Word Medicine

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

The Shape of Absence January 19, 2016

Filed under: loss,The Art of Living,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 9:28 pm
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shindig dog-1

The Shape of Absence
The absence of shape:
No black triangle in the door in the morning, ears pricked, tail thumping
No rectangle of black fur on the morning rug, sighing.
No curled comma at my feet, snorting and dreaming.
Just air. Just air.
The NYT Science Times today says that dog bones have been buried with humans as far back as 14,000 years ago, but that DNA evidence for dogs, some think, goes back as far as 30,000. Are dogs our “friends” or simply clever parasites, adept at begging and obsequious behavior? The article seems to come down on the side of parasites.

For me, I don’t care. I know what I know. In my book, dogs make us more human. They require the best from us—discipline, care, attention, play. They give back what a lot of humans don’t—unconditional loyalty, presence, responsiveness. My dog always knew when I was sad while the rest of the world went on by. I miss her sweet head on my lap now.

“You can take it away, as far as I’m concerned—I’d rather spend the afternoon with a nice dog. I’m not kidding. Dogs have what a lot of poems lack: excitements and responses, a sense of play the ability to impart warmth, elation . . . .”
Howard Moss

Dogs keep us honest. As the poet John Brehm writes in “If Feeling Isn’t In It,”

Dogs can smell
fear and also love with perfect accuracy.
There is no use pretending with them.
Nor do they pretend. If a dog is happy
or sad or nervous or bored or ashamed
or sunk in contemplation, everybody knows it.
They make no secret of themselves.

Now, I know that many people believe that the above poem is anthropomorphism of the highest order. What I might perceive as love is simply, in the words of the immortal skeptic I live with, adaptation and behavior based on the fact that I feed the dog on a regular basis, and so it is attached to me. But what is love if not food, and walks? I know what I know. I know love when I feel its absence.

We are a peculiar species. Smart, able to reconstruct the DNA of animals dead for millennia, but so often unable to see the very thing before our eyes. Every day, when I take my now dog-less walk, I see people of every imaginable shape, walking their dogs of every imaginable size. People who wouldn’t otherwise stop and talk, stop and talk about their dogs. The reclusive single woman, the retired professor, the teenager forced to walk the family dog. They are out of their houses, away from their phones, doing what homo sapiens do best, socializing. Would they be out without their dogs? Doubtful.

Oh, our lives are so much more than our thoughts. Dogs remind us of that.

 

Christmas Preparations: What Are We Preparing For? December 7, 2015

I’m sitting in a waiting room listening to a woman telling another woman all about her Christmas preparations. She has “only” gotten her kitchen and bathroom decorated; she is going to be working up till December 24. She has fifteen people coming, kids and grandkids; she is going to have a honey-baked ham. She could buy them all gift cards, she says, but that seems too easy. So she is shopping for them. The other woman will be making a separate vegetarian meal for her son, and she will get him a gift card. “He never likes anything I get him, so I might as well.”

I like to tease that at Christmas, women do all the work, and a man (Santa) gets all the credit. Why do we do it? I suppose we do it for all sorts of reasons–tradition, habit, others’ expectations. But I think we also do it with the hope of creating a protected space and time where we can come together with our loved ones and celebrate the gifts of life and of each other. We all long for those magic moments.

Every year, despite the failures of years past, we hope anew. Christmas, with its symbolism of abundance, brings us perilously close to our naked need for affirmation, connection, approval. We all have need and we all have abundance, and the holidays make us aware of both. The wish for the perfect gift, the one that shows that we are understood and cherished, lurks even in the most jaded of us. The fear of being let down is equally present. The wish to give, to make sure we have satisfied a love one, exists with the dread that we can’t. Managing our own and others’ expectations can make us stressed, exhausted and unhappy–the opposite of what we really desire.

While getting rid of all the material aspects of Christmas might seem like the solution to this dilemma, I think more to the point is recognizing the difference between matter and spirit. As Gertrude Mueller Nelson writes in her book, To Dance with God, “we can prepare and put forth the form to catch something of the Spirit, but we cannot supply the Spirit.” There is nothing wrong with abundance, with beauty and tradition. Where we get into trouble is in confusing the symbol with reality. 0b32cf2b9e8c308943e5c5cf61875b00

No gift will ever create love–it can only point to a love that is already there. We cannot make anyone happy, we can only invite their happiness. Our holiday celebrations will never be perfect. If we are lucky, they will be messy, with imperfect giving and receiving, but also with genuine moments of connection. And maybe a honey-baked ham.

