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January 1, 2023: One Word: Heart

2023, and a new year ahead.  I dispensed with those New Year’s resolutions years ago—whatever specific goals I intended often fizzled out by March.  Instead, thanks to the suggestion of my friend Sue several years ago, I began a process of finding one word to serve as my guiding intention for each new year.  To keep myself reminded of what the chosen word suggests in the actions I take, I print out the  word and place it in a small three-inch frame that sits on my desk, a daily reminder to inspire the actions I take.

This past year, I’d chosen “connect,” and discovered that Sue had also chosen a similar word.  After the isolation of the COVID pandemic, re-connecting with friends and family in meaningful ways was important, and seeing the word each day as I sat down to write was an important reminder to put the desire to connect in action.

Yet I faltered a bit connecting with others during the spring and summer of 2022 when I experienced some worrying signs of worsening heart failure.  Life was dominated by visits to the ICD and cardiac clinics, tests and blood work until late May, when a “transesophageal “ echocardiogram was performed and a mitral clip procedure was suggested for my damaged heart and leaking mitral valve.  I was referred for evaluation by a team of cardiac specialists.  I spent the month of June waiting for a decision, and my emotions ranged from hope to despair when I was turned down.  In late July, I was referred to another cardiologist at a different hospital, one who was described by my own cardiologist as “working a bit of magic on difficult cases.”  Two weeks later, I returned home after a successful insertion of two mitral clips in my heart. 

…It’s not easy to think about the heart unless trouble arises.

—John Stone, MD

It’s little wonder, perhaps, that when I began my annual “search” for a defining word for 2023, I chose “heart.”  To be honest, I think “heart” chose me, relentlessly bubbling up in my notebook day after day, demanding exploration of all its meanings.   But it wasn’t the physical heart I was exploring, rather, it was the heart that the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz yearned for so deeply, confusing a physical heart with the metaphorical one.  As Dr. Sandeep Jauhar described in his book, Heart, A History (2018), our “second” or metaphorical heart has long been considered as the locus of emotions across many cultures and many years.  Science has corrected those misassumptions, but those earlier views continue to influence how we talk about our hearts today.

Looking back on this past year, I realized that the isolation of COVID and the progressive nature of living with heart failure had taken its toll on me.  I had become not only more isolated, but also less adventuresome. But after the mitral clip procedure and the addition of new medications,  I began to experience renewed energy and desire to re-engage with life, my passions and pursuits. I have more gratitude for my cardiologists and the medical team than I can adequately express.  It’s that experience that has informed how I want to live my life in the year ahead:  with heart.  It’s no wonder I found myself singing the lyrics from the 1955 Tony award winning musical, Damn Yankees:

You’ve gotta’ have heart
All you really need is heart
When the odds are sayin’ you’ll never win
That’s when the grin should start
You’ve gotta’ have hope
Mustn’t sit around and mope…

(Lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross)

The writer Judith Campbell once reminded us, “When the heart speaks, take good notes.” To be certain I do, I’m printing out the word “heart,” framing it and placing it on my desk, where each day, it can remind me to take actions inspired by what it means to live with heart.

How can I express it best? I often think of a favorite  poem by e.e.cummings, simply titled “53,” one that sums up so much of what living with heart includes:

may my heart always be open to little

birds who are the secrets of living

whatever they sing is better than to know

and if men should not hear them men are old…

(From: 100 Selected Poems, 1954)

A Writing Suggestion for the New Year

Why not try defining your intentions for the coming year in a single word?  It is, as I have experienced, a rich and meaningful exercise.

I wish you a new year filled with good health, happiness and heart.

~Sharon

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December 19, 2022: Holiday Traditions

Late December: the scent of pine trees adorned with colored lights and candles and family traditions repeated year after year: It is a time of celebration, of rituals, of coming together to share in holiday celebrations, family traditions cherished and remembered. Family stories of holidays past are told and retold. We join in singing familiar songs known since childhood, and we prepare and the holiday meal.  Yet all too soon, this time in December also signals the solstice, and with the advent of winter, the passing of another year.

Finding the time to write may well be difficult in this busy season, yet many memories of holidays past will be triggered or recalled. Some holiday memories are often happy or humorous but others can sometimes be sad. That’s true of my own—there were wonderful times of warmth, celebration and laughter, but sometimes, losses, family tensions, sorrow. If you are inspired to write during the holidays, then think about some of the lasting memories of your past holiday celebrations: the traditions, people who mattered, place, events and time. Why are they memorable?  What emotions do they trigger? Why?

As I end this brief post, I am including an excerpt of the poem, “Toward the Winter Solstice” by Timothy Steele, because it not only acknowledges some of the shared enjoyment of the holiday season–no matter what religious backgrounds we enjoy. And amid the lights and color, the poet signals the awareness of the solstice and end of another year.

Although the roof is just a story high,
It dizzies me a little to look down.
I lariat-twirl the cord of Christmas lights
And cast it to the weeping birch’s crown…

Friends, passing home from work or shopping, pause
And call up commendations or critiques.
I make adjustments. Though a potpourri
Of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and Sikhs,
We all are conscious of the time of year;
We all enjoy its colorful displays
And keep some festival that mitigates
The dwindling warmth and compass of the days…

From:   Toward the Winter Solstice,  2006 (excerpt)

Thanks to each of you who follow this blog, I wish you the happiest of holidays, filled with the stories, the small delights, and the warmth of family and friends.    

Until January,

Sharon

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December 4, 2022: When Old Pain Resurfaces

It’s been over a week since I received “Happy Thanksgiving” wishes from some of my American friends, unaware perhaps, that Canada’s Thanksgiving occurs in early October.   Yet I do have wonderful childhood memories of the U.S. Thanksgiving holidays, celebrated with my father’s extended family in Northern California.  I had hoped to be able to  introduce my husband to the fun of a Bray family Thanksgiving, but by the time we returned to California, the once annual family celebrations were simply memories.  Then, within little more than a  year after our return, my father was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer and died three months later, on Thanksgiving Day, 1992.  For years afterward, the November anniversary  served only to ignite the sense of loss of my father’s death and in its wake, the unexpected estrangement from my siblings.

