View from Maggie’s: Writing at a Cancer Care Centre

IMG_0377‘Sometimes I can see the hills of Wales…’ Paul reads his piece of free-writing in response to our Writing Group’s opening prompt: ‘Sometimes I can see..’ He describes, in attentive detail, a landscape he loves. Alan’s writing takes us into a different sort of seeing. He envisages a world beyond the troubles of this one, a world of pure peace, harmonious relationships, and an absence of illness and pain. These two men with different life-stories, perspectives and interests, share one key connection. They are both cancer patients in this Group at Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre in Merseyside.

Sometimes I can feel wistful that Maggie Keswick Jencks is not here to see the fruit of her pioneering work. A cancer patient herself, she recognised the need for an informal hospitable space that could offer practical and emotional support to those affected by cancer, and help them take an active role in nurturing their own well-being. She lay the groundwork for the first Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre in Edinburgh, but died the year before its opening in 1996. There are now 17 such centres, located in the grounds of NHS Hospitals in the UK, abroad and online.

Sometimes I can reflect on how running the Group resembles making a poem. The blank, boundaried space of a page becomes the weekly 90-minute session in a room where a floor-to-ceiling window overlooks Wirral farm fields. We sit quietly apart from Clatterbridge Hospital and the concreted Health Park behind us. Into that space my prepared teaching material is poured into our various lives, experiences and the words we find for them. Then comes the task of shaping this living dynamic of structure versus spontaneity, free-flow versus focus. The latter is a particular issue as writing and responding moves into talking, sharing and mutual support.

Sometimes I can become aware of cancer’s paradox of isolation and connection. Each Group Member is on an individual journey. When we use Myra Schneider’s Image Explorations as a writing resource, one Member writes about a solitary mountain climb. Her aloneness resonates with another. He rests his hand on her shoulder and tearfully shares his own feelings of loneliness. Suddenly the room is alive with warmth and connection. Whatever material I bring, connecting bonds often surface along familiar lines in a poetry of recurring themes; the shock of diagnosis, dealing with medical system and staff, treatment and its after-effects in loss of energy and hair, and the most animated discussions of all – anger and distress at how the healthy respond to the C-word.

As poet and former cancer-patient Anthony Wilson puts it in ‘What Not to Say,’

‘Spare me your positive mindset,

your fight it, I know you’re a fighter.

 

I couldn’t care which website you visited

explaining it really clearly’

Sometimes I can be uncertain about how far to encourage direct writing about cancer, feeling for the balance between avoidance versus the risk of generating unhealthy distress. I ask the group about this and one Member expresses the general consensus: ’We don’t want to be asked to write about cancer. It comes up into the writing anyway, but that’s OK. It’s in the room already, so we can feel free to talk about whatever we’ve written.’ Others say they would feel reluctant to attend a writing group outside Maggie’s and without that underlying connection that need not be stated. ‘I know I can be myself here,’ says one.

Sometimes I can hear the diversity of life-experience enriching the group. We embrace a wide remit of writing activities, reminding ourselves that our lives are far more than our current state of health. Jane Moss, in Writing in Bereavement, notes that those navigating significant loss can find it valuable to connect with who they were before It happened. Writing and sharing memories has affirmed our identities and broadened our horizons. We’ve listened to tales of childhoods in rural Norfolk; Welsh mining villages and Liverpool city; heard about travels, families, jobs and vocations, hopes and dreams. We’ve shared laughter as well as tears.

Sometimes I can be amazed at the ongoing cohesiveness of the Group. Week by week attendance fluctuates. Some need time out for treatment and its aftermath, or to spend precious days with family or friends; some no longer need Maggie’s as they are in remission. One sadly has died. Yet each week there is a unity. Bonds are formed. Members ask after each other and text supportive messages to absentees. When radiography students join us for a one-off session, we all write together and share with the same degree of openness. Much is down to the commitment and authenticity of Group Members; Cancer can simultaneously open up time and space but remind us that both are precious.

