Word Medicine

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

Living in the Body February 16, 2015

Last Wednesday, after a particularly stressful week, I slept in for the first time in ages. I was tapped out in all ways, and even though I got up early and ate breakfast, I just had to crawl back into bed. I felt guilty about this, and when my housekeeper came, I explained to her that I was so tired, but that I had to get back up to the salt mine (my attic study).

“Oh, Mrs. Sara, no, if you are tired, you must rest. Es tu cuerpo!”

The way she uttered, “Es tu cuerpo,” stopped me in my tracks. It seemed self-evident to her that my body should be treated like the most treasured child. She said “tu cuerpo” with such tenderness and concern. And of course she was right.

I do know she is right. But my default attitude is to treat my body like a balky mule. I should know better. My illness has taught me many things, among them to pace myself and to listen to my body. Ironically, when I begin to have a bit of energy I seem to forget those lessons. I’m all on with doing, not listening. My body is at times my cell, sometimes my ally. It has betrayed me, it seems, or have I betrayed it? What is this “I” anyway,  how is it possible to be apart from the body it speaks of? Gregory Djanikian in his poem Mind/Body writes of this tension between mind and body:

How do they survive, riven

as they are, the one undoing

the other’s desire?

Tell the body to outrun

the mind, and the mind smirks,

whispering too loudly

this way   this way,

blocking all the exits.

And the body, luxurious

sensualist by pool side or in bed,

doesn’t it hear the mind’s

impatient machinery ticking

it’s time   it’s time?

 How do you reconcile such differences? It can be exhausting. My mind wants to be to get to the salt mine, and my body wants to luxuriate in bed.

 Joyce Sutphen, in her poem, Living in the Body, describes how the body will “pull you down into a sleepy swamp,

 Body is something you need in order to stay

on this planet and you only get one.

And no matter which one you get, it will not

be satisfactory. It will not be beautiful

enough, it will not be fast enough, it will

not keep on for days at a time, but will

pull you down into a sleepy swamp and

demand apples and coffee and chocolate cake.

My body does remind me of a child in its insistent demands. And yet when my children were irritable, demanding, out of sorts, I not only fed them, but I gave them attention. It is amazing how a little attention, rocking in the rocking chair, holding them, singing to them, for just a few minutes, would soothe them.  So I am wondering if instead of beating my body into submission, I might give it a little attention.

Ash Wednesday is coming up. I grew up with the idea of mortification of the flesh, and struggled all my life to subdue my demanding body. But I am wondering now about maybe taking a different approach. A yoga teacher friend suggested using Lent as a time to befriend our bodies, to be gentle with them. I’m going to try this approach–to feed myself good things, to rest when I’m tired, stretch when I’m cramped. To maybe not only accept this imperfect body, but to love it. To cherish it. Mi cuerpo.

 

Letting Go January 19, 2015

I am reading Shaun McNiff’s book, Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go, about the creative process, and finding it instructive not only for creative endeavors but also for relationships.

We’ve all heard the phrase. Maybe it conjures up images of Woodstock, of hippies in tie-dyed tees.  Nevertheless, McNiff, an artist and internationally known figure in creative art therapies, brings a nuanced and in-depth perspective to the concept.

McNiff claims that there is an intelligence working in every situation, and if we trust it and follow its natural movements, it will astound us with its ability to find a way through problems—and even make use of our mistakes and failures.

 I am particularly drawn to his assertion that errors are harbingers of original ideas because they introduce new directions for expression.  Sometimes, as well, the spontaneous expression or mistake which is outside our intended design, brings riches from the unconscious.  Those who work with their dreams know that a dream will often strike us as peculiar, that we “don’t know where it comes from,” but the images of that same peculiar but powerful dream may bring us the very healing images that we need, but for which our ego has no room.

McNiff also points out that while the artistic process may bring relief, joy and harmony, the process thrives on tension. Conflict and uncertainty are the forces that carry the artist to new and unfamiliar places.

 I think a similar process can happen in relationships.

