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Archive for the ‘poetry and healing’ Category

Birthdays and anniversaries…a time to look back and to cast your gaze forward.  We celebrated mine just yesterday.  There were cards, calls, a dinner out with my family, (where my husband had tied two giant numeral balloons to our table, announcing in shiny silver numerals, my age–a gesture that I had some mixed feelings about, truth be known).  Who wants to announce one’s age as we inevitably turn older?  Yet one of my most cherished moments during the day came when I went to Gilda’s Club to lead my current “Writing Through Cancer” workshop session.

I knew something was afoot.  The group members asked for ten minutes of time at the end of our session.  I agreed, quickly shifting my plan to allow for their time.  Yet I had no idea what was in store, and when they each read notes or poems of appreciation, then joined in singing “Happy Birthday” (accompanied by two of the members, one on ukulele, the other playing the guitar, my laughter was also accompanied by tears welling in my eyes.  I went home filled with my heart full, and later in the evening, when I shared their notes and pictures with my husband, his eyes got a little misty too.  They had given me a great gift, a surprise “Happy Birthday” moment that will be recalled more than a few times as other birthdays come and go.

Birthdays have gotten quieter as my husband and I have aged.  The big celebrations are reserved for our grandchildren’s birthdays and their excitement.  Flora, my Toronto granddaughter has been counting down the weeks until she turns eight in July, just as her cousin Emily reminded us multiple times that she would be turning eight in May, a month after we had returned to Canada from Japan.  Their excitement is infectious, yet at the same time, I can’t help but remember being a little girl just as excited for my birthdays.  There’s a faded photograph of the year I turned three that I sometimes look at, trying to remember that little girl, blonde hair in Shirley Temple style ringlets, topped with a giant hair ribbon.  My aunt’s picnic table nearby is piled with gaily wrapped gifts and a chocolate cake has been placed in front of me for the photo opportunity.  I look, frankly, a little stunned.

It wouldn’t be until I neared five that my birthday excitement began to bloom.  Turning five meant school, and there, my kindergarten teacher had a big wooden cake with 6 candles on it–always lit on the day of a student’s birthday, and “Happy Birthday” sung by the entire class.  Oh, how I wanted those candles lit for me too!  I sport an ear-to-ear grin on my face.  Those were the long ago years I eagerly counted the days until my next birthday, becoming a “big” girl with each year promising many more possibilities than the one before.  I was ready then, even impatient, to claim older age.  Not so much anymore.

Are we ever ready for the changes life presents to us?  It’s never either/or.  Each stage of life has its challenges, but there are rewards too. These days, I’m quite content to embrace the title, “Gramma,” but on the other hand, I am less enthusiastic about some of the inevitable growing older that is mine now:  the relentless pull of gravity, loss of muscle tone, and the silvering of my hair, regular visits with my cardiologist,  eyeglasses for reading and computer work, the stiffness in my joints on cold mornings.  It all reminds me of a condition I thought belonged only to others like my grandparents.  Ready or not, none of us escapes aging.

Yet no matter how old I get, every birthday reminds me of others past.  Memories come alive:  the scent of chocolate as my mother baked my birthday cake, the candle flames dancing while everyone sang to me, shutting my eyes, wishing as hard as I could for something I wanted to happen.  And each time my grandchildren sing “Happy Birthday “enthusiastically serenade me over the telephone, my mind races back to birthdays of long ago.  Whether good memories or sad, birthdays and anniversaries are full of story.  And just singing–or having sung to you– “Happy Birthday to you…”can ignite memories of events, people and places in your past.

I credit Roger Rosenblatt’s wise little book, Unless It Moves the Human Heart (Harper Collins, 2011), with the inspiration to try out a birthday prompt with my writing groups. As Rosenblatt described it, he would begin by asking if anyone in his class had recently celebrated—or was about to–a birthday.  Then he began singing, surprising his students:

I…then burst into song:  “Happy Birthday to You.”  They [his students] give me the he’s-gone-nuts look I’ve come to cherish over the years.  I sing it again.  “Happy Birthday to You.  Anyone had a birthday recently?  Anyone about to have one?” …just sit back and see what comes of listening to this irritating, celebratory song you’ve heard all your lives” (pp.39-40).

When I first tried the exercise, my students also looked at me with curiosity as I began singing before laughing a little and joining in.“Now let’s write,” I said as our singing ended.  “What memories do you have when you hear “Happy Birthday to you?”  I wrote with the group, curious to see where the prompt would take me.  I couldn’t write fast enough it seemed, as I recalled the blue bicycle waiting for me the morning of my seventh birthday, a surprise party my husband and daughters managed to pull off few years ago, the long-ago headline in my small town newspaper’s society page:  “Sharon Ann Bray turns six today,” (my aunt Verna was the society editor), even a rather dismal birthday in junior high school, when I’d been bullied. one memory spilled out after another.

Each time I have used this same prompt with different writing groups, the responses are similar, filled with many memories written and shared.  Yet as inspirational as his exercise is,  Rosenblatt isn’t the only writer who has used birthdays as inspiration for poetry and prose.  If you explore the offerings of The Academy of American Poets,or The Poetry Foundation, for example,  you’ll discover William Blake, Sylvia Plath, Christina Rossetti and many others poets were inspired by birthdays.  I’m especially fond of Ted Kooser’s “A Happy Birthday,” a short poem that captures how a birthday triggers retrospection.

