Archive for the ‘writing humor’ Category

In first grade Mrs. Lohr

said my purple teepee

wasn’t realistic enough,

that purple was no color

for a tent,

that purple was a color

for people who died,

that my drawing wasn’t 

good enough

to hang with the others…

(From:  “Purple,” by Alexis Rotella, in Step Lightly:  Poems for the Journey, Nancy Willard, Ed., 1998)

For the past several days, I’ve been consumed with the task of sifting through boxes of personal mementoes:  photographs, children’s drawings, letters from friends and family, scraps of paper in a young daughter’s hand, “I love you very much, Mom.”  It’s slow work, because each item I pull from the storage boxes ignites a flood of memories and emotion, and I pause, caught up in remembrances of the past, looking at and reading everything—the task of being a curator of family history.  I’ve separated these things into three piles:  what I keep, and what I send to each of my daughters.

Among their childish drawings and notes, I found a collection of report cards, grades for their achievement in core subjects, teachers’ notes on behavior—a few outstanding, “Excellent!” written in large letters, but others expressing disappointment in one or the other of my daughter’s progress.  And I remember, too, their bowed heads and reluctance to hand over the report cards when the news wasn’t as good as I—and they—hoped.  During those tender times, mediocre grades or written disappointments from their teachers seemed to take a greater toll, feeding insecurities and fears of not measuring up—not only for my daughters, but for me, as if I wasn’t a good parent.

I walked back to my seat

counting the swish swish swishes

of my baggy corduroy trousers.

With a black crayon

nightfall came

to my purple tent

in the middle

of an afternoon…


I still grade myself, whether I’m writing, teaching, housecleaning, parenting or simply trying to keep the weeds in the garden under control. My internal critic is loud and vociferous.  She is no wimp, no kindly bespectacled replica of my beloved first grade teacher.  She cracks the whip, harsh in her assessment of my performance.  But we all grade ourselves, even in dealing with the ups and downs of cancer treatment and recovery.  I’ve heard “I should” voiced more than a few times from cancer patients and survivors who come to my writing groups.  They express feelings that they “should” be stronger, better able to deal with their emotions, or able to spend more time caring for their loved ones.

It happens to everyone.  Those noisy, old internalized voices begin to chide you, “you could do better than that, you know.”  Or you hear the implied criticism from well-meaning friends and family:  “Aren’t you over that yet?”  “Shouldn’t you be doing something different?”  When you feel we’ve somehow disappointed others, fallen short of some unspoken level of attainment, or let yourselves down,  your internal critics are especially loud—a veritable Greek chorus.  Your sentences with begin with “I should… but…,” and you feel guilty and miserable for what you didn’t get done or the feeling as if you’ve let others down.

A little humor can help.  In her poem, “Marks,” Linda Pastan pokes fun at the frustration of being graded–whether by ourselves or others:

My husband gives me an A
for last night’s supper,
an incomplete for my ironing,
a B plus in bed.
My son says I am average,
an average mother, but if
I put my mind to it
I could improve.
My daughter believes
in Pass/Fail and tells me
I pass.  Wait ’til they learn
I’m dropping out.

(From: Five Stages of Grief, 1978)

Here’s another poem, “Exorcism of Nice,” by Roseann Lloyd, in which the narrator takes aim at her internalized critics:

…Talk polite
Real nice

…Hold still
Hold it back
Hold it in

Jammed up…


Oh, Wicked Mother of the Kingdom of Silence
I have obeyed you
long enough

(From Tap Dancing for Big Mom, 1996)

Chances are we all need to practice a little self-forgiveness from time to time, allowing ourselves the freedom to be messy, woefully imperfect, or terribly human.  We also need the support of those who truly understand, whether loved ones, a teacher or a physician when the going gets rough and we begin to doubt ourselves.   In the final stanza of Alexis Rotella’s poem, “Purple,” we discover how understanding and acceptance from someone, in this case her second grade teacher, can matter:

In second grade Mr. Barta

said draw anything;

he didn’t care what.

I left my paper blank

and when he came around

to my desk

my heart beat like a tom tom.

He touched my head

with his big hand

and in a soft voice said

the snowfall

how clean

and white 

and beautiful


Writing Suggestions:

This week, think about your internal critics, those negative self-evaluations when you experience self-doubt, insecurity or fear.