For years, the old pain would surface each November.  My journal pages were filled with memories of my father’s death and the hurtful aftermath.  I wrote to try to make some sense of it.   Yet, gradually the pain softened, helped by time and our return to Toronto.  Yet each November, my father’s memory would be reignited, and with it, sorrow.  This year,  even with my friends’ holiday wishes, the date passed without the events and sorrow associated with my father’s death.  It had taken years to rid myself of the painful remembrance of that time.

 It can happen to anyone.  Anniversary dates of painful or traumatic events seem to stir up old emotions and memories.  Psychologists tell us that more  times than not, anniversaries associated with loss, trauma or serious illnesses are remembered in greater  detail and can trigger old emotional pain.   Some researchers think that the tendency to remember negative events more acutely than positive ones may have evolutionary roots and adaptive value, allowing our brains to apply this knowledge in similar situations and protect us from happening again (The Washington Post, November 1, 2018). 

It’s called the “anniversary effect” and  refers to the disturbing feelings, thoughts or memories that resurface  on or near a  date marking a significant or traumatic event. Old painful memories may resurface, something like an “annual echo” of a personal trauma. Those old emotions, thoughts or memories may signal you’ve not yet fully recovered from your experience.

Somehow, our bodies know…the weather changes or we pass a familiar date…

—  Ariela Paulsen, 2021

Writing in The Mighty Well blog, Ariela Paulsen notes that remembering events like a cancer diagnosis, serious illnesses, or loss can spark a sudden shift to coming face-to-face with your own mortality.  The new awareness takes an emotional toll.  As the  “anniversary” of those events occurs, old memories, sadness, irritability and other emotions can resurface.  It’s named  “The Anniversary Effect,” and refers to resurfacing of disturbing memories and emotions on the “anniversary” of a significant and or traumatic event from the past.  It’s like an “echo” of past trauma, and reliving those sorrows is a natural part of the healing process. 

Among the men and women who attend my writing workshops, memories of those painful or traumatic events are often first to be recalled and expressed.  The writing that emerges is raw, emotional and descriptive.  It may elicit strong emotions, but  there’s an advantage to  plumbing those depths.  As individuals begin to make sense of difficult memories and emotions, insight occurs .  Those painful  memories are not forgotten, but the sorrow and anger associated with them begins to soften, allowing healing to occur.   

There’s a saying that time heals all wounds.  Perhaps it does, but not without remembering and articulating the memories of our painful or traumatic experiences.  In doing so, we can begin to see our things in a new light and make sense of those difficult life events.  The first step is to confront the memories and discover ways to get yourself “through” what might be a painful or anniversary set of memories. The American Psychological Association offers the following suggestions to help:  apa.org/topics/trauma/anniversary-traumatic event

  • Recognize and acknowledge your feelings; this is part of the healing process.  Remember that your feelings are temporary.
  • Find healthy ways to cope with your emotional distress.  Focusing on other activities, like taking a walk, writing, or reading can help.
  • Remember and celebrate, whether for loved ones lost or having survived the diagnosis and treatment that come with a serious illness.
  • Remember that you have a support system in friends and family.  Or, you may choose to seek help from a counselor or therapist.  Don’t isolate yourself.

For me, writing has been a significant and useful way to express and understand the pain or emotions of difficult life experiences.  It’s why I continue to lead expressive writing workshops for those who are facing serious and life-threatening illnesses, because, in part, it’s helped me navigate through more than one difficult and emotional life event.

Writing has helped me heal.  Writing has changed my life.  Writing has saved my life.

–Louise DeSalvo, (Writing as a Way of Healing:How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives,) 1999)

Writing for Healing: 

What is the story you need to tell?  Why not try writing it?

  1. Begin with your memories: 
  2. What happened?  Describe the event:  place, time, etc.   Use as much detail as you can.
  3. What emotions did you feel at the time the event occurred?
  4. What is most painful about those memories?   
  5. What helps you in dealing with the emotions of that painful or traumatic event?  Writing?  Therapy?  Other activities?
  6. What insights have you gained from your experiences?

 (A recommended resource:  The Story You Need to Tell, by Sandra Marinella, 2017)

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October 30, 2022: Revision: Seeing Life in a New Light

I’ve been thinking about revision a lot these past many days.  Not so much the revision of previous stories I’ve written, but how revision is an ongoing process in life.  There are similarities between the two.  Revision in writing demands we let go of paragraphs, words, even entire pages to create the story we desire.  Revision in life is also about letting go, acknowledging choices and changes to be made as we experience losses, changes in health and circumstances, or simply grow older.

I think of the adjustments to my life as someone living with heart failure and those of the men and women in my different writing groups.  Living with a life threatening illness or a progressive condition like heart failure, forces us to confront mortality, no matter the age or condition.  Letting go, revising our lives and assumptions, is part of the reality of a life changed by debilitating or terminal illness.  Yet revision is something we all face at every life stage.  Our bodies change; our lives take turns we never planned; we lose friends or family members or experience unforeseen devastation. Think of those who survived the recent, destructive hurricanes from Florida to Newfoundland.

Clinging to a past that no longer applies to our present only seeds depression or regret.    Letting go of those worn out parts of our past is a necessary process, like “spring” cleaning: deciding what to keep, what to discard.  It’s what we do at every stage of our lives. Yet not unlike the writer’s work of revision, it is a process that allows you to see things in a new light—if you let it.   The poet Naomi Shihab Nye described revision as “a beautiful word of hope… a new vision of something.”

