In Transition

“Writing the Heart” is changing its focus. Thanks to the inspiration from those who’ve written and shared their stories in my many writing groups, I’ve come to believe that writing about illness is, ultimately, writing about life. And it’s life I want to focus on in this blog.

I’m currently in the process of re-conceptualizing and re-designing the blog site. The primary change (other than a new look) is that the blog site will not longer be focused on heart failure, but rather, the “life” of the heart: the places, experiences and people and people we “carry in our hearts”. Once the site is re-launched, my hope is that those of you who follow the blog might be inspired to write and share stories, essays and poems from your own life experiences. More on that at a later date.

Please stay tuned and check back late September/early October for the re-launch writingtheheart.ca.

Best wishes,

Sharon

August 25, 2020: The Comfort Found in Books

I’ve been thinking about how much our daily lives have changed as the COVID lockdowns continue here.  More than that, I think about  what it is that keeps us putting one foot in front of the other on a daily basis, how the small daily routines or household tasks keep me going, providing a sense of normality to our lives even though this prolonged period of social distancing and relative isolation continues without any sure end in sight.    I’m not alone in fending off boredom, feelings of malaise or that constant low-level anxiety that is part of the uncertainly of this strange and isolating time.  Heart failure puts us in a higher risk category for contracting COVID just as those living with cancer, undergoing treatments and their continuing recovery.  

My experience with cancer was a mild one—very treatable, but the impact enough to influence my shift away from a life in non-profit management to what I loved doing most:  writing and teaching. And out of that change, I also began the twenty years of leading expressive writing workshops for cancer patients and others.   The writing workshops I lead for cancer patients and survivors have continued, despite this time of Covid, although virtually, and their feelings about living through this pandemic have echoed those of British author, Susie Steiner.   Her title of a recent article, “It has been easier to cope with my cancer during lockdown…” in the June 13th issue of The Guardian,  got my attention.  Currently undergoing treatment for  a brain tumor, she began her article saying “I wrote my latest novel…with a 9cm tumor pushing my brain over its midline.  But I didn’t know about it.”  Even more ironically, Steiner wrote, “…I was plotting a cancer storyline, not yet knowing that I had cancer.” (The Guardian, June 13, 2020).

 “So much of the experience of cancer is the waiting rooms,” Steiner wrote, “ is the hard chairs, the inequality between patients and medical staff—you feel so vulnerable in your elasticated slacks with your terrible hair…waiting for them, terrified, in the Room of Bad News.”  Yet she says that it has been easier for her to cope with her cancer during the  COVID lockdown knowing she was not the only one whose life was on hold nor fearful of contracting the virus and possibly dying. 

Cold comfort, perhaps, but like cancer, any of us who fall into that “higher risk” category are  all in a kind of waiting game, in limbo, taking greater precautions, dumping the plans we might have had for travel or evenings socializing with friends, amassing a supply of face masks to last however long this pandemic continues to spread.  Christopher Hutchins, author of Mortality, a collection of essays about his struggle with esophageal cancer, described cancer as “… a  bit like lockdown, you spend your time in treatment, saying to yourself, “I just have to get through this, then I’ll get my life back.” 

Nevertheless, as Susie Steiner remarks, “it has been easier, weirdly, to cope with my illness during lockdown, because I’m not the only one whose life is on hold, not the only one terrified of dying…”   What has comforted her—and what I find I have also found invaluable–are books.  “One thing you can do a lot of when you’re a patient,” she remarks, “is reading.”  

The idea that reading, like writing, are not new. Jenni Odgen, PhD, notes that Sigmund Freud was known to incorporate literature into his psychoanalytic practice in the late 1800’s, and even King Ramses II of Egypt was known to use reading for healing,  keeping a special chamber for his books with the words “House of Healing for the Soul” above the door.

The term “bibliotherapy,” the art of using books to help people solve personal issues, was first used in 1916.  It now takes many different forms, including literature courses for prison inmates to reading groups for elders suffering from dementia (“Can Reading Make You Happier?” by Ceridwen Dovey, New Yorker, June 9, 2015) .  In fact, two or three years ago, I stumbled onto The Novel Cure, written and published by two bibliotherapists, Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin in 2014.  Written something like a medical dictionary, it matches ailments and illnesses with suggested reading “cures,” although there was no reference to heart failure or other cardiac conditions, mirroring my own frustration at not finding a wealth of literature (poetry, personal essays, memoir) unlike the abundance of such writing by patients and survivors of cancer. (I did find—and became immersed in — In the Country of Hearts, however a beautifully written l book written in 1990 by John Stone, MD,  that I have returned to more than once, despite it being 30 years old).

Nevertheless, reading,  whether for pleasure, information or healing, helps us to navigate periods of isolation, boredom, and worry.  We feel less alone in our situation.  Dovey cites research that demonstrates how reading puts our brains into a state similar to meditation, bringing the same benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm.  Regular readers, she notes, sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem and lower rates of depression than non-readers.  Quoting the author Jeannette Winterson, she adds, “fiction and poetry are doses, medicines…what they heal is the rupture reality makes on imagination.”

My husband and I have been devouring books for the past many weeks.  He’s shifted from a diet of current affairs and research psychology to poetry—much to my surprise—systematically making his way through the wealth of poetry volumes on my bookshelves. I’ve added several non-fiction books to my regular diet of fiction, especially biographies of artists and writers, most recently getting immersed in Maggie Doherty’s The Equivalents, which led me to reading biographies of the women writers who were featured  in her book. 

I have, time and again, found as much or more comfort in reading as when I was a kid, sneaking books to bed and until I was discovered by a watchful parent, reading with a flashlight under the covers, immersed in the stories of others and a world beyond the borders of our small town.  In this time of COVID, books—poetry, fiction, nonfiction—have been indispensable for me to combat the boredom and those days when our moods can turn as grey as a dull overcast day.

