Archive for the ‘writing for wellness’ Category

Revision is a big part of my life  every day of the week.  For the past several days, I’ve been “tinkering” with some poems I’ve been writing–changing words, reworking a stanza, even deleting ones that earlier, I liked, but now, seem trite or not quite what I wanted to express.  Revision is  an integral part of writing, one that takes up the greater part of my writing life, and requires much more time that the first full draft!   I now accept that writing is really about rewriting, as many well known writers have stated.  It is the necessary work that allows you to see your essay, story or poem in a fresh light.

Of course, revision doesn’t feel so good when we first get the necessary feedback on the need to do it. Poet Naomi Shihab Nye, who sees revision as ” a new vision” and meaning  ” you don’t have to be perfect the first time,  described how she once felt about the necessity of revision: 

If a teacher told me to revise, I thought that meant my writing was a broken-down car that needed to go to the repair shop. I felt insulted. I didn’t realize the teacher was saying, “Make it shine. It’s worth it.” Now I see revision as a beautiful word of hope. It’s a new vision of something. It means you don’t have to be perfect the first time. What a relief!

Open a dictionary and you’ll discover “revision” has been known about for a very long time. It’s borrowed from the French revision (1611), and derived from the Latin, “revīsere, meaning “to look, or see, again.”  Consult a thesaurus for synonyms of “revise,” and you’ll find words like reexamine, reassess, rethink, alter, modify and change.   Revision or “seeing again” is not limited to those who write; it’s a process we naturally undertake whenever we try to make sense out of something that has happened to us, like a job loss, relationship break-up, even learning to live with cancer.  Maybe “wisdom” or “understanding,” is simply a process of revision, of seeing something anew or at the very least, differently.

Half my life is an act of revision.  –John Irving

Look at it this way:  You are the author of your life story. Think of each day as having a blank page in your notebook. Things happen to you—good things and terrible things.  You make choices that will influence the events and their outcomes.  Despite that, the story closest to you, your own, is sometimes the most difficult to understand. In his wise book on writing, You Must Revise Your Life (1967), William Stafford wrote:

My life in writing…comes to me as parts, like two rivers that blend.  One part is easy to tell:  the times, the places, events, and people.  The other part is mysterious; it is my thoughts, the flow of my inner life, the reveries and impulses that never get known—[it] wanders along at its own pace…” 

It is precisely that undercurrent of our thoughts and emotions that is the more difficult part of your story to tell, yet, it is that deep river beneath the surface that holds the key to understanding.

Writing helps you tap into that inner life.  You begin to weave the people, places and events of your life with your thoughts and feelings, and a rich tapestry of stories is created, one that offers new understanding, new insights.  Revision is part of a creative process familiar to artists and writers.  It’s about letting the material of your lives talk back to you, to have the chance to see things differently.  According to Stafford, revising one’s life as a writer involves embracing whatever happens—in things and in language.   “The language changes,” he says, and “you change, the light changes…Dawn comes, and it comes for all, but not on demand.”

In a 1993 interview published in the Paris Review, Stafford was asked why he chose the title, You Must Revise Your Life  for one of his few books of prose.  He explained it this way:

 “I wanted to use the word revise because so many books about writing make it sound as though you create a good poem by tinkering with the poem you’re working on. I think you create a good poem by revising your life… by living the kind of life that enables good poems to come about… A workshop may seem, to those who take part in it, a chance to revise the work they bring. I think it’s a chance to see how your life can be changed…”

Revision isn’t just about writing; it’s much more.  It offers the opportunity to change your life.  Every day, life gives you material—and not all of it welcome.  Yet each day, each year, you “talk back” to life, ask questions, try to understand, and try to make sense of what has happened to you.  Revision, as Stafford said, is a chance to see how your life can be changed.

Writing Suggestion:

  • This week, try writing about how you’ve had to revise your life when the unexpected occurs, like a cancer diagnosis, or when you’ve begun something new, like a marriage, having children, or any new project.  How have these events prompted you to revise your life?
  • Another suggestion is to return to an earlier entry in your journal or notebook, something you wrote soon after your diagnosis, when you received unwelcome news about the prognosis of your illness, or during the upheaval of another difficult experience.  First, re-read what you wrote, highlighting the phrases that or words that stand out for you.  Now, write it again, but this time, focus on those highlighted phrases.  “Work” with your material.  Let it talk back to you as you recall the details of that event—sounds, smells, the quality of light, words said, what you were feeling–anything you can remember.  Rewrite it and compare the two versions.    What changed?  What did you see differently as a result of revision?
  • Answer the question:  Is revision a chance to see how your life can be changed?  What do you think?

