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If the only prayer we say in our lifetime is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” –German philosopher Meister Eckhart

We celebrated our Canadian Thanksgiving holiday yesterday, a month and a half earlier than the American celebration.  In a time dominated by another wave of COVID outbreaks, advice to stay home and minimize social contacts, it might have been easy to forget what the holiday symbolizes:  gratitude for the bounties of the harvest and blessings shared in the past year.

Thanksgiving may symbolize thankfulness, but it was difficult to summon a sense of gratitude when I first awakened.   Daily, my mood threatens to take a nose dive with living in a continuing pandemic, hearing or reading the constant reports of the turbulence and struggle in the world, and its unending hostility and violence.   Frustration, fear or worry are emotions that seep too readily under my skin as this strange life in COVID-19 continues.  It often requires conscious effort to re-direct my thoughts to those things in life that offer solace, joy and gratitude; my spirits are all to easily dampened by the daily deluge of world news and updates of COVID-19 case numbers, and no amount of humorous posts on social media will lift them.

Yesterday, like many other Toronto families, we would be celebrating without our family gathering together for a traditional Thanksgiving meal of turkey and all the trimmings.  I admit that all of us were feeling a bit bummed by that; it was not about the food, but about the continuing isolation from our daughter and her family.   Late in the morning, my telephone rang.  My daughter was calling.  “Let’s go for a walk,” she said, and an hour later my husband and I met her and her daughter near one of Toronto’s many urban trails.  We spent the afternoon walking in the crispness of an autumn afternoon, among trees decked out in their seasonal finery, all scarlet and gold.  Who could not fail to have their spirits uplifted by simply having time together in the open air of a fall afternoon? We returned home, spirits refreshed, grateful we had the afternoon together, and remembering that despite everything, our lives are good, blessed by living near our eldest daughter after so many years of living far apart, even if we wouldn’t be sitting around the dinner table together this year.

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.

(Ted Kooser, Winter Morning Walks, 2001)

After we returned home, I turned back to preparing the material for this week’s “Writing Through Cancer” virtual workshop for Gilda’s Club.  I decided on a different exercise than I had originally planned, inspired by the poem, “Still, I Give Thanks,” by the poet Marie Reynolds, something I discovered four years ago on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac.  Reynold’s title seemed so fitting for these times—and coupled with the experience of living with and being treated for cancer, it serves as a reminder that there is much to be grateful for.  Here’s an excerpt:

Day fourteen in the radiation waiting room
and the elderly man sitting next to me
says he gives thanks every day because
he can still roll over and climb out of bed… Lately, I too, give thanks for the things I can do—
sit, stand, take my next breath. Thanks for my feet,
my fingers, the ears on my head…Each day, supine
on the table, I listen to the razoring whine
of the radiation beam. It hurts to lie still,
the table sharp as an ice floe beneath the bones
of my spine. Still, I give thanks for the hands
that position me, their measurements and marking
pens, the grid of green light that slides like silk
across my skin…
(From:  The Writer’s Almanac, June 21, 2016)

“Still I give thanks…”  What a simple phrase and yet, a powerful reminder to ourselves to find gratitude for what we do have instead of being caught up in what is missing or difficult in our lives. Where do you find gratitude? 

Writing Suggestion: 

Reynolds’ poem is lovely reminder that even in cancer, there in much in your life to be grateful for.  Begin with the phrase, “Still I give thanks,” and, usually her poem as a model, see where it takes you.  Chances are you’ll discover, like I do when I stop to remember and remind myself, of remembering and practicing gratitude for the small every-day gifts we have in our lives.

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I live in a place where the winter season can stretch well beyond the calendar date for spring’s arrival.  Wind, snow, and freezing cold have already forced us into parkas and snow boots, thick scarves wrapped around our necks and knitted toques pulled down over our ears.  It is not a time one relishes stepping outdoors to run errands or walk the dog.  The light has changed, as has the angle of the sun moving across the sky.  Days are shorter;  nights are longer, and darkness descends like a curtain in the late afternoon.

