Word Medicine

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

Confusing Times September 7, 2017

Filed under: aging parents,Grief,stress — saratbaker @ 8:35 pm
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“By yielding, we may obtain victory.” –Ovid

Do you know the term “at sixes and sevens?” That sort of off-center feeling of not quite knowing what to do next, a subtle disorientation? That is how I’ve been feeling lately. My mother is experiencing memory loss, and has been for some time. This was brought home to me in a dramatic way recently, when I saw how confused she was in a large store. I realized that we had turned a corner–we are in deeper waters than I had let myself realize. Things are changing quickly. My role is changing, and this woman who has always been so fiercely independent, is suddenly reliant on me in a way I never expected. It is bittersweet—sweet because she now allows me a kind of intimacy we’ve not had before, and bitter because I don’t want to lose her. As a friend of mine says, “life is a series of not-totally unexpected blows.”  Nothing about this is unexpected, but facing into the lived reality feels vertiginous.

Not long after our trip, I went to Earth Fare. I did a few errands and sat down to gather myself together and write a to-do list. It was pleasant to be in the neighborhood store, and I felt less alone with my own thoughts. I realized that I was holding my breath. So I tried to just breathe. There was nothing I could do about my sense of confusion, so I tried to relax into it. (The operative word here is tried.)

The-Queen-of-Hearts-S As I flipped through my tiny note book, I came across this line in a poem by Pamela Wilson: “Not knowing, even confusion, when met, reveals itself as wisdom in its potentiality, pure intelligence.” The poem was from a workshop by Johanna Royo on Heart-Centered Living during a one-day conference, Healing the World through Art, at the Georgia Museum of Art. Johanna described an experience of deep depression and loneliness in her life which led her to her practice of Heart-Centered Living. She said that at the very worst moment, she sat on the floor of her kitchen and it seemed that a huge black hole opened up. And then, instead of resisting it, she fell into it. And came out laughing. She realized that was the resistance and fear that were keeping her stuck.

Sitting there in Earth Fare, I saw an old friend I hadn’t seen in a while.  We chatted, talking about family, when she asked about my mother. She had known and loved my parents for a long time. Not only that, her husband had dementia for twenty years, a fact I had forgotten.  As I described my grief and fears, she nodded with understanding. It was a relief to talk about it with someone who didn’t shy away from the reality I was facing. She gave me good practical advice, and she also described the unexpected gifts that came from his illness. She said that over the course of his illness, he became much more affectionate. They shared an intimacy that in some ways was because of the illness. She described their last anniversary, which was celebrated in the hospital. Because the illness had made him blind, she had to describe the pureed food she was feeding him. They laughed about how when they married they never could have imagined celebrating their anniversary in such a way. She also described how, at the very end, when they thought nothing could reach him, a nurse singing a German folk song caused him to “wake up” and sing along with her in German. It was an unexpected gift of having him back, however briefly.

In a way I could never have orchestrated, I talked with the very person I needed to talk with that day. I left the store feeling lighter, clearer, and less afraid.

Note to readers: I have not posted since January. It was in January that my life felt upended—we had just inaugurated a man I feel is unfit to be president, my mother’s memory issues intensified, and I was under tremendous pressure to sell my book—which meant acquiring a whole new set of skills. My body protested. I am feeling on a more even keel now, and plan to post more frequently.

 

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Facing It November 5, 2015

Filed under: aging parents,Chronic Illness,Grief,loss — saratbaker @ 9:58 pm
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Autumn LeavesIt is dark November–gray, wet, the yellow and red leaves slowly drifting to the ground. I have always liked the melancholy of fall, its rich colors and long nights, but this year the season is not just a metaphor, but also a lived experience. I am in the fall of my life, and what I seem to be shedding  are my illusions—that death is not real, that summer lasts forever. Friends are dying, and children have grown and left. Many of my friends have been thrown up on the rocks of middle-age unexpectedly single, or having been laid off of jobs they thought secure, or, like me, are dealing with chronic illness. There is a general zeitgeist of shock. How did this happen? How did it happen to me?

Life has not turned out as expected.

