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Archive for the ‘writing for wellness’ Category

I’ve been talking back to Siri, the voice on my iPhone that directs my travel on the freeways and streets of San Diego County.  She’s sometimes unreliable, mapping what should be a drive to a place ten or fifteen miles from my home to a cross-country trip ending in Oklahoma or Missouri.  I’m mystified by these wildly incorrect directions, and Siri hears about it.   Since my days have been much too busy with meetings, dental and doctor’s appointments, when Siri misdirects, “she”receives the full brunt of my frustration.  (Of course, better Siri than my husband as the recipient!)

But perhaps what I experience with Siri is a good analogy for navigating through life.  It’s not always a smooth experience, whether relying on a GPS, dealing with a move, or the emotional roller coaster of cancer.  How, I wonder, did we all begin to rely so greatly on GPS devices their print counterparts–self-help books–to navigate the ups and downs of daily life?

Until I was introduced to Siri, I drove perfectly well without turn by turn directions recited by her voice.  I read maps, wrote down directions, and most often, got to where I needed to go.  I was happily self-reliant.  If I got confused, I stopped to check the map or ask someone for assistance.  No longer.  I’ve become dependent on the voice in my cell phone to guide me along any unfamiliar route.

What, we wonder, is our now habitual use of navigation tools doing to our minds? Writer David Kushner asked in a November 2015 article in Outside magazine.  An emerging body of research suggests some unsettling possibilities. By allowing devices to take total control of navigation while we ignore the real-world cues that humans have always used to ­deduce their place in the world, we are letting our natural way-finding abilities languish. 

Yet Siri is just one of the many sources of directions, instructions, and step-by-step how-to resources available.  Consider the many hundreds of self-help books on the market.  It’s likely that you, as I have done, have turned to self-help books in times of doubt and uncertainty, searching for encouragement, guidance or even self-affirmation.  As I’ve begun downsizing my bookshelves, I’ve found a few of these books still sandwiched between fiction and poetry.  There’s not a single one I finished reading; most of the pages are pristine and unmarked, suggesting I found the content neither relevant nor useful.

In the article, “Stop with the Self-Help Books Already,” author Marty Nemko offered his opinions on the plethora of self-help books:

  • Their recommendations are mainly just common sense or common knowledge.
  • They’re filled with examples that often feel concocted, too pat.
  • They propose models that over-simplify reality. For example, organizations or people don’t usefully distill into just a few types.
  • Their recommendations are often out of touch with what works in the real world. (In:  Psychology Today, June 27, 2014)

often out of touch with what works in the real world, yet self-help books represent a $10 billion a year industry.  When lives change, whether we relocate, retire, marry, have children, diet, or confronted with serious illness, hardship or loss of a loved one, there’s no shortage of books offering step-by-step advice for any and all significant life events. Even for aspiring writers, there’s an abundance of “how to” books on writing poetry, novels, nonfiction or simply journaling.

Out of curiosity, I conducted a brief search for self-help books for cancer patients on Google, immediately turning up titles such as playbooks and guides for the patient, for how to be a friend for a cancer patient, coping with altered bodies, radiation and chemotherapy, create a nutritional diet to “beat” cancer, or a guide to a peaceful death, to name a few.  Although any of us may each find one or two of books like these helpful, the dizzying number of titles makes one wonder that although any kind of change is difficult, as Dr. Jim Taylor remarked, writing in the Huffington Post, “Someone might be able to show you the way, but you have to make the journey yourself.”

Do friends need self-help books to be friends when you’re in need?  Can cancer be beaten with by following a particular nutritional plan?  Do we find guidebooks helpful when we lose a loved one?  Perhaps. We may turn to those resources at first, but gradually come to realize that no one is free of those walloping times of hardship, change and loss.  A “how to” book doesn’t make it any easier nor does it give us the answers we seek.  We discover what gives us comfort or solace as we go, trying things out, making mistakes, gradually finding our way through those difficult life chapters.

