Word Medicine

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

The White Rabbit July 31, 2013

timeArtists, and the old, and the sick and the unemployed, often experience time in a way that non-artists, the young, and the well-employed do not.

 

This is not all bad, and can be good.  Nora Gallagher in her recent book, Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic, speaks of her sense of time changing when she learns that she has a rare and serious illness.  She said she looked at the people on the other side of the “glass,”  the non-sick, the “bizzy,”  who had all been like her, and she realized they didn’t see her, didn’t want to see her. Part of her wants to go back to being “bizzy,” because before she was behind glass, she had a clear sense of herself, her importance, her power, and her place in the scheme of things.  She learns, slowly, to acclimate to her enforced slowness and disability, and gradually comes to readjust her inner sense of time.  Instead of planning and executing, she begins to live in the present.  She says,

 

“If you stayed in the present, if you paid attention thoroughly to the now, what it had in it might come to you.  And if you did not pay attention to the present, you might miss essential information that might be exactly what you need.”

 

I had an experience the other day of transitioning from one sense of time to the other.  At the drugstore/post office in our neighborhood, I bumped into BJ, an artist friend of my father’s.  I have always felt warmly to him—he is gregarious, funny, and kind. I was also surprised to see him out and about, because he has cancer, and has had it for some time.  Truth be told, I wasn’t sure he was still with us until I saw him.  He was jaundiced and seemed to have shrunk a bit, but his eyes were full of mischief.

 

I was just leaving and had in my hand a list of errands to do.  My engine was revved and I didn’t want to linger.  But linger I did, because once we got family news out of the way,  he started regaling me with stories of his adventures with my dad, who has been gone eighteen years.  I was happy to hear about Dad having a good time—I think BJ might have egged him on to some shenanigans.  Then somehow we got on to writing letters, and I told him how delighted I was to get an actual hand-written note from my friend, who refuses to be “social media-d.”

 

We were off and running.  I glanced down at my to-do list with the sinking feeling I wasn’t going to get anything done.  BJ pulled out his pen, a Mont Blanc and told me how he writes with it on Crane stationary.  Then we talked about paper, about the satisfaction of writing on a good thick rag paper, and I felt suddenly nostalgic for stationary and fountain pens.  He says he spends a lot of time writing letters to old friends, all of them decorated with sketches.  One elderly woman had her maid read all her letters because of macular degeneration, and when she died, the maid wrote him and asked him to write her—she missed his letters!  He used to write another friend and when he died he wrote his wife, who shared them with her sister and when the wife died he wrote her sister, who shared them all with her cronies in a home in Florida.

 

Having thoroughly relinquished my future plans for the day, I stood there is awe of him.  Here he was, sick, but keeping all these people entertained and engaged while the rest of the world rushed headlong—no time, no time, said the white rabbit—to what?  Really, what was so important?  What is important, a wise woman said to me a few days ago, is Presence.  And that was what he was sharing with me, and so many others.

 

Funnily enough, I got all my errands done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Work of Dying April 13, 2012

Filed under: cancer care,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 4:18 pm
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A friend of mine who has been a grief counselor for thirty years said, “I just don’t understand death.  How someone can be here and then be gone.  I just can’t understand it.”

I was grateful to her for saying that.   I had just told her that my beloved aunt had died. Although I wasn’t with her at the moment of death,   I had spent the week before with her, in the hospital, where she was supposed to be recovering from emergency surgery, but instead, as the week passed, was clearly succumbing to end stage cancer.  It was, despite the pain and trauma, a week of great sweetness for me.  Now I felt the unreality of her being gone, yet also I was enveloped by the sacredness of my time with her.

I have never been with anyone who was actively dying before.  It seemed like labor, a great work that was being accomplished.  My aunt has given me so much in my life–her love, her example of courage, her generosity of spirit, and she gave so much to me in these last days.  I watched as she had to let go of one hope and expectation after another.  She had thought she would have another two months, at least, of visiting with friends and family.  She wanted to go home in the worst way, to putter in her garden, to watch her birds, to feel the sun on her face.  The doctor had to tell her she would not be going home.  Her face crumbled in tears for a moment, then she wiped them away, and gave the doctor a radiant smile.  “I will be very happy at Hospice House,” she said.  Her husband had been there, and she felt they were like family.  She did this over and over, letting go and opening up to the next thing.  Letting go of her mobility, letting go of her loved home, letting go of her ability to read, of her ability to speak, and yet never with bitterness. Sadness, yes, but not excessive.  She had this trust, this faith, that allowed her to be open to what was, instead of clinging to the way she might want it to be.

