Word Medicine

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

The Sense of an Ending September 29, 2016

I was lucky to get a quick visit in with my sister Megan the other day on her brief visit to town. Like me, she is a recent empty-nester. She said she and her husband were enjoying their new-found freedom, as Todd and I are. Although, I said, I have a profound sense of something being over. It’s done now, active parenting, for better or worse. We are no longer in the open-ended, creative stage of parenting. We both got tears in our eyes. How did it go so fast, she said? And I agreed. It all seemed to be over in the blink of an eye—although that isn’t how it felt at the time.

I hope I was a good enough parent, I said. I told her about a poet who once told me we give our kids our failures as material for their lives as well as our successes. Then we proceeded to swap our worst parenting actions ever, which will not appear in this post!

I had a similar sense of completion today when I held the proof of my novel, The Timekeeper’s Son, in my hands. Here it is, the story and characters that have lived in my mind all those years, out in the world between two beautiful covers. Which means all the felicities of the story and all its failures, too are in the world. All I can hope is that it is a good enough story. I think it is. But it is done now and there is no going back, no endless meditating on who the characters are or what their fates might be.

Autumn is harvest time, and it seems especially, poignantly, so to me this year. I am reminded of the first stanza of Wendell Berry’s wonderful poem, “X, from a Timbered Choir:

 X

by Wendell Berry

Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

Parenting and writing are both foreseen in joy—the love of two overflowing to create a third, or a glimpse of a form, a feeling, that calls out to be embodied. But the seeing through of these visions to their completions requires everything we have.

Both my sons are in the world now. The sense of an ending. And the sense of a new beginning.

covertts

The Timekeeper’s Son is forthcoming from Deeds Publishing, November 29, 2016. Books can be pre-ordered here: https://deedspublishing.goodsie.com/the-timekeepers-son-pre-order

 

 

 

 

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Travels July 5, 2016

Marsh

Sitting on the porch of our rental house on Tybee Island, Georgia, I hear the morning calls of cardinals and the raucous caw of a crow in the palm tree whose fronds brush the screen of the porch. Across the dirt road, beyond the palmetto and live oak and Spanish moss, glimmers the water of the marsh, where a snowy egret slowly descends. The air is briny and heavy. I feel my body melt into the chair. Time has slowed and me with it. We call it Tybee time.

We rent a different house on the island each year, and this year there was a bonanza. The house was loaded with books. I don’t mean the usual shelf of worn paperbacks, but stacks on every horizontal surface, in window nooks, stacked precariously on shelves, coffee tables, bedside tables. And what books! Really good fiction and non-fiction by Anne Lamott, Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver, and many more. I had brought a load of my own, enough for my daughter and me. But there is nothing like the thrill of looking through someone else’s stash. I couldn’t settle on a book until into my hands tumbled Sue Monk Kidd and Anne Kidd Taylor’s Traveling with Pomegranates. It was a book I didn’t know I was hungry for. After one page, I was riveted.

A memoir of both inner and outer travel, I was particularly taken with Sue Monk Kid’s description of coming to terms with aging, of letting go of a younger version of herself. She describes going to Eleusis with her daughter Ann, and feeling the grief both of the loss of her daughter to adulthood, and the loss of the inner “girl” in herself, the inner youthful energy. She writes: “How did this happen? Where did time go? Where did we go? Those other selves?” Yes, I thought, exactly. Where did we go?

Contemplating the myth of Demeter and Persephone (as well as Demeter’s mother, Hestia), Sue makes a sacrificial gesture of cutting a lock of her hair and dropping it into the well at Eleusis. She had read that if one accepts aging, there is the potential to grow into the fullest version of oneself, and that is her intention. But to do that, she has to feel this grief, to descend into Hades herself, to submit to the dark.

Here at the beach, in this place of liminality, of the meeting between consciousness and unconsciousness, between solid ground and mutable water, I stand on a similar threshold. Because I had a child late, facing into old age has been somewhat delayed for me. But as my son leaves for college, I am becoming more and more aware of my age. I want to face it gracefully and with consciousness, but like all of us, I shrink from the task. Where are the guideposts along the way? Change is inevitable, but transformation requires engaging with the process.

For Sue, she found strength in a new relationship with Mary in her many guises. Having rejected the plaster pastel version of Mary–as I did–she had resorted to a cosmic idea of Mary. But in her distress and need, she craved a more personal encounter. With each encounter with Mary in Greece and France—as Isis, Panygria, or the Black Madonna—she experienced a deepening in her understanding of the mysteries of a woman’s life. In the narrative of Mary’s life, she limned the patterns of every woman’s life. One aspect of a woman’s life is found in the visitation to Elizabeth, which Kidd sees as the necessity of seeking community with other woman. This resonated with me, as I had a pilgrimage of my own to make.

My friend Susan Murphy is one of the world’s premier aerial dancers. After a successful New York career, a West Coast career and then establishing a successful trapeze company and school in Athens, Georgia, she moved back to the coastal marshes of her youth. I had been trying to get down to see her for years, and here was my chance. For me, Susan has been a soul sister, someone I can go deep with. I had had several dreams about Susan the month before. Like Mary visiting Elizabeth, it seemed somehow fated. So I headed down the highway to her marsh studio.

She lives deep in the marsh, and time seems even slower there than in Tybee. We talked about spirituality, poetry, nature, aging, and especially the matrilineal legacy. We talked about where we had come from and what we would leave behind. She is caring for her aging mother, as is just about everyone woman I know. Even though she was tired, she graced me with a poem and dance she had created in honor of her grandmother and great-grandmother. As I watched, it seemed like the embodiment of the Hester-Demeter-Persephone triad. “Dance is the expression of the Spirit,” said Isadora Duncan, quoted in Pomegranates. 