This evening, I sat by an open window

and read till the light was gone and the book

was no more than a part of the darkness.

I could easily have switched on a lamp,

but I wanted to ride this day down into night,

to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page

with the pale gray ghost of my hand.

 

(In Delights & Shadows, 2004)

It’s no wonder birthdays inspire poetry:  birthdays also reflect the passage of time, aging and change, for example, here’s an excerpt from Joyce Sutphen’s “Crossroads:”

The second half of my life will be black
to the white rind of the old and fading moon.
The second half of my life will be water
over the cracked floor of these desert years.

(In:  Straight out of View, 2001)

Or, as Billy Collins muses in his poem, “Cheerios,” the discovery one is growing older may not just be about one’s actual birthday:

    One bright morning in a restaurant in Chicago

    as I waited for my eggs and toast,

    I opened the Tribune only to discover

    that I was the same age as Cheerios.

(In:  Poetry, September 2012)

Well, I’m in no hurry, unlike my grandchildren, to celebrate another birthday. Yesterday’s celebrations will hold me for a good long while, but in the meantime, I have a few memories that surfaced last night as my husband and I talked about this birthday and others before;  I have some writing to do.

Writing Suggestions:

This week, Even though your birthday or an anniversary is not yet here, let birthdays be the trigger that gets you writing.

  •             Hum the birthday tune, or if you’re feeling brave, sing it:  “Happy Birthday to you…”
  •             Or begin with a sentence such as “On the day I turned ___, and keep writing.
  •             Take stock of the memories, good or bad, a birthday ditty evokes.  Whether you will soon be celebrating a birthday or anniversary or have recently joined in birthday celebrations for family and friends, explore your remembrances of past birthdays or anniversaries.  In those memories, remember a story or poem might be lurking.  Why not write one?

 

 

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The way the dog trots out the front door

every morning

without a hat or an umbrella

without any money

or the keys to her doghouse

never fails to fill the saucer of my heart

with milky admiration…

(From:  “Dharma,” by Billy Collins, in Sailing Around the Room, Random House, 2002

My mornings are incomplete without her.  Somewhere between 4:30 and 5 a.m., as I begin the slow process of waking, our ritual begins.  I hear her rise from her bed on the floor, shake herself awake, then two, perhaps three, seconds past before she springs up from the floor and onto the bed, choosing to nestle her back against mine.  As small as she is, she is like a block of cement then, a guarantee that by six a.m., I will awaken, and my morning will begin.  I’m first to rise; she prefers another ten or fifteen minutes of dozing. But as I grind coffee beans and spoon them into a paper filter, she pads into the kitchen, stretches, and patiently waits for her breakfast.  Coffee ready and kibble consumed, we settle ourselves in the living room, where she curls up in a corner of the sofa, dozing and occasionally casting a watchful eye at me while I write.  She is Maggie, a small border terrier mix, adopted five years ago to become my faithful companion, but more:  comforter, guardian, playmate, nonjudgmental friend.  Whether canine or feline, many of us are very attached to our pets.

…Perdita makes me smile every day. She runs to greet me when I come home, and she flops at my feet in the morning to be petted. She loves boxes and balled-up pages of the Nation. She is afraid of vacuum cleaners and tornado sirens. She lies on her back in squares of sunshine with her paws in the air and looks perfectly ridiculous and content. My friend Kristen tells her cat Mouse each morning that he’s her best friend, which is the sort of behavior that makes non-cat-people roll their eyes. But there’s something to it. Perdita and I don’t discuss novels or anything, but we really are friends.  (From:  “Perdita, Why Cats are Better than People”by Michael Robbins, Poetry Magazine, July 2012).

Pets are often the subject of poetry and essays.  They’ve even served as major characters in novels or heroes in films.  Anthropomorphism aside, we humans have strong emotional connections with our pets, whether canine, feline, equine or other kinds.  As companions or sources of comfort when we’re feeling lonely, blue or under the weather.  They rarely pass up a chance to play, and some pets, like my small dog, protect us as if we are their children.

Pets are healers too.    Pets, as Florence Nightingale, the pioneer of modern nursing, observed over a century ago, are “excellent companion (s) for the sick…” There are countless stories of animals assisting and helping their human companions.  One marine dog’s heroism during wartime, for example,  is documented in the best-selling, Top Dog, by Maria Goodavage (2014).  Lucca, a bomb-sniffing German Shepard whose actions saved many lives, lost one leg in battle and was later awarded a purple heart for her bravery.

Dogs like Lucca are only one example of the potential impact animals can have on human lives .  There are guide dogs, hearing dogs and service dogs, for example, whose assistance to individuals with visual, hearing or other disabilities is invaluable.  Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a widely practiced approach that is used to achieve therapeutic goals through interactions between patients and trained animals. AAT provides comfort, assistance, and companionship for people suffering from chronic or grave illnesses, grief, depression or disability.  It’s an approach widely used in many settings such as hospitals, prisons, nursing homes, mental institutions and homes. According to the American Humane Society, AAT has helped children who’ve experienced abuse or neglect, patients undergoing chemotherapy and other difficult medical treatments, and veterans and their families struggling with the effects of wartime military service.

