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Archive for the ‘writing to heal’ Category

Pick yourself up…

Take a deep breath…

Dust yourself off                      

And start all over again.

Pick yourself up…

(From “Pick Yourself Up,” lyrics by Jerome Kern & Dorothy Fields)

These are the words from a song often played by my mother when I was a child, often when I suffered some youthful defeat.  I can still hear Nat King Cole’s mellow tones reminding us that we all encounter difficulties, but must find a way to go on:  “Will you remember the famous men/who had to fall to rise again/They picked themselves up/ Dust themselves off/and started all over again.”

It’s easier said than done, as we’re reminded by the devastation suffered by thousands of Texans in the path of Hurricane Harvey this past week.  Recovery, whether from natural disaster, trauma, addiction or cancer is no small feat.  A look through the dictionary defines recovery as “a return to a normal state of health, mind or strength; the process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost.”  And yet, so many aspects of our former lives, especially in the aftermath of a hurricane, tornado, fire, cancer or traumatic losses, might never be fully regained.  How then can we understand the process of recovery?

Right foot, left foot, right foot, breathe.—Anne LaMott

My heart ached as I watched the news this week and witnessed the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey.  It’s the worst hurricane to make landfall in the United States since the record-breaking 2005 hurricane season which included Katrina, Rita and Wilma (Source:  Wikipedia).  The physical destruction and economic losses are staggering, and it will take months, perhaps longer, for people to rebuild and recover.  And yet, the speed of recovery matters.  Because of the economic and emotional pain and deprivation suffered by families and communities, the effects of these natural disasters can be long-lasting.

It’s not just the physical devastation of a disaster like Harvey.  The emotional costs after a natural disaster like a hurricane, flood, tornado or earthquake are great.  People feel stunned and disoriented.  Feelings are raw and unpredictable; repeated and vivid memories of the event can create physical responses such as rapid heartbeat, sleeplessness or loss of appetite.  Interpersonal relationships can be strained.  These emotional stresses can continue long after the event.  Even in post-disaster rebuilding, people and communities do not resume “life as it was before.”  Lives are forever altered, and gradually, a “new normal” emerges.

Recovery has similar challenges, whether in the emotional suffering of survivors of natural disasters or individuals experiencing cancer, trauma and sudden, tragic loss . The process of recovery doesn’t promise smooth sailing.  Whether a hurricane or cancer treatment and surgeries, physical symptoms like fatigue, weight changes, sleeplessness or change in appetite can accompany us during recovery, as Dana Jennings, a prostate cancer survivor and New York Times writer, described:

I’m recovering well from an aggressive case of prostate cancer; I haven’t had any treatment in months, and all my physical signposts of health are point in the right direction.

Still, I’m depressed.–Dana Jennings (“After Cancer, Ambushed by Depression, NY Times, Sept. 29, 2009)

He describes another aspect of recovery:  The troublesome physical symptoms during the process are often coupled with emotional responses: depression, guilt, anger, fear of recurrence, or the frustration of dealing with loved ones as you encounter a changed life or an altered body.  Whatever our new normal is going to be, it takes time, more time that we expect, and the process of getting there can be challenging.

I’m exhausted, unfocused and tap my left foot a lot in agitation.  I don’t much want to go anywhere…and some days I can’t even bear the thought of picking up the phone or changing a lightbulb…

Partly, I think, I’m grieving for the person I was before I learned I had cancer.  Mortality is no longer abstract, and a certain innocence has been lost.—Dana Jennings

Recovery is a process that, like it or not,  happens slowly.  There are days, even weeks, you may feel you’ll never make it through to a more “normal” life, yet research shows us that the majority of people are resilient and able, over time, to bounce back from tragedy.

And you come through.  It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.—Anne LaMott

How do you navigate through the process of recovery?  The American Psychological Association offers advice, steps you can take to regain emotional well-being and a sense of control after a traumatic event like a natural disaster, sudden loss, or life threatening illness:

  • Give yourself time to adjust. It’s a difficult time in your life; allow yourself the time to mourn the losses you’ve suffered.
  • Ask for support from people who care about you and who will listen and empathize. Social support is a critical component to any recovery, whether a natural disaster or a serious illness.  Family and friends can help, so, perhaps, can a support group.
  • Communicate your experience. As Dana Jennings said in his 2009 article, “I believe in and trust in the healing power of the stories that we tell each other.”  Talking with friends, keeping a journal or expressing yourself in another creative activity can be healing.
  • Find a local support group led by professionally trained and experienced professionals. The group discussion can help you realize you are not alone in how you feel and react.
  • Engage in healthy behaviors, like eating well balanced meals and getting plenty of rest.
  • Establish (or reestablish) your routines, like eating at regular times, sleeping and waking on a regular cycle, or engaging in daily exercise, for example.
  • Avoid making major life decisions. Big and important decisions are stressful enough on their own, and they are much harder to take on when you are recovering from disaster or serious illness.

