As 2017 begins, I’ve been propelled into transition. My husband and I are deep in plans for our move across the country, and along with the excitement for what’s ahead, there is the bittersweet of letting go. I‘ve begun examining bookshelves, closets, storage bins, and furnishings, deciding what we must leave behind and what we will carry with us as we relocate to a different city. There’s eagerness to re-acquaint ourselves with old friends, be closer to family, but also, the sadness of leaving friends here. And there’s other letting go that I must do—and it’s coupled with more than a little heartache.
This past week, I began the process of leaving the expressive writing programs I began in 2007 at two San Diego cancer centers, completing my final workshop in March. At the end of this month, I’ll lead my last workshop for medical students, faculty and staff at Stanford Medical School, something I’ve been doing for the past twelve years.
It’s bittersweet—letting go of things I love; I’ve done it multiple times before, but it never gets easier. Once again, I’ve been propelled into a period of remembering and reflecting, looking back over the past many years, taking stock of accomplishments, disappointments and changes as I begin the transition to another life chapter. These next few months will be emotional, sometimes stressful, and yet exciting—as transition periods always are, no matter the circumstances that plunge us into change and choices.
What do we leave behind? What do we carry with us? Every life event, positive or negative, thrusts us into change and demands choices. We learn to let go of old ways of being, discard the things in our lives that no longer serve a purpose, and slowly, re-design our lives. As difficult as change can be—particularly when it’s thrust upon us unexpectedly–it is also a time for reassessment and healing.
In a very real sense, the act of letting go is part of the process I witness time and time again in the cancer writing groups I lead. So much of writing for healing is about expressing our deepest feelings and thoughts, but in doing so, we begin to let go of the pain and sorrow of the cancer journey. We start to make sense out of the shock, fears, and loss of the cancer experience, and gradually discover new insights and meaning from our experience. As the Danish philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard once said, “Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards.”
The 2009 award winning film, The Things We Carry, is a story of two sisters, whose lives are affected by their mother’s addiction. Each choses a different way to deal with it, and, in the process, the sisters become estranged from one another. The film explores their journey through the San Fernando Valley to a dingy motel, searching for a package their now deceased mother has left for them. Old sibling wounds are re-exposed and recounted, but gradually, the sisters find peace, not only within themselves, but with each other. “The key to moving forward,” the film’s tagline reads, “lies in the past.”
We learn more than we may realize life’s transitions and difficult chapters. Cancer is one of those. “Cancer has been a great teacher,” a former writing group member remarked as she explored life before and after her illness. Looking back helped her to make a choice to not “carry” the pain and suffering of the cancer experience into her life after recovery. Instead, she chose to use the lessons learned to shape a new life for herself going forward.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world…
(From “The Journey,” by Mary Oliver in Dreamwork, 1986)
Several years ago, one of the writing group members died from metastatic breast cancer. She was a gifted sculptor, but as is typical in the first weeks of the writing group, shared only her “status” as a cancer patient in the first few weeks. . It was mid-way through the series that we learned C. was a sculptor, someone who created sensuous and striking forms from stone, treasured and displayed by collectors across the country. After her death, her husband wrote a touching and beautiful remembrance of her. He spoke of her life as mother, wife, and sculptor, using C.’s word to describe how she approached her artistic process:
At first the stone seems cold and hostile. As the shape emerges, the stone becomes warm and alive. The joy and pain involved in the carving process is …something akin to giving birth and seeing your creation change from a gawky adolescent to a sensuous adult…
I treasure her words, because they offer an apt metaphor life’s changes and transitions. Now that I am contemplating the change my husband and I have chosen, I cannot help but think of the many men and women who’ve written with me during the cancer journey. Again and again, I’ve witnessed them come to terms with the changes dictated by this illness, struggle to make sense of it, and gradually, learning to let go of , and aspects of the self they were before cancer to a new way of being after cancer.. It is difficult, at first, for anyone to imagine a new life, but little by little, just as the sculptor wielding a chisel, choices are made and a new life begins to emerge, with new meaning, possibilities, or intentions for however long a life they may have. The choices all of us make change not only our worlds, but ourselves.
Before and after. Letting go and discovering the new. It’s a time of transition, a time of learning, a time of change and new possibilities. Lucille Clifton, former poet laureate of Maryland and a survivor of breast and ovarian cancer, captures it all in her poem, “I Am Running into a New Year:”
I am running into a new year
and the old years blow back like a wind…
that I catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what I said to myself
when I was sixteen and
twenty-six and thirty-six
even forty-six but
I am running into a new year
and I beg what I love and
I leave to forgive me.
(From: Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980)
- Cancer is a great teacher. How has cancer changed you? What have you learned from the experience?
- What choices have you made as a result of having and living with cancer? What did you need to let go of? What did you keep and bring with you into your changed life?
- I beg what I love/ and I leave to forgive me. A new year lies ahead of you. How do you intend to shape the life you want out of the material of your past and present?