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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)

These past many days have been sobering ones here in Toronto.  In the aftermath of the inconceivable actions of one person that resulted in ten deaths and a number of seriously wounded victims, I  felt the sense of “despair for the world” descend on my mood, a feeling I had all too often the years we lived in California and watched in horror the newscasts that too frequently often began with another school shooting or some other act of violence.  Returning here, to a city I love, offered a respite from those all too common events, a chance to regain my footing.  And then, tragedy struck here: a van attack by a troubled young man–and Toronto was in shock with the stark reminder that, in today’s world, no place is immune to these senseless acts of violence and the loss of innocent human lives.

Where does one find the kind of peace that Berry describes?  In our over-developed, crowded cities, where life seems to be defined by constant motion and noise, how can we reclaim the sense of peace, of gratitude for the world, so necessary for the human spirit to heal?   These past many days, I’ve followed this city’s response to a violent and unimaginable tragedy.   I’ve been touched by the way in which people came together to offer support and solace to one another and the families and victims of this tragedy.  Last night, thousands of citizens, national, provincial, and religious leaders of all faiths walked together along the route of the attack before joining in a vigil to honor and remember the victims of the attack.  Many expressed that coming together was not only a way to remember those lives lost in the tragedy, it was also a way to begin, somehow, to come to terms with the shock, grief, and loss, to begin to heal and find a sense of peace, to heal.  One person put it this way:  “I come because this is, I guess, a part of the healing process. I was here on the day of the accident, and now to get rid of those images, and to overcome those images, I believe this is the best way.”  Interspersed throughout the vigil were times of remembrance, prayer, silence and stillness–the necessary ingredients to begin the healing process, find peace and some sense of gratitude for the world.

What is stillness?  According to Pico Iyer, travel writer and author of The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (2014), it’s less about meditation and more about “sanity and balance…a chance to put things in perspective.”  We all need time to ourselves.  Time to be quiet, reflect, and gain some perspective.  Stillness offers that to us.   “Going nowhere,” Iyer 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 our increasing societal numbness to what former President Obama named as “routine” violence in the U.S. and so many other places in the world,  is, in part, a result of the constant motion and noise that fill our daily lives.  We race from meeting to meeting, social event to social event, respond to dozens of emails and texts each day, spend hours in front of screens when we’re alone.  There, we’re assaulted by constant over-stimulation:  news, trivia, games, retail offerings, advertisements, on and on.  “A big luxury for so many people today,” Iyer says, “ is a little blank space in the calendar where you collect yourself.”  That’s giving ourselves time for stillness, the opportunity to be quiet and allow us to care for our inner lives, and to feed our malnourished spirits.

(Illustration by Maurice Sendak, In:  Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Kraus, 2001)

 

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.  And added to that is our continual exposure to the visual images of violence and suffering dominating the daily newscasts.  We’re numbed by the continual assault of information and images.  Iyer also recalled the wisdom of Canadian author Marshall McLuhan (The Medium is the Message) in 1967, when he warned his readers, saying “When things come at you very fast, …you lose touch with yourself.”

Think about it.  It’s not unlike the “noise” in your head as you navigate the rush of information and appointments when given a diagnosis of cancer or other serious or life threatening illness. You feel overwhelmed and exhausted, yet you keep trying to navigate between opinions and the best decision for your treatment options.  It’s quite common that, for a while, the physicians’ voice temporarily becomes your own. You need to give yourself some time to ponder and let things sink in without the clamor of medical opinions or the concerns of loved ones.  Only then can you regain the ability to listen to yourself and your heart.  Only in stillness can you find your voice, the clarity of what matters most and is important to you here and now.

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)

How do you find your voice? Giving yourself times to be still, quiet, and 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.  Living in what is ultimately is being present to the now, not living with regret for the past nor worrying what the future holds.  It’s not always easy, nor does it come naturally.  We have to learn to be comfortable with stillness, with the quiet and solitary time so necessary to having a sense of peace.

Stillness, the time to be fully present in the moment, can help us clear away the static,  clarify and discover what is truly important.  Prayer, meditation, yoga, tai chi, a solitary walk along a wooden trail, an ocean beach–these are things that can help ground us in the present, the here and now and 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.

I have come to believe that stillness is an important part of what helps us heal, whether we live with loss, cancer, or other chronic illness.  During a  2004 PBS  interview former poet laureate, Ted Kooser, spoke about his recovery from oral cancer in 1968.  During the period when I was in surgery and going through radiation, I really didn’t do any writing. But 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.

Kooser wrote over 100 poems about what he noticed on those solitary winter morning walks, pasting them on postcards and sending them to his friend, author Jim Harrison.  In the introduction, Kooser describes how his morning walks helped him heal:

“During the previous summer, depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing…  One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem.  Soon I was writing every day… I began pasting my morning poems on postcards and sending them to Jim…”The result of those poems on postcards was his volume of poetry, Winter Morning Walks : 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison, 2001)

Annie Dillard, in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, 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.—

It is a practice I have embraced in the past many years, one that always helps me right myself and remember what is good and important in the world.  I have come to cherish stillness as life seems to be  more complex.  Perhaps you have discovered the power of it too.

