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Dear Readers,

The moving truck filled with our belongings arrived late this week, and Thursday was devoted to directing the movers where to place each box or piece of furniture before the time-consuming task of unwrapping each box, paintings, sculptures, and anything else protected by layers of paper. Several hours later, all of us showing the signs of fatigue, they left, and we searched for somewhere, among all our belongings, to simply sit and catch a breath.

We’ve cleared some space, organized the kitchen and dining rooms, made a cursory attempt at establishing a semblance of order in our bedroom, but we are far from finished.  It’s not just the effort required to re-arrange our living space, find places for our things, but also the inevitable “re-discovery” of keepsakes and photographs, some in boxes for years before our move.  Each makes us pause, and most often say, “Oh, I remember when…” and a story emerges, the objects triggering memories of other times, places and people in our lives.

I don’t, as of yet, have any place to sit and write in peace, nor a desk to sit at and use my computer.  As I write this week, I’m sitting on the edge of the bed, laptop now occupying my lap for one of the few times since I’ve owned it.  I offer you a post and prompts originally published in 2012 for this week—all about objects and the stories they hold.  I hope you’ll find some inspiration for writing. — Sharon.

 Previously Posted April 27, 2012

Like my grandmother now, I save teabags for a second
cup.  String, stamps without postmarks, aluminum foil.
Wrapping paper, paper bags, bags of scrap fabric,
blue rubber bands, clothes hangers.  I save newspaper
clippings, recipes, bits of yarn, photographs in
shoeboxes, tins of buttons.  I save cancelled checks,
instruction manuals, warranties for appliances
long since thrown away.  Feathers, shells, pebbles,
acorns.

(“What I Save,” by Cheryl Savageau, in Dirt Road Home, 1995.)
“Every object is full of story,” the instructor said as she began taking objects from a basket and laying them on a white cloth.  “Objects are how the world comes to us.”  I was attending a week-long creative writing workshop taught by Pat Schneider, author of Writing Alone and With Others.  Pat knelt on the floor and one by one, filled the cloth with an assortment of things, worn from age and use: a set of old keys, a rosary, a wooden spoon, a shaving brush and many others.  I was doing what many of my writing students have done, venturing back into what I loved most—writing—after a long detour through the soul-destroying path of a corporate career.

I had just finished seven weeks’ of radiation therapy, my skin still red and tender, but cancer was not on my mind as I took my place in the circle of men and women who’d come to the workshop.  I was filled with anxiety.  What on earth was I going to write about?  When Pat emptied the basket, she invited us to choose an object and write, whatever it suggested to us.  Some people were quick to choose and begin writing, but I held back, my eyes moving back and forth over the assortment until I spotted an old half empty pack of Camel cigarettes.  I picked it up, looked inside, smelling the stale tobacco, and was transported back to the interior of an old Chevy pickup truck, my father seated behind the steering wheel, a cigarette in his left hand, driving along the back roads of Siskiyou County and spinning yarns from his childhood. “He tried them all,” I wrote, “Camels, Marlboros, Pall Malls…”  Memories clamored for attention. There were so many stories in one half-empty pack of cigarettes.

I’d all but forgotten about that morning until I read Maria Mutch’s essay in the latest issue of Poets and Writers’ Magazine.  “Ghost in the Machine:  A Typewriter, A Postcard, and the Objects of Memory,” tells the story of her search for an old black manual typewriter, not realizing that the memories of a friend were embedded in her search–a friend who had tried to give her the Smith Corona portable typewriter she owned just before committing suicide many years ago.   It’s a beautifully rendered essay, reminding us of how our memories, our stories, can be triggered by ordinary, everyday objects—trinkets, toys, utensils—from our past, objects dear to us for the memories they hold, but insignificant to others.

When I walk in my house I see pictures,

bought long ago, framed and hanging

—de Kooning, Arp, Laurencin, Henry Moore—

that I’ve cherished and stared at for years,

yet my eyes keep returning to the masters

of the trivial—a white stone perfectly round,

tiny lead models of baseball players, a cowbell,

a broken great-grandmother’s rocker,

a dead dog’s toy—valueless, unforgettable

detritus that my children will throw away

as I did my mother’s souvenirs ….
(“The Things,” by Donald Hall, In:  The Back Chamber, 2011.)


Objects, the everyday tools of our lives, tell stories, real or imagined.  We visit museums and gaze at the artifacts of ancient civilizations, of our ancestors, gleaning a bit of history, but we know little about the person or the events that are carried in what we see behind the glass.  What stories might those objects tell us, if only they could speak?

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes

on a pile of broken dishes by the house;

a tall man too, says the length of the bed

in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,

says the Bible with a broken back

on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;

but not a man for farming, say the fields

cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn…

 

Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves

and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.

And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.

It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

 

Something went wrong, says the empty house

in the weed-choked yard….