  • When have you given yourself a failing grade or felt like you’re being graded by others?
  • Was there a time you received a report card in childhood that you didn’t want to take home to your parents?  How did you feel?
  • Does your self-critic sometimes keep you from doing or saying what you truly want?
  • Try, as Pastan and Lloyd have done, silencing those tiresome internal voices with a little humor.
  • Or, was there someone, like a friend or teacher, who encouraged you and helped you overcome your self-doubt? Write about that person.

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For the past two weeks, I’ve been tackling the bins of belongings stored in our garage, a necessary task as we continue to prepare for a move.  Frankly, I’ve been shocked at how much of the boxes contained things that belong solely to me:  keepsakes I kept for reasons now not clear, photographs of sights seen on vacations, materials I used to use in my writing groups, and more than a few containers of journals, one dating back to high school, another to my undergraduate years, and many more,  prose and poetry that documented my life, especially those that documented particularly challenging or painful periods, a reminder to how writing has helped me heal and weather the difficult chapters of my life.

There was another carton, also filled with booklets of writing—not mine–but the stories and poetry written in the “Writing Through Cancer” workshops I’ve led over many years.  Some of my first group members’ writing was featured in both my books, A Healing Journey (2004) and When Words Heal (2006), but these were printed in booklets, compilations of the writing shared in the groups and printed for the participants at the end of each series.  I sat on the floor and through them yesterday afternoon, remembering faces, individuals’ cancer experiences, many who recovered, and some whose lives were taken by cancer.

The expressive writing workshops are intended to help people write about the experience of cancer, however raw and unwieldy, and in whatever way most natural to each.  Some write narratives, others write poetry, but the form is inconsequential.  What matters is the act of expressing what cancer is for each person, finding ways to make sense of the chaotic emotional experience of it, and supporting their efforts to better cope.  Invariably, a vibrant community of cancer patients and survivors forms through the writing and shared stories—all of it beginning with that word, “cancer,” the one that turns your life upside down and inside out.  Writing for those in the groups, as it has also been for me, provides refuge, release and a way to help heal from the emotional upheaval of cancer.

“Think of the time you first heard that awful word, “cancer.”  This is the prompt that most often begins our first session.  As you might imagine, the descriptions of the moment and of cancer are as unique as the people who come to write and share their

One writer used the simple form of an alpha poem, each line beginning with a letter in the word “Cancer:”

Caught off guard in the midst of my otherwise life,

Apocalypse entered and through me from the highest rooftop.

Nothing I already know about anything prepared me for the fall…

(K.M., 2013)

Another writer communicated the moment of diagnosis in a short three line haiku, powerfully communicating her experience in seventeen syllables:

In the white office

oncologist in white coat

I brace for the wave

(V.S., 2014)

Often, as the workshop progresses, many writers portray cancer through metaphor, by making a comparison with something else.  In many ways, the metaphor not only creates a striking image, but it helps to defuse cancer’s emotional potency.  For example, one writer described her diagnosis as entering a foreign country:

We have entered the country of Cancer

My body and I…

A foreign country



(J.E., 2010)

Yet another writer described her cancer experience in a humorous, yet powerful, piece entitled “Cancer Boot Camp,” beginning with the patient standing at attention:




Can Sir!

I Can Sir!

Yes I will heal it.  I can Sir!

Yes, I will survive it.  I can Sir!

(J. N, 2016)

“Cancer” also often becomes a character, allowing the writers to visualize it differently, even talk back to it.  Some cancers, this next writer tells us, are less common and more “hidden” in the body than others—and, thus, more frightening.

Some cancers arrive with fanfare,

trumpets, an engraved invitation…

But some cancers know how to hide.

They defy the eye, the scope, the scan.

They are not the usual suspects…

(K. M., 2013)


For another participant, cancer is “The Thief,” is stealthy and accomplished, who robs the writer of her security:

He is a thief.  Not an ordinary thief, who steals purses, jewelry or a car.  Instead he steals more person, more precious things.  Irreplaceable things…I see him finalizing his plan to steal my peace of mind, my security in believing I can control my health…                                                                        (N.S. 2014)

“If cancer is like a song sung off-key,” another group member wrote in a poem entitled, “The Metaphors of Cancer,” “then cancer interrupts the beautiful song of our hearts…”

If cancer is like a bird falling from the sky

Then cancer craves the immediate warmth of a gentle cupped hand

If cancer is a tremendous energy and force

That comes in the winter of our lives

Only to disappear after leaving its mark

Stimulating new growth

And hope

As we fight for Spring.