Writing Suggestion

  • For this week, consider how quiet and stillness have been part of your healing process.
  • When did you discover the value of stillness?  What happened in your life at that time?
  • What practices have helped you learn to embrace quiet and turn your attention to what is, instead of what was or could be?

Perhaps it was Barbara Bush’s funeral that triggered the conversation my husband and I shared over lunch yesterday.  It wasn’t the former U.S. First Lady we talked about, but rather the loss we all suffer when family, friends, family or colleagues, disappear from our lives, whether due to illness and death, physical distance, passage of time, moves to other cities, or circumstances unknown to us.   With some, there’s simply curiosity, a question of “I wondered what happened to…?”  But with many, especially those who have died, there’s sorrow.  Grief is the emotional state that accompanies loss, and although normal, when there is no explanation or rationale for the loss or disappearance of people once close to us, we may discover the kind of sorrow that resides in one’s heart for a very long time.  Sorrow.  Grief.  How do we make sense of the losses we suffer?  I thought about Mrs. Bush’s funeral, the tributes and stories of her life and presence shared by her family and friends.  Then I recalled Judith Cofer’s The Cruel Country, a memoir about her return to her native Puerto Rico when her mother is diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. A deeply moving book, Cofer offers hard-earned wisdom on how we come to terms with loss and grief.  In it she writes:

…I have learned that story assuages grief, and it also grants the chaos of our emotions some shape and order…Even as I watch my mother become more and more distant from the lives around her…I am doing what I have been preparing all my life to do:  listening again to the old stories and committing them to memory in order to preserve them.  I am still doing my work in terms of what I have come to believe defines immortality.  Being remembered.  (From:  The Cruel Country, by Judith Ortiz Cofer, ©2015. University of Georgia Press)

Perhaps no one truly ever truly masters the sorrow that comes with loss, because death and the loss of loved ones and friends forces us to learn and re-learn what it means when someone’s life ends or they disappear from our lives in other ways, whether anticipated or unexpected.  Loss of those dear to us forces us to consider mortality–theirs and our own.  How do we remember the people who have mattered in our lives, and how others will remember us?

Nearly every year since I’ve been leading my “Writing Through Cancer” programs, cancer takes the life of a group member.  It’s something I worked to prepare myself for before I first began the groups nearly eighteen years ago, yet as I’ve learned each time a life is lost to this disease, I must confront my own grief as well as the collective grief of the group members.  In 2014, three individuals with terminal cancer died within weeks of one another. It was emotional time for the group, yet they demonstrated such care and support for their colleagues, despite the fear that a colleague’s death ignites for those who are also being treated for cancer.  Everyone had forged a strong and supportive community through the many weeks of writing and sharing their stories of the cancer experience and of their lives.  And in death, their hearts heavy with sorrow, many in the group were present at memorial services for our lost colleagues, listening to and sharing their stories of remembrance.

After the third memorial service that year, I was listless and sad, awakening with sorrow weighing on my chest.  As the group leader, my task is to hear and hold the sorrow of the members, to make it safe for them to express what they feel in the privacy of the group.  I hadn’t really allowed myself to grieve openly, and a day or two later, as  I leashed up my dog to take early morning walk and stepped outside,  I saw my elderly neighbor walking down the street toward me.  I smiled and waved, but I noticed that his normally smiling face was grim.  Something wasn’t right.  I walked down the porch steps and met him as he came up our walk.  He stopped and looked at the ground. “I wanted you to know,” he said, “M. (his wife) passed away in the hospital this morning at four a.m.”

I hadn’t expected this news at all.  I had visited with both of them only a few days earlier.  Without warning, tears streamed down my face.  “I’m so sorry,” I said, sobbing as we embraced.  And then, I apologized, horribly embarrassed that my neighbor, who had just lost his wife of more than sixty years, was comforting me.   The sorrow I’d been carrying inside welled up and spilled out.

I am learning the alchemy of grief, how it must be carefully measured and doled out, inflicted—but I have not yet mastered this art.”–Judith Ortiz Cofer

We attended M.’s memorial service a few days after her death.  Her husband, two sons, daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren sat in the front row, and behind them, the pews were filled with lifelong friends, and many of the people who lived in our little neighborhood.  M. was remembered with affection, tenderness, and pride.   We watched photographs of M. flash on a large screen, smiled as her family and friends recalled stories of her life, remembering her for her loving spirit, guidance, humor and faith.  Her life was celebrated with remembrance and stories — something I had also experienced at the services of our deceased writing group members.  …What I have come to believe defines immortality.  Being remembered.

 

I want to be remembered

As a voice that was made to be singing

The lullaby of shadows

As a child fades into a dream…

 

I want to be remembered

With a dark face absorbing all colors

And giving them back twice as brightly,

Like water remembering light.

 

I want to be remembered

With a simple name, like Mama:

As an open door from creation,

As a picture of someone you know.

