I am sorry to report right from the start, that I did not take pictures. I am disappointed. The opportunity almost presented itself, but I was not able to explain why I wanted to take them. More on that further down.

The mood in the room was light and very positive. Only three others showed up, which was a bit disappointing. As you may recall, the topic of the day was anger. More specifically, which I did not hear, the animal that best represents our anger. I love animals, and do not have one that I can single out for this privilege. That particular part of the instructions had not registered. My painting does not have an animal in it, unless you consider the face that of an animal.

We started with the usual round the table is everything OK discussion. I decided to speak first. Big step for me. Surprisingly easy to do. There was more discussion this time about the types of cancer that we have. Or had. Or are dancing with. Or living with.  I mentioned that I had colon cancer. One of the participants urged me to use a different set of words to describe what I have,m since language has a huge impact on how we feel. Saying that I “have” cancer, has a negative impact on me. I do not recall what language she suggested. It sounded far more passive. It makes sense on some level. But I do have colon cancer, as the oncologist appointment confirmed. I felt that I am saying I have cancer until the doctors tel me I do not. It does not depress me, or change my mood. It is a fact. I pointed out that when the cancer has spread as far as this one has, you have cancer. That is all there is to it.

The moderator had to reign in the discussion several times. We were almost out of control. We had to get to the subject matter and start our art and stop talking, even though it was interesting and helpful. One participant talked about an issue she is having with a friend (relative?), the mention of whose name upsets her. How do you handle these situations? Not enough time for a full discussion, though the topic did return under a different guise. I will keep you in suspense for a while.

One person went to the gym for the first time in a year. Muscles ached that should not be aching. Happy aches. She has started to put on weight and felt strong enough to face the gym. She was athletic before and the return is a huge step forward. Someone else talked about putting on weight. We are all putting on weight which is a good thing, to a point. I wonder if we are eating our way out of this?

A very brief discussion took place over the tole of friends and relatives. This is a recurring theme. I find it interesting. On one hand no pressure should be put on others. They don’t understand, do they. On the other, how dare they abandon us? Takes too much energy to deal with the externals. Why have they stopped calling? Someone said it is almost as if they are doing crisis management for the first couple of weeks, then return to their lives. Surely that is normal and to be expected. I did not say much. I have the great bounty of a huge number of friends and relative who keep pestering me. Bring it on.

No one seemed to anxious to start painting. Everyone said they have no anger. Either dealt with it. Never had it. Gone. In the past. Move on. One person had spoken me about her issues before the session started. She suffers from an anxiety disorder. She described the symptoms to me. I have a good friend who has the same issue/condition. I am well versed in it. The participant mentioned that cancer is a walk in the park compared to the the anxiety thing.

I will start with her painting. It is funny how we paint things, the interpretation of which takes us by surprise. She painted a stick figure of herself. Eyes, top of head, arms and legs. Just enough to give it shape and proportions. Around it were red strokes, akin to flames in orange and red. To one side was a series of blue strokes, and to the other green. Almost symmetrical. The red flames encroached severely on the person in the middle. The blue and gree were a bit farther out.  This is an anxiety attack, where the heart palpitations start, and the person feels engulfed by flames. The blue is a coll breeze that should help calm the person down, and the green represents more calmness.  The attacks occur most often in enclosed spaces, elevators, the subway, specially if it stops in a tunnel and the doors remain closed. No air, no breathing, flames run rampant.

Someone asked why there was no mouth. I asked why the question? What is the significance to the mouth not being there? The painter did not have an answer. The person posing the question suggested that the lack of a mouth would suggest that she cannot talk to express herself. By which token, the lack of ears means she cannot hear, and nose she cannot breathe.  Much to my surprise, the painter agreed that during the attacks, she cannot breathe, or talk, or hear anything. Her heart starts palpitating, she gets very hot, heart races, then everything stops. The moderator asked her how her painting made her feel. She responded that her anxiety levels were increasing the more she looked at it. Would she feel better if she covered the red with blue paint. Yes she would.

