For July 16, 2017: If Our Things Could Talk…

Dear Readers,

The moving truck filled with our belongings arrived late this week, and Thursday was devoted to directing the movers where to place each box or piece of furniture before the task of unwrapping each box, paintings and sculptures occurred.  Several hours later, all of us showing the signs of fatigue, they left, and we searched for somewhere, among all our belongings, to simply sit and catch a breath.

We’ve cleared some space, organized the kitchen and dining rooms, made a cursory attempt at establishing a semblance of order in our bedroom, but we are far from finished.  It’s not just the effort required to re-arrange our living space, find places for our things, but also the inevitable “re-discovery” of keepsakes and photographs, some in boxes for years before our move.  Each makes us pause, and most often say, “Oh, I remember when…” and a story emerges, the objects triggering memories of other times, places and people in our lives.

I don’t, as of yet, have any place to sit and write in peace, nor a desk to sit at and use my computer.  As I write this week, I’m sitting on the edge of the bed, laptop now occupying my lap for one of the few times since I’ve owned it.  I offer you a post and prompts originally published in 2014 for this week—all about objects and the stories they hold.  I hope you’ll find some inspiration for writing. — Sharon.

 Previously Posted April 27, 2012

Like my grandmother now, I save teabags for a second
cup.  String, stamps without postmarks, aluminum foil.
Wrapping paper, paper bags, bags of scrap fabric,
blue rubber bands, clothes hangers.  I save newspaper
clippings, recipes, bits of yarn, photographs in
shoeboxes, tins of buttons.  I save cancelled checks,
instruction manuals, warranties for appliances
long since thrown away.  Feathers, shells, pebbles,
acorns.

(“What I Save,” by Cheryl Savageau, in Dirt Road Home, 1995.)
“Every object is full of story,” the instructor said as she began taking objects from a basket and laying them on a white cloth.  “Objects are how the world comes to us.”  I was attending a week-long creative writing workshop taught by Pat Schneider, author of Writing Alone and With Others.  Pat knelt on the floor and one by one, filled the cloth with an assortment of things, worn from age and use: a set of old keys, a rosary, a wooden spoon, a shaving brush and many others.  I was doing what many of my writing students have done, venturing back into what I loved most—writing—after a long detour through the soul-destroying path of a corporate career.

I had just finished seven weeks’ of radiation therapy, my skin still red and tender, but cancer was not on my mind as I took my place in the circle of men and women who’d come to the workshop.  I was filled with anxiety.  What on earth was I going to write about?  When Pat emptied the basket, she invited us to choose an object and write, whatever it suggested to us.  Some people were quick to choose and begin writing, but I held back, my eyes moving back and forth over the assortment until I spotted an old half empty pack of Camel cigarettes.  I picked it up, looked inside, smelling the stale tobacco, and was transported back to the interior of an old Chevy pickup truck, my father seated behind the steering wheel, a cigarette in his left hand, driving along the back roads of Siskiyou County and spinning yarns from his childhood. “He tried them all,” I wrote, “Camels, Marlboros, Pall Malls…”  Memories clamored for attention. There were so many stories in one half-empty pack of cigarettes.

I’d all but forgotten about that morning until I read Maria Mutch’s essay in the latest issue of Poets and Writers’ Magazine.  “Ghost in the Machine:  A Typewriter, A Postcard, and the Objects of Memory,” tells the story of her search for an old black manual typewriter, not realizing that the memories of a friend were embedded in her search–a friend who had tried to give her the Smith Corona portable typewriter she owned just before committing suicide many years ago.   It’s a beautifully rendered essay, reminding us of how our memories, our stories, can be triggered by ordinary, everyday objects—trinkets, toys, utensils—from our past, objects dear to us for the memories they hold, but insignificant to others.

When I walk in my house I see pictures,

bought long ago, framed and hanging

—de Kooning, Arp, Laurencin, Henry Moore—

that I’ve cherished and stared at for years,

yet my eyes keep returning to the masters

of the trivial—a white stone perfectly round,

tiny lead models of baseball players, a cowbell,

a broken great-grandmother’s rocker,

a dead dog’s toy—valueless, unforgettable

detritus that my children will throw away

as I did my mother’s souvenirs ….
(“The Things,” by Donald Hall, In:  The Back Chamber, 2011.)


