Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘writing humor’ Category

(This week’s post adapted from one previously published in June, 2015)

Tomorrow I’ll celebrate the completion of another year of life, my age increasing as it does each June, reminding me that despite my resistance, learning to gracefully accept the aging process is unavoidable.  I look forward to birthdays as my grandchildren do.  My youngest granddaughter, whose birthday is three weeks away, talks of little else now but the plans for her party in July.  I remember being like that a long time ago, recalling the just-turned-six little girl, blonde hair in ringlets, carefully prepared by my mother and topped with a giant hair ribbon.  In the photograph of that day in June, a picnic table is piled with gaily wrapped gifts and a chocolate layer cake sits in the center, six candles aflame.  My face, lit by the candlelight, bears an ear-to-ear grin.  Just as my granddaughter does now, I eagerly counted the days until my next birthday, becoming a “big” girl, each year promising many more possibilities than the one before.  I was ready and impatient to be an older age.

Not so much now.  I tell myself it’s best to stop counting. The smile on my face, when someone says “Happy Birthday!” may well be tinged with something other than enthusiasm.  I’ve resisted accepting the category of “senior citizen.”  But I remember a birthday three years ago, when my husband planned an early birthday dinner so we could attend a jazz event afterward, I protested.  “What?  It’s too early.  No one eats that early except…”  My voice trailed off before I could say “senior citizens.”  He was doing his best to orchestrate a celebratory evening, but it felt a little like a “blue plate special,” the early dinners aimed at the elder customers, because as we walked into the restaurant at 5:25 p.m., it was empty.  We were first to be seated; first to be served; first to leave.  It lacked the feel of “celebration,” because it reminded both of us of the relentless march toward old age.

Are we ever ready for the changes life presents to us?  It’s never either/or.  Each stage of life has its challenges as well as its rewards.  I’m quite content to be called “Gramma,” but on the other hand, I am less enthusiastic the relentless pull of gravity, loss of muscle tone, and graying of my hair.  I now have regular visits to my cardiologist, reminding me of a condition I once thought belonged only to elders like my grandparents.  I’ve been humbled and learned that while illness or heart conditions can happen at any age, 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 others 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.  I’ll watch as my youngest granddaughter makes her wish and blows out the seven candles on her cake in a few weeks.   And she, like me, will hear that same song many years from now and remember the delights of birthdays from her childhood.

There’s an exercise I’ve borrowed from Roger Rosenblatt’s wise little book, Unless It Moves the Human Heart (Harper Collins, 2011).  It’s a delightful read and a glimpse into his “Writing Everything” class.    It’s an exercise that began with Rosenblatt asking if anyone in his class had recently celebrated—or was about to–a birthday.  Several students raised their hands of course, and Rosenblatt describes what happened next:

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).

I tried the exercise out with one of my writing groups a few years ago.  They looked at me with curiosity as I began singing and laughing a little before joining in.“Now write,” I said as the song ended.  “What memories does that tune inspire?”  I wrote with the group too, mind flooded with memories of birthdays past: the blue bicycle waiting for me the morning of my sixth birthday, the surprise party my husband and daughters managed to pull off few years ago, the headline in my small town newspaper’s society page:  “Sharon Ann Bray turns six today.”  (It helped, I suppose, that my aunt was the “society” editor!)

What happened in my writing group was that everyone had a host of memories associated with the birthday song, as many writers have.  In fact, Rosenblatt isn’t the only writer who used birthdays for inspiration.  Go to www.poets.org and you’ll discover William Blake, Sylvia Plath, Christina Rossetti and many others used birthdays as a time for retrospection.  I’m especially fond of Ted Kooser’s “A Happy Birthday,” a short poem that captures the introspection triggered by one’s birthday:

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, particularly as we age, inspire our reflection on 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.