(T.E., 2014)

These are only a small sample of the many poignant, humorous, and powerful pieces of writing that are created and shared–all under a time limit!–in our expressive writing groups.  The writing that I  witness in those sessions is, undoubtedly, among the most moving  I’ve ever experienced.  Many participants come to the group saying, “I’m not a writer, but…”  And I quickly remind them that the great poet William Stafford had a wonderfully succinct way of describing a writer.  “A writer,” he said, “is someone who writes.”  And so they begin, finding a way to express what, in those first weeks after diagnosis, seems nearly unexpressible, and often surprising themselves by the beauty in their words, writing in ways that move us and touch our hearts.

Writing Suggestions:

How do you experience cancer?  What images and descriptions do you use?  Expand and explore them in a poem or short narrative.

Many times during the workshop, we begin by reading “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stephens, a collection of different ways of seeing or experiencing a blackbird.  Here is an excerpt:


Among twenty snowy mountains,   

The only moving thing   

Was the eye of the blackbird.   



I was of three minds,   

Like a tree   

In which there are three blackbirds.   



The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.   

It was a small part of the pantomime.   


(From:  The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, 1954)

After reading the poem, I invite the group to write their own poems, modeled after Stephens, but focused on cancer.  Trying writing your own poem in the manner of Stephens, describing thirteen different ways of looking cancer.

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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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Which body part will be the next
To make you think that you’re a wreck
That you’ve gone so far over the hill
All you can do is take a pill

(From: Body Parts: A Collection of Poems about Aging, by Janet Cameron Hoult, 2010

Aging gracefully is no mean feat.  Whether the process of growing older or the bodily changes forced on us by cancer and other diseases, our relationship with our bodies, as Jane Kenyon once described, is sometimes a struggle, a “difficult friendship” (“Cages,” Otherwise, New and Selected Poems, 1996).

For the past several days, my body has been in protest.  I didn’t intend to offend it.  It was just a catch of my shoe on the front steps, an accident, and I took flight in an awkward plummet of arms and legs, landing hard on my right knee, hearing the solid “thwack” of it against the concrete before I skidded to a stop, scraping my palms on the gravel path nearby.  I re-discovered, in that moment, a full range of every swear word in my vocabulary before limping up the stairs and calling for my husband to get the ice packs from the freezer.

It might not have been so bad, but for weeks, I’ve been adjusting to the inevitability of an aging body, its stiffness in the morning, the arthritis settling into my knee from an old accident suffered while running many years ago, when I was hit by a car making a right turn and thrown on the hood.  My eyes met those of the shocked driver who quickly braked, sending me flying off and landing hard on my knee.  “You’ll have arthritis in that knee one of these days,” the emergency physician warned.  I nodded politely, but I didn’t believe him.  I was, after all, a young woman—strong, athletic, and– in my mind at least– able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  That was many years ago.  The doctor’s words have since come back to haunt me.

As I age, arthritis is just the tip of the iceberg.  There’s the gray hair, the need for eyeglasses, the lines and occasional age spots that appear in my magnifying mirror, the defibrillator that makes a lump just below my collarbone, forcing me to discard any scoop neck tee shirts from my wardrobe…my list of complaints grows longer; my irritability increases.  The thing is, my sense of self is being challenged mightily by my bodily changes.  Some days I take it in stride.  Other days, I refuse to accept the inevitability of growing older, but my body says otherwise.

It’s part of life.  Sooner or later, our body changes, betrays or fails us.  When it does, it’s difficult to admit  we’ve taken our physical health for granted—even denied its inevitable aging.  The body, in illness or decline, is often the subject of poetry:  Jane Kenyon’s “Cages,” or  Marilyn Hacker’s, “Cancer Winter,” where  she referred to her body as “self-betraying.”  But it is May Swenson’s poem, “Question,” that lingers in my mind this morning.  Swenson addresses her body as “my horse, my hound,” the faithful one which has carried her through life, but she has realized she can no longer take it for granted:

Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick…

How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye

With cloud for shift
how will I hide?

