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You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come running to see you again
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there
You’ve got a friend…

(“You’ve Got a Friend,” Carole King, 1971)

Remember the song “You’ve got a friend?”  Written and recorded by Carole King in 1971.  James Taylor’s recording of it the same year was the number 1 song on Billboard’s “Hot 100.”  Since then, it’s been sung and recorded by dozens of vocalists, including those as diverse as Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Barry Manilow and Ella Fitzgerald, among many others, testimony to the importance of the enduring, and true friendships in our lives.

It’s the song I listened to this morning, tears streaming down my face, James Taylor singing the lyrics that captured the words that failed me yesterday, when my dear friend, C., whom I’ve known for over a half century, called to tell me the news I hoped I not to hear.  I wrote about C. a few weeks ago in my post on scars.

My husband and I visited C. and his wife in late May, and we noticed the bandage on his neck, there to cover a weeping lesion on his neck.  It was skin cancer—melanoma—he’d already had two removed in recent years.  Yet this one was larger and more dangerous looking.  He had it removed shortly after we left, and after surgery, his doctors declared the margins clear.  He called to share the happy news, he and his wife obviously relieved, as I was.

Yesterday morning, as I was ending a call with two of my grandchildren, my desk phone began ringing.  I saw C.’s name on the screen.  He’d tried to call me the night before, but I’d been out for the evening.   I picked up the receiver and said hello.

“What’s up?” I asked.  “I saw that you’d tried to call me last night.  I was just about to call you, but my grandchildren called before I could.”

He didn’t waste any time getting to the purpose of his call.  He’d been seen by a team at a top notch cancer treatment center, and his tests and scans revealed some bad news:   his melanoma has metastasized to his spine and liver.  “How long do I have?”  He asked the doctors.

“Without treatment, nine to twelve months,” they told him.  My hand instinctively flew to my mouth to muffle my gasp as he continued to talk.  He opted for treatment of course, determined to live as long as he can.  Two new immunotherapies, approved in late 2015, have recently shown to extend the survival rates for melanoma patients.  “Let’s keep this ship afloat for as long as we can,” he told his medical team. (C. is an avid sailor.)  They arranged to begin his treatment regimen soon.

“What can I do to help?” I asked.

“Come see me,” he said.  C. and his wife live in in the Pacific Northwest, where we visited them in May while on an anniversary road trip.

“Of course,” I said.  “We will,” adding, “perhaps you and I will finally take that long beach walk we promised each other.”

It’s a promise made decades ago, years after we met at a summer church camp as teenagers.  That last night at camp, we sat together on a split rail fence among the redwood trees, our arms linked, talking well past midnight about our hopes, dreams and the meaning—as we understood it then—of life.  We were, we discovered, kindred spirits, and despite our youth, our friendship blossomed and endured time, marriages, children, living in different countries, and the ups and downs of our respective lives.

A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow. – William Shakespeare

We wrote one another for decades, since we always lived several hundred or more miles apart.  C., who became a journalist for many years, instilled in me a love of the written word.  He grew up near San Francisco.  I grew up in a small Northern California town.  His letters, begun the summer we met, enlarged my world.  Two years later, when I left California to be an AFS exchange student to the Netherlands, he came to the airport to see me off.  It was my turn to enlarge his world, writing  him multi-paged letters about my experience living in a Friesian village.

There were lapses between us over the years–the Vietnam war, marriage, children, losses, re-marriage, relocations, illness—but we always found one another again, our friendship resumed, deepened, and grew to include our spouses.  Throughout it all, we held on to the promise to have a long walk together, talk about our lives and the friendship between us, as we once did so long ago on that star-lit night in the redwoods.  A walk we have yet to take.

The good thing about friends
is not having to finish sentences.

I sat a whole summer afternoon with my friend once
on a river bank, bashing heels on the baked mud
and watching the small chunks slide into the water
and listening to them – plop plop plop.
He said, ‘I like the twigs when they…you know…
like that.’ I said, ‘There’s that branch…’
We both said, ‘Mmmm’. The river flowed and flowed
and there were lots of butterflies, that afternoon.