I so wanted to take a picture of the before and after. This was so powerful and evoked such emotions. The moderator stopped me, quite brusquely. He was right of course. What a missed opportunity. I did not have time to explain why I wanted to take the picture. It represented such a momentous occasion for the participant. I really did not care if it did appeared in the blog. That was secondary. It was capturing the moment. The release in her as she covered the red with blue was palpable. We suggested to her that maybe visualising painting a situation blue would help ease the attacks. Amateur psychiatrists, one and all.

I was very upset at the missed opportunity. Janet pointed out the irony of the situation. Getting upset at a situation in an session dealing with anger.

Another participant painted the logo from the Florida Panthers. A brown panther (I have to talk to her about the colours) surrounded by yellow, black and red, nails in red and yellow, mouth in red, teeth exposed, claws raised. As angry a beast as one could ever wish for. She maintained that her anger is behind her. She is reconciled, content and moving on. She drew the panther because that was the assignment. What gets her really angry is the lack of civility in the world. No thank-you’s, and pleases. People butting in front of you without so much as a if-you-please. Aggressive drivers, people cutting people off, rude, inconsiderate, lowering our standards to the lowest common denominator. That is what really makes her angry. She got quite animated during this description. In all fairness, she is quite animated to begin with, but there was a glimmer of more. The panther was described as a protector, a beast that would defend her against the butting-inners, the callous nature of beings. She liked that image. Grrrr.

It occurred to me later as I mulled this conversation over and over in my head, that the anger is misplaced. That may be the wrong term. We don’t get angry at people butting in, or not saying thank-you, or sorry. We get upset. We are disappointed. We shake our heads. Angry? Doubt it. Is it possible that she is still angry but is repressing it? She reads this blog. I am not saying anything to offend her, but rather to further the discussion. As I have said many times, no judgments. Is the anger still inside somewhere, waiting to be acknowledged? An active sportsperson who is suddenly afflicted. Not sure how I would react in her shoes. I am not a terribly physically active person. Walking is the extent of my exercise. I would think anger would play a part. She says she is past it, and we have to take her at her word. Anger is showing up in her in places that, logically, should not be manifesting itself.

The third participant drew a dragon breathing fire. She exclaimed that her dragon does not look angry or fierce, since dragons always breathe fire. No idea why she drew this. She grew up in a house filled with anger which seemed to stop more positive elements from taking place. Makes sense. Nothing worse than rampant anger. The most curious statement she made that was not picked up on by anybody was that emotions do not have a place in an ordered society since they tend to derail things. Ordered society? This requires a definition, to say nothing of the premise itself. Maybe next week.

Her dragon was on the right side of the page facing left. It was suggested that this represents the past, and that indeed, she had put her anger behind her and was moving forward. A middle placed dragon would have represented the present, and a right looking one the future. The flying dragon may also represent the long journey home. The discussion around her painting came back to the one I mentioned at the very beginning of this post.

Letting go. It is so important to let go of things, be they negative emotions, anger toward people or events, or whatever. Peace and tranquility are a must for the cancer body. Is letting go an active or passive act? What are the steps required to get there? Acceptance and acknowledgment? Forgiveness? Forgetting? She can forgive, but not forget. I maintain that letting go is a passive act. It is accomplished after all the steps leading to it are complete. The steps are active, but the act of letting go is passive. I may have been in a minority. We talked about her capacity to let go, returning to her friend/family person whose mere mention upsets her so. Letting go of feelings of resentment toward those who she feels turned their back on her during this struggle.

Can you forgive and forget? Can you forgive without forgetting? Should you forget? Do you have to keep a vestige of the memory for future reference so the slight does not happen again. A bit like remembering history so it does not repeat itself. And we know how good we have been at that. Can you forget and still learn from past experiences? We tend to insist on remembering the bad as a point of reference, but often overlook the good. We learn from our past mistakes. Surely also from the non-mistakes.

