May 30, 2023: A Summer Respite

Now that spring has arrived in earnest and summer is knocking at the door, my spirits have lightened, and my energy is re-charging after a long grey Toronto winter.  The days have warmed, a canopy of green softens our view of the concrete towers of downtown, and I am welcome the summer months.  It’s a time that signals not only new activities, but the chance to pursue some creative pursuits I have put on hold for too long.

For the next three months, my Zoom meetings, blog posts and weekly workshops will pause. As much as I love what I do, taking the summer off is a bit like that sense of freedom I felt as a kid when the last day of school arrived in June.   Summertime was synonymous with new adventures: swimming. hiking, mounting neighborhood circuses and theatrical performances, spending the long evenings playing “Mother, May I?” or a game of softball in the streets, and family camping trips to swim and water ski.    Nevertheless, as September drew near, I was, again, eager to return to school and begin a new year.

The advent of summer still signals a break all these years later—from the dreary indoor confinement of winter, a life filled with too many Zoom meetings, and instead, freedom to focus on regular outings: long walks, day trips, afternoons of music and easy socializing with family and friends.  Still, there is something more that the summer months offer:  a time for reflection, solitude and freedom from “to dos” or deadlines.  It’s the necessary kind of time that replenishes and fuels our spirits and our creativity.    British psychiatrist, Anthony Storr, author of Solitude:  A Return to the Self, writes about the necessity for being alone, stating “Learning, thinking, innovation, and maintaining contact with one’s own inner world are all facilitated by solitude.”

Fertile solitude,” psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes, echoing Storr, “is not only essential for creativity, but for happiness.”  Solitude, quiet reflection, and play are also the raw material of art. We need time and space away from external input and social strain in order to “fully inhabit” our interior lives—to really pay attention to life.   

For the next several weeks, I plan to also make regular time for my own kind of “fertile solitude,” turning my attention to self-renewal, a few creative activities and a longer writing project I’ve been intending to tackle for months.  Perhaps you have activities and plans for your summer–and hopefully, they will serve to renew your spirits too. My monthly schedule of blog posts will resume in September. If you are searching for “new” writing ideas, feel free to peruse the many older posts in the Archive.

To those of you who follow this blog, thank you.  I wish you a happy summer–and do keep writing!


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Looking Back: Writing and Its Potential for Healing

My husband and I were having dinner at the home of friends last evening.  The conversation was lively and interesting, as always. Peppered throughout our discussions, personal stories of loss and illness intermingled with other topics.  I was reminded that whether a pleasant evening with friends and family, or in the writing groups I lead for those living with serious illness, it’s the stories we share with one another that are at the heart of human relationships.  Stories are uniquely human. In short, we are all storytellers. Our stories, told and retold, they are the way we communicate with others, fundamental to defining who we are, what we have experienced, and how we make sense of our lives.  

It’s not only personal experiences, travel, celebrations, or the current political situation that define our stories. Suffering is too. It’s part of the universal human condition, and it’s told and retold in literature, history and memoir.  The act of writing is not only about telling our own stories, but about telling the human story. During serious illness, loss or trauma, our stories are even more important to our healing.  In his Pulitzer Prize winning book about cancer, author Siddartha Mukherjee wrote: A patient is, at first, simply a storyteller, 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.” (The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, 2010). The wisdom of his words extends far beyond cancer patients, just as meaningful for anyone living with a serious or life-threatening illness.

I’ve been looking back on my years of leading “writing for healing” groups. It was nearly twenty-three years ago that I initiated and led my first group workshop, inspired by my cancer experience and a love of writing. The first groups were for cancer patients, offering a way for them to tell and explore the experience of living with cancer, but, in the process, also explore the deeper aspects of their lives.  Since that time, I’ve continued my writing groups, expanding them to heart and organ transplant patients, the bereaved, at risk teens and many others.  Despite the many years since the first group experiences, I have never tired of these workshops.  Even yet, I am inspired and humbled by the many people who have participated and shared their stories of illness, suffering and life. 