That is what I did on my summer vacation. I hope you enjoy Susan’s poem below. May the book you need falls into your hands sometime soon, may you encounter someone with whom to share your spirit, and may you dance.

 

Susan’s Poem

My Precious One

Dearest darling girl

My Dearest Susan

 Through the years Grandmama began each of her many letters to me with those endearments.  Can you imagine?  Her love was all-embracing and unadorned.  Every day she blew though her whole reserve.  

 Grandmother never felt comfortable at stand-up cocktail parties.  “I couldn’t be on my feet that long,” she said  “and because I didn’t drink, I never knew what to do with my hands.”  But she knew what to do with that big ol’ heart of hers.  She knew what to do with that big ol’ heart of hers.  Her radiant love flowed out of her, an artisan well of life-giving waters.  Grandmama….

 Now my great-grandmother, Munzie, was one of the first women lawyers inGeorgia in the 1930’s.  She was one of the first civil rights lawyers in the South.

Munzie would say to me:  Don’t just FEEL.  Put your feet to the fire with all those feelings.  Put your feet to the fire with all those feelings. And follow your heart, you’ll suffer either way. 

I dance for Grandmama’s unquestioning heartbreaking devotion.

I dance for the love she, as an orphan, never had yet somehow    

         found to give 

I dance for my great-grandmother’s fierce pioneering spirit

            and the love she voiced in her tireless fight for

            social justice

I dance for the vision they had of a better world…a world of fair

            treatment for all and unremitting tenderness for the one. 

I dance for the pain of their unfulfilled dreams.

I dance for the possible fruition of their spirit, living in me.

I dance for all their genes, humming in my body.

I dance for the genes I pass on, a different way than blood.

I dance in sadness and joy, remembering and honoring, their lives and

    their loving.

I dance…yes… believing in a better world…believing that the walls that separate

    us could    start    tumbling    down.

I dance for the possibility of our hearts opening to kindness, compassion and love.

I dance for you.

I dance for me.

I dance.

The Marsh Studio

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Write? September 1, 2012

I have been involved recently with trying to save a beloved, historic community  pool in our town.  Activism is so much fun!  You immediately feel part of a community, and there is something new to engage with everyday.  As a kid, I always wanted to be Brenda Starr–that dates me–and now I’m getting my Brenda Starr kicks.  I use my writing skills for the purpose of something concrete and useful.

Sadly, I can’t spend all my time on activism.  I feel the tug of my own work waiting for me, stamping in the wings, getting a little impatient.  I’ve set aside these months to review where I’ve been and where I want to go.  It has been very nurturing, for instance, to look through old letters, finding pieces of myself I’ve forgotten.  I am “feasting on my life,” as Derek Walcott admonishes in his beautiful poem, “Love after Love.”   I sense I’m at a turning point–certainly my daughter’s marriage and my aunt’s death both have pushed the wheel of my life forward, and I’m trying to find my balance in this new place.

Speaking of Derek Walcott, when I was a very young woman, I went to a writers’ conference where he excoriated one of my poems, and I stopped writing poetry for 15 years.  “You don’t understand poetry,”  he raged at me, red-faced.  Since I held his work in high esteem,  I was as hollowed out as a tree struck with blight.  Now, as an older woman, I understand that every judgement of another’s work is in some way a projection of the judge’s own issues.  I would caution a young poet not to give away too much of her power, no matter how highly esteemed the judge is.

Having confidence is important to a writer, but a difficult trick.  Nadine Gordimer once used this simile about  writing a novel :  “it is like tight-rope walking over a chasm.  If you look down, you are lost.”  Stubbornly, a writer needs to go back to the well of his own imagination, even if that imagination is not in sync with the times.

I just read a marvelous review of the work of Gina Berriault by Daphne Kalotay in the September/October issue of Poets and Writers.  Ms. Berriault is one of my favorite short-story writers, and even though she had a good career, her work is still little known .  She had a marvelous restraint in her prose, and quiet empathy for her characters.  If you haven’t read her work, you should.  She had a sense of writing as both a vocation and a career, and the vocation came first.  She was never as well-known as many of us thought she should have been, but I think the fact is that she kept at it, she was true to herself, and whether or not she found favor in the marketplace wasn’t her not her primary concern.

I look to her as a model as I attempt to “get my work out” into the world.  I am not unhappy with the choices I have made and where I find myself in life.  I’m no superwoman, and my family came first.  I never stopped writing–even though for two years I was unable to write.  I stayed true to my contract with myself as I slowly recovered, even though I had no energy for a career.  I am even happy for those years of illness and recovery, for what I learned and the places they took me.  I am happy to have found another vocation, that of teaching writing as a healing modality.  Yet now, I find myself coming back to my own work, interrogating it.  What does it want to be, how does it want to be used? At a time when most people are safely gliding to retirement, these questions are still alive for me.

One writes for oneself, but also, in the hopes of readers.  My enduring model of the artist is of the chef in “Babette’s Feast.”  Authentic art is prepared with skill to give pleasure to both the chef and the diners–not all diners will appreciate the skill that goes into it, but the point is the feast itself, and the transformations that may come from it.

I find the vocabulary of the literary marketplace disheartening: pitchings, platforms and pandering.  However, I try to visualize my reader–someone to sit down with to enjoy a good feast.  Maybe fig tarts and lamb stews are not to everyone’s taste–all we can do is put them on the table.

 

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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