Word Medicine

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

Breath, Movement, Image September 29, 2017

One of the gifts of age is being willing to do things you might not be terribly good at. For me those things are singing and drawing. I also dance, which I’m slightly better at, but which is a challenge with my illness. When I was younger, I didn’t attempt things at which I might fail. I also had enough on my plate, raising children and working, and had to scramble to write. I didn’t want to take energy away from writing. I have more time now, and I’ve found that playing in other disciplines has things to teach me about writing.

From singing I’ve learned to breathe—or am learning to breathe. Every choir practice when I pick up a new piece of music to sight read, I panic. I have no training in music, and have taught myself to read over the years, very imperfectly. Somehow my church choir puts up with this. I have to get past my panic and trust that I’ve done this before, countless times, and if I listen and pay attention, it will come. The beauty of choral singing is you can get your pitches from your comrades, although I’m working on not leaning on them. I have to let go of the fear that freezes my diaphragm and plunge in, knowing I will make lots of mistakes, but that eventually, I’ll get it. And I usually do, just minutes before show time!  I’ve also learned from singing that power is not force. Forcing never works. Ironically, powerful singing requires relaxation as well as engagement of abdominal muscles.

51445299-Dancing-couple-icon-isolated-on-white-background-Argentine-tango-Tango-dancers-vector-illustration--Stock-VectorDancing gets me out of my head, an occupational hazard of writers. I have been studying tango off and on for years, but I approach every class with beginner’s mind. Once you have a few basic steps, the beauty of tango is that it is, at least for followers, almost entirely intuitive. For someone who has always been a “bossy pants” it took a long time for me to learn to follow! Tango is very Zen, in that you can’t think, you have to feel it. I cannot anticipate what my leader might do; I have to trust him and be entirely in the moment. The minute I think about what I’m doing I ruin it. As Bruce Springsteen said about performing, if he thought about what he was doing, he couldn’t do it. Same idea. When I’m in sync with my partner and feeling the music, nothing is as exhilarating.

I love to draw, and yet am terribly self-conscious about it, coming from a family of visual artists. But for two years when I was bedridden, and unable to read or write, I began drawing. What I found then was if I let go of expectations and allowed myself to be in the moment, I could become totally immersed in my subject. Often I was overcome with love for what I was drawing—a dog, a person, a stool at a doctor’s office. Then I began seeing differently, even without a pencil in my hand. Really noticing the graceful arc of a tree branch, or the rough texture of its bark. The visual world became enlivened. Strangely enough, the same principle of relaxed breathing found in singing applies to drawing, as does the principle of intuitive feeling and movement found in dance. The more freedom of movement I allow myself in making marks, the more alive the drawing.

So what does all this have to do with writing and healing?

On my desk is a quote: “Writing is a negotiation with ourselves: it is about mercy and it is about breath.” (Jacqueline Jones Lamon). Writing, I suppose, is the most intellectual of the arts, and I think that can work against writers. Too often we start with ideas that conceptualize, rather than with breath, movement, images. For writing to be powerful, I think it needs to partake of all these, but especially images. Here is another quote from my bulletin board, “Images roost in our minds, consciously or not, because they have something more to say than we have yet to comprehend.” When an image draws you, even or especially when you don’t know why, stay with it.

Here is an exercise I’ve used in workshops that can help “call up” images. Write the first dream you remember, and then stay with the central image of the dream until it changes of its own accord. Notice what it becomes, but don’t force it.

I wish you breath, movement and imagery in all your writing.

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Confusing Times September 7, 2017

Filed under: aging parents,Grief,stress — saratbaker @ 8:35 pm
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“By yielding, we may obtain victory.” –Ovid

Do you know the term “at sixes and sevens?” That sort of off-center feeling of not quite knowing what to do next, a subtle disorientation? That is how I’ve been feeling lately. My mother is experiencing memory loss, and has been for some time. This was brought home to me in a dramatic way recently, when I saw how confused she was in a large store. I realized that we had turned a corner–we are in deeper waters than I had let myself realize. Things are changing quickly. My role is changing, and this woman who has always been so fiercely independent, is suddenly reliant on me in a way I never expected. It is bittersweet—sweet because she now allows me a kind of intimacy we’ve not had before, and bitter because I don’t want to lose her. As a friend of mine says, “life is a series of not-totally unexpected blows.”  Nothing about this is unexpected, but facing into the lived reality feels vertiginous.

