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Archive for the ‘poetry and healing’ Category

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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In one way or another, cancer impacts virtually all of our lives. On an individual level, it is a life-transforming experience that often challenges the mind, heart, and spirit of patients and family members as deeply—if not more deeply—than it challenges the physical body—Jeremy Geffen, MD, The Journey Through Cancer: Healing and Transforming the Whole Person, 2006

Cancer, or any other life threatening illness or trauma, changes you.  Not only is your life altered in different ways, even if you are pronounced “cured” or “healed,” you quickly discover that returning to the self, to the life you knew before cancer or trauma occurred, is virtually impossible.  Not only has your body been altered by treatment and surgeries, the way you think about yourself and your life has changed, whether you see yourself as “living with” cancer, “a survivor,” “in remission,” “a warrior”–as well as  how you experience people and situations that were part of your daily life before cancer.

You’ve suddenly been thrust into the necessity of revising the life you have known, the one you’ve been living.  Revision is not just reserved for writers in the process of creating a story or poem.  It’s a necessity for life.  Yet when you are challenged to change the way you live, it can be confusing and difficult to understand, let alone learning to accept some of the necessary changes in your life.  You’re thrust into a journey you wouldn’t have chosen to travel, but, as Mary Oliver describes in her poem, “The Journey,”

You knew what you had to do…

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little…

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and

deeper

into the world…

You knew what you had to do…

(In:   Dreamwork, 1994)

In an interview by William Young, appearing in a 1993 issue of The Paris Review, William Stafford was asked to comment on his choice of a title of one of his books about writing: You Must Revise Your Life.  “I wanted to use the word revise because so many books about writing make it sound as though you create a good poem by tinkering with the poem you’re working on. I think you create a good poem by revising your life… by living the kind of life that enables good poems to come about.”

Several years ago, after the death of my first husband and the years spent being a single mother, I felt I was ready to unearth the story of that particularly painful and traumatic chapter of my life.  I began by starting a memoir, one I ultimately decided to turn into a novel.  I sent the manuscript to a few respected writers for review, and as it needed, revised multiple times.  Yet it took several months of rewriting and revision to acknowledge that I was still skating on the surface of the story, overly concerned with descriptive details, grammatical nits, and developing a rounded protagonist, who was, in real life, me.  (I never succeeded with her–my protagonist was just too “good.”)  The writing dragged on, through four complete revisions—or rather, revisions I thought were complete.  Yet something wasn’t working. The story was no longer my story, nor was it the real story “It’s become a fairy tale,” I complained to my writing buddies, and I put the novel aside in frustration.  I’d lost sight of my story, and in the process, had not written myself “into knowing,” as author Patricia Hampl once said about the writing process.  I was farther away from the truth, the real meaning in my story than ever.  I put the manuscript aside and faced the fact that the real revision was one of coming to terms with my life–before and after the trauma:  what, in me, had changed and how had it changed how I now approached the life I had now.  I had to do a complete re-visioning of my story.

I’ve been working on my rewrite, that’s right
I’m gonna change the ending
Gonna throw away my title
And toss it in the trash
Every minute after midnight
All the time I’m spending
It’s just for working on my rewrite…

(“Rewrite,” by Paul Simon, from the album, So Beautiful or So What?” 2011)

I discovered that there was much more to the process of writerly revision as Simon’s lyrics suggest, getting beyond the “happy” ending and digging deep for the meaning of those events in my life.  Simon hints at that in his song, and it’s likely one of the reasons his “Rewrite” lyrics were published in a recent edition of The New Yorker under the heading, “Poetry.”  Listen carefully, and you realize the real story is of a Vietnam vet who’s had hard times, and his rewrite is an attempt to create a happy ending for himself.

I’ll eliminate the pages
Where the father has a breakdown
And he has to leave the family
But he really meant no harm
Gonna’ substitute a car chase
And a race across the rooftops
When the father saves the children
And he holds them in his arms…

We all fantasize about how our lives might have been different, “if only if I’d done ___ instead of …,” but that’s the stuff of dreams and wishes, of fiction instead of reality.  Happy endings aren’t like the ones we remember from childhood fairy tales.  Life–cancer, loss, trauma, hardship–these events challenge us to revise our lives, to learn to honor our uniqueness, even our struggles and losses, and learn from them.  Only then can we truly begin a new script for the life we have ahead of us.

