(Illustration by Maurice Sendak, From: Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krause)
Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?…
For the month of July, I took a month-long hiatus from writing my blogs–something I haven’t done in the 14 years since I first began my “Writing Through Cancer” blog. But in this unusual time created by COVID, I felt the need to break from my self-imposed schedule of posting and instead, have the freedom to let my mind—and my pen—wander where they would. It was a necessary period to simply reflect and be, in the sense of writing, quiet for a time.
I kept my daily writing routine—a habit indispensable to my day. Some days my notebook pages were half empty, as though my muse had gone into hiding; on other days inspiration would strike, playful, serious, or lead me into a re-examination of past writing—it hardly mattered. I simply let whatever emerged on the page, be. I began re-reading pages and pages of old posts, books of poetry, and others about writers and writing. I questioned whether to continue my blogs or to let them gradually fade away from inactivity. I questioned the writing of separate posts for cancer and heart failure as I’d initially done. The two had already begun to converge in recent weeks, and not surprisingly. Writing about serious illness, trauma or suffering is less about the illness itself and more about the human experience. It is writing about life.
The upending of what was normal, months of social isolation, social distancing, closures, and virtual everything has been sobering. During the early months of COVID, I had celebrated another birthday, less welcomed this year as my birthdays before COVID and when I was much younger. My past birthdays signaled a new year, one that held promise, opportunity, new plans and dreams, while this most recent one was punctuated with questions: How long will this continue? Will my life be shortened by this virus? What will the coming year hold for all of us?
Of course, there were always some years I was happy to bid farewell–ones marked by personal tragedy, loss and illness–but even then, the passing of another year signaled the possibility for something better. Looking back, I realize that my “crosshairs” were firmly set on what Wallace Stegner once described as “the snow peaks of a vision” in his Pulitzer Prize novel, Angle of Repose, (1971). I was always looking ahead to the “what’s next? “What’s possible?” Before COVID, I still had that “looking ahead,” the hope, possibilities of something “new” to look forward to, a new goal to achieve, a trip to another country, some “better thoughts” that might turn into something significant on the page. COVID, like cancer and heart failure temporarily did, foisted a “hold” on those future possibilities, and the longer our lockdowns and restrictions have continued, the more I realize we—all of us– are unlikely to return to the same world we knew—and took for granted—just six months ago. What, then, I wondered, do we look forward to now?
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?
The little respite from the blogs that I granted myself has helped me realize that this strange and unusual time has given me a chance to look back, reflect and have gratitude for the life I’ve been fortunate enough to live thus far, even if I sometimes regret I haven’t accomplished all I set out to do. It’s also helped me clarify what matters most to me and how and where I want to expend my energies as life moves forward.
I am more aware than ever of the fragility and uncertainty of life. I take nothing for granted. My brushes with cancer and heart failure, the experiences of the men and women who write with me from the experience of life-threatening and terminal illness continue to remind me how precious life is and yet more, how challenging and difficult it can also be at times. None of us is immune from illness or hardship. No one escapes. Cancer, heart failure, a pandemic of COVID: serious illnesses remove any pretense or assumptions about ourselves we may have—a time, perhaps, when we need to pause and reflect, gain insight and discover so much more of who we are and have the potential to be. Maybe that’s one important lesson I will take from this time of pandemic—and use it to continue to inform how I want to live and engage with others.
When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –
From: “You Reading This, Be Ready,” by William Stafford)
- What has been your COVID experience? Write about the concerns, reflections or insights about life as you’ve known it—and how it may change.
- Do you agree or disagree: “Writing about serious illness is really writing about life.” Why or why not?
- What new glimpse of life and living have you discovered out of hardship or serious illness?
- Begin with the line, “Starting here, what do I want to remember?” and keep writing for ten minutes. Re-read. What stands out?