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Archive for the ‘writing prompts for cancer survivors’ Category

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

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

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

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

I saw the season’s first bluebird
this morning, one month ahead
of its scheduled arrival.  Lucky I am
to go off to my cancer appointment
having been given a bluebird, and,
for a lifetime, have been given
this world.

(Ted Kooser, Winter Morning Walks, 2001)

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

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

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

Writing Suggestion: 

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

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As balmy as these last days of September have been,  the signs of autumn are visible everywhere.  The lush canopy of green that has blanketed the so much of the city is rapidly changing color—the trees dappled with orange red, and gold.  Even as I walked our dog along neighborhood streets this past week, the sidewalks were strewn with pale yellow leaves from trees already shedding.  Autumn, usually my favorite season of the year, seems to be accompanied by a somberness in the air that is inescapable.  Our brief reprieve from the COVID pandemic has ended.   Canada, like many other countries in the world, is experiencing an increase in new cases—and even as I began writing this post, the local  newspaper headlines ago reported “Ontario sets record-high with 700 new COVID-19 cases…” Sobering and worrisome.

We all have been reading the daily reports, and COVID-19 has crept into our conversations again. “I’m worried,” a friend admitted to us as we sat in her back garden the other evening (appropriately distanced from one another).  She voiced what we all were feeling.  As much as we had been hearing of  the likelihood of a “second wave,”  seeing the numbers increasing each week was troubling, signaling the potential for a return of the lockdowns we endured earlier in the year along with that nagging low level anxiety that accompanied them.   My husband and I had already begun to pull back, even missing our daughter’s 50th birthday party, unwilling to risk socializing with a group of her close friends and their children.  We’ve promised a delayed celebration once all this is over, but how much longer will this pandemic persist?  How serious will this “second wave be?  How long will this last? When will there be a vaccine?  Will it be effective?  What long-term impact will it have on every aspect of life as we once knew it? 

Now we have little choice but to wait and to be cautious.  Like you, I  have waited—patiently or impatiently– on many things in my life:  the births of my daughters, and later, waiting up for them to arrive home well past curfew.  I’ve waited in lines for tickets and performances, for doctor’s appointments and medical tests,  for my husband, arriving late for a dinner with friends.  I don’t like waiting; few people do, but the waiting we’re experiencing now is different.  Remember the film, “Groundhog Day” with Bill Murray, who played a TV weatherman who kept waking up and reliving the same day over and over?  It feels a bit like that with the advent of a second wave of the Corona virus, only we’re waiting, worried,  waiting for the “all clear” signal, for the return to a normal life, yet fearful of what “normal” might be, waiting for a vaccine to be available…waiting.

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting…

(From “Wait” by Galway Kinnell, in: Mortal Acts; Mortal Words, 1980)

Perhaps.  This kind of waiting we all are experiencing  is more than familiar to those who have been diagnosed with and treated for cancer.  My husband lost one of his  kidneys to cancer a year and a half ago, and he is now waiting for the results of his latest CT scan.  Even though he’s been doing well, the test—the wait for results—rekindles his worry of possible recurrence.   

Waiting—and the worrying that accompanies it–can dominate our daily lives, whether it will be more long months of COVID-induced isolation and lockdown or as cancer patients wait and hope to hear “no evidence of disease at this time.”  Even now, I feel my own niggling anxiety rise along with a sense of spiritual malaise and boredom as this second wave of COVID gathers strength, and trying, again to learn to accept and find new ways to master this state of waiting and to learn from it.  The colors of autumn seem to pale as I look out the window now, then I remember T. S. Eliot’s words from The Four Quartets (1943):

 I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

His words remind me to reconsider why life seems to make us wait.  I am still learning, despite my age, to accept what I cannot control, to let things unfold as they will…but sometimes?  It’s just not easy.

Writing Suggestions:

Write about waiting.  Describe a particular time waiting was difficult for you.  What was the situation?  How did you feel?  What happened when the wait was over?  What did you learn—if anything—from the experience?

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A friend sent me the title of a new book this past week:  Write It Down: Coronavirus Writing Prompts.” Written by Mary Ladd, a San Francisco writer, it’s a compilation of activities meant to help writers, amateur and professional, during the weeks of social isolation that has been the product of the Corona Virus pandemic.  Ladd is no stranger to understanding the benefits of writing during tough times.  Diagnosed in 2013, with breast cancer, she wrote about her experience on a blog, and since, has contributed to two other books of writing prompts and starts for those who need a little inspiration to write.

Ever on the lookout for new ideas and inspiration for my writing groups, I did a quick search on writing during the Covid pandemic, finding dozens of  prompts, and articles on COVID-19 writing in newspapers, magazines and on radio shows.  Not surprisingly, they all echo a common theme:  writing helps us navigate difficult times, something articulated for many years by writers and researchers alike, particularly since the ground-breaking research of James Pennebaker, PhD, first gaining recognition in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, has been replicated dozens of times across many difficult populations and in many different situations.  The bottom line?  Writing about difficult situations and emotions can not only relieve stress and anxiety, but also has many health benefits.  Pennebaker’s research, coupled with my love of writing and personal experience of an early stage cancer diagnosis in 2000, was the impetus for me to initiate my very first writing group nearly 20 years ago.  I’ve never looked back.  Since then, expressive writing groups and therapeutic journaling methods have multiplied dramatically.  It’s no surprise then to see another “explosion” in the popularity of journaling or diary-keeping in this time of a world pandemic.

