Last week, I had the immense and heart-piercing privilege of taking part in the launch party for My Tree Called Life: Writing and Living Through Serious Illness, a book published by Turning Point of Kansas City that I edited. The anthology brings together the writings of close to 30 writes living with serious illness — cancer, parkinson’s disease, brain injuries, diabetes and more — whether they are the one diagnosed with the disease or a close caregiver. The writings people contributed come from writing workshops I’d led at Turning Point over the last three years, all designed to help people express whatever life was showing them about who they are and what they’re living through.
The book was a true labor of love, and I send great gratitude to Cathy Pendleton, who coordinates adult programming at Turning Point, and also many others on staff there who did such an extraordinary job in helping us put all these strong words into publication. I also am continually inspired by the writing of the workshop participants who proved what Pat Schneider has written in many of her books: when we write in our own words, it’s powerful. Finally, Turning Point itself is an amazing organization which provides all kinds of services for people — from babes in arms to elders — when facing serious illness. Turning Point: A Center for Hope and Healing offers extensive programming for children and adults — classes in cultivating resiliency, knitting, yoga, writing, mindful movement, nutrition, relaxation, Chinese medicine and Jin shin Jyutsu.
Because we write against the backdrop of caregiving for fragile parents 24/7, not knowing if the dopamine will allow for easy walking today, bone scans and heart procedures, scared children or distant siblings, friends who help and friends too busy or frightened to show up, and the vast uncertainty of living with serious illness, attendance can shift radically week to week. Sometimes it’s hard to write more than a few words, and sometimes it’s hard to stop writing. Always, however, we find deep value in simply witnessing one another, witnessing our own words. Words of truth, sometimes words of hope and always words of life.
When I get home that night, my husband asks me how it went, and when I tell him, he says, “Doesn’t it hit on all your own cancer issues to do this work?” He thinks it might depress me, but no, it does the opposite. Maybe some of this has to do with what the woman said about how her dying helps the ones of us not so actively at the end of our lives (or so, we think) cultivate perspective, give up sweating the small stuff so much. But I suspect it has more to do with the courage I witness, week after week, in all the workshops I do: the way that people are willing to take great risks in what stories they write and tell; how the veneer of what we think keeps us safe is gone in such workshops, and what really matters is unearthing meaning – clearing the obstacles out of the way, including fear and doubt, insecurity and low confidence, to create something simply to feel more alive in the process of creation.
It also has something to do with the stories I hear and the stories I witness – the woman facing advanced diabetes opening the sugar-free chocolates another participant brings us one week when we’re having someone’s death-by-chocolate prize cake.
The man who reads a poem he wrote to his wife, who just went through breast cancer treatment, about how strong she is, crying throughout his reading and through his reading of everything he wrote while reminding us, “Hey, I’m an engineer! I never cry, and in this workshop, I can’t stop.”
The woman who’s balanced her precarious life around extreme chemo for five years says the most encouraging and insightful things about the writing of others in the group. When I ask her what the class is like for her, she writes me about how she noticed many surprises in how she ended each story or poem she wrote, “I don’t believe we were writing toward specific endings. They just happened serendipitously and wonderfully.” She reads me one of her favorite endings, “Every fiber of me begs to wake up—to wake up, electric, stunned, and newly alive.”
In such an ending, I hear a beginning: how to begin to live life far more alive, far more immersed in the energy of being here and now. Of course the writing the participants do leaves behind legacies for their family and friends: inside glimpses of how they saw and loved the world. But it also continuously shows those of us in the class that living with serious illness doesn’t mean losing yourself; on the contrary, living with such challenges can – through the magic of writing and speaking stories and images into being – bring us home, even at the turning points of our lives, to who we always were. With the publication of this book, we now share our homecoming with you in hopes of these words helping you find your own way through life’s turning points.
Photos of people by Joann Lesh (who is reading in one and hanging out with me in another). The book’s beautiful cover painting is by Lorelle Mennel, who participated in the Turning Popint class, “Living Your Question Now: Finding One’s Joy Through Painting.” You can purchase a copy of the book at Turning Point’s website.