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Archive for the ‘writing as a way of healing’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The time will come

When, with elation,

You will greet yourself arriving

At your own door, in your own mirror,

And each will smile at the other’s welcome,

 

And say, sit here, Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine.  Give bread.  Give back your heart

To itself, to the stranger who has loved you

 

All your life, whom you ignored

For another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

 

The photographs, the desperate notes,

Peel your image from the mirror.

Sit.  Feast on your life.

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

 

Writing Suggestions: 

 

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

 

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

 

Happy Valentine’s Day, February 14th

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… The blue jay

hawks his pretty wares

and the oak still stands, spreading

glorious shade. If you don’t look back,

the future never happens…

The whole sky is yours

to write on, blown open

to a blank page…

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

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

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

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

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

(From The Book of Men, 2012)

Writing Suggestions:

 

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

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

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Half my life is an act of revision.  –John Irving

Irving wasn’t just talking about writing; I think he was talking about life.  While revision is an integral part of the writing process, as any writer will tell you,  it can be a difficult and frustrating process.  Writing demands it, but so does life.

“Revision” has been part of our vocabulary for a very long time.  It was originally borrowed from the French revision (1611) and derived from the Latin, “revīsere, meaning “to look, or see, again.” Consult a thesaurus for synonyms of “revise,” you’ll find words like reexamine, reassess, rethink, alter, modify and change.   Obviously, it’s not just a word that applies to the writer’s work.  Revision is the process we undertake whenever we try to make sense out of something that has happened to us–job loss, relationship break-up, loss of a loved one or being diagnosed with a serious illness like cancer.  Understanding or sense-making requires a process of revision, of seeing something anew or in a different light.

In part, revision is about letting go, acknowledging choices and changes we must make as our lives change.  The men and women who write with me are forced, because of their cancer diagnoses,  to confront mortality no matter their age, something that requires an entirely different way of thinking about of one’s life.  The hard reality of any debilitating or terminal illness is that it alters lives without warning.

Yet living means that things happen to us—good things and terrible things—on a daily basis.    It’s the constant creation and changing of our life stories. We turn to a new page each day.  What we planned may suddenly change; we make choices that influence future events and their outcomes; others’ lives and events also affect us.  Despite that, the story closest to us, our own, is sometimes the most difficult to understand. That’s when we have the opportunity for revision and seeing life in new and different ways.  That’s why I like poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s description of revision as “a beautiful word of hope…a new vision of something.”

In a 1993 interview in the Paris Review, the poet William Stafford was asked why he’d chosen the title, You Must Revise Your Life (1967) for one of his few books of prose.  He explained it by saying,

 “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… A workshop may seem, to those who take part in it, a chance to revise the work they bring. I think it’s a chance to see how your life can be changed…”

Revision isn’t just about writing; it is a life process.  Every day, life hands you new material—and not all of it welcome.  It offers you the opportunity to change your life.  Each day, each year, you “talk back” to life, ask questions, try to understand, and try to make sense of what has happened to you, just as a writer ponders, even struggles, with a manuscript or a poem.  Revision, as Stafford said, offers you an opportunity to see your life in a new light.

Let’s face it, clinging to a past that no longer applies to your present only seeds depression or regret.  Letting go of those worn out parts of your old life is a necessary process—a life long process.  But revision is not just about letting go.  It’s also about deciding what to keep and what to discard as you continue to shape and re-shape your life at every stage.  In that way, it’s not unlike what writers and artists do:  letting the material of the poetry or narrative, the sculpture or painting talk back, helping them to see things anew and creating something better.  Revising one’s life involves embracing whatever happens—in things, in language and in life.  “The language changes,” Stafford wrote, and “you change; the light changes…Dawn comes, and it comes for all, but not on demand.”

So to you, Friend, I confide my secret:

to be a discoverer you hold close whatever

you find, and after a while you decide

what it is.  Then, secure in where you have been,

you turn to the open sea and let go.

(From: “Security,” by William Stafford, in Passwords, 1991.

 

Writing Suggestions:

  • When have you had to let the material of your life talk back to you?  What changed?  What did you discard?  What did you retain?
  • Write about how you’ve had to revise your life when the unexpected has occurred, for example, loss of a loved one, a cancer diagnosis, marriage, having children, or any new project.  How did these events prompted you to revise your life?
  • If you keep a notebook, return to an earlier time, like something written soon after your diagnosis or during the upheaval of another difficult experience. Try these steps:   first, re-read what you wrote, highlighting the phrases that or words that stand out for you.  Then, re-write the event, but try beginning with and focusing on the phrases you’ve highlighted. “Work” with your material.  Let it talk back to you as you recall the details of that event—sounds, smells, the quality of light, words said, what you were feeling.  Rewrite and then compare the two versions.    What changed?  What did you see differently as a result of revision?