Yet, keeping a diary or journal can have much more impact  than being  therapeutic.  As Amelia Nierenberg reminds us in  a recent article appearing in the New York Times, we’re reminded that “the history of our present moment is taking shape in journal entries and drawings.” (“The Quarantine Diaries,” New York Times, March 30, 2020.)

As the coronavirus continues to spread and confine people largely to their homes, many are filling pages with their experiences of living through a pandemic.  Their diaries are told in words and pictures:  pantry inventories, window views, questions about the future, concerns about the present. Taken together, the pages tell the story of an anxious, claustrophobic world on pause.

“The time we’re living through will one day become history,” Morgan Ome writes in a recent issue of The Atlantic.  And it’s compelled many people to begin writing to capture their quarantine experiences for posterity.  One researcher at Cornell University in New York gave her students a journaling assignment as stay-at-home orders became widespread and Cornell University closed.  “This is a pivotal moment in history, Janis Whitlock said. “We’re in it right now.  We have an opportunity to chronicle it.”  She expanded her virtual classroom assignment into a global project, “Telling Our Stories in the Age of COVID-10,” which she launched in March, and together with her team, have  received responses to email journal prompts from over 500 people around the globe.  Whitlock is planning to compile these into a “snapshot” of pandemic life from around the world.  But she’s not the only one gathering physical and digital journal entries written during the pandemic. Universities, historical societies, and local publications are also capturing these personal accounts, acknowledging them as a rich source for historical records and offering insight into the minds and experiences of ordinary people like you and me (The Atlantic, August 6, 2020)

CBC Radio, in a recent broadcast of “The Current,” also reported on the growing efforts of historians around the world who are requesting diary entries, photos, videos and more from those cooped up during the pandemic.   Catherine O’Donnell, a co-founder of A Journal of the Plague Year:  A COVID-19 Archive, underlines the importance of gathering experiences of the pandemic, no matter how unimportant or mundane they might seem.  In a time defined by isolation and fear, she says, these memories help people feel connected—and the offer a reprieve from the stress and anxiety that comes with living in a period of uncertainty (‘We want it all’:  Keeping a COVID-19 diary? April 23, 2020 broadcast).

Our stories matter.  Not only is writing beneficial for us but so is finding a way to capture and preserve our experiences and memories, whether of cancer or other serious illness, of love, life, sorrows, people, places… Writers have always known this.  I remember Joan Didion’s words about why she writes:  “To remember what it was to be me…” And to remember the times, and experiences that defined our lives.   “Death steals everything but our stories,” Jim Harrison wrote in his poem, Larson’s Holstein Bull.  Our knowledge of history is grounded in the stories and experiences of those who lived before us—and that includes our personal history.  Again and again, I find I wish that I had documented the oral stories of my father,  his childhood and my homesteading grandparents—only fragments remain—or that I’d asked more questions of my more secretive mother, whose childhood remains, in large part, unknown, and yet, with the hint of shadows.  No one else can tell our stories, as Dorothy Allison famously wrote in her memoir, Two or Thing Things I Know for Sure:  “I am the only one who can tell my story and say what it means.”

Writing, whether about the experience of cancer or COVID, can help us not only document, but help improve our emotional well-being, even aspects of our physical health.  The task is to write honestly, translating your feelings into words and writing as descriptively as you can, making connections between what you feel and what you’ve experienced.  You can add to your writing with art, photographs, sketches, cartoons—all ways to express and understand your experience.  I don’t keep every journal or notebook that I use for my daily writing practice, but I do re-read them and, often, I clip out sections that seem more important or meaningful to me than other pages.  In this protracted period of “sheltered-in-place,” my notebooks contain boredom, anxiety, worry, irritability and not infrequently, humor. Sometimes I work on a story idea; sometimes I write poetry.  Sometimes I fill the pages with old memories.  Sometimes I complain.   It hardly matters. What matters is simply that I write—COVID or not.  Maybe that’s why you write too.

 

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about living with cancer—and being treated in the midst of the COVID lockdowns. Did the pandemic increase your anxiety or fear?
  • Has writing helped you deal with the uncertainty of living in a time of a world pandemic? How?
  • Prompts for writing about life during COVID?  A sample of Suggestions for writing from: familysearch.org/blog
    • Did you learn anything about yourself from this experience?
    • What is one aspect of your life that was harder during the pandemic?
    • What is one aspect of your life that was easier during the pandemic?
    • How has this experience changed you or those around you?
    • In what ways, if at all, do you think the world will be changed because of COVID-19?
    • And here’s a link to the New York Times with twelve ideas for writing—and more—during COVID.l You might find a little inspiration from one of them.

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I’ve been thinking about how much our daily lives have changed as the COVID lockdowns continue here.  More than that, I think about  what it is that keeps us putting one foot in front of the other on a daily basis, how the small daily routines or household tasks keep me going, providing a sense of normality to our lives even though this prolonged period of social distancing and relative isolation continues without any sure end in sight.  I’m not alone in fending off boredom, feelings of malaise or that constant low-level anxiety that is part of the uncertainly of this strange and isolating time.  Heart failure puts me in a higher risk category for contracting COVID just as those of you living with cancer, undergoing treatment and continuing recovery, and in many cases, your diagnoses pre-dating the onset and rapid spread of the current pandemic.