 

Facing It November 5, 2015

Filed under: aging parents,Chronic Illness,Grief,loss — saratbaker @ 9:58 pm
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Autumn LeavesIt is dark November–gray, wet, the yellow and red leaves slowly drifting to the ground. I have always liked the melancholy of fall, its rich colors and long nights, but this year the season is not just a metaphor, but also a lived experience. I am in the fall of my life, and what I seem to be shedding  are my illusions—that death is not real, that summer lasts forever. Friends are dying, and children have grown and left. Many of my friends have been thrown up on the rocks of middle-age unexpectedly single, or having been laid off of jobs they thought secure, or, like me, are dealing with chronic illness. There is a general zeitgeist of shock. How did this happen? How did it happen to me?

Life has not turned out as expected.

Why are we surprised? We’d heard rumors, but chose to disbelieve them, children of a golden age that we were. But now, our feints and slights of hand no longer work.

it comes home, the flea-ridden bitch of desolation,

a thin dog with its ribs exposed like a lesson

in mathematics, in subtraction; it comes home, to find its bowl

empty—then the numberless

things for which to be grateful dissolve

like the steam from a fire just doused with water

on a day of overcast grays, lined

by a cold slanting rain—

(from “Facing It,” by Eleanor Wilner)

 

Yet, being alive, we still want to live—although how to live is the question. Jason Shinder in his poem, “Middle Age,” addresses the dilemma:

 

Many of my friends are alone

and know too much to be happy

though they still want to dive

to the bottom of the green ocean

and bring back a gold coin

in their hand. A woman I know wakes

in the late evening and talks

to her late husband,

the windows blank photographs….

 

Do we know too much to be happy?

Perhaps not happy in the way of our protracted youth.  We can’t unknow what we know, what we’ve experienced. There are losses and they are real. I think we are supposed to feel them, not minimize them. They are a part of our story, but not our whole story.

A friend thrown over by her husband ten years for a girl his daughter’s age has found a new, surprising love.

A friend laid off in the recession has been rehired and is now a senior and respected teacher.

Children have children; our street is full of the next generation.

Fall is a season, but not the only season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reverie and Engagment August 20, 2015

I’ve been thinking about the conditions conducive to writing recently, since I seemed to be experiencing a mild writer’s block.

I was finding myself a little too happy to read my emails—always a bad sign.  I try not to open those until the afternoons, supposedly devoting myself to a “higher calling” in the mornings. But I was finding excuses: worries about a friend, responses from some queries I’d put out.  It was a Monday morning, and I was restless.  The sky flashed with lightening, thunder shook the house, and everything and anything seemed more interesting than what I might put down on paper.

Then the electricity went out. In the yellow-green light that remained, I found myself, out of boredom and lack of gadgetry, scribbling some images on a yellow legal pad, playing around with them. Relieved of the pressure to respond or interact, I suddenly had nothing but time. Time became a medium of space, a fullness, a restfulness.

Yesterday, I heard an “On Being” podcast interview of John O’Donohue talking about time. He said, “In America, you view time as the enemy. So there is not time to cultivate the inner life.” He then compared it to the west of Ireland, where he said, time seems endless, and the landscape is timeless. His comment rang true for me. I know that in order to write, I have to almost slam the door on time, to disregard it. But it is always there, panting heavily on the threshold, whining about all that needs to be done. There is an anxiety that I wake up with, which we all wake up with, that there is so much to be done and I will never be able to do it all. This anxiety is not conducive to works of the imagination.

For the imagination to have a chance, then, we need a sense of time that is unhurried. We need reverie. And for reverie, we need to feel safe. One of my favorite thinkers, Gaston Bachelard, wrote a wonderful book on reverie, The Poetics of Reverie:  Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos. He wrote:

reverie-1919 (1)Reverie illustrates repose for a being… it illustrates well-being. The dreamer and his reverie enter totally into the substance of happiness.

                    Reverie helps us inhabit the world; inhabit the happiness of the world. The soul does not live on the edge of time. It finds its rest in the universe imagined by reverie.

Reverie gives us the world of a soul [and] a poetic image bears witness to a soul which is discovering its world, the world where it would like to live and where it deserves to live… Poetry forms the dreamer and his world at the same time.

So, I believe with Bachelard that reverie is one of the essential conditions for creative work.  However, from my experience, I think that there is another component. That is engagement.