Objects, the everyday tools of our lives, tell stories, real or imagined.  We visit museums and gaze at the artifacts of ancient civilizations, of our ancestors, gleaning a bit of history, but we know little about the person or the events that are carried in what we see behind the glass.  What stories might those objects tell us, if only they could speak?

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes

on a pile of broken dishes by the house;

a tall man too, says the length of the bed

in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,

says the Bible with a broken back

on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;

but not a man for farming, say the fields

cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn…

 

Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves

and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.

And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.

It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

 

Something went wrong, says the empty house

in the weed-choked yard….

(“Abandoned Farmhouse,” by Ted Kooser, In: Sure Signs:  New & Selected Poems, 1980)

Significant Objects, published in 2012 by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, is a collection of stories resulting from of a literary experiment designed to answer the question, “Can a great story transform a worthless trinket into a significant object?”  The project’s team invited several well-known writers to invent stories about a collection of secondhand items gathered from yard sales and thrift stores, bought for a few cents to a dollar or two.  Over 200 writers contributed to the project, and the collection of objects was then auctioned off on eBay, the objects’ sale resulting in thousands of dollars, the proceeds donated to charity. But it was probably the surprising “cavalcade of responses” to the random junk that was the most surprising feature of the experiment.  That assortment of useless trinkets, the cast offs of yard sales and thrift shops, ignited an extraordinary amount of imagination.

FOR WRITING:  This week, look around your home at those keepsakes, the objects that line your shelves or sit on your desk, a side table.  I’ve just turned to look at the assorted of memorabilia on the bookshelf next to the chair where I often sit and write:  a stone heart, a piece of obsidian from the lava beds in Siskiyou County, a glass paperweight, a small clay bird…  Every single object holds meaning for me.  Each has its story to tell.  Begin there, examining the talismans and trinkets you cherish.  Let them speak.  What memories do they carry?  What stories or poems lie within each?  Write them.

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For the Week of July 9, 2017: The Need for Solitude

The effects of moving are experienced in the body, in the imagination, in the realm of desire. What the eye sees, what the body feels, what the heart yearns for, what remains and what has been lost — these are difficult at first to describe.”
― Louise DeSalvoOn Moving: A Writer’s Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts, and Finding Home Again, 2009.

We’re still camping out in our new apartment in Toronto, waiting for our belongings to arrive at customs, then, once the paperwork is completed, delivered to us.  That’s only the beginning of re-settling.  There are numerous boxes to unpack, their contents organized and placed in different rooms, closets, drawers, shelves or hung on walls.  This transition, which began many weeks ago, is wearing on me in multiple ways, and this weekend, it was my back that finally spoke the loudest: “Enough!”  After much packing, bending, lifting, and, here in Toronto, assembling a few piece of Ikea furniture and sleeping on a queen sized airbed, the toll on my body is clear.  I’m hobbling about the apartment, sitting as little as possible, and lying on the floor for respite in frequent intervals.  But the effects of our move are not just disrupting my physical self.  I’m also hungry for that little corner called “my space” that allows me solitude and time for writing and reflection.  At the moment, my new desk is being shared with my husband, who is waiting for his to arrive with the moving trucks.  As the days without my usual solitude increase, so does my impatience and irritation.

“I am here alone for the first time in weeks,” May Sarton wrote at the beginning of A Journal of Solitude, “to take up my ‘real’ life again at last.”  Her words resonate with me this week.  As much as I love Toronto, whatever city we live in at the moment is less important that the space we shape for ourselves, one that offers that “room of one’s own,” whether a corner of the kitchen or a bedroom turned into office.  Remember Virginia Woolf’s, A Room of One’s Own?  Written at a time when women were not allowed into particular universities nor recognized in a literary world dominated by men.  Woolf famously said, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

Things have, happily, changed for women since Woolf’s time, but I find it amusing that I’m feeling “encroached” upon in my space by my spouse.  In fairness, we both need our space to work and create, and he’s trying to be as flexible as I am, although without a bad back!  I still think of Woolf’s words, however, important in making explicit how necessary it is to make space for our creative work—or simply a time for quiet and refueling ourselves.  When we can’t find time or space free of interruption or distractions, not only our creative work is compromised, but, I think, the kind of spiritual-fueling we all need.  After weeks of disruption in the process of selling our San Diego home and now re-settling in a new apartment, I am woefully in need of reclaiming my routine and the mental and emotional space needed to nurture my creative life.