“A … new vision of something…”  Revision, borrowed from the French and derived from Latin, essentially means “to look, or see, again.” Check your dictionary and you’ll find synonyms like reexamine, reassess, rethink, alter, modify and change.  It’s what we do naturally whenever we try to make sense out of something that forces us to alter the course of our lives. 

Things happen to us; we make choices or take actions that influence events and outcomes. Yet sometimes, our own life stories can be the most difficult to understand.   In You Must Revise Your Life, poet William Stafford wrote about the revision process—not only in writing, but in life.  “My life in writing…comes to me as parts,” he stated, “like two rivers that blend.  One part is easy to tell:  the times, the places, events, and people.  The other part is mysterious; it is my thoughts, the flow of my inner life, the reveries and impulses that never get known—[it] wanders along at its own pace…” 

I’ve had Stafford’s words in my mind as I ‘ve thought about the past two years:  how my own and others’ lives were affected by the COVID pandemic, how insular we became, and how interactions with one another were more often virtual than in person.  It was a strange existence, and in many ways, I do not feel I’ve regained the life I had before COVID.  As I approach a more “normal” life, I realize I’m more cautious, quieter and much too accustomed to being indoors than I would like.

I’ve also realized how much my expressive writing workshops “fed” my spirit and creativity for the past two years, even though the Zoom experience is not nearly as “alive” as those I routinely led in person. My Zoom fatigue hit home this week, when I had to cancel an expressive writing workshop for the first time in 22 years!  The cold and flu season had begun; there were more absentees than is usual, and I, too, was hit hard with a vicious head cold.  I felt a vague sense of loss for days afterward.

It’s rather disturbing to me how we have become so “accustomed” to Zoom.  Many classes and meetings are still offered virtually for many of us, hybrid for some.  This week, I found myself remembering when I routinely led my writing groups in person. Just this morning, I was sorting through my old workshop materials I’d all but forgotten how routinely I incorporated a variety of photos, music and objects as part of the writing exercises I offered in my groups.  Face-to-face sessions meant I could easily organize the group into dyads or triads for certain exercises.  Sessions ran for two full hours instead of 90 minutes, allowing longer writing times and more opportunity for participants to share their writing aloud.  But that was then, before the pandemic altered virtually everything we once assumed was a “given.”

Reading bits of Stafford’s book was a good reminder that I, too, have to let the material of my present life talk back to me and find ways to see it anew. Revising one’s life, Stafford reminds us, is to embrace whatever happens—in things and in language.  “The language changes,” he says, and “you change, the light changes…Dawn comes, and it comes for all, but not on demand.” 
   
Letting go. It’s not easy for any of us.   Change can be unsettling.  Learning to embrace whatever happens?  Finding new ways to do the work we love?  Navigating life with illnesses that impact our daily activities?  That takes intention and courage.  And it takes patience.  Like the writers I admire, I’m trying embrace the changing material of my now life—and let it talk back to me.  I’m still struggling with finding the right lens to be able to see things anew, but I remind myself that insight and the “right” choices will come as they come, gradually and in time.

So to you, Friend, I confide my secret:

to be a discoverer you hold close whatever

you find, and after a while you decide

what it is. Then, secure in where you have been,

you turn to the open sea and let go.

From:  “Security,” by William Stafford, in:  Passwords, ©1991)

WRITING SUGGESTIONS

  • Whether after the two years of COVID or your life changing as a result of a medical diagnosis, look over your life.
    • What has changed?  What adjustments to your previous life have you had to make?
    • What have your retained? What have you let go?
    • How, from these experiences, have you had to revise your life?
      • You might start with a list: two columns, one labelled “Before” and the other, “After.” Simply list as many ways in which your life has changed or requires revision: a chance to see “anew” or “differently?” How do you feel about it?
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September 27, 2022: Finding Gratitude in Paying Attention

There’s a book of poetry I love, one I return to periodically to read in its entirety.  Ted Kooser’s Winter Morning Walks:  One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison was published in 1999, after Kooser had recovered from prostate cancer during the autumn of 1998.  In the preface, Kooser describes how the book came about:

During the previous summer, depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment…feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing… In the autumn of 1998, during my recovery from surgery and radiation for cancer, I began taking a two-mile walk each morning… hiking down the isolated country roads near where I live… One morning in November…I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem.  Soon I was writing every day…Several years before, my friend Jim Harrison and I had carried on a correspondence in haiku…I began pasting my morning poems on postcards and sending them to Jim….as autumn began to fade and winter come on, my health began to improve.

What I love most about this little book of postcard poems to his friend, is its portrayal of someone whose spirit, sensibilities and gratitude are reawakened by the beauty in the natural world around him as he recovers from the ravages of illness and treatment. Each poem is only a few lines each, preceded by a notation on the weather, for example, “breezy and warm;” “sunny and clear;” “six inches of new snow.”  Each poem is an observation, yet rich in detail and imagery t often leading to a reflection or insight. For example,

Despite his recovery from surgery and radiation, Kooser’s poems do not focus on cancer, but we are aware of its presence in his life as in these two lines:

My wife and I walk the cold road

In silence, asking for thirty more years…

However, the word “cancer” enters into Kooser’s vocabulary infrequently, instead, emphasizing his delights in nature:

I saw the season’s first bluebird
this morning, one month ahead
of its scheduled arrival.  Lucky I am
to go off to my cancer appointment
having been given a bluebird, and,
for a lifetime, have been given
this world.

It is this daily practice of talking his early morning walks, that defines Kooser’s recovery and his gradual awakening the life around him. He shows us not only his physical recovery, but more:  his spiritual recovery:  life after cancer, yes, but with emphasis on the word, “life.”  His poems reflect his and gratitude for life, for the small gifts he observes each day.  Every poem is a reminder to the reader to pay attention and notice the world around us.  It is a necessary prescription for reclaiming ourselves in the midst of serious illness and recovery. 