(From:  “About Friends,” by Brian Jones, in:  The Spitfire on the Northern Line, 1975)

I guess our telephone conversation was a bit like Brian Jones’ sentence:  “the good thing about friends/is not having to finish sentences.”  So much was running through my head as he talked, so much banging against my heart as he told me about his diagnosis.

“You hear this a lot,” he said, “I know you understand…”

My voice caught as I replied, “Yes, but it’s not the same as hearing it from someone who is such a part of your life…”

Now I’m staring at the computer screen trying to figure out what to write next.  Words fail me.  You know how important our friends are to us, and there’s plenty of research to affirm the benefits of friendship.  Yet this morning, I don’t feel like quoting those studies. What consumes me now is that my dearest friend has been delivered a wallop—the news so many of you have heard yourselves—and his journey through treatment and recovery is just beginning.  There are no guarantees.  But we can hope.

My heart aches for C., and I am at a loss for words.  All I can do is reach out my hand and say, “You’ve got a friend…”

Writing Suggestion:

Write about friendship—being a friend, having friends and even losing them.  What has friendship meant to you during cancer or other challenging life events?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

During his cancer treatment, Kooser described himself as “depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself… During the period when I was in surgery and going through radiation, I really didn’t do any writing. But as I came up out of radiation and was trying to get myself back in some sort of physical shape, I would walk a couple of miles every morning and then find something along that route to write about. (NPR interview, PBS News Hour, Oct. 21, 2004)

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

The early morning walks and poetry writing were good medicine for Kooser, as he noted in the NPR interview:   It was very important for me to see something from each day that I could do something with and find some order in, because I was surrounded by medical chaos or health chaos of some kind.  His book portrays what most cancer patients experience,  a man whose life was consumed, for a time, by the ravages of illness and treatment before he reawakened to those small moments of beauty in the natural world–the ones so necessary for poetry.

The sky a pale yellow this morning

like the skin of an onion

and here at the center…

…A poet,

and cupped in his hands, the green shoot

of one word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Suggestions

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

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Last night my husband and I saw a friend at a jazz concert.  Twice married and divorced, he longs to find a partner to share the rest of his life and has begun dating in hopes of finding lasting romance.  We met his date he brought to the concert, and I learned she was recently widowed, as was another woman our friend had recently dated for awhile.

“Another widow,” he said as his new date left to find the bathroom.  He shrugged his shoulders and sighed.  “I don’t if I’m ready for this”—“this” meaning the emotional roller coaster that often accompanies new romances or relationships after a spouse’s death.

“Be patient,” I said, “it takes so much longer than you think it will to recover from the loss of a spouse.”  He smiled and nodded, but I wondered if he really understood what I meant.

Whether the loss of a spouse, a child or a friend from serious illnesses like cancer, ALS, or a sudden heart attack, there is a great deal written about dealing with the loss of a loved one.  Despite that, grief is not well understood by those who haven’t experienced it.  Some may think of grief as a single instance or just a short time of pain or sadness in response to loss, but the American Cancer Society reminds us that the real process of grieving lasts much longer.

When we experience grief and mourning, it can be hard on our friends or acquaintances, even family members.  Well meaning friends may not understand how important it is to allow grief to take its normal course, particularly in our culture.  “Aren’t you better  yet?” may be something you hear more than once.  It’s painful to see someone we care about dealing with the heartache and sorrow that accompanies the death of another, but it’s important the bereaved are allowed to express their grief and feel supported through the process.  Sometimes it’s hardest for those closest to us to understand what we’re feeling.   It’s why we have bereavement support groups, therapists and pastors who specialize in grief counseling.  Grief, while similar in a general way, is experienced differently for everyone, but what’s important is accepting and honoring however the bereaved person chooses to express sorrow and grief.

This morning, my husband and I talked about the grief process when a loved one’s life ends, remembering the agonizing four year battle with bladder cancer my husband’s brother in-law endured before he finally died.  I recall telephoning my husband’s sister the day after his death, rehearsing what I could say that didn’t sound trite while the telephone rang and rang before she answered.

