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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?

I’m gonna’ sit right down and write myself a letter

And make believe it came from you…

(song by Fred E. Ahlert & Joe Young, 1935)

You know the kind, a letter in which you pour out your heart, one where you tell the potential recipient what you feel, honestly and openly?  Many of us have, and it’s probably one of the reasons the song, “I’m Gonna’ Sit Right Down & Write Myself a Letter,” first recorded by Fats Waller in 1935  became a standard of the Great American Songbook .  The song has been recorded by more than a few vocalists over the years, including Billy Williams, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Paul McCartney and Madeline Peyroux.

There’s truth in those lyrics.  A letter written to yourself or one you write to another person but never intend to send can make you feel better.  Why?  Not only does it give you the freedom to express strong or difficult emotions, simply doing so helps to relieve stress,  often a culprit in illness and health problems.

Writing, we know, has many health benefits, but the most healing kind of writing is honest, writing that acknowledges your emotions openly.  In fact, the ability to feel and name both positive and negative emotions is critical to healing.  Sometimes, however, you may be reluctant to write honestly, worried that you’ll feel worse or guilty, especially when what we want really want to say involves admitting feelings about things or others that you’ve never fully expressed.

Psychologist James Pennebaker explained it this way:  writing honestly and openly about how you feel can be a bit like the experience of seeing a sad movie.  You come out of the theatre feeling bad; maybe you even cried during the film.  But you’re wiser.  You understand the character’s issues and struggles in a way, perhaps that you didn’t when the movie began.  It is in the expression of those feelings of sorrow or anger that you can begin to stand back, re-read and examine what you’ve written.  You have a chance to reflect on it and in doing so, understand yourself and the sources of your pain better than you did before.  There is relief in that realization–and there is the possibility for insight.

In “Letter, Much Too Late,” Wallace Stegner, Pulitzer Prize winning author, addressed his dead mother.  Stegner felt very close to his mother, who always tried to protect him from the cruelty of his father, even though she was rendered helpless in the face of her husband’s abusive personality.  While he was a graduate student, his mother died from breast cancer.  He nursed her in her final days and sat at her side as she took her last breath. “Letter, Much Too Late” was written fifty-five years after her death.   In it, he remembers her, asks for forgiveness and remembers her as a mother with enduring love for her son.  He wrote:

 “In the more than fifty years I have been writing books and stories, I have tried several times to do you justice, and have never been satisfied with what I did. . . .I am afraid I let your selfish and violent husband, my father, steal the scene from you and push you into the background in the novels as he did in life. Somehow I should have been able to say how strong and resilient you were, what a patient and abiding and bonding force, the softness that proved in the long run stronger than what it seemed to yield to.” (In:  Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, by Wallace Stegner,1992)

Writing, as Stegner’s letter illustrates,  offers the opportunity to “think to” another, whether it is yourself, your body, or someone with whom you have unresolved issues.  Imagining another and addressing your writing to that person encourages you to write naturally.  Even if you never show it or send it to anyone, writing to that imagined other has the effect of making your words more powerfully felt. It gives you the freedom to  say what you really want to say.   You can even “talk back,” writing to another, your illness or yourself.  One of the exercises I’ve used in my writing groups is to invite the members to address their letters to their cancers or their bodies.  “What,” I ask, “do you want to say to yourself?  Your cancer?  Your body?”  Here are two responses from former group members:

Cancer:  You entered my life without my permission. You tried to turn my body against me, leaving pain and uncertainty in your wake…Because of you I wondered if I would see my children grow up… You made me feel like less of a woman…You took my hair and scarred my body. You made me cringe at my own reflection in the mirror. Others see a warrior. I see someone wounded – broken by the battle…(2013 “Writing Through Cancer” workshop participant)

Cancer, you’re a wuss:  Do you know who you’re messing with? Do you know what I did to the last disease that dared enter this body? I don’t think you get it, how wrong you were to choose me of all people. I want to let you know that you may have gotten past my defenses, snuck in through the back door but I have my eye on you now and you aren’t going to get away with anything else…You won’t find me cowering in a corner, sniveling in fear and weighed down with depression…Bring it on, cancer. You won’t win this one. (J., 2014 workshop participant)

 Unsent letters are a great way of being able to say what we really want to say.  Whether during cancer or at other times in our lives, we all have the need to release the unspoken, to cleanse or reach out to another, whether living or dead, person or thing.  An unsent letter can be a tool to help express difficult or complicated feelings that might otherwise not be expressed.

