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Archive for the ‘writing for wellness’ Category

Inside every patient, there’s a poet trying to get out.—Anatole Broyard, 1990

Poetry and medicine share a long history, dating back to the Greek god Apollo, who was responsible for both healing and poetry.  Today, The use of metaphor, a poetic tool and figure of speech comparing two things seemingly unrelated, is common not only in poetry, but illness and everyday life.  Consider the sports talk that dominates this Super Bowl Sunday, one example of how metaphors permeate our everyday lives, in the language we use and in the way they influence our thoughts and actions.  For example, we use sports metaphors almost unconsciously to describe experiences in our daily life.  In the workplace, you strive to be  a “team player” or be encouraged to “run with a good idea.”  In budding romance, a boy might ” “make a pass at someone,” or in an emotional argument between two people, one is told he or she is “way out of bounds.”

There’s little doubt that our metaphors are visual and illustrative, but they also run the risk of creating stereotypes or confusion, even becoming clichés.   Some, like sports and military metaphors are so common in our daily language, they are used routinely to describe medical experience.  In “The Trouble with Medicines’ Metaphors,” (The Atlantic, August, 2014)  author Dhruv Khullar, MD, wrote:

The words we choose to describe illness are powerful. They carry weight and valence, creating the milieu in which goals of care are discussed and treatment plans designed. In medicine, the use of metaphor is pervasive. Antibiotics clog up bacterial machinery by disrupting the supply chain. Diabetes coats red blood cells with sugar until they’re little glazed donuts. Life with chronic disease is a marathon, not a sprint, with bumps on the road and frequent detours...  Military metaphors are among the oldest in medicine and they remain among the most common. Long before Louis Pasteur deployed imagery of invaders to explain germ theory in the 1860s, John Donne ruminated  on the “miserable condition of man,” describing illness as a “siege…a rebellious heat, [that] will blow up the heart, like a Myne” and a “Canon [that] batters all, overthrowes all, demolishes all…destroyes us in an instant.”

As Khullar points out, “…we’ve internalized these metaphors, so much so that we often may not recognize how they influence us.”  Yet metaphors help us understand one another.  They offer a way to make sense of the emotional chaos accompanying a cancer diagnosis and communicate our feelings to others. Khuller referred to a 2010 study that found physicians use metaphors in nearly two-thirds of their conversations with patients with serious illness.  “Physicians who used more metaphors were seen as better communicators. Patients reported less trouble understanding them, and felt as though their doctor made sure they understood their conditions.”

Metaphors get our attention.  They’re visual, sometimes visceral and offer us a shorthand route to emotions and a vivid way to communicate and understand the experience of illness.  They help the listener or reader understand and appreciate what we are experiencing.

Consider the poem, “The Ship Pounding,” by former poet laureate, Donald Hall.  He offers us a glimpse into the final months of poet Jane Kenyon (his wife) and her struggle with leukemia through metaphor, creating a visual image of a ship filled with passengers, heaving in rough waters:

Each morning I made my way   

among gangways, elevators,   

and nurses’ pods to Jane’s room   

to interrogate the grave helpers   

who tended her through the night   

while the ship’s massive engines   

kept its propellers turning…

At first, the narrator is hopeful:

The passengers on this voyage   

wore masks or cannulae

or dangled devices that dripped   

chemicals into their wrists.   

I believed that the ship

traveled to a harbor

of breakfast, work, and love.   

But Kenyon’s illness cannot be cured, evident in the final lines, as the narrator waits to hear his wife call and knows he must be ready to:

… make the agitated

drive to Emergency again

for readmission to the huge

vessel that heaves water month   

after month, without leaving   

port, without moving a knot,   

without arrival or destination,   

its great engines pounding.

 

(From “The Ship Pounding,” In Without, 1998))

Hall has given us a powerful image in his metaphor, and by comparing one thing to another, we see and understand it conceptually and emotionally.

