For August 21, 2106: Think of Life as a Terminal Illness

School began for my grandchildren this past week, as it has for the children in my neighborhood.  The energy on the street in early morning punctuated with children’s voices, and the preponderance of and “back to school” displays in the department stores igniting my childhood memories of excitement:  the new shoes, school clothes, notebooks, rulers and pencils.  But I have already returned “to school,” as I began, in mid-July, teaching an online writing course for UCLA extension Writers’ Program.   Now, as the fall series of my “Writing Through Cancer” workshops begin soon,  I, like all instructors,  have again been busy with preparation.

Yesterday, however, despite a lengthy “to-do” list, I played hooky.   I put my work aside and focused on simpler things—re-organizing my office after moving in a new (and more ergonomic) desk, playing my favorite classical music as I weeded through closets and drawers, boxing clothing to donate, taking an hour to finish a novel, and  enjoying an iced tea as I sat quietly on the deck in the shade of the pergola.  By the end of the day, I felt more relaxed and happier than I’d been all week.

“It’s ironic that we forget so often how wonderful life really is,” novelist Anna Quindlen writes.  “Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of gray cement.  It would be wonderful if they came to us un-summoned, but particularly in lives as busy as the ones most of us lead now, that won’t happen.  We have to teach ourselves how to make room for them…”  (From:  A Short Guide to a Happy Life, Random House, 2000.)

I admit it.  I routinely fall prey to the infectious disease of busyness too often, and when I do, it begins to consume my life.  I began to notice the aches and stiffness of an aging body.  I feel irritable and impatient—sure signs from my body reminding me to slow down and take some time to refocus my attention, notice and smell those roses, or allow myself a lazy afternoon of puttering, sitting in the backyard and listening to the perpetual chirping and tweeting of the birds.

When it comes to the hazards of my tendency to “busyness,” I know better, of course, but actually stopping to re-calibrate and truly pay attention, to life is sometimes more difficult than it should be.   I, like most of you, occasionally need a little whack on the side of the head.  Ironically, I hear myself telling students that “a writer’s work is to notice and pay attention, to make room for the quiet that creativity demands,” but meanwhile I’ve gradually reverted to old, bad behavior, putting my “to-do” list ahead of my life, adding unnecessary stress, and filling my days with tasks that seem important but often crowd out the simple pleasure of being present in the here and now.

We have to teach ourselves how to make room for them [those small moments] to love them, and to live, really live.

Ted Kooser, former poet laureate of the U.S., has written and published over ten books of poetry.   For 35 years he was also an insurance company executive, retiring after his treatment for oral cancer in 1998.  Even as a busy executive, Kooser  honored his art, each day rising at 4:30 or 5 a.m.  to write poetry before he had to get ready for work at 7 a.m.

During his cancer treatment, Kooser described himself as “depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself… During the period when I was in surgery and going through radiation, I really didn’t do any writing. But as I came up out of radiation and was trying to get myself back in some sort of physical shape, I would walk a couple of miles every morning and then find something along that route to write about. (NPR interview, PBS News Hour, Oct. 21, 2004)

He began a routine of early morning walks, and one November morning, surprised himself by “trying my hand at a poem.  Soon I was writing every day…”  He did more than just write.  He pasted his poems on the backs of postcards and sent them to his friend, author Jim Harrison.  The postcards ultimately became a collection of poetry, Winter Morning Walks:  One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison, published in 2001 by Carnegie Mellon.

The early morning walks and poetry writing were good medicine for Kooser, as he noted in the NPR interview:   It was very important for me to see something from each day that I could do something with and find some order in, because I was surrounded by medical chaos or health chaos of some kind.  His book portrays what most cancer patients experience,  a man whose life was consumed, for a time, by the ravages of illness and treatment before he reawakened to those small moments of beauty in the natural world–the ones so necessary for poetry.

The sky a pale yellow this morning

like the skin of an onion

and here at the center…

…A poet,

and cupped in his hands, the green shoot

of one word.

In Early Morning Walks,” we see Kooser reclaim his life as he begins again to notice  “the small pieces of glittering mica”  Quindlen describes, a life he began to make time for and notice again.  In his poems, we see not only his recovery from cancer, but life and its endless array of small gifts of beauty.  He reminds us how important it is—how fuller our lives are if only we stop to pay attention to the life all around us.

I saw the season’s first bluebird
this morning, one month ahead
of its scheduled arrival.  Lucky I am
to go off to my cancer appointment
having been given a bluebird, and,
for a lifetime, have been given
this world.

I heard from another cancer survivor last night, a friend, writer, and  former member of one of my cancer writing groups .  She lives with the knowledge that her cancer is “relentless,” despite being in remission for several years.  As she enters a new decade, she is more aware than ever that “life is short,” and that she—and we all—need to be reminded not to waste it, not to be consumed by things that don’t make us feel fulfilled or happy.  Quindlen puts it another way, and with words I’m not likely to forget:

This is not a dress rehearsal…today is the only guarantee that you get…consider the lilies of the field…fuzz on a baby’s ear.  Read in the backyard with the sun on your face…And think of life as a terminal illness, because if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived.

Life as a terminal illnessToday is the only guarantee you get.  Embrace the life you have and time for the things that truly matter and give you joy.  It’s good medicine; you’ll feel better.

Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

(“The Thing Is, by Ellen Bass, In Mules of Love, BOA Editions, 2002)

Writing Suggestions

  • Take an early morning walk—but without your cellphone, music or earphones. Notice at least three small moments of beauty.  Try writing a poem about one or more of them.
  • Use Quindlen’s phrase, “Life is a terminal illness…” and keep writing, without stopping, for twenty minutes. See where it goes.
  • Borrowing from Ellen Bass’s poem, how can you love your life again? Write about it.

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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