When I write with others affected by cancer or loss in my Spirit of the Written Word writing workshops, I feel like I am entering a sacred space. We create this special space together, sitting around the table, notebooks open, pens at the ready. We light a candle and breathe, centering, bringing our whole selves into the space. Then we pick up the pens, and it all unfolds.
The physical space is secondary to this process. Yes, it is good to have comfortable chairs to sit in and a big table to put these chairs around. Privacy, good lighting, access to munchies, water and a bathroom are pluses.
What is primary is the trust and respect that the writers offer each other. It is the bond that is formed by opening our hearts and listening as others open theirs. It is the safety we provide each other by keeping everything confidential and voluntary.
In this sacred writing space much can happen. We go to many places without leaving our chairs. We travel back in time to our childhoods or to that awful moment when we heard the words, “you have cancer.”
We plumb our hearts, expressing on the lined pages or on the occasional laptop screen our fears about treatment or recurrence; we write about our courage as we travel our healing paths, our joy at being alive, the feeling of garden dirt in our hands or watching a hawk circle in the autumn sky.
The creative energy in the room is palpable. It bears the soft sounds of hands moving across pages, of muted tip-tapping on keyboards, of pages being turned. There comes a sigh, a sip, and a simple slide into surrender to our writing as it leads us to our innermost true and sacred selves.
Week after week we gather, trusting our pens will take us where we need to go and that our fellow writers will accompany us there.
copyright Pam Roberts
are alive days
are my days
to celebrate being alive.
are my anniversary days.
past cancer diagnosis.
of raising my children
of loving my children
of scribbling in notebooks.
I fall down on
and kiss the December earth,
I shout hosanna and alleluia
to the stars and the night sky.
are my days
to be grateful.
© Pam Roberts
December 3, 2009
Who wants to be on this cancer journey? Not me. Not anyone. No one would ever choose this path. And yet, here we are, my compatriots of cancer and I, mending our lives, saving our lives, as best as we know how.
Even when we don’t know how.
Was it a phone call for you like it was for me? It was a phone call that brought my life to a standstill, froze a moment in time, and made a delineation between the time before and the time after diagnosis. I remember waiting for that phone call, dreading it, and then the black phone by the kitchen table rang and I walked over and picked it up to hear my fate. What if I hadn’t answered? What if I hadn’t known? Would I still have two breasts and a healthy life? Or would I be dead?
As much as I tried to divine the future back then, 16 years ago, I did not know if time would unroll with me in it. The worst part was having young children. My breath froze in a shallow intake in my chest to think of not being around to raise them.
Last year, when my younger child, my daughter, graduated from college, I felt full and blessed. The breath I had been holding for 16 years released in a long and merciful exhale of relief.
The truth is that healing from breast cancer brought me more challenges and more gifts than I ever could have imagined when I answered that phone all those years ago. Over the course of these years I began a new line of work with people affected by cancer and loss, experienced the end of my marriage, and moved from my beloved rural home into a place in the village. Instead of spending the spring wandering through the burgeoning fields and woods of my former countryside, this spring I am ambling along the village street by the river. Instead of hiking to a favorite apple tree I am walking to the yoga studio or grocery store.
The voices of cancer still pop up occasionally when an unusual ache in my leg or hip plagues my sleep. But the years my healing journey has lasted have made me believe that there might be more. Gratitude is the name of the tea I drink every morning and again in the evening. And my gratitude tea is sweet.
copyright Pam Roberts 2010
This is my first winter living next to the river. In the cold dark I take my son’s yellow lab for a walk in the backyard that stretches to the riverbank. The ice creaks and groans and sometimes makes such a loud crack that the dog startles and lunges towards the house.
This summer I noticed a loon on the river along with a couple of common merganser ducks (Unfamiliar with these white bodied fowl I relied on my friend Karl, who knows birds, to identify them). One sunny afternoon my son and his dog and I were out for a walk and watched a pair of green birds with distinctive red markings on their wings as they swooped and dived and chased each other through some brush on the bank. When we returned home I got out my mother’s Audubon bird book to look them up. As I opened the well-worn book I remembered how it had sat on the ledge of the big picture window in the kitchen of my childhood home in the Pocono Mountains. Now it occupies a shelf in the kitchen of my new riverside home, right next to the cookbooks. According to Audubon, these beautiful birds were cedar waxwings.