“Hello?” I knew immediately she had been crying.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  “I just went into his room and saw how empty it is, and then…”  She began sobbing again. “He’s gone, Sharon,” her voice was heavy with grief and exhaustion.  “He’s been my life for sixty-four years.”

It is hard to give up after months of making lists,

phoning doctors, fighting entropy.  But when the end comes,

a bending takes over, empties the blood of opposition

and with a gentle skill, injects a blessed numbness…

 

After sixty-four years together with her husband, my sister-in-law may be grieving for a long time.  We are grateful her children all live near her to offer support.  According to the American Cancer Society,” studies have identified emotional states that people may go through during grief. The first feelings usually include shock or numbness. Then, as the person sees how his or her life is affected by the loss, emotions start to surface. The early sense of disbelief is often replaced by emotional upheaval, which can involve anger, loneliness, uncertainty, or denial. These feelings can come and go over a long period of time. The final phase of grief is the one in which people find ways to come to terms with and accept the loss” (p.2)

Perhaps this surrender foreshadows my own old age

when I have raged to exhaustion and finally have to go.  For now,

the numbness wears off.  I drive to the market, cook my own food,

take scant note of desire

with no one to consider or contradict my choices.

Something in me will never recover.  Something in me will go on

 

(From “Numb,” by Florence Weinberger, in The Cancer Poetry Project, 2001)

Yet I believe that some losses are far more difficult to accept than others.  Death from a protracted illness has, at least, a cause that we understand, and it allows the survivor time to come to terms with the inevitability of a loved one’s death.  But unexpected loss or the sudden death of a spouse or child, comes as a complete shock, defies our sense of what is “supposed” to happen in life, and can complicate and extend the grieving process for years.

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)

I remembered my emotional state in the aftermath of my first husband’s drowning, recalling how his parents, now deceased, and his siblings never fully recovered from his sudden death.  My daughters, then nine and ten, still carry remnants of the grief and loss they experienced in the wake of his death.  And it took me more than a few years to work through the grief and emotional ups and downs of losing a spouse in such an unnecesary accident at 36.  But I was lonely, so I began to date again in the year that followed, hoping to ease the constant heartache I felt.  It didn’t work, and I made poor choices in the process before I realized I hadn’t acknowledged how every un-ready I was to begin a new relationship.  Healing had its own time schedule, and it couldn’t be rushed.  It took eight years before I met and finally married my present husband.  Even then, I carried an exaggerated fear of loss in the first few years of our marriage.

In the turbulent days following my first husband’s death,  a friend and English professor offered this distraught then-36 year-old the poem, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” by the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas,.  Thomas’s poem celebrates the undying and everlasting strength of the human spirit—and reading and sharing it provided me with some degree of solace in the face of tragedy, reminding me that even in death, loved ones are not lost to us. I later used to honor my husband by sharing it with family and  close friends.  Perhaps you will find as much power in it as I did.

And death shall have no dominion.

       Dead men naked they shall be one

       With the man in the wind and the west moon;

       When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,

       They shall have stars at elbow and foot;

       Though they go mad they shall be sane,

       Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;

       Though lovers be lost love shall not;

       And death shall have no dominion.

 

(From:  Twenty-Five Poems, 1936)

Writing Suggestion

This week, consider the process of grief and mourning:

  • Have you lost a loved one to cancer or an unexpected tragedy? Write the memory of the day someone you loved died.
  • What did you experience in the aftermath death? Write about the emotional ups and downs of grief.
  • What helped you deal with the loss and gave you the strength to go on? Write about the gradual process of healing from the death of a loved one.

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I teach a six week online course entitled “Transformational Writing:  Writing to Heal & Make Life into Art” for the UCLA extension Writers’ Program, which I’ve been doing since 2007.  Those who enroll do so to write and tell their stories of trauma, hardship, suffering or serious illness.  It’s something that novelists, memoirists and poets, famous and lesser known, have done for a very long time.  “Whenever I get somewhere,” Sigmund Freud complained, “a poet has been there first.”  And long before Dr. James Pennebaker’s groundbreaking studies on the health benefits of writing, Anais Nin already knew what his research would confirm decades later:  “When we see our suffering as story, we are saved,” she wrote.

