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… I choose to look back… that is the only direction we can learn from.
(―Wallace Stegner, The Angle of Repose, 1971)

For the past two weeks, I’ve been sorting through the accumulations of a life—mine—stored in boxes not opened since the last move,  taped shut and sitting on the shelves in our garage.  Among them were several cartons—more than a few—filled with my old notebooks and journals; some dating back to high school; many written in the wake of my first husband’s tragic death and the difficult years afterward.  Others contained notes from courses, story ideas, even cartoons I’d drawn as a humorous poke at my own written meanderings.  But each, no matter what chapter of life it represented, brought back a flood of memories—what it was like to be me, then, before marriage, motherhood, widowhood, returning to school, the workplace, remarrying, and now, entering another life chapter with my husband as we relocate ourselves and belongings roughly 2500 miles from our present home.

But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.
― Frederick BuechnerA Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces, 1992

My pace of sorting through our accumulated belongings in the past few days has all but slowed to a crawl.  I’ve been consumed with my old memories, opening notebook after notebook, reading what I’d written,  and traveling back in time, recalling events, people and places I’ve all but forgotten, or remembering–with a sudden jolt of emotion–some of the more difficult or heartbreaking events I experienced.  “How different my life is now,” I thought as I read through the notebooks.  In journal after journal, decade after decade, I became witness to my life changes from youth through adulthood.  I read and recalled people I loved, some I didn’t.  I remembered good times; I remembered the hard times, events that seemed overwhelming and insurmountable at the time, and yet had the greatest impact on my life.  Those difficult chapters, the crises I endured, were the ones that taught me the most about myself and informed how I wanted to live as I moved forward.

As I read, I recalled one of my favorite quotations from the novelist, Alice Hoffman, writing in the New York Times about her cancer experience. “Still,” she said, “ novelists know that some chapters inform all the others.  These are the chapters of your life that wallop you and teach you and bring you to tears…” (August, 2000).

I’ve suffered many losses and challenges in my life, but so have we all.  Some, like a loved one’s sudden death, a life threatening illness, marital break-up, devastation suffered in a natural disaster, or job loss, exert a much more profound effect on our lives than others.  Cancer is certainly one of those chapters of life that wallops and changes you in profound ways.

“Cancer has been a great teacher,” one of my writing group members remarked.  I had invited the group to reflect on their lives before and after cancer.  She had just read her writing aloud, reflecting on her struggles,  lessons she learned from the experience, and understanding she felt she’d gained, lessons she intended to carry into her “new” life as a a survivor and a life after cancer.  “Being ill,” sociologist and cancer survivor Arthur Frank wrote, “is just another way of living…but by the time we have lived through it, we are living differently” (in:  At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness, 2002).

But it’s not just cancer, but life, that changes us.  Life—the process of living–is always in motion, always becoming something different.  This is the law of constant change.   Change, someone once said to me, is the one thing in life we can count on.  I’ve been struck by this fact again and again as I’ve read through the pages of my past,  noting the times I felt adrift, overwhelmed by grief, heartache, tragedy. Yet I also saw the progressions, emerging new strength and increased understanding I gained during each period of upheaval.

But little by little…

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was 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)

Life gives us choices, even when it doesn’t feel like it while we are immersed in hardship and suffering.  You can choose to learn from the events that walloped you or  remain buried in past hurts and grievances of the past.   Learning to redefine how you want to live going forward is about writing a new chapter, integrating what you have already experienced into the life you want to live as you move forward.  This is the process of healing and growth.

I’ve never tried to block out the memories of the past, even though some are painful. I don’t understand people who hide from their past. Everything you live through helps to make you the person you are now. Sophia Loren

Yes, life does hand us a wallop from time to time, whether cancer, loss, heartbreak or suffering, but it also teaches us.  There are life chapters that, as Hoffman said, “inform all the others,” chapters that can teach us about ourselves and strengthen our ability to keep our footing during upheaval and change.   As I’ve read through the many chapters in my life  this past week, I not only remember what it was to be me,  I also reaffirm my strength, courage and the lessons learned from each.  In a short poem, “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters,” Portia Nelson offers us a humorous, yet insightful, portrait of her life.  Perhaps her poem can be a model to try as you write about the significant events in your life.

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

Chapter 1
 
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.
 
Chapter 2
 
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.
 
Chapter 3
 
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.
 
Chapter 4
 
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
 
Chapter 5
 
I walk down another street.

 (From:  There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self Discovery, Atria Books, 1994)

Writing Suggestion:  This week, enter the “room” named Remember, reflecting on the life you’ve lived thus far.

