Word Medicine

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

An Invitation July 27, 2016

I’ve just finished Diane Morrow’s One Year of Writing and Healing: Writing to Transform the Experience of Illness, Grief and Other Trouble, a treasure trove of resources for anyone interested in beginning or deepening a healing writing practice.

Dr. Morrow begins her book with an invitation: to take one year of your life and write with the express purpose of “transforming difficult experiences into something…more bearable.” Her tone throughout is one of friendly invitation. What she offers comes from her own experience as a writer, a medical doctor, a counselor in mind-body training and a teacher. And as any good teacher would, she grounds the practice she offers in both time and space. Take a year, she says, to try these things, and moreover, I am going to walk you through each month, guiding you and building a solid foundation. In a low-key conversational tone, she creates a focus for each month, with chapters addressing each of the following: “Creating a Healing Place,” “Consider Healing as a Story,” “Drawing a Map,” “Developing  the Habit of Writing,” “Listening to the Voice of the Body,” “Making a Place for Grief,” “Figuring Out the Good Part,”  “Gathering Resources for the Long Haul,” and “Creating a Guest House.” Each of these chapters draw not only from her own experience and that of her patients and students, but also from an extensive knowledge of the literatures of both healing and writing, including excerpts and references to such seminal thinkers in their fields as Arthur Frank, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Pema Chodron and Peter Elbow. However, she wears such learning lightly, incorporating it into her book in an approachable way. Each chapter also offers exercises or prompts, all of which grow organically out of her own or others’ lived experiences. Although some of the material in this book can be found elsewhere—i.e., Arthur Franks’ exploration of the three healing types of stories—Restitution, Chaos, and Quest—Morrow interprets his work, expanding on it with examples from various sources, including the movie The Lord of the Rings.

Perhaps the most important chapter is the first two-month long chapter, “Creating a Healing Place.” This exercise in creating, inhabiting, imagining, conjuring and holding is the foundation for everything that follows. Morrow describes her own experience of going to a retreat at Santa Sabina, where she learned the process of interactive active imagination. It was there that she realized that writing could strengthen and deepen and hold the work of healing imagery. By creating a healing place inside one’s mind, one could have a sense of “deep refuge” in a portable retreat. “When we have this deep sense of security, it becomes possible—and bearable—to look honestly at the stories of our lives.”  She offers seven particular archetypes—seven ways of thinking about the landscapes we inhabit or could inhabit: Sea, Cave, Harbor, Promontory, Island, Mountain and Sky.“ Naming these archetypes “….allows us to look at the landscape freshly, to begin to pay closer attention to those spaces in the world which we most long for and need.” She suggests immersing ourselves, imaginatively, in the landscape, and discovering what it can tell us about ourselves, about where we are and where we would like to be. Do you need to nest inside a cave, away from the stresses of the world? So you need the viewpoint you might find high on a mountain? This extended imagination offers the chance to discover a correlative to our inner landscapes in a rich and interesting way.(By the way, check out another prompt here about landscapes : https://therapeuticjournal.wordpress.com/2016/07/26/landscape-the-desert/?iframe=true&theme_preview=true)

One of my favorite passages is in the section on Chaos stories. She writes: “Chaos can be an indicator of growth. Fear can be an indicator of growth. And it seems to me that just considering this—having some inkling about this—can change our experience. It can give us courage to keep moving with and through obstacles…..Meanwhile, I have sometimes found it helpful, at moments when obstacles arise….to imagine an older woman’s voice, a voice much wiser than my own. She tends to say something like this: Well of course, Sweetie, what did you thing? That it was going to be easy?” Diane Morrow herself is that wise encouraging voice. “Writing can become a powerful way to listen to your life, ” she writes. And this book is a powerful tool to help you in that endeavor.

another-april-book-cover

You can order the book here: https://www.amazon.com/One-Year-Writing-Healing-Experience/dp/0692610278/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1466428919&sr=1-1

All profits for the book go to Write Around Portland, which you can read about here: http://writingandhealing.org/write-around-portland.