In her article for The Guardian, Susie Steiner describes how her reading changed during the course of her cancer treatment, and why she turned to books written by other cancer survivors.  It’s something common to any of us diagnosed with any serious illness or progressive condition.   She was hungry, Steiner said,  for what she called “fellow feeling,” something that books and illness stories of others similarly diagnosed can offer.   As a patient undergoing treatment and feeling the anxiety of what might lie ahead, she writes,  “Living like this is gruelling,” she wrote, “ we need imaginative empathy in fiction to help us through it.” 

This is surely the … therapeutic power of literature – it doesn’t just echo our own experience, recognise, vindicate and validate it – it takes us places we hadn’t imagined but which, once seen, we never forget. When literature is working – the right words in the right place – it offers an orderliness which can shore up readers against the disorder, or lack of control, that afflicts them.—Blake Morrison, “The Reading Cure,” The Guardian/Books/ January 5, 2008. 

My sentiments exactly…

Writing Suggestions:

Have you found particular books, essays or poetry that have helped you understand or describe your experience of living with heart failure or other serious illnesses in some way?

Have you found comfort or inspiration from any books—no matter the subject?

What books, poetry or essays can you recommend to others living with heart failure?  Why?


 

August 3, 2020: COVID: A Time for Reflection

Illustration by Maurice Sendak (in A Time for Butterflies, by Ruth Krause)

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?…

For the month of July, I took a month-long hiatus from writing my blogs–something I haven’t done in the 14 years since I first began my “Writing Through Cancer” blog.  But in this unusual time created by COVID, I felt the need to break from my self-imposed schedule of posting and instead, have the freedom to let my mind—and my pen—wander where they would.  It was a necessary period to simply reflect and be, in the sense of writing, quiet for a time.

I kept my daily writing routine—a habit indispensable to my day.  Some days my notebook pages were half empty, as though my muse had gone into hiding; on other days inspiration would strike, playful, serious, or lead me into a re-examination of past writing—it hardly mattered.  I simply let whatever emerged on the page, be.  I began re-reading pages and pages of old posts, books of poetry, and others about writers and writing.  I questioned whether to continue my blogs or to let them gradually fade away from inactivity. I questioned the writing of separate posts for cancer and heart failure as I’d initially done.  The two had already begun to converge in recent weeks, and not surprisingly.  Writing about serious illness, trauma or suffering is less about the illness itself and more about the human experience.  It is writing about life.

The upending of what was normal, months of social isolation, social distancing, closures, and virtual everything has been sobering.  During the early months of COVID, I had celebrated another birthday, less welcomed this year as my birthdays before COVID and when I was much younger.  My past birthdays signaled a new year, one that held promise, opportunity, new plans and dreams, while this most recent one was punctuated with questions:  How long will this continue?  Will my life be shortened by this virus?  What will the coming year hold for all of us?

Of course, there were always some years I was happy to bid farewell–ones marked by personal tragedy, loss and illness– but even then, the passing of another year signaled the possibility for something better.  Looking back, I realize that my “crosshairs” were firmly set on what Wallace Stegner once described as “the snow peaks of a vision” in his Pulitzer Prize novel, Angle of Repose, (1971).   I was always looking ahead to the “what’s next? “What’s possible?”   Before COVID, I still had that “looking ahead,” the hope, possibilities of something “new” to look forward to, a new goal to achieve, a trip to another country, some “better thoughts” that might turn into something significant on the page…   COVID, like cancer and heart failure temporarily did, foisted a “hold” on those future possibilities, and the longer our lockdowns and restrictions have continued, the more I realize we—all of us– are unlikely to return to the same world we knew and took for granted just six months ago.  What, then, I wondered, do we look forward to now?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

The little respite from the blogs that  I granted myself has helped me realize that this strange and unusual time has given me a chance to look back, reflect and have gratitude for the life I’ve been fortunate enough to live thus far, even if I sometimes regret I haven’t accomplished all I set out to do.  It’s also helped me clarify what matters most to me and how and where I want to expend my energies as life moves forward.

I am more aware than ever of the fragility and uncertainty of life.  I take nothing for granted.  My brushes with cancer and heart failure, the experiences of the men and women who write with me from the experience of life-threatening and terminal illness continue to remind me how precious life is and yet more, how challenging and difficult it can also be at times.  None of us is immune from illness or hardship. No one escapes. Cancer, heart failure, a pandemic of COVID:  serious illnesses remove any pretense or assumptions about ourselves we may have—a time, perhaps, when we need to pause and reflect, gain insight and discover so much more of who we are and have the potential to be.   Maybe that’s one important lesson I will take from this time of pandemic—and use it to continue to inform how I want to live and engage with others.

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –

From: “You Reading This, Be Ready,” by William Stafford)

Writing Suggestions

  • What has been your COVID experience? Write about the concerns, reflections or insights about life as you’ve known it—and how it may change.
  • Do you agree or disagree: “Writing about serious illness is really writing about life.” Why or why not?
  • What new glimpse of life and living have you discovered out of hardship or serious illness?
  • Begin with the line, “Starting here, what do I want to remember?” and keep writing for ten minutes.  Re-read.  What stands out?

A Brief Hiatus

Dear Readers,

As you might have guessed from my last post, I’m in need of a little respite to refuel and re-energize.  I’ll be offline until August, but please do use the archives during this time…there’s well over a year’s worth of bi-weekly posts and prompts to help ignite your writing.

Stay well and stay safe…a friend of mine wrote about being a “good masketeer,” and for a good time yet, I’ll be wearing my mask anytime I’m out and about in Toronto.

Warm wishes,

Sharon Bray

June 18, 2020: Writing the Blues

I admit it.  Three months of lockdown and relative social isolation, and my muse has flown the coop.  “I’m outta’ here,” she cried yesterday as I tried for the 5th day in a row to compose a post that might inspire my readers to write.  No amount of deep, mindful breathing, a walk through the tree-lined streets in our neighborhood, quotes from books and articles or frantic, whinny pleading to that creative muse worked.  She disappeared, leaving me staring at the blank page.

