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The art of reading is in great part that of acquiring a better understanding of life from one’s encounter with it in a book. — André Maurois

It’s taken me the better part of three days to organize my books into some kind of order on my bookshelves.  In part, I have a lot of books, although far fewer than I used to when our move back to Toronto dictated some serious downsizing of our belongings.  Despite my reluctance to let many of them go, a feeling much like saying good-bye to old friends, I did, inviting writing group members to choose from the books tagged for donation, giving a few favorites to friends, and donating several boxes to the local library.  Yet I kept favorites, volumes of poetry, selected works of fiction, books on art and writing, and to my shock, I still had enough to fill three large bookcases.

The process of organizing was a slow one, alphabetizing poetry books, grouping fiction favorites and then nonfiction before several volumes on writing and poetry craft, even several favorite children’s books I have yet to let go of.  But as time-consuming as the basic task was,  I was further slowed in my progress by the constant desire to open a book to a dog-eared page, re-read the underlined passages, someone’s inscription on the title page, or if poetry, more than one of a poet’s collection.  I was often lost in remembering:  where I was, what was going on in my life, why I loved a book or a poem as much as I did.  My books, it turns out, have been as much a source of healing and happiness as they were about learning and growth.

“And death shall have no dominion,” Dylan Thomas wrote in his poem by the same name, his words offering me some measure of solace in the wake of my first husband’s drowning:

And death shall have no dominion.

They shall have stars at elbow and foot…

Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;

Those lovers be lost love shall not;

And death shall have no dominion…  

My volume of e.e. cummings Complete Poems 1904-1962 was filled with marked up passages, asterisks, and dog-eared pages, among them one that during my recovery from grief and loss offered me hope and a new way of living:

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young…

I pulled Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Angle of Repose (1971), sitting down to re-read several pages.  I remembered reading the novel shortly after I  moved my children and myself from Halifax to Toronto two years after my husband’s death to begin my doctoral studies.  I was aching from loss and longing for what I still called “home,” the small Northern Californian town where my father’s family had homesteaded, settled and where, each day of my childhood, I gazed at the beauty of Mt. Shasta, one of the volcanic peaks in the Cascade Range.

Stegner’s book was a powerful read for me, and he became one of my favorite writers.  In Angle of Repose,  the protagonist, Lyman, a writer confined to a wheelchair, had been recently been abandoned by his wife.  He was filled with bitterness and a sense of defeat.  After moving into his grandparents’ house, he decided to chronicle his grandparents’  early days in the western frontier.  As he read through his grandmother’s letters, he discovered much more about their marriage, struggles and difficulties than he anticipated. Through their story, he learned not only of their lives, but his own.

I sampled passages from several of the pages, in awe of Stegner’s command of language, his deep understanding of the challenges of early life in the  West, and the way in which he artfully moved from the struggles of the grandparents to his protagonist’s.  There were lessons in the book had real impact for me at the time,  and I had underlined passage after passage.

  • Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend…” 
  • Hope was always out ahead of fact, possibility obscured the outlines of reality…” 
  • We must be reconciled, for what we left behind us can never be ours again…”
  • She saw in his face he had contracted the incurable Western disease. He set his crosshairs on the snowpeaks of a vision.

It’s no surprise, perhaps, but as my shelving slowed and I paused to page through one book after another of the books I’d loved, I was reminded that reading, perhaps as much as writing, was not only an important part of my daily life, but of healing and happiness.

“Medicines and surgery may cure, but only reading and writing poetry can heal.”                    J. Arroyo, author

It’s not a novel concept (no pun intended).  The notion that books can make us emotionally, psychologically and even physically better goes back to the ancient world.  “The Reading Cure,” published in a 2008 issue of The Guardian reminds us that Apollo was not only the Greek god of poetry, but also of healing.  Aristotle believed literature had healing benefits and could be used to treat illness.  Hospitals or health sanctuaries in ancient Greece were typically situated next to theatres, most famously at Epidaurus, where dramatic performances were considered part of the cure.