All of us experience some kind of life challenge, a tragedy, loss, serious illness or even a natural disaster in our lives.  In their wake, we may feel as if our lives will never be the same.  And it’s likely they won’t, because we will be changed by what has happened to us. Yet our lives will go on, and there may be lessons gained from the suffering.  Gail Caldwell summed up her lessons in her memoir of friendship and loss of a dear friend: “I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures.”  (Let’s Take the Long Way Home:  A Memoir of Friendship, 2010).

We are changed by the difficult chapters in our lives, and in many ways, perhaps, for the better, as Caldwell suggessts.   I have often remarked how my encounter with cancer was so early and treatable, I felt like a “phony,” and refused the label of “survivor.”  I doubted I truly understood the emotional roller coaster so many cancer patients endured until later I collapsed on the pavement a few years later and was taken to the hospital by ambulance to be diagnosed with heart failure. For weeks afterward, my emotions were not only unpredictable, but colored by a fear of early mortality –something that crept into my thoughts without warning.  I’d be in tears, lying awake with fear as my companion.  It took time and support from my doctors, family and friends to return to a “normal” way of living, but at the same time, I was learning more about emotional recovery that informed my practice with cancer patients and survivors.

During those first unsteady months, I came across a poem by Ellen Bass,  one that affected me so deeply,  I framed it and hung over my desk. It served as a daily reminder that while my life had changed by the unexpected diagnosis and treatment for a weakened heart, I could take steps to lead a long and relatively healthy life.   Here’s the poem–it’s one I often return to and read in my writing groups for cancer patients.

The Thing Is

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

(By Ellen Bass, From Mules of Love. © 2002)

Writing Suggestion:

Yes, I will take you/I will love you again.  Try using Ellen’s words as the prompt to describe a time when your life was devastated or turned upside down by an unexpected loss, tragedy or illness.  What helped you recover and heal from that event?  What did you learn about yourself, and your life as a result of it?

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“My house sits on about 10-feet elevation so if the storm surge gets up to 12 feet it’s going to be a bit of a problem. If it’s 15 feet I’ll sit on the roof and surf my way into downtown Corpus. But I’m hunkered down. I’ve got food. I’ve got water. If my power goes out I’ll eat what’s in the fridge then eat stuff cold, out of a can. I’m a Boy Scout, so I’m prepared. I can ride this thing out.”(Wade Walker, quoted in “Hurricane Harvey is Scaring Everyone Away But These People,” by Alex Hannaford, Reuters, 08/26/17)

I rarely turn on the television news in the evening as I once did, unwilling to let the constant stream of negative news—violence, shootings, Washington politics, war and the suffering—consume my thoughts and mood.  But I followed the news of Hurricane Harvey on Friday and again last night, full of heartache for the many hundreds of people who suffered so much devastation and loss.  It will be days yet before the full extent of the damage will be assessed, but despite the losses, people are already coming together to help one another.  It’s that, in the midst of such sorrow and suffering, enables people find hope, something we witness again and again in the midst of tragedy and loss.

Hope is something we all need at so many different times in our lives.  It plays a major role in our healing, whether from tragedy, loss or serious illness.  Siddhartha Mukherjee, physician and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Emperor of All Maladies:  A Biography of Cancer (2011) defined hope as a “vital organ” in a lecture he delivered nearly three years ago at University of California, San Diego.  According to Mukherjee, hope gives cancer patients added life force.  Is it any wonder then, that in the world of cancer, loss and suffering, hope might be one of the most powerful medicines we possess?

If a man die, it is because death

has first possessed his imagination.

 (William Carlos Williams, in Mukherjee, p.306).

 

Hope is an expectation that something good can happen in the future—and in the midst of suffering or sorrow, we sometimes forget that hope is there, waiting to be discovered in many different situations in our lives.  Anne LaMott’s 2013 book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair, illustrates how hope exists–even in a world punctuated by vitriolic political discourse, frequent reports of random shootings, car bombs, wars, natural disasters, hunger or life-threatening disease.  “Hope is a conversation,” LaMott states.  “What allows us to go on and find those small moments of goodness, are to be found in “attention, creation, love, and,” she adds with incomparable wit, “dessert.”

