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Why should we travel back, who’ve come so far— 

We know who we are. 

How can we be the same 

As those quaint ancestors we have left behind, who share our name— 

( by A. E. Stallings, “Written on the eve of my 20th high school reunion, which I was not able to attend”, In: Poetry, 2008)

It begins with a photograph, one of the few from my childhood I have, nearly all others destroyed when my parents’ home, the one I grew up in, went up in flames many years ago.  In it, we are in his mother’s living room, a drawing of the famous “End of the Trail” sculpture by James Earle Fraser, hangs on the wall behind.   I stand by my father, now seeing the resemblance between us—his high forehead, the set of his mouth and narrow face.  I was four, not yet in kindergarten.  My toddler sister stands in front of me, wide-eyed and inquisitive, a mop of curly dark hair framing her face, but   I stand back, close to my father, shy and somber. My hair is neatly braided, tied with large bows, and I’m wearing my favorite Mary Jane shoes with white socks, the straps buckled around my ankles.  I stare at the camera, unsmiling. My discomfort with the camera will last all my life, as will the shyness, which I will work hard to overcome in my adult years.  If I could, now speak to that four year old girl, what wisdom might I have to offer to her?  What care?  What encouragement?

One of the recent exercises I offered in my writing groups these past weeks was the task of looking back at their younger selves, imagining who they were then—what dreams, fears, and hopes they might have had at a much younger age.  I ask the group members to imagine themselves at a younger age, remembering an old photograph of themselves, or, if writing alone, to choose a photo of one’s self at a much younger age.  Then I introduce the prompt by saying something like, “Study the photograph or take time with that image of the younger you in your mind, noticing all the details:  stance, facial expression, eyes, age, clothing, setting, all the details you can take in.   Now, think about who you are now, what you’ve experienced in your life thus far, and knowing what you have experienced and lived as of now,, what would you say to that younger self? What advice would you give the younger you?”

Interestingly, a similar question was at the heart of two studies reported in The Scientific American in 2019, Robin Kowalski and Annie McCord, of Clemson University, asked more than 400 individuals about the advice they’d offer to their younger selves.  They also asked if there had been a pivotal event in the respondents’ lives that influenced their responses.  The majority of answers people gave fell within the categories of relationships, education, and advice do with the self, for example, “believe in yourself.”  Other categories reported included money, health, goals, and addiction.  Not surprisingly, peoples’ advice often reflected missed opportunities and situations that they could not now change.  But some other responses included reflection on circumstances where “corrective action” could still be taken if one was motivated to change, for example, “finish school,” or “drink less and run more.”

For many, their advice to their younger selves related to a positive or negative pivotal event in their lives, most often occurring in the teens, early 20s or 30s. For some, there were regrets expressed in the reminiscing, but the authors wisely remarked that although advice may offer advice to your younger self, it doesn’t mean you must live with regret.  Some of that advice may well be useful to your present self.  Besides, the practice of occasionally reflecting on your past and your experiences may also inform your present and the ways in which you want to change or live your life going forward. 

I return to study the photograph of my four year old self again.  I still remember the events of that day; I feel tenderness toward that serious little girl in the photograph because she’d accidentally witnessed an argument between her mother and her beloved grandmother in the kitchen. There was a kind of anger between them I hadn’t seen before, and I was confused.  Why were they shouting at one another? How had my petite grandmother had the strength to shove my sturdy mother backwards?  What had made them so very angry at one another?  How could I love them both at the same time?  There is much I would say now, these many years later, to that confused little four-year-old girl.

Looking back may bring up old unresolved feelings or emotions, but there is a plus side too. In doing so, we can learn from the past and how it can inform our present, even our future intentions. Looking back can give us an opportunity to take stock of past experiences and life choices and learn from them. It also reminds us and helps us see of how far we’ve come, and appreciate the life we have.    As Derek Walcott expressed so beautifully in his poem, “Love after Love,”

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

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

(In:   Collected Poems, 1948-1984)

Writing Suggestion:

Try writing to that younger self.  Begin with a photograph of yourself at a younger age.  Examine the younger self who looks back at you.   Study it, noticing not only the features, look in the eyes, the facial expression, your stance.  Take time to remember who you were then, your hopes, dreams, fears, sorrows, and questions.

  • How would you describe the person you’ve become from the one you were then?
  • What was it like to be you then? 
  • What hopes and dreams did you have? 
  • What desires?  What worries? 
  • What advice, what words do you want to offer to that younger self.
  • What, in your life now, do you want to change?

Remember, looking back at your past, your younger self, can be more than a passing reminiscence.  Reflecting on who you were then, who you’ve become, can help you feel gratitude for your life but also clarify how the way you want to live going forward and things you want to achieve or change as your life continues.

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Like you, there have been many times in my life that questions seemed to dominate my thoughts far more frequently than answers.  In my youth, my burning questions were often about whether or not some high school “love” interest “liked” me or not.  I was terribly shy around the opposite sex, and at the time, as tall or taller than many of the boys in my class, which only increased my insecurities in the arena of teen-age romance.  Then there were questions about college:  Which one?  Where?  Would I do well?  What if I didn’t? 

Some years later and newly married, my first husband and I contemplated his choice of graduate schools.  Questions dominated our conversations for months. In the end, we opted for adventure (it was the time of youthful idealism and protests) and ended up in Ottawa, where he began his doctoral studies.  We were wholly unprepared for Canadian winters or the loneliness we felt at the time, but gradually, Canada began to be “home” to us, especially in the years after his death.    Decades later, after returning to California for several years with my new husband, he announced his decision to retire from academic life.  We had our own questions, but family, friends and acquaintances peppered us with their questions.   “What are you two planning to do now?”  “You’re returning to Canada? Why?”  Their questions prompted our questions of one another: “But what would we do there?”  “What about our friends?”  “Will we sell our house?”  “What if we spent six months there and six months here?” 

Our transition revealed not only questions, but the realization that we didn’t always share the same wishes and wants for our “What’s Next?” chapter.  Nights were often punctuated by restlessness, the questions invading my dreams.  My notebook was filled with questions, a continuous loop of repetition, and I wasn’t finding any answers in what I wrote.  I don’t quite remember how long it took or when, but we stumbled into a joint decision, downsized our lives, sold our home, and watched as the movers loaded up the van with our worldly belongings and set out, as we did, for Toronto. 

This past weekend, I presented a workshop for Young Adult Cancer Canada (YACC) on the subject of writing for health and specifically, writing alone.  The willingness to “live the questions,” to find yourself groping in the darkness, are part of what writing honestly demands. The answers, in life or in fiction, are revealed as you write, gradually writing yourself into knowing, but not without making your way through the dark before stumbling on a new insight..  E.L. Doctorow, author of the award novels Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, famously remarked that when one sits down to write a novel, “You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.”  

Life doesn’t come with a set of answers, but it is riddled with questions.  It’s like making our journey in that darkness of the unknown at times.  We navigate through it as best as we can, deal with unexpected events, difficult chapters, the illnesses and losses we experience.  Cancer is one of those unwelcome chapters in your life, and the journey through it is not unlike what Doctorow describes.  You survive the shock of diagnosis, the worry and after-effects of surgery and chemotherapy, roller coaster of recovery, but despite all that, you can’t see very far ahead.  There are no certainties.  Your life is punctuated by more questions than answers. “Has the treatment worked? How likely is my cancer to recur?  What if it has metastasized and is lurking somewhere else in my body? Stage four?  Then how long do I have?”  No one can offer you certainty.  You navigate through it all in the same way Doctorow described of writing, able to see only a short distance along the path, but gradually finding your way into the answers.

 “Questions in the Mind of the Poet While She Washes Her Floors, “a poem by” Elena Georgiou, poses several questions, ones that play in in the poet’s mind, and like life, don’t come with answers.  Here is an excerpt:


Am I a peninsula slowly turning into an island?

If I grew up gazing at the ocean would I think
life came in waves?

If I were a nomad would I measure time
by the length of a footstep?

If I can see a cup drop to the floor and shatter
why can’t I see it gather itself back together?

If a surgeon cut out my mistakes
would the scar be under my heart?

How much time will I spend protecting myself
from what the people I love call love?

Would my desires feel different if I lived forever?

  (In:  Mercy Mercy Me, © 2000)

Georgiou offers no answers to the reader.  Nor did Austrian novelist and poet, Maria Rainer Rilke (1875-1926) when he offered advice to a youthful protégé, published in his wise little book, Letters to a Young Poet.   “Don’t search for the answers,” he wrote, “which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Live everything.  Live the questions…  Live the questions nowLive your way into the answer.   I have often quoted Rilke to the men and women who attend my writing workshops.  His words are as insightful now as they were over a century ago.  Whether cancer or embarking on a significant change, living through the questions is not easy, yet it is all you can do. Your task is to be present, to pay attention and live life fully.  Not surprisingly, when you do, you often stumble upon the answers you seek. 

Writing Suggestions:

  • Whether you’re wrestling with the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis or some other unexpected life challenge, make a list of the questions that keep replaying in your mind.  Choose one and for 15 minutes, explore it as you write.
  • Recall an earlier time in life when you faced the unknown.  What questions did you have then, and how did you find your way into the answers?  Are there insights that may pertain to your current challenges?  Write about that time, the questions and how they were resolved.
  • You might use one or two of the poet Elena Georgiou’s questions as your prompt.  Choose it and again, writing nonstop for 15 minutes.  Then read over what you’ve written, underline those words or phrases that stand out.  In a day or two, you might begin with one of those phrases you underlined and explore it more deeply.  You just might discover some wisdom that leads you to some of the answers you’ve been searching for.

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Six o’clock in the morning is never a good time to encounter one’s image in the mirror.  Certainly not for me.  My eyes still heavy from sleep, hair askew, and face washed clean of make-up the night before, I see a face that looks more and more like my father’s in his older years, and less and less like the image of myself I carry in my head, the one when I was somewhere around thirty-five, the barest hint of lines forming around my eyes, my hair thicker, longer and a shiny chestnut brown.  Some mornings, more frequent in these long, mind-numbing weeks of the continuing pandemic, I stare in disbelief at the reflection that looks back at me.  “What happened?” I mutter to my reflection.  “When did I become this older, grayer self? “

In the 1991 award winning Irish film, The Commitments, a mirror figures into the storyline as an ambitious Jimmy Rabbitte cobbles together a group of misfits into an almost-famous American style soul band.  The group briefly succeeds then falls short of stardom, due, in large part to their inter-band bickering. But Jimmy imagines fame, and in several charming sequences converses with himself in the mirror, pretending he is the interviewer and the interviewee,.  By the film’s end, the band has failed, and Jimmy is once again back at the mirror, reflecting on their demise and what he has learned from the experience.

We all have hopes and dreams, and some of them are tied to the fantasy that our bodies will never age or at least, not betray us.   We learn to deal with aging, that gentle nudge of reality as our joints stiffen or our hair thins or turns grey.  But when our dreams and desires are thwarted and we’re confronted with unexpected obstacles or events, we’re forced to reconsider and reflect, just as Jimmy Rabbitte, on what happened and why.

Cancer is only one of the life events that throws our lives into turmoil.  When that happens, we’re forced to re-evaluate and change, and that’s not a task for the faint-hearted, confronting the self we imagined ourselves to be and the thwarted dreams and hopes we once envisioned.  Even though they can be challenging, those necessary re-evaluations of our lives can be enlightening.

I recently read Between Two Kingdoms, the inspiring memoir by Suelika Jaouad (2021).  At 22, Jaouad was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and given a 35% chance of survival.  Her hopes and dreams dashed, much of her life was spent in and out of hospital for the next five years until a successful bone marrow transplant put her cancer in remission.  While Jaouad had waged a heroic struggle during her illness and emerged cancer-free, she realized that though she’d survived cancer, she no longer knew how to live.  She embarked on a 100-day journey, accompanied only by her dog, travelling across the United States to visit people who had written her letters of support during her illness. Her journey also gave her the needed time to reflect on her five-year cancer ordeal and how it had altered her life and shattered the dreams she once had.  How would she re-define her life now that she was finally cancer-free?  In an NPR interview, Jaouad remarked, “The truth is that, for me, the hardest part of my cancer experience began once the cancer was gone…But being cured is not where the work of healing ends. It’s where it begins.”

It’s a different spin on healing, isn’t it?  Healing involves not only looking back, but the hard work of re-defining dreams and goals that are no longer relevant to who we have become.  Life teaches us, through unexpected disruptions, hardships, and disappointments that we can take nothing for granted.  And more, it means we have to take a tough look at ourselves in our own mirrors and come to terms with how our lives have changed—something Jimmy Rabitte and Suelika Jaouad also experienced.

It’s a process of slowing down, making the time to reflect and revise the way we want to live our lives.  It’s not unlike the hero’s journey we read in a good memoir: a vulnerable, searching narrator tries to make sense of his or her life in the wake of tragedy, upheaval or hardship.  Each is slowly transformed by their experience, and their lives changed.   This isn’t a struggle confined to memoir or fiction: our lives demand the same journey of us in the aftermath of any upheaval, tragedy, or life-threatening illness.  We too must hold up our metaphorical mirrors, remember who we were, but accept and honor who we have become; who we are now.   

LOVE AFTER LOVE
by Derek Walcott

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 own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

(Collected Poems, 1948 – 1984)

Writing Exercise

Begin with a photograph of your younger self—before cancer.    Reflect: What was important to you then?  What hopes and dreams did you have?

Then, compare that younger self to the person you are now, after the experience of cancer, of life having left its mark, visible or not. Reflect on how your life has changed.   What dreams, hopes or goals do you have for yourself now?

(If you’re having trouble getting started, use a simple “brainstorming” exercise, making a list of “I used to be ________________ but now I’m________________.  Then choose one or two of the points and expand them in your writing.)

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 Cancer is no laughing matter.  And as we’ve discovered, neither is the continuing presence of COVID-19.

Yet if you happened to pass by a meeting room in a cancer center or overhear the Zoom sessions where I lead writing programs those living with cancer, laughter is something you’ll hear.  Even though we’re writing about the emotional impact accompanying a cancer diagnosis, laughter is always part of our sessions.  Counterintuitive perhaps, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that laughter is good medicine, just as Norman Cousins described in his 1979 book, Anatomy of an Illness.  Cousins wasn’t the first to advocate for the healing power of laughter.  Mark Twain had already done so, writing, “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that’s laughter,” he said.  “The moment it arises, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.” 

I grew up in an extended family who loved telling humorous stories and sharing laughter together.  Losses were mourned, yes, but soon afterward, the funny stories that were associated with the relative were told regularly at our family holiday gatherings.  And more than anything, I remember the fun of sitting among my aunts and uncles and sharing the memories and the laughter.  Life became brighter; there was no time for a bad mood, and somehow, the humor seemed to bind us more closely together. 

The power of laughter to help us heal is so great that some time ago, reading a 2015 issue of CURE Today Magazine, it didn’t entirely surprise me that, according to author Jeannette Moninger, many hospitals across America offer laughter programs for cancer patients, no doubt inspired by Norman Cousin’s experience and the research on laughter’s benefits. Moninger described a few: 

At North Kansas City Hospital, patients can watch funny movies…Duke Medicine offers a Laugh Mobile, a rolling cart from which adult patients in oncology wards can check out humorous books and silly items like whoopee cushions and rubber chickens.  And the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Program sends…clowns to 16 children’s hospitals nationwide to help put smiles on the faces of ill children… 

Even as far back as the 13th century, surgeons used humor to distract patients from the agony of painful medical procedures.  (Given the absence of anesthesia, laughter had to be good medicine!)  Those early surgeons were on to something, borne out since by many research studies since.   Laugh, and not only the world laughs with you: your body releases endorphins, the “feel good hormones that function as the body’s natural painkillers,” Moninger states, “the same hormones that create the “runner’s high.”  Endorphins also decrease the body’s levels of cortisol, the hormone associated with chronic stress.  In fact, cortisol has a number of negative effects on our bodies, compromising our immune system, tensing up our muscles, elevating blood pressure—all of which laughter helps to counteract. 

We all need a little laughter in our lives, no matter if we’re dealing with cancer or in this extended time of COVID—whether in person or, as many of us are now, on Zoom with friends and family.  Laughter helps to overcome loneliness and the mild depression that many of us are combatting in these extended lockdowns.  We need to laugh just as much as sometimes, we need to cry.  As cancer survivor Jim Higley wrote in a 2012 issue of the magazine, Coping with Cancer, laughter became invaluable during his treatment and recovery:

when you are raised with the gift of laughter, as I was, it can’t stay suppressed forever. It’s too powerful. Thank goodness for that. I eventually could see bits of “ha-ha” in my own life. Certainly not in the cancer, but in the mind-blowing circumstances that suddenly consumed my life. And laughing at parts of those experiences made me feel a little more alive.

The funniest part of it all was that the more I allowed myself to laugh, the more therapeutic my tears became.

(“Finding Humor in the Midst of Cancer,” Coping with Cancer, March/April 2012)

Try it. It’s good to find something—even a small thing—to smile or laugh about.  Yesterday, my husband and I recalled the humorous story of my first—and last—blind date.  My grandson, age 12, has decided he can cheer up his grandparents by sending us emails from Japan, filled with various memes and online games, ones I have tried and failed to win, which amuses him and, of course, me.  Just the fact he has written with so many “resources” for humor counteracts the greyness of our COVID lockdown life.  It’s an email full of smiles.

Writing Suggestion:

Find a little laughter in your life this week.  Dig back into your memories this week—the fun times, when you laughed so hard, tears ran down your cheeks.  Take a break from writing about and instead, try writing a little humor.  (Even a medical experience can have humor at times.  I was once diagnosed as having a “loose screw” after suffering swelling and pain in my forehead, where I do have a steel plate.  It wasn’t a loose screw, as it turned out, just a need for taking antibiotics before dental work.  But the diagnosis gave us a good laugh, helped relieve the worry and got me to another specialist for a second opinion—one who provided the solution to my forehead discomfort).

Perhaps you have a few memories of times that made you smile, even laugh aloud whenever you think about them.  Write one, that funny story, and let a little “ha, ha” brighten your day..  After all, as Charlie Chaplin said, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.”

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I admit it.  The months of waiting, of social isolation, the greyness of winter, and more waiting for the promised vaccines have upended any of my resolve to remain calm, positive, and creative.  I wrote about “the long wait” earlier this month for my “writing the heart” blog, and this morning, searching for inspiration, I perused several of my blog posts for the past year, particularly those concerning the initial fear as COVID-19 became a daily reality for all of us, and life began to be defined by social distancing and “shelter in place.”  The summer months brought a kind of reprieve, although my husband and I, both in the “higher risk” category, remained cautious in our movements and interactions. 

Now, approaching a year later, I feel increasingly like I’m living some version of the Bill Murray film “Groundhog Day,” awakening each morning to a kind of mental sludge, reminding myself of what day it is, and yet attempting to maintain some semblance of normal routines…making the bed, sweeping the floor, planning what to cook for dinner, and even yet, writing every morning in the quiet.  That’s where my real mental and emotional state are expressed.  I can barely fill a page in my notebook some mornings.  Any attempts at creativity are more often futile than not.  Occasionally I manage a silly, rhyming poem that, at the least, can make my husband laugh, but even those efforts have become less frequent.  So I was strangely pleased to discover an article in the British newspaper, THE GUARDIAN, this weekend with the title, “Writer’s blockdown:  after a year inside, novelists are struggling to write.”

Well, I’m no prize-winning novelist, but writing is a significant part of my life, so I read the article immediately, feeling some sense of “oh thank goodness, it’s not just me” as I did.  “Drab days, author William Sutcliffe remarked.  “Last night I had a dream about unloading the dishwasher.”  “I can’t connect with my imagination,” Linda Grant, a prize-winning novelist said  “My whole brain is tied up with processing, processing, processing what’s going on in the world.”  She described “waking up in a fog and not wanting to do anything but watch rubbish TV.”  Well, I will now admit I have all but exhausted every British crime drama on Brit Box over the many months of our COVID pandemic life.  It’s just an example of what another author calls “pandemic fatigue” that is affecting everyone.  “Life,” Grant said, “is just a sea of greyness, of timelessness,” sentiments I often share.  Even my reading list has become populated with “easy” reads, like detective novels, a genre I rarely indulged in before COVID, just pure escapism.  And the creative cooking I did for several months?  Gone.  My motivation for trying new recipes, those once weekly batches of scones or even the occasional cake has completely vanished.  Worse, my morning writing is top heavy with greyness and anxiety before I finally settle into “healthier” prose, sometimes the occasional inspiration for one of my workshops or a silly poem for a friend or family member. 

Of course, it doesn’t help my anxiety that my U.S. friends and family members have cheerfully announced they’ve gotten their vaccinations, unaware, perhaps, of Canada’s vaccination delays.  Where we were hopeful toward the end of 2020 that we’d also have ours by now, it’s less and less likely we’ll feel that needle jab in our arms before April. That only feeds my anxiety as the delay persists, and we read reports of more infectious variants. As a “higher risk” candidate, I find I am driven to compulsively read the national and provincial COVID-19 updates daily, despite the fact I know it rarely helps my mood.  We also worry for those who’ve lost their jobs, their shops and businesses as the pandemic lockdowns continue.  What will life be like when this is over? It’s hard to find much that’s uplifting in all of this, and my daily mantras and meditations aren’t helping much at the moment. 

 It’s cold comfort, perhaps, but I am hardly alone in this–far from it. So many people are suffering far more than we are.  So while I allow my worry to surface or write a rant sometimes to let off steam, I am fully aware how important it is I don’t end up in self-pity for more than the briefest of periods.  I’ve learned to close my notebook and turn to other pursuits when I realize I’m heading down the rabbit hole.

“This too shall pass,” my mother would say at any time we had an upset in our childhood…we grew tired of her pat phrase, but now, I can hear her voice in my mind, those same four words repeated again and again.  While I never found them very helpful in relieving whatever angst or youthful heartbreak I was feeling, I now find variations of that same theme in the words of poets I have long admired.  I guess there’s some truth in my mother’s mantra.

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

Buds that open out of season will become

     interesting…

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

Writing Suggestions

–Fed up with waiting?  Set the timer for 15 minutes.  Try writing a rant, just “dumping” all your worry and frustration on the page.  When time is up, stop.

–Re-read what you’ve written.  What stands out? Now, start with the one thing that seems most important and, setting the timer again for another 15 minutes, explore what’s beneath the frustration.

–How are you coping with the extended period of social isolation and lockdown?  What helps?  What doesn’t?  Write a humorous “prescription” for coping with this extended wait.

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I’ve been thinking about loss and losing things as I and my long-time friends grow older, although it seems to on my mind more often in this long year of living with the COVID-19 pandemic.  There are many months ahead before we might be able to declare an “end” to it, but a return to something called “normal” life is likely to take even longer.  What will we have lost?  What will we have learned?  What will “normal” be like?

I think of the losses—not just the deaths suffered—but all the other losses suffered by so many:  large and small businesses going bust; jobs lost by so many people; the loss of freedoms during these necessary lockdowns that we took for granted…and so much more.

In the coming week, I’m beginning another expressive writing workshop for Gilda’s Club here in Toronto, and as I think about the sessions and the men and women who will attend, I think of the losses of cancer brings with it and how COVID-19 may add to the stress of living with a cancer diagnosis and the fear of loss.

What do you lose when you’re diagnosed and treated for cancer?  There are physical loses and emotional ones.  Some permanent; some temporary.  I thought back to one of my earlier writing groups a few years ago. A dozen people, all living with cancer, seated around the table with their notebooks open as I offered a short “warm-up” writing prompt at the beginning of the session..    

“What’s on your mind this morning?  What thoughts or concerns have accompanied you to our group?”  Within seconds, only the rustle of paper and pens could be heard, as everyone bowed their heads and wrote.   A few minutes later, I sounded the chime and asked, “Who wants to read what you’ve written?”  One woman, her head covered by a brightly colored scarf, quickly raised her hand. 

 “I’m angry about losing my hair,” she began.  “It was always long and full, and it’s was my signature.”  She looked up from her notebook, eyes red and teary.  Several of women nodded sympathetically.  I recalled my own embarrassment when, as a teenager, I sported a bald head twice after two neurosurgeries.  I had no choice but to cover my bare head and the ear-to-ear scar with brightly colored scarves as I returned to school after surgery.   I remember how vulnerable I felt without my hair, how embarrassed, and how I prayed no one would make fun of me.  

It grew back, of course, just as the young women’s hair did, becoming full and long again over time.  She was one of the lucky ones, just as I was; her hair loss was temporary.  She recovered and regained a full head of hair and an active life—in contrast to other group members, who’d lost far more than their hair. 

When I invite the participants to write about loss, temporary hair or diminished energy during treatment aren’t at the top of the list.  Bodies are altered by surgeries and scars.  Dreams are lost. Friends are lost.  Loved ones are lost—whether by death or by the dynamics of families unable to come together in crisis.  Although many may return to a so-called “normal” life, their lives are rarely the same as they were before cancer.  

Being human demands that we come to terms with different losses at different times in our lives, small or large. We all experience them.   Life requires our continual adjustment to the changing seasons of being alive and learning to let go of old ways of being that no longer serve us or are possible. It’s not easy, this business of loss and losing.  Yet, it is the thing we all are challenged to master—and learn from.

Then we couldn’t help expressing grief

So many things descended without warning:

labor wasted, loves lost, houses gone,

marriages broken, friends estranged,

ambitions worn away by immediate needs.

Words lined up in our throats

for a good whining.

Grief seemed like an endless river—

the only immortal flow of life.

After losing a land and then giving up a tongue,

we stopped talking of grief

Smiles began to brighten our faces.

We laugh a lot, at our own mess.

Things become beautiful,

even hailstones in the strawberry fields.

(From: “Ways of Talking, “by Ha Jin, in Facing Shadows,  1996)

Writing Suggestion:

Write about loss this week, about losing something—small or large—whether from cancer, life changes, unexpected tragedies or challenges.    Write what you felt.  Describe how you came to accept and move forward from the losses you suffered. 

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The new year always brings us what we want
Simply by bringing us along—to see
A calendar with every day uncrossed,
A field of snow without a single footprint.


(From: “New Year’s” by Dana Goia, from Interrogations at Noon, 2001)

For several days now, I have been reflecting on the year gone by, 2020, the year of a pandemic, of social isolation, masks and lockdowns…a year unlike any I’ve experienced before, challenging my assumptions about life and living, daily reports of escalating cases of COVID and of deaths.  An undercurrent of caution, of worry seeping into my daily life…hope, much of the year, seemed elusive, and I struggled, some days, to dig myself out of a persistent case of the blues.

Rewinding the mental tape of the year just passed, I recalled my intention, the choice of my guiding word, for 2020. “Calm.”   It has been impossible to miss, this word, displayed, as I do each year, in a small frame on the bookshelf in my office.  A word that confronted me every single day of the past year, but a one, given the landscape of 2020, that fell by the wayside within weeks of the first COVID case in Canada.  Calm was all but absent in the context of this past year for me.  I fall into the category of “higher risk” where COVID is concerned, and given the political tension and upheaval in the US too difficult to ignore, my days were nagged by a persistent undercurrent of worry and low-level anxiety.  I tried, for a time, to live with “calm” daily, but despite frequent self-admonitions, attempts at meditation and extended periods of deep breathing, it didn’t work.  Tension and anxiety were my regular visitors.  Any pretense of calm was just that, utter and complete pretense.

With the daily onslaught of reporting—which I tried not to read and failed miserably—whether about new numbers of COVID cases and deaths or the nearly unbelievable reports of the circus surrounding the US presidential campaign and election, hope was nearly nonexistent, at best, a slender thread that seemed to be growing fainter each day.  My notebook attests to the dark cloud that grew and hovered overhead.  I wrote, as is my daily habit, but increasingly, I found myself going down the rabbit hole more than a few times.  Gradually, I found a reprieve in the daily practice of making explicit my gratitude for those on the front lines, unexpected kindnesses, shared laughter, and little surprises or inspiration from others. 

Articulating gratitude became the most important habit in my daily life, the one that balanced out the tension, complaints, worry or depression.  It served to remind me of the gifts I have in my life vs. what I didn’t.  Making gratitude explicit in a daily list, halted those self-defeating thoughts and forced me to be quiet, observe, and remember all that enriches my life.  It’s what I want to carry into this new year, a spirit of gratitude.

2021.  Hope, where the pandemic is concerned, is within reach, even though there is still much healing ahead of us in the coming months.  Yet as I say good-bye to this tumultuous and difficult year, I do not want to forget all that has happened around the world and there is yet much work to do for the good of all people:  eliminating disease, hunger, poverty, violence, racism, and wanton disregard for this fragile planet.

It’s no surprise that the guiding word I have chosen for 2021 is simply “gratitude.”  It’s not only a way of remembering what is good in my life, but hopefully, makes me more aware and intentional in responding to others with kindness, generosity, and forgiveness.  This is the only life I’ve got—gratitude also ensures I am intentional in how I live it, and the kind of footprint I leave in each day of the year ahead.

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?

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?

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 –

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

(“You Reading This, Be Ready,” by William Stafford, from The Way It Is, 1992)

Writing Suggestions:

.  What is the word or intention you have for this new year?  Write it down, exploring the reasons you have chosen this one word to frame your intention.

.  I’m not one for resolutions, since I rarely followed through on the vast majority of them, despite my good intentions!  But if resolutions for the new year are your preference, then write them out—and also spend some time exploring the reasons for each one you’ve chosen.

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I’ve been trying to summon up something that resembles the “Christmas spirit,” muted by this time of social isolation and continuing lockdowns.  For years, our holidays were filled with family traditions, memories, and the excitement of Santa’s arrival during the night of December 24th— all re-experienced years in the wide-eyed excitement of our grandchildren.  Now they are old enough to know that Santa Claus isn’t “real,” but their joy and excitement are as fresh as ever, and sharing the holidays with them, re-kindles our own memories of our childhood Christmases.

Yet this year, with COVID cases rising again at a disturbing rate, we will, like so many others, be spending our Christmas alone. Isolated from my daughters by distance or the pandemic, the usual magic of Christmas tree trimming, colored lights everywhere, holiday carols, and the remembrance of Santa Claus seem like distant memories.   At times we struggle to quell our anxiety and cling to hope—as so many others in a time time that has unended our sense of well-being, community, and hope.  The vaccine can’t come soon enough—but even as it begins to arrive, then what will “normal” life look like?  What losses are yet to be fully realized?  There are challenges yet we will all face.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Christmases past—those that were joyful; others that were accompanied by losses and difficulties.  I’ve remembered childhood, when Christmas was a magical time, and I, like all the children my age, believed in Santa Claus.  Those memories also reminded me of the time I discovered Santa really didn’t exist…

Third grade. I was eight years old, and it was early December, shortly before our Christmas break. I arrived at school morning and was hanging up my winter coat in the cloakroom when my two best friends came in and pulled me aside.  “Guess what,” they whispered, “There is no Santa Claus!” I stood stock still, trying to take in what they were telling me.   Santa, they said, was made up.  He was something for little children, not for 8 year old girls like us.  “It’s your mom and dad,” they whispered conspiratorially. They buy all the presents and put them under the tree.  Santa Claus isn’t real. He’s just for little kids!”  They smiled smugly, watching to see my reaction.

 “I know,” I said quietly. I didn’t want to appear stupid, but I was embarrassed, because the truth of the matter was this: I still believed in Santa Claus, even in third grade.  Besides, I had a younger sister and brother, so Santa Claus was very much alive in our home.  I returned home after school that day with the weight of an awful secret on my shoulders. Should I should tell my parents I knew there really was no Santa after all?  In the end, I said nothing and a day or two later, my sister and I came down with the chicken pox, just days before the Christmas break.  There would be no visit to sit on Santa’s lap that year.

Shortly after dinner, Christmas eve, a loud knock sounded at the front door and we heard a deep voice saying, “ho, ho, ho.”

“I wonder who that might be,” my father said, winking at my mother as he went to open the door.  Santa Claus, somewhat slenderer than I had imagined, stepped into the front room.   “Ho, ho, ho,” he said again, then took his big bag of presents from his shoulder and sat in the chair my father offered, telling us to come close to Santa. I could only stare, the secret told to me by my friends burning in my brain. Was this really Santa or just someone pretending?

There’s an old black and white photograph from that long ago Christmas eve:  my little brother sits on Santa’s knee, my wide-eyed sister next to him, while I am seated farthest from him, doubt clearly etched on my face.   I still remember how much I wanted to believe it was really Santa Claus sitting with us, but I couldn’t. I was now old enough to know better.

Early the next morning, , I tiptoed to the living room before the rest of the family awakened, eager to see the presents which had appeared under the tree during the night.  Our colored tree lights had been left on and the were drapes open to make them visible to passers-by.  I knelt at the big picture window and looked out:  snow had fallen during the night, frosting streets and sidewalks a sparkly white.  That’s when I saw him—Santa Claus. He was opening the gate to a neighbor’s house just three doors down from ours and walking inside.   For an almost magical moment, the possibility of Santa Claus’s existence lingered that Christmas morning, snow glistening in the morning sunlight, as I watched a bearded man in a red Santa suit disappearing inside, an empty burlap bag slung over his shoulder.

I stopped believing in Santa for good after that year, but the memory of that last glimpse of him, remained for a time–the faint hope he might exist. It was about what it meant to grow older and be conflicted: not wanting cling to childish beliefs, and yet, reluctant to let go of the magic of Santa Claus for just a bit longer.  There would be similar life lessons repeated many times in my life—broken dreams, discovered truths that were hard but necessary to accept, losses of people and beliefs I thought never could happen.  But that’s life, isn’t it?  We all come to terms with the difficult parts as well as the good, and somehow, we still find hope, good, and love in the midst of life’s most challenging moments–maybe even magic or miracles… just like that earnest eight year-old gazing out the window on a Christmas morning, the first snow glistening, while a man in a Santa suit disappeared into a house and rekindled a hope that maybe, just maybe, Santa existed.

It is probably why I still love the famous letter written by Francis Church, then a writer for the New York Sun, responding to eight year-old Virginia O’Hanlon’s letter asking, “Please tell me the truth.  Is there a Santa Claus?” Church was given the task of responding to her.  He wrote:

     Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.

     We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.  (From: “Is There a Santa Claus?”The New York Sun,September 21, 1897)

I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to give up on the spirt of Santa Claus, of the generosity, kindness, courage and gratitude I have for the gifts of life I have experienced during my lifetime. It’s those memories and qualities that keep me going and give me courage and hope.

