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It could happen any time, tornado,

Earthquake, Armageddon.  It could happen.

Or sunshine, love, salvation.

 

It could you know.  That’s why we wake

And look out—no guarantees

in this life…

(From “Yes,” by William Stafford, The Way It Is, 1998)

 I’ve been wondering how the Corona virus pandemic will change our lives—not just now, staying home,  social distancing, but the longer-term impact.  For many, there is or will be grief over the loss of loved ones, that a sorrow takes a long time to dissipate, if it ever completely disappears.  There is the sobering realization that no one, anywhere in the world, is immune to pandemics and other global disasters.  The longer-term impact on our economy weighs heavily in our consciousness.  How will we recover?  But the larger question, for me, is what will we have learned and  will it change in the way we act on our world, relate to others, and care about ourselves and others.  How will this change us–or will it?

You will walk toward the mirror,

closer and closer, then flow into the glass…

You learn what you are, but slowly,

a child, a woman, a man,

a self often shattered and piece

put together again till the end:

You halt, the glass opens—

A surface, an image, a past.

(“Your Life,” by William Stafford, (The Way It Is, 1998)

Several years ago, after I’d been leading expressive writing groups for cancer patients and others for a few years, my husband took a teaching position in a doctoral organizational psychology program.  For the first two years, we commuted between the Bay area and San Diego to spend time together,  but ultimately, I relocated to join him.  As a new “faculty wife,” I was introduced to some of his academic colleagues, most of whom still consulted with the private sector.  As we chatted, I found myself recalling the years I spent as an executive in a New York-based international consulting firm. His colleagues were surprised; it was a past self I had all but pushed aside, a career I no longer felt any connection with, one that had kept me running on adrenalin and stress for years.

“How did you end up writing and leading these groups?”

“Cancer,” I replied.  “Everything changed after that.”

“Would you ever consider consulting again?”

I shook my head. “Absolutely not ,” before explaining why the experience of the writing groups meant so much to me: the inspiration from patients’ who shared their experiences and lives so openly and profoundly in story and poetry,  and the extraordinary community created in the process.

“Does it pay well?” One of his colleagues asked.

“Pay?”  I think I laughed a little. Leading these groups was not a business.  It was a practice, work of the heart, and the majority of my time creating and leading programs was often volunteered, given freely–a sharp contrast to the salary I once earned as an executive.  Yet I could never imagine going back to it.  The cancer writing group work offered  a sense of meaning and authenticity my consulting work  never somehow did.  My life and my ambitions had changed in profound ways.

It’s funny how clarity happens.  An an innocent question, a paragraph in a book, an expression of kindness from a friend, or a telephone message left on the answering machine…anything can  force us to pay attention, get outside of ourselves and our complaints, take another look at the familiar reflection in the bathroom mirror and see it differently, albeit kindly.  To realize, as Wendell Berry reminds us, “there is no going back” to the self we once were.

No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were…

That same evening, my husband and I returned home to see the message light  flashing on our answering machine.  I paused to hit “play” and listen.  It was a call from the spouse of one of the writing group members. It had been just two weeks since she had said good-bye to the writing group as they left to live in a city two hundred miles away, something she described as a decision “for closure.”  As she prepared to leave, I’d asked how she was feeling and she had responded by quoting her oncologist: “He says I’m dwindling.”  Now, listening to the message on the answering machine, I understood the full meaning of “dwindling,” and “closure.” Death and loss is among individuals in my cancer groups is sometimes happens, and while it’s painful for everyone, each person, each life lost, has touched my life in ways I never could have anticipated.  Their memories linger in the writing shared in the weeks together.

More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you…

Those men and women who have let themselves be vulnerable, who write so honestly, and whose words linger in my memory long after they’ve been shared in the groups have taught me what it is to be human, to be present in the world, and to put my own life and minor complaints in perspective. It’s little wonder why I could never turn back to that old self, the woman whose spacious windowed office overlooked Park Avenue in New York.  None of that, by comparison, matters anymore.

The men and women who come to write with me, share their lives and, in some cases, death, have taught me that life is worth living, no matter what we suffer.   I am constantly humbled by their courage, the beauty and power in their stories and poems, and how they so openly share their sorrows, struggles, joys, and fears. In the sacred moments of dying, I have experienced grace.  Each person’s presence has changed me in some small way, and I am all the better for it.

