s more.  Another study conducted at UC San Diego’s School of Medicine found that grateful people actually had better heart health–less inflammation and healthier heart rhythms.  And other university research studies have also found that gratitude boosts our immune systems, reduces stress hormones and may reduce the effects of aging to the brain.  “Gratitude works,” says Dr. Emmons, “because…it recruits other positive emotions that have direct physical benefits.”

Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude. ― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Researchers have examined the role of gratitude plays in well-being in recent years, whether the impact is psychological, like increasing positive emotion, or physical, such as improving sleep.  Gratitude research has also extended to cancer patients.  Reported by Anne Moyer, PhD, in a 2016 Psychology Today article, one study was conducted among patients with cervical cancer that indicated fostering a mind-set of gratitude increased levels of positive emotion and reduced negative ones.  As a consequence, patients showed increased flexibility in thinking and, thus, improvement in their ability to cope with stress.

A second study with breast cancer patients utilized a gratitude intervention to address patients’ fear of recurrence and worry about death.  They were invited to spend 10 minutes weekly over a six-week period writing a letter to express their gratitude to someone who’d done something kind for them.  Those who practiced expressing gratitude to another experienced a decline in their worry about death.

If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.― Meister Eckhart

As I thought about gratitude and the men and women who have participated in my cancer writing groups, I recalled the conversation I had with a former group member.  She was diagnosed and treated for an aggressive salivary gland cancer, and after her cancer wass declared “in remission,” she rediscovered the comfort and meaning in the ebb and flow of everyday life, small pleasures of love, companionship or nature.  “It frees me from having to make every moment count,” she wrote in a note to me some months later.  “It takes off the pressure that would exist if I had to accomplish something in particular before I die…”

In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich. ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

What can you do to incorporate more gratitude into your life each day?  In a 2016 article appearing online in Forbes WomensMedia,  author Janet Miller, offered eight practical tips:

  1. Don’t be picky. Appreciate everything.  Gratitude doesn’t have to be about the big things.
  2. Find gratitude in your challenges. Difficult or negative experiences can teach us what we’re really thankful for.
  3. Practice mindfulness. Daily, think of five to ten things you are grateful for.  Doing this daily will actually “rewire” your brain to be more grateful, and you’ll feel happier.
  4. Keep a gratitude journal. Several researchers suggest writing the things you are grateful for on a daily basis, at bedtime.
  5. Volunteer. Give back to others in your community.  It increases your own well-being.
  6. Express yourself. Do more than just keep a journal.  Let people you care about know you are grateful for them.
  7. Spend time with loved ones, friends as well as family.
  8. Improve your happiness in other areas of your life.

What better teacher for me than Ann, who lost her life to cancer in 2012 and wrote in one of my groups for nearly six years. She discovered her gift for poetry after being diagnosed with a rare and terminal leukemia.  A couple of years before she died, she moved to live and write in a small cabin in the Santa Cruz mountains.  There, surrounded by the quiet beauty of the California redwoods, she discovered not only peace but an extraordinary source of inspiration in the natural world around her.  She wrote prolifically, and for all of us who knew her, she inspired gratitude and reverence for the life and beauty in the ordinary.   In her poem, “Directive,” one Ann sent to me before her death, she reminded us of how abundant the gifts of everyday life are, and how grateful we must be to experience them.

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

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

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

(From: “Directive,” by Ann Emerson, personal communication)

As I awakened this morning, I discovered the freezing rain and ice pellets have been replaced by rain.  The blustery wind is less ferocious, but unwilling to disappear just yet.  The sidewalks and neighborhood streets are messy and slushy, and I’m not very eager to venture into the outdoors–which I must do in a few hours to go to a dental appointment.  Yet I find gratitude.  We didn’t lose power during the storm; the trees were magical  last night, the ice-coated branches shimmering in the streetlights, and despite the howling wind, we were comfortable and warm.  I am again reminded that even the mundane and ordinary can inspire gratitude.  All we have to do is notice.

Writing Suggestions:

  • Develop practice gratitude in the coming days.  Be intentional.  Use a journal to document your gratitude.  It doesn’t have to be a long list or very detailed.  Simply list 3 – 5 things you are grateful for.  Do this for a week, faithfully.  Do you notice any changes in yourself?  Continue the practice for another week or two, then reflect on it in more depth.  What changed?  Did it help you be more aware of the life around you?  Did you feel more positive? Calmer? Happier?
  • Remember the commonplace… Practice noticing and appreciating the ordinary as Ann described in her poem.  Find gratitude for the simple joys of living.   Choose one small moment from any day, whether from nature, loved ones, your daily routine—a simple pleasure that sustains, inspires or offers you joy.  Describe it in as much detail as you can; perhaps you’ll find a poem or a story lurking there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     their green swords, bearing cups of light.

The forsythia comes back, spraying its thin whips with

     blossom, one loud yellow shout…

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

     and millions of small green hands applauding your return.

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

 

 Writing Suggestions:

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

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

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

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

Write about spring, wherever it takes you.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…filling my lungs with hope

on this, my granddaughter’s

birthday, her first, and the day

of my quarterly cancer tests.

 

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

How important it must be

to someone

that I am alive, and walking,

and that I have written

these poems.

This morning the sun stood

right at the end of the road

and waited for me.

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Suggestions:

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

 

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

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

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

I will never be the same

knowing how effortlessly death

rests in the cells of my body,

yet with each step I am willing

to say yes to the chances I take,

to the hope no one can take from me

here in the midst of my recovery…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a spring he never thought to see.

Lean dusky Alaskan geese nibbling grass

seed in his field, early daffodils, three

fawns moving across his lawn in the last

of afternoon light…

He smells the hyacinth

and can feel hope with the terrible crack

of a thawing river loosen in his heart…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Suggestions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

you have nothing to do but live.

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

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

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

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

Writing Suggestions for the Week of November 27th:

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But little by little,

…as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world…

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

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

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

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

Writing Suggestions:

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

 

 

 

 

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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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