(“Abandoned Farmhouse,” by Ted Kooser, In: Sure Signs:  New & Selected Poems, 1980)

Significant Objects, published in 2012 by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, is a collection of stories resulting from of a literary experiment designed to answer the question, “Can a great story transform a worthless trinket into a significant object?”  The project’s team invited several well-known writers to invent stories about a collection of secondhand items gathered from yard sales and thrift stores, bought for a few cents to a dollar or two.  Over 200 writers contributed to the project, and the collection of objects was then auctioned off on eBay, the objects’ sale resulting in thousands of dollars, the proceeds donated to charity. But it was probably the surprising “cavalcade of responses” to the random junk that was the most surprising feature of the experiment.  That assortment of useless trinkets, the cast offs of yard sales and thrift shops, ignited an extraordinary amount of imagination.

FOR WRITING:  This week, look around your home at those keepsakes, the objects that line your shelves or sit on your desk, a side table.  I’ve just turned to look at the assorted of memorabilia on the bookshelf next to the chair where I often sit and write:  a stone heart, a piece of obsidian from the lava beds in Siskiyou County, a glass paperweight, a small clay bird…  Every single object holds meaning for me.  Each has its story to tell.  Begin there, examining the talismans and trinkets you cherish.  Let them speak.  What memories do they carry?  What stories or poems lie within each?  Write them.

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A friend is someone who likes you.
It can be a boy…
It can be a girl…

These are the opening pages to Joan Walsh Anglund’s beloved little book, A Friend is Someone Who Likes You, first published in 1958, one that sat on my parents’ coffee table for years, one I read aloud to my fourth grade class the first year I taught.  I still have a copy of Anglund’s book on my shelves, because no matter our age or stage in life, we all need friends, whether in good times or bad.

I’ve written about this topic several times before, but friends and friendship were again on my mind as I awakened this morning, no doubt ignited by yesterday’s household belongings sale we held yesterday with our neighbors.  Our tables were filled with not just the ordinary accumulations one has for day-to-day living, like plates, glasses, trays or pans, but bits of history, items that once held sentimental value.  Decorations, artwork, mementos from travels, all things that held a memory of a time and place, also occupied places on the sales tables.  I surprised myself at how quickly I was able to let them go when a neighbor or stranger picked one or two of those things off the table and murmured, “Oh, I love this…”  Things, accumulated belongings, stuff—call it what you may, but I felt little but delight that someone else might use and enjoy what I once called “mine.”

We had help with the sale.  Alecia supervised the entire process of the garage sale.  Victoria simplified the pricing process.  Sue brought muffins and smoothies to help fuel us during the day.  Carrie provided tables and transport to Goodwill for leftover goods.  Neighbors conspired to have a small “farewell” party the night after the moving truck departs.  Other friends dropped by, less to peruse our tables, but more to offer good wishes and give us a farewell hug.  There were several moments where my eyes filled with tears, and I turned to a corner of the garage or walked inside our house to let my emotions settle.  Unlike once cherished objects, letting go and leaving friends and neighbors who have been part of my life here isn’t so simple.

“You gotta’ have friends,” Bette Midler crooned on her 1973 album, The Divine Miss M (Atlantic Records).  Yes, we all “gotta'” have friends.   I remembering singing along to Midler’s recording in the late seventies, when my life seemed to fall apart, and a few close friends were there to help me through a tumultuous and painful time of trauma and loss.  Of course, not all the people we call “friends” stick by us through  hard times, whether loss, a marriage break-up, cancer or other life hardships.  As Midler reminds us in the song:

I got some friends but they’re gone
Someone came and took them away…

It’s during those difficult times in our lives that we truly discover what friendship is—and what separates our friends from our acquaintances in life.  Friends endure.  We share history and stories, laughter and tears.  They remind us of who we were and who we are.  In times of upheaval, change and transition, they provide the continuity we need in our lives, and sometimes, as many of us so painfully discover, they are “there” for us when our immediate families may not be.

A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow. – William Shakespeare

Although I spent my childhood in one small town, my adult life has been punctuated by several moves, and once again, my husband and I are packing our bags and heading back to the city where we met and married, where even now, both daughters consider it “home,” despite their many travels and living in different countries.  I have been lucky to have several dear friends in Canada and the West—friendships formed in early in life, ones enduring through all my trials, tribulations, and moves to the opposite side of the country.  When I grouse about how many times we’ve changed residences, I remind myself how rich my life is, due in large part to my enduring friendships with people scattered around the world.  These are people who shared the impulsiveness and turbulence of youth, stuck by me during difficult chapters of my life, showed up when I least expected it, embraced and welcomed me when I felt most alone.

We all need friends.  Isolation and loneliness are often harbingers of emotional or physical illness.  Friendship, according to Rebecca Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships. Better health, a more positive outlook, longer lifespan and more hopeful attitude towards life are just some of the benefits of friendship, including lowered risk of coronary heart disease.  Strong friendships have been shown to benefit brain health as we age and increase longevity.  In a 2006 study of nurses diagnosed with breast cancer, those without close friends were far more likely to dies from their cancer than those with ten or more friends.  What’s more, proximity and amount of contact are less important than having good friends (“What are friends for?  A longer Life,” by Tara Parker Pope, New York Times, April 2009).