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

In her delightful book of writing invitations, Room to Write (1996), Bonni Goldberg explains the choice of her book title as “creating room for your writing…  Making room in your life to write,” she adds, “generates even more room for your writing.”    Yes, I need the space and solitude for writing, but it’s much more than that.  Whatever feeds our inner lives, whether a hike through a canyon or forest, time sitting by a lake or stream, or simply finding time alone to do whatever we wish, we’re re-fueling ourselves and taking the time to pay attention to the things that matter most to us.  Quiet, solitude, even a space of one’s own:  these offer a different kind of nourishment and healing, no matter what change, turbulence or challenges life throws at us.

Writing Suggestions:

Do you value solitude?  How do you find it in the midst of a busy life?

Suppose you’ve been away for a time, in hospital or perhaps, taking care of an ill friend or family member.  What is it like to return to your own space after a busy day or time away?

Do you have a “room of your own” where you can engage in your creative work?  Describe it.  What do you like most about it?

 

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For the Week of July 2, 2017: The Sense of Home

Understand, I was only a girl

living the days as they came.

I did not know I would leave…

(From “Translation of my Life,” by Elizabeth Spires, In:  The Wave Maker, 2008)

We arrived back in Toronto just three days ago, weary from the weeks of preparing the house for sale, packing up our belongings, the history of much of our lives crammed into boxes, and flying across the continent with our small dog, Maggie, who was somewhat befuddled by her imprisonment in an “under the seat” Sherpa pet carrier.  Despite it all, I felt a sense of quiet satisfaction, of returning to a place I’ve been visiting regularly since I left for California several years ago, a place where, I remarked to a friend, “I feel grounded.”

As the airplane flew over the Midwest and into Canada, I remembered an evening when we were visiting Toronto two years ago.  I was lost in remembrance and sentimentality as my husband and I sat in a vine covered patio in the lingering daylight of long summer’s evenings here.  “You can’t go home again,” my husband said.  I reminded him that I’d already experienced the truth of Thomas Wolfe’s words when we’d left Canada for California many years ago.  The place I once called “home” had vanished.  After twenty-three years of maturing and living on Canadian soil, not only had my birthplace changed, so had I.

Even if you’ve never left a familiar place, the events of your life sometimes make you feel as if you no longer “at home” as you once were.  Cancer can have that effect, so can job loss, divorce, the death of a loved one, or other unexpected and difficult life events.  It’s as if you cross an invisible boundary into some new territory where what you took for granted no longer exists.  Whatever golden dreams I clung to about my home state were quickly tarnished by the reality that it was not and could no longer be “home.”

I guess I have to begin by admitting

I’m thankful today I don’t reside in a country

My country has chosen to liberate…

(From:  “Thanksgiving Letter from Harry” by Carl Dennis, in:  Unknown Friends, Penguin Press, 2007).

I admit the politics dominating the United States for the past year or two intensified my restlessness, no doubt influenced by the formative years of my young adulthood, when  my first husband and I embarked on a self-imposed exile to Canada in protest of the Vietnam war–an event mobilizing so many of our generation.  We were young and idealistic, never imagining how our sense of home would be altered and our lives changed.  Twenty-three years later, married to another native Californian, I returned to my birthplace full of hopes and expectations.  But like the protagonist in Thomas Wolfe’s novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, my homecoming was laced with disappointment.  What I discovered, like so many emigrants before me, was that “home” no longer existed in the ways I had imagined it.

You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood,  …back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.  (From: You Can’t Go Home Again, 1940)

Whatever golden dreams I clung to about my home state were quickly tarnished by the reality that it was not and could no longer be “home.”  The memories that that drew me back to the West were now elusive.  I felt like a stranger in the place I once called “home.”

In color photographs, my childhood house looks

fresh as an uncut sheet cake—

pale yellow buttercream, ribbons of white trim…

 Half a century later, I barely recognize it

when I search the address on Google Maps

and, via “Street view,” find myself face to face—

 foliage overgrown, facade remodeled and painted

a drab brown. ..

(From “9773 Comanche Ave.,” by David Trinidad. 2010

The irony is, of course, that all the years I lived in Canada, I clung tenaciously to my dream of California, whose luster intensified in my imagination.  Yet all the while, Canada had quietly wrapped itself around my heart.  There, I grew into adulthood.  I became a wife, mother and widow.  I met and married my second husband.  I discovered friendships whose bonds were forged out of the steel of years of struggle and hardship, friendships that have endured despite time and distance. Canada became a part of me as surely as the California of my youth. But it took leaving it to realize how much my Canadian years had defined me.