She was open to the CNA’s and nurses, always thanking them, always appreciative.  One of the CNA’s washed her and rubbed her back with such tenderness that I almost cried.  “Wonderful,” Sheila said in her now roughened voice, and sighed.  I could see that she was soaking up the massage.  I realized how important the little things are, the sips of coffee, the touches, the cold cloth on the forehead.  She would ask for what she wanted, and receive it with great appreciation.  When she was changed to palliative care, and could not really eat,  she hankered after tomato juice and chicken salad sandwich.  Cindy, the CNA, finally got it for her.  She could only sip a little, nibble a tiny bit.  “Ah, great.  Thank you,” she said, then closed her eyes after the exertion, and fell asleep.

She never stopped being my aunt.  Earlier, when she could still speak easily,  she told me to go home and get some rest.  “You’re getting that glazed look in your eyes,” she said.  “There’s a good bottle of wine in the garage next to the freezer.  Go home and drink it.”  The next day when I  came back to the hospital, she asked me how I liked the wine, one of her favorites.  I told her I loved it, which was no lie.   I was a little guilty for abandoning her, and eating and drinking and sleeping so soundly.  She kissed her fingers and winked. “Delicious,” she said.  Once I asked her if there was anything I could do for her.  Again, this was earlier, and she said, “You can stop looking so concerned!”  in her no-nonsense, New England way.  When her daughter and husband came, she shushed them when they were speaking too loudly.  We all laughed at that, at how intact she was even as she was letting go.

None of this was our timetable–Sheila had just buried her beloved husband, after years of care-taking, and she and we had envisioned some time for herself, some time to enjoy her many friends and activities.  It didn’t seem fair.  Not by our standards.  But it was clear that Sheila was doing her work, that her spirit and body were following some other agenda than the one we had for her.  As sad as it was for all of us,  I think she was up for it.  I think she’d tell us all to “stop looking so concerned.”

 

When is Writing Not the Answer? February 13, 2012

Is writing or journaling always appropriate?  Does it always lead to healing?

Last week, one of the participants in my class read a short piece,”Why do I Journal?” in which said, “Sometimes pain doesn’t go away…..Hope–the jury is still out.”  I appreciated her honesty, and even more her pain-filled eyes as she turned to me.  Writing wasn’t helping her.  She was in a dark depression, a cyclical depression, and nothing she could pull up was helping her.  It had helped her greatly in the past, and the journal had been her companion.  But now–nothing. I thanked her for her honesty, which led to a discussion about the times writing may not be appropriate.  I suggested that finding comfort in other ways might help, and if she wanted to keep to her journaling rhythm, that haiku, with its focus on the external world, on nature, might be a good place to start, but not to add any more stress to herself by forcing introspection.

In contrast to her, another woman, new to the class, wrote several powerful laments about feelings of abandonment by her family when she became chronically ill.  Her poems were full of feeling–of hurt, rage, fear, despair.  This woman did find relief in her writing, at last expressing all the feelings that had burdened her as much as her illness burdened her.

What was the difference between each of these women’s experiences?  Is one experience “better” than the other?  What are the variables a writing facilitator should keep in mind when encounter such different responses?

Findings involving journaling suggest that “dwelling on emotions alone may be counterproductive in terms of health outcomes. …writers may be able to relive the physiological and emotional activation of the trauma during its recall, but because they are focused on the affective experience, they may not be able to work through the trauma to reach a state of resolution from which they have a different perspective.” (Lutgendorf and Ullrich in Lepore and Smyth,The Writing Cure, 2002, p.182).   In the case of an intractable depression,  intense introspection may not yield relief.  What is needed is a connection outside the self, as in nature, and a sense of being part of a community.  In this sense, the fact that this woman attends the class, responds to others, and is able to read of her failure to find comfort in writing, is in itself, salutary.

