For the Week of January 15, 2018: The Moment Life Changes

Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” —  Joan Didion, in The Year of Magical Thinking, 2005

In two days, I’m beginning a new “Writing Through Cancer” workshop series at Gilda’s Club here in Toronto, the expressive writing program I’ve been leading for over 17 years.  As often as I’ve led these groups, one would think that I’d have it down pat now, you know, like an dancer who knows every step of a dance by heart, or the actor, on stage as the lead character in a play that’s run on Broadway for years.  The choreography is as natural as walking; the lines of the play as fluid as a conversation with a friend.  In some ways, yes, the flow of the sessions are as familiar to me as old friends, but always, despite the emotions and stages common to the cancer experience, every single workshop series is different, the product of the mix of participants and their uniqueness as individuals and as a group.

It’s no surprise that I spent the better part of yesterday thinking about the session, wondering what the mix of participants will be, how I’ll introduce the workshop to them, and how I’ll frame the first writing prompt.  Where does one begin?  In my writing groups, it’s most often in those moments before the realization that their lives had changed, the instant they embarked on the cancer journey.  It’s the moment when, as Barbara Abercrombie describes in Writing Out the Storm (2002), “something happens, and then the world spins on a new axis.”

He opens the door

                and walks in,

his face and white coat

stiff with starch,

 

holds my hand, and

he says,

“I’m afraid.

 

I am afraid

you have cancer…”

(From: “Diagnosis,” by Majid Mohiuddin, in The Cancer Poetry Project, v. 1, 2001)

“You have cancer.”  The words sound like a cosmic bad joke or a death sentence.  Sometimes, like in the moment my father was told he had Stage 4 lung cancer, it is one.  Emotions rush in, competing for attention:  disbelief, sorrow, anger, fear, guilt.  You rail against the diagnosis in one moment and break down in tears the next.  You’re in the middle of a personal disaster.  Why is this happening?  What can I expect?  Will I die?

It’s those vivid memories and emotions that are important to describe in writing for healing.  To be healing, it doesn’t mean you write  in generalities about a traumatic or stressful event. Healing writing has particular characteristics, as psychologist James Pennebaker and his colleagues noted in their substantive research on writing’s health benefits.  Healing writing is concrete, vivid, and contains detailed descriptions of trauma, distress and emotion.

Whenever I ask people in our beginning session to recall the moment they first heard the word, “cancer,” no one ever responds with generalities.  Even if it’s several months or more since they were first diagnosed, the memory is vivid; emotions rise to the surface as they write and when they share what they’ve written.   The remembrance of that single moment evokes strong feelings among everyone as they each describe what it was like to be told, “you have cancer.”

Those words “you have cancer,” are ones you hear for the first time and yet, for the physician, these are words delivered to a patient many times over one’s medical career.  What goes through a physician’s mind in the moment before a patient is given the diagnosis?   Jennifer Frank, MD, describes the moment before she delivers a cancer diagnosis to a patient:

I want to be straightforward but not blunt.  I want to be compassionate but remain professional.  I slow myself down, remind myself that the words I’m about to say are ones that I’ve said before, many times, but that the words I’m about to say are also ones you’ve never heard before…[underlining is mine]   (From:  “A Piece of My Mind,”  JAMA, March 7, 2012, v.307. no.9).

The words “you’ve never heard before…”  Writing in the New York Times in 2000, novelist Alice Hoffman described what it was like to hear those words when her doctor telephoned her with the results of her biopsy:

I was certain my doctor was phoning me to tell me the biopsy had come back negative…but then she said, “Alice, I’m so sorry.” …In a single moment the world as I knew it dropped away from me, leaving me on a far and distant planet, where…nothing made sense anymore. (From: “Sustained by Fiction While Facing Life’s Facts,” August 2000.)

This first moment, the moment life began to spin on a different axis, when nothing seems to make sense, is the beginning of each person’s stories of the cancer experience.  It’s an important one to begin with, because once described, it opens the door to all that begs to be written and expressed about living with cancer.  It’s an invitation to examine and make sense of, your stories of illness, but in doing so, we remember  these are also the stories of being human, of life, because cancer can happen to anyone, and, as Alice Hoffman wrote in her NYTimes article, it does not have to be your whole book, only a chapter.

It’s part of the reason I love leading these groups, why I am always inspired and humbled by the power and beauty of what the men and women write and share in the workshop sessions.  We remember; we cry; we laugh; we share our stories around the table and honor, together, what it means to be human.

Writing Suggestion:

  • Start at the beginning.  Whether cancer or any other unexpected or traumatic moment in your life, go back to the day, the setting, the people, the moment that your world began to spin on a different axis, the moment something happened that changed the world as you knew it.
  • You can begin with phrases like, “I remember…,” or “The day that ____ happened, I…”  It doesn’t matter.
  • Do try writing without pause.  What’s important is that you write freely, without your internal critic whispering in your ear.
  • Set the timer for 20 minutes and begin.  Keep the pen moving.
  • When time is up, read over what you’ve written, first simply writing the piece all the way through without stopping.  Then read it a second time, underlining phrases and words that stand out, “glow” from the page.
  • Now, write again for 20 minutes, but this time, begin with one of the phrases you’ve underlined.  Chances are the writing will intensify, become more specific and descriptive.

