Word Medicine

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

Put To the Test March 28, 2011

I was thrilled last week to find that I am a commended poet in the 2011 Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine.  All poems will be included in an anthology which can be pre-ordered on this site: http://go.warwick.ac.uk/cpt/poetry/symp/The awards for commended poets and other awards are due to be made by the judges Broadcaster Mark Lawson, former Welsh National Poet Gwyneth Lewis, and leading GP Professor Steve Field on the afternoon of the International Symposium on Poetry and Medicine on Saturday, 7th May at the University of Warwick campus.

I wrote “Lumbar Puncture” after a frightening episode with a visual migraine that lasted over six weeks.  When the tests showed a slight shadow on my brain, the doctor wanted to check for MS.  I wanted to express the physical vulnerability of the test and radical spiritual destabilization that I experienced while I waited for the results.  If I lost these functions, who would I be?  Luckily, the test was negative, and I wasn’t put to the test.

Lumbar Puncture

 

I laugh while they do the puncture,

keeping up a steady stream of one-liners:

“Whiskey is my preferred pain killer” and

“don’t worry, if it hurts, you’ll know–

The whole place will know.”

I’m good at entertaining.

 

Relax, the doctor says.

Chris, the nurse, has her hands on me.  They are warm.

I think of my dog at the vet’s, her eyes darting, frantic.

I am all animal, knees to chest.

The doctor counts my vertebrae.

I think of spare ribs, I think

of making a joke.

 

Chris shows me the four vials of spinal fluid.

Clear, like water,

but full of meaning some bio-magician will decipher,

predicting my future:

a gradual loss of muscle control,

wheelchairs, and being fed

like a child, or not—

just some anomaly in the brain,

this shadow, this lesion.

 

My husband reads an article, “The End of Physics?”

I glance at it, eyes glazing.

The world is full of mysteries

I do not understand.

I understand his passion,

but I don’t care

where the atoms are in the box.

Do you feel the energy?  my PT says, and

I do.  I feel the colors of my chakras;

sunlight makes sense to me,

dogs wrestling in it.

 

The part of my brain with the shadow on it

houses memory, language, emotions,

each function a Tarot card waiting to be turned.

Will I learn to understand physics without them?

 

St. Augustine had a dream.  In it a small boy

tried to empty the ocean into his bucket.

The dream, the saint said, was a metaphor

for trying to grasp God with our minds.

 

The world is full

of mysteries.

 

The world is full.

 

4/2010

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

La Vida January 26, 2011

Filed under: Chronic Illness,Spirituality — saratbaker @ 6:52 pm
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Today is cold and blustery.  The rain finally gave out after almost twenty-four hours.  I woke in the night to hear it pelting angrily at the roof and windows, and I hoped our hundred year old house would not spring any new leaks.  This morning there were a few last hiccups of rain, and then scudding low gray clouds.  I couldn’t pull myself out of bed for my exercise class, whether because of the lingering virus Todd and I have been passing back and forth, or the exhaustion that is always at my elbow, ready to take over.  All my pretty plans evaporated.  It would be a day of letting what would be, be.

Thankfully, G., our Peruvian housekeeper came after missing a week because of snow.  The house was beginning to turn into a monster, making me feel even more out of control, so I looked forward to her ministrations as I always do.  G. came to me  over a decade ago, in the midst of the worst of my illness, when I could barely stand up.  The first time I was supposed to meet her, I drove all around town, losing my way.  I was still so sick with fibro fog that I couldn’t navigate the town I had grown up in.  When we finally did meet up in the parking lot of a video store, there stood this young, beautiful woman.  She did wonderful work, but even more than that, over the years, we have shared all the ups and downs of “La Vida”, including teenage children, stubborn husbands, the deaths of those close to us–all in an animated Spanglish.  She is such a bright presence, laughing over the animals’ antics, enthusiastically rearranging the furniture, conferring over various domestic decisions.  I call her my angelita.

Today she told me about her talented, impetuous son, a musician studying film Atlanta.  At twenty, he is living at home to save money, but he also wants to live as if he were independent. She feels he is in danger of failing the school they have borrowed money to pay for. He is in a relationship they feel is distracting him from his responsibilities. I have watched  G. and her husband work hard to become legal, sacrificing their own comforts to give their two children every opportunity in this country.  We shake our heads and shrug.  La Vida.