One sheds one’s sicknesses in books– D. H. Lawrence

A few months ago, a friend sent me a link to a 2015 New Yorker Magazine article “Can Reading Make You Happier?” by Ceridwen Dovey.  Dovey explores the origins of Bibliotherapy, which is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “an interaction between the reader and certain literature which is useful in aiding personal adjustment.”  Bibliotherapy is a therapeutic practice, widely used in the U.K., that uses words to soothe the emotions and alter thoughts and to help people deal with psychological, social and emotional problems.   Covey notes that the Ancient Greeks inscribed a library entrance  in Thebes as a “healing place for the soul, noting that Shakespeare, in the play “Titus Andronicus,” encourages the audience to  “Come, and take choice of all my library, And so beguile thy sorrow …”

Bibliotherapy came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century. Sigmund Freud began using literature during psychoanalysis sessions, famously remarking, “Whenever I get somewhere, a poet has been there first.”   Following World War I, as traumatized soldiers returned home from the front, they were often prescribed a course of reading. Later in the century, bibliotherapy was also used in hospitals and libraries, and since, the practice has been utilized by psychologists, social and aged-care workers, and doctors as a viable mode of adjunct therapy.

You may be interested to know that there is scientific research that supports health benefits of reading, for example, Covey cites a 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology that showed when we read about an experience in a novel, we draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings.  And other studies suggest that people who read a lot of fiction tend to be better at empathizing with others.  At the very least, reading does boost your brain power, like a good jog exercises your cardiovascular system, and it can help you relate to others feelings, particularly if you read literary fiction.  Reading helps us relax, and reading before bed even helps us sleep.

But perhaps the most important thing reading does for us is in its capacity to open our eyes, minds and hearts to the larger world, to immerse ourselves a world beyond our everyday lives, and to find ourselves among the words another has written on a page–words that speak to what we are experiencing, that remind us of hope and healing.  What good literature can do and does do best, for so many of us, is touch our souls.

From Great Expectations I learned the power the stories we tell ourselves have to do either harm and good, to ourselves and to others; from Death of a Salesman I learned the dangers of a corrupt version of the American Dream; from Madame Bovary, I learned to embrace the real world rather than escaping into flights of fancy; from Gulliver’s Travels I learned the profound limitations of my own finite perspective; and from Jane Eyre I learned how to be myself. These weren’t mere intellectual or moral lessons, although they certainly may have begun as such. Rather, the stories from these books and so many others became part of my life story and then, gradually, part of my very soul. –Karen Swallow Prior, The Atlantic, 2013. 

Writing Suggestions:

  • Consider how reading has played a role in your life.
  • What role does reading play in your life?
  • What kind of books or literature do you most prefer? Why?
  • Has reading helped you during difficult periods in your life? How?
  • What are some of your most memorable or enduring books or poetry you’ve experienced? Why?
  • Describe a difficult time in your life and a book or poem which offered you some solace and insight.

 

This morning, I opened my notebook for the first time in more than two weeks, a lapse created by the intensity of preparing for a move to a new apartment, then living among the boxes as we tried to make sense of fitting ourselves and our lives into a smaller space once again.  My pen felt awkward in my hand, and for a few minutes, I wrote aimlessly, without, it seemed, direction or meaningful content, before I paused, the wrote, I have missed my routine of writing–the space and quiet of solitude, hearing myself think, sorting out what I feel and stumbling in to a new insight or discovery.

When our lives are in upheaval, no matter the precipitating event, it’s not uncommon that the routines or daily rituals that we find calming and that help keep us centered, fall by the wayside.  Whether cancer or other serious health issues, job loss, aging and retirement or, as we have done in the past week, changing residences, we’re thrown off-balance, into a maelstrom of confusion, stunned, ill-prepared and questioning ourselves and our lives.  As one poet put it, it’s a bit like living atop 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)

Our moves, first from California back to Canada just one year ago, and now to a more convenient but somewhat smaller apartment in Toronto, have been welcomed, yet more challenging than either my husband or I anticipated.   It’s been much more than simply changing domiciles.  It’s the realization, coupled with the necessary downsizing, letting go of old mementos and boxes of belongings that tell the stories of our younger and different lives, that we are growing older, just as our parents did before us.

Like it or not, life for all of us keeps changing, and many times the changes are ones we don’t expect or underestimate the impact they have on us.  I ended my morning write, briefly describing what turned into an ordeal of moving, even though it was only nine minutes from our old apartment, writing Life continues to change and requires that we, too, adapt.  Change is the human experience.”  It’s true for all of us.  We think we’ve “arrived,” settled into a place, a career, and then something unexpected happens.  I recall Joan Didion’s first words her memoir of loss and life change,  “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. ― In:  The Year of Magical Thinking, 2007

Life, whether we like it or not, hands us events we have little or no control over: life-threatening illness, significant loss, tragedy, suffering, aging.   As sociologist  and cancer survivor Arthur Frank stated, “…by the time we have lived through it, we are living differently” (from:  At the Will of the Body, 1991).  Who we are, truly, may become more apparent how we choose to deal with our illness or loss.  This is what makes us uniquely human–our spirit, determination, resilience—and they are never more apparent than when we are faced with the unexpected, even the inevitability of our lives changing.