 As for this post, I have struggled to write anything this week; the constant anxiety and concern that one cannot avoid has taken its toll on my motivation and ideas.  I’ve tried to minimize my anxiety and, and the same time, fend off boredom in this period of relative isolation. It is more difficult to write as I have always done–my morning quiet and solitude have disappeared as my husband awakens shortly after I do.  I am acutely aware of how very small a two-bedroom apartment has become in these past three weeks.  Instead, I have resorted to silliness at times,  turning out ridiculous rhyming poems that, at the very least, makes my husband laugh.

For solace, I’ve turned to poets and poetry, finding others’ words to express some of what I am feeling about life, suffering, gratitude, giving, finding new poems and re-reading old, much loved ones.  And quite unintentionally, I’ve even joined the thousands who have taken comfort in stress-baking!  I’ve been working on making the “perfect” scone for the past two weeks, and yesterday, I think I came close. There’s an aspect of meditation in creative activity–and I’m including baking as one of those.  Your attention is on the recipe, following, measuring, adding, kneading and checking the progress as you wait for the finished product.  It’s calming and quiet time.  Whatever helps us find activities or practices to help to quiet the mind and open the heart, are all more important now as we ride out this crisis.

I  have missed my writing groups; they are always a source of inspiration, but all my scheduled workshops had to be been cancelled.  But Gilda’s Club has asked if I’d be willing to try an online version later this month of the “Writing Through Cancer” program. I am not a fan of online groups, but I didn’t hesitate to say “yes!”   The internet, social media, all of it, does offer some positive ways to  stay connected with each other, and our social connections are more important than ever.  I’ve been routinely checking in with friends, sending cards and notes by mail, email and  notes and cards, even checking in with some health care professionals on the front line to say  “thank you,” and “how are you?”   Those efforts are  appreciated and it keeps me from succumbing to the pit of worry or anxiety so easily ignited by the constant barrage of COVID 19 reports and commentary.  This is what is important right now:  expressing my concern, love and gratitude to the people who matter to me and have made a difference in my life.  Nurturing the generosity to reach out to others at any time matters, but right now, there’s all the more reason to do it.

Now more than ever you can be
generous toward each day
that comes, young, to disappear
forever, and yet remain
uniting in the mind.
Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.

(“No Going Back,” by Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir:  The Sabbath Poems, 1979 – 1997)

Suggestions for Reflection and Writing:

What does the phrase, “you can be generous toward each day/ that comes” mean for you?

We all experience difficulties and challenges out of our control, times that are painful and difficult.  But what do we learn from them?  Think of difficult chapters in life you’ve already experienced.  What did they teach you?  What lessons do you want to take from this pandemic experience?

In this world where we are all  experiencing how our lives can change in an instant, what have you learned about yourself in this uncommon time?  What matters most?

 

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                   …Then what I am afraid of comes. I live for a while in its sight.”                           —Wendell Berry (in: This Day:  Sabbath Poems, Collected and New, 1979-2013 )

(To my readers:  I wrote this and posted it this morning on my blog about heart failure, but worry and anxiety has us all in its grip during this crisis, so I am posting it here too, for those of you living with cancer–Sharon Bray).

I admit it.  The corona virus has me on edge.  Since age and heart failure put me in the “greater risk” population, it may be part of the reason I awaken with the shadow of fear or worry close behind me.  The thing is, I know fear and anxiety are not good for my heart.  It’s a bit ironic, a kind of catch-22, because a diagnosis of heart failure is anxiety producing itself, and it’s progressive, so the undercurrent of unease never quite disappears.

The thing is, I know fear and anxiety are not good for my heart. The irony is a bit of a catch-22, because a diagnosis of heart failure or cardiac disease is anxiety producing itself.  And when we’re anxious, it puts extra strain on our hearts, like increasing blood pressure, making us short of breath,  and in more serious cases, interfering with the heart’s normal functioning…nothing anyone living with heart failure or other cardiac conditions needs.

In Japanese, “the kanji (Japanese character) for fear, , shows a leaking heart, for fear drains our spirit.

—Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, PhD, From Mindfulness to Heartfulness, 2018

According to Orly Vardeny, Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, “The corona virus’s main target is the lungs. But that could affect the heart, especially a diseased heart, which has to work harder to get oxygenated blood throughout the body…In general, you can think of it as something that is taxing the system as a whole.”  For someone who lives with heart failure, that’s a worry, because my heart doesn’t pump as efficiently as it once did.

Fear, anxiety and worry all take their toll on my emotional and physical well-being.  While we are in the midst of this pandemic, I have to consciously work to  manage my fearful feelings. I follow all the basic health suggestions:  handwashing, sanitizing, staying away from social encounters, diet, exercise and necessary sleep.  But still, keeping my fear and worry in check requires a bit more self-discipline. Here are some of the things that have been helping me manage my level of anxiety and worry.