Why are we surprised? We’d heard rumors, but chose to disbelieve them, children of a golden age that we were. But now, our feints and slights of hand no longer work.

it comes home, the flea-ridden bitch of desolation,

a thin dog with its ribs exposed like a lesson

in mathematics, in subtraction; it comes home, to find its bowl

empty—then the numberless

things for which to be grateful dissolve

like the steam from a fire just doused with water

on a day of overcast grays, lined

by a cold slanting rain—

(from “Facing It,” by Eleanor Wilner)

 

Yet, being alive, we still want to live—although how to live is the question. Jason Shinder in his poem, “Middle Age,” addresses the dilemma:

 

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. A woman I know wakes

in the late evening and talks

to her late husband,

the windows blank photographs….

 

Do we know too much to be happy?

Perhaps not happy in the way of our protracted youth.  We can’t unknow what we know, what we’ve experienced. There are losses and they are real. I think we are supposed to feel them, not minimize them. They are a part of our story, but not our whole story.

A friend thrown over by her husband ten years for a girl his daughter’s age has found a new, surprising love.

A friend laid off in the recession has been rehired and is now a senior and respected teacher.

Children have children; our street is full of the next generation.

Fall is a season, but not the only season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is the Meaning of Light if Darkness is Denied? December 11, 2013

Filed under: Grief,Spirituality — saratbaker @ 8:41 pm
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I fell into a blue funk this past Sunday afternoon.  Whether it was the cold, dark rainy day,  the aches and pains brought on by the weather, the fact that a friend is struggling in ICU after having been suddenly struck down by an aneurysm or a combination of all of them, I am not sure.

It isn’t that my friend is my best friend, but that she is an important part of our community.  She and her husband own a lovely shop with carefully selected toys and home goods that reflect her artistic bent.  She is a warm and spiritual woman, who recently went through training to be a dream leader.  And maybe my favorite fact about her, is that she has chickens, and each hen is named and loved.  Her illness has shaken the community, and reminded us that despite our best efforts, things—willy-nilly–can go terribly wrong.

So the seriousness of her condition was on my mind after church on Sunday when I experienced a feeling of such vulnerability and panic that I could hardly move.  I usually don’t mind solitude, but what this felt like was loneliness, abandonment.  I cast around for what to do, how to flee this constricting feeling.  Then I remembered to breathe.  I thought about being a witness, and not fleeing or repressing  or denying the feeling, but tried to invite it in, as Rumi advises us to do in “The Guest House”:

 

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.

I can’t honestly say the feeling got much better, but it became less terrible.  Luckily,

I was going to a chorale concert with my mother and busied myself getting ready for that.We drove through the pouring rain.  When we got inside the new atrium where the concert was being held, the contrast between the gray outside and the brightly lit interior could not have been greater.  Immediately, I felt better.  As I listened to the voices  singing Bach’s Magnificat in D, I traveled through the emotions expressed in the music—wonder, heartbreak, tentative hope and triumphant joy.  I looked at the emotions playing across the faces of the singers as their voices swelled or diminished.  I realized then in a visceral way how necessary the light, whether music or candle, is to see us through these short winter days that whisper the truth of death.

Despite our artificial lights, our gadgets that give us almost God-like powers, the perkiness of relentless Christmas songs, and the frantic rushing and shopping, are we so different from those who came before us? Are we so different from the ancient Romans, who celebrated the Saturnalia to dispel the gloom of winter, or the medieval Swedes, who celebrated dark St. Lucy’s day with a crown of candles?

And if we manage to really elude our inner winters, then what meaning does the light hold for us?  What is the meaning of light, if the darkness is denied?

candle

 

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

 

Everything Changes, Nothing is Lost June 20, 2012

Julian Barnes wrote a wonderful, subtle novel about a middle-aged man who slowly discovers that the narrative he’s constructed about his life is based on misapprehension of his most important relationships.  The Sense of an Ending is the title of the novel, and that phrase has been coming back to me a lot lately.

