It’s been over two weeks since the expressive writing program at Scripps Green Cancer Center came to a close, a program I have led for nearly eleven years. As has been the tradition of our final session of every series, we spent the first half of the meeting working in silence, each of us engaged in creating a prayer stick, an activity inspired by a Native American tradition most often associated with the rituals and healing ceremonies of the Southwest tribes. For the conclusion of a writing series, where each person’s experience of cancer and treatment has been so honestly explored and shared in their writing, the making of prayer sticks has proved to be deeply satisfying and meaningful conclusion to the many weeks of writing together.
For the task, each group member brought a tree branch they’d chosen, typically about 14 – 18 inches in length. For the first hour, we focused on the creation of our prayer sticks, decorating and imbuing them with messages, prayers or hopes for healing for ourselves, loved ones or friends. Once the prayer stick was completed, I invited the group to write about it—what their process was like and what had gone into its creation. Without exception, the sharing of the sticks and the stories behind them were inspiring and truly meaningful for everyone.
As always, I also made a prayer stick with the group. As I began, I held the faces of two dear friends in my mind, each with terminal cancer. I began wrapping the stick, focused on the healing, courage and strength needed by each in their journey. But soon, a sea of faces rose and occupied my thoughts as I worked. I recalled so many of the writers in groups I’ve led the past sixteen years, here and elsewhere. I especially remembered those who lost their lives to cancer, fought valiantly and had, by sharing themselves so deeply and honesty, touched my life and inspired me.
I continued to wrap my stick in many colors of yarn, each for those whose faces and stories still reside in my heart. When it was my turn to talk about creating my prayer stick, I could barely speak. My eyes filled with tears, and strong emotions, all triggered by remembrances and my leave-taking as I leave San Diego in a few weeks. I felt sadness, yes, but gratitude far outweighed the sorrow. As we rose to join hands in our closing circle and offered each other our hopes for healing, I was acutely aware of how much I would miss each person and the stories written in our Monday morning sessions. Yet I was gratified to know that many of them will continue to interact with and support one another—testimony to the power of community created by shared story. I drove home later thinking very honored and grateful I have been to share in so many individuals’ cancer journeys.
As our final session came to a close, we read portions of “The Navajo Night Chant,” one of many ceremonial chants and an important part of a healing ceremony intended to help cure those suffering from illnesses. Here is a sample of its many stanzas:
An offering I make.
Restore my feet for me.
Restore my legs for me.
Restore my body for me.
Restore my mind for me.
Restore my voice for me…
May it be beautiful before me.
May it be beautiful behind me.
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beautiful above me.
May it be beautiful all around me…
“The Night Chant” takes on personal meaning for everyone in the writing group as we recite the stanzas and then offer one another a wish for strength, hope and healing. Again, I choked up as I recited the last stanza to the group, ending with the words, “in beauty it is finished.”
There was still something to be completed in the weeks following our final session. One of the important aspects of making a prayer stick is how one “releases” the prayers and hopes that are part of its creation. For the prayers to be released, the stick must be returned to Nature, whether by wind, fire, water, or earth. This past week, a group member shared a photograph of her prayer stick, wedged in a rock near Sedona, AZ. It was a beautiful image and reminded me I had yet to give my prayer stick back to Nature. Later that afternoon, I walked to the edge of our back garden, a steep slope that, at the top, offers a constant breeze and a view of the canyon below, a perfect place for my prayer stick. I can see it from my office window, nestled in the branches of a large succulent, feathers and yarn tassles waving in the breeze and a small Japanese chime ringing nearby As I positioned the prayer stick in the tree, I used the words of poet John O’Donohue as a kind of blessing, then asked the wind to carry the prayers and thoughts contained in it to the the universe. As small as this little ritual was, it was pause for thought, and a few moments of silence, serving as a reminder of how these small rituals can be both meaningful and comforting—a way to express what’s in our hearts and minds that we sometimes have difficulty saying to those we care most about.
Today is another day of celebration and ritual for those who celebrate Easter and springtime, a time of hope, prayers and blessings. For those of you reading this post, may you take solace and inspiration from Nature, the Native traditions that have preceded us, the fresh signs of spring. Perhaps in a world that often weighs us down with its unrest, violence and fear, these small rituals can help us find our footing and hope when we most need it. On this springtime Sunday, I offer you O’Donohue’s poem, “A Morning Offering.” May you take solace and inspiration from his words as I have done.
A Morning Offering
by John O’Donohue
I bless the night that nourished my heart
To set the ghosts of longing free
Into the flow and figure of dream
That went to harvest from the dark
Bread for the hunger no one sees.
All that is eternal in me
Welcome the wonder of this day,
The field of brightness it creates
Offering time for each thing
To arise and illuminate.
I place on the altar of dawn:
The quiet loyalty of breath,
The tent of thought where I shelter,
Wave of desire I am shore to
And all beauty drawn to the eye.
May my mind come alive today
To the invisible geography
That invites me to new frontiers,
To break the dead shell of yesterdays,
To risk being disturbed and changed.
May I have the courage today
To live the life that I would love,
To postpone my dream no longer
But do at last what I came here for
And waste my heart on fear no more.
(From: To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings, 2008)
What small rituals have helped you navigate the cancer journey? Why are they important to you? Tell the story behind the ritual–how you discovered it, made it your own, what purpose it serves.