  • Imagine you are writing your autobiography or memoir. Make an outline of the chapters you might include.  Why?  Are there any surprises.  Give each a title.  Try writing a poem in the style of Portia Nelson’s, perhaps a chapter for each decade you’ve lived.
  • Or, choose one chapter, one significant memory from it, and write the story behind it. What did you learn from that experience?
  • Or, try this simple exercise to get you started. Begin a sentence with, for example, “before cancer, I was _______; after cancer I am _________.”  Write as many of those sentences as you can to show the ways in which your life has changed from the experience of cancer (or any other illness or hardship).

We all need friends.  Without them, our lives can seem empty and lonely, and there’s plenty of research that suggests that 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.

“What Are Friends For?  A Longer Life,” the title of a New York Times article published in 2009 cited a ten-year study of older people which found those having a large circle of friends were less likely to die during the study than those with fewer friends.  Strong social ties have been proven to have other benefits too, like promoting brain health as we age.   In a 2006 study of nurses with breast cancer, the women without close friends were four times more likely to die from their cancer than those with ten or more friends.  Another interesting finding was that proximity and amount of contact were less important than simply having friends.   Having multiple friendships, as a six year study of 736 Swedish men demonstrated, helped lower the risk of heart attack and coronary heart disease than simply having attachment to only a one person.  We need our friends, and when we’re in the throes of life’s struggle and hardships or a life-threatening illness like cancer, we need our friends even more.  As Stacie Chevrier, writing for Cure Today stated, “What keeps us from drowning in the sea of change are the people in our lives who come to the rescue:  our friends and family.”

But you got to have friends.
The feeling’s oh so strong.
You got to have friends
to make that day last long.
..

(From:  “Friends,” Bette Midler, The Divine Miss M, 1972, lyrics by Mark Klingman and Buzzy Linhart)

However, our friends can sometimes disappoint us.  If you have been given a cancer diagnosis, you may have experienced the unexpected loss of some people you counted as friends; those who didn’t reach out to you or seemed to disappear from your life.  It hurts, and yet, it’s a common experience among many cancer patients, echoed by blogger, Debra Sherman, in the Reuters feature, “Cancer in Context.”

When someone is diagnosed with cancer,” she writes, “it generates conflicted feelings that they want to avoid, so they don’t reach out.”  Hearing you have been diagnosed with cancer may ignite fears of illness among some of your friends, even fears of death even death, and the the sense “this could happen to me.”  It creates conflicted feelings for some, and ones they try to avoid.

It can feel awkward to others when a friend is first diagnosed with cancer, and something many struggle with, unsure how to respond, asking themselves, “What do I say to my friend?”  Fear of saying the wrong, clumsy or trite thing to a friend with cancer is another reason some shy away from face-to-face contact.  They may be afraid of upsetting you or disturbing you at a time you won’t feel like talking.  Whatever the reason for their withdrawal, it can feel like the bonds of friendship you’ve shared have suddenly and inexplicably been broken, and at a time you need your friends most.

Our lives until so recently

parallel and filled

with common details…

details still in my life

while you lie in an alien bed…

I want to speak; you want to speak

but we’ve lost our common language…

How can I know

how it feels to lose a beast

and fight to save lungs,

bones, and brain

when all I have to battle

is the traffic?

(From: “To a Friend Now Separated From Me by Illness,” by Gretchen Fletcher, in:  The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. 1, 2001.)

What can you do if you find your friends behaving differently?  Cancer Net offers some advice.  You can begin by helping close friends understand your cancer and treatment.  Remember though, you are in charge of how much and what you want to tell them.  If they don’t bring it up, first decide what you want your friends to know, then, as you feel ready, discuss it with them.  For more casual friends, however, it’s probably best to stick to something simple, like, “I have cancer, but I’m getting treatment for it.”

Make new friends,

But keep the old.

One is silver

And the other gold…

(From: “Make New Friends,” www.scoutsongs.com)

Some of your friendships may change, but in many cases, those changes will be positive ones.  You may become closer and find it easier to talk about the important things in one another’s life.  And you might also find, as so many in my writing groups do, that you make new friends, those who share the cancer journey with you.  You can openly share fears, the language, and emotional ups and downs that are unique to the cancer experience.  And those bonds that develop between you are often deep and long-lasting.

Remember the song “You’ve Got a Friend?”  Written and recorded by Carole King in 1971.  James Taylor’s recording of it the same year  was the number 1 song on Billboard’s “Hot 100.”  Since then, it’s been sung and recorded by dozens of vocalists, including those as diverse as Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Barry Manilow and Ella Fitzgerald and others, testimony to the importance of friendship, the enduring and true ones we have in our lives.

Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there, yes I will

Now ain’t it good to know
that you’ve got a friend… 

Writing Suggestions:

This week, consider the topic of friendship.  Write about friends, having and even losing them.