This fall I entered the upstairs bedroom that I use as my office and there, perfectly framed in the window that opens onto the river, was a bald eagle sitting in the bare branches of a tree. He swiveled his great white head with its hooked yellow beak, back and forth, surveying from his perch. Then he turned and faced me, and for a few long moments looked me right in the eyes. Then with a majestic and leisurely glide, he took off up the river.
All the neighborhood cats love this riverbank and my yard that provides such convenient access. The longhaired black one and the multicolored one who wears her name, Lily, on her red collar had many standoffs there when the weather was better. When the poor little black one was unfortunately hit by a car just up the street, Lily became the unequivocal queen and I often saw her in the tall grasses, peering out with bright eyes.
It is a wondrous thing to live by a river! There is the racket of raccoons fighting in the branches of overhanging trees and the quiet kayakers at dusk on a summer’s eve. There is a hidden path down to the rocky water’s edge where on a hot summer afternoon, my daughter and I slip in and swim.
(copyright Pam Roberts)
This is my son’s service dog.
TOP ELEVEN REASONS WHY I HAVE NOT POSTED “MAY DIARY” UNTIL HALFWAY THROUGH JUNE:
1. My son’s service dog Stanley threw up seven times yesterday.
2. I broke my baby toe hanging up the laundry.
3. There is a buzzing in my ear that the doctor says is allergy-related, but acupuncture and allergy meds have not yet stopped it.
4. My son graduated from college and my daughter turned 21, cause for great and joyous celebration. Party prep, clean up and after-clean as well as delightful partying and ceremony took up a wonderful lot of time.
5. There have been multiple and varied other events, including but not limited to a 60th birthday tea party, a Cancer Connection party, a Forest Moon workshop, a premier screening of a Young Adults Advisory Council video, and Buddy Baseball every Saturday morning.
6. My son has been without an assistant for the past several weeks.
7. For a while it was too hot.
8. My four times a week writing workshops have ended for the summer so I am not writing regularly.
9. Thanks to my son’s former assistant who started doing crossword puzzles at our kitchen table before he relocated to Oregon, I have to solve the newspaper’s puzzle every day
10. My daughter and I have been planting a vegetable garden after several years of not having one in the old garden spot by the compost pile.
11. There was a big storm yesterday with hail like mothballs thrown from some huge wind hands.
May 9, 2008
On a day like this, spring fever is a contagious disease that absents you from work or ordinary life just as surely as the flu or a cold.
Pink blooms on peach trees and white ones on the apple are like germs. Lilacs sneeze out their sweet fragrance while the earth coughs up asparagus spears and a profusion of violets.
There is no remedy but to just give yourself over as you would to the flu. But instead of taking to bed, the cure for spring fever is to take to the outdoors- to hie yourself over to the perennial garden for an inspection of the progress of the phlox and irises, bleeding hearts and peonies. Or to traipse through the meadow, plucking the last of the daffodils growing at the edge of the field where it meets the woods, planted in memory of a friend who died a decade and a half ago. Or to sit on the porch in the sun and rejoice.
True spring fever requires no work at all for its cure. Do not take up the rake to last year’s leaves still matted against the corner of the house. Do not grab a shovel and turn over the garden soil. Do not straddle a garden tractor and begin the first mowing of the grass.
You may let other more industrious folk tend to such matters. Those who have been vaccinated, perhaps, by vacations in warm places. Or those whose constitutions are stronger and can resist.
Know that you will one day soon be like these other sturdy beings. You will plant that garden, clean the outdoor furniture, rake the winter’s silt. Maybe you will even wash windows!
But not today. Today you are feverish with the folly of spring. And on a day like this, all you can do is enjoy the delight of your befuddlement.