I had only just finished another online workshop for Gilda’s Club—part presentation, part offering short writing “bursts” and part encouragement on how to get started exploring the experience of cancer through writing.  “Nothing to write?”  I asked, then offered a suggestion:  “Start with anything.  Anything can be a prompt.  Anything can provide inspiration.  Or start with nothing, writing the line, “I have nothing to write, “over and over until you discover you DO have something to write.”  It’s an approach I often use for myself, quite honestly, and in doing so, I stumble into ideas, questions, and inevitably, a blog post that I post on this site.

Guess what?  It hasn’t worked for me this week.  I’m not even inspired to write a silly poem or  bake another batch of scones (and that’s serious).  I blame it on the COVID blues…or, perhaps more accurately, COVID boredom.  I’ve read so many books in the past three months that  I have actually grown tired of reading.   I’ve grown weary of the monotony of having to stay so close to home, of news reports of the current numbers of outbreaks and death, of Zoom meetings instead of face to face and the knowledge that this kind of life is going to be with us for some time  yet.  That sounds like the blues to me, or at the least, a bit of boredom with myself.  And it’s accompanied by an utter lack of inspiration, of even the glimmer of an idea to get me writing.  As I write, I suddenly recall a folk song from my (much)  younger days.  I hear the “The San Francisco Bay Blues” in my head.  It was originally composed by Jesse Fuller (who I saw in person in the mid-sixties) and subsequently performed by the likes Bob Dylan, Jim Croce, Eric Clapton, Janis Joplin, John Lennon, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Eva Cassidy and many more.  “I got the blues for my baby/left me by the San Francisco Bay…”  Well, it’s rattling around in my head now, but the words are different:     “I got the blues for my muse and/ I’m  far from San Francisco Bay…”

Perhaps you’re finding this time a little boring or difficult in other ways. Perhaps you have children at home and the fatigue of home schooling and providing ways for them to be entertained is stretching your patience.  What gets you through the long days of social isolation?  Have you found new ways to be creative?  New activities to occupy your time? Write about living in a time of pandemic.  Write  about how you keep the blues at bay.

May 29, 2020: In Praise of the Commonplace

It’s been nearly three months since our daily lives were altered by COVID-19.  Some days I can’t believe it’s been that long; other days, it seems that we’ve been living in a world of closures, social distancing and relative isolation far longer.  What do I miss?  The ordinary life I had…walking without being so conscious of staying six feet apart from others, face masked, knowing I’m one of those in a” higher risk” category, and our world largely confined to our neighborhood and the Toronto apartment where my husband and I now live.  Normally an early riser, I have begun to sleep a little longer in the mornings, the dull rhythm of a question, “What am I going to do today?” playing in my head like a broken record.  But old habits re-exert themselves, I grow restless and rise to begin, again, another day.

What keeps me going in this strange time?  It’s the familiar, the habits and structure in  small, daily tasks:  making the morning’s coffee, walking the dog, sweeping the floors, making the bed, writing—even as the pages are often filled with the increasingly mundane meanderings of a mind  dulled by repetition—planning and preparing the evening meal, a pre-dinner glass of sherry with my husband, a good novel on hand, nightly reruns of Agatha Christie mysteries and other old British dramas, then lights out sometime around 11 p.m..  And in the morning, my routine begins again.

The shoes put on each time
left first, then right.

The morning potion’s teaspoon
of sweetness stirred always
for seven circlings, no fewer, no more,
into the cracked blue cup.

Touching the pocket for wallet,
for keys,
before closing the door.

How did we come
to believe these small rituals’ promise,
that we are today the selves we yesterday knew,
tomorrow will be
?

(“Habit,” by Jane Hirshfield, in Given Sugar, Given Salt, 2002)

In a 2014 blog post, I had explored what it meant to be “in remission,” told that one has  “no evidence of cancer at this time,” words that signaled a reprieve from the relentless routine of doctor’s appointments, scans, tests, and weeks of treatment regimens to a return to “normal life.” It didn’t mean a return to the life one had before as many survivors discovered.  And I’m all to aware now, that after we finally see an end to the COVID lockdowns, whatever was normal before the pandemic will not be the same afterward.

When one survives cancer and is given the diagnosis of “in remission,” you still live with the knowledge that “survivor” does not guarantee a permanent state of grace.  You may have many years left to live or perhaps less.  There is one certainty, however:  you never take anything for granted again. You might even feel a little guilty, especially when you have come to know many others, cancer patients as you once were, whose prognoses are less favorable and may well die from their illness.  You’re relieved, yes, but it can also seem unfair.  Why have you survived while others will not? 

“I’ve gone from thinking, ‘Why me?’ to thinking, ‘Why not me,” a former group member said.  “In the beginning, it was comforting to think of fighting to survive…   I believed that I should have a powerful drive to accomplish something, but,” she confessed, “I don’t find that drive in me now.”  Now, as the economy worsens and so many people are feeling the other effects of the pandemic:  job loss, retirement incomes diminishing, loss of family members or loved ones, what, I wonder, will the “drive to accomplish something” be like?  What will “normal life” look like after COVID?  And what will have changed for each of us.  Perhaps if we are to learn anything from the state of being “in remission” or once this pandemic is truly ended, it may be about living differently that we did before and truly cherishing life in ways, perhaps, that we have been too busy to notice.


