By Denise Hart
Words are the substance of life. They can empower. Like, “Go ‘head girl, you got it!” Words can also change lives. “I’m sorry, but… you have breast cancer.” After a routine exam followed by a biopsy; my doctor uttered these words and my life as I’d known it, was forever changed. “How could this be? I am in the best shape of my life.” I thought to myself, as he handed me a referral to see a surgeon. I was 38 years old and I thought I was going to die. Well, as you can see, I didn’t die. However, my mother did.
A mere 2 months after I’d had a successful mastectomy and reconstruction surgery, my mother, seven hundred miles away, telephoned to tell me that she’d gone to the doctor, they’d found something, and she was going to need surgery. The lump was on the left side. Like the initials of our names, our cancers mimicked one another. She had the surgery, followed by radiation. Within a year, she was gone.
A guy I once dated would on occasion call me a “Happy White Person.” Although it was rather derogatory, it wasn’t far off from how I positioned my life, at least the happy part. I’d come of age during the “Don’t worry Be Happy” era and at all costs I was trying to stay that way.
We had the funeral. I grieved, but for the most part tried to maintain my general happy and positive disposition. People were counting on it, or so I believed. But, life’s one certainty (that death eludes no one) was slowly revealing to me the naiveté of excessively embracing the notion that all you had to do in life was focus on staying positive and everything would go your way.
About a month after the funeral I went to Chicago to attend an intensive week-long acting and writing workshop at Second City Comedy Center. It was the hardest, yet the best thing I could have done. We did all kinds of wild and crazy exercises like, became animals and created these out-the-box characters, but there was one exercise in particular that I especially enjoyed. It was called, the list of ten. The teacher would give a topic and you had to write quickly from your gut. Ten responses to the topic with no pondering allowed. We explored all kinds of things: ten clown names, ten things you hate, ten locations, ten people you love. I brought the exercise back to Howard University and passed it on to my playwriting students. I hoped that they too would discover the empowerment that comes from trusting yourself by being in the moment and learn that the one necessity of life is to feel all of your feelings fully, both the happy and the not so; and to learn how to express those feelings with honestly, dignity, and grace.
Fast forward to 2007, I moved along with the flow of my life. I set and pursued several major goals, and throughout the year, despite many challenges, most of them came to pass. Success was proving to be no stranger in 2007, but yet, things were just a bit off, there was an undeniable void. The void of not having my mother on the other end of the phone saying, “Oh, that’s good baby! That’s real good.” I had to discover that there was no comfort in a manufactured happiness, but to take real comfort in the only thing I had left. The memory of tone, pitch and timbre that could put everything into perspective because when she spoke, her words were few, but they carried strength. They told you, “Go ‘head girl, you got it;” memory of a laugh so sweet people two doors down from her hospital room would break into a smile. Memories of love and support that I didn’t always acknowledge, yet finally realized she didn’t need me to.
As 2007 was coming to an end I started thinking about my new year’s resolution. I always made a resolution. I liked having something to focus on throughout the year. However, one after the other I discarded each topic that came to mind. Uninspired, I brought in the new year unable to declare the holiday’s pre-requisite: hoped-for-change.
Two weeks into ’08, restless, missing the feeling of being anchored that declaring a resolution always made me feel; I got up around midnight, got out my pen and some paper and started my list of 10. 10 Principles for a well lived life, I wrote, and effortlessly the list came through: Life, Faith, Revolution, Reciprocity, Creation, Friendship, Affirmation, Mission, Inspiration, and Beauty. I pulled out my dictionary and looked up each word meditating on understanding its meaning and significance in my life. As I read back over the list, I nodded my head in agreement, knowing that this list was something that had been working in me every since I’d heard those words, “I’m sorry, you have breast cancer;” every since my mother said she was going to be alright and the next thing I knew there we all were, gathered around, burying her next to her mother. I knew that in 2008 and beyond this list of 10 principles for a well lived life was something I would embrace and strive to embody for the rest of my life. Not just believe them, but become them. Living life guided by a list of 10.
I think you should give it a try. Get out your pen, some paper, give yourself a topic and let the magic of trusting yourself, listening to your inner-you, give you the kind of discovery that only your soul knows you need.
The author is an Assistant Professor who teaches acting and playwriting. She is a 2007 semi-finalist in the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, and the owner of internet based – Words to Live By “tees with a positive vibe embracing change!” http://www.wordstolivebytees.com/
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