Not long after our trip, I went to Earth Fare. I did a few errands and sat down to gather myself together and write a to-do list. It was pleasant to be in the neighborhood store, and I felt less alone with my own thoughts. I realized that I was holding my breath. So I tried to just breathe. There was nothing I could do about my sense of confusion, so I tried to relax into it. (The operative word here is tried.)

The-Queen-of-Hearts-S As I flipped through my tiny note book, I came across this line in a poem by Pamela Wilson: “Not knowing, even confusion, when met, reveals itself as wisdom in its potentiality, pure intelligence.” The poem was from a workshop by Johanna Royo on Heart-Centered Living during a one-day conference, Healing the World through Art, at the Georgia Museum of Art. Johanna described an experience of deep depression and loneliness in her life which led her to her practice of Heart-Centered Living. She said that at the very worst moment, she sat on the floor of her kitchen and it seemed that a huge black hole opened up. And then, instead of resisting it, she fell into it. And came out laughing. She realized that was the resistance and fear that were keeping her stuck.

Sitting there in Earth Fare, I saw an old friend I hadn’t seen in a while.  We chatted, talking about family, when she asked about my mother. She had known and loved my parents for a long time. Not only that, her husband had dementia for twenty years, a fact I had forgotten.  As I described my grief and fears, she nodded with understanding. It was a relief to talk about it with someone who didn’t shy away from the reality I was facing. She gave me good practical advice, and she also described the unexpected gifts that came from his illness. She said that over the course of his illness, he became much more affectionate. They shared an intimacy that in some ways was because of the illness. She described their last anniversary, which was celebrated in the hospital. Because the illness had made him blind, she had to describe the pureed food she was feeding him. They laughed about how when they married they never could have imagined celebrating their anniversary in such a way. She also described how, at the very end, when they thought nothing could reach him, a nurse singing a German folk song caused him to “wake up” and sing along with her in German. It was an unexpected gift of having him back, however briefly.

In a way I could never have orchestrated, I talked with the very person I needed to talk with that day. I left the store feeling lighter, clearer, and less afraid.

Note to readers: I have not posted since January. It was in January that my life felt upended—we had just inaugurated a man I feel is unfit to be president, my mother’s memory issues intensified, and I was under tremendous pressure to sell my book—which meant acquiring a whole new set of skills. My body protested. I am feeling on a more even keel now, and plan to post more frequently.

 

 

Living A Life You Can Endure January 20, 2017

Filed under: poetry,The Art of Living — saratbaker @ 3:08 pm
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I’ve been wrestling with the question of how to find balance in my life during these difficult times. My own work has suffered as I’ve spent my days petitioning, writing letters and making phone calls. I look longingly at my garden (which is a full month ahead of schedule), wanting nothing more than to muck around in the mud, but instead spend my time glued to the screen. Just when my exhaustion and frustration were about to overwhelm me, I was sent an amazing post by Porter Taylor, via a friend. So I am re-posting it here. Called “Living a Life You Can Endure,” it addresses the issue of where to put our energies to build a life that contributes to the world as well as nurtures us. I think you will find it heartening, as I did. I’ve put a link to Porter Taylor’s website at the bottom, so you can look at his wonderful posts.

Living A Life You Can Endure

JANUARY 18, 2017

Amid the drama of this week—the Inauguration, the Women’s March, the Hearings—amid all of that, I gained a different perspective. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of any of the above, but our headlines are only a piece of what is going on in the world. Moreover, often what in the long run turns out to be important happens in the corners. This week I found myself thinking about Marge Piercy’s wonderful poem and an article in The Economist about Vera Rubin (I know—random).

Frist the poem:

The Seven of Pentacles
by Marge Piercy

Under a sky the color of pea soup
she is looking at her work growing away there
actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans
as things grow in the real world, slowly enough.
If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water,
if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food,
if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars,
if the praying mantis comes and the ladybugs and the bees,
then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening.
More than half the tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.
Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.
Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.
Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden.
Gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar.

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us
interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.

Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen:
reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,
for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting,
after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.

