Word Medicine

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

The Art of Medicine in Metaphors December 20, 2012

Fellow “healing writer” blogger, James Borton, has just come out with a new book , The Art of Medicine in Metaphors: A Collection of Poems and Narratives.

I met James at the 2011 Examined Life Conference hosted by the University of Iowa Writing Program and the Carver College of Medicine and was riveted by his story.  Like many of us who have experienced a life-changing health crisis, he returned to the world with a mission.  He began the blog, allheartmatters.com, where he generously writes about Medical Humanities and solicits healing narratives.  His anthology is a welcome addition to the growing literature on writing and healing.   He describes his book below:

Poetry and stories about illness address more than just the symptoms of disease. Narratives and poems are the pathways for people to make sense of and discover meaning in life’s difficult events. Three years ago, I learned a painful lesson about how a pa­tient bleeds a story. Following a triple bypass, I emerged after nine dark days from a coma after losing all of my blood from a ruptured coronary artery. It is no wonder that my call to others to learn about their broken health stories met with remarkable responses.

Every patient’s story, whether it be through the admission report, the clinical medical chart, or the arc of an entire life history, translates into a valued healing narrative. The poems and stories presented in this anthology are all written from the heart. They are about losses and they are also about gains. What patients and doctors continue to understand is the power of telling and listening to personal stories.

This anthology includes thematic re­flections on death, diagnoses, fears, humor, joy and transforma­tion—both physical and spiritual. These writers all succeed in telling their story, sharing their brokenness, discovering healing metaphors, and—at unexpected moments—offering grace and renewal.

James Borton teaches in the English Department at Coastal Carolina University and is a faculty associate at the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities at the University of South Carolina. He is also a past National Endowment Fellow at Yale University.

AOM Tear Sheet

 

Love is What Carries You December 12, 2012

 

 Love held us. Kindness held us. We were suffering what we were living by.

I began to know my story then. Like everybody’s, it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the thread that holds it all together?…. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.

Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter

As I flipped through my address book yesterday to make my Christmas card list, I was caught short by all the names of those I have lost this year: my beloved courageous Irish aunt, Sheila; my Jewish godmother, Lily; my dear friend Cecelia.  All of these women have blessed my life, in ways both sweet and profound.  When my birthday passed without my aunt’s card, I felt an orphan.  Her steady support throughout my life has been like a vigil candle. I miss that light now.  I miss Lily’s quirky and affectionate and sometimes outrageous letters, like the one that included an erotic poem that she said she would have loved if she had been my age at the time (46?) instead of her age (80?).  I miss Cecelia’s elegance, fierceness and mystical streak.  I think of how I took them all for granted, as if they would live forever.

Selfishly, I know that part of what I miss is that no one will ever look at me with quite the same indulgent affection as they did, that I am no longer the young woman who drank endless cups of tea and poured out my heart, certain of loving ears.  With their deaths I feel I have stepped into a new phase of my own life, one in which I have a new role to play.  Wendell Berry in his poem “Ripening” speaks to this process of our lives becoming peopled with our beloved dead, even as we give up the pleasant illusions of youth:

 Ripening

 The longer we are together

the larger death grows around us.

How many we know by now

who are dead! We, who were young,

now count the cost of having been.

And yet as we know the dead

we grow familiar with the world….

 What does he mean, that we “grow familiar with the world?”  Perhaps that we know its true dimensions–the cost of living and loving—rather than our fantasies of what it should be. My friend Jane, who suffers from Alzheimers yet still retains sharp memories of her past, said to me recently, after describing her mother’s illness and death at fifty-four and how hard it was for her then, “People are just going to have to get with the fact that life is hard.”  I thought of my post-war generation, of how privileged we have been and how it comes as a shock to us that, indeed, life is hard.

