Word Medicine

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas Preparations: What Are We Preparing For? December 7, 2015

I’m sitting in a waiting room listening to a woman telling another woman all about her Christmas preparations. She has “only” gotten her kitchen and bathroom decorated; she is going to be working up till December 24. She has fifteen people coming, kids and grandkids; she is going to have a honey-baked ham. She could buy them all gift cards, she says, but that seems too easy. So she is shopping for them. The other woman will be making a separate vegetarian meal for her son, and she will get him a gift card. “He never likes anything I get him, so I might as well.”

I like to tease that at Christmas, women do all the work, and a man (Santa) gets all the credit. Why do we do it? I suppose we do it for all sorts of reasons–tradition, habit, others’ expectations. But I think we also do it with the hope of creating a protected space and time where we can come together with our loved ones and celebrate the gifts of life and of each other. We all long for those magic moments.

Every year, despite the failures of years past, we hope anew. Christmas, with its symbolism of abundance, brings us perilously close to our naked need for affirmation, connection, approval. We all have need and we all have abundance, and the holidays make us aware of both. The wish for the perfect gift, the one that shows that we are understood and cherished, lurks even in the most jaded of us. The fear of being let down is equally present. The wish to give, to make sure we have satisfied a love one, exists with the dread that we can’t. Managing our own and others’ expectations can make us stressed, exhausted and unhappy–the opposite of what we really desire.

While getting rid of all the material aspects of Christmas might seem like the solution to this dilemma, I think more to the point is recognizing the difference between matter and spirit. As Gertrude Mueller Nelson writes in her book, To Dance with God, “we can prepare and put forth the form to catch something of the Spirit, but we cannot supply the Spirit.” There is nothing wrong with abundance, with beauty and tradition. Where we get into trouble is in confusing the symbol with reality. 0b32cf2b9e8c308943e5c5cf61875b00

No gift will ever create love–it can only point to a love that is already there. We cannot make anyone happy, we can only invite their happiness. Our holiday celebrations will never be perfect. If we are lucky, they will be messy, with imperfect giving and receiving, but also with genuine moments of connection. And maybe a honey-baked ham.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Filed under: Grief,Spirituality — saratbaker @ 8:41 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

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

 

Shame/Grace June 19, 2013

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Two nights ago, our children from Bethesda were visiting, and we had a party with a few friends.  I had just come back from visiting my sister, who was appalled that I didn’t have an iPhone, and didn’t text.  We were talking about the pros and cons of iPhones, when one of our guests, a man of bottomless curiosity, asked what the name Bethesda meant.  “It’s in the Bible,” he said, looking meaningfully at me as if that meant I should know the name.  “Well,”  I said,  “I have read that book any number of times, but I can’t remember everything.”  So he whipped out his iPhone and looked it up.

 

This is what he found on Wikipedia under Pool of Bethesda:  “The name of the pool is said to be derived from the Hebrew language and/or Aramaic languagebeth hesda (בית חסד/חסדא), meaning either house of mercy[3] or house of grace. In both Hebrew and Aramaic the word could also mean ‘shame, disgrace’. This dual meaning may have been thought appropriate since the location was seen as a place of disgrace due to the presence of invalids, and a place of grace, due to the granting of healing.”

 

I hadn’t really cared about the name, but this grabbed my attention.  It brought home to me how ancient the twinning of shame and illness is.  And even though we are modern people who believe that we no longer “blame the victim,” both for those who are sick and for  others around them, I think shame still plays a potent role in our experience of illness.

 

In my own experience of illness, I often find that along with the pain and fatigue comes the vinegary presence of a lingering guilt.  I may tell myself it isn’t my fault that I am sick, but I feel as if it is.  I wonder how much of that conditioning goes back for hundreds of generations, when sin and sickness were seen as one and the same?  Or is it the American belief that we can do anything if we try hard enough, which makes failing at wellness such a trial?  No one wants to be a burden to others, no one wants to fall behind.  When you are sick, though, it becomes hard to feel you are contributing or participating in the life around you.  To be an invalid is all too often to be in-valid.

 

As for how others respond to sickness, I think as a society we find chronic illness in particular, unacceptable.  We don’t have mechanisms to cope with it.  Fear probably plays into this, as it did for the leprosy patients at Carville, Louisiana who were taken from their homes and deprived of family and name, so that the remaining families would not be burned in their homes or run out of town.  Leprosy, in America even in the twentieth century, was seen as the fault of  ill.  Today, we use fighting metaphors for cancer, and yet what about the person who doesn’t “win” against cancer?  Is it because they didn’t fight hard enough?  We tend to turn our backs on people who aren’t winners. It is too painful for us.

