Today I had the joy of facilitating a mid-summer writing retreat for people living with serious illness at Turning Point: The Center for Hope and Healing in Kansas City (actually Shawnee Mission, KS). While this is something I’ve been doing for years, each time is new, giving me a front row seat to witness courage, curiosity and the power of how we create (even and especially in the face of mortality). Many of the eleven people who participated are carrying long-term progressive illnesses or stage four cancer diagnoses, years of trying one new medication or another, weeks that stretch into long deserts of moving through chemotherapy or grief, and other assorted hard stuff. One woman just lost her beloved to late-stage cancer two weeks ago; another balances late stage cancer treatment behind her and heart surgery ahead of her; yet another watches her strength and balance ebb and flow due to Parkinson’s.
Whatever the story, it’s a story about facing mortality: our own or our loved ones. As such, it’s a story about loss and grief — even if we’re lucky enough to only lose a few body parts and a false sense of immortality. It’s also a story of the joy found in being present for whatever everyday magic life gives us, whether it’s a glimpse of a red bird singing to one woman from a rooftop, reminding her someone is watching over her, or a hanging out at a family beach party for another woman, a welcome respite from cancer treatment.
In these workshops, I use writing prompts that aim us not so much toward the hope of returning to the old life, pre-illness, but the hope of finding meaning, connection, love, acceptance and strength in the current life. This necessitates also facing, and sometimes writing or talking through, the times meaning evaporates, connections dissipate, friends and families don’t know how to show their love, and it’s hard to not feel betrayed, weak and lost. I tell the people in such workshops to try to cultivate an attitude of curiosity and kindness for whatever comes up in their writing, to treat their responses or even moments of not being able to respond as they would a dear friend. I also encourage us to witness each other: listen carefully. In doing so, we open the ears of our ears and then can better figure out what our own lives are saying to us. I also bring snacks, and today, that included cherries because even if life isn’t a bowl of cherries (or a chair of bowlies as Mary Engelbriet writes), we can still find sweetness that replenishes and nurtures us.
We laugh a lot. We cry (and always, there needs to be a handy tissue box). We talk about struggles, breakthroughs, fears, and great loves. Yet I’m also amazed by how quickly people make a circle of support together, offering each other not just resources, but a kind of understanding that helps everyone in the group look into the issues tipping out when their mortality is stirred. In these workshops, we often speak of how to live, especially when the days are numbers and yet no one knows what those numbers are. There’s something about facing the hard stuff of life, whatever it is, that rips the veil of whatever-ness off, and lets us see clearly what matters, who we are, and how to live.
Photos from workshop used with permission of participants. For copy of My Tree of Life: Writing and Living Through Serious Illness, a book I edited of past participants’ writing, go to the Turning Point store. I also encourage people with serious illness or who are caregivers in the Kansas City area to check out Turning Point, make contributions, and/or take some classes. See a blog by one of the class participants.