(From: New & Selected Things Taking Place, 1978)

What I’m working on now is a little shift in my perception about growing older.  I’m determined to keep on, keepin’ on with as much spunk and energy as I can.  My husband patted my back this morning and remarked, “you have grit.”  He’d been listening to NPR and a discussion on “The Power and Problem of Grit.” Gritty people, according to psychologist Angela Duckworth, have hope. They’re optimistic about the future and their ability to improve and affect change.  Well, my optimism and hope vary from time to time, I’ll admit it, especially when I find myself sprawled on the concrete with a bleeding knee, or I catch a glimpse of those fine lines emerging around my eyes and lips, reflected back at me from the mirror.  All I can do is load up on the sunscreen, put on the knee brace, and take my dog out for a brisk morning walk, ignoring the discomfort in my knee.  I can’t change the fact of an arthritic knee or a heart that requires a defibrillator, but I can keep moving and find ways to laugh at myself, and embrace this aging body as best I can.  I don’t know if that qualifies as grit or even graceful aging, but it’s all I can do.

A month ago, I was leading an all-day writing workshop for the Stanford Medical School, and toward the end of the day, I turned the group’s attention to color.  They each chose a color from a pile of paint chips, then took a ten minute walk to find as many shades and images of their color as possible.  Once inside, they began with their observations on a color and wrote for twenty minutes.  All were captivating and unique, but it was the one from Sarah, a third year medical student and a gifted writer, that delighted us all.  She’d chosen grey.  Grey, the color that we older women do our best to avoid for as long as we can.  Grey, in my mind, is synonymous with aging and all the unwanted bodily changes accompanying it.  Not so for Sarah:

 Grey is the color of “yes, life has been here,”

and “don’t you know I have a story to tell?”

Grey is the color of pregnant clouds,

waiting to gift us with all they’ve held up inside…


Grey is the color of tree bark,

weathered into cracks, a kaleidoscope of “not white, not black,”

the many in-betweens that show how growth is random –

it’s dirty and imperfect, but up

and a bumpy canvas for green shoots,

for shocking white buds waiting to gain the wisdom of grey


White is before, but give me the after

Give me the ninety-year-old under her old grey comforter.

Has she lived? Well, tell me the color of her soul.

Show me the spots of grey, and tell me how you’ve lived,

the story printed dark and true in the deepest, most imperfect,

ugliest and sweetest shade.

(From “Grey,” by Sarah Schlegel, April 2, 2016)

Thank you, Sarah, for helping those of us graying with age to see ourselves and our lives in richer hues.

Writing Suggestions:

Whether you’re wrestling with bodily changes due to illness, accident or aging, write about your body.  Pay tribute or complaint.  Write about its aches or pains or how  your body has betrayed you.  Have you come to terms with a “new” normal?  Have you made peace with your altered or changing body?  How or why not?  What can make your relationship with your body a “difficult friendship?”





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We’re invited to an annual Easter dinner at our friends’ home later today, and I know the table will be laden with traditional Easter fare—food I’ve long since abandoned in favor of fresh vegetables, fish and occasional poultry.  And as my mother did  many years ago, I’ll be preparing an accompaniment for the meal, just she and my aunts did year after year every Easter.  Although I don’t eat ham any longer, the mere smell of it baking will trigger memories of Easter celebrations past.

The Bray family, roughly sixty aunts, uncles and cousins, celebrated Easter together every year, and always in the same way.  We met at an aunt and uncle’s house in Hornbrook, just a few miles south of the Oregon border after the church services we all attended.  As everyone arrived, the kitchen counter was soon crowded with vegetable casseroles, jellied salads, desserts, scalloped potatoes and baked hams with a pineapple and brown sugar glaze.  Easter was my father’s favorite holiday, as eagerly anticipated as Christmas because of the annual egg hunt, which followed the meal.  Each family contributed three or four dozen colored eggs to be hidden by three of the adults in the hillsides near our uncle’s ranch. They organized the hunt into an adult section and a youth section, and we excitedly combed the grasses and tree branches to find as many as we could to fill our baskets.  There were prizes of course for those with the most eggs, an assortment of solid chocolate bunnies, large for the adults and smaller for the children.  But no one went home without some chocolate and at least two or three dozen colored eggs, the only downside being  the boiled eggs that kept appearing in my lunchbox days afterward.

Easter is a quieter day for us now; the excitement belongs to the children.  We’ve chatted with our grandchildren on Skype this morning and “oooohed” and “aaaahed” over the colored eggs and chocolate bunnies they discovered in their baskets.  They will each share an Easter dinner with family or friends later in the day, and will, as I am, contribute to the festivities with a favorite dish, one possibly remembered from childhood from recipes passed from mothers to daughters’ generation after generation.

