January 1, 2022: Just One Word: Connect

Long ago, I ditched the practice of making New Year’s resolutions, though the advent of a new year always seemed an opportune time to embark on new habits (you know the ones:  lose weight, exercise more, and other loftier ambitions).  Yet my well intended resolutions rarely lasted beyond January.  Then several years ago, a friend introduced me to a new practice to mark the new year:  the choice of a single word which acts as a “guide” for the year ahead. 

It’s just one word; one that symbolizes something I hope to explore and expand upon in a given year.  Words like gratitude, clarity, heart, and rewrite have been past choices, and each new year, I set my sights on a new one.  Once chosen, I print my word, mount it in a small 1.5-inch frame and place it on the corner of my desk as a daily reminder.   This year, however, as our daily lives have again been constricted by another, more virulent wave of Covid, selecting a word for 2022 proved to be more challenging than in years past.   For several days, I was woefully stuck.  My notebook pages became a forest of unrelated words, reflecting the struggle of finding and choosing my single word.  I knew why. The reality of yet another period of reduced social contact and  isolation dampened my spirits and rendered my thought processes to the lacklustre and mundane. 

Two days ago, my mental fog abruptly cleared.  My choice for a 2022 word was triggered by a short article in the current issue of Intima, (A Journal of Narrative Medicine),“Facelessness and the Glass Between Us:  Finding Connection in the Era of Covid,” written by Hannah Dischinger, MD.  In it, she posed the question: “How can we share the human experience of sickness without use of our faces?”  In other words, how do we connect with one another, when our medical masks rob of all but our eyes in our interactions?  “Connect” became my 2022 word of choice. 

CON-NECT (verb):  to bring together or into contact so that a real link is established.

(Definitions from Oxford Languages)

I scribbled the word “connect” on a new notebook page.  I quickly realized it had connotations well beyond the limits of masks and Zoom interactions.   I acknowledged my heightened anxiety and cautious behavior, retreating to the safety of our home like a  turtle pulling into its shell, and a spiritual malaise setting up permanent residence in my daily life.   Connections with family and friends had become, once again,  inhibited by necessary caution and the sagging spirts that we’ve all been susceptible to in a  protracted time of pandemic. 

“It’s a hard time to be human.  We know too much.  – Ellen Bass, “The World Has Need of You” (in:  Like a Beggar, 2014)

It’s been a tough time for everyone.  Loneliness is on the rise.  Declining social connectedness is likely the major explanation for the increase reports of loneliness and isolation.  That’s concerning, because physical and mental health risks are also associated with loneliness, making  us more vulnerable to anxiety, depression , illness  or even death. 

Our connection with others is fundamental to being human.   The necessary social isolation due to COVID challenges our needs for social connection.  And the longer this pandemic drags one, the more effort it takes to make those connections so critical for our mental and physical well being.

Lying, thinking

Last night

How to find my soul a home…

I came up with one thing

And I don’t believe I’m wrong

That nobody

But nobody

Can make it out here alone.

(By Maya Angelou, “Alone,” (in: Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna’ Fit Me Well, 1975) 

“That Nobody/But nobody/Can make it out here alone…”  In the early days of the pandemic, we found some novelty and respite from isolation and loneliness by having online Zoom chats with friends and family.  But the occasional virtual interactions grew to become a dominant part of our daily lives.  Weekdays for many workers have evolved into constant Zoom group meetings. Even regular doctors’ appointments were relegated to the online format.  Now, after months of leading workshops and having meetings on Zoom,  when friends suggest Zoom to “catch up” with one another, it feels more like work than I would like.  I have a case of Zoom fatigue. 

On the positive side, Zoom and other virtual formats make it possible to connect with each other in real time in this pandemic time, but the virtual experience is not at all the same as face-to-face, and it is tiring.   As one Stanford researcher explained, staring at one another in “Brady Bunch” galleries or as talking heads, is a kind of “disembodied” experience that can result in “non-verbal overload.” Zoom fatigue, which many of us have experienced, comes from the lengthier periods of close-up eye contact and constantly seeing ourselves on the screen, which is a bit like staring into a mirror for extended periods.  Our usual mobility is also reduced:  we’re stuck in our chairs.  And we end up feeling like talking heads without our usual non-verbal cues or gestures which are such an important  part of human communication.

At the same time, the virtual format has been beneficial in many other ways.  For me,  it’s enabled my workshops to continue and be available to many more people across Canada, even though the quality of the group interaction is necessarily limited.   I am grateful, thus, that the workshop series for heart and cancer patients continue—the shared stories of those who attend  are a large part of what motivates  and inspires me.   Nevertheless, as 2021 came to a close,  I realized I was genuinely Zoom weary, just as many others were.

So “connect” feels right for my guiding word for this new year.  Covid isn’t done with us yet, and amid the rising numbers of cases in this current wave of the Omicron variant, it requires more diligence to make certain I act on how necessary and important connection is in my life—and discover additional ways to  maintain the sense of connectedness with others in this ongoing period of enhanced caution and necessary isolation.  “Connect” also reminds me that it’s not just about staying in touch with friends but energizing my daily life by  connecting to new ideas, endeavors, creative pursuits, to nature and times of quiet reflection …the possibilities are endless.

So this January 1st, I’ve printed my 2022 word, put it in a frame and now it sits on my desk, a visible reminder to me to explore new possibilities for connection while also deepening those already present in my life.  It feels right.

I wish you a safe and healthy year ahead, the warmth of friends and family, and a happy and productive 2022!

Writing Suggestions:

.  Do you have a guiding word for 2022?  Write about your choice and what meaning it has for you.

Or, greet the New Year by:

               .  Writing a gratitude list for 2021

               .  Reflecting on what the past year has held for you?  What stands out?  Why?

.  Did you learn something new from 2021?  What lessons will you carry into 2022?

.  List what  you want to explore, change or improve upon in the coming year? Why? 

December 18, 2021: Winter Solstice: A Time of Hope and Renewal

For the past several days, I’ve been struggling to write.  It’s not just about cobbling together a blog post appropriate for the season; it’s a malaise that has also rendered my precious morning writing time a struggle of inspiration and motivation.  I am following my own advice:  keeping my routine of writing each morning, but more often than not, my pages are filled with thoughts that go nowhere and brief, unrelated paragraphs.