 

Posted in expressive writing, reflections on life, writing from cancer and serious illness, writing from life, writing to heal | Leave a comment

For the Week of January 8, 2018: What it Means to Live with Cancer

You tell me to live each day

as if it were my last.  This is in the kitchen

where before coffee, I complain

of the day ahead–that obstacle race

of minutes and hours,

grocery stores and doctors…

 (“Imaginary Conversation” by Linda Pastan, in Insomnia, 2015)

Next week I’ll begin the first session of an eight week expressive writing group for people living with cancer, something I’ve been doing since 2001, but this one is new.  It’s the first time I’ve offered a workshop in Toronto, and as I’ve thought about the potential participants, I’ve been thinking about cancer, its terminology, and reading Canadian articles as well as poets and writers who are–or were–living with cancer.  One well-known author, Carol Shields, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Stone Diaries (1993), died from breast cancer in 2003, five years after her diagnosis.  Three years earlier, she discussed what it was to live with cancer in a CBC radio interview.  “I don’t know the future,” she said.  “I can’t plan very finely for the future as I did once.  I can plan one month ahead.”

Shields’ candor got me thinking about what it means to “live” with cancer.  Years ago, when I first began my workshops, it was common to refer to those diagnosed and treated for cancer as a “survivor,” defined by the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship (NCCS) as “anyone touched by cancer .”  At the time, I was embarrassed to refer to myself as a survivor; my diagnosis was very early stage and immensely treatable.  My groups were made up of individuals–“survivors”– whose cancer diagnoses were far more serious, even terminal.  Gradually, however, as more and more people were living longer after a cancer diagnosis, “survivor” was broadened to include for “living with cancer for the balance of one’s life.” Since a cancer cure has yet to be discovered, the broader definition makes sense.  Cancer may disappear in response to treatment, but it can also reappear, a possibility anyone who’s been diagnosed with cancer understands well.

More often now, the literature about cancer more often uses use the term “living with cancer” than “survivor” to describe those who have experienced the disease and its treatment.  With continuous research and work of dedicated oncologists, some cancers can be kept in abeyance for many years, becoming more like a chronic disease–one in which a person can cope for an unforeseen amount of time.  Their cancers are treatable, but ultimately, ones that will be the cause of death.  Yet thanks to advances in cancer treatment, more people are twice as likely today of living ten years or more after a cancer diagnosis than they were decades ago.

Yet a cancer cure remains out of reach. Although new treatments like immunotherapy give us hope, “cancer-free” more often mean “for now” vs. forever.  When a friend of mine recently called to say that, after a year of immunotherapy clinical trials, he was “cancer-free,” I celebrated the news with him.  Yet I was thinking of another, more precise, term for the eradication of the tumors in his liver:  “no evidence of disease at this time.”  His results were still a cause for celebration, but I remembered a line from a poem, “It Seems We Can Live with Cancer Now,” by Bonnie Maurer.  She describes a family of three women, all of whom have had cancer.  Even though they are “clear,” or in remission, the possibility of recurrence is never far from their minds:

During quiet conversation, when the lamp shorts out,

We will show no surprise, really…

What cancer is farming us?

(In:  The Cancer Poetry Project, (Vol.1, 2001)
“What cancer is farming us?”  Whether we call ourselves patients, survivors, recovered or in remission, we live with cancer.  Nearly 18 years ago, I recall how my oncologist pronounced me “cured,” after a regimen of lumpectomies, radiation and tamoxifen.  I admit that I didn’t want to consider the alternative, but the fear of recurrence is the question that many cancer survivors live with.  It’s the shadow lurking in the wings, the moments of anxiety in follow-up appointments or the  routine medical procedures—mammogram, colonoscopy, CT scan or MRI–that threaten to ignite fear of a recurrence.  I admit that just three weeks ago, when I was called back for an additional mammogram and ultrasound, I felt a little uneasy.  I hadn’t been called back since 2000, when a constellation of calcifications first appeared on the radiologist’s screen.  What if?  Thankfully the additional scans showed there was nothing of concern.

“Even though I’m being treated with the most cutting-edge medicine, my disease can’t be contained forever…there’s not a schedule or formula for when it will leap onto the next organ, or start to grow where it’s already ensconsed.  If a treatment works…it could work for weeks, months or years.”–Teva Harrison, In-Between Days:  A Memoir About Living with Cancer.

