The Writing Life

Raise Your Glass…5 Simple Steps to Deliver a Memorable & Wonderful Toast

Posted by on May 30, 2018 in Writing | 0 comments

Raise Your Glass…5 Simple Steps to Deliver a Memorable and Wonderful Toast … And a few “do nots.”

It’s June. It’s getting hotter. Summer is beginning. It also can be the beginning of new things for different people. So folks plan a party, celebration, or a ceremony. We’re all so happy. Perhaps your best friend is getting married, graduating, having a baby, retiring, getting an award, celebrating a milestone anniversary or service to an organization. People will tell funny stories about the bride, groom, grad, parents-to-be, honoree, or retiring colleague. Others will say all the wondrous things they’ve done. And you have been asked to give The Toast.

5-steps to prepare and deliver a toast that will provide a smooth start to the occasion:

Greet the audience, attendees and the honoree.

  1. Why are you gathered?
  2. Who are you honoring?
  3. Why?
  4. What have they accomplished?
  5. What do you wish for them?

Consider your audience when you prepare the speech (for that is what it is). Write out a few sentences about the person(s) and the occasion. What’s funny between you and the honoree may not be funny in front of 200 people. Do not “wing it” because you’ve known the person for 20 years. Find out where your toast will be on the agenda. Know who will introduce you. Know who will take over after the toast.

What to say:

  1. Why: “A wedding is a joyous time and today we are here to celebrate the partnership of …”
  2. Who: Their name, their title, your connection with them. This connects the guests to you. Be brief. This is about the honorees, not you.
  3. Why this person(s): Share positive qualities about the couple.
  4. What they have accomplished: This can be the place for a brief personal anecdote that highlights the positive bond of the honorees. Humor is appropriate if that’s your style. Be different if you can pull it off. Some toasts have been sung, but only if you are really good at singing.
  5. What you wish for them: This is the actual sendoff. To the attendees: “Please stand and raise your glass.” (Make sure everyone has a glass of something even if they do not drink alcohol). Then, facing the honorees, say their name and your wish. Working in 3’s has a nice rhythm. “May  you have …” “Health, happiness, and love.” Or more concrete 3’s. “Words of kindness, days filled with smooth sailing on your beloved lake, and brilliant sunsets as you head home.” Or 2 serious wishes and 1 humorous. “Lots of hugs, shared laughter, and fresh coffee in the morning.”

Then, the simple toast that the guests repeat. “To Dyanne and Jo, I wish you _____” Say something clear and easy for guests to repeat.

Practice your toast numerous times with a smile.

Standing, either holding your glass waist high or having it in front of you on the table, or in your hand if you are at a podium. Say your toast looking at the guests and honorees as appropriate. At the “To ____ and ____”  pick up and raise your glass to the honorees, say your final words. Look at the guests holding your glass up as a hint for them to do the same, they repeat the words. Applaud.

Do not “wing it.” You’ve been chosen to do this as something special. It requires more than a wing.

Do not read your toast. Practice until you know the speech. Keep a small index card with notes if necessary.

Do not tap the mic or ask, “Can you hear me?” Test the mic before the reception. You will be there early, right? At the very most, ask, “If you can hear me, raise your hand in a happy hello to ___ .“ If folks don’t respond, they can’t hear you. Know who can fix the mic. Be prepared to have the mic in one hand and your glass in the other.

Do not apologize for anything. NO “I’ve never done this before.” “I forgot my notes.” “I’m really nervous.”

Do not ramble. 3-5 minutes unless you have a specific skit planned. Then do the skit and the actual toast is still 3-5 minutes. Be prepared. Be brief. Be seated.

These simple guidelines will have the honorees and guests breathing easy, smiling, and ready to enjoy the event.

Need help? Contact Ethel.

Twenty years in Toastmasters International, seven years as a professional speaker and attending “I’ve lost count” number of conferences, dinners, weddings, celebrations of life, and award ceremonies, qualify Ethel Lee-Miller to share these simple steps for giving a toast. Enjoy!