When I was in my teens, our family had another dog, a terrier mix, who was my younger brother’s constant companion.  One November night in 1966,  a fire destroyed my family home’s.  Our dog,Tico, was the first to notice, licking the face of my brother to wake him and likely saving his life.  Several years ago, my husband and I had Winston, a West Highland terrier who died in 2008 at age seventeen.  Calm, steady and loyal, his temperament made him an excellent candidate for therapy dog training.  Once trained, he accompanied my husband to visit young hospital patients.  Winston was happy to lie quietly next to a sick child, have his ears rubbed or back stroked, seemingly unaware to the happy smile on a child’s face that his presence produced.  When it was time to move to the next child, he obediently followed my husband to the young patient’s bed, tail erect, and patiently repeated the process again and again.

He puts his cheek against mine

and makes small expressive sounds…

 

he turns upside-down, his four paws

in the air

and his eyes dark and fervent.

 

“Tell me you love me,” he says…

(From:  “Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night,” in Dog Songs, Poems by Mary Oliver, 2013)

Is it any wonder we become so attached to our pets?  Or that they offer us solace and comfort in difficult times?  Or that poets and essayists alike have so frequently written about their pets with such affection?  Mary Oliver devoted an entire book of poetry to her dogs.

But I want to extol not the sweetness nor the placidity of the dog, but the wilderness out of which he cannot step entirely, and from which we benefit…  Dog is one of the messengers of that rich and still magical first world…

And we are caught by the old affinity, a joyfulness—his great and seemly pleasure in the physical world.  Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased.  it is no small gift.  …What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass?  What would this world be like without dogs?  –-From Dog Songs: Poems, by Mary Oliver, Penguin Press, 2013.

Writing Suggestions

Have you had a special pet, whether from childhood or more recently, who provided you with comfort, solace or service in a time of need?  Has a pet played a healing role in your life or someone you know?  Write about a pet–dog, cat, horse, or another kind of animal who played an important role in your life at one time.

  • Describe the pet and its unique qualities.  How did it endear itself to you?
  • Tell the story/or write a poem about your pet and of a time he/she helped you heal from hardship, sorrow or even illness.

 

 

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When I began writing this newspaper column about cancer, I wondered how long it could last.  After all, how many story ideas about cancer could there be?  Seven years later, the ideas keep coming and I’m still writing.  I’ve decided that writing about cancer is writing about life.  Cancer is a lens that makes life appear in greater focus with added intensity.  (From:  “Writing About Cancer,” by Bob Riter, Ithaca Journal, Sept. 6, 2014)

In the coming week,  I’ll begin a new eight-week series of the “Writing Through Cancer” workshops I’ve been leading for many years in the U.S. and Canada.  I’m preparing for the first session, when a group of men and women will come together to write and share their stories of cancer.  Some of them may have written long before their illness began; others might offer an apologetic, “I’m not a writer but I thought this looked interesting,”  and I’ll gently remind them of poet William Stafford’s definition of a writer:  “A writer is someone who writes.”   We’ll begin at the beginning, the moment that they first heard the words, “I’m sorry, but …you have cancer.”

By the second meeting, any prompt or suggestion I offer to the group will result in writing that is powerful, descriptive, even beautiful.  Some in the group will be surprised at how moved their listeners are when they share what they have written.  By the third week, any prompt will result in the sound of pens racing across the page or the rapid click of a laptop keyboard, as if each person has more to write about their cancer experience than time will allow.  A diagnosis of cancer often triggers intense and abundant writing.

 “The knowledge you’re ill is one of the momentous experiences of life” (Anatole Broyard, Intoxicated by My Illness, 1993).

Like any unexpected hardship, a life-threatening illness thrusts you into new and unfamiliar territory, into a different chapter of life than the one you thought you were living.  So momentous, in fact, it sometimes overshadows everything that came before it.  Yet one thing is certain:  cancer changes you.  Arthur Frank, sociologist and cancer survivor, put it this way:  “Being ill is just another way of living…but by the time we have lived through it, we are living differently.” (At the Will of the Body, 2002).  At the end of the writing series, I encourage the group to look back over what they have written.  As they do, they discover that their words, their stories and poems are testament to their changes.   Each person is clearer about the things that truly matter; they appreciate life in ways they never did before, and no one wants to take life for granted again.

That’s the way writing often starts, a disaster or a catastrophe…by writing I rescue myself under all sorts of conditions…it relieves the feeling of distress.  –William Carlos Williams

During those periods of life when you experience hardship, serious illness or suffering, writing can be an important way to express and make sense of difficult emotions.  It’s a way to make sense of your life.  Often, that’s where writing begins.  While you may begin by writing for yourself in a period of upheaval, one that often leads to something greater.   As Louise DeSalvo noted in her book, Writing as a Way of Healing:  How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives (2000), crisis, suffering and are the inspiration behind many of our greatest cultural creations, including art, poetry and literature.  Novelists and poets alike have described their writing as a form of therapy, helping them to heal and articulate traumatic events in their lives.  Writers such as Paul Theroux referred to his writing as something like digging a deep hole and not knowing  what he would find.  Famous novelists like Graham Greene wrote of his manic depression A Sort of Life; F. Scott Fitzgerald described his battle with alcohol in The Crackup, and William Styron examined his suicidal depression in Darkness Visible.  Creativity, as many great writers have shown us, is often fueled by life crises, trauma and suffering, and there is no shortage of contemporary poets and writers’ whose personal struggles have inspired fiction, nonfiction or poetry.  Literature is, after all, about the human experience, and in reading the work of others, we often discover insights, even ways to articulate own experiences.

