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The world begins at a kitchen table.  No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table.  So it has been since creation, and it will go on…


Thanksgiving, possibly the most enduring holiday in the United States.  Weary travelers willingly wait in long lines at the airport, cram their bodies into crowded and uncomfortable airplane cabins, or pack the trunks of cars with suitcases and drive long hours along busy highways, all to celebrate Thanksgiving, a time of remembering, of gratitude and family.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Although we celebrated the Canadian Thanksgiving in October,  memories of childhood Thanksgivings and the annual celebrations with my father’s family always make their way into my thoughts this time of year.  The Thanksgivings of my childhood were  a time of coming together, of forty or more Brays gathering to celebrate the holiday at our grandmother’s, and later, our Aunt Jennie’s home.  The smells of Thanksgiving dinner greeted us even before we entered her house.  There, the kitchen table was laden with turkey, stuffing, side dishes, pies and cakes.  Tables and chairs filled the living room, with seating at each determined by age group.  I remember how excited I was to graduate to the adult table when I turned twelve.   That was where my father and uncles regaled us with stories–many embellished– of their childhoods, grandparents and great-grandparents.

It was at the adult table where I most experienced  a sense of place and belonging as I discovered my family’s history through the family stories told and re-told each year.  Several years later, newly married and adventuresome, I moved with my husband to Canada–first to Ottawa, then  Nova Scotia. Each November, I was engulfed by homesickness and a fierce longing to return home, to sit again at the family table and hear the familiar stories told again, ones I already knew by heart.

Yet there are other memories tied to Thanksgiving, ones tinged by sorrow and loss.  My father died of lung cancer on Thanksgiving,  1992, soon after the traditional meal and his familiar  glass of Jack Daniels. Although I didn’t know it then, his death marked the end of family as I  knew it, and with his passing, the loss of stories, the yarns spun from childhood, enlarged and fabricated, threads of family history woven among his tall tales.  We had never seemed to tire of them, no matter how often they were told, and years later, whenever he visited us, I would hear my daughters plead, “Tell us another story, Grandpa!”

“The Stories that Bind Us, an essay written by Bruce Feiler and appearing in a 2013 issue of The Atlantic, highlighted the importance of family stories.  Books contain narratives, Feiler stated, but only family stories contain your family’s personal narratives. Fortunate children get both. They hear and read stories from books to become part of other people’s worlds, and they hear and tell stories of their family to understand who they are and from whence they came.

It’s a well established tradition.  Oral storytelling has been a part of being human for thousands of years.  Stories helped people make sense of the world.  They were the mechanism by which we passed traditions and wisdom from one generation to another.  “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel,” author Ursula LeGuin once said, “but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human.  We make men at it; we make women

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers…

I lived in Canada for 25 years, before returning, for a similar amount of time, to California.  I had, as my father had, yearned to leave the confines of a small town and see the world.  History repeats itself, I suppose, because just as I had done,  my daughters traveled and lived abroad before settling with their families thousands of miles across the continent.  Our family get-togethers quickly diminished in frequency as we  dispersed.  It’s no wonder I find such delight to once again now be living close to one of my two daughters, sharing meals and sharing stories from earlier years.  Yet I miss that big table, extended family sitting around it, passing platters of Thanksgiving fare and most of all, sharing the family stories.  Those stories, much more difficult to capture in our fast paced, instant communication world, are still important.  “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative,” Bruce Feiler wrote.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

Citing research from Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University, Feiler wrote that children who know a lot about their families appear to do better when facing challenges.  “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”

I’m now writing some of those oft-repeated family stories my father told to me, trying to capture some of our family history to pass on to my grandchildren.  It’s an attempt to fill out the gaps in family history that resulted from distance and family losses.  In this world of distance and mobility, Facebook, Skype or the countless apps to make long distance communication easier,  it seems all the more important to capture and re-tell so many of the stories that solidified the sense of our family’s history and belonging.

Perhaps the world will end here at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite. 

(From “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” by Joy Harjoin The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, 1994)

It’s important to remember, as Alice Hoffman once advised, that cancer–or other difficult chapters of our lives–does not become your whole book.  As beneficial as it is to express one’s stories of the cancer journey, it’s important that to recall your “whole book,” telling also the stories of your life and family history, whether humorous or sad, the family stories  shared and repeated over time.

When families come together, it is a time to remember, to celebrate the richness of your lives and give thanks as you come together and share your family stories.

To those of you celebrating with your families this Thursday, I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania,

Tell me a story…

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be Time.