Read Like a Writer, Travel Like a Writer

Posted by on May 28, 2018 in Writing | 2 comments

I’ve consciously and seriously been on the lookout for writing ideas for decades. Even before I considered myself a writer, I’d “see” scenes, overhear conversations, observe body language and immediately go off into creating a silent and soon a written riff about it.

In 2006 Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them came up in discussion at a writing group. YES! was my immediate reaction. Being a lover of reading – for escape, information, affirmation, and communication, my copy of her book soon became dog-eared, underlined, and highlighted with “yes,” “try this,” and “what?”

“Read to savor words, to recognize techniques, to absorb plot, setting, dialogue, format, sentence structure, and plain old punctuation and capitalization.” F. Prose. This blended with observing and writing in my head anywhere.

Early in May my husband and I went on a river cruise. When I travel I take a journal (now iPad) and camera (now iPhone). Sure I still take shots of architecture, gardens, people, flowers, artwork and new friends. With Francine Prose in my head, the perspective is just a bit different.


Who hauled those stones up to the top of the ceiling in St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest? What did Richard the Lionhearted think when he was treated like a king but still a prisoner in Durnstein? Stories set in Budapest, Prague, Regensburg, and Vienna become misty possibilities.



If you are Jewish, how different are your thoughts from mine about the Jewish memorial in Regensburg knowing your ancestors were expelled in the 1500s, came back in the 1600s only to be persecuted again by the Nazis? Is it comforting to see the 2005 memorial to the original synagogue? Or is it a disturbing feeling that here was a place you were not wanted? What if I lived then? I’d probably be going to the Protestant Church near the synagogue.

I’m savoring words from travelers, guides and native residents, absorbing dialogue in accents and cadence different from mine, recognizing the sometimes disturbing concept of how history does repeat itself.

Meeting new people on our ship as we cruised the Danube River holds a more immediate level of connection. We are a floating village, pampered and certainly privileged to travel as we do. With the passenger list of mostly couples I’m in relationship idea heaven. Here are couples together for 2, 10, 20, 30, 56 years (yes 56!). Their body language, eye contact (or lack of it), gestures, physical attributes and partnership habits are grist for the mill of character development in future essays and stories.

Aside: The answer to my question, “To what do you attribute the longevity of your relationship?” usually had to do with having a sense of humor, communicating, and not sweating the small stuff.

It’s a cornucopia of writing ideas for me.

Back in my office here in Tucson, I look through photos and write quick snippets of ideas before the magic of the trip fades. So many stories…

How does travel affect your writing? If you’re not a writer, how does travel affect your sense of who you are? What other awarenesses are awakened from your travels?

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.

The (strange) Power of Words

Posted by on May 27, 2018 in Writing | 0 comments

I’ve been a wordsmith for a couple of decades now and my mantra is “Words are powerful.” One word can make me laugh, paint a picture, produce an immediate emotional reaction, or completely stop me in my tracks.

Here’s a different perspective. When people use words in all earnestness and fail quite miserably, after I feel a flush of embarrassment for the speaker, I can usually see some semblance of humor in the misuse. (Just don’t focus on the fact that some misusers have an incredible amount of political or economic power).

That aside, have fun with these. Some folks call ‘em them brain cramps, I like brain naps. It gives a bit of future credence to the speakers when they “wake up.”

“I’ve never had major knee surgery on any other part of my body,” –U of Kentucky player           Now there’s an image.

“That lowdown scoundrel deserves to be kicked to death by a jackass, and I’m just the one to do it,”    –A congressional candidate. Hmm.

 “Half this game is ninety percent mental.” –Sports team manager  But I know this feeling. Math Dyscalculia.

“I love California. I practically grew up in Phoenix.”   –A political candidate. Where was he in third grade geography? Remember filling in the US map? Name the states.

“Your food stamps will be stopped, effective March 1992 because we received notice that you passed away. May God bless you. You may reapply if there is a change in your circumstances.” –Department of Social Services. Ya gotta love this one!

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.