During the weeks of uncertainty and worry, waiting to find out if I would qualify for a mitral valve clip, I slipped into a constant state of feeling empty.  My heart’s functioning had worsened.  Worry and blues were constant companions.  I continued my morning writing practice more out of comfort than inspiration, but I had little to fill the pages of my notebook.  My daily gratitude list grew shorter. My spirits were down, and any inspiration I hoped for was out of reach.

During that time, I was inspired by a “100 day” project from author and cancer survivor, Suelika Jaouad, who had begun watercolor painting to express her cancer experience, I embarked on a 100 day project of my own:  writing haiku each morning at the conclusion of my writing practice. Just seventeen syllables, three lines, it seemed about as much as I could muster in my state of emotional lassitude.

The “prescription” took, and now, many weeks later, I continue the practice of writing a haiku to capture my observations and reflections as part of my morning routine.   I doubt any haiku I’ve written are particularly poetic or profound, but that isn’t the point of the exercise.  That simple daily practice reminds me to pay attention, and use the haiku to capture my observations and reflections.  It heightens my feelings of gratitude, serving as a kind of re-awakening, pulling me out of my doldrums.

Paying attention is the work of writing– whatever form of writing you do—and it includes being attentive both your internal and external worlds. Mary Oliver, whose finely honed observations of nature defined much of her poetry, gives you a glimpse of how noticing– paying attention–takes us out of ourselves and into the world around us.  Her poem, “Gratitude,” asks–and answers—eight simple questions, inviting you to pay attention..  I’ve often used her questions as a personal writing exercise in my writing groups.   

Oliver’s poem is a pattern of questions and responses.  She begins with “What did you notice?”

The dew snail;
the low-flying sparrow;
the bat, on the wind, in the dark…

She continues with the form, a question and response, throughout the poem, for example:

What was most wonderful?

…the sea lying back on its long athlete’s spine.
 
What did you think was happening?

 
 …so the gods shake us from our sleep.


(From:  What Do We Know)

“So the gods shake us from our sleep…”  Every writer knows the importance of paying attention to details, to finding linkages between what we notice and how we find meaning in what we notice, as Oliver, Kooser, and other writers remind us.  It is also about slowing down and being attentive to the present, to what’s right in front of your eyes, discovering not only the beauty, but your emotions and reflections to inform your writing.  As the writer Anne Lamott observed, “There is ecstasy in paying attention.”          

 “At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world,
Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive.
  You empty yourself and wait, listening.”

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Writing Suggestion:

This week, open yourself to really noticing the world around you. Look out the window, take a walk, meander along a trail in the woods or near a stream or the sea.  Take in the wealth of sights, sounds, and seasons that are Nature’s gifts.   When you return, take out your notebook and write.  Take just one thing you noticed, describe it, reflect on it.  Perhaps there’s a metaphor waiting to be discovered that informs your feelings, a description of something you want to remember, a poem or a notebook entry.    Follow wherever the observation inspires takes you.   

Happy Writing,

Sharon

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September 5, 2022: Hiatus? What Hiatus?

In my most recent post of June 5th, I wrote about my intentions to take a time of respite and renewal, including a break from my workshops and this blog.  If you’ve remembered times of making  good intentions in your lives, you know that more often than not,  we fail to realize them.  I am no exception.

 As I began my “vacation” from my regular activities, I envisioned writing the family stories I’ve wanted to capture so long.  I imagined long relaxing walks with my dog in Toronto’s parks and nearby trails.  I wanted that relaxed time to nourish my spirit, body and creative energy.  It’s three months later, and few, if any, of those intentions were realized.  Yet now,  September has begun, students are heading back to classes, and  for those of us whose lives have long  been tied to the rhythm of an academic year, I feel a persistent drive “to get back to work again.”  That has begun here, with this first blog after my summer hiatus.  And just as in my youth,  when first day of grade school typically  involved a written assignment, often entitled, “How I Spent My Summer,”  my current post is my adult version of that grade school assignment.

I still remember the excitement of that first day in a new grade, my new pencil poised  over a fresh sheet of blue-lined paper, and in my very best handwriting, recounting the highlights of my summer vacation.   Summertime meant long afternoons at the community swimming pool, camping trips and waterskiing at Northern California lakes, fishing with my father in nearby rivers, the imaginative expeditions with other neighborhood children, moving carefully through barbed wire fences to explore and create adventures among pine trees, hills, manzanita “fortresses,” the “rockpiles,” and taking along coffee tins for  blackberry picking, our lips turning purple with the juices. 

In the long summer evenings, we gathered again to play softball or touch football in the street, turn cartwheels on our lawns, have sleepovers under the stars in our backyards, or create mini-fairs or plays to entertain our parents.  Sometimes, we piled into our family  station wagon as my father drove the 650 miles to Southern California to visit our relatives.  I had no shortage of experiences to write about in that first back-to-school assignment.  My summers were filled with  imaginative play,  adventures and fun.

Yet this summer has been a far cry from the fun of my childhood or my well intended plans for a time of renewal.  As I reflect on the summer I experienced vs. the one I intended, the memories are not of a period of respite or renewal, but rather a roller coaster ride of emotion: worry, hope, disappointment, renewed hope and near the end, gratitude, all defining my days and nights from June to the middle of August.

