Molly Fisk: In the Details

Yesterday morning, my photo was splashed on the front page of our local paper, which made me feel like a movie star. Middle-aged poets rarely get this feeling, and I milked it for as long as I could, e-mailing the link to my friends and relations and even showing my name in print to the cats. It’s important to celebrate when good things happen. Heaven knows we get enough bad news these days! Five out of five looked up from their napping locations to see if there was food involved and then went back to sleep.

The article said I’d been teaching writing to cancer patients for 17 years. This is true. Cancer patients and their friends, caregivers, families, anyone involved. I’ve probably worked with 600 people all told, and most of them are still alive, which is a miracle and has nothing to do with my teaching skills.

The class helps people feel better in the moment, less isolated and alone, more a part of the human family. There’s good scientific evidence to back up the benefits of writing as a way to boost your immune system. But I don’t measure any of this. I ask my students to describe what they wore to the prom, the make of their favorite car, the view out their back door. We write about cancer, its humiliations, our sadness and rage. But also about the funny stuff: the ridiculous medical names, the weird things people say to make you feel better that make you feel worse instead. How many boxes of Kleenex or syringes of morphine one house can hold. Horrible hospital food.

We go more deeply into gratitude than you might imagine: revelations we’ve had, the incredible help from medical staff, all the wonderful people along the way. Getting so close to death and then living, at least for a little while, makes you thankful for the tiniest things: flavors and textures and melodies. Colors. I had half a grapefruit the day I got home after cancer surgery and nearly passed out in delight — I’ll never forget the intensity of it.

The architect Mies van der Rohe famously said that God was in the details. Leaving God to more qualified people, I think life is in the details. In class, we just look for little snippets, sometimes profound but often frivolous, dredging them up from memory to re-examine. A lake we swam in, a dog we loved, rain in Mexico or Missouri, anything. Everything. Lawn statues. Lip gloss.

The thing is, if you aren’t dead yet, from cancer or anything else, then you’re still alive. This is somehow easy for the human brain to forget. Part of my work is to remind us all, myself included, that the details matter. They have made us who we are, and will be with us through to the end.

There’s a line I love in a poem by Galway Kinnell called “Wait,” that goes: “Distrust everything, if you have to. / But trust the hours. Haven’t they / carried you everywhere up to now?”


Yes, one at a time, they have.


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  • Angelee Deodhar August 5, 2017 at 8:38 pm

    Dear Molly,Hello from India.Thank you for your timely reminders off the things which matter,love and light,angelee

  • JoAnn Anglin June 11, 2017 at 1:32 am

    Molly — I’ve been a student and admirer of yours for quite a while, and I love your earthy focus on the nitty gritty, on recalling the ephemera and making it tangible.

  • Karen Donaldson June 10, 2017 at 12:48 pm

    Thank you so much for your potent and timely reminders, Molly. How fortunate we are that you have such a wonderful way with words.

  • Mickey M. June 10, 2017 at 10:23 am

    I love your writing, Molly. Thank you so very much for your service to the 600 and to us, your readers. Hugs.

    • Molly Fisk June 10, 2017 at 4:30 pm

      thanks, Karen!

    • Molly Fisk June 10, 2017 at 4:31 pm

      The pleasure is mine, Mickey. Hugs back. 😉