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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Keep Moving:Thoughts on Journaling and Process February 6, 2013

They say there is nothing worse than a Sunday painter.  I stand accused.

matisee

I’m a rank amateur, and that would be OK if I knew nothing about good art.  But the problem is, I do, so I can see how wanting my efforts are.  I want to be Matisse and just skip over all the hours it takes to get there. In Malcolm Gladwell book, Outliers,  he talks about the importance of practice in any art form.  I know I will never be Matisse, but I also know that I need to keep at it, that my failures are as important as my successes.  In this last painting, for example, I can see that it isn’t resolved, that there is something lacking, and I have an inkling of what it might be, a way to go forward.  So I’m determined to make a move, to keep going with it, even if I ruin it.  I’m interested in the problem the painting represents, and in seeing where it might go.

Make a move.  This might be my mantra.  All my life I’ve been plagued by timidity.  I default to freezing when confronted with something I want or need to do.  Often, when I make a start, I am so overcome with fear that it is not good enough that I abandon the project, whatever it might be.

One way I overcome this with writing is to keep a journal, or morning pages or a seed book, what ever you might want to call it.  People talk a lot about journaling, but it seems to me that there is no one thing that is journaling.  There is no entry for it in most dictionaries.  At its most basic it might be simply writing in a notebook on a consistent basis.  For some, it may be to record dreams, and for others, daily impressions. Some may pour out their hearts and others keep ideas for stories and poems gleaned from the news.  I use my journal for all of these, trying to fill three pages every morning, as suggested in The Artist’s Way.  I give myself complete freedom to be dumb, inarticulate, maudlin or silly.  I give vent to my most immature, neurotic thoughts.  I rant.  I remember. Sometimes I stumble upon a whole trove of memories that seem to have been just waiting for this particular moment to flag me down.  But because I have no expectations, I feel free.  I have no ambition to be like anyone else. That freedom from expectation often leads to surprising things.

For many years, I didn’t look back at my journals.  I put them in a closet and shut the door, often with relief, as if I had corralled a host of ungainly monsters and put them out of sight.  Had I dared think that?  Was that really how I felt?  What if my family found out?  No, better to just leave those monsters be.

But lately, I’ve started reading my journals, and using them as seedbeds for other writings.  Folks have been doing this for years, but I think it is worth mentioning how different reading the journals and writing them are.  When we journal, it is much like dreaming.  We have to let ourselves go into the dream state, which is often irrational.  Journal entries can be disjointed, as are dreams.  Entries don’t stick to one subject, developing it, but free associate.  When we write in our journals, our feelings are often raw, unedited.  We are not judging what we are writing, nor looking for patterns.  But what I’ve found is that in rereading my journals, there are usually patterns of preoccupation, of themes, that stand out.  There are also those quickly dashed off impressions, often visual descriptions, that capture the immediacy of a moment that would have otherwise been lost.  There are both observations of the world, and observations of my inner world, all thrown in there together.  Often these become the basis of a story or poem.

While the story or poem is crafted with conscious intention, the impetus comes from a place that is less conscious, and often provides the energy needed to make the piece live.  Yet I need all the consciously practiced skills in my craft box to honor the initial spark, and to develop it into a piece that will be complex and satisfying.  And so to that end, I practice particular skills, the way a musician might practice scales.  At the moment, I am working through Poetry as Spiritual Practice, by Robert McDowell.  I just came across this:  “No writer of poetry escapes feeling discouragement many times….in any pursuit, it’s natural to feel, at times, a personal futility….Anyone who has ever played baseball marvels at the effortlessness in the performance of even the most marginal major leaguer, but that grace is a product of commitment and endless repetition, endless learning….”   And here is another quote, along the same lines: “The splashing of the ink around the brush comes by instinct, while the manipulation of the ink by the brush depends on spiritual energy.  Without cultivation, the ink-splashing will not be instinctive, and without experiencing life, the brush cannot possess spiritual energy.”  The Wilderness Colors of Tao-chi, quoted by Marilyn Fu and Wen Fong. From Tao-chi’s treatise.  Cited in Beat Not the Poor Desk.

I look at my painting.  I could abandon it here, or I could dip my brush into the yellow paint.

 

Brancusi’s Egg January 16, 2013

I  am happy to announce the publication of my poetry chapbook, Brancusi’s Egg,  from Finishing Line Press.  The poems have been written slowly over many years, and written primarily for myself.  I am an accidental poet.  Until I began teaching creative writing as a healing modality to cancer patients and caregivers in 2001, I had written primarily fiction.

In 1995-6, a series of health and personal crises completely changed my world.  Those who have followed this blog know that I became bedridden and unable to read and write for two years, although a novel of mine had been a finalist for national award only several years earlier.  I had to learn to read and write all over again.  When I was strong enough to work part-time, I offered to teach creative writing to cancer patients and caregivers at our local outpatient cancer clinic.  Luckily, the director of the clinic was open-minded and agreed.  Thus began my privileged work with others who were undergoing or had undergone the same type of “night-sea” journey that I was undergoing.

The poems here are primarily the result of doing the exercises I assigned to my patients.  I had given up poetry long ago when a famous writer at a workshop I attended demolished my confidence as a poet.  It was only as private exercises that I could see my way back to writing poetry—not solely as literature, but as a cry of the heart.  I hope these poems reflect my ongoing attempts at both authenticity and art.  Here is one poem from the book, “Lumbar Puncture,” which was included as a commended poem in The Hippocrates Prize anthology, 2011 :

Lumbar Puncture

I laugh while they do the puncture,

keeping up a steady stream of one-liners:

“Whiskey is my preferred pain killer” and

“don’t worry, if it hurts, you’ll know–

The whole place will know.”

I’m good at entertaining.

Relax, the doctor says.

Chris, the nurse, has her hands on me.  They are warm.

I think of my dog at the vet’s, her eyes darting, frantic.

I am all animal, knees to chest.

The doctor counts my vertebrae.

I think of spare ribs, I think

of making a joke.

Chris shows me the four vials of spinal fluid.

Clear, like water,

but full of meaning some bio-magician will decipher,

predicting my future:

a gradual loss of muscle control,

wheelchairs, and being fed

like a child, or not—

just some anomaly in the brain,

this shadow, this lesion.

My husband reads an article, “The End of Physics?”

I glance at it, eyes glazing.

The world is full

of mysteries I do not understand.

I understand his passion,

but I don’t care

where the atoms are in the box.

Do you feel the energy?  my PT says, and

I do.  I feel the colors of my chakras;

sunlight makes sense to me,

dogs wrestling in it.

The part of my brain with the shadow on it

houses memory, language, emotions,

each function a Tarot card waiting to be turned.

Will I learn to understand physics without them?

St. Augustine had a dream.  In it a small boy

tried to empty the ocean into his bucket.

The dream, the saint said, was a metaphor

for trying to grasp God with our minds.

The world is full

of mysteries.

The world is full.

9-3-08

Capture-2

 

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
Tags: , , , , , , ,

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  

 

 
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