To all those reading this blog, I wish you a holiday season that includes the warmth of friends and family, however far apart we must be this year, and for year ahead, hope and healing.

Happy Holidays.

Writing Suggestions

The December holidays are full of memories. Whatever your traditions, write about some of the most “alive” memories you have of this time of year–what stands out for you?

Did you believe in Santa Clause when you were a child? When did you stop? Was it any specific event that changed your belief? Write about it.

What, in this year’s holiday season, will be different for you? How are you making it–or not–a time of celebration, even without the usual activities,family or friends as part of it?

What’s most important for you to remember this holiday season? Why?

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When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut…
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

(excerpt, “When Death Comes,” by Mary Oliver, in New & Selected Poems, 2004)

This morning, the newspaper headlines announced Canada’s COVID-19 death numbers had surpassed 10,000, clear evidence of the continuing second wave of this pandemic in our lives.  I try not to spend too much time reading about the COVID-19 statistics now; to do so only increases my anxiety and more, is a stark reminder that we are far from an end to this current state of social distancing, lockdowns, and face masks as a necessary part of our daily attire.  My husband and I are both high risk—he, a cancer survivor, me, living with heart failure, and both of us older. In these times, that fear of mortality can easily creep into my thoughts, usually late at night, a shadowy presence that is the evitability of life. 

This past weekend, I gave a Zoom session on journaling at the National Symposium for Ovarian Cancer Canada. After introducing a short writing exercise on fear, one attendee offered to read what she’d written:  an emotional admission that the fear of death that is constantly in her thoughts—echoing what many of those attending the session were feeling—and in a time of a pandemic, the prospect of death, of grief, seems to be much nearer. 

We haven’t lost any of our friends or family to COVID-19, but we have lost some people dear to us from cancer recently, which forces the topic of mortality and grieving out in the open.   My husband and I have talked about the grief of a friend’s partner in the past weeks, even though his death was expected as any further treatment options for his cancer had been exhausted.   His death and his wife’s loss reminded me of the death of my husband’s brother-in-law a few years ago, and his sister’s grief.  His death was not unexpected either; he’d endured an agonizing four year battle with bladder cancer, but his wife’s grief had been held in abeyance as treatment after treatment failed, the medical expenses increased, and he clung to life and hoped for a miracle. 

But the dam broke after he died.  I telephoned my sister-in-law the morning my husband boarded the airplane to fly to Seattle for Ed’s funeral.  It rang several times before Joan answered.  She had been crying and quickly apologized.  “I’m sorry,” she said, “I just went into his room and saw how empty it is, and…He’s gone, Sharon,” she said, her voice heavy with sorrow and exhaustion.  “He’s been my life for sixty-four years.” 

It is hard to give up after months of making lists,

phoning doctors, fighting entropy.  But when the end comes,

a bending takes over, empties the blood of opposition

and with a gentle skill, injects a blessed numbness…

(From “Numb,” by Florence Weinberger, in The Cancer Poetry Project, 2001)

There’s a great deal written about dealing with the loss of a loved one from cancer, and while some may think of grief as a single instance or short time of pain or sadness in response to the loss—like the tears shed at a loved one’s funeral—as the American Cancer Society reminds us, the real process of grieving lasts much longer and involves the entire emotional process of coping with the loss.

This morning, I plan on touching base with the friend whose husband died a few weeks ago from prostate cancer.    I check in with her every couple of weeks, remembering too well that emptiness after a spouse’s death, after the calls, sympathy cards, and flowers, and the the reality of living without one’s loved one—the unexpected emptiness in the home, the silences, and diminishment of calls from acquaintances.  The loneliness.   In our last conversation, she described what she’d been doing to keep busy.  She and her husband, like my husband’s sister, had been together for sixty plus years.  “I haven’t cried yet,” she remarked.

 It’s hardly a surprise.  According to the American Cancer Society, studies have identified emotional states that people may go through while grieving. The first feelings usually include shock or numbness. Then, as the person sees how his or her life is affected by the loss, emotions start to surface. The early sense of disbelief is often replaced by emotional upheaval, which can involve anger, loneliness, uncertainty, or denial. These feelings can come and go over a long period of time. The final phase of grief is the one in which people find ways to come to terms with and accept the loss.

Perhaps this surrender foreshadows my own old age

when I have raged to exhaustion and finally have to go.  For now,

the numbness wears off.  I drive to the market, cook my own food,

take scant note of desire

with no one to consider or contradict my choices.

Something in me will never recover.  Something in me will go on.

Life, death—these are the shared human experiences.  I know that, for me, the death of a family member or a close friend stays with me longer now—partly because death seems to be more with us in the time of a pandemic and partly too, because autumn, that final burst of color before winter sets in, is a time of looking back, remembering, being more aware of life—and of death too.   

Writing Suggestion:

This week, consider grief and mourning.  What memories come up?  Have you lost loved ones to cancer, unexpected death or other serious illnesses? Write about the loss of a spouse, family member or friend. Try to articulate the feelings of grief you experienced. What was it like? What helped you work through your grief?

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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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