 

Here is the first stanza of a poem I wrote recently.

 

 

What do the healthy

have to do with the ill?

Why would they want

to hear the news–

that the body is fragile

and we live at its will?

 

But what about grace? What about healing?  What about the image of healing waters?

 

John O’Donohue has written that when we are in our deepest suffering, that we should offer ourselves the oil of compassion, because we are experiencing the most essential aspect of being human.  It is suffering, he says, which allows us to truly connect to others. Yet, how hard this is to do!  How much easier to blame ourselves, and to struggle against our circumstances.  How hard to sit with what is, and look for the blessings there.

 

Kat Duff, in her wonderful book, The Alchemy of Illness, which I read at the worst stage of my illness, doesn’t see illness as the enemy to be struggled against, but as part of the human experience which offers opportunities for spiritual growth.  I have found that in my own life, while I wouldn’t wish this illness on anyone, it has brought me many gifts as well.  Healing, it seems, is not just for the body, but for the soul as well.  I have seen in the cancer patients that I’ve worked with great healing as they jettison a lot of unneeded baggage, and find their true voices.

 

I love the image of healing waters, of being suspended in them, of washing away all that burdens you, both physically and spiritually.  Water is receptive and holding, cleansing and renewing.  Here is a photo of the pool of Bethesda.

 

Our children left today to go back to Bethesda, which I hope will be a place of grace for them.  Richard left with his iPhone.  I’m taking my iPhoneless self for a swim.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sacrifice March 27, 2013

Filed under: Spirituality — saratbaker @ 10:10 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,
lobster boat

lobster boat

We watched a wonderful Indie movie the other night, Islander.   In the movie, a young man, Eban Crane, make a rash decision which results in a boy’s death and five years in prison.  When he returns to the island to win back his wife, who is living with another man, and daughter, Sara, he finds that the small island community regards him as a pariah.  He doggedly persists in reclaiming his life as a fisherman and father with the help of a veteran fisherman, Popper.  We watch as he learns that his own father, now dead, turned against him.  Popper tells a story about how his father, once Popper’s best friend, needed to be the dominate fisherman on the island, even to the point of trespassing on Popper’s territory.  When Eban asks what Popper did, he replies that he simply took his traps and moved.  Eban asks how he could do that, and Popper replies that it wasn’t worth getting into a fight, and that he and his wife had lived a quiet, happy life.  “You earn your peace by the sacrifices you make,” he says,”and not anything less.”

That line struck me, and I found myself thinking about it all the next day.” Sacrifice” comes from the Latin, “to perform sacred rites.”  The dictionary definition is the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable forthe sake of something considered as having a higher or morepressing claim.  In the context of the movie, a man had given up dominance and wealth in order to have a peaceful life.  When I was growing up, we were admonished to make sacrifices for Lent and to give our irritations and griefs up to God, as a way to give them purpose.  By forgoing candy, the idea was we would put God before our bellies, and by consciously giving our sorrows to God we were transforming them.  As I’ve grown older, the stakes have grown higher, and it seems that I can be dragged kicking and screaming through suffering, or I can understand that loss can be made sacred by the choice of how to bear it.  In our story, Popper could have lived a life of resentment or contention.  He may have seemed unnecessarily meek to some.  But he made a choice that peace and friendship trumped dominance.  Sacrifice implies the idea of conscious choice, of intention.  Eban has a choices to make.   Nothing can undo the past or the losses he’d endured, but by accepting that and refusing to operate out of a place of victimhood, he can become the father he wishes to be.  In the movie, Eben grows from a reactive, angry young man to a more vulnerable man, capable of love.

We tend to think of “sacrifice” as something unpleasant and negative, an atavistic trait of superstitious people.  Yet I wonder if the opposite is true.

 

 

Grief Work March 22, 2012

Filed under: Spirituality,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 5:34 pm
Tags: , , , ,

About a month ago, when I was just beginning to recover from Christmas, I got a call from my sister-in-law in Wisconsin.  She’d found a lump in her groin–not a good thing for a woman just two years out from major surgery for melanoma.  The next call confirmed her fears–it was a recurrence.  Her surgery was set for early the following week–an extensive and painful surgery, which left her weak, bed-ridden, and as hopeless as I’ve ever heard her.  The following week her lab report came back–no clear margins.  On the phone, she tearfully asked me “why?”  Already stricken with fibromyalgia, and the common lack of understanding about that by those around her, she had spent the better part of the year taking care of her mother with Alzheimer’s.  “Why?” she cried.   I had no answer.  She might not make it to the wedding, she had said, but she would try.  After I hung up, I walked around in a daze, a cold stone in my stomach.