As I read through this week’s discussion comments from the students in my UCLA class, one, in particular, stood out.  Writing about a serious illness, one woman wrote, “Even when I was in the midst of a five day in-patient ‘chemo’, I took notes. Some are frightening and some are funny – and I’m still writing. I think this …has shoved me into being a writer and admitting it, whether anyone ever reads it or not.”

“The call to write,” Author John Lee tells us in Writing From the Body,  in “is a call that’s received in the body first.  Poets and writers have described the creative process as a physical urgency; it’s insistent.  It calls us to feel, to feel with every part of our lives. (Writing from the Body, Sondra Perl, in Felt Sense, Writing with the Body, states it another way:  There is a space inside of us that “holds within it all that is not yet said, what waits implicitly before words come.”

To write from the body, we need to learn allow it to open up, for the experiences held within the body offers new ideas and fresh ways of writing. The irony, of course, is that in the aftermath of a debilitating illness, loss or hardship, we’re numb.   We’ve learned to live in our heads—cutting off the nerve endings of pain and suffering.  Writing’s power to heal, in part, comes when you begin translating emotions into language.  Releasing your emotions through writing not only clarifies your thinking, it releases energy.  To write well requires you free up that energy and give it voice, and it necessitates allowing yourself to feel deep within your body.

Long before there were words…

long before this haze of lies this

swirl of stupid things said and done

the body knew… (Seibles, in Lee, p. 5-6)

Lee writes of ancient wisdom that lies dormant in our bodies, of knowing, deep inside, “how to get through the high grass without being devoured by lions.”  When you honor that wisdom by releasing the memories and images stored in your body, powerful writing is often the result.

Something happens, and then the world spins on a new axis.”  Suzanne Berger writer in the prologue of Horizontal Woman:  The Story of A Body in Exile.  Berger, recounting her experience of becoming paralyzed, describes the sensation of suddenly unable to move:

“I am standing outside a shopping mall on a shimmering fall day in Chagrin Falls, Ohio…I bend down to pick up my child, but the bending never finishes, breaks instead into spitting lights of pain that spread over a pool of half-consciousness.  A tearing is felt—heard almost—within the thickness of flesh, moving in seconds across the base of the spine.  The body instantly announces:  This is an important event; this is an event you will never forget.  I can’t get up.  The asphalt is icy.  Somehow I am wedged into a car.  The emergency room regrets not knowing what to do.”

In another memoir titled A Match to the Heart by Gretel Ehrlich, we read her account of being struck by lightning.  Erlich begins:

“Deep in an ocean, I am suspended motionless.  The water is gray.  That’s all there is, and before that?  My arms are held out straight, cruciate, my head and legs hang limp.  Nothing moves.  Brown kelp lies flat in mud and fish are buried in liquid clouds of dust.  There are no shadows or sounds.  Should there be?  I don’t know if I am alive, but if not, how do I know I am dead?  My body is leaden, heavier than gravity.  … A single heartbeat stirs gray water.  Blue trickles in, just a tiny stream.  Then a long silence. Another heartbeat.  This one is louder, as if amplified…. I can’t tell if I am moving…Another heartbeat drives through dead water, and another, until I am surrounded by blue…. I have been struck by lightning and I am alive.”

Erhlich is not only writing from the memory, or remnants of it, of a near death experience, she is writing from the experience of her body, a vivid, visceral account of the physical sensations felt in the aftermath of being struck by lightning.  She portrays the lived experience of the human body, drawing us into her story through our senses. As readers, we feel an almost physical awareness of what she experienced in those terrifying moments.

Brenda Ueland, in her wise little book, If You Want to Write, counsels the would-be writer:

You must feel when you write…. You must disentangle all thought.  You must disconnect all shackles….  You can write as badly as you want to.  You can write anything you want to…just so you write it with honesty and gusto and try not to make somebody believe that you are smarter than you are.”

Time and time again, I witness the surprise from individuals who attend my writing groups for cancer survivors.  “I’m not a writer,” many of them often say at the beginning of the workshops, and yet, as they write from their cancer experience, something remarkable happens.  Their writing takes on power.  It’s strong, vivid and visceral.  The group listens in rapt attention, moved by what a participant reads aloud.  “I didn’t know I was going there,” the individual often says.  “I didn’t know I could write like this.”