Writing and sharing our stories does much more for us than merely describe our experiences.  They offer us release of painful emotions, a way to make sense of illness as well as our lives.  We rediscover ourselves as we write, not only in illness but who we are becoming.  Shared stories are also the language of community. Whether spoken or written, they are fundamental in helping us navigate the loneliness that comes with a serious illness, discovering a sense of community with others who are also grappling with the prospect of early mortality, or an altered life.

 “In the exchange of stories,” we help heal each other’s spirits.”

–Patrice Vecchione , Writing and the Spiritual Life (2001)

One must begin, then, by unburdening its story…” Unburdening our stories of illness or trauma helps to repair the damage to our lives, our sense of self, and the disrupted future we may face.  “Decay is the beginning of all birth,” Kat Duff wrote in The Alchemy of Illness (2000). Sociologist Arthur Frank, survivor of cancer and heart attack, commented on his experience: “I did not want my questions answered,” he said, “ I wanted my experience shared.” (At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness, 2002). We are our stories, and in the act of sharing them, we affirm our uniqueness and discover what is most meaningful.  

While serious illness can change us, perhaps, as poet Jane Hirshfield remarked, it has the capacity to “remodel us for some new fate.”   My illness experiences did that for me, but it took me time to realize it impact and change my life.   In my teens, I underwent neurosurgery for a life threatening illness, and in my adult years, cancer treatment was followed by heart failure a few years later.  Those experiences not only changed my perspective about my life, but how I wanted to define my worth in the world. Following my cancer diagnosis, I made the decision to leave the corporate world for good and return to what I loved most:  writing and encouraging others to write and share stories.  I have never looked back.

 “Recovery is only worth as much as what you learn about the life you’re regaining,” Arthur Frank wrote.  But it’s not just illness that teaches us.  Any momentous or challenging chapter of life has the potential for significant learning.  But that deep learning requires something of us.  Maxine Hong Kingston, who encouraged war veterans to write and tell their stories of war and it impact on their lives, had only one rule for the veterans who participated in her groups: Tell the truth. (In: Veterans of War; Veterans of Peace (2016).

Telling the truth of our experiences takes courage.  It’s why writing is often called “a courageous act.”  We must be willing to dive deep beneath the surface of our life experiences and do some hard soul searching.  Yet it is exactly the courage to go deep into our truths that we begin to heal and discover meaning.

Again and again, I witness the healing power of writing in my groups.  As participants write, they slowly move beyond the shock, fear, anger or sorrow and began to examine their “whole” lives as the weeks progress. It’s the buried treasure in our experiences that writing helps us discover and unearth to allow healing to begin.  Writing offers a “door in” to our deepest experiences and feelings.  All it requires is that we commit to writing honestly and deeply, unearthing our pain and suffering so that the healing potential writing is experienced.

…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 Alone or Together:  Getting Started

Where do you begin?  Anywhere.  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, mother or your younger self.  Write about the moment you first heard your diagnosis or the shock of a sudden and unexpected tragedy in your life..  simply make a list of “before _____, I was…” and “after _____, I am…” before choosing one to expand upon as you write.

Try writing for just 10 minutes for three or four days.  Find private space and time when you are least likely to be interrupted. Set a timer, then begin: a word, a phrase, an event, something you see—the possibilities are endless.  Write without stopping; go wherever it goes.  Now read it over.  Underline any words or phrases that stands out or have more emotional potency for you. The next day, use one of your phrases as a new beginning and write again as before, letting your words go where they may.  See what comes up, what changes.  Writing is not only courageous, but a reflective practice. It matters less what you write but (as the members of my groups discover) that you write.  Your mind and feelings in partnership with your pen, will ultimately take you where you “need” to go.

In the many years since I first began leading these groups, they are now much more numerous and accessible online or in person. Whether you write in a group or on your own, why not explore the healing potential of writing can have for you?