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“Before you know what kindness really is,” poet Naomi Shihab Nye tells us, “you must lose things…”  It’s one of poems I began with this past week at the weekly session of the Moores UCSD Cancer Center group.  The week before, the topic of friends—having them, and losing them during cancer—had arisen in our discussion, and I decided to explore it further as our first writing prompt.  Shihab-Nye’s poem was a perfect beginning:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

–from “Kindness”, by Naomi Shihab-Nye in The Words Under The Words ©1994

Loss.  It’s often synonymous with cancer.  Loss of hair, parts of the body; loss of self-image, of dreams, even loss of some you considered friends.   What struck me, as different members read what they’d written, was how common the loss of friendships was among the group.  Loneliness emerged as a common theme, the isolation one can feel during the cancer experience.  The emotions in the room were palpable.

It’s true that life as you once knew it,  is never the same and a cancer diagnosis.  The landscape between those “regions of kindness,” can seem unending and desolate.  Not only are your bodies forever altered, the self you took for granted feels like a distant memory.   Worse, some friends or even family members you thought would understand and lend support, may distance themselves, and that hurts.  Cancer may ignite fear and a sense of helplessness among some friends, as Gretchen Fletcher’s poem, “To a friend now separated from me by illness” expresses so poignantly:

Our lives until so recently

parallel and filled

with common details…

details still in my life

while you lie in an alien bed,

your life now filled with details


I don’t know, tubes and shunts

and treatments tried and failed.

I want to speak; you want to speak,

but we’ve lost our common language…

I don’t know. How can I know

how it feels to lose a breast

and fight to save lungs,

bone, and brain

when all I have to battle

is the traffic? 

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

It’s easy to forget, when you are in the midst of appointments, surgeries, and treatments, that your friends may feel helpless, not knowing what or how to “be” in the friendship as you were before.  Cancer changes your bodies, and it changes you:  how you navigate your life, what truly matters to you.  Some friends may fall away, yes, but others won’t, and new friendships are often discovered.  You take solace I the small moments of kindness and of new friendships, and as you do, you find your way back into life.

As Shihab-Nye says,

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

During times of loss and grief, when you least expect it, you discover kindness and caring.  One of my favorite poems in Karin Miller’s wonderful two volumes of The Cancer Poetry Project is “Finding God at the Montefiore Hospital,” by Lorraine Ryan, a touching portrayal of unexpected kindness and friendship:

I remember the rhythm of the dunking;

The mop going into the pail

Juan squeezing the mop

The mop hitting the floor with a whoosh…


With every move, he looked up:

“How’s it really going?”

“Did your boy come up today?”

“How is he doing without you at home?”


Sometimes I couldn’t lift my head

off the pillow—

when vomiting and mouth sores

wouldn’t let me speak—

the swish of his mop

bestowed the final blessing

of the night…

(In:  Volume 1, 2001)

It’s not just loss that defines the cancer experience.  There are things you find too:  new friends, new dreams, and new gratitude for life’s small gifts, ones you may have previously overlooked or barely noticed.  You discover new facets of yourselves to explore, strength or resilience you never imagined you had.  Perhaps you even discover you haven’t lost as much as you thought.  The kind of loss that comes from cancer or other serious illness is often fertile ground for new knowledge and understanding.

Writing helps us articulate– even mourn–what we have lost in the difficult chapters of life,  but it offers us much more.  When we write, we have a blank page, an unblemished open space upon which to reclaim lost stories, create new ones, reclaim our voices and ourselves.  We discover new insights, new possibilities.  We discover our words have the power to touch others.  We find new realms of creativity we never realized we possessed.  We find ourselves again.

Writing Suggestion:

  • Start with a blank sheet of paper and list everything you’ve lost since your cancer diagnosis (or other debilitating life event).
  • Then turn the page over and list the acts of kindness that you remember, the ones that made a difference, or gave you hope,
  • Re-examine rediscover you thought you lost. Has your experience helped you to see things in a different life?

