For the Week of April 2, 2018: The Hope and Healing In Spring

          “It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart. ”                                —Rainer Maria Rilke

According to the calendar springtime arrived two weeks ago.  But for those of us watching the temperature climb barely about freezing, the days of sunshine chilled by the last blasts of March wind, we’re still waiting for the springtime season begin in earnest.  Nevertheless, as I gaze out the windows to the trees nearby, there are some hopeful signs of “almost spring” in the emerging buds on their branches, and the snow has disappeared from the parks and gardens.  In mid-March, even though we still donned winter coats to go outside, we were cheered by the emergence of snow flowers (Galanthus) poking their heads through the lawn of a friend’s house–a hopeful sign of new life, new beginnings and the promise of Springtime near.

“To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring,” poet and philosopher George Santayana wrote. Yet after Winter’s dark mornings, cold and inclement weather, springtime seems to enliven our senses and signal seasonal change in its newness, described by e.e. cummings  as a time “when the world is mud-luscious,” and “puddle-wonderful.”  Or, as Billy Collins imagined, “a spring day so perfect, so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze that it made you want to throw open all the windows in the house…”

“Nothing is so beautiful as Spring,” Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem, “Spring,” begins.  I love the spring, and as it returns, I recall my childhood and the exhilaration of the season. Springtime was joyous, filled with sounds of laughter and excited calls to neighborhood playmates,  eager to race outdoors and explore the fields and hills behind our houses. The world was full of promise:  new grass to romp through, the  fields and hills dotted with wildflowers.  We cast off winter coats for lighter sweaters, filled our afternoons and weekends with roller skating on sidewalks, climbing beneath barbed wire fences to re-discover favorite hiding places, imagining ourselves as great adventurers and discoverers of new lands, and returning home at dinnertime with flushed cheeks and fists full of yellow poppies and purple lupine for our mothers.  Our worlds were alive with promise.

“I can still bring into my body the joy I felt at seeing the first trillium of spring, which seemed to be telling me, “Never give up hope, spring will come.” 
― Jessica SternDenial: A Memoir of Terror (2010)

It’s little wonder that Springtime is intricately intertwined with hope, renewal, a sense of possibility and new beginnings, according to Edward F. Mackey, director of the Mind-Body Institute of Applied Psychophysiology at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.  Norman Cousins, famous for using laughter to help cure himself from a crippling connective tissue disease, wrote that “hope may be our best medicine, the hidden ingredient in any prescription and a physician’s secret weapon (Head First: The Biology of Hope and the Healing Power of the Human Spirit, 1990).  A number of experts agree, arguing that hope may have a direct influence on the body’s chemical milieu and because of that, the power to stave off illness.

Anthony Scioli, PhD, co-author with Henry Biller of Hope in the Age of Anxiety (2009), explored some of the linkages between Springtime, hope and health in a 2012 Psychology Today article.  Springtime brings more sunshine, and the sunlight helps the body produce greater amounts of serotonin, an important chemical and neurotransmitter, and helps regulate important functions such as mood, appetite, digestion, sleep, and memory.  Low serotonin, in our bodies, is linked to depression.  He also cited a survey of oncologists, the majority of whom cited hope as the primary psychological factor impacting mortality.  Scioli stated that “while anecdotes outnumber rigorous empirical studies, there is enough evidence to suggest that a hopeful attitude has a real and measurable impact on health.”

The days here in Toronto are still chilly, but the buds on the trees and the increase in sunny days have already lifted my spirits.  Soon the tulips and crocus will bloom, the trees will bear new leaves, the “just-spring” color of green, and we’ll hear children shouting to one another as they play in the park across the street.  As if reinvigorated by the subtle shifts in the weather, the dogs romping about madly in the park each morning, as the new season tiptoes in and banishes winter from our days.

Hope, new life and return of Springtime are beautifully intertwined in Barbara Crooker’s poem, “For a Friend Lying in Intensive Care Waiting for Her White Blood Cells to Rejuvenate After a Bone Marrow Transplant:”

The jonquils.  They come back.  They split the earth with

     their green swords, bearing cups of light.

The forsythia comes back, spraying its thin whips with

     blossom, one loud yellow shout…

And the leaves come back, on every tree and bush, millions

     and millions of small green hands applauding your return.

(In:  The Cancer Poetry Project, V. 1, 2001)

 Writing Suggestions:

Reflect on springtime.  Do you notice changes in your energy, mood or outlook?  Do you feel more hopeful about life in general?  Explore the impact of spring on your mood and energy.

Is Spring a time of healing and of hope?  Explore the question.

What memories of springtime do you hold dear?  Write about a springtime in your childhood.  Capture the feelings, the sounds and sights of spring as vividly as you can.

Why not do as Georgia O’Keefe suggested:   hold a flower in your hand and let it become your world for a moment.  Perhaps you’ll find a poem waiting there.

Write about spring, wherever it takes you.




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For the Week of March 26, 2018: About Friends and Friendship

Dear Readers,

This week’s prompt is a “reprint” of the article written last week for my bi-monthly column featured in the current issue of Cancer Knowledge Network, an online resource published by MultiMed Inc.  I’ve included it as this week’s post since the topic of friendship is an important one, and not just during cancer, but for the benefits they can have in our lives. — Sharon Bray


“Good friends are good for your health.” They celebrate the good times and provide support in the tough times.  They keep us from being lonely, and we, as friends, return the gift of companionship.” (The Mayo Clinic)

Friends.  It’s a topic that comes up often in my cancer writing groups, having them and, during cancer, losing some.  It’s an experience everyone shares during difficult times, when we discover what separates lasting friendships from our other, more transitory ones.   True friendships endure, in part, due to a sense of shared history, stories, laughter and even tears.  They remind us of who we were and who we have become.  In times of upheaval, change and our difficult life chapters, they provide the continuity we find so important.  Yet, as we can sometimes discover, sometimes the people we’ve counted as friends aren’t there for us when our lives are turned upside down.

