April 21, 2021: Why Sharing Our Stories Matters

To be a person is to have a story to tell. — Isak Dinesen

It’s been nearly a week since our first six-week “Writing the Heart” group met.  The session was –dare I say it? —heartwarming, filled with candor, poignancy and shared laughter. Twelve people living with a variety of cardiac conditions met on Zoom for the first time, as far away from Toronto as Prince Edward Island to the east and British Columbia to the west.  Candor, poignancy, even humor punctuated the sharing of what different group members had written. Again, I witnessed not only the healing power of expressive writing, but how coupled with reading aloud and sharing with one another, the therapeutic value of expressive writing is multiplied. Storytelling is synonymous with being human.  Our ancestors told stories as a way to make sense of their worlds.  Stories were the mechanism by which traditions and wisdom were passed from one generation to another.  “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel,” author Ursula LeGuin once said, “but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”

There is something in us that yearns to tell the stories of our lives and have them listened to in return.   Not only do our stories give us way to engage with one another, but in doing so, we discover common themes and experiences. —Mimi Guarneri, MD, The Heart Speaks, 2006 (p. 76). 

What is it about sharing our stories that makes them so important?  Storytelling, as several researchers suggest, is a powerful tool for both patients and healthcare providers.  The significant body of research by James Pennebaker, PhD and his colleagues  has demonstrated that forming a story from one’s life experiences is associated with improved physical and mental health, whether written or verbal.  It offers individuals a way to give voice to the experience of illness and, in turn, to begin to confront it and their questions of care and mortality.

 Stories offer insight, understanding, and new perspectives. They educate us and they feed our imaginations. They help us see other ways of doing things that might free us from self-reproach or shame. Hearing and telling stories is comforting and bonds people together….Being able to narrate a coherent story is a healing experience.2,3… stories keep us connected to each other; they reassure us that we are not alone.Miriam Divinsky, MD, Can Fam Physician. 2007 Feb; 53(2): 203–205.

Increasingly, the skills of storytelling have begun to be recognized as invaluable to improved health communication, thanks to the groundbreaking work of Dr. Rita Charon, the creator of “narrative medicine,” a medical practice that uses patient stories in clinical practice, research, and education as a way to promote healing.   “Telling and listening to stories is the way we make sense of our lives,” according to Dr. Thomas Houston.  “That natural tendency may have the potential to alter behavior and improve health.”    Interviewed in a 2011 New York Times article, he said, ” We learn through stories… It’s a natural extension to think that we could use stories to improve our health.” https://nytimes.com/2011/02/10/heath/views/10chen.html

 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. —Advice to a medical student by William Carlos Williams, physician and poet

I am continually humbled and inspired by the stories written and shared in my writing groups, whether for heart or cancer patients.  Their stories live in my mind long after the writing groups have ended.   “Death,” poet Jim Harrison wrote, “steals everything but our stories.” (From: “Larson’s Holstein Bull,” In Search of Small Gods, 2009″.) Stories are our legacies, what we leave behind, the way we are remembered

 It’s why our stories matter.  We are our stories.  They shape us and act as the lens through which we see the world. Through story, we make sense of our lives, reclaim our voices, and learn our stories have the power to touch others’ hearts.  We create community out of shared story.  Whether written or told, our stories are the glue that bind us together, offer hope and healing, and instruct us on what it is to be human.  Is it any wonder why I so love facilitating these expressive writing groups?

Stories—the small personal ones that bring us close as well as those of the larger world—foster compassion.  In the telling of our personal lives, we’re reminded of our basic, human qualities—our vulnerabilities and strengths, foolishness and wisdom, who we are…, through the exchange of stories, [you] help heal each other’s spirits.

–Patrice Vecchione, Writing and the Spiritual Life

Writing Prompt: 

What is the story you want to tell?  You can try beginning in the middle, at the end, or simply with that line from our children’s fairy tales, “Once upon a time…” What’s stopping you?

May 29, 2020: In Praise of the Commonplace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a

stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have

your eggs, your coffee…

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

pond, where whole generations of biological

processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds

speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,

they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old

enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?…

Upon reflection, you are

genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have

become. And then life lets you go home to think

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

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

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

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


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

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

(From “Directive,” by A.E.)


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

This is life’s way of letting you know that

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

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

were born at a good time. Because you were able

to listen when people spoke to you. Because you

stopped when you should have and started again.