As you write, explore what you’ve lost and what you’ve found.

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A few weeks ago, I was invited to give a presentation on the expressive writing programs I lead with cancer patients and survivors to a visiting group of medical students from Dokkyo University in Japan, part of an annual “observership” program hosted by Moores UCSD Cancer Center which I’ve participated in for several years.  My part in the program is to discuss the health benefits of expressive writing and the “Writing through Cancer” program series I lead for patients and survivors at the Center.

It’s always an enjoyable morning, but it’s a different presentation than I usually give to groups.  First, I’m challenged to explain the research highlights of expressive writing and how it’s put into practice in terms that are easily translatable to a group whose English language skills are not generally well developed.  The second and more interesting challenge lies in the cultural differences between American and Japanese populations.  To “tell the truth” about one’s difficult or traumatic experiences, as those in my cancer writing groups do, and expressive writing research demonstrates the health benefits of doing so with several different groups, it’s not appropriate in Japanese culture.  Thus, the medical students and I have an interesting discussion about how expressive writing could be used effectively with Japanese cancer patients and others.  That discussion has naturally migrated to a poetic form that is uniquely Japanese:  haiku.

Creating poetry out of life’s hardships is, of course, an acknowledged healing practice.  The poetry written by cancer patients, for example, has been featured in many magazines and books, like Karin Miller’s two volumes of The Cancer Poetry Project, first published in 2001, and filled with poetry that deals with every stage of the cancer journey.  Poetry was a way for people to express their grief and sorrow in the weeks after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001.  An article entitled “In Shelley or Auden, in the Sonnet or Free Verse, The Eerily Intimate Power of Poetry to Consoleappeared in the New York Times less than a month after the tragedyThe author, Dinitia Smith, noted “In the weeks since the terrorist attacks, people have been consoling themselves—and one another—with poetry in an almost unprecedented way…” (October 1, 2001). ‘In times of crisis it’s … always poetry,” former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins remarked, “What we want to hear is a human voice speaking directly in our ear.”

Shortly after the catastrophic Japanese tsunami of 2011, the Los Angeles Times featured an article entitled “Capturing Japan’s pain in 17 syllables.”  Haiku, a centuries-old Japanese poetic form, commonly about fleeting moments in nature or its changing seasons, became a vehicle to capture and express the pain of the Japanese people in the days and weeks following the tsunami.  Reporter Julie Makinen described how it began:  Amid the cacophony of news bulletins and tweets and cellphone alerts registering yet another aftershock, Yoshikatsu Kurota quietly sent out his brief verse. It was published Thursday, in small type, on Page 14 of the mass-circulation Asahi Daily, in the corner that Japan’s newspapers still devote to such poetic endeavors… Seventeen Japanese syllables, radiating out into the universe, perhaps touching a few other distressed souls adrift in the chaos.

About the nuclear power plant

too much detail I hear

such unhappiness


Yo Yasuhara, a Buddhist monk living in Kyoto and a practitioner of haiku first wrote of the October 2004 earthquake which rocked his native Niigata after she spent an uneasy night in the frigid cold in the aftermath:

It’s cold and wet

camping outdoors

aftershocks multiplying

the misery

After the 2011 tsunami, Yasuhara again wrote a haiku, one ultimately carved into a memorial stone in the city of Kyoto:

Days of disaster

I can never forget

the cold and wet

Haiku, as it turned out, gave the Japanese medical students and me some possibilities for using writing, in this case, poetry, as part of healing.  Later, as I led them in some short writing exercises to demonstrate my workshop approach with cancer patients, we incorporated haiku writing, then discussed the possibilities and power of the form.

The essence of the haiku form lies in its brevity and visual intensity.  In seventeen short syllables, it paints a picture in the readers’ mind, calling our attention to an observation and the story hinted at behind the image.  Its most common form is written in three lines, the first line five syllables long, the second, seven, and the third, five, for a total of seventeen syllables, although when translated from Japanese, is not always perfect.

