One Word for 2021: Gratitude

The new year always brings us what we want
Simply by bringing us along—to see
A calendar with every day uncrossed,
A field of snow without a single footprint.


(From: “New Year’s” by Dana Goia, from Interrogations at Noon, 2001)

For several days now, I have been reflecting on the year gone by, 2020, the year of a pandemic, of social isolation, masks and lockdowns…a year unlike any I’ve experienced before, challenging my assumptions about life and living, daily reports of escalating cases of COVID and of deaths.  An undercurrent of caution, of worry seeping into my daily life…hope, much of the year, seemed elusive, and I struggled, some days, to dig myself out of a persistent case of the blues.

Rewinding the mental tape of the year just passed, I recalled my intention, the choice of my guiding word, for 2020. “Calm.”   It has been impossible to miss, this word, displayed, as I do each year, in a small frame on the bookshelf in my office.  A word that confronted me every single day of the past year, but a one, given the landscape of 2020, that fell by the wayside within weeks of the first COVID case in Canada.  Calm was all but absent in the context of this past year for me.  I fall into the category of “higher risk” where COVID is concerned, and given the political tension and upheaval in the US was too difficult to ignore, my days were nagged by a persistent undercurrent of worry and low-level anxiety. I tried, for a time, to live with “calm” daily, but despite frequent self-admonitions, attempts at meditation and extended periods of deep breathing, it didn’t work.  Tension and anxiety were my regular visitors.  Any pretense of calm was just that, utter and complete pretense.

With the daily onslaught of reporting—which I tried not to read and failed miserably—whether about new numbers of COVID cases and deaths or the nearly unbelievable reports of the circus surrounding the US presidential campaign and election, hope was nearly nonexistent, at best, a slender thread that seemed to be growing fainter each day.  My notebook attests to the dark cloud that grew and hovered overhead.  I wrote, as is my daily habit, but increasingly, I found myself going down the rabbit hole more than a few times.  Gradually, I found a reprieve in the daily practice of making explicit my gratitude for those on the front lines, unexpected kindnesses, shared laughter, and little surprises or inspiration from others. 

Articulating gratitude became the most important habit in my daily life, the one that balanced out the tension, complaints, worry or depression.  It served to remind me of the gifts I have in my life vs. what I didn’t.  Making gratitude explicit in a daily list, halted those self-defeating thoughts and forced me to be quiet, observe, and remember all that enriches my life.  It’s what I want to carry into this new year, a spirit of gratitude.

2021.  Hope, where the pandemic is concerned, is within reach, even though there is still much healing ahead of us in the coming months.  Yet as I say good-bye to this tumultuous and difficult year, I do not want to forget all that has happened around the world and there is yet much work to do for the good of all people:  eliminating disease, hunger, poverty, violence, racism, and wanton disregard for this fragile planet.

It’s no surprise that the guiding word I have chosen for 2021 is simply “gratitude.”  It’s not only a way of remembering what is good in my life, but hopefully, makes me more aware and intentional in responding to others with kindness, generosity, and forgiveness.  This is the only life I’ve got—gratitude also ensures I am intentional in how I live it, and the kind of footprint I leave in each day of the year ahead.

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?

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?

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 –

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

(“You Reading This, Be Ready,” by William Stafford, from The Way It Is, 1992)

Writing Suggestions:

.  What is the word or intention you have for this new year?  Write it down, exploring the reasons you have chosen this one word to frame your intention.

.  I’m not one for resolutions, since I rarely followed through on the vast majority of them, despite my good intentions!  But if resolutions for the new year are your preference, then write them out—and also spend some time exploring the reasons for each one you’ve chosen.

Christmas in the Time of COVID-19

It’s a strange time this December; a time normally filled with holiday preparations and festivities, yet, in the midst of the continuing COVID crisis, only the calendar that tells me that Christmas is nearly here—that and the Christmas lights visible here and there, and a handful of greeting cards, which, as December 25th grows near, rekindle connections and holiday memories shared in years past.

This Christmas, as a second wave of COVID continues, my husband and I will celebrate quietly—something we were “groomed” for by our two daughters as they grew into adulthood and lived far from us:  Thailand, Indonesia, Beirut, Okinawa. It’s been years now since my daughters, husband and I celebrated Christmas together as a family.  Ironically, while we are now only a fifteen minute drive away from our eldest daughter and her family, we’ll be spending Christmas apart this year. 

