For the Week of July 17, 2016: Learning as You Go

These past two days, Emily, my five-year old granddaughter has been teaching me games, some that although they include detailed instructions, are played according to her rules, created or improvised on the spot to her advantage.  I have become the novice to a card and board games I played as a child, but without knowing what her rules for the games might be, rules that ensure she manages to win nearly every round.  If I question the ever-changing landscape of game rules, she has a ready answer.  I have decided I need a GPS navigate through the mind of a five-year old!

Our shifting game rules got me to thinking about trying to learn to do something from written instructions, like the ones that come with do-it-yourself furniture from Ikea, the small impossible-to-read instructions that come folded inside across the counter medications, or the preponderance of self-help books available from Amazon or other book sellers. In fact, self-help books alone represent a $10 billion a year industry, an indication of our propensity to turn to others we consider more knowledgeable than ourselves for advice on any number of personal subjects.  (Take, for example, titles for those of us recently initiated into grand-parenting!)

Yet whether you are navigating through minor or significant change in your life, like unexpected illness, hardship or loss, there’s very likely a book, CD or DVD out there that will offer advice, counsel and practical steps for coping with the unfamiliar landscape you face.  The thing is, as Dr. Jim Taylor states in a 2011 Huffington Post article, “The Problem with the Self-Help Industry,” when it comes to life change, “…you have to make the journey yourself.”

Self-help books or advice from friends and colleagues rarely includes the kind of specific instructions we feel we need when we’re thrust into the uneven and difficult terrain of sudden life change, trauma or debilitating illness.  Sharon Doyle, a cancer survivor, entitled her poem, “There’s Not a Book On How To Do This,” offering  a glimpse of her cancer journey as she considers plans for a garden after her recovery:
There’s not a book on how to do this,
but there is an emphasis on composition.

The trucks that slug by under our window
hold trombones, mirrors, dictionaries.
It’s not my fault they invade
the calm of trees like cancer.  I

don’t have cancer anymore…

…I rarely remember the
uterus I don’t have.  One of my sons said,
“You were done with it right away, right, Mom?”
I guessed so…

There’s not a book on how to do this…” I like Doyle’s poem because the planning of her garden provides a metaphor for her cancer journey.  Think about it.  Whether cancer, or any major life challenge, you’re not given an instruction book to help us navigate the stress, upheaval, fear, or grief.  You may be lucky to have the comfort of friends and family, physicians and helping professionals, but the journey is, ultimately, yours to make.  The road is often full of unexpected twists and turns, conundrums and set-backs, but little by little, you find your way, and begin to design a new life, one that honors where you’ve been, what you have experienced and learned along the way.

Doyle’s poem reminds us that family, the birdsong and flowers, become part of her garden design because they provided solace and hope as she made her way back to health.  In the final stanza, she signals the new life she plans to celebrate:

I left vacant fourteen
trellis lightscapes for
balloons.

(In: The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. I)

Writing Suggestion:

This week, reflect on the journey of cancer or some other difficult life changing event.  It’s unlikely you were handed a GPS or a book of instructions to help you understand and manage challenges like an altered body, loss of a loved one, a job or a home.  What helped you navigate the rough waters of such profound and unexpected change?  What internal compass—your beliefs, aspirations, or faith—played a part in helping you rediscover hope and embrace a new life?

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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