(From:  “Cover Photograph,” by Marilyn Nelson, In:  Mama’s Promises:  Poems, 1985)

I thought a lot about my father later that same afternoon, remembering how, after the funeral of one of his oldest sisters, he had excused himself from the parlor where a few of his siblings and other relatives were weeping and instead, sat in the living room next to her bereaved husband and shared a few fond and funny stories of the woman each had loved.  My grieving uncle relaxed and smiled, remembering along with my father, perhaps enjoying respite from the sadness and sorrow in the room.   Sometime later, my father made it clear how he wanted his passing to be celebrated.  “I don’t want any tears and crying.  Promise that when I die, you’ll have a party.  Invite all my friends, serve them Jack Daniels and tell some good stories.”  That’s exactly how we honored his death after he died from lung cancer several years later.  I won’t say we didn’t shed some tears, because we did–we loved our soft-hearted Dad.  But a defining characteristic of his was the love of a good story, and the more humorous the better.  My father wanted to be remembered in the way he enjoyed his life–with a chuckle.

“Death steals everything but our stories.”  This was the final line of a poem by Jim Harrison, “Larson’s Holstein Bull.”  It’s stayed with me.  We remember stories, and our stories help us remember people; they are an important aspect of healing from loss and grief.  In her article, “The Importance of Telling (and Listening) to the Story”  Kirsti A . Dyer, MD, describes why stories are an important way to help us understand and cope with loss and grief.

  • Stories are a way of translating memories in verbal or in written form, helping preserve culture.
  • They help us make sense of the world and the difficult events in our lives.
  • Storytelling is one of the oldest healing arts; used to help people to cope with loss.
  • Stories offer a way for doctors and patients to communicate, discover the meaning of illness and ways of coping and healing
  • The creation of personal stories helps us deal with and assimilate loss.
  • Telling (or writing) the story about your life experiences has beneficial effects on illness and physical and mental health.
  • Life stories are a way to make sense of and find meaning in loss; telling one’s story of grief helps the loss become real.
  • Personal stories of loss can inspire and provide hope.
  • Listening to a person’s story of loss or illness is central to grief support and helps healing & recovery.

Even now, when I think of my father, I remember his stories, the chuckle and wink of his eye as he told them.  And when I read through some of the writing shared in my groups in our end of series booklet, the memory of the writer comes alive, and I remember their faces, voices, and the many stories they shared.  It is our stories that keep alive those we’ve loved and lost.  We remember them as our grief is softened and transformed.  We begin to heal from the loss.  As Cofer reminds us:  Writing transforms.  And on the page, it is always now.

Writing Suggestions:

  • What has helped you navigate the dark ocean of grief in the wake of a loved one’s loss?
  • Write a story or poem inspired by the memories you have of a lost friend or family member.
  • Answer the question, “How do you want to be remembered?”

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes…

(From:  “i thank You God for most this amazing” by e.e. cummings, In:  Complete Poems, 1904-1962)

Every Spring, as the gray and frigid days of Winter finally mellow and the earth begins to come to life once again, I experience gratitude for the delight of new beginnings and renewed sense of hope it brings.  Invariably, I recall cummings’ exuberant poem of gratitude for the season and the joy it expresses.  But so far this year, the seasonal changes have yet to inspire those happy sentiments.   Springtime completely missed its appointed March 21st appearance, and in this part of the country, we’ve all grown cranky with the continuing cold and occasional snow flurries, impatient for warmer temperatures and sunshine.

Gratitude was nowhere in sight yesterday morning when I awakened to another cold and windy day–the worst in weeks.  The ground below our window was covered in white–a blanket of ice pellets from the freezing rain that began Saturday and continued into Sunday morning.  It was bitterly cold, overcast and before long, the wind began,  gusting upwards of 50 km at times outside our apartment building.  I sat and stared out the window, my coffee growing cold, my mood gloomy.  I half-hearted tried to honor my daily gratitude practice– each day making a list of five things I am grateful for –but my gratitude well was dry at first.  I felt little but frustration with the lingering winter weather.  I took solace in the fact that everyone I’ve encountered these past many days feels similarly.

I kept trying, however, because I’ve discovered that simply listing a few things I am grateful for each day improves my mood and outlook, particularly on days where worry or frustration threatens to overtake my spirit.   Writing a daily gratitude list is a practice I began some time ago, when life was bumpier than usual, and the blues were tagging along behind me like a persistent shadow as each day began.  I finally squeezed out five things to be grateful for, and I’m glad I did.  My mood improved.  And I’m not the first. Science confirms that gratitude is beneficial for us in a number of ways, among them:

.  Gratitude can make you more patient.

.  It might improve your relationship.

.  It improves self-care.

.  It can help you sleep.

.  It may stop you from overeating.

.  It can help ease depression.

.  It gives you happiness that lasts.

“Clinical trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life,” according to Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at University of California, Davis.  Among its many benefits are lower blood pressure, improved immune function and even better sleep.  But there’s more.  Another study conducted at UC San Diego’s School of Medicine found that grateful people actually had better heart health–less inflammation and healthier heart rhythms.  And other university research studies have also found that gratitude boosts our immune systems, reduces stress hormones and may reduce the effects of aging to the brain.  “Gratitude works,” says Dr. Emmons, “because…it recruits other positive emotions that have direct physical benefits.”

Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude. ― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Researchers have examined the role of gratitude plays in well-being in recent years, whether the impact is psychological, like increasing positive emotion, or physical, such as improving sleep.  Gratitude research has also extended to cancer patients.  Reported by Anne Moyer, PhD, in a 2016 Psychology Today article, one study was conducted among patients with cervical cancer that indicated fostering a mind-set of gratitude increased levels of positive emotion and reduced negative ones.  As a consequence, patients showed increased flexibility in thinking and, thus, improvement in their ability to cope with stress.