Tomorrow, I’ll make a list for myself, remembering years past, the birthday memories that linger in my mind, and I know I’ll  have enough material for several days of writing, if not more.  It’s a chance to look back, reflect on life’s lessons, its joys and sorrows, and  to consider what I intend for the coming year.  Birthdays.  Anniversaries.  They’re chock full of memories, markers of the passage of time, experiences, people–the stuff of life–the stories of who we were, who we are, how life and the weather have treated us.  If any of you are also celebrating a birthday in the coming days, “happy birthday” to you too.

Writing Suggestion:

Hum the tune, or if you’re feeling brave, sing it:  “Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday to you…”  List the memories, good or bad, that this traditional 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 birthdays past as a way to inspire your writing.  In each memory of a birthday or anniversary lurks a story or a poem.  Why not write one?

Read Full Post »

Sometimes I have trouble listening to my body, but for the past two weeks, a flare-up of colitis, knee pain and another round of additional tests and medications for my heart failure were bodily aggravations too loud to ignore.  I unwillingly admitted that I was in no condition to dance, much less enjoy some brisk walks through the neighborhood with my dog.  I was grounded, and I wasn’t happy about it.  Whether it’s due to aging, illness or other physical aggravation, having one’s life impeded by one’s body has profound impact on mood and perspective.  By the end of the first week, I was dogged by a gray cloud of self-pity, worry and the blues.

I’m not a trained dancer, far from it, but I love to move, and there’s nothing better than my dance class to elevate my mood.  Led by a joyful and energetic instructor, I join a group of women called “The Vintage Dancers,” all of them in my age group, to dance.  Don’t be misled by the name.  This is no ordinary group of older women.  Our hour together is fast-paced, aerobic, learning and remembering new routines, and fun.  While I no longer move with the speed or the ease I had in my younger years,  I move–and I laugh–a lot.  I leave the class feeling energized, lighter in spirit, and despite the medical issues that have dogged me for the last few months, I feel healthier, younger, and more optimistic.

A few years ago a friend of mine sent a link to a video of a young woman, Tiffany Staropoli, diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer in May of 2013.  In addition to 3 surgeries, chemotherapy, a variety of alternative healing approaches, she also relied on her “personal brand of dance therapy,” and posted her video, “Dancing Through Cancer” on You Tube.

Her video went viral in no time–and no wonder!  I watched it three times through, laughing out loud at the unabashed exuberance and delight captured in the different scenes of Tiffany dancing to Great Big Sea’s “When I’m Up, I Can’t Get Down.”  She was always enthusiastic, if not necessarily graceful.  But she had a point to make.  “Even with something as traumatic as cancer,”she told the interviewer, “it’s still possible to have a good time.”  When asked what she thought of her dancing, she laughed, “It’s terrible…I crack myself up.”  Well, she cracked me up too—her fun and joy was infectious,  undoubtedly the reasib the video has been viewed by so many thousands of people.

“I’m not a professional dancer,” Tiffany states on her website.  “In fact, I’m a decidedly HORRIBLE dancer.  But over the years, when alone or with my undeniably patient husband, I would break out into an awkward and often bizarre dance to add a little flair to the moment.  A sprinkle of goofiness to lighten the mood or crack myself up.  It always lifted my spirits.  So I told my husband to force me to dance when I started to backslide.  And record it.”  And he did.   The”Dancing Through Cancer”video shows Tiffany dancing at the surgery center, hospital, and chemotherapy clinic.  It shows her dancing when she wanted to and sometimes, when she didn’t, but “always, always, ending up smiling by the end of it.”

Call it dance therapy or just a personal love of moving to music,  I get it.  I’ve danced my way through more than one difficult life chapter.  Soon after my first marriage ended with my husband’s death, I often danced after my daughters were asleep, turning out the lights in the living room, putting Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” on the turntable, and dancing crazily around the room until my spirits lightened, and I had exhausted myself and was ready to sleep.   Sometimes I cried as I danced, but tears didn’t last for long.  More often, I cracked myself up, like Tiffany, even though no one was watching or filming.   During that turbulent and painful time, my daughters and I also danced together, devising crazy routines to seventies’ hits, even performing them for family and friends, with the result of everyone breaking up in laughter.  It wasn’t about dance as much as it was about fun and having a good time.  It was an important element in helping  ourselves recover from grief and loss.