By Robert Penn Warren, From: “Tell Me a Story,” in New and Selected Poems 1923-1985

 

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about your holiday celebrations, the stories that are part of each family gathering.
  • Imagine you are the last storyteller of your family tribe.  What is the story you most want to tell?
  • What other stories do you want to remember, the ones that define your legacy?  Why not write them?
  • Think of your life’s “whole book.”  What are the most important stories you want to capture?  Make a list and start writing them!

 

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If someone is stuck in an angry state, what they’re essentially doing is being in a state of adrenaline. And some of the negative health consequences of not forgiving or being stuck there are high blood pressure, anxiety, depression,   not having a good immune response. You’re constantly putting your energy somewhere else.–Karen Swartz, MD

It’s not uncommon, during loss, tragedy or serious illness, that we may sometimes feel let down or hurt by others, whether family members, friends or co-workers.  In my cancer writing groups, participants often express feelings of loss or disappointment experienced during cancer treatment and recovery from people once considered close or counted on in times of difficulty.  I’ve felt those kinds of heartaches from time to time, whether from family members, being in positions of organizational leadership when tough decisions were part of the job, or even, so many years ago, when my first husband and I separated–the first of many marriages to fall apart–in a small university town.

It hurts, when people you have been close to let you down or take out their anger on you.  It’s difficult not to internalize that hurt and find fault with yourself, as if you caused the unkind behaviors you experience, and you lie awake, replaying moments, conversations, actions to try to understand what happened and why.  It’s hard to not blame yourself, but it’s often much more difficult to forgive the slights or unkind actions of those you once counted on.  And yet, you know that carrying anger or resentment inside yourself is not healthy.

I recall the extended difficult months with my siblings in the wake of our parents’ illnesses and deaths and how I experienced anger, resentment or blame as I attempted to honor our parents’ wishes fairly.  It became so onerous, I turned over executorship and power of attorney to an outside party.  That was years ago, but in the process of returning  to Canada a few months ago, I found myself sitting in the garage and paging through old journals from that tumultuous period.  There were pages of questions, hurt and disbelief expression, and self-questioning repeated dozens of times.  A quotation I’d copied caught my attention.  It was from a program I’d watched about the same time,  produced by the UC Davis Health System.

“It’s not a surgery; it’s not a medical treatment or a new medication, but this is a new healing process that doctors are convinced has many hidden benefits, something you can’t get in a pharmacy.  The process is forgiveness.  And more doctors believe that it heals.”  

Forgiveness was obviously on my mind.  I was struggling to stop the replay of hurt and disappointment, groping for a way to alleviate the sense of martyrdom, the shock of being wronged and treated so unfairly by my siblings.  The many months of trying to understand by writing and re-examine  the history I knew by heart, resulted only in rumination, taking me deeper into the pain.  What I needed to do was forgive.  And doing that was going to take some work.

Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting, nor does it mean that you’ve given the message that what someone did was okay. It just means that you’ve let go of the  anger or guilt towards someone, or towards yourself. But that can be easier said than done. If  forgiveness was easy, everyone would be doing it.

“The human mind,” psychologist Loren Toussaint stated, “is sometimes an instrument of misery.  When you’ve done wrong…and regret it, it bubbles up again and again.”  But it’s not only forgiveness of others that makes a difference.   The health benefits of forgiving ourselves for our past mistakes or wrongdoings can be considerable.

Forgiveness—for self or others–is a virtue embraced by almost every religious tradition.  Yet, if we’re honest about it, forgiveness is often difficult to embrace, but doing so is important to our well-being in so many ways.  Forgiveness is intimately tied to our physical health.   Even in the struggle of cancer, forgiveness plays an important role.  In a 1989 study reported in the Canadian Journal of Counselling, “forgiveness therapy” helped cancer patients attain catharsis and a greater sense of peace (v. 23, pp. 236-251).

Another group of researchers found that a self-forgiving attitude contributed to less mood disturbance and a better quality of life among women with breast cancer (J. of Behavioral Medicine, v. 29, pp. 29-36, 2006).  A growing body of research, much of it initiated by the Stanford Forgiveness Project, directed by Dr. Fred Luskin, suggests that forgiveness is good medicine for the body. Health benefits have been demonstrated in a number of “forgiveness interventions,” including improved cardiovascular function, diminished chronic pain, relief from depression and an overall improved quality of life among the very ill (M. Healy, L.A. Times, Jan. 12, 2008).