The door bell rings and it is B., our itinerant yard man.  He stands there dripping wet in his jacket.  The trees toss wildly in the wind; it is freezing. “Sara, do you have any work?”  I know that he has probably walked miles from the other side of town in this god-awful weather, to earn a few bucks.  He tells me his pension hasn’t come in yet, he just needs to eat.  We have a long history, B and me.  I’ve long given up the idea that things will change for him, an idea I worked hard to help realize in the first twenty years of our acquaintanceship.  I was encouraged at Christmas–things seemed to be getting better for him, he was going to school to learn to read (he has a learning disability) and he was going to church, trying to “get himself together.”  But he came by a few days ago and he had been drinking.  This is how it goes.  Today, I had  little money and  little work, but enough.  The overgrown dead plants in my garden needed cutting back, a chore that I’d put off.  I had just been thinking yesterday that the garden looked raggedy, that I wish B. would come by.  And here he was.

Tired as I was, I knew I’d feel better if I got out and walked.  Besides, I hate the guilt of shorting my dog on her walks.  The air was bracing, and it felt good to be out walking, moving through world.  The light played over the streets and trees and houses the way it does often at the ocean, patches of illumination giving way to shadow.  A flock of starlings landed in the bare branches of an oak.  The air smelled clean from all the rain.

Walking, I though of our priest’s sermon, how he always remembers the poor, admonishing us to reach out to those who have less than us.  I’ve noted on my blog before  Nancy Mairs, poet and essayist, saying that “all persons have abundances and all have lacks….your abundance may fill someone’s lack, which you are moved to fill….”  This remains one of my touchstones.  To me, G. and B. and I are all poor, in our own ways.  G and B perform physical task for me and I give them money.  But there is so much more to the transactions than these simple facts.  There are years of trust, loyalty, mutual regard.  So on a day when I am keenly feeling my own lacks, I am also feeling my keenly my abundance.

 

 

 

The Long Way Home January 5, 2011

Yesterday, I took our Karen refugee mother and her two youngest children to the county health department.  Our church is involved in resettling Karen refugees.  I had known nothing about the Karen, their long battle for independence in Myanmar, their brutal experiences at the hands of the Burmese, or their lives in Thai refugee camps until my son met this family of six through our youth group.  I’m not sure who adopted who, but Adam loved the warm, lively children and when the church asked for volunteers to help refugees transition to life in America, in Athens, we signed up.  The mother, whom I will call Rose, is thirty, only five years older than my daughter, Hannah.  Over the past several weeks, although her English is rudimentary, she has shared with me stories and photos of her life lived mostly in a Thai camp: she has buried one husband, one infant daughter, and both parents.  She has two older boys by her first husband, and two by her second husband.  She is very proud of her husband–he speaks English fairly well and went through eleventh grade.  She herself has no schooling, but she is quick-witted and exudes such warmth that Adam calls her “A bundle of love.”  She loves America, because she has a floor, warmth, safety.  In the camps, her children were always dirty because of the dirt floors.  They were cold because of the bamboo huts. They were hungry because of lack of food.  They had no hope for the future, no possibilities.

So, the health department.  I had to take her for her birth control, which meant that I left Adam in the waiting room with the four and two-year old children.  Using pantomime and simple English, I had to ask some very personal questions, like “When was the last time you and your husband had sex?” which I demonstrated with my hands coming together. She got it, answering with great dignity, looking straight ahead.  She is so gentle and soft-spoken, I just winced at this invasion of her privacy.  As we waited in the women’s waiting room, there was some conversation, but much silence.  At one point, she turned to me, and said, “Teacher, I no like fat.”  She gestured to her belly, her face sorrowful.  In the photos she had shared, she had been very thin and youthful.  Still pretty, she has put on a lot of weight with all the food and kinds of food available here.  I asked her if she exercised, or walked.  She shook her head, no, she said “Eat, sleep, children.  Sometime walk to Piggly Wiggly with Sunny.”  She giggled when she said Piggly Wiggly and I did too.  We talked about getting a stroller so she could walk the youngest one.  Her comment was a small glimpse into her world, her feelings, something that made her an individual, not merely a “refugee mother.”  I hated it for her, this so American struggle with weight, this estrangement from our bodies.

