The Scarlet C


During the past two weeks I became aware of a dark passenger inside me.  Unlike Dexter’s, this one had tangible form, and was growing, ever so slowly inside my left breast.  More than anyone, I was surprised that my cells had turned on me in this way. Surely a vegan diet, steady exercise regime, positive attitude and all around healthy lifestyle was protection against such an alarming turn of events.  Alas, despite all my seemingly preventive measures, with a phone call and the words, ” I don’t have good news for you,” I entered the portal of the “C” World.  Cancer:  the dreaded  something talked about in hushed tones, with nervous sideway glances at the one being talked about; a topic inspiring dramatic narratives, many tragic, some triumphant, all brave and heroic.  My first thought (in the age of social media and instant information) was how to spin this?  When one declares, “I have cancer” it seems to trump all other aspects of one’s self, and there is a risk of forever more being labeled a “cancer victim or survivor.”  I know I don’t want to be the former, and I want to do more than survive.  I want to live-I want to THRIVE-and I am so much more than the group of wayward cells that were clustered and ensconced in my breast tissue. Oddly, I didn’t immediately adopt the common rhetoric of the ‘war on cancer.”   Just as I know the critical voice that hounds me from time to time is really a part of me, I also know these cells are me too. Thinking of them like some juvenile deliquents running amok, I approached them sternly and lovingly, with the attitude of refocusing and retraining-and the request that they must reform or go. I do not harbor resentment at my cancer cells for they have given me the message that something in my body/life is out of balance.

Fear of cancer is visceral.

Facing my mortality provokes a myriad of reactions: fear, denial, bargaining, depression, anger. Less obsessed with “why me” and more with “why not me,” my dark night of the soul came on quickly and unrelentingly following the diagnosis. Lacking information other than vague words such as “mild, non-aggressive”, my imagination soared to new heights of fear and dread. Although steeped in knowledge about healing and alternative approaches to medicine, I was still vulnerable to the culture of fear which surrounds a diagnosis of cancer. However, it was my knowledge-my experience with healing-which turned things around in my head and helped me gain serenity. (Indeed, the power of positive affirmations is remarkable, as is the calming effect of Matcha Green Tea). That and simply getting more information about the extent of the malignancy that was living rent-free in my breast. Until my Dr. told me exactly what I was dealing with, I could not talk about it much, nor think about anything else.   Having been “staged” as a category I, I can now speak of cancer with more neutrality than fear. I have formulated a plan of action and move forward with renewed vision and purpose. Although I respectfully honor every individual’s approach to dealing with a cancer diagnosis, I continue to find it helpful to downplay it’s effect on my life and well-being.   Hurray for races for the cure, support groups, pink ribbons and research. I am ALL for it,  and will no doubt be an active participant in club “c” (in volunteering to help others)  to which no one wants an invitation. And yes I want and NEED support. However, in describing my experience,  I don’t want to give cancer any more power in my life; I choose to refocus my attention on the healing part. And gratitude. And forgiveness. And Love.  I am SHARON with a capital S who is dealing with “c.”

In addition to the surgery I had Tuesday-a lumpectomy-I continue my vegan/macrobiotic diet, stepped up with Matcha green tea, vitamin supplements. I engage accupuncture, reiki, herbal treatments, self-affirmations my cat, my dear husband clark,  helping others, teaching, making art, prayer, laying on of hands, family, friends,  laughter, potlucks, good movies, dance, nature-anything to restore balance. I remember to breathe deeply more often, smile a lot, and cannot think of a better place to be in my life than right here, right now.





Living Letters: excerpt from a book in progress


I want to live letters, not learn them. I want to dance and sing them in both strident and harmonious tunes.  What else can we do but write like we mean it;  like it is the most important thing to do, as if our lives depend on it?  Mine does.  How else can I cope with waking to the din of city cries, the endless loop of grim and mawkish news, the parched earth desperate for water and  human mercy.  With pen in  hand I turn to the familiar forms and begin to write until I don’t remember the paper or pen, only the feeling of connection between heart, mind and body.  Words tumble out of my head unbidden but welcome, and I write them with the same care as if they were uttered by the wisest poet,  the most revered artist. I can do nothing more but mark my way through the world I inhabit, however humble, recording the ebbs and the flows, the tears and joys, the wonderful terrible mystery of it all. The ink flowing, pen and heart are linked to the common cause of writing what I know, being who I AM.