I have found that when I am not engaged with the world, that my work begins to dry up. By engagement, I don’t mean busyness. I mean meaningful contact, purposeful effort, or simply enjoying, being curious about the world of man/woman and nature. I can easily fall prey to neuroticism, and when that happens, I know that I am not as engaged as I should be, that my work, instead of reflecting the world as it is in all its complexity, can become a shadowy world of my projections. That’s when I know I need to get out, walk, talk with people, go someplace.

John O’Donohue also addressed this aspect of the creative life when he said, “Our gifts are given for the community, not for ourselves alone.”  If that is true, we need to be engaged in community. That is something different from ego posturing or status consciousness. It is being interested in the mystery of otherness, in those we live with, in their “infinite variety.”

It might seem that these two conditions are opposed to each other, but I don’t think so.  It is more that they are both necessary, in different degrees. Sometimes we balance them; often, we don’t. When we begin to feel played out, it may be time for reverie. When we begin to feel dull, it may be time for engagement. We live in a culture that is extroverted in the extreme, however, so my bet is that it is harder to find time for reverie.

I’ll leave you with this:

Matins
I arise to day… In the name of Silence / Womb of the Word, / In the name of Stillness / Home of Belonging, / In the name of the Solitude / of the Soul and the Earth

John O’Donohue

 

Heaven on Earth June 30, 2015

Filed under: Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 5:15 pm

I was recently in North Carolina, coming home from a conference. I stopped by a fruit stand to buy some peaches and strawberries. Surveying the mounds of fresh fruit, I could hardly believe my luck. Strawberry season had quickly come and gone in our wet, hot Georgia spring and my husband and I hadn’t had a chance to go picking. It was as if time had runpeachesI asked the man stacking peaches if they would take a debit card. He stuttered that I would need to ask the girl behind the desk, who called over that they did. Then, as is the custom in the South, the man said,

“Where you from?”

“Athens, Georgia,” I said.

“Yep, yep, I know Athens,” he said. He seemed a little slow, a little slurred in hisspeech. “I used to live in Jefferson. Had a good business doing plumbing, was making some money, had friends. Then I got in this wreck.”

He pulled up his sleeve and pointed to his arm, which looked like it had been sewn on a lá Frankenstein. “I was in the hospital for months. All those friends disappeared. Ain’t nobody come to see me.” He pulled down his sleeve. “But it’s OK, ‘cause God had a plan for me. I got a good life here. I’m happy.” Then he turned away and went back to stacking peaches.

There was a time when I might have scoffed at such a story. How can you be better off broken and patched up than unbroken and whole? But that was before I survived some life changing ordeals. His story made me think of the line “It is terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” For all of us do. The world breaks us, as Hemingway said, and afterwards “some are strong in the broken places.”

What this man did was make meaning out of his trauma. We are meaning-making animals, and, as Bessel van der Kolk says, that is what saves us. This man bravely embarked on a new life, limited and changed from his previous life. But based on his faith, he was grateful for it.

All of us have defining stories. Those are the stories where our lives take a turn, where something we can not control has an impact on the narrative of who we are, perhaps obliterating it forever. We survive into the “new normal,” as my friend whose husband had a massive stroke six months ago described: “I’ve been mourning the loss of my husband as he was. He will never be that again.”  If we can mourn the loss, then we can go on to rewrite the narrative of our lives, including the broken and patched places. Sometimes we come through not only stronger, but also with more humility. We have experienced that the world does not bow to our ego, that we are not in control, and somehow that is a relief.

The thing that struck me about my friend at the peach stand was his calmness. He wasn’t angry or resentful. I thought that was pretty amazing.

“Both abundance and lack exist simultaneously in our lives, as parallel realities. It is always our conscious choice which secret garden we will tend… when we choose not to focus on what is missing from our lives but are grateful for the abundance that’s in our lives, the wasteland of illusion falls away and we experience Heaven on earth,” writes Sarah Ban Breathnach.

So here’s to peaches and strawberries, tending our secret gardens and Heaven on earth.

 

Leave the Critic at the Door April 30, 2015

Dear Readers,

I am sorry for the long delay between posts, but I am excited to tell you about my new website at www.saratbaker.com. It has been retooled to reflect new workshops my partner, Jan Turner, and I are offering in the Athens area. Please take a look at it!  I’m also happy to report recent publications in The Intima, www.theintima.org, a literary journal which has grown out of the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University,an essay in China Grove Journal, and a short story coming out in May in Confrontation, a literary journal.