I am grateful. I am grateful to have all systems go in this life of mine and of my children. We are collectively experiencing good health, no financial crises, no emotional or spiritual woes, no major physical complaints. There were years when I could not have imagined this possible, this bounty of well-being.
As the grass grows tall and green and already in need of cutting, my son is wheeling towards his college graduation and my daughter is dancing towards 21. On Memorial Day weekend their paths will converge at the end of this arc of childhood.
We will have a party to celebrate and I will remember a party 21 years ago when our friends gathered in the shade of our big old sugar maple tree. I was 9 months pregnant and unable to eat. Wendy said, “The baby is coming,” and by the wee hours of Memorial Day morning she was here, arriving into the world looking like a punk rocker with black hair that stuck straight up.
At this year’s Memorial Day weekend party, we will toast my daughter’s birth 21 years ago and mark my son’s graduation after seven long years. It has taken him this long because attending class part time is all that his condition would allow. I am grateful.
There was a time when I sat on their beds in the middle of the night and prayed that I could be so blessed as to see these milestones. No, my prayers were not that specific. My prayers, 14 years ago after a diagnosis of breast cancer, were that I could live long enough to raise them.
And here we are. Time has passed as quickly as turning the pages in a family photo album. In a few flicks of the eye, my children’s baby faces became gap-toothed then adolescent then full with young adulthood. My prayers, the prayers of this former cancer patient, crazy with desire to survive, have been answered.
My gratitude is beyond words. Even though I profess to be a writer, even though I lead workshops where I scribble on couches with other cancer survivors, or with those who are suffering loss, even though I gather with peers every other week to write, I am unable to find the words that express fully how deeply appreciative I am of this gift of life and of being able to share this auspicious weekend with my children.
I can only borrow from my son who said, twenty-one years ago when his sister was born, that he was so happy he felt like “climbing a tree.”
I would like to climb with him and my daughter up to the very top of the 200 year old maple that shades our house. I would like to sit up there with them at hawk level and look out over the Green River valley, south to Greenfield, north to Vermont, east to the hills of Leyden and beyond. I am sure that we can see all the way to the Atlantic Ocean from our leafy perch.
We will be on top of the world. We will feel our hearts soaring with the hawks. We will be there together to appreciate this momentous occasion in our collective lives.
We will breathe in a sense of accomplishment. We will breathe out joy. We will pause for a moment and take in fully the blessing of this spring light.
And then we will climb back down, back to earth and feet back on green grass, back to the phone calls and emails, to the garden waiting to be planted, back to the daily decisions and squabbles, the disappointments and happinesses, but bringing with us this moment of splendor, this moment in time that will settle into our beings with a golden glow.
I hope that this moment will stay with us, will be a place to visit, to return to when things in our lives are not always so auspicious, and we can breathe it in and remember, hold it close, and say “yes.”
© Pam Roberts
April 10, 2008
There was that time this afternoon that I was wandering around outside.
A neighbor had been burning brush for me and then left, asking me to check it before I went out, so I meandered down to the spot on the edge of the hayfield by the old stone wall to find some still glowing embers. I went off to find some snow and picked up a still frozen shelf of it with my bare hands and dropped it on the red chars. It sizzled and smoked in a very satisfying way. I picked up some more snow, two handfuls this time, and plopped it on another spot of still smoldering ash.
My fingers were numb as I put them in my pockets and tracked the path of the gray wisps against the blue sky.
I noticed the green beginnings of daffodils by the stone wall, scraggily poking through the leaf covering. The forsythia on the hillside had some small green buds.
The field was still brown and flat. Tracks of some sort scribbled all through it and I wondered what caused that, the snowmelt or some little critter burrowing through.
I walked around the house to the garden, Now that the snow was mostly gone I could see tangles of things and dried stalks, branches thrown down by the winter weather. And leaves, everywhere leaves and untidiness.
Here on the south side the daffodils were budding and I picked some to bring in to see if I could hurry them into bloom.
The pile of wood, not so long ago looking like a snow pile, now was uncovered, as was a spot where my neighbor had been emptying the ashes from his woodstove. Most of the yard was still too wet for walking.