On the other hand, the second woman’s writing provided for her a strengthening of her voice, a relief of a burden of unexpressed emotions.  By writing about the chaos of her illness, she was able to come finally to an imagination of a place of refuge, where “No Harm is Done Here. ”  The class, by witnessing to her struggles, provided the very support that she had found missing previously.  She seemed to come into focus, both for herself and for us.  Her writing had been a gateway into a stronger sense of self, something that we would hope for all participants, yet it is not the only response.

As writing facilitators, I think we have to be aware that there is no one template for responding to writing.  Writing is not always a panacea.  I think we need to be aware of formulaic thinking, of assuming that one size fits all.  Sometimes confronting trauma head on is curative, sometimes it is destructive.   Sometimes introspection is fruitfull, sometimes it is not.  In this way, we can bring a more nuanced sensiblity to the process of leading writing workshops.

 

 

 

 

A Communion of Sorts June 24, 2011

Ten years ago, I welcomed my first students to the Healing Writing Class at the Loran Smith Center for Cancer Support in Athens, Georgia.  Little did they know how nervous I was.  I was no “expert.”  Yes, I had a life-long passion for the written word resulting in a respectable number of publications, and  fifteen years of teaching college English.  But my main impetus had been an intuition and desire born of my own mid-life journey.

I was thirty-nine and my writing career seemed to be on track.  My novel had been a finalist in a national contest, I had a scholarship to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and I had been publishing regularly in small magazines.  Then, suddenly, everything changed: my father died, I suffered severe complications in childbirth, I was diagnosed with a mysterious and intractable illness, my husband had emergency heart surgery, my mother collapsed with a brain aneurysm and I became her caretaker.  Did I mention I had a thirteen year old daughter?

Just three years after placing my novel in the contest and acquiring an agent, I collapsed.  Bedridden, unable to track a line of print to read or write, I was told by the experts that there was nothing that could be done, that this would be my life.

Intuition is an interesting thing.  Despite all the evidence confirming the experts’ assessment of my condition, I didn’t believe my fate was to ride out my life in bed.  Yes, I could and would make the necessary adjustments to accommodate my new status as an ill individual.   I accepted that I was ill.  But I didn’t accept that it was the end of the story.  I felt there was something more.  And so slowly, very slowly, this tractable Catholic girl defied the experts, and handhold by precarious handhold, I pulled myself up and out of the pit.  I had told myself that if I was able to work again, I wanted to work with people who had also been in that pit or who were in it, people like me who were bedraggled and raw and dirtied, but also avid for life.

I saw myself as a facilitator, not an expert.  I was a fellow traveler, offering to others what had always been a great source of strength and healing to me–poetry, stories, the written word, that intimate and potent communication of one soul to another. What I had not fully grasped was how blessed I would be by my new work.  Each participant brought her own unique mix of pain and despair, hope and joy, understanding and bafflement.  As we struggled together, witnessing and supporting each others’ emerging integration, we were enriched in subtle and untellable ways.  What I had only sensed, like a mole feeling her way underground, that this was the work I was meant to do, was confirmed when I left each class spent, joyful, and profoundly grateful.

Our book, A Communion of Sorts, is an anthology of work that has come out of the workshop.  Of course, the real work is what happened within and between the participants as they wrote and shared their writings.  The stories, poems and memoirs in the anthology point to that more ephemeral work.  In our book, you can witness the chaos and pain of cancer and its treatment, but you can also share in the solace of  memory, and in the often unexpected joy that surprises, even in the darkest hour.  I hope you will join in our Communion of Sorts.

 

After a Long Absence October 6, 2010

Dear Readers,

I hope you are still out there.  I guess I needed a long hiatus to swim, relax, just be.  But fall is finally here and I’m half-way through my fall writing class at the cancer center, and as always, I marvel at what a privilege it is to be witness to the richness of so many lives and so much courage.  Because it takes courage to face the empty page, to face, as one of the participants said yesterday, “my demons.”

That particular writer wrote a short, spine-tingling impressionistic piece about spousal abuse, using the image of being put into a rotten, rat and snake infested well, of calling and pleading for help, only to have her husband stand at the top of the well, laughing at her.  The visceral images and strong verbs: rotting, slithering, pleading, had the group by the neck.  We felt the terror, without the word terror needing to be used.  In the reflection she wrote about the act of writing that piece,  she said that even though it was hard to go back to that experience, once she got it on paper she felt better, more at peace.

