For the Week of April 2, 2017: Entering the Room of Remember

… I choose to look back… that is the only direction we can learn from.
(―Wallace Stegner, The Angle of Repose, 1971)

For the past two weeks, I’ve been sorting through the accumulations of a life—mine—stored in boxes not opened since the last move,  taped shut and sitting on the shelves in our garage.  Among them were several cartons—more than a few—filled with my old notebooks and journals; some dating back to high school; many written in the wake of my first husband’s tragic death and the difficult years afterward.  Others contained notes from courses, story ideas, even cartoons I’d drawn as a humorous poke at my own written meanderings.  But each, no matter what chapter of life it represented, brought back a flood of memories—what it was like to be me, then, before marriage, motherhood, widowhood, returning to school, the workplace, remarrying, and now, entering another life chapter with my husband as we relocate ourselves and belongings roughly 2500 miles from our present home.

But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.
― Frederick BuechnerA Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces, 1992

My pace of sorting through our accumulated belongings in the past few days has all but slowed to a crawl.  I’ve been consumed with my old memories, opening notebook after notebook, reading what I’d written,  and traveling back in time, recalling events, people and places I’ve all but forgotten, or remembering–with a sudden jolt of emotion–some of the more difficult or heartbreaking events I experienced.  “How different my life is now,” I thought as I read through the notebooks.  In journal after journal, decade after decade, I became witness to my life changes from youth through adulthood.  I read and recalled people I loved, some I didn’t.  I remembered good times; I remembered the hard times, events that seemed overwhelming and insurmountable at the time, and yet had the greatest impact on my life.  Those difficult chapters, the crises I endured, were the ones that taught me the most about myself and informed how I wanted to live as I moved forward.

As I read, I recalled one of my favorite quotations from the novelist, Alice Hoffman, writing in the New York Times about her cancer experience. “Still,” she said, “ novelists know that some chapters inform all the others.  These are the chapters of your life that wallop you and teach you and bring you to tears…” (August, 2000).

I’ve suffered many losses and challenges in my life, but so have we all.  Some, like a loved one’s sudden death, a life threatening illness, marital break-up, devastation suffered in a natural disaster, or job loss, exert a much more profound effect on our lives than others.  Cancer is certainly one of those chapters of life that wallops and changes you in profound ways.

“Cancer has been a great teacher,” one of my writing group members remarked.  I had invited the group to reflect on their lives before and after cancer.  She had just read her writing aloud, reflecting on her struggles,  lessons she learned from the experience, and understanding she felt she’d gained, lessons she intended to carry into her “new” life as a a survivor and a life after cancer.  “Being ill,” sociologist and cancer survivor Arthur Frank wrote, “is just another way of living…but by the time we have lived through it, we are living differently” (in:  At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness, 2002).

But it’s not just cancer, but life, that changes us.  Life—the process of living–is always in motion, always becoming something different.  This is the law of constant change.   Change, someone once said to me, is the one thing in life we can count on.  I’ve been struck by this fact again and again as I’ve read through the pages of my past,  noting the times I felt adrift, overwhelmed by grief, heartache, tragedy. Yet I also saw the progressions, emerging new strength and increased understanding I gained during each period of upheaval.

But little by little…

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was 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)

Life gives us choices, even when it doesn’t feel like it while we are immersed in hardship and suffering.  You can choose to learn from the events that walloped you or  remain buried in past hurts and grievances of the past.   Learning to redefine how you want to live going forward is about writing a new chapter, integrating what you have already experienced into the life you want to live as you move forward.  This is the process of healing and growth.

I’ve never tried to block out the memories of the past, even though some are painful. I don’t understand people who hide from their past. Everything you live through helps to make you the person you are now. Sophia Loren

Yes, life does hand us a wallop from time to time, whether cancer, loss, heartbreak or suffering, but it also teaches us.  There are life chapters that, as Hoffman said, “inform all the others,” chapters that can teach us about ourselves and strengthen our ability to keep our footing during upheaval and change.   As I’ve read through the many chapters in my life  this past week, I not only remember what it was to be me,  I also reaffirm my strength, courage and the lessons learned from each.  In a short poem, “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters,” Portia Nelson offers us a humorous, yet insightful, portrait of her life.  Perhaps her poem can be a model to try as you write about the significant events in your life.

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

Chapter 1
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.
Chapter 2
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.
Chapter 3
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.
Chapter 4
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
Chapter 5
I walk down another street.

 (From:  There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self Discovery, Atria Books, 1994)

Writing Suggestion:  This week, enter the “room” named Remember, reflecting on the life you’ve lived thus far.

  • Imagine you are writing your autobiography or memoir. Make an outline of the chapters you might include.  Why?  Are there any surprises.  Give each a title.  Try writing a poem in the style of Portia Nelson’s, perhaps a chapter for each decade you’ve lived.
  • Or, choose one chapter, one significant memory from it, and write the story behind it. What did you learn from that experience?
  • Or, try this simple exercise to get you started. Begin a sentence with, for example, “before cancer, I was _______; after cancer I am _________.”  Write as many of those sentences as you can to show the ways in which your life has changed from the experience of cancer (or any other illness or hardship).

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.
This entry was posted in writing from cancer and serious illness, writing from life, writing to heal. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s