A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow. – William Shakespeare

Although I spent my childhood in one small town, my adult life has been defined by several major moves.  This past summer my husband and I relocated again, returning to Toronto, where we met and married nearly 30 years ago.  I’ve sometimes complained about the many times we’ve changed addresses, but I’ve been fortunate to have many enduring friendships with people scattered around the world, friends who shared the impulsiveness and turbulence of youth, stuck by me during difficult times in my life, showed up when I least expected it, embraced and welcomed me when I felt most alone.

We all need friends.  Without them, not only can our lives seem lonely, but there’s plenty of research to suggest that isolation and loneliness are often harbingers of emotional or physical illness.  “In general, the role of friendship in our lives isn’t terribly well appreciated,” Professor Rebecca G. Adams stated in a 2009 New York Times article, “What Are Friends For? A Longer Life,” by Tara Parker-Pope.  Adams teaches sociology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.  “There is just scads of stuff on families and marriage,” she said, “but very little on friendship. It baffles me. Friendship has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships.”

What are some of the benefits of friendship?  Parker-Pope explored this question in her article and found they include better health, a more positive outlook, longer lifespan and more hopeful attitude towards life.  She cited a number of studies exploring the impact of friendship on health and longevity.  For example, one ten-year study of older adults found those with a large circle of friends were less likely to die during the study than those with fewer.  Researchers also discovered strong social ties have additional benefits, like promoting brain health as we age.  Having multiple friendships, as a six-year study Swedish men demonstrated, helped lower the risk of heart attack and coronary heart disease more than simply having attachment to only a one person.  And in a 2006 study of nurses with breast cancer, those without close friends were four times more likely to die from their cancer than those with ten or more friends.

For those of us whose friends are scattered over the continent and around the world, the researchers also found that proximity and amount of contact are less important than simply having friends.  “What keeps us from drowning in the sea of change,” columnist Stacie Chevrier wrote in a 2016 CURE TODAY post, “are the people in our lives who come to the rescue:  our friends and family.”  We need our friends, and when we’re in the throes of life struggles, hardships or a life-threatening illness like cancer, we need them even more.

But you got to have friends.
The feeling’s oh so strong.
You got to have friends
to make that day last long.

(From:  “Friends,” Bette Midler, The Divine Miss M, 1972, lyrics by Mark Klingman and Buzzy Linhart)

Yet sometimes friends can disappoint us.  When you find yourself in the midst a cancer diagnosis, some friends may not reach out to you as you thought they might; others unexpectedly drop away.  Chevrier commented on her experience of losing friends during her cancer.  “Cancer is so awkward. I’ve come to realize talking about cancer can make people very uncomfortable. However, I’ve also come to realize that the silence was not about me, but about their discomfort.”

It hurts to have friends unexpectedly disappear, and yet, it’s more common among many cancer patients than you might think. Debra Sherman, a “Cancer in Context” blogger, commented on this experience in 2014.  “When someone is diagnosed with cancer,” she wrote, “it generates conflicted feelings that they want to avoid, so they don’t reach out.  Hearing you have been diagnosed with cancer may ignite fears of illness among some of your friends, even fears of death, and the sense “this could happen to me.”

It can feel awkward to one’s friends when you are first diagnosed with cancer.  It’s something more than a few struggle with, uncertain how to respond, asking, “What do I say to my friend?”  Fear of saying a wrong, clumsy or trite thing to a friend with cancer can make some shy away from face-to-face contact.  They may be afraid of upsetting you or feel as if they can’t respond in any meaningful way.  It’s an experience Gretchen Fletcher describes in her poem, “To a Friend Now Separated From Me by Illness.”

Our lives until so recently

parallel and filled

with common details…

details still in my life

while you lie in an alien bed…

I want to speak; you want to speak

but we’ve lost our common language…

How can I know

how it feels to lose a beast

and fight to save lungs,

bones, and brain

when all I have to battle

is the traffic?

(In:  The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. 1, 2001.)

Whatever the reason for a friend’s withdrawal, it’s difficult to experience at a time you need friends the most.  Is there anything  you can you do if you find your friends behaving differently?  Cancer Net offers some advice.  You can help your close friends understand your cancer and treatment.  Remember though, you are in charge of how much and what you want to tell them.  If they don’t bring it up, first decide what you want your friends to know, then, as you feel ready, discuss it with them.  For more casual friends, however, it’s probably best to stick to something simple, like, “I have cancer, but I’m getting treatment for it.”

Make new friends,

But keep the old.

One is silver

And the other gold…

(From: “Make New Friends,”

Some of your friendships may change, but in many cases, those changes will be positive ones.  You may become closer and find it easier to talk about the important things in one another’s life.  And you might also find, as so many in my writing groups do, that you make new friends, those who share the cancer journey with you.  You can openly share fears, the language, and emotional ups and downs that are unique to the cancer experience.  And those bonds that develop between you are often deep and long-lasting.

Remember the song “You’ve Got a Friend?”  Written and recorded by Carole King in 1971.  James Taylor’s recording of it the same year  was the number 1 song on Billboard’s “Hot 100.”  Since then, it’s been sung and recorded by dozens of vocalists, including those as diverse as Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Barry Manilow and Ella Fitzgerald and others, testimony to the importance of friendship, the enduring and true ones we have in our lives…Now ain’t it good to know/that you’ve got a friend?

Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there, yes I will

Now ain’t it good to know
that you’ve got a friend… 

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about friendS and the role they have played in your illness.
  • When have friends made a difference in your life? How?
  • Write about a friendship that matters deeply to you. Why?
  • Have you lost friends when you were diagnosed with cancer or during another difficult period in your life?
  • You might even borrow from Joan Walsh Angland’s little book, A Friend is Someone Who Likes You, first published in 1960 and begin with the phrase, “A friend is someone who…”  and generate a list of things about the things you consider important in your friendships.
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For the Week of March 19, 2018: Learning to Survive…Again

And I grew strong and I learned how to get along… I will survive

(from “I Will Survive,” sung by Gloria Gaynor, lyrics by written by Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris)

I’ve been learning, once again, to dance.  It hasn’t been as easy.  My body isn’t as willing to move in new ways as it once was.  But I persist because dancing has health benefits, and whether my body balks a bit or not, it’s about giving up or “just” surviving, whether it’s serious illness, injury, or other life challenges we’re dealing with.  Survival,  I’ve come to realize, is synonymous with learning.

As many of you were, my parents enrolled me in a variety of extracurricular activities a child.  Given my mother’s observation that I was destined to be tall, she quickly made certain clumsiness would not accompany my  growth surges.  First, I took ballet classes, outfitted with pink ballet slippers and a leotard and, once a week, pointing my toes and learning the fundamentals of the classical dance form.  That was followed by acrobatics, tap and ballroom dance as I began to grow taller.  Despite all that, around 7th grade my awkwardness surfaced.  It was less about the dance steps and more about the fact I towered over most of the boys in my classes.  (Try dancing a box step with your knees bent the entire time.)  Nevertheless, I persisted, enrolling in square dance,  folk and ballroom classes in college, but my height was bothersome once again. There were never enough men enrolled in the classes, and that meant I was assigned to dance the part of the male partner.  (To this day, I tend to avoid ballroom style dancing, unable to be led easily by any partner.)

I gave up on dance altogether save for the social dancing we did to seventies rock and roll music at parties until my daughters’ grew into their teenage years.  As my mother had done for me, I enrolled them in jazz and ballet classes.  But I was so enthused by their jazz dance routines, I decided to sign up for an adult class in jazz dance, dancing during the entire time I was completing my doctoral degree, and even performing in the dance show the following year  with my two daughters.  I danced with more enthusiasm, perhaps, than talent, but dance was invigorating, fun and a great way to diminish the stress of graduate school.  Besides, I kept fit, agile and energetic.

Enter the decades of career building, a few half-hearted attempts to take dance classes that never seemed to measure up to the ones I did during graduate school, and the inevitable fact of aging.  I didn’t seem to move as freely as I once had.  Was it the class or the pupil?  The latter wasn’t something I wanted to consider, so gradually, dance fell by the wayside.  My daughters were married, having children, and I was nose-deep in a stressful career.  Instead, I tried exercising at the gym, taking T’ai Chi and Pilates classes.  Each had benefits but none were as fun as dance had been for me.  I lost interest and didn’t sustain any of those activities for more than a year or two.

Fast forward to this past year.  I was completely sidelined by an injured knee and Achilles tendonitis, and it made me cranky, mildly depressed and discouraged.  Stiffness, pain and embarrassment about moving like an old woman were  constant companions.  I hated that my body hurt and how uncomfortable it was to move, much less easily or quickly, abilities I’d long taken for granted. Worse, I am a heart failure patient, and a regimen of regular physical activity is necessary for improved heart functioning.  But it hurt to walk or climb stairs.  I felt trapped by my bodily ailments..  Weeks of pain turned into two, then three months, until, after a frank discussion with my cardiologist,  I’d had to act.  I got a referral to a sports medicine physician, physiotherapist and Pilates instructor, donned ankle braces and used up numerous rolls of athletic tape and began walking as much as I could stand.  Then in February, when a friend invited me to join a group called “The Vintage Dancers”, I jumped, well actually, I limped, at the chance.

“Vintage,” as you might expect, meant the dancers were of my age group and older, but it did not mean the class moved at a slower pace.  At the first class I attended, I was left in the dust by an energetic and enthusiastic group of women dancers, some of whom had recently recovered from hip replacement surgery or other bodily ailments.  Yet despite the dancing I’d once done well, I kept beginning on the wrong foot or chasséing in the opposite direction as everyone else.  More than once, I stepped to the sidelines to catch my breath!

The whole experience was not just comic, it was humbling.  I’ve never been a patient beginner—I have a perfectionist streak that inevitably invades any new learning—but my clumsy first attempts at dancing again it got me to thinking about how age, serious illness, or any major life transition requires we learn—even relearn—different ways of being, including skills we once took for granted.  We’re resilient beings, yes, but coming to terms with altered bodies and imperfect selves demands we re-evaluate who we are now vs. who we might have been at an earlier time. The image we once held of our younger, healthier selves) is challenged.  We’re forced to recognize that we may have limitations–physical pain, issues of stamina, agility or even memory–ones we naively believed would never belong to us.  Those complaints and ailments belonged to other people, right?  Wrong.

Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go. ― (May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude)

What is surviving about, really?  It’s about learning to deal with and overcome–to the best of our ability–the impact of aging, injuries, surgeries or treatment regimens and the negative impact on our bodies and minds.  It’s acceptance our lives have changed, and we must continue to learn new ways of being and living.   The ground beneath our feet might seem uncertain, or we’re aware that the steps we used to take with assurance now feel clumsy and tentative,but surviving doesn’t mean giving up.   It means learning other ways of being,  remaining as active and engaged with living as we can–even if, sometimes, the new learning isn’t always easy or pleasant.  It’s a bit like standing in the front row  of a dance class, as I did,  as the only newcomer in the group, trying to understand and mimic the movements everyone else seems to know by heart. We feel like beginners, and we feel awkward and uncertain.  I know that’s how I’ve felt–but after that discussion with my cardiologist several weeks ago , and I shook myself out of the doldrums and got busy living.

