Word Medicine

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

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.

 

Miracle Cure October 7, 2011

Last week, one of the participants in my class asked me if writing really did heal.  Well, that brought me up short.  If  it did, I suppose, I should be the healthiest gal on the planet, with the amount of scribbling I do.  But I’m not, I’m really quite sick, and have been going through a “bad” patch for quite a few months now, so that the bad patch is looking like the bottom line.

“Well,” I answered her, ” it is not a magic bullet, clearly, and you need to get physical things checked out, but finding your voice really is empowering…”  I went on to quote research, etc. She looked at me a bit dubiously.  I drove home rather dispritedly.  Was I fooling myself?

I went home to find an email from a long lost friend from the back of beyond, from what my son might call my “hippie” days.  She has started a restaurant in Baja California, and sent pictures, and it looked so beautiful that I immediately wanted to hop a plane and just disappear into that lush oasis by the Pacific.  Maybe there I could be healthy.  My friend, who is deeply spiritual and deeply a free spirit, emailed me when she heard I was struggling with my health, with a “Miracle Cure.”  I absolutely had to try it, she said, and I was back to our free wheeling days as waitresses, where she often wanted me to try substances.  I knew she sent it out of love, and for a nano second, I was tempted.  But I’ve been around the block too many times, I know the chemistry of my body and what is and isn’t working, and I know there is no miracle cure.  Just a long slow process of doing the best I can with the best docs I can find, keeping up with the research and accepting the reality of my life.

The confluence of these two events together got me to thinking.  I’ve been reading Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach.  She is a psychologist and a practicing Buddhist, and her work speaks to the same issues of healing underlying issues of self-judgement, shame, anger and fear that often surface in our classes.  No matter what the reason people come to the classes–grief, pain, suffering, these emotions are the ones that often surface.  How does writing help heal the ways in which people deal with these often overwhelming emotions?  One way can be to create an open inquiry into our feelings–both as sensations and emotions.

Emotions are a combination of physical sensations and the stories we tell ourselves….they can cause suffering until we experience them where they live in our bodies.  If we can mentally note unfolding experience, the sensations and feelings, layers of historic hurt, fear and anger may begin to play themselves out in the light of awareness.  (Adapted from Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance)

This is not an easy process, nor a one time process, but a process of learning to sit with feelings.  How can writing help?  We can begin by naming sensations and feeling them in our bodies.  Here is one way to go about doing this:

Do a body scan.  Where is the tension?  Is it in your stomach?  In your journal, can you describe the sensation?  Can you make an image of it?  Now, what emotion do you associate with that sensation?  Does it signal danger, fear or anxiety?   Now, what story do you habitually put with such a feeling?  Notice that there are three parts to this process.  After you write about the sensation/feeling/story, take a deep breath and check yourself again?  Has it intensified?  Passed?  Could you withstand it?  Are you able to perhaps address it?  Treat it as an old enemy or friend?  Ask it what it wants to tell you?

This practice of noticing, describing, befriending, can begin to slowly to quiet us.  We can gradually begin to inquire lovingly into ourselves, into our felt experience of being in the world.  We can begin to notice stories which have had a hold on us which may not be true.  We may begin to notice areas of our lives which we habitually neglect.  Our journals can be the safe arms within which we can pour out our feelings, even the emotions we are most ashamed of.  This process can free the energy we use to resist our feelings to instead move through them, and thus have more energy to meet life.

Is it a “Miracle Cure?”  No.  But it is a way, one way, to help us heal.

 

 

 

 

The Alchemy of Illness July 27, 2011

Miserable and, (though common to all) inhuman posture, where I must practise my lying in the grave, by lying still, and not practise my Resurrection, by rising any more.

 

–John Donne, Meditation lll Devotions upon Emergent Occasions,

 

Felled again by illness, I am advised to rest, the one thing I do not do well.

 

I was fine nine days ago, having managed a road trip and a two week family vacation fairly well.  I just had time to congratulate myself on that feat when the too-familiar tingling sensation that precedes a fever crept up on me.  I chose to ignore it, and the following day, I was struck by a more severe headache and chills.  By that night I was in full-blown distress—fever, chills, body racked by joint, muscle and skin pain.  My life dissolved into misery—I seeped in a nasty brew of worthlessness and self-laceration, the good of my life leeched away by pain and weakness. I felt alone, isolated by my pain, which, like a jealous lover, kept me all to Itself. It felt as if I were being punished for some grievous yet unknown sin.  It didn’t matter knowing my bodily integrity had been invaded an infectious agent. In the thick of illness, it felt as if I’ve been cast into a dark pit by some Malevolence.  It felt personal, and only the language of the Psalms seemed equal to expressing it.