In these winter mornings, I awaken to darkness.  An early riser, I tiptoe into the quiet and peacefulness, embracing the solitude as a time to write and reflect.  Despite the grayness of the winter months, I am often greeted by the sun rising above Lake Ontario in the distance, the dawn a palette of brilliant gold and rose hues painted across the far horizon, one of Nature’s most beautiful gifts before the sun disappears into a curtain of grey cloud.  I cherish these dark mornings, unlike my ancestors of long ago.  Darkness was not something they took comfort from.  As the days grew shorter as winter approached, they watched the sun sink lower into the sky, fearing it might completely disappear and force them into permanent darkness and unending cold.  You can almost feel their primitive fear of winter’s darkness,  in the first stanza of “Winter Solstice” by Jody Aliesan:

When you startle awake in the dark morning
heart pounding breathing fast
sitting bolt upright staring into
dark whirlpool black hole
feeling its suction…

Although the darkness of winter will continue for some time, this Saturday, December 21, marks the arrival of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere with the fewest hours of sunlight.  Winter solstice is a time our ancestors associated with death and rebirth. Even though winter continued for many weeks, the solstice was a time for celebration because it signaled the return of the sun and warmer seasons to come.  The winter Solstice was widely celebrated in many different cultures in the world.  In fact, anthropologists believe they may go back at least 30,000 years. Think of those at Stonehenge, where even today, people dress as the ancient Druids and pagans to celebrate the arrival of the winter solstice, or the “Yalda” festival celebration in Iran and other countries, the ancient Romans’ Saturnalia festival and the Scandinavian “Juul,” when Yule logs were burned to symbolize the returning sun and warmth.  Even our Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations have been influenced by the ancient rituals marking the winter solstice.  It is a time of the year important to many different cultures, as Timothy Steele acknowledges in his poem, “Toward the Winter Solstice:”

…Though a potpourri

Of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and Sikhs,

We all are conscious of the time of year;

We all enjoy its colorful displays

And keep some festival that mitigates

The dwindling warmth and compass of the days…

It’s comforting to look up from this roof

And feel that, while all changes, nothing’s lost,

To recollect that in antiquity

The winter solstice fell in Capricorn

And that, in the Orion Nebula,

From swirling gas, new stars are being born.

(From:  Toward the Winter Solstice, 2006)

The Solstice promises rebirth and offers a sense of hope even though I realize another year is ending.  Perhaps that “death” of the previous year is one of the things that spark so many memories of Decembers past and the people in them.   It is not only a time of celebration, but a time of remembering people past and present in our lives,  family traditions, and gratitude.  It’s a time to look toward our hopes for the year ahead.  For now though, I treasure the gifts I find in the beauty of winter’s darkness: a winter moon rising, the dawn of a winter’s morning, the solitude and time to reflect.  Just as my ancestors, I feel the promise of rebirth, which the Solstice signifies, also captured in Aliesan’s final lines:

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

you have nothing to do but live.

(From:  Grief Sweat, Broken Moon Press, 1990)

As winter solstice approaches this weekend, take time to remember nature’s cycle of life–birth, death and rebirth.  It is humankind’s cycle  too, and woven into our holiday celebrations.  It’s a cycle repeated in times of darkness or struggle, moving into light, from illness, loss, pain or suffering  into healing.  The symbolism of the winter solstice offers a rich metaphor to think about our cycle of life, health and illness, aging, loss and love, times when hope may have faded or we feared little but endless darkness.   Yet, somehow, there is always rebirth, and in that cycle, there is hope. You have nothing to do but live.

Writing Suggestions:

  • Using the metaphor of the winter solstice, write about your own journey through of a kind of “death” and rebirth, a journey of darkness into light, or discovering a sense of life renewed.
  • Take Aliesan’s phrase, “You have nothing to do but live” and use it to trigger your writing.
  • Recall a memory of winter or the December holidays that stays with you.  Write its story.

 

I wish each of you the warmth and joy of the holiday season.