The good thing about friends, Brian Jones writes in his poem, “About Friends,” is not having to finish sentences ( From:  Spitfire on the Northern Line © 1985). That’s how it feels for me when I’m with my friends.  As I have experienced so many times, and again these past many days  preparing to leave San Diego, friends not only make our lives happier, richer and a lot more interesting, they show up to lend a hand or offer comfort when we most need it.  It was these enduring friendships I thought about this morning as I gazed out at the canyon early this morning, friends whose kindness and support have meant so much in my life.  I smiled as I remembered each, my heart filled with gratitude for their continuing presence in my life.

“Good friends are good for your health.” They celebrate the good times and provide support in the tough times.  They keep us from being lonely, and we, as friends, return the gift of companionship” (www.mayoclinic.org)

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about friendship this week, about having—perhaps even losing—friends.
  • When have friends made a difference in your life? How?
  • Begin with the phrase, “A friend is someone who…”
  • Or write about one important friend in your life—what makes him or her unique?

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I’ve been doing a lot of it, waiting, that is.  Since we made the decision to relocate several months ago, it’s seemed like “hurry up and wait.”  Four months ago, I began sorting through books and clothing, optimistic that we’d be headed north sometime in late April or, at the latest, mid-May.  But it’s now June, and we are now waiting for escrow to close in just less than a month.  Even though I realize these next weeks will now be dominated by a flurry of activity,  our time thus far has seemed elongated and the waiting interminable.

What you do with time

is what a grandmother clock

does with it: strike twelve

and take its time doing it.

You’re the clock: time passes,

you remain. And wait.

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

Waiting.  We all do it–and often.  It can dominate our daily lives.  We wait in lines for tickets or to get through security at the airport.  We wait to be served in restaurants or for a train in the subway station.  We wait for calls or letters from employers, editors or loved ones, for acceptances to schools, or the results of medical tests.  And  we wait in doctors’ waiting rooms for an appointment scheduled an hour earlier, thumbing impatiently through outdated magazines and checking the clock a dozen times, unable to concentrate on much of anything but the waiting.

Waiting, a novel by Ha Jin, captures the poignant dilemma of a Chinese man, Lin, whose life is dominated by duty.  He is caught in a loveless marriage arranged by his traditional parents Lin lives far away in an army hospital compound, visiting only once a year. He becomes attracted to a nurse in the hospital where he works, but Communist party rules prevent him from divorcing his wife without her permission until they have been separated for 18 years.  Year after year, Lin returns to his village to ask his wife for his freedom, and year after year, he returns, still married, unable to consummate his love affair.  The irony comes at the end, when Lin concludes that he “waited eighteen years just for the sake of waiting.”

The narrator in the short story, “Waiting,” by E.C. Osondu, also spends his days in wait.  War has destroyed his village, and he is one of many in a refugee camp faced with the threat of starvation.  They spend also their days waiting.

Here in the camp, we wait and wait and then wait some more. It is the only thing we do. We wait for the food trucks to come and then we form a straight line and then we wait a few minutes for the line to scatter, then we wait for the fight to begin, and then we fight and struggle and bite and kick and curse and tear and grab and run. And then we begin to watch the road and wait to see if the water trucks are coming, we watch for the dust trail, and then we go and fetch our containers and start waiting and then the trucks come and the first few containers are filled and the fight and struggle and tearing and scratching begin because someone has whispered to someone that the water tanker only has little water in it.  That is, if we are lucky and the water tanker comes; oftentimes, we just bring out our containers and start waiting and praying for rain to fall.

We are all forced to wait at many times in our lives. Those toe-tapping, check-our-wrist watches moments are minor irritations that we all endure.  But there is another kind of waiting that no one finds easy, waiting that is punctuated with worry and sleepless nights.  Waiting that could be a matter of life and death.  Anyone living with cancer knows this kind of waiting intimately.  In  the course of treatments and recovery, waiting can be torment, as writer Susan Gubar describes in her article, “Living With Cancer: Hurry Up and Wait.”

As a cancer patient, you endure “waiting for a doctor, waiting for radiation, waiting for the delivery of chemotherapy drugs, waiting through interminable infusions or transfusions, waiting for a scan or a biopsy, waiting for the results of a scan or a biopsy, waiting (sometimes starved and unclothed on a gurney in a hall) for surgery… Hurrying up to wait is, of course, the fate of most patients, whether or not they have cancer and no matter how impatient they may be. But for cancer patients, waiting entails being enveloped in heightened fears about harmful protocols and the difficulty of eradicating or containing the disease. While I’m waiting, who knows what appalling cells are conspiring within my body to destroy my being? (In:  “Well,”  New York Times, December 3, 2015)

A 2011 research study reported in The Annals of Surgery found “wait times for cancer treatment have increased over the last decade… potentially resulting in additional treatment delay…Although cancer incidence rates have seen modest declines during the last decade, the overall number of patients diagnosed with a solid organ malignancy has been increasing, likely due to an increasing elderly population.”  An extended interval from diagnosis to treatment, the researchers concluded, “adds to patient anxiety, leads to gaps in care, and perhaps affects disease progression.”

