March 21, 2021: Creating the Room to Write

In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself. –Susan Sontag

It’s been over a week since our second introductory workshop on writing and health offered through Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research.  We are now launching a six-week expressive writing series for those living with heart failure and other cardiac conditions beginning mid-April—a chance for 12 – 15 participants to explore expressive writing and its benefits more deeply.    As I look forward to the series, I’m also thinking about some of the writing tips discussed in our February and March sessions, especially how to begin to use expressive writing on one’s own. 

               .  Find a place where you will not be interrupted.

               .  Set the timer for 15 minutes.

               .  Try using a prompt to get you started or just a single line, such as “Today I am feeling…”

               .  Write for 15 minutes 3 – 4 times a week.

               .  Reflect on what you’ve written; underlining words or phrases that seem to stand out.

               .  Use one of those phrases or words as your prompt for the next day, exploring more deeply what was written about the day before.

Finding a place where you will not be interrupted, the first requirement, may seem challenging at first.  I know the feeling well.  In the first year after we returned to Toronto, my husband and I, having intentionally downsized our lives, moved into a two-bedroom apartment.  It was a new experience in “togetherness” for both of us.  For the duration of our thirty years marriage, we had always owned a house with ample space to each have a space to ourselves, however small.  But in the first months of apartment living, my writing routine suffered.  I was challenged to reconsider how I could make room for my writing.

I was reminded that there’s a distinction about having a room of one’s own–as Virginia Woolf wrote famously described—and having room in your life for writing.  I recalled an article I’d read in an old issue of Poets and Writers’ Magazine nearly eighteen years earlier.  It described how many famous writers had very different preferences for how and where they wrote.  Hemingway, for example, famously wrote standing up; Thomas Jefferson wrote in bed, while Ben Franklin was said to have preferred the bathtub.  Patti Smith wrote in a favorite coffee shop at a particular table.  Carol Shields, as a young mother, wrote while her children napped, while Toni Morrison, while her children were small, wrote in a little motel room.   Jane Austen, however, wrote her novels amid a very busy family life. 

I reminded myself that when I was a single mother with two young daughters, I most often wrote at night, propped up by pillows in my bed—a habit that followed me into my years of being an executive by day, but finding solace and relief in writing in the quiet of the night.  It was only after my daughters grew up and left home that I finally acquired a room of my own, and for several years, I had the luxury of writing with few interruptions, my desk placed at a window where I could look out at treetops and a canyon. 

In the first year of apartment living, we rearranged the second bedroom three or four times to finally create a little nook for me, placing my desk at the narrow floor to ceiling window, and a comfortable chair in the opposite corner, separated from my workspace by IKEA storage units.  It’s small, but my routine is to wake early, before my husband and write in the solitude of early morning.  It’s precious time for me:  the opportunity to be quiet, reflect, remember, and explore new ideas, insights, and write whatever I choose in the stillness of early morning. 

In solitude we give passionate attention to our lives, to our memories, to the details around us. —Virginia Woolf

Stillness, the author Pico Iyer wrote, is about “sanity and balance…a chance to put things in perspective.”  We all need time to ourselves: time for quiet, reflection and express whatever is in our minds and hearts.  In her delightful book of writing invitations, Room to Write (1996) author Bonnie Goldberg explains her title choice as thinking about how to create room for your writing:  making room in your life to write.  Think about it.  We devote rooms in our homes for many different activities:  eating, family life, sleeping, exercising, watching television or even tackling the papers or unfinished business that accompanies us home after a full day of work.  What about making time and space to enjoy your own solitude and time to write? 

It is less about what kind of space you find for your writing, whether a corner of a bedroom, a nearby coffee shop, library cubicle, or simply sitting up in bed to write.  What matters most is that you make writing a habit, feeding it just as routinely as you feed your body.  Think of it as “writing medicine”—writing for healing or “spiritual nourishment.

Writing can be done anywhere, it’s true, but it needs to be done without the interruptions and distractions of daily life.   You can create that “sense” of a room of one’s own by making the time and space in your life to write.   “Making room in your life to write,” Bonni Goldberg adds, “generates even more room for your writing.” How you create that space is as unique to you as your writing is.

We have to create and protect the space—the time– you need to write, whether your writing is a meditation, a prayer, to nurture your creativity or to help you heal from life’s difficult experiences.   Finding that corner, table, or space that is, for a time, free of interruptions and distractions, is important for important for any kind of writing.  It doesn’t take much in the way of requirements if you make the room in your life to write. 

“Writing,” Bonni Goldberg says, “has only one direction—deeper. The most important action you can take is to show up on the page…making room in your life to write generates even more room for your writing.  The only true obstacle to writing…is a lack of faith that appears as fear and self-judgment” (from the introduction,(Room to Write, 1996).

Writing Suggestions:

*Write about writing. What helps you find the room to write in your life? What hinders you? What do you need to change or alter to help you write for 3 or 4 days a week–and just for 15 minutes?

*What role does writing play in your life and your health?

*If you could create the “perfect” space for you to write, what would be the requirements?

*Are you fearful of writing? If yes, try to express why that is so.

March 1, 2021: Writing for Health; Writing the Heart

It’s been over two weeks since our first virtual expressive writing workshop, offered by the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research, for any Canadian living with heart failure, disease or other cardiac conditions.  The workshop was an introduction to the benefits of expressive writing, research originally initiated by James Pennebaker, PhD over 30 years ago, and which has demonstrated a number of health benefits.   We’re repeating the introductory workshop again on March 11th, followed by a first virtual small group writing workshop series, each running six weeks.  The enthusiastic response to our February 11th workshop was not only encouraging, but thanks to those who volunteered to share what they’d written in our brief writing exercises, also moving, reminding us all how important it is to encourage and to “hear” patients’ experiences of living with serious or progressive heart conditions.

Expressive or therapeutic writing, which defines the “Writing for Health/Writing the Heart” workshop and those I’ve led for many others living with serious illness and other difficult life circumstances, has the greatest healing impact in the realm of our “second” hearts, the “fraternal twin” and metaphorical heart, long considered as the “seat of emotions.” (John Stone, In The Country of Hearts, 1990).  Why write?  Turning your experience into poetry or story is a powerful way of helping you heal from the shock, trauma and upheaval of living with a serious illness or life threatening condition.  It relieves stress and can improve one’s quality of life.  That’s because keeping upsetting or negative emotions in the body is detrimental to health.  Expressive writing helps you release those feelings and get them on paper where you can begin to understand and make sense of what you feel and why.

As cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar states in his 2018 book, Heart:  A History, “a record of our emotional lives is written on our hearts…the biological heart is extraordinarily sensitive to our emotional system—to the metaphorical heart.” As we write deeply and honestly, we translate the emotions suffered from trauma, serious illness, or sudden and unexpected losses into words—one of writing’s most healing benefits.  Healing begins as we to begin to release and make sense of what we have expressed on paper.

That’s the way writing often starts, a disaster or a catastrophe…by writing I rescue myself…it relieves the feelings of distress. –William Carlos Williams, physician and poet

Stories are also the currency of medicine. Siddartha Mukherjee, oncologist and author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (2010), 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner of general nonfiction, also honored the importance of patients’ stories.  “A patient, long before he becomes the subject of medical scrutiny,” he wrote, is…simply a storyteller, a narrator of suffering…to relieve an illness one must begin, then, by unburdening its story” (p. 46).

It’s in the stories of our illness experience that we communicate to our doctors that helps them understand the impact of our illness on our lives. William Carlos Williams, physician and poet, once offered advice to a medical student, saying, “Their stories, yours, mine, it’s what we carry with us on this trip we take.  We owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them.

“Storytelling is human,” remarked Dr. Thomas Houston, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Commenting in a 2011 New York Times article, “Patients Share Their Stories, Health May Improve.” “We learn through stories, and we use them to make sense of our lives,” he said. “It’s a natural extension to think that we could use stories to improve our health.”

Through the exchange of stories, we help heal each other’s spirits.  –Patrice Vecchione, Writing and the Spiritual Life

Writing and sharing our stories together is not only healing, but it helps to create a sense of community, of not being alone in what we feel or experience.  We discover hope and wisdom in one another’s stories of their medical experience.  Shared stories help us feel less alone.   And it’s through story we make sense of our lives, and reclaim our voices.  Our words, expressed honestly and deeply, have the power to touch other’s hearts.  Why not join us on March 11th for our next introductory workshop?  To learn more and register, go to:  https://tedrogersresearch.ca/writing/

Writing Suggestions

.  Write about writing:  what you find helpful; what makes it difficult.

. Think about your heart.  How has your relation to it changed since you were diagnosed with any cardiac condition?

.  If you were allowed only to write one story from your life, what would it be?