Susan Gubar, in her article, “Cancer Humor,” offers some examples of finding humor to help alleviate the burden of serious illness and periods of hardship.  “Cracking up,” she says, “may be a better option than breaking down.” She tells of author Nina Riggs, who later died of terminal cancer, and her memoir, The Bright Hour.  Riggs commiserated with a friend also dealing with breast and together, imagining a business called “Damaged Goods,” that would feature a line of morbid greeting cards with sentiments like:

Thank you for the taco casserole. It worked even better than my stool softeners.

Thoughts and prayers are great, but Ativan and pot are better.

 All your phone messages about how not knowing exactly what’s going on with me has stressed you out really helped me put things in perspective.

 In-Between Days, a graphic memoir by Teva Harrison, is an honest account of living with cancer, but it’s peppered with illustrations that also convey the author’s humor.  In one, after describing how she had to be positioned on a mold to her body, then further immobilized by shrink wrap, Harrison wrote that she felt like supermarket sushi and created a drawing titled,  “On A Platter.”  “The gift of these creative works,” Gubar explains, is that “they foster a sense of community with the living…we are not alone in what we go through.”

When we’re up, we can’t feel down… In the difficult period of becoming a single mother in 1981, I remember singing along to “Twenty Mile Zone,” a song written and performed by the former Dory Previn, composed after her divorce from composer Andre Previn. She described a woman alone in her car, screaming at the top of her lungs while she drove.  She is stopped by a police officer and questioned, but very soon they are both driving down the road and screaming–she in her car, he on his motorcycle–each relieving their frustrations!  Singing along with Previn not only helped relieve the stress I felt, it made me laugh.

Each of us has different activities that help to elevate our spirits.  Art, music, movement, meditation, play, writing poetry, yoga or a walk along the seashore or a trail are just a few activities known to be beneficial to our well-being.  Sharing some of those activities with others  has the impact of cheering us up.  I think of the women’s choir here in Toronto who performed last week.  It’s not a professional choir, just a group of women who love to sing together.  Their sense of community, the energy and fun were enough to want to make me sign up and join them.  (In fact, I did.)

Remember, having a good time doesn’t deny the reality of cancer or heart disease, but it does help us cope with illness more effectively.  Think of Gilda Radner of Saturday Night Live, Michael Landon, of Bonanza, at his final appearance on Johnny Carson’s show, or Jennie Nash, who wrote The Victoria’s Secret Catalogue Never Stops Coming.  Each reminds us of the importance of finding humor in our situation—and, despite everything, of having a good belly laugh now and then.  Like the Great Big Sea’s song says, “When I’m Up, I Can’t Get Down.  Having fun is good for us and infectious for those around us.  It’s essential to health and to life.

Writing Suggestions:

Write about the kinds of things that make you feel better when you’re down.  What helps life your spirits?  Is it something that makes you laugh out loud?  Does it make you smile in spite of yourself?  Give you solace or joy?  Laughter is good medicine, but so is any activity that gives us solace, pleasure, and happiness.

What activities give you joy?  Make you smile or laugh a little?  Dance?  Painting?  Yoga?  Singing?  Playing with grandchildren?  Watching silly movies?  Write about laughter, smiling, or just being silly, and why, when you’re up, you just can’t feel down.

Remember, laughter and having fun are contagious.  We all feel better for it.