A friend and cancer survivor wrote me several months after she had officially been diagnosed as “in remission.”  The likelihood of her cancer returning is still greater than she would like, but she discovered things about life and living that have become truly important to her after cancer.  In a letter to me, said wrote:   I love the things I do day by day.   I hike with a beloved friend.  I spend time in the wonderful garden of another.  I meet friends for coffee, talking with each other with pleasure and leaving them with joy and a benefit to my mind and spirit… It frees me from having to make every moment count.  It takes off pressure that would exist if I had to accomplish something in particular before I die…” 

Like many survivors, she was discovering comfort and meaning in accepting the natural ebb and flow of everyday life, small pleasures of love, companionship and nature.  She was grateful for Life, for what, as poet Ellen Lerman so wonderfully expressed, the simple joy and fulfillment in what life gives us:

This is what life does. It lets you walk up to

the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a

stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have

your eggs, your coffee…

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the

pond, where whole generations of biological

processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds

speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,

they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old

enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?…

Upon reflection, you are

genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have

become. And then life lets you go home to think

about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time…

My friend’s words still resonate with me, because it took me more than one life crisis to cement my resolve to live differently.  The achievement ethic drilled into me early in life, good intentions would give way to slippage into old habits of being, of accomplishment, and the rush, busyness and stress of a life style that was not, I sometimes allowed myself to admit, good for me.  It would take a few more years, an emergency ride to the hospital, three days in observation and a diagnosis of heart failure before I paid attention to truly changing how I wanted to live.  The real task of living required a mindfulness, a time to be fully present and pay attention to little moments, the gifts of beauty, joy, and laughter.  Gradually, I developed daily routines that continue to give my life a healthier structure and meaning:   the morning walk with my dog—at her pace, not mine—the creativity and mindfulness of preparing  an evening meal and taking the time to enjoy it with my husband, to have the sacred space to write each day, because doing so keeps me attentive, grateful, and remembering how lucky I’ve been in life—no matter the hardships I’ve suffered from time to time. Now, in this time of isolation and social distancing, I am again reminded of how one find can pleasure and something new in each day, despite its seeming predictability or, in a time of uncertainty, because of it.  These are the simple gifts to be found in the ordinary and commonplace.   

I turn to the poetry and wisdom of A., diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer, and part of the Stanford Cancer Center group I led for several years.  She lived with the knowledge of her certain and impending death, choosing, for the final year and a half of her life, to live alone in a small cabin in the California redwoods, a source of inspiration and peace for her.  She wrote prolifically and daily, creating poetry, several of her poems published, out of her experience and reverence for the life and beauty she found in the most ordinary moments of each day of her life.  In 2012, cancer took her life; a few weeks later, three of her poems were published in the American Poetry Review—testimony to her extraordinary gifts.  In the poem, “Directive,” she reminds us to remember the abundance of gifts to be found in what we consider commonplace—if only we stop to pay attention:   

Remember the commonplace, the wooden chair on the white planked deck,
trees kneeling in the rain and deer prints
leading into elegant rushes. A kinder place
cannot be found: where you sit at the top
of shadowy stairs, the window lifted…


Let me speak for you: there’s comfort
to be found in fatigue, in letting principles
fall like stones from your pockets…

Fall into the ordinary,
the rushes, the deer looking up into your heart,
risen, full in the silver hammered sky.

(From “Directive,” by A.E.)


I am grateful for the gifts of poetry I received from A. and for remembering her words in this unusual time that it is in the commonplace,  our ordinary and everyday routines that are reminding me, again,  to appreciate the life I have, the small gifts I am given each day.  I don’t know what life after COVID will be like—but I know it will not be the same.  I only hope the lessons of this time will have some lasting impact—and t just for me, but for the world.  For now, I am grateful for Life…the commonplace, everyday, routine of living.

This is life’s way of letting you know that

you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,

so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you

were born at a good time. Because you were able

to listen when people spoke to you. Because you

stopped when you should have and started again.

So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your

late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And

then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland…

(From “Starfish,” in Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds, 2005)

Writing Suggestions:

  • “Borrow” a line from any of the poetry in this post.  Let it be the first line you write on your page…then, let it take you wherever it wants to go.
  • What, in the ordinary routines of your life, matters most to you?  What small habits or practices?  Why?
  • Write about this “time of COVID” and how it’s changed your life—possibly for good.
  • What lessons do you hope come from this pandemic experience?
  • Has your experience with living with a serious or life-threatening condition help or hinder how you’ve dealt with life in lockdown?  What wisdom might you share?

May 11, 2020: Letting It Out: Releasing Negative Emotions

rant:  to complain or talk loudly and angrily for a long time, sometimes saying unreasonable things  (MacMillan Dictionary)

I don’t know about you, but I do know that the endless days of indoor living and social isolation are getting to me.   I am more easily frustrated, irritable and restless.  It’s taken some discipline to rein those negative feelings in, and I admit to days where I am less successful than I wish I was.  What about you?  Have you felt the need to get feelings or frustration with something off your chest, the kind that keep you awake at night or gnaw at you until they’re voiced?   We know that those kinds of feelings aren’t good for our health, as confirmed by a significant body of psychological research on the relationship between emotions and health–but I learned this in earnest the hard way. Some years ago, I realized I’d  been living under extreme stress for well over a decade, triggered by  my husband’s death, a significant career transition, and a decade of major moves from coast to coast.  I soldiered valiantly through it all, but cracks began to appear in my armor. I slept poorly, and I was often impatient and short-tempered.  A few close friends expressed concern, but it wasn’t until my diagnosis of early stage breast cancer that I really understood the impact all that bottled up emotional stress had on my health.

Around the same time, I  read Opening Up:  The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (1997), the early work on emotional inhibition and health by James Pennebaker, PhD, whose subsequent research on writing and healing set off an explosion of similar studies and inspired numerous expressive writing programs.   Pennebaker demonstrated how expressing emotions was not only good for one’s soul, but beneficial to our physical and psychological health.  The studies he cited made one thing very clear:  holding negative emotions inside, also known as “inhibition,” is detrimental to health.

Our bodies respond to the ways we think and feel.  Stress and anxiety weaken immune system function, and negative emotions can have effect on circulation, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, even hormonal functioning.  It can heighten our vulnerability to disease or manifest itself as back pain, fatigue, or headaches.   Research suggests that holding on to negative feelings may actually shorten our lives.  According to some studies, optimistic people have longer lives than pessimistic ones.  Ridding ourselves of negative emotion may improve physical health as well as the body’s power to heal.