“…those small moments of goodness.”  Hope is what we experience in the embrace of neighbors and friends, helping one another in the wake of devastation from hurricanes and tornados.  It is present in those acts of unexpected kindness from complete strangers.  Red Cross volunteers from the Dakotas, Arizona and many other states are already heading to Texas to offer assistance, and many organizations, like Airbnb, food banks– even diaper banks for those families with infants and toddlers–have already sprang into action, all of these efforts so necessary and vital in re-igniting hope and healing.

Healing, which is sometimes simplified in the way we think of it, is more than medicine and treatments.  Healing, in the truest sense of the word, is the process of “becoming whole,” whether from a natural disaster or a cancer diagnosis.  It is a multi-faceted process of transformation.  There is a strong connection of mind and body in healing, and hope plays a central role.  In studies exploring the impact of hope among cancer patients, researchers conclude that hope helps decrease patient anxiety and increase quality of life. Even among the terminally ill, hope is an essential resource.  It helps us cope during times of intense physical and psychological distress.

Where can we find hope?  It’s present in test results that show a shrinking tumor or promising clinical trials of a new therapy; it’s hope that’s ignited in those unexpected acts of kindness from strangers.  Hope resides a child’s delight in finding a tree frog as he explores his own yard, in an infant’s first smile, a young woman offering her seat on the subway to an elderly person, or a bouquet of summer dandelions picked for a mother by her child.  Hope waits to be discovered, like in springtime, when determined crocuses poke their heads through snow and ice at winter’s end or the brilliant explosion of color in autumn as mornings turn cool.

I know I sometimes have to stop and remember to look for those small moments of goodness—of hope—when I find my spirits sagging in the frustrations of daily life, human crises, or the constant thrum of divisive political discourse.  Hope sometimes seems to get lost.   But I can find it if I only stop to notice:  a hug from a grandchild, singing together with a random crowd of people at an evening of “Choir! Choir! Choir!” or walking my dog through the park and watching her unflagging hope of catching a squirrel (she never does, but she never gives up either).  It’s in these small moments of goodness and delight that reminds me of the resilience of the human spirit, and hope, then,” springs eternal.”

Tomorrow will be beautiful

For tomorrow comes out of the lake.

(“Hope,” by Emanuel Carnevali, in Poetry:  A Magazine of Verse, 1921)

 

Writing Suggestions:

  • This week, consider hope.  How would you define it if asked?
  • When have you felt as if you were losing hope?  Why?  What changed?
  • What helped you regain a sense hope?
  • When have you discovered hope in a “small moment of goodness? “Describe it.

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There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published.  Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is that it allows you to come to terms with your life narrative.  It also allows you to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.  –William Zinsser (“How to Write a Memoir,” In:  The American Scholar, Spring 2006.)

Many years ago, I attended a summer creative writing workshop led by Pat Schneider, author of Writing Alone and with Others. Still numb and disbelieving from completing a seven-week regimen of radiation for early stage breast cancer, I’d signed up for the workshop at the urging of a dear friend.

The first morning, I sat in a circle of men and women feeling a wave of uncertainty.  Why was I there?  What was I going to write?  I half-listened as Pat introduced the workshop, my notebook open and waiting.  “Tell me something I can’t forget.” she said, quoting a line from a Tess Gallagher’s poem, “Each Bird Walking,”” in which the female narrator asks her lover to  “Tell me… something I can’t forget” (lines 50-51), and he responds by telling her how, as an adult man, he had the task of bathing his dying mother.  (From:  Willingly, 1984)

Tell me something I can’t forget.  I drew a blank.  What in my life might be memorable to another?  I had only a few minutes to write, so I began with what was most accessible: childhood memories, humorous stories told and re-told at family gatherings.  It would take nearly a full week of writing before I opened the door to my experience of cancer, and while I didn’t think of myself as a cancer patient or survivor, so treatable was my diagnosis,  I began to understand how cancer—even early stage—had already altered my life.  From that point on, my writing opened and deepened into the life experiences that had defined and changed me as a person.

“A patient is, at first, simply a storyteller…a narrator of suffering—a traveler who has visited the kingdom of the ill.  To relieve an illness, one must begin, then, by unburdening its story”– Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (p.46).

