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 “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 DeSalvo, On Moving:  A Writer’s Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts and Finding Home Again, 2009.  

There are necessities in the process of relocating and moving across the country, and downsizing one’s belongings is a major one, but so is it, from time to time, in life. I’ve begun the process, yet despite annual spring cleanings, I am overwhelmed by how much “stuff” is stored in plastic cartons and cardboard boxes, stacked on shelves in our garage.  There are many and several containing mementoes of the past, I must open and go through, one by one.

Last week, however, I tackled the many books lining my shelves, deciding which to keep, which to donate or pass along to friends and writing groups.  I spent two days sorting through four bookcases in the front room, filling a few boxes marked “Keep,” with favorite volumes and leaving the discards on the shelf to box later.  It was a slow process, and I have yet to finish, because as I pulled the books from their shelves, I often paused and thumbed through the pages, noting what I’d underlined or pages I’d dog-eared, and re-reading those sections again.  Between the pages of others, I found old birthday cards and notes from friends.  I lingered over those too.  Each book, card, or note triggered a memory, reminding me of who I was then, during earlier periods of my life.

The smell of moving,
uprooting…

combing over flailed books—sea shells
beneath a forgotten tide.
Occasionally we’ll wrench something up,
not what we are looking for, and read it anyway.

(From:  “Search for Robert Hayden,” by Charles Rowell, In:  The Listening, by Kyle G. Dargan, Ed. 2004)

My bookshelves are only the beginning of slenderizing and simplifying our possessions.  Daily, I eye the many boxes in our garage and return to the house feeling utterly overwhelmed by what I know will be a slow and difficult sorting through of each.  The boxes are filled with “stuff”—things once thought necessary for some later time, keepsakes, photographs , materials I’ve used for classes I no longer teach, journals, boxes of art supplies purchased for myself or for grandchildren visits, and things I’ve long forgotten, all waiting to be opened and dealt with.

It’s not going to be easy or fast.  Like my books, the boxes contain evidence of the past, keepsakes from places visited overseas, old journals full of my morning musings or comic sketches, drawings from children and grandchildren, even an old plastic luggage tag, labeled in my father’s handwriting, something I found after his death.  I know I will need time and solitude as I succumb to the memories contained in each box.

Unpacking the Boxes:  A Memoir of a Life in Poetry,  by former U.S. poet laureate, Donald Hall, begins with his description of unpacking of the seventy or eighty boxes stored in his home and cottage since 1994, shortly after his mother’s death and a year before his wife, poet Jane Kenyon, died from leukemia.  He writes:

For a longtime, I could not open them… From [the] … boxes my childhood rose like a smoke of moths–a 78 of Connee Boswell singing “The Kerry Dance”; all the letters I ever wrote my father and mother; photographs of my young parents on the boardwalk at Atlantic City; my father’s colorless Kodachromes of Long Island Sound, snapshots of cats dead for fifty years; model airplanes and toy cars and a Boy Scout manual, a baseball, and a baseball glove with its oiled pocket chewed by mice.  I felt the shock and exultation of exhumation… Remembered scenes flashed like film clips… (pp. 2, 3, 10)

Whether stacked in a garage or closet, tucked under the bed, we all have boxes filled with fragments and remembrances of our pasts. We turn to them sometimes, recalling feelings, smiles, nostalgia, even heartache, all reminding us of who we were then.  But there are other boxes, virtual ones, tucked into the far corners of our mind, taped shut, yet carried.  These are the ones we are reluctant to open, fearing what we might find.

Minefields of the Heart,  A Mother’s Stories of a Son at War, a memoir  by Sue Diaz begins similarly to Hall’s.  Her memoir is a touching portrayal of a mother’s experience of a son fighting in a distant and dangerous war.  Some boxes she describes are filled and housed under her bed; the others, virtual, memories and the horrible experiences of war that are in virtual boxes, housed deep in the mind and not  of war that are in virtual boxes—housed deep in the mind and not easily opened.  She begins her story by describing the boxes she and her son each possess:

This is a story about boxes. Mine contains news clippings about that day in Iraq — what led up to it and what came after. It’s a brown leather box where I’ve also stored notebooks, journal entries, essays published with my byline, photos, letters, and printouts of online conversations. A scrapbox of sorts, filled with bits-and-pieces connected mostly to R. and to the past few years.

My son has his box, too. It is the one that soldiers returning from war carry within themselves, the box that holds everything a combat vet has seen and felt and heard and done in the line of duty.