Cancer survivor, Sharon Doyle’s poem, “There’s Not a Book on How to Do This,” offers an apt metaphor for making those difficult journeys as the narrator sketches a composition plan for her autumn garden, one that celebrates and honors her cancer journey and survival:
There’s not a book on how to do this,
but there is an emphasis on composition.

The trucks that slug by under our window
hold trombones, mirrors, dictionaries.
It’s not my fault they invade
the calm of trees like cancer.  I

don’t have cancer anymore…

…I rarely remember the
uterus I don’t have.  One of my sons said,
“You were done with it right away, right, Mom?”
I guessed so…

There’s not a book on how to do this…” Think about it.  Whether cancer, divorce, the loss of a loved one, job loss—any major life challenge—there’s no a GPS or an instruction booklet to help us navigate through the upheaval, fear, or grief.  We do have the comfort of friends and family, of physicians and helping professionals, and so much more, but ultimately, the journey is ours to make, the road full of unexpected twists and turns, conundrums and set-backs.  Yet little by little, we find our way and without even realizing it, we begin composing a new life for ourselves with each step we take—one that honors where we’ve been but also embraces what we have discovered in our journey.

Doyle’s loving gifts from her family, the birdsong and flowers, are symbolic of the support that gave her courage and hope as she made her way back to health.  In the final stanza, we smile as we discover her celebration recovery and life:

I left vacant fourteen
trellis lightscapes for
balloons.

(From The Cancer Poetry Project, p. 52, The Cancer Poetry Project, V. 1, 2001)

Writing Suggestions:

This week, reflect on your difficult life journeys.  It’s unlikely you were handed a GPS or a book of instructions to help you navigate challenges like chemotherapy, surgery an altered body or loss of a loved one, job or home, each propelling you into change you never anticipated.

  • What helped you navigate the rough waters of such profound and unexpected change?
  • What internal compass—your beliefs, aspirations, or faith—played a part in helping you rediscover hope and embrace a new life?
  • What did you learn from it all?

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As 2017 begins, I’ve been propelled into transition.  My husband and I are deep in plans for our move across the country, and along with the excitement for what’s ahead, there is the bittersweet of letting go.   I‘ve begun examining bookshelves, closets, storage bins, and furnishings, deciding what we must leave behind and what we will carry with us as we relocate to a different city.  There’s eagerness to re-acquaint ourselves with old friends, be closer to family, but also, the sadness of leaving friends here.  And there’s other letting go that I must do—and it’s coupled with more than a little heartache.

This past week, I began the process of leaving the expressive writing programs I began in 2007 at two San Diego cancer centers, completing my final workshop in March. At the end of this month, I’ll lead my last workshop for medical students, faculty and staff at Stanford Medical School, something I’ve been doing for the past twelve years.

It’s bittersweet—letting go of things I love; I’ve done it multiple times before, but it never gets easier.  Once again, I’ve been propelled into a period of remembering and reflecting, looking back over the past many years, taking stock of accomplishments, disappointments and changes as I begin the transition to another life chapter.  These next few months will be emotional, sometimes stressful, and yet exciting—as transition periods always are, no matter the circumstances that plunge us into change and choices.

What do we leave behind?  What do we carry with us?  Every life event, positive or negative, thrusts us into change and demands choices.  We learn to let go of old ways of being, discard the things in our lives that no longer serve a purpose, and slowly, re-design our lives.  As difficult as change can be—particularly when it’s thrust upon us unexpectedly–it is also a time for reassessment and healing.

In a very real sense, the act of letting go is part of the process I witness time and time again in the cancer writing groups I lead.  So much of writing for healing is about expressing our deepest feelings and thoughts, but in doing so, we begin to let go of the pain and sorrow of the cancer journey.  We start to make sense out of the shock, fears, and loss of the cancer experience, and gradually discover new insights and meaning from our experience.  As the Danish philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard once said, “Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards.”