What it means to “live with cancer” is vividly captured in a combination of graphic cartoons and words in Teva Harrison’s memoir.  She lives with incurable and advanced metastatic breast cancer.  She describes her illness, her life, in honest and frank terms; the reader cannot help but be touched by her story.  Despite everything, she expresses gratitude for her medical team, because, as she says, “they are doing everything they can to turn it into a chronic illness…As science advances, she writes, “more will carry a stable, or managed, cancer to an unrelated end.”

Despite living each day with a terminal disease, Harrison has hope.  “Living with cancer requires hope,” she says.  “I have to balance the hope I need to get up every day with the pragmatism I need to deal with bad news.”  Her hopes, she tells her readers, arewrapped up in three month increments, which is when I have the scans that tell me I’m still stable.”

Every day I am seeking the sweet spot, the place where I can live my life more fully, forgetting, for a moment, that I’m always living with cancer.–Teva Harrison

I read her words thinking of Ann, a beloved group member who defied the odds for metastatic breast cancer, continued to live with smiles, energy, concern for others, and the determination to welcome her first grandchild into the world.  She lived fully, making every single day she had left count, and describing how, each morning she awakened, she’d utter with a joyful “thank you, God,” for another day of life.  She was there to witness her grandson’s birth, and for several days, shared the joy of her family’s newest member before she passed away.

Is that what it means to live with cancer?  We may live with the shadow, the possibility of a cancer recurrence, but we also live with hope. Hope that cures will be found; hope for our friends facing surgery, radiation or chemotherapy, hope that our lives will not be cut short; hope that we’ll live to see another day.   Hope is what keeps us going and what keeps us living for as long as we can.

 “As scientists listen for signals from alien worlds,
we tune our keen ears to stories of others who have lived
clear for twenty years.”

(Bonnie Maurer, “It Seems We Can Live with Cancer Now.”)
Writing Suggestions:

  • Explore what it means to you to be someone who is “living with cancer.” Describe the ups and downs of this reality.
  • If you had wisdom or advice to offer to the newly diagnosed, what would you say about how to live with cancer?
  • What has “living with cancer” taught you about your life?
Posted in expressive writing, writing from cancer and serious illness, writing to heal | Leave a comment

For the Week of January 1, 2018: One Guiding Word for the New Year

We don’t receive wisdom we must discover it for ourselves.― Marcel Proust

It’s become a ritual of sorts, a practice begun several years ago together with my writing buddies, one I dutifully begin as the old year nears its end and a new year beckons.  There are no lists of New Year’s resolutions constructed, ones that, however unintentionally, are abandoned within a month or two.  Rather it’s the choice of a single word, one that signifies what I hope and intend my new year to be, one that serves as a reminder of what I hope to achieve, and one that sits, framed, on my desk where daily, I am nudged into taking actions this word implies.

I was nudged into the annual process of finding my guiding word after a post-Christmas visit with a dear friend, who is recovering from several months of cancer treatment.  “I think this will be my year of healing,” she said.  Yes, I thought, healing is such a powerful word, one that holds so much meaning and implied action for anyone who’s experienced the months of surgeries and treatment for cancer.  I was inspired by her comment and after my husband and I returned home, I began thinking about what word I would choose to set the tone and define the actions I want to take as the New Year begins.

There’s something elegant and honest about finding a single, meaningful word, but the process of choosing it is not easy, no matter how many words have preceded this New Year’s selection.  I began, as I always do,  making lists of potential contenders, consulting the dictionary, my thesaurus, and words of wisdom from poets and philosophers–all in the hope something written or described might jump off the page and announce, “I’m it!  I’m your word!”  Of course, it never happens that way.  I reviewed my word choices of years past, hoping inspiration might be hidden among them.  Instead, I discovered I had a distinct tendency to choose words beginning with the prefix, “re,” such as “renew,” “revise” or “rewrite,” each suggesting a “do-over,” an intention named but failed from an earlier year.  I looked at my list-in-process for 2018.  Yep, I had a definite majority of “re” words written down.  I started a new list, obviously needing more effort to come up with something new.

The seeker embarks on a journey to find what he wants and discovers, along the way, what he needs. ―Wally Lamb, The Hour I First Believed 

I returned to last year’s “word,” a phrase of “step-by-step.”  I’d framed it together with an image of stepping stones in a pool of water.  It was a choice that became a mantra, because in 2017 we decided to move back to Toronto from San Diego, and at times, the entire process was nearly overwhelming.  My 2017 “step by step” helped me breathe, realizing that achieving our dream was a process of many steps. On June 29th, we boarded the plane, our belongings following later, and turned that dream into reality.  Yet there were many more steps to take before we were finally settled.  How, I wondered as I looked to 2018, could I equal last year’s choice of a guiding set of words?  My mind was sluggish and everything I tried seemed unoriginal.  Still, I wrote every morning, searching for that one shining word, one that would symbolize how I want to live and what I hopeto accomplish this new year.