An insightful, experienced oncologist told me that cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter. (Alice Hoffman, New York Times, August 14, 2000).

Cancer may be where you begin when you first start writing after a diagnosis, but it is rare that cancer is the only thing expressed when you begin writing.  Old wounds, memories of earlier times, and the experience cancer all make up the landscape of “writing through cancer.”  In my workshops, a gradual shift in what is written and shared in the group occurs over the eight weeks we write together.  The first weeks are usually focused on one’s cancer experience, but as the weeks pass, everyone’s writing begins to shift.  Other life stories surface and are written; themes of gratitude and hope begin to emerge.  And the writing doesn’t stop at the end of the workshop series.  More than a few people continue to write after the group experience ends, but not only about cancer.  Other memories, stories from their lives, themes of gratitude and hope emerge.  Several of my former workshop writers have gone on continue writing in groups or enroll in writing classes.  Some have published poetry, memoir and narratives originally birthed in the writing workshops.

Cancer can wallop you and brings you to tears, but it also can help you see life more clearly and with greater appreciation.   Ultimately, it’s important to remember that cancer is not your only story.  It may be one that drives you to write, but as you do, you begin to remember r and appreciate the life you’ve lived , the one you are living now, and how many stories or poems are contained in your life that are waiting to be expressed.

You don’t need a “big” event or big idea to write.  Cancer might get you writing, but inspiration doesn’t need a crisis to keep you writing.  Rather, it awakens you, makes you more observant to life, and grateful for it.  Inspiration does not arrive with a big “aha!”  It is quieter, waiting, because it comes from living, noticing, and paying attention.

Remember the commonplace, the wooden chair on the white planked deck,
trees kneeling in the rain and deer prints
leading into elegant rushes. A kinder place
cannot be found…

(From:  “Directive,” by Ann E., former writing group member, personal communication)

I recall listening to poet Billy Collins several years ago, as he described how he found the inspiration to write volume after volume of poetry.  His inspiration, he told the audience,  came simply from looking out the window and noticing the world around him.  The most ordinary thing, he reminded us, may contain the seed of a poem (or for that matter, any kind of writing).

…Cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter.  You each have many more stories to write than cancer.  All that’s required is the desire to write and learning to pay attention and notice what’s just outside your window, waiting to be discovered.

…poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,

they are sleeping. They are the shadows

drifting across our ceilings the moment 

before we wake up. What we have to do

is live in a way that lets us find them…

Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us

we find poems. 

(“Valentine for Ernest Mann,’ By Naomi Shihab-Nye, in: Red Suitcase, 1994)

Writing Suggestions:

  • Just starting to write?  Begin remembering the moment you first heard you had cancer.  Before you write, take a moment to close your eyes and visualize that day, that moment–where you were, the quality of light in the room, the facial expression of the doctor or nurse, what you were feeling seconds before he/she spoke and then afterward.  Then setting the timer for no more than 15 minutes, write, describing in as much detail as you can, the moment you first heard the word “cancer.”
  • Tess Gallagher, poet, described the telling of an act of by her husband, washing his dying mother in the poem, “Each Bird Walking.”  Her poem includes the narrator’s words to her husband:  “Tell me,” I said, “something I can’t forget.” Use Gallagher’s words, “tell me something I can’t forget” as your prompt, and begin writing.  Again, set your timer for 15 minutes and keep the pen moving.
  • Find a quiet time and place near a window–or, if your weather allows, find a similarly quiet place to sit outdoors.  Spend a few minutes simply noticing what is around you:  sights, sounds, colors, objects, life.  Take one thing you observe and let it become the trigger for your writing.  Write for 15 minutes.

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Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.–Joan Didion, A Year of Magical Thinking

The sky was overcast yesterday morning, typical March weather, but yet, a somber sky that seemed to reflect the heaviness felt by so many around the world in the aftermath of tragedy–lives lost; others permanently changed, and all in an instant.  The first was the crash of the Boeing 737 Max in Ethiopia that killed everyone aboard, and the second, and, perhaps, more difficult to comprehend, the fifty victims of mass shootings at the two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, until now, a country spared the kind of violence experienced in so many other countries.

The scale of the two tragedies was nearly incomprehensible, but the outpouring of shock, condemnation around the world in the aftermath of the New Zealand mosque shootings was immediate.  Such events are at odds with our fundamental beliefs, including “that we live in a just world, and that if we make good decisions, we’ll be safe,” according to Laura Wilson, PhD, co-author and editor of The Wiley Handbook of the Psychology of Mass Shootings. We may stand in solidarity with New Zealand and the victims, but the question remains:  how has our world become so dominated by hatred and violence?