The 2009 award winning film, The Things We Carry, is a story of two sisters, whose lives are affected by their mother’s addiction.  Each choses a different way to deal with it, and, in the process, the sisters become estranged from one another.  The film explores their journey through the San Fernando Valley to a dingy motel, searching for a package their now deceased mother has left for them.  Old sibling wounds are re-exposed and recounted, but gradually, the sisters find peace, not only within themselves, but with each other.  “The key to moving forward,” the film’s tagline reads, “lies in the past.”

We learn more than we may realize life’s transitions and difficult chapters. Cancer is one of those.  “Cancer has been a great teacher,” a former writing group member remarked as she explored life before and after her illness.  Looking back helped her to make a choice to not “carry” the pain and suffering of the cancer experience into her life after recovery.  Instead, she chose to use the lessons learned to shape a new life for herself going forward.

 

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)

Several years ago, one of the writing group members died from  metastatic breast cancer.  She was a gifted sculptor, but as is typical in the first weeks of the writing group, shared only her “status” as a cancer patient in the first few weeks.  .  It was mid-way through the series that we learned C.  was a sculptor, someone who created sensuous and striking forms from stone, treasured and displayed by collectors across the country.  After her death, her husband wrote a touching and beautiful remembrance of her.  He spoke of her life as mother, wife, and sculptor, using C.’s word to describe how she approached her artistic process:

At first the stone seems cold and hostile. As the shape emerges, the stone becomes warm and alive. The joy and pain involved in the carving process is …something akin to giving birth and seeing your creation change from a gawky adolescent to a sensuous adult…

I treasure her words, because they offer an apt metaphor life’s changes and transitions.   Now that I am contemplating the change my husband and I have chosen, I cannot help but think of the many men and women who’ve written with me during the cancer journey.  Again and again, I’ve witnessed them come to terms with the changes dictated by this illness, struggle to make sense of it, and gradually, learning to let go of , and aspects of the self they were before cancer to a new way of being after cancer..  It is difficult, at first, for anyone to imagine a new life, but little by little, just as the sculptor wielding a chisel, choices are made and a new life begins to emerge, with new meaning, possibilities, or intentions for however long a life they may have.  The choices all of us make change not only our worlds, but ourselves.

Before and after.  Letting go and discovering the new.  It’s a time of transition, a time of learning, a time of change and new possibilities.  Lucille Clifton, former poet laureate of Maryland and a survivor of breast and ovarian cancer, captures it all in her poem, “I Am Running into a New Year:”

I am running into a new year
and the old years blow back like a wind…
that I catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what I said to myself
about myself
when I was sixteen and
twenty-six and thirty-six
even forty-six but
I am running into a new year
and I beg what I love and
I leave to forgive me.

(From: Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980)

Writing Suggestions:

  • Cancer is a great teacher.  How has cancer changed you?  What have you learned from the experience?
  • What choices have you made as a result of having and living with cancer?  What did you need to let go of?  What did you keep and bring with you into your changed life?
  • I beg what I love/ and I leave to forgive me.  A new year lies ahead of you.  How do you intend to shape the life you want out of the material of your past and present?

 

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The hard part is the moving, but maybe staying can be harder.

(Constance Woolson to Henry James, In The Master, by Colm Toíbín)

For the past week, I’ve been consulting dictionaries, thesauruses, poetry and books in hopes of finding the single word that serve as a guide for my writing and daily life.  It’s a practice I have written about for the past four or five years, originally introduced to me by two writing buddies and one I embraced wholeheartedly.  It’s an annual practice that has stuck.  There’s something elegant and honest about finding that single, meaningful word to frame my intentions for a new year than the lists of resolutions I’ve made in earlier years—ones often vanishing by February in a cloud of good, but diminishing intentions.

It’s not something one does easily, as I re-discover each year.  I agonize, make lists of possible candidates for my single word, and consult the dictionary, thesaurus, books and favorite poems, hoping “the” word is suddenly illuminated, virtually leaping off the page and tugging at my pen: “Choose me.  Choose me.”  But it never happens that way.