I am reading another friend’s fascinating and lengthy memoir.  On our morning walks she has described how she had to write this tome, to put the chaos of her young experience into some kind of order.  She has for years gone home after work and written, often times feeling guilt at not being more accessible to her children.  Yet, she maintains, she had to write this to be a whole person, and she feels that she is a more authentic parent for it.

The poet Karl Shapiro has this to say about writing and pathology: “The prevalence of the tragic and the pathological in great works of literature has misled many theorists ino the belief that art is symptomatic of psychic disorder, whereas it is the opposite.  Art is a way of reaching for wholeness by way of the assimilation of the pathic into the joyousness of the unified being….”  (Foreward, Life on the Line: selections on words and healing).

Another writer of breathtaking courage I have the honor of having in our class, wrote a long piece about years of being stuck, of facing the feeling of not making a difference, and yet also of affirming that it has only been

through her suffering that she has become “real.”   She ends her lament about “time  (that) cannot be regained,” though, with the observation that it is “time to change how I see…..time to love.”

For those of us attending to these works, we borrow courage to look at our own demons, to know that we can face them and know that we too can survive.  For the writers sharing their work with us, those demons b

ecome less potent because the writers are no longer alone with them.  It is this sharing which I think brings the process of healing to another level.  We are meant not only to create art, but to share it, for our own good and the good of all.

So here we all are, imperfect, striving for wholeness, facing our demons, becoming, slowly, more “real.”  It is time.

 

Climbing Above June 16, 2010

I recently received a call from one of the social workers at our cancer center.  She was concerned about a woman in my group who had scored high for depression on our intake forms.  She wondered why I hadn’t referred her for individual counseling.  “She didn’t present as depressed,” I explained.  As a matter of fact, she had been one that I least worried about.  She was engaged, lively, full of humor and right on the mark with new skills and ideas.  I knew the facts of her life; they were dire, and those facts would stand, to everyone’s grief.  But for two hours a week, she was not mired in those facts.  She was free to exercise the other parts of herself that were neither patient nor caregiver.  She was free to think, imagine, communicate, laugh. In the past, I have referred participants to our counselors, or have gently suggested that they might find what they need there instead of in the writing group.  But in this case I saw no reason.  It seemed she was doing what she needed to do to help herself.

Ted Deppe, a splendid poet and psychiatric nurse, often writes about his pediatric charges.  In a poem called “The Japanese Deer,” he describes taking the children on an outing to the Lost Village. On a walk in the countryside, he truly gets lost, then comes upon an “apparition of apple blossoms.” The children break ranks and run towards the trees, climbing the upper branches and adorning themselves with apple blossoms.  Here is a stanza from that poem:

What’s true in this story is that Marisol,

raped repeatedly by her mother’s boyfriend,

and Luis, who watched from the hall as his stepfather

stabbed his mother to death–nothing

can change those facts–climbed for a short time

above the brambled understory, outside history,

discovered a fragrant scent on their hands,

shredded more petals, rubbed the smell deep in their skin.

In the poem, the children are entranced by the apple blossoms and the idea of tiny Japanese deer.  Although they didn’t actually see the deer, the idea of them is so real, some of the children were sure they’d “seen the whole herd.”  I love this poem.  It does not deny the horror of the children’s lives, but it also does not deny them their moment of transcendence.  I love the visual pun of the brambled understory and climbing up above the facts of their histories. Our histories are a part of us, but they do not define us.  I love also how this moment is sensual, how instinctual the children are in rubbing “the fragrant smell into their skins.”  One thinks of all the Biblical stories of anointing by fragrant oil in the presence of the sacred.  This moment was sacred, and Deppe suggests this beautifully.

The social worker and I grieved together over my writer’s  plight.  Yet I have had the privilege of listening to her wonderful stories, full of beauty and drama and pathos and humor.  I think of the last line of Deppe’s poem “….impossible, all of it,/but this is the way he remembers it; this is the truth.”

“The Japanese Deer,” from Cape Clear  New and Selected Poems, by Theodore Deppe, Salmonpoetry,  www.salmonpoetry.com

 

 

 

 
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