It’s not always as easy as it sounds.  Everyone experiences strong or negative emotions from time to time, and during difficult or painful experiences like a marital break-up, job loss, or a diagnosis of cancer, heart failure or other serious conditions, those feelings can be intense. Anger, anxiety, fear or pessimism are common, but that’s not all. When we suffer a new wound to our psyches, old, unresolved wounds from the past can re-open and bleed again. Fortunately, there are many therapeutic tools to assist in the healing process, and as the research shows, writing and telling our stories of our illnesses, hardships or struggles is one of them.

Many writers, novelist Henry James once said, begin writing from a port of pain, finding a kind of release and solace in putting their deepest—and most fearful—feelings on paper, whether in diaries, journals or poetry and stories.  Port of pain or not, it’s often hard to get started, difficult to give ourselves the freedom to express all we’re feeling on the page, even though we want to. “Keep the pen moving,” I often say to the participants in my writing groups.  “Write without stopping or thinking about what appears on the page.”  The time limits imposed for different writing exercises helps, because it forces them to write quickly, in effect, silencing their internal critics.  Often, when someone chooses to read what they’ve written aloud, I hear the comment, “I didn’t know I wrote that…” after an especially powerful sentence or paragraph.

One of my favorite examples of “release” through writing is in learning to free up and write a rant, something that just “lets it all out.”  I often use a poem by   Rosanne Lloyd, a contemporary poet who combines eloquence with directness and forcefulness in her writing.  her poem,  “Exorcism of Nice,”  is one I find helpful in inspiring  writing group members to “just let it go.”  In this poem, the  poet reacts to a litany of long-time restraints, expressing anger and pain that has silenced her own voice:

Mum’s the word
Taciturn
Talk polite
Appropriate
Real nice
Talk polite
Short and sweet
Keep it down
Quiet down
Keep the lid on
Hold it down
Shut down
Shut up
Chin up
Bottle up
Drink up…

Tucked in
Caved in

Shut in
Locked in
Incoherent
Inarticulate
In a shell…

Oh, Wicked Mother of the Kingdom of Silence
I have obeyed you
long enough

(From: Tap Dancing for Big Mom, 1996)

Lloyd’s poem is a useful model for freeing up to express negative emotions on the page.  “Anything goes,” I frequently say as group members begin writing.  “Whatever is on your mind, whatever is irritating you, making you angry or frustrated–just write it.”  What invariably happens in the writing that follows is always powerful, even sometimes hilarious, and coupled with a newfound freedom to write honestly and deeply—the kind of writing that has the potential for healing.

In this time of social distancing, self-isolation and uncertainty, I know my frustration tends to surface more often than usual, and in those moments, I become irritable and negative.  It has helped me to write regularly, and I’ll confess that a few rants have appeared in my notebook, but the beauty of doing so for me, is that my list of frustrations turns into a parody of my feelings and results in  rather light-hearted and humorous endings to whatever frustration I’m  feeling.   More than a few silly poems have resulted in the pages of my notebook in these many weeks of indoor living.

Perhaps trying out a rant is something you can try writing when COVID-19 necessary restrictions on our lives gets to you.  Why not give yourself permission to “let it all hang out” on paper—to expel any anger, frustration, or pain that may be building inside as the days continue to move slowly and with increasing monotony.  It’s an exercise for release—and it can even be fun.

Writing Suggestion:

Try writing your own rant.  It can be about anything.  You can use Roseanne Lloyd’s poem as a model or write one in letter form, as in Tony Cross’s “Open Letter to Hummingbirds,” appearing in McSweeneys, 2004, or Canadian comedian Rick Mercer’s video  rants against things like winter, Tim Horton’s and some  people’s behavior during COVID-19 (available on You Tube).   Here is an excerpt from Cross’s letter to hummingbirds:

Dear Hummingbirds,

Hey, would you take it easy already? What’s the freakin’ rush, hummingbirds? I don’t get it—why must you flap your wings so damn fast? You need to chill out.    Here I am, sitting in my garden, quietly reading a book and sipping on a fruit cocktail, and all of a sudden you’re buzzing into my field of vision…

I found the You Tube video rant by Canadian comedian Rick Mercer on seasonal amnesia personally relevant this past weekend. Our balmy spring weather from a week ago turned wintry, and snow flurries completely hid the view from our balcony of downtown Toronto.  I ended up writing my own anti-winter weather rant too…the weather didn’t improve, but my mood did.

The nice thing about writing about difficult emotions or frustrations is that it helps you release them from you body to the page.  You can be honest.  No one needs to see what you’ve written.  You can tear up your rant into a hundred tiny pieces or simply hit the “delete” button when you’re finished writing.  What matters is that you write, without self-criticism, and release the frustration and negative emotions from the body to the page.   Set the timer for fifteen minutes and have at it.   Write a rant.  It can be about anything.  Exorcise those negative emotions or frustrations.  You’ll just might feel better once you do.

April 28, 2020: Navigating the Alchemy of Grief

For several days now, my thoughts have been occupied with Nova Scotia, home to me for over 13 years.  The shock of 22 innocent people shot and killed in a matter of hours has weighed heavily on the minds of so many of us.  It is Canada’s worst mass shooting since 1989, when ‎14 female students died at the hands of a  gunman at Montreal’s ‎École Polytechnique in Montreal.  Stunned, I reached out to old friends, knowing the closeness of the social networks in the Maritimes.  Some of my friends had known the young female Mountie who was killed and her mother, and together with so many others, mourning the loss of life, the senseless and incomprehensible violence perpetrated in the province.   

Ironically, perhaps, the memories of the close community of friends I experienced while living in Nova Scotia were also punctuated by unexpected losses:   my first husband’s drowning, two friends dead from AIDS and another from cancer shortly after I moved to Toronto.  Then, yesterday, as I remembered it was the birthday of my dearest Nova Scotia friend, a memory of the telephone call, one I received barely 14 years after my husband’s death, and another of my friends telling me A. had committed suicide. 

 I felt the waves of shock and sorrow for days.  How, I asked myself countless times, could she have been so distraught to take her own life?  It made no sense to me.  I remembered how she and her husband had been steadfast in their love and offered such extraordinary support for me and my daughters after L.’s death.  To this day, I doubt I could have gotten through that period of grief without their unyielding support and kindness.    “Before you know what kindness really is,” poet Naomi Shihab Nye tells us, “you must lose things…” 

feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.