As the daughter of a World War II veteran, I know it’s not uncommon for vets to want to keep the lid on their memories. Opening up can take some time. Years, for some. Decades, for others. Many never do.

But it’s important to try. …

 Diaz also describes her experience of helping veterans tell their stories of the trauma and costs of war—some recent, others decades past:

What they’ve written in their spiral notebooks … has given me a glimpse into the boxes they have carried with them from places like Danang and Fallujah, Saigon and Sadr City. 

The words “Open at Your Own Risk” are stamped all over their boxes, because what’s inside can be scary as hell.

Scary as hell. Those are the boxes that contain memories of the difficult, painful events in our lives, whether trauma endured as a child, war, horrific events like 9/11, the bombing in Oklahoma City or the shock of hearing, “I’m sorry…  It’s cancer.”  Memories we’d rather push away than revisit again.

But it’s important to try.  We know that there real costs to health when traumatic, painful memories remain locked inside of us.  Healing may come in small steps, but to begin, we have to summon the courage to open the lids on those memories.  As Pennebaker’s groundbreaking research demonstrated, when we suppress negative emotions, it takes a toll on our health. Long buried trauma can have adverse impact on immune system.   Self-disclosure or expressive writing, even in the case of old emotional traumas, can help us heal.  His research on the healing benefits of writing spawned many expressive writing groups across the country over two decades ago, for many different individuals, including cancer patients and survivors.

Remember Pandora and the box she was warned never to open? How curiosity got the better of her, and as she lifted the lid, evil escaped and spread over the earth?  It’s a good metaphor for the boxes filled with painful or frightening memories we sometimes hesitate to pry open ourselves, because remember too, that after the evil escaped, Pandora discovered one last thing left lying at the bottom of the forbidden boxHope.

This week, explore the memories or mementoes tucked in your boxes, whether concrete and stored in your attic or garage, or memories pushed back into a far corner of your mind. Take one out. Open the lid. Explore the contents:  images, sounds, smells—and the emotions they evoke, and write exploring the memories and stories inside.

Early this morning, I checked my emails and scanned the Facebook posts appearing from yesterday’s massive protest women’s marches across the country.  I kept returning to the images of the hundreds of thousands of women and men around the world who united to make their voices heard.  One, a photograph of my granddaughter, marching alongside her parents was especially touching, reminding me the many years ago, when her grandmother and grandfather joined in civil rights and anti-war protests.  Whatever one’s political preference, the right to peaceful assembly and to speak out, remains one of the most precious of our democratic rights.

I also received a photograph from Washington D.C. from a friend who made the trip to Washington to join the protest.  She lives with lung cancer and has written in my expressive writing groups for years.  She sent a few of us her selfie, decked out in pink, hat and tee-shirt, masses of marchers visible behind her.  It was a day of celebration and exhilaration as, after a divisive and troublesome period of political campaigns, women and men across the country mobilized in support of women’s rights—of human rights–and make their voices heard the day after the new president began his term.

I lingered over my friend’s photograph, inspired by her determination to travel across the country and join in the march at the capital and by her courage, like so many other men and women living with cancer have demonstrated in so many ways.  I recalled another Facebook photograph sent  recently by another member of my workshops, a woman who has written with me since 2009.  She lives with metastatic breast cancer and also, more recently, multiple sclerosis.  The photograph she sent was a celebratory one: her smiling face as she  completed a half marathon last week, another of her continuing participation in local walks or runs organized in support of the fight against breast cancer.  More than a few of us have been humbled by her courage and spirit in recent years.

When I think of the many marches in support of curing cancer it’s not just breast cancer that inspires people to participate.  Google “cancer walks and runs,” and you’ll find many different events and cancer organizations organized to publicize and raise funds for cancer research.   Survivors,  many living with metastatic cancer, and their friends and families participate, united in a fight for life and a cure for this relentless and dreaded disease–called “The Emperor of All Maladies”–which has reached nearly epidemic proportions.

According to the National Cancer Institute,  an estimated 1,685,210 new cases of cancer were diagnosed in the U.S. in 2016, and 595,690 people were projected to die from the disease.  It’s not just women’s rights that were highlighted in yesterday’s march, but among them, equal access for everyone to affordable healthcare.  Those already engaged in the battle against cancer, whether breast, lung or one of the many other cancers, know how very critical healthcare coverage is.