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For the past week or so, I’ve been playing around with words, exploring meanings and synonyms, consulting dictionaries, thesauruses, poetry and other books for the single word that will serve as my guiding intention for 2020. It’s a practice introduced to me by a friend nearly ten years ago, and one I have embraced wholeheartedly.  Unlike the old practice of making new year’s resolutions, choosing a single, guiding word has become an enduring annual practice that has stuck.  It takes time, thought, and patience, but I find the process of choosing the one word that will frame my intentions forces me into much deeper thought and consideration than the many new year’s resolutions I used to write, which often were forgotten by February.

Choosing a single word to frame the practices or actions for the coming year is not, I’ve discovered, an easy task.  Each year, sooner after the busy holidays, I begin the process.  I review words I’ve chosen over the past several years, remembering what I wanted to achieve, why the word captured my intentions.  Then I think about what’s changed in the current year or what I would like to do differently.  I spend time writing, fooling around with words, as I brainstorm, consult the dictionary, thesaurus, books from my shelves and favorite poems, hoping “the”word will suddenly be discovered.   Yet it never happens quite that way.

What happens is an inevitable process that leads me into deeper territory, forcing me to articulate how I want to live or what I hope to accomplish in the new year ahead, reflect and reconsider my choice of a work.  Several pages of my notebook now have several words listed on different pages, quotes from poets and writers, musings on the past year, as the intentions I have for the year ahead.

Last year, my word was “flourish,” which emerged after a year of preoccupation with my health and my husband’s.  I look at it now as I write, feeling a sense of having been true to my intent:  volunteering, leading workshops, traveling, and ensuring my days were active as much as possible.  At the same time, the past year had its stresses:  having our apartment flooded three times in the summer by with leaking caused by a forgetful tenant living above us, thus prompting yet another move, the third in three years, and despite looking forward to a different apartment, moving is simply a source of stress.  I spent much of December with an aching back, packing and unpacking, irritable and tense, eager to put my life back in order and restore some sense of calm.

Several days ago, I began the process of choosing my word for the coming year, writing each morning before dawn, when I have the quiet and solitude to truly think and reflect.  Words like balance, quiet, stillness, serenity and peaceful appeared on my growing list of words.  I turned again to the book, The Art of Stillness (2014), by writer Pico Iyer.  Stillness, he reminds us, is taking the time to be fully present in the moment, a time to clear away the static,  clarify and discover what is truly important.  As Iyer says, taking that time “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.”

Of the little words that come                                                                            out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

― Wendell Berry, “How to Be A Poet (To Remind Myself,” in Given, 2006)

I kept exploring, writing, and reflecting on what I want for the year ahead.  More words appeared on my list, then this notation:  “A state of calm is what keeps cropping up for me as I consider these guiding word possibilities for 2020.  Calmness, breath, quiet in heart and in mind…”  “When you are calm…still,” Buddhist teacher Ticht Nhat Hahn wrote, “you see things as they truly are.”  His words were similar to those of the Dali Lama:  “The greater the level of calmness of our mind, the greater  our peace of mind, the greater our ability to enjoy a happy and joyful life.”

Last night I shared my word search with my husband.  “I keep returning to the sense or state of calm,” I said, then listing some of the synonyms I’d been exploring.

“Calm sounds like a good word,” he said.   Yes, I thought, but is it calm or is it stillness?  I went to bed last night with the words playing in my head.  “Breathing in, I calm body and mind,” Ticht Nhat Hahn said.  “Breathing out I smile.”

This morning, I returned to my list of words once more, finally settling on “calm” as my word for 2020.  Its synonyms include stillness, tranquility, and serenity.  I have typed it out and framed it in a small two-inch frame that sits on my desk next to my computer, a daily reminder of  the peacefulness and quiet I want to incorporate more fully in my daily life–particularly on the heels of some very stressful months.  It is that calm, the quiet in heart and mind, that is so important, not only to my creative life, but to my life as a whole.  I am reminded of Wendell Berry’s wisdom, expressed in his book of poems, The Timbered Choir (1999)

…“Best of any song
is bird song
in the quiet, but first
you must have the quiet.” – p. 207

As we celebrate the passing of another year, I wish you a year of peacefulness, healing and new joys!  Happy New Year, 2020!

