Word Medicine

Writing and Healing: exploring the art of healing and the healing of art

Feeling at Home at Christmas December 9, 2016

bonehouse

I have passed out of mind like one who is dead

I have become like a broken vessel.

Psalm 31, verse 14

The challenges of living with a disability or chronic, invisible illness are heightened this time of year. For me, at least, and I suspect, for many. Because there are more calls on my limited energy, because I can’t entirely eradicate the specter of a Martha Stewart Christmas, because I want so desperately for it to be a magical season, I am more exhausted and frustrated than ever. Even for a “well woman,” Christmas is like pulling off a major Broadway production single-handedly. I now understand why my mother, when she cursed, said, “Christmas!” She had six children, an artist husband and not a lot of cash. She worked tirelessly to make it fun and beautiful and it was, but it cost her.

The dilemma of how to participate in life while also respecting one’s limitations is heightened  this time of year. This year, I’ve been thinking not only how to accomplish what needs to be accomplished, but also the kind of experience I want to have—as well as the kind of experience I want others to have. As Gertrude Mueller Nelson says in her profound book, To Dance with God, “This year we want our Christmas to be different. We want to be touched by the season—moved at a level that lies deep in us and is hungry and dark and groaning with primal need.”  The days grow shorter, and a primitive anxiety underlies our preparations, not only about the return of the sun, but also about whether our needs for belonging, contentment, and joy will be fulfilled. We want to feel really, truly, at home.

But when you are disabled or chronically ill, it is difficult to feel at home in your body, any time of the year. There is the daily management of energy, pain, protocols, pills. There is the sense of being left behind, of having “passed out of mind” from our communities. There is the internal management of our stance towards our illness, the battle between acceptance and resistance, the struggle between resentment and gratitude.

“The body itself is a dwelling place, as the Anglo-Saxons knew in naming it banhus (bone house)……” wrote Nancy Mairs, who was afflicted with MS. Many years ago, I picked up her book, Remembering the Bone House. The book is a memoir of how, despite depression and multiple sclerosis, she reclaimed her body and her life: “Through writing her body, woman may reclaim the deed to her dwelling.” She insisted on pushing against her limitations to participate fully in life, while never denying the impact of her illness. Yesterday, I read she died at the age of 73 last Saturday. The NYT obituary notes her aversion to such euphemisms as ‘differently abled.’ “I refuse to participate in the degeneration of the language to the extent that I deny that I have lost anything in the course of this calamitous disease….”  In her many essays about living with illness, she insisted on both facing the reality of her condition while also finding the good in her life.

“To view your life as blessed does not require you to deny your pain,” she wrote in the     introduction to Carnal Acts.” It simply demands a more complicated vision, one in which a  condition or event is not either good or bad but is, rather, both good and bad, not sequentially but simultaneously. In my experience, the more such ambivalences you can hold in your head, the better off you are, intellectually and emotionally.” *

In another essay, “A Necessary End,”  from A Troubled Guest: Life and Death Stories (2001), she discussed “the role of affliction in perfecting human experience….(it is) simply an element in the human condition, to be neither courted nor combated. To refuse to suffer is to refuse fully to live.” *

Perhaps this Christmas, I can let go of perfectionism, and only do what I can. Maybe this year, I can accept my illness as simply an element in the human condition. Maybe I can dwell more easily in my bonehouse, not berating myself for my shortcoming, but comforting myself.  And maybe, just maybe, I can then be present to whatever grace comes my way.

*New York Times, December 8, 2016

 

 

 

 

Dwelling October 26, 2016

I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately.

Several weeks ago, our community celebrated the life of 27 Darius Weems. Darius had Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and he was made famous at age 15 when his first trip outside of Athens, Georgia was filmed by his friends, who planned to get the MTV show “Pimp My Ride” to customize his wheelchair. The film, Darius Goes West, not only won awards, but established the Darius Goes West Foundation (http://www.dariusgoeswest.org/foundation/), proceeds of which go to finding a cure of DMD. About a month before his death, the FDA announced a new treatment for the disease.

