Word Medicine

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

Dwelling October 26, 2016

I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately.

Several weeks ago, our community celebrated the life of 27 Darius Weems. Darius had Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and he was made famous at age 15 when his first trip outside of Athens, Georgia was filmed by his friends, who planned to get the MTV show “Pimp My Ride” to customize his wheelchair. The film, Darius Goes West, not only won awards, but established the Darius Goes West Foundation (http://www.dariusgoeswest.org/foundation/), proceeds of which go to finding a cure of DMD. About a month before his death, the FDA announced a new treatment for the disease.

This is a story of a community that got behind a group of young people with a dream. My daughter, who worked in the summers at Project Reach, a camp for disabled kids, was friends with some of these kids and knew Darius. It was the kind of thing that happens in my town of Athens, Georgia, a place that is small enough that it feels like a hometown, and large and progressive enough to always be interesting. As I sat talking with a friend about Darius, I was filled with pride for where I live.

I haven’t always felt this way. For much of my young life I wanted to leave, because life was elsewhere—in New York City, in Boston, in London and Paris. When I moved back after marrying my husband, I didn’t feel like I was returning to my hometown. As a youngster and an Irish Catholic transplant from the Northeast, I had grown up keenly aware of how different we were from our neighbors in the sixties and seventies. The University of Georgia art department, which had hired my father, was a wonderful place, with a coterie of artists who were bohemian and collegial. But the town itself was still a small Southern town. Furthermore, I grew up in the midst of school integration, and while necessary, it was chaotic. No, I didn’t feel I belonged, and I longed to get away.

Which I did, for a time, in graduate school in Boston. But it turned out that Athens was a great place to raise a family, and slowly, almost without my noticing it, I grew strong roots here. I am acclimated to the slower pace of life, the friendliness, the way you can be part of many different circles, and also the mild weather. Our kids grew up in a secure, settled community with a deep sense of home. Not that I am unaware of the myriad problems we face—extreme poverty, racial tension, stressed schools, crime. Sometimes these problems feel overwhelming. And yes, sometimes I fantasize about living in a more urbane, sophisticated place. But this is my place, and now it is filled with a rich network of friends and acquaintances, some of whom have known me since I was a child. I wouldn’t trade it for fancy living.

I remember reading in a college anthropology class about primitive villagers who believed that their village was the center of the known universe. Silly villagers! I thought. Now I see there is wisdom in recognizing one’s place in the world, esteeming it and working to make it better. Life isn’t elsewhere; it is where you are.15719053

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The Two Conductors February 22, 2013

peanuts_choirI’ve turned into my grandmother. And I owe her an apology.

Now, this was not my aim.  In my youthful arrogance I judged her, the mother of three, who’d seen her family through the Depression and WWII, as a dabbler.  She painted, she wrote and she was extraordinaryily gifted in music.  I would focus on one thing, I thought, and do it well. Not dissipate my energies in all those different disciplines.

However, I find my self  in middle-age, a middling chorister in a community choir, an amateur painter, as well as a scribbling woman.

A professional painter friend of mine, with a family, money struggles and all the rest, said to me the other day,  “We have to take in sometimes, we can’t always give out.”  I think that is what I’m doing this year, having cleared the space to work on my own healing.  I’m playing.  Because I don’t have too much ego attachment to painting or singing, I can be (somewhat) humble, have beginners mind.  The learning curve is huge, but because I’m not so serious about these activities, I can relax and have fun.  There is effort involved, sure, but that is part of the fun.   I have to think this loosening up feeds back into the writing and also, subconsciously, I’m taking in strategies of sound and image that will ultimately make me a better writer.

Here’s one experience I’ve had that has made a huge impression.  I left one choir because the conductor was so grim and punitive.  I only learned to sing in my early forties, and I’ve always been uncertain in my sight reading.  I would position myself next to strong singers and lean on them.  We were marched through our songs as if in a death march, and there was no time for jokes or talking.  Our conductor would be livid when we hit a wrong note, and so I found that, more and more, I was dreading choir practice.  I called it my exercise in humility. I would leave each practice feeling defeated. I finally left.

I thought I was done with singing when a friend invited me to her community choir.  I was amazed at how friendly they all were, and how relaxed.  The spring concert was all Schubert, and I was intimidated by the music, but because there was no audition to get in,  I thought I’d give it a try, hide behind some strong singer.  I was very surprised at our first practice when the conductor started cracking jokes and everyone laughed.  I was even more surprised when he had us sight read and sing, cold, but he said ” you’ll hit wrong notes, don’t worry about it, just get the feel for the music.”  He was giving us permission to make mistakes.  Wow. I was terrified when he forbade us to sit with our section.  We had to read and sing our parts without the comfort of support.  I strained to hear other sopranos, but found I had to rely on myself.  The first few practices I sweated it out, but by the third time,  with new music, the alto next to me turned and said, that sounded good.   I felt my confidence surge, and actually enjoyed tackling a new piece.  I found out I could sing, given the right conditions.  And the right conditions are not fear.  This conductor is all about possibility, all about encouragement.  I feel myself reaching for higher ground because of that support.  He and the group have created a safe space in which to play.  Bravo!