Read Full Post »

What’s so funny about cancer?  A lot, it turns out.  At least, more than a few comedians and others have taught us that there’s laughter to be found in the face of cancer.  One of the most famous was Gilda Radner, former comedienne of Saturday Night Live fame, diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986 and after a brief period of remission in 1988, dying  in 1989.  She described her cancer struggle in her memoir, It’s Always Something, a phrase often used by her comedic character, “Roseanne Roseannadanna.”  While she wrote honestly of her experience with disease, she  peppered her prose with moments of levity and humor, such as descriptions of the joys of farting after dealing with stomach problems or appearing after her chemotherapy and hair loss as someone “resembling a newborn Easter chick.”  In  an appearance on the Gary Shandling comedy show in 1998, she announced she’d been away because she had cancer.  Then she asked her host,  “What’d you have?”  He smiled and said, “a very bad case of career moves, which…there’s no cure for whatsoever.”  After her death, Gilda’s Club, a nonprofit community organization with locations in the US and Canada, was founded in her name.  It’s where, in Toronto, I now  lead a series of expressive writing programs for people living with cancer.

If you don’t laugh, you’re going to cry your eyes outIt just makes things less awful… As someone who will live with disease for the rest of my life, to never laugh again would be horrific. The jokes make me feel better. To some extent, I get to decide how I’m going to cope and I tell jokes.”  — Beth Caldwell, a 38-year-old metastatic breast cancer (MBC) patient and Seattle blogger.

For many of us, when we are going through periods of hardship, laughter helps to lighten the load.  As  Susan Gubar,  writer and cancer survivor explains, “Cracking up may be a better option than breaking down.”  In a recent New York Times column, she offers examples like Nina Rigg’s memoir, The Bright Hour, where Riggs commiserates with a friend also dealing with triple negative breast cancer. They imagine starting “Damaged Goods,” a business selling a line of morbid thank-you cards  from cancer patients with sentiments such as:

“Thank you for the taco casserole. It worked even better than my stool softeners.”

“Thoughts and prayers are great, but Ativan and pot are better.”

“Thank you for the flowers. I hope they die before I do.”

“All your phone messages about how not knowing exactly what’s going on with me has stressed you out really helped me put things in perspective.”

It doesn’t take much searching, whether online or in bookstores, to find a wealth of cancer cartoonists, comedies, like The Bucket List (2007) or 50/50 (2011), musicals, funny greeting cards and  humorous memoirs and guides like “God Said, Ha!,” “Does This Outfit Make Me Look Bald?” , “Cancer Made me a Shallower Person,” and “Cancer on Five Dollars a Day (Chemo Not Included).” Online, the list of funny cancer feeds are endless, from Welcome to the Hotel Melanoma,  Cancer Slayer, Dancing the Cancer Down to Dust, or Cancer is not a Gift/Laughing in the face of cancer.  

But not everyone finds anything funny about cancer nor  humor a useful coping mechanism, according to Dr. Bonnie McGregor, psychologist and public health researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “Not everybody finds it helpful,” she cautions.  “It can be hurtful if the timing isn’t right or the situation isn’t right. So you have to be careful with it.”  It’s important to remember that humor is not one size fits all, nevertheless as McGregor agrees, there’s plenty of research that supports that overall, laughter can be very good medicine.

If you happened to stand outside the door of conference room where I lead my expressive writing workshops, you’ll often hear laughter.  It comes naturally in the group setting.  I love to laugh too,  raised with the gift of shared laughter thanks to my father.  It’s helped me through more than one serious illness, I couldn’t ever help but find humorous moments in each, and a grin or chuckle always helped me feel a little better.

In my writing groups, even though we’re writing about the roller coaster of emotion that comes with a cancer diagnosis, tears occur–but so does laughter.  Perhaps that seems counterintuitive, but there’s plenty of evidence confirming that laughter is good medicine.  Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins was one of the first to ignite the “laughter therapy” movement when he wrote about the analgesic properties of laughter in his 1979 memoir, Anatomy of an Illness.  But well before Cousins’ insights, Mark Twain,whose stories of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn I eagerly read in my childhood, stated,  “The human race 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.”