Get out your pen, tap your foot, open your mouth, stand up and YAWP! Feel your heartbeat and write to it’s rhythm, fast or slow, and laugh at the wobbles, and the hesitancies and the groping and flailing lines that emerge.  Curiosity is our guide, not judgement, the mysterious marks and lines emerging in unrecognizable patterns a refreshing change from the familiar ones.  Oh, NOW I get it. The forms taking shape are the sounds the grackle makes, its squawks and screeches; the feeling of sadness that pervades my body when my daughter leaves; the undulating lines and shapes of the plant before me. I follow the lines and they take me within and outside of myself, revealing my nature and the endless possibilities of responding to it.

I write, therefore I am connected-to myself and my surroundings.  The letters live when I let them out to play. They know the rules and how far they can be bent.  And yet I am compelled to leave them,  run away and get lost, to  risk  it all, to stumble in darkness, groping blindly for a vision or guide while the cacophony of critical voices inside my head attempt to crush my effort. Letters which were once my guide, are replaced by vague images, undefined and seemingly unknowable.  The messy page of thick black marks and muddy colors pull me into deeper confusion and unrest until I remember what I know: I smile,  and paint over it with gesso. The emerging palimpsest of workings-through and experiments thinly veiled in white become the ground for words to explain the experience. Delicate penciled capitals, bending and swaying to the rhythm of my musings, bring order, peace and coherency to the chaotic rumblings underneath. I come back to a blank page and reach for my pen and fill it with colorful gouache. My heart is beating, my mind is clear and I write with a feeling of prayerful devotion. The Romans and Italics that greet me are different than before: they are less self-conscious and  cumbersome, and much more confident in their stride. And what’s this new script that they have birthed?

The letters have been there all along-stalwart and steadfast- patiently waiting to be ignited by my new discoveries.

Ode To Mutley

Ode to Mutley

Ode to Mutley

Cats slink through our lives with a seeming casual indifference, offering intermittent attention while training us to cater to their whims.  Like our children, we have hopes for these special critters (maybe instant fame on YouTube, or first prize in a cat show, or providing us with cuddles and comfort through thick and thin), yet are not surprised when they turn out to be what they are: self-centered, extraordinarily ordinary, acting as if they could take or leave us. Very quickly we accept that cats rule the household on their own terms, whether wanting in and out all night, or deciding that they will only drink from glasses of water left on countertops.  Having been owned by cats before, we brought Mutley into our world with eyes wide open.  We felt particularly proud that he was a rescue kitten, one who along with his siblings, had been abandoned in the wild.  When we met his little tribe, housed in a brown paper box,  Mutley seemed like the most interesting and adventuresome of the lot, constantly crawling out of his box, running away. As it turned out, this was a clue about the particularly unique and challenging personality we had taken on: fierce, unloving, people-loathing, scratching and clawing his way through kitten-hood. I had never had a cat like this before, and thought that with loving care, he would outgrow his troubling behavior.

Although Mutley did grow very large, he did not grow out of his penchant for inflicting harm. However, his saving grace was his great beauty; the fact that Mutley was so handsome made me forgive  the multiple wounds he regularly inflicted on us. How could I be angry at a cat who looked so lovely lying on the couch? I was deluded in thinking I could manage his ornery behavior through simple love and “kitty compassion.  Prone to anthropomorphizing pets,  I  failed miserably to “set him straight,” and Mutley’s reign of terror lasted for most of his life.

My Cat Whisperer failings aside, we  accepted Mutley on his own terms, knowing to scratch him only under the chin; to NOT pick him up, and NEVER touch his back. Although guests were forewarned, more than a few visitors left our home with Mutley bite marks or scratches.  What a disappointment this behavior was for Maeve who had wanted a cuddly kitten-one  who would be her fun-loving buddy.  Although she learned to love him, it was hard for her to accept that this creature was for looking only and rarely for  touching.  And yet he amused her-and all of us-with his antics. For instance, his  habit of snatching Maeve’s hair ties from her room and depositing them in his water dish was very entertaining. One morning, he even grabbed a pair of her leggings and dragged them into the water.

On another occasion, Mutley surprised us with a rare poignant and touching display of compassion. Clark was sitting in his chair, experiencing  a moment of  anguish and emotional distress, when Mutley jumped in his lap. This otherwise fierce, untouchable cat just sat there, gentle, purring,  still,  and did not bite, seeming to offer Clark,  his fellow male in the house, a degree of comfort and solidarity.

More typically, Mutley provoked anger and frustration. No  fabric surface in our house was left un-shredded by his claws. Couches, chairs, rattan beds, cane chairs-he destroyed them all until finally we made the hard decision of having him de-clawed.  This was no small decision on many levels.  First, Mutley hated going to the vet. So much so that he ran away after each visit, at one point forcing Clark to brave the underbelly of our house to find him. Secondly, it seemed to be cruel and unusual punishment (arguably it was) to subject this proud and unruly creature to such a demoralizing, painful, life-alternating procedure.  Thirdly, it meant that he was subjected to  kitty hell for a weekend as his wounds necessitated that he recover at the vet’s office.  No amount of fancy feast ever made up for that trauma we inflicted on him, but in the end, Mutley came around, and for better or worse, actually became a bit more friendly and docile.