If you or a loved one has been faced with the anxious period between any test for cancer and its results, your experience may be echoed in Muriel Fish’s poem, “In Cold Dreams Before Dawn,” as she captures the fear of waiting:

…The radiologist

Enters, snaps the x-ray film into a wall unit lit with

brisk efficiency…

…the bite of the biopsy needle reminds me

most lumps are benign…

…I wait, remembering long

Bittersweet days sitting with my mother and sister,

each with their own small malignancy and dead within three years.

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

Robert Carroll, MD, is a UCLA psychiatrist who utilizes poetry to help patients cope with their illnesses and struggles.  In a 2005 article, “Finding the Words to Say It:  The Healing Power of Poetry,” he explored how poetry can help us find the words to express trauma, illness, death and dying.  Remembering my father’s death from lung cancer several years ago, I was drawn to one of his featured poems:  “What Waiting Is.”

We sit on the bench in the hospital corridor
next to the cafeteria, and we wait.
You know what waiting is.
If you know anything, you know what waiting is.
It’s not about you.
This is about
illness and hospitals and life and death…

In matters of death and dying, as Carroll describes,  we may be forced to do little but wait, but finding ways to express our pain and emotion–by writing or finding meaning in others’ poetry and prose–has therapeutic benefits.  In this poem,  Carroll captured another kind of waiting cancer imposes on us, the experience of waiting while a loved one ends his cancer journey.  As I read it, I recalled the experience of waiting while my beloved father was dying of lung cancer several years ago:

In the bathroom you look in the mirror.
What do you see?
Your father’s sad face?
Your mother’s eyes?
You catch the water cupped
in your thickened hands, splash it on your face,
and hope against hope you can wash it away—
the aging brown spots, the bags,
the swelling truth of waiting—…

you get home to see the light
flash on your answering machine…

you push the button,
and it’s your sister’s voice,
but it’s choked,
and she can’t speak…

 Waiting never seems to get easier, and there are times, particularly in the midst of illness, trauma and suffering, that the waiting we do seems never ending.  Yet, we learn, as we sometimes are forced to do, to wait.  And we hope, as T.S. Eliot once wrote, “The faith and the love and the hope are … in the waiting.  These words make me reconsider why life makes us wait.  I am still learning, even after all these years, to accept what I cannot control, to let things unfold as they will.  “This is life.  You learn to wait.”

Writing Suggestion:

The waiting I’ve been doing lately will, once it’s over, make me wonder why I expended on the energy on it I have.  But I, like you, have sat, worried and anxious, in waiting rooms while a child undergoes surgery, or waited, dreading the call I knew would come, when my father died, and waited, caught between hope and fear, for the results echocardiograms or a biopsy.   Think about all the times you’ve waited for something or someone.  Write about an experience you’ve had of waiting.

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Today I write about a subject that I don’t often speak of, nor even give into its darkness very often.  Today I am lonely.  I wonder how many of you who also have Stage IV cancer are lonely.  I can’t be alone.

Lisa Masters, “The Loneliness of Cancer,” Huffington Post, March 6, 2014.

In “The Anatomy of Loneliness,” an essay written by novelist Thomas Wolfe in 1941, he wrote: “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”   Yet, there are periods in a person’s life that loneliness, while “inevitable,” is intensified by circumstance, for example, poverty, old age, loss of a partner or spouse, or having a serious or life-threatening illness that loneliness intensifies and worsens.  The experience of cancer, especially when we hear descriptors like “aggressive,” “terminal” or “progressive,” can thrust us into that state, once described by Susan Sontag as the “kingdom of the sick,” where we feel isolated and estranged, not only from those close to us, but from ourselves.

According to Ruth Livingston, PhD, founder and direction of Living with Medical Conditions, writing in a 2011 article “Curing the Loneliness of Illness,

Being lonely can itself be dangerous to one’s health. Loneliness can double a person’s chances of catching a cold and, worse, lonely people are four times more likely to have a heart attack and, once they do, four times more likely to die from it…Further,… loneliness has an effect on the immune system: it increases genetic activity related to inflammation, a risk factor for heart disease and cancer; and it reduces antibody production and antiviral responses, protective against health risks. Such patterns of gene expression are not, according to researchers, linked to other negative feelings such as depression.  Loneliness, then —all alone — is a hazard. 

In 2014, UK-based MacMillan Cancer Support estimated loneliness put cancer patients’ recovery at risk, finding that cancer patients who are lonely are three times more likely to struggle with treatment plans than those who aren’t.  For example, lonely patients skip treatment appointments, do not take medications as prescribed, refuse certain types of treatment or skip treatment altogether.  Ciaran Devane, MacMillan CEO, commenting on the research, said, “We already know loneliness may be as harmful as smoking, but this research shows…it is particularly toxic to cancer patients.”

Illness is solitary, because suffering is something you always do alone.  It impacts phenomenally on your world view and on your experiences and on how you see the external world.

Author Peter Hobbs, commenting in a 2008 Granta Magazine interview

In his book, The Lonely Patient:  How We Experience Illness (2008), Michael Stein, MD, wrote, “health is comfortable, predictable, unnoticed.  …illness seems to come out of nowhere.  It’s become the unknown, and we’re all frightened by the unknown.”  He noticed that the effect on many of his patients was a kind of withdrawal, becoming physically unavailable for a time, and asking the question, “Why me?”  Loneliness, he concluded, “is a word that captures the inward spiritual condition…by its very nature, it excludes others.  The patient begins to feel out-of-place, lonely, and loneliness if made worse by the severity of the illness.