Not surprisingly, the title of a recent article got my attention: “It has been easier to cope with my cancer during lockdown”  British author Susie Steiner wrote in a recent issue of The Guardian/Books.   In treatment of a brain tumor, she opened her article saying “I wrote my latest novel…with a 9cm tumor pushing my brain over its midline.  But I didn’t know about it.”  Even more ironically, Steiner wrote, “…I was plotting a cancer storyline, not yet knowing that I had cancer.”

“So much of the experience of cancer is the waiting rooms,” Steiner said, “is the hard chairs, the inequality between patients and medical staff—you feel so vulnerable in your elasticated slacks with your terrible hair…waiting for them, terrified, in the Room of Bad News.”  Yet she writes that it has been easier for her to cope with her cancer during lockdown knowing she was not the only one whose life was on hold nor fearful of contracting the virus and possibly dying.

Cold comfort perhaps, but like cancer, we’re all in a kind of waiting game, in limbo, taking greater precautions, dumping the plans we might have had for travel or evenings socializing with friends, amassing a supply of face masks to last however long this pandemic continues to spread.  She quoted Christopher Hutchins, author of Mortality, a collection of essays about his struggle with esophageal cancer.  He described cancer as “stasis… a  bit like lockdown, you spend your time in treatment, saying to yourself, “I just have to get through this, then I’ll get my life back.”

Nevertheless, Steiner writes “it has been easier, weirdly, to cope with my illness during lockdown, because I’m not the only one whose life is on hold, not the only one terrified of dying…”   What has comforted her—and what I find I have also found invaluable–are books.  “One thing you can do a lot of when you’re a patient,” she remarks, “is reading.”

The idea that reading for healing, like writing, is not new. Jenni Odgen, PhD, writing in Psychology Today, notes that Sigmund Freud was known to incorporate literature into his psychoanalytic practice in the late 1800’s, and even King Ramses II of Egypt was known to use reading for healing,  keeping a special chamber for his books with the words “House of Healing for the Soul” above the door.  The term “bibliotherapy,” the art of using books to help people solve personal issues, was first used in 1916.  It now takes many different forms, including literature courses for prison inmates to reading groups for elders suffering from dementia (“Can Reading Make You Happier?” by Ceridwen Dovey, New Yorker, June 9, 2015) .  In fact, two or three years ago, I stumbled onto The Novel Cure, written and published by two bibliotherapists, Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin in 2017.  Written something like a medical dictionary, it matches ailments and illnesses with suggested reading “cures,” including having cancer and caring for someone with it.

Reading, whether for pleasure, information or healing, helps us to navigate periods of isolation, boredom, and worry.  Dovey cites research that demonstrates how reading puts our brains into a state similar to meditation, bringing the same benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm.  Regular readers, she notes, sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem and lower rates of depression than non-readers.  Quoting the author Jeannette Winterson, she adds, “fiction and poetry are doses, medicines…what they heal is the rupture reality makes on imagination.”

My husband and I have also been devouring books for the past many weeks.  He’s gone from a diet of current affairs and research psychology to poetry; I’ve added several non-fiction books, especially biographies of artists and writers, to my own regular stash of novels. Books are as comforting to us even now as they were when we were children, sneaking our books to bed and reading with a flashlight under the covers, learning about others and the world beyond the borders of our small towns.  In this time of COVID, books—poetry, fiction, nonfiction—have been indispensable to ignite our imagination, interest and combat the boredom on those days when our moods can turn as grey as a dull overcast day.

Susie Steiner, in her article for The Guardian, describes how her reading changed during the course of her cancer treatment, and why she turned to books written by other cancer survivors.   She was hungry, she said,  for what she called “fellow feeling.” Living like this is gruelling,” she wrote, “ we need imaginative empathy in fiction to help us through it.”

This is surely the … therapeutic power of literature – it doesn’t just echo our own experience, recognise, vindicate and validate it – it takes us places we hadn’t imagined but which, once seen, we never forget. When literature is working – the right words in the right place – it offers an orderliness which can shore up readers against the disorder, or lack of control, that afflicts them.—Blake Morrison, “The Reading Cure,” The Guardian/Books/ January 5, 2008.

 

Writing Suggestions:

  • What is helping you get through this time?
  • Whether you are actively dealing with cancer or well into recovery, have you found comfort or inspiration from any books?
  •  Have you learned anything new or helpful about navigating the ups and downs of cancer?
  • What books—any genre—would you recommend to others?  And why?

 

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(Illustration by Maurice Sendak, From:  Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krause)

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?…

For the month of July, I took a month-long hiatus from writing my blogs–something I haven’t done in the 14 years since I first began my “Writing Through Cancer” blog.  But in this unusual time created by COVID, I felt the need to break from my self-imposed schedule of posting and instead, have the freedom to let my mind—and my pen—wander where they would.  It was a necessary period to simply reflect and be, in the sense of writing, quiet for a time.

I kept my daily writing routine—a habit indispensable to my day.  Some days my notebook pages were half empty, as though my muse had gone into hiding; on other days inspiration would strike, playful, serious, or lead me into a re-examination of past writing—it hardly mattered.  I simply let whatever emerged on the page, be.  I began re-reading pages and pages of old posts, books of poetry, and others about writers and writing.  I questioned whether to continue my blogs or to let them gradually fade away from inactivity. I questioned the writing of separate posts for cancer and heart failure as I’d initially done.  The two had already begun to converge in recent weeks, and not surprisingly.  Writing about serious illness, trauma or suffering is less about the illness itself and more about the human experience.  It is writing about life.

The upending of what was normal, months of social isolation, social distancing, closures, and virtual everything has been sobering.  During the early months of COVID, I had celebrated another birthday, less welcomed this year as my birthdays before COVID and when I was much younger.  My past birthdays signaled a new year, one that held promise, opportunity, new plans and dreams, while this most recent one was punctuated with questions:  How long will this continue?  Will my life be shortened by this virus?  What will the coming year hold for all of us?

Of course, there were always some years I was happy to bid farewell–ones marked by personal tragedy, loss and illness–but even then, the passing of another year signaled the possibility for something better.  Looking back, I realize that my “crosshairs” were firmly set on what Wallace Stegner once described as “the snow peaks of a vision” in his Pulitzer Prize novel, Angle of Repose, (1971).   I was always looking ahead to the “what’s next? “What’s possible?”   Before COVID, I still had that “looking ahead,” the hope, possibilities of something “new” to look forward to, a new goal to achieve, a trip to another country, some “better thoughts” that might turn into something significant on the page.   COVID, like cancer and heart failure temporarily did, foisted a “hold” on those future possibilities, and the longer our lockdowns and restrictions have continued, the more I realize we—all of us– are unlikely to return to the same world we knew—and took for granted—just six months ago.  What, then, I wondered, do we look forward to now?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

The little respite from the blogs that  I granted myself has helped me realize that this strange and unusual time has given me a chance to look back, reflect and have gratitude for the life I’ve been fortunate enough to live thus far, even if I sometimes regret I haven’t accomplished all I set out to do.  It’s also helped me clarify what matters most to me and how and where I want to expend my energies as life moves forward.

I am more aware than ever of the fragility and uncertainty of life.  I take nothing for granted.  My brushes with cancer and heart failure, the experiences of the men and women who write with me from the experience of life-threatening and terminal illness continue to remind me how precious life is and yet more, how challenging and difficult it can also be at times.  None of us is immune from illness or hardship. No one escapes.  Cancer, heart failure, a pandemic of COVID:  serious illnesses remove any pretense or assumptions about ourselves we may have—a time, perhaps, when we need to pause and reflect, gain insight and discover so much more of who we are and have the potential to be.   Maybe that’s one important lesson I will take from this time of pandemic—and use it to continue to inform how I want to live and engage with others.

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –

From: “You Reading This, Be Ready,” by William Stafford)

Writing Suggestions

  • What has been your COVID experience? Write about the concerns, reflections or insights about life as you’ve known it—and how it may change.
  • Do you agree or disagree: “Writing about serious illness is really writing about life.” Why or why not?
  • What new glimpse of life and living have you discovered out of hardship or serious illness?
  • Begin with the line, “Starting here, what do I want to remember?” and keep writing for ten minutes.  Re-read.  What stands out?

 

 

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Dear Readers of “Writing Through Cancer,”

As you might have guessed from my last post, I’m in need of a little respite to refuel and re-energize.  I’ll be offline until August, but please do use the archives during this time…there’s well over a year’s worth of bi-weekly posts and prompts to help ignite your writing.

Stay well and stay safe…a friend of mine wrote about being a “good masketeer,” and for a good time yet, I’ll be wearing my mask anytime I’m out and about in Toronto.

Warm wishes,

Sharon Bray

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I admit it.  Three months of lockdown and relative social isolation, and my muse has flown the coop.  “I’m outta’ here,” she cried yesterday as I tried for the 5th day in a row to compose a post that might inspire my readers to write.  No amount of deep, mindful breathing, a walk through the tree-lined streets in our neighborhood, quotes from books and articles or frantic, whinny pleading to that creative muse worked.  She disappeared, leaving me staring at the blank page.

I only just finished another online workshop for Gilda’s Club yesterday—part presentation, part offering short writing “bursts” and part encouragement on how to get started exploring the experience of cancer through writing.  “Nothing to write?”  I asked, then offered a suggestion:  “Start with anything.  Anything can be a prompt.  Anything can provide inspiration.  Or start with nothing, writing the line, “I have nothing to write, “over and over until you discover you DO have something to write.”  It’s an approach I often use for myself, quite honestly, and in doing so, I stumble into ideas, questions, and inevitably, a blog post that I post on this site.

Well guess what?  Even my own suggestion did not work for me this week.  I haven’t even been inspired to write a silly poem or bake another batch of scones (now that’s serious).  I blame it on the COVID blues…or, perhaps more accurately, COVID boredom.  Here’s the deal.  I’ve read so many books in the past three months that  I have actually grown tired of reading.  I’ve exhausted several seasons of my favorite British crime dramas.  I’m weary of the monotony of having to stay so close to home, of seeing my husband 24/7, of the news reports of the current numbers of outbreaks and deaths, of the low level anxiety that accompanies me every time I encounter other people on the sidewalk who are unmasked and not honoring social distancing guidelines,  of Zoom meetings instead of face-to-face and of course, the knowledge this kind of life is going to be with us for some time yet.  That sounds like the blues to me, or at the least, a seige of boredom.  Worse, all this is accompanied by an utter lack of inspiration, of even the glimmer of an idea to get me writing.  Oh, I still write every morning as I’ve always done, but the pages of my notebook are filled with ideas that went nowhere, repetitions, and numerous attempts to find something “new” to get me going.

As I write this, I suddenly recall a folk song from my (much) younger days.  I hear the song,“The San Francisco Bay Blues,” in my head.  Originally composed by Jesse Fuller (who I saw in person in the mid-sixties) it was subsequently performed by the likes Bob Dylan, Jim Croce, Eric Clapton, Janis Joplin, John Lennon, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Eva Cassidy and many others.  It begins,  “I got the blues for my baby/left me by the San Francisco Bay…”  Well, it’s rattling around in my head now, but my lyrics are different:     “I got the blues for my muse and/ I’m  far from San Francisco Bay…”

How about you?  Perhaps you’re finding this time a little boring or difficult in other ways.  Perhaps you have children at home and the fatigue of home schooling and providing ways for them to be entertained is stretching your patience.  You may still be in treatment, but the hospital atmosphere is changed, almost surreal.  What gets you through the long days of social isolation?  Have you found new ways to be creative?  New activities to occupy your time? Write about living in a time of pandemic.  Write about how you keep the blues (or boredom) at bay.

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It’s been nearly three months since our daily lives were altered by COVID-19.  Some days I can’t believe it’s been that long; other days, it seems that we’ve been living in a world of closures, social distancing and relative isolation far longer.  What do I miss?  The ordinary life I had…walking without being so conscious of staying six feet apart from others, face masked, knowing I’m one of those in a” higher risk” category, and our world largely confined to our neighborhood and the Toronto apartment where my husband and I now live.  Normally an early riser, I have begun to sleep a little longer in the mornings, the dull rhythm of a question, “What am I going to do today?” playing in my head like a broken record.  But old habits re-exert themselves, I grow restless and rise to begin, again, another day.

What keeps me going in this strange time?  It’s the familiar, the habits and structure in  small, daily tasks:  making the morning’s coffee, walking the dog, sweeping the floors, making the bed, writing—even as the pages are often filled with the increasingly mundane meanderings of a mind  dulled by repetition—planning and preparing the evening meal, a pre-dinner glass of sherry with my husband, a good novel on hand, nightly reruns of Agatha Christie mysteries and other old British dramas, then lights out sometime around 11 p.m..  And in the morning, my routine begins again.

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?

(“Habit,” by Jane Hirshfield, in Given Sugar, Given Salt, 2002)

In a 2014 “Writing Through Cancer” blog post, I had explored what it meant to be “in remission,” told that one has  “no evidence of cancer at this time,” words that signaled a reprieve from the relentless routine of doctor’s appointments, scans, tests, and weeks of treatment regimens to a return to “normal life.” It didn’t mean a return to the life one had before as many survivors discovered.  And I’m all to aware now, that after we finally see an end to the COVID lockdowns, whatever was normal before the pandemic will not be the same afterward.

When one survives cancer and is given the diagnosis of “in remission,” you still live with the knowledge that “survivor” does not guarantee a permanent state of grace.  You may have many years left to live or perhaps less.  There is one certainty, however:  you never take anything for granted again. You might even feel a little guilty, especially when you have come to know many others, cancer patients as you once were, whose prognoses are less favorable and may well die from their illness.  You’re relieved, yes, but it can also seem unfair.  Why have you survived while others will not?

“I’ve gone from thinking, ‘Why me?’ to thinking, ‘Why not me,” a former group member said.  “In the beginning, it was comforting to think of fighting to survive…   I believed that I should have a powerful drive to accomplish something, but,” she confessed, “I don’t find that drive in me now.”  Now, as the economy worsens and so many people are feeling the other effects of the pandemic:  job loss, retirement incomes diminishing, loss of family members or loved ones, what, I wonder, will the “drive to accomplish something” be like?  What will “normal life” look like after COVID?  And what will have changed for each of us.  Perhaps if we are to learn anything from the state of being “in remission” or once this pandemic is truly ended, it may be about living differently that we did before and truly cherishing life in ways, perhaps, that we have been too busy to notice.

A friend and cancer survivor wrote me several months after she had officially been diagnosed as “in remission.”  The likelihood of her cancer returning is still greater than she would like, but she discovered things about life and living that have become truly important to her after cancer.  In a letter to me, said wrote:   I love the things I do day by day.   I hike with a beloved friend.  I spend time in the wonderful garden of another.  I meet friends for coffee, talking with each other with pleasure and leaving them with joy and a benefit to my mind and spirit… It frees me from having to make every moment count.  It takes off pressure that would exist if I had to accomplish something in particular before I die…” 

Like many survivors, she was discovering comfort and meaning in accepting the natural ebb and flow of everyday life, small pleasures of love, companionship and nature.  She was grateful for Life, for what, as poet Ellen Lerman so wonderfully expressed, the simple joy and fulfillment in what life gives us:

 This is what life does. It lets you walk up to

the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a

stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have

your eggs, your coffee…

 

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the

pond, where whole generations of biological

processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds

speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,

they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old

enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?…

 

Upon reflection, you are

genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have

become. And then life lets you go home to think

about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time…

 My friend’s words still resonate with me, because it took me more than one life crisis to cement my resolve to live differently.  The achievement ethic drilled into me early in life, good intentions would give way to slippage into old habits of being, of accomplishment, and the rush, busyness and stress of a life style that was not, I sometimes allowed myself to admit, good for me.  It would take a few more years, an emergency ride to the hospital, three days in observation and a diagnosis of heart failure before I paid attention to truly changing how I wanted to live.  The real task of living required a mindfulness, a time to be fully present and pay attention to little moments, the gifts of beauty, joy, and laughter.  Gradually, I developed daily routines that continue to give my life a healthier structure and meaning:   the morning walk with my dog—at her pace, not mine—the creativity and mindfulness of preparing  an evening meal and taking the time to enjoy it with my husband, to have the sacred space to write each day, because doing so keeps me attentive, grateful, and remembering how lucky I’ve been in life—no matter the hardships I’ve suffered from time to time. Now, in this time of isolation and social distancing, I am again reminded of how one find can pleasure and something new in each day, despite its seeming predictability or, in a time of uncertainty, because of it.  These are the simple gifts to be found in the ordinary and commonplace.

I turn to the poetry and wisdom of A., diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer, and part of the Stanford Cancer Center group I led for several years.  She lived with the knowledge of her certain and impending death, choosing, for the final year and a half of her life, to live alone in a small cabin in the California redwoods, a source of inspiration and peace for her.  She wrote prolifically and daily, creating poetry, several of her poems published, out of her experience and reverence for the life and beauty she found in the most ordinary moments of each day of her life.  In 2012, cancer took her life; a few weeks later, three of her poems were published in the American Poetry Review—testimony to her extraordinary gifts.  In the poem, “Directive,” she reminds us to remember the abundance of gifts to be found in what we consider commonplace—if only we stop to pay attention:

Remember the commonplace, the wooden chair on the white planked deck,
trees kneeling in the rain and deer prints
leading into elegant rushes. A kinder place
cannot be found: where you sit at the top
of shadowy stairs, the window lifted…

Let me speak for you: there’s comfort
to be found in fatigue, in letting principles
fall like stones from your pockets…

Fall into the ordinary,
the rushes, the deer looking up into your heart,
risen, full in the silver hammered sky.

 (From “Directive,” by A.E.)
I am grateful for the gifts of poetry I received from A. and remembering her words in this unusual time that it is in the commonplace,  the ordinary and everyday routines that  give some shape to  the days and are reminding me, again,  to appreciate the life I have, the small gifts present in each day.  I don’t know what life after COVID will be like—but I know it will not be the same.  I only hope the lessons of this time will have some lasting impact—and not just for me, but for the world.  For now, I am grateful for Life…the commonplace, everyday, routine of living.

This is life’s way of letting you know that

you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,

so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you

were born at a good time. Because you were able

to listen when people spoke to you. Because you

stopped when you should have and started again.

 

So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your

late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And

then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland…

 

(From “Starfish,” in Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds, 2005)

 

Writing Suggestions:

  • “Borrow” a line from any of the poetry in this post.  Let it be the first line you write on your page…then, let it take you wherever it wants to go.
  • What, in the ordinary routines of your life, matters most to you?  What small habits or practices?  Why?
  • Write about this “time of COVID” and how it’s changed your life—possibly for good.
  • What lessons do you hope come from this pandemic experience?
  • Has your experience with living with a serious or life-threatening condition help or hinder how you’ve dealt with life in lockdown?  What wisdom might you share?

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rant:  to complain or talk loudly and angrily for a long time, sometimes saying unreasonable things  (MacMillan Dictionary)

I don’t know about you, but I do know that the endless days of indoor living and social isolation are getting to me.   I am more easily frustrated, irritable and restless.  It’s taken some discipline to rein those negative feelings in, and I admit to days where I am less successful than I wish I was.  What about you?  Have you felt the need to get feelings or frustration with something off your chest, the kind that keep you awake at night or gnaw at you until they’re voiced?   We know that those kinds of feelings aren’t good for our health, as confirmed by a significant body of psychological research on the relationship between emotions and health–but I learned this in earnest the hard way. Some years ago, I realized I’d  been living under extreme stress for well over a decade, triggered by  my husband’s death, a significant career transition, and a decade of major moves from coast to coast.  I soldiered valiantly through it all, but cracks began to appear in my armor. I slept poorly, and I was often impatient and short-tempered.  A few close friends expressed concern, but it wasn’t until my diagnosis of early stage breast cancer that I really understood the impact all that bottled up emotional stress had on my health.

Around the same time, I  read Opening Up:  The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (1997), the early work on emotional inhibition and health by James Pennebaker, PhD, whose subsequent research on writing and healing set off an explosion of similar studies and inspired numerous expressive writing programs.   Pennebaker demonstrated how expressing emotions was not only good for one’s soul, but beneficial to our physical and psychological health.  The studies he cited made one thing very clear:  holding negative emotions inside, also known as “inhibition,” is detrimental to health.