Sometimes I can make the most of the view from Maggie’s. Collaborative writing in the here and now has an immediate stimulus in the changing seasons outside our window. We have intentionally gazed out on this countryside panorama, putting our observations into words and then writing our own best lines onto strips of paper to combine into a shared poem. Our Springtime View from Maggie’s collaborative poem is below.

Sometimes I can be delighted by the poetry that emerges from our time together, whether in the session or on the page. It has seemed particularly appropriate for Maggie’s Merseyside to draw on the Mersey Poets, so we read Adrian Henri’s Tonight at Noon, originally published in the Sixties. We set ourselves the task of updating it with our own collaborative version. At first, the Group finds it challenging to think about things from an upside-down point of view – even though cancer has overturned their lives – but once the ball is rolling, ideas flow and we suggest lines. When Jennie contributes a heartfelt: ‘People will ask how are you and stop to listen,’ we sense we have found our equivalent of Henri’s poignant last line.  I put our lines in order, using Tonight at Noon as a template. When I read it out, the Group say they prefer our version to the original. You can decide whether you agree by comparing our Today at Midnight with Henri’s poem at http://www.swans.com/library/art6/xxx053.html

 

View from Maggie’s, April  

As I look out, it suddenly dawns on me:

Spring is here.

Blue sky streaked with wispy clouds.

Trees line up to drink clear air,

stark forms against blue sky.

Tangled, leafless branches

like the pathways inside my brain,

coming into bud, promise of new life.

 

Stillness, all calm on the surface.

A soft white feather drifts slowly to the ground,

blackbird in leafless tree, watching.

A bee bumbles lazily across the scene;

sun shining, green grass, blue sky,

solitary bird sitting in the grass;

new life beginning, tiny green shoots.

 

We sit, watch the lapwing watching us.

I like to think the animals do as we do.

Marvel at the beauty of Nature.

Creative Writing Group 21/04/16  

 

 

Today at Midnight 

Today at midnight

All airline tickets will be free

Today at midnight

Parents will play outside while children spend hours inside on their phones

The Chancellor of the Exchequer will announce a 2-year Tax Rebate

and £500 billion in the black

Donald Trump will work in MacDonalds

Bagpipes will be the rock’n’roll instrument of choice

Sheep will walk down city streets looking for grass

 

Today at midnight

Mice will chase cats out of the house

and spend the day in front of a roaring fire

England will win the World Cup and Eurovision Song Contest

Astronauts will blast down into the centre of the earth

Cake and chocolate will be found to cure all diseases

Self-service tills will ask me to place items in the bagging area

A horse will walk into a bar and say to the barman

why the long face

 

Pupils impart wisdom to teachers

Talent shows are banned on TV

Walls paint graffiti on vandals

The sun sets and the land is covered with light

Cruise ships fly the sky

and

People will ask ‘How are you?’

and stop to listen

Today at midnight

                  Group Poem by Jennie, Dawn, Alan, Paul, Kathy, John, Julia 16/06/16 (after ‘Tonight at Noon’  by Adrian Henri) 

 

This article, about our Writing Group at Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre in Merseyside, first appeared in the 20th Anniversary Edition of the Lapidus journal. Lapidus is a Writing for Wellbeing Organisation. See www.lapidus.org.uk

You can find out more about the wonderful work of Maggie’s Cancer Care Centres and how to support it at https://www.maggiescentres.org

The Writing Group members felt that this piece reflects their own experience of our writing mornings, and were happy for their comments and work to be included.

 

Resources and References 

Tonight at Noon by Adrian Henri in Mersey Sound (Penguin 1967)

What Not to Say by Anthony Wilson in Riddance  (Worple Press 2012)

Writing in Bereavement Jane Moss  (Jessica Kingsley 2012)

Writing my Way Through Cancer    Myra Schneider  (Jessica Kingsley 2003)

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    Julia
    Creative Connections combines my commitment to personal development through face-to-face work with groups or individuals, and the impact of the written word. As a writer I am always looking to see things from a new angle...

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