It’s not uncommon, following a cancer diagnosis or other serious illness that patients sometimes turn their anger inward, blaming themselves for contributing to their illness.  I know I did it, telling more than one close friend that I felt I partly responsible for my early stage diagnosis of breast cancer several years ago.  I hear the same self questioning in the newly diagnosed who attend my writing groups:   “What did I do to cause this?  What if I had only done this instead of that?” or say, “I feel like I’m partly to blame for my cancer…”

How do you forgive others and yourself?  Poet Maya Angelou put it this way:

 I don’t know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes- it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, ‘well, if I’d known better I’d have done better,’ that’s all. So you say to people who you think you may have injured, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then you say to yourself, ‘I’m sorry.’ If we all hold on to the mistake, we can’t see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can’t see what we’re capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one’s own self.

“We can’t see our own glory in the mirror…in the end, the real forgiveness is in one’s own self.”   Angelou’s words remind me of a passage from the poem,  “St. Francis and the Sow,” by Galway Kinnell:

Sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness
to put a hand on the brow of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely,
until it flowers again from within,
of self-blessing.

Forgiveness is, in part, a chance to “flower again from within of self-blessing”–a beautiful image to consider.  How then do we learn to forgive others and ourselves?  Karen Swartz, MD, a John Hopkins psychiatrist, suggests these steps:

Forgiveness training is a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and relaxation techniques, but the goal is the same: Identify the problem, give it time and get objective input. That input doesn’t have to come from a mental health professional. It could come from a close friend or a religious adviser.
•    
Identify what the problems are.
•    Work on relaxation techniques.
•    Challenge your own responses.
•    Change your thoughts from negative to positive
.

Writing Suggestion:

Focus on forgiveness this week.  Perhaps it’s a simple act of forgiving yourself, another, or even your body, changed by cancer.  Here are some questions to help you get started:

  • Who or what do you most want to learn to forgive?
  • Describe the event or the actions of someone that created pain and heartache for you.
  • Did your pain morph into self-blame or depression?  Pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that emerge as you write.
  • Where, in this week, do you have the opportunity to practice forgiveness?
  • How have you learned to forgive others and yourself?
  • Has learning to forgive helped you feel physically better, for example, improved sleep, energy, or mentally, have a more positive outlook?

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It’s a journey . . . that I propose . . .

. . . I will be your fellow passenger . . .

. . . we must provide our own guide-posts . . .

. . . the road washes out sometimes

. . . I am not afraid . . .

(From:  A Journey, by Nikki Giovanni, 1943)

 

Last week we arrived in Florida to visit my younger daughter and her family after three days of travel, driving from Toronto to her home in the Florida Panhandle.  Along the way, we observed the changes in weather, temperature, foliage and landscape as we left Canada and traveled through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama before crossing into the state of Florida.

We hadn’t taken a road trip since last summer, when we drove north from San Diego to Gig Harbor, Washington.  As before, roadmaps, Google, and Siri’s somewhat mechanical voice were our constant guides, coupled with the many road signs along our route from north to south.  It was a  relatively uneventful yet enjoyable journey–made only slightly more complicated by having our dog, Maggie, traveling with us.  It wasn’t until I sat down to think about this week’s post that I thought many of the metaphors we use to describe our travel are also ones used for the journeys we travel in life.

Think about it. The word “journey” is a metaphor often used to describe the years between birth and death, its roots found in Homer’s epic poems or Dante Alighieris classic, The Inferno, and like those described by them, our  journeys are neither smooth nor predictable.  They are full of unexpected twists and turns, obstacles, and even periods of darkness.  When we attempt to describe those life experiences to others, we often invoke travel comparisons like “It’s been a bumpy ride;” “My life came to a full stop;” “I’m just taking it slow for a while.”  Even cancer, once commonly described by military metaphors like “battle,” “fight” or “war,” is now more often referred to as a journey, reminiscent of those life struggles found in Homer and Alighieri’s classic works.

Writing in the magazine, Slate, author Katy Waldman described the gradual shift away from reliance on military metaphors to describe cancer:  Journey, not nearly so grand or stirring, has a gentler virtue. Instead of focusing on outcomes—triumph or defeat—the word zeroes in on the everyday process of managing a chronic illness. It replaces the agon with mindfulness, a sensitivity to one’s needs and feelings, an understanding that the scenery might change.— (July 20, 2015)

Authors Gary Reisfield and George Wilson, discussing the use of metaphors in cancer, describe the “journey” metaphor as one that encompasses possibility: for exploration, struggle, hope, discovery, and change… The roads may be bumpy and poorly illuminated at times, and one may encounter forks, crossroads, roadblocks, U-turns, and detours. The pace, route and destinations of the journey may change, sometimes repeatedly.the journey… may ultimately imbue them … with a vision of a deeper meaning in life. (J. of Clinical Oncology, October, 2004)