  • When have friends made a difference in your life? How?
  • Write about a friendship that matters deeply to you. Why?
  • Did you lose friends when you were diagnosed with cancer or at another difficult period of your life?
  • You might even borrow from Joan Walsh Angland’s little book, A Friend is Someone Who Likes You, first published in 1960 and begin with the phrase, “A friend is someone who…”  and generate a list of things about the things you consider important in your friendships.

 

Without a doubt, your friends can make your life a little better.  Write about friendship.

 

 

In first grade Mrs. Lohr

said my purple teepee

wasn’t realistic enough,

that purple was no color

for a tent,

that purple was a color

for people who died,

that my drawing wasn’t 

good enough

to hang with the others…

(From:  “Purple,” by Alexis Rotella, in Step Lightly:  Poems for the Journey, Nancy Willard, Ed., 1998)

For the past several days, I’ve been consumed with the task of sifting through boxes of personal mementoes:  photographs, children’s drawings, letters from friends and family, scraps of paper in a young daughter’s hand, “I love you very much, Mom.”  It’s slow work, because each item I pull from the storage boxes ignites a flood of memories and emotion, and I pause, caught up in remembrances of the past, looking at and reading everything—the task of being a curator of family history.  I’ve separated these things into three piles:  what I keep, and what I send to each of my daughters.

Among their childish drawings and notes, I found a collection of report cards, grades for their achievement in core subjects, teachers’ notes on behavior—a few outstanding, “Excellent!” written in large letters, but others expressing disappointment in one or the other of my daughter’s progress.  And I remember, too, their bowed heads and reluctance to hand over the report cards when the news wasn’t as good as I—and they—hoped.  During those tender times, mediocre grades or written disappointments from their teachers seemed to take a greater toll, feeding insecurities and fears of not measuring up—not only for my daughters, but for me, as if I wasn’t a good parent.

I walked back to my seat

counting the swish swish swishes

of my baggy corduroy trousers.

With a black crayon

nightfall came

to my purple tent

in the middle

of an afternoon…

 

I still grade myself, whether I’m writing, teaching, housecleaning, parenting or simply trying to keep the weeds in the garden under control. My internal critic is loud and vociferous.  She is no wimp, no kindly bespectacled replica of my beloved first grade teacher.  She cracks the whip, harsh in her assessment of my performance.  But we all grade ourselves, even in dealing with the ups and downs of cancer treatment and recovery.  I’ve heard “I should” voiced more than a few times from cancer patients and survivors who come to my writing groups.  They express feelings that they “should” be stronger, better able to deal with their emotions, or able to spend more time caring for their loved ones.

It happens to everyone.  Those noisy, old internalized voices begin to chide you, “you could do better than that, you know.”  Or you hear the implied criticism from well-meaning friends and family:  “Aren’t you over that yet?”  “Shouldn’t you be doing something different?”  When you feel we’ve somehow disappointed others, fallen short of some unspoken level of attainment, or let yourselves down,  your internal critics are especially loud—a veritable Greek chorus.  Your sentences with begin with “I should… but…,” and you feel guilty and miserable for what you didn’t get done or the feeling as if you’ve let others down.

A little humor can help.  In her poem, “Marks,” Linda Pastan pokes fun at the frustration of being graded–whether by ourselves or others:

My husband gives me an A
for last night’s supper,
an incomplete for my ironing,
a B plus in bed.
My son says I am average,
an average mother, but if
I put my mind to it
I could improve.
My daughter believes
in Pass/Fail and tells me
I pass.  Wait ’til they learn
I’m dropping out.

(From: Five Stages of Grief, 1978)

Here’s another poem, “Exorcism of Nice,” by Roseann Lloyd, in which the narrator takes aim at her internalized critics:

…Talk polite
Appropriate
Real nice

…Hold still
Hold it back
Hold it in

…Close-mouthed
Muzzled
Gagged
Garbled
Jammed up…

Shut-down

Oh, Wicked Mother of the Kingdom of Silence
I have obeyed you
long enough

(From Tap Dancing for Big Mom, 1996)

Chances are we all need to practice a little self-forgiveness from time to time, allowing ourselves the freedom to be messy, woefully imperfect, or terribly human.  We also need the support of those who truly understand, whether loved ones, a teacher or a physician when the going gets rough and we begin to doubt ourselves.   In the final stanza of Alexis Rotella’s poem, “Purple,” we discover how understanding and acceptance from someone, in this case her second grade teacher, can matter:

In second grade Mr. Barta

said draw anything;

he didn’t care what.

I left my paper blank

and when he came around

to my desk

my heart beat like a tom tom.

