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My old high school buddy, G., sent me a text two weeks ago.  One of our high school classmates had died, and while I hadn’t been in touch with him for many years, his death stirred up old memories. G., once the student body president, has stayed in touch with the majority of classmates from our high school class.  I did not, losing touch with most of them soon after university when I left California for Canada. But I pulled out my old high school yearbook and studied the photographs of our younger selves.  All of us had grown up in a small Northern California town and the majority in school together from kindergarten through high school.  Several of our classmates remained in that same town throughout adulthood, as our now deceased classmate had.

In his inimitable style, G. made the drive from his home in Washington state to our old hometown to attend the memorial service.  “He was a good guy,” he wrote me afterward, “and I always liked him.”  I only remembered the playful football team athlete I briefly had a crush on my freshman year, and how he married right after high school.   None of us would have guessed then, how he remained in our little town and over the years, became a valuable community leader.  At his memorial, the remembrances were of the man he became, the love he had for his family, his generosity, warmth and community involvement.  These were the remembrances shared, the stories told, and his enduring legacy.

…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. (From:  The Cruel Country, by Judith Ortiz Cofer, ©2015. University of Georgia Press)

Like you, I have lost loved ones and friends, writing group members and others to death, unexpected as well as anticipated.  I’m never ready for the unexpected losses, although I have learned to accept death as part of life, but even when I think I’m prepared for the death of someone, like a neighbor, elder relative, or one of those who has shared so much of themselves and their lives in my cancer writers’  groups, I discover that I am never quite ready to have someone die.    I am still doing my work in terms of what I have come to believe defines immortality.  Being remembered. (Judith Ortiz Cofer).

It’s not just about being remembered; there is a larger question:  How do I want to be remembered? Few of us get to choose how and when we die. My father did not want to be remembered as a man dying of lung cancer, thin, frail, an oxygen tank his constant companion.  My cousin likely did not wish to be remembered as the one relative who hung himself, and I am quite certain my first husband did not want to be remembered drowning drunk when he was only 38, a university professor with a bright career future yet to be realized.  Were it not for the stories told, written and shared by all of us over the years, the manner of their deaths might overshadow the remembrances of who they were in life.

“Death steals everything but our stories,” author Jim Harrison wrote in a poem.  It’s the stories shared, the ones retold, of those we’ve loved and lost that live on.  Then how do we begin, if you like, creating those stories about ourselves that are important, the ones that tell who we are; what we cared about; what we deemed important in life? What stories will people tell about you?  Will they be ones that reflect how you want to be remembered?  What if you sat down today and wrote you own eulogy?  Does it reflect the way in which you live, work and interact with others in the present?

Author and consultant Peter Drucker, often called, “the father of management thinking,” told this story in The Daily Drucker: 366 Days of Insight and Motivation for Getting the Right Things Done (2004):  “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.”

Asking yourself the question, “What do I want to be remembered for?” is one way, Drucker said,  to induce you to renew yourself now, in the present. You’re forced to see yourself as a different person:  the person you want to become.   It’s a similar question Lloyd Garvey wrote about in a 2009 issue of The Huffington Post.  “Somebody quite wise, he wrote, —I think it was my rabbi—suggested that people should write their own obituaries, now, regardless of age or medical condition.  That way you’ll think about how you want to be remembered and what you want to accomplish in the rest of your life” (June 27, 2009).  Drucker would agree.  Asking what you want to be remembered for “pushes you to see yourself as a different person– the person you can become.” He recommended  you continue to ask yourself that same question throughout life.

Writing your own obituary is an exercise I frequently offer to the men and women in my groups, often using the poem, “Cover Photograph,” by Marilyn Nelson.  Notice how she repeats “I want to be remembered” at the beginning of each stanza, describing the different aspects of herself that she wants others to remember—the person she strives to be.  Perhaps you can follow her example.  Here is an excerpt:

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)

Writing Suggestions:

  • How do you want to be remembered? Try writing your own obituary or eulogy.  Or, try a poem in the style of Marilyn Nelson’s.
  • 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.
  • Does your eulogy or obituary reflect how you are living and have lived?