Writing the Heart Virtual Workshops

The Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research invites any Canadian living with heart failure or heart disease, as well as heart transplant recipients, to join our virtual expressive writing workshops in 2021. Heart patients from across Canada attended our February session. We’re pleased to offer second run of our “Writing the Heart” virtual workshop on Thursday, March 11th. For more information and registration: https://tedrogersresearch.ca/2021/01/expressive-writing-workshop/

https://www.facebook.com/Writingtheheartca-103561377919125

January 30, 2021: The Long Wait

There were towns
that knew about the flu before
it arrived; they had time to imagine the germs
on a stranger’s skirts, to see how death
could be sealed in an envelope,
how a fever could bloom in the evening,
and take a life overnight…

For awhile, the outside world
existed in imagination, in memory,
in books or suitcases, deep in closets.

(From “Quarantine, 1918,”by Faith Shearin, in Orpheus Turning, 2015)

It’s been nearly a year since the word “Covid-19” became a common word in our lives, since every day has been punctuated by another report on daily increases—or decreases– in new cases of the virus and deaths caused by it.  We’ve spent much of the past year in various stages of lockdown, social distancing and isolation.  As reports of the new vaccines being developed appeared, we began hoping our lives might return to some semblance of normality by 2021.  Yet as February begins, reports of the vaccine’s availability in Canada are not encouraging—not yet.  Meanwhile, I, like many of you, have friends living in the United States who have happily posted of Facebook, “We’ve been shot!” or written to say, “We’re getting our vaccinations next week…” The effect of their news is little more than  a trigger to increased anxiety and impatience.  Yet  I can do nothing but wait…which is what we’ve all been doing for many months.

We waited through the past months as a second wave progressed, celebrating the holidays alone and missing the annual Christmas fun we normally share with our eldest daughter and family, who live only 15 minutes away.  We’ve restricted our movements even more as the reports of a more infectious variety of the virus are even more troubling.   We try not to read the routine COVID-19 updates too often nor the reports of countries squabbling over vaccine supplies.  Yet it’s difficult to avoid them.   Our questions are the same as everyone else’s:  how much longer will this pandemic persist?  When will we have access to the vaccinations?  Will it be effective?  What long-term impact will it have on life as we once knew it?  The longer the virus persists, the less likely a return to what we took for granted was “normal” life.  Still, we wait, and we hope…

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting…

(From “Wait” by Galway Kinnell, in: Mortal Acts; Mortal Words, 1980)

How much of your lives are spent waiting?    Like you, I  have waited—often less than patiently — on many times—too numerous to remember them all.  I waited on the overdue birth of my eldest daughter, and as both daughters became teenagers, I waited more than a few times for them to arrive home well past curfew.   I’ve waited in lines for tickets and performances, for doctor’s appointments and medical tests, for surgical procedures, and for packages delayed in transit.  But this protracted period of waiting, the memory of  “normal” life fading, I feel a little like Bill Murray’s character in the 1993 film, Groundhog Day.

Murray played the part of a TV weatherman who was reporting on the annual celebration of Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog whose appearance (or lack of)  originated in a Celtic and Germanic celebration.  As the legend goes,  If Phil appears and casts a shadow on February 2nd, our cold winter is doomed to continue another six weeks; if he sees no shadow, we’ll have an early spring.

In the film,  Murray’s character keeps waking up and reliving the same day over and over. Sound familiar?  It reminds me of the “sameness” of daily life during COVID-19 , only the boredom is coupled with the tension of waiting for the “all clear” signal, a return to a normal life, and yet uncertain of what “normal” might look like.  And all the while,  we’re waiting, and waiting, for a vaccine to be available to all of us.

Daily,  I feel my own niggling anxiety rise along with a sense of spiritual malaise and boredom as our protracted isolation continues.  I try—and not always successfully– to accept and find new ways to master this unnatural  state of waiting and to learn from it, just as Murray’s character had to do.   I’ve read and reread T. S. Eliot’s words  like a mantra:

 I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

(The Four Quartets, 1943)

His words remind me to reconsider why life seems to make us wait.  I am still trying to learn to accept what I cannot control, or at least to live gracefully with it, and to let things unfold as they will…but sometimes?  It’s just not easy.

Writing Suggestions:

  • Think about what it means to wait…and wait.
  • When you’re living with a heart or other chronic condition and classified as “higher risk” for Covid-19 complications, how has waiting for a vaccination, an end to the pandemic, affected you?   Write about how this long period of waiting has affected you.  How have you coped?
  • We wait many times over in our lives—some of the waits are every stressful; others are, unfortunately, part of daily living.  Write about other times in your life when waiting was stressful for you.   What was the situation?  How did you feel?  What happened when the wait was over?  What did you learn—if anything—from the experience?
  • Borrow a line from any of the poem fragments in this post—or from a poem or other writing that has been helpful or meaningful to you in this time of Covid-19.  Use it to begin your writing.  See where it takes you.

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.

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 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