Our bodies respond to the ways we think and feel.  Stress and anxiety weaken immune system function, and negative emotions can have effect on circulation, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, even hormonal functioning.  It can heighten our vulnerability to disease or manifest itself as back pain, fatigue, or headaches.   Research suggests that holding on to negative feelings may actually shorten our lives.  According to some studies, optimistic people have longer lives than pessimistic ones.  Ridding ourselves of negative emotion may improve physical health as well as the body’s power to heal.

It’s not always as easy as it sounds.  Everyone experiences strong or negative emotions from time to time, and during difficult or painful experiences like a marital break-up, job loss, or a diagnosis of cancer, heart failure or other serious conditions, those feelings can be intense. Anger, anxiety, fear or pessimism are common, but that’s not all. When we suffer a new wound to our psyches, old, unresolved wounds from the past can re-open and bleed again. Fortunately, there are many therapeutic tools to assist in the healing process, and as the research shows, writing and telling our stories of our illnesses, hardships or struggles is one of them.

Many writers, novelist Henry James once said, begin writing from a port of pain, finding a kind of release and solace in putting their deepest—and most fearful—feelings on paper, whether in diaries, journals or poetry and stories.  Port of pain or not, it’s often hard to get started, difficult to give ourselves the freedom to express all we’re feeling on the page, even though we want to. “Keep the pen moving,” I often say to the participants in my writing groups.  “Write without stopping or thinking about what appears on the page.”  The time limits imposed for different writing exercises helps, because it forces them to write quickly, in effect, silencing their internal critics.  Often, when someone chooses to read what they’ve written aloud, I hear the comment, “I didn’t know I wrote that…” after an especially powerful sentence or paragraph.

One of my favorite examples of “release” through writing is in learning to free up and write a rant, something that just “lets it all out.”  I often use a poem by   Rosanne Lloyd, a contemporary poet who combines eloquence with directness and forcefulness in her writing.  her poem,  “Exorcism of Nice,”  is one I find helpful in inspiring  writing group members to “just let it go.”  In this poem, the  poet reacts to a litany of long-time restraints, expressing anger and pain that has silenced her own voice:

Mum’s the word
Taciturn
Talk polite
Appropriate
Real nice
Talk polite
Short and sweet
Keep it down
Quiet down
Keep the lid on
Hold it down
Shut down
Shut up
Chin up
Bottle up
Drink up…

Tucked in
Caved in

Shut in
Locked in
Incoherent
Inarticulate
In a shell…

Oh, Wicked Mother of the Kingdom of Silence
I have obeyed you
long enough

(From: Tap Dancing for Big Mom, 1996)

Lloyd’s poem is a useful model for freeing up to express negative emotions on the page.  “Anything goes,” I frequently say as group members begin writing.  “Whatever is on your mind, whatever is irritating you, making you angry or frustrated–just write it.”  What invariably happens in the writing that follows is always powerful, even sometimes hilarious, and coupled with a newfound freedom to write honestly and deeply—the kind of writing that has the potential for healing.

In this time of social distancing, self-isolation and uncertainty, I know my frustration tends to surface more often than usual, and in those moments, I become irritable and negative.  It has helped me to write regularly, and I’ll confess that a few rants have appeared in my notebook, but the beauty of doing so for me, is that my list of frustrations turns into a parody of my feelings and results in  rather light-hearted and humorous endings to whatever frustration I’m  feeling.   More than a few silly poems have resulted in the pages of my notebook in these many weeks of indoor living.

Perhaps trying out a rant is something you can try writing when COVID-19 necessary restrictions on our lives gets to you.  Why not give yourself permission to “let it all hang out” on paper—to expel any anger, frustration, or pain that may be building inside as the days continue to move slowly and with increasing monotony.  It’s an exercise for release—and it can even be fun.

Writing Suggestion:

Try writing your own rant.  It can be about anything.  You can use Roseanne Lloyd’s poem as a model or write one in letter form, as in Tony Cross’s “Open Letter to Hummingbirds,” appearing in McSweeneys, 2004, or Canadian comedian Rick Mercer’s video  rants against things like winter, Tim Horton’s and some  people’s behavior during COVID-19 (available on You Tube).   Here is an excerpt from Cross’s letter to hummingbirds:

Dear Hummingbirds,

Hey, would you take it easy already? What’s the freakin’ rush, hummingbirds? I don’t get it—why must you flap your wings so damn fast? You need to chill out.    Here I am, sitting in my garden, quietly reading a book and sipping on a fruit cocktail, and all of a sudden you’re buzzing into my field of vision…

I found the You Tube video rant by Canadian comedian Rick Mercer on seasonal amnesia personally relevant this past weekend. Our balmy spring weather from a week ago turned wintry, and snow flurries completely hid the view from our balcony of downtown Toronto.  I ended up writing my own anti-winter weather rant too…the weather didn’t improve, but my mood did.

The nice thing about writing about difficult emotions or frustrations is that it helps you release them from you body to the page.  You can be honest.  No one needs to see what you’ve written.  You can tear up your rant into a hundred tiny pieces or simply hit the “delete” button when you’re finished writing.  What matters is that you write, without self-criticism, and release the frustration and negative emotions from the body to the page.   Set the timer for fifteen minutes and have at it.   Write a rant.  It can be about anything.  Exorcise those negative emotions or frustrations.  You’ll just might feel better once you do.