The same week that her labs came back, I learned that my beloved aunt in Maine, who had just buried her husband, was diagnosed with inoperable cancer.  My beautiful, earthy, spirited aunt who grew blueberries and swam in finger lakes and taught me an awful lot about having an open heart.   Then came the call that it had gone into her bones.  Before she had time to process the shock of the first diagnosis, she had to make decisions about treatments, and come to terms with the short time she has left.  “It’s damn awful,”  she said over the phone.  I was glad she could say it.  She still had her moxie.  I hung up the phone, a jumble of memories surging up–of how she’d always been there, a steady loving presence.  Now there was a cold stone on my chest.

By then I was sodden with grief.  Just when I thought I could take no more, that my mind, my tissues could absorb no more,  I come home to my husband on the phone and overheard him saying, “Yes, I’ll have her call you back.  But be warned, she’ll probably be crying….”  “I’m here,” I said, lurching for the phone.  “It’s Lil’s son… not good news, honey.”  My dear friend, Ms. Lili, was dying.  I wasn’t surprised–she had been declining for the last two years.  In her late eighties, she’d lived a good, full life, and she would be the last to consider her own passing a tragedy.  The sadness was all for me, for losing my “Jewish” mother, the one who thought I hung the moon, who called me darling, who once sent me an erotic love poem, saying if she was younger she would have given to her husband.  She often sat in my kitchen, drinking tea without sugar, “so I can taste the tea,” and eating my husband’s homemade cornmeal bread without butter, “so I can taste the bread.”  She supported me through rough years, when my illness and my husband’s heart condition, and the normal strains of life threatened to take us down.  She gave me prize-winning  day lilies, and never, ever lost her zest for life and her love of people.

I would like to tell you that I went straight to my journal to deal with my grief.  I did not.  I went straight to Tuesday Morning where I bought a red enameled braising pan I’d been eyeing, as well as unnecessary lemon soap, and skeins of moss green cashmere and silk yarn to add to my stash.  I went to the nail salon and got massaged.  I bought glossy magazines.  “Good, Mom, good,” my son Adam said, “that will make you feel better.”  I could not read a poem or write a line.  I stared at recipes from Provence and envisioned using my red pan to make rich and tender dishes.  I was buffeted by gusts of grief and gratitude, by memories, and a keen sense of the shortness of our time here.  I picked herbs, I cooked, I listened to Satie and Arvo Part. These things tethered me to the earth.  But I could not find language.  I could not find myself as I had been.

But that’s it, isn’t it?  We are not supposed to be as we had been.  A friend of mine used to say, “Life is real. Too bad.”  There is no distancing these losses, there is no denying them.  They are experienced in our bodies, they alter the narratives of our lives.    There is only the living through them, and that takes energy and being willing to say yes to this, even if it is not what I would have chosen.   Even if it means I lose the illusion of control.  I would like to think that Rumi’s poem applies here:

The way of love is not a subtle argument.
The door there is devastation.
Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
They fall, and falling, they’re given wings.

Next week I fly to Maine to say good-bye to my aunt.  I know nothing but that I hope to be present to her, as she has been to me all my life.  I hope to be given wings.


 

Heart Goals January 3, 2012

I was supposed to be writing down my goals and aspirations for the New Year, but I couldn’t focus. With the tsunami that is Christmas, I had stopped writing for several weeks.  In the aftermath, I came down with the flu.  For anyone else it would be a bothersome interruption to their “normal” life, but for me it was the threatened return to a prolonged state of invalid-hood.  How was I supposed to make plans, if I didn’t know from day to day what level of energy I had to work with?  Could I make one plan for well me, another for sick me, and then try to merge them?

The day before, as I struggled asthmatically to walk the dog a few blocks, I had met a friend jogging blithely down the street.  She’d stopped to chat, jogging in place, her cheeks rosy, her breath puffing energetically in the cold air.  She was training for a half-marathon, she said.  It had all started a year ago when she joined the WOW Boot Camp.  I should join! she said. It is so much fun! I muttered something about not being able, and she just laughed and said sure I could, I could do it more gently.  I thanked her and went on—how to tell her that too much exercise poisons my cells?  No point.  But it plunged me into a welter of envy, grief, despair that I was unprepared for, that I thought I’d dealt with and put to bed years earlier.  Here they were, leering at me with their ugly faces, their voices enumerating my bottomless inadequacies.