When people experience life-threatening or other traumatic experiences, their focus is on survival and self-protection,  according to Bessel van der Kolk, MD, discussing the nature of trauma in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience (2000 Mar; 2(1): 7–22) The traumatic experience triggers a mixture of numbness, withdrawal, confusion, shock, and speechless terror. The National Center for PTSD estimates that 28 percent of people who witness a mass shooting develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and might be at greater risk for mental health difficulties compared with people who experience other types of trauma, such as natural disasters. The memory of the traumatic event may be replayed repeatedly, dominating victims’ consciousness. Abdul Aziz, a survivor of the mosque shootings, who’d also ran after the shooter and chased him away from the mosque, described how the event has traumatized  the survivors, “Each time we close our eyes,” he said, “we see all of the dead bodies around us.”

As I read different accounts of the shootings, I came across a poignant comment offered by an Australian news anchor, Waleed Aly,  also a Muslim.  He reflected on those who were in prayer at the mosques, moments before the first shots were heard:

“I was in the mosque today. I do that every Friday just like the people in those mosques in Christchurch today,” he said. “I know exactly what those moments before the shooting began would have been like. I know how quiet, how still, how introspective those people would have been before they were suddenly gunned down. How separated from the world they would have felt before the world came in and tore their lives apart.”

Shock and sadness will linger for a very long time among New Zealanders and many others around the globe, coupled with a sense of helplessness in the senseless, incomprehensible acts of hatred and violence that have become too frequent in our world.  Sadly, these events have become much too numerous to list in full, but for example, school shootings in the U.S., terrorist attacks of 9/11, the 2015 Paris and Beirut bombings, a resurgence of anti-Semitism, the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the 2011 Norway attacks by a lone gunman, on and on.  Yet while we may first experience shock and disbelief,  do we also become numbed by the magnitude of events like these, ones reported in the news with ever greater frequency, yet ones we do not experience personally?

As I often do, I  have turned to poetry as a way to find the words that might express what I feel in the  wake of these deeply sad and disturbing events.   I recalled that after the tragedy of 9/11, poems about it were difficult to find.  At the time, I copied down a quote from the American Academy of Poets website, which said, “There seemed to be pressure on well-known poets to produce a poem, or refuse the opportunity, as former US poet laureate, Billy Collins ,did, saying  “the occasion was “too stupendous” for a single poem to handle.” He said that the terrorists had done something “beyond language.”  Again, years later and many more acts of unbelievable violence later, perhaps we still struggle to find the words “big” enough to help us comprehend these horrible events.  I know I do.

When we live with cancer or another chronic and progressive condition like heart failure, we come closer to the fact of our mortality.  From time to time, I admit the little shadow of fear of a shortened life sneaks up on me, but the events of this past week have again put things in a different light.  As I think about the victims of the shootings and the airplane crash, of the grief and suffering of loved ones and survivors, I am reminded to live with gratitude for the life I have.   I have to find hope, as we all do , that we can find ways and take actions to help lessen the suffering of those who have experienced these horrible, incomprehensible events.  Even though the elusive state we call peace seems ever more out of reach, I remember the words of St. Francis of Assisi:

…That where there is hatred, I may bring love.
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony.
That where there is error, I may bring truth.
That where there is doubt, I may bring faith.
That where there is despair, I may bring hope.
That where there are shadows, I may bring light.
That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.

(From: The Peace Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi)

Writing Suggestions:

This week, I invite you to reflect on the events of these past many days.

  • Write about losses you have experienced and how they changed your life.
  • Write about your own reactions to a tragedy like a mass shooting.  Did anything change in your thinking or actions?
  • Write about any other traumatic event you or a loved one has experienced and what helped you  heal.

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If this comes creased and creased again and soiled
as if I’d opened it a thousand times
to see if what I’d written here was right,
it’s all because I looked too long for you
to put in your pocket. Midnight says
the little gifts of loneliness come wrapped
by nervous fingers. What I wanted this
to say was that I want to be so close
that when you find it, it is warm from me.

“Pocket Poem,” By Ted Kooser; In:  Valentines: poems, 2008)

This past week, I addressed three brightly colored envelopes, red and pink, to the grandchildren who occupy such a big space in my heart.  I’ve been sending them valentines every February since they were first born, and for good measure, adding cards for their mothers, my daughters to the list.  One more card is hidden in my desk, which I’ll place on my husband’s desk early Thursday morning, a continuing tradition that, despite the many years that we’ve been together, remains intact.

Valentines, however entwined with rampant commercialism that accompanies all  holidays, began as a simple expression of love and gratitude, the first attributed to the Charles, Duke of Orleans, imprisoned in 1415 in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt.  As the story goes, he passed his time writing romantic verses for his wife, who was still living in France.  Today, nearly sixty of the Duke’s poems remain and are considered as the first modern-day valentines.  Yet nearly three hundred years passed by before valentines became popular, their verses created by valentine writers in England in booklets that could be copied on decorative paper.  By the early 1800’s, valentines were constructed from simple black and white illustrations, painted and assembled in factories.  By the mid 1800’s, valentines were adorned with lace and ribbons, included affectionate messages and illustrations of turtle-doves, lovers’ knots in gold or silver, cupids and bleeding hearts.  Even though the valentines on display racks in card shops and drug stores now range from the flowery to the comical, I was surprised to learn that more cards are exchanged on Valentine’s Day than other time of the year except, perhaps, Christmas.