A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them. –William Stafford

Despite feeling I was coming up empty-handed, the beauty of the creative process is that one’s mind keeps working on a solution to the problem.  Three days ago, I put my notebook aside in disgust and walked to the kitchen to pour myself a second cup of coffee.  It was as I filled my cup that the word–my 2018 word–suddenly announced itself:  “discover.”  I raced back to my desk, opened the dictionary and checked the meaning:   “find unexpectedly or during a search,”  “become aware of,” “show interest in,” or “be the first to recognize potential” in something or someone.  I opened my notebook to a new page and began writing again, pen racing across the page, exploring all the ways in which “discover” could be the roadmap for a new year.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.

Marcel Proust

I’ve referred to Proust’s quote  many times over the years, but it seemed particularly relevant to this year’s guiding word choice.  My husband and I have recently returned to a city we once called home many years ago, and while much of it feels familiar, there is a great deal that is new and different.  Toronto a vibrant city, filled with places, activities, culture and people to be discovered.  I have changed from the younger and more ambitious person I was when we first lived here, but that is no deterrent to discovery.   We are older, mostly retired, and the implications of the aging process signals a new chapter of life–one we can merely endure or choose to discover new adventures and possibilities.   We have joyfully embraced being physically closer to one daughter and a granddaughter who has now become a regular part of our daily lives.  We’re discovering new friends and old ones too.  While I will begin a new writing workshop at Gilda’s Club later this month here in Toronto,  in the process, I am discovering Canadian writers who have experienced cancer, learning more about the resources for cancer patients and survivors here in Toronto, and without a doubt, my workshops will be informed by the uniqueness of what I am discovering here, just as they have been with each new series, each new sponsoring institution in the past.  What I didn’t realize is that I’d already begun taking actions implied by my 2018 guiding word!  Discovery is happening, and it’s only January 1st.

I didn’t know I liked rain

whether it falls like a fine net or splatters against the glass my

   heart leaves me tangled up in a net or trapped inside a drop

   and takes off for uncharted countries I didn’t know I loved

   rain but why did I suddenly discover all these passions…

 

the train plunges on through the pitch-black night

I never knew I liked the night pitch-black

sparks fly from the engine

I didn’t know I loved sparks

I didn’t know I loved so many things and I had to wait until sixty

   to find it out sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train.

–Nazim Hikmet (From:  Selected Poetry by Nazim Hikmet, translation copyright 1986)

Writing Suggestion:

This week, why not try choosing one word that reflects your intentions or goals for this new year?

  • Begin by writing the word at the top of a blank page.
  • Set the timer for twenty minutes.
  • Continue writing, exploring its meaning, memories or images it evokes in you.
  • Once you have done that, write a paragraph stating your word, what it means to you and why you’ve chosen it for 2018.

I invite you to share your word choice by replying to this post or perhaps with a friend or family member.  You might even frame or post your word where you can see it on a daily basis to be reminded of what actions you want to take during 2018.

I hope you will enjoy the process and find it as meaningful as I have over the past few years.

My good wishes to all of you who read and follow this blog for a year of healing, love, peace and new discoveries.

Happy New Year, 2018!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

For the Week of December 24, 2017: The Gifts of Gratitude

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there…
(From:  A Visit From St. Nicholas,  by Clement C. Moore)

 

Christmas Eve, and I discover I can still recite “Twas the night before Christmas,” by heart, memorized when I was in grade school many years ago.  We’re celebrating our Christmas holiday  with my eldest daughter and her family this year, something we’ve managed to do only a handful of times in the past twenty-five years, as we all lived thousands of miles apart.    It’s a busy day ahead:  Much of my day will be focused on the preparation for the Christmas day  dinner, shared around our cozy table.  Most of the rest of our Christmas production is now directed by my daughter and her husband–largely oriented to the delight of granddaughter Flora, a six-year old who still believes Santa will arrive the night of the 24th, stealthily sliding down the chimney.  It’s likely the last year for her fantasy, one that will no longer be believed in by next December.

There’s much for Santa to do, of course, and his helpers–her mother, father, grandmother and grandfather–are all involved in making Christmas morning as full of excitement and fun as we can.  I’m delighted to see that the traditions both my daughters knew as children are now part of what their children’s experience, and one of the most enduring is the filling of Christmas stockings.

The excitement over stockings is something I knew as a child.  My siblings and I dutifully hung ours over the fireplace, but there wasn’t much anticipation attached to doing so, since we seldom found anything the next morning but  an orange and a few walnuts stuffed in the toes.  All that changed when I first married.  My husband and I had moved to Ottawa and lived closer to my east coast in-laws, so our Christmas holidays were usually spent with my husband’s family, and there,  I came to appreciate the ritual of Christmas stockings, “hung by the chimney with care,” in an entirely new light.  Our filled stockings, the contents the work of a very creative mother-in-law, became the high point of Christmas morning, delighting the adults and grandchildren alike.  As a young mother, I quickly adopted the tradition to become part of the Christmas experience of my daughters.  It’s now a family tradition they have incorporated with their families, and the fun of opening stockings continues to the present, the only difference is that filling them has become an extended family affair!