“Decay is the beginning of all birth,” Kat Duff remarked in her book, The Alchemy of Illness, 2000). Duff was writing out of her experience with CFIDS (chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction.  Writing out of a cancer diagnosis or any significant and painful life experience can help repair the damage done to your lives, to your sense of who you are, or explore the disrupted futures you might face.  Writing together, as those in my expressive writing groups do, allows you to tell your stories and share your experiences.  We are our stories, and in the act of sharing them, we affirm our uniqueness and discover what is most meaningful. “I did not want my questions answered,” Arthur Frank wrote, describing, his illness in At the Will of the Body.  “I wanted my experience shared.”  In doing so, we remember who we were, and we learn who we are becoming.  Cancer–or any significant or painful life event–changes us and, perhaps, has the capacity to “remodel us,” as poet Jane Hirshfield said, “for some new fate.”

 In my experience, ill people become more themselves, as if once the excess was stripped away only the truest core of themselves remained… An insightful, experienced oncologist told me that cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter. Still, novelists know that some chapters inform all others. These are the chapters of your life that wallop you and teach you and bring you to tears–Alice Hoffman (In: “Sustained by Fiction While Facing Life’s Facts,” NY Times, August 2000.)

Hoffman wrote for during her ten months of cancer treatment to find “a way to make sense out of sorrow and loss.”  Indeed, to be healing, writing demands you examine the tough chapters of your life, learn from them and take that knowledge into your present life.  “Recovery is only worth as much as what you learn about the life you’re regaining,” sociologist and cancer survivor Arthur Frank wrote in his memoir, At the Will of the Body.  It’s not just cancer that teaches us.  As Hoffman notes, any momentous, challenging chapter of our lives has the potential for significant learning.

I am the only one who can tell my story and say what it means.– Dorothy  Allison

Writing as a way of healing isn’t just a process of pouring your sorrow and pain on the page.  To truly learn from your experiences requires something greater of you–the courage, as Maxine Hong Kingston tells the war veterans who write with her, to “tell the truth.”  Writing honestly requires courage.  It may seem difficult at first, because you have to be willing to dive deep beneath the surface of the events to do some hard soul-searching.  You may begin with cancer, but invariably, you find yourself going deeper into your life and the events that shaped you, old wounds that have yet to heal to discover the truth of your experience.   It’s then that the potential for healing begins.

To relieve an illness, one must begin, then, by unburdening its story.  Cancer is rarely the whole story, but it often leads us to the stories and experiences in our lives that matter most.  What is the story you want to tell?

Writing Suggestion:

  • Begin with Tess Gallagher’s line, “Tell me something I can’t forget,” and begin writing freely, without stopping for fifteen minutes.
  • When you’re finished, re-read it.  What stands out?  Use a yellow highlighter to mark those passages.
  • Use the one highlighted phrase or sentence that most grabs your attention and begin again.  How does the second version differ from the first?  What insights do you discover?

Write hard and clear about what hurts.  – Ernest Hemingway

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…Use to be I just had arthritis and rheumatism, now—it’s a pain
in the neck—I got a convulsive heart. I come from
Twenty-second and Eighth, where I’m helping
my brother. For me that’s a long walk.
So I wait.
I used to climb mountains! she says.
I was young like you, she says…

(From “Unknown Neighbor” by Kate Light from Open Slowly, 2003, in Writers’ Almanac, August 13, 2017)

“How’s your knee?”  “Does your ankle hurt?” I’ve grown weary of my husband’s repetitive greeting every morning, and yet, I know he’s concerned and cares about my well-being.  For weeks, but I have brushed his questions aside with a terse, “I’m doing fine,” continued with my morning stretches, warming up my stiff muscles and joints for a daily walk with my dog.  But after many weeks of greater than average physical exertion (the wrong kind) of lifting, bending, pushing, and whatever else the process of packing up a house, unpacking and arranging our belongings in a new place involves.  And then there are the stairs…

Some mornings, however, it’s difficult to hide my frustration with a body that is, apparently, sometimes determined to complain more loudly than I want to hear.  My right knee, injured many years ago when I was hit by a car on a morning run, is now quite arthritic, and my Achilles tendon is chronically inflamed.  Coming to terms with the changing body isn’t something I enjoy gracefully, and particularly first thing in the morning.  When my husband quietly disappeared with the dog a few days ago as I was stretching and icing the aggravated knee and heel, I was in tears—touched by his concern, but completely frustrated.  When he returned from his walk, the dog happy and exercised, he explained, “I think it’s easier if I take her out in the morning, and you have time to get fully warmed up before a walk.”  It was something I had refused to consider, but walking and negotiating the stairs later in the day are easier than it is the first thing in the morning.  Still, it was difficult to admit that he was right, and that my long-established morning routine may need changing.

and the body, what about the body?
Sometimes it is my favorite child,
uncivilized. . .