This is a story of a community that got behind a group of young people with a dream. My daughter, who worked in the summers at Project Reach, a camp for disabled kids, was friends with some of these kids and knew Darius. It was the kind of thing that happens in my town of Athens, Georgia, a place that is small enough that it feels like a hometown, and large and progressive enough to always be interesting. As I sat talking with a friend about Darius, I was filled with pride for where I live.

I haven’t always felt this way. For much of my young life I wanted to leave, because life was elsewhere—in New York City, in Boston, in London and Paris. When I moved back after marrying my husband, I didn’t feel like I was returning to my hometown. As a youngster and an Irish Catholic transplant from the Northeast, I had grown up keenly aware of how different we were from our neighbors in the sixties and seventies. The University of Georgia art department, which had hired my father, was a wonderful place, with a coterie of artists who were bohemian and collegial. But the town itself was still a small Southern town. Furthermore, I grew up in the midst of school integration, and while necessary, it was chaotic. No, I didn’t feel I belonged, and I longed to get away.

Which I did, for a time, in graduate school in Boston. But it turned out that Athens was a great place to raise a family, and slowly, almost without my noticing it, I grew strong roots here. I am acclimated to the slower pace of life, the friendliness, the way you can be part of many different circles, and also the mild weather. Our kids grew up in a secure, settled community with a deep sense of home. Not that I am unaware of the myriad problems we face—extreme poverty, racial tension, stressed schools, crime. Sometimes these problems feel overwhelming. And yes, sometimes I fantasize about living in a more urbane, sophisticated place. But this is my place, and now it is filled with a rich network of friends and acquaintances, some of whom have known me since I was a child. I wouldn’t trade it for fancy living.

I remember reading in a college anthropology class about primitive villagers who believed that their village was the center of the known universe. Silly villagers! I thought. Now I see there is wisdom in recognizing one’s place in the world, esteeming it and working to make it better. Life isn’t elsewhere; it is where you are.15719053

 

The Sense of an Ending September 29, 2016

I was lucky to get a quick visit in with my sister Megan the other day on her brief visit to town. Like me, she is a recent empty-nester. She said she and her husband were enjoying their new-found freedom, as Todd and I are. Although, I said, I have a profound sense of something being over. It’s done now, active parenting, for better or worse. We are no longer in the open-ended, creative stage of parenting. We both got tears in our eyes. How did it go so fast, she said? And I agreed. It all seemed to be over in the blink of an eye—although that isn’t how it felt at the time.

I hope I was a good enough parent, I said. I told her about a poet who once told me we give our kids our failures as material for their lives as well as our successes. Then we proceeded to swap our worst parenting actions ever, which will not appear in this post!

I had a similar sense of completion today when I held the proof of my novel, The Timekeeper’s Son, in my hands. Here it is, the story and characters that have lived in my mind all those years, out in the world between two beautiful covers. Which means all the felicities of the story and all its failures, too are in the world. All I can hope is that it is a good enough story. I think it is. But it is done now and there is no going back, no endless meditating on who the characters are or what their fates might be.

Autumn is harvest time, and it seems especially, poignantly, so to me this year. I am reminded of the first stanza of Wendell Berry’s wonderful poem, “X, from a Timbered Choir:

 X

by Wendell Berry

Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

Parenting and writing are both foreseen in joy—the love of two overflowing to create a third, or a glimpse of a form, a feeling, that calls out to be embodied. But the seeing through of these visions to their completions requires everything we have.

Both my sons are in the world now. The sense of an ending. And the sense of a new beginning.

covertts

The Timekeeper’s Son is forthcoming from Deeds Publishing, November 29, 2016. Books can be pre-ordered here: https://deedspublishing.goodsie.com/the-timekeepers-son-pre-order

 

 

 

 

 

For September 4th: Finding Solace in a Spiritual Practice September 5, 2016

Filed under: Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 2:55 pm

Lovely and true. I like that you start your writing with small observations, a way of connecting to the world and self.

Writing Through Cancer

And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear.  What we need is here.

From:  “The Wild Geese,” by Wendell Berry

Throughout my childhood and undergraduate years, I was active in the Methodist church, involved in the youth groups and later, in the Methodist Student Movement, which was very involved in civil rights and social justice.  Some of my most enduring friendships were formed during that period, but for the better part of my adult life,  I’ve been a lapsed church-goer, craving a deeper spiritual practice than I experienced in the Sunday morning services.   For years, I dabbled with other religious traditions, tried practicing meditation, but nothing seemed to fill my need for the spiritual life I once knew.