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April 3, 2023: And It’s Spring, Sweet Spring

Just 3 days ago, March 31st, the weather here in Toronto remained cold and grey as it has been for much of this season.  “It’s the worst it’s been in 75 years,” a neighbor complained to me as we were leaving our building.  The interminable gray has, with little surprise, not only been irritating, but monotonous and dreary.  “I feel like one of the children on Slimer’s Isle,” I said to a friend, referring to Mordecai Richler’s delightful children’s book, Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1975).  In it, the hero, Jacob, age six, is sent to Slimer’s Isle for punishment, a place where children never see the sun.  I’ve felt, many days this winter, similarly imprisoned by the relentless grey. 

I daydream of the springtime of my childhood in Northern California.  It seemed as if the crocuses were right on schedule, poking their heads through the soil on March 21st, the first day of Spring.  Tulips and daffodils soon followed, and, the fields behind our home were bright with yellow poppies and purple lupin within weeks.  For a child, the air seemed alive with promise and new adventures, and our world was not only full of new like, but it was “puddle wonderful” …

in Just

spring   when the world is mud-


and eddie and bill come

running from marbles and

piracies and it’s


when the world is puddle- wonderful

…hop scotch and jump-rope and



(From: [in-Just] by e.e. cummings, Complete Poems)

I checked the weather prediction for the first day of April. The prediction was for partly cloudy skies with four hours of sunshine, occasional rain. I hoped it was not the weatherman’s some kind of joke, because the temperature was predicted to rise to 12°C, and that was downright balmy by comparison the last few days of March.    Even the anticipation of a partly sunny, mild day lifted my spirits a little.

Whether the life cycle or those of illness, the four seasons are powerful metaphors for the human experience.  Marilyn Hacker’s 1994 collection, Winter Numbers, invoking the darkness and cold of winter, and detailing her breast cancer and the losses of friends to AIDS.  Barbara Crooker’s poem, “For a Friend Lying in Intensive Care Waiting for her White Blood Cells to Rejuvenate after a Bone Marrow Transplant,” is a poem of hope that uses springtime, the season of  rejuvenation and renewal, as its metaphor.

Seasonal changes affect our moods.  Some of us may experience a seasonal depression that doctors think is related to changing levels of light—hence the grey skies and the grey moods of long winters.  Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that’s actually related to changes in seasons.  It  begins and ends at about the same times every year. If you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. These symptoms often resolve during the spring and summer months.

Other health conditions can also be affected by seasonal changes.  A 2017 article from the Huffington Post described NIH studies on the relationships between changing seasons and physical health. The findings suggest that autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular events, acute gout, types 1 and 2 diabetes, hip fractures, migraines, and even emergency surgeries and mortality rates are affected by seasonal changes.

A couple of weeks ago, I complained to my daughter about the dreary weather drooping spirits, longing for the springtime of my childhood. “It’s ‘Farch,’ Mom,” she said, a term used here describe the winter months of February and March..   “I tell my students they just have to get through it every year at this time.”  Easier said than done.  I’ve fought the descent of the blues day after day.

On April 1st, however, we awakened to clear skies and sunshine, a day mild enough to walk in the afternoon with a light jacket instead of my winter coat.   I felt energized, more alive and positive than I had for weeks.   Hope, it seemed, is synonymous with Springtime.  

“I can still bring into my body the joy I felt at seeing the first trillium of spring, which seemed to be telling me, “Never give up hope, spring will come.”—Jessica Stern, author

It’s little wonder that Springtime is intricately intertwined with hope, renewal, a sense of possibility and new beginnings.  In his poem, “Today,” Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the U.S., describes the elation that Springtime brings:

If ever there were a spring day so perfect,

So uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

That it made you want to throw

Open all the windows in the house…

(From: “Today,” in: Poetry Magazine, 2000)

There’s more that Springtime does for us:  Anthony Scioli, PhD, (co-author of Hope in the Age of Anxiety, 2009), explored the relationship between hope and springtime in a 2012 Psychology Today article. “The healing potential of spring is undeniable, from affecting the remission of Seasonal Affective Disorder to the increased production of Vitamin D… involved in promoting bone health, proper cell differentiation, and boosting immunity.  Like spring, hope is a potent ally in sustaining health and recovering from illness.  Scioli noted that a recent survey of oncologists revealed that more than 90 percent cited hope as the primary psychological factor that impacts mortality.”  (Italics mine)