You might also enjoy Diane’s blog,  One Year of Writing and Healing, http://writingandhealing.org/

and a radio interview: http://safespaceradio.com/2011/09/writing-and-healing/

 

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The Moon, Not the Finger May 4, 2016

Every so often a book lands in your hands just when you need it.

I happened upon The Art of Attention: A Poet’s Eye, by Donald Revell, the other day. I had started it at some point because it was underlined for several pages, but in the daily onslaught I had somehow lost track of it. But here it was and I had the time to read it, so I started again.

But before I get to what I found so sustaining in this little book, a bit of backstory: I have had a horrible winter/spring, and have found the desire to write anything has simply evaporated. My chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia flared, and I tumbled down the rabbit hole of pain and panic again. It isn’t my first rodeo, so I should know how to handle these flare-ups, but there have been too many too close together for too long. I’ve lost my equilibrium.

Feeling unmoored in all ways, I’ve felt more so in my writing. What is this drivel? I think, looking at pathetic lines on the page. More importantly, why the effort when everything takes so much effort?  I have joined a lovely group of poets that meet monthly, and suddenly I am aware of what good poems are. And I want to write them. But the more I try, the more stilted my efforts. It is as if I’ve lost my innocence, my native language. What is a poem, anyway?

A poem, according to Revell, “is a plain record of one’s entire presence….the poetry of attention is acceptance….the poetry of attention proposes a heroic unoriginality whose entire faith rests in the tireless originality of the real.”  Something in me accedes—yes! I like in particular the word “plain” in contrast to “entire presence.” Plain is serviceable, every day, yet entire presence is all that we have, it is everything.

I think of some of my favorite poets, and notice the plainness of their language. Here is an excerpt of Denise Levertov’s poem, “In California: Morning, Evening, Late January”.

Pale, then enkindled,

light

advancing,

emblazoning

summits of palm and pine,

 

the dew

lingering,

scripture of

scintillas.

 

Soon the roar

of mowers

cropping the already short

grass of lawns…..

 

miner’s lettuce,

tender, untasted,

and other grass, unmown,

luxuriant,

no green more brilliant.

 

Fragile paradise.

 

At day’s end the whole sky,

vast, unstinting, flooded with transparent

mauve,

tint of wisteria,

cloudless

over the malls, the industrial parks,

the homes with the lights going on,

the homeless arranging their bundles.

. . .

Who can utter

the poignance of all that is constantly

threatened, invaded, expended

 

and constantly

nevertheless

persists in beauty,

 

tranquil as this young moon

just risen and slowly

drinking light

from the vanished sun.

 

Who can utter

the praise of such generosity

or the shame?

“In California” By Denise Levertov, from A Door in the Hive

This is plain language, unversifying verse. Notice how she transforms a normal ordinary day, seeing in it both tragedy and exquisite beauty. “As you see, so at length shall you say,” Revell says, and here the eye takes in with absolute accuracy what it sees, what it finds. The poem, Revell tells us, is found material, “The key to the poetry of attention is acceptance.”  Levertov’s eye takes in all, the humble, the homeless, the mauve light. All that she sees cumulates in the final section, with the first and final stanzas’s beginning with the line “Who can utter….?” This line, repeated, indicates the poet’s recognition of her own limitations, the limitations of words to convey the magnitude of what the eye takes in. This humility, this kenosis, Revell says, is also imperative in the poetry of attention. It allows the poet to empty herself, to accept a limited role. This paradoxically frees her.

Which reminds me of the Buddhist story of the finger pointing to the moon:

“Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?”

Writers don’t have to be the moon, or create it. We just have to point to it.   Fugai-Hotei-Pointing-to-the-Moon2

 

 

 

Letting Go January 19, 2015

I am reading Shaun McNiff’s book, Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go, about the creative process, and finding it instructive not only for creative endeavors but also for relationships.

We’ve all heard the phrase. Maybe it conjures up images of Woodstock, of hippies in tie-dyed tees.  Nevertheless, McNiff, an artist and internationally known figure in creative art therapies, brings a nuanced and in-depth perspective to the concept.