But this morning, I was thinking about filling my Christmas stocking in a very different way.  I eyed the  three stockings hanging from our fireplace mantle–my husband’s, our dog’s and mine–and began making a list of how, as I looked back on the past months,  my stocking might be filled differently.  What would I put in it given the choice?  Gratitude was the very first thing that came to mind, and I  began a list, defining what I was grateful for:

  • the decision to return to Toronto–the sense of coming “home”
  • my family–two wonderful daughters and three grandchildren who bring me unimaginable joy
  • a chance to share, on a day-to-day basis, in the life of my eldest daughter and her daughter
  • the wealth of enduring friends, scattered all over the continent and the world
  • the celebration of two dear friends, now cancer-free
  • the remembrance of loved ones who are no longer alive
  • the stories and poems written by the men and women in my cancer writing groups
  • the kindness of those friends in San Diego and Toronto who helped to make our transition and move easier
  • good health–other than the usual aches and pains of aging, and for the more complicated bodily weaknesses, the care of extraordinary physicians
  • and the opportunity to continue leading cancer writing groups here in Toronto.

At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us. –Albert Schweitzer

There’s more, I’m certain, but my virtual stocking is nearly overflowing, because mingled among the gratitude is hope.  Hope for the world, for healing, for a cure for cancer, for an end to war, suffering and poverty–things that occupy my thoughts as frequently as the gratitude–one inseparable from the other.

Writing Suggestion:

Whatever your holiday traditions are, the hustle and bustle of the season sometimes overshadows the time for reflection, for “counting your blessings,” or for pausing to consider what you are most grateful for.  Make a gratitude list–whether it’s as though you’re filling that virtual stocking hung by the fireplace or put in a box and gift-wrapped.  What are you most grateful for and why?

Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.–William Arthur Ward

For now, as Christmas Eve beckons to many of us, my gratitude to all of you who may be taking the time to read these weekly posts.  I wish everyone a holiday filled with gratitude, the warmth of family and friends, and in the coming year ahead, hope and healing.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

For the Week of December 18, 2017: Finding the Stories of Holiday Memories

It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeer. But there were cats.
Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales

Our annual holiday celebrations have changed over the  years, like many of you whose children are adults with families of their own.  Many times, we’ve traveled to spend the holiday with one or the other daughter; or, depending on who is living where in the world, they have come to us.  This year will be the first in a long while, that we are not only staying put, but happily enjoying the holiday in place with our eldest daughter and her family, who live close by.  Our move back to Toronto signaled another change in family holiday traditions.  I divided the dozens of tree ornaments between both daughters, ones our family collected since their infancy, so they can carry on the tradition of hanging the old ornaments and share their memories with their children.  We have a tree ourselves, but it’s barely four feet tall and sits in front of the fireplace screen, scantily decorated with a  single string of lights and a handful of leftover ornaments neither daughter claimed.  (Granddaughter Flora helped us decorate the little tree, but she insists it be moved before Christmas eve.  “You’re blocking the fireplace, Gramma, and Santa will not be able to get in to your house!”)

Christmas trees lined like war refugees, 

a fallen army made to stand in their greens. 

Cut down at the foot, on their last leg, 

 

they pull themselves up, arms raised… 

 

given a single blanket, 

only water to drink, surrounded by joy. 

 

Forced to wear a gaudy gold star, 

to surrender their pride, 

they do their best to look alive.

(From “Christmas Tree Lots,” by Chris Green, Poetry, 2001)

The holiday season is also bittersweet in its way, reminding me of how much has changed as our daughters grew into adulthood, married, and had children of their own–and how, as my husband and I grow older, the family celebrations take on more poignancy and meaning.

At the same time, I have the joy of celebrating holidays with grandchildren, reading The Night before Christmas together, baking cookies or gingerbread, adding clever little surprises to their stockings, and Christmas morning, sharing in the excitement of opening packages.  Yet there’s nostalgia too, and the season, no matter the traditions we celebrate, stirs up the memories of holidays past.

…Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. (From: “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” By Dylan Thomas)

Whether music, special food, the Festival of Lights and Hanukkah candles lit one by one or Christmas trees adorned with multi-colored lights and ornaments,  holiday traditions  ignite the memories of past celebrations.   We drove home from an evening with friends on Friday evening, and saw our neighborhood glowing and alive with colored lights and decorations.  I felt a wave of nostalgia, my mind  filled with memories of long ago Christmas times, and how, as a child, our family would climb in our Ford station wagon each year, driving through our small Northern California town to admire the magic of houses adorned with multi-colored lights.

I kindled my eight little candles,
My Hanukkah candles, and lo!
Fair visions and dreams half-forgotten
Were rising of years long ago.