Although I have incorporated the “unsent letter” as a prompt several times in my cancer writing workshops over the years, one participant’s experience with the exercise stands out.  She had, the day before our group met, received news her cancer had metastasized and that she had, at best, only a few months left to live.   G. used our unsent letter exercise to write to her doctor, who had cared for her throughout thirteen-year cancer journey.  After writing, she shared her letter aloud with the group.  It was strong and beautifully written, and expressed her feelings clearly.  She revealed how hurt she’d felt when her doctor didn’t establish eye contact with her as he conveyed her recent test results.  After she’d read, she remarked that she felt better, saying, “It’s helped just to write down what I feel, even if I’m not going to send it to him.”  Unlike most times I’ve offered the exercise, however, G. took the letter one step further

The following meeting, G. told the group she decided  to read her “unsent” letter aloud to her doctor at her follow-up appointment.  She described how visibly moved he became, and how he confessed he had struggled to tell her the news at her previous appointment, not trusting himself to keep his composure as he did conveyed the results.   He apologized to G. and thanked her for having the courage to share her letter with him.  We were humbled by G.’s courage in sharing her letter with her doctor, but it was an important moment between doctor and patient.

Of course, in this high tech, instant communication world of email, Facebook and Twitter, the “safety net” that writing an unsent letter offers is all but irrelevant.  Consider recent jabs, name calling, and racial comments and repercussions that result after an angry or shocking tweet going viral.  Even among many leaders, the unsent letter has been judiciously used to cool the anger experienced in the many retorts from critics or opponents.    According to journalist Maria Konnikova, in her article, “The Lost Art of the Unsent Angry Letter,”

Whenever Abraham Lincoln felt the urge to tell someone off, he would compose what he called a “hot letter.” He’d pile all of his anger into a note, “put it aside until his emotions cooled down,” Doris Kearns Goodwin once explained on NPR, “and then write: ‘Never sent. Never signed.’ ” Which meant that Gen. George G. Meade, for one, would never hear from his commander in chief that Lincoln blamed him for letting Robert E. Lee escape after Gettysburg.

Lincoln was hardly unique. Among public figures who need to think twice about their choice of words, the unsent angry letter has a venerable tradition. Its purpose is twofold. It serves as a type of emotional catharsis, a way to let it all out without the repercussions of true engagement. And it acts as a strategic catharsis, an exercise in saying what you really think, which Mark Twain (himself a notable non-sender of correspondence) believed provided “unallowable frankness & freedom.”

The beauty of writing an unsent letter is that it allows us to express difficult emotions on paper, safely, and get them out of our minds and bodies.  It quiets us, cools us down, and gives us a chance to reflect from what we’ve so furiously written in the wake of strong emotions. In re-reading, we learn from what we’ve written—new insights, greater clarity or understanding, even, as G. was, be able to express ourselves to another with compassion for ourselves and the other person.

Writing Suggestions for This Week:

  • This week, try your own hand at writing an unsent letter.  You might write to a loved one, a physician, a higher power, your body or even, cancer.
  • Write with the assurance that you can say what is honestly in your heart and mind, that no one ever needs to see or hear what you have written.
  • What do you really want to say?

 

Remember how far you’ve come, not just how far you have to go. You may not be where you want to be, but neither are you where you used to be. — Stuart Scott

Siri, that monotonous virtual voice of iPhone assistance, has proven unreliable.  Where I dreamed of asking for directions to my desired destination and then be guided by her unflappable female voice through the streets and freeways of my city, assured of making the correct exit and turns to arrive without getting lost, I have been offered, more times than not, directions to places not even in Toronto, like a city in Oklahoma or somewhere north of Algonquin Park.  Siri remains entirely unflappable but I, on the other hand, end up talking back like a crazy woman to that impersonal Siri voice as if there’s a real being, miniaturized of course, living in my iPhone.   I confess that I’ve uttered more than a few expletives in Siri’s direction.

How, I wonder, did I ever get from point A to point B in the years I was consulting with organizations scattered all over greater Toronto or the multitude of new technology firms in Silicon Valley?  I recall having street maps and written directions dictated over the telephone by clients.  I did just fine with those directions, writing them down before I got in the car, but  I was thrilled when Google first introduced online maps with turn-by-turn directions.  I made occasional wrong turns from time as the early maps were refined and corrected, but when I got lost, I’d simply stop and ask for help.  Once in a great while, I arrived late, but I always got to where I intended to go, all without any assistance from a GPS or Siri guiding me to my destination.

We’ve become seekers of directions on just about anything in life.  We live in a world that abounds with instructions, whether you’re seeking to find out how to cook a certain vegetable or fish, find directions to a place you haven’t been before, assemble furniture, fill out necessary forms and documents, or deal with health and emotional complaints.  Not only will you likely find dozens of sites and articles on any topic by perusing the web, but Amazon’s bookshelves contain titles for every aspect of life–and illness.  The preponderance of self-help books on the market represents an industry worth over $10 billion annually according to the article, “The Problem with the Self Help Industry,” appearing in a 2011 issue of The Huffington Post.  Whether you seek to initiate change or you’re forced to change your life due to unexpected illness, hardship or loss, there’s likely a book, podcast or DVD out there that guide you in a step-by-step explanation on how to do it.   Dr. Jim Taylor, author of the article states, “… Contrary to the assertions of just about every self-help book that has ever been written, change takes incredible commitment, time, energy and effort. Someone might be able to show you the way, but you have to make the journey yourself.”  Making the journey yourself, in many ways, also applies to the cancer journey.