He touched my head

with his big hand

and in a soft voice said

the snowfall

how clean

and white 

and beautiful

 

Writing Suggestions:

This week, think about your internal critics, those negative self-evaluations when you experience self-doubt, insecurity or fear.

  • When have you given yourself a failing grade or felt like you’re being graded by others?
  • Was there a time you received a report card in childhood that you didn’t want to take home to your parents?  How did you feel?
  • Does your self-critic sometimes keep you from doing or saying what you truly want?
  • Try, as Pastan and Lloyd have done, silencing those tiresome internal voices with a little humor.
  • Or, was there someone, like a friend or teacher, who encouraged you and helped you overcome your self-doubt? Write about that person.

We’ve been lucky here in San Diego.  After a deluge of winter rainstorms, the sun has finally become a regular presence in the days, so much so, that when I awakened to a foggy morning, the canyon shrouded in a fine mist, I felt my mood plummet—like it does, sometimes, when I eye the aging face (one that apparently belongs to me) in the mirror.  Grey, in those moments, is the color of blah, of aging, of the mood we call the “blues,” when in fact, it’s all about grey.

Grey also was on my mind yesterday.  As I cleaned out my office closet, I inadvertently spilled a box of crayons onto the floor, all fifty -two of them.   I knelt to pick them up and replace each in the box, thinking, as I did, about my grandchildren and how their paintings are filled with bold and vivid colors.  As I picked up the grey crayon I remembered a poem written by a third year student in a writing workshop I led for Stanford Medical School last year.  Grey–the same color older women do their best to avoid, the color I associate with long, grey Nova Scotia winters.

Grey, as Sarah defined it, is full of life.  Here is an excerpt from the poem she wrote and read aloud that Saturday afternoon:

 Grey is the color of “yes, life has been here,”

and “don’t you know I have a story to tell?”

Grey is the color of pregnant clouds,

waiting to gift us with all they’ve held up inside…

 

White is before, but give me the after

Give me the ninety-year-old under her old grey comforter.

Has she lived? Well, tell me the color of her soul.

Show me the spots of grey, and tell me how you’ve lived,

the story printed dark and true in the deepest, most imperfect,

ugliest and sweetest shade.

 

(From “Grey,” by Sarah Schlegel, April, 2016)

Colors, as we know, have strong emotional associations.  Some colors elicit almost universal meaning, for example, the blue spectrum can communicate calm, but also  sadness.  Red, by contrast, expresses warmth, but also anger.  Color is often found in the lyrics of popular songs, for example, “Red Dirt Girl,” “San Francisco Bay Blues,” “Green, Green Grass of Home,” or “Say it Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud.”  Whether a poem, love song, the hard beat of rap, or smoky voice of a jazz singer, the mention of a color immediately evokes feelings, memories or a mood.

Humans make all sorts of color choices, every day. We color-code our children’s genders from birth—blue caps for boys and pink caps for girls in the hospital nursery—and paint our bedrooms sea foam green and lemon meringue yellow for serenity. We are intimately familiar with Coca-Cola’s red script, McDonald’s golden arches, and Starbucks’ green mermaid. Red means “stop” and green means “go” in contexts far away from the traffic light—using the colors on food labels has been shown to lead people to make healthier choices. This just goes to show how deeply colors can become lodged in our mind.  (“How Color Shapes our Lives,” by Elijah Wolfson, The Atlantic, Jan. 29,2014)

But for each of us, some colors  have negative or unwarranted associations.  (I can’t look at a bottle of the pinkish-orange French dressing on grocery shelves without remember the bicycle accident and severe concussion I suffered in sixth grade).  And in the current climate of politics with issues of cultural differences and diversity are dominating the news, another color, “brown,” may have less than positive connotations for some individuals.  In the children’s book, Tan to Tamarind:  Poems about the Color Brown (2009) by Malathi Iyengar and Jamel Akib, young readers are asked, “when you look in the mirror, what do you see?” and in a series of poems, are offered fresh and enchanting ways to think about being brown and the color brown, just as Sarah’s poem about the color grey did for me.  Here are a few of Iyengar’s  images evoked by the color brown.

A mug of hot chocolate,

smooth and creamy brown…

 

Milk-tea brown

   Spicy sweet masala tea brown

 

Reddish brown mountains…

Strong, unyielding brown

Warm, abiding brown

 

Brown leaves crunch and

crackle under our shoes in fall

Acorns in October…

 

Color also plays a role in cancer,  in cultural differences and treatment as well as in the writing by cancer patients and survivors.  A 2009 article, “The Many Shades of Survivorship,” by Kathy Latour, appearing in Cure Today, December 2009, explored the issues of cultural differences in cancer care and treatment, including lack of healthcare access, early diagnosis and individualized treatment.