 (In: The Words Under The Words ©1994)  

“How desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness…”  Our world has, in the past many weeks, seemed, at times, desolate as thousands throughout the world have died or lost friends, family and acquaintances during this pandemic.   We have been forced, as individuals and as nations, to re-examine many of the assumptions we’ve held about life:  no one has been immune, and new cases of the COVID 19 virus continue to emerge.  Virtually every country has been in lockdown, financial outlooks seem precarious, and fear and uncertainty of what the future holds when—or if—life returns to normal are rampant.    Yet it’s easy to forget that throughout history, losses of similar proportions have been felt by people all the around the world:  disease, wars, unimaginable hardship and cruelty, starvation, massacres, deadly earthquakes and the unimaginable loss of human life.  

In our country, we have been relatively immune to such disasters as other countries.  Yet such tragic loss of human life can ignite sorrow and grief that invade our very being.  For some, they are buried or forgotten until the next tragedy or loss, for others, the heartache and sorrow linger—even re-ignited by a calendar date, a photograph, a sound or a song—and it all comes back. We experience again the weight of loss, and we grieve.

Grief, the psychologists tell us, is the emotional state that accompanies loss, and although normal, when compounded by the unimaginable losses in life, when no explanation or rationale can be found,  the sorrow is deeper, more lasting, and we experience the kind of sorrow that resides in our hearts for a very long time. How can we make sense of these unexpected and even incomprehensible losses we suffer? 
 
I am learning the alchemy of grief, how it must be carefully measured and doled out, inflicted—but I have not yet mastered this art.” –Judith Ortiz Cofer. The Cruel Country, 2015)

Since I began leading my “Writing Through Cancer” programs twenty years ago, death has become a frequent visitor, as cancer always claims the lives of one or more of my writers.  He death of a group member has never become routine, and nor have I developed some protective layer of numbness for those times that one of my writers dies. I am humbled by the medical professionals who, by virtue of their vocation, must continually deal with the loss of human life, for each time a group member’s life is taken by this disease, I must   learn again to confront my grief as well as the collective grief of the group.  

Everyone has their way of dealing with the loss of life, but for me, it’s the reason I originally turned to writing and poetry as a way to make sense of sorrow and loss.  I’ve said before that writing, for me, is a kind of prayer.  It takes me deep inside myself and a way to remember, to mourn and yet to articulate what I feel when loss has, again, entered my life.  When words fail me in times of sorrow, and they often do, I turn to reading poetry.   

Poets have always written, about human emotion, and their expressions of sorrow and grief helps me mourn, to name what I am feeling, and to take some kind of solace in knowing the sorrow and I loss I am feeling has been understood and put into words by others.  I not only discover new insights, ways of expressing my sorrow, but a kind of solace, a way to gradually let go of the grief I feel.   If you are someone who finds comfort or inspiration  in poetry, I recommend the collection of “Shelter In” poems, https://poets.org/shelter-poems offered by readers to the American Academy of Poets during this time of pandemic and social isolation.    

I am more aware than ever now that loss is part of our human experience, something we all must deal with, something we all have to learn to make sense of.  Knowing that doesn’t make it easier, but finding ways to put it in to words or discovering wisdom in the word of others helps to make it bearable and to let it go.  As Mary Oliver so beautifully reminded us:  

To live in this world  

You must be able
to do three things: to
what is mortal;
to hold it  

against your bones
knowing your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes

to let it go.  

(“In Blackwater Woods,” In:  American Primitive, 1983)  
 
Writing Suggestions:  
* Create a kind of balance sheet:  in one column, list the names of people you have lost; in the other, the acts of kindness you have experienced or discovered in loss.  What insights emerge?  What have you learned about loss, grief or sorrow?
* Re-examine periods of significant loss in your life.  Has your experience helped you to see things in a different life?
* Try expressing your feelings of grief or sorrow in a poem.  Stuck?  Model your poem after a poem you like or use the first line of someone else’s poem as a beginning. 

April 13, 2020: Spiritual Nourishment in Difficult Times

I cannot tell you
how the light comes,
but that it does.
That it will…

(“How the Light Comes,” by Jan Richardson, in Ten Poems for Difficult Times, 2018)

A note from Sharon:  To those of you reading this post:  It is difficult to find the words that capture this extraordinary time we are now living—no one has been immune to the crises triggered by this world pandemic, and for the foreseeable future, our lives will continue to be affected, our daily habits changed, by the impact of the corona virus.  It is a worrisome time—and for any of us who are in the “higher risk” categories, it is difficult to escape the underlying anxiety that seems to invade one’s daily life.  What gives us solace?  Offers hope? A few years ago, I wrote this blog post which follows, reflecting on the importance of our spiritual lives.  Whatever that life involves, it’s certain that Life’s hardships thrust us into what can only be defined as a deeply spiritual journey.  As we all deal with the impact of the corona virus on our lives, our loved ones, and how our lives will be change because of it, I offer this post originally published in my blog, www.writingthroughcancer.ca, in the early part of 2014.

_ . _ . _ . _

A few years ago, when I was living in San Diego, I participated in a workshop on contemplative practices that could enrich our lives.  My part in it was to invite the participants to consider the spiritual practice inherent in writing.  Like so many Americans, I’ve been a lapsed church-goer for the better part of my adult life, finding I craved a deeper spiritual practice to sustain my daily life than the Sunday morning services.   I had dabbled with other religious traditions, tried to learn meditation, but still, I couldn’t make anything work for me.  What I hadn’t realized is that I had already had the tools to deepen my spiritual life—writing.  I had always written, and during the years of a soul shattering time in early adulthood, writing was a refuge, my port in the storm, a virtual sanctuary.  I just hadn’t thought of it as having the potential become my regular spiritual practice. 