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

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

then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland…

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

Writing Suggestions:

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

October 28, 2019: Writing 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. 
–(Joyce Sutphen, from:”What the Heart Cannot Forget”)

As someone living with heart failure,  I am more aware of the physical life of my heart than ever before.  Every morning I check my blood pressure, heart rate and weight, entering the information in “Medley,” the app on my iphone developed by the team at Peter Munk Cardiac Center.  I am grateful for Medley; it keeps me attentive and more aware of heart health.  However, before my heart failure diagnosis, matters of the heart were predominantly emotional and poetic.  And even yet, those metaphors and associations are the more frequent way I describe what I’m feeling.  Think about it:  how many times do we refer to our hearts when we’re describing emotions?  Consider a few like “my heart is filled with joy; heavy with sorrow; a broken heart; a heart full of love… 

The heart is a long-standing and dominant aspect of poetry and prose across cultures and most often used to describe human emotion.  Author Gail Godwin, writing the prologue to her book, Heart, quotes a number of heart references, for example:  Yeats: “the rag and bone shop of the heart,” St. Francis:  “a transformed and undefended heart,” Tony Bennett crooning, “I left my heart in San Francisco,” Jesus Christ: “Blessed are the pure in heart,” and Saul Bellow’s comment, “More die of heartbreak than radiation,” among others.  I think of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz:  “If I only had a heart…”

Well, I have a heart, and it’s still beating, with a little help from an ICD and a regimen of daily medications.  What’s more, I continue to refer memories and emotions that, as e.e. cummings described, I “carry in my heart.”  It’s no surprise, then, that one of the writing exercises I use, whether in the expressive writing groups I lead for cancer patients or in creative writing workshops I’ve taught, I use an exercise inspired by the heart; the heart, as Joyce Sutphen describes, “that cannot forget.” Here’s how it works:

Begin with a large image of a heart.  You can draw a large valentine-shaped heart or, as I prefer to do in the workshops, use an image of the human heart.  The task is to answer, in three separate steps, the larger question, “what do you carry in your heart?” Take the image and next to it or on it, write your responses to these three questions, giving a few minutes to write between each.

1.  What people, living or dead, do you carry in your heart?

 2.  What places do you carry in your heart?

  3.  What events or happenings in your life do you carry in your heart?

Simply list as many names or labels as you can for each question.  Once you’ve answered all three, take some time to read what you’ve written on your heart.  Now, choose one item–person, place or event–that has the most pull or power for you.  Take a clean sheet of paper and for 15 – 20 minutes, begin writing about that person, place or event–whether a narrative, a poem or just free association, it doesn’t matter.  Keep writing for the allotted time.  Do not stop to edit or re-read until the time is up. 

What typically happens with this exercise? The stories that are written are often emotional, yes, but they are also more “alive,” descriptive and engaging, coming “straight from the heart.”  Even the most reluctant writer, the one who says, “but I’m not a writer,” will surprise herself with the writing that emerges from the heart exercise. 

If you are one who would like to write but isn’t sure how to begin, this exercise can be a great way to get started and a way to capture the stories of your life.  Writing about what matters, what has shaped and defined you, is also a way of release, often a way to express difficult events and emotions that are sometimes bad for your health.  Everyone has stories to tell.  As I often say to those who’ve attend my groups, often shy about writing, “if you don’t tell your story, who will?”

…I have learned that story assuages grief, and it also grants the chaos of our emotions some shape and order…Even as I watch my mother become more and more distant from the lives around her…I am doing what I have been preparing all my life to do:  listening again to the old stories and committing them to memory in order to preserve them.  I am still doing my work in terms of what I have come to believe defines immortality.  Being remembered.  (From:  The Cruel Country, by Judith Ortiz Cofer, 2015.)

I, like many of you, have had a few medical experiences in my life– near death, breast cancer– now I live with heart failure. Sooner or later, we “get” that we are not immortal.  Living with heart failure has made me more aware of what matters most in my life.  As Judith Cofer described, I am aware that the stories of my life, the places, events and people who helped to define and shape who I have become, are the legacy I have to pass on to my daughters and grandchildren.  To remember.  To be remembered.   “Death, as Jim Harrison wrote in his poem, “Larson’s Bull,” steals everything but our stories.”

I am the only one who can tell my stories and say what they mean.  (Dorothy Allison, in Two or Three Things I Know for Sure.)