McNiff claims that there is an intelligence working in every situation, and if we trust it and follow its natural movements, it will astound us with its ability to find a way through problems—and even make use of our mistakes and failures.

 I am particularly drawn to his assertion that errors are harbingers of original ideas because they introduce new directions for expression.  Sometimes, as well, the spontaneous expression or mistake which is outside our intended design, brings riches from the unconscious.  Those who work with their dreams know that a dream will often strike us as peculiar, that we “don’t know where it comes from,” but the images of that same peculiar but powerful dream may bring us the very healing images that we need, but for which our ego has no room.

McNiff also points out that while the artistic process may bring relief, joy and harmony, the process thrives on tension. Conflict and uncertainty are the forces that carry the artist to new and unfamiliar places.

 I think a similar process can happen in relationships.

I once met an accomplished woman, a writer and therapist, ten years ago at a writing conference. She was a little older than I was at the time, and her children were grown. She was lovely and gracious but there was an air of melancholy about her. We fell to talking about parenting.  She said that our mistakes as parents are as important as our successes.  I was still hoping to be the perfect parent and was puzzled by her statement. Surely not!  Oh, yes, she said, because our lacks are what push them out of the nest, and send them out into the world to do it better.

pathMistaken moves and slips of intention reveal that creation involves more than single-mindedness, McNiff writes. We create together with the world.  If we believe that there is an intelligence moving in the world that we can partake of and trust in, then conflict and uncertainty are no longer so frightening, in our work or in our relationships. We can approach them with curiosity, knowing that, if we stay with the process, we will be moved to a new place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hitting the Target September 16, 2013

I keep returning to Anna Kamienska’s  notebooks.  They are so companionable.  Even though she was a mid-century Polish poet,  there is nothing dated or unfamiliar about her observations. Recently, I stumbled upon this:

In Pedro Arrupe’s book on Japan I find useful comments on shooting with a bow. A Japanese man instructs a missionary:

Holy Father, you must not think about the target, the target has no meaning here. And you must not worry about hitting it. Above all you must strive to become one with the target, and only then do you calmly release the arrow. The arrow will fly straight to the target. But if you tighten your nerves instead of the string, you may be sure that it will never reach the goal.

Doesn’t this sum up the whole struggle of the creative process?  We want so much to make a bulls-eye, and yet so much of our effort misses the target entirely, arrows shot wildly in the general direction because of tightened nerves.  Or at least that is my experience.  What does it mean to become one with the target, for example, for a writer?  How do I maintain calm?

Nadine Gordimer once said that writing a novel is like walking on a tight-rope over an abyss.  Do not look down, she says, or you will lose your footing.  I know that sometimes I’ve looked down only to be gripped by icy terror.  That’s just asking for your worst internal critic to paralyze you on the spot.  Work has flowed, for me, when I can be self-forgetful.  It is when I am not asking myself, “how am I doing?,” but rather contemplating my subject so deeply that I am living it.  That is one of the secret joys of writing fiction, especially long fiction.  The excitement comes in unexpected discoveries,  in witnessing beauty that doesn’t come from you but through you.

I think we can recognize a work of art in which the artist has become one with his subject.  This weekend I went to Greenville, SC to see the unveiling of a sculpture honoring Peg Leg Bates, the amazing one-legged tap dancer from Greenville.  Never heard of him?  Neither had I until this weekend. From Wikipedia:

Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates (October 11 1907 – December 8, 1998) was an Afro-American entertainer from Fountain Inn, South Carolina. Bates lost a leg at the age of 12 in a cotton gin accident. He subsequently taught himself to tap dance with a wooden peg leg. His uncle, Wit, made his crude first “peg leg” after returning home from World War I and finding his nephew handicapped. Bates was a well-known dancer in his day. He performed on The Ed Sullivan Show approximately 58 times, and had two command performances before the King & Queen of England in 1936 and then again in 1938] He retired from the dancing business in 1996.