Thankfully now, just as we have had the abundance of turn by turn directions to one city or interstate to another and advice from friends and family of places to stay or interesting spots to visit, there is no shortage of resources, advice and tips on navigating the cancer journey.  A single query on Google reveals dozens of sites with advice and tips from individuals and organizations alike.  It can be overwhelming as well as helpful, and it’s important to remember how valuable and necessary the support and advice can be from friends and colleagues who have experienced similar journeys.  Throughout my life–and even on a two-week road trip–I’ve cherished the support and advice of so many friends who’ve traveled ahead of me, whether in times of change, loss or illness.  They have been invaluable resources to help me prepare and find my way through the unknown territory I’ve encountered in life.

…a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds…
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

(From “The Journey,” by Mary Oliver, In Dreamwork, 1986)


Writing Suggestions: 

This week, extend and explore how you use a travel or journey metaphor in your life.  Here are some questions to consider as you write:

  • What is it like to travel along this road named “cancer”? Or perhaps, another life change like death of a loved one, job loss,  retirement or another unexpected life change?
  • How do you move through the questions, confusion and potential roadblocks of cancer to the “new normal” of life and discover how to live fully?
  • What helpful hints, experiences and impressions might you offer the inexperienced traveler on this road?
  • What is the most important piece of advice you’d give to someone who is just beginning their own journey defined by illness, loss, or new life stage?
  • What has been the single most important piece of advice someone gave you that helped you navigate a difficult life journey? Why?
  • As a different way of writing, use common road signs like “dangerous curves head,” “bumpy  or slippery road ahead,”  “dead-end,” “wrong way”   to inspire a humorous account of your cancer or another life journey.

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When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

(“The Peace of Wild Things,”By Wendell Berry, in The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Copyright © 1998)

There are poets and poems whose wisdom and eloquence I return to often when the world is too much with me.  William Stafford is one favorite; Wendell Berry is another.  I find comfort in their  words, a refuge from the constant assault of political wrangling, war, suffering and violence in the world.  In the past many weeks we’ve been inundated with the news of more refugee crises, hurricanes and their aftermath, wild fires and senseless acts of violence.  I’ve felt “despair for the world” taking hold of my mood, enlarging each day as I hear of another report of hardship, violence or people’s suffering.   I feel helpless in those moments, and as if I, too, need a respite from the world’s woes to regain an even footing.

I live in a city, and escaping to a place of peace and quiet can sometimes be difficult.  But I take my refuge in the quiet of dawn, a ritual of writing, clearing my mind in the stillness of early morning as my pen races across the page.  My dog awakens with me, patiently sleeping at my side until I signal it’s time for a walk among the trees in the park nearby.   It’s a habit, a practice that helps me regain a sense of peace, even hope and gratitude that seems to arrive quietly, unannounced, in these moments of stillness.  I rest in the grace of the world.

What is stillness?  According to Pico Iyer, travel writer and author of the wonderful little book, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (2014), it’s not so much about meditation, but “sanity and balance…a chance to put things in perspective.”  “Going nowhere,” he states, “isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

(From:  “Keep Quiet” by Pablo Neruda (In: Extravagaria,  1974)

Perhaps what sometimes seems to be increasing societal numbness to something akin to “routine” violence and hardship in the world is a result of the constant motion and noise that fill our daily lives.  My life is less hectic now that my husband and I are entering a state of so-called “retirement.”  While I enjoy the quieter pace my husband and I share, the old habit of “busy-ness” is an addiction that can be difficult to break.  It’s a habit I used to know well but now witness now in our younger family members and friends — their days filled with running from meeting to meeting, social event to social event, responding to dozens of emails and texts in a day, spending hours staring at screens and sites like Facebook, and all the while, experiencing the constant stream of news, trivia, games, retail offerings, advertisements–“noise” of the modern world.   I was asked by a woman a few days ago what I did all day now that I’d “retired.”  She was unaware of the quiet I need in my life to continue to write and teach, yet for a moment, I struggled to answer–so far removed have I become from the whirlwind life I once lived in the corporate world.   I wish, all those years ago, I’d had Iyer’s book to read– he speaks so succinctly to what I then experienced daily:  “A big luxury for so many people today, is a little blank space in the calendar where you collect yourself,” he wrote.   A big luxury... Think about it.  It’s so easy to lose touch with ourselves in our demanding, rush-rush world.  Yet we need this thing called  stillness, the space and time for quiet that  allows us to care for our inner lives and feed our malnourished spirits.

