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

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

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

If a man die, it is because death

has first possessed his imagination.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow will be beautiful

For tomorrow comes out of the lake.

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

 

Writing Suggestions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

their green swords, bearing cups of light. ‘

The forsythia comes back, spraying its thin whips with

blossom, one loud yellow shout.

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

silver thread of their song.

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

gowns of midnight blue.

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

of violet chiffon.

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

and millions of small green hands applauding your return.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Suggestions:

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

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Understand, I was only a girl

living the days as they came.

I did not know I would leave…

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

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

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

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

I guess I have to begin by admitting

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

My country has chosen to liberate…

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

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

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

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

In color photographs, my childhood house looks

fresh as an uncut sheet cake—

pale yellow buttercream, ribbons of white trim…

 Half a century later, I barely recognize it

when I search the address on Google Maps

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

 foliage overgrown, facade remodeled and painted

a drab brown. ..

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Suggestions:

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

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