It’s more than simply finding that “right” word.  The search leads me into deeper territory, forcing me to articulate the reason behind the word and how it relates to the way in which I want to live or what I hope to accomplish in the New Year.  Over the past week, my notebook not only has several words listed on different pages, but quotes from poets and writers, musings on life and the past, and as much as one can, thoughts of what is ahead.

2017 is already shaping into an important and significant year of change for this country, but personally, for my husband and me.  We will be moving across the country, then north, to return to a place that we still love—Toronto–the place we met and married, a place that became “home” for myself and my daughters in the wake of their father’s sudden and tragic death.

I began the process by temporarily choosing “return,” but it lacked the meaning I was searching for, remembering instead Tom Wolfe’s famous dictum, “you can’t go home again.”  I lived the reality of those words when my husband and I returned to California twenty-six years ago.  The home I dreamt about and longed for in the first lonely years I lived as an expatriate nearly 4000 miles away from my family no longer existed.  I was a stranger in the very place I once had considered “home.”  Worse, I couldn’t find the intimacy, the sense of place that I sought.  My restlessness returned as the years passed, whether living in Northern or Southern California.

I decided to dispense with “return,” and tried out “moving,” which seemed more accurate.  But “moving” felt, well, boring.  I turned to my bookshelves; scanning titles about place and home, thinking I might find enlightenment between the pages of several volumes.  Then I spotted Louise DeSalvo’s On Moving: A Writer’s Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts, and Finding Home Again (Bloomsbury, 2009).  I eagerly pulled it from the shelf and began reading, underlining passages, dog-earring pages, realizing I was “on” to something in the first few pages.   In the introduction, DeSalvo writes:

Perhaps many of us living the in the United States are so transient because we are descended from those who’ve come from afar, hoping for a better life.  But whether our restlessness is part of our psychic makeup…or learned behavior, who can say. Perhaps we repeat family history…  For those of us choosing to move, the idea that somewhere there is “a domestic Eden”—D.H. Lawrence’s term for a place where you’ll finally feel at home, where your spirit will find peace and your life will blossom—seems to be deeply ingrained in our collective imagination.(p. 6)

My ancestors were transient:  pioneers, homesteaders, and people in search of that better life.  I once joked, as I was moving across the country  in the late sixties, that I was repeating my grandmother’s journey.  She went west, met my grandfather and remained in Northern California.  I was her modern day version, heading in the opposite direction with similar  hopes and dreams.

Yet, “home is where the heart is,” as the Roman philosopher Gaius Plinius Secundus said nearly 2000 years ago.  It’s a sentiment I’ve experienced and one written about by many writers since.  Barry Lopez, in a 1997 essay, “The Literature of Place” explores how you can occupy a place and also have it occupy you—a reciprocity that, in many respects, echoes the necessity of home being an intertwining of heart with place.  His answer hit home for me:

The key, I think, is to become vulnerable to a place.  If you open yourself up, you can build intimacy.  Out of such intimacy may come a sense of belonging, a sense of not being isolated in the universe.

Perhaps it is that in the wake of a profound period of loss and heartache, I was most open to our new life in Toronto.  I felt embraced by the city to which we now plan to return.  I healed and flourished.  I loved the city, the access to the arts, the endless places to explore and experience.  By the time I returned to California, I was no longer a “Californian.”  I was the product of blending—half my life in California, but the other half in Canada—and I discovered that one foot remained firmly planted there.

If we…become conscious about why we want to move, and understand what we need rather than what we want, our moves will satisfy us deeply (DeSalvo, p. 183).

In the past many months, I’ve worked to define and articulate what I need in deciding where to move. I need a place I love, but there’s more.  I need to be closer to my daughters and grandchildren after so many years of living far apart.  One daughter and her family live in Toronto; the other, recently returned from five years in Okinawa, is currently in Florida—easier to get to from Toronto, but not a place that satisfies other needs.  Still, my daughters are Canuck through and through.  Canada, for them both, is home.