Any life threatening illness, significant loss or tragedy changes us.  As Professor Emeritus of Sociology (U. of Calgary) and cancer survivor Arthur Frank stated, “…by the time we have lived through it, we are living differently” (in At the Will of the Body, 1991). Who we are, truly, may become more apparent in how we choose to deal with the unexpected and inevitable changes we experience. This is what makes us uniquely human–our spirit, determination, resilience—and they are never more apparent than when illness or loss strips all pretenses away.

Life will sometimes wallop us, brings us to our knees, to tears, and yet it is our greatest teacher too.  It says, “Listen up,” and teaches us something about ourselves.  All we know for certain is that life will change again–and again.  We will be affected, perhaps multiple times, by a triggering event, whether tragedy, illness, empty nests, unimaginable loss or awakening to the reality that we are moving toward the winter of our lives.  It is the realization Linda Pastan describes in her poem, “Elegy:”

Our final dogwood leans
over the forest floor…

It’s a relic
of the days when dogwoods

flourished…

When I took for granted
that the world would remain

as it was, and I
would remain with it.

(In: Insomnia, 2015)

We all can be lulled into taking life for grantedthat the world would remain/as it was, and I/would remain with it.  No matter what the actual event may be that brings us to our knees, we are forced to acknowledge and accept that our lives will change, not once, but many times.

How can you navigate life’s changes more successfully?  Transition has been written extensively about, and there are things you can do to lessen the upheaval and stress that comes with it.  Carol Berman, MD, writing in The Huffington Post, offers a few common sense suggestions for navigating through life transition and change:

  • Instead of being passive, try being active, anticipating outcomes, strategies you can employ to make the process of change better.
  • Take the time to acknowledge the past, the present, and what you believe is the future. 
  • If you experience strong emotions, such as anger or sadness, acknowledge them.Don’t stuff them down deep inside. Our emotions are pathways to a deeper and intuitive part of ourselves.
  • Breaking your transition into smaller steps can help you deal better with them.  When a major change is broken down in this way, it is not so overwhelming.
  • Reinforce and celebrate the positive steps you take towards navigating your transition.Give yourself a pat on the back!
  • Learn what a particular change or transition may mean for you.There are many resources on the major life events that affect our lives, whether cancer, parenting, retirement, job loss or many others. Read, talk to others who’ve experienced what you are going through.  It can help.
  • Reframe what change is to you. Change your perspective.  Life happens, and it changes constantly. If you don’t like what’s happening to you now or even if you do, the one certainty we all have is that it will change.

It’s taken me much longer to write a post this morning after a two week hiatus, and it was (I’ll admit) difficult for my perfectionist self to refer you, my readers, to the archived and previously published posts while my husband and I were consumed by our  moving process the second year in a row.  The good news is that the entire experience forced me to be a little more self-forgiving, to slow down and deal with the mountain of details and boxes that cluttered up my life for the past many days.  Change may be unsettling, but it is, after all, a great teacher if we let ourselves learn from it.  In the end, we discover that the resources for navigating through the ups and downs of life reside in us– not always easy, but necessary.  I turn to a favorite passage from the poet Wendell Berry as a reminder:

…And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear.  What we need is here.

(From: “The Wild Geese,” In: Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1998)

Writing Suggestion:

  • Before you write a longer piece, brainstorm: List the different/most memorable events that triggered significant life change for you, e.g., breast cancer, father’s death, loss of a dear friend, losing house to fire (earthquake, flooding, etc.)… Then, without spending too much time on each, start a another list, only this time, for each event, complete two sentences: “Before _____________, I was____________.  After _______________ I was _____________.
  • From your list, choose the change/event that was most difficult for you to experience. Tell its story.  What was the triggering event?  How did you react?  What were the emotions you experienced?  How did you navigate through the change?  What or who helped?  What hindered? What did you learn?

 

 

 

Dear Readers,

I’m buried beneath boxes.

