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

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

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

Self-help books or advice from friends and colleagues rarely includes the kind of specific instructions we feel we need when we’re thrust into the uneven and difficult terrain of sudden life change, trauma or debilitating illness.  Sharon Doyle, a cancer survivor, entitled her poem, “There’s Not a Book On How To Do This,” offering  a glimpse of her cancer journey as she considers plans for a garden after her recovery:
There’s not a book on how to do this,
but there is an emphasis on composition.

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

don’t have cancer anymore…

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

There’s not a book on how to do this…” I like Doyle’s poem because the planning of her garden provides a metaphor for her cancer journey.  Think about it.  Whether cancer, or any major life challenge, you’re not given an instruction book to help us navigate the stress, upheaval, fear, or grief.  You may be lucky to have the comfort of friends and family, physicians and helping professionals, but the journey is, ultimately, yours to make.  The road is often full of unexpected twists and turns, conundrums and set-backs, but little by little, you find your way, and begin to design a new life, one that honors where you’ve been, what you have experienced and learned along the way.

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

I left vacant fourteen
trellis lightscapes for
balloons.

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

Writing Suggestion:

This week, reflect on the journey of cancer or some other difficult life changing event.  It’s unlikely you were handed a GPS or a book of instructions to help you understand and manage challenges like an altered body, loss of a loved one, a job or a home.  What helped you navigate the rough waters of such profound and unexpected change?  What internal compass—your beliefs, aspirations, or faith—played a part in helping you rediscover hope and embrace a new life?

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This past week has been all about my granddaughter, Flora, who celebrated her fifth birthday.  I was lucky enough to participate in her festivities, squeezing my tall body into a cramped and uncomfortable airplane seat to make the five hour trip to Toronto, then sleep on a futon bed that guaranteed I awakened with an aching back each morning.  But I admit that when I sat among Flora’s delighted friends, their parents, and the party activities my daughter and son-in-law had so painstakingly planned, the unpleasantness of air travel and lumpy mattresses hardly seemed important.

I admit that most travel is anything but enjoyable  for me at this stage of my life, but  my daughters and their families live thousands of miles apart from each other and from me,  so I willingly endure the stress and discomfort of these long distance journeys to immerse myself in my grandchildren’s lives for a short time once or twice a year.  Their joyful welcomes, imaginative play, and delight in whatever antics we share together are well worth the trips.

Airplane travels aside, each of us encounter many different kinds of journeys during our lives.  I think back to some of mine, and how much I wish I’d had a few road maps for events like single parenting, widowhood, illness or even this  journey called “retirement.”  It helps, of course, to have information and advice, but ultimately, each person’s experience is unique.

Like any traveler, I do my homework before I set out on any new journey, be it travel to a foreign country, illness and treatment, or, more recently, the less welcome aspects of aging.  Like anything, google “cancer,” “arthritis,” “retirement” or “cancer,” and you’ll find dozens of sites with advice and tips for the person who must traverse the terrain of any debilitating illness or life stage changes, or various medications and their side effects, to name a few.  While  I appreciate information,  I’ve often discovered that the amount available and sometimes contradictory articles I read can be overwhelming.  More reassuring is the support—and advice—of friends and colleagues who’ve experienced these different life journeys. I have cherished the support and advice of so many friends who’ve traveled ahead of me in life.  They have been invaluable resources to help me prepare and travel through any unknown territory.

In a few weeks, I’ll  begin two new “Writing Through Cancer” programs , and “journey,” a  metaphor for the cancer experience, will be key to informing the design of the sessions and prompts I offer to the men and women who attend.