“Home is where the heart is,” Gaius Plinius Secundas, wrote nearly two thousand years ago.   Countless authors, writing about home, have echoed it since.

Goethe once wrote that all writers are homesick, that all writers are really searching for home.  Being a writer is being on a constant search for where you belong.”  It “comes out of a place of memory, not geography.  (Mary Morris, “Looking for Home,” in:  A Place Called Home:  Twenty Writing Women Remember, 1996)

It comes down to change– in a place and in ourselves.  Even if we’ve never left a place, all that happens to us during our lives exerts an impact, whether cancer, loss, trauma, living in another country.  We are changed from these events, and it can make us feel as if we’ve suddenly become strangers to the very place we’ve considered as “home,” crossing some invisible border into strange, new territory without realizing it, a place where now, the customs and nuances are unfamiliar.   We long for home, the place we once knew by heart, but  discover, as Wolfe suggested,  that you can never be at home as you once were.

Writing Suggestions:

  • What does it mean to be “at home?”
  • Have you returned to a once familiar place to find that you are no longer part of it as you once were?  What did you learn?
  • Has an experience like cancer, loss, or other life challenges made it difficult to regain the sense of belonging to a place and its people—or cemented it?
  • How has “home” changed for you over the years?
  • Write about home, leaving, returning or finding it.
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For the Week of June 25, 2017: “You Gotta’ Have Friends”

A friend is someone who likes you.
It can be a boy…
It can be a girl…

These are the opening pages to Joan Walsh Anglund’s beloved little book, A Friend is Someone Who Likes You, first published in 1958, one that sat on my parents’ coffee table for years, one I read aloud to my fourth grade class the first year I taught.  I still have a copy of Anglund’s book on my shelves, because no matter our age or stage in life, we all need friends, whether in good times or bad.

I’ve written about this topic several times before, but friends and friendship were again on my mind as I awakened this morning, no doubt ignited by yesterday’s household belongings sale we held yesterday with our neighbors.  Our tables were filled with not just the ordinary accumulations one has for day-to-day living, like plates, glasses, trays or pans, but bits of history, items that once held sentimental value.  Decorations, artwork, mementos from travels, all things that held a memory of a time and place, also occupied places on the sales tables.  I surprised myself at how quickly I was able to let them go when a neighbor or stranger picked one or two of those things off the table and murmured, “Oh, I love this…”  Things, accumulated belongings, stuff—call it what you may, but I felt little but delight that someone else might use and enjoy what I once called “mine.”

We had help with the sale.  Alecia supervised the entire process of the garage sale.  Victoria simplified the pricing process.  Sue brought muffins and smoothies to help fuel us during the day.  Carrie provided tables and transport to Goodwill for leftover goods.  Neighbors conspired to have a small “farewell” party the night after the moving truck departs.  Other friends dropped by, less to peruse our tables, but more to offer good wishes and give us a farewell hug.  There were several moments where my eyes filled with tears, and I turned to a corner of the garage or walked inside our house to let my emotions settle.  Unlike once cherished objects, letting go and leaving friends and neighbors who have been part of my life here isn’t so simple.

“You gotta’ have friends,” Bette Midler crooned on her 1973 album, The Divine Miss M (Atlantic Records).  Yes, we all “gotta'” have friends.   I remembering singing along to Midler’s recording in the late seventies, when my life seemed to fall apart, and a few close friends were there to help me through a tumultuous and painful time of trauma and loss.  Of course, not all the people we call “friends” stick by us through  hard times, whether loss, a marriage break-up, cancer or other life hardships.  As Midler reminds us in the song:

I got some friends but they’re gone
Someone came and took them away…

It’s during those difficult times in our lives that we truly discover what friendship is—and what separates our friends from our acquaintances in life.  Friends endure.  We share history and stories, laughter and tears.  They remind us of who we were and who we are.  In times of upheaval, change and transition, they provide the continuity we need in our lives, and sometimes, as many of us so painfully discover, they are “there” for us when our immediate families may not be.

A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow. – William Shakespeare

Although I spent my childhood in one small town, my adult life has been punctuated by several moves, and once again, my husband and I are packing our bags and heading back to the city where we met and married, where even now, both daughters consider it “home,” despite their many travels and living in different countries.  I have been lucky to have several dear friends in Canada and the West—friendships formed in early in life, ones enduring through all my trials, tribulations, and moves to the opposite side of the country.  When I grouse about how many times we’ve changed residences, I remind myself how rich my life is, due in large part to my enduring friendships with people scattered around the world.  These are people who shared the impulsiveness and turbulence of youth, stuck by me during difficult chapters of my life, showed up when I least expected it, embraced and welcomed me when I felt most alone.