Have a read-through the two volumes of The Cancer Poetry Project, one of my favorite anthologies edited by Karin Miller, reveals that color is often used to explore the complex emotions of cancer and, sometimes, in unexpected ways, for example, in “Bi, Bye-Bye, Buy,” by Mary Milton, who infuses her poem with humor and color, inspired after a friend advised her “Don’t start buying stuff to compensate” as she prepared for her mastectomies.   She describes her purchase:

…a sheet of bed sheets dusty coral
so blood stains won’t show much…
and shirts that open in front
one short-sleeved white
bad choice of color but I liked
its spirited portrayal of zebras
galloping through ferns
and gold paint splats
Besides it was on sale…

(in: Volume One, 2001)

People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and its ends, but to me it’s quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations, with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spat blues. Murky darknesses.  (Marcus Zuzak, The Book Thief, 2005)

Writing Suggestions:

How does color affect or inspire you–whether in mood, belongings, cancer or skin color?  This week, explore colors in your life.

  • If you are person of color, write ways in which you have experienced any differences in treatment or care.
  • If you could describe cancer in color, what would it be like?
  • What colors hold the most emotion for you? Describe them.
  • Think of your favorite color. Step outside and find five to ten examples of that color in nature.  and try incorporating those images in a poem.
  • Here’s an exercise we’ve done in my cancer writing workshops: Draw, paint or paste colors on a blank page, one that symbolizes your feelings—whether fear, anger, a punch to the gut, desolation, boredom, or even hope.  Then brainstorm the words and images that come to mind before writing.   Write for twenty minutes—longer if you wish.

 

 

For the past two weeks, I’ve been tackling the bins of belongings stored in our garage, a necessary task as we continue to prepare for a move.  Frankly, I’ve been shocked at how much of the boxes contained things that belong solely to me:  keepsakes I kept for reasons now not clear, photographs of sights seen on vacations, materials I used to use in my writing groups, and more than a few containers of journals, one dating back to high school, another to my undergraduate years, and many more,  prose and poetry that documented my life, especially those that documented particularly challenging or painful periods, a reminder to how writing has helped me heal and weather the difficult chapters of my life.

There was another carton, also filled with booklets of writing—not mine–but the stories and poetry written in the “Writing Through Cancer” workshops I’ve led over many years.  Some of my first group members’ writing was featured in both my books, A Healing Journey (2004) and When Words Heal (2006), but these were printed in booklets, compilations of the writing shared in the groups and printed for the participants at the end of each series.  I sat on the floor and through them yesterday afternoon, remembering faces, individuals’ cancer experiences, many who recovered, and some whose lives were taken by cancer.

The expressive writing workshops are intended to help people write about the experience of cancer, however raw and unwieldy, and in whatever way most natural to each.  Some write narratives, others write poetry, but the form is inconsequential.  What matters is the act of expressing what cancer is for each person, finding ways to make sense of the chaotic emotional experience of it, and supporting their efforts to better cope.  Invariably, a vibrant community of cancer patients and survivors forms through the writing and shared stories—all of it beginning with that word, “cancer,” the one that turns your life upside down and inside out.  Writing for those in the groups, as it has also been for me, provides refuge, release and a way to help heal from the emotional upheaval of cancer.

“Think of the time you first heard that awful word, “cancer.”  This is the prompt that most often begins our first session.  As you might imagine, the descriptions of the moment and of cancer are as unique as the people who come to write and share their

One writer used the simple form of an alpha poem, each line beginning with a letter in the word “Cancer:”

Caught off guard in the midst of my otherwise life,

Apocalypse entered and through me from the highest rooftop.

Nothing I already know about anything prepared me for the fall…

(K.M., 2013)

Another writer communicated the moment of diagnosis in a short three line haiku, powerfully communicating her experience in seventeen syllables:

In the white office

oncologist in white coat

I brace for the wave

(V.S., 2014)

Often, as the workshop progresses, many writers portray cancer through metaphor, by making a comparison with something else.  In many ways, the metaphor not only creates a striking image, but it helps to defuse cancer’s emotional potency.  For example, one writer described her diagnosis as entering a foreign country:

We have entered the country of Cancer

My body and I…

A foreign country

Unmapped

Unknown…

(J.E., 2010)

Yet another writer described her cancer experience in a humorous, yet powerful, piece entitled “Cancer Boot Camp,” beginning with the patient standing at attention:

Cancer

Cancer

Cancer

Can Sir!

I Can Sir!

Yes I will heal it.  I can Sir!

Yes, I will survive it.  I can Sir!

(J. N, 2016)

“Cancer” also often becomes a character, allowing the writers to visualize it differently, even talk back to it.  Some cancers, this next writer tells us, are less common and more “hidden” in the body than others—and, thus, more frightening.