A second study with breast cancer patients utilized a gratitude intervention to address patients’ fear of recurrence and worry about death.  They were invited to spend 10 minutes weekly over a six-week period writing a letter to express their gratitude to someone who’d done something kind for them.  Those who practiced expressing gratitude to another experienced a decline in their worry about death.

If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.― Meister Eckhart

As I thought about gratitude and the men and women who have participated in my cancer writing groups, I recalled the conversation I had with a former group member.  She was diagnosed and treated for an aggressive salivary gland cancer, and after her cancer wass declared “in remission,” she rediscovered the comfort and meaning in the ebb and flow of everyday life, small pleasures of love, companionship or nature.  “It frees me from having to make every moment count,” she wrote in a note to me some months later.  “It takes off the pressure that would exist if I had to accomplish something in particular before I die…”

In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich. ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

What can you do to incorporate more gratitude into your life each day?  In a 2016 article appearing online in Forbes WomensMedia,  author Janet Miller, offered eight practical tips:

  1. Don’t be picky. Appreciate everything.  Gratitude doesn’t have to be about the big things.
  2. Find gratitude in your challenges. Difficult or negative experiences can teach us what we’re really thankful for.
  3. Practice mindfulness. Daily, think of five to ten things you are grateful for.  Doing this daily will actually “rewire” your brain to be more grateful, and you’ll feel happier.
  4. Keep a gratitude journal. Several researchers suggest writing the things you are grateful for on a daily basis, at bedtime.
  5. Volunteer. Give back to others in your community.  It increases your own well-being.
  6. Express yourself. Do more than just keep a journal.  Let people you care about know you are grateful for them.
  7. Spend time with loved ones, friends as well as family.
  8. Improve your happiness in other areas of your life.

What better teacher for me than Ann, who lost her life to cancer in 2012 and wrote in one of my groups for nearly six years. She discovered her gift for poetry after being diagnosed with a rare and terminal leukemia.  A couple of years before she died, she moved to live and write in a small cabin in the Santa Cruz mountains.  There, surrounded by the quiet beauty of the California redwoods, she discovered not only peace but an extraordinary source of inspiration in the natural world around her.  She wrote prolifically, and for all of us who knew her, she inspired gratitude and reverence for the life and beauty in the ordinary.   In her poem, “Directive,” one Ann sent to me before her death, she reminded us of how abundant the gifts of everyday life are, and how grateful we must be to experience them.

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

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

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

(From: “Directive,” by Ann Emerson, personal communication)

As I awakened this morning, I discovered the freezing rain and ice pellets have been replaced by rain.  The blustery wind is less ferocious, but unwilling to disappear just yet.  The sidewalks and neighborhood streets are messy and slushy, and I’m not very eager to venture into the outdoors–which I must do in a few hours to go to a dental appointment.  Yet I find gratitude.  We didn’t lose power during the storm; the trees were magical  last night, the ice-coated branches shimmering in the streetlights, and despite the howling wind, we were comfortable and warm.  I am again reminded that even the mundane and ordinary can inspire gratitude.  All we have to do is notice.

Writing Suggestions:

  • Develop practice gratitude in the coming days.  Be intentional.  Use a journal to document your gratitude.  It doesn’t have to be a long list or very detailed.  Simply list 3 – 5 things you are grateful for.  Do this for a week, faithfully.  Do you notice any changes in yourself?  Continue the practice for another week or two, then reflect on it in more depth.  What changed?  Did it help you be more aware of the life around you?  Did you feel more positive? Calmer? Happier?
  • Remember the commonplace… Practice noticing and appreciating the ordinary as Ann described in her poem.  Find gratitude for the simple joys of living.   Choose one small moment from any day, whether from nature, loved ones, your daily routine—a simple pleasure that sustains, inspires or offers you joy.  Describe it in as much detail as you can; perhaps you’ll find a poem or a story lurking there.

Why should we travel back, who’ve come so far— 

We know who we are.  

How can we be the same 

As those quaint ancestors we have left behind, who share our name— 

(From:  “Written on the eve of my 20th high school reunion, which I was not able to attend” by A.E. Stallings, In:  Poetry, 2008)

The Facebook privacy debacle has me considering whether or not to delete my personal Facebook page, and this morning’s news that the former co-founder of  Apple, Steve Wozniak had joined the “delete Facebook” chorus, triggered another bout of “should I or shouldn’t I?  It’s been ten years since I joined the social networking giant, done at the suggestion of my daughters.  With our immediate family spread over three different countries, it was a great way of keeping up with the photographs and anecdotes of our three young grandchildren as well as their parents’ adventures.  Gradually, however, the fun of connecting became increasingly cluttered with unwanted political commentary, humorous posts–some of questionable taste–shared publicly, a constant flurry of ads, news flashes and requests for “friending” from dozens of people I never knew.  That’s when I gradually began “downsizing” my posts and increasing my privacy settings.  With the addition of Facebook’s messenger, I was hopeful that I could engage with family and a few friends more privately, but that quickly changed. Everyone, it seemed, whose name was on my “Friends” list were listed as contacts on my Messenger list–uninvited and unwanted.  The growing clutter of names, shared posts, ads, questionable “news” and the constant search for ways to minimize all intrusions had become a nuisance.  Then the news broke over Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s intrusions into its followers’ privacy.

