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.

May 11, 2021: Living the Questions

Like you, there have been many times in my life that questions seemed to dominate my thoughts far more frequently than answers.  In my youth, my burning questions were often about whether or not some high school “love” interest “liked” me or not.  I was terribly shy around the opposite sex, and at the time, as tall or taller than many of the boys in my class, which only increased my insecurities in the arena of teen-age romance.  Then there were questions about college:  Which one?  Where?  Would I do well?  What if I didn’t? 

Some years later and newly married, my first husband and I contemplated his choice of graduate schools.  Questions dominated our conversations for months. In the end, we opted for adventure (it was the time of youthful idealism and protests) and ended up in Ottawa, where he began his doctoral studies.  We were wholly unprepared for Canadian winters or the loneliness we felt at the time, but gradually, Canada began to be “home” to us, especially in the years after his death.    Decades later, after returning to California for several years with my new husband, he announced his decision to retire from academic life.  We had our own questions, but family, friends and acquaintances peppered us with their questions.   “What are you two planning to do now?”  “You’re returning to Canada? Why?”  Their questions prompted our questions of one another: “But what would we do there?”  “What about our friends?”  “Will we sell our house?”  “What if we spent six months there and six months here?” 

Our transition revealed not only questions, but the realization that we didn’t always share the same wishes and wants for our “What’s Next?” chapter.  Nights were often punctuated by restlessness, the questions invading my dreams.  My notebook was filled with questions, a continuous loop of repetition, and I wasn’t finding any answers in what I wrote.  I don’t quite remember how long it took or when, but we stumbled into a joint decision, downsized our lives, sold our home, and watched as the movers loaded up the van with our worldly belongings and set out, as we did, for Toronto. 

This past weekend, I presented a workshop for Young Adult Cancer Canada (YACC) on the subject of writing for health and specifically, writing alone.  The willingness to “live the questions,” to find yourself groping in the darkness, are part of what writing honestly demands. The answers, in life or in fiction, are revealed as you write, gradually writing yourself into knowing, but not without making your way through the dark before stumbling on a new insight..  E.L. Doctorow, author of the award novels Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, famously remarked that when one sits down to write a novel, “You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.”  

Life doesn’t come with a set of answers, but it is riddled with questions.  It’s like making our journey in that darkness of the unknown at times.  We navigate through it as best as we can, deal with unexpected events, difficult chapters, the illnesses and losses we experience.  Cancer is one of those unwelcome chapters in your life, and the journey through it is not unlike what Doctorow describes.  You survive the shock of diagnosis, the worry and after-effects of surgery and chemotherapy, roller coaster of recovery, but despite all that, you can’t see very far ahead.  There are no certainties.  Your life is punctuated by more questions than answers. “Has the treatment worked? How likely is my cancer to recur?  What if it has metastasized and is lurking somewhere else in my body? Stage four?  Then how long do I have?”  No one can offer you certainty.  You navigate through it all in the same way Doctorow described of writing, able to see only a short distance along the path, but gradually finding your way into the answers.

 “Questions in the Mind of the Poet While She Washes Her Floors, “a poem by” Elena Georgiou, poses several questions, ones that play in in the poet’s mind, and like life, don’t come with answers.  Here is an excerpt:


Am I a peninsula slowly turning into an island?

If I grew up gazing at the ocean would I think
life came in waves?

If I were a nomad would I measure time
by the length of a footstep?

If I can see a cup drop to the floor and shatter
why can’t I see it gather itself back together?

If a surgeon cut out my mistakes
would the scar be under my heart?

How much time will I spend protecting myself
from what the people I love call love?

Would my desires feel different if I lived forever?

  (In:  Mercy Mercy Me, © 2000)

Georgiou offers no answers to the reader.  Nor did Austrian novelist and poet, Maria Rainer Rilke (1875-1926) when he offered advice to a youthful protégé, published in his wise little book, Letters to a Young Poet.   “Don’t search for the answers,” he wrote, “which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Live everything.  Live the questions…  Live the questions nowLive your way into the answer.   I have often quoted Rilke to the men and women who attend my writing workshops.  His words are as insightful now as they were over a century ago.  Whether cancer or embarking on a significant change, living through the questions is not easy, yet it is all you can do. Your task is to be present, to pay attention and live life fully.  Not surprisingly, when you do, you often stumble upon the answers you seek. 