Now, at a time when this blog post might be oriented to a more “seasonal” theme related to the holiday season, I don’t feel anything close to the holiday spirit as I usually do.  There seems to be less in the world to celebrate with the very present impact of climate change, a worldwide fourth wave triggered by the relentless spread of the Omicron variant, and daily, news of political unrest, poverty, hardship, and suffering, overshadowing themes of “comfort and joy” in this usual holiday season.  I have, as many have, been infected by a kind of spiritual malaise:  call it “pandemic fatigue,” whether a constant low level anxiety or a persistent sense of languishing.  Whatever we call it, it’s nigh impossible to summon up a sense of genuine holiday cheer.  Rather, I can’t shake the undercurrent of more primitive fear lurking somewhere in the shadows, one that whispers that things will never be as they once were.

“Winter Solstice,” a poem by Jody Aliesan, captures those feelings in the first stanza:

when you startle awake in the dark morning
heart pounding breathing fast
sitting bolt upright staring into
dark whirlpool black hole
feeling its suction…
(In: Grief Sweat, 1990)

This morning I remembered that the winter solstice occurs in the Northern Hemisphere on Tuesday morning, December 21st.   It’s the day when hours of daylight are the shortest and the nighttime longest, marking marks the start of the astronomical winter.  It is after the solstice that our days grow longer and our nights shorter, as we gradually move toward spring.  According to the historians, our traditional December holiday celebrations had their beginnings in the winter solstice, as early as the latter part of the Stone Age, somewhere around 10,200 B.C. 

For our ancient ancestors, the winter solstice was also associated with the concept of death and rebirth.  The weather grew cold, the growing season had ended, and stores of food grew scarce as the life-giving sun sank lower in the sky. They feared the sun might disappear completely, leaving them to suffer in bitter cold and permanent darkness.  But the winter solstice marked the gradual return of the sun, and its growing strength as it rose each day in the morning sky.  Winter may have been far from over, but because it signaled the return of warmer seasons and new life, the solstice was a time for celebration.

As this year’s solstice approaches, we are again facing restrictions:  the Omicron variant is spreading everywhere at a pace far outstripping the previous waves of the pandemic, throwing our everyday lives into question again: what life will be like when we have gained the upper hand on this virus? So much has changed because of the pandemic:   our sense of freedom in our daily lives, faces still masked for protection, and interaction with others, relegated the virtual world of email and ZOOM.  The toll on our personal lives has been quietly relentless.  Now, more than ever, we need a re-kindled sense of hope and at the same time, to find gratitude in our here and now. That, for me, is a daily exercise.  

As I was writing this post, I remembered a favorite children’s book, Frederick, by Leo Lionni.  Published in 1967, I originally bought the book when my daughters were toddlers, it became a bedtime story staple for several years.   Yet Frederick has such lasting charm, I’ve given it as a gift to other children, and a few adult friends as well.   Frederick also accompanied me to my writing groups, its collage illustrations, wonderful storyline, and message a gift for anyone.

Frederick is about the story of a group of field mice who are gathering their supplies for the long winter ahead—all but one, that is, Frederick.  He is shown basking in the late autumn sun or sitting and staring at the meadow. When asked why he isn’t working, he replies he is working:  gathering “sun rays for the cold, dark winter days” or colors, “for winter is gray” or other “supplies” of his own.  Winter comes, and the mice take refuge among their hideout in the stones, at first, enjoying plenty of food and conversation, but as the winter months lengthen, they run low on supplies. They remember what Frederick had said and ask, “What about your supplies, Frederick?”    Frederick climbs on a big stone and instructs them to close their eyes.  He begins to share descriptions of the sun, the colors of summer, and finally, his words:  a poem about the four seasons, all to the delight of the mice, who have been transported to sunnier memories, hope, and gratitude for Frederick’s supplies – his poetry, just as I was again transported, my spirits warmed, in re-reading Lionni’s priceless little story.  

We will, in a week’s time, huddle together for a quiet Christmas with our Toronto daughter and her family, all of us vaccinated with our booster shots and exercising similar cautions.  Just knowing we won’t be alone, as we were a year ago during COVID, is comforting.   We’ll have plenty of food for our cold, dark days, and the shared stories of Christmases past will warm our spirits and hearts.  Having at least part of our family nearby, to weather this fourth wave together in our familial cocoon, is a sustaining antibody against falling into despair.   Maybe that’s also something to do with hope for the season to come.

…already light is returning pairs of wings
lift softly off your eyelids one by one
each feathered edge clearer between you
and the pearl veil of day

you have nothing to do but live

(Grief Sweat,
by Jody Aliesan, Broken Moon Press, 1990)

I wish you a peaceful holiday season, gratitude for those in your lives who make a difference and for our beleaguered healthcare workers, and the hope we may find renewal and better times in the months to come.  

Writing Suggestions:  (Set the timer for 5 minutes and write—as fast as you can, without stopping.)

* Where do you find hope in your life? 
* What, despite everything, are you grateful for?
* How has the prolonged pandemic affected your life? 
* What’s kept you going through this protracted and altered time?    

December 4, 2021: Thinking about Courage

cour·age:  noun

  1. the ability to do something that frightens one.
  2. strength in the face of pain or grief.

–(Oxford Languages)

It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone…

I doubt you need to look beyond your neighborhood or community to name more than one cancer survivor, a patient living with a progressive heart condition, or some other debilitating or life threatening illness, whose determination and bravery in the face of considerable odds has inspired you. You may call them courageous, and in fact, I think they are, but it’s not a kind of courage that comes easily or without its familiar sidekick, fear.  In life-threatening, terminal illnesses, fear is never far from consciousness.  Courage won’t cure a terminal diagnosis, so I wonder what we mean when we call someone living with a progressive and life-threatening illness “courageous.”   

Courage, for me, seems to have more to do with putting one foot in front of the other, in not putting on a mask of a brave front for our loved ones, even though we may feel we should.  I think courage has much more to do with honesty, with facing the truth of our situation, the fears and the sorrow, and yet, not letting those emotions overtake us.  Courage is facing up, to the fear of mortality and the progressive reality of the medical condition we have and yet, to find ways to live as fully as possible despite the odds.   And that’s not easy.

It’s one of the reasons I am continually inspired by the men and women who participate in my writing groups.  We mean well, calling someone with a life-threatening illness, “courageous” and ignoring the fact that the very label denies them the freedom to express the truth of what they are experiencing. Expressing the truth of one’s experience is one of the powerful aspects of the writing groups I’ve led for so many years.  Having the freedom to relieve the burden those fears and concerns on the page, that simple act of honesty and release, is freeing, but it is far more than just release: it is the discovery that they are not alone in what they are feeling or fearing.  The honest expression and release, coupled with the support of others similarly diagnosed offers a chance to discover they are not alone in what they feel or fear—and out of that shared experience, a sense of community begins to form. 

