Word Medicine

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

Making Honey May 11, 2018

Filed under: Chronic Illness,Healing,Transitions,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 10:35 pm

A few mornings ago, my husband with great excitement pointed out all the bees covering one of my rose bushes. It seems as if last spring and summer was one long, sad vigil for honeybees, which we spotted only rarely. Four summers ago I had weathered a difficult passage in my life by getting up early to work every day in the garden, and what I most remember about that time was the background hum of buzzing–a happy, companionable sound. The silence of the garden last year seemed—was–eerily unnatural. Why the bees are back I don’t know, nor do I know how long they will stay. But their presence feels like palpable hope.

I’ve been in need of hope recently. My illness waxes and wanes, but it has been waxing quite a bit lately. I’ve not been able to do as much as I’ve wanted, especially the writing I want to do, which has made me both despondent and angry. It feels I’m in for another adjustment of my expectations. And I don’t want that. Haven’t I adjusted enough, given up enough, curtailed my life enough already?

To feel better, I took my dog Bella on an evening walk. I stopped by one friend’s house to see if she wanted to walk, but she wasn’t home. I decided to take the short route home—a route I don’t usually take—and who should I bump into but a friend I haven’t seen for probably a year. He said he had just been thinking of me. He was walking my way and we ended up walking quite a ways. He too has a chronic illness and so is someone I can be honest with, but more than that he has a wry sense of humor and tells great stories. I ended up feeling considerably cheered.

Both of these experiences spoke to me of abundance. I had almost given up on the honeybees, but there they were. I had thought I would have a lonely walk, but instead I had an enjoyable companion. I thought I had a clear picture of the world: the honeybees are dying and I’m not in such good shape myself. But maybe my picture of the world is skewed. Maybe it doesn’t allow for enough possibility, enough healing of the world and of me. I was put in mind of Antonio Machado’s magnificent poem, “Last Night as I Lay Sleeping”. Here is a stanza from that poem:

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

(See the entire poem here:https://allpoetry.com/Last-Night-As-I-Was-Sleeping)

I love it that Machado doesn’t dream the bees are erasing his failures, but that out of them they are making sweet honey and white combs. Both are true, the bitter and the sweet. But grace prevails. Marvelous error indeed!

 

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Breath, Movement, Image September 29, 2017

One of the gifts of age is being willing to do things you might not be terribly good at. For me those things are singing and drawing. I also dance, which I’m slightly better at, but which is a challenge with my illness. When I was younger, I didn’t attempt things at which I might fail. I also had enough on my plate, raising children and working, and had to scramble to write. I didn’t want to take energy away from writing. I have more time now, and I’ve found that playing in other disciplines has things to teach me about writing.

From singing I’ve learned to breathe—or am learning to breathe. Every choir practice when I pick up a new piece of music to sight read, I panic. I have no training in music, and have taught myself to read over the years, very imperfectly. Somehow my church choir puts up with this. I have to get past my panic and trust that I’ve done this before, countless times, and if I listen and pay attention, it will come. The beauty of choral singing is you can get your pitches from your comrades, although I’m working on not leaning on them. I have to let go of the fear that freezes my diaphragm and plunge in, knowing I will make lots of mistakes, but that eventually, I’ll get it. And I usually do, just minutes before show time!  I’ve also learned from singing that power is not force. Forcing never works. Ironically, powerful singing requires relaxation as well as engagement of abdominal muscles.

51445299-Dancing-couple-icon-isolated-on-white-background-Argentine-tango-Tango-dancers-vector-illustration--Stock-VectorDancing gets me out of my head, an occupational hazard of writers. I have been studying tango off and on for years, but I approach every class with beginner’s mind. Once you have a few basic steps, the beauty of tango is that it is, at least for followers, almost entirely intuitive. For someone who has always been a “bossy pants” it took a long time for me to learn to follow! Tango is very Zen, in that you can’t think, you have to feel it. I cannot anticipate what my leader might do; I have to trust him and be entirely in the moment. The minute I think about what I’m doing I ruin it. As Bruce Springsteen said about performing, if he thought about what he was doing, he couldn’t do it. Same idea. When I’m in sync with my partner and feeling the music, nothing is as exhilarating.