In a discussion of the use of metaphors in cancer, authors Gary Reisfield and George Wilson describe the “journey” as encompassing the possibility: for exploration, struggle, hope, discovery, and change… The roads may be bumpy and poorly illuminated at times, and one may encounter forks, crossroads, roadblocks, U-turns, and detours. The pace, route and destinations of the journey may change, sometimes repeatedly.the journey… may ultimately imbue them … with a vision of a deeper meaning in life. (J. of Clinical Oncology, October, 2004)

Perhaps the most important aspect of the cancer writing groups I lead is the support that the participants give to one another.  They are travelers on a similar journey that none of them would ever choose to take.  Some participants are newly diagnosed, others are well into treatment, and a few are in recovery or living with the likelihood of death from their illness.  No matter the stage of each person’s cancer journey, they join together as a supportive community, sharing their experiences, offering understanding and assistance to one another at every turn.  By the end of the series, new insights and discoveries, the deeper realms of the heart and one’s life are shared.  To witness these journeys, hear the stories and the poetry that comes from the experience of cancer, is surely one of the greatest gifts I experience.

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,

determined to do

the only thing you could do–

determined to save

the only life you could save.

(From:  “The Journey,” by Mary Oliver, Dream Work, 1986)

Writing Suggestions:

Life.  Journey.  Two intertwined words..  How would you describe your cancer journey?  Or one triggered by a difficult and life-changing event you’ve experienced?   Here are some questions to consider as you write:

  • What is it like to travel along this road named “cancer”? Or elderhood?  Job loss?  Retirement?   Loss of a loved one?
  • How do you move through the questions, confusion and potential roadblocks to the “new normal” of life and rediscover how to live fully?
  • What helpful hints, experiences and impressions might you offer the inexperienced traveler?

 

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…After a morning’s surfing; paddling frantically

To top the brisk outsiders coming to wreck me,

Trundle me clumsily along the beach floor’s

Gravel and sand; my knees aching with salt.

Is that all I have to write about?

You write about the life that’s vividest.

And if that is your own, that is your subject…

(From: “Ground Swell” by Mark Jarman, in Questions for Ecclesiastes,  1997)

I’m in transition as I write this post.  A temporary one, but one that is a welcome change from my daily routine.  It’s a chance that, as I age, is more difficult to recapture.  Rather than complaining about the heat, in a few days, I’ll likely be chasing waves along a beach with a seven and five year old, playing games created by one or the other, and reading them my favorite Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (a children’s book by Canadian author, Mordecai Richler) with appropriate dramatic flair at bedtime.  This year, I’ll be privileged to join  in the silliness and excitement of another grandchild’s birthday–her fifith–and show my exuberance and gratitude for the birthday gift she has been saving to give to me—a set of three plush Minions—because, she told her mother when she chose them, “Gramma loves the Minions.”

In short, I’ll morph into a wild and crazy grandmother and for a few short days, share in the joyful abandonment of my grandchildren’s summertime.  It’s the kind of joyous play that takes me back decades to the sheer exhilaration of childhood summers:  playing kickball, racing friends across the lawn, blowing soap bubbles in the afternoon breeze, eating ice cream cones in the hot afternoons,  climbing monkey bars and swinging together at the playground.  Every day was full of dreams and new adventures in those long ago summer times.  Our whole lives lay before us, and anything seemed possible.
In those years, every summer’s day was filled with activity.

As a small gang of neighborhood children, we raced through on sidewalks and neighbor’s lawns to explore the nearby fields and hillsides.   We lived completely in the moment, happily oblivious to the challenges of adulthood.  Summer signaled freedom from school and homework.  It was enough to lay quietly in tall grass and find faces and shapes in the clouds above us.  We relished family vacations, softball in the park, swimming in lakes or community pools, or running through the sprinklers on a hot afternoon.  We crawled through barbed wire fences to pick blackberries from wild and thorny bushes.  We caught butterflies, frogs and lizards, searched for arrowheads or buried treasure in the hillsides and turned Manzanita bushes into secret fortresses.  There were picnics with watermelon, sleepovers under the stars, and evenings filled with hastily scripted summer theater, circus acts and parades to entertain our parents.