Last night, my eldest daughter called on Facetime to share their tree decorating which we usually would attend.  A week earlier, our younger daughter sent videos of their tree trimming in Okinawa, accompanied by Christmas carols, eggnog and laughter. I felt wistful, missing those family traditions we shared when they were younger.

It’s a bittersweet time.  We’re all too aware of how life gets “smaller” as we age and our children become adults.  Ye there’s nothing more joyous than celebrating the holidays together with our daughters, reading grandchildren Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, baking cookies, stuffing stockings, and on Christmas morning, sharing in the children’s excited shrieks as they open their packages.  I remember my childhood and our excitement as Christmas morning finally arrived.  Christmas day was full of gifts, surprises and the rambunctious extended family dinner with my aunts, uncles and cousins all in attendance—a high point of every holiday. 

…Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept. 

(From: A Child’s Christmas in Wales, By Dylan Thomas, 1955)

There were annual routines and celebrations that made those childhood Christmastimes joyful and memorable, ones I miss. Then, a week or so before Christmas, my father hiked into the snowy Northern California wilderness to cut the perfect tree, soon to be decorated with bubble lights and colored balls, and packages piled beneath the branches.  I’d squint my eyes to turn the site into some kind of misty magical view. Christmas eve we’d always pile into our station wagon and drive through nearby neighborhoods “oohing” and “ahhing” over the colored lights and decorations adorning houses.  Christmas morning, awakening before dawn, we’d wait in bed until we were permitted to race to the living room and open our gifts (the result of secretly waking at 3 a.m. one Christmas and secretly sheparding my younger brother to the tree to open a gift…before we were discovered by my parents).  Then midday, we’d we’d load up the car with more gifts, dessert and a salad or casserole and head to my aunt’s home, celebrating Christmas day with the dozens of Bray cousins, aunts and uncles.  My aunt’s living room was a maze of various tables, all of us separated into age groups.  Her kitchen was filled with the roast turkeys, side dishes, salads and desserts contributed by everyone.  Carols were sung around the piano, cousins performed for the adults, and the Bray brothers regaled us with family folklore, much of it exaggerated for comic effect. I learned much of my father’s family history at those holiday celebrations.

Yet there are other Christmas memories—less happy, perhaps, but yet interwoven among the memories of those childhood Christmas holidays. Looking back, I see they signaled a time to come when my family relationships would be forever scarred by dissension, loss and heartache.  There was the annual “assignment,” dictated by my mother.  I was instructed to paint a Christmas scene on the picture window in our front room.  She was ever hopeful we’d win the annual prize for the “home Christmas decorations” contest.  My artwork was colorful but untrained– the somewhat primitive work of a grade school student, and I was mildly embarrassed to have to my painting subject to public display.  After three or four years (and only one honorable mention) the experience simply reinforced my belief that despite my desire to be an artist, I really was not one–or at least, exacerbated my timidity to pursue what I loved most.

Other “traditions” emerged as we grew older.  Each year, when my father came home with the freshly cut Christmas tree, he suffered, more often than not, my mother’s dissatisfaction with his choice, and it became re-enacted each year, seeming he could never meet her escalating standards. Then there was the tension as he strung the lights before we could begin adding ornaments to the branches. Invariably, it signaled another disagreement began between my parents–somehow, that didn’t meet with my mother’s satisfaction. She had clear ideas for where lights and ornaments should be placed. It’s hardly surprising that once the lights were strung, Dad quietly disappeared to have a cigarette while the rest of us hung the decorations.

The excitement of opening our gifts was frequently dimmed by the moment Mother opened her gift from our father.  He agonized every year about what gift to give her for Christmas, and oftentimes, my sister or I tried to help with his choice.  Yet one year after the other, we’d see the disappointment registered on Mother’s face, and the tension on my father’s. Although there was much in my Christmas memories that were happy, these less positive ones are coupled with the others, repeated year after year, alwlays lingering just below the surface.   