Some cancers arrive with fanfare,

trumpets, an engraved invitation…

But some cancers know how to hide.

They defy the eye, the scope, the scan.

They are not the usual suspects…

(K. M., 2013)

 

For another participant, cancer is “The Thief,” is stealthy and accomplished, who robs the writer of her security:

He is a thief.  Not an ordinary thief, who steals purses, jewelry or a car.  Instead he steals more person, more precious things.  Irreplaceable things…I see him finalizing his plan to steal my peace of mind, my security in believing I can control my health…                                                                        (N.S. 2014)

“If cancer is like a song sung off-key,” another group member wrote in a poem entitled, “The Metaphors of Cancer,” “then cancer interrupts the beautiful song of our hearts…”

If cancer is like a bird falling from the sky

Then cancer craves the immediate warmth of a gentle cupped hand

If cancer is a tremendous energy and force

That comes in the winter of our lives

Only to disappear after leaving its mark

Stimulating new growth

And hope

As we fight for Spring.

(T.E., 2014)

These are only a small sample of the many poignant, humorous, and powerful pieces of writing that are created and shared–all under a time limit!–in our expressive writing groups.  The writing that I  witness in those sessions is, undoubtedly, among the most moving  I’ve ever experienced.  Many participants come to the group saying, “I’m not a writer, but…”  And I quickly remind them that the great poet William Stafford had a wonderfully succinct way of describing a writer.  “A writer,” he said, “is someone who writes.”  And so they begin, finding a way to express what, in those first weeks after diagnosis, seems nearly unexpressible, and often surprising themselves by the beauty in their words, writing in ways that move us and touch our hearts.

Writing Suggestions:

How do you experience cancer?  What images and descriptions do you use?  Expand and explore them in a poem or short narrative.

Many times during the workshop, we begin by reading “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stephens, a collection of different ways of seeing or experiencing a blackbird.  Here is an excerpt:

I 

Among twenty snowy mountains,   

The only moving thing   

Was the eye of the blackbird.   

 

II 

I was of three minds,   

Like a tree   

In which there are three blackbirds.   

 

III 

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.   

It was a small part of the pantomime.   

 

(From:  The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, 1954)

After reading the poem, I invite the group to write their own poems, modeled after Stephens, but focused on cancer.  Trying writing your own poem in the manner of Stephens, describing thirteen different ways of looking cancer.

 

She is alive.  Although her doctors said

there was nothing to be done, she is home,

planting her summer garden, is not dead

and plans to eat everything she has grown…

She will live beyond the harvest and what will not grow

is her tumor, its flowers held captive

and still beneath her heart.  Only the live

wire of her will separates her now from

the future…it will come

sooner or later, but this is her time

to cultivate and seed.  She is alive.

(From: “Seed,” by Floyd Skloot, in The Cancer Poetry Project, V.1, 2001)

At first I was afraid, I was petrifiedRemember the 1979 hit, “I will survive,” by Gloria Gaynor?  Decades later, it remains one of the most famous of disco songs and singer Gaynor’s single biggest hit.  In 1981, I nearly wore out my vinyl recording of it, a gift from a friend as I struggled with traumatic loss and becoming a single mother of two daughters.  Night after night, as my children slept, I retreated to the living room, turned on the stereo, and as Gaynor belted out her lyrics, danced wildly around the room in the dark, trying, for all I was worth, to believe that I, too, would survive:  And I grew strong and I learned how to get along

We all must learn to survive the hardships that life presents, whether loss, life-threatening illness, trauma and hardship.  For those who must face a diagnosis of cancer, survival dominates each day:  surviving the surgeries, treatments, and, hopefully, the cancer itself.  The term “survivor” has become part of the cancer lexicon and defines anyone living with cancer, terminal or not.  Yet  it is a term that can describe anyone at different times in our lives.  The definition of “survivor” in The Oxford American Dictionary is “a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died,” such as those 9/11 survivors or those who survived the sinking of the Titanic.  It is also a term that the Oxford defines as “a person who copes well with difficulties in… life,” practically synonymous with being human.

A few years ago, as I was preparing for a “Writing Through Cancer” session at Scripps Green Cancer Center, Nadia, living with metastatic breast cancer, arrived early and quietly handed me an envelope.  “Wait to open it until everyone arrives,” she said.  A short time later, as everyone was seated, I opened N.’s card, surprised to see the words, “Happy Birthday” on the front of it.   It wasn’t my birthday or N’s.  “Wait and see,” she said.  “Everyone will have a birthday sometime.”  I opened the card and that’s when we heard Gloria Gaynor’s belting out “I will survive.”  Everyone in the room burst out laughing.  Nadia smiled.  “We’re all survivors,” she said.  Indeed we are.