(From:  “Hanukkah Lights,” by Philip Raskin)

Yet the holiday memories are often tinged more than our remembrance of childish wonder.  There are wistful ones, tinged with sadness.  The holidays often carry other recollections besides those of comfort and joy.  I laugh about how we got our little three this year from the corner store, a far cry from my father’s traditional trek into the snowy wilderness nearby to cut the perfect tree–although it never was perfect enough for my exacting mother’s tastes, and there were annual complaints over its shape or placement of the lights.  Gradually, although none of us liked it at the time, our mother’s annual disappointment became as much of a part of our holiday traditions just as singing carols, hanging stockings or opening gifts on Christmas mornings.  They have now become part of the stories we tell—and re-tell every December when we decorate the tree.

As children, we knew there was more to it –
Why some men got drunk on Christmas Eve
Wasn’t explained, nor why we were so often
Near tears nor why the stars came down so close,

Why so much was lost. Those men and women
Who had died in wars started by others,
Did they come that night? Is that why the Christmas
tree
Trembled just before we opened the presents?

(From:  “A Christmas Poem,” by Robert Bly, in Morning Poems,1998)

Whatever your holiday traditions of celebration, this is a season full of memories and stories–ones that may even be told and re-told at every family holiday celebration.  What memories are triggered by the December holiday season?  The lighting of the Hanukkah candles, potato latkes, gingerbread, tree decorations or the smell of pine?  Remember  the holidays you celebrated as a child,  a particularly significant time, and as many of the details that come to mind:  sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch.  There is so much about the holidays that ignites our senses and our memories.

Our annual prairie Chanukah party— 

latkes, kugel, cherry blintzes. 

Friends arrive from nearby towns 

and dance the twist to “Chanukah Lights Tonight,” 

spin like a dreidel to a klezmer hit. 

 

The candles flicker in the window. 

Outside, ponderosa pines are tied in red bows. 

If you squint, 

the neighbors’ Christmas lights 

look like the Omaha skyline. 

(From: “Chanukah Lights Tonight,” by Steven Schneider, in: Prairie Air Show, 2000)

Writing Suggestion:

Let your memories be the inspiration to write about holidays past—traditions you remember fondly, the people who were important to you, the family celebrations or even the family celebrations that were unpleasant or memorable in other ways.  Begin by making a quick list of specific recollections that come to mind.  Read them over.  What are the stories attached to each?  Write the one that holds the most power for you.

 

 

Posted in expressive writing, reflections on life, writing from cancer and serious illness, writing from life, writing to heal | Leave a comment

For the Week of December 11, 2017: Music: It’s Good Medicine

I think I should have no other mortal wants if I could always have plenty of music. It seems to infuse strength into my limbs and ideas into my brain. Life seems to go on without effort when I am filled with music.– George Bernard Shaw

It’s the holiday season, and everywhere I go, there are various renditions of familiar holiday carols playing loudly, some of them beautiful, others nostalgic, and more than a few, at times,  ear splittingly difficult to enjoy.  Last night, however, we attended a candlelight Christmas service and for over an hour, joined in singing one traditional Christmas carol after another.   “I remembered them all,” I laughed and said to my husband as  afterward, we walked back to the car and the first snow flurries dusted the streets.  We said little on the drive home, the music still alive in our minds and igniting the remembrance of Christmases past and the people who shared the holidays with us.  It was the music,  triggering old memories, lightening our spirits, calming us in a rush, rush world and creating in us a sense of shared humanity through song.  For awhile, I wished I’d taken those voice lessons or spent more time practicing my piano lessons.

Despite the fact that I love music, I never pursued a musical career.  Yet all the years of piano lessons, singing in the church choir, dancing,  doing pliés to a piano accompaniment, or playing French horn in the marching band were actually more beneficial than I ever imagined they could be.  Not only can music enhance a young person’s self-esteem and academic performance, musical training can help protect mental sharpness and brain functioning.

During the last weeks of my mother’s life, before she succumbed to  before Alzheimer’s disease, I witnessed the power of music to ignite long lost memories.  I visited her a few weeks before her death, shocked at how unresponsive she was to my presence.  She sat listless in a wheelchair, her head bowed toward her chest, and mute.  I wheeled her out to the garden, placing her next to a towering bougainvillea plant, furious with red blooms.  At a loss, I took her hand and began singing a song she often sang to me in my childhood.

“Let me call you sweetheart,” I began, my voice quavering, “I’m in love with you…Let me hear you whisper…”  As I sang, my mother slowly raised her head and fixed her eyes on my face.  “Why, it’s Sharon,” she said slowly.

“Yes, Mom, it’s me, your eldest daughter.”  I squeezed her hand and wiped the tears from my face.

For a moment longer, she held my gaze, then slowly smiled and as her eyelids began, again, to close, she murmured, “I’m happy…” And then she disappeared again into the impenetrable darkness of her disease.  But I’m forever grateful for that small moment of recognition, somehow triggered by a long ago song.