As children, we knew there was more to it –
Why some men got drunk on Christmas Eve
Wasn’t explained, nor why we were so often
Near tears nor why the stars came down so close,

Why so much was lost…

There was something about angels. Angels we
Have heard on high Sweetly singing o’er
The plain. The angels were certain. But we could not
Be certain whether our family was worthy tonight.

(From:  “A Christmas Poem,” by Robert Bly, in Morning Poems,1998)

Years later, after I’d married and had several Christmases with my husband’s family, I experienced a truly happy family celebration on Christmas morning, and when our daughters arrived and we lived far from our parents and siblings, we incorporated many of my husband’s family traditions into our own celebrations, gradually adding others to blend them into the holiday traditions that I now see repeated in the Christmas celebrations of my daughters and their families. And it brings back another set of memories–the two of them, in matching blanket sleepers, eyes filled with wonder as they discovered Santa’s gifts beneath the tree on Christmas mornings.

I know my heart will ache a little this Christmas day, all too aware in these many months of COVID, how loneliness and a sense of hopelessness can drift into my thoughts. It takes conscious effort, sometimes, to refocus and remember just how rich my life has been. At least we can connect with our daughters and grandchildren via Zoom or Facetime and share Christmas virtually, easing the some of the emptiness that seeps in all too easily in these long days of the continuing pandemic. 

I think what will be most important for me, even as we celebrate alone this holiday season, is that I reflect on the past year and remember what truly matters in my life—all I have to be grateful for, the times and people in my life I love and remember, and the many gifts of friendship and experiences that enrich my life daily.  Yes, it will be a quieter Christmas and even a little lonely, but no less a time of gratitude.  And my wish for all of us is that 2021 can bring a time of healing, a greater spirit of gratitude and generosity, and a return of hope.

Writing Suggestions:

December holidays past and present: What memories stand out for you about the holiday season? What family traditions have you carried and incorporated into your adult life? What new ones have you created for your own children? Are there mixed emotions for you during the holidays? What is the story behind them? What will you miss this holiday season? What matters most?

November 16,2020: A Sense of Place and Belonging

In the past weeks my mind and heart have been dominated by the drama of the US presidential elections, just as many of my American friends.  It wasn’t until after Biden was declared the winner that  I realized how on edge I’d been for the days before the final outcome.  Yet whatever relief and hope I may have felt, it’s been clouded by the machinations of the incumbent who fails to concede and instead, ignites only  more conflict and upheaval.  All this in the country where I grew up and once believed  the principles of its democracy were inviolate.

The ongoing effects of the drama and the occurrence of a second wave of COVID-19 and necessity for social isolation have left me struggling to write.  My mood has been as grey as the sky outside my window this overcast morning.  Frustrated,  I began searching through old files of writing—my stories, essays and poetry—in hopes of finding something—anything–that might spark some ideas for this blog post.  Buried among the many odds and ends of prose, I discovered an essay of several pages, written in  attempt  to understand what defines “home,” and a sense of place and belonging.

               It began in 2004.  I was living in Menlo Park California, just a mile from the Stanford campus.  A few months earlier, my mother had died of Alzheimer’s.  A friend, wife of one of my high school friends,  was visiting from Washington State.  Her husband and I had grown up together in the small town of  Yreka, in Siskiyou County, just south of the Oregon border.   Siskiyou County was also the home to my father and the land his father and grandfathers also settled and made their homes.   I grew up with a strong sense of history, belonging and identity with the area and its people.   For anyone who was “from” there, we shared a deep and abiding love of its  mountains, streams, lakes and  wildness.  Above all else, Mt. Shasta, an ancient volcano and long  sacred to the native peoples who once occupied the area, ignited a sense of awe and  belonging to all who lived with its constant and breath-taking presence. 

That autumn afternoon, the sun was setting behind the western foothills beyond the Stanford campus as I drove around the area with my friend.    “You know,” I said abruptly, “We’ve lived here since we returned from Canada, but I’ve never felt an affinity for this area.”

 “Is it because there are no mountains?” She asked, gesturing toward the rolling expanse of the foothills.  I certainly thought they were beautiful, although gradually, the foothills were being overtaken with more and more expensive new homes. 

“No,” I said, trying to find the words for my feelings.  “It’s not the mountains I miss so much just the one mountain, Mt. Shasta.  When you grow up looking out the window everyday and see it dominating the horizon, it gets in your blood.

