We’ve been lucky here in San Diego. After a deluge of winter rainstorms, the sun has finally become a regular presence in the days, so much so, that when I awakened to a foggy morning, the canyon shrouded in a fine mist, I felt my mood plummet—like it does, sometimes, when I eye the aging face (one that apparently belongs to me) in the mirror. Grey, in those moments, is the color of blah, of aging, of the mood we call the “blues,” when in fact, it’s all about grey.
Grey also was on my mind yesterday. As I cleaned out my office closet, I inadvertently spilled a box of crayons onto the floor, all fifty -two of them. I knelt to pick them up and replace each in the box, thinking, as I did, about my grandchildren and how their paintings are filled with bold and vivid colors. As I picked up the grey crayon I remembered a poem written by a third year student in a writing workshop I led for Stanford Medical School last year. Grey–the same color older women do their best to avoid, the color I associate with long, grey Nova Scotia winters.
Grey, as Sarah defined it, is full of life. Here is an excerpt from the poem she wrote and read aloud that Saturday afternoon:
… Grey is the color of “yes, life has been here,”
and “don’t you know I have a story to tell?”
Grey is the color of pregnant clouds,
waiting to gift us with all they’ve held up inside…
White is before, but give me the after
Give me the ninety-year-old under her old grey comforter.
Has she lived? Well, tell me the color of her soul.
Show me the spots of grey, and tell me how you’ve lived,
the story printed dark and true in the deepest, most imperfect,
ugliest and sweetest shade.
(From “Grey,” by Sarah Schlegel, April, 2016)
Colors, as we know, have strong emotional associations. Some colors elicit almost universal meaning, for example, the blue spectrum can communicate calm, but also sadness. Red, by contrast, expresses warmth, but also anger. Color is often found in the lyrics of popular songs, for example, “Red Dirt Girl,” “San Francisco Bay Blues,” “Green, Green Grass of Home,” or “Say it Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Whether a poem, love song, the hard beat of rap, or smoky voice of a jazz singer, the mention of a color immediately evokes feelings, memories or a mood.
Humans make all sorts of color choices, every day. We color-code our children’s genders from birth—blue caps for boys and pink caps for girls in the hospital nursery—and paint our bedrooms sea foam green and lemon meringue yellow for serenity. We are intimately familiar with Coca-Cola’s red script, McDonald’s golden arches, and Starbucks’ green mermaid. Red means “stop” and green means “go” in contexts far away from the traffic light—using the colors on food labels has been shown to lead people to make healthier choices. This just goes to show how deeply colors can become lodged in our mind. (“How Color Shapes our Lives,” by Elijah Wolfson, The Atlantic, Jan. 29,2014)
But for each of us, some colors have negative or unwarranted associations. (I can’t look at a bottle of the pinkish-orange French dressing on grocery shelves without remember the bicycle accident and severe concussion I suffered in sixth grade). And in the current climate of politics with issues of cultural differences and diversity are dominating the news, another color, “brown,” may have less than positive connotations for some individuals. In the children’s book, Tan to Tamarind: Poems about the Color Brown (2009) by Malathi Iyengar and Jamel Akib, young readers are asked, “when you look in the mirror, what do you see?” and in a series of poems, are offered fresh and enchanting ways to think about being brown and the color brown, just as Sarah’s poem about the color grey did for me. Here are a few of Iyengar’s images evoked by the color brown.
A mug of hot chocolate,
smooth and creamy brown…
Spicy sweet masala tea brown
Reddish brown mountains…
Strong, unyielding brown
Warm, abiding brown
Brown leaves crunch and
crackle under our shoes in fall
Acorns in October…
Color also plays a role in cancer, in cultural differences and treatment as well as in the writing by cancer patients and survivors. A 2009 article, “The Many Shades of Survivorship,” by Kathy Latour, appearing in Cure Today, December 2009, explored the issues of cultural differences in cancer care and treatment, including lack of healthcare access, early diagnosis and individualized treatment.
Have a read-through the two volumes of The Cancer Poetry Project, one of my favorite anthologies edited by Karin Miller, reveals that color is often used to explore the complex emotions of cancer and, sometimes, in unexpected ways, for example, in “Bi, Bye-Bye, Buy,” by Mary Milton, who infuses her poem with humor and color, inspired after a friend advised her “Don’t start buying stuff to compensate” as she prepared for her mastectomies. She describes her purchase:
…a sheet of bed sheets dusty coral
so blood stains won’t show much…
and shirts that open in front
one short-sleeved white
bad choice of color but I liked
its spirited portrayal of zebras
galloping through ferns
and gold paint splats
Besides it was on sale…
(in: Volume One, 2001)
People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and its ends, but to me it’s quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations, with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spat blues. Murky darknesses. (Marcus Zuzak, The Book Thief, 2005)
How does color affect or inspire you–whether in mood, belongings, cancer or skin color? This week, explore colors in your life.
- If you are person of color, write ways in which you have experienced any differences in treatment or care.
- If you could describe cancer in color, what would it be like?
- What colors hold the most emotion for you? Describe them.
- Think of your favorite color. Step outside and find five to ten examples of that color in nature. and try incorporating those images in a poem.
- Here’s an exercise we’ve done in my cancer writing workshops: Draw, paint or paste colors on a blank page, one that symbolizes your feelings—whether fear, anger, a punch to the gut, desolation, boredom, or even hope. Then brainstorm the words and images that come to mind before writing. Write for twenty minutes—longer if you wish.