“What is important, “Audre Lorde wrote in The Cancer Journals, “must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”  Writing honestly and authentically takes real courage, the willingness to go deep and tell the truth of your experience.  Writing out of pain, trauma, and illness helps you to reclaim and express those difficult feelings as part of yourself.  What happens as you do is not healing, but a process of unmistakable growth as a writer.

“In every patient,” Anatole Broyard wrote in his memoir, Intoxicated by My Illness, “is a poet trying to get out.”  How can you let the poet, the writer inside you get out?

Writing Suggestion:

Begin slowly.  Start with a simple phrase, “I remember _____and describe that memory in detail.  Then, borrowing from Natalie Goldberg, continue for three minutes, writing as many single sentences as you can all beginning with “I remember…..”, for example, “I remember the day my grandmother died.”   Or “I remember seeing the pavement rushing up to meet me.”  Or “I remember the moment the doctor said_____”

Once you’ve filled a page with “I remember,” turn it over.  Begin again, only this time, start with “I don’t remember…” and again, write as many as you can in three minutes.  These memories may be more difficult to recall, but they yield more to explore in writing, for example, “I don’t remember why my mother and father stopped speaking; I don’t remember passing out on the sidewalk…  I don’t remember what it was about that morning that first upset me… 

When you’ve written as many of “I don’t remember” as you can in three minutes, choose one sentence from either side of your paper and explore it.  Tell the story of the single memory, describing not only the event or setting, but what you were feeling in as much detail as possible.  Write from the “lived” experience of the body.

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This past week, I’ve written little, felled by a hefty case of bronchitis and a relentless, hacking cough.  Today is only my second day on antibiotics, and while I’m on the road to recovery, my writing routine has been temporarily upended by simply feeling awful.  I am turning, instead, to a recently published book, One Year of Writing and Healing: Writing to Transform the Experience of Illness, Grief and Other Trouble, by Diane Morrow, a former physician and now teacher of writing, to borrow from the rich content and suggestions she offers her readers– the invitation to write, whether from illness, grief, loss or simply a difficult chapter of life, to find a place where writing and healing meet.

I became acquainted with Diane several years ago, shortly after I’d published my two books on writing and healing for cancer patients and survivors, and was constantly searching for others whose interests and practices were complementary to my own.  I first discovered Diane’s work on her website, “One Year of Writing and Healing,” and was immediately drawn to it.  We communicated, from time to time, and a month or so ago, she generously sent me a copy of her newly published book.

Morrow’s first chapter doesn’t thrust you immediately into writing your healing stories, rather, it is devoted to the creation of a healing place, a place of retreat and refuge, one that, when internalized, becomes “crucial to any kind of healing or transformation.”  Another colleague, Sara Baker, poet and author of the blog, Word Medicine, describes how Morrow begins… with an invitation: to take one year of your life and write with the express purpose of “transforming difficult experiences into something…more bearable.” Her tone throughout is one of friendly invitation. What she offers comes from her own experience as a writer, a medical doctor, a counselor in mind-body training and a teacher. And as any good teacher would, she grounds the practice she offers in both time and space. Take a year, she says, to try these things, and moreover, I am going to walk you through each month, guiding you and building a solid foundation. … 

I like the emphasis Morrow gives to the creation of one’s healing space, because, as Baker notes,  this exercise in creating, inhabiting, imagining, conjuring and holding is the foundation for everything that follows. Morrow describes her own experience of going to a retreat at Santa Sabina, where she learned the process of interactive active imagination. It was there that she realized that writing could strengthen and deepen and hold the work of healing imagery. By creating a healing place inside one’s mind, one could have a sense of “deep refuge” in a portable retreat. “When we have this deep sense of security, it becomes possible—and bearable—to look honestly at the stories of our lives.”  

“Say that we begin like this,” Morrow writes in her first chapter, “What If?”–“an invitation arriving in the mail:”

You are invited

An 8 week writing and healing retreat

At a site of your choosing.