Every Christmas we make a pudding out of persimmons.  We prefer wild ones, but will use “borrowed” persimmons from a neighbor’s tree.  The trick about them is that they have to be touched with frost to make them sweet.  Grief is like that frost, it can soften and sweeten us, as Berry concludes in his poem:

Having come/the bitter way to better prayer, we have/the sweetness of ripening./ How sweet

to know you by the signs of this world!persimmon

 

 

 

 

 

 

art: http://dkirkeeide.blogspot.com/2010/10/mysterious-persimmon.html

 

My Morning with Matisse December 3, 2012

30MATISSE1-articleLargeLast Friday morning, I was arrested by three images of portraits by Matisse reproduced in the Arts section of the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/30/arts/design/matisse-exhibition-at-the-metropolitan-museum-of-art.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0. ) I love Matisse, and hadn’t remembered seeing these paintings.  There was something elemental about them, with their simple shapes and limited palette.  At first, they almost seem childlike in their freshness and seeming effortlessness.    But as I read further in Roberta Smith’s wonderful review, I learned that “that Matisse’s progress was often grueling and yet….., he worked through his difficulties to a final image that exudes consummate freshness and ease.”  He revisited certain “scenes and subjects and at times also making superficially similar if drastically divergent copies of his paintings.”  According to Ms. Smith, “Always he sought an implicitly modern directness and rawness that created a brave new intimacy among artist, object and viewer. He claimed to work “toward what I feel; toward a kind of ecstasy.””

I sipped my coffee and soaked in the images.  But perhaps what stood out most for me was the phrase, “he worked through his difficulties to a final image that exudes consummate freshness and ease.”  So often when we view art or read a finished poem or story, what we experience is the completeness, the inevitability of the work of art.  Because the work, if it is good, has the energy and spontaneity of the original impulse, we don’t appreciate the many stages of revision, the detours and setbacks that go into making it.  The awe we feel at what was once considered the “divine spark” overshadows the very human process, the often grueling process, that goes into creating a work.

Somehow I felt buoyed up to learn of Matisse’s process.  I know that in my own writing and very amateurish attempts at visual art, I’ve often given up before something was “done.”  Dispirited by the incompleteness, by the raw edges showing through, I haven’t persisted, or worked through a piece.  I’ve wanted to jump over the hard working through to the finished project, not realizing that it is in the working through that one often discovers the truest essence of the piece.

In the movie, A Late Quartet, Christopher Walken plays a cellist and teacher who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.  When one of his students criticizes another student, he tells them his story of meeting Pablo Casals when he was a young student, and playing for him.  What Walken’s character remembers are all the mistakes he made, but when he goes on to play with Casals later and tells him how mortified he was by the mistakes, Casals’ response was to remember what was felicitous about the young man’s playing.  So often as we struggle to create, we see only the mistakes, and too often give up on ourselves.

What does all this have to do with writing and healing?  Not everyone who comes to a healing writing class is interested in creating art.  However, I have found that participants are often very interested in craft, in “getting better.”  Offering our own experiences of process, and gently encouraging participants to persist through frustration, can lead to a sense of mastery, which is in itself healing.  By pointing out the positive, we can support them as they explore ways to deepen their work, and we can model the human enterprise that making art is.

 

Inwardness November 15, 2012

Filed under: poetry,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 5:28 pm
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I awoke this morning to the shrill chiming of starlings, their chirps like knives sharpening–tinny, metallic, clanging.  I imagined their black beaks open, their tongues ululating in unison.  A siren started up, shrill too, gathering momentum, then faded.  The starlings  stopped suddenly then, as if a conductor had lowered a baton. The alarms ceased.  What followed was a luxurious quiet, peaceful and contented, pierced finally by the plaintive song of a single cardinal.

Last night, my daughter said on the phone that she felt like a “bad friend” when she didn’t post on someone’s Facebook page.  Two dear friends of hers have died tragically in the last four years, and “everyone” on their birthdays, posts about them.  She feels these losses deeply, but doesn’t always have words to express them.  “I prefer one-to-one communication,”  she said, and then, “time goes so quickly–I can’t believe how quickly it passes.”  It only gets worse, I told her.

I wonder about the need to be always on, always producing, always engaging, always communicating.  As I watch the hostas turn yellow and curl inward, the King Solomon’s seal return to the ground,  the oak leaves and acorns littering the ground, I think about how important it is to mark seasons, to know what season we are in our lives.  There are rhythms to our lives, times of engaging and times of retreating.  If  you are an artist of any sort, you have to respect those rhythms.  I think especially you have to respect fallow time, the dissolution of what worked and the openness to something new. Yet the culture at large has only one season, summer, and only one age, youth.  So there is always pressure to be on, to be producing, to be posting on Facebook, to be shrilly tweeting away.

I wonder how all our gadgets for communicating make that communication somehow thin and meaningless.  I think of letters I’ve saved over the years and still read, how I’ve labored over letters to send, feeling the importance of trying to frame the communication just so.  We don’t have time to experience our lives if we are always rushing to represent them, do we?  The sort of mass communication we’ve grown used to can also be a trap–we are curating our image, advertising it, not truly communicating.  Don’t get me wrong, I use all these things too; I just don’t want to be used by them.  I want to be clear about what is what.