A Writer’s Tapestry

Posted by on May 26, 2018 in Writing | 0 comments

“Tapestry of  a Writer” 

adapted by Ethel Lee-Miller

I am a writer’s tapestry

Weaving all experiences, feelings, encounters.

Discovering, choosing, being shown words, phrases, sentences

Creating images of stories, poetry, essays, and books

To delight, define, confront, and comfort my readers and myself.


With appreciation to Yvonne Kaye. I discovered her poem over five years ago. It was applicable then and continues to be today.

“Tapestry of a Woman”

by Yvonne Kaye

I am an emotional tapestry, created by the gifts of silken feelings

From those who have entered my life

And enriched it.

My core is formed from encounters with people

Who have loved me enough

To rearrange my thoughts

And show them to me.

I have learned from all those

Who have passed my way,

Experiences of all kinds,

Positive, negative, passionate, serene, happy, funny, sad.

None are wasted.

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.


Thanking a Dance Mentor

Posted by on May 3, 2018 in Writing | 0 comments

Going to college was a given in our family. Education was the key to dispelling ignorance, opening doors, and self-improvement. I don’t think my parents ever said this in so many words, but the actions were there – reading to us, getting a library card at five years old, setting aside time for homework and reading. Our report cards were always discussed before Mom or Dad approved and signed. Books all over the house. My mom was a teacher. My dad was enormously proud of her.

Going to college near my beloved New York City was also a given for me. The lure of culture, museums, shows, clubs, shopping, diversity, and the buzz of energy on the streets of New York brought my twin sister and me to Wagner College on Grymes Hill, Staten Island, then a 5-cent ferry ride to “the city.”

Jane Gardner maintained the tiny dance studio in a small area of the gymnasium. When I found out dance was an accredited course, I signed up for modern dance every semester I could. I got much more. Jane Gardner was also a tiny woman with long straight brown hair that hugged her back all the way to her waist. She was small, fit, articulate, and kind.

After one semester of barefoot dancing in her studio, we were privy to ‘practice’ there during off hours. Imagine five college co-eds in the mid-60s discovering African, Cuban, classical ballet, modern, or rock music that inspired dance steps and routines they had previously only dreamed of.

Mrs. Gardner, for she was always Mrs. Gardner, nurtured the lifelong habit of caring for your body while having fun. I was in the best shape of my life in body and mind during the semesters she mentored us. For mentor us she did.

Trust: Sure you can use the studio.

Confidence: Improvise, what does the music say to you?

Ambition: Come see Alvin Ailey dance at City Center.

See and inspired we were: Judith Jamison in her early days dancing, with attitude, in “Revelations,” Twyla Tharp and Erik Hawkins master classes. Mrs. Gardner had a dance idea– we followed, and never once was there a misstep.

The seeds of the habit of doing something physical and fun each day, to music, were planted in her tiny studio. The possibility that I could perform in a larger arena became a reality years later dancing with Serena Wilson’s Middle Eastern dance troupe in Central Park and Lincoln Center. Even today, more than fifty years later, whenever I hear music I have to get up and dance.

Thank you, Mrs. Gardner.








Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.

Slack Key Love

Posted by on Mar 30, 2018 in Writing | 0 comments

Hawaii has always symbolized romantic love for me – walking hand in hand on sunset-lit beaches, gentle waves lapping at our feet. Last fall my husband Hank and I had big plans to go!! As the day came closer for our departure for Kauai, I found myself playing Hawaiian music, slowing my morning walk to a dreamy saunter, and practicing serene, yet alluring smiles. We were to spend two weeks on Kauai, both the North and South shores. Yes, we were going with our neighbor, a seasoned Hawaii traveler, but had all agreed we didn’t have to be together 24-7. This would surely leave time for – Romance.

Days on the South shore went by quickly – hikes, archeology and garden tours, dinners out with the three Musketeers – as I called us. Nary a glimpse on the horizon of my romantic fantasy with Hank. The North shore and town of Hanalei surely would offer fulfillment. Looking at the weekly bulletin board in a café, my romance radar zoomed in on Slack Key Guitar Concert with Sandy and Doug. Sandy and Doug – yes, my sister had told me about them, how lovely their music was. Relaxed and romantic.