Now to the post, which is about process. I read recently that Elizabeth Bishop sometimes took years to finish her poems, which gave me great hope. I often start a poem with gusto, but find that I lose the thread, especially if I think too much! Ray Bradbury once said, “Don’t think. It kills creativity.” I think there is truth to this, although I might phrase it,“Wait to think.”  Wait until you are deeply involved in the process before looking at a piece critically.

I try, whether in a story or poem, to get a quick sketch down in one sitting, or at least, in the case of a story, a good nugget. Right now I’m in the middle of story, which was interrupted by a bad cold, family obligations, and life in general. Now I am struggling to finish at least one draft. My rule is not to chuck anything until I get through one draft. But the temptation has been to chuck it, as in the “cooling off” period, I see all its flaws. Furthermore, I’ve been making a study of the writer Gina Berriault, and after reading her incredible story, “The Diary of K.W.,” which is as perfect a story as I’ve ever read. (If you don’t know her work, you should.)  But my rule is to finish one draft, and to do this I have to go back into the dream of the story, and leave my critical faculties behind. I think we read out of the same impetus as children explore abandoned houses. We are looking for something numinous, although we are not sure what. We write for the same reason, and to cut ourselves off from the dream too early, to try to make it conform to this or that criteria, can kill it.

I am proud of my critical faculties, which I’ve worked hard to attain. And it would be  easy at this point in the process to swoop in and destroy this embryonic story because it is so lacking. But there was something that urged me to start it, and I want to honor that. Its problems will, I hope, force me to grow as a writer, even if it fails in the end. That is part of the process. Isak Dinesen said, “I write a little every day, without too much hope or too much despair.”

So I’m working on non-attachment to my work, attempting to approach the work lightly, with curiosity instead of fear.  And waiting until I’m good and ready to invite the critic in.

 

Living in the Body February 16, 2015

Last Wednesday, after a particularly stressful week, I slept in for the first time in ages. I was tapped out in all ways, and even though I got up early and ate breakfast, I just had to crawl back into bed. I felt guilty about this, and when my housekeeper came, I explained to her that I was so tired, but that I had to get back up to the salt mine (my attic study).

“Oh, Mrs. Sara, no, if you are tired, you must rest. Es tu cuerpo!”

The way she uttered, “Es tu cuerpo,” stopped me in my tracks. It seemed self-evident to her that my body should be treated like the most treasured child. She said “tu cuerpo” with such tenderness and concern. And of course she was right.

I do know she is right. But my default attitude is to treat my body like a balky mule. I should know better. My illness has taught me many things, among them to pace myself and to listen to my body. Ironically, when I begin to have a bit of energy I seem to forget those lessons. I’m all on with doing, not listening. My body is at times my cell, sometimes my ally. It has betrayed me, it seems, or have I betrayed it? What is this “I” anyway,  how is it possible to be apart from the body it speaks of? Gregory Djanikian in his poem Mind/Body writes of this tension between mind and body:

How do they survive, riven

as they are, the one undoing

the other’s desire?

Tell the body to outrun

the mind, and the mind smirks,

whispering too loudly

this way   this way,

blocking all the exits.

And the body, luxurious

sensualist by pool side or in bed,

doesn’t it hear the mind’s

impatient machinery ticking

it’s time   it’s time?

 How do you reconcile such differences? It can be exhausting. My mind wants to be to get to the salt mine, and my body wants to luxuriate in bed.

 Joyce Sutphen, in her poem, Living in the Body, describes how the body will “pull you down into a sleepy swamp,

 Body is something you need in order to stay

on this planet and you only get one.

And no matter which one you get, it will not

be satisfactory. It will not be beautiful

enough, it will not be fast enough, it will

not keep on for days at a time, but will

pull you down into a sleepy swamp and

demand apples and coffee and chocolate cake.

My body does remind me of a child in its insistent demands. And yet when my children were irritable, demanding, out of sorts, I not only fed them, but I gave them attention. It is amazing how a little attention, rocking in the rocking chair, holding them, singing to them, for just a few minutes, would soothe them.  So I am wondering if instead of beating my body into submission, I might give it a little attention.

Ash Wednesday is coming up. I grew up with the idea of mortification of the flesh, and struggled all my life to subdue my demanding body. But I am wondering now about maybe taking a different approach. A yoga teacher friend suggested using Lent as a time to befriend our bodies, to be gentle with them. I’m going to try this approach–to feed myself good things, to rest when I’m tired, stretch when I’m cramped. To maybe not only accept this imperfect body, but to love it. To cherish it. Mi cuerpo.

 

 
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