Word Medicine

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

Listening to the Other January 12, 2017

We are our stories

We think we know people, but we don’t know anyone until we know their stories.

We all have our unconscious biases—maybe not against Muslims, Jews or Blacks, but maybe against Southerners, Republicans or white people.

wooden-models

My family is Irish. Generations of oppression shaped a certain reactivity, clannishness and defensiveness regarding the wealthy. We were certainly never privileged—we are hardworking, studious people. My parents were each the first in their families to go to college, something we never took for granted. As Catholic transplants to the South, we didn’t have an easy time of it. Walking to our integrated Catholic school (Catholic mission schools integrated long before public schools), we had to run the gauntlet of the neighborhood boy throwing stones at us, yelling “dance, nigger-lovers, dance.”

So imagine my surprise when, at a West Coast Writers’ Conference, the black woman assigned to room with me mounted a vocal protest over having to room with a white Southerner. When I tried to tell her my story, she glared at me, stony-faced, and then left the room in a huff.  In her eyes I was the Enemy. Period.  It was disorienting and shocking, and later, funny.

I’m as guilty as anyone, much as I hate to admit it. My family prized looks and fitness, and, although I rebelled against that, I can be almost unconsciously dismissive of slovenliness. I value clear thinking and am impatient with stupidity. And so it goes, a little ticker-tape of approval, disapproval, just barely registering.

But all that changes when we listen to each others’ stories.  In a hospital waiting room, I overhear a woman I might have dismissed talk with a friend about her grown son’s addiction, about whether she will have to throw him out of the house, and where he might end up. I recognize the anguish in her quavering voice, a recognition that closes the distance between us. In line at the crowded grocery store before a snowstorm, a grizzly man in cap and overalls, talks with his clearly aging mother. He reassures her he is bringing wood over before the storm, tells her she is welcome to stay with him. He must repeat himself 4 times at least, each time with patience and tenderness. These instances repeat as I go through my day, leaving me humbled. With each encounter, my stereotypes shatter a little, my wonder increases.  I begin to see people with stereoscopic vision—as three dimensional, not just one thing.

We are all full of contradictions. And in these dire times, in our political climate, it is so easy to reduce people to one or two obvious characteristics. We do it out of fear, mostly.  Instead of doing that, as a dear friend of mine teaches, we can approach each other with curiosity, compassion and courage.

I’m working on it.

 

 

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The Sense of an Ending September 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

 X

by Wendell Berry

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

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

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

covertts

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

 

 

 

 

 

State of Mind May 30, 2016

Filed under: The Art of Ficition,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 8:27 pm
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I learned a lot from my friend Cecily Gill, who died this spring at a good old age.

We used to paint together during her long convalescence.  I was the last in a long tradition of amateur painter–nieces, friends, granddaughters–who tromped off into the woods of Maine to paint with Cess. Only, we didn’t tromp—she could barely traverse the few yards from bed to dining room table. I’m only a middling artist, but I treasure the times we spent together painting. I learned not from her direction, because she gave very little, but from her presence. When painted, she was in conversation with the canvas, totally absorbed.  A kind of full stillness descended a vibration of peacefulness alive with movement. I too was able to drop into my work, too. When I got stuck, I would ask her for help, which she gave in a direct, no no-nonsense way, with a large helping of encouragement.(I come from a family of artists, so my standards are high and my confidence low.) When we would talk about the paintings afterwards, I was struck by how she acted as if she was as much a participant in the process as a creator. Sometimes she would shake her head with wonder and stare at her painting, saying, “Hmm, what is it?” It was as if her paintings surprised and sometimes delighted her as much as anyone else. Her openness to process and her willingness to go into the unknown, wrestle with it and come out with something—whatever it is.

From Cess, I learned to trust the drop down into myself and be safe there. The process of writing is not unlike that of visual art. Jim Harrison, the author of many books, including The Woman Lit by Fireflies, who also died this spring, has this to say about the process of writing: “….I feel absolutely vulnerable, and recognize it’s the best state of mind for a writer….your mind feels a rush of images and ideas. You have acquired humility by accident. Feeling bright-eyed, confident and arrogant doesn’t do this job, unless you are writing the memoir of a narcissist. You are far better off being lost in your work and writing over your head. You don’t know where you are as a point of view unless you go beyond yourself….”  (from The Ancient Mariner).