After my daughter’s wedding in May, we took a much-needed vacation to our favorite island on the Georgia Coast.  Unfortunately, Tropical Storm Beryl was also in residence.  We had two good beach days, one day of high wind and surf, and the rest were rainy and windy.  The wind caused the house to shudder, and huge branches came down.  We had brought a friend for my son, a girl who is like a sister to him, and we spent our time playing Apples to Apples, reading  and watching  “Lost.”  Getting cabin fever, I suggested to Maggy that we go look for toe rings.  Years ago, when Hannah was fifteen, we’d bought toe rings in the wonderfully tacky beach stores downtown, and I had lost mine.  So off we went.  I suppose I was trying to recreate the fun I’d with Hannah. Unfortunately, it seems that toe rings are no longer in style–all we could find were ugly, dusty old things.  Dispirited, I went outside while the kids shopped, and pulled out my cellphone to call my daughter.

“Hi Mom, what’s up?”  I told her about the toe rings, hoping it would kindle in her some memories of our beach vacations, that she would be in the mood to reminisce.  “Yeah, yeah, but Mom, Brian and I are shopping for pillows–what kind should we get?”  I could hear people in the background. “Down is the best,” I told her, watching an egret alight on the marsh mud.  “OK, great, let’s talk soon, gotta go,”  Hannah said.  I stood holding the silent phone, knowing then that there was no going back, that this change was real.  She had left my nest and was feathering her own.  Her life is all before her, and the past is prologue.  I felt caught out in my vulnerability, in becoming the kind of woman who clings too tightly to the past.  But there it was.  I stood, stunned, as  the marsh grass rippled in the wind, and the egret raised its magnificent wings and lifted off.

Last week, I visited the home of a childhood friend.  Her parents have been failing–her father, the curmudgeon of my childhood, is bent over and slowly losing his sharp mind.  I brought roses to this former rose gardener, and told him it was like bringing coals to Newcastle.  He couldn’t remember my name, didn’t recognize me, but smiled at the allusion.  “Oh, no, no, no,”  he said, patting my shoulder.  His wife shuffled in on her walker, as tall, straight and self-possessed as ever despite the scars incurred in her second fall in three months.  Ever the southern lady, she directed her daughter to make the tea and set out the cookies, and graciously led me into her sun-room.  The house was almost exactly as I remembered it; it hadn’t changed over the years, only the occupants had.  I met my friend’s eyes as she served the cookies–her eyes were brimming with sadness and love. I had never seen her so patient with her folks, so solicitous.   “My brother says they will have to go into a home; they can’t go on like this,”  she told me privately.  No way around it, it seems, but I wonder who he will be without his garden, who she will be without her kitchen.  “Lida, cut Sara some hydrangeas before she leaves,” her mother commanded, and her father comes out brandishing pruners.  He didn’t know who I was, but he wanted me to have some of his flowers.

Just the other evening, we were staying late at Legion Pool, a wonderful WPA structure that has anchored my summers my whole life.  My earliest memories are of learning to swim there, and we spent every summer of my childhood escaping the Georgia heat there.  It is a large, gracious pool next to a large open field, surrounded by mature trees.  Those trees have been with me as I grew up, married, brought my babies to the pool to nurse, and taught them to swim there. I feel as if I know every branch of every tree, and that as I watch them, they know me too. This place has been a lovely constant in my life, a place of community and continuity which is hard to explain to folks who’ve never experienced it.  It is here that families catch up with the latest happenings, swap recipes, make plans, and share our hopes, dreams and sorrows. It is slated to be torn down to make room for a parking lot next year.  That night, as I watched the blue shadows of children playing in the inky water as the sun set,  I was filled with a sadness that this too would pass.  Was it too much to ask for just one lovely thing to remain the same?

In theory, I’m all for things dying to give birth to new things, for the passing of the old to make way for the new.  But the living of it is another matter.  The wind howling and keening around our vacation house in May echoed my feelings in this season of endings and beginnings.  Like the marsh, I have been filled, and emptied out, and I know I will be filled again.  I read of how storms changed the contours of our island, how rising waters would change it further.  I know I will get used to the new configurations of my family and community life, to the new landscapes of town and island.  But not yet.  Like the storm, like women for millennia, I need to mark the changes, to keen and lament.  And then, maybe, I will walk out again into a calm, sunny day.

 

 
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