Man covered in cardboard boxes - moving concept

Man covered by lots of cardboard boxes – moving concept

Please access the archive for writing suggestions (a year’s worth) as I contend with emerging from stacks of boxes filled with belongings in the aftermath of moving from one place to another.  At least I’ve found my computer…but wait, where’s my writing desk?  I’ll be back to a more reasoned life and resume posting next week, July 16th.

Warm wishes,

Sharon Bray

“I hear there are people who actually enjoy moving. Sounds like a disease to me – they must be unstable. ––Jan Neruda, Prague Tales, 1878

“It’s easier to die than to move … at least for the Other Side you don’t need trunks.” 
― Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose, 1971

Most people I know have endured at least one major move in their lives if not more and understand the impact it has on mind, body and soul.  For the second time in one year,  my husband and I are packing up our belongings in cardboard boxes, wrapping precious items in padding and paper, and gradually, taking apart one apartment to move to another just ten minutes away.  At least it’s not a transcontinental move as we made last summer, but it is still a challenge for body, mind and soul.

This week, I wish those of you in here in Canada a Happy Canada Day, and to those of you in the United States, a very Happy Fourth of July as I take a brief hiatus from posting this holiday week. The chaos that comes with moving is real, and worse, the heat wave has us all firmly in its grip.  My brain is crammed with the mundane but necessary “to dos” and details that clamor for attention…but the moving truck arrives early in the morning in just a few short days.  Sometimes life does get in the way of writing!

Enjoy your holiday celebrations, and if you’re inclined to want to write, you’ll find a year’s worth of past posting and prompts in the archive for this site.

Warm wishes,

Sharon Bray

 

One year ago, my husband and I, with the help of friends, sat in the San Diego sunshine, tables and bookcases filled with the artifacts of our lives–old dishes, vases, kitchen goods, a few paintings, plants, pottery–all a blur now as I try to recall that Saturday afternoon.  The week before, we’d sold furniture–indoor and outdoor–that we knew would not transition well from a house to a city apartment in Toronto, pleased with our downsizing, and yet, feeling an odd sense of loss we couldn’t name.

“The effects of moving are experienced in the body, in the imagination, in the realm of desire. What the eye sees, what the body feels, what the heart yearns for, what remains and what has been lost — these are difficult at first to describe.” 
― Louise DeSalvoOn Moving:  A Writer’s Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts and Finding Home Again, 2009.

We arrived in Toronto days later, our downsized belongings in transit.  Once they were delivered by the movers, we discovered, again, we were not done shedding ourselves of furniture and a number of odds and ends we had optimistically packed into the boxes arriving at our Toronto apartment.  It took weeks to settle in and arrange our lives and belongings into a three bedroom apartment after decades of home ownership.  We were packed in tightly, but finally, we could shut the doors to crammed closets and get on with life.  Now, almost exactly one year later, we are moving again.

As author Louise DeSalvo explored in her 2009 book, On Moving, and  what many of us experience, the pain, hope, and turmoil in moving from place to place are nearly universal.  We move with conflicted emotions:  hope a new home will be a positive change yet fear it may not, nostalgia coupled feelings of loss, yet the excitement of change.  We were happy to return to Toronto, the city where we’d met and married, where one daughter and her family live, and where we discovered a sense of “home”  still palpable.  Yet we missed our friends, the larger space of living in a house, and our deck that hung out over one of San Diego’s many canyons.  Our new digs, spacious by apartment standards, seemed confining and small.  But gradually, we adjusted and found there was so much in our favorite city to explore or re-acquaint ourselves with besides the long-awaited regular time with our daughter and granddaughter.  We began to reclaim our lives as “Torontonians.”

It’s not a transcontinental move we’re doing this year.  Our new apartment is located only a short distance from our current building, and is far more convenient for the two of us than our third floor walk-up has proven to be.  As eager as we are to have some amenities lacking in this older building, we are faced with somewhat smaller space and the task of downsizing more belongings, packing our lives into containers, and living, for the next few days, among stacks of packing boxes.  The most difficult part, just as it was last year, is not the physical labor, rather, it’s the sentimental aspect of sorting through mementoes and objects accumulated through our lives, ones containing memories and personal meaning.

“Every object is full of story.”  These are words I recall from the summer writing workshop I attended eighteen years ago in Berkeley.  Pat Schneider, author of Writing Alone and With Others (2003), was taking objects from a wicker basket and placing them on a white cloth before us.  I was there to venture back into what I loved most—writing—after a long detour through the soul-destroying path of a corporate career.  “Objects are how the world comes to us,” she said while we all sat quietly, watching as she placed random things on the cloth:  a metal hook, a rosary, shaving brush, wooden spoon…soon the cloth was covered in objects from the past, and Pat invited us to choose one, something that drew us to it without stopping to questioning why.

