In The Wounded Storyteller, Arthur Frank quotes Nancy Mairs, poet and essayist, as saying that “all persons have abundances and all have lacks….your abundance may fill someone’s lack, which you are moved to fill….” I remembered this the other night after my first meeting with my winter class at the cancer center. I had not taught for almost 6 months. In those months, my life revolved around therapy for my broken back, and it has been less than a month since I shed my body brace and have been able to drive. In the months of rehabilitation I lived a twilight life of sleep and physical therapy. Slowly the more normal rhythm of life claimed me: church on Sundays, lunch with friends, short forays of shopping, longer walks with my dog. But I still feel fragile and tired. So when I drove to work Tuesday afternoon, I was more aware of that fragility than my competence.
This class was a mixture of women who had taken the class before and several newbies. That is always a challenge because I need to bring in new material instead of relying on the tried and true, and perhaps more importantly, I need to make sure that the newbies were made to feel part of a group that has already forged its own dynamics.
So, the first thing I asked of the group was to tell their stories. They didn’t need to be coaxed. A new, lovely, quiet lady opened up with a harrowing tale of family members felled by breast cancer, gene testing, prophylactic mastectomies, and then finding that she had a rare form of cancer in her abdominal lining. Another woman told how she rejected implants and instead had flowers tatooed on her flat chest. Each story was like that, trauma upon trauma, terrifying diagnosis and painful treatments, including stories of loneliness and heartbreak. By the time they were done, I realized I was the only woman at the table with breasts. The storytelling, though, had brought the women into a deeper connection with each other, an almost palpable feeling of sisterhood.
Yet fragile myself, I felt in danger of being swamped by the sheer concentration of pain. I was tired and in pain myself, and stressed by my wish to hide those facts. How could I offer anything to counter the pain of these brave women?
One of the first activities we always do is collaging our journals. It is a relaxing, fun exercise, allowing for easy exchanges in the group. More importantly, the images we are drawn to often are potent symbols for healing. While we were collaging, one of the participants turned to me and said, “I noticed you were moving as if you were in pain. May I do some Reiki on you?” I told her yes, I was in pain, and I would appreciate her help. Her hands on my back radiated warmth and I could feel my muscles relax. And that was when I looked around the table and realized that I was not the helper, but that we all helped each other. We all had something to offer, even if it was an abundance of need.
One of the things I love about this work is that I can’t be anything else but what I am at that moment. Perhaps the main competency is simply that: authenticity. Driving home that evening, I turned off the radio, and allowed myself to savor the pink clouds in the west, the faces of the people walking in the warm evening air, the new ease of my body. My own fragility no longer seemed like an obstacle to be overcome, but the very thing which I offered to others.