The concert was held in the hamlet of Hanalei on the North shore of Kauai “nestled against the emerald green mountains, rich taro fields, incredible rainbows, with soft trade winds carrying the sounds of surf and Hawaii’s birds through the building.” Nice, eh? (Ok… I admit, that was taken from Sandy and Doug’s website).

Our travel companion had “been there, done that” with slack key. Ha, this could be the prelude to our romantic liaison. My sweetheart agreed to go to the concert because he is usually agreeable to all my ideas, earning himself the title National Treasure. That and the caveat of  “Hey, if it’s not good, we can leave.”

Hawaiian slack key guitar is a finger style guitar art form, created by Hawaiian paniolo (cowboys) in the late 1700’s when guitars were first introduced to Hawaii. The traditional form combines altered tunings to make music that is described as “soft, sweet, and very soothing.”

The popular story is that Mexican vaqueros (cowboys) were hired to teach the Hawaiians how to manage cattle. Mexican longhorn cattle had been introduced as a gift to Kamehameha I in the 1700’s. The cowboys taught the Hawaiians and when they returned to their families on the mainland, some gave their guitars to the Hawaiians.

The Hawaiians didn’t know the chord fretting positions on the guitar neck. Their instruments until then had been percussion. They also didn’t know how to tune the strings… so they loosened the tuners until the strings were slack, sounded nice… and strummed.

Our romance providers are tuning up – Doug and Sandy – two renowned slack key guitarists who’ve been together probably since their twenties. They are of the Age of Aquarius, having been together a long time. They remind me of laidback hippies. She in Hawaiian print dress, long braids, flip-flops; he in a more subdued but Hawaiian shirt, long pants and sandals. They moved, talked, and mesmerized me in a mix of hippie/Hawaiian time and motion.

Two folding chairs are up front, in the open air – although humid and rainy – open air building, two floor mics, a very, very  small floor fan to cool the musicians, and a little table between them with extra picks, CDs, and water bottles.

Sandy both collects the money and performs. Concert pricing- if you are between 20-50 years old, you pay full price; if you’re a student – you get a discount price; over 50– you get an even bigger discount.

If someone came in during a song, Sandy would give a nod, keep playing, and go collect the money at song’s end. The room gradually fills up with tourists, local fans, and folks getting out of the rain. Of the forty people making up the audience, there is one couple, that we can see, who are under forty, or perhaps even under thirty.

We ask the youngsters if they had to pay full price since they are the only younger couple in the entire room. “No, in fact we got the student discount… And..we’re on our honeymoon.” Romance…

“You comin’ there, Sand?” Doug asks over his shoulder.

“Yep.” She sways to her chair. Ah, ok, here we go… Just as she is about to sit down, up she rises, and goes over to the fan.

“I did just fix that,” Doug says in a neutral voice.

“But it’s not perfect,” she replies with purpose. She moves it about one inch. “There.”

Doug gives us that look that many couples are familiar with. It’s the look of someone who knows their partner well, knows there is a certain attention to detail that the other partner does not hold to be vital, and an acceptance that this is how their loved one is comfortable.  Back to her chair.

My sweetheart looks at me and is shaking with silent laughter. “Wha’?” I ask. “Nothing,” he says and puts his arm around me.

Sandy has an easy listening voice. I have heard a supposed story of how they met. Doug came to a party, picked up a guitar and started playing. She was smitten. They’ve been together ever since. I’m reminded how I first fell in love with Hank’s voice – deep, measured, kind. I squeeze Hank’s hand. He gives the familiar pat, pat, pat back. Sandy shares about Doug’s talent in learning, exploring, and sharing the tradition of slack key. She looks at him. He nods and begins to play.

And I’m off on a quiet trip of musical notes that kind of hang and shimmer before finding their way to the next note.

Then it’s Doug’s turn to talk. He looks at Sandy and takes an egg timer out of his pocket, and sets it. “She only gives me two minutes to talk.” She gives a Mona Lisa smile. But he talks about her, how she has created a slack key composition that will make us think of birds chirping. When she plays, he accompanies her and occasionally looks at her, and his face is undeniably peaceful and happy. When she finishes, he plucks one string on his guitar – the note of the bird. He looks at us like Didn’t I tell you?

They are a couple. They are individual musicians, and they are each other’s champions.

What is love? It’s more than passion, kisses, and dreamy-eyed sighs. It’s going because ‘she wants to.’ It’s appreciating my National Treasure driving through the afternoon rain, dashing along muddy paths, settling in a one-fan room on a humid day to be treated to 1½ hours of restful music.

Romance is not always as I picture it, but it is always, if I allow it to be, “nahenahe.” Sweet and gentle.

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.

A Weekly Opportunity To Write – With Success

Posted by on Mar 28, 2018 in Writing | 0 comments

“I can’t find the time to write.”

“Too many interruptions.”

“I get distracted.”

“I’m too busy.”

When I said that last one, a tough love colleague barked, (well he didn’t really bark, but it seemed like it) “Come on – Either you want to write this book or you don’t.” A lighter version of “Either #%*@ or get off the pot.” And so I began to change my writing habits and attitude.

WRITING GROUPS WORK: Since 1999 I’ve been a member of one writing group or another that meets for the sole purpose of writing. I know this weekly commitment added to the success of completing my first book, Thinking of Miller Place. When I moved to Arizona in 2009 I knew a writing group that writes was an idea that worked. Sure enough, the second book came together, got revised, edited, and published ––Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. The same has held true for contest submissions, speeches, presentations. If I show up, the “space” is there––the writing gets done.

Writers commit to meet each week at a set time and place with the promise of no interruptions, no cell phones, no one saying “Hey, you’ll be home, you can take care of the plumber/delivery/laundry/kids…”

The Eastside Writing Room is open to all adult writers. You don’t have to live on the eastside of Tucson but it cuts down on travel time if you live near the two hosting locations (private residences). For those not on the eastside, you can trek over by us, but why not try the Downtown Writers Table––an offshoot of our Eastside group.

We state our intentions for the two-hour period and then laptops open, pen to yellow pad, and write in blessed silence.

Here’s what some of our writers say about the Eastside Writing Room:

From Hank: I belong to Eastside Writing Room because I am writing for myself and my family. As a new writer, I need the discipline of setting aside a few hours each week to just put my thoughts and memories into words. I find the writers at Eastside Writing Room comfortable and supportive.

From Bee Bloeser: What a blessing to have discovered this group over three years ago when I was beginning to write my memoir. Critique groups have been of vital importance, but I needed both kinds of support. Two hours of silent, focused writing time helps clarify direction for moving things forward another notch, especially after having declared our intention to our fellow writers.

From Rhema: I am a terrible procrastinator. If I sit down at my computer to write, unless I’m really charged up, I usually end up taking a prolonged break and playing games on Facebook. Having two hours to do nothing but sit and write forces me to get something done. As many authors have said – just write something. It’s a start. You can polish it up later.
I am in a critique group, but we meet irregularly – unfortunately. The Eastside Writing Room is just for writing, not critique. It gets me a push to do more during the rest of the week.

From Rita: I am in this writing group because I have a story to share and I felt that this is the right time for me to share. I enjoy the group and everyone in it, as well as it helps me to write and make the time. This has been a great experience for me.  -Rita Lake – with Realty Executives

From Beth: I love this writing group.  Everyone is serious-minded and we get down to work in short order.  I cannot explain why, but I get some of my best writing done here.  Maybe there is a magic vibe in a room when one is with other writers writing.  I am working on a memoir and have made great progress since joining this group.

Are you in a writing group? What kind? How’s it working for you?

You are welcome to give the Eastside Writing Room a try. Contact Ethel.


Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.

Stuck For A Writing Prompt? Open Your Wallet

Posted by on Mar 22, 2018 in Writing | 0 comments

“From Wallet To Typewriter, The Effects Of Sylvia Plath Are Now For Sale” This article by Rebecca Rego Barry about Sylvia Plath caught my eye for two reasons: I’ve been fascinated with Plath as an author ever since I read The Bell Jar. What influences authors often gives me a great writing prompt. I know I’ll never get any personal items of famous people. Wait. I do have an autographed photo of the Beatles from their Forest Hills concert in 1965. But that’s mine and will never go to auction. I digress.

What would Sylvia Plath have kept in her wallet? Why the recipe for veal? And there’s the answer in the margin: “Ted likes this.”

Here’s the writing prompt. Emptying my wallet and looking at each item was like viewing one of those collections that Facebook puts together as a service to remind me what’s happened in my life. I admit curiosity at what seems an arbitrary choice of what’s Facebook-worthy. But rather than complain, I can revise it and create another device to garner what’s been important to me. The wallet will more than suffice. How many of those cards, photos, and scraps in my wallet are seeds for stories? Well, just about all of them.

The stories I carry. The five-dollar bill folded three times and tucked, not in the billfold but in a side pocket, a remnant of my father’s advice to always carry five dollars and a dime with me at all times. Five dollars would do it decades ago. I remember him showing me the five-dollar bill he had folded in his wallet and how serious he was. “You’ll always be able to take care of yourself; to get help if you need it.”

But the story that shifted to the foreground was the three years in my life when I did not have even $5 and had to scrounge around my apartment or in the penny jar to get $1.00 in change. Why? When? Where was I? How did it feel? Was this a public or private episode in my life? I’m ready to write that story. But am I ready to share that story?

Here’s the ‘gift’ card from Guadalajara Restaurant for $5 (coincidently). Must be six years old. No expiration date. Wonder if I can still use it. It’s so old; why is it still in my wallet? It’s a reminder of the friend I was with when we ate there, and the sad fact that he is no longer actively in my life. I don’t know where he lives, how or what he’s doing, but I get a text message every year wishing me a happy birthday and I send one to him. Couldn’t that mean we are still actively friends?

The battered penny I found recently in a parking lot. It’s pockmarked like it has been drilled with a micro hand drill. An edge of the penny is tissue paper thin. “Find a penny pick it up; all day long you’ll have good luck.” Sure it’s a line from Grease, but my story will be how my older sister looks just as delighted with the find now as she did when we were kids.

And then there’s the ever-growing stack of photos of my beloved and me, and my sisters. I just can’t seem to discard the old black and white one of my Finn and me, and so squeeze it in with each new one in the photo slot.

Make it a group prompt. Teachers are infamous for having a storehouse and treasure chest of things in wallets and handbags. My colleagues and I at Washington School (about twenty years ago) often played Let’s Make a Deal with one of us being Monty Hall. Most of us usually had a piece of chalk (this was before whiteboards). We all had Band-Aids, safety pins, gum, lifesavers, and gold star or heart stickers. The all-time prize went to J.W. who carried a spray can of Lysol. Instant winner.

Adaptations to the “look in your wallet” prompt. If you’re stuck for a writing idea, look in your wallet, or purse. Or have a friend share what’s in their wallet and why. Look in that junk drawer; look in the glove compartment of your car. Does anyone really keep gloves in there? And why is it sometimes called a jockey box? Grist for the mill for another blog.

Take one item. Where did you get it? When? Why? What makes you keep it? Follow the train of thought and write your story. Make it fiction, non-fiction, a fantasy, a mystery.

What’s in your wallet?

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.

“I’m Not Afraid of Cancer”

Posted by on Mar 15, 2018 in Writing | 2 comments

When I was a little girl the modern mode of communication in our house was our very clunky rotary dial black phone with a jacketed (material) round line cord that stretched two feet from the phone to the wall. It was at the hub of our house in the tiny hallway that opened to all the other rooms–living room, kitchen, bathroom, upstairs to my older sister’s room, my room shared with my Finn, and my parents’ bedroom. A hub with no privacy.

If you grew up in the 1950’s and had a phone, the word privacy was further blocked by being on a party line. A live operator connected you to your phone call, but then no one else on the party line could use their phone. Often when you picked up the phone you could hear other people talking.

When my mother got a phone call one afternoon, we overheard:




“I see.”

Then there was murmuring as she dragged the phone into the bathroom, the semi-private area of our house. It only took a few minutes, then click and clunk as she hung up and put the phone back on the little hall table.

My twin sister and I were experts at “reading” moods, atmospheric tension, and body language. Since we were in our room and Mom went into the kitchen with Dad, we heard one six-letter word. Cancer. Then “my mother.” “Funeral.” The air felt thick, almost gray. I learned early on to label it “fear.”

After that phone call I don’t remember any discussions with us. It seems most of my information came from my peers (the Big C), or books in the library (definitions of malignant, surgery, drugs, fatal).

Words are powerful.

It starts with a six-letter word. Cancer.

Then it gets personal: Your neck, brain, skin, lung, breast, bone, soft tissue, sinus, pancreas, uterus, pituitary, renal, vascular.

Then it gets specific: Tumor, lymphoma, leukemia, melanoma, neoplasm, sarcoma.

It gets more specific and more complex: Rhabdomyosarcoma. Esthesioneuroblastoma.

Being Proactive.

Over the years I did what worked for me to diffuse fear of not knowing when a medical issue arose. I asked friends. I went online. I read books; I had good rapport with my doctors.

It helped – some. My grandmother’s cancer was fatal. My sister-in-law died from cancer. My husband’s mother died from cancer. Unlike today I don’t remember hearing of anyone who survived cancer. In 2014 my stepdaughter was diagnosed with lung cancer, which metastasized to her brain. She lived in New Jersey; we were in Tucson. We lived in fear and apprehension every time the phone rang.

Being Very Proactive.

One evening at a Toastmasters meeting, I saw Laura was on the agenda as a speaker. Title of her speech: “I’m Not Afraid of Cancer.” Cancer. The big C. I was back in the gray atmosphere. Not afraid? Come on, who is she kidding?!?!?

I forced myself to listen. Laura’s cancer survival was the first I heard where a patient was very proactive. Of course she got info from her doctors; she’s a Toastmaster and we Toastmasters talk and listen. But Laura did more. She incorporated seven areas of her life that underwent ‘training’ to protect her and help do battle with her cancer. “I made that list based on my research; I didn’t even realize it was seven things until just before giving the speech –  I counted them to ensure I repeated the list without missing one. I’m pleased to provide it here:  diet, sleep, stress management, exercise, community, faith, and freedom from toxic exposures.”

I copied the list to remind myself to personalize this – diet can be the cancer fighting kitchen diet, or go green, or macro, or Mediterranean. Stress management can be yoga, meditation, affirmations, tai chi, walking, journaling. What I came away with was being pro-active and having an inner locus of control can cancel out the debilitating emotion of feeling like a powerless victim.

When a close friend was diagnosed with cervical cancer two years ago, she heard the word cancer, followed by a blur of words and a buzzing sound for the rest of the “test result consult.” When her partner read back some of the information he had written at the doctor’s, he realized there were gaps in the notes he took. That one word and the meanings and experiences attached have caused countless emotional and physical reactions.

Sadly and yet thankfully they both knew people who had gone through treatment and could fill in some of the gaps. They also were online in the next 24 hours, and in touch with her doctor, and the American Cancer Society.

In the last two years, more people in my life have been diagnosed, battled and won (some more than once) against cancer. Some, like my stepdaughter and brother-in-law, fought courageously each morning, each treatment session, each nightime and yet lost the battle with this horrible disease. Some are still holding the line. My friend B. emails me that her numbers are down. “The doctor did not see any other areas of cancer. I’m so happy.”

A Resource by Survivors.

Just this week I read Mary Maas’s book Sisterhood of the Wounded Breast. Reading this book is a journey alongside 22 courageous women gathered by the equally courageous cancer survivor, Mary Maas, who gathered the memories and stories of survivors of this horrendous “equal-opportunity” disease. Some of the women state the facts of the tests, discoveries, and decisions to fight their disease. Other stories open the doors of fears, indecision, searching and living for months not knowing the outcomes. Those were the hardest to read and yet the ones I appreciate the most.

Most survivors shared heartfelt stories of the support and overabundance of kindness of partners, spouses, churches, medical professionals, friends and their own personal spiritual power that will surely boost a reader’s faith in humanity. I could only add up my minimal aches and pains and find I was filled with sorrow for their harrowing times mixed with admiration for the determination of these 22 women. It’s a hard read but one I am grateful to have read.

Laura emailed me, “If nothing else, I hope that learning there are options may help folks feel empowered to help heal themselves, which all by itself can do wonders for one’s outlook and attitude.”

Self Talk.

My friends and the survivors in Mary Maas’s book leave me speechless. How do they do it? More than one survivor has said something like, “You wake up each day and get out of bed. You put on clean clothes, look in the mirror and say, ‘I love you.’ Close your eyes and say, ‘Thank you. I can do this.’ You have friends or family who look at you and say, ‘I love you, we can do this.’”

So what’s the takeaway from this? I’m certainly less apt to take my health for granted. I’m more aware of being compassionate, willing to offer specific help to friends, and to continue to learn, in any way I can about health and healing.

Please feel free to send comments, share your experiences and thoughts about dispelling that fear when it threatens to take over. We can do this.

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.

Valentine’s Day – not just for lovers

Posted by on Feb 13, 2018 in Writing | 4 comments

“Cupid, draw back your bow and let your arrow go…straight to my lover’s heart for me.” (Sam Cooke 1961, for those of you who didn’t grow up in the ‘60s).

The Alaskan Inuits have 52 words for snow… it’s that important. I think we need something like that for love.

When I went through a particularly angst-ridden period in the ’80s I played this song over and over, and over––“I Want to Know What Love Is.” Years have gone by and I’ve gotten a few ideas. (Thank you therapists, books, personal experiences.) Love is letting go of fear. Love is that your happiness is essential to mine. Love is devotion. Love is getting outside of self. Love is an emotion and an action.

FEBRUARY 14- THE BIG LOVE DAY. Hold on there, you don’t have to have a sweetheart to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

If, as I have read, a love relationship is a state of being connected and caring, there are dozens of ways this can happen, with varying levels of devotion, like, and love. Kinship, blood, marriage, work, colleague, boss, sibling, friendship, activity, cause, parent/child, sexual, love, romance.

My idea of love and celebrating Valentine’s Day is an inclusionary concept. I want to sweep in all the people, places, and things I’ve said I love. That ranges from loving sweet potatoes, to Gone with the Wind (both book and movie), reading (what a delightful escape), the beach, mountains, other beautiful places in nature, my dancing, hiking, writing and storytelling friends, my friends of history, loving memories of people who have died, my family, my life partner. I’m connected to all of them in some way, with varying degrees of emotions. You can love a lot of different ways.


Everybody loves something, even if it’s just tortillas. ~ Trungpa Rinpoche

Ya gotta learn to laugh. It’s the way to true love. ~ John Travolta in Michael

If lots more of us loved each other, we’d solve lots more problems. And then the world would be a gasser. ~ Louis Armstrong

I love you not only for what you are but for what I am when I am with you…

I love you for the part of me that you bring out… I love you for ignoring the possibilities of the fool and weakling in me, and for laying firm hold of the possibilities of good in me… You have done it all by being yourself. ~ Ray Croft

It was a million tiny little things that, when you added them all up, they meant we were supposed to be together… and I knew it. ~ Tom Hanks, Sleepless In Seattle





Zing went the strings of my heart. ~ James Hanley. 1934 song




Family faces are magic mirrors. Looking at people who belong to us, we see the past, present, and future. ~ Gail Lumet Buckley




Love is an excess of friendship. ~ Aristotle






Too much of a good thing is wonderful. ~ Mae West