Ironically, I’ve led workshops with the bereaved and the terminally ill, and in all of them, one’s faith and spirituality are…

View original post 1,356 more words

 

An Invitation July 27, 2016

I’ve just finished Diane Morrow’s One Year of Writing and Healing: Writing to Transform the Experience of Illness, Grief and Other Trouble, a treasure trove of resources for anyone interested in beginning or deepening a healing writing practice.

Dr. Morrow begins her book with an invitation: to take one year of your life and write with the express purpose of “transforming difficult experiences into something…more bearable.” Her tone throughout is one of friendly invitation. What she offers comes from her own experience as a writer, a medical doctor, a counselor in mind-body training and a teacher. And as any good teacher would, she grounds the practice she offers in both time and space. Take a year, she says, to try these things, and moreover, I am going to walk you through each month, guiding you and building a solid foundation. In a low-key conversational tone, she creates a focus for each month, with chapters addressing each of the following: “Creating a Healing Place,” “Consider Healing as a Story,” “Drawing a Map,” “Developing  the Habit of Writing,” “Listening to the Voice of the Body,” “Making a Place for Grief,” “Figuring Out the Good Part,”  “Gathering Resources for the Long Haul,” and “Creating a Guest House.” Each of these chapters draw not only from her own experience and that of her patients and students, but also from an extensive knowledge of the literatures of both healing and writing, including excerpts and references to such seminal thinkers in their fields as Arthur Frank, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Pema Chodron and Peter Elbow. However, she wears such learning lightly, incorporating it into her book in an approachable way. Each chapter also offers exercises or prompts, all of which grow organically out of her own or others’ lived experiences. Although some of the material in this book can be found elsewhere—i.e., Arthur Franks’ exploration of the three healing types of stories—Restitution, Chaos, and Quest—Morrow interprets his work, expanding on it with examples from various sources, including the movie The Lord of the Rings.

Perhaps the most important chapter is the first two-month long chapter, “Creating a Healing Place.” This exercise in creating, inhabiting, imagining, conjuring and holding is the foundation for everything that follows. Morrow describes her own experience of going to a retreat at Santa Sabina, where she learned the process of interactive active imagination. It was there that she realized that writing could strengthen and deepen and hold the work of healing imagery. By creating a healing place inside one’s mind, one could have a sense of “deep refuge” in a portable retreat. “When we have this deep sense of security, it becomes possible—and bearable—to look honestly at the stories of our lives.”  She offers seven particular archetypes—seven ways of thinking about the landscapes we inhabit or could inhabit: Sea, Cave, Harbor, Promontory, Island, Mountain and Sky.“ Naming these archetypes “….allows us to look at the landscape freshly, to begin to pay closer attention to those spaces in the world which we most long for and need.” She suggests immersing ourselves, imaginatively, in the landscape, and discovering what it can tell us about ourselves, about where we are and where we would like to be. Do you need to nest inside a cave, away from the stresses of the world? So you need the viewpoint you might find high on a mountain? This extended imagination offers the chance to discover a correlative to our inner landscapes in a rich and interesting way.(By the way, check out another prompt here about landscapes : https://therapeuticjournal.wordpress.com/2016/07/26/landscape-the-desert/?iframe=true&theme_preview=true)

One of my favorite passages is in the section on Chaos stories. She writes: “Chaos can be an indicator of growth. Fear can be an indicator of growth. And it seems to me that just considering this—having some inkling about this—can change our experience. It can give us courage to keep moving with and through obstacles…..Meanwhile, I have sometimes found it helpful, at moments when obstacles arise….to imagine an older woman’s voice, a voice much wiser than my own. She tends to say something like this: Well of course, Sweetie, what did you thing? That it was going to be easy?” Diane Morrow herself is that wise encouraging voice. “Writing can become a powerful way to listen to your life, ” she writes. And this book is a powerful tool to help you in that endeavor.

another-april-book-cover

You can order the book here: https://www.amazon.com/One-Year-Writing-Healing-Experience/dp/0692610278/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1466428919&sr=1-1

All profits for the book go to Write Around Portland, which you can read about here: http://writingandhealing.org/write-around-portland.