 

Two days later, still ill, but upright, I was able to consider less feverishly that my illness was a course correction, that I was “off the mark,” which is how Buddhists think of sin.  Buddhists, it seems, look at illness as an opportunity for enlightenment, that the illness itself is he cure, not the affliction.  Even John Donne believed that in the symptoms of illness were the seeds of healing, if we could attend to them.  I am still working on this process of dialoging with my symptoms, but what interests me now is how I (and we) so often think of illness as a failure.  What if we didn’t, what if we simply accepted our illnesses as perhaps necessary time outs?

 

I’m reading Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, and he recalls his childhood illnesses almost fondly, and how they seemed to enhance both perception and imagination.  In his novel, The Gift, based on his early memories, he writes “Mother unhurriedly shakes the thermometer and slips it back into its case, looking at me as if not quite recognizing me, while my father rides his horse at a walk across a vernal plain all blue with irises.” (G, 33).  For Nabokov, we might imagine, illness gave his sensitive self time to process all the sensory information which, as a synesthete, bombarded him.  It gave him time to investigate his imagination.  Instead of diffusing his sense of self, it seemed to solidify it.

 

Another contemporary writer, the splendid Anthony Doerr, in his incredible short story, “Afterworld,” (The Memory Wall, Scribner) describes an elderly Jewish woman, Esther, who had, as a fifteen-year-old epileptic and an orphan, escaped the Holocaust.  In the story, she is saved from the ovens by a doctor who saw value in her.  Despite the accusations hurled at her that she should be “put away,” that her illness rendered her worthless, in-valid, it was this very illness that gave her a unique sensitivity which the doctor recognized and valued. Now, in her eighties, the epilepsy and hallucinations that both plagued her and gave her great imaginative riches, are no longer controlled by medicine.  In the present time, she is being taken care of by her grandson, Robert. “In Ohio seizures flow through Esther….The seizures no longer seem to impair her consciousness so much as amplify it….Maybe, she tells Robert, during her clearest moments, a person can experience an illness as a kind of health.  Maybe not every disease is a deficit, a taking away.  Maybe what’s happening to her is an opening, a window, a migration….”

 

Kat Duff, in her classic The Alchemy of Illness, also speaks about illness as an alchemical transformation that offers the sufferer an opportunity to engage deeply in spiritual processes. She quotes Paracelsus, a renowned physician and alchemist of the sixteenth century:  “Decay is the beginning of all birth…the midwife of very great things!”

 

No one chooses to be ill.  And I certainly hope to regain some degree of health.  Yet here it is, and I do have a choice in how to address this illness, how to imagine it, how to engage with it.

bed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Put To the Test March 28, 2011

I was thrilled last week to find that I am a commended poet in the 2011 Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine.  All poems will be included in an anthology which can be pre-ordered on this site: http://go.warwick.ac.uk/cpt/poetry/symp/The awards for commended poets and other awards are due to be made by the judges Broadcaster Mark Lawson, former Welsh National Poet Gwyneth Lewis, and leading GP Professor Steve Field on the afternoon of the International Symposium on Poetry and Medicine on Saturday, 7th May at the University of Warwick campus.

I wrote “Lumbar Puncture” after a frightening episode with a visual migraine that lasted over six weeks.  When the tests showed a slight shadow on my brain, the doctor wanted to check for MS.  I wanted to express the physical vulnerability of the test and radical spiritual destabilization that I experienced while I waited for the results.  If I lost these functions, who would I be?  Luckily, the test was negative, and I wasn’t put to the test.

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.

 

4/2010

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Prisoners March 8, 2011

It has been a rough winter, no doubt about it.   I’ve had flu, strep, and what now looks like pleurisy.  Every time I got up, another wave knocked me down.  I finally acknowledged that I had to resume my old habit of resting and pacing myself.  It was hard to have to acknowledge that.

I wrote in my journal that having this illness is like being in prison: you are confined, the world passes by without you.  Also, you never know when you will be violated, not by another person, but by some passing virus or bacteria.

Perhaps because that image of prison was on my mind, I found myself reading about Lori Berenson, the American political activist held in Peru for the past fifteen years on trumped of charges of terrorism in the Sunday New York Times Magazine (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/06/magazine/06berenson-t.html ).  One of the curious things she talked about was how carefree she was when she thought that her sentence wouldn’t be commuted . At the beginning, many terrorist prisoners, like Berenson, had life sentences. “It was somewhat carefree because you didn’t have any concrete sense of the future,” she told me. In a similar way, when I was sickest with CFIDS,  I also had no future.  There was only the present moment, and it was, in a sense, freeing.  As I got better, one of the hardest things was learning how to cope with a sense of a future, with participating in life.  How to apportion time and energy?  What goals were worth working for?  How to re-enter the stream of life, not as I was before, but in a new way that respected my limits, but also tested them?  These were and are difficult issues.