Sincerely,

Sharon Bray

 

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To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…

(“Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season),” Songwriter:  Pete Seeger)

When the song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” was recorded released in 1965 by the rock group, The Byrds, it quickly captured the sentiments of the time and rose and to number one on Billboard’s “Hot 100.”  The Byrds were not the first to record the song.  Their version was preceded by a 1962 recording by the Limelighters and by Pete Seeger on his album, The Bitter and the Sweet.  Over the next several years,  other artists also recorded the song, including Judy Collins, Joe Cocker, Dolly Parton and Nina Simone.  Is it any wonder?  The words from Ecclesiastes describe life’s journey, the inevitability of its cycles and seasons, the story of the entire lifespan.

There’s something about the approaching autumn, for me,  that invites more quiet reflection, a daily tumble of memories triggered by the shift in temperature, trees beginning to turn color, the scent of the air.  “The other side of spring,” a character called autumn in a long ago French film.  It’s an apt metaphor for aging, which we all become more aware of as the years pass.  I think of my own life now as synonymous with autumn, reminding me of how human life is so intimately connected to Nature’s seasons–metaphorically and physically.

Henry David Thoreau, famous for his book, Walden, saw the seasons as symbolic of human life.   Just as plants go through stages such as bud, leaf, flower, and fruit, or seed, seedling, and tree, he observed that man, too, experienced similar stages of development throughout the life span.  However, his observations were not entirely novel.  The  ancient Greeks also saw seasons as metaphors for life’s different stages.   Childhood was synonymous with spring and youth with summer.  Autumn described adulthood and winter, old age.   The Seasons of Life:  Our Dramatic Journey from Birth to Death,  by authors John Kotre and Elizabeth Hall, also explored how our life journeys mirror Nature’s seasons.  Using biographical sketches of real people at all life stages or “seasons,” they demonstrated how our lives are influenced by them, as well as  the times of day, circling of the planets, phases of the moon, and  growth and harvesting of crops.

It’s hardly a surprise that seasons also affect our  health–something I’m reminded of as I’ve felt a dull ache in my fingers these past couple of weeks as I write.   Whether allergies during spring and summer, colds and flu in the winter, or even the discomfort of arthritis as weather cools, many of us have experienced these common health issues many times over.   The BBC reported a study where researchers analyzed blood and tissue samples from more than 16,000 people living around the world.  Of all the genes they scrutinized, they were most interested in the ones involved with immunity and inflammation. Not surprisingly, during the cold months of winter, those genes were more active for people living north of the equator.

Yet there’s more. Have you ever found yourself feeling a little out of sorts on those days that winter weather keeps you indoors?  While I complained of “relentless” sunshine when my husband and I lived in Southern California, preferring, instead, four distinct seasons, I’ll admit to feeling glum now and then when winter seems to be especially harsh or unending.  I’m not unusual.  Seasonal can changes affect our moods.   I used to attribute those grey days to my being “weather sensitive,” but that was long before I learned about “seasonal affective disorder” (SAD).  According to Psychology Today, some people do experience a seasonal depression that doctors feel may be related to changing levels of light.  SAD can range from mild to debilitating for several months at a time.

Seasonal changes can also affect a number of other, potentially more harmful, health conditions.  A  2017 article in the Huffington Post, reported on research studies from the NIH that found “autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular events, acute gout, type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, hip fractures, mental health disorders, migraines, and emergency surgery and even mortality rates affected by the seasonal changes.

Fitzhugh Mullan, MD, writing in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1985, described his discovery of a malignant mass in his chest and as an outcome of his personal experience, defined what he termed “the seasons of  cancer survivorship:”  acute (diagnosis and treatment); extended  (post-treatment); and permanent  (long-term survivorship).  Several years later, Kenneth Miller, MD expanded Mullan’s original seasons to four distinct phases or “seasons” of cancer survivorship, building from observations not only of his patients’ experiences but also his wife’s.  In an article published by Cure Today magazine, he compared her stages of cancer and recovery to the seasons of nature, writing:

I have learned just as much about cancer and the seasons of survivorship in my work as a medical oncologist as I have alongside my wife, Joan, he wrote, who was treated 10 years ago for acute leukemia and more recently for breast cancer. Her diagnosis was certainly like the cold, bleak winter, and transition like the rebirth of spring. And while each season was different than the others, each was beautiful in its own way.