This was it, the face of the earth, just showing itself again. It’s been a hard winter all around. And someday soon I will have to get out the rake and the shovel, the clippers and wheelbarrow and clean up this dirty face.
But for now it was enough to just welcome it back.
April 14, 2008
Happiness is green, pale green, spring green, hazy green, frog green, grass green. Green like the new growth rhododendron leaves. Green like the moss in the cracks of the stone path. Green for pollywog green, lime green, unripe banana green, watermelon skin green.
Happiness is blue, sky blue, ocean blue, turquoise Caribbean sea blue, iris blue, hepatica blue, Victoria salvia blue, old glass bottle blue.
Happiness is sun yellow, daffodil yellow, dandelion yellow, school bus yellow, rain slicker yellow.
Is tulip red, apple red, strawberry, raspberry red, fresh raspberry pie with whipped cream red, cardinal red, maple bud red.
Is poppy orange.
Happiness is brown-haired son about to graduate from college.
Happiness is black-haired daughter soon to turn 21.
Is white paper filling up with blue ink words; grey letters becoming words scrawling across white computer screen.
Happiness is –finally- spring.
April 17, 2008
The cancer community is like springtime to the winter of the disease of cancer. It warms us, brightens our lives and brings us hope.
April 21, 2008
It is a miracle that the daffodils push their way through the thick, sodden mat of over-wintered leaves. Their yellow heads perch on top of green stems while remnants of brown leaves cling like a shawl around their shoulders.
It’s a miracle that spring once again returns to our precious earth, troubled by wars, hunger, homelessness, ravaged by disease and destruction, threatened by climate change.
And still, miraculously, blessedly, buds form on branches, trees burst into white and pink bloom, blossoms litter the forest floor and by the side of the road, ferns poke up their fiddleheads to play the song of spring.
It is an American song, it is an English country dance tune, it is a dance of spring from Italy to Japan to Siberia. The earth turns, the sun draws closer to the northern Hemisphere and life answers its call.
© Pam Roberts
Today I sat at the round kitchen table by the glass door, looking up from my computer screen to watch a cardinal perch on bare forsythia branches, a welcome spot of red against the otherwise dreary landscape. The snow still stretched out to the woods which are still brown and bare against the gray sky. The phone rang, and I stood to answer. It was my daughter calling with her plans to come home for spring break.
“Omigosh,” I said, interrupting her before she barely got in a “hello.” “There’s a donkey in the yard!” Half hidden by a patch of shrubs, I could see a large brown creature nibbling on a circle of grass that had appeared in the snow.
Even as I said this, I doubted myself. None of our neighbors in this rural area of farms and houses and woods have donkeys. Cows. Big hairy ones that sometimes wander down the road. And dogs who come to visit the compost pile. But a donkey?
“Donkey?” my daughter said. “Did you say ‘dun-key?’”
“Oh, no, no,” I said. “It’s a deer. And there’s another one. And another!”
“But you said ‘dun-‘key’ said my daughter.
“I made a mistake,” I said.
“But it’s not ‘dun-key’”, she said, “it’s ‘dahn-key.’”
“What do you mean?” I said. “It’s not ‘dahn-key, ‘ it’s ‘dun-key.’ How do you call that animal that eats bananas? You don’t say ‘mahn-key’ do you?”
My daughter was not swayed. “It’s ‘dahn-key,’” she said.
“Anyway,” I said, “it’s a dear.”
I am trying to find some glory in this endlessly gray and windy March weather. Growing up in Pennsylvania, March bore the fragrance of spring in its wind, but here in New England March still wears its winter hat and scarf even when the sun and a patch of blue sky seductively beckon.
“I’ve lived in New England too long,” said Fred, an old New Englander almost 35 year ago when I first moved to western Mass, “to be fooled by March.”
I have become disconnected from the gloriousness of life these tail-end-of-winter days. Walking down our dirt road entails trying to maneuver around sucking pools of mud. Driving it is like running a boat across the wakes of others, an up and down bounding over the rutted roadway that surely is not good for car, road or driver.
