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Archive for the ‘writing humor’ Category

Because of my involvement in the cancer community, I’m the frequent recipient of unsolicited emails or Facebook invitations, all dealing, to a greater or lesser degree, with cancer, whether one individual’s journey or a cancer support organization.  Despite my work, I sometimes feel inundated by the amount of unsolicited requests I receive.  Occasionally, however, I stumble onto a treasure.  A few years ago, I received an email from Sister Anne Higgins, the author of a 2007 book of poetry and blog site, both entitled Scattered Showers in a Clear Sky. I was intrigued and explored her writing, discovering a beautiful blend of narrative, photographs and poetry.  She later sent me several of her poems, written during her cancer treatment, and one in particular, “At the Gettysburg Cancer Center,” triggered memories of the experience I had several years before.  It begins, “Here is the club you never want to join…”

I remembered a telephone call I received from a cancer survivor shortly after I was first diagnosed and scheduled to begin seven weeks of radiation therapy.  “You’ll find you belong to a private sorority,” she said, “one you never knew existed until now.”  While I appreciated her call, I certain I didn’t want any membership in that “private” club.  Never a joiner during high school and college, I assiduously avoided campus clubs and sororities.  This time, however, it turned out I didn’t have a choice.

I existed in a state of denial for weeks, refusing to accept that life had forced me into the cancer club.  It was only weeks later, in a summer creative writing class, that I acknowledged the fact of this new membership.  Given the prompt, “the hospital corridor was dimly lit,” I began writing.  “I turn left into the waiting room; a montage of faces greets me:  men, women, a teenage girl, a grade-school boy.  Some with hair; others without.  We are all members of a private club.  We meet each day at 3 p.m., wearing the pale blue hospital gowns, the uniforms of anonymity, as we sit in silence…”

How many times have you felt forced into circumstances—those unwanted “clubs”—by what life deals us from its deck of cards?  Joan, a former writing group member in treatment for kidney cancer, described the shock of being dealt the cancer card:

Hit me.

Two cards down.  Two more dealt and…the wild card, stark in your hand…the cancer card…you want your discard back; you want to fold…you were so certain you didn’t belong here, in this neighborhood, playing cards, but Oh-Yes-You-Do.

Cancer is one of the life cards we don’t want to be dealt, just like job loss, trauma, heart attack,  or sudden death of a loved one—the list is long.  We object to memberships or labels we didn’t choose:  cancer survivors, heart patients, war veterans, single parents, homeless, refugee, widows or widowers, living with disabilities, parents of children with developmental delays or special needs…and more.  We don’t want to join these clubs, but we sometimes find ourselves thrust into them and do our best to deny the labels we’ve been given, like “cancer patient.” Labels make us feel exposed, as if we’re different, not the people we’ve always been.  Molly Redmond describes these feelings in her poem, “The Cancer Patient Talks Back:”

It has made me public property, like being largely pregnant.

People invade—an assault of connections—

for reasons fair and foul.

Strangers on elevators. Acquaintances.

The medical cadre too.

Either way,

I am covered with fingerprints, with labels…

 

We protest, even deny we’re part of this new reality, as Kathleen Rogers’ poem, “A Woman Argues with the Casting Director,” portrays:

I don’t, don’t want the part.

I really don’t what this part.

I don’t, I don’t believe it will be glamorous.

It won’t be opera, no swooning diva,

No Violetta, no burst of aria…

 

I told you—didn’t I tell you?—

I don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t want

this part…

 

(Poetry from:  The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. 1, 2001, Karin Miller, Ed.)

There is a flip side to pulling the cancer (or another unwanted) card.  While I remain uncomfortable with any attempt to be classified into different groups like cancer survivor, heart patient, or even senior citizen, there may be some unexpected benefits to having the unwanted cancer card, as some survivors have discovered.

When you go through the experience of fighting cancer,” Jamie Bendola wrote in a 2014 Huffington Post article, “it is most likely the hardest thing that you will have to do in your life. It’s like a marathon (if marathons included surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy), but at the end there’s no shiny medal to hang around your neck.”