We waited and waited for her to be seen .  We both stared at the video monitor, featuring a documentary on the Rockdale County sex scandals.  The video showed people in church, at prayer.  Rose said, “praying!” in her soft, lilting voice.  I nodded, but what the video showed was how a certain kind of fundamentalist Protestant Christianity had failed this Southern community, and maybe contributed to the incredibly depraved sexual behaviour of the county’s teens.  It showed how there was an emptiness at the core, a kind of ennui, which pulled the children into extreme sex and drug experimentation.  The experts also commented on the parents’ complete disconnect with their children, their disbelief, their denial that such things could happen to their children.  The children interviewed talked about long hours alone at home, free to do what they liked.  The camera panned on the upper middle class suburb, the large brick McMansions with their huge yards, the SUVs and Hummers parked in the drives, everything pristine, perfect, shiny.  But no people.  Big bright suburban emptiness.

I thought back to the birthday party/prayer meeting I had attended at one of the Karen homes.  The whole community seated on the floor, listening respectfully to the preacher, even the youngest child attentive, well-behaved.  Their beautiful singing, the openness and generosity between them.  I didn’t understand the words, but I understood that this was something special.  Their strong and vital faith has seen them through years of deprivation, but will it survive our materialistic culture?  How will their community handle our emphasis on the individual?  Already the children are becoming more fluent, not only in English, but in the culture.  Adam told me the four-year old is so smart, he even knows the mother of all curse words, which he picked up from the older boys.  I think of how Rose is with her kids, naturally authoritative, never raising her voice, gentle but firm.  It is enviable, her naturalness.  I don’t want that to change for them.  How will she find her way in this new world as a mother, as a woman?

Rose is finally seen. We pick up the boys and go into the children’s vaccination room for another long wait.  The room is crowded with a Chinese family and several Hispanic families.  There is a huge National Geographic map on

the wall, and we show Rose and the children were Burma is.  Rose tells how it took four planes to get to Georgia–one to Japan, from there to California, then to Colorado, then to Georgia.  “Long way,” she says, smiling wearily at the map.  Her youngest has fallen asleep in her arms. The four-year old is speaking and gesturing rapidly in Karen, pointing to places on the map and making up stories.  Maybe he is making up the story of their plane ride, or of the adventures he will have in the world as a Power Ranger.  I look around the room at the weary parents, at the dark-eyed children shyly smiling,  at my tired, bored fair-haired boy.  I wonder–what maps, what stories will lead us–all of us– home?

 

Take Off The Wheel December 6, 2010

Filed under: Spirituality,stress,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 5:54 pm

I was in Walmart yesterday, a place I visit  infrequently.  I was on the way home from my CFIDS doctor in Atlanta, and thought I’d pop in and get a new pair of jeans. The advertisement in the  Oprah magazine had worked its magic and I was sure that with this pair of jeans I would look slimmer for the holidays.  I walked in through the garden section, hoping to pick up some pansies while I was there. Alas, there was nothing alive in the garden section but Christmas trees. Inside, instead of fertilizers and garden tools, were shelf after shelf of artificial trees and decorations– everything red, green and blue tinsel, or gold sparkles.  Next to the seasonal decorations was the toy section, the shelves stacked high to the ceiling with bright boxes.  Christmas music blared, relentlessly upbeat.

I am very fortunate that because of my illness, I don’t have to do much big-box shopping, and so I forget what it is like.  Even before my illness, I felt overwhelmed by large stores. Now, they seem like a peculiar form of torture.  What struck me perhaps more than anything this time were the stressed faces of the shoppers and workers.  If I had landed here from another planet I might think the inhabitants of this one were all suffering from a peculiar disease that destroyed peace of mind, that gnawed at them constantly from the inside.  Exhaustion seemed to permeate the place– the pressure of the holidays,and  the economic uncertainty people are living with.  Is it worth it, though, all these choices, all this stuff, is it worth it?  I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Sometimes I think we’ve all gone mad, the pace of life becoming more and more frenetic.  Especially this time of year.  I find that I am out of step with my world –while everyone else is partying, going to concerts, or shopping, I am holding on for dear life to an attempt to observe Advent.  My understanding of Advent–of expectant waiting– has deepened over the years, from the time of gathering straws for the Baby Jesus in my childhood, to an inner prompting to engage with my doubts, losses and fear, but also with my longings, my hopes.  But to do that I need time, I need solitude.  I need to clear the muck out of my head so I can hear that still, small voice.  So, as much as I love partying and concerts and shopping, I find myself saying no a lot.