Teva Harrison’s book, In-Between Days (Anasi, 2016), a graphic memoir about living with terminal cancer is worth a read for anyone living with–and learning to navigate through–cancer.  She writes, “When I was first diagnosed, I made all these frantic lifestyle changes, as if I could turn back time, undo my bad luck.  I think a lot of us do that…I was frantic, driven by panic…”   As her cancer has progressed, however, her treatment has also changed, and she has come to terms with her reality of living with advanced and terminal cancer, writing, “If we manage to stabilize it, it’s only stable for an indeterminate while…it’s only a matter of time before it finds a way around the barricades and begins to grow again…”  Harrison’s journey requires she adapt to and navigate her life through constant change, yet even in the face of a terminal and progressive illness,   she looks for ways to enjoy what she can. “I mean, the cancer is here, and I have a life to live.  And sometimes living well includes eating something made with sugar or having a glass of wine with dinner.  I’m not going to be hard on myself.  I’m going to enjoy every minute I can.”

Harrison describes the importance of friends, family members, and medical professionals and specialists who continue to help her with the reality of her illness, complexities of treatment, support and care.  But the changes in her life from “before” cancer  to “after” cancer are those she has learned to come to terms with in her own way.

There are also sometimes costs to our post-cancer lives:  bodily after-effects of treatment or surgeries that may last for years or force us to come to terms with a permanently altered body.   According to the Cancer Council of Australia, “Studies on people who have survived cancer are limited compared with studies about preventing cancer… research does suggest that a healthy lifestyle can stop or slow the development of many cancers… It also shows that some people who have had cancer may be at an increased risk of other health problems, such as heart disease, lung problems or diabetes.”

I considered myself lucky when I was diagnosed and treated for a very early stage of breast cancer eighteen years ago.  I followed the doctors’ treatment plan to the letter: two lumpectomies, tamoxifen, and seven weeks of daily radiation to my left breast.  Much later, I learned there were unexpected costs not fully understood nor anticipated at the time.  Although the changes are not visible,  I live with a body permanently altered by cancer and serious illness,

Eight years after my treatment, I collapsed on the pavement while walking my dog and was diagnosed with heart failure.  My doctors have told me it’s highly likely the radiation I’d had following my lumpectomies may have damaged my heart muscle.  After the diagnosis, I was in a state of shock for weeks.  Heart failure is a condition that does not improve, although medication, diet and exercise can help to slow the inevitable decline in heart functioning.  My treatment plan is routinely reviewed, and it changes from time to time as my condition requires.  My intent is to live as long as possible despite this condition, but initially my diagnosis challenged my self-perception  and expectations for a “normal” life.  Thankfully, I have an extraordinary cardiologist and with continued research and treatment innovation, there may be more hope for heart failure patients.  In Canada, heart disease is the number one cause of death for women over 55.

Yet despite excellent treatment, the increased knowledge and information available, I have moments when my worry and fears surface.  At those times, I stop searching for new research studies and avoid the invitations to online support groups so that I do not  weigh my days down preoccupied by worry or fear.  I focus, instead, on the work and activities I love–besides, as Gilda Radner, former SNL member who died of metastatic cancer, famously said, “It’s always something.” And so it is for all of us, and when we’re challenged by cancer, heart disease or any serious illness, we have to find the best ways for ourselves to navigate the reality of living with a body altered by illness.

In the poem, “There’s Not a Book On How To Do This,” cancer survivor Sharon Doyle reminds us of the challenge of discovering our own way through cancer and other serious illness as she sketches the composition of her fall garden after her cancer treatment has ended.

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…

(In:  The Cancer Poetry Project, v. 1, 2001, Karin Miller, Ed.)

There’s not a book on how to do this…” Think about it.  Whether cancer, heart disease, divorce, the loss of a loved one, job loss—any major life challenge—we don’t have the luxury of a GPS or even an instruction booklet to help us navigate through our life’s upheavals, fears, or grief.  Yes, we have others’ advice.  We have the comfort of friends and family, of physicians and helping professionals, but ultimately, the journey is ours to navigate, the road full of unexpected twists and turns, conundrums and set-backs.  We begin composing a new life with each step we take—one that honors where we’ve been but also embraces what we have discovered about ourselves and our lives 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, though, the reader may smile as she describes her unique way to celebrate her recovery and her life after cancer:

I left vacant fourteen
trellis lightscapes for
balloons.

 

Writing Suggestions:

As you write, reflect on your own life journeys and life during and after cancer treatment.

  • 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?
  • Based on your experience, what advice or suggestions might you offer someone just beginning the journey through cancer?

(Previously published in the May 2018 issue of Cancer Knowledge Network , “Writing for Wellness,” a bi-monthly column by Sharon Bray, EdD)