You might also enjoy Diane’s blog,  One Year of Writing and Healing, http://writingandhealing.org/

and a radio interview: http://safespaceradio.com/2011/09/writing-and-healing/

 

 

Family Matters July 21, 2016

Filed under: Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 2:53 pm

 

Whoever invented the term “sandwich” generation knew what they were talking about. Lately I’ve been feeling like a squashed slice of old salami.

My mother was in a serious car wreck over the weekend. My son is heading off to college, with the normal ambivalence that implies. There are the usual stresses of life—unexpected expenses, job issues.  As the oldest child in my family of origin, I am programmed to be uber-responsible. As a mother of two and stepmother of two, my radar is constantly scanning to get a reading on how everyone is doing. I am easily caught up in the eddying currents of emotion around me.  I am not a sanguine person. I cannot read the paper silently, without exclaiming over tragic or sorrowful stories. I am hyper-sensitive and easily knocked off my horse.  I wish it were otherwise. I envy those who putter along in a steady state, neither high nor low. But I am not one of them.

So, I find myself faced every morning with the question of how to proceed. How to prioritize, what actions to take, when everything and everyone seems to be a priority?

Luckily, I’ve had some training in this. My illnesses and injuries have forced me back into my body, back to my breath. Caroline Myss, the medical intuitive, believes that our illnesses happen not to us but for us. In my case, I have been forced out of my mind and into my body.  I must still my mind and focus on my breath if I am to find a still point in the constant flux of life. So much easier said than done, especially for one who has spent her life pretty much holding her breath.  But if I do, I find a spaciousness open up within me, a place from which to meet the other challenges of my life.

There is a scene in Family Matters, by Rohinton Mistry, one of my favorite writers, of a man opening up his yoga mat on a crowded, rushed train platform in India and calmly doing his yoga routine. That image has sustained me for many years. It is not that a practice of yoga stops the chaotic life around him, but it provides him with a way to quiet his mind and deepen his breath. In the end, that is all we have, anyway, isn’t it, our bodies and our breath?  That is our territory, all that we can control.

Families are important, and being responsive to them is a good thing. But our first responsibility is to the relationship to our own bodies and breath. I love these final lines from Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric”:

The circling rivers, the breath, and breathing it in and out,
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you, or within me, the bones, and the marrow in the bones,
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say these are not the parts and poems of the Body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!abstract-landscape-art-black-and-white-between-the-lines-by-romi-romi-neilson

 

 

 

 

Travels July 5, 2016

Marsh

Sitting on the porch of our rental house on Tybee Island, Georgia, I hear the morning calls of cardinals and the raucous caw of a crow in the palm tree whose fronds brush the screen of the porch. Across the dirt road, beyond the palmetto and live oak and Spanish moss, glimmers the water of the marsh, where a snowy egret slowly descends. The air is briny and heavy. I feel my body melt into the chair. Time has slowed and me with it. We call it Tybee time.

We rent a different house on the island each year, and this year there was a bonanza. The house was loaded with books. I don’t mean the usual shelf of worn paperbacks, but stacks on every horizontal surface, in window nooks, stacked precariously on shelves, coffee tables, bedside tables. And what books! Really good fiction and non-fiction by Anne Lamott, Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver, and many more. I had brought a load of my own, enough for my daughter and me. But there is nothing like the thrill of looking through someone else’s stash. I couldn’t settle on a book until into my hands tumbled Sue Monk Kidd and Anne Kidd Taylor’s Traveling with Pomegranates. It was a book I didn’t know I was hungry for. After one page, I was riveted.

A memoir of both inner and outer travel, I was particularly taken with Sue Monk Kid’s description of coming to terms with aging, of letting go of a younger version of herself. She describes going to Eleusis with her daughter Ann, and feeling the grief both of the loss of her daughter to adulthood, and the loss of the inner “girl” in herself, the inner youthful energy. She writes: “How did this happen? Where did time go? Where did we go? Those other selves?” Yes, I thought, exactly. Where did we go?