Writing Suggestions:

  • Whether you’re wrestling with the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis or some other unexpected life challenge, make a list of the questions that keep replaying in your mind.  Choose one and for 15 minutes, explore it as you write.
  • Recall an earlier time in life when you faced the unknown.  What questions did you have then, and how did you find your way into the answers?  Are there insights that may pertain to your current challenges?  Write about that time, the questions and how they were resolved.
  • You might use one or two of the poet Elena Georgiou’s questions as your prompt.  Choose it and again, writing nonstop for 15 minutes.  Then read over what you’ve written, underline those words or phrases that stand out.  In a day or two, you might begin with one of those phrases you underlined and explore it more deeply.  You just might discover some wisdom that leads you to some of the answers you’ve been searching for.

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.)

March 28, 2021: There’s Not a Book–or App–on How to do This

Siri, that monotonous virtual voice of iPhone assistance, has proven to an unreliable narrator.  Where I once counted on “her” for directions to my desired destination by her unflappable female voice through streets and freeways of my city and arrive at my destination without getting lost, I have been often been offered directions to places not in Toronto, but a city in Oklahoma or somewhere north of Algonquin Park. I confess that more than a few expletives have sometimes been uttered in Siri’s direction.   

How, I wonder, did I ever get from point A to point B in the years I was consulting with organizations scattered all over greater Toronto or the multitude of new technology firms in Silicon Valley?  But now, it seems we’ve all become seekers of much more than driving directions.  We search for advice and directions for navigating our lives.  Yep, there’s an app for all that.   On countless mornings my husband and I turn to our mobile phones for answers to our questions.  (I have dubbed my iPhone as “the fount of all available knowledge.”)  Sometimes I wonder how we managed to get through adulthood without the abundance of advice and information available in today’s world. 

The internet has no shortage of advice, whether we’re seeking advice on how to prepare food, get directions to places, assemble furniture, fill out required forms, deal with relationships, child-rearing, or emotional and health complaints.   How did we remember directions, facts and other things before the ease of our technology gave us instant answers?  I can’t help but wonder how my grandchildren will grow and learn with ever more sophisticated technologies as part of their lives.

Ask a question about anything, whether your mobile phone or the internet, and you’ll find a preponderance of information, self-help websites, blogs and books.  In 2011, Dr. Jim Taylor, writing for The Huffington Post, commented that whether forced to change due to unexpected illness, hardship or loss, there was likely a book, podcast or DVD offering you a step-by-step explanation on how get through your latest life upheaval.  By 2017 the self-help industry alone was valued at around $9 billion, and in 2019, at $11 billion.  Now it’s estimated to grow to over $13 billion by 2021. “Contrary to the assertions of just about every self-help book that has ever been written,” Dr. Taylor wrote, “change takes incredible commitment, time, energy and effort. Someone might be able to show you the way, but you have to make the journey yourself.”

 And making the journey yourself is something every cancer patient or survivor fully understands. 

Teva Harrison, award-winning cartoonist, who wrote and illustrated In-Between Days (2016), a graphic memoir of her journey with a life-threatening cancer.   “When I was first diagnosed, I made all these frantic lifestyle changes, as if I could turn back time, undo my bad luck.  I think a lot of us do that…I was frantic, driven by panic,” she wrote.   As her cancer progressed and treatment changed, she faced living with an ever-advancing and terminal cancer.  She wrote, “If we manage to stabilize it, it’s only stable for an indeterminate while…it’s only a matter of time before it finds a way around the barricades and begins to grow again…” 

Harrison’s cancer journey required she adapt to and navigate her life through constant change, yet even in the face of a terminal and progressive illness, she sought ways to enjoy what she could. “I mean, the cancer is here, and I have a life to live.  And sometimes living well includes eating something made with sugar or having a glass of wine with dinner,” not something she’d likely find to be advised by the health literature, yet necessary for her.   “I’m not going to be hard on myself,” she said, “I’m going to enjoy every minute I can.” Harrison did her best to enjoy the time she had left, widely mourned in Canada when she died at age 42 in the spring of 2019.  Her humor, honesty and sorrow continue to be cherished for many diagnosed and living with cancer.