We all need friends.  Isolation and loneliness are often harbingers of emotional or physical illness.  Friendship, according to Rebecca Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships. Better health, a more positive outlook, longer lifespan and more hopeful attitude towards life are just some of the benefits of friendship, including lowered risk of coronary heart disease.  Strong friendships have been shown to benefit brain health as we age and increase longevity.  In a 2006 study of nurses diagnosed with breast cancer, those without close friends were far more likely to dies from their cancer than those with ten or more friends.  What’s more, proximity and amount of contact are less important than having good friends (“What are friends for?  A longer Life,” by Tara Parker Pope, New York Times, April 2009).

The good thing about friends, Brian Jones writes in his poem, “About Friends,” is not having to finish sentences ( From:  Spitfire on the Northern Line © 1985). That’s how it feels for me when I’m with my friends.  As I have experienced so many times, and again these past many days  preparing to leave San Diego, friends not only make our lives happier, richer and a lot more interesting, they show up to lend a hand or offer comfort when we most need it.  It was these enduring friendships I thought about this morning as I gazed out at the canyon early this morning, friends whose kindness and support have meant so much in my life.  I smiled as I remembered each, my heart filled with gratitude for their continuing presence in my life.

“Good friends are good for your health.” They celebrate the good times and provide support in the tough times.  They keep us from being lonely, and we, as friends, return the gift of companionship” (www.mayoclinic.org)

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about friendship this week, about having—perhaps even losing—friends.
  • When have friends made a difference in your life? How?
  • Begin with the phrase, “A friend is someone who…”
  • Or write about one important friend in your life—what makes him or her unique?
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For the Week of June 18, 2017: Remembering Fathers

He wasn’t hard on us kids,
never struck us…

He used to sing in the car


bought us root beers along the road.


He loved us with his deeds.

(From: “A Father’s Pain,” in A River Remains by Larry Smith)

It’s Father’s Day, and in countless households in North America and the UK, eager youngsters, like my grandchildren, will be excitedly honoring their fathers, whether with homemade art, a special meal, gifts or cards. My youngest  granddaughter excitedly told me about the “surprise breakfast” she and her mother were going to serve to my son-in-law—a breakfast-in-bed that has been a ritual each Father’s Day, so while it’s unlikely a surprise for her father, he will show as much excitement as he has before.

Acting as if whatever was presented to him was the most wonderful Father’s Day surprise is something my father also did.  Our offerings were meager, given long before commercialism inundated Father’s Day with ads for a variety of expensive gifts. Instead, we made our own cards since the Hallmark supplies were meager, or we baked with our mother’s supervision—cookies, cake or a pie—and my father’s enthusiasm made us feel as if we’d created something truly special for him.

Since then, Father’s Day celebrations have become popular and more expensive. In previous years, retailers made their big push to attract consumers on Mothers’ Day since Father’s Day seemed, in some ways, it seemed like an afterthought.  (The holiday was an American invention, made two years after Mother’s Day).  In our house, Dad went to work each morning and returned at suppertime. Mother managed the household and was the primary disciplinarian of three spirited children.

Child-rearing practice have since changed from those traditional 1950’s middle class households.  Even in the 1970’s and 80’s, as I began rearing my children, parenting practices were shifting.  Since then, there have been more than a few subtle shifts in parenting assumptions between mothers and fathers, manifested as a a partnership of shared child-rearing responsibility.   Even so, Father’s Day still lags behind the cards, gifts and special dinners that have become part of our Mother’s Day celebrations. More cards, flowers and gifts are traditionally bestowed on mothers than fathers. According to a 2016 article from BBC News.com, the National Retail Federation reported an average of $186 is spent on Mother’s Day compared to $136 for Father’s Day.   According to Kyle Murray of the Alberta School of Business, retailers made a big push for a long time on Mother’s Day because demand for gift-giving was strong, and Father’s Day’s seemed, by comparison, more of an afterthought.

As child rearing is more frequently a partnership between husband and wife, fathers do more hands-on parenting and have more emotional relationships with their children than they once did. Not surprisingly then, according to Professor Murray, there is increased emphasis on Father’s Day and retailers’ promotions of the occasion.