No matter how old you are,
it helps to be young
when you’re coming to life,

(Joy Ladin, “Survival Guide,” in:  The Future Is Trying to Tell Us Something: New and Selected Poems 2017)

Life is more than just  surviving.  It’s thriving, enjoying, contributing, and living as fully as we possibly can.  Whether cancer, the effects of aging, major surgeries, or unexpected life transitions, we have to remind ourselves  that we’ve  proven, again and again, that we can adjust to life’s challenges and move on.  Our lives change in subtle and not so subtle ways year after year, but we learn the new movements, necessary strategies and behaviors, and little by little, we again embrace the life before us–new, different, and ours.

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,

determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save. 

(From:  “The Journey,” by Mary Oliver)

Writing Suggestion:

  • Thinking about your own life, how would you define “survival?”
  • Describe a time when life knocked you down.  What kept you going?  What helped you survive?
  •  Write about what it was like was to find your footing on uncertain ground and not only to survive but thrive and embrace the new life before you.
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For the Week of March 12, 2018: Writing the Experience of the Body

When we see our suffering as story, we are saved.–Anais Nin

As happens with every “Writing Through Cancer” program I lead at various cancer centers and support organizations, the weeks fly by and before I know it, I’m preparing for the final writing session, as I have again these past few days.  It’s a time of reflection and gratitude for me to remember where people began and where their writing has taken them in the past eight weeks.  So much happens during our meetings. My notebook is filled with snatches of the phrases and descriptions from participants’ writing shared aloud, writing that has touched, surprised or left me breathless, so honest and beautiful are their words.

Whenever I get somewhere, a poet has been there first.  –Sigmund Freud

“The call to write,” “is a call that’s received in the body first. John Lee wrote in his book, Writing From the Body(1994).  I recall what one cancer survivor wrote in a creative writing course I was teaching several years ago:   Even when I was in the midst of a five day in-patient ‘chemo’,” she wrote,” I took notes. Some are frightening and some are funny – and I’m still writing. I think this …has shoved me into being a writer and admitting it, whether anyone ever reads it or not.

What she describes is not unlike how many poets and writers have described the creative process.  It’s a physical urgency and it’s insistent.  It calls us to feel with every part of our bodies.   In her memoir, A Match to the Heart (1994), Gretel Erhlich describes the moment she realizes she has been struck by lightning.

“Deep in an ocean, I am suspended motionless.  The water is gray.  That’s all there is, and before that?  My arms are held out straight, cruciate, my head and legs hang limp.  Nothing moves.  Brown kelp lies flat in mud and fish are buried in liquid clouds of dust.  There are no shadows or sounds.  Should there be?  I don’t know if I am alive, but if not, how do I know I am dead?  My body is leaden, heavier than gravity.  … A single heartbeat stirs gray water.  Blue trickles in, just a tiny stream.  Then a long silence. Another heartbeat.  This one is louder, as if amplified…. I can’t tell if I am moving…Another heartbeat drives through dead water, and another, until I am surrounded by blue…. I have been struck by lightning and I am alive.”

Erhlich is not only writing from the memory or remnants of a near death experience, she is writing from the experience of her body, a vivid, visceral account of the physical sensations felt in the aftermath of being struck by lightning.  She portrays the lived experience of the human body, drawing us into her story through our senses. As readers, we feel an almost physical awareness of what she experienced in those terrifying moments.

One of the most healing aspects of writing is that it helps us make sense of the chaos of emotions we feel when our lives are turned upside down by illness, tragedy or loss.  We stumble into insights and meaning as we release feelings on the page.  Time and time again in my writing groups, I’ll hear people react with surprise, saying “I had no idea I wrote that!”  as they read their writing aloud.  Tears may come without warning, laughter too, as they “hear” what they have actually written in the timed writing exercises.

Long before there were words…

long before this haze of lies this

swirl of stupid things said and done

the body knew… (Seibles, in Lee, p. 5-6)

John Lee writes of ancient wisdom that lies dormant in our bodies, of knowing deep inside, “how to get through the high grass without being devoured by lions.”  When we begin to release the memories and images we have stored in our bodies, powerful writing often results.  Brenda Ueland, in her wise little book, If You Want to Write (1938), counsels the would-be writer:

You must feel when you write…. You must disentangle all thought.  You must disconnect all shackles….  You can write as badly as you want to.  You can write anything you want to…just so you write it with honesty and gusto and try not to make somebody believe that you are smarter than you are.”

To write, we need to learn allow ourselves to open up. The experiences held within our bodies can take us into new ideas and fresh ways of writing.  It doesn’t happen easily at first, because in the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis, the sudden loss of a loved one, or other expected tragedy, the nerve endings of pain and suffering are numbed.  Sooner or later the emotional pain we feel becomes insistent, needing release.   Releasing our emotions through writing not only clarifies our thinking, it releases energy.  Writing requires we free up that energy and give it voice.  To do so, to write well, we must let ourselves be vulnerable, to feel deep within our bodies.

“What is important, “Audre Lorde wrote in The Cancer Journals (1980), “must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”  “Writing is a courageous act,” prize winning author of The Alchemist, Paul Coelho wrote.   We put ourselves, our lives, on paper.  Others interpret what we’ve written from their own experience.  Yet to write honestly and authentically requires we have the willingness to go deep and tell the truth of our experience.  Writing helps us reclaim and express the difficult feelings that are part of our humanness.  We begin to heal, but much more happens:  We embark on a process of unmistakable growth as writers.

