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Archive for the ‘life writing’ Category

(Illustration by Maurice Sendak, From:  Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krause)

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?…

For the month of July, I took a month-long hiatus from writing my blogs–something I haven’t done in the 14 years since I first began my “Writing Through Cancer” blog.  But in this unusual time created by COVID, I felt the need to break from my self-imposed schedule of posting and instead, have the freedom to let my mind—and my pen—wander where they would.  It was a necessary period to simply reflect and be, in the sense of writing, quiet for a time.

I kept my daily writing routine—a habit indispensable to my day.  Some days my notebook pages were half empty, as though my muse had gone into hiding; on other days inspiration would strike, playful, serious, or lead me into a re-examination of past writing—it hardly mattered.  I simply let whatever emerged on the page, be.  I began re-reading pages and pages of old posts, books of poetry, and others about writers and writing.  I questioned whether to continue my blogs or to let them gradually fade away from inactivity. I questioned the writing of separate posts for cancer and heart failure as I’d initially done.  The two had already begun to converge in recent weeks, and not surprisingly.  Writing about serious illness, trauma or suffering is less about the illness itself and more about the human experience.  It is writing about life.

The upending of what was normal, months of social isolation, social distancing, closures, and virtual everything has been sobering.  During the early months of COVID, I had celebrated another birthday, less welcomed this year as my birthdays before COVID and when I was much younger.  My past birthdays signaled a new year, one that held promise, opportunity, new plans and dreams, while this most recent one was punctuated with questions:  How long will this continue?  Will my life be shortened by this virus?  What will the coming year hold for all of us?

Of course, there were always some years I was happy to bid farewell–ones marked by personal tragedy, loss and illness–but even then, the passing of another year signaled the possibility for something better.  Looking back, I realize that my “crosshairs” were firmly set on what Wallace Stegner once described as “the snow peaks of a vision” in his Pulitzer Prize novel, Angle of Repose, (1971).   I was always looking ahead to the “what’s next? “What’s possible?”   Before COVID, I still had that “looking ahead,” the hope, possibilities of something “new” to look forward to, a new goal to achieve, a trip to another country, some “better thoughts” that might turn into something significant on the page.   COVID, like cancer and heart failure temporarily did, foisted a “hold” on those future possibilities, and the longer our lockdowns and restrictions have continued, the more I realize we—all of us– are unlikely to return to the same world we knew—and took for granted—just six months ago.  What, then, I wondered, do we look forward to now?

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?

The little respite from the blogs that  I granted myself has helped me realize that this strange and unusual time has given me a chance to look back, reflect and have gratitude for the life I’ve been fortunate enough to live thus far, even if I sometimes regret I haven’t accomplished all I set out to do.  It’s also helped me clarify what matters most to me and how and where I want to expend my energies as life moves forward.

I am more aware than ever of the fragility and uncertainty of life.  I take nothing for granted.  My brushes with cancer and heart failure, the experiences of the men and women who write with me from the experience of life-threatening and terminal illness continue to remind me how precious life is and yet more, how challenging and difficult it can also be at times.  None of us is immune from illness or hardship. No one escapes.  Cancer, heart failure, a pandemic of COVID:  serious illnesses remove any pretense or assumptions about ourselves we may have—a time, perhaps, when we need to pause and reflect, gain insight and discover so much more of who we are and have the potential to be.   Maybe that’s one important lesson I will take from this time of pandemic—and use it to continue to inform how I want to live and engage with others.

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 –

From: “You Reading This, Be Ready,” by William Stafford)

Writing Suggestions

  • What has been your COVID experience? Write about the concerns, reflections or insights about life as you’ve known it—and how it may change.
  • Do you agree or disagree: “Writing about serious illness is really writing about life.” Why or why not?
  • What new glimpse of life and living have you discovered out of hardship or serious illness?
  • Begin with the line, “Starting here, what do I want to remember?” and keep writing for ten minutes.  Re-read.  What stands out?