Writing for the New York Times in 2012, Iyer cited Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book, The Shallows:  What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.  Carr noted that Americans spend eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen and that the average American teenager sends or receives 75 test messages daily.  Yet it was fifty years ago that Canadian author Marshall McLuhan warned “When things come at you very fast, …you lose touch with yourself” (The Medium is the Message, 1967).

“When things come at you very fast…”  This past week, my husband’s sister , who was treated for inflammatory breast cancer five years ago, was hospitalized after a niggling difficulty swallowing which had worsened to the point she could not ingest food.   Tests revealed a growth on her esophagus, and a small surgical procedure performed.  Once she was able to eat again, she was sent home, only to be re-admitted days later with bleeding and unbearable pain.  She is undergoing tests, but early indications are revealing what is most likely evidence of metastatic cancer, and frequent doses of morphine have done little to lessen her pain.  She and her family are navigating between preliminary test results, treatment implications, and clinging to any threads of hope they can find in the doctors’ words.

It’s an experience so many cancer patients and their families know well.  Emotions run high; test results can be confusing, diagnoses conflicted, and the fear of death a constant companion.  The medical team’s voices may temporarily overshadow the patients’ and their families’.  The reality of a terminal diagnosis, clarity about what matters most, and, and what the families and patients truly want for themselves in this final chapter of life are fraught with contradictory emotions and difficult discussions. Where can you find the stillness amid the prodding, tests, diagnoses, medications, pain, prognoses–all of it–to listen to yourself, to know what’s in your heart, and the clarity of what matters most to you here and now?

Stillness, being in the moment, can help.  Cancer, or any chronic illness, as Dr. Paul Brenner, MD states, “is Life:  You hope it can get better but fear it will get worse.  There is no choice other than to live into what is happening now.”  Those with cancer, he notes, live in the truth of the moment because that is all that exists.  It is, ultimately, about being present to the now, not living with regret for the past or worrying what the future holds.

Stillness, time to be fully present in the moment, can help us clear away the static,  clarify and discover what is truly important.  It’s tougher to find the quiet when one is also surrounding by the sometimes conflicting opinions of your doctors and family members.  Meditation, yoga, tai chi—all help ground you in the present, the here and now and in quiet.  As Iyer reminds us, stillness–learning to be in the moment—”isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”

But little by little,

…as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world…

(From:  “The Journey,” by Mary Oliver, in Dreamwork, 1986)

I have come to believe that stillness, being fully present to the here and now, is one of the important factors in what heals us, whether we live with loss, cancer, or other chronic illness.  It is deeply important to clear away the “noise” that comes from the external world, from well-meaning others, and listen to one’s self.  During a  2004 PBS  interview former poet laureate, Ted Kooser, spoke about his recovery from oral cancer in 1968.  … as I came up out of radiation and was trying to get myself back in some sort of physical shape, I would walk a couple of miles every morning and then find something along that route to write about…It was very important for me to see something from each day that I could do something with and find some order in, because I was surrounded by medical chaos or health chaos of some kind.

Annie Dillard, in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), offers a “recipe” for embracing stillness: “At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world~ now I am ready,. “Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening.—

I have come to cherish stillness in my life –and I now realize how very much I need to “rest in the grace of the world” to live a life that is meaningful and full, but more, to know my truth by being truly be able listen to what is in my heart and mind.   Perhaps you have discovered the power of stillness in your life, a way of being fully present in the world, a way to discover what truth lies in your heart.  Why not write about it?

Writing Suggestions:

  • For this week, consider how quiet and stillness have been part of your healing process.
  • What was the situation that triggered your need to “embrace stillness?”
  • What practices helped you learn to embrace quiet and turn your attention to “what is” instead of “what was” or  “what could be?”
  • How has creating or embracing stillness and quiet as part of your life helped you heal?

 

 

 

 

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It’s difficult to imagine the many lives that have been lost or devastated in the past few weeks by fire, hurricanes, shootings or bombings.  Each day seems to only bring more reports of tragedy–loss and destruction.  Last week I wrote of friends diagnosed with metastatic cancer  and those who had lost their homes in the California wildfires.   They have all occupied a permanent place in my daily thoughts, my concern for them and hope for their recovery filling the pages of my journal.  It was difficult to imagine any more heartache and tragedy coming in the wake of the past few weeks, but last night we learned of another loss.  This one affected me even more than the others, because it was the death of a friend’s grandchild, the victim of an automobile crash and a drunk driver.  My emotions ran the gamut of shock, sorrow and not a little bit of anger ignited by the circumstances of the death.  An unnecessary death of an innocent child.