Loneliness is not an accident or a choice.

It’s an uninvited and uncreated companion.

It slips in beside you when you are not aware…

It takes your hand and walks with you.  It lies down

with you.  It sits beside you.  It’s as dark as a shadow

but it has substance that is familiar…

(“Loneliness,” by Fanny Howe, in Second Childhood, 2014)

Loneliness is a theme expressed regularly in the cancer writing groups I lead.  There are common triggers to loneliness often shared among the members and echoed by the National Cancer Institute:

  • Friends may have a hard time dealing with your diagnosis and not call or visit as they once did.
  • You feel sick post-treatments and aren’t able to participate in the activities or social events you once did.
  • It’s common to feel as if those around you—friends and loved ones—don’t understand what you are going through.
  • Even when treatment is over, you can suffer from loneliness, missing the support and understanding you received from your medical team and feeling vulnerable as your “safety net” of regular appointments is taken away from you.

Remember, although loneliness is common, that “inevitable fact” of being human, it’s not good for your health.  We all need emotional support during cancer treatment and recovery, but each of us has different ways of finding the emotional support we need.  When you’re feeling lonely and blue, it may seem like it takes too much effort, yet it’s important to find something that can help you diminish your loneliness, whether an expressive writing, support or art therapy group or an activity, like yoga.   Perhaps it’s a long chat with a close friend, a loved one or even your pastor, rabbi or a counselor.  Even simple activities like taking a walk or sitting in the sunlight in the garden can help combat your loneliness.  Take it a step at a time, but do take steps to re-engage with the things that normally, make you feel better.

Writing is an antidote for loneliness. –Steven Berkoff

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about what it is to experience loneliness, whether a poem or a narrative. What images or metaphors best capture what it is to be lonely?
  • Did you experience loneliness after treatment had ended? Describe what it was like.
  • What has helped you diminish the feelings of loneliness during cancer or another serious illness? What advice do you have for the newly diagnosed cancer patient or the cancer survivor completing treatment?

 

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Dear Readers,

I am traveling this week and spending time with my eldest daughter and her daughter, my third grandchild.  I take pride in watching my daughter as a mother, and I hope that I have passed along lessons of love and wisdom as well as the recognition that mothering is both joyous and, at times, frustrating, challenging, sometimes full of self doubt, and surely the most important role one can have.  Our mothers are fundamental to the development and character of the children who grow to shape and lead the next generation.

As a mother and now a grandmother, I remember my mother and grandmothers, understanding now what I may not have fully understood about their struggles, achievements hard won, or even the lessons they strove to instill in a headstrong and yet tender-hearted young girl.  In honor of mothers everywhere, living or deceased,  l invite you to pause and remember, with gratitude, all that You’ve learned from your mothers.

Happy Mother’s Day.

(post previously published May, 2016)

WHAT WE LEARN FROM OUR MOTHERS

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point…

(From: “What I Learned from My Mother, by Julia Kasdorf, in:  Sleeping Preacher,  1992)

There’s much that I learned from my mother, just as you may have, much of it more useful as I grew into adulthood, but not the lessons she might have intended for me.  I learned less about the domestic tasks Kasdorf describes and more about my mother’s struggle with the prescribed roles of wife, mother and homemaker.

My mother had two faces and a frying pot   

where she cooked up her daughters 

into girls 

before she fixed our dinner…

(From:From the House of Yemanjá” by Audre Lorde, in:  The Selected Poems of Audre Lorde, 1997)

My mother was not like the mothers  my friends had.  She was different, even difficult.  She wasn’t the most versatile of cooks, nor did she  inherit her mother’s talent in the kitchen.  In truth, she took little pleasure in producing the daily meals for her family.  She preferred physical labor, daily scrubbing and housecleaning, yard work and gardening, and in turn, she believed those tasks were necessary to build good, solid character in her children.

We were assigned daily tasks and chores which had to be completed before school or play.  Every Saturday, we protested and complained as we were forced to scrub walls and floors while our friends waited impatiently for us outside.  Of my parents, Mother was the strict disciplinarian, and she prided herself on the role.  She was quick to remind us that any successes we had in school or life were due to the discipline she imposed.  My father, naturally playful and soft-hearted, had my heart; my mother had my obedience, but also my embarrassment and rebellion.

Many years later, as the mother of two strong-willed daughters, I began to understand some of my mother’s struggles more than I had in my earlier years.  I weathered the storms of adolescence as a single mother, experiencing their affection one day and rebelliousness the next, all while I attempted to parent, earn a living and build a career.  I developed greater empathy for much of my mother’s struggles—and much greater appreciation of what it meant to be a mother.

I see her doing something simple, paying bills,

or leafing through a magazine or book,

and wish that I could say, and she could hear,

 

that now I start to understand her love

for all of us, the fullness of it.

 

It burns there in the past, beyond my reach,

a modest lamp.