Whatever we think about the events of the week in Washington, we have this one life to live which requires that we make connections that endure; that we grow gardens that feed us and the world; that we be part of bringing God’s kingdom of peace, justice, and mercy on earth as in heaven.  This is a life-long project and often the growth is underground and doesn’t make headlines.

Which brings me to Vera Rubin.  Born with a brilliant scientific mind, In the 1940’s she was told in high school to “stay away from science.”  At Vassar, she was the only astronomy major to graduate her year.  She thought about a Ph.D. at Princeton but woman were not allowed into the program until 1975.  Married at 19, she gave up a place in graduate school at Harvard and instead followed her husband and took night classes at Georgetown University for her doctoral degree.

When she visited Palomar Observatory in 1965, the home of the world’s largest telescope, there were no women’s bathrooms. Vera Rubin stuck a handmade skirt sign on the men’s room door.

She kept persisting. She kept following her passion—digging underground. She had a major role in discovering “dark matter.”  She discovered “NGC 4500, a galaxy in which half the stars orbit in one direction, mingled with half that head the other way” (The Economist, 1/7/17, p.70).  She won the Gold Metal of Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society and the United States National Medal of Freedom even as she raised four children.

Yes, we have a civic responsibility to have our voice heard in conversations about our country’s/world’s direction.  But the main work of our lives is to live our life; to follow our passions regardless of what is going on the world.  Some of that effort will be underground and hard and long term. In 1947 Vera Rubin asked for a graduate catalogue from Princeton and was told “not to bother: women were not accepted for physics and astronomy.”  None of the leaders of the field were aware of this woman going to night classes. She kept at it because it was her work.  It was the garden she was given to grow, and if she didn’t she couldn’t become who God made her to be.

May we have the courage and vision of Vera Rubin to do our work. Amid all the noise of this new chapter in our country, let us find a way to “live a life you can endure” and that connects us to God’s work, so in God’s good time the harvest will come.

+Porter

 old-woman-working-garden-10047784

Living a Life You Can Endure

 

Listening to the Other January 12, 2017

We are our stories

We think we know people, but we don’t know anyone until we know their stories.

We all have our unconscious biases—maybe not against Muslims, Jews or Blacks, but maybe against Southerners, Republicans or white people.

wooden-models

My family is Irish. Generations of oppression shaped a certain reactivity, clannishness and defensiveness regarding the wealthy. We were certainly never privileged—we are hardworking, studious people. My parents were each the first in their families to go to college, something we never took for granted. As Catholic transplants to the South, we didn’t have an easy time of it. Walking to our integrated Catholic school (Catholic mission schools integrated long before public schools), we had to run the gauntlet of the neighborhood boy throwing stones at us, yelling “dance, nigger-lovers, dance.”

So imagine my surprise when, at a West Coast Writers’ Conference, the black woman assigned to room with me mounted a vocal protest over having to room with a white Southerner. When I tried to tell her my story, she glared at me, stony-faced, and then left the room in a huff.  In her eyes I was the Enemy. Period.  It was disorienting and shocking, and later, funny.

I’m as guilty as anyone, much as I hate to admit it. My family prized looks and fitness, and, although I rebelled against that, I can be almost unconsciously dismissive of slovenliness. I value clear thinking and am impatient with stupidity. And so it goes, a little ticker-tape of approval, disapproval, just barely registering.

But all that changes when we listen to each others’ stories.  In a hospital waiting room, I overhear a woman I might have dismissed talk with a friend about her grown son’s addiction, about whether she will have to throw him out of the house, and where he might end up. I recognize the anguish in her quavering voice, a recognition that closes the distance between us. In line at the crowded grocery store before a snowstorm, a grizzly man in cap and overalls, talks with his clearly aging mother. He reassures her he is bringing wood over before the storm, tells her she is welcome to stay with him. He must repeat himself 4 times at least, each time with patience and tenderness. These instances repeat as I go through my day, leaving me humbled. With each encounter, my stereotypes shatter a little, my wonder increases.  I begin to see people with stereoscopic vision—as three dimensional, not just one thing.

We are all full of contradictions. And in these dire times, in our political climate, it is so easy to reduce people to one or two obvious characteristics. We do it out of fear, mostly.  Instead of doing that, as a dear friend of mine teaches, we can approach each other with curiosity, compassion and courage.

I’m working on it.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 
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