But moving is a significant change for us at any time in our lives, no matter how many times we do it.  It’s the conundrum Mark Doty described (in DeSalvo, p. 144) as “a fierce internal debate, between staying moored and drifting away, between holding on and letting go…”  “The effects of moving,” are experienced in the body, in the imagination, in the realm of desire,” DeSalvo writes.  I already know that a cross country move is not easy, and at times, I admit I have awakened feeling slightly unnerved by our decision.

There is work to do before we move, and for the next few months, I’ll be deep in the act of letting go—downsizing belongings, lingering over a lifetime of mementos, deciding what to take, what to leave, and bidding good-bye to the life we’ve had in over ten years in San Diego.  It’s why, inspired  by  DeSalvo’s book, I awakened at 5 a.m. this morning with my 2017 word clearly in mind.  Not “return” nor “moving,” but “step-by-step.”

“That’s three words,” my husband teased.

“I’m using it as one;” I replied.  “ it’s hyphenated.”

It hardly matters.  What does matter is the “step-by-step” reminds me that change cannot be rushed.  I need to honor the letting go, the emotions that will be aroused as I sift through belongings and the memories attached to them, that preparing to leave isn’t the only challenge ahead of us.  There’s the settling in at the other end, and that, too, will take time and patience.

Now I’ll do what I do each year.  Type out my 2017 word and put it in a small frame that sits on my desk, my word for the year in full view, serving as a daily reminder to take this next change in life one day, one step at a time.

Writing Suggestion:

  • This week, why not try the “one word” exercise yourself?  What  one word can serve to guide your intentions for the year ahead?  It may take successive attempts, cozying up to the dictionary or a thesaurus, but search for a single word that resonates and has meaning for you.
  • Once you’ve chosen your word, then write for 20 or 30 minutes and explore the “why” behind your word.
  • What meaning does it hold? What memories or images spring to mind?  I invite you to share your word choice and a few sentences about it in reply to this week’s blog.
  • Or, do as my friends and I do. Frame or post your word where you can see it on a daily basis.

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

By William Stafford, from The Way It Is, 1998

I wish you all a year of peace, healing, love, and new discoveries.

Happy New Year, 2017!

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Last week, my monthly women’s writing group met for an early holiday potluck.  Before we shared the celebratory meal, we made time to write, first reading an excerpt from Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales:

…Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night… 

Thomas’s words were familiar to everyone in the group, but not everyone would be celebrating Christmas.  This year, Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, begins the evening of December 25th.  As Christmas winds down for many of us, others’ holiday traditions are just beginning, the memories of Hanukkah captured in Stephen Schneider’s poem, “Chanukah Lights Tonight:

Our annual prairie Chanukah party— 

latkes, kugel, cherry blintzes… 

 

The candles flicker in the window…

 

The smell of oil is in the air. 

We drift off to childhood 

where we spent our gelt 

on baseball cards and matinees, 

cream sodas and potato knishes… 

 

Inside, we try to sweep the darkness out, 

waiting for the Messiah to knock, 

wanting to know if he can join the party.

(Excerpted from: Prairie Air Show, 2000)

The words of Thomas and Schneider became the inspiration for writing, and for the next half hour, our pens moved quickly across the page.  When it came time to read aloud, everyone’s memories were vibrant and laced with the familial traditions so much a part of the holiday season.  Mine, which I’ll share briefly with you this week, was of a child’s transition from believing there was, indeed, a Santa Claus, and the niggling fear that perhaps it was all a myth.

It began with a secret shared with me as I hung up my winter coat in the class cloakroom a few weeks before Christmas.  Two of my friends approached, pulling me aside to share an important secret.  “Guess what,” they announced with smug smiles, “There is no Santa Claus!”  Santa, they told me, was made up, not at all real, something for little children and babies, but not for big girls in the third grade like we were.  “It’s your mom and dad,” they said, “who buy the presents and put them under the tree.”