Kit Yarrow, psychologist at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, says that because fathers have a deeper and more emotional relationship with their children than in the past, it’s easier to buy presents for them (BBC News. com). Despite the fact my father wasn’t as involved in our day-to-day upbringing as my mother, he provided the emotional glue that held our family together.

My mother was a strong disciplinarian while Dad, was an easy-going, fun-loving and tender-hearted father, whose reluctance to discipline was the result of the physical punishments he endured as a rambunctious child living on a ranch in the 1920’s.  It never failed, whenever we stopped by his appliance store and begged for an after school treat at the local drugstore, that he’d produced a shiny quarter from his pants pocket and hand it to us.  And many times, just as we opened the door to exit the store, he’d call out, “Hey Kid…how about I come with you?”

Dad taught me many things, among them, the love of a good story and the joy in shared laughter.  I also learned to dance standing on my father’s feet as he moved around the living room to a favorite Glen Miller or Benny Goodman tune. He taught me how to pitch a baseball, execute a decent football pass, and fish— even though my mother might have wished I’d chosen more “feminine” activities. Raised by an exceptional cook, he never failed to praise my meager attempts to bake a pie like my grandmother did, often with a too much flour and not nearly enough sugar. Yet even if the pie bordered on inedible, he always ate the ample slice I served, flashed a big smile and said, “My, but this might be the best blackberry pie I ever tasted.”

When my father died of Stage Four lung cancer on Thanksgiving Day, 1992, just three months after his diagnosis, none of his children were ready to let him go. The emptiness I felt in the wake of his death lingered for months afterward. Perhaps my father’s death—and life—is one of the reasons I gravitated to leading expressive writing groups for cancer survivors. Maybe it was the result all those afternoons I sat by his side as he prepared to die and he filled my head and heart with stories from his life.  His unique brand of warmth persisted to the end.  Even on the day he died, he managed to get to the table for a short time and share the  traditional meal with family, even asking for a second piece of pumpkin pie.  In my mind, as sad as the day was, I can imagine him smiling as and saying, “I think that might have been the best pumpkin pie I’ve ever eaten.”

This Father’s Day, I’ll celebrate my husband and sons-in-law and but it’s my father’s memory which will be foremost in my mind.  I hear the echo of his chuckle yet and remember how he loved to tell a good story.  As Jim Harrison wrote in his poem, “Larson’s Holstein Bull,” “death steals everything but our stories.” My father’s legacy lives on in his stories,  memories even cancer can never take away.

I miss you everyday— the heartbeat


under your necktie, the hand cupped


on the back of my neck, Old Spice


in the air, your voice delighted with stories.

(From:  “Father” in Delights & Shadows by Ted Kooser)
Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about your father, his memories, stories and legacy—whether loving or painful. What do you remember most about him?
  • Write about being a father—what did you learn from your own? How has your father influenced the father you’ve become?
  • Write about the holiday, “Father’s Day.” What do you like about it? What annoys you about it? Why?

To all fathers who may read this week’s post, Happy Father’s Day!

 

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For the Week of June 11, 2017: Two Words, Many Memories

“It’s a surprise,” Flora told me as we sat in her parents’ sunroom together. “Can I tell you?”

I shook my head. “Oh please don’t tell me; I really, really want to be surprised.”

“Well, can I just tell you a little bit?” Obviously, she’s already excited about whatever her parents and she have planned for tomorrow, and I suspect it will be as much about her delight in hosting a little birthday party for her grandmother than anything. But that will be part of the fun—making different memories of my birthdays as I grow older.

“I’m hardly ever surprised,” I told her as she tried not reveal what was planned. Memories of birthdays past flashed in front of my mind’s eye. Memories of birthdays past flashed through my mind’s eye—the one genuine surprise my daughters managed to pull of over a decade ago, and the excitement of childhood celebrations between pre-school and perhaps, 3rd grade, even some dismal ones in young adulthood, before I had children and experienced the joy of their excitment. In each birthday memory, there is a story.

A few years ago, I read Roger Rosenblatt’s wise little book, Unless It Moves the Human Heart (Harper Collins, 2011), a glimpse into his “Writing Everything” class. Among the many nuggets of wisdom about teaching creative writing, he described one exercise that never failed to inspire his students’ writing:

I…then burst into song: “Happy Birthday to You.” They [his students] give me the he’s-gone-nuts look I’ve come to cherish over the years. I sing it again. “Happy Birthday to You. Anyone had a birthday recently? Anyone about to have one?” …just sit back and see what comes of listening to this irritating, celebratory song you’ve heard all your lives” (pp.39-40).

