Word Medicine

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

Living A Life You Can Endure January 20, 2017

Filed under: poetry,The Art of Living — saratbaker @ 3:08 pm
Tags: , , , ,

I’ve been wrestling with the question of how to find balance in my life during these difficult times. My own work has suffered as I’ve spent my days petitioning, writing letters and making phone calls. I look longingly at my garden (which is a full month ahead of schedule), wanting nothing more than to muck around in the mud, but instead spend my time glued to the screen. Just when my exhaustion and frustration were about to overwhelm me, I was sent an amazing post by Porter Taylor, via a friend. So I am re-posting it here. Called “Living a Life You Can Endure,” it addresses the issue of where to put our energies to build a life that contributes to the world as well as nurtures us. I think you will find it heartening, as I did. I’ve put a link to Porter Taylor’s website at the bottom, so you can look at his wonderful posts.

Living A Life You Can Endure

JANUARY 18, 2017

Amid the drama of this week—the Inauguration, the Women’s March, the Hearings—amid all of that, I gained a different perspective. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of any of the above, but our headlines are only a piece of what is going on in the world. Moreover, often what in the long run turns out to be important happens in the corners. This week I found myself thinking about Marge Piercy’s wonderful poem and an article in The Economist about Vera Rubin (I know—random).

Frist the poem:

The Seven of Pentacles
by Marge Piercy

Under a sky the color of pea soup
she is looking at her work growing away there
actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans
as things grow in the real world, slowly enough.
If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water,
if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food,
if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars,
if the praying mantis comes and the ladybugs and the bees,
then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening.
More than half the tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.
Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.
Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.
Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden.
Gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar.

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us
interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.

Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen:
reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,
for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting,
after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.

Whatever we think about the events of the week in Washington, we have this one life to live which requires that we make connections that endure; that we grow gardens that feed us and the world; that we be part of bringing God’s kingdom of peace, justice, and mercy on earth as in heaven.  This is a life-long project and often the growth is underground and doesn’t make headlines.

Which brings me to Vera Rubin.  Born with a brilliant scientific mind, In the 1940’s she was told in high school to “stay away from science.”  At Vassar, she was the only astronomy major to graduate her year.  She thought about a Ph.D. at Princeton but woman were not allowed into the program until 1975.  Married at 19, she gave up a place in graduate school at Harvard and instead followed her husband and took night classes at Georgetown University for her doctoral degree.

When she visited Palomar Observatory in 1965, the home of the world’s largest telescope, there were no women’s bathrooms. Vera Rubin stuck a handmade skirt sign on the men’s room door.

She kept persisting. She kept following her passion—digging underground. She had a major role in discovering “dark matter.”  She discovered “NGC 4500, a galaxy in which half the stars orbit in one direction, mingled with half that head the other way” (The Economist, 1/7/17, p.70).  She won the Gold Metal of Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society and the United States National Medal of Freedom even as she raised four children.

Yes, we have a civic responsibility to have our voice heard in conversations about our country’s/world’s direction.  But the main work of our lives is to live our life; to follow our passions regardless of what is going on the world.  Some of that effort will be underground and hard and long term. In 1947 Vera Rubin asked for a graduate catalogue from Princeton and was told “not to bother: women were not accepted for physics and astronomy.”  None of the leaders of the field were aware of this woman going to night classes. She kept at it because it was her work.  It was the garden she was given to grow, and if she didn’t she couldn’t become who God made her to be.

May we have the courage and vision of Vera Rubin to do our work. Amid all the noise of this new chapter in our country, let us find a way to “live a life you can endure” and that connects us to God’s work, so in God’s good time the harvest will come.

+Porter

 old-woman-working-garden-10047784

Living a Life You Can Endure

 

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.

 

 

 

Feeling at Home at Christmas December 9, 2016

bonehouse

I have passed out of mind like one who is dead

I have become like a broken vessel.