It was interesting to read the poet Jack Gilbert’s obit in today’s New York Times  for these very reasons.  In today’s celebrity-driven world, here was a poet who eschewed publicity.  In 1962, for six months, he was famous, and this is what he had to say about it:

“I enjoyed those six months of being famous,” he recalled in the Paris Review interview. “Fame is a lot of fun, but it’s not interesting. I loved being noticed and praised, even the banquets. But they didn’t have anything that I wanted. After about six months, I found it boring. There were so many things to do, to live. I didn’t want to be praised all the time — I liked the idea, but I didn’t invest much in it.”

Here is a poem from the obit, “Brief for the Defence.”

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies

are not starving someplace, they are starving

somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.

But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.

Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not

be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not

be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women

at the fountain are laughing together between

the suffering they have known and the awfulness

in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody

in the village is very sick. There is laughter

every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,

and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,

we lessen the importance of their deprivation.

He may not be to everyone’s taste, but I’m not sure if his singular voice could have achieved what it did in this poem if he’d been looking for twitter followers.

Maybe all of this is just a brief for my defence, for taking time off  to gather energy in like a root vegetable.

(http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/15/books/jack-gilbert-a-poet-off-the-literary-grid-dies-at-87.html?_r=0)

By the way, our anthology of writings for and about cancer patients, A Communion of Sorts, is now available as an ebook for iPad or iPod.  http://store.blurb.com/ebooks/333382-a-communion-of-sorts  

 

Practicing Simplicity July 18, 2012

Filed under: artists,Process,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 2:58 pm
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This past spring, my son Adam, fifteen, had to take a mandatory PE class.  Now, Adam will tell you that by and large, organized sports are not his thing.  He is a terrific artist, musician  and thinker, and an active kid who has ridden his bike to school since he was in pre-school.  Nevertheless, when his dad coached T-ball, seven-year old Adam would invariably be inspecting a ladybug on a dandelion or watching the clouds form interesting patterns in the sky when that ball whizzed past him.  Yet this spring, as the class sampled various sports, Adam amazed his class and even more himself by hitting not one, not two, but three home runs, two of them out of the park.

How to account for it?  Here is my hypothesis: Adam had no expectations of himself.  He wasn’t thinking of how he would make his mark in baseball.  He had no ideas about it.  If anything, he might have expected to not do well.  But at any rate, I think he was simply in the moment.  A ball was thrown at him, he hit it, he ran.  He had beginner’s mind; he was in the flow, not obstructed by how things should be, but simply letting them unfold as they are.

How enviable.  Could it be repeated?  Will he be a star if he tries out for fall ball?  I wonder.  I suspect that if he takes up baseball, he will begin to accrue expectations and fears about performance, as we all do.  And then he will have to practice arduously in the hopes of once again finding that sweet spot, that place of being in the moment, that simplicity.

We practice our sport, our craft, our art, in order to return to simplicity.

Recently, I was lucky enough to catch the Richard Diebenkorn “Ocean Park” series at the Corchoran in Washington D C.  As I gazed at the huge canvases filled with blocks of color, I was struck both by how simple and also how complex they were.  Yes, one might say, a child could have done those, and yet it was because the artist had studied and executed more realistic works–figures, interiors, landscapes–that the paintings were so resonant.  The viewer enters into a complex conversation the painter was having with himself and with Matisse, with Bonnard, and with all his influences.  Yet also, and maybe more importantly, a canvas opens up an expected door in the viewer, a moment of freshness, a new way of seeing,  echoing the unique encounter the painter had with media and moment.

Frederick Franck in his book Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation, encourages his reader to draw as a way to encounter the actual, not the projections of the mind.  Drawing becomes not product, but investigation.  It is a way to return to the simplicity of what is, rather than a way of   fancying-up reality.  It takes practice and it is hard.  Why do it?  Because in the middle of the struggle to render, there are those moments–where your pencil and the tree you are rendering  and the hand holding the pencil and the eyes seeing the tree are all one and everything else falls away.