Haiku teaches us the power of observation, of being present to the here and now.  It’s a short-hand route to express suffering and pain, as the tsunami haiku shows us.  It can also be used to express the medical experience.  Pulse:  Voices from the Heart of Medicine, is an online magazine that features essays and poetry by patients and medical professionals, published every Friday.  Pulse also showcases haiku in every issue.  In three short lines, contributors describe their medical experience, for example:

hospital trolley

A nurse wakes me

with a sleeping pill

(–By Cynthia Rowe)


brain tumor on scan

springtime hues drain from my life

black and white remain

(–By Hedy S. Wald)


her bit fat arm

swinging happily at her side

breast cancer survivor

(–By Roz Levine)

Haiku can be a way to use poetry to express your sorrow and pain, but it has the potential to do much more than that.  Haiku takes us beyond sorrow and pain to notice the external world,  the fleeting moments and beauty in Nature, and that teaches us gratitude.  Focus on one small moment of Nature, and the noise from the external world vanishes.  You open your eyes—and heart—to the smallest details, the fleeting moments and beauty in the natural world.  You become aware of the feelings such moments evoke.   While the first level of Haiku is always located in Nature, the second is most often a reflection on Nature, often characterized by themes of  acceptance, aloneness, humor, silence, awakening, compassion, even death.  It’s why Haiku is a poetic form that can have such impact in emotional healing, because a dialogue with Nature is more than just observation; it takes us inside ourselves.  Writing haiku is a kind of meditation,  calming, and quiet. Perhaps haiku, poetry in its simplest form, offers not only a way to find words to express our suffering, but as it also expresses beauty, perhaps it is a prescription for a larger life.

This week, try using Haiku to express yourself—whether it’s an aspect of your cancer experience or a small moment of Nature that offers a metaphor for life.  Three lines, 5, 7, 5, for a total of seventeen syllables.  If you’ve been reluctant to try writing poetry, haiku offers you an very accessible way to begin.


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What you do with time

is what a grandmother clock

does with it: strike twelve

and take its time doing it.

You’re the clock: time passes

you remain. And wait.

(From:  “Mother,” by From The Plural of Happiness: Selected Poems of Herman de Coninck, 2006)


I was too restless to concentrate on writing a prompt yesterday morning, and I was preoccupied with leading a writing workshop in the afternoon.  I promised myself I’d get the post written in the evening, but by then, thinking about my daughter’s impending dissertation defense,  my husband and I began reminiscing, remembering our doctoral defenses, and while it was an innocent conversation, it ignited my agitation.  I slept well enough until five a.m., waking with my eldest daughter dominating my thoughts.  She’s on Eastern Time, so I knew she would soon be leaving for her university.  Despite my confidence in her, I felt anxious and hoped she was prepared for what is often a grueling two-hour doctoral dissertation defense.  I knew she was well grounded in her research area, living and working in Lebanon for several years as she interviewed countless Lebanese youth and experts in her field of study.  Her research took years, due, in part, to work assignments, developing a long-term relationship with her spouse, and giving birth to a daughter, now five, and writing a lengthy dissertation in Mid-East studies.  Yet she persisted, finishing the dissertation a few months ago and today finally charged with defending her work.

It’s little surprise that I couldn’t go back to sleep.  Six a.m. for me, nine a.m. for her, and I pictured her entering the conference room, dissertation committee and external examiner seated at the table.  Seven a.m., and I tried deep breathing, thinking positive thoughts, and willing myself back to sleep.  I was unsuccessful.  So I gave up, got out of bed and waited, nervously jumping up every time the telephone rang.  A business call for my husband.  A call from a friend.  A delivery.  And still I waited.

Standing at the baggage passing time: 

Austin Texas airport—my ride hasn’t come yet. 

(Gary Snyder, “Waiting for A Ride,” in Danger On Peaks, 2004)

Waiting.  You stare at the clock; the hands seem to move in slow motion.  We do a lot of waiting in our lifetimes, and there are periods in our lives when waiting seems to be the dominate feature of each day.  We wait in lines for tickets or to get through security at the airport.  We wait to be served in restaurants or for a train in the subway station.  We wait for calls or letters from loved ones, for acceptances to schools, or the results of medical tests,( as I did this past weekend), or for a loved one undergoing surgery.  We wait in doctors’ waiting rooms for an appointment scheduled an hour earlier, thumbing impatiently through outdated magazines and checking the clock a dozen times.

You will have to wait. Until it. Until …
Until the doctor enters the waiting room, and His expression betrays all, and you wish He’d take his God-damned hand off your shoulder.