Nature’s four seasons have always been a predominant theme in poetry, and  inspire the poetry of cancer.  Marilyn Hacker’s 1994 collection of poetry, Winter Numbers, invokes the darkness and cold of winter as she details the loss of many of her friends to AIDS or cancer as she, too,  struggled with breast cancer.  Dan Matthews, poet, chronicled the journey of his wife’s terminal breast cancer in his collection,  Rain, Heavy at Times: Life in the Cancer Months (2007), while John Sokol invoked summer in his collection, In the Summer of Cancer (2001).  Barbara Crooker, in her poem, “For a Friend Lying in Intensive Care Waiting For Her White Blood Cells to Rejuvenate After a Bone Marrow Transplant,” used springtime to signal her friend’s renewal and rejuvenation:

The jonquils. They come back. They split the earth with

their green swords, bearing cups of light. ‘

The forsythia comes back, spraying its thin whips with

blossom, one loud yellow shout.

The robins. They come back. They pull the sun on the

silver thread of their song.

The iris come back. They dance in the soft air in silken

gowns of midnight blue.

The lilacs come back. They trail their perfume like a scarf

of violet chiffon.

And the leaves come back, on every tree and bush, millions

and millions of small green hands applauding your return.

(From:  The Cancer Poetry Project, Volume 1, 2001)

We’re moving toward the “other side of spring” now.  Even my potted plants on the balcony are showing signs of submitting to a change of season, looking a little less vibrant by the week.  While I’m reluctant to bid summer good-bye, I’m eager to see the tree-lined streets alive with colors of gold, yellow, and scarlet and feel the crispness in the air as I walk. Each season has its unique qualities, and each stirs up memories of people, places and experiences in our lives. “Aren’t we lucky the seasons are four…?”

Writing Suggestions

Explore how seasons influence your life or cancer journey. What seasonal metaphor best describes the stage of life or cancer survivorship you are experiencing?  Here are some suggestions help you get started writing:

  • Write about the different seasons in your life, whether the cancer journey, a marriage, loss and grief, adulthood– any of life’s seasons important or significant to you in some way.
  • If you are a cancer survivor, explore how Miller’s “Seasons of Survivorship” apply (or not) to your journey. Which “season” has been the most difficult to endure?  Why?
  • Explore cancer in a poem, using seasonal metaphors to describe your experience. You might begin by “exploding” as many images of that season on the page before you begin to shape a poem.  Be as descriptive as possible.

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Springtime has been slow to arrive in Toronto.  The cherry blossoms were late in their annual bloom and trees seemed almost reluctant to bud, but gentler temperatures and more sunny days have been a welcome respite from the gray months of winter.  Despite its considerable growth in recent years, it is a city with many trees, parks, and walking trails and flowers.  Our apartment complex looks out over a canopy of trees and in the distance, a cityscape of tall buildings, and we’re fortunate to live within walking distance to more than one park and walking trails that criss-cross the city.  There is something revitalizing and crucial to the human spirit about springtime and its new life. It’s little surprise then that the most recent posting from author Maria Popova, of Brain Pickings, on the healing power of gardens captured my interest.  She wrote:

There is something deeply humanizing in listening to the rustle of a newly leaved tree, in watching a bumblebee romance a blossom, in kneeling onto the carpet of soil to make a hole for a sapling….  —Maria Popova, Brain Pickings, June 2, 2019

Just over a week ago, my husband and I joined the throngs who were buying plants, soil and pots as soon as it was warm enough to plant.  I spent an entire day filling pots with soil and planting flowers and even a tomato plant, to line our balcony for the summer.  My back may have ached afterward, but I sat and stared at the plants long afterward, with quiet pleasure.  A few blocks away, my daughter and her friend were preparing the soil for the small, but prolific, vegetable garden that will soon provide vegetables to all the residents of their small apartment building.  “The garden is my happy place,” she has often said.

