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The shoes put on each time
left first, then right.

The morning potion’s teaspoon
of sweetness stirred always
for seven circlings, no fewer, no more,
into the cracked blue cup.

Touching the pocket for wallet,
for keys,
before closing the door.

How did we come
to believe these small rituals’ promise,
that we are today the selves we yesterday knew,
tomorrow will be?

(Excerpt from “Habit” by Jane Hirshfield, in Given Sugar, Given Salt)

We are packing up our lives again:  the third time in less than three years.  Boxes are being filled, once again, with our belongings.  In a little over two weeks, we will leave our current apartment and move up four floors to another of identical size and view.  More upheaval is the last thing I desire, but after two episodes of water leaking into our living and dining area from the forgetful tenant living above us, we began to worry if another next leaking episode might occur when we were out of the apartment.  Fortunately, another unit has become available in two weeks’ time, and we have jumped at the chance to re-locate.  But for the moment, my daily routine–the small rituals that keep me grounded– has been completely undone.

In times of transition, our daily habits, ones that calm and center us are often disrupted.  The irony is, of course, that in times of upheaval, we need them most.  Quiet, meditation, time alone, a solitary walk –whatever habit nurtures our inner lives is a kind of spiritual re-fueling,  something essential to navigating the ups and downs of life.  When I cannot find time or space free of interruption or distraction, not only is my creative work is compromised, but my disposition suffers.  I become irritable, tense, and overwhelmed by all that needs doing.  I have to remember to hit the pause button and take the time I need to simply be quiet, find a little space of solitude so important to the mental and emotional space that feeds my spiritual and creative life.

In solitude we give passionate attention to our lives, to our memories, to the details around us.—Virgina Woolf

Not only do everyday habits or little rituals calm and feed us, in the face of life’s passages, passages, like birth, puberty, marriage, and death, we create rituals.  Not only are they a way of honoring transitions from one life chapter to the next, but they do even more for us.  In times of uncertainty and change, our rituals help us cope.  They minimize the helplessness or depression we might feel without them.  They allow us to acknowledge and express our deepest feelings, offer a sense of meaning and connect us to what is sacred.  They also remind us of our need for connection to others, for community.  Our rituals, whether more formal or the everyday habits we have, help us navigate difficult times, providing some sense of the familiar, of constancy.  In that sense, they are healing.

What habits or “small rituals”  feed your inner life?   Whether a morning walk or run, a warm bath, meditation, a quiet time to write or simply gaze out the window, listening to music or sitting quietly in a park, we find comfort in our daily routine.   Our modern world is full of noise, rushing, busyness, and constant interruptions, competing demands.   Quiet, solitude, a space of one’s own:  all offer a different kind of nourishment and healing, no matter what change, turbulence or challenges life throws at us.

“Everybody should be quiet near a little stream and listen.”  (From the children’s book,  Open House for Butterflies, by Ruth Krauss, 2001, illustrated by Maurice Sendak)

Your little rituals and habits are also important in creating a sense of safety and comfort in a life turned upside down by cancer.  In Rituals of Healing (1994), Jeanne Achtenberg and her colleagues discussed how rituals act as outer expressions of inner experiences, helping you relax, re-connect with yourself and the little pleasures in everyday life.  They  help you calm your mind and concentrate on positive thoughts, all important to the healing process.

Ted Kooser, poet and cancer survivor, began a routine of morning walks during his cancer recovery.  In the introduction to his book, Winter Morning Walks:  One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison (2000), he described the unexpected benefit of his daily walks:

“In the autumn of 1968, during my recovery from surgery and radiation for cancer, I began taking a two-mile walk each morning…hiking in the isolated country roads near where I live…During the previous summer, depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing…  One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem.  Soon I was writing every day… I began pasting my morning poems on postcards and sending them to Jim…”

Kooser’s habit of walks in the early morning was not only important to his recovery, but to his life as a poet.  He began, again, his routine of writing daily.