Now that I am many years older and live in a climate where the variation in seasons is less obvious than other parts of the country and summer is synonymous with wildfire season, I often forget the joy that once was summertime, falling prey to the adult demands of daily life,  too often filled with appointments, household tasks or work that requires I be at the computer.  It’s much too easy to forget how glorious a sunny day can be, how precious life is, how much—and how quickly–life seems to change as we age and how we become stoo busy to pay attention to what’s just outside the window.

It’s why, in part, I love being in the company of my grandchildren.  They pull me into their delight and joy in the world around us rather than having their attention consumed by computer games and mobile devices.  I fear that day will come as they grow older, but  I pray they can hold on to the wonderment, imaginative play and exploration of the natural world for as long as possible.  In a world so filled with turbulence, crises, and violence, being able to live in the exuberance and abandonment of a child’s summer day for a time, restores some of my hope for a world in which hope sometimes seems increasingly elusive.

“Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon?” Mary Oliver asks in her poem, “The Summer Day.” The poem reminds me, as I know my grandchildren will also do , how joy can be found by simply allowing ourselves to be present to what is alive and beautiful around us,  to care for and replenish our natural world as it, in turn, replenishes our spirits.  Oliver writes:

…I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

(From New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press,1992)

Writing Suggestions:

What can you write about?  Write about the most “vividest”   memory or memories you associate with childhood and summertime.  s  Alternatively, write about noticing, being in Nature and simply paying attention.  You might also try responding to the question, “what do you plan to do “with your one wild and precious life?”

May you rediscover some of the joy of summertime as I am.

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Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby.  But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.  (The Skin Horse speaking to the Velveteen Rabbit, in The Velveteen Rabbit, By Margery Williams, 1922)

Two weeks ago, one of my dearest and long-time friends called, as he put it, to vent.  C. has had two melanomas removed from his upper body in recent years, but another, more dangerous looking, had appeared on his neck.  The melanoma was removed this past week and he’s now waiting for the results of a sentinel node biopsy.  We talked two days ago, but avoided the undercurrent of worry that inevitably accompanies the waiting for test results.  Instead, he focused on the scar left by the surgery.

“I have a long, S-shaped scar,” he said, “and it runs from the back of my ear all the way down my neck.”  I commiserated.  No one likes accumulating scars, especially large ones.  But I tried to lighten the mood a little—humor is something we’ve always enjoyed with one another—and  joked that he still hadn’t caught up yet with the number of bodily scars I’ve managed to accumulate over the years.  No doubt my rough and tumble childhood in a small Northern California town contributed to more than a few of the scars still visible on my body; others, however, were the result of surgeries, even lifesaving, as I hope for his.

As I write this, my hand moves almost unconsciously to the scar behind my hairline.  It’s decades old now, but still visible if I pull my hair back from my face.  It’s long and pale, running from one ear over the top of my head and down to the other, the evidence of a gifted neurosurgeon’s work.  It tells a story of an accident, weeks of recovery, and complications that nearly resulted in my death.  Near my right ankle, another scar calls up the memory of the cold, metal edge of a tent stake slicing into my leg as I chased my younger brother across a campsite when he snatched my teenage diary from my tent and tried to make a fast getaway.  There are other scars more recently obtained:  one from the surgeon’s knife under my left breast, another near my collarbone where a defibrillator was inserted after an episode of heart failure, and smaller ones from scrapes and falls doing household tasks.  There are other scars too, but these are ones that cannot be seen, the residue of wounding by love, loss and betrayal, the stories we all share from living.

A girl whom I’ve not spoken to
or shared coffee with for several years
writes of an old scar

On her wrist it sleeps, smooth and white,
the size of a leech.
I gave it to her

brandishing a new Italian penknife…

We remember the time around scars,
they freeze irrelevant emotions
and divide us from present friends…

(“The Time Around Scars,” by Michael Ondaatje)

We all have scars, whether visible to others or carried deep within.  “The lessons of life,” Wallace Stegner wrote, “amount not to wisdom, but to scar tissue and callus.” Our scars, the scar tissue we accumulate, tell the stories of living, of events that changed us:  life-saving surgery, the traces of shrapnel marring a face, disfigurement from accidents, broken hearts, and unexpected tragedies.  They are stories of our lives, the ones we remember and those we may try to forget.

