Writing is one of my most beloved methods for being well and staying well. In recent years, I have been surprised by its many benefits, increasingly relying on it as a way of bringing greater clarity and joy to my life. Writing makes me happy.

The specific form is secondary – what matters most is putting my thoughts, feelings, and ideas on paper. It may be a flood of unedited emotion in a journal, a sentimental poem scribbled on the back of a shopping list, or a carefully crafted essay … maybe even a three hundred page memoir. In the end it all nourishes me. Perhaps this may be true for you too.

My time invested in writing has provided continual enrichment. It has given me a sense of catharsis, clarified my viewpoint, and communicated my feelings to others. Through writing I become more balanced and self-assured and less burdened and confused. It helps me navigate my struggles – arriving at the other side with my feet firmly planted. What remains are personal artifacts to look back on, and occasionally, even enjoy for their beauty.

Writing can serve so many purposes: self-care, self-expression, creative endeavor, a compelling method of telling your story, or an avenue for connecting with others. Powerful feelings can provide the spark for an evocative poem. Have you made a curious observation? Write about it. Do you have an idea for a little story? Write it! Have you had a transformative life experience? Consider writing a memoir.

When you attempt to say what must be said to someone special, sometimes the words come out all wrong. At a pivotal time, you may be better able to express yourself through writing a letter than approaching your dear one face-to-face.  Although you may be tongue-tied, you are not hog-tied; pick up a pen! It slows the communication, calms the nerves, and allows more time for reflection before the message is delivered. This thoughtful clarity can strengthen honesty and intimacy. Through writing, you can speak your mind.

In getting started, you may experience an unfortunate cultural barrier: writers have long been shrouded in smoky mystery as The Artists. They are often viewed as brilliant, mercurial, tortured and lonely. Perhaps you’re picturing Hemingway: pen-in-hand, scowl on face, scribbling tales of foreign adventure, a near-empty bottle his only companion. Indeed, some writers are shining artists, celebrated icons … fulfilling our romantic ideal of the writer.

But you too have a human capacity to write, even if it will never earn you a dime or an ounce of acclaim. Writing has value for its own sake. Sadly, we have been taught that writing is for the rare “creative types” who are different than everyone else. This is a myth. We can all be writers. There is no pre-requisite to write, other than being literate in the most basic sense. One doesn’t have to be published, intellectually gifted, embarking on the next great work of fiction, or even have an innate talent. And despite the memorialized words of Virginia Woolf, one does not even need a room of one’s own. Anyone can write, anywhere, any time. And everyone can benefit from writing.

Silence your internal critic that tells you your writing must be worthy by some external standard. It can simply be by you and for you. What is within you is unique and has intrinsic value. Writing is simply allowing that uniqueness and value to emerge in a tangible way … on the page. It will serve a purpose, whether it is for you, a friend, or the public. You get to decide.

Many people associate writing with wretched memories from high school English class: composition due … staring forlornly at the blank page, blocked by frustration and fear of failure, awaiting harsh red markings from an uptight school marm. This is not a recipe for creative expression!

Re-define your writer self. Don’t be a casualty of the rigid, repressed, and faulty notions about your capacity with the written word. Rid yourself of these unnecessary burdens – and be free. Just write. No demands. No rules. No red pen. Let yourself play with words, ideas, images. You are only a few strokes away from expressing yourself.

Writing coach and prolific author in varied genres, Julia Cameron, wrote a wonderful book on this subject entitled The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life.* Her philosophy is that writing can become a natural, intensely personal part of life. She provides both inspiration and practical tools for making writing a daily practice that is playful, practical and profound. She emphasizes permission rather than discipline.  Cameron explains, “Writing is therapeutic. Writing connects the self to the Self … I have seen writing work less like a tool than a medicine. It is a medicine all of us can make and administer to ourselves.” After reading a few pages, I am twitching with the desire to write. It is good medicine.

I have never considered myself a poet. But in a number of instances in my life, when no other method of release seemed available, I found myself compelled to write a poem.  This is one I wrote when I saw my oldest child, then fifteen, holding hands with his first girlfriend. I was overwhelmed with a mix of bittersweet emotion. I had to describe it. Immediately. But no one was near. I had only the back side of a shopping list and a pen. This is what I wrote:

 

A Mother’s Glimpse

 

I stole a glimpse of them,

on the path near the waterfall.

Walking hand in hand,

awkward, hesitant affection.

 

My boy and “his girl,”

exploring new feelings.

surely welcomed and thrilling,

blindly tumbling into that

foreign land adulthood.

 

And me,

awash in old feelings.

A mother hanging on,

reaching for this man-child.

 

Was it yesterday,

he marched off to kindergarten?

“I can walk alone,” he said.

Assured little man.

 

The tears dampen my face.

Bittersweet liminality,

boyhood and manhood;

so impossibly simultaneous.

 

And me having joined

that army of mothers,

silently waving the unseen banner.

 

Considering, “Did I

give him enough?”

Pleading, “I need more

time. What about …

 

But manhood approaching

makes no allowances

for such uncertainties.

 

He is. He will be

just more of who

he always was.

 

Created, yes molded

(happily by me).

Now emerging his own.

 

A few days later, I even decided to show it to my son. For this fifteen-year-old boy of Scandinavian descent, his response was the height of receptivity and encouragement.

“That’s really good, Mom,” he said.

Not only did I find blessed release in writing it, I had the pleasure of a fleeting moment of connection with my boy. And seven years later, this admittedly syrupy poem is a treasure that brings a reminiscent tear to my eye.