Within a year after returning to California from Toronto,  I was confronted  with the first of a series of losses and unexpected life changes beginning with my father’s death from lung cancer, and followed by mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s, the onerous and painful  task of downsizing a dying nonprofit, an unexpected diagnosis of early stage breast cancer, and my mother’s death.  In the aftermath of my first husband’s drowning a decade earlier, writing had become a refuge, a lifesaver I clung to through those turbulent times.  Writing not only helped me cope, but ultimately, became an important daily routine.  As my writing practice solidified and deepened, it became a fundamental part of my spiritual life.

My writing grew to become a daily ritual and meditation, something I practiced early each morning before the outside world intervened to pull me into its noisy demands.  Its place in my spiritual life has only solidified over the years; it is a regular practice that begins in the stillness of early morning when I first open the pages of my notebook, the same leather-bound journal I’ve written in for years.  Like the dawning of each new day, a new page awaits, blank and inviting—reminding me now, as I write, of Rita Dove’s words in her poem, “Dawn Revisited:” the whole sky is yours/ to write on, blown open/ to a blank page…”   I have no agenda when I first begin writing, no expectation. I begin with one small observation, something I notice in the present moment—the fog lifting from the canyon floor, a trio of hummingbirds at the garden fountain, the red-tailed hawk’s wings spread as he glides just beyond our deck—whatever captures my attention.  Sometimes, a haiku poem emerges; other times, what I describe is enough to trigger a memory or a feeling that begs to be written.  It hardly matters.  What matters is that I write, embracing the solitude of the morning, intertwining the external world with my internal one, going deeper into whatever I’m exploring on the page, writing myself into “knowing.”

“At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world~ now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening.– Annie Dillard, (Teaching a Stone to Talk, 1982).

Writing is my meditation and my prayer.  It opens me, ensures I am “paying attention” to what is before me, what is inside me. It informs my intentions for each day and ultimately, the work I do with others, helping them express and explore the material of their lives in writing.  While writing might become become a spiritual practice for anyone, as it is for me, so can art, music, dance, yoga, T’ai Chi, meditation, and prayer—anything that takes us into the quiet contemplation and deeper parts of ourselves.  As Thomas Merton wrote, “Art enables us to find ourselves and and lose ourselves at the same time,”

One’s spirituality is not dependent on a specific religious belief or theology.  We all have spiritual needs and yearnings.  What matters is that we find a way to nurture them, that we feed our souls as well as our bodies and minds.  In times of hardship, life-threatening illness, or other suffering, it’s often our spiritual lives that keep us from losing hope, that keep us whole.  As New York Times editor, Dana Jennings, diagnosed with an aggressive prostate cancer, wrote in his blog “One Man’s Cancer,” our spiritual lives sustain us through life’s most challenging chapters:

I am not a fool. I am a patient with Stage T3B cancer and a Gleason score of 9. I need the skills and the insights of the nurses and doctors who care for me. But they don’t treat the whole man. Medicine cares about physical outcomes, not the soul. I also need — even crave — the spiritual antibodies of prayer, song and sacred study.

A cancer diagnosis is nothing anyone wants to be given.  It may feel like a death sentence, and it may challenge your faith, all that you believed was right and true.  But while cancer—and many other painful experiences– may seem like a dark night of the soul and challenge you in ways you never thought possible, it may also offer you the chance to explore your spirituality by deepening your self-understanding and compassion for others.  It’s something I witness again and again in the expressive writing groups I lead:  a chance to deepen one’s understanding and compassion, an opportunity to define what is essential and important in life, even gratitude and appreciation for the ordinary gifts in each day we have.  As one cancer survivor wrote, “The community I am building with my fellow writers …is… a form of spirituality.”  

Through the exchange of stories, we help heal each other’s spirits…Isn’t this what a spiritual life is about?–(Patrice Vecchione, Writing and the Spiritual Life, 2001)

Life’s hardships thrust us into what can only be defined as a deeply spiritual journey. We may kick and scream, rail against the injustices of those events, but like it or not, we’re forced to re-examine our lives in ways we have not, perhaps, done before.  We begin to pay attention, really pay attention, to what truly matters to us—and to our lives. 

Varda, who wrote with me for the last two years of her life, died of metastatic breast cancer several years ago.  She wrote honestly about her cancer experience, her fears and her hopes, sometimes poignantly, sometimes humorously, but always honestly, voicing, so many times, what others were afraid to express.  Near the final weeks of her life, she wrote a poem entitled “Faith,” that described her spiritual re-examination during her cancer treatment: 

…My cancer has challenged my faith,

and I have found an incredible well I did not know I had. 

I have found true surrender,

 enormous peace.

I have come home to God, and we have renewed

our friendship.

(From:  “Faith,” by Varda Nowack Goldstein, in: A Healing Journey: Writing Together Through Breast Cancer, by Sharon Bray, 2004.)

Varda was thrust into a journey that can bring anyone to their knees, but she honesty, her willingness to plumb the deepest parts of her experience and to write so honestly about her life, her faith and cancer were humbling and inspiration to us all.   Her stories were, I’m certain, nurturing her “spiritual antibodies”—not a cure, but courage to face and, not unimportantly, help others face her inevitable death with grace, love, even shared laughter.  Surely this was evidence and testimony to the depth and importance of her spiritual life, and something, whatever form it takes, we all need.

And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear.  What we need is here.

From: “The Wild Geese,” by Wendell Berry, in The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1999)

Writing Suggestions:

  • Reflect on what nourishes your spiritual life.
  • What practices or rituals have helped sustain you during cancer, heart failure or other hardships, losses and struggle?
  • Where have you found your solace, your strength, your source of “spiritual antibodies?” 
  • In this time of the corona virus pandemic, write about the spiritual practices most important to you.

The Necessity of Small Rituals

Habit

The shoes put on each time
left first, then right.

The morning potion’s teaspoon
of sweetness stirred always
for seven circlings, no fewer, no more,
into the cracked blue cup.

Touching the pocket for wallet,
for keys,
before closing the door.