My mother parts her hair

and leans over

so I can touch the scar.

“No, she says, you don’t remember,”

and goes back to making the bed,

snapping a sheet

as folds of lightning spark…

 

The ambulance came right away,

my mother says, pulling the corners tight.

“There was no other woman…”

 

(“Scar,” by Wendy Mnookin, in The Cortland Review, 2001)

David Jennings, a  reporter for the New York Times who blogged regularly about his battle with prostate cancer from 2008 – 2011, offered a perspective on scars in the July 21, 2009 issue.

Our scars tell stories. Sometimes they’re stark tales of life-threatening catastrophes, but more often they’re just footnotes to the ordinary but bloody detours that befall us on the roadways of life…my scars remind me of the startling journeys that my body has taken — often enough to the hospital or the emergency room.

There’s that mighty scar on my right knee from when I was 12 years old and had a benign tumor cut out. Then there are the scars on my abdomen from when my colon (devoured by ulcerative colitis) was removed in 1984, and from my radical open prostatectomy last summer to take out my cancerous prostate…

But for all the potential tales of woe that they suggest, scars are also signposts of optimism. If your body is game enough to knit itself back together after a hard physical lesson, to make scar tissue, that means you’re still alive, means you’re on the path toward healing.

Scars, perhaps, were the primal tattoos, marks of distinction that showed you had been tried and had survived the test… in this vain culture our vanity sometimes needs to be punctured and deflated — and that’s not such a bad thing. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, better to be a scarred and living dog than to be a dead lion.

Our scars.  The evidence of life and survival.  In the pictorial essay, Winged Victory, photographer Al Myers, together with Maria Marrocchino, celebrated women who survived breast cancer.  Shown half-clothed, their scars visible, Myers portrayed them as victors, scarred but beautiful. Stanford psychiatrist Dr. David Spiegel, writing in the foreword, said “…they present their bodies and themselves with humor, sadness, vulnerability, honesty. They challenge us to look beyond what is missing, beneath the scar.”  (Winged Victory:  Altered Images:  Transcending Breast Cancer, 2009)

i was leaving my fifty-eighth year
when a thumb of ice
stamped itself hard near my heart

you have your own story
you know about the fears the tears
the scar of disbelief …

(“1994,” by Lucille Clifton, in The Terrible Stories, 1996)

“To look beyond …beneath the scar.”  Jennings’ essay expresses the same sentiments captured by photographer Myers.  It’s not that I’m proud of my scars — they are what they are, born of accident and necessity — but I’m not embarrassed by them, either. More than anything, I relish the stories they tell. Then again, I’ve always believed in the power of stories, and I certainly believe in the power of scars.

The power of stories…the power of scars…   My hope is that my friend C. will smile a little in years to come when a grandchild touches the scar on his neck and asks, “What’s that from, Papa?” Perhaps he will tell her the story of a time when physicians, medicine and perhaps a little help from some greater force, all combined to allow him to live many long years.

Writing Suggestion:

“Every scar tells a story,” author Thomas Moore once said.   This week, think about your scars.  What memories surface?  Write the story of a scar.

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I miss you every day–the heartbeat
under your necktie, the hand cupped
on the back of my neck, Old Spice
in the air, your voice delighted with stories.