Even as far back as the 13th century, humor  had a role in medicine.  Surgeons used it to distract patients from the agony of painful medical procedures.  They were onto something, since many research studies have since confirmed that the effects of laughter are very good medicine.  Laugh, and not only the world laughs with you; laughter causes your body to release endorphins, the feel good hormones that function as the body’s natural painkillers, the same hormones responsible for what’s known as the “runner’s high.”  Jeannette Moninger, in a 2015 CureTodaarticle on hospital laughter programs, refers to findings from a 2011 study conducted at the University of Oxford in England that found  watching 15 minutes of a comedy program with others increases one’s pain threshold by as much as 10 percent. At the same time, these endorphins decrease levels of cortisol, the hormone that floods the body during periods of chronic stress.Endorphins also decrease the body’s levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with chronic stress that compromises our immune systems, tenses muscles, and elevates blood pressure.  Laughter helps to counteract those negative effects and can help cancer patients to talk more openly about their concerns and fears. And it’s fast-acting. A randomized controlled trial of a “therapeutic laughter program” found that breast cancer patients’ anxiety, depression and stress were reduced after just one session of laughing.  

Charlie Chaplin once said, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.”  Whether during treatment for cancer or other serious illness, or simply living a world constantly dominated by hardship and struggle, it’s good to find something—even a small thing—to smile or laugh about.  I still giggle when I recall how, after a lengthy and confusing explanation of potential issues with the battery life of my ICD (implanted cardiac device) I mistook the beeping at the end of our clothes’ dryer’s cycle a few days later as the signal my defibrillator had run out of juice.  It hadn’t, but I had a good laugh after the initial wave of anxiety.  I’m smiling now as I finish this post,  hearing that gravelly voice of Louis Armstrong playing in my head, and I’m smiling.

Oh when you smilin’, when you smilin’
The whole world smiles with you
Yes when you laughin’, when you laughin’
Yes the sun come shinin’ through…

Writing Suggestions:

  • Have you had moments during your cancer treatment that made you laugh–whether in the moment or as you remembered the incident?
  • What about other times in your life that something unexpected occurred that, even years later, still makes you chuckle?
  • Dig back into your memories—the fun times, times you laughed so hard, tears ran down your cheeks.  Take a break from about the pain or anguish that also comes with cancer.
  • Write one funny story from your life.    If you feel like it, try on a little dose of medicinal humor. 

 

Read Full Post »

In the first session of my writing groups, members introduce themselves by name and if they wish, the kind of cancer they are living with.  In every group, some happily declare their treatment is behind them.  They are “in remission” or “cancer-free”–words everyone longs to be able to say as their treatment regimens conclude.  “In remission” signals a reprieve from the relentless routine of doctor’s appointments, scans, tests, surgeries and weeks, even months of treatment.  It declares one’s return to a so-called “normal” life, yet more often than not, “normal” does not have the same meaning it did before cancer.  Treatment provided structure, routine, and defined the days before them.  Now “in remission” is also readjustment.  Returning to life as it was before cancer is not easy–it may not even be possible.

“In remission.”  You‘re one of the lucky ones.  Cancer not only alters our bodies, it changes the way we experience the world.  Despite the wish you may have to do so, you realize it’s nearly impossible to return to your former life–you’re not the person you were before cancer.  You experience life differently than before.

Your treatment has been successful, at least for now, but you live with the knowledge that as a survivor, you may not be guaranteed a permanent state of grace.  You may have many years left to live; perhaps less.  One thing is certain: you never take anything for granted.

I will never be the same

knowing how effortlessly death

rests in the cells of my body,

yet with each step I am willing

to say yes to the chances I take,

to the hope no one can take from me

here in the midst of my recovery…

(“Hiking in the Anza-Borrego Desert After Surgery,” by Francine Sterle, in The Cancer Poetry Project, V. 1, 2001)

There’s something else.  You may even feel a little guilty, especially when, in your cancer support groups, you know many whose prognoses are less favorable and who may well lose their lives to cancer.  You’re relieved, yes, but it can seem unfair.  Why have you survived while others may not?