I’m limiting my exposure to the constant “buzz” and barrage of reports on social media and in the daily news.  Too much information increases worry, and that can result in panic.  It’s important to be in the know, yes, but as psychologists tell us, there’s a point at which information has the unintended effect of increasing your fear.

I take a few breaks during the day to simply be quiet.  There’s a feature on my Apple watch that I now use regularly.  Every few hours, it prompts me to do a minute of deep breathing.  I pause, get quiet, and let the exercise of deep breathing for a few minutes lead me into a short period of meditation, freeing my mind of busy brain or any worrisome thoughts.  Simply be quiet, focusing on the here and now is wonderfully calming and relaxing.

There’s a sense of calm in keeping a regular routine, and my morning routine has become even more important to me as a way to quiet any worrisome or fearful thoughts. I’m up early, before my husband awakens, to claim the hour or so of solitude and quiet I crave–and need-for my writing practice.  It’s a ritual of sorts, freshly ground and brewed coffee, my open notebook, my pen moving across the page.

I place no requirements on this time, but write freely.  Whatever emerges on the page hardly matters—sometimes I vent, other times I write poetry or just write freely, staying open to whatever appears on the page.  What matters most is that it is restorative time for me. I watch the sun rise over Lake Ontario on clearer days, or simply notice life on the street below.  Sometimes nature offers a special gift, like the two Canadian geese, honking and waddling about on the rooftop next door, momentarily lost from their flock.  In those moments, I find gratitude—remembering just how lucky I am in so many ways.  And it calms me.

Today I am fortunate

 to have woken up

I am alive.

I have a precious human life.

I am not going to waste it…

I am going to …

expand my heart out to others…

(From:  “A Precious Human Life,” a prayer by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama)

I’ve found that reaching out to and connecting with family and friends here, in Canada, Japan and the US has also helped to calm my fears.  While I have discovered that  mindfulness helps me to calm, focus, and reduce stress, so does honoring matters of the heart—connecting with people.  As Dr. Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu demonstrates in his book, From Mindfulness to Heartfulness (2018), in worrisome times, our connection to and with one another are even more important to what we call “enlightenment.”  The kanji (Japanese character) for mindfulness, Murphy-Shigematsu explains, consists of two parts, the top part meaning “now,” and the bottom part meaning “heart.”

All of us share in this worry over the impact of the corona virus, but the simple act of connection, whether online, by telephone, letters or a note written on a  greeting card, serves as a reminder that none of us are alone in our concerns or feelings.  As for my health concerns, I’m lucky to be use Medley, the smart phone app that records my weight, blood pressure, heart rate, and symptoms daily, which is monitored by my healthcare team at Toronto General’s Peter Munk Cardiac Center. This too, provides some solace, a sense of being connected to the people who provide my cardiac care.

Music is a big part of my life, especially classical, and is a necessary ingredient in self-care and inspiration.  It calms, inspires, and reminds me of the beauty and creative spirit that is part of being human.  I’ve also been moved by the inspirational You Tube videos of people in Italy, Spain and Israel, isolated in their apartment buildings because of the impact of the corona virus, playing and singing together from their balconies.  Last week, I discovered cellist Yo Yo Ma has released a series of videotapes on Facebook, the first “song of comfort” he offered was  Dvořák’s “Going Home”  Ma explained:  “In these days of anxiety, I wanted to find a way to continue to share some of the music that gives me comfort.” Yesterday’s  offering was  Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3, which he dedicated to the healthcare workers on the front lines.

So, we all ride it out, taking the necessary precautions, finding ways to stay connected, keep our fear in check, and weather this crisis, alone and together.  I’ve been thinking of my mother, whose admonitions and homespun prescriptions sometimes made my siblings and me giggle behind her back, but she’d suffered more than a little hardship in her younger life, and looking back, I realize her many “mantras” was her way of coping and getting through tough times.  We were too young to understand it then, but we suffered from pain, illness or even an adolescent broken heart, her mantra was repeated again and again:  This too shall pass, she’d say And yes, so will this crisis, but for now, my task is to do all I can do to remain healthy and not be swept up in panic or fear. And that requires a little practice every single day.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

(“The Peace of Wild Things,” by Wendell Berry, in:  Selected Poems, 1998)

For Readers:

What is helping you get through this time?  How are you managing your worry or fears?   What resources or suggestions can you offer to others?  Feel free to comment on this post with some of your suggestions.   For now, stay safe; stay well.