She offers the invitation to you, a time to plan the retreat—the healing place—and more, invites you to slow down and think about each small detail, because  doing so is important to the process.  She asks:

What details would you imagine?

A gravel road?

The smell of water?

A white cottage?

Climbing roses?

A blue door?

A room with a large window?

A desk beneath the windows?

A breeze?…

How would you being to describe your own ideal place?

What details would be essential?…

The concept of a healing place—a place of refuge and quiet—is something many of our greatest writers created for themselves.  In the 1995 pictorial essay, Writers’ Houses,  by Francesca Premoli-Droulens and Erica Lennard (photographer), the houses of twenty famous writers, intimate spaces where they did their creative work, are featured.  As reviewer, Kris Law, states,  A house is doubly important to a writer–not only as a home for oneself, but often as a workplace in which to write quietly and undisturbed (a concept Virginia Woolf lobbied for in her famous book A Room of One’s Own)… Many of the writers featured …led lives full of turbulence and upheaval at one time or another, and their homes marked one of the few places in which they found a place to write in solitude and comfort. 

Writing Suggestion:

How would you begin to describe your own ideal place? Morrow asks.  What details would be essential?  What sounds—or silence—do you imagine?  What about the temperature?  The color of the sky?  This week, spend some time to flesh out the sensory details, the elements you deem important, of your healing place, whether real or imagined.  A healing place, in Morrow’s words, “establishes a place from which to begin—a place that can, potentially, contain the work and nourish it (p. 24).

(For those of you interested in reading more of Dr. Morrow’s wonderful book, One Year of Writing and Healing, it can be found on Amazon.  I recommend it highly to anyone desiring to write from grief, loss, illness or simply, from the unexpected and difficult events life hands us.)

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We returned home late last night after three weeks away, visiting our daughters and their families in Canada and Florida.  We lived out of suitcases, made do with uncomfortable beds, adjusted our daily routines to fit our grandchildren’s and daughters’, suffered through days of extreme heat and high humidity and squeezed our tall bodies into cramped airplane seats.  We did it all for love, but last night, as the taxi pulled up to the curb next to our house, we each breathed a sigh of relief, happy to be back in our own beds and awaken to the lovely stillness of early morning.  Today—and we’re still not finished—we’re putting our lives back together, unpacking, grocery shopping, doing laundry, rescuing thirsty plants and adjusting to the Pacific time zone.  Travel, while pleasant, is also disruptive to one’s life.  I admit I felt a wave of gratitude as I sat on the deck and drank my coffee in silence early this morning, glad to be home and resume what I call a “normal life.  Without warning, an old Mother Goose nursery rhyme popped into my head:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!

Our lives certainly have not fallen apart like Humpty Dumpty’s, but I thought of friends whose lives, quite recently, have been turned upside down for a time by illness, surgery and waiting for the results of biopsies.  Later this morning, as I checked the first week’s assignments from the online “Transformational Writing “ class I teach for UCLA extension, I read several students’ descriptions of events—illness, trauma, loss—that had, quite literally, turned their lives inside out.

Arthur Frank’s At the Will of the Body, written in 1996, remains one my favorite illness memoirs.  Frank, who teaches at the University of Calgary, writes eloquently of the way in which illness can disrupt a person’s life.  At age 39, he suffered a heart attack and one year later, was diagnosed with and treated for cancer.  Frank recounts his experience and reflects on what it means to be ill.  The experience of illness, he writes, goes well beyond the limits of medicine, and, as he describes it, reminds us of Humpty Dumpty’s fall:

When the body breaks down, so does the life.   Even when medicine can fix the body, that doesn’t always put the life back together again (p. 8).

What happens to one’s body, Frank wrote, happens to one’s life.  Life is, as we know, is much more than the physical–heartbeat, circulation, or temperature.  It’s made up of hopes and disappointments, joys and sorrows too.  Illness or trauma affects every aspect of our lives.  What, we ask, is happening to me?  How can I put my life together again?  We’re assaulted by conflicting, sometimes overwhelming emotions, something Ellen Bass captures in her poem, “The Thing Is:”

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands…

when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?