(From:  “Waiting,” The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren, 1998)

We wait with hope; and sometimes, we wait with dread.  And many of us wait impatiently, unable to concentrate on much of anything but the waiting.

Some days will be rainy and you will sit waiting

And the letter you wait for won’t come,

And I will sit watching the sky tear off gray and gray

And the letter I wait for won’t come.

(From “Caboose Thoughts,” by Carl Sandburg, 1878 – 1967)

No amount of sighing and toe tapping diminishes the waiting.  It does little good to pace the hallway or sit at the table, foot twitching restlessly, willing something or someone to speed up.  As Robert Penn Warren is to have said, If something takes too long, something happens to you. You become all and only the thing you want and nothing else, for you have paid too much for it, too much in wanting and too much in waiting and too much in getting.”

Time—and events—move as they will.  Still we wait.  It’s difficult to focus on anything else, and yet, if impatience becomes our master, how much of the life around us might we fail to notice?

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.


(From The Four Quartets, by T.S. Eliot, 1943)

The faith and the love and the hope are … in the waiting.  These words remind me to reconsider why life seems to make us wait.  I am still learning, despite my age, to accept what I cannot control, to let things unfold as they will–even if it’s as simple as waiting for the call from my eldest daughter to tell me her news…  And she did, an hour ago, entering the defense as a graduate student and exiting with her new title, “Dr.” as she left the university nearly three hours later.  She called a short time afterward with the good news, and it was worth the wait.

Writing Suggestion:

  • What are you waiting for now?
  • Do you remember a particular time when your life seemed to be consumed by waiting?
  • Write about waiting for news, good or bad.  What was the situation?  How did you feel waiting?  How did you feel once the wait was up?


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And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear.  What we need is here.

From:  “The Wild Geese,” by Wendell Berry

Throughout my childhood and undergraduate years, I was active in the Methodist church, involved in the youth groups and later, in the Methodist Student Movement, which was very involved in civil rights and social justice.  Some of my most enduring friendships were formed during that period, but for the better part of my adult life,  I’ve been a lapsed church-goer, craving a deeper spiritual practice than I experienced in the Sunday morning services.   For years, I dabbled with other religious traditions, tried practicing meditation, but nothing seemed to fill my need for the spiritual life I once knew.

Ironically, I’ve led workshops with the bereaved and the terminally ill, and in all of them, one’s faith and spirituality are central.  Still, I searched for something more in my life, even beginning a chaplaincy program several years ago, only to withdraw after a few weeks because, as I told the other participants, I didn’t feel I was “religious” enough to be a chaplain.

And yet, questions of spirituality and faith have always been important and central to my life.  It was only after a spiritual retreat I co-led a couple of years ago, I realized I had had overlooked the spiritual practice I’ve had for years:  a daily routine of writing—freely and deeply—something which began in my teens as I pondered life’s meaning and a later became a refuge, and a virtual sanctuary in my daily adult life.  Writing, as some writers have said, is like a kind of prayer, something I’d always felt about my daily writing practice, but I hadn’t acknowledged how it had, over a period of many years, become my spiritual practice.

Nearly twenty years ago,  I was struggling with a near perfect storm of losses—my father was dead from lung cancer, my mother had begun her descent into the darkness of Alzheimer’s disease, and our family’s dynamics resulted in my becoming estranged from my siblings.   At the same time, I was in the midst of a soul wrenching experience of having to downsize a dying nonprofit organization,  when an unexpected diagnosis of early stage breast cancer–while not life threatening–finally thrust me into a period of complete numbness.  Writing, as it had always been, was my refuge, the only way I could express the grief and heartache I felt,  The only way I could make sense of everything that was happening.  Writing not only helped me cope, it became a fundamental part of my spiritual life.

I have since maintained a daily writing practice, a ritual of quiet meditation that begins in the pre-dawn hours of each day, well before the outside world pulls me into its noisy demands.  I settle in my chair and open the pages of leather bound journal I’ve written in for years.  A new page awaits, blank and inviting, and I recall Rita Dove’s words in, “Dawn Revisited:”  the whole sky is yours/ to write on, blown open/ to a blank page…

The whole sky is yours to write on…  I write every morning, without expectation, beginning with one small observation–something I notice in the moment—fog lifting from the canyon floor, the red breasted hummingbird who appears each morning at the garden fountain, a hawk’s wings spread wide as he glides over the canyon below; the graceful movement of eucalyptus trees in the morning breeze, the smell of freshly brewed coffee—whatever captures my attention.