She told me she understood, because that her husband felt the same way.  “You both have those feelings about that mountain,” she said. 

I have filled more than a few pages of my notebooks with stories from  the  landscape of my childhood.  My identity was forged, in part,  from the presence of the mountain,  its volcanic soil, wide vistas, and the wild escape of madrone, ponderosa, juniper and sagebrush.  The landscape remains, but the place I once called “home” seems to have grown smaller, and the people I once knew have mostly disappeared, just as I disappeared  many years ago.  Then, it was the idealism of youth, a sense of adventure, a political war we protested, and together with my new husband, we immigrated to Canada and lived in its capital, Ottawa.   I never imagined we wouldn’t return after he finished his PhD, but by the time I came back to California, my first husband was dead, and I had lived in Nova Scotia and Ontario nearly 25 years.  Home, as I’d once known it, no longer existed.  Only the mountain, ever-present and breath-taking against the horizon, still had my heart.

Despite the many years I lived in Canada, I’d missed being part of a larger family, and I was eager to reclaim all I’d missed.  It was only in the act of “homecoming,” that  I slowly began to understand how my 25 years in Canada had left their mark.  There, I had grown into womanhood, become a mother, and then, a widow.  I’d reclaimed my maiden name and become a Canadian citizen after my husband’s death.  I found  the courage to move my daughters and myself from Nova Scotia to Toronto to go back to graduate school.   There, I completed a doctoral degree and  also met and married the man who has been my husband for the past thirty-one years.  Were it not for my dear Nova Scotia friends during those painful and turbulent years, I might have easily been swallowed up by grief.  Their support and kindness were critical to my healing—something, I discovered, that my own family was unable to give. 

Still,  I had missed my parents and siblings,  and we came back to California with high hopes of rediscovering “home.”    In hindsight, I was naïve, unprepared for the experiences of  the losses  that would upend my life in the first few years of our return.  My father died of lung cancer barely a year and a half later—and after his death, my mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s began in earnest.  It was, I suppose, after her death in the summer of 2004 that I experienced the final loss of all that remained of my childhood home and family.  My siblings had become strangers to me, and I was an outsider to them.  For years afterward, I felt a dull and constant heartache over the loss of what was once my family and the sense of isolation from it.

I began writing in earnest during those years, which is hardly a surprise.  Writing was a way of making sense of all that had happened, a way of coming to terms with my history, and a way of healing.  My journeys into the exploration of place, memories and story grew from my lingering grief, just as I learned many writers had begun writing from “a port of pain.” as Henry James once described

I now write at my desk surrounded by images of Mt. Shasta.  A photograph of it hangs on the wall in front of me and on the opposite walls are two larger framed  lithographs of the mountain.  I still feel something of that long-ago reverence when I look at the images of the mountain.   Most importantly,  it helps me remember “who I was then,” as Joan Didion once described an important aspect of  writing.  It also reminds me that  who I have become is a blended mixture of that Californian past and my Canadian past and present. 

Attachment to our homeland, as Author Yi-Fu Tuan wrote, is a common human emotion  (Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, 1977).  I now realize how, in the years I lived in Nova Scotia, I had begun establishing strong ties to the places and people who were part of my life there, but I doubt I realized it fully until I returned to California to again live.  “Only by slow accrual, like a coral reef,” Wallace Stegner wrote, “can we create a sense of place and belonging, a feeling of home”(The Sound of Mountain Water, 1980).  I had lived half my life in Canada  by the time I returned to California, and those experiences had resulted in a sense of place and belonging in it that I didn’t fully understand until after my parents’ deaths. 

What had my writing helped to clarify?  As Terry Tempest Williams described in her book exploration of family and place, “perhaps I am telling this story in an attempt to heal myself, to confront what I do not know, to create a path for myself with the idea that memory is the only way home”( Refuge, An Unnatural History of Family and Place (1991). Just as I discovered the power of the sense of  belonging I’d once had for Northern California in leaving it, I also discovered how that “belonging” can change and shift, depending on one’s experiences in other places, other geographies.  When, after much deliberation, my husband and I chose to exercise our Canadian citizenship and return to Toronto in 2017 after the losses we experienced in California, it was as though I had finally come home. 