Thankfully, there are a wealth of excellent cancer support programs and resources for those living with cancer.  Writing groups, such as I continue to lead, are one example.  The shared experiences of the cancer community can be a source of comfort, making you feel less alone or saying the things you find difficult to articulate yourself.  Again, and again, I witness the power of the group experience to help overcome loneliness, to give voice to feelings and fears, and, even as some face terminal diagnoses, to offer support in multiple acts of kindness—something far more meaningful than self-help books and sites can offer.

In the poem, “There’s Not a Book on How To Do This,” cancer survivor Sharon Doyle reminds us of the challenge of discovering your own way through cancer as she sketches the composition for her fall garden, her celebration of her cancer journey ending. 


There’s not a book on how to do this,
but there is an emphasis on composition.

The trucks that slug by under our window
hold trombones, mirrors, dictionaries.
It’s not my fault they invade
the calm of trees like cancer.  I

don’t have cancer anymore…

…I rarely remember the
uterus I don’t have.  One of my sons said,
“You were done with it right away, right, Mom?”
I guessed so…


(In:  The Cancer Poetry Project, v. 1, 2001, Karin Miller, Ed.)


There’s not a book on how to do this…” Cancer or any major life challenge doesn’t come with the luxury of a GPS or an “app” to help us navigate through our life upheavals, fears, or grief.  Yes, you may find help from others’ advice; you may have the comfort of family, friends and others, but ultimately, the journey is yours to navigate.  It’s a road full of unexpected twists and turns, conundrums and set-backs, yet with each step you take, you begin composing that new life, the one that honors where you’ve been and what you’ve discovered about yourself and the way you want to create your live going forward.  That is, truly, when healing begins.


Writing Suggestions:

As you write, reflect on your own life journeys and life during and after cancer treatment. 

  • What was most helpful for you as you navigated the rough waters of profound and unexpected change? 
  • What internal compass—your beliefs, aspirations, or faith—played a part in helping you rediscover hope and embrace a new life?
  • Based on your experience, what advice or suggestions might you offer someone just beginning the journey through cancer?
  • If you could compose a garden, painting, sculpture or collage to honor your cancer experience, what would it include?

February 24, 2021: Still Waiting…

I admit it.  The months of waiting, of social isolation, the greyness of winter, and more waiting for the promised vaccines have upended any of my resolve to remain calm, positive, and creative.  I wrote about “the long wait” earlier this month for my “writing the heart” blog, and this morning, searching for inspiration, I perused several of my blog posts for the past year, particularly those concerning the initial fear as COVID-19 became a daily reality for all of us, and life began to be defined by social distancing and “shelter in place.”  The summer months brought a kind of reprieve, although my husband and I, both in the “higher risk” category, remained cautious in our movements and interactions. 

Now, approaching a year later, I feel increasingly like I’m living some version of the Bill Murray film “Groundhog Day,” awakening each morning to a kind of mental sludge, reminding myself of what day it is, and yet attempting to maintain some semblance of normal routines…making the bed, sweeping the floor, planning what to cook for dinner, and even yet, writing every morning in the quiet.  That’s where my real mental and emotional state are expressed.  I can barely fill a page in my notebook some mornings.  Any attempts at creativity are more often futile than not.  Occasionally I manage a silly, rhyming poem that, at the least, can make my husband laugh, but even those efforts have become less frequent.  So I was strangely pleased to discover an article in the British newspaper, THE GUARDIAN, this weekend with the title, “Writer’s blockdown:  after a year inside, novelists are struggling to write.”

