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