And sometimes my body disgusts me.
Filling and emptying it disgusts me. . . .

This long struggle to be at home
in the body, this difficult friendship.

By Jane Kenyon (From: “Cages” in Otherwise:  New & Selected Poems, 1996)

Whether aging or confronting the bodily changes that accompany a serious or life-threatening illness, our bodies will, sooner or later, force us to re-evaluate our self-images and rethink our physical capabilitiesI’m guilty of taking my body for granted, despite some serious accidents in childhood, surgeries and illness.  I’ve pushed on, undeterred by these physical set-backs, undeterred until my body delivered a proverbial “listen up” whack on the side of my head..  Now I am being forced to accept I may have to make concessions I never considered.  Still, it’s a tough adjustment. This long struggle to be at home /in the body, this difficult friendship.

Sooner or later, our bodies fail us, whether in illness, the process of physical wear and tear or age-related change.  When it happens—and no one is exempt– it’s difficult to admit we’ve taken our physical health for granted—denied the inevitable aging or even ignored troubling symptoms.  The body, whether in illness or decline, is the subject of many poems, as Jane Kenyon’s “Cages,” or  Marilyn Hacker’s, “Cancer Winter,” where  she referred to her body as “self-betraying.”  Mark Doty, in “Atlantis,” described the body of a friend dying from AIDS:  “When I put my head to his chest/I can hear the virus humming/like a refrigerator”  (www.poets.org).

“On the Other Side of the Diagnosis,” an article by Mary-Jo Murphy, MS, RN, CDE, describes the moment of disbelief felt when faced with the prospect of cancer and an altered body.

…Moments later, as he stares at my report, his face is suddenly devoid of the professional composure that doctors are so practiced at. I know from his shocked expression that it isn’t nothing.

“I can’t believe it,” he says staring at the paper. “It’s squamous cell carcinoma. You have anal cancer.”

I don’t ask him to repeat my diagnosis. I’ve seen too much to ask the usual questions: Are you sure? Why me? My mind is replete with the experiences of people with cancer whom I’ve cared for. Denial has been trained out of me. Disbelief and terror are instantly transformed into the understanding that from this moment, from the speaking of those words, nothing will ever be the same for me.  (From:  Coping with Cancer Magazine, March/April 2012).

Sooner or later, our bodies fail us, whether cancer, injury or the physical wear and tear from age related change.  When they do, as Murphy’s article illustrates, it’s a shock, coupled by the realization that we will no longer be the same and must learn acceptance and new ways to “be” in an altered body.  We also become clear about what matters most, as she expresses:  “Now, trapped inside a body with a diagnosis attached, the most unexpected thing happens.  Without conscious thought, words form into sentences that prioritize in an instant what my values are, what beliefs I took for granted.”

Yet it is May Swenson, perhaps, whose poem, “Question,” invites us to really consider the relationship we have with our bodies.  She reveals she is coming to terms with the inevitable demise of a body that has carried her through life, one she can no longer take for granted.  Swenson’s are the questions we must all ask as our lives develop and change, yet she reminds us to be grateful for the bodies that have carried  us this far, despite accidents and illness, and ones, we hope, continue to carry us for the years to come.

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 I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure…?

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

 

Writing Suggestions:

This week, write about your body.

  • Pay tribute or complaint.
  • Write about its aches or pains or a time when you felt as if your body betrayed you.
  • How have you come to terms with a “new” normal?
  • How have you made peace with an altered or changing body?
  • What sometimes makes your relationship with your body into a “difficult friendship?”

 

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I’ve been trying to re-establish a sense of normalcy and routine after a month or more of upheaval as we’ve weathered a house sale, moved our belongings across the country and settled into an apartment in Toronto.  For the past two weeks, it’s been an intense and exhausting process of arranging our furniture, clothing, decorative items, books and other belongings into some livable order.  Gradually, we’re beginning to “settle” now—a few wayward items await either buyers from Craigslist or donations to nonprofits.  I’m weary of the moving process, ready to settle into a “normal” life and more than ready to re-institute my morning routine, one that begins around six a.m.