Psalm 31, verse 14

The challenges of living with a disability or chronic, invisible illness are heightened this time of year. For me, at least, and I suspect, for many. Because there are more calls on my limited energy, because I can’t entirely eradicate the specter of a Martha Stewart Christmas, because I want so desperately for it to be a magical season, I am more exhausted and frustrated than ever. Even for a “well woman,” Christmas is like pulling off a major Broadway production single-handedly. I now understand why my mother, when she cursed, said, “Christmas!” She had six children, an artist husband and not a lot of cash. She worked tirelessly to make it fun and beautiful and it was, but it cost her.

The dilemma of how to participate in life while also respecting one’s limitations is heightened  this time of year. This year, I’ve been thinking not only how to accomplish what needs to be accomplished, but also the kind of experience I want to have—as well as the kind of experience I want others to have. As Gertrude Mueller Nelson says in her profound book, To Dance with God, “This year we want our Christmas to be different. We want to be touched by the season—moved at a level that lies deep in us and is hungry and dark and groaning with primal need.”  The days grow shorter, and a primitive anxiety underlies our preparations, not only about the return of the sun, but also about whether our needs for belonging, contentment, and joy will be fulfilled. We want to feel really, truly, at home.

But when you are disabled or chronically ill, it is difficult to feel at home in your body, any time of the year. There is the daily management of energy, pain, protocols, pills. There is the sense of being left behind, of having “passed out of mind” from our communities. There is the internal management of our stance towards our illness, the battle between acceptance and resistance, the struggle between resentment and gratitude.

“The body itself is a dwelling place, as the Anglo-Saxons knew in naming it banhus (bone house)……” wrote Nancy Mairs, who was afflicted with MS. Many years ago, I picked up her book, Remembering the Bone House. The book is a memoir of how, despite depression and multiple sclerosis, she reclaimed her body and her life: “Through writing her body, woman may reclaim the deed to her dwelling.” She insisted on pushing against her limitations to participate fully in life, while never denying the impact of her illness. Yesterday, I read she died at the age of 73 last Saturday. The NYT obituary notes her aversion to such euphemisms as ‘differently abled.’ “I refuse to participate in the degeneration of the language to the extent that I deny that I have lost anything in the course of this calamitous disease….”  In her many essays about living with illness, she insisted on both facing the reality of her condition while also finding the good in her life.

“To view your life as blessed does not require you to deny your pain,” she wrote in the     introduction to Carnal Acts.” It simply demands a more complicated vision, one in which a  condition or event is not either good or bad but is, rather, both good and bad, not sequentially but simultaneously. In my experience, the more such ambivalences you can hold in your head, the better off you are, intellectually and emotionally.” *

In another essay, “A Necessary End,”  from A Troubled Guest: Life and Death Stories (2001), she discussed “the role of affliction in perfecting human experience….(it is) simply an element in the human condition, to be neither courted nor combated. To refuse to suffer is to refuse fully to live.” *

Perhaps this Christmas, I can let go of perfectionism, and only do what I can. Maybe this year, I can accept my illness as simply an element in the human condition. Maybe I can dwell more easily in my bonehouse, not berating myself for my shortcoming, but comforting myself.  And maybe, just maybe, I can then be present to whatever grace comes my way.

*New York Times, December 8, 2016

 

 

 

 

Dwelling October 26, 2016

I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately.

Several weeks ago, our community celebrated the life of 27 Darius Weems. Darius had Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and he was made famous at age 15 when his first trip outside of Athens, Georgia was filmed by his friends, who planned to get the MTV show “Pimp My Ride” to customize his wheelchair. The film, Darius Goes West, not only won awards, but established the Darius Goes West Foundation (http://www.dariusgoeswest.org/foundation/), proceeds of which go to finding a cure of DMD. About a month before his death, the FDA announced a new treatment for the disease.

This is a story of a community that got behind a group of young people with a dream. My daughter, who worked in the summers at Project Reach, a camp for disabled kids, was friends with some of these kids and knew Darius. It was the kind of thing that happens in my town of Athens, Georgia, a place that is small enough that it feels like a hometown, and large and progressive enough to always be interesting. As I sat talking with a friend about Darius, I was filled with pride for where I live.