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For several days now, my thoughts have  been occupied with Nova Scotia, home to me for over 13 years.  The shock of 22 innocent people shot and killed in a matter of hours has weighed heavily on the minds of so many of us.  It is Canada’s worst mass shooting since 1989, when ‎14 female students died at the hands of a  gunman at Montreal’s ‎École Polytechnique in Montreal.  Stunned, I reached out to old friends, knowing the closeness of the social networks in the Maritimes.  Some of my friends had known the young female Mountie who was killed and her mother, and together with so many others, mourning the loss of life, the senseless and incomprehensible violence perpetrated in the province.

Ironically, perhaps, the memories of the close community of friends I experienced while living in Nova Scotia were also punctuated by unexpected losses:   my first husband’s drowning, two friends dead from AIDS and another from cancer shortly after I moved to Toronto.  Then, yesterday, as I remembered it was the birthday of my dearest Nova Scotia friend, a memory of the telephone call, one I received barely 14 years after my husband’s death, and another of my friends telling me A. had committed suicide.   I felt the waves of shock and sorrow for days.  How, I asked myself countless times, could she have been so distraught to take her own life?  It made no sense to me.  I remembered how she and her husband had been steadfast in their love and offered such extraordinary support for me and my daughters after L.’s death.  To this day, I doubt I could have gotten through that period of grief without their unyielding support and kindness.

“Before you know what kindness really is,” poet Naomi Shihab Nye tells us, “you must lose things…”

feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

(In: The Words Under The Words ©1994)

“How desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness…”  Our world has, in the past many weeks, seemed, at times, desolate as thousands throughout the world have died or lost friends, family and acquaintances during this pandemic.   We have been forced, as individuals and as nations, to re-examine many of the assumptions we’ve held about life:  no one has been immune, and new cases of the COVID 19 virus continue to emerge.  Virtually every country has been in lockdown, financial outlooks seem precarious, and fear and uncertainty of what the future holds when—or if—life returns to normal are rampant.

Yet it’s easy to forget that throughout history, losses of similar proportions have been felt by people all the around the world:  disease, wars, unimaginable hardship and cruelty, starvation, massacres, deadly earthquakes and the unimaginable loss of human life.  In our country, we have been relatively immune to such disasters as other countries.  Yet such tragic loss of human life can ignite sorrow and grief that invade our very being.  For some, they are buried or forgotten until the next tragedy or loss, for others, the heartache and sorrow linger—even re-ignited by a calendar date, a photograph, a sound or a song—and it all comes back. We experience again the weight of loss, and we grieve.

Grief, the psychologists tell us, is the emotional state that accompanies loss, and although normal, when compounded by the unimaginable losses in life, when no explanation or rationale can be found,  the sorrow is deeper, more lasting, and we experience the kind of sorrow that resides in our hearts for a very long time. How can we make sense of these unexpected and even incomprehensible losses we suffer?

I am learning the alchemy of grief, how it must be carefully measured and doled out, inflicted—but I have not yet mastered this art.” –Judith Ortiz Cofer. The Cruel Country, 2015)

Since I began leading my “Writing Through Cancer” programs twenty years ago, death has become a frequent visitor, as cancer always claims the lives of one or more of my writers.  He death of a group member has never become routine, and nor have I developed some protective layer of numbness for those times that one of my writers dies. I am humbled by the medical professionals who, by virtue of their vocation, must continually deal with the loss of human life, for each time a group member’s life is taken by this disease, I must   learn again to confront my grief as well as the collective grief of the group.  Everyone has their way of dealing with the loss of life, but for me, it’s the reason I originally turned to writing and poetry as a way to make sense of sorrow and loss.

I’ve said before that writing, for me, is a kind of prayer.  It takes me deep inside myself and a way to remember, to mourn and yet to articulate what I feel when loss has, again, entered my life.  When words fail me in times of sorrow, and they often do, I turn to reading poetry.   Poets have always written, about human emotion, and their expressions of sorrow and grief helps me mourn, to name what I am feeling, and to take some kind of solace in knowing the sorrow and I loss I am feeling has been understood and put into words by others.  I not only discover new insights, ways of expressing my sorrow, but a kind of solace, a way to gradually let go of the grief I feel.   If you are someone who finds comfort or inspiration  in poetry, I recommend the collection of “Shelter In” poems, offered by readers to the American Academy of Poets during this time of pandemic and social isolation.

I am more aware than ever now that loss is part of our human experience, something we all must deal with, something we all have to learn to make sense of.  Knowing that doesn’t make it easier, but finding ways to put it in to words or discovering wisdom in the word of others helps to make it bearable and to let it go.  As Mary Oliver so beautifully reminded us:

To live in this world

 You must be able

to do three things:

you love what is mortal;

you hold it

 against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.

(“In Blackwater Woods,” In:  American Primitive, 1983)

Writing Suggestions:

  • Create a kind of balance sheet:  in one column, list the names of people you have lost; in the other, the acts of kindness you have experienced or discovered in loss.  What insights emerge?  What have you learned about loss, grief or sorrow?
  • Re-examine periods of significant loss in your life.  Has your experience helped you to see things in a different life?
  • Try expressing your feelings of grief or sorrow in a poem.  Stuck?  Model your poem after a poem you like or use the first line of someone else’s poem as a beginning.

 

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