Well, I’m no prize-winning novelist, but writing is a significant part of my life, so I read the article immediately, feeling some sense of “oh thank goodness, it’s not just me” as I did.  “Drab days, author William Sutcliffe remarked.  “Last night I had a dream about unloading the dishwasher.”  “I can’t connect with my imagination,” Linda Grant, a prize-winning novelist said  “My whole brain is tied up with processing, processing, processing what’s going on in the world.”  She described “waking up in a fog and not wanting to do anything but watch rubbish TV.”  Well, I will now admit I have all but exhausted every British crime drama on Brit Box over the many months of our COVID pandemic life.  It’s just an example of what another author calls “pandemic fatigue” that is affecting everyone.  “Life,” Grant said, “is just a sea of greyness, of timelessness,” sentiments I often share.  Even my reading list has become populated with “easy” reads, like detective novels, a genre I rarely indulged in before COVID, just pure escapism.  And the creative cooking I did for several months?  Gone.  My motivation for trying new recipes, those once weekly batches of scones or even the occasional cake has completely vanished.  Worse, my morning writing is top heavy with greyness and anxiety before I finally settle into “healthier” prose, sometimes the occasional inspiration for one of my workshops or a silly poem for a friend or family member. 

Of course, it doesn’t help my anxiety that my U.S. friends and family members have cheerfully announced they’ve gotten their vaccinations, unaware, perhaps, of Canada’s vaccination delays.  Where we were hopeful toward the end of 2020 that we’d also have ours by now, it’s less and less likely we’ll feel that needle jab in our arms before April. That only feeds my anxiety as the delay persists, and we read reports of more infectious variants. As a “higher risk” candidate, I find I am driven to compulsively read the national and provincial COVID-19 updates daily, despite the fact I know it rarely helps my mood.  We also worry for those who’ve lost their jobs, their shops and businesses as the pandemic lockdowns continue.  What will life be like when this is over? It’s hard to find much that’s uplifting in all of this, and my daily mantras and meditations aren’t helping much at the moment. 

 It’s cold comfort, perhaps, but I am hardly alone in this–far from it. So many people are suffering far more than we are.  So while I allow my worry to surface or write a rant sometimes to let off steam, I am fully aware how important it is I don’t end up in self-pity for more than the briefest of periods.  I’ve learned to close my notebook and turn to other pursuits when I realize I’m heading down the rabbit hole.

“This too shall pass,” my mother would say at any time we had an upset in our childhood…we grew tired of her pat phrase, but now, I can hear her voice in my mind, those same four words repeated again and again.  While I never found them very helpful in relieving whatever angst or youthful heartbreak I was feeling, I now find variations of that same theme in the words of poets I have long admired.  I guess there’s some truth in my mother’s mantra.

Wait for now.

Distrust everything if you have to.

But trust the hours.  Haven’t they

Carried you everywhere, up to now?

Personal events will become interesting again.

Hair will become interesting.

Pain will become interesting

Buds that open out of season will become

     interesting…

(From “Wait,” by Galway Kinnell, in Mortal Acts; Mortal Words, 1980)

Writing Suggestions

–Fed up with waiting?  Set the timer for 15 minutes.  Try writing a rant, just “dumping” all your worry and frustration on the page.  When time is up, stop.

–Re-read what you’ve written.  What stands out? Now, start with the one thing that seems most important and, setting the timer again for another 15 minutes, explore what’s beneath the frustration.

–How are you coping with the extended period of social isolation and lockdown?  What helps?  What doesn’t?  Write a humorous “prescription” for coping with this extended wait.

January 31, 2021: Life and Loss

I’ve been thinking about loss and losing things as I and my long-time friends grow older, although it seems to on my mind more often in this long year of living with the COVID-19 pandemic.  There are many months ahead before we might be able to declare an “end” to it, but a return to something called “normal” life is likely to take even longer.  What will we have lost?  What will we have learned?  What will “normal” be like?