(“Mother’s Day,” by David Young, in:  Field of Light and Shadow, 2011)

A dozen years ago, my mother died peacefully in a home for Alzheimer’s patients.  Her descent into senility escalated as my father passed away from lung cancer.  The woman who was always in control of everything –or so we thought—wasn’t in control at all.  My father had quietly been covering the signs of her illness as best he could.  The irony was, of course, that as the disease progressed, my mother became docile, sweet and affectionate in ways we’d rarely experienced her.  Yet out of the darkness, a moment of clarity, the mother we remembered would reappear, if only for a few seconds.  She loved her children as ferociously as she attacked life, yet she remained critical of us even as her mind deteriorated.  She was proud of what we each had accomplished, and yet she had always expected more of us.  She left a legacy of conflicted feelings among her children, wounds that were never healed, and old jealousies bred in the competition she fostered between us.  But I realize now that my mother did the best she could do.  It wasn’t ideal or even good mothering at times, but she wanted the best for us always.

I choose, on this Mother’s Day to remember that she did the best she could and that although her kind of love was difficult sometimes, it was love just the same.  I recall one of the last times I visited her, a month or so before she died.  She had, by then, lost the ability to walk, and she wasn’t aware of much, including me.  I resorted to pushing her in her wheelchair, going round and round the garden of the Alzheimer’s home.  As I grew weary, I positioned her chair by a brilliant red Bougainvillea  and took her hand.  At a loss, I began singing, “Let me call you sweetheart…,” something she had often sung to us as children.  As I sang, she slowly raised her head and looked at me for several seconds before speaking.

“Why, it’s Sha-ron!”  She spoke my name slowly, elongating the syllables.

“Yes Mom, it’s me.  Your eldest daughter,” I said, tears filling my eyes.  I squeezed her hand.

“I’m…happy,” she said slowly, smiling a little, as she closed her eyes.  Then her head fell to her chest.  Once again, she had disappeared into her darkness.  A few weeks later, my mother passed away.

It’s taken me time to sift through all that my mother was and meant to me.  The relationships we have with our mothers can be complicated as well as close.  Mine was both.  Yet she was my mother, and I am her daughter.  There are mornings I look in the mirror and see something of her in my face or expression, just as each of her three children likely do.   If I could, I would tell her now all that’s in my heart, maybe write her that long overdue letter I always meant to write, but like Wallace Stegner, writing to his mother long after her death, it’s too little, “much too late.”

 “All you can do is try,” you used to tell me when I was scared of undertaking something.  You got me to undertake many things I would have not dared undertake without your encouragement.  You also taught me how to take defeat when it came, and it was bound to now and then.  You taught me that if it hadn’t killed me it was probably good for me…

(From: “Letter, Much Too Late, in: Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs:  Living and Writing in the West, 1992)

To all mothers everywhere, Happy Mother’s Day.

Writing Suggestions:

We learn from our mothers lessons of love and life, some of them not appreciated until we’re much older.  What lessons did your mother teach you?  How have those lessons or experiences influenced your life?  If you have since become a mother, do you find yourself acting in ways as you remember your mother did?  Write about the relationship you had with your mother.  Was it close?  Conflicted?  Distant?  Explore the things that made it so.  What do you want to say to your mother this Mother’s Day?

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Dear Readers,

Our house went on the market this past week, and daily, my husband, our dog, and I vacate our home for a few hours to allow real estate agents to show the property to prospective buyers.  There’s no way to express the upheaval that accompanies this phase, and I doubt you’ll be surprised to learn that my sleep has been significantly disrupted in the stress of this entire–and lengthy–process of relocating to another city.  I awaken more than once during the night, check the clock and discover only an hour or at most, two, has passed since I last checked.  By 5 a.m., I give up and wearily shuffle to the kitchen to make the morning coffee, taking some comfort in the continuation of one small ritual:  grinding the beans, brewing the coffee, and settling into my favorite chair to write–even if the time to do it has been disrupted by the necessity to be out of the house during much of the day.

I’ve searched through the archive of my older posts and cobbled together this week’s piece on sleepless nights–something that afflicts many of us during times of stress, worry, and change.  I hope you enjoy it and find some inspiration to write about those nights you’ve lain awake too, unable to sleep.

–Sharon

For the Week of May 7, 2017:  Lying Awake in the Night

Even in the cave

of the night when you

wake…

you push with your eyes till forever

comes in its twisted figure eight

 

and lies down in your head…

 

(From:  “Waking at 3 a.m., by William Stafford)

3 a.m.  You’re awake.  A parade of thoughts marches through your mind: worry, to-do lists, a snippet of a conversation you replay again and again.   Perhaps you keep a notepad by the bed, like I do, hoping that if you jot down the persistent nagging by your brain, you might lull yourself back to sleep.  But you can’t get comfortable, or your husband is storing, or you remember something you forgot to add to the list.  You close your eyes again, trying to focus on little but a steady rhythm of deep breathing.  Perhaps you doze off, awakening a short time later and checking the clock, annoyed to find that barely a half hour has passed since you last checked the time.  Five, ten, twenty more minutes pass.  A seeming infinity.  It’s hopeless now; you’re wide awake and throw back the covers to pad into the kitchen and try the age-old remedy of drinking a glass of warm milk.  Finally, perhaps an hour or so later, you sleep, only to be jolted awake by the alarm clock all too soon.  It’s something I’ve been experiencing for the past few weeks, my head buzzing with “to do” lists and the kind of stress that comes with moving to another city.  But whatever the reason, sleeplessness happens to each of us at some time or another.  Whether it’s the result of a tough day at work, finances, worry about a loved one or yourself– even just eating a late dinner–sleep is elusive.  Even worse, during emotional upset, personal crises, or serious illness, sleep disruption can last for weeks.