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…

Cancer is not a gift but a lesson

Full of seeing now and living presently.

(“The Lesson, by Judy Rohm, in The Cancer Poetry Project, V.1, 2001)

      …”cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter. Still, 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.”  — Alice Hoffman, NYTimes, August 2000.

Cancer, any serious illness or trauma can teach us to revise our lives in a way that we are more “alive” to the world, to paying attention to what’s in front of us, discovering gratitude in slowing down and being fully present to our daily lives.  Yes, we have changed, but we still have the opportunity to be considered in our choices, to make certain that however long our lives may be, we learn to live fully and with gratitude for each day we’re given.

As I write this post, I recall the first weeks several years ago, after I’d finished my doctoral research (a study of instructor thinking during instruction in a professional school of landscape architecture).  One of my “subjects,” a particularly gifted instructor wrote a short account of his experience in the study.  Entitled “The White Rat Talks Back,” he began his narrative with an old Fleishmann’s margarine advertisement, “I’m just a guy … who had a heart attack.  I’m okay now, but I learned a lot.”

“I’m okay now, but I learned a lot.”  Well, as Frank Sinatra once sang, “that’s life (that’s life)…  We all have chapters–those difficult experiences–that challenge us.  Some we remember fondly; others are the ones we don’t wish to repeat, but like it or not, we have to face the fact that our lives have been altered in profound ways,  even in ways we never imagined nor wanted, and we are left to re-consider and revise the ways we live from here on out.   How have you challenged to revise your life, your way of seeing the world, by cancer, by any life hardship?

 

Writing Suggestions:

  • Imagine you had the power to rewrite your life, as the subject in Paul Simon’s song, “Rewrite” dreams of doing. What would be your “happy” ending?
  • What have you learned from the painful chapters of your life?
  • As you look back on the difficult times in your life, before cancer and after, how have you revised your life?  What changed?  What didn’t?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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August 6th, and I remember that on this day, my father was born 100 years ago.  I also remember how his death from lung cancer twenty-five years ago left his family torn apart with sorrow and grief, some of the wounds never fully healed.  Remembering how deeply we felt the loss of our father got me to thinking about the impact of losing a loved one.   I recalled when, on a summer’s evening some time ago, my husband and I ran into a friend at a jazz concert.  Divorced in his 50’s, he longed to find a partner to share the rest of his life and had begun dating in earnest again after a long hiatus.  He introduced us to his evening’s date, an engaging woman we chatted briefly, learning that she had lost her husband a year or so earlier.

After his companion left to find the restroom, our friend turned to me and sighed, “Another widow.”  He shrugged his shoulders and added,  “I don’t if I’m ready for this,”  “this” meaning the emotional roller coaster that often accompanies new romances or relationships after a spouse’s death.

“Be patient,” I said, “it takes so much longer than you think it will to recover from a husband’s death.”  I was remembering how, in the year after the sudden death of my first husband, I had begun dating again several months later , hoping it might ease the constant heartache I felt.  It didn’t work.  I made poor choices in the process before I acknowledged I was simply not ready to begin any new relationship.  Healing had its own time schedule, and it couldn’t be rushed. Eight years later, I met and later married my current husband, but even in our early years together, I experienced an exaggerated fear of loss.

Whether the loss of a spouse, a child or a friend from serious illnesses like cancer, ALS, heart attack, or other unexpected tragedies, much is written about dealing with the loss of a loved one yet it’s not something  well understood by those who haven’t experienced it.  Some may think of grief as a single instance or short time of pain or sadness in response to loss, but the American Cancer Society reminds us that the real process of grieving lasts much longer.