On Saturday it snowed, rained, hailed, snowed with a spurt of blue sky in between in the afternoon. I took my son’s dog for a walk during the hailing part and noticed the little white balls on my jacket, in the dog’s fur and on the mud-frozen road. Truly, it was a wondrous weather day, all these mixes and permutations of wetness, and, from what I heard when I described it to friends, it was happening only here in this lump of frozen land here where I live. But I was in no mood to marvel. I walked the dog up to the mailbox and back, barely looking anywhere but down. Down down. Not up at the sky with its clouds that were delivering this multitude of moisture upon us.
My children are both home from college for spring break. You’d think I would find that glorious but all I can think is how great it would be if we were off somewhere warm, having an actual vacation instead of being here in March with the kitties refusing to go out and tearing around the house, leaving balls of fur in every corner of every room and poop poop pooping in the litter box instead of outside like they do when the weather is nice.
Is this what they mean by March madness? Surely there is something glorious in all this. Surely I have learned by now that if I can’t change the circumstances I can at least change my attitude.
Here is a list of glorious March things:
1. The red flowers on the cyclamen plant that fall over all dried out from my forgetting to water them and then raise their heads in forgiveness when I finally remember.
2. My college age son reaching up to hug me as I help him transfer from his wheelchair to the couch.
3. My daughter walking in the door from college and immediately changing into my comfy fleece pants and her dad’s old flannel shirt.
4. Stanley, my son’s yellow Lab service dog with his adorable pink-nosed, brown-eyed puppy face.
5. Sharky the big male cat, sprawled out on the sofa, his long-haired belly up to the ceiling, paws outstretched, reaching up to pat my face when I sit next to him.
6. Meyer lemons.
I first learned about Meyer lemons, a sweet lemon-orange cross, from my friend Francey who grew up in southern Florida in a rambling house with orange and lemon trees in the backyard.
You never used to be able to see Meyer lemons in stores here in New England, or maybe they were here and I just wasn’t looking. Francey buys them and puts them in a cobalt blue pottery bowl that I made and gave to her years ago.
This weekend I bought some Meyer lemons at Foster’s supermarket and filled a white bowl that Katie made and placed the bowl on the kitchen table next to a bunch of daffodils that had found their way into my shopping cart.
“This is our Easter basket,” I said to my kids. No dying eggs, no jelly beans this year.” Just Meyer lemons with their perfect egg shape and their deep yellow skin with the tiniest blush of green that grabs you by the eyeballs and says yellow! Sun! spring!
Now, that is glorious.
Soon the forsythia will burst open, the green haze of trees budding will color the hills, the new wet grass will melt and the daffodils will shout out their yellow names. Soon the pansies will show their smiley faces in front of supermarkets. Soon pussy willows will grow their teeny rabbit tail buds on the dark branches.
Soon it will be easier to find something glorious. In fact, when spring comes the task is more how to avoid the glory. How to keep ourselves from spending the warm days parading around outside breathing in the delight of spring.
But right now, when I look out my kitchen window I am not seeing daffodils or crocuses or red tulip blossoms. I am seeing snow, not the freshly fallen snow of Christmas carols and calendar photos, but the tired old snow, old man snow, who has been hanging around this town too long, like a drunk in the gutter who makes you want to avert your eyes,
There are still three foot high piles of dirty old snow at the end of the driveway, for pity’s sake. It is dark at the edges, still icy on top. No one wants a picture of this on their calendar.
Okay, I give up. Snow is falling fast and furiously. We’re back in winter wonderland; the old man drunken snow has a fresh blanket of fluffy stuff on top of him.
© Pam Roberts
On Wednesday, Feb 13, at 7pm at Broadside Books in Northampton MA, members of the Spirit of the Written Word writing workshop that I lead at Cancer Connection will read from our new book, Words to Live By.
It will be a poignant time, as some of the people who are published in our book are no longer with us. A daughter will read for her father, a husband will read in memory of his deceased wife and two friends will read for members of our group who have passed. And of course, those of us still alive and kicking will read too!