Sometimes, a short poem emerges on the page, and other times, it’s a feeling or memory, a door open into a longer narrative.  It matters less what I write than simply that I write, embracing the solitude, intertwining the external world with my internal one, exploring whatever words or sentences appear on the page.

“At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world~ now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening.                                         Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk.

Writing is my daily meditation and prayer.  It opens me, ensures I am “paying attention” to what is before me or inside me. It informs my intentions for each day and ultimately, the work I do.  Writing isn’t for everyone, and that hardly matters, because anything that opens you to quiet contemplation and the deeper parts of your lives can be a spiritual practice, for example, art, music, meditation, yoga, hiking, dance…  As Thomas Merton said, “Art enables us to find ourselves and and lose ourselves at the same time.”

Life’s hardships thrust us into what can only be defined as a deeply spiritual journey, although we may not recognize it as such.  We may kick and scream, rail against the injustices of those events, but like it or not, we’re forced to re-examine our lives in ways we have not done before.  We learn to pay attention, really pay attention, to what truly matters to us.   In times of hardship, life-threatening illness, or other suffering, it’s often our spiritual lives that keep us from losing hope, that keep us whole.  As New York Times editor, Dana Jennings, wrote in his blog “One Man’s Cancer,” our spiritual lives sustain us through life’s most challenging chapters:

I am not a fool. I am a patient with Stage T3B cancer and a Gleason score of 9. I need the skills and the insights of the nurses and doctors who care for me. But they don’t treat the whole man. Medicine cares about physical outcomes, not the soul. I also need — even crave — the spiritual antibodies of prayer, song and sacred study.  (New York Times, June 2009)

I also need—even crave–the spiritual antibodies of prayer, song and sacred study…  Among cancer patients, studies show that faith and spirituality are important factors in the quality of life. I witness this in my writing groups.  Faith or spirituality are  often expressed in the poetry and stories written and shared with each other.  As one member said “The community I am building with my fellow writers …is… a form of spirituality.”  Sharing the stories of one’s experience of cancer is one way our spiritual lives deepen and solidify.

Through the exchange of stories, we help heal each other’s spirits…Isn’t this what a spiritual life is about?          -–Patrice Vecchione, Writing and the Spiritual Life                                                                      

However you define your spiritual practice, it can comfort you in times of struggle, but it also gives you the opportunity to deepen your understanding and compassion for yourself and others.  You learn to pay attention to what, in your lives, truly matters, what is essential and important.  You learn to remember gratitude and appreciation for the ordinary gifts life offers you each day.

Varda, who died of metastatic breast cancer nearly fifteen years ago, wrote with me the last two years of her life.  I’ve never forgotten her writing, often humorously, sometimes poignant, but always honest, voicing what others were sometimes afraid to express.  Varda was thrust into a journey that may have brought her to her knees, but she continued to write deeply about her life, her faith and her cancer during the many remaining months of her life.  Her stories were her “spiritual antibodies”—not her cure, but part of her courage to face and help others face her death with grace, love, and even shared laughter.  It was the evidence of the depth of her spiritual life. Near the final weeks of her life, she wrote a poem expressing her spiritual journey:

God and I always had a special relationship,

sealed in ancient Hebrew prayers

and stained glass windows.

The Shofar blown on Yom Kippur.

The Book of Life open for ten days a year,

and then my fate sealed.


But our relationship has changed.

In asking me to surrender to this illness,

God has asked me to let go—to trust—float free.

And I have found this to be a most precious time.


My cancer has challenged my faith,

and I have found an incredible well I did not know I had.

I have found true surrender,

enormous peace.

(From:  “Faith,” by Varda Nowack Goldstein, in:  A Healing Journey:  Writing Together Through Breast Cancer, by Sharon Bray, 2004).)

Writing Suggestions:

  • What nourishes your spiritual life?
  • What spiritual practices or rituals have helped sustain you in times of illness, hardship or struggle?
  • Where have you found your solace, your strength, your source for “spiritual antibodies?”

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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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