I think as writers and facilitators we can keep the idea of the two conductors in mind.  We all have the grim conductor, ready to pounce on us for not being good enough.  But we also can conjure the happy conductor, who encourages to have fun, to challenge ourselves.  We can imagine an inner audience full of competitive, striving choristers, or we can imagine an inner audience of supportive peers who want us to do our best.  In our workshops, we can create safe places for people to play, remembering that laughter is indeed, the best medicine.

On my computer I have pasted a quote which has not attribution: “Live as thought you are enough, as if the joy is in the journey, as if life is a happy playground.”

Which is what my grandmother, Sally McCabe, did.

 

Trapped in the Ice January 22, 2013

I once found an old book at the flea market called “Be Glad You’re Neurotic”.  Just the book for me!  Written in 1936,  it has chapter headings like “You Hate Yourself. No Wonder!” and “Are You Getting the Most out of Your Insomnia and Dreams?”  I did not make this up.  I prop this old book on my shelf, title out, reminding myself to be glad.

Having a chronic illness is a sure way to intensify a neurosis.  I’ve been sick since Christmas, sequestered in the house for the most part, too exhausted to go out.  All plans for the future are on hold.  I’m waiting for the verdict from the insurance company as to whether, this time, they will approve my treatment.  Instead of being able to let go, to read and relax and wait to get better, I go into overdrive, fending off the feeling of impending doom.  Will I be able to keep up my walking routine?  To sing in the choir?  To write steadily?  My mind goes into ever more solipsistic rounds, and I become more tense, contracted– unable to heal.  I feel guilty for having a lousy immune system.  I read a book review about primitive tribes and identify with the sick woman left to die because she is no longer of use. I see her struggling to keep up with the tribe, only to die alone on the road. That’s me, I think, falling farther and farther behind. My mind turns in ever smaller circles, like the little swan trapped in the ice in “The Ugly Duckling.”  I can not stay in the present, or take deep breaths.  My mind is turning too frantically, even as my body is inert.  Intellectually, I know better, but I’m in the grip of something I can’t think away.the-ugly-duckling-english-school

This impasse is only broken when a friend calls unexpectedly.  Like me, Mari has a chronic illness and has lived with all the difficulties of people not understanding, of insurance companies that are unresponsive, of dreams that have to be let go.  I find myself articulating to her half-understood frustrations and fears.  All the thoughts and feelings that had festered in the sealed room of my mind come pouring out.  Yet, once they are not mine alone, they seem less formidable.  I feel myself taking deeper breaths, feel my body loosen.  Mari shares practical advice, and more importantly, she exudes a confidence I no longer have that thing will turn out.  Holding onto her confidence for me, I can let go of the death grip I have on the outcome of my illness.  I feel supported, and humbled.  I do not have to be God.  I can relax.  I am reminded again that I am not alone, and I am invited to experience a feeling of being held and nurtured.

To heal, it seems, we need each other.  I can do my yoga practice at home, but doing it in a group seems to be a fuller experience.  I have had profound experiences of healing from healing touch, from massage, from the caring physical therapists who have put me back together, from chats with friends, from therapists, from writing groups, from the liturgy.  And each time, I feel humbled and grateful, called back to Reality as sacred, freed from my ego’s need to control.

Before Mari’s call, my story about my illness was one of loss and desperation.  Yet, as she offered her generous insights, I was able to reframe my story.  My feeling of helplessness diminished and my sense of agency grew, even as I was able to let go of controlling the outcome. My story of isolation became a story of hope.  In the book, Narrative Medicine: the Use of History and Story in the Healing Process, Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD,  talks about the importance of community in helping someone re-author their story.  “We need the group to re-author our stories.  Rarely can re-authoring be done in isolation.”

We need others to help us heal, although not everyone can help you re-author your story, as Naomi Shihab Nye says in this poem:

You Have to Be Careful

You have to be careful telling things.
Some ears are tunnels.
Your words will go in and get lost in the dark.
Some ears are flat pans like the miners used
looking for gold.

What you say will be washed out with the stones.
You look for a long time till you find the right ears.
Till then, there are birds and lamps to be spoken to,
a patient cloth rubbing shine in circles,
and the slow, gradually growing possibility
that when you find such ears
they already know.

Thank you, Mari Braveheart-Dancer, for being those ears.

 

 
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