That sense of community–of finding others who share similar fears and feelings–is part of what helps many patients feel less alone. I think it also enables them to be more courageous. I remember one particular l one cancer patient who participated in my writing groups several years ago.   Diagnosed with breast cancer, S. first attended an introductory workshop I led at a San Diego cancer center in 2008.  More than a year passed by before our paths crossed again.  When we met a second time, she enrolled in the ten-week writing workshop series I was leading for another cancer center.  Her cancer had, unfortunately, become metastatic, and its spread was rapid. When we began the series, she often volunteered to read aloud. I could hear the shift in her writing as it grew in expressiveness and depth, something I’d witnessed before with terminal patients.  Coming to terms with mortality forces us to go deeper into the unexplored regions of our own darkness and to write honestly and authentically from that place.  Simply put, it is having the courage to “tell the truth,” what writer Maxine Hong Kingston advised the veterans do as they wrote with her about their traumatic experiences of war.

Later,
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing…

To write the truth of our inner lives, of our experiences, is a courageous act. To write honestly avoids the pretense of being “brave” or “courageous.”  It avoids showy descriptions or flowery language, because living with the reality of a life threatening illness forces us to confront all we taken for granted and define what, in our lives, is truly essential—what matters most. That honesty in the face of dying is probably what I find most courageous among many patients who have participated in my writing groups.

As the writing series progressed, so did S’s cancer.  The toll on her body and spirit was apparent to the group.  When she began struggling to attend the sessions on her own, another group member volunteered to drive her.  She lost the use of one arm, but determined to write, she bought a laptop to the sessions and tapped out her stories with one hand.  One morning, late in the series, S. lost her balance and fell as she tried to take a seat at the table.  Several members jumped up and rushed to her side, but she brushed them away, determined to get on her feet by herself and take her usual place.  But we all knew the progression of her illness was quickly intensifying.   By the final weeks, she had been forced to give up her apartment and move to assisted living, no longer able toc attend the writing group.  We dedicated our booklet, a collection of shared writing, and sent it to her.

Nearly three months later, as another writing workshop series was beginning, S. sent me an email.  Wheelchair bound, she was now receiving full time care in a nursing home, but she still wanted to participate in the writing group.  She asked if there was a way she could do it by email (ZOOM was an unknown in those years). My “Yes!,” was immediate.   I sent her the prompts ahead of each session, and in turn, she emailed her writing to me to share them with the group.  The group members, in turn, offered their positive comments to her writing which I captured in an email and sent to her after each session.  By then her writing was little more than a single, brief paragraph in length, but her tenacity, honesty, and humor were as present as ever.  There was rarely a time that members didn’t have tears in their eyes when I shared her writing aloud. 

S’s courageousness and determination to accept her illness and yet find ways to do what she loved and what kept her connected to others is only one small example of the kind of courage I witness repeatedly among the men and women who participate in my writing groups, whether living with cancer or heart disease.   Courage, as defined in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (2004), is a quality that endures through difficult times, as so many of these of these men and women have demonstrated.

Courage is what makes someone capable of facing extreme danger and difficulty without retreating…it implies not only bravery and a dauntless spirit but the ability to endure in times of adversity.  (p. 187)

True courage, as S. and so many others have shown me, endures.  It doesn’t retreat despite great difficulty or danger.  S. openly shared her journey with us, and as her life was ending a few months later, she was supported by many who had also been in the writing group, who had experienced cancer but who had been touched by her indomitable spirit.  I have often wondered if I were faced with the same hardship as S. and as many others in my groups over the years, would I be as courageous?

Later,
when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you’ll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you’ll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.

(From “Courage,” by Anne Sexton, In:  The Awful Rowing Toward God, 1975)

Writing Suggestion:

  • This week, think about courage, what it is, how you define it.
  • Have you discovered unexpected courage in yourself you didn’t know you had? 
  • Has someone else inspired you with their courage? 
  • This week, explore courage:  what it is, and what it looks like, where you find it, or someone who has inspired you with their courage.

October 24, 2021: Writing From the Fault Lines

“You must learn to live on fault lines.”
― Suleika Jaouad,Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted, 2021

My childhood and teenage years were spent growing up in Northern California, a life that included annual water rationing during summertime, seasonal forest fires and the expectation that periodically, the earth could move beneath our feet, something which had little to do with a sudden jolt of teenaged romance.  The occasional movements of the earth were due to the sliding boundaries, the fault lines that define the earth’s tectonic plates. California has many of these fault lines, and sometimes, as witnessed in the Loma Prieta quake of 1989, significant upheaval and damage–even loss of life—occur.

Living on the fault lines is not something Californians have to learn; it’s what they do.  But the periodic upheaval created by the “fault lines” is an apt metaphor for what happens in our emotional lives when unexpected trauma or life-threatening illnesses occur.  In those periods of stress and anxiety, old emotional wounds can also make their way to the surface, adding to the emotional challenges facing you in the midst of a new life crisis.   

In 2007, I began teaching creative nonfiction writing for the UCLA extension Writers’ Program.   My first course was one of several other offerings, and I titled my course “Writing from the Fault Lines:  Writing to Heal,” a title that lasted for three years, until expressive writing gained a foothold in public popularity. To distinguish it from the many and varied writing workshops that seem to blossom everywhere, the course was re-named “Transformative Writing.”

Now many years later, I live far from California, having returned to Toronto in 2017. I no longer teach for the UCLA program, but I continue to lead expressive writing groups for cancer and heart patients.  This past weekend, while working with an inspiring group of young adult cancer survivors, the Young Adult Cancer Canada “YACCtivists,” I re-read portions of Suleika Jaoaud’s extraordinary and thoughtful cancer memoir, Between Two Kingdoms:  Life Interrupted. I paused when I read her sentence, “You must learn to live on fault lines.” The young adult survivors representing YACC had definitely learned that lesson—and then some. 

I thought back to the time the word “cancerous” was spoken to me in a physician’s office in California.  My husband and had returned to California after nearly 26 years in Canada, only to run headlong into a family crisis full of resentment, accusations and the losses of my parents:  my father had died of lung cancer and my mother was lost to Alzheimer’s disease.   At the same time, I was overseeing a difficult and emotional downsizing of a nonprofit organization while trying to navigate the unexpected familial acrimony.  Writing was my refuge.   I filled page after page in my notebook with disbelief, questions that couldn’t be answered and even some misplaced sense that I must have brought on the cancer myself.  Yet my initial outpouring soon gave way to the deeper wounds, to losses and hurt I’d amassed in trying—and failing—to deal with the estrangement from my two siblings.  My “real” story was not about cancer; it was what lay beneath the surface, pressures within my emotional interior begging to be released.