These past eight weeks with the men and women who’ve attended my expressive writing program has, once again, reinforced my belief not only of writing’s healing power, but of the emergent power and beauty to be found by individuals who remarked, at our first meeting, “I’m not a writer, but…”  “In every patient,” Anatole Broyard wrote in his memoir, Intoxicated by My Illness, “is a poet trying to get out.”  How can you give your poet, the writer inside you, permission to be released?

Writing Suggestion:

Begin slowly.  Start with a simple phrase, “I remember _____and describe that memory in detail.  Then, borrowing from Natalie Goldberg, continue for three minutes, writing as many single sentences as you can all beginning with “I remember…..”, for example, “I remember the day my grandmother died.”   Or “I remember seeing the pavement rushing up to meet me.”  Or “I remember the moment the doctor said_____”

Once you’ve filled a page with “I remember,” turn it over.  Begin again, only this time, start with “I don’t remember…” and again, write as many as you can in three minutes.  These memories may be more difficult to recall, but they yield much to explore in writing, for example, “I don’t remember why my mother and father stopped speaking; I don’t remember passing out on the sidewalk…  I don’t remember what it was about that morning that first upset me… 

When you’ve written as many of “I don’t remember” as you can in three minutes, choose one sentence from either side of your paper and explore it.  You have many memories that can result in a longer narrative or perhaps even a poem.  But focus on one and tell the story of that single memory, describing not only the event or setting, but what you were feeling in as much detail as possible.  Write from the “lived” experience of the body.

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For the Week of March 5, 2018: Sleepless Nights

But it’s really fear you want to talk about

and cannot find the words

so you jeer at yourself 

you call yourself a coward

you wake at 2 a.m. thinking failure,

fool, unable to sleep, unable to sleep…

(From: “Insomnia,” by Alicia Ostriker, in: The Book of Seventy, 2009)

“Unable to sleep…”  It happens to me periodically, and I’ve written about it before, since it is one of those persistent afflictions that comes with life’s worries and aging.  It’s triggered by a distraction like my husband’s snoring or finding my dog has quietly leapt up and curled her body next to mine–taking up the better part of my side of the bed.  More often, there’s worry, whether for my loved ones or myself.  It happened just a couple of weeks ago, after a round of cardiac testing and a frank discussion with my cardiologist.  “We’re in this together,” she said, as I digested the results.  Later that night, however, the emotions I’d held at bay during the day kept me tossing and turning until the wee hours.

Paul Kennedy, in December 2017 CBC broadcast entitled “Have Insomnia?  Blame the Romantic Poets,” described a “culture of insomnia” as typical for this century, the Information Age we now live in. He quoted the work of Robert Vaughn, author of Bright Eyed:  Insomnia and its Cultures (2015), who wrote:  “We’ve naturalized insomnia and … valorized insomnia.  People boast about it, connecting to late capitalism’s idea that we are in a total state of productivity… We’ve created a dialogue in our heads that sleep is a kind of luxury. We’re expected to be on call 24/7.”

Whether a 24/7 work culture or the anxieties and worries of life, sleeplessness or restless nights are something most of us experience at some time or another.  Whether it’s the result of a tough day at work, deadlines, finances, worry about a loved one or just eating a late dinner–sleep may be, for a time, elusive.  Worse, however, are the times during emotional upset, personal crises, or serious illness, when sleep disruption can last for weeks.

You’re lying in bed trying to sleep, but you find yourself tossing and turning, unable to get comfortable…”  Ironically, it a message in this morning’s email that sparked this week’s prompt, leading me to the ad from the makers of “Privacy Pop,” a pop-up bed tent designed to promote  a solution for better sleep and “alone time” or simply, fun for children. I went to the site to unsubscribe and instead, ended up reading their blog, which offered  several practical tips on improving sleep, including, of course, the pop up tent, stating it “is a perfect method to develop and maintain the darkness necessary to promote the best possible sleep for your body.” (I bought one in December intended for the fun of my grandchildren’s sleepovers, but I now wondered if, during a restless night, I should try it!)

Sleeplessness, according to the New York Times’ Health Guide, involves “difficulty falling asleep…waking up too early in the morning, or waking up often during the night…or combinations of these patterns.”  …as many as 25% of Americans report occasional sleeping problems. Chronic sleeping problems, however, affect about 10% of people. The lack of restful sleep can affect your ability to carry out daily responsibilities because you are too tired or have trouble concentrating. All types of insomnia can lead to daytime drowsiness, poor concentration, and the inability to feel refreshed and rested in the morning.”

Sleep difficulties are common to most of us at some time or another, as evidenced in countless stories, essays or poems from literature.   “Sleep now, O sleep now,” James Joyce wrote in his poem by the same name, “A voice crying “Sleep now”/is heard in my heart…”  Charles Dickens, in an essay titled, “Lying Awake,” wrote:

But, it happened to me the other night to be lying: not with my eyes half closed, but with my eyes wide open… my hair pitchforked and touzled all over the pillow; …glaringly, persistently, and obstinately, broad awake. Perhaps, with no scientific intention or invention, I was illustrating the theory of the Duality of the Brain; perhaps one part of my brain, being wakeful, sat up to watch the other part which was sleepy. Be that as it may, something in me was as desirous to go to sleep as it possibly could be, but something else in me WOULD NOT go to sleep, and was as obstinate as George the Third.