Search the internet and you’ll quickly discover that Rosenblatt and his students weren’t the only ones using birthdays for inspiration. Go to www.poets.org and you’ll find poets like William Blake, Sylvia Plath, Christina Rossetti and many others who used their birthdays as inspiration and reflection. Ted Kooser’s “A Happy Birthday,” captures that moment of introspection triggered by his birthday:

This evening, I sat by an open window
and read till the light was gone and the book
was no more than a part of the darkness.
I could easily have switched on a lamp,
but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
with the pale gray ghost of my hand.

Poems about birthdays reflect the passage of time, aging, even the opportunity for change, for example, Joyce Sutphen’s “Crossroads:”

The second half of my life will be black 
to the white rind of the old and fading moon. 
The second half of my life will be water 
over the cracked floor of these desert years.

Although I am not ready to refer to this stage of my life as “desert years,”–far from it–I’ll confess that I’m at the stage in life where I’d rather the numbers are decreasing in size than increasing. Nevertheless, I’ll share in the delight of a birthday planned and hosted by a six year old granddaughter, and who knows, I might have something to write about after the celebration is over.

Writing Suggestion:

Whether you’re soon to be celebrating a birthday or waiting until 2018 to do so again, why not do what so many other poets and writers have done: used the advent of or a memory of a birthday already passed to inspire your own writing. “Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you…” What memories, good or bad, does that little traditional ditty evoke in you? Write about one.

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For the Week of June 4, 2017: The Long Days of Waiting

I’ve been doing a lot of it, waiting, that is.  Since we made the decision to relocate several months ago, it’s seemed like “hurry up and wait.”  Four months ago, I began sorting through books and clothing, optimistic that we’d be headed north sometime in late April or, at the latest, mid-May.  But it’s now June, and we are now waiting for escrow to close in just less than a month.  Even though I realize these next weeks will now be dominated by a flurry of activity,  our time thus far has seemed elongated and the waiting interminable.

What you do with time

is what a grandmother clock

does with it: strike twelve

and take its time doing it.

You’re the clock: time passes,

you remain. And wait.

(From:  “Mother,” by From The Plural of Happiness: Selected Poems of Herman de Coninck, 2006

Waiting.  We all do it–and often.  It can dominate our daily lives.  We wait in lines for tickets or to get through security at the airport.  We wait to be served in restaurants or for a train in the subway station.  We wait for calls or letters from employers, editors or loved ones, for acceptances to schools, or the results of medical tests.  And  we wait in doctors’ waiting rooms for an appointment scheduled an hour earlier, thumbing impatiently through outdated magazines and checking the clock a dozen times, unable to concentrate on much of anything but the waiting.

Waiting, a novel by Ha Jin, captures the poignant dilemma of a Chinese man, Lin, whose life is dominated by duty.  He is caught in a loveless marriage arranged by his traditional parents Lin lives far away in an army hospital compound, visiting only once a year. He becomes attracted to a nurse in the hospital where he works, but Communist party rules prevent him from divorcing his wife without her permission until they have been separated for 18 years.  Year after year, Lin returns to his village to ask his wife for his freedom, and year after year, he returns, still married, unable to consummate his love affair.  The irony comes at the end, when Lin concludes that he “waited eighteen years just for the sake of waiting.”

The narrator in the short story, “Waiting,” by E.C. Osondu, also spends his days in wait.  War has destroyed his village, and he is one of many in a refugee camp faced with the threat of starvation.  They spend their days waiting.

Here in the camp, we wait and wait and then wait some more. It is the only thing we do. We wait for the food trucks to come and then we form a straight line and then we wait a few minutes for the line to scatter, then we wait for the fight to begin, and then we fight and struggle and bite and kick and curse and tear and grab and run. And then we begin to watch the road and wait to see if the water trucks are coming, we watch for the dust trail, and then we go and fetch our containers and start waiting and then the trucks come and the first few containers are filled and the fight and struggle and tearing and scratching begin because someone has whispered to someone that the water tanker only has little water in it.  That is, if we are lucky and the water tanker comes; oftentimes, we just bring out our containers and start waiting and praying for rain to fall.