 

 

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I admit it.  Three months of lockdown and relative social isolation, and my muse has flown the coop.  “I’m outta’ here,” she cried yesterday as I tried for the 5th day in a row to compose a post that might inspire my readers to write.  No amount of deep, mindful breathing, a walk through the tree-lined streets in our neighborhood, quotes from books and articles or frantic, whinny pleading to that creative muse worked.  She disappeared, leaving me staring at the blank page.

I only just finished another online workshop for Gilda’s Club yesterday—part presentation, part offering short writing “bursts” and part encouragement on how to get started exploring the experience of cancer through writing.  “Nothing to write?”  I asked, then offered a suggestion:  “Start with anything.  Anything can be a prompt.  Anything can provide inspiration.  Or start with nothing, writing the line, “I have nothing to write, “over and over until you discover you DO have something to write.”  It’s an approach I often use for myself, quite honestly, and in doing so, I stumble into ideas, questions, and inevitably, a blog post that I post on this site.

Well guess what?  Even my own suggestion did not work for me this week.  I haven’t even been inspired to write a silly poem or bake another batch of scones (now that’s serious).  I blame it on the COVID blues…or, perhaps more accurately, COVID boredom.  Here’s the deal.  I’ve read so many books in the past three months that  I have actually grown tired of reading.  I’ve exhausted several seasons of my favorite British crime dramas.  I’m weary of the monotony of having to stay so close to home, of seeing my husband 24/7, of the news reports of the current numbers of outbreaks and deaths, of the low level anxiety that accompanies me every time I encounter other people on the sidewalk who are unmasked and not honoring social distancing guidelines,  of Zoom meetings instead of face-to-face and of course, the knowledge this kind of life is going to be with us for some time yet.  That sounds like the blues to me, or at the least, a seige of boredom.  Worse, all this is accompanied by an utter lack of inspiration, of even the glimmer of an idea to get me writing.  Oh, I still write every morning as I’ve always done, but the pages of my notebook are filled with ideas that went nowhere, repetitions, and numerous attempts to find something “new” to get me going.

As I write this, I suddenly recall a folk song from my (much) younger days.  I hear the song,“The San Francisco Bay Blues,” in my head.  Originally composed by Jesse Fuller (who I saw in person in the mid-sixties) it was subsequently performed by the likes Bob Dylan, Jim Croce, Eric Clapton, Janis Joplin, John Lennon, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Eva Cassidy and many others.  It begins,  “I got the blues for my baby/left me by the San Francisco Bay…”  Well, it’s rattling around in my head now, but my lyrics are different:     “I got the blues for my muse and/ I’m  far from San Francisco Bay…”

How about you?  Perhaps you’re finding this time a little boring or difficult in other ways.  Perhaps you have children at home and the fatigue of home schooling and providing ways for them to be entertained is stretching your patience.  You may still be in treatment, but the hospital atmosphere is changed, almost surreal.  What gets you through the long days of social isolation?  Have you found new ways to be creative?  New activities to occupy your time? Write about living in a time of pandemic.  Write about how you keep the blues (or boredom) at bay.

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rant:  to complain or talk loudly and angrily for a long time, sometimes saying unreasonable things  (MacMillan Dictionary)

I don’t know about you, but I do know that the endless days of indoor living and social isolation are getting to me.   I am more easily frustrated, irritable and restless.  It’s taken some discipline to rein those negative feelings in, and I admit to days where I am less successful than I wish I was.  What about you?  Have you felt the need to get feelings or frustration with something off your chest, the kind that keep you awake at night or gnaw at you until they’re voiced?   We know that those kinds of feelings aren’t good for our health, as confirmed by a significant body of psychological research on the relationship between emotions and health–but I learned this in earnest the hard way. Some years ago, I realized I’d  been living under extreme stress for well over a decade, triggered by  my husband’s death, a significant career transition, and a decade of major moves from coast to coast.  I soldiered valiantly through it all, but cracks began to appear in my armor. I slept poorly, and I was often impatient and short-tempered.  A few close friends expressed concern, but it wasn’t until my diagnosis of early stage breast cancer that I really understood the impact all that bottled up emotional stress had on my health.

Around the same time, I  read Opening Up:  The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (1997), the early work on emotional inhibition and health by James Pennebaker, PhD, whose subsequent research on writing and healing set off an explosion of similar studies and inspired numerous expressive writing programs.   Pennebaker demonstrated how expressing emotions was not only good for one’s soul, but beneficial to our physical and psychological health.  The studies he cited made one thing very clear:  holding negative emotions inside, also known as “inhibition,” is detrimental to health.

Our bodies respond to the ways we think and feel.  Stress and anxiety weaken immune system function, and negative emotions can have effect on circulation, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, even hormonal functioning.  It can heighten our vulnerability to disease or manifest itself as back pain, fatigue, or headaches.   Research suggests that holding on to negative feelings may actually shorten our lives.  According to some studies, optimistic people have longer lives than pessimistic ones.  Ridding ourselves of negative emotion may improve physical health as well as the body’s power to heal.

It’s not always as easy as it sounds.  Everyone experiences strong or negative emotions from time to time, and during difficult or painful experiences like a marital break-up, job loss, or a diagnosis of cancer, heart failure or other serious conditions, those feelings can be intense. Anger, anxiety, fear or pessimism are common, but that’s not all. When we suffer a new wound to our psyches, old, unresolved wounds from the past can re-open and bleed again. Fortunately, there are many therapeutic tools to assist in the healing process, and as the research shows, writing and telling our stories of our illnesses, hardships or struggles is one of them.

Many writers, novelist Henry James once said, begin writing from a port of pain, finding a kind of release and solace in putting their deepest—and most fearful—feelings on paper, whether in diaries, journals or poetry and stories.  Port of pain or not, it’s often hard to get started, difficult to give ourselves the freedom to express all we’re feeling on the page, even though we want to. “Keep the pen moving,” I often say to the participants in my writing groups.  “Write without stopping or thinking about what appears on the page.”  The time limits imposed for different writing exercises helps, because it forces them to write quickly, in effect, silencing their internal critics.  Often, when someone chooses to read what they’ve written aloud, I hear the comment, “I didn’t know I wrote that…” after an especially powerful sentence or paragraph.

One of my favorite examples of “release” through writing is in learning to free up and write a rant, something that just “lets it all out.”  I often use a poem by   Rosanne Lloyd, a contemporary poet who combines eloquence with directness and forcefulness in her writing.  her poem,  “Exorcism of Nice,”  is one I find helpful in inspiring  writing group members to “just let it go.”  In this poem, the  poet reacts to a litany of long-time restraints, expressing anger and pain that has silenced her own voice:

Mum’s the word
Taciturn
Talk polite
Appropriate
Real nice
Talk polite
Short and sweet
Keep it down
Quiet down
Keep the lid on
Hold it down
Shut down
Shut up
Chin up
Bottle up
Drink up…

Tucked in
Caved in

Shut in
Locked in
Incoherent
Inarticulate
In a shell…

Oh, Wicked Mother of the Kingdom of Silence
I have obeyed you
long enough

(From: Tap Dancing for Big Mom, 1996)

Lloyd’s poem is a useful model for freeing up to express negative emotions on the page.  “Anything goes,” I frequently say as group members begin writing.  “Whatever is on your mind, whatever is irritating you, making you angry or frustrated–just write it.”  What invariably happens in the writing that follows is always powerful, even sometimes hilarious, and coupled with a newfound freedom to write honestly and deeply—the kind of writing that has the potential for healing.

In this time of social distancing, self-isolation and uncertainty, I know my frustration tends to surface more often than usual, and in those moments, I become irritable and negative.  It has helped me to write regularly, and I’ll confess that a few rants have appeared in my notebook, but the beauty of doing so for me, is that my list of frustrations turns into a parody of my feelings and results in  rather light-hearted and humorous endings to whatever frustration I’m  feeling.   More than a few silly poems have resulted in the pages of my notebook in these many weeks of indoor living.

Perhaps trying out a rant is something you can try writing when COVID-19 necessary restrictions on our lives gets to you.  Why not give yourself permission to “let it all hang out” on paper—to expel any anger, frustration, or pain that may be building inside as the days continue to move slowly and with increasing monotony.  It’s an exercise for release—and it can even be fun.

Writing Suggestion:

Try writing your own rant.  It can be about anything.  You can use Roseanne Lloyd’s poem as a model or write one in letter form, as in Tony Cross’s “Open Letter to Hummingbirds,” appearing in McSweeneys, 2004, or Canadian comedian Rick Mercer’s video  rants against things like winter, Tim Horton’s and some  people’s behavior during COVID-19 (available on You Tube).   Here is an excerpt from Cross’s letter to hummingbirds:

Dear Hummingbirds,

Hey, would you take it easy already? What’s the freakin’ rush, hummingbirds? I don’t get it—why must you flap your wings so damn fast? You need to chill out.    Here I am, sitting in my garden, quietly reading a book and sipping on a fruit cocktail, and all of a sudden you’re buzzing into my field of vision…

I found the You Tube video rant by Canadian comedian Rick Mercer on seasonal amnesia personally relevant this past weekend. Our balmy spring weather from a week ago turned wintry, and snow flurries completely hid the view from our balcony of downtown Toronto.  I ended up writing my own anti-winter weather rant too…the weather didn’t improve, but my mood did.

The nice thing about writing about difficult emotions or frustrations is that it helps you release them from you body to the page.  You can be honest.  No one needs to see what you’ve written.  You can tear up your rant into a hundred tiny pieces or simply hit the “delete” button when you’re finished writing.  What matters is that you write, without self-criticism, and release the frustration and negative emotions from the body to the page.   Set the timer for fifteen minutes and have at it.   Write a rant.  It can be about anything.  Exorcise those negative emotions or frustrations.  You’ll just might feel better once you do.

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For several days now, my thoughts have  been occupied with Nova Scotia, home to me for over 13 years.  The shock of 22 innocent people shot and killed in a matter of hours has weighed heavily on the minds of so many of us.  It is Canada’s worst mass shooting since 1989, when ‎14 female students died at the hands of a  gunman at Montreal’s ‎École Polytechnique in Montreal.  Stunned, I reached out to old friends, knowing the closeness of the social networks in the Maritimes.  Some of my friends had known the young female Mountie who was killed and her mother, and together with so many others, mourning the loss of life, the senseless and incomprehensible violence perpetrated in the province.

Ironically, perhaps, the memories of the close community of friends I experienced while living in Nova Scotia were also punctuated by unexpected losses:   my first husband’s drowning, two friends dead from AIDS and another from cancer shortly after I moved to Toronto.  Then, yesterday, as I remembered it was the birthday of my dearest Nova Scotia friend, a memory of the telephone call, one I received barely 14 years after my husband’s death, and another of my friends telling me A. had committed suicide.   I felt the waves of shock and sorrow for days.  How, I asked myself countless times, could she have been so distraught to take her own life?  It made no sense to me.  I remembered how she and her husband had been steadfast in their love and offered such extraordinary support for me and my daughters after L.’s death.  To this day, I doubt I could have gotten through that period of grief without their unyielding support and kindness.

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

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

(In: The Words Under The Words ©1994)

“How desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness…”  Our world has, in the past many weeks, seemed, at times, desolate as thousands throughout the world have died or lost friends, family and acquaintances during this pandemic.   We have been forced, as individuals and as nations, to re-examine many of the assumptions we’ve held about life:  no one has been immune, and new cases of the COVID 19 virus continue to emerge.  Virtually every country has been in lockdown, financial outlooks seem precarious, and fear and uncertainty of what the future holds when—or if—life returns to normal are rampant.

Yet it’s easy to forget that throughout history, losses of similar proportions have been felt by people all the around the world:  disease, wars, unimaginable hardship and cruelty, starvation, massacres, deadly earthquakes and the unimaginable loss of human life.  In our country, we have been relatively immune to such disasters as other countries.  Yet such tragic loss of human life can ignite sorrow and grief that invade our very being.  For some, they are buried or forgotten until the next tragedy or loss, for others, the heartache and sorrow linger—even re-ignited by a calendar date, a photograph, a sound or a song—and it all comes back. We experience again the weight of loss, and we grieve.

Grief, the psychologists tell us, is the emotional state that accompanies loss, and although normal, when compounded by the unimaginable losses in life, when no explanation or rationale can be found,  the sorrow is deeper, more lasting, and we experience the kind of sorrow that resides in our hearts for a very long time. How can we make sense of these unexpected and even incomprehensible losses we suffer?

I am learning the alchemy of grief, how it must be carefully measured and doled out, inflicted—but I have not yet mastered this art.” –Judith Ortiz Cofer. The Cruel Country, 2015)

Since I began leading my “Writing Through Cancer” programs twenty years ago, death has become a frequent visitor, as cancer always claims the lives of one or more of my writers.  He death of a group member has never become routine, and nor have I developed some protective layer of numbness for those times that one of my writers dies. I am humbled by the medical professionals who, by virtue of their vocation, must continually deal with the loss of human life, for each time a group member’s life is taken by this disease, I must   learn again to confront my grief as well as the collective grief of the group.  Everyone has their way of dealing with the loss of life, but for me, it’s the reason I originally turned to writing and poetry as a way to make sense of sorrow and loss.

I’ve said before that writing, for me, is a kind of prayer.  It takes me deep inside myself and a way to remember, to mourn and yet to articulate what I feel when loss has, again, entered my life.  When words fail me in times of sorrow, and they often do, I turn to reading poetry.   Poets have always written, about human emotion, and their expressions of sorrow and grief helps me mourn, to name what I am feeling, and to take some kind of solace in knowing the sorrow and I loss I am feeling has been understood and put into words by others.  I not only discover new insights, ways of expressing my sorrow, but a kind of solace, a way to gradually let go of the grief I feel.   If you are someone who finds comfort or inspiration  in poetry, I recommend the collection of “Shelter In” poems, offered by readers to the American Academy of Poets during this time of pandemic and social isolation.

I am more aware than ever now that loss is part of our human experience, something we all must deal with, something we all have to learn to make sense of.  Knowing that doesn’t make it easier, but finding ways to put it in to words or discovering wisdom in the word of others helps to make it bearable and to let it go.  As Mary Oliver so beautifully reminded us:

To live in this world

 You must be able

to do three things:

you love what is mortal;

you hold it

 against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.

(“In Blackwater Woods,” In:  American Primitive, 1983)

Writing Suggestions:

  • Create a kind of balance sheet:  in one column, list the names of people you have lost; in the other, the acts of kindness you have experienced or discovered in loss.  What insights emerge?  What have you learned about loss, grief or sorrow?
  • Re-examine periods of significant loss in your life.  Has your experience helped you to see things in a different life?
  • Try expressing your feelings of grief or sorrow in a poem.  Stuck?  Model your poem after a poem you like or use the first line of someone else’s poem as a beginning.

 

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I cannot tell you
how the light comes,
but that it does.
That it will…

(“How the Light Comes,” by Jan Richardson, in Ten Poems for Difficult Times, 2018)

A note from Sharon:  To those of you reading this post:  It is difficult to find the words that capture this extraordinary time we are now experiencing—no one has been immune to the crises triggered by this world pandemic, and for the foreseeable future, our lives will continue to be affected, our daily habits changed, by the impact of the corona virus.  It is a worrisome time—and for any of us who are in the “higher risk” categories, it is difficult to escape the underlying anxiety that seems to invade one’s daily life.  What gives us solace?  Offers hope? A few years ago, I wrote this blog post which follows, reflecting on the importance of our spiritual lives.  Whatever that life involves, it’s certain that Life’s hardships thrust us into what can only be defined as a deeply spiritual journey.  As we all deal with the impact of the corona virus on our lives, our loved ones, and how our lives will be change because of it, I offer this week’s post, originally published in the early part of 2014. 