I have often witnessed similar struggles for some individuals in my writing groups.  The experience of a life threatening illness can unearth other, unresolved, feelings.  Painful memories or traumatic events of the past can be triggered by the most benign of writing prompts, and as they rise to the surface, they too are expressed in what gets written.  Writing our healing stories often goes well beyond the experience of serious illness as some plumb the depths of their lives, bringing into the open what they were not able to do before.  

Did you ever think there might be a fault line
passing underneath your living room:
A place in which your life is lived in meeting
and in separating, wondering
and telling, unaware that just beneath
you are the unseen seam of great plates
that strain through time? And that your life,
already spilling over the brim, could be invaded,
sent off in a new direction, turned
aside by forces you were warned about
but not prepared for?


From:  “Fault Line” by Robert Walsh (in Noisy Stones:  A Meditation Manual), 1992.  

Emotions can inspire us or hold us hostage.  Negative emotions—anger, fear or feelings of unworthiness—accumulate, just as stresses along the earth’s plates.  They weaken our ability to fend off illness, depression or disease.  Writing allows us, if we let it, to translate those negative emotions into words, make the connections between what we feel and why, and begin to understand or even forgive ourselves and others.  It is in the act of writing and sharing our stories that we release the pressure of old wounds, that we begin to heal.

Writing Suggestion:   This week, write from your own fault lines.  Go deeper in your writing. Explore those sometimes difficult and painful life experiences that still linger beneath the surface.  

September 22, 2021: Our Stories: Our Legacies

“Death steals everything but our stories.” – Jim Harrison (“Larson’s Holstein Bull”)

She was first diagnosed with metastatic cancer in 2014, but N., one of my former writing group members recently died after a valiant struggle less than two months ago.   Her struggle was a valiant one amidst considerable odds, but she began, in the months after her diagnosis, collecting poems and quotations that, as she put it, “uplifted me.”  A year or so later, N. joined one of my “Writing through Cancer” workshops.  She. embraced the expressive writing approach and continued to explore and deepen her writing, studying with author Natalie Goldberg and poetry with haiku masters.  She also a two year study of teacher training in mindfulness meditation training with Jack Kornfield, even as she was weakening and hospitalized for infections.  In short, N. was a person a who inspired not only me, but many of the people who knew her.

I believe the greatest teachers in my life have been the men and women in my writing groups, like Nan, who have shared their experiences of living with metastatic cancer over the years.   While I have mourned their deaths, even years later, their memories are vivid in my mind.  The writing they shared was as powerful as any found in published memoirs and poetry collections—even more so for me, for they are the living legacies of who they were, what they experienced and what they endured.

“I will tell you something about stories.  They aren’t just entertainment.  They are all we have to fight off illness and death.  You don’t have anything if you don’t have stories.  (Leslie Silko, Ceremony)

N. was such an inspiration.  She was, I knew, intent on writing a book before she died.  We had exchanged emails about the possibilities—and challenges—a year before her death.  Her plans crystallized in Spring of this year:  it would be a book to give to her partner, family, close friends, and teachers before she passed.  And, at the end of July, I was delighted to receive her gift of the book in the mail.  Entitled Legacy of Love:  Gifts I Received on the Path of Life, it is a beautiful book:  professionally bound, illustrated with her partner’s nature photographs, and filled with the reminiscences, stories and learnings from her life and cancer experience.  Quotations, meditations, prayers, and poetry that she found meaningful are interspersed among the stories of her life’s journey.  Writing prompts she’d experienced in the writing groups and other workshops are followed with her written reflections and haiku. 

It was a deeply moving experience for me to read N.’s book; I lingered over the pages, remembering her presence, the enduring love and support of her partner she’d often written about, and her deeply moving prose.  I immediately wrote to her, expressing my gratitude for such an intimate gift of her life.  In the weeks that followed, I returned to it again and again—and a week or so ago, I was moved to write her again to express my gratitude.  But unlike before, I heard nothing in return from N.  I contacted her partner and learned she had died, apparently within a day or two just after I had received her book.  My sorrow was softened because I felt Nan’s presence so vividly between its pages.

My story is myself: and I am my story. This is all you will know of me; it is all I will know of you. This is all that will survive us: the stories of who we are. — Christina Baldwin, Story Catcher

Her death saddened me, yes, as the deaths of others have who have been part of my writing groups.  Yet I was reminded again of how fortunate I am to witness and experience the many gifts of poetry and stories written and shared in the workshops I have led for so many years.  I still hear their voices and remember their faces as I read and re-read some of their stories or poems—ones that frequently took my breath away with its power and depth, ones that still bring tears to my eyes with its honesty and poignancy, writing that was lyrical, poetic, profound—the stories of their illness experiences, of their lives.  Writing I have wished more than once could have been shared with their doctors to illuminate the patients’medical experiences:  the good, the difficult, and the sometimes cold and impersonal.

Their stories, yours, mine—it’s what we carry with us on this trip we take…we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them.

Advice to a medical student by William Carlos Williams, physician and poet

Patient stories have begun to be recognized as important to the medical experience, thanks to the work of Rita Charon, who created the term, “narrative medicine,” a medical practice that uses patient stories in clinical practice, research, and education as a way to promote healing.  Storytelling, as several researchers suggest, is a powerful tool for patients and healthcare providers alike.  It provides the patients with a way to give voice to the experience of illness and, in turn, to begin to confront their illness, questions of care and mortality. 

Stories offer insight, understanding, and new perspectives. They educate us and they feed our imaginations. They help us see other ways of doing things that might free us from self-reproach or shame. Hearing and telling stories is comforting and bonds people together….Being able to narrate a coherent story is a healing experience.2,3… stories keep us connected to each other; they reassure us that we are not alone.Miriam Divinsky, MD, Can Fam Physician. 2007 Feb; 53(2): 203–205.

Illness, unexpected tragedy or hardship may be the triggering event in our lives that ignites the desire to write, but what I experience with every writing group in the weeks together, is that other stories begin to be written — stories of love, loss, family, childhood, life’s joys and sorrows.  These are the stories of the experiences that make us unique, that make us human.  Writing and telling our stories offer a way to understand and make sense our lives.  In sharing them, our lives are affirmed, our legacies articulated.   Our stories say: “This is my life.  This is what I have experienced.  This is important to me.  It is what has shaped me into the person I am.” 