At the unveiling ceremony, much was made of the fact that Peg Leg never let his disability stop him.  Watching the You Tube videos would inspire even the most cynical.  Peg Leg danced like a dream, incorporating his wooden leg into his routine in heart-stopping displays of balance and grace.  I loved that he didn’t have a leg-like prosthesis, but a humble wooden peg.  He wasn’t hiding, he was what he was, but he wasn’t defined by it either. He was totally in the flow of his dance, and so is the viewer.

The sculpture here, by Joe Thompson, is an example of a work of art created by being one with the target.  Crafted from nuts and bolts, this abstract metal sculpture nevertheless powerfully conveys a sense of arrested motion and the graceful form of the spirited living human body .  Ron Barnett in GreenvilleOnline, quotes a Bates relative at the unveiling:

Bates relative, Veldon Bates, said he thought the statue captured the essence of Bates’ perseverance and determination in turning his handicap into a blessing. “I guess you could say the hardness of the nuts and bolts is basically the way he came up — hard in life,” he said. “I think it’s nice.”

Sculptor Joe Thompson said he tried to convey Peg Leg’s indomitable spirit with each piece of metal he welded together. “Reflecting on this remarkable man, I realized that he organized his life around a very straightforward and clear idea: He decided that he wanted to dance no matter what,” Thompson said. “In every photograph of him, he is smiling. If you watch his clips from the Ed Sullivan show, you see a man filled with happiness, determination and vitality,” he said. “And so it was through this very simple idea of doing what he loved that he transformed himself and transformed the world around him. Dance is what he did, and dance is what I hope to convey in this work of art.”

Sculptors, dancers, musicians and writers who stay with us, whose works powerfully affect us, affect us precisely because they are able to convey something beyond themselves.  They may or may not practice archery, but they know how to hit a target.

Sculpture Peg Leg Bates 1255172_290453047762733_1388485100_n

 

 

Made Things May 11, 2013

Filed under: Craft,creativity,Process — saratbaker @ 7:41 pm
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I was wandering today in the J & J Flea Market, “The Biggest in Georgia,” with a young friend.  I love flea markets, because you can get a sense of other people’s lives, both past and present.  We passed an old man with a wizened face and a patchy faded blonde beard playing guitar with a young girl sporting a nose ring.  She set to those strings with flying fingers singing an old country song I wish I knew.  We saw little Hispanic boys clutching a small fuzzy dog, and passed through a market that smelled like Mexico.  We saw chickens and game cocks and a duck in a cage.  We passed a table with cast iron pans and I told my friend how you can’t beat cast iron for cooking.  There were white country folk selling plants, and a large black man covered in tattoos and gold chains and cowboy boots with a sweet expression on his face.  There were cheap Chinese designer bags, and tons of books.  We found a great booth with ridiculously inexpensive rings and pendants made with Botswana agate, amethysts, garnets and chalcedony sourced from all over the world. My friend was talking about making art and how it will be so cool when you won’t even need anything, you’ll just imagine it and the computer in your brain will make it.  Hmm, I said, I don’t know how cool that will be.  Why not, she asked?  Well, I said, one of the things about art is that the medium, the material, often resists you, and that is why the image in your mind is often different than what comes out on canvas or paper.  You have that momentary inspiration, and then in attempting to make the thing—poem or painting, garden—you have to deal with the medium, which is balky and not always easy to work with.  Take watercolors, for instance.  How many great results happen by accident?  You just have to go with it sometimes.  Or a plant volunteers in your garden that you didn’t intend, but you find that it works for you.  Or you plant something and it just doesn’t want to be there.  Or language—part of the fun of writing is that it is a discovery, you don’t always know where a poem will take you. Still, she said, I think it will be cool.  Well, there you have it, I thought. Kids today—they’ve grown up with computers, and it is all so natural to them.  Then I wondered if our next stage of evolution will be human/robots.  Which no doubt she would think is cool. We walked by a booth and I spied a piece of quilt.  When I opened it, I saw a beautiful pattern of golds, olives and purples.  It was distinctive—the maker had a fine aesthetic sensibility. It was small, a lap robe. I asked the man where he had gotten it.  An estate sale, he said, an old black woman in Alabama had made it and he had once had hundreds.  I asked him how much, and he said 5 whole dollars.  I bought it.  Maybe some of her spirit is in the quilt, I said to him; it needs to be appreciated.  I looked at it more closely.  The stitches were all by hand and as fine as anything I’d ever seen.  The cloth was wool.  I know that in the Depression old coats were cut up to make quilts; I have an Amish quilt made almost entirely of dark coat fabric.  The fabrics were in fine shape, but clearly old. I imagined the woman putting together the quilt from things she had on hand, making do.  I imagine her on her hands and knees, laying out the pattern.  I imagine her taking the time to make those tiny stitches, maybe after a day of picking cotton.  I imagine her satisfaction at the results, after the patience and effort. I looked around the booths, at junky plastic toys and jewelry made in sweatshops and hand carved walking sticks.  Most of it wasn’t art, or even craft, but I had a pang of nostalgia for all the humble made things.  I am not anxious for a future where we think things into being.  I want a world where serendipity can happen, where the medium has to be wrestled into form. I put my quilt in my study, over the back of the futon. I think it is very happy there.