This morning, as I write this post, sitting amid boxes, packing paper and a living space that seems to be unraveling a little more each day, I’ve found solace in carving out some time to write.  It was a time to pause, to re-set, be quiet and  gaze out the window–despite winter’s early blast of cold and snow–and feel a little oasis of calm.  And it showed.

“How is the day going so far?” my husband asked as he quietly made his way to the kitchen for coffee.

“It’s full,” I said,” but before I began the tense litany of my growing list of “must be done by…”  I managed to laugh. “Brace yourself,” I said.

He patted my shoulders, grateful, I think, to see that my tension had eased a bit by having a little time of solitude and quiet, enjoying my coffee and writing — my daily ritual that calms and nurtures. Today’s “must be done by” list seems a little more manageable somehow.

Writing Suggestions:

  •  What daily routines offer you some sense of solace?
  •  What has helped to calm or comfort you  in the midst of doctors’ appointments, treatment or recovery?
  • What habits or routines have helped to ease feelings of stress, pain or  suffering–or sustain you?
  • Write about your habits or “small rituals,”  the ones that feed your inner life.

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For the first year after we returned to Toronto, I was lucky enough to have a room of my own for writing.  Our first apartment, a rambling, spacious three bedroom in a turn of the century building, allowed me to have the space I was accustomed to for my writing practice.  The only downside was that it was a third floor walk-up, and after several months, I developed Achilles tendonitis and a persistent pain in my right knee.  We acknowledged that our days of climbing three flights of stairs several times a day could not continue.  We moved once again last year, but the new apartment, although more expensive, offers an elevator and is located within easy walking distance to trails, shops and the subway.  However, it has only two bedrooms unlike the three in the old apartment.  Ever optimistic, I thought we would have enough space for our work habits and ourselves.  Once moved in, however, the realities of a smaller living space quickly became apparent.  My husband and I had to figure out how to share the smaller bedroom for our workspaces.

Despite Virginia’s Woolf’s famous statement, that A woman must have money and a room of her own,” it is neither a requirement nor may it be feasible, nor is it required.  Hemingway wrote standing up; Ben Franklin apparently preferred the bathtub for writing, while Patti Smith wrote in a favorite coffee shop at a particular table.  As a mother, Toni Morrison wrote in a little motel room when her children were small, yet Jane Austen wrote her novels amid her family life. (Poets & Writers, 2008)  I was lucky, I suppose.  My writing habit was honed in a room to myself with a window that looked out to treetops and a canyon–a far cry for what I encountered when we moved to our current Toronto apartment.

My writing practice took a nosedive.  I sought refuge in the front room, but my once quiet and solitary morning routine was constantly interrupted by my husband, passing through the room to the kitchen for coffee and breakfast.  “How’s the writing going?”  He’d ask as he passed my chair.  His question and the interruption only served to highlight how poorly my writing time was progressing.  Frustration became a frequent theme of what was written in my notebook.  I felt unsettled and irritable.  Little wonder, I suppose, since I’d written in a “room of my own” for the better part of thirty years.  How could I offer writing advice to the men and women participating in my groups if, in truth, I wasn’t writing as I had always done for so many years?

My husband came up with the solution, no doubt weary of my irritability and complaints about my writing–or lack of it.  For the third or fourth time in a year, we rearranged the shared office space, and again, thanks to IKEA, created a little nook in the corner where there is a narrow floor to ceiling window.  I found a comfortable chair that fits in the small space and happily resumed the early morning writing routine I’ve enjoyed for much of my life.  Now I look through the window at the treetops and Toronto’s cityscape in the distance.