But in order to make you understand, to give you my life, I must tell you a story—and there are so many, and so many—stories of childhood, stories of school, love, marriage, and death. — Virginia Woolf

As I write now, I instinctively reach out and touch N.’s book—her stories and poetry; her life captured in its pages, her willingness to look death in the face, to ask herself the hard questions, to give us glimpses of what she suffered, feared, learned and loved and ultimately how she prepared herself for death, just as others faced with the prospect of mortality have written and expressed, sharing their lives, their fears and courage, so honestly and poignantly.  It is an extraordinary gift, a way to remember, a gift from the heart.

Poetry, stories:  it’s what I carry with me…and, I hope, what I can leave behind to say, “This was my life.  This is what mattered to me.”  (N., 2021)

Writing Suggestions:

  • What are the stories you want to tell?  The ones about you, your life, what matters most?
  • Has your illness broken you open?  Offered new insights or ways of seeing your situation?
  • What has had the most impact on your life?  Try this three part exploration:
    • Who were you?  (Look to your past)
    • Who are you now?
    • Who are you becoming? (What are you learning about yourself now?)
  • Use a line from a poem, essay or story that you love.  Begin with that line and then keep writing—wherever it takes you.  Here are a few you might try:
    • “Starting here, what do you want to remember?”
    • “Before you know what kindness is, you must lose things…”
    • “It is in the small things we see it.”
    • “Let the hard things in life break you.”
    • “I am falling in love with my imperfections.”
    • “But my heart is always propped up in a field on its tripod…”

August 31, 2021: I Guess That’s Why I Called It the Greys

Everywhere in North America, children are heading back to school…only it’s not with quite the same unabated enthusiasm for many youngsters and their parents.  COVID, despite the many months of lockdowns, social isolation and available vaccinations, hasn’t finished with us, as the Delta variant and climbing case numbers demonstrate.   Since my three grandchildren are beginning another school year, I can’t help but wonder about the spread of the virus among schoolchildren who have not, as yet, been eligible for vaccinations. 

That low level anxiety lingers–all too frequent a visitor in my life during the past year and a half. While my husband and I enjoyed some of the gradual opening up of restaurants, galleries, and stores during the summer months, we also remained cautious.  Then the dog days of August descended with haze, heat and oppressive humidity. That, coupled with the daily reports of drought and wild fires around the world, put the reality of advancing climate change into sharper focus, and coupled with the rise in COVID cases, my anxiety rose.  The blistering heat forced me back indoors, which was all too reminiscent of the months of lockdown.  Days dragged, headlines screamed disaster, and my spirits took a nose dive.

Mornings, which are my quiet time for writing, offered little relief.  For many days, my notebook pages contained more white space than words.  I couldn’t seem to get inspired, unable write through my monumental case of sagging spirits.  The days seemed cast in muted, colorless tones. And worse, when I looked at myself in the mirror, my image reflected back seemed dull and grey, just like my mood. I remarked to a friend, “In these times, grey has become a primary color.”

That one spontaneous sentence, and the next day, my associations with “grey” came out of hiding.  I recalled Mordecai Richler’s wonderful children’s book, Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, published in 1975, read and re-read to my young daughters.   Jacob, is a  young boy in a large family who has to repeat everything twice just to be heard, which results in his nickname, Jacob Two-Two. His habit is also the reason he is misunderstood and considered rude. All of it results in his being punished and sent to the children’s prison,  “Slimer’s Isle,” which is run by the Hooded Fang.  Slimer’s Isle is a place where captive children like Jacob never see the sun.  The image of that sun-less place seemed a perfect description for the grey mood that had lingered in my psyche for months. 

Yet Remembering Jacob Two-Two and Slimer’s Isle was also an inspirational nudge.  It was enough to inspire me to a fruitful morning writing, and this time, the words came.  I had fun tinkering with the song lyrics of  “I guess that’s why they call it the blues,” substituting the color grey and adding a few lines about COVID in my version. While it’s hardy ready for public consumption, my husband and I had a laugh over my attempt at song lyrics.   A day or two later, time spent with my granddaughter led me to the old memory of the Crayola Box of 64 colors—an item which accompanied every “back to school” bag during my childhood.   Grey was my most unused color in the box, but thinking of it transported me to the memory of  a delightful poem about color written by a medical student in a writing workshop I led for faculty and students of Stanford Medical School in 2015.

I used color as a writing prompt.  To get people inspired, I spread out a handful of paint color chips on a table.  Not only are a full range of colors represented in the interior paint chips , but they have somewhat exotic—one might even say “silly”—names, such as “first light,” “little princess,” “dinner party,” “head over heels,” “windmill wings”…  Whether using the color or the names associated with them, participants had great fun working them into poems and stories.  But one med school writer’s poem stood out above all the others.  She had chosen the least popular color of the lot:  grey, labeled “hickory smoke.”  When she volunteered to read aloud, we were in awe of how she’d brought that mundane color to life.   Here is an excerpt of her poem, simply titled “Grey”:

…“Air with dirt,” they say.

Floating soot clamoring cold and unwanted

against a clean white wall…

…Grey is the color of “yes, life has been here,”

and “don’t you know I have a story to tell?”

Grey is the sidewalk that’s been walked,

the white house that’s been lived in…

White is before, but give me the after

Give me the ninety-year-old under her old grey comforter.

Has she lived? Well, tell me the color of her soul.

Show me the spots of grey, and tell me how you’ve lived,

the story printed dark and true in the deepest, most imperfect,

ugliest and sweetest shade.

–Workshop Participant, 2015

It’s probably no surprise that after re-reading her poem again, my grey mood had begun to dissipate.  Since then, I’ve pulled my ancient and well-worn copy of Jacob Two-Two from the shelf to recall his experiences on Slimer’s Isle, how he won over the Hooded Fang and returned to his family a hero.  I suppose that all the little memories of grey served as a reminder that while life has been difficult, and despite Zoom, lonely at times, it’s within my control to find ways to navigate this rather strange “new normal”  with a more positive outlook.  Even in the greyest of times, it seems we can find new insights, ideas, perspectives.  School is starting for my grandchildren, my teaching daughters, and even for me, beginning new series of writing workshops for cancer and heart patients.  This is activity I truly look forward to, and I am particularly grateful that despite these months of lockdown and isolation, I can be engaged in meaningful ways.  While my mirror doesn’t lie—I am getting grayer–but that would have happened even without COVID! So grey hair or not, I’m engaged in ways that matter to me.  And that’s  how I want to live.

 “Show me the spots of grey, and tell me how you’ve lived…”

WRITING SUGGESTIONS

.  How have you navigated the long months of COVID isolation?  What kept you going?