Mutley spent many of his days as a fat, lazy house cat, an enviable position at times, for his was a life of no responsibility, of coming and going as he pleased, of warm, inside days and nights, and plenty of food. Sleeping and eating summed up the greater part of his activities, and  for many years, Mutley justt blended into the landscape of our lives as we went about our busy days of growing up (kids) and growing older (Clark and me).

It was hard not to notice the change which began about a year ago. Our former fat cat was getting thinner. He began to act needy, insisting on sitting on my lap whenever we sat down on the couch to watch television, slept all the time and stopped wanting to go outside. His thirst seemed unquenchable, and his lethargy became alarming.   A trip to the vet confirmed a weight loss, but blood tests did not reveal anything that seemed more serious than a nutritional deficiency. So in addition to his beloved Fancy Feast, Mutley was introduced to the haute cuisine of expensive veterinary “specially formulated” dry cat food.  Surprisingly, he ate it, and soon he was up and about, even wanting to spend lots of time out of doors.  And so we carried on, thinking that Mutley had rallied, and that life in our household  would resume in its usual way.

We knew that his decline was imminent if not severe when several months later Mutley showed signs of incontinence. Rugs became the litter box, and evidence of Mutley elimination appeared all over the house.  He wanted even more attention, was always underfoot, and purred very loudly during the times we allowed him to sit on our laps while we scratched his head.  His attack habits had not changed, and I suffered several painful bites during these lap times-bites which would come out of the blue, without any seeming provocation on my part. And though he continued to eat ravenously, he had become skeletal, his fur dull and matted.   As much as I dreaded taking him to the vet (because he was so traumatized by the experience ) I couldn’t ignore his watery half-closed eyes, his emaciation, and his wobbly back legs.

Where does one draw the line between aggressive treatment and palliative care?  I had grappled with these questions   in graduate school as I studied about and then worked for a hospice.  Although these are difficult questions  for people with terminal illness,  it seems like it should be simpler with pets. Yet as with humans,  there are extraordinary measures one can take to keep pets alive. Who knew that there are kitty cardiologists, oncologists, specialists of every kind? In Mutley’s case,  because he suffered a multitude of issues (probably related to either cancer, respiratory failure or heart disease), his  survival would require a host of these specialists along with prolonged and intense treatment.   Having been initially diagnosed with severe anemia, he declined suddenly and rapidly during his exam, experiencing what seemed to be  cardiac or respiratory failure, requiring oxygen to breathe. Our options were laid out for us:  days of hospitalization, oxygenation and blood transfusions-simply to get him stabilized.  The next step would be a myriad of tests to determine the source of all the presenting symptoms, determine if treatment was possible or not,  all requiring more vet visits, multiple medications, tests and other intrusive actions with no guarantee of improvement of quality of life.

Not to mention that dirty word: COST.  We were already hundreds of dollars in, just for this one visit.  The Vet’s opinion was that his situation was dire, and that the  extraordinary measures listed above were indeed necessary to keep him alive. It was at this point that I elected to go away for an hour to grapple with a decision- to determine Mutley’s  fate-leaving  him curled up forlornly and pathetically on his special blanket in the oxygen tank that was necessary for his immediate survival.

Who am I to take a life?  This or any life. Having experienced this dilemma with pets  before, I knew that the questions, the doubts, the guilt and the grief were an inevitable part of the decision-making process, regardless of the outcome. It came down to thinking of Mutley and what he could and could not tolerate, comfort-wise.  Taking him home or subjecting him to an extensive round of tests and medical procedures seemed inhumane for this creature who was so easily distressed, who disliked handling and loathed the vet’s office, and had declined so suddenly, the result of the stressful vet visit. Moreover it seemed any further heroic treatments were de-moralizing, and certainly compromised his quality of life.

And so  together, with tears falling on his emaciated body struggling for air from the oxygen tube, Clark and I made the call. It was time to let him go.  The dear vet, a young and clearly caring Dr, was the model of compassion and professionalism as she carried out her grim task, reassuring me that our decision was wise and humane.