Another prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, recently freed from house arrest, talks almost wistfully about her house arrest.  Now she is exhausted by the demands of political life; then she got up and did her yoga and meditation, and worked in her office.  Then she had a sense of being in control of herself, even if she was not able to be a player in her country’s future.

I am happy to be in the world, even if to do so requires nun-like bouts of rest and saying “no” more often than “yes” to social activities.  I want to forget that I have this illness, but it doesn’t forget me.

Another way having this illness is like a prison sentence is that it feels like punishment.  Like Job, I search and search for the sins that have brought me to this place.  Like Lori Berenson, I feel falsely accused.  Like sufferers of lupus, Multiple Sclerosis, and TB before us, patients with CFIDS are often held responsible for it. I want to protest my innocence and be acquitted.  But as the DoDo bird said in Alice in Wonderland, “There is no judge, there is no jury.”  There is only the absurd world of this disease.  Made even more absurd and unbearable by the lack of understanding around it.  Today’s Science Times had a very good article about the difficulty of defining Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/08/health/research/08fatigue.html?ref=science).  After last month’s article in Lancet which maintained that graded exercise and CBT could improve the lives of patients with CFIDS, many people have come up to me to tell me the good news.  Only the fact is, they have no idea of the complex immune, endocrine, and circulatory issues that I have to contend with, no idea of the level of exhaustion even mildly overdoing exercise can cause, no idea of the sensory overload that can catapult me into a relapse.  They have no idea of idea that sitting at the computer in the time it takes to write this post means I’ll  have to rest for an hour.

They have no idea.  Because they have never been to prison.

 

 

La Vida January 26, 2011

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Today is cold and blustery.  The rain finally gave out after almost twenty-four hours.  I woke in the night to hear it pelting angrily at the roof and windows, and I hoped our hundred year old house would not spring any new leaks.  This morning there were a few last hiccups of rain, and then scudding low gray clouds.  I couldn’t pull myself out of bed for my exercise class, whether because of the lingering virus Todd and I have been passing back and forth, or the exhaustion that is always at my elbow, ready to take over.  All my pretty plans evaporated.  It would be a day of letting what would be, be.

Thankfully, G., our Peruvian housekeeper came after missing a week because of snow.  The house was beginning to turn into a monster, making me feel even more out of control, so I looked forward to her ministrations as I always do.  G. came to me  over a decade ago, in the midst of the worst of my illness, when I could barely stand up.  The first time I was supposed to meet her, I drove all around town, losing my way.  I was still so sick with fibro fog that I couldn’t navigate the town I had grown up in.  When we finally did meet up in the parking lot of a video store, there stood this young, beautiful woman.  She did wonderful work, but even more than that, over the years, we have shared all the ups and downs of “La Vida”, including teenage children, stubborn husbands, the deaths of those close to us–all in an animated Spanglish.  She is such a bright presence, laughing over the animals’ antics, enthusiastically rearranging the furniture, conferring over various domestic decisions.  I call her my angelita.

Today she told me about her talented, impetuous son, a musician studying film Atlanta.  At twenty, he is living at home to save money, but he also wants to live as if he were independent. She feels he is in danger of failing the school they have borrowed money to pay for. He is in a relationship they feel is distracting him from his responsibilities. I have watched  G. and her husband work hard to become legal, sacrificing their own comforts to give their two children every opportunity in this country.  We shake our heads and shrug.  La Vida.

The door bell rings and it is B., our itinerant yard man.  He stands there dripping wet in his jacket.  The trees toss wildly in the wind; it is freezing. “Sara, do you have any work?”  I know that he has probably walked miles from the other side of town in this god-awful weather, to earn a few bucks.  He tells me his pension hasn’t come in yet, he just needs to eat.  We have a long history, B and me.  I’ve long given up the idea that things will change for him, an idea I worked hard to help realize in the first twenty years of our acquaintanceship.  I was encouraged at Christmas–things seemed to be getting better for him, he was going to school to learn to read (he has a learning disability) and he was going to church, trying to “get himself together.”  But he came by a few days ago and he had been drinking.  This is how it goes.  Today, I had  little money and  little work, but enough.  The overgrown dead plants in my garden needed cutting back, a chore that I’d put off.  I had just been thinking yesterday that the garden looked raggedy, that I wish B. would come by.  And here he was.