Sleeplessness, the New York Times’ Health Guide suggests,  “can involve difficulty falling asleep…waking up too early in the morning, or waking up often during the night…or combinations of these patterns.” Everyone has an occasional sleepless night…as many as 25% of Americans report occasional sleeping problems. Chronic sleeping problems, however, affect about 10% of people. The lack of restful sleep can affect your ability to carry out daily responsibilities because you are too tired or have trouble concentrating. All types of insomnia can lead to daytime drowsiness, poor concentration, and the inability to feel refreshed and rested in the morning.”

Writers know the darkness of early morning hours well.  Long, sleepless nights have been a theme in countless stories or essays or poems, for example, “Sleep now, O sleep now,” James Joyce wrote in his poem by the same name, “A voice crying “Sleep now”/is heard in my heart…”  Charles Dickens suffered from sleepless nights too.  In an essay titled, “Lying Awake,” he wrote:

But, it happened to me the other night to be lying: not with my eyes half closed, but with my eyes wide open… my hair pitchforked and touzled all over the pillow; …glaringly, persistently, and obstinately, broad awake. Perhaps, with no scientific intention or invention, I was illustrating the theory of the Duality of the Brain; perhaps one part of my brain, being wakeful, sat up to watch the other part which was sleepy. Be that as it may, something in me was as desirous to go to sleep as it possibly could be, but something else in me WOULD NOT go to sleep, and was as obstinate as George the Third. http://www.online-literature.com/dickens/reprinted-pieces/8/

Like those who’ve written of the inability to sleep, cancer patients know sleepless nights well.  I recall how a few years ago when I was unable to sleep, I turned on my computer soon discovered  I was not alone.  An email arrived in my inbox from a woman in my cancer writing group who was undergoing a new treatment regimen for metastatic breast cancer.  She was awake and writing me in an attempt to capture the myriad thoughts about her illness and  life, thoughts that kept her tossing and turning in her bed, unable to fall asleep.

What she was experiencing was not unusual.  Sleep disorders are common among cancer patients.  Several recent studies have shown that 30 to 50% of cancer patients have trouble sleeping, compared to 15% in the general population (Oncolink, July 2016).   Even 2 to 5 years after treatment, symptoms of insomnia were found in 23 to 44% of patients.

A number of factors associated with cancer can contribute to sleeping difficulties:  physical pain, side effects of treatment, emotional stress, surgery and hospitalization.  The inability to go to sleep and stay asleep can have negative effects, including anxiety, depression, fatigue, headaches or even disrupt the body’s hormonal balance.  Stanford University’s David Spiegel and his colleagues found that those who suffer from troubled sleep are also more cancer prone.  When our circadian rhythms (the sleep/wake cycle) are disrupted, it can affect a person’s cancer prognosis.  “A good night’s sleep may be one weapon in the fight against cancer,” the research team concluded.  (Science Daily, October 1, 2003).

What can you do if you are one of those who suffer from sleepless nights or insomnia?  Here are a few helpful suggestions for a better night’s sleep from the MD Anderson Cancer Center:

  • Power down. The blue light from cell phones, tablets, TV and computer screens suppresses melatonin, which directly interferes with sleep.
  • Rituals.  Make sure you keep a bedtime and wake up ritual, even on the weekends.
  • Cool it down. Check the temperature of your bedroom. The optimum bedroom temperature should be between 65 to 72 degrees for sound sleep.
  • Leave the room. If you cannot sleep within 5 to 10 minutes of lying down, get out of bed and read a magazine or book that is soothing or boring. Spend time in prayer or meditation to calm the mind.
  • Limit your food and drink intake. Avoid heavy meals, alcohol, chocolate or caffeine products, such as soda, coffee or tea, three to four hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid naps. Keep your daytime naps to 30 minutes or less. And, don’t take a nap within several hours of bedtime.
  • Exercise.  The American Cancer Society recommends that cancer patients and survivors do at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week.
  • Pull down the shades. Your bedroom should be like a cave.  It should be dark, cool and quiet.  Cover clocks or other electronic devices that emit light in your bedroom.
  • Write it out. Keep a pen and paper by your bed if you are prone to wake up and worry about the next day’s events.