What ignites our will to survive and helps us cope and keep going?  It’s different for all of us and yet, so much the same.  Hope is surely one of those things that keeps us going.  The support of friends and loved ones are also important to our will to survive.    I remember the December day in 2008 when my physician came to the hospital where I had been taken for observation and a battery of tests after passing out and collapsing on the sidewalk.  “We think it’s your heart,” she said, her gentle segue into the preliminary results of my tests.  I stared at her in disbelief and panic.

“Not my heart!” I cried.  “But I do all the right things.”  Tears filled my eyes.  “I can’t die yet,” I sobbed.  “I have a grandson ready to be born in two months.  I have to be there.”  The cardiologist arrived a short time later, and in a manner calm and reassuring, explained that I had heart failure, and as I began to cry, quietly smiled and said, “you’re going to live a long time, Sharon,” and we’ll make sure of that.”  Two months later, I held Nathan in my arms minutes after his birth.  Nathan, despite the love I have for all three grandchildren, has, perhaps, his grandmother’s heart most firmly in his grasp.

Ann, a beloved Scripps group member who died from metastatic cancer, demonstrated the courage and determination to live fully for as long as she could, filling her days with family, friends, travel, and joy.  She was determined to be on hand for her first grandchild’s birth, even though the odds were against her.  A month before her death, she was present for his birth and able to hold him in her arms for the time she had left.  I have no doubt that his impending arrival strengthened her will to live and experience the joy of his arrival.

During a session I led at the Stanford Cancer Center several years ago, I posed the question to the group of cancer writers:  “What keeps you intent on surviving cancer?” Ali, who has since recovered from colon cancer and now leads the Stanford group, wrote a poem entitled, “Why I Need to Survive,” using the words of her children, (who were quite young at the time):

Mommy, the trees look like boogers on sticks.
Mommy, can we walk to the sunset?
Mommy, how did God make the ocean?
Mommy, next time will you be my mommy?
Because I don’t want the other mommies.
I only want you.

John, another of the writers from my former Stanford group, survived acute lymphoblastic leukemia for a full five years after his diagnosis, intent on living as long as he possibly could.  He wrote poignantly, often humorously, and honestly about his cancer battle in the Stanford group and later, on his blog.  A year before his death, he sent me an essay titled “What I’ve Learned,” summarizing lessons learned during his cancer journey, ones that portrayed his will to survive despite a terminal disease.  Among the many bits of wisdom gained during his illness,  he reminded us that survival, no matter how lengthy, is about living fully, for as long as we have.  Among his survival tips were:

  • Work at what you love…
  • Travel light.
  • Do what the doctors tell you.
  • Offer support when you can and it will come back to you when you need it. ·
  • Cherish the ones you cherish.
  • In the end, all your physical beauty and prowess will leave you. You must still love that person in the mirror
  • We all will die eventually, so find a way to face death without fear. Don’t dwell on death, but enjoy each day as best you can.

Writing Suggestions:

This week, explore the topic of survival.

  • Why do you need to survive?
  • What life difficulties, illness or heartbreak have you overcome or endured?
  • What keeps you going?
  • What ignited your will, that indomitable human spirit that refuses to give up or give in?

 

The fields, the lakes, the forests, and the streams,

Ocean, and all the living things that dwell

Within the daedal earth; lightning, and rain,

Earthquake and fiery flood, and hurricane…

 

–From “Mont Blanc,” by Percy Blythe Shelley

The Midwest has tornadoes; the eastern seaboard has its hurricanes and super storms.  A large part of the country just dug out from another snow storm, while here in California, we’ve gone from an extended period of drought to swollen rivers, dams, mudslides, sinkholes and flooded interstates, all due to “The Pineapple Express, a “river of moisture” that has moved in from the Pacific and continued to drench the West coast.  Ironically, the complaints about the drought have given way to complaints about the wet and stormy weather.  Yet, as my husband and I plan for a return to Toronto, he has few complaints about our wet and blustery California winter, rather, he has re-voiced his reluctance to live in a place that, despite all the things he likes about it, has “real” winter, in other words, snowstorms, ice and cold.

Wherever we live, it seems to be human nature to complain about the weather.  California, of course, is normally blessed with mild winters, a temperate climate and plenty of sunshine.  I grew up in the northern part of the state, however, where four seasons existed along with the expectation, in the summer, that we might have to ration water or smell the scent of wildfires in the nearby mountains.  We were used to it and grateful that, unlike much of the rest of the state, the earth was likely to move from time to time.