I once met an accomplished woman, a writer and therapist, ten years ago at a writing conference. She was a little older than I was at the time, and her children were grown. She was lovely and gracious but there was an air of melancholy about her. We fell to talking about parenting.  She said that our mistakes as parents are as important as our successes.  I was still hoping to be the perfect parent and was puzzled by her statement. Surely not!  Oh, yes, she said, because our lacks are what push them out of the nest, and send them out into the world to do it better.

pathMistaken moves and slips of intention reveal that creation involves more than single-mindedness, McNiff writes. We create together with the world.  If we believe that there is an intelligence moving in the world that we can partake of and trust in, then conflict and uncertainty are no longer so frightening, in our work or in our relationships. We can approach them with curiosity, knowing that, if we stay with the process, we will be moved to a new place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Body and Voice: Finding Self-Trust in the Midst of Illness October 24, 2014

Filed under: Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 4:42 pm
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Nothing can throw me off-center faster than a bout of fibromyalgia.  Recently, I had an experience of intense pain that sent me into panic mode. I almost crawled to my doctor for medicine—I was way beyond the yoga/swimming/meditation panacea.  Worried that this might be something else, that my body was really betraying me big-time now, I fretted over Google, surfing for any information I could find. I had finally done it, I thought, finally ignored my body long enough, pushing through pain and discomfort, and now my body was roaring back. After much searching, I found a relevant article about trigger points that seemed consistent with my symptoms.

Having a cognitive framework relieved my anxiety, and luckily, the meds worked. Or time worked. Something worked. I changed some posture habits, began some exercises. But what interested me was those days before I got some kind of handle on what was going on.  I experienced fear–a profound sense of  ego disintegration, of losing my sense of power, of my confidence in navigating the world. I found myself casting about for answers, as if someone else could tell me what was going on. It was only when I was rested, in less pain, and able to amass information, that I finally was able to regain my poise.  I remember the moment when I thought—I can make an assessment, I can make decisions that will help this. I can trust myself. Energetically, it felt as if I was consolidated, rather than fragmented.

The fragmentation I experienced briefly was akin to what Arthur Frank in his seminal book, The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness and Ethics, describes as the chaos initiated by a major illness or event like a heart attack.  Frank himself, a sociologist, experienced both cancer and heart disease. Through his own experience, he was able to describe the stages of  our psychological response to illness, the first being chaos. He cautions those who love and work with people experiencing chaos, to simply witness it, not rush to tidy it or minimize it. He describes the burden placed on the ill person to be cheerful, positive for others. He posits that it  is only by experiencing the chaos that we can find our way through to a new narrative, whether one of accepting an illness and finding meaning through the quest, or indeed restitution. “Seriously ill people,” he writes, “are wounded not just in body but in voice.”  Without body integrity, we lose voice. Without voice, we also are fragmented.

I’m glad that this whole experience happened over a matter of weeks, not months or years.  But I was reminded again of how real the journey is from chaos to narrative. I’ll end with the quote prefacing Frank’s book:

“I had grasped well that there are situations in life where our body is our entire self and our fate. I was in my body and nothing else…my body…was my calamity. My body…was my physical and metaphysical dignity.”-Jean Améry

Wounded Storyteller

 

For the Week of July 20, 2014: Writing as Prayer August 13, 2014

Filed under: Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 7:22 pm

Dear Readers, I’ve been away, but am planning on my regular blogs in the coming months. To get started, I thought I’d repost this lovely piece from Sharon Bray.

 

Medicine IS Humanism June 14, 2014

Filed under: Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 3:11 pm

Phillip Mitchell of Narrative Care brought this lovely blog post by Joy Jacobson to my attention.

 

New Book Available for Review: “What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine” by Danielle Ofri August 8, 2013

Filed under: Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 2:57 pm

I’m looking forward to reading this!

Centre for Medical Humanities Blog

“Danielle Ofri’s newest book, What Doctors Feel, is a look at the emotional side of medicine—the shame, fear, anger, anxiety, empathy, and even love that impact patient care.Contemporary media portrayals of doctors focus on the decision-making and medical techniques, reinforcing an image of rational, unflinching doctors. But the quality of medical care is influenced by what doctors feel, an aspect of medicine that is usually left out of discussions of health care today.

Drawing on scientific studies as well as real-life stories from her own medical practice and other physicians, Dr. Danielle Ofri investigates the impact of emotions on medical care.With her renowned eye for dramatic detail, Dr. Ofri takes us into the swirling heart of patient care. She faces the humiliation of an error that nearly killed her patient and the forever fear of making another. She mourns when a long-time patient is denied a heart transplant. She tells…

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The Two Conductors February 22, 2013

peanuts_choirI’ve turned into my grandmother. And I owe her an apology.

Now, this was not my aim.  In my youthful arrogance I judged her, the mother of three, who’d seen her family through the Depression and WWII, as a dabbler.  She painted, she wrote and she was extraordinaryily gifted in music.  I would focus on one thing, I thought, and do it well. Not dissipate my energies in all those different disciplines.

However, I find my self  in middle-age, a middling chorister in a community choir, an amateur painter, as well as a scribbling woman.