I tried to hide my embarrassment as my friends watched my face to see how I reacted.  “I know,” I said quietly, but the truth was, I didn’t know until they told me, and even then, I didn’t want to believe them.  Now that I look back on it, I wonder how I still believed in Santa in third grade—perhaps because I had a younger sister and a baby brother, and so my parents kept the notion of a real Santa Claus alive for the three of us.

It was that same year that Santa Claus paid a visit in person on Christmas eve.  My sister and I had come down with the chicken pox days earlier, and we were house-bound.  After dinner, a loud knock and “ho, ho, ho” sounded at the front door.  “I wonder who that might be,” my father said, winking at my mother as he opened the door.  A rather more slender Santa than I expected entered the living room.  “Ho, ho, ho,” he bellowed, as he sat down and took his bag from his shoulder.  I stared, momentarily silenced as I remembered what my friends had told me just weeks earlier.  Who, I wondered, had come to the house?  Santa or someone pretending to be him?

There was a black and white photograph taken that evening, one that remains in my memory:  my baby brother was seated on Santa’s knee, my younger sister next to him, smiling, and I sat the farthest from Santa, doubt etched on my face.   I was caught between wanting to believe in Santa but wanting to be a big girl who knew better.

The next day, on Christmas morning, I crept out of bed before my parents were awake to see what presents had appeared under the tree.  The colored lights had been left on all night, and the living room curtain was open to make them visible to passers-by.  I stared out the window and discovered snow had fallen during the night, frosting the streets and sidewalks white.  Then I saw him—Santa Claus–his bag empty.  He was opening the gate to the house two doors down from ours.  A moment later, he disappeared inside.  Whether a neighbor in costume or the real thing, it hardly mattered.  The possibility of a real Santa lingered in the almost magical moment of  Christmas day, snow glistening in the morning light, and  a the white bearded, red-suited man with an empty burlap bag slung over his shoulder.

Although I stopped believing in Santa Claus sometime soon afterward, the memory of that particular Christmas stays with me.  It was something about what it meant to grow older and be conflicted, not wanting cling to childish beliefs, and yet, wanting to hang on to the idea of Santa Claus just a little longer.  How many of us have similar remembrances–when someone told us that there was no Santa Claus–and we didn’t want to believe it, because to do so meant the loss of something we cherished.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.

We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.  (From:  “Is There a Santa Claus?” The New York Sun, September 21, 1897)

Writing Suggestion:

The holidays are filled with family traditions and stories—some shared over and over as the season is celebrated.  Write one of yours, whether happy or marked by other emotions.

.Why does this memory stand out for you?

.What insights or reflections do you have as you look back?

.  If you once believed in Santa Claus, do you remember when you stopped believing and why?

.  Of all the traditions during your holiday celebrations, which do you most look forward to?  Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Suggestions:

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

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

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

It’s comforting to look up from this roof

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

to recollect that in antiquity the winter solstice fell in Capricorn

and that, in the Orion Nebula,

from swirling gas, new stars are being born.

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

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Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,

Old Time is still a-flying;

And this same flower that smiles today

Tomorrow will be dying…

(From: “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time, by Robert Herrick,  1591 – 1674)

“Gosh, it’s December already!  Where has the time gone?”  So began a conversation with one of my friends as we realized how much time had passed since we’d met one another for lunch.  I could account for the past two months—a trip to Florida to care for two of my grandchildren in their parents’ absence, and afterward, immediately traveling to Toronto for my daughter’s doctoral convocation.  November was a blur in the aftermath of the election and a much-needed rest from travel, but how did it suddenly become December?  It feels almost as if this last month of the year is poised at the starting line of a racetrack, eager to make it to the finish line, crowded with the demands of the holiday season, and ready to turn over the calendar to 2017 as quickly as possible.