“You do, however, get to pull the “cancer card… I’m not saying you should cut people in line at the movie theater and say, “Well I had cancer so you can just wait behind me…” It doesn’t work that way. There are certain times though when you can pull this card for your benefit… different grants you can apply for, medical programs, etc.  When I had to have a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy performed last year, I pulled the cancer card and all of my procedures were covered by Susan G. Komen.”

Susan Guber, writing in the “Well” blog of the New York Times, pointed to stand-up comedian Robert Schimmel, a cancer survivor, speeding to the hospital with his wife, when a policeman stopped them.  “Mr. Schimmel imagined what the officer was thinking: “Damn. This guy looks like,” followed by an expletive. “What if he’s dying, chemo’s his only hope, and he misses his treatment because I’m writing him a speeding ticket? I might be costing him his life. Do I want that on my head? That could send me straight to hell.” Cancer lets Mr. Schimmel off the hook; it is “the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card.”

Guber continues:  “Many people living with cancer use it as a ticket to reform their lives, for example, by delegating stressful responsibilities. It gives them permission to engage in productive enterprises like starting a walking regimen or volunteering for a patient advocacy group… The C card, for others, “stands for carpe diem. Whether you love fly-fishing, pedicures, rock music, photography, Bora Bora, playing with the dog, drinking, bowling, or bowling while drinking, after a cancer diagnosis you may finally find the time to follow your desires.”

Guber offers us something to think about.  You don’t have to be forced into any “club” because of the C-card.  As unwanted and difficult as it may be to be dealt a bad card from the deck of life, what matters is what you do with it.  As Randy Pausch, former professor at Carnegie Mellon, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2008, famously said, “It’s not about the cards you’re dealt, but how you play the hand.”   (The Last Lecture, 2008)

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about the time life dealt you the cancer card or some other unwanted hand.  Explore the experience, how it felt, how you first reacted, and what you did with your new “membership” in a club you never asked to join.
  • How have you played the hand you’ve been dealt?  What advice do you have for others who have been dealt “bad” hands in life?

 

 

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Dear Readers,

Our house goes on the market this Wednesday, and for the past many days, we’ve been getting it ready to be shown—small repairs, removing personal objects, trimming the growth in the garden, rolling up rugs to expose the wooden floors, and a host of other time-consuming tasks.  Moving is, as everyone knows, nothing but stressful.  My husband and I have nipped at each other’s heels, just as our befuddled little dog has with strangers who come to the door—hired by us to repair or assist in heavy lifting.  We have had to remind ourselves that stress, whether from moving, empty nest, relationship mishaps, becoming parents, or the ups and downs of recovery from serious illness is real, but simply not good for either one of us.  So we’ve borrowed a lesson from Norman Cousins, who famously used laughter to cure himself from a serious illness many years ago.  Exhausted at the end of the day, we’ve developed a habit of watching comedies, whether films on Netflix, Amazon or reruns of “The Big Bang Theory.”  We laugh—a lot—together, and somehow, the anxiety and stress over the mountain of tasks that still await us each day, begin to recede, and we end the evening more relaxed and happy.

Since we’re swamped with getting the house ready for its market debut this coming week, my weekly blog posts are taking a back seat.  Instead, I’m offering a post from 2011 that, today, seems especially relevant.  I hope you enjoy it—and find some applicability to your life.

Sharon

 

Previously posted May 29 2011: “When You’re Smiling”

If you’ve ever begun even a small house improvement project, as I did two months ago, then spent weeks of frustration as workers failed to show up, my calls unreturned by the project manager, or, at the last-minute,  told that the granite counter top, the one you picked out nine weeks earlier, was no longer available–then you know the way frustration can escalate and infect your life.  I became irritable, wore a perpetual frown a between my eyebrows, and I began to think of little else.  I engaged in repetitive tirades about the lack of customer service each night over dinner. “Lighten up,” my husband remarked on more than one occasion.  As much as his comment annoyed me, he was right. The stress and frustration were unpleasant for him and worse, not good for me.