 

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My old high school buddy, G., sent me a text two weeks ago.  One of our high school classmates had died, and while I hadn’t been in touch with him for many years, his death stirred up old memories. G., once the student body president, has stayed in touch with the majority of classmates from our high school class.  I did not, losing touch with most of them soon after university when I left California for Canada. But I pulled out my old high school yearbook and studied the photographs of our younger selves.  All of us had grown up in a small Northern California town and the majority in school together from kindergarten through high school.  Several of our classmates remained in that same town throughout adulthood, as our now deceased classmate had.

In his inimitable style, G. made the drive from his home in Washington state to our old hometown to attend the memorial service.  “He was a good guy,” he wrote me afterward, “and I always liked him.”  I only remembered the playful football team athlete I briefly had a crush on my freshman year, and how he married right after high school.   None of us would have guessed then, how he remained in our little town and over the years, became a valuable community leader.  At his memorial, the remembrances were of the man he became, the love he had for his family, his generosity, warmth and community involvement.  These were the remembrances shared, the stories told, and his enduring legacy.

…I have learned that story assuages grief, and it also grants the chaos of our emotions some shape and order…Even as I watch my mother become more and more distant from the lives around her…I am doing what I have been preparing all my life to do:  listening again to the old stories and committing them to memory in order to preserve them. (From:  The Cruel Country, by Judith Ortiz Cofer, ©2015. University of Georgia Press)

Like you, I have lost loved ones and friends, writing group members and others to death, unexpected as well as anticipated.  I’m never ready for the unexpected losses, although I have learned to accept death as part of life, but even when I think I’m prepared for the death of someone, like a neighbor, elder relative, or one of those who has shared so much of themselves and their lives in my cancer writers’  groups, I discover that I am never quite ready to have someone die.    I am still doing my work in terms of what I have come to believe defines immortality.  Being remembered. (Judith Ortiz Cofer).

It’s not just about being remembered; there is a larger question:  How do I want to be remembered? Few of us get to choose how and when we die. My father did not want to be remembered as a man dying of lung cancer, thin, frail, an oxygen tank his constant companion.  My cousin likely did not wish to be remembered as the one relative who hung himself, and I am quite certain my first husband did not want to be remembered drowning drunk when he was only 38, a university professor with a bright career future yet to be realized.  Were it not for the stories told, written and shared by all of us over the years, the manner of their deaths might overshadow the remembrances of who they were in life.

“Death steals everything but our stories,” author Jim Harrison wrote in a poem.  It’s the stories shared, the ones retold, of those we’ve loved and lost that live on.  Then how do we begin, if you like, creating those stories about ourselves that are important, the ones that tell who we are; what we cared about; what we deemed important in life? What stories will people tell about you?  Will they be ones that reflect how you want to be remembered?  What if you sat down today and wrote you own eulogy?  Does it reflect the way in which you live, work and interact with others in the present?

Author and consultant Peter Drucker, often called, “the father of management thinking,” told this story in The Daily Drucker: 366 Days of Insight and Motivation for Getting the Right Things Done (2004):  “When I was thirteen I had an inspiring teacher of religion who one day went right through the class of boys asking each one, “What do you want to be remembered for? None of us, of course, could give an answer. So, he chuckled and said, “I didn’t expect you to be able to answer it. But if you still can’t answer it by the time you’re fifty, you will have wasted your life.”

Asking yourself the question, “What do I want to be remembered for?” is one way, Drucker said,  to induce you to renew yourself now, in the present. You’re forced to see yourself as a different person:  the person you want to become.   It’s a similar question Lloyd Garvey wrote about in a 2009 issue of The Huffington Post.  “Somebody quite wise, he wrote, —I think it was my rabbi—suggested that people should write their own obituaries, now, regardless of age or medical condition.  That way you’ll think about how you want to be remembered and what you want to accomplish in the rest of your life” (June 27, 2009).  Drucker would agree.  Asking what you want to be remembered for “pushes you to see yourself as a different person– the person you can become.” He recommended  you continue to ask yourself that same question throughout life.

Writing your own obituary is an exercise I frequently offer to the men and women in my groups, often using the poem, “Cover Photograph,” by Marilyn Nelson.  Notice how she repeats “I want to be remembered” at the beginning of each stanza, describing the different aspects of herself that she wants others to remember—the person she strives to be.  Perhaps you can follow her example.  Here is an excerpt:

I want to be remembered
As a voice that was made to be singing
The lullaby of shadows
As a child fades into a dream…

I want to be remembered
As an autumn under maples:
A show of incredible leaves…

I want to be remembered
With a simple name, like Mama:
As an open door from creation,
As a picture of someone you know.