I haven’t always felt this way. For much of my young life I wanted to leave, because life was elsewhere—in New York City, in Boston, in London and Paris. When I moved back after marrying my husband, I didn’t feel like I was returning to my hometown. As a youngster and an Irish Catholic transplant from the Northeast, I had grown up keenly aware of how different we were from our neighbors in the sixties and seventies. The University of Georgia art department, which had hired my father, was a wonderful place, with a coterie of artists who were bohemian and collegial. But the town itself was still a small Southern town. Furthermore, I grew up in the midst of school integration, and while necessary, it was chaotic. No, I didn’t feel I belonged, and I longed to get away.

Which I did, for a time, in graduate school in Boston. But it turned out that Athens was a great place to raise a family, and slowly, almost without my noticing it, I grew strong roots here. I am acclimated to the slower pace of life, the friendliness, the way you can be part of many different circles, and also the mild weather. Our kids grew up in a secure, settled community with a deep sense of home. Not that I am unaware of the myriad problems we face—extreme poverty, racial tension, stressed schools, crime. Sometimes these problems feel overwhelming. And yes, sometimes I fantasize about living in a more urbane, sophisticated place. But this is my place, and now it is filled with a rich network of friends and acquaintances, some of whom have known me since I was a child. I wouldn’t trade it for fancy living.

I remember reading in a college anthropology class about primitive villagers who believed that their village was the center of the known universe. Silly villagers! I thought. Now I see there is wisdom in recognizing one’s place in the world, esteeming it and working to make it better. Life isn’t elsewhere; it is where you are.15719053

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Shape of Absence January 19, 2016

Filed under: loss,The Art of Living,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 9:28 pm
Tags: , , , ,

shindig dog-1

The Shape of Absence
The absence of shape:
No black triangle in the door in the morning, ears pricked, tail thumping
No rectangle of black fur on the morning rug, sighing.
No curled comma at my feet, snorting and dreaming.
Just air. Just air.
The NYT Science Times today says that dog bones have been buried with humans as far back as 14,000 years ago, but that DNA evidence for dogs, some think, goes back as far as 30,000. Are dogs our “friends” or simply clever parasites, adept at begging and obsequious behavior? The article seems to come down on the side of parasites.

For me, I don’t care. I know what I know. In my book, dogs make us more human. They require the best from us—discipline, care, attention, play. They give back what a lot of humans don’t—unconditional loyalty, presence, responsiveness. My dog always knew when I was sad while the rest of the world went on by. I miss her sweet head on my lap now.

“You can take it away, as far as I’m concerned—I’d rather spend the afternoon with a nice dog. I’m not kidding. Dogs have what a lot of poems lack: excitements and responses, a sense of play the ability to impart warmth, elation . . . .”
Howard Moss

Dogs keep us honest. As the poet John Brehm writes in “If Feeling Isn’t In It,”

Dogs can smell
fear and also love with perfect accuracy.
There is no use pretending with them.
Nor do they pretend. If a dog is happy
or sad or nervous or bored or ashamed
or sunk in contemplation, everybody knows it.
They make no secret of themselves.

Now, I know that many people believe that the above poem is anthropomorphism of the highest order. What I might perceive as love is simply, in the words of the immortal skeptic I live with, adaptation and behavior based on the fact that I feed the dog on a regular basis, and so it is attached to me. But what is love if not food, and walks? I know what I know. I know love when I feel its absence.

We are a peculiar species. Smart, able to reconstruct the DNA of animals dead for millennia, but so often unable to see the very thing before our eyes. Every day, when I take my now dog-less walk, I see people of every imaginable shape, walking their dogs of every imaginable size. People who wouldn’t otherwise stop and talk, stop and talk about their dogs. The reclusive single woman, the retired professor, the teenager forced to walk the family dog. They are out of their houses, away from their phones, doing what homo sapiens do best, socializing. Would they be out without their dogs? Doubtful.

Oh, our lives are so much more than our thoughts. Dogs remind us of that.

 

 
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