Last night I revisited all my privacy settings for the umpteenth time before deciding to download all the information Facebook had accumulated on me.  Were it not for the fact that my younger daughter and her family are returning to Japan for a minimum of three years, I likely would have hit the “delete my account” button after the Facebook download, but I hesitated. Our Facebook chats and shared photos became a rich source of connectedness during the family’s previous five year stay in Okinawa.  I dawdled, putting off any decision.  Without any intent to do so,  I’d ambled into the territory of the Facebook sites of old high school friends, and as I wandered from one person’s page to another, a short note “Hi Sharon!” appeared in real time from a high school buddy I’d lost contact with decades ago.  He’d seen a comment I made on a mutual friend’s recent post and replied to me.  The result?  I was soon mired in a nostalgic quest of “Whatever happened to______?”  Two hours passed by as I searched for and mused over the photographs and profiles of old high school classmates, people whose faces still bore familiar features despite silver hair and tell-tale signs of older age.

It became a plunge into the past and the memories that remain, despite many years that have passed,  vivid and rooted in shared our childhoods, teenage angst, and a sense of place and history nurtured by growing up together in one small town.  I was fascinated by what my classmates had achieved and become.  Among my graduating class members were professors, engineers, teachers, authors, ranchers, photographers, artists, and pastors.   Most have retired; some have passed on.  Many have grandchildren; some remain in my hometown, many are living in the Western half of the U.S., some even farther away.  The rush of remembrance stayed with me long after I closed my computer.  I’d been transported back in time and to who I was then and the person I have become, shaped by not only my upbringing, but the life adventures, hardships and choices I’d experienced in my adulthood.  I wondered if there were signs then, nascent and budding, of who we would become as we set our sights on the future and journeyed into the world.

We come to hear the endings
of all the stories
in our anthology
of false starts:

how the girl who seemed
as hard as nails
was hammered
into shape;
how the athletes ran
out of races;
how under the skin
our skulls rise
to the surface
like rocks in the bed
of a drying stream.

Look! We have all
turned into
ourselves.

 (“25th High School Reunion” by Linda Pastan, from Carnival Evening 1968-1998: New and Selected Poems)

We didn’t know then, that some classmates would die early or unexpectedly while others would blossom and thrive in ways never imagined.  Some would go to war and return to write about it, while others lost their lives in the jungles of Vietnam.  Some would find their true life partner, marry only once and settle down into raising a family while others focused more on career, success or adventure.  A few married their high school sweethearts and happily remained in our hometown.  More than a few left for other places, returning only for family visits or high school reunions if at all.  Some never looked back; others maintained friendships over time and distance.  And so many of us made choices that changed our lives in ways we could not have foreseen at the time.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

(From:  “The Road Not Taken,” In:  The Poetry of Robert Frost, 1962)

I felt no wistfulness during the time I spent looking at the pages and photos of my friends from long ago.  Rather, I wondered what stories they might tell about their lives and the lessons learned from their experiences.  Despite our physical changes, illnesses, marriages and divorces, places lived, career choices made, it seemed that everyone’s lives have been interesting, sometimes challenging, but rich and full as my own has been.

Today, I am no closer whether or not to opt out of Facebook.  For several years, it served as an enjoyable way to reconnect and stay connected with people I’ve befriended over the years and continue to care about.  Yet perhaps I’m ready to re-calibrate, simplify, and rely on what has become somewhat old-fashioned in my lifetime: letters, cards, phone calls, even personal emails that contain more than a sentence or two created in the rush of today’s fast-paced world!

As I closed my computer last night, my mind was filled with memories of those youthful times shared with others from kindergarten through high school.  I felt  grateful to have grown up in a small town and still have friends today with whom I shared my childhood and teenaged years. I was reminded of how far I’ve traveled in my life and they in theirs, how choices made along the way took us in directions we never imagined, and how, despite the bumps, hardships and challenges  encountered, we’ve enjoyed a life full of discovery, adventure and the delight of wonderful friends at every turn.  The Facebook pages of my former classmates told some of their stories too, a testament of sorts to they once were and who they are now,  a way of saying “This is my life.  This is who I’ve become.”

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

(“Love after Love,” by Derek Walcott. Collected Poems, 1948-1984)

Facebook aside, this week, take a step back into who you once were and who you are now.  First, peruse your high school yearbook or find a photograph of yourself and some friends from your elementary or high school years.

  • Study it, the people, their eyes, smiles, perhaps haircut or the outfits you all wore. Study the younger selves that look back at you.
  • Take some of those memories and turn them into stories or poems.
  • Ask yourself: What was it like to be you then?
  • What hopes and dreams did you have?
  • What desires? What worries?
  • Try writing a letter to your younger self? What would you say to her or him?
  • How would you describe the person you’ve become from the one you were then?