Of course, these things finally get sorted out, and the dark cloud that inhabited my days all these many weeks has vanished.  Our bathroom upgrade was completed yesterday morning. I fairly danced as the workers finished up and carried their tools to the truck. I was smiling the entire time, and I could see the surprise in their faces when, grinning from ear-to-ear, I handed them each a bag of homemade chocolate chip cookies.  That’s we began laughing together over the project mishaps—the frustration I felt with the project manager, and theirs, trying to make “right” his mistakes.  Shared smiles go a long way to smoothing out the wrinkles of daily living, even the frustration of a bathroom renovation.

When you’re smilin’
When you’re smilin’
The whole world smiles with you.
And when you’re laughin’
When you’re laughin’
The sun comes shinin’ through.

When you’re cryin’,
You bring on the rain,
So, stop you’re sighin’,
Won’t you be happy again!

When you’re smiling,
Keep on smilin’
And the whole world smiles with you.

I hear Louis Armstrong’s gravelly voice in my head. He made the song, “When You’re Smiling,” popular decades ago, although I didn’t always like hearing it then.  My mother sang it to me whenever I cried over some disappointment or pouted and acted recalcitrant.  My reaction, like any child who resists their parent’s wisdom, was to put my hands over my ears.  I didn’t want to listen.  I wanted to wallow in my misery.

“The whole world smiles with you.”  Who would have imagined that these lyrics, first recorded by Armstrong in 1929, would later be supported by scientific research?  The fact is that a smile can brighten up a room. Studies have shown us that people who frequently smile are perceived as more in control, at ease and attractive than those who don’t (Lau, 1982).  Smiles do more than that, however.  A genuine smile not only improves our appearance but there is a strong connection between smiling and health. Here are a few things smiling does for us:

We feel better. Smiling lifts our spirits. A study conducted by the British Dental Health Foundation showed the act of smiling dramatically improves your mood. Dr. Nigel Carter, the Foundation’s CEO, stated, “A healthy smile can improve your confidence, help you make friends and help you to succeed in your career.”

Smile and its positive effects multiplies among others. Smiling connects us to people. Those who smile have a more positive effect on their environment and are better received by people around them (Abel, MH, Hester, R. (2002). Workers who serve customers with a smile receive larger tips (Tidd & Lockard, 1978) and repeat business (Tsai, 2001).

Smiling also helps to shift our focus away from negative emotions.  It reduces stress and the symptoms associated with anxiety.  We know chronic stress does significant damage to our bodies and minds, but smiling and laughter offer us physical and emotional release–lower blood pressure, improved digestion, and lessening of negative effects of prolonged anxiety. 

I did a lot of smiling and laughing last night.  My husband and I went out to dinner with friends, a mini-celebration of a tiresome project completed.  “The human race,” Mark Twain wrote, “has only one really effective weapon, and that’s laughter.  The moment it arises, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.” Despite my late evening, I awakened this morning feeling lighter.  The irritation of all the past few weeks is gone.
Why not do a little experiment this week?  Feeling glum?  Try smiling. Feel better? Or, if you encounter someone who’s irritable or grim-faced, what happens when you flash a big smile at them? Chances are a smile will brighten up your life or someone else’s.  Smiling helps us reframe the way we’re feeling, even find humor in what can otherwise seem insurmountable. Find reasons to smile.  Write about something that always makes you smile whenever you think about it. Remember, “When you’re smiling, keep on smilin’, and the whole world smiles with you.”

Writing Suggestion:

  • Write about a time you felt overwhelmed, glum or stressed and what helped you “lighten up” and deal more effectively with the tension, worry or frustration you were feeling?
  • Fill in the blank, ________________  is the best medicine and keep writing for 15 or 20 minutes.  Were there any surprises?

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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
Appropriate
Real nice

…Hold still
Hold it back
Hold it in

…Close-mouthed
Muzzled
Gagged
Garbled
Jammed up…

Shut-down

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

Unmapped

Unknown…

(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:

Cancer

Cancer

Cancer

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:

I 

Among twenty snowy mountains,   

The only moving thing   

Was the eye of the blackbird.   

 

II 

I was of three minds,   

Like a tree   

In which there are three blackbirds.   

 

III 

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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