Isak Dinesen said “I write a little every day, without too much hope, without too much despair.”   To get to beginner’s mind, that is what we have to do.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Willing to Make Mistakes January 23, 2012

Because of my health, I have had to let go of almost every outside activity.  I know by now the trouble I will be in if I don’t respect my limits.  I have let choir go, and tango is on the back burner.  I am grateful to be able to teach, grateful for taking the dog for her daily walk.  Still, I mourn those other activities that kept me feeling alive.

There is one thing I still make time and energy for, though.  A dear friend’s mother is an accomplished painter.  Cessi, like me, is confined to a small life–time has slowed her down.  Yet, there is in her the artist still.  So Cessi and I paint every Wednesday.

Paining with Cessi, I must re-learn beginner’s mind.  I have a good eye, but my skills are minimal.  I must practice the elementary.  I set up a still life: green bottle, a blue and white bowl with bananas and a pink grapefruit.  The bananas lie heavy and tumid in the bowl, the bottle soars up behind them.  How to give the bananas weight, how to suggest the bright, juicy roundness of the grapefruit?  How to paint the light on the fruit, the bottle, the way the fruit holds the light even as the winter evening fades?

I paint the ellipsis of the bowl, the outline of the bottle.  The first strokes feel bold, and it is a relief to have broken the blank space of the paper.  I continue, tentatively, feeling awkward, unsure.  I’m not used to acrylics, not sure whether to make them opaque or transparent, and am hesitant about mixing colors.  I step away, become self-aware, critical.  I freeze, unable to go on.  Cessie looks up at me and smiles encouragingly.  “You are paralyzed.”  It is an acknowledgement, and that is all I need.  “Just keep going.”  I see a way to go on, not with the freedom I long for, but a next step.

Why do it?  It is tiring, and I’m smack up against all my insecurities.  But for those two hours, I’m not in monkey mind.  I’m not obsessing over my daughter’s wedding or work.  For those ours I am in the now.  It is meditation of a sort.

Cessi’s granddaughter, Giordana, comes in.  “You look serene,” she says, noticing the hush in the room.  We speak very little, Cessi and I .  Yet doing it with her makes it less frightening, more companionable.  I feel her supportive energy–she helps contain me.  We go deep into ourselves, together.

It is good for me to remember what it feels like to be a fledgling.  This is how so many of our participants feel, who come to us for guidance and containment as they delve into themselves, seeking the words that will release them.  We are not there to teach them what to write, but to encourage them to listen to themselves.  Maybe one of our most important functions is simply help contain them, giving them practical suggestions as needed, but also to look up and nod and say, yes, I know, you are stuck, or scared, or go further.

Katherine Dunn spoke to this issue of being paralyzed  in Poets and Writers in this last issue: “Sometimes all that saves me is being willing to make mistakes.  There are projects that strike me as so beautiful, important, complicated or just plain big, that they convince me of my own inadequacy.  This awful state of reverence leads to paralyzing brain freeze.  At times like that the only way out is for me to decide, ‘to hell with it. I can’t do it right, so I’ll do it wrong.  I can’t do it well, so I’ll do it badly.’  Sometimes, with luck, while I’m sweating to do it wrong, I stumble on the right way.”

My still-life turned out better than I expected, although the lip of the bowl lists.  But I learned a lot, a whole lot, and I’m less scared now.  I’m more engaged.  Ready to go on and make more mistakes.

 

 

 

 

Heart Goals January 3, 2012

I was supposed to be writing down my goals and aspirations for the New Year, but I couldn’t focus. With the tsunami that is Christmas, I had stopped writing for several weeks.  In the aftermath, I came down with the flu.  For anyone else it would be a bothersome interruption to their “normal” life, but for me it was the threatened return to a prolonged state of invalid-hood.  How was I supposed to make plans, if I didn’t know from day to day what level of energy I had to work with?  Could I make one plan for well me, another for sick me, and then try to merge them?

The day before, as I struggled asthmatically to walk the dog a few blocks, I had met a friend jogging blithely down the street.  She’d stopped to chat, jogging in place, her cheeks rosy, her breath puffing energetically in the cold air.  She was training for a half-marathon, she said.  It had all started a year ago when she joined the WOW Boot Camp.  I should join! she said. It is so much fun! I muttered something about not being able, and she just laughed and said sure I could, I could do it more gently.  I thanked her and went on—how to tell her that too much exercise poisons my cells?  No point.  But it plunged me into a welter of envy, grief, despair that I was unprepared for, that I thought I’d dealt with and put to bed years earlier.  Here they were, leering at me with their ugly faces, their voices enumerating my bottomless inadequacies.