Despite my good intentions, I awakened later than usual this morning.  Deep in a dream that ignited long ago memories of a kindergarten playmate, I awoke with a start and looked at the clock:  nearly seven a.m..  “Darn it,” I murmured to my dog, who had found her way to my side during the night, “I overslept.”

Normally, I awaken a few minutes before six a.m., but today, I slept nearly an hour later than usual.  I hurriedly threw back the cover and groggily made my way down the hall to spend a few minutes stretching my legs and back before putting  on my clothes, then brushing my teeth and hair.  I made the coffee and fed the coffee as quickly as I could, knowing the day would warm rapidly.  She sat at my feet, ears up and alert, ready for the signal we were ready to fasten her leash and head out the door and down the stairs.  It was only as we crossed the street and entered the park that I began to relax, appreciating the lush green of deciduous trees, the breeze and the comic activities of my dog as she began her daily squirrel patrol.  While I have yet to find the quiet space to re-establish a practice of writing each morning, I’ve begun finding my way back to normalcy.  And my dog, Maggie, seems to thrive in the regularity of our morning routine together just as I do.

In the poem, “Habit,” Jane Hirshfield describes small rituals that are part of our daily lives:

The shoes put on each time
left first, then right.

The morning potion’s teaspoon
of sweetness stirred always
for seven circlings, no fewer, no more,
into the cracked blue cup.

Touching the pocket for wallet,
for keys,
before closing the door.

How did we come
to believe these small rituals’ promise,
that we are today the selves we yesterday knew,
tomorrow will be?

(Excerpt from “Habit” by Jane Hirshfield, in Given Sugar, Given Salt, 2002)

My morning habits began during a time of difficult transitions, when, adrift in grief and turmoil, I was coming to terms with the death of a husband and a new life as a single mother.  Writing in the early mornings before my children awakened became a life line, the port in my storm, the way I could make sense of the myriad of emotion that threatened to overwhelm me.

Now what was refuge in a time of trouble has become a habit, a little daily ritual that offers a sense of comfort and calm before the busyness of the day begins.  Our habits—or little rituals–allow us to feel connected to ourselves and to the world.  Think about it:  we create rituals around important life events—birth, puberty, marriage, death—as a way of honoring transitions from one chapter or stage of life to the next.  While we know these rituals keep us grounded and offer solace in times of uncertainty and change, they do the same for us in our daily lives.  They not only help us navigate difficult times, but keep us grounded, and provide a sense of familiarity and constancy.

Our daily rituals can even help us heal, offering time to be quiet and focus on intentions and actions.  They also function as talismen against fear, offering the assurance we will be all right, as Hirshfield suggests:

How did we come
to believe these small rituals’ promise,
that we are today the selves we yesterday knew,
tomorrow will be?

Author Barbara Biziou (www.joyofritual.com) writes that our healing rituals, the little habits that offer us solace or replenishment, allow us to be active participants in our healing process.  What defines a healing ritual?  They are the things we take solace in doing, a prayer or meditation, a solitary walk in the woods, working in the garden, listening to music, a massage, or sitting quietly at a window with a cup of tea or coffee..  It doesn’t matter what your healing rituals are.  What matter is that they help you renew and replenish your spirit and able to  hear what’s in your not only your mind, but your heart.

I still have some work to do to re-introduce myself to my regular writing practice each morning, giving my heart have equal time with my head on the page.  It’s something I need as surely as my dog needs a morning walk with me.  Time in Nature, a freshly brewed cup of coffee, a period without talk before my husband awakens, a time alone with pen and paper. This is my daily meditation, refuge and quiet before the day intrudes with its tasks and disruptions.  Without the constancy and regularity of my early morning rituals, I feel slightly off kilter, not quite ready to take on the day.

The best way to quiet the mind and unlock your inner power is to start small when creating new daily rituals. Through the ancient teachings of yoga, we know that our thoughts lead to actions; our actions become habits; our habits form our character; and our character determines our destiny. Daily ritual is the act of taking positive thoughts and putting them into action. You are what you think, because what you think determines what you do. Once a positive ritual takes hold in your life, you don’t even need to think about it. Just like brushing your teeth—it just happens.–Bhava Ram, “Transform Your Life with the Power of Ritual,” The Chopra Center

Writing Suggestions:

  • What small habits or routines offer calm or comfort in your daily life?  How?
  • Why do they matter to you?
  • What do they teach you about yourself?
  • How, in the midst of pain or suffering, do they provide solace?

Write about those daily habits, the healing rituals, that are important to your life, your sense of well-being.

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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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