Exercise your right to write … today and tomorrow. Gladness will follow.

 

*Cameron, Julia, The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. Penguin Putman Inc., 1998.

 

 

 

 A Curative Connection

Our society seems to be on an infinite quest to find a cure for what ails us. It turns out one of the best forms of medicine for many mental and physical health problems is not available from the pharmacy, doesn’t come in pill or liquid form, has no side effects, and a trip to the doctor isn’t required. No, it is more likely to have four legs, soft fur, and a wagging tail. Fido triumphs over big pharma!

Researchers have coined the term “the human companion animal bond” to refer to the curative connection that develops between people and their pets. These relationships are notable for having some of the best aspects of human relationships. Pets are loving, nonthreatening, nonjudgmental, welcoming, and attentive. And they don’t criticize, talk back, or issue commands. Taking care of a pet helps a person feel needed and wanted, less lonely, and provides an avenue for physical contact. Dog owners know the pleasure of being treated as the most fantastic and important person in the world. This sentiment was aptly described on a t-shirt I saw recently: “Someday I hope to be the man my dog thinks I am.”

The therapeutic value of animals has been well established and it has become a common practice to incorporate pets into the treatment of a wide variety of health issues. The Western Journal of Medicine reports “Studies suggest that companion animals, in addition to their well-known role as helpers to the handicapped, may alleviate depression, provide solace for the lonely, facilitate psychotherapy, socialize criminals, lower blood pressure, increase survivorship from myocardial infarction, and ease the social pain of aging in our society. *

Pets can also extend the lives of people with organic illnesses. A University of Pennsylvania Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society study showed that among 92 victims of heart disease, significantly more pet owners survived for at least one year than did those without pets. Twenty-eight percent of those without a pet were dead in a year, whereas only 6 percent of those with pets had died.**

But pets can also bring on problems and stress, so careful consideration must be given before heading to the animal shelter to rescue one. They require time and care, a financial commitment, and can even stir up family conflict. If the timing isn’t right or family members are not in agreement about acquiring a pet or responsibilities for its care, the result can be devastating.

My family’s experience is a good example of how getting a pet can be a bane or a blessing. The first two times we had a dog were difficult and didn’t end well, primarily because of poor timing and lack of shared decision-making. Not surprisingly, although the dogs were well loved, there was unexpected pain and turmoil. But the third time we got it right.

In my recent post “Create for Life” I described using Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way as a renewal process to recover creative vision through the practice of “morning pages,” I referred to an emotional block that was removed as I did the writing exercise. The context of this was that my family wanted to get a dog for years, but I had been unwilling due to several previous bad experiences, especially the events that occurred when I had severe depression. I had been carrying some bitter residue related to having to give away our Schnauzer puppy because of my illness-induced anxiety symptoms.

That day while writing my morning pages, suddenly, a unique sensation began flowing through me. It was a strange kind of epiphany. The effect was powerful. I sensed a newfound forgiveness about our troubled doggie history. Simultaneously, I felt the removal of a block. Was the block creative, emotional or spiritual? Perhaps it was all three; each represent forms of energy that need to flow. The bad feelings were lifted up and out in one fell swoop … an incision-less surgery. And in their place was a profound feeling of love, tenderness, and openness. Out of forgiveness, I was prepared to take a risk for love.

In that moment I knew – that for Christmas, which was only four days away, I would be giving my husband Steve and our children Johnny and Grace …  a new puppy. I could see him clearly: a yellow lab whom we would name “Winston.” Named after the mighty Winston Churchill, he would be a symbol of forgiveness, protection, and peace.

As I contemplated getting a puppy, I felt a calm readiness. Yes, it was a risk, especially as I considered my previous difficulties with dogs. But I felt able to rise to a higher level of health and to let go of the past. I was empowered to make a new choice: I chose love over fear.

I said to Steve, “I have an idea. I would like us to get a Yellow Lab for Christmas. I’ve done some research and found a good breeder in Loma Linda. She has a puppy ready for adoption.”

“Is it true?” he asked. Do you really want to get a puppy? I can’t believe it; I’m so happy. Thank you so much Lisa, love of my life. You won’t regret this … it’s going to be our best Christmas ever. This will bring us happiness for years to come.”

Maybe it was no coincidence that the breeder’s kennel was called “Meant-2-Be Puppies.” When we saw this adorable creature it was “love at first sight” for all of us. Our attachment has has only grown stronger in the subsequent three years.

Winston is shimmery gold with plush curly hair and velvety ears that flop this way and that. He greets us by dancing around and wagging his entire body. His old soul brown eyes give silent comfort. If he detects sadness he comes close and nuzzles gently. He is always thrilled with the food and attention we provide, and he continually reminds us to run and play. When we take him on his daily walk, he flushes through the wild grasses as if to say, “I was born for joy, and joy I will bring.”

Winston has provided a curative connection in my family – a sublime example of the “human companion animal bond” described above. More than that, he has been an extravagant blessing, like a treasure chest overflowing with gold, enriching us with love, laughter, and pleasure. Winston has been a noble companion, an instrument of peace, and a surprising lesson in grace.

“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

– Winston Churchill

Winston

Winston

*Fitzgerald FT: The therapeutic value of pets (Commentary). West J Med 1986 Jan; 144:103-105

**New York Times: August 11, 1982, “Owning a Pet Can Have Therapeutic Value,” Brody, JE.