A little over a week ago, I led several sessions on journaling as part of the Camp Ooch/POGO (Pediatric Oncology Group of Ontario) “Life after Cancer” conference.  While the writing I do with cancer patients and survivors has been in a group format, journaling had been a lifesaving practice for me after my first husband’s sudden death.  I am well aware that writing alone also has similar health benefits as writing together, improving mood and quality of sleep, reducing fatigue and helping gain insight into personal struggles and emotions.  During the workshops,  we discussed the healing benefits of writing and the many different forms journaling can take, for example,  the gratitude journal, an art journal, a writing journal (where you’re creating something like poetry or memoir), or dream journal, among others.    While there is no one way to journal, however, you need a quiet place that is comfortable and private in order to write honestly and without interruption.  I now knew too well how difficult it was to try to write without that sense of privacy.

Writing can be done anywhere, it’s true, but it needs to be done in a space that is free of interruptions and distractions.  You can create that “sense” of a room of one’s own, as many writers have demonstrated in all kinds of spaces, a space you shape for yourself: one a bedroom corner, a nook in a shared office, a library, even a table at a coffee shop.   Bonni Goldberg , author of Room to Write, a favorite little book of writing invitations, explains her book title as not necessarily about  “a” room to write in, but rather,  “creating room for your writing,” meaning you make  time and space in your life to have room to write.   “Making room in your life to write,” Goldberg adds, “generates even more room for your writing.” How you make that room is as unique to you as your writing is.

Writing can be an attempt to make a room where you can fully live, even if that room is imaginary, invisible to anyone who doesn’t bother to read your work.–Sandra Newman, author

You have to create and protect the space you need to write, whether your writing is a kind of meditation, a prayer, for healing or to nurture your creativity.   Without a place free of interruptions and distractions, your ability to write freely and honestly–so important to all kinds of writing–is compromised.  In reclaiming a “space of my own,” and my morning writing  routine, I rediscovered the mental and emotional space needed to nurture my creative life.  It is good to have a place, a nook, however imperfect or small, because it helps me ensure there is room in my daily life to write.

In solitude we give passionate attention to our lives, to our memories, to the details around us.—Virgina Woolf

Writing Suggestions:

  • This week, think about how and why you write.
  • Do you make room to write regularly?  Do you have a favorite spot or a place of your own in which to write?
  • What role does writing play in your life?
  • How have you created a  “room of your own” that lets you bask in quiet and solitude, even briefly.
  • Write…about writing.

 

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Every morning, when we wake up, we have 24 brand-new hours to live. What a precious gift! We have the capacity to live in a way that these 24 hours will bring peace, joy, & happiness to ourselves & others. — –Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist teacher

For a few moments the other day, I was asked by a new acquaintance the question I’ rarely hear anymore:  “What do you do?”   I had a flashback to an earlier time in my life when at every gathering, whether social or business, the most often question asked after an introduction was:  “What do you do?”  Somehow, that question always reminded me of the Cheshire Cat in the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland, asking Alice, “Who… are…you?”

It used to be that my answer most often included a job title and brief description that placed me in the world of business and career, and gave me “credibility” in the larger world–no doubt because  as a young mother and faculty wife of a college professor living in a small university town, wives were predominately relegated to domestic or volunteer roles.  I was rarely asked if I did anything outside of my domestic life.  Nevertheless, my standard answer to “Who are you?” was an identity badge that actually said very little about me, my life or what I held to be important and meaningful.  Nor did my response indicate the many roles I had, the different worlds I moved in and out of on a daily basis.

It’s not dissimilar to the way in which people introduce themselves to one another at the initial session of one of my cancer-writing groups.  For a time, one’s identity seems to be defined by cancer.  Introductions such as  “I’m living with lung cancer, ” or “I’m a cancer survivor” are most often the first thing anyone says about themselves, followed later by one’s professional or work status, and then, perhaps, one’s more personal details.

It’s not that we’re uninterested in each other’s lives but when we’re diagnosed and living with a serious illness, that reality defines a significant part of our identity, and it may take time for the other pieces of our lives to emerge and blend into a fuller picture of who we truly are. and the many different roles we occupy.