.  Did you experience “the greys?”  or “the blues?”  What helped you through those less positive moods?

.  Pull up a color wheel on the web—or open a box of 64 colored crayons.  Choose a color, any color. Make a list of what comes to mind for just 3 minutes.  Read it over, then choose one thing from your list and write for 15 minutes.  Try playing with a narrative or a poem that uses that color in it.

.  Did COVID help you gain clarity about what matters most in your life?  Write about the lessons from lockdown.

.  Back to school.  What memories do you have from your childhood about a new school year beginning?

May 25, 2021: Who Were You Then? Advice for the Younger You

Why should we travel back, who’ve come so far— 

We know who we are. 

How can we be the same 

As those quaint ancestors we have left behind, who share our name— 

( by A. E. Stallings, “Written on the eve of my 20th high school reunion, which I was not able to attend”, In: Poetry, 2008)

It begins with a photograph, one of the few from my childhood I have, nearly all others destroyed when my parents’ home, the one I grew up in, went up in flames many years ago.  In it, we are in his mother’s living room, a drawing of the famous “End of the Trail” sculpture by James Earle Fraser, hangs on the wall behind.   I stand by my father, now seeing the resemblance between us—his high forehead, the set of his mouth and narrow face.  I was four, not yet in kindergarten.  My toddler sister stands in front of me, wide-eyed and inquisitive, a mop of curly dark hair framing her face, but   I stand back, close to my father, shy and somber. My hair is neatly braided, tied with large bows, and I’m wearing my favorite Mary Jane shoes with white socks, the straps buckled around my ankles.  I stare at the camera, unsmiling. My discomfort with the camera will last all my life, as will the shyness, which I will work hard to overcome in my adult years.  If I could, now speak to that four year old girl, what wisdom might I have to offer to her?  What care?  What encouragement?

One of the recent exercises I offered in my writing groups these past weeks was the task of looking back at their younger selves, imagining who they were then—what dreams, fears, and hopes they might have had at a much younger age.  I ask the group members to imagine themselves at a younger age, remembering an old photograph of themselves, or, if writing alone, to choose a photo of one’s self at a much younger age.  Then I introduce the prompt by saying something like, “Study the photograph or take time with that image of the younger you in your mind, noticing all the details:  stance, facial expression, eyes, age, clothing, setting, all the details you can take in.   Now, think about who you are now, what you’ve experienced in your life thus far, and knowing what you have experienced and lived as of now,, what would you say to that younger self? What advice would you give the younger you?”

Interestingly, a similar question was at the heart of two studies reported in The Scientific American in 2019, Robin Kowalski and Annie McCord, of Clemson University, asked more than 400 individuals about the advice they’d offer to their younger selves.  They also asked if there had been a pivotal event in the respondents’ lives that influenced their responses.  The majority of answers people gave fell within the categories of relationships, education, and advice do with the self, for example, “believe in yourself.”  Other categories reported included money, health, goals, and addiction.  Not surprisingly, peoples’ advice often reflected missed opportunities and situations that they could not now change.  But some other responses included reflection on circumstances where “corrective action” could still be taken if one was motivated to change, for example, “finish school,” or “drink less and run more.”

For many, their advice to their younger selves related to a positive or negative pivotal event in their lives, most often occurring in the teens, early 20s or 30s. For some, there were regrets expressed in the reminiscing, but the authors wisely remarked that although advice may offer advice to your younger self, it doesn’t mean you must live with regret.  Some of that advice may well be useful to your present self.  Besides, the practice of occasionally reflecting on your past and your experiences may also inform your present and the ways in which you want to change or live your life going forward. 

I return to study the photograph of my four year old self again.  I still remember the events of that day; I feel tenderness toward that serious little girl in the photograph because she’d accidentally witnessed an argument between her mother and her beloved grandmother in the kitchen. There was a kind of anger between them I hadn’t seen before, and I was confused.  Why were they shouting at one another? How had my petite grandmother had the strength to shove my sturdy mother backwards?  What had made them so very angry at one another?  How could I love them both at the same time?  There is much I would say now, these many years later, to that confused little four-year-old girl.

Looking back may bring up old unresolved feelings or emotions, but there is a plus side too. In doing so, we can learn from the past and how it can inform our present, even our future intentions. Looking back can give us an opportunity to take stock of past experiences and life choices and learn from them. It also reminds us and helps us see of how far we’ve come, and appreciate the life we have.    As Derek Walcott expressed so beautifully in his poem, “Love after Love,”

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

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

(In:   Collected Poems, 1948-1984)

Writing Suggestion:

Try writing to that younger self.  Begin with a photograph of yourself at a younger age.  Examine the younger self who looks back at you.   Study it, noticing not only the features, look in the eyes, the facial expression, your stance.  Take time to remember who you were then, your hopes, dreams, fears, sorrows, and questions.

  • How would you describe the person you’ve become from the one you were then?
  • What was it like to be you then? 
  • What hopes and dreams did you have? 
  • What desires?  What worries? 
  • What advice, what words do you want to offer to that younger self.
  • What, in your life now, do you want to change?

Remember, looking back at your past, your younger self, can be more than a passing reminiscence.  Reflecting on who you were then, who you’ve become, can help you feel gratitude for your life but also clarify how the way you want to live going forward and things you want to achieve or change as your life continues.

April 27, 2021: Once I was…But Now?

Six o’clock in the morning is never a good time to encounter one’s image in the mirror.  Certainly not for me.  My eyes still heavy from sleep, hair askew, and face washed clean of make-up the night before, I see a face that looks more and more like my father’s in his older years, and less and less like the image of myself I carry in my head, the one when I was somewhere around thirty-five, the barest hint of lines forming around my eyes, my hair thicker, longer and a shiny chestnut brown.  Some mornings, more frequent in these long, mind-numbing weeks of the continuing pandemic, I stare in disbelief at the reflection that looks back at me.  “What happened?” I mutter to my reflection.  “When did I become this older, grayer self? “

In the 1991 award winning Irish film, The Commitments, a mirror figures into the storyline as an ambitious Jimmy Rabbitte cobbles together a group of misfits into an almost-famous American style soul band.  The group briefly succeeds then falls short of stardom, due, in large part to their inter-band bickering. But Jimmy imagines fame, and in several charming sequences converses with himself in the mirror, pretending he is the interviewer and the interviewee,.  By the film’s end, the band has failed, and Jimmy is once again back at the mirror, reflecting on their demise and what he has learned from the experience.