Frank asks the same question as Bass.  How can a person withstand these painful and debilitating events?  He distinguishes between disease and illness.  “Disease talk” is medical talk, using terms that “reduce the body to physiology…which can be measured.”  “Illness talk,” by contrast, is a story about moving from that comfort with our bodies to the disbelief of what is happening to our bodies and our lives.  “My questions end up being phrased in disease terms,” he writes, “ but what I really want to know is how to live with illness.”

Living with illness also means we acknowledge that we are changed by it or any other trauma, or suffering.  As Frank states, I have learned that the changes that begin during illness do not end when treatment stops.  Life after critical illness does not go back to where it was before (p.57).

Life does not got back to where it was before… Putting one’s life together again reminds us that recovery extends well beyond the actual illness as we shift from being “patient” to reclaiming ourselves and our bodies, recognizing, that “the person within the patient” has always existed within us throughout illness and recovery.  Illness, Frank suggests, can teach us all “how to live a saner, healthier life…it also witnesses what is worth living (p.15).”  How do we put our lives back together again?  Again, I turn to Ellen Bass’s poem as she echoes Frank as her poem concludes:

Then you hold life like a face
between your palms…

and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

(“The Thing Is,” by Ellen Bass, from Mules of Love, 2002)

Writing Suggestion:

How have you put your life back together in the wake of cancer, unexpected loss or trauma?  This week, try writing about life falling apart and putting your life back together.  What helped?  What changed?  How did you learn to love your life again?

 

 

 

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These past two days, Emily, my five-year old granddaughter has been teaching me games, some that although they include detailed instructions, are played according to her rules, created or improvised on the spot to her advantage.  I have become the novice to a card and board games I played as a child, but without knowing what her rules for the games might be, rules that ensure she manages to win nearly every round.  If I question the ever-changing landscape of game rules, she has a ready answer.  I have decided I need a GPS navigate through the mind of a five-year old!

Our shifting game rules got me to thinking about trying to learn to do something from written instructions, like the ones that come with do-it-yourself furniture from Ikea, the small impossible-to-read instructions that come folded inside across the counter medications, or the preponderance of self-help books available from Amazon or other book sellers. In fact, self-help books alone represent a $10 billion a year industry, an indication of our propensity to turn to others we consider more knowledgeable than ourselves for advice on any number of personal subjects.  (Take, for example, titles for those of us recently initiated into grand-parenting!)

Yet whether you are navigating through minor or significant change in your life, like unexpected illness, hardship or loss, there’s very likely a book, CD or DVD out there that will offer advice, counsel and practical steps for coping with the unfamiliar landscape you face.  The thing is, as Dr. Jim Taylor states in a 2011 Huffington Post article, “The Problem with the Self-Help Industry,” when it comes to life change, “…you have to make the journey yourself.”

Self-help books or advice from friends and colleagues rarely includes the kind of specific instructions we feel we need when we’re thrust into the uneven and difficult terrain of sudden life change, trauma or debilitating illness.  Sharon Doyle, a cancer survivor, entitled her poem, “There’s Not a Book On How To Do This,” offering  a glimpse of her cancer journey as she considers plans for a garden after her recovery:
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…” I like Doyle’s poem because the planning of her garden provides a metaphor for her cancer journey.  Think about it.  Whether cancer, or any major life challenge, you’re not given an instruction book to help us navigate the stress, upheaval, fear, or grief.  You may be lucky to have the comfort of friends and family, physicians and helping professionals, but the journey is, ultimately, yours to make.  The road is often full of unexpected twists and turns, conundrums and set-backs, but little by little, you find your way, and begin to design a new life, one that honors where you’ve been, what you have experienced and learned along the way.

Doyle’s poem reminds us that family, the birdsong and flowers, become part of her garden design because they provided solace and hope as she made her way back to health.  In the final stanza, she signals the new life she plans to celebrate:

I left vacant fourteen
trellis lightscapes for
balloons.

(In: The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. I)

Writing Suggestion:

This week, reflect on the journey of cancer or some other difficult life changing event.  It’s unlikely you were handed a GPS or a book of instructions to help you understand and manage challenges like an altered body, loss of a loved one, a job or a home.  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?

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