We are all forced to wait at many times in our lives. Those toe-tapping, check-our-wrist watches moments are minor irritations that we all endure.  But there is another kind of waiting that no one finds easy, waiting that is punctuated with worry and sleepless nights.  Waiting that could be a matter of life and death.  Anyone living with cancer knows this kind of waiting intimately.  In  the course of treatments and recovery, waiting can be torment, as writer Susan Gubar describes in her article, “Living With Cancer: Hurry Up and Wait.”

As a cancer patient, you endure “waiting for a doctor, waiting for radiation, waiting for the delivery of chemotherapy drugs, waiting through interminable infusions or transfusions, waiting for a scan or a biopsy, waiting for the results of a scan or a biopsy, waiting (sometimes starved and unclothed on a gurney in a hall) for surgery… Hurrying up to wait is, of course, the fate of most patients, whether or not they have cancer and no matter how impatient they may be. But for cancer patients, waiting entails being enveloped in heightened fears about harmful protocols and the difficulty of eradicating or containing the disease. While I’m waiting, who knows what appalling cells are conspiring within my body to destroy my being? (In:  “Well,”  New York Times, December 3, 2015)

A 2011 research study reported in The Annals of Surgery found “wait times for cancer treatment have increased over the last decade… potentially resulting in additional treatment delay…Although cancer incidence rates have seen modest declines during the last decade, the overall number of patients diagnosed with a solid organ malignancy has been increasing, likely due to an increasing elderly population. An extended interval from diagnosis to treatment, the researchers concluded, adds to patient anxiety, leads to gaps in care, and perhaps affects disease progression.

If you’ve been faced with the anxious period between any test for cancer and its results, your experience may be echoed in Muriel Fish’s poem, “In Cold Dreams Before Dawn,” as she captures the fear of waiting:

…The radiologist

Enters, snaps the x-ray film into a wall unit lit with

brisk efficiency…

…the bite of the biopsy needle reminds me

most lumps are benign…

…I wait, remembering long

Bittersweet days sitting with my mother and sister,

each with their own small malignancy and dead within three years.

(In:  The Cancer Poetry Project, V. 1, 2001)

Robert Carroll, MD, is a UCLA psychiatrist who utilizes poetry to help patients cope with their illnesses and struggles.  In a 2005 article, “Finding the Words to Say It:  The Healing Power of Poetry,” he explores how poetry can help us find the words to express trauma, illness, death and dying.  Remembering my father’s death from lung cancer several years ago, I was drawn to one of the featured poems:  “What Waiting Is.”

We sit on the bench in the hospital corridor
next to the cafeteria, and we wait.
You know what waiting is.
If you know anything, you know what waiting is.
It’s not about you.
This is about
illness and hospitals and life and death…

In matters of death and dying, as Carroll describes,  we may be forced to do little but wait, but finding ways to express our pain and emotion, by writing or finding meaning in others’ poetry and prose, has therapeutic benefits.  In this poem,  Carroll captured another kind of waiting cancer imposes on us, the experience of waiting while a loved one ends his cancer journey.  As I read it, I recalled the experience of waiting while my beloved father was dying of lung cancer several years ago:

In the bathroom you look in the mirror.
What do you see?
Your father’s sad face?
Your mother’s eyes?
You catch the water cupped
in your thickened hands, splash it on your face,
and hope against hope you can wash it away—
the aging brown spots, the bags,
the swelling truth of waiting—…

you get home to see the light
flash on your answering machine…

you push the button,
and it’s your sister’s voice,
but it’s choked,
and she can’t speak.

 Waiting never seems to get easier, and there are times, particularly in the midst of illness, trauma and suffering, that the waiting we do seems never ending.  Yet, we learn, as we sometimes are forced to do, to wait.  And we hope, as T.S. Eliot once wrote, “The faith and the love and the hope are … in the waiting.  These words make me reconsider why life makes us wait.  I am still learning, even after all these years, to accept what I cannot control, to let things unfold as they will.  “This is life.  You learn to wait.”

Writing Suggestion:

The waiting I’ve been doing lately will, once it’s over, make me wonder why I expended on the energy on it I have.  But I, like you, have sat, worried and anxious, in waiting rooms while a child undergoes surgery, or waited, dreading the call I knew would come, when my father died, and waited, caught between hope and fear, for the results echocardiograms or a biopsy.   Think about all the times you’ve waited for something or someone.  Write about an experience you’ve had of waiting.

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