Just one week earlier, I had  just finished seven weeks’ of radiation therapy, and while my skin was still red and tender, cancer was not on my mind as as I listened to Pat’s instructions.  Most people were quick to choose, but I held back,  slowly scanning the diminishing collection of objects.  I felt a wave of anxiety as  others began writing.  What on earth was I going to write about?  That’s when I spotted a half empty pack of old Camel cigarettes.  I picked it up, smelled the odor of stale tobacco, and memories flooded back.   An image of my father, seated behind the steering wheel of an old Chevy pickup truck, a cigarette in his left hand filled my mind.  I remembered how, when I was in high school, a the two of us traveled the back roads of rural Siskiyou County to deliver a washer or refrigerator to a customer.  I loved those trips, although I was of little help to him, because I had my father to myself, and I listened with rapt attention as he told me stories from his childhood.  He died of lung cancer just eight years before the workshop I now sat in, pen poised over my notebook.  I began writing, “He tried them all, Camels, Marlboros, Pall Malls…”  Memories of my father clamored for attention. My pen raced across the page.  There were so many stories to be captured in one half-empty pack of cigarettes.

This past week, as I’ve gone through drawers, boxes and bookshelves, I’ve stopped frequently, pausing to examine pictures and little things wrapped in tissue, tucked into the corners of those drawers, cabinets and boxes.  It’s slow work, because without warning, some small object or picture triggers a memory, a story, the recollection of another time in my life, reminding me of what it was like to be me then, before now.  The  stories from my life and the people who were important to me are captured in those small mementoes.  I rememberd reading Maria Mutch’s 2014 essay,  “Ghost in the Machine:  A Typewriter, A Postcard, and the Objects of Memory,” which told of her search for an old black manual typewriter, not aware until later that the memories of a dead friend–one who had committed suicide years earlier–were embedded in her search.  Her friend had, just before her death, tried to give Mutch her Smith Corona portable typewriter.  It’s a beautifully rendered essay, reminding us of how our memories and stories can be triggered by ordinary, everyday objects—trinkets, toys, utensils—from our pasts, objects that while insignificant to others, are dear to us for the memories they hold.

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

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

on a pile of broken dishes by the house;

a tall man too, says the length of the bed

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

says the Bible with a broken back

on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;

but not a man for farming, say the fields

cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn…

 

Something went wrong, says the empty house

in the weed-choked yard….

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

 

Significant Objects (2012) is a pictorial collection of random objects coupled with fabricated stories, edited by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn.  It’s the result of a literary experiment designed to answer the question, “Can a great story transform a worthless trinket into a significant object?”  The project team invited several well-known writers to invent stories about a collection of secondhand items gathered from yard sales and thrift stores, bought for no more than a few cents to a dollar or two.  Over 200 writers contributed to the project, and the collection of objects was auctioned off on eBay.  Coupled with a story, those same objects now sold for considerably more than their original price, resulting in thousands of dollars donated to charity!

I sit at my desk as I write this post, half empty packing boxes a few feet away, and memorabilia scattered on the floor nearby.  There’s a plastic luggage tag, my father’s name and address written on the card inside in his fine, slanted hand.  Next to it, a round fabric emblem made with gold thread, rhinestones and stitching to create a monster’s face–originally sewn on the jacket of the character “The Hooded Fang,” appearing in Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre’s first production of Mordecai Richler’s children’s novel, Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, originally published in 1975I loved the book about as much as the children I read it to–my two young daughters and elementary school students among them!  I was lucky enough to get the Hooded Fang’s jacket emblem from a close friend, who was also the costume designer for the production.  Perhaps you understand now why I began packing three weeks ahead of the our moving date. Going through the keepsakes and mementoes slows my progress as  I reach for my notebook to jot down yet another story from my life I want to remember.

When I walk in my house I see pictures,

bought long ago, framed and hanging

—de Kooning, Arp, Laurencin, Henry Moore—

that I’ve cherished and stared at for years,

yet my eyes keep returning to the masters

of the trivial—a white stone perfectly round,

tiny lead models of baseball players, a cowbell,

a broken great-grandmother’s rocker,

a dead dog’s toy—valueless, unforgettable

detritus that my children will throw away

as I did my mother’s souvenirs …

(“The Things,” by Donald Hall, In:  The Back Chamber, 2011.)