Even the beloved children’s character,Winnie the Pooh, had sleep problems:

But [Pooh] couldn’t sleep. The more he tried to sleep the more he couldn’t. He tried counting Sheep, which is sometimes a good way of getting to sleep, and, as that was no good, he tried counting Heffalumps. And that was worse. Because every Heffalump that he counted was making straight for a pot of Pooh’s honey, and eating it all… Pooh could bear it no longer.
― A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh, 1926

Among cancer patients, sleep disorders are common.  A few years ago, unable to sleep, I tiptoed to my desk in the pre-dawn hours and turned on my computer.  I was not alone.  An email arrived in my inbox moments later from a member of one of my cancer writing groups.  She was beginning a new treatment for metastatic breast cancer and unable to sleep, had been writing in an attempt to capture the myriad thoughts about her illness and life, ones making her sleep elusive.  Several recent studies show 30 to 50% of cancer patients have trouble sleeping, compared to 15% in the general population. Even 2 to 5 years post-treatment, symptoms of insomnia were present in 23 to 44% of study participants. Several factors contributed to patients’ sleeping difficulties:  physical pain, side effects of treatment, emotional stress, surgery and hospitalization.

The inability to go to sleep and stay asleep has negative effects on us all, including anxiety, depression, fatigue, headaches or disruption in the body’s hormonal balance, but perhaps more than we anticipate. In an earlier study, David Spiegel and his colleagues found that those who suffer from troubled sleep are also more cancer prone.  When one’s circadian rhythm is disrupted, a person’s cancer prognosis can be affected.  As a result, the researchers concluded “A good night’s sleep may be one weapon in the fight against cancer.” (Science Daily, October 1, 2003).

What can you do if you are one of those who suffer from sleepless nights or insomnia?  MD Anderson Cancer Center offers suggestions to help you achieve a better night’s sleep.

  • Power down. The blue light from cell phones, tablets, TV and computer screens suppresses melatonin, which directly interferes with sleep.
  • Rituals.  Make sure you keep a bedtime and wake up ritual, even on the weekends.
  • Cool it down. Check the temperature of your bedroom. The optimum bedroom temperature should be between 65 to 72 degrees for sound sleep.
  • Leave the room. If you cannot sleep within 5 to 10 minutes of lying down, get out of bed and read a magazine or book that is soothing or boring. Spend time in prayer or meditation to calm the mind.
  • Limit your food and drink intake. Avoid heavy meals, alcohol, chocolate or caffeine products, such as soda, coffee or tea, three to four hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid naps. Keep your daytime naps to 30 minutes or less. And, don’t take a nap within several hours of bedtime.
  • Exercise.  The American Cancer Society recommends that cancer patients and survivors do at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week.
  • Pull down the shades. Your bedroom more like a cave, dark, cool and quiet.  Cover clocks or other electronic devices that emit light in your bedroom.
  • Write it out. Keep a pen and paper by your bed if you are prone to wake up and worry about the next day’s events.

It appears that every man’s insomnia is as different from his neighbor’s as are their daytime hopes and aspirations. —F. Scott Fitzgerald

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about sleepless nights. What keeps you awake at night? Explore it.
  • What do you remember most about a particular sleepless night? Describe it in as much detail as you can.
  • What fears or other emotions often resurface and keep you tossing and turning?
  • Have you ever “birthed” an idea for a poem or story in the darkness of the night?  Write it.
  • What’s helps you coax yourself back to sleep? Write about your rituals or calming practices that help you overcome the agony of a sleepless night.
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For the Week of February 26, 2018: What’s So Funny About Cancer?

What’s so funny about cancer?  A lot, it turns out.  At least, more than a few comedians and others have taught us that there’s laughter to be found in the face of cancer.  One of the most famous was Gilda Radner, former comedienne of Saturday Night Live fame, diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986 and after a brief period of remission in 1988, dying  in 1989.  She described her cancer struggle in her memoir, It’s Always Something, a phrase often used by her comedic character, “Roseanne Roseannadanna.”  While she wrote honestly of her experience with disease, she  peppered her prose with moments of levity and humor, such as descriptions of the joys of farting after dealing with stomach problems or appearing after her chemotherapy and hair loss as someone “resembling a newborn Easter chick.”  In  an appearance on the Gary Shandling comedy show in 1998, she announced she’d been away because she had cancer.  Then she asked her host,  “What’d you have?”  He smiled and said, “a very bad case of career moves, which…there’s no cure for whatsoever.”  After her death, Gilda’s Club, a nonprofit community organization with locations in the US and Canada, was founded in her name.  It’s where, in Toronto, I now  lead a series of expressive writing programs for people living with cancer.

If you don’t laugh, you’re going to cry your eyes outIt just makes things less awful… As someone who will live with disease for the rest of my life, to never laugh again would be horrific. The jokes make me feel better. To some extent, I get to decide how I’m going to cope and I tell jokes.”  — Beth Caldwell, a 38-year-old metastatic breast cancer (MBC) patient and Seattle blogger.

For many of us, when we are going through periods of hardship, laughter helps to lighten the load.  As  Susan Gubar,  writer and cancer survivor explains, “Cracking up may be a better option than breaking down.”  In a recent New York Times column, she offers examples like Nina Rigg’s memoir, The Bright Hour, where Riggs commiserates with a friend also dealing with triple negative breast cancer. They imagine starting “Damaged Goods,” a business selling a line of morbid thank-you cards  from cancer patients with sentiments such as:

“Thank you for the taco casserole. It worked even better than my stool softeners.”

“Thoughts and prayers are great, but Ativan and pot are better.”

“Thank you for the flowers. I hope they die before I do.”

“All your phone messages about how not knowing exactly what’s going on with me has stressed you out really helped me put things in perspective.”