Contemplating the myth of Demeter and Persephone (as well as Demeter’s mother, Hestia), Sue makes a sacrificial gesture of cutting a lock of her hair and dropping it into the well at Eleusis. She had read that if one accepts aging, there is the potential to grow into the fullest version of oneself, and that is her intention. But to do that, she has to feel this grief, to descend into Hades herself, to submit to the dark.

Here at the beach, in this place of liminality, of the meeting between consciousness and unconsciousness, between solid ground and mutable water, I stand on a similar threshold. Because I had a child late, facing into old age has been somewhat delayed for me. But as my son leaves for college, I am becoming more and more aware of my age. I want to face it gracefully and with consciousness, but like all of us, I shrink from the task. Where are the guideposts along the way? Change is inevitable, but transformation requires engaging with the process.

For Sue, she found strength in a new relationship with Mary in her many guises. Having rejected the plaster pastel version of Mary–as I did–she had resorted to a cosmic idea of Mary. But in her distress and need, she craved a more personal encounter. With each encounter with Mary in Greece and France—as Isis, Panygria, or the Black Madonna—she experienced a deepening in her understanding of the mysteries of a woman’s life. In the narrative of Mary’s life, she limned the patterns of every woman’s life. One aspect of a woman’s life is found in the visitation to Elizabeth, which Kidd sees as the necessity of seeking community with other woman. This resonated with me, as I had a pilgrimage of my own to make.

My friend Susan Murphy is one of the world’s premier aerial dancers. After a successful New York career, a West Coast career and then establishing a successful trapeze company and school in Athens, Georgia, she moved back to the coastal marshes of her youth. I had been trying to get down to see her for years, and here was my chance. For me, Susan has been a soul sister, someone I can go deep with. I had had several dreams about Susan the month before. Like Mary visiting Elizabeth, it seemed somehow fated. So I headed down the highway to her marsh studio.

She lives deep in the marsh, and time seems even slower there than in Tybee. We talked about spirituality, poetry, nature, aging, and especially the matrilineal legacy. We talked about where we had come from and what we would leave behind. She is caring for her aging mother, as is just about everyone woman I know. Even though she was tired, she graced me with a poem and dance she had created in honor of her grandmother and great-grandmother. As I watched, it seemed like the embodiment of the Hester-Demeter-Persephone triad. “Dance is the expression of the Spirit,” said Isadora Duncan, quoted in Pomegranates. 

That is what I did on my summer vacation. I hope you enjoy Susan’s poem below. May the book you need falls into your hands sometime soon, may you encounter someone with whom to share your spirit, and may you dance.

 

Susan’s Poem

My Precious One

Dearest darling girl

My Dearest Susan

 Through the years Grandmama began each of her many letters to me with those endearments.  Can you imagine?  Her love was all-embracing and unadorned.  Every day she blew though her whole reserve.  

 Grandmother never felt comfortable at stand-up cocktail parties.  “I couldn’t be on my feet that long,” she said  “and because I didn’t drink, I never knew what to do with my hands.”  But she knew what to do with that big ol’ heart of hers.  She knew what to do with that big ol’ heart of hers.  Her radiant love flowed out of her, an artisan well of life-giving waters.  Grandmama….

 Now my great-grandmother, Munzie, was one of the first women lawyers inGeorgia in the 1930’s.  She was one of the first civil rights lawyers in the South.

Munzie would say to me:  Don’t just FEEL.  Put your feet to the fire with all those feelings.  Put your feet to the fire with all those feelings. And follow your heart, you’ll suffer either way. 

I dance for Grandmama’s unquestioning heartbreaking devotion.

I dance for the love she, as an orphan, never had yet somehow    

         found to give 

I dance for my great-grandmother’s fierce pioneering spirit

            and the love she voiced in her tireless fight for

            social justice

I dance for the vision they had of a better world…a world of fair

            treatment for all and unremitting tenderness for the one. 

I dance for the pain of their unfulfilled dreams.

I dance for the possible fruition of their spirit, living in me.

I dance for all their genes, humming in my body.

I dance for the genes I pass on, a different way than blood.

I dance in sadness and joy, remembering and honoring, their lives and

    their loving.

I dance…yes… believing in a better world…believing that the walls that separate

    us could    start    tumbling    down.

I dance for the possibility of our hearts opening to kindness, compassion and love.

I dance for you.

I dance for me.

I dance.

The Marsh Studio

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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