Writing Suggestions:  I’ve just paused, again, to gaze at the collection of little memorabilia on the bookshelf near where I sit each morning to write:  a piece of obsidian from the lava beds in Siskiyou County where I spent my childhood, a small clay bird, a roughly sculpted ballet slipper made by a child…  Every object has meaning, and each has its story to tell.

  • What objects or keepsakes do you have tucked away in drawers or placed on shelves or tables?  What memories and meaning do they hold?  Think of those objects as the keepers of stories.  Choose one (or more) and write the story, the memories that each represents.
  • Begin with one object or photograph.  Hold it and examine it closely using all the senses you can.  Let the object or photo take you to the story or poem contained within it.  You might be surprised at how much you have to write about.

 

Last week, the spring series of the “Writing Through Cancer” expressive writing program at Gilda’s Club here in Toronto ended after eight weeks of writing together and sharing the stories of cancer and of life.  Despite nearly twenty years of leading these workshops, I always become a little choked up as we close each workshop series. I have never ceased to be humbled and inspired by the men and women who write with me each year–and I return home full of gratitude after every session for each person who has written so courageously and honestly.

As the group began to disband, holding the small collection of writing we print at the end of each series, they were already discussing how they remain in touch with one another and, perhaps, write together in the summer months.  One of the most healing aspects of writing together from the cancer experience is the sense of community that emerges from the workshops.  People discover that there is no need to explain what one feels or judgment of their writing, only the safety and support to write deeply, honestly, and to feel truly listened to and understood.

In the writing groups, we are all honoring the storytellers that we, as human beings, have always been.  No longer silenced by cancer, in the act of telling and sharing our stories, we begin to rediscover ourselves, who we were before cancer and who we are becoming. Our stories do much more than describe our experiences—they help to alleviate loneliness.  Stories are the language of community, and as we write together and share our stories of the cancer experience, we discover we are not alone.

“A patient is, at first, simply a storyteller,” Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote in The Emperor of Maladies:  A Biography of Cancer (2010), “a narrator of suffering—a traveler who has visited the kingdom of the ill.  To relieve an illness, one must begin, then, by unburdening its story” (p.46).

… one must begin, then, by unburdening its story. Writing and sharing your stories of cancer helps to repair the damage done to your lives, the sense of who you are, the disrupted futures you face.  “Decay is the beginning of all birth,” Kat Duff wrote in The Alchemy of Illness (2000).  We are our stories, and in the act of sharing them, we affirm our uniqueness and discover is most meaningful.  “I did not want my questions answered,” Arthur Frank wrote, describing, his illness in At the Will of the Body.  “I wanted my experience shared.”   While cancer–or any other serious illness–changes us, perhaps it has the capacity to “remodel us,” as poet Jane Hirshfield said, “for some new fate.”

“Recovery is only worth as much as what you learn about the life you’re regaining,” Frank said.   And it’s not just cancer that teaches us—any momentous, challenging chapter of our lives has the potential for significant learning.  Yet to learn from our experiences requires something of us:  courage.  As Maxine Hong Kingston tells war veterans who write with her, it requires that you “tell the truth.”  It’s difficult to do sometimes, because we have to be willing to dive deep beneath the surface of the events and do some hard soul searching.  Yet it is exactly that courage to go deep and tell our truth that, “in the exchange of stories, we help heal each other’s spirits,” Patrice Vecchione said in Writing and the Spiritual Life (2001).

Writing together with others who have experienced events and illnesses is beneficial, yes, but it is so much more.  As I witnessed again these past eight weeks with the group at Gilda’s Club, as you begin to write and share your experience, you  move beyond the shock, the fear, anger and sorrow, and gradually, your whole life makes its way into what is written, not only the cancer chapter.  The real treasure lies in the truth you discover, and in unearthing that truth, the potential for true healing begins.  Suffering, we remember, is part of the universal human condition, told and retold in literature, history and memoir.  The act of sharing your stories with one another is not only about telling your story, but about telling the human story—the one that has been told and retold throughout our existence.  It’s how you discover new insights and meaning from your experiences.