We are constantly told to deal, forgive, forget and move on. Specially when the memory is a bad one. Seems like a natural. At the risk of offending a whole bunch of people, including some very dear relatives, we have remembered the events of the Holocaust for over 60 years. There is no denying the horrendous activities that took place, the numbers of people who have been affected, the incredible cruelty inflicted on so many people. The point of remembering the Holocaust is not the numbers of people who were killed, 6 million Jews. Over 25 million died in the war dwarfing that figure. It is surely the systemic attempt to annihilate a people, a culture.  We remember in spite of the deniers. We see pictures. Germany recently released the Holocaust files which are being or have been digitized allowing descendants to find out what happened to their ancestors. We remember.

To what end. Humanity has repeated similar actions again and again. Rwanda. Sudan. Serbia/Croatia. Congo. Uganda. Kenya. To name a few. The memory of the Holocaust has not stopped these ravages from taking place. I doubt  someone is sitting there saying, oh yeah, cannot annihilate those people, remember the Holocaust. And yet, we insist on remembering. The only country that has been truly affected by the memory are the Germans, who are still paying a price in spite of the reparations they have done. Should we not forget and let go the past? Let Germany and Germans off the hook?

My Painting:



The spoon is filled with anger being fed to the person. The cancer cells grow and multiply turning red as they grow larger. Not good. We had run out of time by the time the discussion turned to my painting.

We talked a bit about how we react to things. You always have a choice to not get angry. This does not mean you repress it. You just do not get angry. Anger escalates. My brother told me a story during his last visit. He was driving somewhere when he decided to take a break and exited at one of those roadside gas stations. He went to the washroom when this young man stormed in and started swearing at him. When asked what was wrong he exclaimed that my brother had cut him off on the highway a while back.  He threatened to beat up my brother.  Talk about road rage. My brother looked at him and said he sees one of two results from this. Either the young can go around bragging that he beat up a man over 60 years old, or he will have to explain to others how an over 60 year old man beat him up. The man calmed down somewhat and started talking to my brother about his problems. What often triggers an emotion is not the root cause of it.

I used to work with this wonderful lady who was in charge of customer service. I was amazed by her poise on the phone. Nothing rankled her. She was always calm. Until she put the customer on hold. She would bang the phone down, let go a litany of swear words. She would research the subject, and pick up the phone calm as ever to deal with the customer. She has not changed. She still deals with events in the same way. Mesmerizing.

Anger is a basic human emotions. Men and women handle it totally differently. We shy away from it. Frown on it. Write about it. What else can we do?

The good people at Wellspring allowed me to join the Art Therapy session that takes place on Wednesdays between the hours of 10 and 12.

Devin and I drove Janet to work in the morning. We got to Wellspring about 30 minutes too early. We had a coffee and read the paper.

Art Therapy. I had no idea what to expect and decided to try really hard to keep an open mind. It was not difficult. Last time I had anything to do with painting or drawing was in boarding school in England. I had the dubious distinction of almost failing that class. I mean really, who “fails” at art class? There were too many other things going on in my life at the time, like surviving in an all-white school as the only coloured person. Minor issue.

The room was small with a large square boardroom table. The instructor was still setting things up after the 10AM start time. It really matters little. What else do we have to do? Places to be? The table was covered with a couple of pieces of rubber mats. The type that some people put on their dining room tables to protect the surface. I gather that it was the first time for everyone based on the reaction to the mat and the discussion regarding its fabric. This did not bode well. The mats were covered with dry paint from previous such classes. By the time the dust had settled, there were six women in the room and moi, the sole male. Perfect ratio.