When we are in grief and mourning, it can be hard on friends or acquaintances, even our family members.  Our North American society isn’t as adept at allowing grief to take a normal course as some other cultures do.  It’s painful to see someone we care about dealing with the heartache and sorrow accompanying the death of another, but it’s very important the bereaved feel supported through the process and are allowed to express their grief.  It’s why we have bereavement support groups, therapists and pastors who specialize in grief counseling.  Grief, although similar to us all in a general way, is experienced differently by everyone.  It’s  important to accept and honor the way in which a bereaved person chooses to express sorrow and grief.

This morning, my husband and I talked about the process of grieving when a loved one’s life ends, recalling the agonizing four year battle with bladder cancer my husband’s brother in-law endured before he finally died.  I remember telephoning my sister-in-law the day after his death, rehearsing ahead what I could say that didn’t sound trite.  The telephone rang once, twice and two more times before she answered it.

“Hello?” I knew immediately she had been crying.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I just went into his room and saw how empty it is, and then…”  She began sobbing again. “He’s gone, Sharon.” Her voice was heavy with grief and exhaustion.  “He’s been my life for sixty-four years.”

I could only murmur, “Yes, I know…” and think about what it meant to be together for so long.

It is hard to give up after months of making lists,

phoning doctors, fighting entropy.  But when the end comes,

a bending takes over, empties the blood of opposition

and with a gentle skill, injects a blessed numbness…

According to the American Cancer Society,” studies have identified emotional states that people may go through during grief. The first feelings usually include shock or numbness. Then, as the person sees how his or her life is affected by the loss, emotions start to surface. The early sense of disbelief is often replaced by emotional upheaval, which can involve anger, loneliness, uncertainty, or denial. These feelings can come and go over a long period of time. The final phase of grief is the one in which people find ways to come to terms with and accept the loss.”

Perhaps this surrender foreshadows my own old age

when I have raged to exhaustion and finally have to go.  For now,

the numbness wears off.  I drive to the market, cook my own food,

take scant note of desire

with no one to consider or contradict my choices.

Something in me will never recover.  Something in me will go on.

(From “Numb,” by Florence Weinberger, in The Cancer Poetry Project, 2001)

After sixty-four years together with her husband, my sister-in-law died barely a year later from a recurrence of inflammatory breast cancer after a five year remission.  Life without her husband, despite having her adult children and grandchildren nearby, was hard for her without her husband, who had been the primary decision maker in all their years of married life.   She seemed to grow increasingly tired and depressed, as if her will to live was fading.  As many psychologists and psychiatrists know, there are few things in life more likely to lead to depression depression than losing a spouse, especially for seniors.

More than a few research studies have demonstrated that spousal bereavement is a major source of life stress and not infrequently, leaves people vulnerable to other problems like depression, chronic stress, and reduced life expectancy.   Studies conducted around the world that shown that the rate in mortality often goes up among grieving spouses after their loved one dies. One such study conducted in Israel found the risk of death during the first six months after losing a spouse increased by 50%. The phenomenon is common enough that it even has a scientific name:”Broken Heart Syndrome,” which is defined as an impermanent heart condition caused by stressful situations, like the death of a loved one.

All lives are accompanied, at some point, by mortality, but some losses are far more difficult to accept than others.  Death from a protracted illness, at least, has a cause that we understand and allows the patient and the loved ones time to come to terms with the inevitability of death.  But the unexpected losses, like the sudden death of a spouse or child, comes as a complete shock, defies our sense of what is “supposed” to happen in life, and can complicate and extend the grieving process for years.

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

(Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking)

My own emotional state in the aftermath of my first husband’s drowning involved a complicated grieving process that took years to fully heal.  But I also remember how his parents, now deceased, and two siblings never fully recovered from losing a son, an older brother.  Nor did my daughters, then nine and ten, ever fully recover from their father’s death.  Even now, over 30 years later, remnants of grief and loss still surface from time to time.

In the turbulent days following my first husband’s death, a friend offered  me the poem, “And Death Shall Have No Dominon,” by the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas,  to use in honoring my husband’s death with his family and closest friends.  Thomas’s poem celebrates the undying and everlasting strength of the human spirit, and reading and sharing it provided some solace in the face of tragedy, reminding me that even in death, our loved ones are not completely lost to us.  We carry them in our hearts, our memories and our stories.