When Anatole Broyard, whose book, Intoxicated by My Illness and Other Writings on Life and Death (1993), his experience of terminal prostate cancer, wrote:  Always in emergencies we invent narratives. . . Metaphor was one of my symptoms.  I saw my illness as a visit to a disturbed country. . . I imagined it as a love affair with a demented woman who demanded things I had never done before. . .   When the cancer threatened my sexuality, my mind became immediately erect. 

Arthur Frank, sociologist and author of At the Will of the Body:  Reflections on Illness (1991), a memoir of his experiences of cancer and heart attack, describes his illness and recovery as a “marathon.”  Not surprisingly, Frank is a runner, and the physical and mental demands of the marathon were apt comparisons to describe his experiences of illness.

Kat Duff, diagnosed with chronic fatigue and immune system dysfunction syndrome, wrote The Alchemy of Illness, (1993) exploring illness narratives as a way to gain insight into the nature of illness.   She compared her illness to a landscape, a wilderness, or coral reef, and health as an adventurous voyage through it.

Macklin Smith, diagnosed with leukemia, compares the hospital to a prison in his poem, “Independence:”

Even incarcerated men and women can achieve some independence
Through their choice of TV programming, wardrobes, even e-mail,
Depending on the warden’s policy and type of prison,
Although in the super-max federal system they cannot choose
Any of these things: they’re in solitary 23 hours a day, strip searched
prior to their hour of exercise, and never go outside, no
window, and they’re under artificial lighting night and day…

(In:  Transplant, 2002).

These are only a few examples of the metaphors others have used to describe and communicate their experience of illness, but, as Anatole Broyard reminds us, metaphors do not belong solely to the world of poetry and literature, rather,  “Metaphors may be as necessary to illness as they are to literature, as comforting to the patient as his own bathrobe and slippers.”

Writing Suggestion:

  • This week, explore the metaphors you use to describe your cancer experience—or any other difficult and painful chapter of life. What images do our metaphors convey?
  • Begin with a phrase such as “Cancer is a…” or “illness is like a…” and finish the thought, noting what image or word emerges.  Remember, write quickly, without editing.  Set the timer for five or ten minutes and keep your pen (or fingers) moving.
  • Once you’ve finished, read over what you’ve written.   What surprises you?  Do you discover any unexpected metaphors?  How do they help to describe and explain your experience of illness or hardship? Perhaps your metaphors can inspire a poem or a story that describes your experience of illness or hardship in greater detail.

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Early this morning, I checked my emails and scanned the Facebook posts appearing from yesterday’s massive protest women’s marches across the country.  I kept returning to the images of the hundreds of thousands of women and men around the world who united to make their voices heard.  One, a photograph of my granddaughter, marching alongside her parents was especially touching, reminding me the many years ago, when her grandmother and grandfather joined in civil rights and anti-war protests.  Whatever one’s political preference, the right to peaceful assembly and to speak out, remains one of the most precious of our democratic rights.

I also received a photograph from Washington D.C. from a friend who made the trip to Washington to join the protest.  She lives with lung cancer and has written in my expressive writing groups for years.  She sent a few of us her selfie, decked out in pink, hat and tee-shirt, masses of marchers visible behind her.  It was a day of celebration and exhilaration as, after a divisive and troublesome period of political campaigns, women and men across the country mobilized in support of women’s rights—of human rights–and make their voices heard the day after the new president began his term.

I lingered over my friend’s photograph, inspired by her determination to travel across the country and join in the march at the capital and by her courage, like so many other men and women living with cancer have demonstrated in so many ways.  I recalled another Facebook photograph sent  recently by another member of my workshops, a woman who has written with me since 2009.  She lives with metastatic breast cancer and also, more recently, multiple sclerosis.  The photograph she sent was a celebratory one: her smiling face as she  completed a half marathon last week, another of her continuing participation in local walks or runs organized in support of the fight against breast cancer.  More than a few of us have been humbled by her courage and spirit in recent years.

When I think of the many marches in support of curing cancer it’s not just breast cancer that inspires people to participate.  Google “cancer walks and runs,” and you’ll find many different events and cancer organizations organized to publicize and raise funds for cancer research.   Survivors,  many living with metastatic cancer, and their friends and families participate, united in a fight for life and a cure for this relentless and dreaded disease–called “The Emperor of All Maladies”–which has reached nearly epidemic proportions.