Take some flour. Oh, I don’t know,
like two-three cups, and you cut
in the butter. Now some women
they make it with shortening,
but I say butter, even though
that means you had to have fish, see?

You cut up some apples. Not those
stupid sweet ones. Apples for the cake,
they have to have some bite, you know?
A little sour in the sweet, like love.
You slice them into little moons.

(From:  “My Mother Gives Me her Recipe,” by Marge Piercy, Colors Passing Through Us, 2004).

But back to our Easter invitation for this afternoon…  I decided to make some spoon bread to contribute, a dish I used to serve with ham decades ago.  I no longer have a recipe for it and had to send an email cry for help to  my friend Sarah in hopes she had it.  Sarah and I were young mothers and pre-school teachers together in Nova Scotia many years ago.  Her Indiana heritage showed up in the delicious meals she prepared—ones that reminded me of my mother-in-law’s cooking, also an Indiana native.  Whether the spoon bread recipe  was originally Sarah’s or my mother-in-law’s, I no longer remember, but although Sarah no longer eats these calorie and carbohydrate laded dishes either, she found her recipe and emailed back to me.

The recipe hearkens back to a time of practical, easy meal preparation when main dishes were often served as casseroles.  High in fat, calories and carbohydrates, the recipes often included things like a muffin mix (like the spoon bread I’ll make today) or a can of Campbell’s mushroom soup as a common ingredient.  It’s a far cry from the kind of cooking I do now, but the old  recipes trigger a multitude of  memories of holidays past, of family and friends, of who I was then.

It’s true for all of us.  Foods lovingly prepared and served at family celebrations triggers memory; stories are rediscovered as we take that first bite of a dish we remember from our childhood or those early years of marriage, when we tried to duplicate a favorite dish from our mother’s recipes.  I still think of my grandmother Lola every time I sneak in for an oatmeal-raisin cookie from Starbucks, remembering the smell of freshly baked cookies waiting with a glass of milk in her kitchen every day after kindergarten class ended.

“Recipes can help bridge generations, reveal unexpected characteristics of a culture, or simply fill an afternoon.”  These words from the introduction to a writing prompt I saved from The Time is Now newsletter published monthly by Poets & Writers’ Magazine.  Food enlivens our senses, so it’s little wonder that a well-loved meal can stimulates so many memories.  I sometimes use recipes as writing prompts in my workshops, inviting the participants to recall one from their youth, and as they do, continue writing the stories ignited by the food remembered.

Writing Suggestion:

This week, think about food and the recipes that have been a part of your family traditions.  Or alternatively, write about the first time you tried to follow a recipe, one familiar or new to you.  Write about the memory of a meal, of life around the dinner table, of the smells and objects in a grandmother’s kitchen.    Sometimes, even food we love can become unpleasant to us later in life because of the associations we have with it.  Begin writing whatever you can remember of a recipe from an earlier time in your life.  As memories emerge, keep writing.  There may be a story or a poem waiting to be found.

In the yellow kitchen her pink hands
play with creamy dough. Squares of sun frame
things that shine; spoons, cups, hair…

She boils water, opens wine, puts vegetable in pots.
Lights click. Smells blossom.

Everything feels suddenly invited.

(From “Pasta,” by Kate Scott, Stitches, 2003)

As for me, I’m heading to the kitchen right now to don my apron and hope that the spoon bread I remembered will be the spoon bread I take to our friends’ holiday dinner!

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We had friends over for dinner last night, two couples who hadn’t met each other before.  It’s always a bit of a gamble to put strangers together in a social situation.  Sometimes my attempts have resulted in lackluster meals, ones where despite the effort made to create an enjoyable meal and lively conversation, the mix of personalities doesn’t seem to work.  But I needn’t have worried; from the moment our friends arrived and were introduced to each other, the evening was punctuated by laughter.  Not the polite kind either, but the hearty involuntary laughter of people enjoying one another.  The kind of laughter I heard described earlier in the day a cognitive neuroscientist, Sophie Scott, in an excerpt from her March 2015 Ted Talk, “Why We Laugh.” 

Laughter is, Scott points out, behaviorally contagious.  “When you’re smilin’,” Louie Armstrong sang, “the whole world smiles with you.”  We humans are thirty times more likely to laugh when we are in the company of others, but much more likely to laugh among people we know and like.