In the poem, “For a Friend Lying in Intensive Care Waiting for Her White Blood Cells to Rejuvenate After a Bone Marrow Transplant,” by Barbara Crooker, Springtime is a metaphor for hope.  Here is an excerpt:

The jonquils. They come back. They split the earth with

their green swords, bearing cups of light. ‘

The forsythia comes back, spraying its thin whips with

blossom, one loud yellow shout.

The robins. They come back. They pull the sun on the

silver thread of their song.

The iris come back. They dance in the soft air in silken

gowns of midnight blue.

The lilacs come back. They trail their perfume like a scarf

of violet chiffon.

And the leaves come back, on every tree and bush, millions

and millions of small green hands applauding your return.

(From:  Selected Poems, 2015)

I’m applauding the return of Spring where I live, though some inclement days may come for a week or two.   But I am already and feeling hopeful about what’s ahead. I am reminded of another favorite book, one written for children, but equally lovely for adults to enjoy.  My copy is faded and dog-eared after years of reading it aloud to preschoolers as well as adults in my writing classes.  The book’s title is simply,  Frederick, by Leo Lionni and originally published in  1967. 

Frederick is the story of a family of field mice preparing for winter.  They busily gather and store nuts and straw in their burrow, preparing for the cold,  dark days of the winter months.  All but Frederick, who seems to doze in the sunlight.  They chide him, but he explains that he is collecting sun rays and colors—his contributions to the winter supplies, “for the winter months are cold and dark.”  And sure enough,  it’s Frederick’s “supplies,” he shares in winter’s dark days, like the colors and sunrays he describes in his poems, that cheer and warm the mice,  offering them hope too.  “Why Frederick,” they chorus, “You’re a poet.  Frederick blushes and says quietly, “I know it.”

Writing Suggestions:

  • Have you experienced anything like Seasonal Affective Disorder during the winter months?  How have you managed  the blues of cold, grey winter days?
  • Do you think Springtime synonymous with hope?  Why or Why Not?
  • Return to an earlier time in your life and the memories of how it felt to finally see Spring arrive. What excited you most?
  • Write a short poem about Spring—explore the season’s sounds, sights, smells.  Use images like “mud-luscious” or “puddle-wonderful” (as in e. e. cummings’ poem, [in Just] or any descriptions of Spring you’ve found and like.
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March 4, 2023: The Healing Power of Kindness

This past month, the personal struggles of my daughter has weighed heavily on my mind and my heart.  Discussions with her about her situation have been emotional, only serving to elevate my worry, sense of helplessness and loss.   After another sleepless night last week, I called a family friend and asked to meet and talk.  I needed help to wade through the many, and often conflicting, emotions.   She was busy–in the midst of preparing for a business matter–but immediately made time for me to meet and talk.  Her compassion and objectivity were invaluable, and I left her home an hour later, not only clearer but grateful. 

“Before you know what kindness really is,” poet Naomi Shihab Nye tells us, “you must lose things…” 

feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

 (From “Kindness”, by Naomi Shihab-Nye in The Words Under The Words ©1994)

Kindness is an unselfish act, defined in Aristotle’s Rhetoric as “helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself.”  When a life hardship or serious illness strikes, our lives are challenged in multiple ways, affecting not only our bodies, but the sense of who we are.  In those human losses, the landscape between those regions of kindness, as Shihab notes, can seem desolate.  Yet, it’s often the small acts of compassion and kindness we experience from others, that offers us solace, making room for hope to find a way back in our lives. As Shihab-Nye writes,

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Even small acts of kindness from others can help soothe and raise your drooping spirits.  We often discover kindness when we least expect it–even from people you may not even know.  It may take the form of a thoughtful note sent in the mail, a call from a friend, compassion from a doctor or nurse. Larry Dossey, M.D., wrote that altruism behaves like a miracle drug…having beneficial effects on the person doing the helping as well as benefiting the person receiving the help (Meaning & Medicine, 1991).   Some authors suggest that kindness also benefits immune system functioning in both the recipient and the giver.