And death shall have no dominion.

       Dead men naked they shall be one

       With the man in the wind and the west moon;

       When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,

       They shall have stars at elbow and foot;

       Though they go mad they shall be sane,

       Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;

       Though lovers be lost love shall not;

       And death shall have no dominion.

(From:  Twenty-Five Poems, 1936)

Writing Suggestions

This week, consider the process of grief and mourning:

  • Have you lost a loved one to cancer or an unexpected tragedy? Write the memory of the day someone you loved died.
  • What did you experience in the aftermath  of death? Write about the emotional ups and downs of grief.
  • What helped you deal with the loss and gave you the strength to go on? Write about the gradual process of healing from the death of a loved one.
  • Are you currently faced with a terminal diagnosis or is your loved one? Describe the process of grief and what, as you face a shortened life or potential loss of your loved one, gives you solace and the strength.
  • Write a favorite remembrance of a loved one who has passed on. What brings a smile to your face when you remember the person?  What qualities or traits do you remember most fondly?

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The art of reading is in great part that of acquiring a better understanding of life from one’s encounter with it in a book. — André Maurois

It’s taken me the better part of three days to organize my books into some kind of order on my bookshelves.  In part, I have a lot of books, although far fewer than I used to when our move back to Toronto dictated some serious downsizing of our belongings.  Despite my reluctance to let many of them go, a feeling much like saying good-bye to old friends, I did, inviting writing group members to choose from the books tagged for donation, giving a few favorites to friends, and donating several boxes to the local library.  Yet I kept favorites, volumes of poetry, selected works of fiction, books on art and writing, and to my shock, I still had enough to fill three large bookcases.

The process of organizing was a slow one, alphabetizing poetry books, grouping fiction favorites and then nonfiction before several volumes on writing and poetry craft, even several favorite children’s books I have yet to let go of.  But as time-consuming as the basic task was,  I was further slowed in my progress by the constant desire to open a book to a dog-eared page, re-read the underlined passages, someone’s inscription on the title page, or if poetry, more than one of a poet’s collection.  I was often lost in remembering:  where I was, what was going on in my life, why I loved a book or a poem as much as I did.  My books, it turns out, have been as much a source of healing and happiness as they were about learning and growth.

“And death shall have no dominion,” Dylan Thomas wrote in his poem by the same name, his words offering me some measure of solace in the wake of my first husband’s drowning:

And death shall have no dominion.

They shall have stars at elbow and foot…

Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;

Those lovers be lost love shall not;

And death shall have no dominion…  

My volume of e.e. cummings Complete Poems 1904-1962 was filled with marked up passages, asterisks, and dog-eared pages, among them one that during my recovery from grief and loss offered me hope and a new way of living:

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young…

I pulled Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Angle of Repose (1971), sitting down to re-read several pages.  I remembered reading the novel shortly after I  moved my children and myself from Halifax to Toronto two years after my husband’s death to begin my doctoral studies.  I was aching from loss and longing for what I still called “home,” the small Northern Californian town where my father’s family had homesteaded, settled and where, each day of my childhood, I gazed at the beauty of Mt. Shasta, one of the volcanic peaks in the Cascade Range.

Stegner’s book was a powerful read for me, and he became one of my favorite writers.  In Angle of Repose,  the protagonist, Lyman, a writer confined to a wheelchair, had been recently been abandoned by his wife.  He was filled with bitterness and a sense of defeat.  After moving into his grandparents’ house, he decided to chronicle his grandparents’  early days in the western frontier.  As he read through his grandmother’s letters, he discovered much more about their marriage, struggles and difficulties than he anticipated. Through their story, he learned not only of their lives, but his own.

I sampled passages from several of the pages, in awe of Stegner’s command of language, his deep understanding of the challenges of early life in the  West, and the way in which he artfully moved from the struggles of the grandparents to his protagonist’s.  There were lessons in the book had real impact for me at the time,  and I had underlined passage after passage.

  • Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend…” 
  • Hope was always out ahead of fact, possibility obscured the outlines of reality…” 
  • We must be reconciled, for what we left behind us can never be ours again…”
  • She saw in his face he had contracted the incurable Western disease. He set his crosshairs on the snowpeaks of a vision.

It’s no surprise, perhaps, but as my shelving slowed and I paused to page through one book after another of the books I’d loved, I was reminded that reading, perhaps as much as writing, was not only an important part of my daily life, but of healing and happiness.

“Medicines and surgery may cure, but only reading and writing poetry can heal.”                    J. Arroyo, author

It’s not a novel concept (no pun intended).  The notion that books can make us emotionally, psychologically and even physically better goes back to the ancient world.  “The Reading Cure,” published in a 2008 issue of The Guardian reminds us that Apollo was not only the Greek god of poetry, but also of healing.  Aristotle believed literature had healing benefits and could be used to treat illness.  Hospitals or health sanctuaries in ancient Greece were typically situated next to theatres, most famously at Epidaurus, where dramatic performances were considered part of the cure.

One sheds one’s sicknesses in books– D. H. Lawrence

A few months ago, a friend sent me a link to a 2015 New Yorker Magazine article “Can Reading Make You Happier?” by Ceridwen Dovey.  Dovey explores the origins of Bibliotherapy, which is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “an interaction between the reader and certain literature which is useful in aiding personal adjustment.”  Bibliotherapy is a therapeutic practice, widely used in the U.K., that uses words to soothe the emotions and alter thoughts and to help people deal with psychological, social and emotional problems.   Covey notes that the Ancient Greeks inscribed a library entrance  in Thebes as a “healing place for the soul, noting that Shakespeare, in the play “Titus Andronicus,” encourages the audience to  “Come, and take choice of all my library, And so beguile thy sorrow …”

Bibliotherapy came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century. Sigmund Freud began using literature during psychoanalysis sessions, famously remarking, “Whenever I get somewhere, a poet has been there first.”   Following World War I, as traumatized soldiers returned home from the front, they were often prescribed a course of reading. Later in the century, bibliotherapy was also used in hospitals and libraries, and since, the practice has been utilized by psychologists, social and aged-care workers, and doctors as a viable mode of adjunct therapy.

You may be interested to know that there is scientific research that supports health benefits of reading, for example, Covey cites a 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology that showed when we read about an experience in a novel, we draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings.  And other studies suggest that people who read a lot of fiction tend to be better at empathizing with others.  At the very least, reading does boost your brain power, like a good jog exercises your cardiovascular system, and it can help you relate to others feelings, particularly if you read literary fiction.  Reading helps us relax, and reading before bed even helps us sleep.

But perhaps the most important thing reading does for us is in its capacity to open our eyes, minds and hearts to the larger world, to immerse ourselves a world beyond our everyday lives, and to find ourselves among the words another has written on a page–words that speak to what we are experiencing, that remind us of hope and healing.  What good literature can do and does do best, for so many of us, is touch our souls.

From Great Expectations I learned the power the stories we tell ourselves have to do either harm and good, to ourselves and to others; from Death of a Salesman I learned the dangers of a corrupt version of the American Dream; from Madame Bovary, I learned to embrace the real world rather than escaping into flights of fancy; from Gulliver’s Travels I learned the profound limitations of my own finite perspective; and from Jane Eyre I learned how to be myself. These weren’t mere intellectual or moral lessons, although they certainly may have begun as such. Rather, the stories from these books and so many others became part of my life story and then, gradually, part of my very soul. –Karen Swallow Prior, The Atlantic, 2013. 

Writing Suggestions:

  • Consider how reading has played a role in your life.
  • What role does reading play in your life?
  • What kind of books or literature do you most prefer? Why?
  • Has reading helped you during difficult periods in your life? How?
  • What are some of your most memorable or enduring books or poetry you’ve experienced? Why?
  • Describe a difficult time in your life and a book or poem which offered you some solace and insight.

 

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