But there’s more to laughter than a good “ha, ha!”  Laughter, as Norman Cousins told us in his 1979 book, Anatomy of an Illness, is good medicine.   We manage our stress better, deal with difficult situations more effectively, and, through shared laughter, build closer social relationships.  Long before Cousins wrote, however, Mark Twain wrote about the power of laughter:  “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that’s laughter,” he said.  “The moment it arises, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.”

Now cancer is certainly no laughing matter, yet if you walk by the cancer center conference rooms where I lead the “Writing through Cancer” workshops,  you’re bound to hear laughter.  In fact, during some mornings, laughter occurs at least as often as tears.  Counterintuitive perhaps, but as Sophie Scott remarked in her Ted Talk, shared laughter is a way of saying, “if we can laugh together, we can get through this.”

I remembered the final months of my father’s life before he died from lung cancer.  My father loved to laugh, and he loved a good, humorous story.  Why should his death be marked by weeping for his loss?  He made his three children promise his funeral would not be defined by sorrow.   “I want you to throw me a party after I die,” he said.  “Invite all my friends, serve Jack Daniels and tell funny stories.”  We did just as he wanted.  His laughter was what we loved most about him, and sharing those humorous memories was exactly how he wanted to be remembered at his death.  Perhaps he knew that our shared laughter would help to alleviate our sorrow.

Jeannette Moninger, writing in the Winter 2015 issue of CURE, states that many hospitals across America now offer laughter programs for cancer patients.  Moninger describes a few:  At North Kansas City Hospital, patients can watch funny movies…Duke Medicine offers a Laugh Mobile, a rolling cart from which adult patients in oncology wards can check out humorous books and silly items like whoopee cushions and rubber chickens.  And the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Program sends…clowns to 16 children’s hospitals nationwide to help put smiles on the faces of ill children…

Even as far back as the 13th century, surgeons used humor to distract patients from the agony of painful medical procedures. Even then, they were onto something, as many research studies have borne out.  Laugh, and not only the world laughs too, but Moninger writes, your body releases endorphins, the “feel good hormones that function as the body’s natural painkillers,” the same hormones that create the “runner’s high.”  Endorphins also decrease the body’s levels of cortisol, the hormone associated with chronic stress.  Cortisol has a number of negative effects on our bodies, compromising our immune system, tensing up our muscles, elevating blood pressure—all of which laughter helps to counteract.

when you are raised with the gift of laughter, as I was, it can’t stay suppressed forever. It’s too powerful. Thank goodness for that. I eventually could see bits of “ha-ha” in my own life. Certainly not in the cancer, but in the mind-blowing circumstances that suddenly consumed my life. And laughing at parts of those experiences made me feel a little more alive.  The funniest part of it all was that the more I allowed myself to laugh, the more therapeutic my tears became.  (“Jim Higley, “Finding Humor in the Midst of Cancer,” Coping with Cancer Magazine, March/April 2012)

We all need a little laughter in our lives, no matter if we’re dealing with cancer, an over-busy or stressful life, the loss of loved ones, or simply sharing time with friends as we did last night over dinner.  We need to laugh just as much as sometimes, we need to cry.  And laughter is best when we share it with others.


From over the wall I could hear the laughter of women   

in a foreign tongue, in the sun-rinsed air of the city…   


…One spoke and the others rang like bells, oh so witty,   

like bells till the sound filled up the garden and lifted   


like bubbles spilling over the bricks that enclosed them,   

their happiness holding them, even if just for the moment.   

Although I did not understand a word they were saying,   


their sound surrounded me, fell on my shoulders and hair,   

and burst on my cheeks like kisses, and continued to fall,   

holding me there where I stood on the sidewalk listening…  

(From “The Laughter of Women,” by Mary Sherman Willis, The Hudson Review, Autumn 2007)

Writing Suggestion:

Whether during cancer treatment or simply living with any hardship or struggle, it’s good to find something—even a small thing—to smile or laugh about.  Dig back into your memories this week—the fun times you shared with others, a time you laughed so hard, tears ran down your cheeks.  Did shared laughter strengthen the bond you felt with others?  Write about one of those times, remembering the laughter.  Let a little “ha, ha” brighten your day..  Remember what Charlie Chaplin said:  “A day without laughter is a day wasted.”

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