Kindness is an unselfish act, defined in Aristotle’s Rhetoric as “helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself…” Kindness is also an act of friendship, compassion or generosity to others, and it has a long history in humankind.  Kindness was one of the “Knightly Virtues,” a set of standards for daily life for the Knights of the Middle Ages.  Across cultures and religions, acts of kindness are valued. The Chinese philosopher Confucius urged his followers to “recompense kindness with kindness. The Talmud tells us “Deeds of kindness are equal in weight to all the commandments.” Prophet Iman Musa Al-Kadhi, wrote that “Kindness is half of life,” and Paul of Tarsus defined love as being “patient and kind.” And in Buddhism, Mettä, one of the Ten Perfections, is most often translated as “loving-kindness.”

As you have may have experienced during your own painful life chapters, kindness exerts healing power to our wounded spirits.  We often discover kindness when we least expect it, even from those we may not know.  It’s in the small acts of kindness that we discover hope and gratitude for the small gifts in life, ones we might even have overlooked or barely even noticed before. 

In the poem,  “Finding God At Montefiore Hospital,” written by cancer survivor Lorraine Ryan, illustrates the power of kindness.  Ryan writes about Juan, the man who mopped her hospital floor at night:

I remember the rhythm of the dunking;

The mop going into the pail

Juan squeezing the mop

The mop hitting the floor with a whoosh…

With every move, he looked up:

“How’s it really going?”

“Did your boy come up today?”

“How is he doing without you at home?”

Sometimes I couldn’t lift my head

off the pillow—

when vomiting and mouth sores

wouldn’t let me speak—

the swish of his mop

bestowed the final blessing

of the night…

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

Kindness helps us find our way out of darkness.  It helps us heal.  Compassion and caring are often manifested in small acts of concern:  How’s it really going?  This is kindness, the small everyday acts that go a long way to healing ourselves and others.  Kindness not only helps us heal; we become better—kinder ourselves– for experiencing it.  In this turbulent and troubled world, we all could use a little more kindness between people, don’t you think?

Writing Suggestion:

First, take a blank sheet of paper and list all the acts of kindness you remember, ones that brightened your day, eased your pain, and made a difference in your day.  Perhaps you played it forward. Because of the kindness you received, you were motivated to reach out to other friends, acquaintances or even strangers in need.  Write about how an act of kindness eased the desolation, sadness or loneliness you experienced during a difficult time.

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February 4, 2023: When Writing Changes Our Lives

There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published.  Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is that it allows you to come to terms with your life narrative.  It also allows you to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.

 –William Zinsser (The American Scholar, Spring 2006.)

Many years ago, I set out to write a memoir which turned into a novel, and which, ultimately, I discarded.  I looked back on the many months of that process, and always, publication was what I thought I was aiming for.  But it wasn’t.  I finally put that manuscript aside.  A fictionalized version of my life wasn’t going to silence the old pain that still occupied much of the pages of my notebooks. 

I’d forgotten about that old manuscript until Tuesday evening as I reflected on the presentation on writing and healing I gave to Ovarian Cancer Canada.  I recalled the summer of 2000 when I first stumbled on to the research on writing and healing by psychologist James Pennebaker and colleagues.  I remember the excitement I felt at the time, lightbulbs going off in my brain.  As someone who had always found writing not only creative, but therapeutic, I wanted to know more. Reading that first article came on the heels of just completing six weeks of radiation treatments for a very early stage of breast cancer.   Little did I realize that first article on Pennebaker’s research would change the trajectory of my life.