We all have the unique capacity to inhabit several different “worlds” at any given time. Each of us lives our lives on many different planes, something Patrice Vecchione describes in her book, Writing and the Spiritual Life (2001).  Even if we’re not  aware of it, our inner and outer lives are always interacting; affecting and informing each other as we move between those different worlds each day.  Yet in the demanding chapter of life called cancer treatment and recovery, that world of “patient” or “living with cancer” dominates our daily existence, and we may be only vaguely aware that the needs of our inner lives are all be being ignored.   Sooner or later, it catches up with us.

I once moved between my different worlds as if they were separate, without much awareness to how those different aspects of my life interacted.  My husband and daughters would tell you that those years were ones in which I was frequently stressed, irritable and tired.  I was running from one thing to another, and without much satisfaction from any of it.  It was as if I was on a virtual elevator, constantly in motion, racing between floors.  Push a button, the elevator moved up or down, and stopped to open, “Second floor, family life. Third floor, workplace. Fourth floor, Business lunches and dinners.  Fifth floor:  Volunteer committee meetings.” I  shudder to remember the constant rush of the pace I kept, moving up and down several floors each day—“Ding, office.”  “Ding, meetings.”  Ding, clients.”  “Ding, Board volunteer.”  “Ding.  Family.”  “Ding”….  I was hardly aware that my spiritual life had been relegated to the basement.  My outer life had little unity with my inner one.

“I know I walk in and out of several worlds every day,” poet Joy Harjo wrote in her autobiographical essay, “Ordinary Spirit” (in:  I Tell You Now, 2005).  Harjo was referring to her mixed race, in part, and the struggle to “unify” her different worlds.  The struggle I had in unifying my different worlds and tending to my inner life was something I hadn’t paid attention to except fleetingly.  Then one sunny afternoon, between business meetings, I met with my doctor to follow up on my mammogram results.  That’s when I heard him say “cancer,” but I kept my composure, even, as I left his office, shaking his hand to thank him for the meeting.

He frowned.  “Sharon, are you all right?”

Oh yes, I assured him, I was fine., and I promptly returned to my car to head back to my office, a twenty-minute drive down the freeway.   I drove a few miles before I began trembling.  I pulled off the freeway.  “Cancer?  Did he really say, “Cancer?”

He had, but I was lucky; it was very early stage and immensely treatable, nevertheless it was a much-needed whack on the side of my head.   I left my job a month later, and for a time, re-focused my attention of self-care and healing.  It was difficult time.  I felt vulnerable, without a title to define me, and yet, I knew I didn’t want to return to that old way of life.

Our own life has to be our message.  –Thich Nhat Hahn

I barely recall that overworked self of more than two decades ago for whom stress was a steady diet, and who was caught up in the upward climb of a fast moving career.    I kept shoving my unhappiness aside until one day, as I walked to my spacious office overlooking Park Avenue in New York City, I caught a glimpse of myself in a store window:  grim-faced, briefcase held tight against my body, shoulders hunched forward, and stress oozing from every pore of the reflection that looked back at me.  “Who had I become?”  The many worlds I inhabited every day were as unbalanced and separate from one another as they could possibly be.

But I’d been on the high achiever track for two decades.  It was addictive, because there’s a mind numbing routine to busyness–the daily demands, appointments, proposals, and meetings–that creates a false sense of security.  Where I once falsely believed I had some control over the course of my life, after hearing the word “cancer,” I realized I was an unwilling passenger on a wayward elevator, moving randomly between floors without any sense of predictability.

It took time, risk, and even another health crisis before I felt I had been successful in re-claiming a more satisfying and meaningful life.  I began re-reading many of Ticht Nhat Hanh’s words to help me remember I needed to integrate  my inner and outer lives, blend my separate worlds into a whole as best as I could.  I also recalled Joy Harjo’s statement that “it is only an illusion that any of the worlds we inhabit are separate.”  This “new” world, the one where I had suddenly become so much more aware of how abruptly one’s life can end, indeed, how capricious life can be, affected all other “worlds” of my life in deep and significant ways.  I sought to pay attention to the way I was living each day.