“But I need more time!” I protest.  My “to-do” lists keep multiplying, and I seem to be  racing against clock and calendar from dawn to dusk, mailing packages, writing out holiday cards to friends far away, keeping various appointments, venturing into the crowded shops, and tending to household duties, only to wonder why it suddenly is well past my bedtime.   I have a sense of time racing by, made all the more fleeting by the rush of holiday activities.  Invitations have begun to multiply, and as they do, I quietly balk, wishing I had more time awaken to a quiet day without any appointments, deadlines, invitations or that never-ending list of “to-dos.”  I’m running as fast as I can, but as Barbara Crooker describes in her poem,  “In the Middle,”

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

…Time is always ahead of us, running down the beach, urging
us on faster, faster…

(In:  Word Press, 1998.)

Where has the time gone?”  How many times have I heard someone ask that question this past week?  Too often to count.  I suspect you have also asked it more than once.  But put it another way, and the question becomes more specific:   “What have I done with my time?

In the 1989 Film, Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams played an unorthodox English teacher who challenged the traditions of an elite private school and his students with his unorthodox h teaching approaches.   “Believe it or not,” he tells his students, “each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die.”  Williams’ character’s students rallying cry becomes “carpe diem,” or “seize the day,”  a call to live life to its full potential.  I wonder, does living our lives fully make us more attentive to how we spend our time?

The phrase “carpe diem,”according to www.poets.org, originated in a long series of poems called “Odes,” composed by the Roman poet Horace in 65 B.C.E..

Scale back your long hopes

to a short period. While we
speak, time is envious and

is running away from us.
Seize the day, trusting
little in the future.

Time…is running away from ustrusting little in the future…  I wonder.  Are we paying attention to what time offers to us?  Or are we letting it get away from us?  Are there other ways to think about the role of time in our lives?  William Stafford invites the reader to rethink time in the poem, “The Gift.”

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.

It’s the way life is, and you have it, a few years given.
You get killed now and then, violated
in various ways.  (And sometimes it’s turn about.)
You get tired of that.  Long-suffering, you wait
and pray, and maybe good things come – maybe
the hurt slackens and you hardly feel it any more.
You have a breath without pain.  It is called happiness.

It’s a balance, the taking and passing along,
the composting of where you’ve been and how people
and weather treated you.  It’s a country where
you already are, bringing where you have been.
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 Way It Is, Graywolf Press, 1999)

“Here, take it, it’s yours.”  As your list of things to do intensifies in the crush of holiday shopping, socializing and gift giving, time may feel like it’s racing by, or, it might, if you’re waiting for something to happen, like the interminable wait  for Santa Claus you knew as children, when time seems to drag and stretch into forever.  Either way, we forget to “seize the day” or pay attention to time and life.

Suppose your life a folded telescope
Durationless, collapsed in just a flash
As from your mother’s womb you, bawling, drop
Into a nursing home…

Einstein was right. That would be too intense.
You need a chance to preen, to give a dull
Recital before an indifferent audience
Equally slow in jeering you and clapping…

Time takes its time unraveling. But, still, 

You’ll wonder when your life ends: Huh? What happened?

(From:  “The Purpose of Time is to Prevent Everything from Happening at Once,” by X.J. Kennedy, In: The Lords of Misrule:  Poems,  1992 -2001)

Writing Suggestion:

This week, consider time.  What is your relationship to time?  Do you feel you are running out of time or, conversely, twiddling your thumbs waiting for time to pass?  Write about your relationship to time.  What has time taught you about life?  What gifts has time offered you?

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

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

A day without any kind of turbulence—…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the eye of the night I lie awake,

half-afraid, half in awe of the wind

penetrating every crack in my being.

I think of my brother and his wife

in the next town downwind,

open-eyed and clinging to each other

as the wind that mocks everything

to which we think we’re anchored

roars through our lives…

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

An insightful, experienced oncologist told me that cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter. Still, novelists know that some chapters inform all others. These are the chapters of your life that wallop you and teach you and bring you to tears, that invite you to step to the other side of the curtain, the one that divides those of us who must face our destiny sooner rather than laterWhat I was looking for during 10 months of chemotherapy and radiation was a way to make sense of sorrow and loss… Once I got to my desk, once I started writing, I still believed anything was possible.  ( New York Times, August, 2000)

Writing Suggestion:

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

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