I dream that I join the bike group three of my friends are in. I tell Todd about my dream.  “Don’t even think about it,” he says, “besides, they’d resent you for slowing them down.”   It all pricked, hurt, felt raw.  I saw my friends passing me by in the grand parade of life, and it felt as if I were being punished for doing something terribly, terribly wrong.

I’ve been reading about having compassion for yourself, about holding your pain with tenderness.  So one day, driving across town by myself, I did as suggested, I put my hand on my heart and said, “I care about your pain,” over and over to myself, feeling pretty silly and mechanical.  But then a funny thing happened:  all those tears that I’d been holding back automatically, started up.  I had begun to feel as if I couldn’t cry; I hadn’t cried in so long. I would like to report that I had a good therapeutic cry, but I was driving to see someone who couldn’t handle a swollen, red-eyed me, so I sniffed the tears back.

I finally got back to my journal, feeling overwhelmed and inadequate.  I scribbled the usual frets and complaints and then wrote this sentence: “Old griefs had got her by the throat; she could not move.”  Ah, I thought, ah. I get no pass; there are no shortcuts.  I can teach about writing until the cows come home, but I have to do it.  Knowing is not enough, it is in praxis that the healing happens.  Even if it means encountering the old griefs, the ugly envies, the swampy despair.  Especially if means that.  Except, hand on heart, “I care about your pain.  Your pain is worthy of attention.”

Maybe this is my true goal for 2012.

 

Thanksgiving Panic November 23, 2011

Had a moment of panic in Trader Joe’s today.  By the very fact that I was in Trader Joe’s, the ultimate Bobo store, it would seem I’d have no reason to panic.  Yet I was overcome with “doing Thanksgiving.”  I want it to be lovely–the house beautiful, the food delicious, everyone relaxed.  But instead of rolling up my sleeves and getting to work, I want to crawl under a rock.  Even though Todd is a great cook, and I have help cleaning, I found myself oppressed by the distance between what I want and what I am able to do.  To add to that, I’m coming off a really tough treatment for CFIDS, which has left me dizzy and my digestive system a wreck.  How am I going to pull this off?  How am I going to be the relaxed, gracious hostess I want to be?  And then, to really crank up the misery, I think, my table will never be as elegant as my mother’s.  At my age, I will have failed Womanhood 101.  Again.

There is absolutely nothing to be done about myself in this state but to take a walk.  So I get out the leash and Maisie, my overweight labradoodle, is at the door.  We step out into an absolutely gorgeous fall day, unseasonably warm.  There is a light breeze and golden leaves eddy around me.  A Japanese maple blazes a deep red across the street.  I tell myself to just breathe, to be in the now.  Bombs aren’t falling, the earth isn’t trembling.   The holiday is supposed to be about thanks, you idiot, I tell myself.  And so I start saying thank you to the leaves, to the sky, to the clouds, to the heavy orange persimmons hanging from a neighbor’s tree (that I’d like to steal).  And it helps, a little.  Let go, I keep saying, let go.

Then I meet a grandfather strolling with his 5 month old granddaughter.  His wrinkled face is lit up like the trees.  I look at the baby, Elly, and she gazes back at me with enormous blue eyes.  She looks intently at me , and then smiles.  I feel like I’ve won the lottery. I continue on my walk, my step quickened.  I start to make my way towards a small park, and see an old friend checking her mail.  We stand and talk in the sunshine.  Her son is disabled, and has serious issues with his neck.  A former middle-school teacher, Marianne’s life now is largely that of a caretaker.  She tells me her sisters want her to have more of a life.  “But Taylor is my life,” she says.  Not the life she would have chosen, but the life she has.  I think of the book I’m reading, Radical Acceptance, and how she exemplifies the principle of accepting what is, rather than moving heaven and earth to make reality more to your liking. Marianne is funny as hell, too, and you don’t get that kind of funny when life has been a bed of roses.  “I’m convinced,” she says, “that life would be 100% better if I could lose weight.”  We laugh ruefully.  Who doesn’t believe that?

