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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.

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?