(In Mama’s Promises:  Poems, 1985)

Writing Suggestions:

  • How do you want to be remembered? Try writing your own obituary or eulogy.  Or, try a poem in the style of Marilyn Nelson’s.
  • Think about the things that really matter, the things that will ultimately define your life’s legacy, and the way in which you would like to be remembered by others.
  • Does your eulogy or obituary reflect how you are living and have lived?

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Cancer:

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

Writing during any difficult life circumstance can help you feel better.  When you write, it’s a chance to dive beneath the water line and express the troublesome or difficult emotions that come with upsetting periods in your life.  It offers you the freedom to pour out your feelings on the page, helping to relieve or lessen stress—often a culprit in illness and other health problems.

The most healing kind of writing is honest; writing that openly acknowledges your emotions.  Your ability to feel and name positive and negative emotions is critical to healing.  Sometimes though, when what you may feel is tough to acknowledge.  You might be reluctant to be honest on the page, particularly when what you want really want to say might feel like a confessional: conflicted or strong  feelings about events or others you’ve never fully expressed.

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

Writing offers us the opportunity to “think to” another, whether it is yourself, your body, or someone with whom you have unresolved issues.  Imagining another and addressing your writing to that person encourages you to write naturally.  Even if you never show it or send it to anyone, writing to an imagined other has the effect of making your words more powerfully felt. What’s more, you can say what you really want to say.

In poetic terms, there’s a figure of speech called an “apostrophe,” in which someone absent or dead, or even an object or abstract idea, is addressed directly.  Examples can be found in Walt Whitman’s poem to the dead Abraham Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain!,” in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, “God’s World,” which begins “O World, I cannot hold thee close enough…” or Kenneth Koch’s “To My Heart as I Go Along.”

Unsent letters are a more common form of saying what we really want to say.  Whether during cancer or at other challenging times in our lives, all of us may experience the need to release the unspoken, to cleanse or reach out to another, whether living or dead, person or thing.  An unsent letter can be a tool to help express difficult or complicated feelings that might otherwise might never be expressed or fully understood.

President Abraham Lincoln often resorted to what he called “a hot letter,” piling all his anger into a note, then put it aside until his emotions had calmed down, labeling the letter “Never sent. Never signed” (New York Times, 2014),

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

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

I have used the “unsent letter” exercise many times in my workshops, but one time in particular stands out.  A few years ago, G., who had only just received the news earlier that week that her cancer had spread and was terminal, used the unsent letter exercise to write to her doctor, who had cared for her throughout her ten-year journey with metastatic breast cancer. She shared her the letter she’d written aloud with the group.  It was strong and beautifully written, acknowledging how hurt and alone she’d felt when her doctor couldn’t even look her in the eyes as he conveyed what amounted to a certain death sentence.  After she read her letter aloud, several group members had tears in their eyes.  G. did too, but she said, “I feel better now.  It’s helped just to write down what I felt, even if I’m not going to send it to him.”

That’s the beauty of the form of the unsent letter.  It allows you to express difficult emotions on paper, safely, and release them from your mind and body.  Once you’ve written such a letter, it’s good to set it aside, then a day or two later, re-read it, noting what stands out.  It’s a way of learning from what you’ve written—gaining new insights, greater clarity or understanding—all without the need or risk of sending it to the person to whom we’ve written. Yet, in G.’s case, she took her unsent letter one step further.

At the next group meeting, we all noticed how smiling and radiant she appeared, and once we were seated, she told us she had taken her “unsent” letter to her follow-up appointment and read it aloud to her doctor.  It was a real act of courage, but happily, it resulted in positive exchange between her doctor and her.  She described how visibly moved he was after she finished reading, and then admitting that he had struggled to tell her the results of her tests—the news no one wants to hear.  He admitted he did not trust himself to keep his composure when he gave conveyed the latest test results.  He apologized to G. and thanked her for having sharing her letter with him.  It had proved to be a healing moment between doctor and patient, restoring the trust and understanding between them.

Writing Suggestion:

  • Try writing an unsent letter to someone or something.  You might write to a loved one, a physician, a higher power, your body or even cancer.  Write with the assurance that you can say what is honestly in your heart and mind, that no one ever needs to see or hear what you have written.  What do you really want to say?
  • Once you’ve written your letter, put it aside for a day or two.  Then re-read it.  Underline what stands out most for you.  Have your feelings changed in any way?  What insights have you gained?

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I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter
And make believe it came from you
I’m gonna write words, oh, so sweet
They’re gonna knock me off my feet
Kisses on the bottom
I’ll be glad I’ve got ’em

I’m gonna smile and say “I hope you’re feelin’ better”
And sign “with love” the way you do
I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter
And make believe it came from you

(“I’m Gonna’ Sit Right Down & Write Myself a Letter,” lyrics by by Fred Ahlert and Joe Young, 1935.)