About 35 years ago, in Montreal, I went out to dinner with a bunch of friends and my sister Fetneh. There were 8 of us, if I recall. The waiter kept giving me the hairy eyeball. I was starting to wonder if I knew the guy and had offended him somewhere. It suddenly occurred to me, as I looked around the table, that his look was more quizzical than hairy. He was wondering what a douche bag like me was doing with seven women. The harem, such as it was, consisted of my sister, my oldest friend Nahed Rushdy and a bunch of other platonically related people. Nahed and I grew up in Ethiopia. She pointed out to me the other day, that we have known each other since grade whatever in the 60′s. Just to say, I have been in this situation many times.

The assortment of people was varied. You have to understand that all the goings on at these sessions is strictly confidential. So you can’t just go and blab it out to everyone. You stand on notice. The lady sitting beside me also has colon cancer. Her surgery is done and she is mending. She was very sweet and gentle in her manners. She does not need chemo therapy, lucky her. We will talk more next week. I have to digress again.

I used to be a computer trainer.  I noticed at a particular point that people tend to sit in the same seats when they come back for more training. Does not matter if the training is at their location or ours. The person would come back for their second training day, be it a day, week, or month later, and make a bee-line for the seat they had occupied the last time they were there. They were also quite put out and almost disoriented if someone had beaten them to their seat. It is a very peculiar behaviour. Not sure what it means, or how you would go about studying it.

I am sure that we will all sit in the same seats next week. I might even go in a bit late to test this. The instructor set up the room. Lots of paper, bowls of paint of all the primary colours and a couple more, pails of crayons and chalk, markers of all colours. Once settled, we were given our instructions.

We are going to paint, and discuss our paintings with everyone else. No judgments, All positive. No matter that you cannot paint. Let the child within you rear its tempestuous head and take over. Relax. Cry. Put your hands in the paint if you want the tactile feel. Everything is confidential. No recriminations. We are all in the same boat. Cool.

Our first assignment: paint your name. Not necessarily literally, though that is what we all did, but what you feel your name represents. Are you happy with your name? Do you love or hate it? Does it evoke joy? Whatever. The lady next to me folded her sheet in half. These are large sheet measuring 24 by 18 inches. She was being practical since there was little room. I followed suit. I was also being practical. How could I possibly fill up that amount of space?

Some of us sat there looking pensive, trying to not look concerned over the fact that we really did not understand how you could paint your name. Most went ahead and wrote their names down in BIG letters and started to colour them in, adding more and more detail. I decided to draw my name in Persian, just to be a bit different. I can neither read nor write the Farsi language, but I can write my name. It is a complicated language, beautiful, lyrical, but complicated. I painted some grass at the bottom of the page, a tree on the right, and a giant sun above and to the left. My name was front and centre. The sun is shining on me. So many interpretations!


People revealed a bit of themselves in the paintings, which made for a very interesting session. One person drew a heart in which she drew the faces of her family. She cried when she told us what that was about, specially when she said she wants to live. Very poignant. Others added some elements of what they like to do around their names. Statements of fashion design, traveling (planes), and water. Lots of water all around. Seems water has a very calming effect on people.

One person had splotches of purple, and brown and various other colours all over the paper. It was all covered and looked a bit peculiar. Turns out it was her garden of lilac trees. Made perfect sense. You could see the garden come to life in all the splotches and stains covering the wrinkling paper.

Another drew a house with a path leading up to it. Her name was written inside in all its blazing glory.  She craved the safety of the roof over her head. She said she had no idea why she drew what she did, just came to her.

There was a fair bit of chatter, but nothing of any consequence. Strangely no one asked for an explanation of my choice of language. Devin thinks I should take up calligraphy. So I went out and bout some pens, paper and a book to see where it takes me.