I think of the losses—not just the deaths suffered—but all the other losses suffered by so many:  large and small businesses going bust; jobs lost by so many people; the loss of freedoms during these necessary lockdowns that we took for granted…and so much more.

In the coming week, I’m beginning another expressive writing workshop for Gilda’s Club here in Toronto, and as I think about the sessions and the men and women who will attend, I think of the losses of cancer brings with it and how COVID-19 may add to the stress of living with a cancer diagnosis and the fear of loss.

What do you lose when you’re diagnosed and treated for cancer?  There are physical loses and emotional ones.  Some permanent; some temporary.  I thought back to one of my earlier writing groups a few years ago. A dozen people, all living with cancer, seated around the table with their notebooks open as I offered a short “warm-up” writing prompt at the beginning of the session..    

“What’s on your mind this morning?  What thoughts or concerns have accompanied you to our group?”  Within seconds, only the rustle of paper and pens could be heard, as everyone bowed their heads and wrote.   A few minutes later, I sounded the chime and asked, “Who wants to read what you’ve written?”  One woman, her head covered by a brightly colored scarf, quickly raised her hand. 

 “I’m angry about losing my hair,” she began.  “It was always long and full, and it’s was my signature.”  She looked up from her notebook, eyes red and teary.  Several of women nodded sympathetically.  I recalled my own embarrassment when, as a teenager, I sported a bald head twice after two neurosurgeries.  I had no choice but to cover my bare head and the ear-to-ear scar with brightly colored scarves as I returned to school after surgery.   I remember how vulnerable I felt without my hair, how embarrassed, and how I prayed no one would make fun of me.  

It grew back, of course, just as the young women’s hair did, becoming full and long again over time.  She was one of the lucky ones, just as I was; her hair loss was temporary.  She recovered and regained a full head of hair and an active life—in contrast to other group members, who’d lost far more than their hair. 

When I invite the participants to write about loss, temporary hair or diminished energy during treatment aren’t at the top of the list.  Bodies are altered by surgeries and scars.  Dreams are lost. Friends are lost.  Loved ones are lost—whether by death or by the dynamics of families unable to come together in crisis.  Although many may return to a so-called “normal” life, their lives are rarely the same as they were before cancer.  

Being human demands that we come to terms with different losses at different times in our lives, small or large. We all experience them.   Life requires our continual adjustment to the changing seasons of being alive and learning to let go of old ways of being that no longer serve us or are possible. It’s not easy, this business of loss and losing.  Yet, it is the thing we all are challenged to master—and learn from.

Then we couldn’t help expressing grief

So many things descended without warning:

labor wasted, loves lost, houses gone,

marriages broken, friends estranged,

ambitions worn away by immediate needs.

Words lined up in our throats

for a good whining.

Grief seemed like an endless river—

the only immortal flow of life.

After losing a land and then giving up a tongue,

we stopped talking of grief

Smiles began to brighten our faces.

We laugh a lot, at our own mess.

Things become beautiful,

even hailstones in the strawberry fields.

(From: “Ways of Talking, “by Ha Jin, in Facing Shadows,  1996)

Writing Suggestion:

Write about loss this week, about losing something—small or large—whether from cancer, life changes, unexpected tragedies or challenges.    Write what you felt.  Describe how you came to accept and move forward from the losses you suffered. 

January 16, 2021: The Moment of Diagnosis: Different Points of View

He opens the door

               and walks in,

his face and white coat

stiff with starch,

holds my hand, and

he says,

“I’m afraid.

I am afraid

you have cancer…”

From: “Diagnosis,” by Majid Mohiuddin, in The Cancer Poetry Project)

“Write about the moment when the doctor said, “Cancer.”  It’s usually the very first prompt I offer in a new series of my “writing through cancer” workshops.  That moment of confirmation, the seconds in which a physician delivers the words that, in that one instant, will change your life forever, is something everyone in the group shares, an event that evokes strong emotions as it gets written about and described. 