And just in case you think it’s only adults who suffer from sleep difficulties, perhaps there’s comfort in knowing that even the beloved Winnie the Pooh was afflicted with them:

But [Pooh] couldn’t sleep. The more he tried to sleep the more he couldn’t. He tried counting sheep, which is sometimes a good way of getting to sleep, and, as that was no good, he tried counting Heffalumps. And that was worse. Because every Heffalump that he counted was making straight for a pot of Pooh’s honey, and eating it all… Pooh could bear it no longer…
–A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh, 1926

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about sleepless nights. What do you remember most about a particular sleepless night? Describe it in as much detail as you can.
  • What thoughts or images invade your mind and keep you awake?
  • Have you ever “birthed” an idea for a poem or story in the darkness of the night?  Write it.
  • What’s helped you coax yourself back to sleep? Write about your rituals or calming practices that help you overcome the agony of a sleepless night.

 

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(A note from Sharon:  Yes, the post/writing suggestions for the coming week are early.  The reason?  I’m traveling for the next few days and will be away from my office and computer.   I’ll be back on regular Sunday postings April 30th.)

—————

I’m crossing a border this week, traveling from San Diego to Toronto, Canada for a short visit with my daughter and her family.  I’ve done this dozens of times over many years, so it’s slightly amusing to me that I’ve never gotten used the feeling of timidity that sweeps over me when I step forward and face a customs officer, whether the US or Canadian border.
“Passport please.” I hand over my passport and smile like an obedient first grader.  Some customs officials are welcoming, even smiling back at me.  Other times, their faces are stony and expressionless.  I want to reassure them.  I’m a nice person, I want to say, really I am.

“Reason for your visit?” I offer another smile.  I’m silently thanking the fact that I have gray hair and am no doubt seen as a senior citizen and the mother of adult daughters.

“I’m here to visit my daughter.”

“How long will you be staying?”

I answer appropriately, a week, a month, or in this case, just four days.  Thwack.  Thwack.  My passport is stamped.   “Enjoy your stay,” the customs official says as he hands me my passport.   I’m approved for entry.

Of course, I’m not quite free of the lines and the terminal.  I stand in the baggage area with other weary travelers waiting for my suitcase to appear.  Then I stand in line again, this time to hand in my customs form before I leave walk through the sliding doors to the throng of waiting families and friends.  I turn right and walk out of the terminal in a haze of long distance travel.   Despite the fact I’ve traveled frequently and far in the world, the first slap of culture shock, even mild, is always a surprise.  It takes me an hour to two to regain my sense of familiarity with a place I once lived.

But there are other border crossings that may not go as smoothly as a trip to this country’s northern neighbor.  These are ones that involve a major life transition or serious illness.  You move you’re your familiar life to an unfamiliar one in a matter of moments.  It’s often abrupt and thrust upon you with little warning–not unlike the moment you first heard these words from your doctor: “you have cancer.” You’re catapulted into an unfamiliar country, one Susan Sontag called “The Kingdom of the Sick.”

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place. (Susan Sontag, in The New York Times, Jan. 26, 1978)

In the “Kingdom of the Sick,” no one asks for your passport or offers a welcoming, “Enjoy your stay.”  You’re thrust into unfamiliar and rugged terrain.  Perhaps you’ve been given a roadmap of sorts, but it is a maze of choices to make, each of them branching into multiple—and equally confusing—pathways.  Worse, there’s the strange-sounding terminology to decipher –those colloquialisms and multi-syllabic utterances from your physician’s lips that leave you feeling dizzy and confused.  Cancer teaches you a new language.  You’re forced to leave behind what you took for granted, and cross into a new reality that you feel ill prepared for.

There’s a moment, not necessarily when you hear your diagnosis, maybe weeks later, when you cross that border and know in your heart and soul that this is really serious… The hardest thing is to leave yourself, the innocent, healthy you that never had to face her own mortality, at the border.  That old relationship with your body, careless but friendly, taken for granted, suddenly ends.  Your body becomes enemy territory …The sudden crossing over into illness or disability, becoming a patient, can feel like you’re landing on another planet, or entering another country… (Barbara Abercrombie, Writing Out the Storm, 2002).

This is the foreign territory of your body’s betrayal, where nothing seems quite real, and fear is your constant companion.  It’s lonely–You feel lost.  You’re traveling without an interpreter in a confusing and difficult place.  Try as you might, there’s no escape, no going back, no refund for your ticket.  You must learn how to cope and navigate your way through it all, and you must learn it quickly.  Your life may depend on it.

But along the way, a glimmer of hope—and you discover it as you find other travelers, men and women like you, who are also struggling to make sense of this foreboding landscape..  You feel discover comfort and support in the community of other survivors.  You feel less alone and together, find comfort in the sharing of fears and hopes, making them seem more manageable.  You join hands and together, begin to find your way through this dark and fearful kingdom.

Somewhere out there in that darkness are hundreds of thousands … like myself …new citizens of this other country… In one moment of discovery, these lives have been transformed, just as mine has been, as surely as if they had been  plucked from their native land and forced to survive in a hostile new landscape, fraught with dangers, real and imagined. (Musa Mayer, Examining Myself:  One Woman’s Story of Breast Cancer Treatment and Recovery, 1994.).      

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about crossing the border into the unknown territory of life threatening illness.
  • What was it like at first?
  • What old assumptions did you have to leave behind?
  • How did your relationship with your body changed?
  • What was most helpful to you as you entered “the kingdom of the sick?”

 

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