It began in late spring with follow-up medical appointments after some worrisome heart episodes in late spring.  When I met with my cardiologist and learned that my mitral valve was “leaking,” regurgitating about 50%  of the oxygenated blood from the upper chamber, which explained why I was increasingly fatigued and winded whenever I walked up hill or at too brisk a pace.   An additional medication was added to my daily regiment to better regulate my heart beat, a transesophageal cardiogram scheduled and I was referred to a team of cardiologists to evaluate my suitability for a mitral valve clip.   The month of June dragged on as I waited  for the decision:  would I qualify for the procedure or not? Waiting, as so many of you already know,  is a large part of the medical experience that accompanies illness and disease, expressed so clearly in Robert Carroll’s poem, “What Waiting Is.”  Here’s an excerpt:

You know what waiting is.
If you know anything, you know what waiting is.
It’s not about you.
    This is about
illness and hospitals and life and death…

       (In:  What Waiting Is, 1998)

June was consumed by waiting.  As the weeks dragged on without any decision from the doctors, my emotional life was defined by increased anxiety and worry that I might not be accepted for the procedure.  Hopefulness turned to doubt, and four weeks later, when the head of the medical team informed me I had been rejected as a viable candidate for the procedure given the damage done to my heart, my spirits plunged.   But my cardiologist called shortly afterward to see how I was feeling and offered another possibility for hope.  I’m lucky that she is a doctor who “fights” for the best interests of her patients and is not one to take “no” for an answer until every option has been explored.  She had immediately referred my results to a cardiologist practicing at a different hospital than she does, someone described as “doing some magic” with mitral clips for difficult cases. “Magic” was sounding pretty darn good to me.  In less than two weeks after initially being turned down at my regular cardiac clinic, I was admitted for a mitral valve procedure with the “magician” cardiologist.   A day later, I returned home for a brief recovery period, two mitral valve clips successfully installed and functioning well.

Although I never imagined my summer would be consumed by my physical health, I have emerged from it with a sense of renewal:  more physical energy and stamina, the pleasure of walking without stopping to catch my breath every block or two, and an enduring sense of gratitude for the determination, support and skill of my doctors and the compassionate nurses who card for me pre-and post-procedure.    I am also deeply grateful for the support of my family and friends scattered around Canada, the US and Japan.   The wisdom of my 13 year old my grandson summed it all up: “Keep your spirits up,” he wrote, “remember that more people are there for you than you think.” 

He was right.  I am one lucky woman.  Summer intentions aside, the experience of these past weeks has been an extraordinary gift.   That’s life, I guess, and I am very grateful for the one I have.

“Starfish” by Ellen Lerman

This is what life does. It lets you walk up to

the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a

stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have

your eggs, your coffee…Then it sits a fisherman

down beside you at the counter who says, “Last night

the channel was full of starfish.” And you wonder

is this a message, finally, or just another day?

***

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the

pond, where whole generations of biological

processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds

speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,

they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old

enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?

***

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one

who never had any conditions, the one who waited

you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that

you are lucky…

***

So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your

late night dessert. (Pie for the dog as well.) And

then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,

while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,

with smiles on their starry faces as they head

out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.

(From: Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds, 2005)

Writing Suggestions

  • Write about a time when your good intentions went awry. What were the intentions? What got in the way of your acting on them? What happened? What, if anything, did you learn from the experience.
  • Go back in memory to your youth. Think of the summer, once school was out, and the opportunities for fun, play and new adventures was yours. Write about one summer (or more) that stands out most in your memory. Why?
  • Life doesn’t always go as we’d planned, and yet, we can discover new ways of being, new opportunities, even gratitude despite life not behaving as we intended for ourselves. Has that happened to you? Write about such a time, the new insights or gifts you discovered when your life took a different turn.

Happy Writing,

Sharon

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June 5, 2022: A Time Out for Renewal

The image and wisdom portrayed in this illustration by Maurice Sendak in Ruth Krause’s children’s book, Open House for Butterflies (1960) is one of my enduring favorites, and now, as our Canadian summer has finally begun and a busy season of writing workshops draws to a close, I am craving a period for renewal and solitude.  I am utterly Zoom weary, and I find I am spending the better part of my morning writing practice staring out of the window, a drift of random thoughts in my mind.  Yes, it’s time for a pause, taking long walks near streams, Lake Ontario, and the ravines and trails that populate our city and province. I crave the space and time without any deadlines or Zoom meetings filling my days.

In the two years that Covid has dominated our lives, the many weeks of encouraging and hearing the experiences and stories of those who live with cancer, organ transplant or cardiac conditions, the fragility and uncertainty of life reminds me to take nothing for granted.  In past weeks, I’ve also been reminded that my heart failure continues to progress, and I am now waiting on test results to determine for a mitral valve clip is an option for the next steps in my treatment.  The round of medical tests has also been a factor in my craving for solitude and renewal, to “be quiet near a little stream and listen.”

British psychiatrist, Anthony Storr, in his 1988 book, Solitude:  A Return to the Self, wrote that the capacity to be alone is important for our brains to function at their best.   “Learning, thinking, innovation, and maintaining contact with one’s own inner world are all facilitated by solitude,” he stated.

Having the capacity for what psychoanalyst Adam Phillips called “fertile solitude” is essential for not only creativity, but our happiness.  Without time and space unburdened from external input and social strain, we are less able to “fully inhabit” our interior lives, which are the raw material of all art. (https://www.themarginalian.org/2014/07/18/adam-phillips-on-risk-and-solitude/)

My final expressive writing workshop series for this season ends in a week and a half.  I will be taking the summer for a break from Zoom and deadlines, instead, using the time to be quiet and engage with my own wandering thoughts.  I have long been someone who cherishes time for quiet reflection to renew my spirit and creativity.  Renewal–a time of quiet and solitude–without the need to produce something–is the fertile ground for the new ideas and re-energizing that inspires the work I do with others.  It is precious time to simply enjoy life without schedules and external demands on my time.-something recognized valuable not only by psychologists, but writers and poets too.