We all have hopes and dreams, and some of them are tied to the fantasy that our bodies will never age or at least, not betray us.   We learn to deal with aging, that gentle nudge of reality as our joints stiffen or our hair thins or turns grey.  But when our dreams and desires are thwarted and we’re confronted with unexpected obstacles or events, we’re forced to reconsider and reflect, just as Jimmy Rabbitte, on what happened and why.

Cancer is only one of the life events that throws our lives into turmoil.  When that happens, we’re forced to re-evaluate and change, and that’s not a task for the faint-hearted, confronting the self we imagined ourselves to be and the thwarted dreams and hopes we once envisioned.  Even though they can be challenging, those necessary re-evaluations of our lives can be enlightening.

I recently read Between Two Kingdoms, the inspiring memoir by Suelika Jaouad (2021).  At 22, Jaouad was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and given a 35% chance of survival.  Her hopes and dreams dashed, much of her life was spent in and out of hospital for the next five years until a successful bone marrow transplant put her cancer in remission.  While Jaouad had waged a heroic struggle during her illness and emerged cancer-free, she realized that though she’d survived cancer, she no longer knew how to live.  She embarked on a 100-day journey, accompanied only by her dog, travelling across the United States to visit people who had written her letters of support during her illness. Her journey also gave her the needed time to reflect on her five-year cancer ordeal and how it had altered her life and shattered the dreams she once had.  How would she re-define her life now that she was finally cancer-free?  In an NPR interview, Jaouad remarked, “The truth is that, for me, the hardest part of my cancer experience began once the cancer was gone…But being cured is not where the work of healing ends. It’s where it begins.”

It’s a different spin on healing, isn’t it?  Healing involves not only looking back, but the hard work of re-defining dreams and goals that are no longer relevant to who we have become.  Life teaches us, through unexpected disruptions, hardships, and disappointments that we can take nothing for granted.  And more, it means we have to take a tough look at ourselves in our own mirrors and come to terms with how our lives have changed—something Jimmy Rabitte and Suelika Jaouad also experienced.

It’s a process of slowing down, making the time to reflect and revise the way we want to live our lives.  It’s not unlike the hero’s journey we read in a good memoir: a vulnerable, searching narrator tries to make sense of his or her life in the wake of tragedy, upheaval or hardship.  Each is slowly transformed by their experience, and their lives changed.   This isn’t a struggle confined to memoir or fiction: our lives demand the same journey of us in the aftermath of any upheaval, tragedy, or life-threatening illness.  We too must hold up our metaphorical mirrors, remember who we were, but accept and honor who we have become; who we are now.   

LOVE AFTER LOVE
by Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

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

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

(Collected Poems, 1948 – 1984)

Writing Exercise

Begin with a photograph of your younger self—before cancer.    Reflect: What was important to you then?  What hopes and dreams did you have?

Then, compare that younger self to the person you are now, after the experience of cancer, of life having left its mark, visible or not. Reflect on how your life has changed.   What dreams, hopes or goals do you have for yourself now?

(If you’re having trouble getting started, use a simple “brainstorming” exercise, making a list of “I used to be ________________ but now I’m________________.  Then choose one or two of the points and expand them in your writing.)

April 11, 2021: Put a little Ha-Ha in Your Life

 Cancer is no laughing matter.  And as we’ve discovered, neither is the continuing presence of COVID-19.

Yet if you happened to pass by a meeting room in a cancer center or overhear the Zoom sessions where I lead writing programs those living with cancer, laughter is something you’ll hear.  Even though we’re writing about the emotional impact accompanying a cancer diagnosis, laughter is always part of our sessions.  Counterintuitive perhaps, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that laughter is good medicine, just as Norman Cousins described in his 1979 book, Anatomy of an Illness.  Cousins wasn’t the first to advocate for the healing power of laughter.  Mark Twain had already done so, writing, “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that’s laughter,” he said.  “The moment it arises, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.” 

I grew up in an extended family who loved telling humorous stories and sharing laughter together.  Losses were mourned, yes, but soon afterward, the funny stories that were associated with the relative were told regularly at our family holiday gatherings.  And more than anything, I remember the fun of sitting among my aunts and uncles and sharing the memories and the laughter.  Life became brighter; there was no time for a bad mood, and somehow, the humor seemed to bind us more closely together. 

The power of laughter to help us heal is so great that some time ago, reading a 2015 issue of CURE Today Magazine, it didn’t entirely surprise me that, according to author Jeannette Moninger, many hospitals across America offer laughter programs for cancer patients, no doubt inspired by Norman Cousin’s experience and the research on laughter’s benefits. Moninger described a few: 

At North Kansas City Hospital, patients can watch funny movies…Duke Medicine offers a Laugh Mobile, a rolling cart from which adult patients in oncology wards can check out humorous books and silly items like whoopee cushions and rubber chickens.  And the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Program sends…clowns to 16 children’s hospitals nationwide to help put smiles on the faces of ill children… 

Even as far back as the 13th century, surgeons used humor to distract patients from the agony of painful medical procedures.  (Given the absence of anesthesia, laughter had to be good medicine!)  Those early surgeons were on to something, borne out since by many research studies since.   Laugh, and not only the world laughs with you: your body releases endorphins, the “feel good hormones that function as the body’s natural painkillers,” Moninger states, “the same hormones that create the “runner’s high.”  Endorphins also decrease the body’s levels of cortisol, the hormone associated with chronic stress.  In fact, cortisol has a number of negative effects on our bodies, compromising our immune system, tensing up our muscles, elevating blood pressure—all of which laughter helps to counteract. 

We all need a little laughter in our lives, no matter if we’re dealing with cancer or in this extended time of COVID—whether in person or, as many of us are now, on Zoom with friends and family.  Laughter helps to overcome loneliness and the mild depression that many of us are combatting in these extended lockdowns.  We need to laugh just as much as sometimes, we need to cry.  As cancer survivor Jim Higley wrote in a 2012 issue of the magazine, Coping with Cancer, laughter became invaluable during his treatment and recovery:

when you are raised with the gift of laughter, as I was, it can’t stay suppressed forever. It’s too powerful. Thank goodness for that. I eventually could see bits of “ha-ha” in my own life. Certainly not in the cancer, but in the mind-blowing circumstances that suddenly consumed my life. And laughing at parts of those experiences made me feel a little more alive.

The funniest part of it all was that the more I allowed myself to laugh, the more therapeutic my tears became.