But now, I am struggling to know what to say or how to offer support and help for the family.  I am worried how they will cope and deal with a tragedy no one should have to experience.  I walked early this morning, sifting through my thoughts before returning to write in an attempt to make sense of it all.  Gradually, what I was writing took on the form of a prayer, first for the child whose life was lost and then for her family, struggling with overwhelming grief and heartbreak.  I am not one who prays regularly, nor do I attend church each Sunday as I used to do so many years ago, and yet, I know that writing each morning as I do is both a meditation and a prayer, something I recall the poet, Denise Levertov, saying in her final interview:   “When you’re caught up in writing, “it can be a form of prayer.”

I don’t think our friend and her family are members of a church nor very religious, and I wonder now what will help them through this horrible loss.  Certainly the support of their close-knit family will be important, but could their prayers or the prayers of others help?   Perhaps, as the book, Healing Words:  The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, written by Larry Dossey, MD, suggests.  It’s interesting that in this day of modern medicine, something as basic as prayer can have beneficial impact on our health and well-being. Dossey summarizes a number of studies demonstrating the positive influences of prayer on health and healing among patients with breast cancer, HIV, and coronary disease, among others.  I remember the words of one writing group member a few years ago as she reflected on her recovery:  “I believe that everyone’s prayers helped me make it through with grace and strength.”

We find prayer in every religion and culture, written in every language.  Studies have found that religion and spirituality are very important to the quality of life among many cancer patients.  Prayer sustains us and offers solace.  For me,  daily writing is a deeply spiritual practice.  Although religion and spirituality are related, they are not synonymous.  Religion refers to a specific set of beliefs and practices, usually within an organized group, while spirituality is more concerned with our beliefs about the meaning of life.  You may think of yourself as religious or spiritual or both.

Whatever our religious or spiritual beliefs, one’s faith or spirituality can provide strength and comfort.  “As part of our wholeness,” Stephen Levine said in a 1994 Sun interview, “we need our woundedness.  It seems written into spirituality that there’s a dark side to which we must expose ourselves.”

The tragedies in your lives may seem like a dark night of the soul and even challenge your faith, but life’s difficult and painful experiences also offer the chance to explore your spirituality, deepen your self-understanding and compassion for others. “My faith grew, and I prayed a lot,” more than a few of my writing group members remark after cancer treatment.  Others turn their writing into prayer, as L. did, asking for mercy as  she struggled through chemotherapy:

A wad of pain
In the pit of my stomach
Lord have mercy

I focus on it
Lord have mercy
Lord have mercy
Lord have mercy…

L.’s writing, begun in response to a group prompt, led her into a prayer.  Writing can, as hers did and this morning, mine, even become the prayer itself.  Writing takes us deep into ourselves, and in the wake of life’s tragedies, sorrow and suffering, it can become a prayer of sorts, a deeply spiritual practice.  We write raw, honestly and as we do, the irrelevant and unnecessary falls away to reveal the meaning in our lives.  Call it what you will–hope, prayer, faith, or meditation–we stumble onto a higher consciousness, something larger than ourselves.

When K., a young woman in her twenties, was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, she confessed to the writing group that she had never been one to go to church.  Now she felt as if she needed to rely on something bigger than herself.  “I think I need a boost in the power of faith,” she said.  “Faith, I have decided is an important part of human life.”

In Buddhism, understanding nourishes faith. The act of looking deeply within ourselves not only fosters self-understanding, it can strengthen our faith.  V., who died of metastatic breast cancer several years ago, wrote throughout her cancer journey, often humorously, sometimes poignantly.  As she neared her final weeks, she examined her faith, acknowledging that although it had been challenged by cancer, her faith had offered her strength and solace.  .

But our relationship has changed.  In asking me to surrender to this illness, God has asked me to let go—to trust—float free.  And I have found this to be a most precious time.  My cancer has challenged my faith, and I have found an incredible well I did not know I had.  I have found true surrender, enormous peace.

V.’s words are ones I return to often in my writing groups as I think about what sustains us all in dark and seemingly inconsolable times in our lives.  Faith, prayer, meditation, the community of others’ support–we learn again to open our hearts to caring, compassion and connectedness with each other– it lets the healing in.

Writing Suggestions:

  • Today, my heart is again heavy with sorrow and the weight of unanswerable questions. I have turned to what sustains me in times of sorrow and pain:  long walks in the quiet of early morning, a practice of writing–my meditation, my prayer.  What sustains you in those incomprehensible moments of loss or tragedy?
  • Reflect on the beliefs or spiritual practices that sustain you.  Write about the importance of prayer, meditation, faith or community during difficult times in your life.
  • Perhaps your faith has been challenged by unexpected tragedy.  Perhaps your illness or struggles led you to a spiritual journey you didn’t anticipate.  Where have you found solace and strength in the midst of hardship?