It was harder than I thought  to follow through with our decision. When the vet brought Mutley into the examining room, catheter inserted in his paw, he opened his eyes and mustered the strength to crawl towards me. His eyes were now wide open and he began to purr.  I scratched his chin, held his face, and talked to him, and scratched some more, questioned out loud whether this was right or not, adding rather absurdly that “I am opposed to the death penalty”. As he continue to purr in my hands, I  finally nodded that it was time.  Did he hear “fancy feast” which I whispered to him as the vet administered the lethal dose? Did he realize I had decided  his doomed fate, that the hand that fed him was indeed biting him  (albeit gently and painlessly) in this profound and final way? Could he forgive me; could I forgive me? Do cats have souls and if so, what happens next? Drug administered,  he  purred, and relaxed and then stopped breathing. Quickly, gently, done.  Fancy Feast.  Mutley child. Dear sweet incorrigible cat.  Beloved Mutley dissipated into unknowable mystery; he is no longer.

I draw therefore I see-Italy


Drawing and painting  give us an opportunity to participate in our surroundings in a personal and deeply felt way.  When we stop to draw, we begin to see what is before us as if for the first time. The cracks and crevices of a stone wall become lines  to be explored, its variegated palette of grey, purple, brown and ochre an invitation to experiment with paint.  Our keen engagement allows fear and worry to turn to  awe and gratitude as we feel more connection with what we paint and draw in the villages, cities and landscapes of Umbria.

As guests at La Romita, we have a unique opportunity to cultivate mindfulness and wonder in an ancient setting with modern comforts.

Without leaving our monastic home, we enjoy art-making at a leisurely pace in the former chapel studio. With background music playing quietly, we scribe words in the journals before us, unique  personal manuscripts  honoring our experience of the place.  Faded frescoes on the wall, a mosaic pattern on the stone floor,  a humble olive branch are enough to captivate our attention with paint brush, pencil and pen, and we need not be concerned with the mundane details of preparing food or cleaning house. When the cow bell rings, we walk the few steps to share breakfast, lunch and dinner with fellow artists, and are nourished by the healthy locally sourced food that is prepared especially for our  group.  It is hard not to think of the monks who came before us, similarly breaking bread together in communal fashion, tending to their inner as well as outer lives.  As it has for centuries, La Romita offers the rare gifts of sanctuary and community;  and t is a place for personal transformation. Here art becomes a way of experiencing a deeper connection with ourselves and the world around us.

Island Adventure MISA style! May 19-23, 2014

Layne Kennedy-LEAP_LCK1208 (2)Madeline Island School of Art

When I was invited to teach in Wisconsin, images that came to mind were rolling hills, dairy farms and plains, not an island!  What a treat to learn of this gem of a place, the  Madeline Island School of Art , which is indeed a former dairy farm with woods all around.  It is the perfect artist retreat opportunity. Surrounded by Lake Superior, the school offers the rare experience  of making art in nature undisturbed by the usual distractions of 21st century living.  Given the focus of the class I will teach-art journaling—the location is perfect.  There will be space in the classroom for joyful collaboration, time for field trips to surrounding wooded areas and the beach, as well as opportunities for working in solitude, alone or surrounded by fellow artists.  Indeed, the purpose of the class is first and foremost about cultivating connection: with one’s self and one’s surroundings.

Art journaling may not fully describe the class I will be facilitating on this Island retreat. It is really about learning to accept where one is,  and  to enjoy exploring  the  myriad possibilities of artistic expression.  The only prerequisite for the course is curiosity and a willingness to discover new things.  Integrating writing, handwriting or calligraphy, gestural marks, simple sketching, painting, collage will provide the opportunity to learn about basic design and composition.  Contour and gestural drawing exercises will teach us to learn how to see.  Rhythm and writing exercises will show us that “beautiful writing” can be our own handwriting, and can be viewed as texture, line and image. The main focus, however,  will be on getting comfortable with greeting the blank page with  less fear and trepidation, and more wonder and curiosity.

Whatever one’s experience, it is common to fear the blank page-particularly the ones in hand bound books.  We wait for the time to be “good enough” to put something in these precious items, and that time never arrives. “I’ don’t have the right skills!” or “I will ruin it!” we say to ourselves convincingly, and the book remains empty and forlorn, a pretty “air-head” object on a shelf.  The time is now to fill that book with life in a unique setting surrounded by like-minded fellow artists.

Because the class includes exercises in drawing and calligraphy, it might seem to require a certain set of skills.  Not so! All levels of experience are welcome, In fact everyone will come away with a unique, hand-made journal filled with interesting images, lines, words, marks, as well as a sketchbook filled with new ideas for further development.  Authenticity trumps skill, in this case, and you will be surprised at how much you connect with what you create.

I look forward to exploring the new (to me) world of Madeline Island and teaching in such an inviting location.  Watch for me on the ferry to the island. I will be the one with the sketchbook in my hands!