(From:  “Father” in Delights & Shadows by Ted Kooser)

It is an old photo, retrieved from the dozens of pictures taken in the summer of 1972, one that makes me smile even now.  In it, my first husband and his brother are clowning for the picture, a seventies version of a “selfie,” achieved with the shutter lag of his camera.  But it’s the faces of my daughters—ones that once ignited a young mother’s anxiety — that make us all laugh, remembering the oftentimes “wild and crazy guy” their father was.  My youngest, nine months old, is sliding toward the floor from her father’s arms, alarm on her face, while the oldest, by just a year and a half, is crying loudly as her grinning uncle grips her arm tightly.  It was intended as a “happy” group photo, but the younger members in the picture were not smiling, even as their father and uncle laughed and counted the seconds to the flash and shutter click.

The picture appeared  last night, posted on my daughter’s Facebook page  with the words, “My hero; I still miss you, Daddy.”  And she does, even though he’s been gone for 35 years, his life abruptly ended in a drowning accident when my daughters were just nine and ten.  Yet their memories of “Daddy” are still alive, as are mine.  I see his smile, hear his voice in one daughter’s face and the other’s penchant for political discourse.  We all carry vivid memories of him, stories that have been told and re-told.  “Death,” Jim Harrison wrote, “steals everything but our stories.”

For several years after his death, I was mother and father to my daughters, weathering our shared grief and loss and navigating the sturm and drang of adolescence as a single parent.  “Daddy” became larger than life in the girls’ minds, and, not surprisingly, they grew close to their father’s parents in the subsequent years, helping one another keep his memory alive.  It was during their teens that I met and later married my husband, John.  Although he’d been married before, he never had children.  I worried, as our  relationship began, that my two strong-willed adolescents might frighten him away, but John weathered their ups and downs with more patience than I thought possible.

He never tried to assume the moniker of “Dad,” honoring their undying love for the father they’d lost and always encouraging of their stories of him.  Gradually, the bonds between John and my daughters grew.  He became “Bubbie,” responding to them with patience, affection and the ability to dance that conflicted tango of step-fatherhood:  “I love you”—“don’t even think that I love you.”

He taught them to drive, visited my eldest daughter on her first work-study program in rural Thailand while on a World Bank project in Laos, and drove cross-country from California to New York with my younger daughter when my career took me to New York City.  Little by little, and without any fanfare, their relationship deepened and their bond with each other was cemented.  “This is my father,” my eldest daughter said as she introduced him to a former high school teacher three years later.  My heart skipped a beat, but John simply extended his hand and said “hello,” although I saw his tears glistening in his eyes.  He’s been in their lives now for 29 years and has firmly rooted himself as stepfather to my daughters and “Grandpa” to their children.

Even though there were video calls and Father’s Day gifts for John this morning, I know both daughters always remember their dead father on this day–and many other days of the year.  They miss him even now, as I do my own, but they are generous in the love and affection they have with John.  I am deeply grateful for how John he loves my daughters wholeheartedly and how he has so willingly embraced them in his life, demonstrating as much concern and commitment to their growth and well-being as any birth father.

He wasn’t hard on us kids,
never struck us…

He used to sing in the car
bought us root beers along the road.
He loved us with his deeds.

(From: “A Father’s Pain,” in A River Remains by Larry Smith)

Writing Suggestion: 

The memories we hold of our fathers or the father figures in our lives are full of feelings and of stories.  For example, take a look at the range of poems about fathers featured on the Poetry Foundation site.  What stories do you carry about your father or a father figure?  Why not write one that is especially important, humorous or poignant?

I salute you all, the fathers, stepfathers, grandfathers, all the men who have played a loving role in a fatherless child’s life.  Whether you helped to birth a son or daughter, or were “like” fathers to any child, teenager or adult, Happy Father’s Day.

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Happy Birthday to you.

Happy birthday to you.

Happy Birthday dear Gramma.

Happy Birthday to you.