If you’ve passed a card shop, wandered the aisles of a drugstore or even the grocery stories, you can’t help but notice the array cards decorated with red hearts and filled with written sentiments of friendship, affection and love.  Valentine’s Day happens later this week, and I’m reminded that I’ve barely thought about buying cards for my husband and grandchildren. Perhaps it’s the commercialism that has invaded every holiday in our lives or preoccupation that has dulled my senses to the point that I have nearly forgotten February 14th altogether.  But it wasn’t always that way.  Maybe you, like me, still remember the excitement you felt when you experienced your first Valentine’s Day in school.

Mine happened in Mrs. Newton’s kindergarten class.  We were sent home a couple of weeks before Valentine’s Day with a list of all the students’ names.  Packets of 25 colorful little valentines could be purchased at the local 5 & 10 store, addressed, and placed in the class Valentine’s mailbox near our teacher’s desk.  Excitement grew as the day approached.  Not only valentines, but our valentine’s party, with heart-shaped cookies and fruit punch, was eagerly anticipated.

Like everyone else in the class, my excitement grew as Valentine’s Day neared.  On the appointed morning, I was too excited to sleep, and rose early, tip-toeing into the kitchen where a packet of valentines was waiting with an ink pen at the ready.  I decided, in my five-year-old eagerness, to start addressing them.  I knew how to one name: “Sharon.” It was my name, but it happened to also be the name of my very best friend.  When my mother awakened and entered the kitchen to prepare breakfast, I had completed the task.  All 25 of the valentines were addressed—in ink– to my very best friend: “To Sharon H., from Sharon B.”  My mother was aghast; there was no time to purchase another packet of cards before school.  Each time Mrs. Newton pulled one of my carefully addressed valentines from the class mailbox, she knowingly smiled at me.  “Why,” she smiled, “here’s another card for Sharon H.”  And it’s no surprise that Sharon H. received 25 more valentines that anyone else in the class!

I still like to send valentines and other greeting cards to friends and family despite the increasingly reliance we have on online, instant greetings.  It’s a more personal way to communicate “I appreciate you,” “I’m thinking of you,” or “I love you.”  Actually sitting down to send a card, jot a note, or give a call to those you care about is a great gift.

But as I thought about this post earlier this morning,  I realized I was guilty, perhaps, of a double standard.  I might be pretty good at letting the people in my life know how much I care for them, but I’m not nearly as adept at caring for the one who stares back at me each morning from the bathroom mirror.  I can tell you that she’s not perfect.  She’s struggled, lost but sometimes won, grieved but often rejoiced, loved, and even lost.  Her body has weathered surgeries, early stage breast cancer, heartache and heart failure but most days, it still serves her fairly well, despite the fact her joints broadcast her age whenever does knee bends each morning.  Yet her own image more often that not is greeted with an exasperated sigh, even an occasional negative word or two, especially when she uses the magnifying mirror she now needs to apply the slightest bit of mascara and blush.  And despite her supportiveness for those who write in her groups, she often succumbs to the harsh words of her internal critic as it trounces all over her writing at regular intervals.  She forgets, no, I forget, to express gratitude for that person staring back at me from the mirror:  my face, my body, and all its evidence of a life fully lived.  I think it’s time to sit right done and write myself a letter…  What about you?

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 image from the mirror.

Sit.  Feast on your life.

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

 

Writing Suggestions: 

 

  • Each of us needs a reminder at times, especially after cancer or other hardships, to express the gratitude and compassion for ourselves and our bodies. Valentine’s Day is Friday, a day we traditionally express love, gratitude and affection to loved ones.  Why not add yourself to your valentine’s list?  Buy a bouquet;, do something you love to do; give yourself a valentine!

 

  • Write a gratitude letter you can re-read again when you’re feeling down on yourself. Let it be a reminder of you have for all you have endured and the courage, compassion and strength you possess.  Celebrate yourself.  As Derek Walcott advised, “Sit.  Feast on your life. “

 

Happy Valentine’s Day, February 14th

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 Edith Piaf had none.
Frank Sinatra admitted to a few.

And in The Remains of the Day, the dutiful manservant, Stevens, is haunted by them.