“When from our better selves we have too long
been parted by the hurrying world and droop,
sick of its business, of its pleasures tires,
how gracious, how benign, is Solitude.
–W. Wordsworth

Finally, I am taking a break from bi-weekly posts on my blog.  During the next several weeks, please feel free to access the archive for past posts and writing suggestions.  Meanwhile, my thanks to you for following and reading my blog. Hopefully, you find some inspiration of your own from the musings I write. I’ll be back online as summer begins to fade.

Wishing you a pleasant summer, a time to enjoy nature, nourish and renew your spirits.

Sharon

Anniversaries: Markers of Life Lived

He remembers the day with roses,

one for each healthy year, five pink buds,

not red.  Red reminds too much

of blood, the counting of cells…

But she is here, to take in his arms tonight

And tell her she is still beautiful…

(From: “Five Year Anniversary,” by Kymberly Stark Williams, In:  The Cancer Poetry Project, 2001, Karin Miller, ed.)

This past week, my husband and I drove to Niagara-on-the Lake for quiet celebration of our 33rd wedding anniversary.  It was a lovely two days, and like any anniversary, inevitably led to reminiscences:  who we were then, significant events along the way, and appreciations of our continuing life together. 

Yet there are other anniversary dates that linger in our memories.  Every July, I, along with my daughters, pause to remember when their father, my first husband, died tragically in a drowning accident.  The memories of that day remain vivid, along with the many, many months of grieving and upheaval.  Now, as I remember him on that day, there is a softer nostalgia coupled with the wish that he could witness what extraordinary women our daughters have become.

Another anniversary occurred twenty-two years ago, just the day before my 11th wedding anniversary. I sat in a physician’s office and heard the word, “cancer,” for the first time.  I was numbed by shock and disbelief. Now, I rarely remember that time, overshadowed by the ways in which my life changed for the better in the years that followed.  With the support of my husband and his encouragement, I embarked on a new and different direction and began my first writing workshops for cancer patients, something for which I continue and for which I am deeply grateful. 

The workshops I also now facilitate for cardiac patients also emerged out of my “lived experience,” diagnosed with heart failure just weeks before my first grandchild, was due.  I burst into tears when the cardiologist delivered my diagnosis. “I can’t die yet! My first grandchild is about to be born!” He quietly reassured me: “You aren’t going to die, not yet anyway.”  Less than a month later, my grandson was born, and I was on hand to hold him in my arms.  That was over thirteen years ago, but I still remember the joy of his birth, and I remain grateful that I have been able to witness not only his growth year after year, but those of my two younger granddaughters.

Whether birthdates, weddings or loss of loved ones, serious illnesses, a nation’s tragedy–memories and poignancy are part of anniversary dates . We remember where we were, what we were doing, and even old emotions may rise to the surface.  In the first years following loss, tragedy or trauma, anniversary dates can still ignite strong emotions–grief, old fears, relief, or happiness.  Rituals or celebrations marking those anniversaries are one way to remember losses or mark a significant event in our lives, but they also offer a chance to reflect on our lives and move on.

Our anniversaries are an important part of life. Celebrations and rituals can be an important and meaningful way to assist in healing, a way to acknowledge your experience and place it into the context of your whole life.  In the weeks before his death from lung cancer on Thanksgiving Day, 1992, my father asked us to not linger in sorrow, but instead, invite extended family and friends to share their humorous stories of his life over a glass of Jack Daniels whiskey.  We still mark the anniversary of his passing each November with a toast to my father, a ritual preserving the man we knew in life—not death—and as someone who always appreciated a good tale and laughter.

Certain milestones may recede in importance as life goes on.  The pain of loss diminishes.  New joys and hopes are discovered; new chapters of life created.  I often share the words of novelist Alice Hoffman with my cancer writing groups.  Recalling her cancer experience in a 2001 New York Times article, Hoffman wrote, “An insightful, experienced oncologist told me that cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter.” 

There are many ways to celebrate or honor important milestones in the in our lives.  Here are a few suggestions from a 2016 Cancer Net article by Greg Guthrie. While Guthrie was writing for cancer survivors, his suggestions are applicable to milestones and anniversary dates of many significant life events we all share.

While we all can experience many of the painful or difficult periods in our lives, we have less need to mark or dwell on the dates of suffering as we heal. We immerse ourselves in the work of living and gradually, move on. It doesn’t mean we forget, but rather, we learn to celebrate rather than mourn.  We give thanks.  We honor. 

Marking an Anniversary

Take time to reflect. Plan a quiet time to think about your cancer experience and reflect on the changes in your life.  Writing in a journal, taking a long walk through the redwoods, along the ocean, or anywhere you enjoy being, offers the quiet time for reflection.

Plan a special event.  One woman from an earlier cancer writing group celebrated with a trip to Costa Rica after completing treatment for a recurrence.   Why not plan something special, like a hot air balloon ride a trip somewhere you’ve always wanted to take, or a celebratory gathering with family and friends.

Donate or volunteer.
When I first joined the ranks of “cancer survivor,” it was a turning point.  I returned to writing and shortly, initiated the first of my expressive writing groups for individuals living with cancer.  That initial series has grown and expanded to include cardiac and transplant patients, as well as others.  I never saw the workshops as an “occupation,” but rather a “vocation”, meaning taken from the Latin “vocare,” work of the heart.

Join an established celebration. Many of us have walked, run, or participated in support of one of the annual walks hosted by patient advocacy groups or national organizations.

Celebrate your way.  Celebrating milestones doesn’t have to involve elaborate or expensive activities.  Simply do something you truly enjoy.  Take a walk along the seashore or through a public garden, go to a film or the theater with a friend, place flowers on a loved one’s gravesite, or, share time with family or friends, those who supported you during the roller coaster of treatment and recovery.  The difficult periods in our lives or “anniversaries” significant loss and serious illness, is not as Alice Hoffman reminded us, our whole book, just a chapter.  Celebrate your life.