You may question your life, how you can make it matter, live in a way that “makes a difference.” And yet, what about learning, or re-learning, what it means to live in the present, to cultivate gratitude, to even give yourself time and space to re-discover the simple pleasures of living?

“I’ve gone from thinking, ‘Why me?’ to thinking, ‘Why not me,” a former writing group member said.  “In the beginning, it was comforting to think of fighting to survive…   I believe that I should have a powerful drive to accomplish something…a goal for which I need to continue to survive.  But,” she confessed “I don’t find that drive in me.”

Her words resonated with me.  I recalled the self who was so goal-driven before cancer, eyes always on what lay ahead, stressed and always racing from one thing to the next. Cancer was my “whack” on the side of my head.  I became aware of how I had been missing out on the joy of the present—the ordinary moments that are so much of what living is about.  If I was to learn anything from my experience, it was about slowing down and learning to be present in ways I’d all but forgotten how to do.  It was about learning to live again, but differently.

What is living about for those lucky enough to be “in remission?”  N., a former group member wrote, “I love the things I do day by day.  I hike with one beloved friend.  I spend time in the wonderful garden of another.  I meet others for coffee and conversation. I meet these friends with pleasure and leave them with a joy and benefit to my mind and spirit…”

Like so many of us, N. rediscovered comfort and meaning in the ebb and flow of everyday life, small pleasures of love, companionship or nature.  “It frees me from having to make every moment count,” she wrote.  “It takes off pressure that would exist if I had to accomplish something in particular before I die…”

This is a spring he never thought to see.

Lean dusky Alaskan geese nibbling grass

seed in his field, early daffodils, three

fawns moving across his lawn in the last

of afternoon light…

He smells the hyacinth

and can feel hope with the terrible crack

of a thawing river loosen in his heart…

(“In Remission,” by Floyd Skloot, in The Cancer Poetry Project, V. 1, 2001)

I recall the wisdom of so many of the writing group members more than a few times each year, because, despite my resolve, it’s much too easy to slip into old habits of being, putting my daily life on fast forward or being consumed by a list of daily “to dos.”  It’s easy to forget the real task of being alive is to be present, pay attention, and re-discover the gratitude for my everyday life.

A., a member of one of my former writing groups for several years who subsequently died from rare form of leukemia in 2012, chose to spend her final years in the quiet beauty of the California redwoods, living and working in a small cabin in the Santa Cruz mountains, a source of inspiration and peace for her. She inspired in all who knew her a reverence for life, the beauty she saw in and expressed in how she experienced the  ordinary ebb and flow of each day.  Her poetry and words linger in my mind, luminous and alive.   In her poem, “Directive,” she reminds us how abundant the gifts of what we consider the ordinary are, of the joys found in those small moments of daily life.

Remember the commonplace, the wooden chair on the white planked deck,
trees kneeling in the rain and deer prints
leading into elegant rushes. A kinder place
cannot be found: where you sit at the top
of shadowy stairs, the window lifted…

Let me speak for you: there’s comfort
to be found in fatigue, in letting principles
fall like stones from your pockets…

Fall into the ordinary,
the rushes, the deer looking up into your heart,
risen, full in the silver hammered sky.

(From “Directive,” by A.E., 2010, personal communication)

Writing Suggestions:

  • “In Remission.”  Explore the term, what it means–or meant–to you.  What were the lessons of cancer?  Did you live your daily life differently than before cancer?
  • “Remember the commonplace…”  Re-read the excerpt of A.’s poem.  What in the ordinary aspects of daily life have you come to appreciate?
  • Practice gratitude.   Take notice; find gratitude for the simple joys of living.   Choose one small moment from any day, whether from nature, loved ones, your daily routine—a simple pleasure that sustains, inspires or offers you joy.  Describe it in as much detail as you can; perhaps you’ll find a poem or a story lurking there.

Read Full Post »