“….unless you go beyond yourself.”  The desire to create comes from a longing to not only go into yourself, but also beyond yourself.  The intense effort, the willingness to not know, to offer yourself openly, to be surprised, to make a fool of yourself, to fail or not fail, and to be OK with either, and consider the time well-spent—that is what I learned from Cess.

The last time I spoke with Cess, I told her how her paintings made me calm and happy. “Magic,” she said, her eyes shining, acknowledging their mysterious provenance.

gill

 

 

Leave the Critic at the Door April 30, 2015

Dear Readers,

I am sorry for the long delay between posts, but I am excited to tell you about my new website at www.saratbaker.com. It has been retooled to reflect new workshops my partner, Jan Turner, and I are offering in the Athens area. Please take a look at it!  I’m also happy to report recent publications in The Intima, www.theintima.org, a literary journal which has grown out of the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University,an essay in China Grove Journal, and a short story coming out in May in Confrontation, a literary journal.

Now to the post, which is about process. I read recently that Elizabeth Bishop sometimes took years to finish her poems, which gave me great hope. I often start a poem with gusto, but find that I lose the thread, especially if I think too much! Ray Bradbury once said, “Don’t think. It kills creativity.” I think there is truth to this, although I might phrase it,“Wait to think.”  Wait until you are deeply involved in the process before looking at a piece critically.

I try, whether in a story or poem, to get a quick sketch down in one sitting, or at least, in the case of a story, a good nugget. Right now I’m in the middle of story, which was interrupted by a bad cold, family obligations, and life in general. Now I am struggling to finish at least one draft. My rule is not to chuck anything until I get through one draft. But the temptation has been to chuck it, as in the “cooling off” period, I see all its flaws. Furthermore, I’ve been making a study of the writer Gina Berriault, and after reading her incredible story, “The Diary of K.W.,” which is as perfect a story as I’ve ever read. (If you don’t know her work, you should.)  But my rule is to finish one draft, and to do this I have to go back into the dream of the story, and leave my critical faculties behind. I think we read out of the same impetus as children explore abandoned houses. We are looking for something numinous, although we are not sure what. We write for the same reason, and to cut ourselves off from the dream too early, to try to make it conform to this or that criteria, can kill it.

I am proud of my critical faculties, which I’ve worked hard to attain. And it would be  easy at this point in the process to swoop in and destroy this embryonic story because it is so lacking. But there was something that urged me to start it, and I want to honor that. Its problems will, I hope, force me to grow as a writer, even if it fails in the end. That is part of the process. Isak Dinesen said, “I write a little every day, without too much hope or too much despair.”

So I’m working on non-attachment to my work, attempting to approach the work lightly, with curiosity instead of fear.  And waiting until I’m good and ready to invite the critic in.

 

Why Write? September 1, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Appearance and Reality February 28, 2012

Filed under: Stories — saratbaker @ 5:20 pm
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A story is just what happens.  One thing after the other.

The day before Valentines Day, my friend Susie’s mom, Cessie, collapsed.  Susie’s voice on the phone, tremulous, “Do you have any time to come over?”  I went to find Cessie on the kitchen floor propped up against the fridge. The cold gray light of February fell over her. She gave me a wan smile, her brown eyes rueful.  Her color was pretty good.  I sat on the kitchen floor with her, eating oranges.  Then we managed to her her scooted on a towel to the living room, where she struggled mightily and finally was able to sit on the couch.  Susie was in turns, loving, playful, angry.  Who can blame her?  Cessie was brave and dignified, despite it all.  Despite being seen in all her vulnerability.

Then I went to physical therapy, where, as I waited, I saw a girl with heavy makeup scrolling through her iPhone, slumped in a chair, looking bored.  I gave her a sidelong glance–the usual clientel here is over 50.  I wondered at her make-up, so masklike-and tedious to apply, and heavy eyeliner seemed to be making a comeback. Why, I thought?  I’d never been able to master the stuff.  I realized I’d left home  without a swipe of powder or lipstick….oh well. I was called in for my treatment, and when it was over, I walked through a room where I saw the girl again, on her knees, fastening a young man’s prosthetic lower leg.  She finished, and lovingly smoothed his khakis and rose.  The two of them turned their beautiful smooth young faces to the exit.  He walked just fine, no one would have suspected his foot was missing.  They looked whole, young, insouciant.

