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.

 

 

 

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
Tags: , , , ,

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 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?

 

Our Storied World June 17, 2009

scan0117

Here is a wonderful and true story: A friend of mine, a visual artist, until recently worked at a charitable organization that was slowly dying due to the recession. My friend, let us call her Z., worked mostly with the Hispanic p0pulation, trying to help them navigate various social agencies, food banks, legal aid agencies. I’d often dropped by to visit her, and find her with a child on her lap, speaking to the mother in fluent Spanish, or helping a troubled teenage boy calm down by doing collages with him. Even as the agency’s funds dried up, my friend, who has no margin for error in her own slim finances, would often open her own wallet and give what little she had. She didn’t do it every time, but if she felt the person’s plight was truly awful, she explained that she did it to live with herself.

One day a young man wandered in. He’d had to drop out of school, he had no money, hadn’t eaten in a while, and couldn’t find a job, although he’d been looking. My friend gave what information she could, but she noticed a certain dullness in his eyes and recognized it for what it was–the dying of hope. She opened her wallet and gave him a twenty and he thanked her and left.

Not long afterwards, Z. was laid off from the organization. She went into a funk, hibernated and licked her wounds, then turned to the thing she knew would help her find her way. She got her paintings down from the attic, began to look at them again, began doing some new work. In the spaciousness of the her new days, she found herself making art. She’d applied for jobs, but none came through. Still, it wasn’t as if she had nothing….she began to slowly envision her self as a working artist. It was as if the Universe had conspired to get her back to her true work.

Still, one has to eat. She was downtown one afternoon and poked her head into a little Italian restaurant. It was close to the end of lunch service, and she was the only one in the restaurant. A young man came over to take her order. They looked at each other and she recognized the young man she’d given a twenty to. He said, “I know you,” and she smiled and acknowledged it, not wanting to embarrass him by reminding him of how they had met. Far from it, the boy was eager to chat. The day she had given him the twenty, he had been at a low ebb. But he had gotten something to eat, then applied for this job at the restaurant and gotten it. She was delighted to know how the story had turned out; so many of the people she had helped simply disappeared.

She visits the young man often now, and the irony of their switched places isn’t lost on her. She’s become friends with the owner, who wants her to hang her paintings in the restaurant. “Was it random chance or something else that led me there?” she asks. At any rate, it was a fortunate and happy accident.

“The moment I heard my first story/I started looking for you…” Rumi writes. We are our stories. We not only understand our world through story, but we make our worlds through stories. We tell, we receive, we stand in amazement and awe at the gift of story. Our hearts wither for lack of good stories.

Dear reader, I wish you a storied world.

 

 
%d bloggers like this: