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Archive for the ‘writing to heal’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Suggestions:

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

 

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To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…

(“Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season),” Songwriter:  Pete Seeger)

When the song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” was recorded released in 1965 by the rock group, The Byrds, it quickly captured the sentiments of the time and rose and to number one on Billboard’s “Hot 100.”  The Byrds were not the first to record the song.  Their version was preceded by a 1962 recording by the Limelighters and by Pete Seeger on his album, The Bitter and the Sweet.  Over the next several years,  other artists also recorded the song, including Judy Collins, Joe Cocker, Dolly Parton and Nina Simone.  Is it any wonder?  The words from Ecclesiastes describe life’s journey, the inevitability of its cycles and seasons, the story of the entire lifespan.

There’s something about the approaching autumn, for me,  that invites more quiet reflection, a daily tumble of memories triggered by the shift in temperature, trees beginning to turn color, the scent of the air.  “The other side of spring,” a character called autumn in a long ago French film.  It’s an apt metaphor for aging, which we all become more aware of as the years pass.  I think of my own life now as synonymous with autumn, reminding me of how human life is so intimately connected to Nature’s seasons–metaphorically and physically.

Henry David Thoreau, famous for his book, Walden, saw the seasons as symbolic of human life.   Just as plants go through stages such as bud, leaf, flower, and fruit, or seed, seedling, and tree, he observed that man, too, experienced similar stages of development throughout the life span.  However, his observations were not entirely novel.  The  ancient Greeks also saw seasons as metaphors for life’s different stages.   Childhood was synonymous with spring and youth with summer.  Autumn described adulthood and winter, old age.   The Seasons of Life:  Our Dramatic Journey from Birth to Death,  by authors John Kotre and Elizabeth Hall, also explored how our life journeys mirror Nature’s seasons.  Using biographical sketches of real people at all life stages or “seasons,” they demonstrated how our lives are influenced by them, as well as  the times of day, circling of the planets, phases of the moon, and  growth and harvesting of crops.

It’s hardly a surprise that seasons also affect our  health–something I’m reminded of as I’ve felt a dull ache in my fingers these past couple of weeks as I write.   Whether allergies during spring and summer, colds and flu in the winter, or even the discomfort of arthritis as weather cools, many of us have experienced these common health issues many times over.   The BBC reported a study where researchers analyzed blood and tissue samples from more than 16,000 people living around the world.  Of all the genes they scrutinized, they were most interested in the ones involved with immunity and inflammation. Not surprisingly, during the cold months of winter, those genes were more active for people living north of the equator.

Yet there’s more. Have you ever found yourself feeling a little out of sorts on those days that winter weather keeps you indoors?  While I complained of “relentless” sunshine when my husband and I lived in Southern California, preferring, instead, four distinct seasons, I’ll admit to feeling glum now and then when winter seems to be especially harsh or unending.  I’m not unusual.  Seasonal can changes affect our moods.   I used to attribute those grey days to my being “weather sensitive,” but that was long before I learned about “seasonal affective disorder” (SAD).  According to Psychology Today, some people do experience a seasonal depression that doctors feel may be related to changing levels of light.  SAD can range from mild to debilitating for several months at a time.

Seasonal changes can also affect a number of other, potentially more harmful, health conditions.  A  2017 article in the Huffington Post, reported on research studies from the NIH that found “autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular events, acute gout, type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, hip fractures, mental health disorders, migraines, and emergency surgery and even mortality rates affected by the seasonal changes.

Fitzhugh Mullan, MD, writing in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1985, described his discovery of a malignant mass in his chest and as an outcome of his personal experience, defined what he termed “the seasons of  cancer survivorship:”  acute (diagnosis and treatment); extended  (post-treatment); and permanent  (long-term survivorship).  Several years later, Kenneth Miller, MD expanded Mullan’s original seasons to four distinct phases or “seasons” of cancer survivorship, building from observations not only of his patients’ experiences but also his wife’s.  In an article published by Cure Today magazine, he compared her stages of cancer and recovery to the seasons of nature, writing:

I have learned just as much about cancer and the seasons of survivorship in my work as a medical oncologist as I have alongside my wife, Joan, he wrote, who was treated 10 years ago for acute leukemia and more recently for breast cancer. Her diagnosis was certainly like the cold, bleak winter, and transition like the rebirth of spring. And while each season was different than the others, each was beautiful in its own way.

Nature’s four seasons have always been a predominant theme in poetry, and  inspire the poetry of cancer.  Marilyn Hacker’s 1994 collection of poetry, Winter Numbers, invokes the darkness and cold of winter as she details the loss of many of her friends to AIDS or cancer as she, too,  struggled with breast cancer.  Dan Matthews, poet, chronicled the journey of his wife’s terminal breast cancer in his collection,  Rain, Heavy at Times: Life in the Cancer Months (2007), while John Sokol invoked summer in his collection, In the Summer of Cancer (2001).  Barbara Crooker, in her poem, “For a Friend Lying in Intensive Care Waiting For Her White Blood Cells to Rejuvenate After a Bone Marrow Transplant,” used springtime to signal her friend’s renewal and rejuvenation:

The jonquils. They come back. They split the earth with

their green swords, bearing cups of light. ‘

The forsythia comes back, spraying its thin whips with

blossom, one loud yellow shout.

The robins. They come back. They pull the sun on the

silver thread of their song.

The iris come back. They dance in the soft air in silken

gowns of midnight blue.

The lilacs come back. They trail their perfume like a scarf

of violet chiffon.

And the leaves come back, on every tree and bush, millions

and millions of small green hands applauding your return.

(From:  The Cancer Poetry Project, Volume 1, 2001)

We’re moving toward the “other side of spring” now.  Even my potted plants on the balcony are showing signs of submitting to a change of season, looking a little less vibrant by the week.  While I’m reluctant to bid summer good-bye, I’m eager to see the tree-lined streets alive with colors of gold, yellow, and scarlet and feel the crispness in the air as I walk. Each season has its unique qualities, and each stirs up memories of people, places and experiences in our lives. “Aren’t we lucky the seasons are four…?”

Writing Suggestions

Explore how seasons influence your life or cancer journey. What seasonal metaphor best describes the stage of life or cancer survivorship you are experiencing?  Here are some suggestions help you get started writing:

  • Write about the different seasons in your life, whether the cancer journey, a marriage, loss and grief, adulthood– any of life’s seasons important or significant to you in some way.
  • If you are a cancer survivor, explore how Miller’s “Seasons of Survivorship” apply (or not) to your journey. Which “season” has been the most difficult to endure?  Why?
  • Explore cancer in a poem, using seasonal metaphors to describe your experience. You might begin by “exploding” as many images of that season on the page before you begin to shape a poem.  Be as descriptive as possible.

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She is alive.  Although her doctors said

there was nothing to be done, she is home,

planting her summer garden, is not dead,

and plans to eat everything she has grown…

She will live

beyond the harvest and what will not grow

is her tumor…

this is her time

to cultivate and seed.  She is alive.

(From:  “Seed,” by Floyd Skloot, in The Cancer Poetry Project, 2001)

You’ve finished your treatment.  The doctor’s words are something like “cancer free” or “no evidence of disease.”  You’ve beaten the odds.  You’re a survivor.  You celebrate.  But little by little, you find you’re riding on an emotional roller coaster some days, and you can’t seem to get yourself going and doing all you promised you’d do if you survived cancer.  “Why,” you ask a friend or a partner, “do I feel so bad?”

The good news about cancer, according to a 2011 article by Ann McDonald appearing in Harvard Health, is that “nearly 12 million Americans—4% of the population—are still alive after a cancer diagnosis.  While that’s encouraging news and “a testament to improved diagnosis and treatment…survivorship comes at a psychological price.”

McDonald describes three major and common reactions to survivorship:  1)  becoming emotionally paralyzed by the specter of cancer and unable to re-engage with normal life activities, 2) fears of recurrence, when follow-up medical visits and tests or unexplained pain or other symptoms produce worry and anxiety, and 3) feeling guilty when other friends or acquaintances have not survived.  It’s no wonder really.  As Alice Hoffman, novelist and cancer survivor, described it,

These are the chapters of your life that wallop you and teach you and bring you to tears, that invite you to step to the other side of the curtain, the one that divides those of us who must face our destiny sooner rather than later.– NYT Times, August 2000.

Yet, what other choice to do you have but to learn how to survive the crises life sometimes presents to you, whether cancer or some other hardship?   When you are undergoing treatment, surgeries and chemotherapy, the prospect of survival dominates your life.  You want to be a survivor, one, as the Oxford American Dictionary defines as “a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died,” such as those 9/11 survivors or those who survived the sinking of the Titanic.  It is also a term the Oxford defines as “a person who copes well with difficulties in… life,” something that seems virtually synonymous with being human.

What ignites your will to survive and helps you cope and keep going?  It’s different for all of us and yet, so much the same.  Hope is surely one of those things that keeps us going.  The support and love of friends and loved ones are also important to our will to survive–even, at times, those who have yet to be born.

A., a beloved writing group member who died from metastatic breast cancer, demonstrated extraordinary determination to live fully for as long as she could, filling her days with family, friends, travel, and joy. Her oldest daughter was pregnant, and she was determined to survive to be present for her first grandchild’s birth, even though the odds were very much against her.  She died a month after he was born, but she lived to be present at his birth and hold him in her arms for the short time she had left.  I have no doubt that his impending arrival strengthened her will to live and experience the joy of his arrival.

J., another of my former writers, given a terminal diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, evidenced a strong will to survive from the moment I met him.  Not surprisingly, he underwent a bone marrow transplant and intent on living as long as he possibly could, lived for another  five years before dying.  He engaged fully with living during that time, and he wrote poignantly, humorously, and honestly about his cancer struggle in the group and later, on his personal blog. Shortly before he died, he sent me a copy of an essay, entitled “What I’ve Learned,” summarizing the lessons of  his cancer experience.  Among the many bits of wisdom he expressed, he reminded us all that survival, no matter how brief or lengthy, is about living fully, for as long as we have.  Among  J.’s survival tips were:

  • Work at what you love…
  • Travel light.
  • Do what the doctors tell you.
  • Offer support when you can and it will come back to you when you need it.·
  • Cherish the ones you cherish.
  • In the end, all your physical beauty and prowess will leave you. You must still love that person in the mirror
  • We all will die eventually, so find a way to face death without fear. Don’t dwell on death, but enjoy each day as best you can.

He gave us good advice, because in life, we are all survivors of something.  Life is sometimes challenging, and you may face tough chapters to navigate through. Surviving–and surviving well– is something we all have to learn–and relearn–multiple times in our lives.  As your life continues to change, another challenge or difficulty can make you feel uncertain, clumsy or tentative.  But surviving isn’t about giving up.  It requires you learn new ways of being–and that is not always easy or pleasant.

Whether cancer, the effects of aging, unexpected life transitions, from time to time you have to remind yourselves that you’ve  proven, again and again, that you can adjust and move on.  As your life continues to change–in subtle and not so subtle ways–you learn the new movements, necessary strategies and behaviors.  Even better, you may learn how to move beyond “just” surviving and rather, fully embracing the life before you–changed and different perhaps, but yours.  After all, it is the only life you have, and you need to care for it.

…and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,

determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save. 

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

Writing Suggestions:

  • How do you think of or define “survival?”
  • As a cancer survivor, what advice would you offer others newly diagnosed?
  • Describe a different time, cancer excluded, when life knocked you down.  What got you back on your feet?  What helped you survive?
  • After you were designated “cancer-free,” did you experience any difficulty in learning to live fully again?  What helped you re-engage?

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A few years ago, I received a note from Sister Anne Higgins, author of the blog, “Scattered Showers in a Clear Sky” a blend of narrative, photographs and poetry. 2011, when   Her blog posts continue, more oriented today to current issues, but in 2011, when she first wrote me,  she was going through cancer treatment, and a line from one of her poems, “At the Gettysburg Cancer Center,” still lingers in my mind:   “Here is the club you never want to join…”

Sister Anne’s words reminded me of a phone call I once received from a cancer survivor several years ago soon after she learned I had been diagnosed with early stage breast cancer.  “You’ll find you belong to a private sorority,” she said, “one you never knew existed until now.”  I appreciated her call, but even during my university years, I was never one to join clubs or sororities, and I rang off certain I didn’t want to belong to any “private” cancer sorority or club.  However, I was in denial, a state of numbness and disbelief that would last more than a few days.

I didn’t have a choice, as it turned out; life had forced me into the cancer club.  Many weeks later, during the seven weeks of radiation treatments, I acknowledged my membership when, responding to a writing prompt–one single sentence, “the hospital corridor was dimly lit,” I wrote: “I turn left into the waiting room; a montage of faces greets me:  men, women, a teenage girl, a grade-school boy.  Some with hair; others without.  We are all members of a private club.  We meet each day at 3 p.m., wearing the pale blue hospital gowns, the uniforms of anonymity, as we sit in silence…”

Cancer isn’t the only circumstance or time in your lifes that you may be labeled by hardship, trauma or illness.  In those moments, it’s as if life is dealing from a deck of cards  in game we never even wanted to join, as one former kidney cancer patient described:

Hit me.

Two cards down.  Two more dealt and…the wild card, stark in your hand…the cancer card…you want your discard back; you want to fold…you were so certain you didn’t belong here, in this neighborhood, playing this game, but Oh-Yes-You-Do.

These are the life cards no one wants to be dealt, the memberships and labels you didn’t choose:  cancer survivor, heart patient, war veteran, single parent, homeless, refugee, widows or widowers, living with disability, on and on.  The list is endless, and sometimes, without warning, you suddenly find a new label is thrust upon you. You feel vulnerable, exposed, and even violated, as Molly Redmond describes in her poem, “The Cancer Patient Talks Back,”

It has made me public property, like being largely pregnant.

People invade—an assault of connections—

for reasons fair and foul.

Strangers on elevators. Acquaintances.

The medical cadre too.

Either way,

I am covered with fingerprints, with labels…

(From:  The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. 1, 2001, Karin Miller, Ed.)

You protest, even try to deny this new reality, as Kathleen Rogers’ poem, “A Woman Argues with the Casting Director,” portrays:

I don’t, don’t want the part.

I really don’t what this part.

I don’t, I don’t believe it will be glamorous.

It won’t be opera, no swooning diva,

No Violetta, no burst of aria…

I told you—didn’t I tell you?—

I don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t want

this part…

(The Cancer Poetry Project, V. 1)

Well, you’ve gotten the part; you’ve drawn the card; you’ve been given the label.  You find you’re in the club you never asked to join.  Now what?

That new label is where you begin. “Cancer patient,” “living with cancer:” these are new identities that introduce new memberships but also strong emotions.  For example, those who attend my expressive writing groups quietly identify themselves as “living with cancer,” and they often express feelings of loneliness and fear as our meetings begin.  As the weeks progress, however, I witness a growing sense of community, support for one another and special understanding that comes from experiences openly shared in their writing.

It is not just face-to-face groups where this happens.  With the growth of online support communities, many newly diagnosed cancer patients turn to the Internet for information and for the social connections formed online.  Social media and online support group opportunities can also be beneficial for those diagnosed and living with cancer.  For example, a randomized controlled trial involving breast cancer patients suggested that “a Web-based support group” could “be useful” in reducing depression, cancer-related trauma and perceived stress.”

While being diagnosed with cancer may introduce you to a private “club” you may be reluctant to join, you may well discover the support of others, similarly diagnosed, helps to diminish your diminish feelings of loneliness, fear and isolation:  that’s a powerful form of medicine that can help you heal.

Writing Suggestions:

This week, think about a time that life circumstances forced you into a category, stuck you with a new identity, or “forced” that unwanted membership upon you.

  • Describe how it felt.  How did you deal with it?
  • Did you find your self-concept challenged?
  • Did it spur you into action or change the way you thought about your illness or situation?
  • Did you join a support group?  Writing group?  Online support group?
  • Did you find a sense of community, of others who understood what you were going through?
  • Write about the experience finding yourself in that club you never asked to join, what you did, and the impact it had on you.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Suggestions:

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

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Springtime has been slow to arrive in Toronto.  The cherry blossoms were late in their annual bloom and trees seemed almost reluctant to bud, but gentler temperatures and more sunny days have been a welcome respite from the gray months of winter.  Despite its considerable growth in recent years, it is a city with many trees, parks, and walking trails and flowers.  Our apartment complex looks out over a canopy of trees and in the distance, a cityscape of tall buildings, and we’re fortunate to live within walking distance to more than one park and walking trails that criss-cross the city.  There is something revitalizing and crucial to the human spirit about springtime and its new life. It’s little surprise then that the most recent posting from author Maria Popova, of Brain Pickings, on the healing power of gardens captured my interest.  She wrote:

There is something deeply humanizing in listening to the rustle of a newly leaved tree, in watching a bumblebee romance a blossom, in kneeling onto the carpet of soil to make a hole for a sapling….  —Maria Popova, Brain Pickings, June 2, 2019

Just over a week ago, my husband and I joined the throngs who were buying plants, soil and pots as soon as it was warm enough to plant.  I spent an entire day filling pots with soil and planting flowers and even a tomato plant, to line our balcony for the summer.  My back may have ached afterward, but I sat and stared at the plants long afterward, with quiet pleasure.  A few blocks away, my daughter and her friend were preparing the soil for the small, but prolific, vegetable garden that will soon provide vegetables to all the residents of their small apartment building.  “The garden is my happy place,” she has often said.

A garden, a walk in the forest or along a city walking trail–these are restorative experiences for the soul and psyche.  I recall how, several years ago, one woman arrived late for a writing workshop I was leading at a San Diego cancer center.  Breathless and smiling, she was wearing a wide brimmed straw hat as she entered the room.   She apologized, saying, “I had to go out in the garden today,” before telling us how it had helped her suspend her worry about an upcoming treatment.   Oliver Sacks, in his essay, “Why We Need Gardens,” wrote, “I take my patients to gardens whenever possible…  I have seen …the restorative and healing power of nature and gardens…in many cases…more powerful than any medication (From:  Everything in Its Place, (2019) quoted in Brain Pickings, June 2, 2019).

The simple act of reconnecting with the earth can be healing. Shinrin-yoku, a Japanese term meaning “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing” encourages people to spend time walking in nature to experience its rejuvenating and restorative benefits.  Shinrin-yoku has become an important part of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine.

Again, I think of Ann, a former member of one of the writing groups, who outlived her terminal prognosis by several years before her death in from a rare leukemia, in part, perhaps, by choosing to spend her final years in a little cabin in the California redwoods.  There, she took solace and inspiration from the beauty of nature and quiet surrounding her, much of which she expressed in her poetry.

Studies have shown that a walk through a garden or even seeing one from the window can lower blood pressure, reduce stress and ease pain.  In one study, cardiac rehabilitation patients who visited gardens and worked with plants experienced an elevated mood and lower heart rate than those who attended a standard patient education class (USA Today, April 15, 2007).

Healing gardens are now a part of many medical centers, as hospitals and cancer centers have begun to create environments that heal not only the body, but also nurture the spirit.  Such gardens are not new; they originated, believe it or not, in the hospices of medieval Europe.