I awakened to that familiar song early this morning.  An enthusiastic duet by telephone from two of my grandchildren.  Today is my birthday, like it or not, and the mirror has already confirmed what my brain refuses to accept.  I’m  getting older, despite that in my head, my mid-forties are where I prefer to hang my age for the rest of my life.  But that’s a grand self-deception, because my body announces itself a little more definitely each year, confirming my forties are long gone.  Drat!  Yet I will tell you that I wouldn’t trade a birthday cake with 45 candles on it for this morning’s long distance serenade and followed by a lecture on Florida marine life from my seven-year old grandson!  What greater gift could I possibly receive?

Today’s post  is borrowed, in part, from previously published posts over the last several years.  It’s inspired by little more than the relentless march of age, the retrospective look at life that  birthdays often trigger.  I love birthdays, but lately, it’s  my grandchildren’s birthdays I celebrate with the enthusiasm of a wildly in-love, grandmother, remembering when I felt as much excitement over a birthday as they do now.  I remember the little girl I was so long ago, the one in an old, faded photograph, blonde hair curled for the occasion and topped with a giant hair ribbon.  The picnic table nearby is piled with gaily wrapped gifts and a chocolate cake sits in the center, six candles aflame.  I sport an ear-to-ear grin on my face.  Those were the long ago years I eagerly counted the days until my next birthday, becoming a “big” girl with each year promising many more possibilities than the one before.  I was ready then, even impatient, to claim older age.
Are we ever ready for the changes life presents to us?  It’s never either/or.  Each stage of life has challenges, but there are rewards too.  I’m quite content to embrace the title, “Gramma,” but on the other hand, I am less enthusiastic about some of my physical changes—the relentless pull of gravity, loss of muscle tone, and the silvering of my hair.  I balk at regular visits to my cardiologist, reminding me of a condition I thought belonged only others, elder others like my grandparents.  Ready or not, you can’t escape aging.
“Ready,” the title of a poem by Irene MacKinney, begins with a memory:

I remember a Sunday with the smell of food drifting
out the door of the cavernous kitchen and my serious
teenage sister and her girlfriends Jean and Marybelle
standing on the bank above the dirt road in their
white sandals ready to walk to the country church
a mile away, and ready to return to the fried
chicken, green beans and ham, and fresh bread
spread on the table…

Every birthday reminds me of ones past.  Memories come alive:  the scent of chocolate as my mother baked my birthday cake, the candle flames dancing as everyone sang to me, eyes shut, wishing as hard as I could for something I wanted to happen.  That “Happy Birthday “sung enthusiastically over the telephone by my grandchildren sent my mind racing back to not just those joyful celebrations of a grade school girl, but some that were less celebratory, marred by difficult events in my life at the time.  Birthdays are full of story…ones that are, as mine have been, triggered by that simple song, “Happy Birthday to you…”

I’ve used an exercise in my writing groups borrowed from Roger Rosenblatt’s wise little book, Unless It Moves the Human Heart (Harper Collins, 2011).  Rosenblatt would ask if anyone in his class had recently celebrated—or was about to–a birthday.  Then he surprised the class:

I…then burst into song:  “Happy Birthday to You.”  They [his students] give me the he’s-gone-nuts look I’ve come to cherish over the years.  I sing it again.  “Happy Birthday to You.  Anyone had a birthday recently?  Anyone about to have one?” …just sit back and see what comes of listening to this irritating, celebratory song you’ve heard all your lives” (pp.39-40).

When I tried the exercise, my students looked at me with curiosity as I began singing before laughing a little and joining in.  “Now let’s write,” I said as our singing ended.  “What memories does “Happy Birthday to you” inspire?”  I wrote too, memories of the highlights of birthdays past: a blue bicycle waiting for me the morning of my seventh birthday, a surprise party my husband and daughters managed to pull off few years ago, the long-ago headline in my small town newspaper’s society page:  “Sharon Ann Bray turns six today,” (my aunt Verna was the society editor), one memory spilling out after another.