Writing that is most healing has some particular characteristics, as psychologist James Pennebaker and his colleagues have noted, among them, writing that is concrete, vivid, and gives detailed descriptions of trauma, distress and emotion.  When I ask group members to return to that first moment they hear the word, “cancer.” No one ever responds to this prompt with generalities.  And when they read what they’ve written aloud, it’s often emotional, as they remember their doctor’s words, “I’m sorry; you have cancer.” 

Shifting your perspective, from the immediate and first person (“I”) perspective, can sometimes reveal other aspects of your experience.  At the least, it’s interesting to try writing about that same moment of hearing your diagnosis, but instead of “I”, try using third person, “he or she” to refer to yourself.  It forces your perspective to shift a bit, as it you are looking at yourself in that moment and doing so can reveal other insights into what you experienced or how you reacted in that moment.

But consider the other’s point of view:  while those words, “you have cancer,” are unfamiliar and terrifying to us, to the doctor, they are words delivered many times, to many different people.  How difficult must it be to be the physician who delivers those words to a patient?  Not once, but so many times throughout one’s medical career? 

The door seems impenetrable.

Today is arduous.

I have seen patients with cancers of pancreas,

Gastric, cervix, colon—all unresectable…

Why is it so difficult to enter this room?

(From: “The Door,” by David H. Huffman, MD, in The Cancer Poetry Project, v. 1, 2001)

 “The Before,” written by Jennifer Frank, MD and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, offers the reader a rare—and poignant–glimpse into the doctor’s mind as she prepares to call a patient with a cancer diagnosis, the words no one wants to hear.

This is the before.  A moment suspended like a bubble floating on a warm summer breeze gently but inevitably toward the ground.  I feel the pop coming, an implosion of the very center of your life.  Anticipating what this moment would hold, I nevertheless hoped for something different.  To be able to eagerly dial your number and shout out the good news to you in a breathless rush.  “It’s not what we thought.  It’s not cancer.”

Instead I take a deep breath, pressing each number slowly, cautiously, drawing out the moment before the burst.  The burst of your plans and your dreams and your future.  I stall for time, asking if this is a good time, are you alone, do you have a pen and paper? …

I want to be straightforward but not blunt.  I want to be compassionate but remain professional.  I slow myself down, remind myself that the words I’m about to say are ones that I’ve said before, many times, but that the words I’m about to say are also ones you’ve never heard before… (In: “A Piece of My Mind,” JAMA, March 7, 2012, v.307. no.9).

It’s difficult, when we are the patients, the ones receiving the diagnosis, to understand what is felt by the person delivering the bad news.  We may never completely understand what is behind the doctor’s mask, yet we need the practiced and steadfast hand of a professional to guide us through the upheaval, and help us find our way through a regimen of treatments.  “All I can offer is my hand,” Frank concludes, “…to hold you up, prevent you from going under until the sea calms and the path clears.” 

Several years ago, when I was leading writing workshops for the “Writers’ Workshop at Stanford Medical School,” I invited a group of medical students and physicians to “write about the moments just before you had to deliver bad news to a patient or someone close to you.”  What they wrote and read aloud were achingly honest and no less powerful than those written by the people living with cancer.   Their stories and poems offered a glimpse behind the medical mask, a reminder of what it is to be human, to care and to feel, whether patient or physician.  As Huffman expresses in his poem,

…I can only be forthright and compassionate.

Why is it so difficult to enter this room?

Maybe someday I will be in that bed.

I hope that if that time comes

My doctor will be as truthful and considerate.

But if she hesitates at the door…

I will understand.

Writing Suggestions–Changing Point of View:

This week, write about that moment, the one just before you hear the words “you have cancer.”  Remember, if you can, write in as much detail as you can:  what you were feeling, where you were sitting or standing, what you remember about your doctor’s voice, eyes, face.  Write in the first person, “I.”

Then, as options to try a different point of view, write about that same moment again, but instead of “I,” write in the third person, as if you’re watching yourself from a distance, using “he or she” or she to write about that same moment.  