The redefinition of a life is something I witness repeatedly among the men and women in my expressive writing groups.  Cancer–or any other life threatening or serious illness–can ignite a crisis in anyone’s life.  It is not just the body, but all the different parts of your life that are affected.  All that you are—who you have thought yourself to be—in mind, body, and spirit–are thrust into upheaval.  You can no longer afford to  inhabit the different worlds in one’s life with the same assumptions you once did.

When that crazy elevator ride you’ve been on  finally ceases its wayward ride, you are often confronted with a new and sometimes confusing landscape to make sense of and occupy comfortably.  As I discovered myself, it takes time and persistence to make sense of it and find a path to wholeness and healing.

The routes to healing, to wholeness, are different for each of us:  faith, meditation, yoga, writing, music, art—what form it takes hardly matters.  It is the search, seeking of internal peace, and acceptance of a new and altered life that matters.

Change is not always easy.  Trying to live intentionally is a conscious decision I revisit every single day.  I still fumble sometimes, but not for long, remembering how cancer and heart failure brought me up short like a horse’s snaffle bit.  I stepped away from the stressful life I was living and chose a different path.  Nevertheless, it was only a beginning.  Even now, I consciously begin each day by reminding myself of  my intentions to create and live in a way that is more harmonious, intentional and present, repeating the words of Ticht Nhat Hahn:

“Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”

Writing Suggestions:

  • Give some thought to the worlds you inhabit on a daily basis.  How many different roles do you play in your life?  How do they influence each other?
  • Were your “worlds” affected by cancer, loss or another unexpected hardship?  Describe them.
  • Write about how you’ve moved in and out of different worlds or the many roles you have played before and after your life was altered in unexpected ways. What has changed?

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In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich. ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Two weeks ago, I was preparing to head to the hospital for the second time in a matter of days. …   It had been a frustrating week before, what began with happiness–my birthday, a family celebration, calls and cards from friends scattered across North America–had plummeted into frustration in a matter of hours.  Sometime after I’d gone to bed after my birthday dinner, I awakened thirsty and made my way to the kitchen for a glass of water.  I stepped onto a damp floor near the kitchen…and moments later, realized our ceiling was leaking water from several large cracks.  It was the result of an elderly neighbor, one floor above, leaving her faucet running with the sink stopper in.  The next hour and a half were spent trying to forestall any major damage to artwork, rugs and furniture.  Worse, I awakened the next morning utterly exhausted.  My surgical procedure–replacing my ICD (implanted cardiac device)–was scheduled for the next morning, and I was tired and stressed already.

It didn’t end there.  My husband and I checked in to the hospital early in the morning as instructed.  Seven hours later, we returned home, my surgery cancelled and rescheduled due to unexpected complications and, thus, a backup in the admissions department.  I was slated to have the procedure done the following Tuesday.  Not surprisingly, I was worried I might be sitting in the waiting room for another marathon of several hours.  Gratitude was far from my thoughts.  I was anxious and tense.

Tuesday arrived, and thanks to the scheduler, who knew of my plight a few days earlier, I was first in line for the cardiac operating room.  The procedure completed, I spent the day in the hospital to ensure everything was working, then returned home, the tension of the preceding days dissipating, and instead, feeling grateful:  first, for the surgical procedure completed successfully, but also, for the kindness of the staff, a well-rested surgeon, and a new ICD.  Awakening the following morning with a spirit of gratitude was far preferable to the irritation, anxiety and stress I’d felt just days before.

An attitude of gratitude is good for us.  Science confirms that it’s beneficial for us in a number of ways, among them:

.  It can make you more patient.

.  It might improve your relationships.

.  It improves self-care.

.  It can help you sleep.

.  It may stop you from overeating.

.  It can help ease depression.