Gertrud Mueller Nelson, in her wonderful book about family ritual, “To Dance with God,” describes where our tradition of the Advent wreath comes from.  “Pre-Christian peoples who lived far north and who suffered the archetypal loss of life and light with the disappearance of the sun had a way of wooing back life and hope….As the days grew shorter and colder and the sun threatened to abandon the earth, these ancient people suffered the sort of guilt and separation anxiety which we also know.  Their solution was to bring all ordinary action and daily routine to a halt.  They gave in to the nature of winter, came away from their fields and put away their tools.  They removed the wheels from their carts and wagons, festooned them with greens and lights and brought them indoors to hang in their halls.They brought the wheels indoors as a sign of a different time, a time to stop and turn inward.”

None of us would like to return to ancient times, but Ms. Nelson challenges us  to imagine how our lives might be changed if were were to literally remove just one wheel from our cars: “Indeed, things would stop.  Our daily routines would come to a halt and we would have the leisure to incubate….Having to stay put, we would lose the opportunity to escape or deny our feelings or becomings because our cars could not bring us away to the circus in town.”

Even with an illness that offers time out from many of the demands of life, I wrestle with honoring both the inner life and the outer life.  There are a 1001 distractions available; the circus in town is now available on your iPod. Everything is instant–instant photos, instant emails, constant access. But the problem with all of this instant connection is that we don’t have the slow pacing, the space between, to actually contemplate a photo, or to carefully select our words in a message.  There is a frenetic urgency to our lives that is hard to resist.

I haven’t taken the wheel off my car yet.  I still have to do that shopping.  But I’m seeking out the space between.

 

The Rest of the Story July 5, 2010

Filed under: Spirituality,trauma,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 5:57 pm
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I am trying to find the woman who saved my life a year ago.

Just when you think you have “processed” a trauma, you find out, you’ve only just begun.

I called the EMT unit on Duck, N. C.  I thought they might have her name as she was a witness.  The fellow said it was unlikely, and it would take about a week, but he’d look it up.  He said they try to keep all that information confidential. I said I understood, and I would give them permission to give the woman my name, but that I very much wanted to tell her the rest of the story.  That seems important to me.  If she hadn’t seen me, if she hadn’t run into the water with her clothes on, if she hadn’t sent her mother to get the lifeguard, another large wave would have taken me out and that would have been that.  Instead–out of all the hundreds of people partying on that beach last July Fourth–she saw me and saved my life.  Not only that, but she allowed herself into my pain.  When she came to me, I grabbed her hard and cried, “please don’t leave me.”    She looked right into my eyes and said she wouldn’t leave me.  And she didn’t

My daughter said that when they loaded me into the ambulance, a woman who matched her description  had been at the ambulance door, weeping.  As terrible as it was for me, it was also painful for her to be wrenched out of her celebrations, her relaxing beach vacation, her sense of  “all’s right with the world.”  I hope she had a good stiff drink that night.

As I explained to the EMT what happened and why I wanted to contact her, I started crying.  It all came back, that feeling of vulnerability, of pain, of complete and utter helplessness.  Everything I haven’t allowed myself to feel as I focused on each small step of my recovery. Every time I’ve mentioned it this week, the same thing happens.  It is as though, as a friend suggested, my body had to heal and become strong enough to experience all these emotions.  I write about trauma, for pete’s sake, I should know what to expect.  But it is taking me by surprise.  What I had taken as strength seems to have been postponed grief.  But this feels like good grief, as if my tears are finally re-hydrating me, the way a summer storm revives the earth, clears the air.

If I find her, this is what I will tell her: that on the one-year anniversary of my accident, I sang in the choir, and that the psalm for the day was Psalm 30,

“O LORD my God, I called to you for help
and you healed me.

3 O LORD, you brought me up from the grave [b] ;
you spared me from going down into the pit….

You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy…”

I will tell her that my son asked me to play tennis after church, and I was able to do it.  I will tell her that after our tennis game we went swimming. I will tell her that I am taking the tango lessons I’ve always dreamed of taking.  I will tell her that I went to a cook-out last night surrounded by old friends.  I will tell her that I’m beginning to write again.  And yes, it was a hard year, wearing a body brace for six months, unmitigated pain, that I was often  impatient with the slow process, that I sickened of the color of our bedroom wall, of having to sleep in a hospital bed.  I will tell her it isn’t over, the pain is still there, but it is nothing compared to the joys that surround me.  Nothing compared to the knowledge I have of how precious each day is, of how deeply I am loved.