Tired as I was, I knew I’d feel better if I got out and walked.  Besides, I hate the guilt of shorting my dog on her walks.  The air was bracing, and it felt good to be out walking, moving through world.  The light played over the streets and trees and houses the way it does often at the ocean, patches of illumination giving way to shadow.  A flock of starlings landed in the bare branches of an oak.  The air smelled clean from all the rain.

Walking, I though of our priest’s sermon, how he always remembers the poor, admonishing us to reach out to those who have less than us.  I’ve noted on my blog before  Nancy Mairs, poet and essayist, saying that “all persons have abundances and all have lacks….your abundance may fill someone’s lack, which you are moved to fill….”  This remains one of my touchstones.  To me, G. and B. and I are all poor, in our own ways.  G and B perform physical task for me and I give them money.  But there is so much more to the transactions than these simple facts.  There are years of trust, loyalty, mutual regard.  So on a day when I am keenly feeling my own lacks, I am also feeling my keenly my abundance.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

The Soul is Shy May 6, 2010

I’m reading A Hidden Wholeness: the Journey Toward an Undivided Life, by Parker J. Palmer.  Sometimes a book comes into your life to answer your questing or to reaffirm an intuition.  This book does both for me.  My workshops are built on the premise that each person’s Self knows what the person needs to be whole, that what we provide are the tools and the space to dialogue with the Self .  The other main premise is that we need to be witnesses to each other’s stories, that a respectful community of people willing to be present and to listen creates the conditions for a person to hear herself more clearly. A Hidden Wholeness addresses both these issues, but fleshes out why and how “the blizzard of the world” has overturned “the order of the soul” and the conditions that he has discovered in twenty years of working and teaching that open a place for the soul, “that life-giving core of the human self, with its hunger for truth and justice, love and forgiveness.”

One of the conditions for holding a healing space is to avoid “fixing, saving, advising and setting each other straight.”  This is one hard discipline, not just for the facilitator but for the other participants as well.

Let me tell you a story.  Two days ago, a member of our group, a wonderful, grandmotherly, lively woman in her sixties, told us that she had been in and out of the hospital for the last two weeks.  Sitting there in a beautiful apple green shirt and gold necklace, with her dancing brown eyes, she described how she had to take her elderly husband, now with full-blown dementia, to the hospital with her because he would not be left with anyone else.  Her heart is failing, and because she had cancer five years ago, has about three other serious conditions, it is clear she will not get a heart, which go to younger, healthier candidates.  She told us her liver and kidneys are shutting down.  She said all this without self-pity and even with humor.  Looking around at our stricken faces, she laughed, “Aw, honey, that’s the least of it.  I could tell you stories.”

The mother/fixer in me was inwardly screaming, “Surely there is respite care!  Surely something can be done!  She deserves to live!”  I really like this woman who I’ve gotten to know over the last two years.  She writes incredible stories of growing up in the South when you still had a mule and chickens in the back yard, and only went to town two or three times a year.  She has described growing up with a nanny and never being able to tell her she loved her, of throwing out her learned prejudices, of teaching in the public schools where she had children plant gardens  and kill chickens to learn about survival out West, of teaching a class of recalcitrant, truant children she was saddled with how to have a proper tea.  She had us in stitches over her descriptions of her  large, shaggy boys holding the teacup with their pinkies extended, politely asking each other if they would like another cup.  Those kids, white and black,  came back to her, and told her how much she much she had meant to them many years later. Why?  Because she saw past their color, their labels, and she believed they could learn to serve tea.  She believed there was more to them than they believed themselves.

One of our participants gently asked if she knew of the Alzheimer’s support group.  She waved her hands and rolled her eyes. “Oh, lordy, yes, I have all that literature,” but it was clear she had no intention of going.  “He won’t let anybody else take care of him,” she said.   Others made sounds of dismay, spoke soft words of comfort, but I maintained silence and soon we all fell silent.  We were there to witness, to allow her to speak her sorrow, to speak the truth of her life.  Everything in me wanted to excoriate a system that would not save her, to arrange for respite care, to find ways to make this not so.  But it was so.  What we could do for her was to simply hear it.

The silence grew from slightly uncomfortable to more comfortable.  We went on with our group sharing.  We went on to write Renga.  We went on to listen and to attend to each other’s stories.

The soul, writes Palmer, “is creative: it finds its way between realities that might defeat us and fantasies that are mere escapes.”   The soul is also shy, and sometimes needs a cup of tea, or a circle of loving hearts offering silence.  

 

 
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