Because you are reading these blog posts, you probably like to write or at least, would like to do so. If you do not belong or are not near an organized writing program for cancer or other serious/debilitating life events, you can certainly write alone–each blog posted on this site  has writing suggestions to help you get started (and always a year of archived posts).  Of course, the shared motivation that inspires you to write is a benefit of writing with others.  The more difficult part is to keep it going, to not try to do too much too soon with your writing, and to continue the group commitment–but it’s worth a try!  One of my former writing groups still meets monthly as we did when I lived in San Diego, rotating the group leadership and continuing to write and share their words with one another–and the sense of a bonded writing community has grown and flourished. Alone or with others, you have everything you need to write.

…And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear.  What we need is here.

(From: “The Wild Geese,” In: Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1998)

Writing Together or Alone:  Some Suggestions

  • Where do you begin?   Don’t try to force a poem or a narrative into being, to make it “interesting” or “descriptive.”  Start with what you know.  Something as simple as your name and how you got it or what it means to you, or use a family photograph, one of your father or mother or your younger self.  Write about the moment you first heard the word, “cancer,” or simply make a list of “before cancer, I was…” and “after cancer, I am…” before choosing one and writing for a longer period.
  • Try writing for just 5 or 10 minutes a day. Set the timer and begin with anything, a word, a phrase, something you see. Write without stopping; go wherever it goes.  Now read it over.  Underline any phrase that stands out for whatever reason.  Use that phrase as your beginning and then write again as before, letting your words go where they may.  See what changes.
  • Write with a buddy or a small group. Some of my earlier writing groups have tried writing together after the program ends.  Many have been successful, but it takes commitment.
  • If you’ve formed a small writing group, pass the “facilitator” baton to one another for each meeting. For example, someone is responsible for bringing and introducing two writing prompts for the group to use as well as managing the time.  Keep the writing time short (10 – 20 minutes).  A reminder:  When you write together, don’t try to critique and judge.  The process is straightforward. You have come together to write, share your writing, and hear what in your work touches or engages others.  Offering critique is a very different group writing experience and comes much later.  Incorporated too soon, it can shut people down.
  • If you’re writing alone, that’s fine too, but without the motivation we sometimes get from writing together with others, it requires a bit more discipline. And you must try to keep your internal critic at bay!  The process is the same.  Start small.  Five to 10 minutes several times a week, preferably at a time you can “guarantee” a little space and quiet for yourself.  (In her early days of motherhood, Pulitzer Prize winner Carol Shields wrote while her children napped.)  Re-read what you’ve written.  Underline the words or phrases that seem to stand out.  Use one or more of those to write again for a short time, going deeper.

Stuck?  Drop me at email or post a comment on the blog site, and I’ll do my best to offer some suggestions.  It matters less what you write and as the members of my groups discover, that you write.  Your mind, in partnership with your pen, will take you where you “need” to go.

 

(This week’s post adapted from one previously published in June, 2015)

Tomorrow I’ll celebrate the completion of another year of life, my age increasing as it does each June, reminding me that despite my resistance, learning to gracefully accept the aging process is unavoidable.  I look forward to birthdays as my grandchildren do.  My youngest granddaughter, whose birthday is three weeks away, talks of little else now but the plans for her party in July.  I remember being like that a long time ago, recalling the just-turned-six little girl, blonde hair in ringlets, carefully prepared by my mother and topped with a giant hair ribbon.  In the photograph of that day in June, a picnic table is piled with gaily wrapped gifts and a chocolate layer cake sits in the center, six candles aflame.  My face, lit by the candlelight, bears an ear-to-ear grin.  Just as my granddaughter does now, I eagerly counted the days until my next birthday, becoming a “big” girl, each year promising many more possibilities than the one before.  I was ready and impatient to be an older age.

Not so much now.  I tell myself it’s best to stop counting. The smile on my face, when someone says “Happy Birthday!” may well be tinged with something other than enthusiasm.  I’ve resisted accepting the category of “senior citizen.”  But I remember a birthday three years ago, when my husband planned an early birthday dinner so we could attend a jazz event afterward, I protested.  “What?  It’s too early.  No one eats that early except…”  My voice trailed off before I could say “senior citizens.”  He was doing his best to orchestrate a celebratory evening, but it felt a little like a “blue plate special,” the early dinners aimed at the elder customers, because as we walked into the restaurant at 5:25 p.m., it was empty.  We were first to be seated; first to be served; first to leave.  It lacked the feel of “celebration,” because it reminded both of us of the relentless march toward old age.