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Cancer:

You entered my life without my permission. You tried to turn my body against me, leaving pain and uncertainty in your wake…  Because of you I wondered if I would see my children grow up… You made me feel like less of a woman …You took my hair and scarred my body. You made me cringe at my own reflection in the mirror. Others see a warrior. I see someone wounded – broken by the battle…(2013 “Writing Through Cancer” workshop participant)

Writing during any difficult life circumstance can help you feel better.  When you write, it’s a chance to dive beneath the water line and express the troublesome or difficult emotions that come with upsetting periods in your life.  It offers you the freedom to pour out your feelings on the page, helping to relieve or lessen stress—often a culprit in illness and other health problems.

The most healing kind of writing is honest; writing that openly acknowledges your emotions.  Your ability to feel and name positive and negative emotions is critical to healing.  Sometimes though, when what you may feel is tough to acknowledge.  You might be reluctant to be honest on the page, particularly when what you want really want to say might feel like a confessional: conflicted or strong  feelings about events or others you’ve never fully expressed.

Psychologist James Pennebaker explained it this way:  writing honestly and openly about how you feel can be a bit like the experience of seeing a sad movie.  You come out of the theatre feeling bad; maybe you even cried during the film.  But you’re wiser.  You understand the character’s issues and struggles in a way, perhaps that you didn’t when the movie began.  It is in the expression of those feelings of sorrow or anger that you are able to stand back, re-read and examine what you’ve written.  That’s often when you begin to understand the sources of your pain or anger better than you might have before.  There is relief in that realization, and with it, the possibility for greater insight..

Writing offers us the opportunity to “think to” another, whether it is yourself, your body, or someone with whom you have unresolved issues.  Imagining another and addressing your writing to that person encourages you to write naturally.  Even if you never show it or send it to anyone, writing to an imagined other has the effect of making your words more powerfully felt. What’s more, you can say what you really want to say.

In poetic terms, there’s a figure of speech called an “apostrophe,” in which someone absent or dead, or even an object or abstract idea, is addressed directly.  Examples can be found in Walt Whitman’s poem to the dead Abraham Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain!,” in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, “God’s World,” which begins “O World, I cannot hold thee close enough…” or Kenneth Koch’s “To My Heart as I Go Along.”

Unsent letters are a more common form of saying what we really want to say.  Whether during cancer or at other challenging times in our lives, all of us may experience the need to release the unspoken, to cleanse or reach out to another, whether living or dead, person or thing.  An unsent letter can be a tool to help express difficult or complicated feelings that might otherwise might never be expressed or fully understood.

President Abraham Lincoln often resorted to what he called “a hot letter,” piling all his anger into a note, then put it aside until his emotions had calmed down, labeling the letter “Never sent. Never signed” (New York Times, 2014),

In “Letter, Much Too Late,” Pulitzer Prize winning author Wallace Stegner addressed his dead mother.  Stegner was close to his mother, who always tried to protect him from his father, even though she was rendered helpless in the face of her husband’s abusive personality.  While he was a graduate student, Stegner’s mother died from breast cancer.  He nursed her in her final days and sat at her side as she took her last breath. “Letter, Much Too Late” was written fifty-five years after her death.   In it, he remembers her, asks for forgiveness and remembers her as a mother with enduring love for her son.  He writes:

 “In the more than fifty years I have been writing books and stories, I have tried several times to do you justice, and have never been satisfied with what I did. . . .I am afraid I let your selfish and violent husband, my father, steal the scene from you and push you into the background in the novels as he did in life. Somehow I should have been able to say how strong and resilient you were, what a patient and abiding and bonding force, the softness that proved in the long run stronger than what it seemed to yield to.” (In:  Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, by Wallace Stegner, 1992)

I have used the “unsent letter” exercise many times in my workshops, but one time in particular stands out.  A few years ago, G., who had only just received the news earlier that week that her cancer had spread and was terminal, used the unsent letter exercise to write to her doctor, who had cared for her throughout her ten-year journey with metastatic breast cancer. She shared her the letter she’d written aloud with the group.  It was strong and beautifully written, acknowledging how hurt and alone she’d felt when her doctor couldn’t even look her in the eyes as he conveyed what amounted to a certain death sentence.  After she read her letter aloud, several group members had tears in their eyes.  G. did too, but she said, “I feel better now.  It’s helped just to write down what I felt, even if I’m not going to send it to him.”

That’s the beauty of the form of the unsent letter.  It allows you to express difficult emotions on paper, safely, and release them from your mind and body.  Once you’ve written such a letter, it’s good to set it aside, then a day or two later, re-read it, noting what stands out.  It’s a way of learning from what you’ve written—gaining new insights, greater clarity or understanding—all without the need or risk of sending it to the person to whom we’ve written. Yet, in G.’s case, she took her unsent letter one step further.

At the next group meeting, we all noticed how smiling and radiant she appeared, and once we were seated, she told us she had taken her “unsent” letter to her follow-up appointment and read it aloud to her doctor.  It was a real act of courage, but happily, it resulted in positive exchange between her doctor and her.  She described how visibly moved he was after she finished reading, and then admitting that he had struggled to tell her the results of her tests—the news no one wants to hear.  He admitted he did not trust himself to keep his composure when he gave conveyed the latest test results.  He apologized to G. and thanked her for having sharing her letter with him.  It had proved to be a healing moment between doctor and patient, restoring the trust and understanding between them.

Writing Suggestion:

  • Try writing an unsent letter to someone or something.  You might write to a loved one, a physician, a higher power, your body or even cancer.  Write with the assurance that you can say what is honestly in your heart and mind, that no one ever needs to see or hear what you have written.  What do you really want to say?
  • Once you’ve written your letter, put it aside for a day or two.  Then re-read it.  Underline what stands out most for you.  Have your feelings changed in any way?  What insights have you gained?

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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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Dear Readers,

Louise DeSalvo, writing in her book, On Moving (2009), puts it this way:  “The effects of moving are experienced in the body…”  I will attest to that.  My husband and I are packing up our belongings for a third time in three years, moving (thankfully) only a few floors up but the change precipitated after a summer of having our ceiling open up and flood areas of our living and dining room, not once but twice, due to the forgetfulness of an elderly tenant living above us.  Unwilling to risk a third downpour on our furniture and carpets, we’ll shortly begin the process unpacking all the many boxes that we’ve packed over the past two and a half weeks.  However, my husband is limping from an injured knee, and I have, in my attempts to do the lion’s share of boxing and lifting, put my back out…so yes, I agree, moving IS experienced in the body!

Writing Through Cancer posts will resume in mid-December.  In the interim, if you’re looking for something to write about, please do peruse the archive, where you’ll find over a year’s worth of previous posts and writing suggestions.

Wishing those of you in the U.S. a very happy Thanksgiving this day.

 

Sincerely,

Sharon

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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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It all leads to a story… The more powerful the story behind the food, the more it evokes the memory, which in turn enhances the flavour. (From: “Food with a Story to Tell,” The Guardian, Sept. 2013)

 

Take some flour. Oh, I don’t know,
like two-three cups, and you cut
in the butter. Now some women
they make it with shortening,
but I say butter, even though
that means you had to have fish, see?

You cut up some apples. Not those
stupid sweet ones. Apples for the cake,
they have to have some bite, you know?
A little sour in the sweet, like love.
You slice them into little moons.
(From:  “My Mother Gives Me her Recipe,” by Marge Piercy, Colors Passing Through Us, 2004).

Yesterday was Canadian Thanksgiving, and for several days in advance, food and recipes were on my mind…  Despite abandoning our dining table, one with extra leaves, and the roomy kitchen of our former home for a city apartment and small dining room table, I invited both sides of our extended Toronto family to share our holiday dinner.  I would come to question my sanity multiple times between issuing the invitation and preparing the meal, but late yesterday afternoon, seven of us sat around a configuration of our small dining table and another folding table to share the Thanksgiving meal.