Music has many physiological benefits and research has confirmed a number of them such as improving mood, relieving stress and improving concentration.  But its benefits were known and used long before scientists began conducting studies on music and health.  The ancient Greeks believed music could heal the body and the soul;  ancient Egyptians and Native peoples incorporated singing and chanting in their healing rituals.  Look back over history, and you’ll find the power of music acknowledged for its many uses:  to relieve stress, build confidence or  ignite enthusiasm, and even, you may remember from kindergarten, help children learn their ABCs.  Today, you routinely hear soft music as you sit in the dentist’s chair, intended to calm you before the drilling begins, or, in a shopping mall, the background of nonstop music playing –not just for pleasure, but to entice you to buy.

Music therapy, now widely used in hospitals and cancer centers, was initially incorporated by the Veterans Administration as World War II ended and young shell-shocked soldiers returned home.  Then, as now, it helped to promote healing and enhance quality of life.   Music, Dr. Oliver Sacks stated in his book, Musicophilia (2008), is good medicine.  “The power of music to integrate and cure is quite fundamental,” he wrote. “It is the profoundest non-chemical medication.”

Music is a therapy. It is a communication far more powerful than words, far more immediate, far more efficient. — Yehudi Menuhin, violinist

Music therapy is now commonly used in the treatment of cancer.  The effectiveness of its use with cancer patients has been documented in many studies supporting its benefits for patients, including reduction of anxiety, pain, fatigue and the beneficial physiological impact on heart rate, respiration and blood pressure.

There is no feeling, except the extremes of fear and grief, that does not find relief in music.  — George Eliot 1819-1880

Google “music and healing,” and you’ll find a number of articles attesting to the physiological and emotional benefits of music, for example:

  • Music aids our autonomic nervous systems, positively affecting blood pressure, heartbeat and breathing.  In fact, it can actually improve overall functioning of our cardiovascular systems.
  • It helps reduce stress and anxiety, aid relaxation and alleviate depression.
  • Together with anti-nausea drugs, music can help to ease the nausea and vomiting accompanying chemotherapy.
  • It relieves short term pain and decreases the need for pain medication.
  • It’s effective in diminishing pre-surgical anxiety and beneficial for patients with high blood pressure.
  • Music even plays a role in improving troubled teens’ self-esteem and academic performance.

As I write, I realize that I need more music in my life.  Here in Toronto, we’ve sung with the group, “Choir! Choir! Choir!” and are intent on doing it more regularly, enjoying the fun and the camaraderie music creates among a room full of strangers.  For three years when we lived in San Diego, I drummed–learning to play the djembe and later, the dununs, part of the family of West African drums.  While I joked I’d likely be in the beginner class indefinitely, each Monday evening was a time of laughter, joy, and community–all created through music and rhythm.

Music.  It’s good for our spirits.  It’s good for our health.  It doesn’t matter what kind of music you prefer as much as it matters that you have music in your life.  Whether it plays a therapeutic role in your healing or something makes you want to sing along, stand up and dance, or lose yourself in the memories triggered by any musical piece, it’s an important part of being human.  This week, as many of us begin celebrating Christmas or Hanukah, reflect on the music that is so much a part of this holiday season or any other important time in your life.

My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary. – Martin Luther

Writing Suggestions:

What role does music play in your life?  Has it helped you heal from physical or emotional pain?  How has music been beneficial to you in your life?  What memories does a particular song ignite for you?  What stories?  Music, even a song like “Happy Birthday,” is also a powerful prompt for writing.   Here are a few suggestions for writing:

  • Perhaps there was some particular music that helped to soothe your fears or anxiety during cancer treatment or another difficult time.  Listen to it again, closing your eyes, and try to remember that time and how the music made you feel.
  • Recall a lullaby from childhood, a favorite song, a bit of classical music, or even the somewhat dissonant music from your high school band. What memories or stories does the music trigger?
  • Take any favorite recording, classical, jazz, new age, or pop, and listen to it.  Keep your notebook nearby. As you listen, capture the random thoughts and associations that come to mind. Once the recording ends, open your notebook and begin free writing.  Do this for five minutes.  When you finish, re-read what you’ve written and underline the sentence that has the most power for you.  Use that sentence to begin writing again on a fresh page. Set the timer for 15 minutes and see where it takes you.
Posted in expressive writing, writing and music, writing from cancer and serious illness, writing to heal | Leave a comment

For the Week of December 4, 2017: Worry, Worry, Worry

My pants could maybe fall down when I dive off the diving board.

My nose could maybe keep growing and never quit.

Miss Brearly could ask me to spell words like stomach and special.    

     (Stumick and speshul?)