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Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

― Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, 2007

I’ve been asking myself how we come to terms with the impermanence of life? How it constantly shifts and changes?  How do we come to terms with our own inevitable mortality or with the sudden and inexplicable losses suffered in a mass shooting, or the natural disasters of hurricanes and wildfires?

It’s difficult for me to begin this post this week, to find the words that will capture the thoughts and emotions triggered by the enormous losses of human lives, homes and belongings in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, three powerful hurricanes, and the wildfires raging in California.  This morning I learned that two of our friends lost their family home and all their belongings in the wine country wildfires.  Last week, I received the news of two dear friends diagnosed with cancer, and one of them metastatic.  The news shook me out of my daily zone of comfort and small, everyday worries, and the next day, the poem, “Elegy,” by Linda Pastan, appeared in my inbox–a daily “gift” from The Writers’ Almanac.

Our final dogwood leans
over the forest floor

offering berries
to the birds, the squirrels.

It’s a relic

of the days when dogwoods

flourished…

 

When I took for granted
that the world would remain

as it was, and I
would remain with it.

(From:  “Elegy” by Linda Pastan from Insomnia: Poems. © 2015)

Life has its seasons, ones we know well and expressed in Pastan’s poem; ones we observe in Nature annually; ones that are the metaphors for our lives, beginning, maturing, and gradually ending.  Yet the unexpected, the disruptions to this natural cycle throw us off-center, leaving us with questions we cannot answer, and wounds that take a long time to heal over–though some never do.  These are the times when one’s sense of mortality, of the certainty of life we thought we knew, changes abruptly and we are propelled into unwelcome fears of the outcome.

I remember the sudden loss of my first husband.  We’d separated and were navigating a push-pull round of emotions, never in sync with one another, when he died suddenly in a drowning accident.  I was overcome with emotions and questions that took years to resolve.  When I learned of our friends’ home being lost in a wildfire, it ignited the memories of the night my family’s home burned to the ground, and in the years that followed, how my parents never completely recovered from the loss.  Then, years later, I collapsed on the pavement a block from my home and was diagnosed with heart failure, something that, for months afterward, kept me tossing and turning at night, a fear of sudden mortality my regular visitor.

This too, is life.  Any unexpected hardship, life-threatening illness or loss thrusts us into new and unfamiliar territory, into a different chapter of life than the one we thought we were living.  “The knowledge you’re ill…” Anatole Broyard wrote “is one of the momentous experiences of life” (in: Intoxicated by My Illness, 1993).  So momentous, in fact, it sometimes overshadows everything that came before it.  It’s what I witness in every cancer writing group: shock, pain and yet, inevitably, the resilience of the men and women living with cancer.  When they first hear the word, “cancer,” it’s momentous and overwhelming.  Many will recover, but for some, it may signal their final chapter of life.  Yet I think of so many who, facing their final months of life, do not let cancer define them.

Cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter, Alice Hoffman said, writing about her cancer experience in a August 2000 New York Times article.   I often use her words in my groups, because they remind us that although our lives may be turned inside out by cancer—or any other sudden tragedy or life threatening event– loss, illness, or our belongings–it does not define who we are.  I think of A., a former member of a writing group, who died two years ago.  She often said, when introducing herself, “I may have cancer, but it doesn’t have me.”  What cancer taught her was to live as fully as she could, to be present to life, every single day of however long she had.

Any life threatening illness, significant loss or tragedy changes us.  As sociologist and cancer survivor Arthur Frank said, “…by the time we have lived through it, we are living differently” (in: At the Will of the Body, 2002).  Who we are, truly, may become more apparent how we choose to deal with our illness or loss.  This is what makes us uniquely human–our spirit, determination, resilience—and they are never more apparent than when illness or loss strips all pretense away.

Life will sometimes wallop us, brings us to our knees, to tears, and yet it is our greatest teacher too.  It says, “Listen up,” and teaches us something about ourselves.  All we know is that life will change again–and again.  We will be affected, perhaps multiple times, by a triggering event, whether tragedy, illness, unimaginable loss or awakening to the reality that we are moving toward the winter of our lives and the realization, as Pastan says, what we took for granted, “that the world would remain/as it was, and I/would remain with it.”

I don’t have answers–for myself or anyone else.  I’ve sat with the sorrow and losses of the past few days.  I’ve written about them, trying to make sense–yet again–of life and how it can change so dramatically in a single moment.  Yet I am reminded, as I have been before, of how precious life is, and how I constantly have to remind myself not to squander it–rather, to learn, again and again, to be mindful of how I live my life every single day.