.  It gives you happiness that lasts.

This past week was the final session of my current “Writing through Cancer” workshops at Gilda’s Club, and not surprisingly, gratitude was something mentioned by most of the participants:  gratitude for things like the lessons of cancer, for family and friends, for doctors and nurses, for the things in life that truly matter most.

Dana Jennings, a New York Times editor, who published regular blog posts throughout his diagnosis, surgery and treatment for prostate cancer, reflected on life after cancer, saying, Living in the shadow of cancer has granted me a kind of high-definition gratitude. I’ve found that when you’re grateful, the world turns from funereal gray to incandescent Technicolor…The small moments of gratitude are the most poignant to me because they indicate that I’m still paying close attention to the life I’m living, that I haven’t yet succumbed to numbing obliviousness.

When you have cancer, when you’re being cut open and radiated and who knows what else, it can take a great effort to be thankful for the gift of the one life that we have been blessed with. Believe me, I know…

I try, daily, to end my morning writing practice with a gratitude list.  I do it because it helps me remember the small gifts, as well as the larger ones, that I have experienced in my lifetime.  I think of the neurosurgeon who saved my life as a teenager, and I think of my cardiologist whom I see now–someone of extraordinary skill and healing;  I remember my father’s stories and sense of humor, grateful some of that was passed to me.  I am grateful for a handful of enduring friendships–people who’ve weathered the good and the challenging times with me; I mumble quiet thanks for sunlit days, grandchildren, having one daughter nearby…and each day, there is no shortage of things to add to my gratitude list.

I feel better as I close my notebook.  In fact, as Robert Emmons, psychologist at the University of California, Davis, states, “Clinical trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life.”

A gratitude practice enhances my daily life, but among its other benefits are lower blood pressure, improved immune function and even better sleep.  A study conducted at UC San Diego’s School of Medicine found that grateful people actually had better heart health–less inflammation and healthier heart rhythms, something I’ve paid attention to, and   other university research studies have also shown that gratitude has beneficial effects on  immune systems, reduction of stress hormones and may even reduce the effects of aging to the brain.  “Gratitude works,” says Dr. Emmons, “because…it recruits other positive emotions that have direct physical benefits.”

In recent years, researchers have examined the role of gratitude plays in well-being, whether the impact is psychological, like increasing positive emotion, or physical, such as improving sleep.  Gratitude research has also extended to cancer patients.  Reported by Anne Moyer, PhD, in a 2016 Psychology Today article, one study was conducted among patients with cervical cancer that indicated fostering a mind-set of gratitude increased levels of positive emotion and reduced negative ones.  As a consequence, patients showed increased flexibility in thinking and, thus, improvement in their ability to cope with stress.

A second study with breast cancer patients utilized a gratitude intervention to address patients’ fear of recurrence and worry about death.  They were invited to spend 10 minutes weekly over a six-week period writing a letter to express their gratitude to someone who’d done something kind for them.  Those who practiced expressing gratitude to another experienced a decline in their worry about death.

If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.― Meister Eckhart

Our ceiling has now been repaired; the discomfort experienced after my ICD was re-positioned under the muscle has all but disappeared.  This morning, as I sat on our balcony, warmed by the summer sunlight, I was reminded that even the mundane and ordinary can inspire gratitude.  All we have to do is notice.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes…

(From:  “i thank You God for most this amazing” by e.e. cummings, In:  Complete Poems, 1904-1962)

What can you do to incorporate more gratitude into your life each day?   In a 2016 article appearing online in Forbes WomensMedia, Janet Miller, offers eight practical tips:

