Word Medicine

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

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.

Writing Through Cancer

And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear.  What we need is here.

From:  “The Wild Geese,” by Wendell Berry

Throughout my childhood and undergraduate years, I was active in the Methodist church, involved in the youth groups and later, in the Methodist Student Movement, which was very involved in civil rights and social justice.  Some of my most enduring friendships were formed during that period, but for the better part of my adult life,  I’ve been a lapsed church-goer, craving a deeper spiritual practice than I experienced in the Sunday morning services.   For years, I dabbled with other religious traditions, tried practicing meditation, but nothing seemed to fill my need for the spiritual life I once knew.

Ironically, I’ve led workshops with the bereaved and the terminally ill, and in all of them, one’s faith and spirituality are…

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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

 

 

The Moon, Not the Finger May 4, 2016

Every so often a book lands in your hands just when you need it.

I happened upon The Art of Attention: A Poet’s Eye, by Donald Revell, the other day. I had started it at some point because it was underlined for several pages, but in the daily onslaught I had somehow lost track of it. But here it was and I had the time to read it, so I started again.

But before I get to what I found so sustaining in this little book, a bit of backstory: I have had a horrible winter/spring, and have found the desire to write anything has simply evaporated. My chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia flared, and I tumbled down the rabbit hole of pain and panic again. It isn’t my first rodeo, so I should know how to handle these flare-ups, but there have been too many too close together for too long. I’ve lost my equilibrium.

Feeling unmoored in all ways, I’ve felt more so in my writing. What is this drivel? I think, looking at pathetic lines on the page. More importantly, why the effort when everything takes so much effort?  I have joined a lovely group of poets that meet monthly, and suddenly I am aware of what good poems are. And I want to write them. But the more I try, the more stilted my efforts. It is as if I’ve lost my innocence, my native language. What is a poem, anyway?

A poem, according to Revell, “is a plain record of one’s entire presence….the poetry of attention is acceptance….the poetry of attention proposes a heroic unoriginality whose entire faith rests in the tireless originality of the real.”  Something in me accedes—yes! I like in particular the word “plain” in contrast to “entire presence.” Plain is serviceable, every day, yet entire presence is all that we have, it is everything.

I think of some of my favorite poets, and notice the plainness of their language. Here is an excerpt of Denise Levertov’s poem, “In California: Morning, Evening, Late January”.

Pale, then enkindled,

light

advancing,

emblazoning

summits of palm and pine,

 

the dew

lingering,

scripture of

scintillas.

 

Soon the roar

of mowers

cropping the already short

grass of lawns…..

 

miner’s lettuce,

tender, untasted,

and other grass, unmown,

luxuriant,

no green more brilliant.

 

Fragile paradise.

 

At day’s end the whole sky,

vast, unstinting, flooded with transparent

mauve,

tint of wisteria,

cloudless

over the malls, the industrial parks,

the homes with the lights going on,

the homeless arranging their bundles.

. . .

Who can utter

the poignance of all that is constantly

threatened, invaded, expended

 

and constantly

nevertheless

persists in beauty,

 

tranquil as this young moon

just risen and slowly

drinking light

from the vanished sun.

 

Who can utter

the praise of such generosity

or the shame?

“In California” By Denise Levertov, from A Door in the Hive

This is plain language, unversifying verse. Notice how she transforms a normal ordinary day, seeing in it both tragedy and exquisite beauty. “As you see, so at length shall you say,” Revell says, and here the eye takes in with absolute accuracy what it sees, what it finds. The poem, Revell tells us, is found material, “The key to the poetry of attention is acceptance.”  Levertov’s eye takes in all, the humble, the homeless, the mauve light. All that she sees cumulates in the final section, with the first and final stanzas’s beginning with the line “Who can utter….?” This line, repeated, indicates the poet’s recognition of her own limitations, the limitations of words to convey the magnitude of what the eye takes in. This humility, this kenosis, Revell says, is also imperative in the poetry of attention. It allows the poet to empty herself, to accept a limited role. This paradoxically frees her.

Which reminds me of the Buddhist story of the finger pointing to the moon:

“Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?”

Writers don’t have to be the moon, or create it. We just have to point to it.   Fugai-Hotei-Pointing-to-the-Moon2

 

 

 

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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