Everyone in the group had the same reaction, so many memories and stories were shared that morning.  As inspirational as his exercise was, Rosenblatt isn’t the only writer who used birthdays as inspiration.  Go to www.poets.org and you’ll discover William Blake, Sylvia Plath, Christina Rossetti and many others inspired by a birthday as a time for retrospection.  I’m especially fond of Ted Kooser’s “A Happy Birthday,” a short poem that captures how a birthday triggers retrospection.

This evening, I sat by an open window

and read till the light was gone and the book

was no more than a part of the darkness.

I could easily have switched on a lamp,

but I wanted to ride this day down into night,

to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page

with the pale gray ghost of my hand.

Poems about birthdays reflect the passage of time, aging, even the opportunity for change, for example, Joyce Sutphen’s “Crossroads:”

The second half of my life will be black
to the white rind of the old and fading moon.
The second half of my life will be water
over the cracked floor of these desert years.

Writing Suggestion:

This week, let birthdays be the trigger that gets you writing.  Hum the birthday tune, or if you’re feeling brave, sing it:  “Happy Birthday to you…”  Or begin with a sentence such as “On the day I turned ___, and keep writing.  Take of the memories, good or bad, a birthday ditty evokes.  Whether you’ll soon have a birthday, recently celebrated one, or joined in the birthday celebrations of family and friends, explore your memories of past birthday, remembering that within each memory lurks a story or a poem…   Write one.

(As for me, my husband promises a carrot cake (and candles) will be part of my day and shared with a few neighborhood friends.  I don’t mind candlelight—it will soften the physical evidence of growing older.  I might wait a little longer before I try to blow them all out!)

 

 

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He remembers the day with roses,

one for each healthy year, five pink buds,

not red.  Red reminds too much

of blood, the counting of cells…

But she is here, to take in his arms tonight

And tell her she is still beautiful…

 

(From:  “Five Year Anniversary,” by Kymberly Stark Williams, In:  The Cancer Poetry Project, 2001, Karin Miller, ed.)

One week ago, my husband and I returned from a short vacation, an anniversary road trip that took us from San Diego to Gig Harbor, Washington and back.  Along the way, we stopped to explore the Paso Robles wine country, celebrate our anniversary with old friends in the Palo Alto area, take long walks and share an evening with a dear friend in Ashland, Oregon before arriving in Gig Harbor, where we stayed with an old friend and his wife before making our way back to San Diego south and through the Willamette Valley.  It was an extended anniversary celebration:  nearly two weeks of driving by day, but time together rich with memories, reminiscences and reflection:  who we were when we first met, the significant events along the way and where we are now in our life together.  Isn’t that what, in part, anniversaries are?  A time to remember, to consider what we’ve endured or achieved, and how those events shaped and changed us.

Another, different anniversary occurred while we traveled, although I’ve all but forgotten it.  Sixteen years ago, the day before our wedding anniversary, I sat in a physician’s office and heard the word, “cancer.”  At the time, I was numb with shock and disbelief. Even though I was told it was “early” and “very treatable.”  I rarely remember that distant cancer diagnosis now, but I often think about how my life changed in the years that immediately followed.  I had the love and support of my husband and daughters, and with their encouragement, I embarked on a new and different life, something for which I am deeply grateful.

Whether birthdates, weddings or other events that alter our lives—cancer, a loved one’s death, a nation’s tragedy–anniversary dates often have poignancy attached to them.  In the first years following loss, trauma and tragedy, anniversary dates often ignite strong emotions–grief, old fears, relief, or happiness.  Rituals or celebrations marking those anniversaries are a way to remember a lost loved one or a significant event in our lives, but they also provide a chance to reflect on our lives and move on.