  1. Don’t be picky. Appreciate everything.  Gratitude doesn’t have to be about the big things.
  2. Find gratitude in your challenges. Difficult or negative experiences can teach us what we’re really thankful for.
  3. Practice mindfulness. Daily, think of five to ten things you are grateful for.  Doing this daily will actually “rewire” your brain to be more grateful, and you’ll feel happier.
  4. Keep a gratitude journal. Several researchers suggest writing the things you are grateful for on a daily basis, at bedtime.
  5. Volunteer. Give back to others in your community.  It increases your own well-being.
  6. Express yourself. Do more than just keep a journal.  Let people you care about know you are grateful for them.
  7. Spend time with loved ones, friends as well as family.
  8. Improve your happiness in other areas of your life

Writing Suggestions:

  • Try developing a habit of practicing gratitude.  Use a journal to document, daily, your gratitude.  It doesn’t have to be a long list or very detailed.  Simply list 3 – 5 things you are grateful for.  Do this for a week, faithfully. Then take stock:  Do you notice any changes in yourself?  Continue the practice for another week or two, and then reflect on it in more depth.  What changed?  Did it help you be more aware of the life around you?  Did you feel more positive? Calmer? Happier?
  • Practice noticing and appreciating the ordinary e.e. cummings described in his poem.  Explore your gratitude for the simple joys of living.   Choose one small moment from any day, whether from nature, loved ones, your daily routine—a simple pleasure that sustains, inspires or offers you joy.  Describe it in as much detail as you can; perhaps you’ll find a poem or a story lurking there.

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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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When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

“The Peace of Wild Things,” by Wendell Berry, in The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Copyright © 1998)

These past many days have been sobering ones here in Toronto.  In the aftermath of the inconceivable actions of one person that resulted in ten deaths and a number of seriously wounded victims, I  felt the sense of “despair for the world” descend on my mood, a feeling I had all too often the years we lived in California and watched in horror the newscasts that too frequently often began with another school shooting or some other act of violence.  Returning here, to a city I love, offered a respite from those all too common events, a chance to regain my footing.  And then, tragedy struck here: a van attack by a troubled young man–and Toronto was in shock with the stark reminder that, in today’s world, no place is immune to these senseless acts of violence and the loss of innocent human lives.

Where does one find the kind of peace that Berry describes?  In our over-developed, crowded cities, where life seems to be defined by constant motion and noise, how can we reclaim the sense of peace, of gratitude for the world, so necessary for the human spirit to heal?   These past many days, I’ve followed this city’s response to a violent and unimaginable tragedy.   I’ve been touched by the way in which people came together to offer support and solace to one another and the families and victims of this tragedy.  Last night, thousands of citizens, national, provincial, and religious leaders of all faiths walked together along the route of the attack before joining in a vigil to honor and remember the victims of the attack.  Many expressed that coming together was not only a way to remember those lives lost in the tragedy, it was also a way to begin, somehow, to come to terms with the shock, grief, and loss, to begin to heal and find a sense of peace, to heal.  One person put it this way:  “I come because this is, I guess, a part of the healing process. I was here on the day of the accident, and now to get rid of those images, and to overcome those images, I believe this is the best way.”  Interspersed throughout the vigil were times of remembrance, prayer, silence and stillness–the necessary ingredients to begin the healing process, find peace and some sense of gratitude for the world.

What is stillness?  According to Pico Iyer, travel writer and author of The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (2014), it’s less about meditation and more about “sanity and balance…a chance to put things in perspective.”  We all need time to ourselves.  Time to be quiet, reflect, and gain some perspective.  Stillness offers that to us.   “Going nowhere,” Iyer states,  , “isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

(From:  “Keep Quiet” by Pablo Neruda (In:   Extravagaria,  1974)

Perhaps our increasing societal numbness to what former President Obama named as “routine” violence in the U.S. and so many other places in the world,  is, in part, a result of the constant motion and noise that fill our daily lives.  We race from meeting to meeting, social event to social event, respond to dozens of emails and texts each day, spend hours in front of screens when we’re alone.  There, we’re assaulted by constant over-stimulation:  news, trivia, games, retail offerings, advertisements, on and on.  “A big luxury for so many people today,” Iyer says, “ is a little blank space in the calendar where you collect yourself.”  That’s giving ourselves time for stillness, the opportunity to be quiet and allow us to care for our inner lives, and to feed our malnourished spirits.