“Nature heals the heart and soul, and those are things the doctors can’t help,” Topher Delaney, landscape architect, stated in a 2002 American Cancer Society article about healing gardens.  Delaney, a breast cancer survivor, had a mastectomy in 1989.  She was only 39, and after surgery, went into menopause and lost her sense of smell.  The grim surroundings of her hospitalization inspired a change in her work.

“I had my pact with God,” she said.  “Oh, God, if I get through this, then I’ll do healing gardens. You keep me alive, I’ll keep doing gardens.”  She wanted to give others the kind of retreat she wished she’d had during treatment.  “That’s what this [healing] garden is all about — healing the parts of yourself that the doctors can’t.  The garden really gives hope because people see flowers bloom and others enjoying life,” she said. “It’s a garden full of change and metaphor”  (July 24, 2002, American Cancer Society).

The poet Mary Oliver, a keen observer of the natural world, described how Nature and its beauty can open our hearts in essay, “Upstream.”

I walked, all one spring day, upstream, sometimes in the midst of the ripples, sometimes along the shore. My company were violets, Dutchman’s breeches, spring beauties, trilliums, bloodroot, ferns rising so curled one could feel the upward push of the delicate hairs on their bodies. … The beech leaves were just slipping their copper coats. Pale green and quivering they arrived into the year. My heart opened, and opened again. The water pushed against my effort, then its glassy permission to step ahead touched my ankles. (From “Upstream,” in Blue Iris, 2004).

My heart opened, and opened again…Why not experience the healing or renewing effect of a garden this week?  Go outside to your own or take a walk through a garden.  Find a bench and sit without talking among the flowers and trees, taking in as much of the detail as you can.  Pay attention to what you see, hear and feel.  Perhaps you may discover a poem or essay of your own waiting there.

Writing Suggestions:

  • How has Nature been healing for you?  Describe it.
  • Try walking along a trail, sitting in a park, beside a stream or lake, or in your back yard and simply being quiet for 15 minutes or more.  What do you feel after you have allowed yourself the quiet time in nature?  What thoughts or feelings came up for you?  Write about them.
  • Nature can also be the inspiration for writing.  Take your notebook  with you.  Walk along a path, sit quietly, and notice what captures your attention.   Make a few brief notes about what you see.  Once you return home, try writing another 20 minutes, exploring where your observations may lead you.

 

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The way the dog trots out the front door

every morning

without a hat or an umbrella

without any money

or the keys to her doghouse

never fails to fill the saucer of my heart

with milky admiration…

(From:  “Dharma,” by Billy Collins, in Sailing Around the Room, Random House, 2002

My mornings are incomplete without her.  Somewhere between 4:30 and 5 a.m., as I begin the slow process of waking, our ritual begins.  I hear her rise from her bed on the floor, shake herself awake, then two, perhaps three, seconds past before she springs up from the floor and onto the bed, choosing to nestle her back against mine.  As small as she is, she is like a block of cement then, a guarantee that by six a.m., I will awaken, and my morning will begin.  I’m first to rise; she prefers another ten or fifteen minutes of dozing. But as I grind coffee beans and spoon them into a paper filter, she pads into the kitchen, stretches, and patiently waits for her breakfast.  Coffee ready and kibble consumed, we settle ourselves in the living room, where she curls up in a corner of the sofa, dozing and occasionally casting a watchful eye at me while I write.  She is Maggie, a small border terrier mix, adopted five years ago to become my faithful companion, but more:  comforter, guardian, playmate, nonjudgmental friend.  Whether canine or feline, many of us are very attached to our pets.

…Perdita makes me smile every day. She runs to greet me when I come home, and she flops at my feet in the morning to be petted. She loves boxes and balled-up pages of the Nation. She is afraid of vacuum cleaners and tornado sirens. She lies on her back in squares of sunshine with her paws in the air and looks perfectly ridiculous and content. My friend Kristen tells her cat Mouse each morning that he’s her best friend, which is the sort of behavior that makes non-cat-people roll their eyes. But there’s something to it. Perdita and I don’t discuss novels or anything, but we really are friends.  (From:  “Perdita, Why Cats are Better than People”by Michael Robbins, Poetry Magazine, July 2012).