For much of California, earthquakes are a predictable occurrence, just as tornadoes or hurricanes in other parts of the country, and never far from conscious thought.  It’s the risk of living along the earth’s fault lines, whether the San Andreas, Hayward, Oak Ridge or any number of smaller ones, and yet the cities continue to expand despite the occasional warnings of “the big one” likely to occur in the future.  What we know is that sooner or later, the earth will heave, the ground will undulate beneath our feet and sometimes, it will result in disaster.  Think of those memorable earthquakes that have demolished highways and buildings, as the 1989 Loma Prieta and 1992 Landers quakes in Northern and Southern California.

This potentially destructive movement is created by the sliding boundaries or fault lines which define the earth’s tectonic plates. California has a great many of these faults, and even though the plates move past one another a couple of inches each year due to their irregularity, we’re often unaware of their motion.  But as the plates continue to push against each other, they sometimes lock and may not move for years.  Then stress builds along the fault, and when the strain threshold is exceeded, energy is abruptly released, causing the plates slip several feet at once.  Waves are sent out in all directions and felt as tremors, or at worst, a damaging earthquake.

Did you ever think there might be a fault line
passing underneath your living room:
A place in which your life is lived in meeting
and in separating, wondering
and telling, unaware that just beneath
you is the unseen seam of great plates
that strain through time? And that your life,
already spilling over the brim, could be invaded,
sent off in a new direction, turned
aside by forces you were warned about
but not prepared for?

From:  “Fault Line” by Robert Walsh, In:  Noisy Stones:  A Meditation Manual, 1992

Early in 2007, I began teaching a course on writing for healing through the UCLA extension’s Writers’ Program, initially entitling it “Writing from the Fault Lines.”   Like many writers, the metaphors I use are almost unconsciously influenced by the landscape that shaped me and in which I spent my life into early adulthood.  Living along the West coast fault lines encouraged Tony Pfannensteil, a Portland poet, to found  Fault Lines Poetry Journal and place the first call for submissions in the fall of 2011.  Hundreds of poems were submitted by writers living along the Cascadia earthquake zone on the West coast, extending from San Francisco north to Vancouver, British Columbia.  Poet Eileen Walsh Duncan described Fault Lines as poetry that “ will create upheavals. The meticulously crafted world of what a poem should be will implode, opening fissures deep within your psyche.”

When I first began writing out of my own pain and hardship, terms like “the vulnerable landscape of the psyche,” “fissures opening,” of “stress building beneath the surface of my exterior,” and of the sudden and painful “jolts” of unexpected loss and trauma were frequent descriptions that appeared on my pages, words that seemed most able to describe the sense of shock and traumatic events that exposed my raw and tumultuous emotional interior.  I felt, in those periods, as if my life was being shattered or broken apart.  What I experienced emotionally was, it seemed, much like the earthquakes so common in my home state.

I recall the period when I was first diagnosed with early stage breast cancer, occurring in the midst of a difficult emotional time in my life—the loss of my parents, an unhappy and stressful career, and estrangement from my siblings, all rendering me numb.  A few years later, I collapsed on the pavement and was diagnosed with heart failure.  I filled page after page of my journals with disbelief, unanswerable questions and even guilt, as if I was somehow at blame, and old scars began to open to painful losses I’d soldiered through and buried many years earlier.  My “real” story was less about a treatable cancer or a weakened heart.  The story I needed to write and understand laid beneath the surface, where old wounds were buried, building up pressure, and begging for release.

I witness similar experiences in the writing groups I lead for men and women with cancer.   A diagnosis of brings you to your knees.  Life as you knew it is a thing of the past.  Yet beneath the surface, there are frequently other wounds, unresolved emotions, painful memories or traumatic events which have lain dormant, but, like the locked plates of the earth, building up pressure inside you.  Those events and emotions can be triggered by the most benign of writing prompts, and unleashed dams of old memories and painful emotions tumble onto the page.  Whether the cancer writing groups or the transformational writing course I continue to teach, writing for healing often takes us beyond the “presenting” hardship, into deeper territory and as people write, they begin to plumb the depths of their lives, bringing into the open what they were unable to do before.

Emotions can inspire you or hold you hostage.  Negative emotions–anger, fear or feelings of unworthiness–accumulate, just as pressure along the earth’s plates.  They weaken your ability to fend off illness, depression or disease.  Writing allows you, if you let it, to translate those negative emotions into words, make the connections between what you feel and why,  begin to understand or even forgive yourselves and others.  It is in the act of writing and sharing your stories that you may find a way to release the pressure of old wounds and begin to heal.

Writing Suggestion:

This week, think about the metaphors you use that are informed by the landscape and seasons where you live.   Whether fault lines or a different weather/landscape metaphor, use it to describe a difficult time in your life, whether cancer, loss, or other hardship, letting the metaphor take you deeper in your writing to explore what  lingers beneath the surface.