It doesn’t take much searching, whether online or in bookstores, to find a wealth of cancer cartoonists, comedies, like The Bucket List (2007) or 50/50 (2011), musicals, funny greeting cards and  humorous memoirs and guides like “God Said, Ha!,” “Does This Outfit Make Me Look Bald?” , “Cancer Made me a Shallower Person,” and “Cancer on Five Dollars a Day (Chemo Not Included).” Online, the list of funny cancer feeds are endless, from Welcome to the Hotel Melanoma,  Cancer Slayer, Dancing the Cancer Down to Dust, or Cancer is not a Gift/Laughing in the face of cancer.  

But not everyone finds anything funny about cancer nor  humor a useful coping mechanism, according to Dr. Bonnie McGregor, psychologist and public health researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “Not everybody finds it helpful,” she cautions.  “It can be hurtful if the timing isn’t right or the situation isn’t right. So you have to be careful with it.”  It’s important to remember that humor is not one size fits all, nevertheless as McGregor agrees, there’s plenty of research that supports that overall, laughter can be very good medicine.

If you happened to stand outside the door of conference room where I lead my expressive writing workshops, you’ll often hear laughter.  It comes naturally in the group setting.  I love to laugh too,  raised with the gift of shared laughter thanks to my father.  It’s helped me through more than one serious illness, I couldn’t ever help but find humorous moments in each, and a grin or chuckle always helped me feel a little better.

In my writing groups, even though we’re writing about the roller coaster of emotion that comes with a cancer diagnosis, tears occur–but so does laughter.  Perhaps that seems counterintuitive, but there’s plenty of evidence confirming that laughter is good medicine.  Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins was one of the first to ignite the “laughter therapy” movement when he wrote about the analgesic properties of laughter in his 1979 memoir, Anatomy of an Illness.  But well before Cousins’ insights, Mark Twain,whose stories of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn I eagerly read in my childhood, stated,  “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that’s laughter. “The moment it arises, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.”

Even as far back as the 13th century, humor  had a role in medicine.  Surgeons used it to distract patients from the agony of painful medical procedures.  They were onto something, since many research studies have since confirmed that the effects of laughter are very good medicine.  Laugh, and not only the world laughs with you; laughter causes your body to release endorphins, the feel good hormones that function as the body’s natural painkillers, the same hormones responsible for what’s known as the “runner’s high.”  Jeannette Moninger, in a 2015 CureTodaarticle on hospital laughter programs, refers to findings from a 2011 study conducted at the University of Oxford in England that found  watching 15 minutes of a comedy program with others increases one’s pain threshold by as much as 10 percent. At the same time, these endorphins decrease levels of cortisol, the hormone that floods the body during periods of chronic stress.Endorphins also decrease the body’s levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with chronic stress that compromises our immune systems, tenses muscles, and elevates blood pressure.  Laughter helps to counteract those negative effects and can help cancer patients to talk more openly about their concerns and fears. And it’s fast-acting. A randomized controlled trial of a “therapeutic laughter program” found that breast cancer patients’ anxiety, depression and stress were reduced after just one session of laughing.  

Charlie Chaplin once said, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.”  Whether during treatment for cancer or other serious illness, or simply living a world constantly dominated by hardship and struggle, it’s good to find something—even a small thing—to smile or laugh about.  I still giggle when I recall how, after a lengthy and confusing explanation of potential issues with the battery life of my ICD (implanted cardiac device) I mistook the beeping at the end of our clothes’ dryer’s cycle a few days later as the signal my defibrillator had run out of juice.  It hadn’t, but I had a good laugh after the initial wave of anxiety.  I’m smiling now as I finish this post,  hearing that gravelly voice of Louis Armstrong playing in my head, and I’m smiling.

Oh when you smilin’, when you smilin’
The whole world smiles with you
Yes when you laughin’, when you laughin’
Yes the sun come shinin’ through…

Writing Suggestions:

  • Have you had moments during your cancer treatment that made you laugh–whether in the moment or as you remembered the incident?
  • What about other times in your life that something unexpected occurred that, even years later, still makes you chuckle?
  • Dig back into your memories—the fun times, times you laughed so hard, tears ran down your cheeks.  Take a break from about the pain or anguish that also comes with cancer.
  • Write one funny story from your life.    If you feel like it, try on a little dose of medicinal humor.
Posted in expressive writing, reflections on life, writing from cancer and serious illness, writing from life, writing humor, writing to heal | Leave a comment

For the Week of February 19, 2018: Making Time for Life

This is not a dress rehearsal…today is the only guarantee that you get… 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.–Anna Quindlen

For much of the past month, I accomplished little, succumbing to a nasty case of bronchitis that left me hacking and wheezing for nearly a full month.  Boredom was my companion after the first several days of my illness.  I didn’t feel well enough to do much except read or nap.  The regimen of new physio-therapy exercises for a case of Achilles tendonitis quickly fell by the wayside, and classes, social events and appointments were all canceled, rescheduled and canceled again as my illness lingered.  Then it changed.  Abruptly.

I finally recovered, and eager to resume a life, I’ve quickly jumped on the treadmill again–but not, unfortunately, the one at the gym.  It’s the other treadmill, the full of appointments, lists of “to dos”, deadlines and making up for the activities lost during a month of illness. Without realizing it, I’ve begun to feel as if I’m running as fast as I can from one thing to another, but there’s little to show for it at the end of the day.

My online calendar has become an annoyance of sorts.  While I’m grateful it issues daily reminders of whatever I’ve planned, committed to, or have to complete, it seems as if it’s gone from being a benign virtual presence in my life to a relentless taskmaster.  But it’s no one’s fault but my own.  The truth is, I’m over optimistic about my time, and routinely pack too much into my days.  When this happens, I veer into negligence:  not noticing, not being present and enjoying the little moments in my daily life.