We part, fortified with hugs.  I start to make my way back.  The leaves swirl around me.  I do feel in the moment. For a moment.  I feel at peace, enjoying the sun and the breeze.  The moving leaves remind me of a movie we saw on Netflix several nights ago, Cherry Blossoms.    In it, a middle-aged man’s expectations are totally upended, but in the process, he is transformed from a grumpy, closed character, to a man with a fully human face, a face alive to the world, in all its glory and sorrow.  In the final scenes, cherry blossoms quivered and fell.  Watching this film, I felt a renewed sense of life’s beauty and mystery.

I would like to say that I have been able to maintain a sense of peace and calm and that also my house is picture perfect and my silver polished.  I have not.  I am hiding out in my study, hoping the elves will come. But as soon as I turn off this computer, I’m going in there and putting on some music and making my stuffing.  I hope I will look out at the falling leaves, and remember life is change.  Live only this moment.
I hope I remember to be grateful.

 

The Alchemy of Illness July 27, 2011

Miserable and, (though common to all) inhuman posture, where I must practise my lying in the grave, by lying still, and not practise my Resurrection, by rising any more.

 

–John Donne, Meditation lll Devotions upon Emergent Occasions,

 

Felled again by illness, I am advised to rest, the one thing I do not do well.

 

I was fine nine days ago, having managed a road trip and a two week family vacation fairly well.  I just had time to congratulate myself on that feat when the too-familiar tingling sensation that precedes a fever crept up on me.  I chose to ignore it, and the following day, I was struck by a more severe headache and chills.  By that night I was in full-blown distress—fever, chills, body racked by joint, muscle and skin pain.  My life dissolved into misery—I seeped in a nasty brew of worthlessness and self-laceration, the good of my life leeched away by pain and weakness. I felt alone, isolated by my pain, which, like a jealous lover, kept me all to Itself. It felt as if I were being punished for some grievous yet unknown sin.  It didn’t matter knowing my bodily integrity had been invaded an infectious agent. In the thick of illness, it felt as if I’ve been cast into a dark pit by some Malevolence.  It felt personal, and only the language of the Psalms seemed equal to expressing it.

 

Two days later, still ill, but upright, I was able to consider less feverishly that my illness was a course correction, that I was “off the mark,” which is how Buddhists think of sin.  Buddhists, it seems, look at illness as an opportunity for enlightenment, that the illness itself is he cure, not the affliction.  Even John Donne believed that in the symptoms of illness were the seeds of healing, if we could attend to them.  I am still working on this process of dialoging with my symptoms, but what interests me now is how I (and we) so often think of illness as a failure.  What if we didn’t, what if we simply accepted our illnesses as perhaps necessary time outs?

 

I’m reading Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, and he recalls his childhood illnesses almost fondly, and how they seemed to enhance both perception and imagination.  In his novel, The Gift, based on his early memories, he writes “Mother unhurriedly shakes the thermometer and slips it back into its case, looking at me as if not quite recognizing me, while my father rides his horse at a walk across a vernal plain all blue with irises.” (G, 33).  For Nabokov, we might imagine, illness gave his sensitive self time to process all the sensory information which, as a synesthete, bombarded him.  It gave him time to investigate his imagination.  Instead of diffusing his sense of self, it seemed to solidify it.

 

Another contemporary writer, the splendid Anthony Doerr, in his incredible short story, “Afterworld,” (The Memory Wall, Scribner) describes an elderly Jewish woman, Esther, who had, as a fifteen-year-old epileptic and an orphan, escaped the Holocaust.  In the story, she is saved from the ovens by a doctor who saw value in her.  Despite the accusations hurled at her that she should be “put away,” that her illness rendered her worthless, in-valid, it was this very illness that gave her a unique sensitivity which the doctor recognized and valued. Now, in her eighties, the epilepsy and hallucinations that both plagued her and gave her great imaginative riches, are no longer controlled by medicine.  In the present time, she is being taken care of by her grandson, Robert. “In Ohio seizures flow through Esther….The seizures no longer seem to impair her consciousness so much as amplify it….Maybe, she tells Robert, during her clearest moments, a person can experience an illness as a kind of health.  Maybe not every disease is a deficit, a taking away.  Maybe what’s happening to her is an opening, a window, a migration….”

 

Kat Duff, in her classic The Alchemy of Illness, also speaks about illness as an alchemical transformation that offers the sufferer an opportunity to engage deeply in spiritual processes. She quotes Paracelsus, a renowned physician and alchemist of the sixteenth century:  “Decay is the beginning of all birth…the midwife of very great things!”

 

No one chooses to be ill.  And I certainly hope to regain some degree of health.  Yet here it is, and I do have a choice in how to address this illness, how to imagine it, how to engage with it.

bed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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