(From:  “Regret Haunts Baby Boomers,” by David Graham, Toronto Star, December 1, 2007)


Regret.  According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, it means feeling sorry about a situation or mistake you have made.  What’s more, researchers suggest that regret is second only to love in the emotions we most often feel and reference.  Regret, it turns out, is something my husband and I have been contending with since we returned from an extremely disappointing “jazz tour” to Cuba, looking back over the week and saying, as regret us often expressed, “If only we’d just not been so naïve…if only we hadn’t assumed…if only…  You likely know the phrase “if only” well yourselves.  Well, once regret strikes, how can you get past it?  Turning back the clock and starting again isn’t an option, even if we wish we could.  So, like author and psychologist Neal Roese suggests we should do, we’ve embraced our regrets, written our letters of complaint and this week, moved on.

Roese, author of If Only:  How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity (2005), argues it’s better to embrace your regrets and use them to move on as smarter or wiser people.  Regret, according to Roese, serves a necessary psychological purpose.  It helps us recognize opportunities for change and growth, even better decision making.  Like Terry Malloy, Marlon Brando’s character in On the Waterfront, regret drives us to work for change.  According to Roese, “Regret pushes us forward…helping us make better choices in the future.  It stimulates growth.”

Sounds great, doesn’t it?  But regret over a disappointing tour is much easier to leave behind than the kind of regret that often accompanies more devastating losses, hardship, or the sudden and debilitating diagnosis of an aggressive or terminal illness. It’s a different kind of regret that may haunt us if our future seems to suddenly be cut short or our lives altered in ways we never expected.  In my writing groups for cancer patients, regret surfaces as men and women come to terms with cancer’s impact on their lives and their loved ones.

I remember how often regret came up in my father’s conversations after a diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer.  Given only three months to live, he looked back over his life, the opportunities and disappointments he’d had, and as he recalled those memories, often remarking, “I just wish I’d gone ahead and…when I had the chance,” or “if only I hadn’t…”  As sad as those conversations sometimes were, I had a rare glimpse into the life and feelings of my father.

Varda, a member of my first writing group for cancer survivors who ultimately lost her battle with metastatic breast cancer, wrote about regret a few months before her death from metastatic breast cancer.  She imagined regret as a dance partner, and described how, late in the evenings, regret was a regular visitor:

Late in the night I dance with Regret, dipping and gliding through bad choices and unforgiven hurts…we glide past images of my parents …

Regret whispers that some things are no longer possible…my partner leans close to remind me of the time I should have spent as a sister and a mother, and that life is as illusionary as a soap bubble floating lightly by and then gone…Regret has slipped into my corner and asked my memories to speak…my companion reminds me that those I loved are gone, and that I am dancing with a haunting and relentless suitor.

Before my illness, I viewed my life as a bright meadow rolling endlessly toward distant hills…Although I aged, I still view my future as a meadow without fences.

But when I awoke with cancer, Regret was my first visitor {and} will again be my faithful evening companion.…

(From:Dancing with Regret, by Varda Nowack Goldstein, in A Healing Journey by Sharon Bray, 2004)

But Varda overcame her regret.  Continuing to write in the group as long as she was able, she began to share a humorous and poignant look back at her life, embracing all her challenges, foibles and rewards.  In a final poem entitled “Faith,” regret had been replaced by acceptance:  “My cancer has challenged my faith,” Varda wrote, “and I have found an incredible well/ I did not know I had…true surrender, enormous peace.”

Varda helped me understand the role regret played in my father’s final months.  As sad as they sometimes made me, his regrets served a purpose:   he was remembering the whole of his life, who he had been, who he had become, and as he did, he was also making peace with the inevitability of his death.

But what if we’re given a second chance? Regret, author Bruce Grierson (“The Meaning of Regret”) tells us, is only toxic when it becomes habitual.  Regret can also offer the opportunity for learning and the chance to do something better or differently.  You can bet that if my husband and I sign up for another tour in the future, we’ll do a lot more research first.  What if you have the opportunity for a “re-do”?  What did regret teach you?  “Imagine you wake up with a second chance,” as Rita Dove writes in her poem, “Dawn Revisited:”

… The blue jay

hawks his pretty wares

and the oak still stands, spreading

glorious shade. If you don’t look back,

the future never happens…

The whole sky is yours

to write on, blown open

to a blank page…

(From:  On the Bus with Rosa Parks, 1999)

I’ve gotten second, third, maybe even fourth chances out of mistakes, loss and hardship. Sometimes regret hovered in the shadows, but ultimately, it became the impetus to do things differently, take risks, and re-shape the life I was living.  I never would have begun leading writing groups for cancer survivors if I hadn’t had cancer myself.  Did I regret not doing it sooner?  Of course, but the sum total of all those other experiences–good and bad, losses, illness, and disappointments—need not be stored in some internal vault of life regrets.   As Dorianne Laux reminds us in her poem, “Antilamentation,” life is full of regrets, but then, that’s life, isn’t it?