Like many of you, I first experienced the exchange of Valentine’s cards in kindergarten.  My teacher decorated a large hat box with red and white paper hearts, lace and ribbons. This, she explained was our valentine card mailbox, and each student was instructed to bring one valentine for each classmate, to be placed in the “mailbox” and exchanged at our Valentine’s Day party.  The excitement we all felt was palpable, and early on the morning of February 14, I awakened  and slipped out of bed quietly while my parents still slept.  I tiptoed into the living room of our upstairs apartment where a package of valentines lay on a card table, waiting to be addressed.

I was too excited to wait for my mother and went to work, painstakingly printing the one name I knew how to spell in dark blue ink.  By the time my mother walked into the room,  I’d addressed over two-thirds of the packet of 32 and proudly showed her my handiwork.  I didn’t expect her reaction, one of shock and “Oh, no, Sharon…what have you done?”  I’d addressed all the cards to my very best friend, another girl with the same name as mine, carefully printing, “To Sharon H., From Sharon B.” just as we were distinguished in our classroom.  My mother managed to salvage the remaining third for other children in the class, but the memory of that morning lingers.  As my teacher pulled one card after another from the decorated box and called out each recipient’s name, one classmate received many more valentines than anyone else.  “Why, here’s another card for Sharon H.,” she said, casting a knowing smile in my direction.  “I wonder who it’s from?”

Ted Kooser, former poet laureate of the U.S., began a Valentine’s tradition in 1986 that lasted nearly twenty years.  According to NPR, each February, many women around the country and found a postcard in their mailbox bearing a red heart with a poem on it-a valentine from Kooser.  He’d been inspired by a friend  who sent handmade valentines out each year, and in 1986, he sent his first Valentine, a “pocket poem,” to approximately 50 women he knew or had met at his poetry readings.

Over the years, whenever he made a public appearance, and with the blessing of his wife, Kooser invited women to add their names and addresses to his mailing list.  The list quickly grew from 50 in 1986 to 2700 by 2007, and his wife prompted him to “rein it in,” since by then he was spending nearly $1,000 in postage and printing. The enduring result was a collection of the poems he’d sent to the women on his mailing list, simply titled Valentines: poems (U. of Nebraska, 2008).  Valentine’s Day, he reminded his NPR audience in a 2008 All Things Considered broadcast, is a great holiday for a poet or anyone.  “It’s not tied up with anything other than expressions of sentiment,” he said.  Kooser remarked that his wife was very patient with the project, since he always wrote “special valentines” for her.

If  a loved one or friend is going through cancer treatment, showing your support in different ways can be like giving a valentine to them–ways that matter during the roller coaster ride of cancer diagnosis and treatment.  A dinner out or a gift of chocolates are unlikely to appeal to someone going through treatment, but there are, as MD and Oncologist/Hematologist  Cynthia Chua advises, “some wonderful things you can do for your Valentine… sometimes just ‘being there’ is a great gift. Just spend the day with your Valentine and show them how much you care.” She and writer Jennifer Mia offer some suggestions for celebrating Valentine’s Day together with someone who has cancer:

  1. Write a love note or make a card.
  2. Serve them breakfast in bed
  3. Pick up a stuffed animal for them to take to the next chemotherapy session.
  4. Rent a movie to watch together.
  5. Forgot to buy a card to send? Then send an e-card  or make time for a telephone call.
  6. Give the gift of journaling–a notebook of blank pages to write in.
  7. Offer a soft, cozy blanket for time in chemotherapy or a cold hospital room.

But let’s be clear:  You don’t need a Valentine’s Day to express that you care for someone.  You can do this at any time by sending a card, note, email or simply giving him or her a call to show you are thinking about them.  What matters is that you take the time to do it.  You might be surprised at how much it means to someone simply to know that someone cares or is grateful for him or her.  A few weeks ago, I gave my cardiologist a note of gratitude, written in the form of a somewhat humorous poem,  and what I discovered, in doing so, was how very much she appreciated it.

What matters in this world of busy-ness, stress, economic downturns, political drama or the instant and abbreviated communication we’ve succumbed to on the internet, is simply taking the time to express appreciation, concern or gratitude for the people you care about.  It’s a great gift.  You don’t have to wait for February 14th or any other specified holiday.  The simple act of pausing to remember those we care about and those who have cared for us in times of struggle, hardship or illness, reminds us of what matters most in our lives:  people, friendship, love.

“A Perfect Heart”

To make a perfect heart you take a sheet

of red construction paper…fold it once,

and crease it really heard, so it feels

as if your thumb might light up a match

 

then choose your scissors from the box.  I like

those safety scissors with the sticky blades

and the rubber grips that pinch a little skin

as you snip along.  They make you careful,

just as you should be, cutting out a heart

 

for someone you love.  Don’t worry that your curve

won’t make a valentine; it will.  Rely

on chewing on your lip and symmetry

to guide your hand along with special art.

And there it is at last:  a heart, a heart!

(By Ted Kooser, in:  Valentines: poems, 2008)

Writing Suggestions

  • Try writing a valentine this week, a poem, a postcard, even a letter—to someone you appreciate.
  • Why not write yourself a valentine,  saving it for a time when you might need a little self-care.
  • Perhaps you have your own memory of a long-ago Valentine’s Day.  Write it.
  • If writing a card or poem is not something you find easy to do, then pick up your phone and make a call to someone you care about.   Send an email or a Facebook message.  Wish them a happy Valentine’s Day, and let them know you are thinking about them.

