Word Medicine

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

Boon August 22, 2014

My daughter called last week, weeping into the phone about Robin Williams death.  “It is as if a part of my childhood is gone,” she sniffled, “he was so great.  I just loved him.”

 I was happy that my daughter at 28 could feel things so deeply.  On hearing the news, I was shocked and saddened, but it didn’t come at me with the force it did her.  We become drier, I suppose, with the shocks of living, if we survive to middle age.  When I heard that Mr. Williams had Parkinson’s as well as the black dog depression,  I shook my head ruefully.  It just keeps coming, it never ends—“it” being life, La Vida, as my housekeeper says.  Life is full of troubles, if you haven’t heard. 

 A friend of mine says, “Until three years ago, I didn’t know what people were talking about when they said life is hard.  Life isn’t hard, I’d thought, it’s a blast.  Now I know what they are talking about. Boy, do I.”  My friend is fifty; three years ago her husband left her for another woman.  Another friend’s dying mother has come to live with her.  My friend is up at 2, 4 and 6 am, taking care of her mother, lifting her heavy, numb legs off the bed, supporting her the few steps to the potty.  Her sleep is fragmented. She feels trapped, stressed, alone.

My childhood friend’s mother went through a protracted and painful death this spring.  The day she died, my friend wasn’t with her, because she was seeing a surgeon about her recently discovered colon cancer.  The memorial service had to be put off because my friend had to recover from her own surgery. She hasn’t had a chance to mourn her mother, or herself because her father has Alzheimer’s and she is busy making arrangements for him while getting her parents’ home of forty years ready to sell.

 We have gone through our own harrowing.  One of our beloved children has fallen down the rabbit hole of drugs and alcohol.  It feels as if we’ve been in an earthquake: the ground is Jell-O, and none of the walls seem solid.  How is this our life?  My husband and I are stunned, numbed, shaken.  Everything has shifted, become unrecognizable. 

 And yet. And yet, even acknowledging La Vida as I do, even acknowledging my age, illness and limitations, I still dream of dancing on tabletops, of drinking wine on the coast of Croatia as the sun sets on the Adriatic.  As Jason Shinder writes in his poem, “Middle Age”:

 Many of my friends are alone

and know too much to be happy

though they still want to dive

to the bottom of the green ocean

and bring back a gold coin

in their hand ….

Foolish, maybe.  But how do we survive La Vida without the consolation, the idea of the gold coin?  Without the belief there is a boon to be had, do we just put our heads down and plod through? 

 Robert Pinsky suggests, in his poem, “Samurai Song,”  a boon, but one of subtraction, not addition. 

When I had no roof I made

Audacity my roof. When I had

No supper my eyes dined.

 

When I had no eyes I listened.

When I had no ears I thought.

When I had no thought I waited….

 

When I have no means fortune

Is my means. When I have

Nothing, death will be my fortune.

 

Need is my tactic, detachment

Is my strategy. When I had

No lover I courted my sleep.

I find this poem strangely affirming, especially the line “When I had no thought I waited”.  The speaker is confident, centered, and in command of himself.  He is not thrown by external circumstances.  He does not define himself by his poverty, but by his abundance.  He is able to do this because “detachment is my strategy.”  He, it seems to me, has won this poise not through a life of ease, but a life of adversity.  No one and nothing can take this boon of “self” from him. We may know too much to be happy, but we still can be joyful.

I still want to drink wine in Croatia, to dance the tango in Argentina.  But in the meantime, I am looking for the gold coin right here, right now.PAS_2012_hand

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shame/Grace June 19, 2013

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Two nights ago, our children from Bethesda were visiting, and we had a party with a few friends.  I had just come back from visiting my sister, who was appalled that I didn’t have an iPhone, and didn’t text.  We were talking about the pros and cons of iPhones, when one of our guests, a man of bottomless curiosity, asked what the name Bethesda meant.  “It’s in the Bible,” he said, looking meaningfully at me as if that meant I should know the name.  “Well,”  I said,  “I have read that book any number of times, but I can’t remember everything.”  So he whipped out his iPhone and looked it up.

 

This is what he found on Wikipedia under Pool of Bethesda:  “The name of the pool is said to be derived from the Hebrew language and/or Aramaic languagebeth hesda (בית חסד/חסדא), meaning either house of mercy[3] or house of grace. In both Hebrew and Aramaic the word could also mean ‘shame, disgrace’. This dual meaning may have been thought appropriate since the location was seen as a place of disgrace due to the presence of invalids, and a place of grace, due to the granting of healing.”

 

I hadn’t really cared about the name, but this grabbed my attention.  It brought home to me how ancient the twinning of shame and illness is.  And even though we are modern people who believe that we no longer “blame the victim,” both for those who are sick and for  others around them, I think shame still plays a potent role in our experience of illness.

 

In my own experience of illness, I often find that along with the pain and fatigue comes the vinegary presence of a lingering guilt.  I may tell myself it isn’t my fault that I am sick, but I feel as if it is.  I wonder how much of that conditioning goes back for hundreds of generations, when sin and sickness were seen as one and the same?  Or is it the American belief that we can do anything if we try hard enough, which makes failing at wellness such a trial?  No one wants to be a burden to others, no one wants to fall behind.  When you are sick, though, it becomes hard to feel you are contributing or participating in the life around you.  To be an invalid is all too often to be in-valid.

 

As for how others respond to sickness, I think as a society we find chronic illness in particular, unacceptable.  We don’t have mechanisms to cope with it.  Fear probably plays into this, as it did for the leprosy patients at Carville, Louisiana who were taken from their homes and deprived of family and name, so that the remaining families would not be burned in their homes or run out of town.  Leprosy, in America even in the twentieth century, was seen as the fault of  ill.  Today, we use fighting metaphors for cancer, and yet what about the person who doesn’t “win” against cancer?  Is it because they didn’t fight hard enough?  We tend to turn our backs on people who aren’t winners. It is too painful for us.

 

Here is the first stanza of a poem I wrote recently.

 

 

What do the healthy

have to do with the ill?

Why would they want

to hear the news–

that the body is fragile

and we live at its will?

 

But what about grace? What about healing?  What about the image of healing waters?

 

John O’Donohue has written that when we are in our deepest suffering, that we should offer ourselves the oil of compassion, because we are experiencing the most essential aspect of being human.  It is suffering, he says, which allows us to truly connect to others. Yet, how hard this is to do!  How much easier to blame ourselves, and to struggle against our circumstances.  How hard to sit with what is, and look for the blessings there.

 

Kat Duff, in her wonderful book, The Alchemy of Illness, which I read at the worst stage of my illness, doesn’t see illness as the enemy to be struggled against, but as part of the human experience which offers opportunities for spiritual growth.  I have found that in my own life, while I wouldn’t wish this illness on anyone, it has brought me many gifts as well.  Healing, it seems, is not just for the body, but for the soul as well.  I have seen in the cancer patients that I’ve worked with great healing as they jettison a lot of unneeded baggage, and find their true voices.

 

I love the image of healing waters, of being suspended in them, of washing away all that burdens you, both physically and spiritually.  Water is receptive and holding, cleansing and renewing.  Here is a photo of the pool of Bethesda.

 

Our children left today to go back to Bethesda, which I hope will be a place of grace for them.  Richard left with his iPhone.  I’m taking my iPhoneless self for a swim.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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