Regret nothing.  Not the cruel novels you read to the end just to find out
who killed the cook.  Not the insipid movies that made you cry in the dark,
in spite of your intelligence, your sophistication.

Not the love you left quivering in a hotel parking lot, the one you beat
to the punch line, the door, or the one who left you …

You’ve walked those streets a thousand times and still you end up here.
Regret none of it…

(From The Book of Men, 2012)

Writing Suggestions:

 

Think about regrets this week, about all the times you’ve said or wondered “if only…”

  • How have you harnessed those regrets and moved forward differently?
  • What have you learned?
  • What has your life taught you about regret?
  • Write about regret.  Write about “if only.”  See where it takes you.

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Half my life is an act of revision.  –John Irving

Irving wasn’t just talking about writing; I think he was talking about life.  While revision is an integral part of the writing process, as any writer will tell you,  it can be a difficult and frustrating process.  Writing demands it, but so does life.

“Revision” has been part of our vocabulary for a very long time.  It was originally borrowed from the French revision (1611) and derived from the Latin, “revīsere, meaning “to look, or see, again.” Consult a thesaurus for synonyms of “revise,” you’ll find words like reexamine, reassess, rethink, alter, modify and change.   Obviously, it’s not just a word that applies to the writer’s work.  Revision is the process we undertake whenever we try to make sense out of something that has happened to us–job loss, relationship break-up, loss of a loved one or being diagnosed with a serious illness like cancer.  Understanding or sense-making requires a process of revision, of seeing something anew or in a different light.

In part, revision is about letting go, acknowledging choices and changes we must make as our lives change.  The men and women who write with me are forced, because of their cancer diagnoses,  to confront mortality no matter their age, something that requires an entirely different way of thinking about of one’s life.  The hard reality of any debilitating or terminal illness is that it alters lives without warning.

Yet living means that things happen to us—good things and terrible things—on a daily basis.    It’s the constant creation and changing of our life stories. We turn to a new page each day.  What we planned may suddenly change; we make choices that influence future events and their outcomes; others’ lives and events also affect us.  Despite that, the story closest to us, our own, is sometimes the most difficult to understand. That’s when we have the opportunity for revision and seeing life in new and different ways.  That’s why I like poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s description of revision as “a beautiful word of hope…a new vision of something.”

In a 1993 interview in the Paris Review, the poet William Stafford was asked why he’d chosen the title, You Must Revise Your Life (1967) for one of his few books of prose.  He explained it by saying,

 “I wanted to use the word revise because so many books about writing make it sound as though you create a good poem by tinkering with the poem you’re working on. I think you create a good poem by revising your life… by living the kind of life that enables good poems to come about… A workshop may seem, to those who take part in it, a chance to revise the work they bring. I think it’s a chance to see how your life can be changed…”

Revision isn’t just about writing; it is a life process.  Every day, life hands you new material—and not all of it welcome.  It offers you the opportunity to change your life.  Each day, each year, you “talk back” to life, ask questions, try to understand, and try to make sense of what has happened to you, just as a writer ponders, even struggles, with a manuscript or a poem.  Revision, as Stafford said, offers you an opportunity to see your life in a new light.

Let’s face it, clinging to a past that no longer applies to your present only seeds depression or regret.  Letting go of those worn out parts of your old life is a necessary process—a life long process.  But revision is not just about letting go.  It’s also about deciding what to keep and what to discard as you continue to shape and re-shape your life at every stage.  In that way, it’s not unlike what writers and artists do:  letting the material of the poetry or narrative, the sculpture or painting talk back, helping them to see things anew and creating something better.  Revising one’s life involves embracing whatever happens—in things, in language and in life.  “The language changes,” Stafford wrote, and “you change; the light changes…Dawn comes, and it comes for all, but not on demand.”

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:

  • When have you had to let the material of your life talk back to you?  What changed?  What did you discard?  What did you retain?
  • Write about how you’ve had to revise your life when the unexpected has occurred, for example, loss of a loved one, a cancer diagnosis, marriage, having children, or any new project.  How did these events prompted you to revise your life?
  • If you keep a notebook, return to an earlier time, like something written soon after your diagnosis or during the upheaval of another difficult experience. Try these steps:   first, re-read what you wrote, highlighting the phrases that or words that stand out for you.  Then, re-write the event, but try beginning with and focusing on the phrases you’ve highlighted. “Work” with your material.  Let it talk back to you as you recall the details of that event—sounds, smells, the quality of light, words said, what you were feeling.  Rewrite and then compare the two versions.    What changed?  What did you see differently as a result of revision?

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