We hope our book may offer some small solace and hope for those who find cancer in their lives. Proceeds from the book support Cancer Connection’s free support services for people living with a cancer diagnosis and their loved ones. It is for sale at Cancer Connection, Broadside Books, Northampton, Food for Thought, Amherst and World Eye Bookshop, Greenfield.
Here is one of the pieces that I have contributed to the book.
There’s nothing like breast cancer to get you praying.
It can happen even before the diagnosis. Prayer can strike in the mammography suite. There you are in your flimsy pale blue wrap, sitting on the straight-backed chair, leafing through a worn copy of Good Housekeeping magazine when the technician bustles back in.
“We need a couple more close-ups,” she says in that no-nonsense tone that fails to mask the terrible truth. So, as you stand to deliver your breasts to their cold fate, you are praying with the fervor of a televangelist: “Oh God don’t let me have cancer, Please don’t let me have cancer.”
As you hold your breath while the x-ray whirrs through your squooshed breasts you believe that your prayers deserve to be answered even though you have not prayed with any regularity for decades and you are not even sure who you are praying to. Or whom.
But you know that your God, whoever he/ she is, is kind and forgiving and willing to overlook those long lapses of yours.
You need a biopsy.
After the biopsy the prayers intensify and diversify. They are now accompanied by bargaining.
“Please God, if you just let me not have breast cancer I will be so good!” And you list all the ways you will be good, a list that lengthens and becomes more sophisticated as the days creep by.
“I will lead a more healthy lifestyle!” you declare to this god who is surely listening. “I will not drink alcohol or caffeine- no more sugar and I’ll exercise regularly.” You drink your last glass of wine. You visit a nutritionist and start on a cleansing diet and a regimen of supplements just to prove your sincerity.
“Oh please god, if you keep me from having cancer I’ll be nicer to my husband and I’ll give more money to the homeless. I promise I won’t complain anymore! I’ll work for world peace! I’ll be grateful for every day of my life.”
The biopsy results are positive, the only time that positive has the exact opposite meaning, and so you have to have more surgery. And more prayers to accompany that: “Please let me have early stage. Please let it not be in my lymph nodes. Please let me be node negative, node negative, node negative.”
And so you get the sorry results of the surgery. Now you add all number of prayers to your repertoire.
You need prayers for guidance in making treatment decisions.
You need prayers for getting through chemotherapy without throwing up when you smell the hand soap in the hospital bathroom.
There are prayers for help getting out of bed in the morning.
There are prayers for acceptance and psychological and spiritual healing. Prayers for physical healing.
Mostly there are prayers for survival.
You sit on the beds of your sleeping children and pray that you will be able to raise them.
You blow out 45 candles on your birthday cake and pray that one day you will be blowing out 50.
You have long and intimate conversations with this god concept of which you still are not certain.
One morning you wake up and find that five years have passed. You are still alive. You are raising your children. You are praying more frequently and less selfishly.
You do not affiliate with any particular religion, but you find that your heart and consciousness have opened to all spiritual possibilities. You attend a School of Healing. You learn to offer a prayer on an out breath that asks and listens, that reaches out and circles around and returns receptively, like the sign for infinity, You become familiar with your higher self and comfortable with thinking about a higher power. You wrestle with the concept of surrender.
You really do change your life. Some of the behaviors that originated as bargaining chips are now part of your ordinary make-up. You find that you are on a spiritual journey that includes, maybe even depends on, self -acceptance and love.
Ten years pass. Then twelve. Your younger child turns 18. You learn the Buddhist prayer, ”May all beings be happy.” You learn that we are all connected. You feel that breathing is praying and so is loving.
You still tender late night pleas to guardian angels for your teenaged daughter’s safe return during a blinding snowstorm. But mostly, your prayers become less desperate. You know that you want help and guidance but you accept that your prayers may be answered in ways that you can’t anticipate or desire. You are grateful even when things in your life suck. Your heart is full of prayers of thanksgiving.
You find that you feel less scared of dying.
And occasionally you are less scared of living.
© Pam Roberts
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