Last month, when the women’s writing group I lead met on a Sunday afternoon, one of the members arrived with a box of decorated cupcakes, part of her celebration of a five year milestone since being diagnosed with lung cancer.  Just last week I wrote about my father’s family tradition of visiting the family gravesites in Northern California each Memorial Day, and my aunts and uncles sharing stories of their deceased parents and siblings as they stood around the headstones.  In the weeks before his death from lung cancer on Thanksgiving Day, 1992, my father asked that we not linger in sorrow, but instead, invite his friends and family to share a glass (or two) of Jack Daniels whiskey and share the humorous stories of his life.  We still mark the anniversary of his passing every Thanksgiving with a small toast of his favorite whiskey and share a story about him, a ritual that preserves the father we knew in life—not death—and honors him with the tall tales and laughter  as he did throughout his life.

Celebrations and rituals can be an important and meaningful way to assist in healing, offering a way to acknowledge your experience and place it into the context of your lives.  You remember. You’re reminded of who you were, have become, and how much you have to be grateful for.

Certain milestones may recede in importance as life goes on.  The pain of loss diminishes.  You begin to discover new joy, hope, and gradually, move on, creating new chapters of life.  I often share the words of novelist Alice Hoffman with my cancer writing groups.  Recalling her cancer experience in a 2001 New York Times article, Hoffman wrote, “An insightful, experienced oncologist told me that cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter.”

That’s true of so many of the painful or difficult periods in our lives.  As we heal, we have less need to mark or dwell on the dates of suffering; instead, we move forward, immersing ourselves in the work of living. It doesn’t mean we forget, but rather, we celebrate rather than mourn.  We give thanks.  We honor.

I’m running for Pete, because she couldn’t be here today…

Pete shed her breast, then her hair, and finally her whole body.

So now I’m running with thousands of other people all in the same T-shirts.

And Pete’s name is carefully lettered on the pink sign on my back.

I’m running for Pete, because she couldn’t be here today.

(From “Peter Rabbit,” by Carol Grommesh, In:  The Cancer Poetry Project 2, 2013, Karin Miller, Ed.)

There are many ways to celebrate or honor important milestones in the in our lives.  Here are some suggestions from an April, 2016 Cancer Net article by Greg Guthrie. While these suggestions are written for cancer survivors, they are applicable to many of milestones and anniversary dates of many significant life events.

Take time to reflect. Plan a quiet time to think about your cancer experience and reflect on the changes in your life.  Writing in a journal, taking a long walk through the redwoods, along the ocean, or anywhere you enjoy being, offers the quiet time for reflection.

Plan a special event.  One of the women in my writing groups celebrated with a trip to Costa Rica after completing  her treatment for a recurrence.   Why not plan something special, like a hot air balloon ride a trip somewhere you’ve always wanted to take, or plan a gathering with family and friends.

Donate or volunteer.
When I first joined the ranks of “cancer survivor,” I was the interim director for Breast Cancer Connections, a Palo Alto, CA nonprofit.  I was impressed by the number of cancer survivors who, daily, gave their time to volunteer at BCC.  Many cancer survivors find that donating or volunteering helps give positive meaning to their cancer experience.

Join an established celebration. Many of us have walked, run, or participated in support of one of the annual cancer survivor walks hosted by patient advocacy groups and cancer organizations.  Many hospitals and treatment centers hold events for cancer survivors or join in celebration of National Cancer Survivors Day and/or World Cancer Day.

Celebrate Your Way.  Celebrating milestones doesn’t have to involve elaborate or expensive activities.  Simply do something you truly enjoy.  Take a walk along the seashore or through a public garden, go to a film or the theater with a friend, place flowers on a loved one’s gravesite, or, share time with family or friends, those who supported you during the roller coaster of treatment and recovery.  Cancer, or other difficult events in life, isn’t, remember, your whole book, only a chapter.  Celebrate your life.

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

(“Love after Love,” by Derek Walcott, in Sea Grapes, Noonday Press, 1976)

Writing Suggestions:

What anniversaries are important to you?  Which do you remember most vividly? What images or feelings do those dates evoke? Write the story behind that date.  What happened?  Why was it important to you? How did your life change because of it?  Do you celebrate that anniversary?  Why or why not?

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