Writing Suggestion:

What is the most significant event you’ve experienced thus far in your life?  Describe it in as much detail as you can.  Then take a break.  Re-read what you’ve written.  Turn to a fresh page.  Now reflect on how your life changed after that event and what you learned from it.  How does it continue to inform your present life?

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I don’t write about what I know: I write in order to find out what I know.― Patricia Hampl

For several years, I’ve taught  transformational writing (writing to heal) for the UCLA extension Writers’ Program. At the beginning of each new course, I routinely ask my students for brief synopses of the writing project that had prompted them to enroll for the class.  Not surprisingly, most students could only describe what it was they wanted to write in the most general of terms, no matter the pain or trauma that had brought them to the course.  What they quickly learn is that writing, no matter the genre or form, is always an act of discovery.

We write, as author Patricia Hampl  said, not about what we know, but to find out what we know.  Plumb the depths of sorrow, suffering or trauma, and you find question upon question.  Writing ultimately leads you to some answers, but it demands you stay open to the possibility of surprise, of discovering that what you thought you were going to write may not be what is written at all.  The answers we seek, whether in life or in fiction, are gradually revealed.  We struggle for answers and grope blindly in the darkness before we stumble on a new insight, or new direction.  E.L. Doctorow, award winning novelist, summed up the process of writing a story:  “You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Living with cancer is not unlike the trip Doctorow describes. Diagnosis introduces a multitude of questions, ones you can ask your doctors; others that keep you awake during the night.  You get through the surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy, but even after all that, you still can’t see too far ahead, despite every assurance offered.  Your life is punctuated by many more questions than answers.  “How likely is it to recur?  What if the cancer has metastasized and is lurking somewhere else in my body? How long do I have?”  The truth is that no one knows for certain.  You navigate through it all in the same way a writer writes a memoir or a novel, able to see only a short distance along the path, but trusting that little by little, you’ll find your way into the answers you seek.  For example, in a poem written during her treatment, one woman questions what she can do:

Can I? Can I just do it? Can I do it all?
Can I ration my time to allow for my priorities?
Can I ask others to share the burdens?
Can I refuse this role of superwoman?
Can I just ‘say no?’

Her questions gradually lead her to answers, actions she can take:

I can. I can just say no. I can just say,
“I’m out of the business of doing it all.”
I can take time for myself to breathe
And dream or just sit quietly.
And I will!

(“I Can’t,” by Carlene Shaff, In: ” Finding the Words to Say It: The Healing Power of Poetry,” by Robert Carroll, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2005 Jun; 2(2): 161–172.)

In my cancer writing groups, I sometimes use the poem, “Questions in the Mind of the Poet While She Washes Her Floors” by Elena Georgiou, as a prompt inviting participants to explore the questions they have in their lives.  Georgiou asks several questions of herself in the poem, for example:

Am I a peninsula slowly turning into an island?

If I grew up gazing at the ocean would I think
life came in waves?

If I were a nomad would I measure time
by the length of a footstep?

If I can see a cup drop to the floor and shatter
why can’t I see it gather itself back together?

If a surgeon cut out my mistakes
would the scar be under my heart?

How much time will I spend protecting myself
from what the people I love call love?

Would my desires feel different if I lived forever?

(In: Mercy Mercy Me by Elena Georgiou. Copyright © 2000)
Georgiou offers no answers to the reader, only questions.  “Don’t search for the answers,” Maria Rainer Rilke counseled a youthful protégé in Letters to a Young Poet, “which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Live everything.  Live the questions…  Live the questions now.  Live your way into the answer.   Rilke’s words stay with us.  Living ourselves into the answers is not an easy thing to do, especially when we’re faced with something as life-threatening as cancer, and yet, it is all we can do.  There are no guarantees, no crystal balls to foretell our futures.  We live our way into the answers we seek.

Life is filled with unanswered questions, but it is the courage to seek those answers that continues to give meaning to life. — ― J.D. Stroube

Writing Suggestions:

  • Explore the questions you face, whether triggered by a cancer diagnosis or another unexpected difficulty. Make a list in the style of Georgiou’s poem.  Then choose one and begin writing.  After 15 – 20 minutes, stop.  Reread what you’ve written.  Did you discover anything new? Keep writing.  You just may write yourself into some of the answers you seek.
  • Think of a time earlier in your life.  What questions did you have and how did you have live your way into answers?  What did you discover?  Which questions seemed most persistent?  Looking back, how were your questions resolved?

 

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