During my teenage years, I’d experienced a sense of the larger world when when I first traveled far from Yreka as an American Field Service exchange student to The Netherlands, discovering, after I returned,  a piece of my heart was forever in Friesland with the family who embraced me so generously and lovingly.   Those months in Holland also left a mark:  afterward, I was restless to leave my hometown and experience other places and people.  Yet I have come to believe it is always in the leaving that we come to understand how deeply and in what ways we were shaped by a place and the people in it.   I now live, again, in  Toronto, and  I am grateful to be in Canada—something my husband and I both acknowledged as we have watched, with concern and sadness, the upheaval in our birth country.  I am far from finished exploring the landscape of my life, I know that.  I am still making sense out of it all by writing and unraveling the depth and breath of the life story that is mine.  But those places:  California, Siskiyou County, The Netherlands, and Canada—they all have left their imprint on who I have become; who I am. 

And I carry them all in my heart.

Memories of the Heart

The heart remembers everything it loved and gave away,
everything it lost and found again, and everyone
it loved, the heart cannot forget.

(“What the Heart Cannot Forget” by Joyce Sutphen, from Coming Back to the Body. © Holy Cow! Press, 2000.)

Several years ago, I attended a women’s memoir writing workshop in Texas as one of the featured  presenters.  My workshop was scheduled early in the day, which gave me opportunity to sit in on other workshops.  I had been hoping to meet Nan Phifer, author of Memoirs of the Soul , one I’d used it as a resource in my memoir writing classes.  As  luck would have it, I was able to attend her afternoon workshop.

Nan  began by addressing the question common to anyone who wants to begin writing a memoir. “How do I get started?   Do I really have anything interesting to write about ?” I’ve always believed that everyone has many things to write about, even though occasional bouts of “I have nothing to write” are common to most writers from time to time.   That belief has been validated constantly in my workshops.  All inspiration needs is a little nudge, exactly the purpose of a writing prompt.  Yet faced with aa blank page, whether a new or experienced writer, doubts can overtake us and confound the writing process.  But what Nan Phifer offered that afternoon was one of the most fruitful and enduring of all the writing prompts, I’ve ever experienced or used—one I’ve continued to use with all  my writing groups. 

She introduced the exercise as a way of exploring what we hold in our hearts—the memories that are the raw material for writing.  The first step was to take a blank page and draw the outline of a valentine-shaped heart, filling the page.  Then the group was instructed to write inside the heart, filling it with the names of people, activities, things and places important to us in our lifetimes.  Our pens moved rapidly, the hearts filling up with words  from every category.  Each word or name, she explained, was the entry to a specific memory, one that now could be written. People were surprised at how much “material” for writing they had actually generated.  For the prospective memoir writer, those single names were the doors “in” to the larger life story.  “Choose one,” Nan said, “and begin writing.” 

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)—e,e, cummings

Perhaps it was simply the task of  drawing a heart shape that brought a long-forgotten memory to the surface, because one in particular was one from my childhood—a memory  that had to do with hearts:  a first Valentines’ Day celebration and especially,  my very first “best” friend.

I was five years old and in Mrs. Newton’s afternoon kindergarten class.  I’d never experienced a Valentine’s Day party nor given a valentine to anyone before, just like most of my classmates.  But as  February 14th grew near, we all began to feel the excitement.   Mrs. Newton guided our preparations.   We sat at tables and carefully used our blunt-nosed scissors cut out heart shapes from red construction paper.  These were pasted around the exterior of a large white hat box.  Our teacher had already cut a wide slit in the top of the box, and it was transformed into our Valentines’ mailbox.  The Room Mothers visited to talk with us about our party, giving us lists of the kind of refreshments needed to take home to our mothers along with the list of students’ names provided by our teacher so that everyone in the class would receive valentines from one another. 

A day before the party, my mother and I went to our local dime store to buy a packet of valentine cards, one for each child in the class and one for our teacher.   She placed the packet on a small table in the living room, ready to be addressed.    That night, I could hardly contain my excitement and begged my mother to help me address my valentines, but it was getting late.  She promised we’d have plenty of time to address them all in the morning, and I was sent to bed.      