Then I went to get Valentine cards.  I can’t stand for very long–something called orthostatic intolerance–and yet I did, growing fainter and fainter.  I finally scored a great card for my son, and an acceptable one for myhusband.  But while I was doing this, a young white woman wearing a red Kroger apron, read cards to a young black man with braided hair, chains, and carefully slouchy rapper clothes.  She questioned him gently on the kinds of sentiments he’d like.  He glanced around nervously, gestured with his hand, mumbled something I couldn’t hear.  She plucked a few more cards, “Okay, let’s try this,” she said, reading aloud the corny sentiments.    Then a large black man in a wheelchair rolled by, dressed all in red, including a red baseball cap and stopped to look for cards.  An older white woman, the pleasant kind of older woman no one notices, stood looking for cards.  She excused herself to walk around the black man, and began to talk with him about her husband, who was also in a wheelchair.  The two of them bantered, with loud peals of laughter coming from the man, the older woman  holding her middle and saying, “that’s so true, darling, you know.”   Finally she sayed, “Well, God bless you,” as he turned to leave, leaving him giggling.

And so it goes.  I thought about the assumptions we make about other people, and how they are almost always wrong.  I thought of Cessie’s dignity and Susie’s fortitude, and of how easily I had dismissed the fiercely casual young woman.  I though about the signals our presentation sends, whether heavy make-up or none, a gangsta outfit, or a bright red baseball cap, of how we put our armor on to step out into a hostile world, only to find, at least in the card aisle at Kroger  the day before Valentines–it isn’t that hostile at all.

 

The Dream of Art November 17, 2011

Whenever I find a quote that strikes me, I write it on a sticky note and put it on my computer.  Needless to say, sometimes my computer looks like it is decorated for Mardi Gras!  Here is one that I especially like, by the poet Louise Gluck: “The dream of art is not to assert what is already known, but to illuminate what has been hidden, and the paths  to the hidden world are not inscribed by will.”

There are so many ways this quote sustains me and grounds me.   I need to be reminded that “The dream of art”  is not my dream alone.  It is a Tao, a way, a practice, that I am entering into.  It is an everflowing river that I can swim in, but can never encompass.  To engage in art is both an intensly individual act, and yet not an entirely personal one.  This both delights and relieves me.  It relieves my ego and my art of having to be GREAT!  A dream has its own autonomy.  We are not responsible for which images our dreams throw onto the shores of consciousness.  We are only responsible for working with them when they appear.  Similarly, the work has its own autonomy.  We can’t predict where it will take us.  We can only show up, ready to participate. At its best, to practice an art is to be always on the tipping point between mastery and mystery.

“….not to assert what is known, but to illuminate what has been hidden.”  Dreams often show us what we have been unable to look at it in our waking lives; similarly, a poem or story may reveal what we didn’t know we knew. Or what we may need to attend to: an imbalance, an untended sorrow, a hidden yearning for wholeness.  And, I think, the commitment to pay attention, to permit oneself to go into the darkness, and to suffer the loss of illusions, can provide a boon not only for the individual, but for the community.  When I listened to Robert Pinksy read his elegiac poems last year, I was reminded not only of the very real loss of cultures and languages that he addressed, but also that in articulating those losses, he was retrieving something for those who heard the poems.   We were gifted with an awareness of what was of value, of what to attend to.

“….and the paths to the hidden world are not inscribed by will.”  Despite our belief in the supremecy of will, the truth is we can not create an agenda to find the hidden world.  Once we think we know the path, it changes.  As writers, we can work on our craft, we can show up, but there is no guarantee our work will “live.”  How often the truly inspired prompting comes in the middle of doing something else, when the determined effort to get it right fails!  To find the hidden paths requires a continual opening of ourselves, as in meditation, to what is.  We may have an intention when we begin a poem or story, but we have to be willing to follow where the work leads us, without knowing the outcome.  It is often those works we enter into with less confidence than take on a “life of their own.”

So, where does this leave us, as writers and facilitators?  We live in a culture that valorizes certainty and will.  Hitching our wagons to the star of art suddenly looks like a dubious enterprise.  Or does it?  Maybe it instead it is an exciting, inexhaustable enterprise, one that teaches us to find our growing edges and learn to be dance partners to uncertainty and change.

For a wonderful and humorous take on the “uncertainty principle” of writing, check out Chuck Tripi’s post “Notes from NJ-#5)  http://haydensferryreview.blogspot.com/

 

 
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