“It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.”  ― Rainer Maria Rilke

According to the calendar springtime arrived two weeks ago.  But for those of us watching the temperature climb barely about freezing, the days of sunshine chilled by the last blasts of March wind, we’re still waiting for the springtime season begin in earnest.  Nevertheless, as I gaze out the windows to the trees nearby, there are some hopeful signs of “almost spring” in the emerging buds on their branches, and the snow has disappeared from the parks and gardens.  In mid-March, even though we still donned winter coats to go outside, we were cheered by the emergence of snow flowers (Galanthus) poking their heads through the lawn of a friend’s house–a hopeful sign of new life, new beginnings and the promise of Springtime near.

“To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring,” poet and philosopher George Santayana wrote. Yet after Winter’s dark mornings, cold and inclement weather, springtime seems to enliven our senses and signal seasonal change in its newness, described by e.e. cummings  as a time “when the world is mud-luscious,” and “puddle-wonderful.”  Or, as Billy Collins imagined, “a spring day so perfect, so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze that it made you want to throw open all the windows in the house…”

“Nothing is so beautiful as Spring,” Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem, “Spring,” begins.  I love the spring, and as it returns, I recall my childhood and the exhilaration of the season. Springtime was joyous, filled with sounds of laughter and excited calls to neighborhood playmates,  eager to race outdoors and explore the fields and hills behind our houses. The world was full of promise:  new grass to romp through, the  fields and hills dotted with wildflowers.  We cast off winter coats for lighter sweaters, filled our afternoons and weekends with roller skating on sidewalks, climbing beneath barbed wire fences to re-discover favorite hiding places, imagining ourselves as great adventurers and discoverers of new lands, and returning home at dinnertime with flushed cheeks and fists full of yellow poppies and purple lupine for our mothers.  Our worlds were alive with promise.

“I can still bring into my body the joy I felt at seeing the first trillium of spring, which seemed to be telling me, “Never give up hope, spring will come.” 
― Jessica SternDenial: A Memoir of Terror (2010)

 It’s little wonder that Springtime is intricately intertwined with hope, renewal, a sense of possibility and new beginnings, according to Edward F. Mackey, director of the Mind-Body Institute of Applied Psychophysiology at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.  Norman Cousins, famous for using laughter to help cure himself from a crippling connective tissue disease, wrote that “hope may be our best medicine, the hidden ingredient in any prescription and a physician’s secret weapon (Head First: The Biology of Hope and the Healing Power of the Human Spirit, 1990).  A number of experts agree, arguing that hope may have a direct influence on the body’s chemical milieu and because of that, the power to stave off illness.

Anthony Scioli, PhD, co-author with Henry Biller of Hope in the Age of Anxiety (2009), explored some of the linkages between Springtime, hope and health in a 2012 Psychology Today article.  Springtime brings more sunshine, and the sunlight helps the body produce greater amounts of serotonin, an important chemical and neurotransmitter, and helps regulate important functions such as mood, appetite, digestion, sleep, and memory.  Low serotonin, in our bodies, is linked to depression.  He also cited a survey of oncologists, the majority of whom cited hope as the primary psychological factor impacting mortality.  Scioli stated that “while anecdotes outnumber rigorous empirical studies, there is enough evidence to suggest that a hopeful attitude has a real and measurable impact on health.”

The days here in Toronto are still chilly, but the buds on the trees and the increase in sunny days have already lifted my spirits.  Soon the tulips and crocus will bloom, the trees will bear new leaves, the “just-spring” color of green, and we’ll hear children shouting to one another as they play in the park across the street.  As if reinvigorated by the subtle shifts in the weather, the dogs romping about madly in the park each morning, as the new season tiptoes in and banishes winter from our days.

Hope, new life and return of Springtime are beautifully intertwined in Barbara Crooker’s poem, “For a Friend Lying in Intensive Care Waiting for Her White Blood Cells to Rejuvenate After a Bone Marrow Transplant:”

The jonquils.  They come back.  They split the earth with

     their green swords, bearing cups of light.

The forsythia comes back, spraying its thin whips with

     blossom, one loud yellow shout…

And the leaves come back, on every tree and bush, millions

     and millions of small green hands applauding your return.

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

 

 Writing Suggestions:

Reflect on springtime.  Do you notice changes in your energy, mood or outlook?  Do you feel more hopeful about life in general?  Explore the impact of spring on your mood and energy.

Is Spring a time of healing and of hope?  Explore the question.

What memories of springtime do you hold dear?  Write about a springtime in your childhood.  Capture the feelings, the sounds and sights of spring as vividly as you can.

Why not do as Georgia O’Keefe suggested:   hold a flower in your hand and let it become your world for a moment.  Perhaps you’ll find a poem waiting there.

Write about spring, wherever it takes you.

 

 

 

Dear Readers,

This week’s prompt is a “reprint” of the article written last week for my bi-monthly column featured in the current issue of Cancer Knowledge Network, an online resource published by MultiMed Inc.  I’ve included it as this week’s post since the topic of friendship is an important one, and not just during cancer, but for the benefits they can have in our lives. — Sharon Bray

FRIENDS:  WHY THEY’RE GOOD FOR US

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

Friends.  It’s a topic that comes up often in my cancer writing groups, having them and, during cancer, losing some.  It’s an experience everyone shares during difficult times, when we discover what separates lasting friendships from our other, more transitory ones.   True friendships endure, in part, due to a sense of shared history, stories, laughter and even tears.  They remind us of who we were and who we have become.  In times of upheaval, change and our difficult life chapters, they provide the continuity we find so important.  Yet, as we can sometimes discover, sometimes the people we’ve counted as friends aren’t there for us when our lives are turned upside down.