(“Finding Humor in the Midst of Cancer,” Coping with Cancer, March/April 2012)

Try it. It’s good to find something—even a small thing—to smile or laugh about.  Yesterday, my husband and I recalled the humorous story of my first—and last—blind date.  My grandson, age 12, has decided he can cheer up his grandparents by sending us emails from Japan, filled with various memes and online games, ones I have tried and failed to win, which amuses him and, of course, me.  Just the fact he has written with so many “resources” for humor counteracts the greyness of our COVID lockdown life.  It’s an email full of smiles.

Writing Suggestion:

Find a little laughter in your life this week.  Dig back into your memories this week—the fun times, when you laughed so hard, tears ran down your cheeks.  Take a break from writing about and instead, try writing a little humor.  (Even a medical experience can have humor at times.  I was once diagnosed as having a “loose screw” after suffering swelling and pain in my forehead, where I do have a steel plate.  It wasn’t a loose screw, as it turned out, just a need for taking antibiotics before dental work.  But the diagnosis gave us a good laugh, helped relieve the worry and got me to another specialist for a second opinion—one who provided the solution to my forehead discomfort).

Perhaps you have a few memories of times that made you smile, even laugh aloud whenever you think about them.  Write one, that funny story, and let a little “ha, ha” brighten your day..  After all, as Charlie Chaplin said, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.”

Regaining Your Voice: Writing Cancer

In these long months of social isolation, I have taken more refuge in my morning writing practice than usual, spending the first hours of the early morning alone with my notebook, a thermos of coffee, and my small dog at my feet.  It’s a practice that not only allows me to plumb the depths of my own thoughts and emotions, but it also alleviates the bouts of anxiety I’ve felt during these long months of a pandemic.  Meanwhile, my husband has taken to immersing himself in poetry—a new endeavor for him–studiously making his way through my poetry collection, over 100 volumes accumulated over many years.   He is not only inspired but obviously finds solace his morning reading routine.  And it’s probably no surprise that in the past several months, I’ve been asked to facilitate many more virtual writing workshops with several cancer organizations.  COVID-19 has heightened the need for ways to interact socially and, for many, use journaling or a writing group to help express the anxieties, fears and loneliness of living with cancer – heightened in a time of this pandemic.  

Baking, creative cuisine, binging on British mysteries, and reading have been the other endeavors I’ve exploited during these long months of social isolation, and not surprisingly, a stack of novels sits on my nightstand.  I’ve found it difficult to read nonfiction:  memoirs of suffering and hardship especially.  But, quite by accident, I picked up what I thought was a novel and instead, discovered a powerful and compelling memoir of one young adult cancer survivor:  Between Two Kingdoms:  A Memoir of A Life Interrupted, by journalist and cancer survivor, Suleika Jaoud.  Jaoud was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia at the age of 22 and, for the next three and a half years, much of her life was spent in and out of hospital.  After years of treatments, her life was ultimately saved by a bone marrow transplant, and at age 26, she was declared “in remission.”  Whether you’re a young or older adult living with cancer, Jaoud’s story is, at times, terrifying, but searingly honest and poignant.  Before she was diagnosed with leukemia, her dream was of becoming a war correspondent.  Little did she know that the “war” she would be reporting on was her own life and death struggle with cancer. It was during the many months of treatments that she returned to something she had always “leaned on in difficult times:  keeping a journal.” 

“Illness had turned my gaze inward,” Jaoud wrote.  “As a patient you are constantly asked to investigate the body, to report on yourself, and to narrate your feelings…I understood now why so many writers and artists, while in the thick of illness, became memoirists.  It provided a sense of control, a way to reshare your circumstances on your own terms, in your own words.”

Her survival became her creative act, her journaling allowed her a new way to communicate and imagine herself beyond the confines of her hospital room.  Quoting British author, Jeannette Winterson, she wrote “literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is.  It isn’t a hiding place.  It is a finding place.”  Not only a place of discovery, but as we have learned from other patients, writers and psychologists, writing can help us heal. Writing through her illness as Jaoud did ultimately led her to the New York Times and an interactive column, “Life Interrupted, where she chronicled her experience as a young adult living with cancer.  

Writing and poetry were part of the healing process for former US poet laureate, Ted Kooser.  He was diagnosed and treated for oral cancer in 1998, and began writing again during his recovery.   For the entire time of his cancer treatment, he had not written at all, describing himself as “depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself… During the period when I was in surgery and going through radiation, I really didn’t do any writing.

As his radiation treatments were ending, Kooser began a routine of early morning walks through the Nebraska countryside in an effort to regain his physical strength and stamina.  On one November morning, he surprised himself by “trying my hand at a poem.”  From that point on, his morning walks became the inspiration for a series of short poems—only a very few mentioning cancer, most inspired by what he noticed while he walked.   He began pasting the short poems on the backs of postcards and sent them to his friend, novelist and poet, Jim Harrison.    (NPR interview, PBS News Hour, Oct. 21, 2004).  The postcards ultimately became a book of poetry:  Winter Morning Walks:  One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison, published in 2001, one in which we see the author’s return to his craft and his love of life.

Just as Jaoud found sanctuary and structure in her journaling, Kooser found his poetry writing helped him regain a sense of control, saying, “It was very important for me to see something from each day that I could do something with and find some order in, because I was surrounded by medical chaos or health chaos of some kind.”

Some time ago, a member of one of my past cancer writing groups sent me a note.  Although in remission, she lives with the knowledge that her cancer is a relentless type, but she finds solace in writing.   She is more aware than ever before that “life is short,” and that she—as we all do—needs to be reminded not to waste it nor be consumed by things that do nothing to help us feel fulfilled and happy.  I thought about her this morning as I began writing, recalling the advice of writer, Annie Dillard, someone Jaoud also referred to in her book.  Dillard advice to writers was: “Write as if you were dying.  We are on terminal patients on this earth; the story is not “if” but “when” death appears in the plot line.” 

Dillard’s advice reminds me of the final line in Jim Harrison’s poem, “Larsen’s Holstein Bull,”  “death steals everything but our stories.” Writing is not only healing, but a way to have voice, to discover insight, meaning and creativity, to share stories of not only struggle, but life and healing that touch others’ lives, helping overcome the isolation and loneliness that often accompanies illness and suffering.  It’s why I write, and why I continue to lead writing workshops for those living with cancer. 

Writing Suggestions:

  • What has helped sustain you in these difficult times?
  • If you have used writing as a way of healing, how has it helped you?
  • Have you found others’ words meaningful, whether poetry or memoir?  Which ones and why?
  • For anyone wishing to write out of difficult times, Suleika Jaoud also offers an online site, The Isolation Journals, which features many different creativity prompts. https://www.theisolationjournals.com/