I love to draw, and yet am terribly self-conscious about it, coming from a family of visual artists. But for two years when I was bedridden, and unable to read or write, I began drawing. What I found then was if I let go of expectations and allowed myself to be in the moment, I could become totally immersed in my subject. Often I was overcome with love for what I was drawing—a dog, a person, a stool at a doctor’s office. Then I began seeing differently, even without a pencil in my hand. Really noticing the graceful arc of a tree branch, or the rough texture of its bark. The visual world became enlivened. Strangely enough, the same principle of relaxed breathing found in singing applies to drawing, as does the principle of intuitive feeling and movement found in dance. The more freedom of movement I allow myself in making marks, the more alive the drawing.

So what does all this have to do with writing and healing?

On my desk is a quote: “Writing is a negotiation with ourselves: it is about mercy and it is about breath.” (Jacqueline Jones Lamon). Writing, I suppose, is the most intellectual of the arts, and I think that can work against writers. Too often we start with ideas that conceptualize, rather than with breath, movement, images. For writing to be powerful, I think it needs to partake of all these, but especially images. Here is another quote from my bulletin board, “Images roost in our minds, consciously or not, because they have something more to say than we have yet to comprehend.” When an image draws you, even or especially when you don’t know why, stay with it.

Here is an exercise I’ve used in workshops that can help “call up” images. Write the first dream you remember, and then stay with the central image of the dream until it changes of its own accord. Notice what it becomes, but don’t force it.

I wish you breath, movement and imagery in all your writing.

 

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

 

 

 

 

For September 4th: Finding Solace in a Spiritual Practice September 5, 2016

Filed under: Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 2:55 pm

Lovely and true. I like that you start your writing with small observations, a way of connecting to the world and self.

 

An Invitation July 27, 2016

I’ve just finished Diane Morrow’s One Year of Writing and Healing: Writing to Transform the Experience of Illness, Grief and Other Trouble, a treasure trove of resources for anyone interested in beginning or deepening a healing writing practice.

Dr. Morrow begins her book with an invitation: to take one year of your life and write with the express purpose of “transforming difficult experiences into something…more bearable.” Her tone throughout is one of friendly invitation. What she offers comes from her own experience as a writer, a medical doctor, a counselor in mind-body training and a teacher. And as any good teacher would, she grounds the practice she offers in both time and space. Take a year, she says, to try these things, and moreover, I am going to walk you through each month, guiding you and building a solid foundation. In a low-key conversational tone, she creates a focus for each month, with chapters addressing each of the following: “Creating a Healing Place,” “Consider Healing as a Story,” “Drawing a Map,” “Developing  the Habit of Writing,” “Listening to the Voice of the Body,” “Making a Place for Grief,” “Figuring Out the Good Part,”  “Gathering Resources for the Long Haul,” and “Creating a Guest House.” Each of these chapters draw not only from her own experience and that of her patients and students, but also from an extensive knowledge of the literatures of both healing and writing, including excerpts and references to such seminal thinkers in their fields as Arthur Frank, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Pema Chodron and Peter Elbow. However, she wears such learning lightly, incorporating it into her book in an approachable way. Each chapter also offers exercises or prompts, all of which grow organically out of her own or others’ lived experiences. Although some of the material in this book can be found elsewhere—i.e., Arthur Franks’ exploration of the three healing types of stories—Restitution, Chaos, and Quest—Morrow interprets his work, expanding on it with examples from various sources, including the movie The Lord of the Rings.