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

– Louise DeSalvo

A few weeks earlier,   I had  signed up for a week-long creative writing workshop in Berkeley with the former Pat Schneider, founder of Amherst Writers and Artists.  I arrived numb and disbelieving I’d spent the six weeks at Stanford Hospital for daily radiation treatments.  I had also resigned from an executive position shortly after my diagnosis, giving myself some time to recover.  But I wanted to write ‘creatively,’ not particularly for healing purposes (or so I assumed).    

“Tell me something I can’t forget,” a line from Tess Gallagher’s poem, “Each Bird Walking,” was the prompt Pat first gave to the group.   It was a wonderful trigger to memory, yet I wondered what might be more memorable in my life vs. another.    I couldn’t decide, but the clock was ticking, so I began with what was most accessible, the childhood memories of my father’s stories told and re-told at family gatherings.  I wrote voraciously each day, but it wasn’t until the final day of our workshop the door opened to what, internally, I was still reeling from:  cancer.  My experience had been like a dream, slightly unreal, and my emotions about it were flat.  The very label “cancer patient” or “cancer survivor” made me uncomfortable.  I was also in the midst of a significant career change, coming to terms with my deep  unhappiness in the consulting and executive roles I’d had for several years, and even that didn’t come to the surface in the workshop until afterword.  Those experiences, coupled with the writing workshop, became the triggering events to help my writing to open up and deepen.  It wasn’t a cancer diagnosis I was struggling with so much as a turning point in my life. 

“Opening up and writing from suffering or painful life experience helps repair the damage done to your lives, your sense of who you are, or explore the disrupted future you might face out of serious illness, trauma or other hardships.”

Kat Duff, The Alchemy of Illness

“Time heals all wounds,” someone once said.  Well, not quite.  To learn from our painful life experiences requires something from us far greater than time.   The impact of those events lies deep, buried in the aftermath of pain or trauma. It’s why writing is sometimes called “a courageous act.”  It requires the courage to dig deeply and tell our truth.  Author Maxine Hong Kingston (Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace) had one rule for the war veterans who gathered to write about their experiences with her: “Tell the truth.” The veterans’ writing was raw, vivid, and deeply moving. Their stories of war conveyed not only the physical scars but the psychological ones too, and reading or listening to their stories was a powerful experience.   

After my brief cancer experience I began writing in earnest again, something I hadn’t done since my first husband died in a drowning accident.  It turns out I didn’t write much about cancer, because the memories of old traumatic and painful life events had begun to surface.  I filled several volumes of notebooks, sometimes ruminating, but gradually shifting from my old wounds to thinking more about Pennebaker’s research on “expressive writing” and how it could be healing.  By the end of that year, I submitted a proposal to design and lead a first expressive writing group for breast cancer survivors.   That was over 22 years ago, and from it, a practice began that flourished and grew–not only for cancer survivors but many other groups too.

My Tuesday evening presentation got me to reflecting on the many workshops and presentations I’ve done since that first beginning and how my practice has grown and deepened.  I felt a sudden rush of gratitude, realizing how life-altering it was for me to stumble upon Pennebaker’s research all those years ago.  I never anticipated how my workshops would grow and lead to many other groups, creative collaborations, mentoring and teaching. So I put my notebook aside and moved to my computer.  I spontaneously wrote and sent a note of gratitude to Dr. Pennebaker, thanking him for the impact his research and generosity has had my life as well as so many others.  Echoing the words of Louise DeSalvo I quoted at the beginning of this post, “Writing has helped me heal.  Writing has changed my life.”  And I think that, in a very real sense, writing has saved my life.

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

–Maya Angelou, poet

Writing Suggestions: 

  • How has writing helped you heal from your life’s difficult experiences?  Think of how you first turned to writing.  What was the situation or triggering event?  How did your writing change as you continued to write? What did you discover about yourself in the process?
  • We all have people in our lives who have helped or inspired us in some way.  They may be friends, teachers, counselors or others who affected our lives in positive ways.  Sometimes we realize the impact of those individuals much later in life.  If you could write a note of gratitude for the role someone has played in your life, your development, who would it be?  What would you say to that person?
  • What was the untold story inside you that you first needed to release?

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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.


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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,


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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: 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)


  • 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,


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