It’s nothing, of course, for the time taken up by a cancer diagnosis and the way in which it dominates every waking moment–even one’s dreams.  Time seems interminable as you wait for test results; there’s the time it takes for doctors’ appointments, getting referrals to the necessary specialists, preparing for and recovering from surgeries, chemotherapy, and a host of other demands on your time and energy that extends well beyond one’s initial treatment.  Life, as you once knew it, disappears, and your time, it seems, is dominated by the demands of living with cancer.  Months pass by; you barely notice anything around you for weeks at a time, until, as Barbara Crooker describes, “in the middle/of a life that’s…complicated…/struggling for balance, juggling time…”

One day you look out the window,
green summer, the next, and the leaves have already fallen,
and a grey sky lowers the horizon…

Each day, we must learn
again how to love, between morning’s quick coffee

and evening’s slow return. Steam from a pot of soup rises,
mixing with the yeasty smell of baking bread.

From:  “In the Middle,” In:  Radiance, 2005)

Each day we must learn…there’s more to that phrase than we think.  Whether we’re choosing to fill our lives with busy-ness or forced to fill it with the details of cancer treatment and recovery, we slip into habits, feelings that we’re constantly “running out of time,” and forgetting to pay more attention to how we use the time we have each day.    To step off the treadmill suddenly might send us flying;  the landing would be abrupt and hard.  If we can learn to slow the speed gradually, however, take a few deep breaths and pay attention to the world around us, the rewards are great.  The re-learning, though, takes time and attention.

We are what we repeatedly do, Aristotle once proclaimed.  I came across this quote in a 2014 post from Brain Pickings Weekly that explored how long it takes for us to form new habits.  If Aristotle is right, and I continue to constantly overbook my life, building internal pressure and stress, do I become that harried, rush-rush, stressed person?  Apparently so.  William James, one of our first psychologists, agreed, stating:  Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to here conduct while in the plastic state.  For most of us, our “plasticity” isn’t as great as it was in our youth, but change is still possible, if we’re serious about slowing down, noticing life around us, and paying attention.  It takes more than just resolving to say “No” to an overscheduled self.

According to the article I read in Brain Pickings Weekly,  it takes more than resolve for  a new habit to take root in a person.  According to a study conducted at University College in London, it takes 66 days of consistent behavior before a habit is formed, and in cases of well entrenched and complex behaviors like my tendency to constantly overbook my time, it could well take much longer!

I’ve often written about paying attention, the act of being fully present to our outer and inner worlds.  It is the writer’s work, yet even though I consciously try to pay attention to life around me, I can get pulled in a dozen different directions before I realize it.  I’ve gotten better about this in the past few years, but I often have to remind myself to quiet my mind, notice and be attentive to the gifts life offers.  It’s harder than we think to slow down and pay attention when we’re so used to the busy-ness in modern day life.

Ted Kooser, former poet laureate and a cancer survivor, knows even a poet can be distracted by life’s demands and by cancer.   Winter Morning Walks:  One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison, published in  2001was created from postcards Kooser began writing and sending to his friend as he recovered from cancer surgery and treatment.  He described how the book came to be in the preface:

“In the autumn of 1968, during my recovery from surgery and radiation for cancer, I began taking a two-mile walk each morning…hiking in the isolated country roads near where I live…During the previous summer, depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing…  One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem.  Soon I was writing every day…

The poems reveal a touching portrayal of a man recovering from the ravages of illness and treatment, whose spirit and sensibilities were reawakened in his habit of making time for morning walks and once again, noticing the life around him, slowing himself and time down to take pleasure in the beauty of the natural world.  Cancer is mentioned only briefly, for example:

…filling my lungs with hope

on this, my granddaughter’s

birthday, her first, and the day

of my quarterly cancer tests.

Instead, Kooser nourishes his spirit and his poetry by slowing down and paying attention to the small moments of beauty and delight in nature.  The final poem in the book celebrates the healing that has come with his habit of walking, slowing down, and paying attention, capturing those small moments in poetry.  In his final poem in the book, Kooser writes:

How important it must be

to someone

that I am alive, and walking,

and that I have written

these poems.

This morning the sun stood

right at the end of the road

and waited for me.

Kooser’s poetry inspired me to embark on a different habit several years ago.  While my days can still become exercises in racing from one thing to the next, I very seldom miss taking time in the early morning to sit in quiet and write, usually beginning with one observation of a single moment in nature.  It helps to quiet my mind when life feels lopsided and too demanding, and more importantly, it helps me remember gratitude and the importance of paying attention.

Where has the time gone?  It’s a question any of us may find ourselves much too frequently.  Think about what time can offer to us if we truly pay attention, because, as William Stafford reminded us:

Time wants to show you a different country.  It’s the one
that your life conceals, the one waiting outside
when curtains are drawn, the one Grandmother hinted at
in her crochet design, the one almost found
over at the edge of the music, after the sermon…

Time offers this gift in its millions of ways,
turning the world, moving the air, calling,
every morning, “Here, take it, it’s yours.”

(From: “The Gift,” by William Stafford, In:The Way It Is, Graywolf Press, 1999)

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about time: What are you doing with yours?
  • What demands do you encounter daily on your time?
  • Explore how time seems to run ahead of you, how you may be squandering it–
  • Or how you have learned to slow down and make your time each day more fulfilling or meaningful.
  • What practices do you find helpful to making time for yourself?



Posted in expressive writing, reflections on life, writing and nature, writing from cancer and serious illness, writing from life, writing to heal | Leave a comment