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

Although I spent my childhood in one small town, my adult life has been defined by several major moves.  This past summer my husband and I relocated again, returning to Toronto, where we met and married nearly 30 years ago.  I’ve sometimes complained about the many times we’ve changed addresses, but I’ve been fortunate to have many enduring friendships with people scattered around the world, friends who shared the impulsiveness and turbulence of youth, stuck by me during difficult times in my life, showed up when I least expected it, embraced and welcomed me when I felt most alone.

We all need friends.  Without them, not only can our lives seem lonely, but there’s plenty of research to suggest that isolation and loneliness are often harbingers of emotional or physical illness.  “In general, the role of friendship in our lives isn’t terribly well appreciated,” Professor Rebecca G. Adams stated in a 2009 New York Times article, “What Are Friends For? A Longer Life,” by Tara Parker-Pope.  Adams teaches sociology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.  “There is just scads of stuff on families and marriage,” she said, “but very little on friendship. It baffles me. Friendship has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships.”

What are some of the benefits of friendship?  Parker-Pope explored this question in her article and found they include better health, a more positive outlook, longer lifespan and more hopeful attitude towards life.  She cited a number of studies exploring the impact of friendship on health and longevity.  For example, one ten-year study of older adults found those with a large circle of friends were less likely to die during the study than those with fewer.  Researchers also discovered strong social ties have additional benefits, like promoting brain health as we age.  Having multiple friendships, as a six-year study Swedish men demonstrated, helped lower the risk of heart attack and coronary heart disease more than simply having attachment to only a one person.  And in a 2006 study of nurses with breast cancer, those without close friends were four times more likely to die from their cancer than those with ten or more friends.

For those of us whose friends are scattered over the continent and around the world, the researchers also found that proximity and amount of contact are less important than simply having friends.  “What keeps us from drowning in the sea of change,” columnist Stacie Chevrier wrote in a 2016 CURE TODAY post, “are the people in our lives who come to the rescue:  our friends and family.”  We need our friends, and when we’re in the throes of life struggles, hardships or a life-threatening illness like cancer, we need them even more.

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)

Yet sometimes friends can disappoint us.  When you find yourself in the midst a cancer diagnosis, some friends may not reach out to you as you thought they might; others unexpectedly drop away.  Chevrier commented on her experience of losing friends during her cancer.  “Cancer is so awkward. I’ve come to realize talking about cancer can make people very uncomfortable. However, I’ve also come to realize that the silence was not about me, but about their discomfort.”

It hurts to have friends unexpectedly disappear, and yet, it’s more common among many cancer patients than you might think. Debra Sherman, a “Cancer in Context” blogger, commented on this experience in 2014.  “When someone is diagnosed with cancer,” she wrote, “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, and the sense “this could happen to me.”

It can feel awkward to one’s friends when you are first diagnosed with cancer.  It’s something more than a few struggle with, uncertain how to respond, asking, “What do I say to my friend?”  Fear of saying a wrong, clumsy or trite thing to a friend with cancer can make some shy away from face-to-face contact.  They may be afraid of upsetting you or feel as if they can’t respond in any meaningful way.  It’s an experience Gretchen Fletcher describes in her poem, “To a Friend Now Separated From Me by Illness.”

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?

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

Whatever the reason for a friend’s withdrawal, it’s difficult to experience at a time you need friends the most.  Is there anything  you can you do if you find your friends behaving differently?  Cancer Net offers some advice.  You can help your 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,” http://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…Now ain’t it good to know/that you’ve got a friend?

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:

  • Write about friendS and the role they have played in your illness.
  • When have friends made a difference in your life? How?
  • Write about a friendship that matters deeply to you. Why?
  • Have you lost friends when you were diagnosed with cancer or during another difficult period in 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.

And I grew strong and I learned how to get along… I will survive

(from “I Will Survive,” sung by Gloria Gaynor, lyrics by written by Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris) 

I’ve been learning, once again, to dance.  It hasn’t been as easy.  My body isn’t as willing to move in new ways as it once was.  But I persist because dancing has health benefits, and whether my body balks a bit or not, it’s about giving up or “just” surviving, whether it’s serious illness, injury, or other life challenges we’re dealing with.  Survival,  I’ve come to realize, is synonymous with learning.

As many of you were, my parents enrolled me in a variety of extracurricular activities a child.  Given my mother’s observation that I was destined to be tall, she quickly made certain clumsiness would not accompany my  growth surges.  First, I took ballet classes, outfitted with pink ballet slippers and a leotard and, once a week, pointing my toes and learning the fundamentals of the classical dance form.  That was followed by acrobatics, tap and ballroom dance as I began to grow taller.  Despite all that, around 7th grade my awkwardness surfaced.  It was less about the dance steps and more about the fact I towered over most of the boys in my classes.  (Try dancing a box step with your knees bent the entire time.)  Nevertheless, I persisted, enrolling in square dance,  folk and ballroom classes in college, but my height was bothersome once again. There were never enough men enrolled in the classes, and that meant I was assigned to dance the part of the male partner.  (To this day, I tend to avoid ballroom style dancing, unable to be led easily by any partner.)