Perhaps the most important chapter is the first two-month long chapter, “Creating a Healing Place.” This exercise in creating, inhabiting, imagining, conjuring and holding is the foundation for everything that follows. Morrow describes her own experience of going to a retreat at Santa Sabina, where she learned the process of interactive active imagination. It was there that she realized that writing could strengthen and deepen and hold the work of healing imagery. By creating a healing place inside one’s mind, one could have a sense of “deep refuge” in a portable retreat. “When we have this deep sense of security, it becomes possible—and bearable—to look honestly at the stories of our lives.”  She offers seven particular archetypes—seven ways of thinking about the landscapes we inhabit or could inhabit: Sea, Cave, Harbor, Promontory, Island, Mountain and Sky.“ Naming these archetypes “….allows us to look at the landscape freshly, to begin to pay closer attention to those spaces in the world which we most long for and need.” She suggests immersing ourselves, imaginatively, in the landscape, and discovering what it can tell us about ourselves, about where we are and where we would like to be. Do you need to nest inside a cave, away from the stresses of the world? So you need the viewpoint you might find high on a mountain? This extended imagination offers the chance to discover a correlative to our inner landscapes in a rich and interesting way.(By the way, check out another prompt here about landscapes : https://therapeuticjournal.wordpress.com/2016/07/26/landscape-the-desert/?iframe=true&theme_preview=true)

One of my favorite passages is in the section on Chaos stories. She writes: “Chaos can be an indicator of growth. Fear can be an indicator of growth. And it seems to me that just considering this—having some inkling about this—can change our experience. It can give us courage to keep moving with and through obstacles…..Meanwhile, I have sometimes found it helpful, at moments when obstacles arise….to imagine an older woman’s voice, a voice much wiser than my own. She tends to say something like this: Well of course, Sweetie, what did you thing? That it was going to be easy?” Diane Morrow herself is that wise encouraging voice. “Writing can become a powerful way to listen to your life, ” she writes. And this book is a powerful tool to help you in that endeavor.

another-april-book-cover

You can order the book here: https://www.amazon.com/One-Year-Writing-Healing-Experience/dp/0692610278/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1466428919&sr=1-1

All profits for the book go to Write Around Portland, which you can read about here: http://writingandhealing.org/write-around-portland.

You might also enjoy Diane’s blog,  One Year of Writing and Healing, http://writingandhealing.org/

and a radio interview: http://safespaceradio.com/2011/09/writing-and-healing/

 

 

Family Matters July 21, 2016

Filed under: Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 2:53 pm

 

Whoever invented the term “sandwich” generation knew what they were talking about. Lately I’ve been feeling like a squashed slice of old salami.

My mother was in a serious car wreck over the weekend. My son is heading off to college, with the normal ambivalence that implies. There are the usual stresses of life—unexpected expenses, job issues.  As the oldest child in my family of origin, I am programmed to be uber-responsible. As a mother of two and stepmother of two, my radar is constantly scanning to get a reading on how everyone is doing. I am easily caught up in the eddying currents of emotion around me.  I am not a sanguine person. I cannot read the paper silently, without exclaiming over tragic or sorrowful stories. I am hyper-sensitive and easily knocked off my horse.  I wish it were otherwise. I envy those who putter along in a steady state, neither high nor low. But I am not one of them.

So, I find myself faced every morning with the question of how to proceed. How to prioritize, what actions to take, when everything and everyone seems to be a priority?

Luckily, I’ve had some training in this. My illnesses and injuries have forced me back into my body, back to my breath. Caroline Myss, the medical intuitive, believes that our illnesses happen not to us but for us. In my case, I have been forced out of my mind and into my body.  I must still my mind and focus on my breath if I am to find a still point in the constant flux of life. So much easier said than done, especially for one who has spent her life pretty much holding her breath.  But if I do, I find a spaciousness open up within me, a place from which to meet the other challenges of my life.

There is a scene in Family Matters, by Rohinton Mistry, one of my favorite writers, of a man opening up his yoga mat on a crowded, rushed train platform in India and calmly doing his yoga routine. That image has sustained me for many years. It is not that a practice of yoga stops the chaotic life around him, but it provides him with a way to quiet his mind and deepen his breath. In the end, that is all we have, anyway, isn’t it, our bodies and our breath?  That is our territory, all that we can control.

Families are important, and being responsive to them is a good thing. But our first responsibility is to the relationship to our own bodies and breath. I love these final lines from Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric”:

The circling rivers, the breath, and breathing it in and out,
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you, or within me, the bones, and the marrow in the bones,
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say these are not the parts and poems of the Body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!abstract-landscape-art-black-and-white-between-the-lines-by-romi-romi-neilson

 

 

 

 

State of Mind May 30, 2016

Filed under: The Art of Ficition,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 8:27 pm
Tags: , , ,

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

 

 

 
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