._ . _ . _ . _

A few years ago, when I was living in San Diego, I participated in a workshop on contemplative practices that could enrich our lives.  My part in it was to invite the participants to consider the spiritual practice inherent in writing.  Like so many Americans, I’ve been a lapsed church-goer for the better part of my adult life, finding I craved a deeper spiritual practice to sustain my daily life than the Sunday morning services.   I had dabbled with other religious traditions, tried to learn meditation, but still, I couldn’t make anything work for me.  What I hadn’t realized is that I had already had the tools to deepen my spiritual life—writing.  I had always written, and during the years of a soul shattering time in early adulthood, writing was a refuge, my port in the storm, a virtual sanctuary.  I just hadn’t thought of it as having the potential become my regular spiritual practice.

Within a year after returning to California from Toronto,  I was confronted  with the first of a series of losses and unexpected life changes beginning with my father’s death from lung cancer, and followed by mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s, the onerous and painful  task of downsizing a dying nonprofit, an unexpected diagnosis of early stage breast cancer, and my mother’s death.  In the aftermath of my first husband’s drowning a decade earlier, writing had become a refuge, a lifesaver I clung to through those turbulent times.  Writing not only helped me cope, but ultimately, became an important daily routine.  As my writing practice solidified and deepened, it became a fundamental part of my spiritual life.

My writing grew to become a daily ritual and meditation, something I practiced early each morning before the outside world intervened to pull me into its noisy demands.  Its place in my spiritual life has only solidified over the years; it is a regular practice that begins in the stillness of early morning when I first open the pages of my notebook, the same leather-bound journal I’ve written in for years.  Like the dawn of each new day, a new page awaits, blank and inviting—reminding me now, as I write, of Rita Dove’s words in her poem, “Dawn Revisited:” the whole sky is yours/ to write on, blown open/ to a blank page…”   I have no agenda when I first begin writing, no expectation. I begin with one small observation, something I notice in the present moment—the fog lifting from the canyon floor, a trio of hummingbirds at the garden fountain, the red-tailed hawk’s wings spread as he glides just beyond our deck—whatever captures my attention.  Sometimes, a haiku poem emerges; other times, what I describe is enough to trigger a memory or a feeling that begs to be written.  It hardly matters.  What matters is that I write, embracing the solitude of the morning, intertwining the external world with my internal one, going deeper into whatever I’m exploring on the page, writing myself into “knowing.”

Writing is my meditation and my prayer.  It opens me, ensures I am “paying attention” to what is before me, what is inside me. It informs my intentions for each day and ultimately, the work I do with others, helping them express and explore the material of their lives in writing.  While writing might become become a spiritual practice for anyone, as it is for me, so can art, music, dance, yoga, T’ai Chi, meditation, and prayer—anything that takes us into the quiet contemplation and deeper parts of ourselves.  As Thomas Merton wrote, “Art enables us to find ourselves and and lose ourselves at the same time.”

One’s spirituality is not dependent on a specific religious belief or theology.  We all have spiritual needs and yearnings.  What matters is that we find a way to nurture them, that we feed our souls as well as our bodies and minds.  In times of hardship, life-threatening illness, or other suffering, it’s often our spiritual lives that keep us from losing hope, that keep us whole.  As New York Times editor, Dana Jennings, diagnosed with an aggressive prostate cancer, wrote in his blog, “One Man’s Cancer,” our spiritual lives sustain us through life’s most challenging chapters:

I am not a fool. I am a patient with Stage T3B cancer and a Gleason score of 9. I need the skills and the insights of the nurses and doctors who care for me. But they don’t treat the whole man. Medicine cares about physical outcomes, not the soul. I also need — even crave — the spiritual antibodies of prayer, song and sacred study.