Killing a cancer cell in a test tube is not a particularly difficult task: the chemical world is packed with malevolent poisons that, even in infinitesimal quantities, can dispatch a cancer cell within minutes. The trouble lies in finding a selective poison—a drug that will kill cancer without annihilating the patient. (Siddhartha MukherjeeThe Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, 2009)

 Two weeks ago, I was asked by Cancer Resource Network, an online health magazine, if I would write a short statement about World Cancer Day, which occurs February 4, 2017.  I admit that I knew little about the event or its history and quickly looked for the website to learn more.  Established by the Paris Charter and adopted at the World Summit Against Cancer for the New Millennium in Paris, February 4, 2000, it’s a day for the world to promote research for a cure, the prevention of cancer, and upgrading patient services.  It is dedicated to informing and mobilizing the global community against the disease.  According to the website, 8.2 million people die from cancer worldwide every year, and 4 million of those between 30 and 69,  die prematurely.  It’s shocking.  Yet I doubt few people in the world have not been affected, in some way, by cancer.

In the United States, one in three women and one in two men will develop cancer during their lifetime. A quarter of all American deaths, and about 15 percent of all deaths worldwide, will be attributed to cancer. In some nations, cancer will surpass heart disease to become the most common cause of death.”   Siddhartha MukherjeeThe Emperor of All Maladies)

The World Cancer Day 2017 tagline is We can. I can.  It’s a call to action, intended to support how we, individually or collectively, can help “to reduce the global burden of cancer.”  As of this morning, the site’s “map of impact” shows 167 events happening around the world in support of World Cancer Day.

Just as the world witnessed the enormous solidarity in support of the Women’s March on Washington, the marches inspire us to consider what actions we can take beyond marches to ensure positive change,  whether for women’s rights or for the good of many different people in the world., including the prevention and cure of cancer.

How can you take action?  Just as cancer affects everyone in different ways, there are many ways to take action for families or communities that can have a positive impact on cancer, such as making healthy lifestyle choices, asking for support, advocating for yourself and others whose lives are affected by cancer, and making your voice heard by sharing you story of the cancer experience.

Whether in support of World Cancer Day or in the renewed energy generated by the Women’s March on Washington, we have much more to do.  Ask yourself, “What actions can I take individually or with others?”  There is still much to be done to a difference in our nation and our world.

I was deeply inspired by yesterday’s marches—but it’s only the beginning.  Just as the actions we take on a regular basis to ensure that basic human rights in this country are not violated, so too does finding a cancer cure require our ongoing involvement, advocacy and support in the fight for a cure.

Writing Suggestions:

  • This week, focus on the question: “What actions can I take?,” whether it is about cancer, human rights, or affordable healthcare, to name a few.  Then follow “what can I do” with “What I will do.
  • The Women’s March has inspired ten actions to take in the first 100 days of the new president’s term in office.
  • World Cancer Day is Saturday, February 4th. Why not get involved in a meaningful way?
  • Share your story. One of the actions suggested by the World Cancer Day site is advocate by sharing  your story–a way to offer support to others living with cancer and raise public awareness.  For starters, you can submit directly to the World Cancer Day site, or Cancer Knowledge Network, the online health magazine which encourages narratives (500 words) written in response my bi-monthly column, Writing Toward Wellness.  In fact, there are many possible cancer-related sites that invite cancer stories,  Health Talk Online, The Live Again Project, My LifeLine, and Caring Bridge, to name a few.

 

Dear Readers,

I’ve received a few expressions of concern that “Writing Through Cancer” might disappear when my husband and I relocate.

It won’t.  I will be writing and posting as I have done for the past ten years!  The site, the subject matter, the people who live with cancer in any way–as patients, survivors, caregivers, loved ones–all matter to me a great deal.

So yes, we’ll write on!

Sharon Bray

I’ve been talking back to Siri, the voice on my iPhone that directs my travel on the freeways and streets of San Diego County.  She’s sometimes unreliable, mapping what should be a drive to a place ten or fifteen miles from my home to a cross-country trip ending in Oklahoma or Missouri.  I’m mystified by these wildly incorrect directions, and Siri hears about it.   Since my days have been much too busy with meetings, dental and doctor’s appointments, when Siri misdirects, “she”receives the full brunt of my frustration.  (Of course, better Siri than my husband as the recipient!)