I dream that I join the bike group three of my friends are in. I tell Todd about my dream.  “Don’t even think about it,” he says, “besides, they’d resent you for slowing them down.”   It all pricked, hurt, felt raw.  I saw my friends passing me by in the grand parade of life, and it felt as if I were being punished for doing something terribly, terribly wrong.

I’ve been reading about having compassion for yourself, about holding your pain with tenderness.  So one day, driving across town by myself, I did as suggested, I put my hand on my heart and said, “I care about your pain,” over and over to myself, feeling pretty silly and mechanical.  But then a funny thing happened:  all those tears that I’d been holding back automatically, started up.  I had begun to feel as if I couldn’t cry; I hadn’t cried in so long. I would like to report that I had a good therapeutic cry, but I was driving to see someone who couldn’t handle a swollen, red-eyed me, so I sniffed the tears back.

I finally got back to my journal, feeling overwhelmed and inadequate.  I scribbled the usual frets and complaints and then wrote this sentence: “Old griefs had got her by the throat; she could not move.”  Ah, I thought, ah. I get no pass; there are no shortcuts.  I can teach about writing until the cows come home, but I have to do it.  Knowing is not enough, it is in praxis that the healing happens.  Even if it means encountering the old griefs, the ugly envies, the swampy despair.  Especially if means that.  Except, hand on heart, “I care about your pain.  Your pain is worthy of attention.”

Maybe this is my true goal for 2012.

 

The Dream of Art November 17, 2011

Whenever I find a quote that strikes me, I write it on a sticky note and put it on my computer.  Needless to say, sometimes my computer looks like it is decorated for Mardi Gras!  Here is one that I especially like, by the poet Louise Gluck: “The dream of art is not to assert what is already known, but to illuminate what has been hidden, and the paths  to the hidden world are not inscribed by will.”

There are so many ways this quote sustains me and grounds me.   I need to be reminded that “The dream of art”  is not my dream alone.  It is a Tao, a way, a practice, that I am entering into.  It is an everflowing river that I can swim in, but can never encompass.  To engage in art is both an intensly individual act, and yet not an entirely personal one.  This both delights and relieves me.  It relieves my ego and my art of having to be GREAT!  A dream has its own autonomy.  We are not responsible for which images our dreams throw onto the shores of consciousness.  We are only responsible for working with them when they appear.  Similarly, the work has its own autonomy.  We can’t predict where it will take us.  We can only show up, ready to participate. At its best, to practice an art is to be always on the tipping point between mastery and mystery.

“….not to assert what is known, but to illuminate what has been hidden.”  Dreams often show us what we have been unable to look at it in our waking lives; similarly, a poem or story may reveal what we didn’t know we knew. Or what we may need to attend to: an imbalance, an untended sorrow, a hidden yearning for wholeness.  And, I think, the commitment to pay attention, to permit oneself to go into the darkness, and to suffer the loss of illusions, can provide a boon not only for the individual, but for the community.  When I listened to Robert Pinksy read his elegiac poems last year, I was reminded not only of the very real loss of cultures and languages that he addressed, but also that in articulating those losses, he was retrieving something for those who heard the poems.   We were gifted with an awareness of what was of value, of what to attend to.

“….and the paths to the hidden world are not inscribed by will.”  Despite our belief in the supremecy of will, the truth is we can not create an agenda to find the hidden world.  Once we think we know the path, it changes.  As writers, we can work on our craft, we can show up, but there is no guarantee our work will “live.”  How often the truly inspired prompting comes in the middle of doing something else, when the determined effort to get it right fails!  To find the hidden paths requires a continual opening of ourselves, as in meditation, to what is.  We may have an intention when we begin a poem or story, but we have to be willing to follow where the work leads us, without knowing the outcome.  It is often those works we enter into with less confidence than take on a “life of their own.”

So, where does this leave us, as writers and facilitators?  We live in a culture that valorizes certainty and will.  Hitching our wagons to the star of art suddenly looks like a dubious enterprise.  Or does it?  Maybe it instead it is an exciting, inexhaustable enterprise, one that teaches us to find our growing edges and learn to be dance partners to uncertainty and change.

For a wonderful and humorous take on the “uncertainty principle” of writing, check out Chuck Tripi’s post “Notes from NJ-#5)  http://haydensferryreview.blogspot.com/

 

 
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