A garden, a walk in the forest or along a city walking trail–these are restorative experiences for the soul and psyche.  I recall how, several years ago, one woman arrived late for a writing workshop I was leading at a San Diego cancer center.  Breathless and smiling, she was wearing a wide brimmed straw hat as she entered the room.   She apologized, saying, “I had to go out in the garden today,” before telling us how it had helped her suspend her worry about an upcoming treatment.   Oliver Sacks, in his essay, “Why We Need Gardens,” wrote, “I take my patients to gardens whenever possible…  I have seen …the restorative and healing power of nature and gardens…in many cases…more powerful than any medication (From:  Everything in Its Place, (2019) quoted in Brain Pickings, June 2, 2019).

The simple act of reconnecting with the earth can be healing. Shinrin-yoku, a Japanese term meaning “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing” encourages people to spend time walking in nature to experience its rejuvenating and restorative benefits.  Shinrin-yoku has become an important part of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine.

Again, I think of Ann, a former member of one of the writing groups, who outlived her terminal prognosis by several years before her death in from a rare leukemia, in part, perhaps, by choosing to spend her final years in a little cabin in the California redwoods.  There, she took solace and inspiration from the beauty of nature and quiet surrounding her, much of which she expressed in her poetry.

Studies have shown that a walk through a garden or even seeing one from the window can lower blood pressure, reduce stress and ease pain.  In one study, cardiac rehabilitation patients who visited gardens and worked with plants experienced an elevated mood and lower heart rate than those who attended a standard patient education class (USA Today, April 15, 2007).

Healing gardens are now a part of many medical centers, as hospitals and cancer centers have begun to create environments that heal not only the body, but also nurture the spirit.  Such gardens are not new; they originated, believe it or not, in the hospices of medieval Europe.

“Nature heals the heart and soul, and those are things the doctors can’t help,” Topher Delaney, landscape architect, stated in a 2002 American Cancer Society article about healing gardens.  Delaney, a breast cancer survivor, had a mastectomy in 1989.  She was only 39, and after surgery, went into menopause and lost her sense of smell.  The grim surroundings of her hospitalization inspired a change in her work.

“I had my pact with God,” she said.  “Oh, God, if I get through this, then I’ll do healing gardens. You keep me alive, I’ll keep doing gardens.”  She wanted to give others the kind of retreat she wished she’d had during treatment.  “That’s what this [healing] garden is all about — healing the parts of yourself that the doctors can’t.  The garden really gives hope because people see flowers bloom and others enjoying life,” she said. “It’s a garden full of change and metaphor”  (July 24, 2002, American Cancer Society).

The poet Mary Oliver, a keen observer of the natural world, described how Nature and its beauty can open our hearts in essay, “Upstream.”

I walked, all one spring day, upstream, sometimes in the midst of the ripples, sometimes along the shore. My company were violets, Dutchman’s breeches, spring beauties, trilliums, bloodroot, ferns rising so curled one could feel the upward push of the delicate hairs on their bodies. … The beech leaves were just slipping their copper coats. Pale green and quivering they arrived into the year. My heart opened, and opened again. The water pushed against my effort, then its glassy permission to step ahead touched my ankles. (From “Upstream,” in Blue Iris, 2004).

My heart opened, and opened again…Why not experience the healing or renewing effect of a garden this week?  Go outside to your own or take a walk through a garden.  Find a bench and sit without talking among the flowers and trees, taking in as much of the detail as you can.  Pay attention to what you see, hear and feel.  Perhaps you may discover a poem or essay of your own waiting there.

Writing Suggestions:

  • How has Nature been healing for you?  Describe it.
  • Try walking along a trail, sitting in a park, beside a stream or lake, or in your back yard and simply being quiet for 15 minutes or more.  What do you feel after you have allowed yourself the quiet time in nature?  What thoughts or feelings came up for you?  Write about them.
  • Nature can also be the inspiration for writing.  Take your notebook  with you.  Walk along a path, sit quietly, and notice what captures your attention.   Make a few brief notes about what you see.  Once you return home, try writing another 20 minutes, exploring where your observations may lead you.

 

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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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