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Her death came quietly, and I suppose, unexpectedly for so many of us.  Her obituary, together with a photograph, appeared in the New York Times: “Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, whose work, with its plain language and minute attention to the natural world… died at 83…”  Diagnosed and treated for lymphoma since 2015, the many obituaries paid tribute to her legacy of award-winning poetry and prose, noting how she “often described her vocation as the observation of life.”  Yet it was her poem,  “When Death Comes,” from her first volume of New and Selected Poems and appearing in the Washington Post obituary, that, for me,  truly captured the person behind the poetry, describing how she intended to approach death, and yet making it clear how she would continue to live for whatever time she had remaining.

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

(In:  New and Selected Poems, V. 1, 2004)

Oliver’s words lingered in my mind for days, not only a statement of how she lived and wrote, but the legacy she wished to leave behind.  It left me thinking about obituaries written for many I’ve known and they did not often capture the essence of the person.  I recalled an article I’d read several years ago by writer Lloyd Garvey, remarking that sometime earlier, “somebody quite wise–I think it was my rabbi–suggested that people should write their own obituaries.  Now.  Regardless of age or medical condition. That way,” he said, “you’ll think about how you want to be remembered and what you want to accomplish in the rest of your life.”  (The Huffington Post, January 16, 2009).

Former leadership guru, Peter Drucker, once told a story in The Daily Drucker: 366 Days of Insight and Motivation for Getting the Right Things Done:  “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.”  The question, “What do you want to be remembered for?” is one, he stated, that induces you to renew yourself.  You’re forced to see yourself as a different person:  the person you want to become.

In her poem, “Cover Photograph,” Marilyn Nelson answers the question, “What do you want to be remembered for?”  with the repetition of the phrase “I want to be remembered” in each stanza,  describing the different aspects of herself  that define who she is but also, who she wants to become:

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)

As I grow older and perhaps, because my life has been touched by cancer and by heart failure, I think more often about how I’d like to be remembered when my time comes. While I’m not eager to consider mortality, asking myself how I want to be remembered raises the question of what else and what more I want to do with my life.   I agree with Drucker:  Asking yourself, “What do you want to be remembered for?” is one that induces you to renew the person you are…to be, as Mary Oliver described,  a “bride to amazement” or bridegroom “taking the world in his arms,” to be fully alive–and grateful– for however long we inhabit the earth.

Writing Suggestions:

How you want to be remembered?   What more do you envision for your life?  What things do you want yet to do before you die?  What is the legacy you wish to leave behind?

This week, try writing your own obituary or eulogy. What would you say about yourself?  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.  What more do you want to do with your life?  You might even begin with Mary Oliver’s words, “When death comes,” or Marilyn Nelson’s, “I want to be remembered…”

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A Lesson

By Judy Rohm

 

At a breast cancer rally she rises

Above sixteen positive lymph nodes

To tell the world that cancer is a wakeup call

That resonates to the cell level.

It’s a lesson taught by trembling hands

That squeeze from today a second cup of coffee

On a sunny deck with someone you love.

It is a slap that sends you flying from Michigan

To Cozumel because cancer teaches that snorkeling

Coral reefs pays greater dividends than a savings account

And mowing summer grass can be postponed

For bike rides past wild flowers and country streams,

And vacuuming the carpet and washing the windows

Are low priority items when a friend drops by to visit.

Cancer is not a gift but a lesson

Full of loving now and living presently.

(In:  The Cancer Poetry Project, V. 1, 2001)

“Cancer is not a gift, but a lesson…” Judy Rohm tells us in her poem.  We don’t wish for the pain of the lessons it teaches us, and yet, we’re often forced to re-examine our lives and change our perspectives.   Like it or not, life throws us curve balls, unexpected and difficult chapters in our lives we have trouble believing have happened.  Cancer is one of those, yet as more than a few survivors have said, “It is a great teacher.”

Cancer, like any life threatening illness, puts us face-to-face with the prospect of our mortality, perhaps sooner than anticipated.  It makes the lessons of our experience and the learning all the more potent.  Alice Hoffman, novelist, writing after her recovery from cancer,  aggressive cancer, expressed it this way:

“In my experience, ill people become more themselves, as if once the excess was stripped away only the truest core of themselves remained.   …novelists know that some chapters inform all others. These are the chapters of your life that wallop you and teach you and bring you to tears, that invite you to step to the other side of the curtain, the one that divides those of us who must face our destiny sooner rather than later.” (New York Times, August 14, 2000)

That transformation to one’s “truest core” was something I have been witnessing each week among those cancer patients and survivors who have written with me in the Fall session of the “Writing Through Cancer” workshop series I lead at Gilda’s Club here in Toronto.  This past Wednesday was our final meeting of the series, and I began the session by reading Judy Rohm’s “The Lesson,” using it to inspire the group to answer the question, “What have you learned from your cancer experience?”  Within moments, pens were moving quickly across their notebook pages.  When I asked who would like to share what they’d written aloud, one by one, each person shared aspects of their lives they wished to change, strengthen or enrich as a result of having and living with cancer.

As I listened to each person read, I remembered John, no longer living, but who had written with me at the Stanford Cancer Center several years ago.  John was a remarkable person,  diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2005, suffering a relapse in 2008 and undergoing a bone marrow transplant at Stanford that fall.  Two years later, he suffered another setback, and yet, his spirit and tenacity remained strong.  He continued to share his experience, writing honestly, humorously and with poignancy as his illness worsened, even  beginning a blog to share his experience with other patients, family and friends.   J. and I had stayed in touch despite his inability to travel and participate in the writing group.   Early in 2010, just months before he died, he sent me an essay entitled, “What I’ve Learned,”  saying he’d taken inspiration from Esquire Magazine’s then series by the same name.  Here are a few of the things John felt he’d learned from his cancer:

  • If you have a problem, admit it, then you can start to fix it.
  • Work at what you love, forget about the money.
  • Tell your wife how beautiful she is every day, and how much you love her.
  • Tell your kids that you love them, unconditionally. Hug them and encourage them to follow their dream.
  • Listen more and talk less. Be interested in other people’s stories.
  • Don’t assume what you see and believe is the same as what others see and believe. Respect other viewpoints.
  • In the end, all your physical beauty and prowess will leave you. You must still love that person in the mirror.
  • Travel light.
  • We all will die eventually, so find a way to face death without fear. Don’t dwell on death, but enjoy each day as best you can.

Other survivors have also reflected on cancer’s lessons. Writing for a January 2018 issue of Cure Today, cancer survivor Bonnie Annis described what she has learned:  … cancer taught me was to give myself permission to grieve …This did not happen suddenly. It took days and weeks and months, but gradually, the sadness grew less heavy…cancer taught me how to process my anger. At first, I didn’t realize I was angry. …as I thought about all I’d endured, I realized I was angry. I was bitter. I was hurt… And then cancer did the unexpected… [It] taught me how to find gratitude…gratitude can replace grief and anger… Cancer, even with all of its horrible ugliness, can be kind in the lessons we learn from it. But we have to be willing to look for the lessons.             

Author Jenny Nash, diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago, described her cancer experience in her book, The Victoria’s Secret Catalogue Never Stops Coming,” (Scribner, 2001). Each of the thirteen chapters bears the title of one Nash’s lessons.  Here are a few:

            Survival is a matter of instinct.
Bad news does less damage when it’s shared.
Caregivers are human.
Sometimes crying is the point.
Take the gifts people have to give.
Make the experience matter.

The power and lessons of the cancer experience aren’t reserved for survivors alone.  The experience of a loved one’s cancer diagnosis and treatment also affects those close to us. During a 2006 CBS television broadcast, National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, whose wife was treated for cancer, spoke from a spousal perspective:

     Now, forgive me for saying this, but cancer can also be …an amazing experience that forces us to make amends, to set things right… now I’ve changed, and for good. I appreciate what I have instead of lamenting what I don’t … a new life and a new way of seeing, all from one malicious lump.
On our drives home from the doctor, I’d often look around at stoplights. I’d see people talking on their cell phones, putting on makeup, eating. They’re all in a hurry. It all seems so important. But is it?
In the end, each of us has so little time… we try to make it all count now, appreciating every part of every day.  Sometimes, we sit together on our porch at sunset. We don’t talk much. We just hold hands. We listen to the crickets chirp, soft and cautious, as if they know that first frost might come tonight. We stay a while, until the last of the light is gone, until we can’t see anything. Until we’re just two hearts in the darkness. We’re in no hurry at all.
(CBS Sunday Morning, October 23, 2006).

There are common themes among the lessons shared by cancer survivors, but it’s Sartore’s words that linger in my mind as he reminds us to “try to make it all count now, appreciating every part of every day.”  It’s about being present and living fully.  “Make the experience matter,” Jenny Nash advised.  If we don’t pause and consider what has changed in our lives and what we have learned, the tendency to lapse into old ways of being begins its slow and steady reclamation.   Life is short, and cancer or any other serious illnesses makes us sit up and pay attention to life, having it and being grateful for it.  Perhaps this is best expressed in a short poem written by As Ted Kooser, former poet laureate of the U.S., inspired by one of his long walks in the Nebraska countryside while he was recovering from cancer.

I saw the season’s first bluebird
this morning, one month ahead
of its scheduled arrival.  Lucky I am
to go off to my cancer appointment
having been given a bluebird, and,
for a lifetime, have been given
this world.

(In:  Winter Morning Walks:  One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison, 2001)

 Writing Suggestions:

  • Have you reflected upon and written about the lessons you’ve learned from cancer?  Why not set a timer for 15 minutes and, writing without stopping, list as many of the lessons cancer has taught you as you can.  Once you’ve finished your list, read it over and, noting the most important in the list, begin writing again, only this time, expand on those lessons.  Imagine you’re writing to a friend or someone who is experiencing cancer treatment.  What would you highlight as your greatest lessons from cancer?
  • “Cancer is a great teacher.” Do you agree?  Why or why not?  Elaborate.
  • What do you intend to do differently in your life as a cancer survivor?
  • Try writing a short poem in the style of Kooser’s that expresses the lessons of cancer and the gifts of your life.

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