Pets are often the subject of poetry and essays.  They’ve even served as major characters in novels or heroes in films.  Anthropomorphism aside, we humans have strong emotional connections with our pets, whether canine, feline, equine or other kinds.  As companions or sources of comfort when we’re feeling lonely, blue or under the weather.  They rarely pass up a chance to play, and some pets, like my small dog, protect us as if we are their children.

Pets are healers too.    Pets, as Florence Nightingale, the pioneer of modern nursing, observed over a century ago, are “excellent companion (s) for the sick…” There are countless stories of animals assisting and helping their human companions.  One marine dog’s heroism during wartime, for example,  is documented in the best-selling, Top Dog, by Maria Goodavage (2014).  Lucca, a bomb-sniffing German Shepard whose actions saved many lives, lost one leg in battle and was later awarded a purple heart for her bravery.

Dogs like Lucca are only one example of the potential impact animals can have on human lives .  There are guide dogs, hearing dogs and service dogs, for example, whose assistance to individuals with visual, hearing or other disabilities is invaluable.  Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a widely practiced approach that is used to achieve therapeutic goals through interactions between patients and trained animals. AAT provides comfort, assistance, and companionship for people suffering from chronic or grave illnesses, grief, depression or disability.  It’s an approach widely used in many settings such as hospitals, prisons, nursing homes, mental institutions and homes. According to the American Humane Society, AAT has helped children who’ve experienced abuse or neglect, patients undergoing chemotherapy and other difficult medical treatments, and veterans and their families struggling with the effects of wartime military service.

When I was in my teens, our family had another dog, a terrier mix, who was my younger brother’s constant companion.  One November night in 1966,  a fire destroyed my family home’s.  Our dog,Tico, was the first to notice, licking the face of my brother to wake him and likely saving his life.  Several years ago, my husband and I had Winston, a West Highland terrier who died in 2008 at age seventeen.  Calm, steady and loyal, his temperament made him an excellent candidate for therapy dog training.  Once trained, he accompanied my husband to visit young hospital patients.  Winston was happy to lie quietly next to a sick child, have his ears rubbed or back stroked, seemingly unaware to the happy smile on a child’s face that his presence produced.  When it was time to move to the next child, he obediently followed my husband to the young patient’s bed, tail erect, and patiently repeated the process again and again.

He puts his cheek against mine

and makes small expressive sounds…

 

he turns upside-down, his four paws

in the air

and his eyes dark and fervent.

 

“Tell me you love me,” he says…

(From:  “Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night,” in Dog Songs, Poems by Mary Oliver, 2013)

Is it any wonder we become so attached to our pets?  Or that they offer us solace and comfort in difficult times?  Or that poets and essayists alike have so frequently written about their pets with such affection?  Mary Oliver devoted an entire book of poetry to her dogs.

But I want to extol not the sweetness nor the placidity of the dog, but the wilderness out of which he cannot step entirely, and from which we benefit…  Dog is one of the messengers of that rich and still magical first world…

And we are caught by the old affinity, a joyfulness—his great and seemly pleasure in the physical world.  Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased.  it is no small gift.  …What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass?  What would this world be like without dogs?  –-From Dog Songs: Poems, by Mary Oliver, Penguin Press, 2013.

Writing Suggestions

Have you had a special pet, whether from childhood or more recently, who provided you with comfort, solace or service in a time of need?  Has a pet played a healing role in your life or someone you know?  Write about a pet–dog, cat, horse, or another kind of animal who played an important role in your life at one time.

  • Describe the pet and its unique qualities.  How did it endear itself to you?
  • Tell the story/or write a poem about your pet and of a time he/she helped you heal from hardship, sorrow or even illness.

 

 

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