Are we ever ready for the changes life presents to us?  It’s never either/or.  Each stage of life has its challenges as well as its rewards.  I’m quite content to be called “Gramma,” but on the other hand, I am less enthusiastic the relentless pull of gravity, loss of muscle tone, and graying of my hair.  I now have regular visits to my cardiologist, reminding me of a condition I once thought belonged only to elders like my grandparents.  I’ve been humbled and learned that while illness or heart conditions can happen at any age, ready or not, you can’t escape aging.

“Ready,” the title of a poem by Irene MacKinney, begins with a memory:

I remember a Sunday with the smell of food drifting
out the door of the cavernous kitchen and my serious

teenage sister and her girlfriends Jean and Marybelle
standing on the bank above the dirt road in their
white sandals ready to walk to the country church
a mile away, and ready to return to the fried
chicken, green beans and ham, and fresh bread
spread on the table…

Every birthday reminds me of others past.  Memories come alive:  the scent of chocolate as my mother baked my birthday cake, the candle flames dancing as everyone sang to me, eyes shut, wishing as hard as I could for something I wanted to happen.  I’ll watch as my youngest granddaughter makes her wish and blows out the seven candles on her cake in a few weeks.   And she, like me, will hear that same song many years from now and remember the delights of birthdays from her childhood.

There’s an exercise I’ve borrowed from Roger Rosenblatt’s wise little book, Unless It Moves the Human Heart (Harper Collins, 2011).  It’s a delightful read and a glimpse into his “Writing Everything” class.    It’s an exercise that began with Rosenblatt asking if anyone in his class had recently celebrated—or was about to–a birthday.  Several students raised their hands of course, and Rosenblatt describes what happened next:

I…then burst into song:  “Happy Birthday to You.”  They [his students] give me the he’s-gone-nuts look I’ve come to cherish over the years.  I sing it again.  “Happy Birthday to You.  Anyone had a birthday recently?  Anyone about to have one?” …just sit back and see what comes of listening to this irritating, celebratory song you’ve heard all your lives” (pp.39-40).

I tried the exercise out with one of my writing groups a few years ago.  They looked at me with curiosity as I began singing and laughing a little before joining in.“Now write,” I said as the song ended.  “What memories does that tune inspire?”  I wrote with the group too, mind flooded with memories of birthdays past: the blue bicycle waiting for me the morning of my sixth birthday, the surprise party my husband and daughters managed to pull off few years ago, the headline in my small town newspaper’s society page:  “Sharon Ann Bray turns six today.”  (It helped, I suppose, that my aunt was the “society” editor!)

What happened in my writing group was that everyone had a host of memories associated with the birthday song, as many writers have.  In fact, Rosenblatt isn’t the only writer who used birthdays for inspiration.  Go to www.poets.org and you’ll discover William Blake, Sylvia Plath, Christina Rossetti and many others used birthdays as a time for retrospection.  I’m especially fond of Ted Kooser’s “A Happy Birthday,” a short poem that captures the introspection triggered by one’s birthday:

This evening, I sat by an open window

and read till the light was gone and the book

was no more than a part of the darkness.

I could easily have switched on a lamp,

but I wanted to ride this day down into night,

to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page

with the pale gray ghost of my hand.

 

Poems about birthdays, particularly as we age, inspire our reflection on the passage of time, aging, even the opportunity for change, for example, Joyce Sutphen’s “Crossroads:”

The second half of my life will be black
to the white rind of the old and fading moon.
The second half of my life will be water
over the cracked floor of these desert years.

Tomorrow, I’ll make a list for myself, remembering years past, the birthday memories that linger in my mind, and I know I’ll  have enough material for several days of writing, if not more.  It’s a chance to look back, reflect on life’s lessons, its joys and sorrows, and  to consider what I intend for the coming year.  Birthdays.  Anniversaries.  They’re chock full of memories, markers of the passage of time, experiences, people–the stuff of life–the stories of who we were, who we are, how life and the weather have treated us.  If any of you are also celebrating a birthday in the coming days, “happy birthday” to you too.

Writing Suggestion:

Hum the tune, or if you’re feeling brave, sing it:  “Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday to you…”  List the memories, good or bad, that this traditional birthday ditty evokes.  Whether you’ll soon have  a birthday, recently celebrated one, or joined in the birthday celebrations of family and friends, explore your memories of birthdays past as a way to inspire your writing.  In each memory of a birthday or anniversary lurks a story or a poem.  Why not write one?