 

Practicing Simplicity July 18, 2012

Filed under: artists,Process,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 2:58 pm
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This past spring, my son Adam, fifteen, had to take a mandatory PE class.  Now, Adam will tell you that by and large, organized sports are not his thing.  He is a terrific artist, musician  and thinker, and an active kid who has ridden his bike to school since he was in pre-school.  Nevertheless, when his dad coached T-ball, seven-year old Adam would invariably be inspecting a ladybug on a dandelion or watching the clouds form interesting patterns in the sky when that ball whizzed past him.  Yet this spring, as the class sampled various sports, Adam amazed his class and even more himself by hitting not one, not two, but three home runs, two of them out of the park.

How to account for it?  Here is my hypothesis: Adam had no expectations of himself.  He wasn’t thinking of how he would make his mark in baseball.  He had no ideas about it.  If anything, he might have expected to not do well.  But at any rate, I think he was simply in the moment.  A ball was thrown at him, he hit it, he ran.  He had beginner’s mind; he was in the flow, not obstructed by how things should be, but simply letting them unfold as they are.

How enviable.  Could it be repeated?  Will he be a star if he tries out for fall ball?  I wonder.  I suspect that if he takes up baseball, he will begin to accrue expectations and fears about performance, as we all do.  And then he will have to practice arduously in the hopes of once again finding that sweet spot, that place of being in the moment, that simplicity.

We practice our sport, our craft, our art, in order to return to simplicity.

Recently, I was lucky enough to catch the Richard Diebenkorn “Ocean Park” series at the Corchoran in Washington D C.  As I gazed at the huge canvases filled with blocks of color, I was struck both by how simple and also how complex they were.  Yes, one might say, a child could have done those, and yet it was because the artist had studied and executed more realistic works–figures, interiors, landscapes–that the paintings were so resonant.  The viewer enters into a complex conversation the painter was having with himself and with Matisse, with Bonnard, and with all his influences.  Yet also, and maybe more importantly, a canvas opens up an expected door in the viewer, a moment of freshness, a new way of seeing,  echoing the unique encounter the painter had with media and moment.

Frederick Franck in his book Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation, encourages his reader to draw as a way to encounter the actual, not the projections of the mind.  Drawing becomes not product, but investigation.  It is a way to return to the simplicity of what is, rather than a way of   fancying-up reality.  It takes practice and it is hard.  Why do it?  Because in the middle of the struggle to render, there are those moments–where your pencil and the tree you are rendering  and the hand holding the pencil and the eyes seeing the tree are all one and everything else falls away.

Isak Dinesen said “I write a little every day, without too much hope, without too much despair.”   To get to beginner’s mind, that is what we have to do.

 

 
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