How did we come
to believe these small rituals’ promise,
that we are today the selves we yesterday knew,
tomorrow will be?

(Excerpt from “Habit” by Jane Hirshfield, in Given Sugar, Given Salt, 2002)

In the past many weeks of the corona virus pandemic, our daily lives have changed virtually overnight.  Our usual habits and the patterns have all but disappeared or at the very least, been disrupted.  It’s unsettling, because it is in times of upheaval, we need those daily routines and habits most:  they steady us and give our days meaning.   

In times that are uncertain and stressful, as anthropologists’ studies have shown, people’s rituals become more important. In a recent article by Dimitris Xygalatas, appearing in The Washington Post, he cited the early work of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, who studied inhabitants of the South Pacific islands in the early 1900’s.  Malinowski had observed that the islanders were more likely to employ rituals when faced with situations out of their control, such as the danger of fishing in shark-infested waters.  But such ritual activity in the face of danger or stress is not uncommon to any of us.  As Xygalatas points out, our reliance on ritualistic behavior typically increases during stressful events like wars and environmental threats.  

“Rituals take an extraordinary array of shapes and forms,” authors Gino and Norton stated in a 2013 Scientific American article.  Performed alone or together, whether in religious or other settings, they help to reduce anxiety, alleviate grief, or boost confidence.  Even simple rituals—habits—such as making time for quiet, meditation, a solitary walk, or even the simple act of grinding coffee beans for the morning coffee–whatever calms or nurtures our lives–can serve as a source of spiritual re-fueling, essential to our ability to navigate life’s ups and downs.  Rituals, whether more formal or in the form of everyday habits, provide a sense of the familiar, constancy, and a connection to others.  In that sense, they are healing.

Not only do our everyday rituals calm and feed us, those more formal ones, created to mark life’s passages, like birth, puberty, marriage or death, do even more for us.  While important in honoring transitions from one life chapter to the next, in times of uncertainty and change, our rituals also help us cope. They offer a sense of control in the chaos of human life, minimizing the anxiety, helplessness or depression we may feel without them.  Rituals give us a way to express our deepest feelings, offer meaning and connection to what is sacred.  In a study also reported by Dimitris Xygalatas, a study of Hindu people in Mauritius measured their heart rates before and after performing temple rituals. The people’s anxiety was lowered after the temple rituals were performed, demonstrating the importance of the collective rituals and ceremonies.  They do even more, Xygalatas explained, providing people with a sense of connection, increased generosity and even synchronizing their heart rates.  Rituals, whether formal or in our everyday habits and routines, help us navigate difficult times by providing some sense of the familiar and constancy. 

Rituals give significance to life passages, as Jeanne Achtenberg and colleagues discussed In Rituals of Healing (1994), and they also help us relax, re-connect with ourselves and the little pleasures in everyday life.  They are calming and help us concentrate on positive thoughts, all important to healing.

Ted Kooser, former Poet Laureate of the U.S. was diagnosed and treated for cancer in the late 1990’s, During the aftermath of diagnosis and treatment, his usual routine of writing daily had suffered.  He wrote …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…  As he began his recovery, he began a habit of early morning walks, describing its unexpected benefit:

“In the autumn of 1998, 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… One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem.  Soon I was writing every day…

The result was a delightful book of poetry, Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison, (2001).   Kooser’s daily morning walks were not only important to his recovery, but also to his life as a poet.  He re-established, once again, the ritual of writing daily, capturing this positive outcome in the final poem in the book: 

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.

I confess the constant news of the continuing spread of the COVID 19 virus in Canada and the world has derailed me more than once—despite my best intentions.  Anxiety, worry, or frustration sometimes threatens to overtake me – especially if I spend too much time reading the government updates and accompanying articles in The Globe and Mail which all but demolish my regular morning writing practice.  I regained the desire to write with a “new habit,” giving myself the freedom to not write anything of substance but instead, writing humorous poems about my state of life in this unusual time.  I’ve shared those with my husband and some friends, resulting in a few moments of shared laughter.  I’ve written 4 or 5 “silly ditties” since— humor is a great stress reliever.

Social isolation meant that I was also denied my regular stop at our corner Starbucks, a frequent habit after my afternoon walks, so instead, I decided to bake—impromptu–using whatever ingredients I had.  Another habit formed as I decided to find a recipe for the perfect scone.   After turning out four batches in four weeks, baking has become a necessary habit, as it’s one I find surprisingly calming and more, requires quiet and focus not unlike meditation.  Besides, as psychologists tell us, the ritual of making something or doing creative work of any kind helps to reduce stress and anxiety. 

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

As my husband and I negotiate our now confined lives inside in a two-bedroom apartment, we’ve established little routines or habits that are comforting and helping us navigate through this time of crisis together.  We come together at 5 p.m. every evening to listen to music and talk over a glass of sherry before our evening meal.  It’s become a time that we are present for each other, one we find relaxing, and something we look forward to in this unusual time of social isolation.  We often reach out to friends and family during that time, whether by telephone or Face time.  Staying connected with each other is comforting and helps us overcome the ever-present sense of isolation and worry, and is an important activity in helping us all weather this time of crisis.  In the midst of it all, I sometimes wonder, will life be like when this is finally over?  What will have changed?  What will we have learned about ourselves and our lives? But those questions are for another time… For now we don’t think ahead too far; we take each day as it comes as best as we can; we keep our routines, our habits in place to help us manage our lives in this unusual time.

In the Middle

of a life that’s as complicated as everyone else’s,

struggling for balance, jugging time…

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.

For Consideration and Writing:

Whether a morning walk or run, a warm bath, meditation, a quiet time to write or simply gaze out the window, listening to music or losing one’s self in a good book, we all take comfort from our daily habits.   Whatever you find calming and comforting, your own habits and rituals can provide spiritual nourishment and healing so very necessary to our lives in this turbulent time.  How are you managing during this unusual time?  What routines or rituals are you finding most helpful? Which help to feed your inner life and navigate through this unusual and frightening time in the life of the world?