A cancer diagnosis is not something any of us want.  It can feel like a death sentence, and it may challenge your faith,  casting doubt on all that you believed was right and true.  But while cancer—and many other painful experiences– may seem like a dark night of the soul and challenge your faith,  it may also offer you the chance to explore your spirituality,  deepening your self-understanding and compassion for others.  It’s something I witness again and again in the expressive writing groups I lead:  a time to explore and deepen one’s understanding and compassion, an opportunity to define what is essential and important in life, and gratitude and appreciation for the ordinary gifts in each day we have.  As one cancer survivor wrote, “The community I am building with my fellow writers …is… a form of spirituality.”

Through the exchange of stories, we help heal each other’s spirits…Isn’t this what a spiritual life is about?–Patrice Vecchione, Writing and the Spiritual Life

Life’s hardships thrust us into what can only be defined as a deeply spiritual journey.  We may kick and scream, rail against the injustices of those events, but like it or not, we’re forced to re-examine our lives in ways we have not, perhaps, done before.  We begin to pay attention, really pay attention, to what truly matters to us—and to our lives.

“At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world~ now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening.– Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, 1982.

Varda, who wrote with me for the last two years of her life, died of metastatic breast cancer several years ago.  She wrote honestly about her cancer experience, her fears and her hopes, sometimes poignantly, sometimes humorously, but always honestly, voicing, so many times, what others were afraid to express.  Near the final weeks of her life, she wrote a poem entitled “Faith,” that described her spiritual re-examination during her cancer treatment:

…My cancer has challenged my faith,

and I have found an incredible well I did not know I had. 

I have found true surrender,

 enormous peace.

I have come home to God, and we have renewed

our friendship.

(From:  “Faith,” by Varda Nowack Goldstein, in A Healing Journey:  Writing Together Through Breast Cancer, 2004).

Varda was thrust into a journey that can bring anyone to their knees, but her honesty, her willingness to plumb the deepest parts of her experience and write so honestly about her life, cancer and faith were humbling and inspiration to us all.   Her stories were, I’m certain, strengthening her “spiritual antibodies”—not a cure, but courage to face and, not unimportantly, help loved ones face her inevitable death with grace, love, and even shared laughter.  Surely this was evidence and testimony to the depth and importance of Varda’s spiritual life, and something, whatever form it takes, we all need to navigate difficult and challenging times.

And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear.  What we need is here.

From: “The Wild Geese,” by Wendell Berry, The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1999)

Writing Suggestions:

  • Reflect on what nourishes your spiritual life.
  • What practices or rituals have helped sustain you during cancer, other hardships, losses or struggle?
  • Where have you found your solace, your strength, your source of “spiritual antibodies?”
  • In this time of the corona virus pandemic, write about the spiritual practices most important to you.

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It could happen any time, tornado,

Earthquake, Armageddon.  It could happen.

Or sunshine, love, salvation.

 

It could you know.  That’s why we wake

And look out—no guarantees

in this life…

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

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

You will walk toward the mirror,

closer and closer, then flow into the glass…

You learn what you are, but slowly,

a child, a woman, a man,

a self often shattered and piece

put together again till the end:

You halt, the glass opens—

A surface, an image, a past.

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

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

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

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

“Would you ever consider consulting again?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suggestions for Reflection and Writing:

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(In Mama’s Promises:  Poems, 1985)

Writing Suggestions:

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

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Cancer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Suggestion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The time will come

When, with elation,

You will greet yourself arriving

At your own door, in your own mirror,

And each will smile at the other’s welcome,

 

And say, sit here, Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine.  Give bread.  Give back your heart

To itself, to the stranger who has loved you

 

All your life, whom you ignored

For another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

 

The photographs, the desperate notes,

Peel your image from the mirror.

Sit.  Feast on your life.

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

 

Writing Suggestions: 

 

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

 

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

 

Happy Valentine’s Day, February 14th

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… The blue jay

hawks his pretty wares

and the oak still stands, spreading

glorious shade. If you don’t look back,

the future never happens…

The whole sky is yours

to write on, blown open

to a blank page…

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

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

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

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

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

(From The Book of Men, 2012)

Writing Suggestions:

 

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

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

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