According to the National Cancer Institute,  an estimated 1,685,210 new cases of cancer were diagnosed in the U.S. in 2016, and 595,690 people were projected to die from the disease.  It’s not just women’s rights that were highlighted in yesterday’s march, but among them, equal access for everyone to affordable healthcare.  Those already engaged in the battle against cancer, whether breast, lung or one of the many other cancers, know how very critical healthcare coverage is.

Killing a cancer cell in a test tube is not a particularly difficult task: the chemical world is packed with malevolent poisons that, even in infinitesimal quantities, can dispatch a cancer cell within minutes. The trouble lies in finding a selective poison—a drug that will kill cancer without annihilating the patient. (Siddhartha MukherjeeThe Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, 2009)

 Two weeks ago, I was asked by Cancer Resource Network, an online health magazine, if I would write a short statement about World Cancer Day, which occurs February 4, 2017.  I admit that I knew little about the event or its history and quickly looked for the website to learn more.  Established by the Paris Charter and adopted at the World Summit Against Cancer for the New Millennium in Paris, February 4, 2000, it’s a day for the world to promote research for a cure, the prevention of cancer, and upgrading patient services.  It is dedicated to informing and mobilizing the global community against the disease.  According to the website, 8.2 million people die from cancer worldwide every year, and 4 million of those between 30 and 69,  die prematurely.  It’s shocking.  Yet I doubt few people in the world have not been affected, in some way, by cancer.

In the United States, one in three women and one in two men will develop cancer during their lifetime. A quarter of all American deaths, and about 15 percent of all deaths worldwide, will be attributed to cancer. In some nations, cancer will surpass heart disease to become the most common cause of death.”   Siddhartha MukherjeeThe Emperor of All Maladies)

The World Cancer Day 2017 tagline is We can. I can.  It’s a call to action, intended to support how we, individually or collectively, can help “to reduce the global burden of cancer.”  As of this morning, the site’s “map of impact” shows 167 events happening around the world in support of World Cancer Day.

Just as the world witnessed the enormous solidarity in support of the Women’s March on Washington, the marches inspire us to consider what actions we can take beyond marches to ensure positive change,  whether for women’s rights or for the good of many different people in the world., including the prevention and cure of cancer.

How can you take action?  Just as cancer affects everyone in different ways, there are many ways to take action for families or communities that can have a positive impact on cancer, such as making healthy lifestyle choices, asking for support, advocating for yourself and others whose lives are affected by cancer, and making your voice heard by sharing you story of the cancer experience.

Whether in support of World Cancer Day or in the renewed energy generated by the Women’s March on Washington, we have much more to do.  Ask yourself, “What actions can I take individually or with others?”  There is still much to be done to a difference in our nation and our world.

I was deeply inspired by yesterday’s marches—but it’s only the beginning.  Just as the actions we take on a regular basis to ensure that basic human rights in this country are not violated, so too does finding a cancer cure require our ongoing involvement, advocacy and support in the fight for a cure.

Writing Suggestions:

  • This week, focus on the question: “What actions can I take?,” whether it is about cancer, human rights, or affordable healthcare, to name a few.  Then follow “what can I do” with “What I will do.
  • The Women’s March has inspired ten actions to take in the first 100 days of the new president’s term in office.
  • World Cancer Day is Saturday, February 4th. Why not get involved in a meaningful way?
  • Share your story. One of the actions suggested by the World Cancer Day site is advocate by sharing  your story–a way to offer support to others living with cancer and raise public awareness.  For starters, you can submit directly to the World Cancer Day site, or Cancer Knowledge Network, the online health magazine which encourages narratives (500 words) written in response my bi-monthly column, Writing Toward Wellness.  In fact, there are many possible cancer-related sites that invite cancer stories,  Health Talk Online, The Live Again Project, My LifeLine, and Caring Bridge, to name a few.

 

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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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