It’s hardly surprising that I awakened very early the next morning, well before my parents.  Too excited to stay in bed, I tiptoed into the living room and went to work.  I knew how to spell just one name, Sharon, which was also the name of my very first best friend.  I found an ink pen, and in my very best printing, began addressing the cards, one another, all with “To Sharon H., Form Sharon B.” (the word “from” only slightly misspelled).  By the time my mother was awake, she walked into the living room and discovered I’d single-handedly addressed over two-thirds of the packet, and every single card for my very best friend.

 “Sharon Ann, what have you done?”.  Only then did I realize I’d done something wrong.  She sighed, “it’s too late to buy more valentines now,” took the remaining cards and addressed them to an equally few number of my classmates.  But the embarrassment didn’t settle in until that afternoon, when she led me by the hand to apologize to my teacher that afternoon, which I did in a small voice with downcast eyes.  Mrs. Newton was understanding, only nodding her head and gently taking me by the hand to my table before escorting my mother to the classroom door. 

But my excitement was somewhat dampened by the knowledge I had no valentines for most of the rest of the class, and I sat very still, still feeling the flush of embarrassment as we gathered in a semi-circle around our teacher and waited for all the valentines to be distributed.  I do remember that my best friend, Sharon H., was seated next to me.  One by one, names were called and valentines distributed yet, what still makes me smile when I think of it is how, when another of the valentines I’d addressed was drawn from the box, Mrs. Newton would say, with mock surprise, “Why, here’s another valentine for Sharon H.; I wonder who it’s from…”, then smile knowingly at me.    

 I like to think that Mrs. Newton knew how important and special those first “best” friendships are that formed between children when they leave the familiarity of home and begin the school, how reassuring it was to have that one special friend there beside me each day that first year.   I believe our friendship made the transition to kindergarten and my beginning of my “growing up” years all the more special. 

The following year, Sharon H. was in a different class than mine, and we both made other “special” friends.  We grew farther apart in high school as our life trajectories began to solidify, but our lockers were next to one another all four years, and daily, we exchanged smiles and greetings.  She married soon after high school, but died just a few years later—perhaps from cancer, but that was before people “talked” about it. I learned of her death years after I’d left my hometown for university.  But I cherish her memory, one I carry in my heart.

 “The companions of our childhood always possess a certain power over our minds which hardly any later friend can obtain.” ― Mary Wollstonecraft

If You Want to Write:

Try the “heart” exercise to generate ideas for writing. This is a slightly modified version of Nan Phifer’s memoir writing exercise.  Whether memoir, personal essay, turning life into fiction, or poetry, this exercise will help you discover that you have lots of material for writing.  Here are the steps:   

  • You’ll need to a sheet of 8 1/2 x 11 paper.  Draw the outline of a heart on the page (a large one, filling the page). 
  • For each category, people, events or place) use a timer, giving  yourself no more than 3 minutes to write the names or title of 1) people you carry in your heart, then2) events, and 3)  places.
  •  Once done, take another couple of minutes to study your heart and what names you’ve written on it.
  •  Choose just one, from any of the three categories; then set your timer for 15 minutes and begin writing, telling the story of what one thing you’ve chosen. 
  • When you’re finished, put it aside—re-read it later.
  • After you’ve re-read, reflect on what you’ve written.   What stands out?  Ask yourself, why was that (person, event or place) so important to you? 
  • You may want to continue writing about it, fleshing out more detail in your narrative, turning it into a story, a poem, or even material for a much longer memoir.

August 27, 2020: A Shift in Focus

“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. “Writing the Heart” is expanding its focus to life, past and present, or in other words, what one’s heart cannot forget.

…The heart remembers everything it loved and gave away,
everything it lost and found again, and everyone
it loved, the heart cannot forget.

(from”What the Heart Cannot Forget,” by Joyce Sutphen, in Coming Back to the Body, 2000)

The primary change (including this new look) is that this blog site is no longer focused only on heart failure, but rather, the “life” of the heart: the people, experiences and places we “carry in our hearts”. 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 lives–which include illness as well as other significant or memorable life experiences. (For posts and writing suggestions specifically related to the lived experience of heart failure, you can find these in the archive.)

I hope you will be inspired to write about your life, whether from the heart or about the heart as I am.

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?