(Illustration by Maurice Sendak, In:  Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Kraus, 2001)

 

Writing for the New York Times in 2012, Iyer cited Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book, The Shallows:  What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.  Carr noted that Americans spend eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen and that the average American teenager sends or receives 75 test messages daily.  And added to that is our continual exposure to the visual images of violence and suffering dominating the daily newscasts.  We’re numbed by the continual assault of information and images.  Iyer also recalled the wisdom of Canadian author Marshall McLuhan (The Medium is the Message) in 1967, when he warned his readers, saying “When things come at you very fast, …you lose touch with yourself.”

Think about it.  It’s not unlike the “noise” in your head as you navigate the rush of information and appointments when given a diagnosis of cancer or other serious or life threatening illness. You feel overwhelmed and exhausted, yet you keep trying to navigate between opinions and the best decision for your treatment options.  It’s quite common that, for a while, the physicians’ voice temporarily becomes your own. You need to give yourself some time to ponder and let things sink in without the clamor of medical opinions or the concerns of loved ones.  Only then can you regain the ability to listen to yourself and your heart.  Only in stillness can you find your voice, the clarity of what matters most and is important to you here and now.

But little by little,

…as you left their voices behind,

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…

(From:  “The Journey,” by Mary Oliver, in Dreamwork, 1986)

How do you find your voice? Giving yourself times to be still, quiet, and in the moment, can help.  Cancer, or any chronic illness, as Dr. Paul Brenner, MD states, “is Life:  You hope it can get better but fear it will get worse.  There is no choice other than to live into what is happening now.” Those with cancer, he notes, live in the truth of the moment because that is all that exists.  Living in what is ultimately is being present to the now, not living with regret for the past nor worrying what the future holds.  It’s not always easy, nor does it come naturally.  We have to learn to be comfortable with stillness, with the quiet and solitary time so necessary to having a sense of peace.

Stillness, the time to be fully present in the moment, can help us clear away the static,  clarify and discover what is truly important.  Prayer, meditation, yoga, tai chi, a solitary walk along a wooden trail, an ocean beach–these are things that can help ground us in the present, the here and now and quiet.  As Iyer reminds us, stillness–learning to be in the moment—isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.

I have come to believe that stillness is an important part of what helps us heal, whether we live with loss, cancer, or other chronic illness.  During a  2004 PBS  interview former poet laureate, Ted Kooser, spoke about his recovery from oral cancer in 1968.  During the period when I was in surgery and going through radiation, I really didn’t do any writing. But as I came up out of radiation and was trying to get myself back in some sort of physical shape, I would walk a couple of miles every morning and then find something along that route to write about…It was very important for me to see something from each day that I could do something with and find some order in, because I was surrounded by medical chaos or health chaos of some kind.

Kooser wrote over 100 poems about what he noticed on those solitary winter morning walks, pasting them on postcards and sending them to his friend, author Jim Harrison.  In the introduction, Kooser describes how his morning walks helped him heal:

“During the previous summer, depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing…  One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem.  Soon I was writing every day… I began pasting my morning poems on postcards and sending them to Jim…”The result of those poems on postcards was his volume of poetry, Winter Morning Walks : 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison, 2001)

Annie Dillard, in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, offers a “recipe” for embracing stillness“At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world~ now I am ready,. “Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening.—

It is a practice I have embraced in the past many years, one that always helps me right myself and remember what is good and important in the world.  I have come to cherish stillness as life seems to be  more complex.  Perhaps you have discovered the power of it too.

Writing Suggestion

  • For this week, consider how quiet and stillness have been part of your healing process.
  • When did you discover the value of stillness?  What happened in your life at that time?
  • What practices have helped you learn to embrace quiet and turn your attention to what is, instead of what was or could be?

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