I gave up on dance altogether save for the social dancing we did to seventies rock and roll music at parties until my daughters’ grew into their teenage years.  As my mother had done for me, I enrolled them in jazz and ballet classes.  But I was so enthused by their jazz dance routines, I decided to sign up for an adult class in jazz dance, dancing during the entire time I was completing my doctoral degree, and even performing in the dance show the following year  with my two daughters.  I danced with more enthusiasm, perhaps, than talent, but dance was invigorating, fun and a great way to diminish the stress of graduate school.  Besides, I kept fit, agile and energetic.

Enter the decades of career building, a few half-hearted attempts to take dance classes that never seemed to measure up to the ones I did during graduate school, and the inevitable fact of aging.  I didn’t seem to move as freely as I once had.  Was it the class or the pupil?  The latter wasn’t something I wanted to consider, so gradually, dance fell by the wayside.  My daughters were married, having children, and I was nose-deep in a stressful career.  Instead, I tried exercising at the gym, taking T’ai Chi and Pilates classes.  Each had benefits but none were as fun as dance had been for me.  I lost interest and didn’t sustain any of those activities for more than a year or two.

Fast forward to this past year.  I was completely sidelined by an injured knee and Achilles tendonitis, and it made me cranky, mildly depressed and discouraged.  Stiffness, pain and embarrassment about moving like an old woman were  constant companions.  I hated that my body hurt and how uncomfortable it was to move, much less easily or quickly, abilities I’d long taken for granted. Worse, I am a heart failure patient, and a regimen of regular physical activity is necessary for improved heart functioning.  But it hurt to walk or climb stairs.  I felt trapped by my bodily ailments..  Weeks of pain turned into two, then three months, until, after a frank discussion with my cardiologist,  I’d had to act.  I got a referral to a sports medicine physician, physiotherapist and Pilates instructor, donned ankle braces and used up numerous rolls of athletic tape and began walking as much as I could stand.  Then in February, when a friend invited me to join a group called “The Vintage Dancers”, I jumped, well actually, I limped, at the chance.

“Vintage,” as you might expect, meant the dancers were of my age group and older, but it did not mean the class moved at a slower pace.  At the first class I attended, I was left in the dust by an energetic and enthusiastic group of women dancers, some of whom had recently recovered from hip replacement surgery or other bodily ailments.  Yet despite the dancing I’d once done well, I kept beginning on the wrong foot or chasséing in the opposite direction as everyone else.  More than once, I stepped to the sidelines to catch my breath!

The whole experience was not just comic, it was humbling.  I’ve never been a patient beginner—I have a perfectionist streak that inevitably invades any new learning—but my clumsy first attempts at dancing again it got me to thinking about how age, serious illness, or any major life transition requires we learn—even relearn—different ways of being, including skills we once took for granted.  We’re resilient beings, yes, but coming to terms with altered bodies and imperfect selves demands we re-evaluate who we are now vs. who we might have been at an earlier time. The image we once held of our younger, healthier selves) is challenged.  We’re forced to recognize that we may have limitations–physical pain, issues of stamina, agility or even memory–ones we naively believed would never belong to us.  Those complaints and ailments belonged to other people, right?  Wrong.

Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go. ― (May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude)

What is surviving about, really?  It’s about learning to deal with and overcome–to the best of our ability–the impact of aging, injuries, surgeries or treatment regimens and the negative impact on our bodies and minds.  It’s acceptance our lives have changed, and we must continue to learn new ways of being and living.   The ground beneath our feet might seem uncertain, or we’re aware that the steps we used to take with assurance now feel clumsy and tentative,but surviving doesn’t mean giving up.   It means learning other ways of being,  remaining as active and engaged with living as we can–even if, sometimes, the new learning isn’t always easy or pleasant.  It’s a bit like standing in the front row  of a dance class, as I did,  as the only newcomer in the group, trying to understand and mimic the movements everyone else seems to know by heart. We feel like beginners, and we feel awkward and uncertain.  I know that’s how I’ve felt–but after that discussion with my cardiologist several weeks ago , and I shook myself out of the doldrums and got busy living.

No matter how old you are,
it helps to be young
when you’re coming to life,

(Joy Ladin, “Survival Guide,” in:  The Future Is Trying to Tell Us Something: New and Selected Poems 2017)

Life is more than just  surviving.  It’s thriving, enjoying, contributing, and living as fully as we possibly can.  Whether cancer, the effects of aging, major surgeries, or unexpected life transitions, we have to remind ourselves  that we’ve  proven, again and again, we can adjust to life’s challenges and move on.  Our lives change in subtle and not so subtle ways year after year, but we learn the new movements, necessary strategies and behaviors, and little by little, we again embrace the life before us–new, different, and ours.

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,

determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save. 

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

Writing Suggestion:

  • Thinking about your own life, how would you define “survival?”
  • Describe a time when life knocked you down.  What kept you going?  What helped you survive?
  •  Write about what it was like was to find your footing on uncertain ground and not only to survive but thrive and embrace the new life before you.