Writing Suggestion:

  • Do you practice the “one word” exercise for the year ahead? If so, why have you chosen the word you have for 2020?  Write about your process of choosing your single word.
  • If not, why not try defining your intention for the new year in the “one word” exercise. What one word can serve to guide your intentions for the year ahead? It may take more than a few attempts, but enjoy the process of finding that single word that crystallizes your hopes and intentions for 2020.
  • Once you have chosen your word, then write for 20 or 30 minutes and explore the “why” behind your word.
  • What meaning does it hold? What memories or images spring to mind?  I invite you to share your word choice and a few sentences about it in reply to this week’s blog.  Frame or post your word where you can see it on a daily basis.

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

By William Stafford, from The Way It Is, 1998

 

 

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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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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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The heart remembers everything it loved and gave away,
everything it lost and found again, and everyone
it loved, the heart cannot forget.  (Joyce Sutphen, from:”What the Heart Cannot Forget”)

As someone who experienced breast cancer and now lives with heart failure,  I am more aware of the physical life of my heart than ever before.  Every morning I check my blood pressure, heart rate and weight, entering the information in “Medley,” the app on my iphone developed by the team at Peter Munk Cardiac Center.  I am grateful for Medley; it keeps me attentive and more aware of heart health.  However, before my heart failure diagnosis, matters of the heart were predominantly emotional and poetic.  And even yet, those metaphors and associations are the more frequent way I describe what I’m feeling.  Think about it:  how many times do we refer to our hearts when we’re describing emotions?  Consider a few like “my heart is filled with joy; heavy with sorrow; a broken heart; a heart full of love…

The heart is a long-standing and dominant aspect of poetry and prose across cultures and most often used to describe human emotion.  Author Gail Godwin, writing the prologue to her book, Heart, quotes a number of heart references, for example:  Yeats: “the rag and bone shop of the heart,” St. Francis:  “a transformed and undefended heart,” Tony Bennett crooning, “I left my heart in San Francisco,” Jesus Christ: “Blessed are the pure in heart,” and Saul Bellow’s comment, “More die of heartbreak than radiation,” among others.  I think of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz:  “If I only had a heart…”

Well, I have a heart, and it’s still beating, with a little help from an ICD and a regimen of daily medications.  What’s more, I continue to refer memories and emotions that, as e.e. cummings described, I “carry in my heart.”  It’s no surprise, then, that one of the writing exercises I use in the expressive writing groups I lead for cancer patients is inspired by the heart; the heart, as Joyce Sutphen describes, “that cannot forget.”

Begin with a large image of a heart.  You can draw a large valentine-shaped heart or, as I prefer to do in the workshops, use an image of the human heart.  The task is to answer, in three separate steps, the larger question, “what do you carry in your heart?” Take the image and next to it or on it, write your responses to these three questions, giving a few minutes to write between each.

  1. What people, living or dead, do you carry in your heart?
  2. What places do you carry in your heart?
  3. What events or happenings in your life do you carry in your heart?

Simply list as many names or labels as you can for each question.  Once you’ve answered all three, take some time to read what you’ve written on your heart.  Now, choose one thing–person, place or event–that seems to hold the most pull or power for you.  Take a clean sheet of paper and for 15 – 20 minutes, begin writing about that person, place or event–whether a narrative or a poem or just free association, it doesn’t matter.  Keep writing for the allotted time.  Do not stop to edit or re-read until the time is up.

The stories that are written in  this exercise are often emotional, yes, but they are also more “alive,” descriptive and engaging, coming “straight from the heart.”  Even the most reluctant writer, the one who says, “but I’m not a writer,” will surprise herself with the writing that emerges from the heart exercise.

If you are one who would like to write but doesn’t know how to begin, this exercise can be a great way to get started and a way to begin to capture the stories of your life.  Writing about what matters, what has shaped and defined you, is also a way of release, often a way to express difficult events and emotions that are sometimes bad for your health.  Everyone has stories to tell.  As I often say to those who’ve attend my cancer writing groups, often shy about writing, “if you don’t tell your story, who will?”

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

I’ve had a few medical experiences in my life, just as you have–near death, neurosurgery, breast cancer–and now I live with heart failure. Sooner or later, we “get” that we are not immortal. My cancer experience was so very treatable, compared to those who come to my groups, and yet, I think whether you live with  cancer or with a heart condition or other serious illness, it makes you more aware of what matters most in your life.  As Judith Cofer described, I am aware that the stories of our lives, the places, events and people who were helped to define and shape who I have become is the legacy I have to pass on to my daughters and grandchildren.  To remember.  To be remembered.   “Death, as Jim Harrison wrote in his poem, “Larson’s Bull,” steals everything but our stories.”

I am the only one who can tell my stories and say what they mean.  (Dorothy Allison, in Two or Three Things I Know for Sure.)

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