(From:  “Fifteen, Maybe Sixteen Things to Worry About,” by Judith Viorst, in: If I Were in Charge of the World and Other Worries, 1981)

Worry.  None of us is immune to it.  Whether for ourselves or those you care about, everyone falls prey to worry many times over a lifetime.  I worried, as a teenager, if the boy I had a crush on “liked” me.  In college, I worried over exams and grades.  As a young mother of two daughters, I worried over their infant cries that seemed unending, sniffles and fevers, and later, times they suffered more serious illnesses.  I worried over job interviews, then about job-related challenges.  But those “everyday” worries felt trivial when my father diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, my mother began to suffer from Alzheimer’s, when my daughter suffered a miscarriage or, a few years later, a cardiologist told me I had heart failure.

This past weekend, however,  my worry was focused on my granddaughter.  She ran down the hallway in excitement and startled our small dog, bursting into tears when Maggie responded with her only defense–a loud, shrill bark.  Flora’s excitement turned to embarrassment and a desire to cut her morning play short.  She left, eyes still red from crying, with her mother a few minutes later.  I worried that her recent fear of dogs was going to be re-ignited for little more than a terrier’s startled response to her. That night,  as I replayed the little upset and realized I was, again, working myself up to worrying, the lyrics from a B.B. King Blues song began an endless loop in my head:

Worry worry worry

Worry is all I can do

Oh worry worry worry baby

Worry is all I can do…

Worrying is that state of feeling concerned or uneasy about some situation in your life.  While most of us experience a little worry or anxiety over things like an exam or a job interview,  a little worry can be helpful, actually helping you prepare for an upcoming situation.   Many years ago, I was involved in a community theater group, and learned, thanks to the wisdom of our director, that a little anxiety pre-performance actually energized our performance.  But excessive worrying has the opposite effect.  When it gets the better of you, like the long restless nights you cannot seem to banish worry to a dark corner, your body and mind goes into high gear.  You leap beyond what is to what might happen, and as your worry expands, so do your anxieties.  Excessive or chronic worrying can have negative emotional and physical impacts, interfering with your appetite, sleep, relationships, even job performance.

I worried a lot…

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,

can I do better?

…Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,

am I going to get rheumatism,

lockjaw, dementia?

(from “I Worried,” by Mary Oliver, Swan: Poems & Prose Poems, 2012)

Excessive worrying is one symptom of stress and anxiety, whether induced by a cancer diagnosis or some other upsetting event. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, some worry and anxiety is a common response to a cancer diagnosis and typically greatest while waiting for test results, at the time of diagnosis or waiting for treatment to begin.  But as anxiety increases, it may result in excessive worrying as well as a number of physical symptoms such as:

  • muscle tension
  • restlessness
  • fast heartbeat, trembling, shortness of breath, chest tightness, nausea, dizziness or high blood pressure
  • tiredness or exhaustion
  • trouble concentrating
  • irritability
  • impatience
  • trouble sleeping or getting too much sleep

 

Sleep can be lost as

easily as a house key…

— From “No Worry,” by Cole Swenson, In: New Math, © 1988

In a 2001 study published by Psycho-Oncology, researchers investigated the effect of “cancer-specific worries” or “cancer-specific stress” in women considered high-risk for developing breast cancer.  The results confirmed what prior studies had concluded:   “cancer-specific” worries and the resulting anxiety interfered with the quality of the women’s daily lives.

Chronic worrying, according to Web MD, can have negative impact on anyone’s daily life, not just those at risk for breast cancer.  Chronic worry and stress, as you know, is harmful to your health and may have even more serious consequences, including immune system suppression, digestive disorders, and coronary disease.  So how can you keep your worries and anxiety from spinning out of control?

Here are some practical and manageable options:

  • Talk to your doctor.
  • Seek help from a therapist.
  • Exercise daily.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet
  • Drink caffeine in moderation.
  • Be conscious of your worries!  (Set aside 15 minutes a day to focus on your problems and fears—then let them go after your 15 minutes is up.  It’s a way to remind yourself not to dwell on your worries.)
  • Practice relaxation techniques.
  • Meditate.
  • Enjoy the company of family and friends.

As for the worry I had over my granddaughter’s tearful response to the dog on Saturday morning, I wrote about it the next morning, a habit I have for clearing away the static of daily life.   Writing is, even with little worries, often a useful way to vanquish any budding or exaggerated worry and make sense out of my sometimes chaotic or noisy thoughts, find my way into insight and understanding–even self-deprecating humor–making my little worries vanish or become more manageable.   I suppose it’s why I smiled as I re-read the final stanza of Mary Oliver’s poem, “I Worried.”

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.

And gave it up.  And took my old body

and went out into the morning,

and sang.

Writing Suggestions

  • “Worry, worry, worry…”  What do you worry most about?  What are the triggers that incite your worrying?
  • Describe how you felt when you first were diagnosed with cancer.  How would you describe the worry that you felt?  What, ultimately, most helped you manage your anxiety?
  • What helps you manage those ordinary life events that may trigger your worry?  How do you keep from worry overtaking your life?
Posted in expressive writing, reflections on life, writing from cancer and serious illness, writing to heal | Leave a comment