It could happen any time, tornado,
Earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.
It could you know. That’s why we wake
And look out—no guarantees
in this life…
(From “Yes,” by William Stafford, The Way It Is, 1998)
I’ve been wondering how the Corona virus pandemic will change our lives—not just now, staying home, social distancing, but the longer-term impact. For many, there is or will be grief over the loss of loved ones, that a sorrow takes a long time to dissipate, if it ever completely disappears. There is the sobering realization that no one, anywhere in the world, is immune to pandemics and other global disasters. The longer-term impact on our economy weighs heavily in our consciousness. How will we recover? But the larger question, for me, is what will we have learned and will it change in the way we act on our world, relate to others, and care about ourselves and others. How will this change us–or will it?
You will walk toward the mirror,
closer and closer, then flow into the glass…
You learn what you are, but slowly,
a child, a woman, a man,
a self often shattered and piece
put together again till the end:
You halt, the glass opens—
A surface, an image, a past.
(“Your Life,” by William Stafford, (The Way It Is, 1998)
Several years ago, after I’d been leading expressive writing groups for cancer patients and others for a few years, my husband took a teaching position in a doctoral organizational psychology program. For the first two years, we commuted between the Bay area and San Diego to spend time together, but ultimately, I relocated to join him. As a new “faculty wife,” I was introduced to some of his academic colleagues, most of whom still consulted with the private sector. As we chatted, I found myself recalling the years I spent as an executive in a New York-based international consulting firm. His colleagues were surprised; it was a past self I had all but pushed aside, a career I no longer felt any connection with, one that had kept me running on adrenalin and stress for years.
“How did you end up writing and leading these groups?”
“Cancer,” I replied. “Everything changed after that.”
“Would you ever consider consulting again?”
I shook my head. “Absolutely not ,” before explaining why the experience of the writing groups meant so much to me: the inspiration from patients’ who shared their experiences and lives so openly and profoundly in story and poetry, and the extraordinary community created in the process.
“Does it pay well?” One of his colleagues asked.
“Pay?” I think I laughed a little. Leading these groups was not a business. It was a practice, work of the heart, and the majority of my time creating and leading programs was often volunteered, given freely–a sharp contrast to the salary I once earned as an executive. Yet I could never imagine going back to it. The cancer writing group work offered a sense of meaning and authenticity my consulting work never somehow did. My life and my ambitions had changed in profound ways.
It’s funny how clarity happens. An an innocent question, a paragraph in a book, an expression of kindness from a friend, or a telephone message left on the answering machine…anything can force us to pay attention, get outside of ourselves and our complaints, take another look at the familiar reflection in the bathroom mirror and see it differently, albeit kindly. To realize, as Wendell Berry reminds us, “there is no going back” to the self we once were.
No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were…
That same evening, my husband and I returned home to see the message light flashing on our answering machine. I paused to hit “play” and listen. It was a call from the spouse of one of the writing group members. It had been just two weeks since she had said good-bye to the writing group as they left to live in a city two hundred miles away, something she described as a decision “for closure.” As she prepared to leave, I’d asked how she was feeling and she had responded by quoting her oncologist: “He says I’m dwindling.” Now, listening to the message on the answering machine, I understood the full meaning of “dwindling,” and “closure.” Death and loss is among individuals in my cancer groups is sometimes happens, and while it’s painful for everyone, each person, each life lost, has touched my life in ways I never could have anticipated. Their memories linger in the writing shared in the weeks together.
More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you…
Those men and women who have let themselves be vulnerable, who write so honestly, and whose words linger in my memory long after they’ve been shared in the groups have taught me what it is to be human, to be present in the world, and to put my own life and minor complaints in perspective. It’s little wonder why I could never turn back to that old self, the woman whose spacious windowed office overlooked Park Avenue in New York. None of that, by comparison, matters anymore.
The men and women who come to write with me, share their lives and, in some cases, death, have taught me that life is worth living, no matter what we suffer. I am constantly humbled by their courage, the beauty and power in their stories and poems, and how they so openly share their sorrows, struggles, joys, and fears. In the sacred moments of dying, I have experienced grace. Each person’s presence has changed me in some small way, and I am all the better for it.
As for this post, I have struggled to write anything this week; the constant anxiety and concern that one cannot avoid has taken its toll on my motivation and ideas. I’ve tried to minimize my anxiety and, and the same time, fend off boredom in this period of relative isolation. It is more difficult to write as I have always done–my morning quiet and solitude have disappeared as my husband awakens shortly after I do. I am acutely aware of how very small a two-bedroom apartment has become in these past three weeks. Instead, I have resorted to silliness at times, turning out ridiculous rhyming poems that, at the very least, makes my husband laugh.
For solace, I’ve turned to poets and poetry, finding others’ words to express some of what I am feeling about life, suffering, gratitude, giving, finding new poems and re-reading old, much loved ones. And quite unintentionally, I’ve even joined the thousands who have taken comfort in stress-baking! I’ve been working on making the “perfect” scone for the past two weeks, and yesterday, I think I came close. There’s an aspect of meditation in creative activity–and I’m including baking as one of those. Your attention is on the recipe, following, measuring, adding, kneading and checking the progress as you wait for the finished product. It’s calming and quiet time. Whatever helps us find activities or practices to help to quiet the mind and open the heart, are all more important now as we ride out this crisis.
I have missed my writing groups; they are always a source of inspiration, but all my scheduled workshops had to be been cancelled. But Gilda’s Club has asked if I’d be willing to try an online version later this month of the “Writing Through Cancer” program. I am not a fan of online groups, but I didn’t hesitate to say “yes!” The internet, social media, all of it, does offer some positive ways to stay connected with each other, and our social connections are more important than ever. I’ve been routinely checking in with friends, sending cards and notes by mail, email and notes and cards, even checking in with some health care professionals on the front line to say “thank you,” and “how are you?” Those efforts are appreciated and it keeps me from succumbing to the pit of worry or anxiety so easily ignited by the constant barrage of COVID 19 reports and commentary. This is what is important right now: expressing my concern, love and gratitude to the people who matter to me and have made a difference in my life. Nurturing the generosity to reach out to others at any time matters, but right now, there’s all the more reason to do it.
Now more than ever you can be
generous toward each day
that comes, young, to disappear
forever, and yet remain
uniting in the mind.
Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.
(“No Going Back,” by Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979 – 1997)
Suggestions for Reflection and Writing:
What does the phrase, “you can be generous toward each day/ that comes” mean for you?
We all experience difficulties and challenges out of our control, times that are painful and difficult. But what do we learn from them? Think of difficult chapters in life you’ve already experienced. What did they teach you? What lessons do you want to take from this pandemic experience?
In this world where we are all experiencing how our lives can change in an instant, what have you learned about yourself in this uncommon time? What matters most?