The next assignment was to paint our safe place. This smacked a of of the meadow exercise in the relaxations and visualization session. Devin said I should have painted a swarm of mosquitoes. Not very safe. This one took a while. I have never really thought of a safe place. My bed? That is where I go when I am tired, or need to get away from everyone. But I would hardly call it a safe place. Specially when one of the cats decides that any time is good to lie on my stomach. What or where is a safe place? This one took a while. I watched as the others threw themselves into the project with great gusto. The person to my left, of the roof over her head fame, was also deep in thought. Another participant had closed her eyes and deep in thought. It turns out she was doing a deep breathing exercise and centering herself. Interesting concept.

So I sat there. The person to my left requested pencils to draw with. And so we sat, contemplating the safe place conundrum. My colon cancer partner had found a safe place of sorts. She watching the birds swooping in to their nests in the building across the driveway. They felt safe. She felt she had found something. I finally found mine.


Ramone Alones

The text which you can barely read says:
Nothing like a great Cuban cigar on a warm evening surrounded by friends and family enjoying the times, dinner, conversation.

My painting generated far more conversation than I expected. They wanted to know about cigars, do you inhale? What makes a cigar good? How much does a cigar cost? Do women smoke? The caption under the title: Ramon Alones reads: The ultimate Cuban cigar. 45 minutes of bliss. 45 minutes? Are you kidding me. Hence the safe place. Sit, smoke, enjoy the company and the moment.

One person drew a church, and her house, her garden, and family. Another her time at a cottage that she found peaceful under the radiant sun surrounded by water. Another drew reference to her cottage that always brings solace and peace. My colon cancer partner gave up on drawing the building across the way. Her drawing was the most moving for me. Her thinking evolved into drawing a bunch of rectangular boxes in a bit of a pelle mele from the top of the page to the bottom. Somewhere in the middle of the page, two of the boxes leaned against one another. She drew herself in the triangle that was created by the joining of the boxes. There was great emphasis on the person. She surrounded herself with more protection, dark lines that enclosed her in the space. She equated her safe place with somewhere to feel comfortable and warm, a place to make peace with yourself. I will have to spend a bit more time with her. She is proving vulnerable and terribly interesting.

This is a long post. There is more.

These paintings generated a lot of conversation. Not sure how much of it was intended or not. The instructor was content to let people speak their mind and comment. He was quiet through most of the banter. There was a great deal of respect amongst the participants. No recriminations or judgments. All talked and participated. I took a lot of notes.

How do you define a safe place? Is it internal or external? Mention was made of the people who get caught in disasters losing their homes and belongings. How distraught they are. Have they lost their safe place? Should they consider the material belongings as safe? Is it not better to internalize the safe place? That way you have with you always, taking it with you through good times and bad. Radiating from the inside out.

How do you deal with the well meaning people who surround you with the best of intentions? You keep having to explain yourself and what you are going through. People just don’t get it. They ask the same questions, over and over again. We are dealing with the pain, both physical and emotional, why don’t people understand? We are trying to remain optimistic as we travel this long journey, trying to forge a new identity, a new reason for being. Why don’t people understand? Relatives and friends, all well meaning who criticize you for having a messy house instead of pitching in to help. Why don’t they understand? Should we expect them to understand?

What expectations should we have of others? How do we get support mechanisms in place that would ease the pain? What role does religion play? Is it a panacea? Or a placebo? Giving you false hope and expectations? How does God talk to us?

We talked about making a connection with life, with the earth, digging your hands in the garden and feeling the soil.

Water was in three or four of the drawings and paintings bringing peace and tranquility to people’s souls. Water, vast, in constant motion, calming, at peace with itself.

A couple of people cried, albeit briefly, stifling back the tears and immediately apologising for it. Everyone was quick to offer them tissues. Why apologise? Of all places, this is the one where no apology is required. Don’t they know that we all cry? All the time? We apologise for all sorts of things.

I had a surprisingly good time at this session. It lasted over 2 hours. The instructor had a difficult time bringing it to an end. The group was not willing to let things go. I am looking forward to next Wednesday. Look forward to your comments.

© 2010 I Have Cancer Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha