Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Open Letter to a Student

Dear Kristen,

I was thinking about how to respond to your personal journal entry when I received the e-mail that you were hospitalized. I am very, very sorry that you are unwell and struggling with so many issues in your life. In reading what you wrote again, I have decided to respond to you not as your professor, but as another woman.

I can hear the hurt and the stress in what you write. It is no secret that we women tend to feel our emotions very deeply and take most things to heart. It is what makes us such wonderful nurturers and friends, but also what sometimes does us in. We take so much on our shoulders! We feel we are responsible for so many! Often, we take on worries that are not ours and never were.

You asked me what "normal" is. There is no real definition. Normal becomes what is comfortable and familiar to you, no matter what those circumstances might be.The many times my husband has been hospitalized recovering from one surgery or another and my children and I went on without him became normal to us. If not pleasant, at least we knew what to expect and how to cope. It is only when our circumstances change and we find ourselves pulled out of our comfort zones that our problems begin.

I DO understand where you are at right now. I was there myself not many years ago, so stressed out by the weight of so much responsibility that I thought I would break in two. I almost did. Writing about it helped and still does. But even more important than the writing in the personal journal you now keep is the conscious act of letting go, one small thing at a time, and deciding what burdens are really yours to carry.

You may be concerned about your uncle's health, but that is not really your burden. He himself acknowledged to you that he made his own choices in his life, just as you need to make yours. Your own health is a major concern, of course, and you should do everything you can to rid yourself of illness and keep yourself well. But in many ways that, too, needs to be placed in the hands of a Higher Power. You say the break-up with your boyfriend is no big deal, that it happens all the time. Nevertheless, it is a loss of companionship and the familiar. I have been through several of those with my daughter! Allow yourself time to grieve the loss.

Kristen, these next words are much easier said than heeded: let go of the stress and give it to God. I do not know what your faith is, but I can assume that since you attend a Catholic college there is within your some belief. You may only be able to let go of one small iota at a time. I remember a time in my life when I needed to write down each tiny thing I was able to give over to God instead of carrying it myself, and pulling my busy and interfering hands away one finger at a time. The point is to begin the process.

Be well and take care. I will be praying for you as the semester comes quickly to a close, and happily help you with any missed work so that you can finish this class. Thank you for the confidence you placed in me by sending your personal journal entry. And thank you for reminding me that God is always in control.

Dr Cobourn

Sunday, February 7, 2016


Originally published in Word Girls Newsletter, January, 2016
My son has a scar above his lip, the result of a fall into his brother in law’s windshield when he was sixteen. While the doctor said plastic surgery could cover it, Allen opted to keep the scar. It made, he said, a good story. According to Stephen King, the ability to remember every scar is the only requirement for being a writer. But it’s not remembering the scar that often stops us from putting pen to paper; it’s the fear of reliving the trauma that led to those scars. My son was too dazed by the sunshine and a day spent fishing to recall the moment his face hit the glass, but most of us remember clearly how our scars occurred. We want to avoid more pain.
James Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin has spent his career as a psychologist encouraging people to not only relive the pain of their scars, but to write about them. Pennebaker’s research indicates the catharsis to be gained from writing outweighs the risk of opening ourselves up to hurt. The American Psychological Association (2002) acknowledges that writing can lower blood pressure and boost immune functioning. Joshua Smythe of Syracuse University agrees that writing, when used to process the emotions resulting from our scars, can be physically beneficial.
Still, it’s not easy to open up a Pandora’s Box of evils upon the world. I should know. As a college professor of English and Rhetoric, I’ve encouraged my students to write about their own scars. I begin each semester with a lecture about the research of Pennbaker and handouts extolling the benefits of writing. I pass out spiral journals and invite them to write. And they do.
When my husband had the car accident that altered our lives back in 2000, my journal became a constant resident of my “go bag.” Each hospitalization, emergency surgery, and mysterious infection found me writing my woes in my own journal. It was what, I told my friends and pastor, kept me from falling apart. I wrote, and then I shelved each journal and tried to forget.
It never occurred to me that the healing power found in my journals had more work to do. I never once thought about letting anyone else read about my pain.
It took God and a day in July to change my mind.