But perhaps what I experience with Siri is a good analogy for navigating through life.  It’s not always a smooth experience, whether relying on a GPS, dealing with a move, or the emotional roller coaster of cancer.  How, I wonder, did we all begin to rely so greatly on GPS devices their print counterparts–self-help books–to navigate the ups and downs of daily life?

Until I was introduced to Siri, I drove perfectly well without turn by turn directions recited by her voice.  I read maps, wrote down directions, and most often, got to where I needed to go.  I was happily self-reliant.  If I got confused, I stopped to check the map or ask someone for assistance.  No longer.  I’ve become dependent on the voice in my cell phone to guide me along any unfamiliar route.

What, we wonder, is our now habitual use of navigation tools doing to our minds? Writer David Kushner asked in a November 2015 article in Outside magazine.  An emerging body of research suggests some unsettling possibilities. By allowing devices to take total control of navigation while we ignore the real-world cues that humans have always used to ­deduce their place in the world, we are letting our natural way-finding abilities languish. 

Yet Siri is just one of the many sources of directions, instructions, and step-by-step how-to resources available.  Consider the many hundreds of self-help books on the market.  It’s likely that you, as I have done, have turned to self-help books in times of doubt and uncertainty, searching for encouragement, guidance or even self-affirmation.  As I’ve begun downsizing my bookshelves, I’ve found a few of these books still sandwiched between fiction and poetry.  There’s not a single one I finished reading; most of the pages are pristine and unmarked, suggesting I found the content neither relevant nor useful.

In the article, “Stop with the Self-Help Books Already,” author Marty Nemko offered his opinions on the plethora of self-help books:

  • Their recommendations are mainly just common sense or common knowledge.
  • They’re filled with examples that often feel concocted, too pat.
  • They propose models that over-simplify reality. For example, organizations or people don’t usefully distill into just a few types.
  • Their recommendations are often out of touch with what works in the real world. (In:  Psychology Today, June 27, 2014)

often out of touch with what works in the real world, yet self-help books represent a $10 billion a year industry.  When lives change, whether we relocate, retire, marry, have children, diet, or confronted with serious illness, hardship or loss of a loved one, there’s no shortage of books offering step-by-step advice for any and all significant life events. Even for aspiring writers, there’s an abundance of “how to” books on writing poetry, novels, nonfiction or simply journaling.

Out of curiosity, I conducted a brief search for self-help books for cancer patients on Google, immediately turning up titles such as playbooks and guides for the patient, for how to be a friend for a cancer patient, coping with altered bodies, radiation and chemotherapy, create a nutritional diet to “beat” cancer, or a guide to a peaceful death, to name a few.  Although any of us may each find one or two of books like these helpful, the dizzying number of titles makes one wonder that although any kind of change is difficult, as Dr. Jim Taylor remarked, writing in the Huffington Post, “Someone might be able to show you the way, but you have to make the journey yourself.”

Do friends need self-help books to be friends when you’re in need?  Can cancer be beaten with by following a particular nutritional plan?  Do we find guidebooks helpful when we lose a loved one?  Perhaps. We may turn to those resources at first, but gradually come to realize that no one is free of those walloping times of hardship, change and loss.  A “how to” book doesn’t make it any easier nor does it give us the answers we seek.  We discover what gives us comfort or solace as we go, trying things out, making mistakes, gradually finding our way through those difficult life chapters.

Cancer survivor, Sharon Doyle’s poem, “There’s Not a Book on How to Do This,” offers an apt metaphor for making those difficult journeys as the narrator sketches a composition plan for her autumn garden, one that celebrates and honors her cancer journey and survival:
There’s not a book on how to do this,
but there is an emphasis on composition.

The trucks that slug by under our window
hold trombones, mirrors, dictionaries.
It’s not my fault they invade
the calm of trees like cancer.  I

don’t have cancer anymore…

…I rarely remember the
uterus I don’t have.  One of my sons said,
“You were done with it right away, right, Mom?”
I guessed so…

There’s not a book on how to do this…” Think about it.  Whether cancer, divorce, the loss of a loved one, job loss—any major life challenge—there’s no a GPS or an instruction booklet to help us navigate through the upheaval, fear, or grief.  We do have the comfort of friends and family, of physicians and helping professionals, and so much more, but ultimately, the journey is ours to make, the road full of unexpected twists and turns, conundrums and set-backs.  Yet little by little, we find our way and without even realizing it, we begin composing a new life for ourselves with each step we take—one that honors where we’ve been but also embraces what we have discovered in our journey.

Doyle’s loving gifts from her family, the birdsong and flowers, are symbolic of the support that gave her courage and hope as she made her way back to health.  In the final stanza, we smile as we discover her celebration recovery and life:

I left vacant fourteen
trellis lightscapes for
balloons.

(From The Cancer Poetry Project, p. 52, The Cancer Poetry Project, V. 1, 2001)

Writing Suggestions:

This week, reflect on your difficult life journeys.  It’s unlikely you were handed a GPS or a book of instructions to help you navigate challenges like chemotherapy, surgery an altered body or loss of a loved one, job or home, each propelling you into change you never anticipated.

  • What helped you navigate the rough waters of such profound and unexpected change?
  • What internal compass—your beliefs, aspirations, or faith—played a part in helping you rediscover hope and embrace a new life?
  • What did you learn from it all?

As 2017 begins, I’ve been propelled into transition.  My husband and I are deep in plans for our move across the country, and along with the excitement for what’s ahead, there is the bittersweet of letting go.   I‘ve begun examining bookshelves, closets, storage bins, and furnishings, deciding what we must leave behind and what we will carry with us as we relocate to a different city.  There’s eagerness to re-acquaint ourselves with old friends, be closer to family, but also, the sadness of leaving friends here.  And there’s other letting go that I must do—and it’s coupled with more than a little heartache.

This past week, I began the process of leaving the expressive writing programs I began in 2007 at two San Diego cancer centers, completing my final workshop in March. At the end of this month, I’ll lead my last workshop for medical students, faculty and staff at Stanford Medical School, something I’ve been doing for the past twelve years.

It’s bittersweet—letting go of things I love; I’ve done it multiple times before, but it never gets easier.  Once again, I’ve been propelled into a period of remembering and reflecting, looking back over the past many years, taking stock of accomplishments, disappointments and changes as I begin the transition to another life chapter.  These next few months will be emotional, sometimes stressful, and yet exciting—as transition periods always are, no matter the circumstances that plunge us into change and choices.

What do we leave behind?  What do we carry with us?  Every life event, positive or negative, thrusts us into change and demands choices.  We learn to let go of old ways of being, discard the things in our lives that no longer serve a purpose, and slowly, re-design our lives.  As difficult as change can be—particularly when it’s thrust upon us unexpectedly–it is also a time for reassessment and healing.

In a very real sense, the act of letting go is part of the process I witness time and time again in the cancer writing groups I lead.  So much of writing for healing is about expressing our deepest feelings and thoughts, but in doing so, we begin to let go of the pain and sorrow of the cancer journey.  We start to make sense out of the shock, fears, and loss of the cancer experience, and gradually discover new insights and meaning from our experience.  As the Danish philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard once said, “Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards.”

The 2009 award winning film, The Things We Carry, is a story of two sisters, whose lives are affected by their mother’s addiction.  Each choses a different way to deal with it, and, in the process, the sisters become estranged from one another.  The film explores their journey through the San Fernando Valley to a dingy motel, searching for a package their now deceased mother has left for them.  Old sibling wounds are re-exposed and recounted, but gradually, the sisters find peace, not only within themselves, but with each other.  “The key to moving forward,” the film’s tagline reads, “lies in the past.”

We learn more than we may realize life’s transitions and difficult chapters. Cancer is one of those.  “Cancer has been a great teacher,” a former writing group member remarked as she explored life before and after her illness.  Looking back helped her to make a choice to not “carry” the pain and suffering of the cancer experience into her life after recovery.  Instead, she chose to use the lessons learned to shape a new life for herself going forward.

 

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)

Several years ago, one of the writing group members died from  metastatic breast cancer.  She was a gifted sculptor, but as is typical in the first weeks of the writing group, shared only her “status” as a cancer patient in the first few weeks.  .  It was mid-way through the series that we learned C.  was a sculptor, someone who created sensuous and striking forms from stone, treasured and displayed by collectors across the country.  After her death, her husband wrote a touching and beautiful remembrance of her.  He spoke of her life as mother, wife, and sculptor, using C.’s word to describe how she approached her artistic process:

At first the stone seems cold and hostile. As the shape emerges, the stone becomes warm and alive. The joy and pain involved in the carving process is …something akin to giving birth and seeing your creation change from a gawky adolescent to a sensuous adult…

I treasure her words, because they offer an apt metaphor life’s changes and transitions.   Now that I am contemplating the change my husband and I have chosen, I cannot help but think of the many men and women who’ve written with me during the cancer journey.  Again and again, I’ve witnessed them come to terms with the changes dictated by this illness, struggle to make sense of it, and gradually, learning to let go of , and aspects of the self they were before cancer to a new way of being after cancer..  It is difficult, at first, for anyone to imagine a new life, but little by little, just as the sculptor wielding a chisel, choices are made and a new life begins to emerge, with new meaning, possibilities, or intentions for however long a life they may have.  The choices all of us make change not only our worlds, but ourselves.

Before and after.  Letting go and discovering the new.  It’s a time of transition, a time of learning, a time of change and new possibilities.  Lucille Clifton, former poet laureate of Maryland and a survivor of breast and ovarian cancer, captures it all in her poem, “I Am Running into a New Year:”

I am running into a new year
and the old years blow back like a wind…
that I catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what I said to myself
about myself
when I was sixteen and
twenty-six and thirty-six
even forty-six but
I am running into a new year
and I beg what I love and
I leave to forgive me.

(From: Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980)

Writing Suggestions:

  • Cancer is a great teacher.  How has cancer changed you?  What have you learned from the experience?
  • What choices have you made as a result of having and living with cancer?  What did you need to let go of?  What did you keep and bring with you into your changed life?
  • I beg what I love/ and I leave to forgive me.  A new year lies ahead of you.  How do you intend to shape the life you want out of the material of your past and present?

 

The hard part is the moving, but maybe staying can be harder.

(Constance Woolson to Henry James, In The Master, by Colm Toíbín)

For the past week, I’ve been consulting dictionaries, thesauruses, poetry and books in hopes of finding the single word that serve as a guide for my writing and daily life.  It’s a practice I have written about for the past four or five years, originally introduced to me by two writing buddies and one I embraced wholeheartedly.  It’s an annual practice that has stuck.  There’s something elegant and honest about finding that single, meaningful word to frame my intentions for a new year than the lists of resolutions I’ve made in earlier years—ones often vanishing by February in a cloud of good, but diminishing intentions.

It’s not something one does easily, as I re-discover each year.  I agonize, make lists of possible candidates for my single word, and consult the dictionary, thesaurus, books and favorite poems, hoping “the” word is suddenly illuminated, virtually leaping off the page and tugging at my pen: “Choose me.  Choose me.”  But it never happens that way.

It’s more than simply finding that “right” word.  The search leads me into deeper territory, forcing me to articulate the reason behind the word and how it relates to the way in which I want to live or what I hope to accomplish in the New Year.  Over the past week, my notebook not only has several words listed on different pages, but quotes from poets and writers, musings on life and the past, and as much as one can, thoughts of what is ahead.

2017 is already shaping into an important and significant year of change for this country, but personally, for my husband and me.  We will be moving across the country, then north, to return to a place that we still love—Toronto–the place we met and married, a place that became “home” for myself and my daughters in the wake of their father’s sudden and tragic death.

I began the process by temporarily choosing “return,” but it lacked the meaning I was searching for, remembering instead Tom Wolfe’s famous dictum, “you can’t go home again.”  I lived the reality of those words when my husband and I returned to California twenty-six years ago.  The home I dreamt about and longed for in the first lonely years I lived as an expatriate nearly 4000 miles away from my family no longer existed.  I was a stranger in the very place I once had considered “home.”  Worse, I couldn’t find the intimacy, the sense of place that I sought.  My restlessness returned as the years passed, whether living in Northern or Southern California.

I decided to dispense with “return,” and tried out “moving,” which seemed more accurate.  But “moving” felt, well, boring.  I turned to my bookshelves; scanning titles about place and home, thinking I might find enlightenment between the pages of several volumes.  Then I spotted Louise DeSalvo’s On Moving: A Writer’s Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts, and Finding Home Again (Bloomsbury, 2009).  I eagerly pulled it from the shelf and began reading, underlining passages, dog-earring pages, realizing I was “on” to something in the first few pages.   In the introduction, DeSalvo writes:

Perhaps many of us living the in the United States are so transient because we are descended from those who’ve come from afar, hoping for a better life.  But whether our restlessness is part of our psychic makeup…or learned behavior, who can say. Perhaps we repeat family history…  For those of us choosing to move, the idea that somewhere there is “a domestic Eden”—D.H. Lawrence’s term for a place where you’ll finally feel at home, where your spirit will find peace and your life will blossom—seems to be deeply ingrained in our collective imagination.(p. 6)

My ancestors were transient:  pioneers, homesteaders, and people in search of that better life.  I once joked, as I was moving across the country  in the late sixties, that I was repeating my grandmother’s journey.  She went west, met my grandfather and remained in Northern California.  I was her modern day version, heading in the opposite direction with similar  hopes and dreams.

Yet, “home is where the heart is,” as the Roman philosopher Gaius Plinius Secundus said nearly 2000 years ago.  It’s a sentiment I’ve experienced and one written about by many writers since.  Barry Lopez, in a 1997 essay, “The Literature of Place” explores how you can occupy a place and also have it occupy you—a reciprocity that, in many respects, echoes the necessity of home being an intertwining of heart with place.  His answer hit home for me:

The key, I think, is to become vulnerable to a place.  If you open yourself up, you can build intimacy.  Out of such intimacy may come a sense of belonging, a sense of not being isolated in the universe.

Perhaps it is that in the wake of a profound period of loss and heartache, I was most open to our new life in Toronto.  I felt embraced by the city to which we now plan to return.  I healed and flourished.  I loved the city, the access to the arts, the endless places to explore and experience.  By the time I returned to California, I was no longer a “Californian.”  I was the product of blending—half my life in California, but the other half in Canada—and I discovered that one foot remained firmly planted there.

If we…become conscious about why we want to move, and understand what we need rather than what we want, our moves will satisfy us deeply (DeSalvo, p. 183).

In the past many months, I’ve worked to define and articulate what I need in deciding where to move. I need a place I love, but there’s more.  I need to be closer to my daughters and grandchildren after so many years of living far apart.  One daughter and her family live in Toronto; the other, recently returned from five years in Okinawa, is currently in Florida—easier to get to from Toronto, but not a place that satisfies other needs.  Still, my daughters are Canuck through and through.  Canada, for them both, is home.

But moving is a significant change for us at any time in our lives, no matter how many times we do it.  It’s the conundrum Mark Doty described (in DeSalvo, p. 144) as “a fierce internal debate, between staying moored and drifting away, between holding on and letting go…”  “The effects of moving,” are experienced in the body, in the imagination, in the realm of desire,” DeSalvo writes.  I already know that a cross country move is not easy, and at times, I admit I have awakened feeling slightly unnerved by our decision.

There is work to do before we move, and for the next few months, I’ll be deep in the act of letting go—downsizing belongings, lingering over a lifetime of mementos, deciding what to take, what to leave, and bidding good-bye to the life we’ve had in over ten years in San Diego.  It’s why, inspired  by  DeSalvo’s book, I awakened at 5 a.m. this morning with my 2017 word clearly in mind.  Not “return” nor “moving,” but “step-by-step.”

“That’s three words,” my husband teased.

“I’m using it as one;” I replied.  “ it’s hyphenated.”

It hardly matters.  What does matter is the “step-by-step” reminds me that change cannot be rushed.  I need to honor the letting go, the emotions that will be aroused as I sift through belongings and the memories attached to them, that preparing to leave isn’t the only challenge ahead of us.  There’s the settling in at the other end, and that, too, will take time and patience.

Now I’ll do what I do each year.  Type out my 2017 word and put it in a small frame that sits on my desk, my word for the year in full view, serving as a daily reminder to take this next change in life one day, one step at a time.

Writing Suggestion:

  • This week, why not try the “one word” exercise yourself?  What  one word can serve to guide your intentions for the year ahead?  It may take successive attempts, cozying up to the dictionary or a thesaurus, but search for a single word that resonates and has meaning for you.
  • Once you’ve chosen your word, then write for 20 or 30 minutes and explore the “why” behind your word.
  • What meaning does it hold? What memories or images spring to mind?  I invite you to share your word choice and a few sentences about it in reply to this week’s blog.
  • Or, do as my friends and I do. Frame or post your word where you can see it on a daily basis.

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

By William Stafford, from The Way It Is, 1998

I wish you all a year of peace, healing, love, and new discoveries.

Happy New Year, 2017!

Dear Readers,

I wish you each the warmth and blessings of this holiday season.  Merry Christmas/Happy Hanukkah.

Thank you to all who follow this blog.  Weekly posts resume on December 31, 2016.

Warmest wishes,

Sharon Bray