Now, as an even more intriguing perspective, try putting yourself in your doctor’s shoes and write from her or his perspective.  Imagine you are the one who must deliver the bad news, this diagnosis, to you.  What the doctor might have seen as she or he looked at you or heard when you came to the telephone?  What might she or he have felt?  Write in as much detail as you can. 

When you finish writing in either the third person to refer to yourself OR writing from the imagined doctor’s perspective, compare the versions.  Did anything change in the way you think about that moment? Did you discover any new insights or understanding?  What was it like to write from the doctor’s point of view? 

One Word for 2021: Gratitude

The new year always brings us what we want
Simply by bringing us along—to see
A calendar with every day uncrossed,
A field of snow without a single footprint.


(From: “New Year’s” by Dana Goia, from Interrogations at Noon, 2001)

For several days now, I have been reflecting on the year gone by, 2020, the year of a pandemic, of social isolation, masks and lockdowns…a year unlike any I’ve experienced before, challenging my assumptions about life and living, daily reports of escalating cases of COVID and of deaths.  An undercurrent of caution, of worry seeping into my daily life…hope, much of the year, seemed elusive, and I struggled, some days, to dig myself out of a persistent case of the blues.

Rewinding the mental tape of the year just passed, I recalled my intention, the choice of my guiding word, for 2020. “Calm.”   It has been impossible to miss, this word, displayed, as I do each year, in a small frame on the bookshelf in my office.  A word that confronted me every single day of the past year, but a one, given the landscape of 2020, that fell by the wayside within weeks of the first COVID case in Canada.  Calm was all but absent in the context of this past year for me.  I fall into the category of “higher risk” where COVID is concerned, and given the political tension and upheaval in the US too difficult to ignore, my days were nagged by a persistent undercurrent of worry and low-level anxiety.  I tried, for a time, to live with “calm” daily, but despite frequent self-admonitions, attempts at meditation and extended periods of deep breathing, it didn’t work.  Tension and anxiety were my regular visitors.  Any pretense of calm was just that, utter and complete pretense.

With the daily onslaught of reporting—which I tried not to read and failed miserably—whether about new numbers of COVID cases and deaths or the nearly unbelievable reports of the circus surrounding the US presidential campaign and election, hope was nearly nonexistent, at best, a slender thread that seemed to be growing fainter each day.  My notebook attests to the dark cloud that grew and hovered overhead.  I wrote, as is my daily habit, but increasingly, I found myself going down the rabbit hole more than a few times.  Gradually, I found a reprieve in the daily practice of making explicit my gratitude for those on the front lines, unexpected kindnesses, shared laughter, and little surprises or inspiration from others. 

Articulating gratitude became the most important habit in my daily life, the one that balanced out the tension, complaints, worry or depression.  It served to remind me of the gifts I have in my life vs. what I didn’t.  Making gratitude explicit in a daily list, halted those self-defeating thoughts and forced me to be quiet, observe, and remember all that enriches my life.  It’s what I want to carry into this new year, a spirit of gratitude.

2021.  Hope, where the pandemic is concerned, is within reach, even though there is still much healing ahead of us in the coming months.  Yet as I say good-bye to this tumultuous and difficult year, I do not want to forget all that has happened around the world and there is yet much work to do for the good of all people:  eliminating disease, hunger, poverty, violence, racism, and wanton disregard for this fragile planet.

It’s no surprise that the guiding word I have chosen for 2021 is simply “gratitude.”  It’s not only a way of remembering what is good in my life, but hopefully, makes me more aware and intentional in responding to others with kindness, generosity, and forgiveness.  This is the only life I’ve got—gratitude also ensures I am intentional in how I live it, and the kind of footprint I leave in each day of the year ahead.

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this 
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

(“You Reading This, Be Ready,” by William Stafford, from The Way It Is, 1992)

Writing Suggestions:

.  What is the word or intention you have for this new year?  Write it down, exploring the reasons you have chosen this one word to frame your intention.

.  I’m not one for resolutions, since I rarely followed through on the vast majority of them, despite my good intentions!  But if resolutions for the new year are your preference, then write them out—and also spend some time exploring the reasons for each one you’ve chosen.