I hope I find her. I have so much to thank her for.                 madeira beach

 

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.  

 

A New Heart November 28, 2009

Two weeks ago, a young woman who had been my daughter’s friend since early grade school, leapt to her death off her apartment building.  She was part of a  group of friends who  had stayed together through high school, experiencing an almost idyllic stability unusual in today’s world.  They were mostly children of academics, highly talented, bright, beautiful, funny.  They went to prestigious universities, garnering accolades, and all seemed well, until a year and a half ago when one of “the friends,” class president at UNC, was dragged from her apartment and brutally murdered one night.  Her death had become the defining moment of their lives, which are now divided between Before Eve and After Eve.

This new death has only reopened the not-yet-healed wound.  Whether the new death was a result of a manic high, of hidden despair or stress, we will never know.  All that is know is that is vibrant, loving, funny and gorgeous young woman who had been a part of all our lives, is no longer with us. Why, the young women keep asking each other and us, their mothers, why?

We are drivinheartg to the cemetery.  I am sitting in the front with one of the other mothers, and two of the daughters in the back seat, although not my daughter, who is in another car full of her friends.  We are trying to untangle the events that led up to the unimaginable, as if by parsing it out, we could lessen the hurt.  My friend begins to weep, recalling her own mother’s death when she was twelve.  Every new, tragic death, it seems, resurrects the old ones, makes them fresh, raw.  Then one of the girls brings up how she had been very depressed and how a river near her house had saved her.  “No joke,” she said, “I know that sounds weird but I swear that the river saved me.  I would just go and sit by it all the time and finally the depression just went away.”  The other young woman recounts how depressed she was in high school, and how one day she threw all her belongings in the hall and slept with nothing in her room, like a self-flagellating monk.  I told them the story of being their age, twenty-three, and flying home, angry and depressed. A middle-aged man next to me offered some kind words to me, and I rebuffed him coldly.  How could he offer such easy kindness?  He was obviously unenlightened, some soft bourgeoisie.  I was an intellectual girl, all right, I could deconstruct a text and situation with the best of them, little noticing that once you shred everything down to its finest units, you are left with very little.  I had an uneducated heart.

What can we offer our children in their moment of great need?  We can’t get to the bottom of these deaths–tragedies and mysteries beyond our comprehension, suffering almost too hard to physically bear.  Brought down myself by illness in the face of this latest loss, I happened to pick up the wonderful book by Kat Duff, The Alchemy of Illness.  I turned randomly to a page, and this is what I read:  “The Nahuatl peoples believed that we are born with a physical heart, but have to create a deified heart by finding a firm and enduring center within ourselves from which to lead our lives, so that our hearts will shine through our faces, and our features will become reliable reflections of ourselves.Otherwise, they explained, we wander aimlessly through our lives….”  She goes on to suggest that the sufferings we endure, physically and emotionally, by being consciously borne, can open us up and soften us. By offering our suffering as a sacrifice, we can “heal by resuscitating our hearts.”  “In our hearts, which many native peoples consider to be the seat of true intelligence, we discover the simple capacity to feel our losses, sorrow, and shame, and have compassion.”

We educate our children’s minds, but we often abandon the education of their hearts and souls.  There is nothing we can do to bring these wonderful young women back to us, and we can never answer the question “why?”  But we can offer the suggestion that their deaths are not in vain, if from our deep sorrow, we can grow new hearts. In the car that day, winding through the cemetery, we made a start.

 

Ruined October 5, 2009

The small yellow vase was a marvel. I spied it years ago at a local arts fair. It could fit into the palm of your hand, its body a fat perfect sphere, its neck slender, impossibly delicate, giving way to disk-like porcelain collar around an opening for just one tiny stem and bud. The glaze over the body was a delicious pale yellow mottled with white–buttery, happy, the wings of a butterfly.

Over the years, the vase has brought me joy in its tiny self-contained perfection. I treasure it. It, I suppose, became something more for me than an object d’art. Through all the years of illness, it stood in my bedroom as a reminder of something–of beauty, fragility, completeness. It was graceful the way a dancer’s line is –effervescent, hardly there, hardly anything, except sometimes, everything.

