Word Medicine

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

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

 

Longing for the Light December 9, 2011

In the choir room, we practice our Christmas hymns.  “Let thy bright beams disperse the gloom of sin, Our nature all shall feel eternal day, In fellowship with thee, transforming day to souls erewhile unclean…”  The longing in the hymns for the coming of Emmanuel, for the coming of light into our darkness, never fails to move me.  More now, than in the simple faith of my childhood.  Because now I know how dark our darkness can be.

In the paper yesterday, the headlines included the death of a seven-year old Hispanic child, who had been raped, beaten and stabbed to death as she returned to her apartment from the apartment playground.  The younger two children were taken from the traumatized mother  because she was under suspicion of neglegting her child by allowing her to play in the complex playground.  I also read about the certain pain my daughter’s beloved friend endured when she was murdered at UNC, taken from her home where she was studying, and shot.  I heard about the troubled homes of the children my son goes to school with, one father so drunk he couldn’t pick up his child who was suspended from school for selling drugs and alcohol. A dear friend is still looking for work two years after being laid off.   She has to choose between food and medicine.  It is hard if not impossible to keep from giving up oneself to whole-hearted despair, or cynicism.

What can we do? How can we live?  our hearts ask us.

Christmas is for children, we think.  For the rest of us, it might be a respite or chance to “get” whatever the latest gadget might be, the one that promises to transform our life.  It might be precious time with overworked family members.  We keep our expectations modest.  And if the yearning for that elusive something rears up in us, we dismiss it as childish nonsense.  We are realists, we are adults, after all.

We can’t go back to childish ways, nor should we want to.  We know the world for what it is.  We know that wishes often don’t come true.  We know that precious children are wantonly destroyed.  It is hard-won knowledge.  And yet to dismiss our yearnings for the light, for transformation within ourselves and in our worlds, is equally as  foolish as indulging  a childlike fantasy that the world is a large Disneyland.  The high Holy Days of winter, in whatever tradition, honor both the inky darkness, and the light that often does shine in our lives, despite all.  And they ask us to live in the tension of knowledge of the dark, and the heart’s yearning for wholeness.

Please accept this offering of a poem, and the wish that light will come to you this winter solstice, and you will recognize it.

Hodie Christus Natus Est

Solstice Song in Four Parts

HODIE

Today.

Not tomorrow.

Not yesterday.

This night.

Not some perfected end time.

   Tonight.

Here on earth,

this earth,

this fire,

this hearth.

These clinking glasses

these voices ringing.

Our voices.  Not angels’.

Our voices, cracked and sweet, tired,

but singing.

CHRISTUS

The light in us

all.

We, like winter stars,

alone in the night sky,

constellations dancing together,

then apart,

circling this earth.

Our fires finite,

our fires bright.

NATUS

Born to us.

Born of dust in cattle and rank hay,

dust enlivened with breath.

Born of breaking waters,

born of blood and old enmities.

Out of this

a new thing.

A child.

Mild,

tender,

new light to walk the earth.

This earth.  Our earth.

EST

Is.

Not was

or will be.

But is.

Now.

Here.

To us,

this night.  Out of our darkness

of broken bodies, broken dreams, losses,

failures, sins,

we light candles

to

what

is.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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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