At any holiday meal shared with family, there are new recipes to try and some old favorites from many years.  While I like to try out new dishes often, there were two perennial favorites on the menu.  One had to be on the table, a  family favorite, a casserole, named “Broccoli Soufflé” and given to me by my mother-in-law when I was a young bride.  The other, a yam casserole with marshmallow topping–a dish my grandmother and aunts served every Thanksgiving, was requested by my 8 year old granddaughter.  She eagerly helped prepare it, meticulously placing the miniature marshmallows one by one on top of the yams.  Neither my husband nor I eat broccoli soufflé or yam casserole at any other time–our dietary habits changed long ago.  Yet not surprisingly, the old recipes are laden with history and memories of people and Thanksgivings of the past.  And yesterday, just as happens at every family holiday dinner, the stories ignited by those traditional dishes were shared once again.  It’s no surprise that food stimulates everyone’s memories and stories.

Food plays a part of our history, as individuals and as a people. Food we consider “traditional,” no matter our heritage, triggers memory; stories are rediscovered and retold,  memories of long ago relatives, traditions that were so much a part of who we once were as children, the lives we took, in our youth, for granted.  During my childhood, every holiday included large family gatherings with aunts, uncles and cousins of all ages.  Fast forward to my adulthood when, intent on adventure and fulfilling dreams, my husband and I first moved to Canada, separated by well over 2500 miles from my huge extended family. I woke up filled with  nostalgia and longing on more than one Thanksgiving.  Making some of the dishes I knew so well helped ease the sense of loneliness, and gradually, as my husband and I had two daughters, we began to create our own family holiday traditions, but ones that also incorporated food of our childhoods.

“Recipes can help bridge generations, reveal unexpected characteristics of a culture, or simply fill an afternoon.” This statement appeared in the introduction to a writing prompt featured a few years ago in The Time is Now newsletter published monthly by Poets & Writers’ Magazine.

Think about it.  Food enlivens many of our senses, so it’s little wonder that a well-loved meal can stimulates so many memories.   Sometimes, even food we love can become unpleasant to us because of the associations we have with it. In fifth grade, I abruptly turned against my favorite “Thousand Island” salad dressing after a severe concussion from a bicycle accident a short time after I’d eaten a salad doused with it.  I never ate it again, the memory of the nausea in the aftermath of the concussion too vivid.

Try as I might–and I have many times–I’ve never managed to duplicate the same delicious oatmeal raisin cookies my grandmother made and I happily ate.  She lived across the street from my kindergarten classroom, and daily, I went to her house to wait for my father to pick me up after work.  Those afternoons, of all my food-related memories, just might be my favorite.  Every afternoon, a glass of milk and an oatmeal raisin cookie waited for me at her kitchen table.  We sat across from each other. She, sipping a cup of creamy coffee and telling me stories of my father.  Her kitchen was always filled with the aromas of cake, pie or cookies, ready for my father, uncles and aunts who loved her baking as much as I did and often dropped by for a visit over something delicious.   But the after school time was reserved for the two of us, sharing stories, an oatmeal cookie and time together.   While she told stories about her life and my father’s, often exaggerated and always colorful, I listened with rapt attention.  Not only was I was learning about my family’s history, I was developing a lifelong love of story.  It was time I cherish even now, with grandchildren of my own.

In the yellow kitchen her pink hands
play with creamy dough. Squares of sun frame
things that shine; spoons, cups, hair…

She boils water, opens wine, puts vegetable in pots.
Lights click. Smells blossom.

Everything feels suddenly invited.

(From “Pasta,” by Kate Scott, Stitches, 2003)

Writing Suggestions:


This week, think about food and the recipes that have been a part of your family’s traditions.

  • Begin writing whatever you can remember of a recipe from your childhood or another time in life, and any memories emerge, explore them.
  • Write about the memory of a meal, of life around the dinner table, of the smells or objects in a grandmother’s or mother’s kitchen.
  • Perhaps you traveled to a country or place where the food was new to you. Write about the experience.
  • Have you had an experience that turned food you loved into food you cannot stand?  What happened?  Write it.

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