The time will come 
when, with elation 
you will greet yourself arriving 
at your own door, in your own mirror 
and each will smile at the other’s welcome, 

and say, sit here. Eat. 
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart 
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you 

all your life, whom you ignored 
for another, who knows you by heart. 
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, 

the photographs, the desperate notes, 
peel your own image from the mirror. 
Sit. Feast on your life. 

(“Love after Love,” by Derek Walcott, in Sea Grapes, Noonday Press, 1976)

Writing Suggestions:

  • What anniversary dates are important to you?  Why?
  • Which do you remember most vividly? What images or feelings do those dates evoke?
  • Write the story behind an anniversary date.  What happened?  Why was it important to you? How did your life change because of it? 
  • How do you honor your anniversaries of those challenging life events? 

May 1, 2022: The Rx of Friendship

I’ve been living with the progressive condition of heart failure for over 13 years now. And for the bulk of that time, I have been relatively stable.  That long period of stability was recently disrupted, however, by an “episode” or two of nearly losing consciousness in late March, which resulted in some hastily arranged tests, lab work and  appointments with different members of UHN’s cardiology team.  While I consider myself lucky to have the extraordinary quality of medical care than I do, the impact of the past few weeks was more emotional for me than I anticipated.  In truth, my emotions took a veritable ride on a roller coaster following this latest episode. 

As part of the ongoing treatment and evaluation, another medication has been added to my growing handful of pills, and I’m scheduled for a transesophageal cardiogram later this month to determine if I am a viable candidate for a mitral clip, which could help minimize the leakage from my mitral valve.  “Progressive” has taken on more meaning, disrupting my sleep with late night intrusions of worry and anxiety.    It’s no surprise then, that my emotions have been in a bit of a slump.  Yet, thanks to the tender care and concern from my husband, daughters and some wonderful Toronto friends, my mood has finally lightened.

 “Oh you gotta’ have friends,” Bette Midler belted out on her 1972 album, The Divine Miss M.  How well I know that.  During the aftermath of my first husband’s death many years ago, I nearly wore a permanent groove in the vinyl, playing that  one song again and again. Thousands of miles from my family, I was in sore need of friends, and thankfully, I had them in a  handful of dear Nova Scotian friends who stood by me, offering immeasurable support and love to my daughters and me.  I have never forgotten their concern, support and love—and I remain connected with them now, even all these years later.

I am grateful to have a  handful of enduring friendships in my life–one even going back to grade school.  Yet in this extended time of COVID and its variants, my husband and I have seen or heard far less of our friends than we usually do.  I’ve missed the conversations, comfort and closeness that are unique to long friendships.  So it was a dose of good medicine to be invited to our friends’ home for a casual Friday evening dinner together—all of us still only slowly venturing into public places.  But that afternoon,  I had been out of sorts, my blues lingering like a relentless band of low pressure.   I finally complained that I really didn’t feel like going out. “Too late to cancel,” my husband said. “Besides, it’ll do you good.”   He was right:  it did. 

Our friends are wonderful hosts, and dinners together are always relaxed, with great conversation and more than a little laughter. Friday evening was no exception, and the time together did much to raise my spirits.  When we stood to don our coats for the ride home, our hostess remarked, “It’s good to see you smile, Sharon.”  I realized how true her words were.  It felt good to smile, to share stories around the table and bask in the warmth of our friendship.  I was still smiling as we got into the car, and two hours later, as I got into bed, the smile remained. I was grateful for the evening and the friendship we shared.  Then again last night, another friend invited us for dinner on the spur of the moment.  There was no special occasion, she said, “I just want to do it.”  Later, as we returned home , any lingering doldrums I felt had been feeling had completely vanished.  I felt more like “myself” again, something I owe to the good medicine of close friends.   

Lydia Denworth, author and contributing editor at Scientific American, whose book, Friendship:  The Evolution, Biology and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond, published in 2021, sees friendship is a lifelong endeavor, something we should always be paying attention to throughout our lives.  Here I pause, remembering that there have been times, despite how important my friendships are to me,  that I have sometimes let them take a back seat to an over busy, over demanding life.   Yet it is our friendships we benefit from, as research  has demonstrated many times, helping us find meaning or purpose in life, and important to our health and longevity.   “Good friends are good for your health,” the Mayo Clinic states,  and matter to our health in multiple ways:

 “Friends… play a significant role in promoting your overall health. Adults with strong social support have a reduced risk of many significant health problems, including depression, high blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index (BMI). Studies have even found that older adults with a rich social life are likely to live longer than their peers with fewer connections.

Do you remember the song “You’ve Got a Friend?”  Written and first recorded by Carole King in 1971, singer James Taylor’s recording of it that same year became the number one song on Billboard’s “Hot 100.”  It’s been sung and recorded by many other vocalists since, the lyrics an enduring testimony to the importance of those true and enduring friendships in our lives.

[Chorus]

You just call out my name

And you know wherever I am

I’ll come runnin’

To see you again.

Winter, spring, summer or fall

All you have to do is call

And I’ll be there, yes I will

Now ain’t it good to know

that you’ve got a friend…

Writing Suggestions:

Write about friendship this week.  What role do your friendships play in your life?  Why do they matter to you?

We have more than a few good friends over time—and our friendships can change as our lives do.  Write about a best friend.  Or a friend who has been invaluable to you at a difficult time.  Or writing about losing a friend to time and distance.

How do your friends make a difference in your life?  Write about a friend whose friendship has stood the test of time and life stages.

How have you shown up as a friend for others? 

During the prolonged pandemic of the past two years, how have you sustained and nurtured your friendships, whether close or far away?