The other night, I happened to glance at it and see that something was wrong. To my horror ,the collar now had two jagged triangular gaps. By and large, I”m not too attached to things. Pottery and glasses get broken all the time at our house and I usually take them in stride. All the porcelain lamps have been glued and reglued. But somehow, the damage to the little pot got to me. I felt my heart race and I snatched it up and stomped into the TV room where my innocent husband was sprawled in front of Jay Leno. “Did you know about this!?” I hissed. He looked sheepish. He’d been fixing the blind in the bedroom and knocked it off the shelf. “it had been damaged before,” he said, “I couldn’t find the pieces this time.” I was filled with a seething rage; I felt like throwing the vase on the hearth tiles, smashing it into little pieces. I hated it! What good was it if it was broken? The whole beauty of it had been its perfection. It was ruined. Ruined! I couldn’t be put back together and it would never be the same.

I wept myself to sleep in my hospital bed.

The next morning, walking in the neighborhood, my neighbor Patty stopped and asked how I was. I found myself telling her it that it was a long, slow, hard recovery, and then I heard myself say, “I’ll never be the same; my spine will never be straight.” And I felt my eyes fill, my heart pound. Usually, I emphasize the positive–I’m alive, I’m not paralyzed. I’m not especially close to Patty, but for some reason, it came out. She said, “You know, you have to mourn it, there’s no way around it. You’ll go through all those stages of grief. You can’t hurry it up.”

Her words were a gift.

Well, I’m pretty good at fooling myself, but I guess I’ve worn out denial. I’ve tried bargaining–if I do my exercises, work, be exemplary, if I endure the pain, maybe I can preserve the illusion that I’ll be good as new someday, maybe I won’t have to mourn my losses: my strong back that I always relied on, my waistline, just the wonder of a body that despite CFIDS, despite asthma, would ride a bike, swim, garden,do yoga. All without too much consideration. I will heal, but I’ll never be the same, and I will probably never be pain free.

Geovanna, the woman who helps me with the house and with whom over the years, I’ve shared all the woes and joys of a woman’s heart in a motley but thoroughly lucid Spanglish, came up to me a few days ago holding the vase and two small pieces of white porcelain. “I know you love this,” she said, “maybe Mr. Todd can fix it for you.” She handed them to me, giving me a quick hug. Mr. Todd fixed it and put it on the shelf. You have to look for the cracks. I am very glad I didn’t smash it into pieces.

 

A Simple Bowl September 17, 2009

I’ve been trying to use what little energy I have recently to send out query letters to agents. It is a strange process, so divorced from the impetus and act of creating a piece of fiction. When writing fiction or poetry, I feel centered, for the most part, and alive and excited. I don’t feel any of those things when querying agents. Instead, I feel weighed down by the effort of selling myself, by a feeling that the whole process is somehow inauthentic, by the overwhelming odds against any writer, but especially one who has taken a long hiatus due to illness.

Yesterday, sitting in my physical therapist’s waiting room, I was fuming to my husband about a book I’d just finished reading that I found mediocre, despite sensational reviews. A thin, frail man walked in who looked vaguely familiar. It took me a moment, but then I recognized M.S., a wonderful potter who has been battling leukemia for many years now. Just that morning, I had put my strawberries in his lovely white and black bowl. The bowl has an asian flavor, with a pediment and steep conical sides. It has always given me a lot of pleasure, both the shape and the glaze: it is a perfect small bowl. It is a bowl I can imagine a Buddhist monk using.

M.S. looked up when my husband called his name. He came over and we exchanged greetings–my ever present body brace always providing a subject for conversation. Close up, I could see the sores on his skin, his sparse hair, his face puffy, no doubt from steroids. No matter how many years I’ve worked with cancer patients, the ravishing of the disease and the treatments is always a fresh shock. We asked after his wife, a painter, and he caught us up with her. There was a pause, and then he said, “and I guess I’m just a medical patient now.”

Such a simple statement, but such a painful one. For anyone, the loss of work is painful. For an artist, especially as finally tuned as M.S., it must be a cruel loss. One thinks of Beethoven descending into deafness, stubbornly composing in that silence, of Picasso, the old man, confronting the canvas until his last day. “Who can tell the dancer from the dance?” Making art transforms the maker, just as it transforms the material. It can be a solace, one I wished he still had.

I felt my eyes fill and I didn’t want him to see. Thankfully, I was called for my therapy session. Lying on the table, I felt keenly my own brokenness as well his, and I was washed over with the brevity of life. What I want, I thought, is to make stories as beautiful and functional as his bowls, stories to hold whatever fruit or emptiness the reader’s life needs contained. That is what I’d like to put in my query letter.

 

 
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