April 18, 2022: The Stories In Our Scars

For every wound there is a scar, and every scar tells a story.  A story that says, “I survived. —Fr. Craig Scott

I acquired another bodily scar this past week. Although it was only a minor brush with the metal door frame, it tore skin from my arm and bled profusely—an unfortunate side effect from medications I take for my heart condition.  It’s still healing, but I complained more about having another scar on my arm than the pain and discomfort it caused.  It will fade in time, but that is little comfort to me at the moment.  But I have complained many times before about the scars my body has accumulated over the years: some from surgeries, others from a rough and tumble rural childhood, and several from everyday minor mishaps.  Yet, like them or not, each scar holds a memory and often, a larger story associated with it, not unlike the one in a poem by author Michael Ondaatje. It begins:

A girl whom I’ve not spoken to
or shared coffee with for several years
writes of an old scar

On her wrist it sleeps, smooth and white,
the size of a leech.
I gave it to her 
brandishing a new Italian penknife
. Look, I said turning,
and blood spat onto her shirt.
..

My hand moves reflexively to the scar behind my hairline as I write this sentence.  The scar is decades old, but still visible if I pull my hair back from my face.  Narrow and pale, it runs from one ear over the top of my head down to the other.  It’s a scar that carries the story of a childhood bicycle accident, severe concussion, recovery, and later, complications that nearly resulted in death in my early teens. It is also he evidence of a gifted neurosurgeon’s work and of my survival.

Whether hidden or visible, our scars tell stories of our lives.  Near my right ankle, another scar, pale now, calls up the memory of the cold, sharp edge of a metal tent stake slicing into my leg.  I was in my teens, chasing my younger brother across a Northern California campground.  He had snatched my diary from my tent and was making a fast getaway across the campsite.  There are others scars too: a half moon on my left calf, the result of a dare to a cousin, warning me his bicycle had no brakes. I didn’t believe him. Others were acquired in adulthood:  one on my left breast, left by a surgeon’s knife, another marking the incision above my heart where my defibrillator was inserted, and still others, but ones invisible to the eye: the residue of love, loss and betrayal, emotional wounds acquired in living.

We remember the time around scars,
they freeze irrelevant emotions
and divide us from present friends
I remember this girl’s face,
the widening rise of surprise.

And would she
moving with lover or husband
conceal or flaunt it,
or keep it at her wrist
a mysterious watch.
And this scar I then remember
is a medallion of no emotion

(“The Time Around Scars,” by Michael Ondaatje, in:  The Cinnamon Peeler, 1997)

“The lessons of life,” author Wallace Stegner wrote, “amount not to wisdom, but to scar tissue and callus.” Our scars, the scar tissue we accumulate, tell the stories of living, of events that changed us:  life-saving surgery, the traces of shrapnel marring a face, disfigurement from accidents, broken hearts, and unexpected tragedies.  They are the evidence of living, of lessons painfully learned, the stories we remember and some we may try to forget. 

My mother parts her hair

and leans over

so I can touch the scar.

“No, she says, you don’t remember,”

and goes back to making the bed,

snapping a sheet

as folds of lightning spark…

The ambulance came right away,

my mother says, pulling the corners tight.

“There was no other woman…”

(“Scar,” by Wendy Mnookin, in The Cortland Review, 2001)

In a July 21st, 2009 New York Times column, Dana Jennings, editor and prostate cancer survivor, reflected on his scars and what they represented to him.

Our scars tell stories. Sometimes they’re stark tales of life-threatening catastrophes, but more often they’re just footnotes to the ordinary but bloody detours that befall us on the roadways of life…my scars remind me of the startling journeys that my body has taken — often enough to the hospital or the emergency room…

But for all the potential tales of woe that they suggest, scars are also signposts of optimism. If your body is game enough to knit itself back together after a hard physical lesson, to make scar tissue, that means you’re still alive, means you’re on the path toward healing.

Scars, perhaps, were the primal tattoos, marks of distinction that showed you had been tried and had survived the test… in this vain culture our vanity sometimes needs to be punctured and deflated — and that’s not such a bad thing. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, better to be a scarred and living dog than to be a dead lion.

Winged Victory, a pictorial essay celebrating women survivors of breast cancer by photographer Al Myers, featured women half-clothed, breast scars visible.  However, Myers portrayed them as more than survivors.  They were all victors, scarred, yes, but beautiful.  In the book’s foreword, Stanford psychiatrist Dr. David Spiegel wrote, “…they present their bodies and themselves with humor, sadness, vulnerability, honesty. They challenge us to look beyond what is missing, beneath the scar.”  (Winged Victory:  Altered Images:  Transcending Breast Cancer, 2009)

“To look beyond …beneath the scar.”  Jennings’ also expressed similar sentiments:  It’s not that I’m proud of my scars — they are what they are, born of accident and necessity — but I’m not embarrassed by them either. More than anything, I relish the stories they tell. Then again, I’ve always believed in the power of stories, and I certainly believe in the power of scars.

As much as I’ve sometimes bemoaned the accumulation of some of my scars, I admit I too share Jennings’ views.  Scars are testaments to living, to all that life may throw at us.  They are our medals, of a sort:  evidence of our ability to heal and survive.

SCARS

By William Stafford

They tell how it was, and how time

came along, and how it happened

again and again.  They tell

the slant life takes when it turns

and slashes your face as a friend.

Any wound is real.  In church

a woman lets the sun find

her cheek, and we see the lesson:

there are years in that book; there are sorrows

a choir can’t reach when they sing.

Rows of children life their faces of promise,

places where scars will be.

(In:  Americans’ Favorite Poems, M. Dietz & R. Pinsky, Eds.,1999)

Writing Suggestion:

Our scars: evidence of life and survival.  What stories are hidden in yours?

Using the prompt, “Every scar tells a story,” Consider the scars you’ve acquired over time, whether visible or hidden, physical or emotional.   What memories are triggered by your scars?  Choose one and tell the story beneath the scar.