A professional painter friend of mine, with a family, money struggles and all the rest, said to me the other day,  “We have to take in sometimes, we can’t always give out.”  I think that is what I’m doing this year, having cleared the space to work on my own healing.  I’m playing.  Because I don’t have too much ego attachment to painting or singing, I can be (somewhat) humble, have beginners mind.  The learning curve is huge, but because I’m not so serious about these activities, I can relax and have fun.  There is effort involved, sure, but that is part of the fun.   I have to think this loosening up feeds back into the writing and also, subconsciously, I’m taking in strategies of sound and image that will ultimately make me a better writer.

Here’s one experience I’ve had that has made a huge impression.  I left one choir because the conductor was so grim and punitive.  I only learned to sing in my early forties, and I’ve always been uncertain in my sight reading.  I would position myself next to strong singers and lean on them.  We were marched through our songs as if in a death march, and there was no time for jokes or talking.  Our conductor would be livid when we hit a wrong note, and so I found that, more and more, I was dreading choir practice.  I called it my exercise in humility. I would leave each practice feeling defeated. I finally left.

I thought I was done with singing when a friend invited me to her community choir.  I was amazed at how friendly they all were, and how relaxed.  The spring concert was all Schubert, and I was intimidated by the music, but because there was no audition to get in,  I thought I’d give it a try, hide behind some strong singer.  I was very surprised at our first practice when the conductor started cracking jokes and everyone laughed.  I was even more surprised when he had us sight read and sing, cold, but he said ” you’ll hit wrong notes, don’t worry about it, just get the feel for the music.”  He was giving us permission to make mistakes.  Wow. I was terrified when he forbade us to sit with our section.  We had to read and sing our parts without the comfort of support.  I strained to hear other sopranos, but found I had to rely on myself.  The first few practices I sweated it out, but by the third time,  with new music, the alto next to me turned and said, that sounded good.   I felt my confidence surge, and actually enjoyed tackling a new piece.  I found out I could sing, given the right conditions.  And the right conditions are not fear.  This conductor is all about possibility, all about encouragement.  I feel myself reaching for higher ground because of that support.  He and the group have created a safe space in which to play.  Bravo!

I think as writers and facilitators we can keep the idea of the two conductors in mind.  We all have the grim conductor, ready to pounce on us for not being good enough.  But we also can conjure the happy conductor, who encourages to have fun, to challenge ourselves.  We can imagine an inner audience full of competitive, striving choristers, or we can imagine an inner audience of supportive peers who want us to do our best.  In our workshops, we can create safe places for people to play, remembering that laughter is indeed, the best medicine.

On my computer I have pasted a quote which has not attribution: “Live as thought you are enough, as if the joy is in the journey, as if life is a happy playground.”

Which is what my grandmother, Sally McCabe, did.

 

Keep Moving:Thoughts on Journaling and Process February 6, 2013

They say there is nothing worse than a Sunday painter.  I stand accused.

matisee

I’m a rank amateur, and that would be OK if I knew nothing about good art.  But the problem is, I do, so I can see how wanting my efforts are.  I want to be Matisse and just skip over all the hours it takes to get there. In Malcolm Gladwell book, Outliers,  he talks about the importance of practice in any art form.  I know I will never be Matisse, but I also know that I need to keep at it, that my failures are as important as my successes.  In this last painting, for example, I can see that it isn’t resolved, that there is something lacking, and I have an inkling of what it might be, a way to go forward.  So I’m determined to make a move, to keep going with it, even if I ruin it.  I’m interested in the problem the painting represents, and in seeing where it might go.

Make a move.  This might be my mantra.  All my life I’ve been plagued by timidity.  I default to freezing when confronted with something I want or need to do.  Often, when I make a start, I am so overcome with fear that it is not good enough that I abandon the project, whatever it might be.

One way I overcome this with writing is to keep a journal, or morning pages or a seed book, what ever you might want to call it.  People talk a lot about journaling, but it seems to me that there is no one thing that is journaling.  There is no entry for it in most dictionaries.  At its most basic it might be simply writing in a notebook on a consistent basis.  For some, it may be to record dreams, and for others, daily impressions. Some may pour out their hearts and others keep ideas for stories and poems gleaned from the news.  I use my journal for all of these, trying to fill three pages every morning, as suggested in The Artist’s Way.  I give myself complete freedom to be dumb, inarticulate, maudlin or silly.  I give vent to my most immature, neurotic thoughts.  I rant.  I remember. Sometimes I stumble upon a whole trove of memories that seem to have been just waiting for this particular moment to flag me down.  But because I have no expectations, I feel free.  I have no ambition to be like anyone else. That freedom from expectation often leads to surprising things.

For many years, I didn’t look back at my journals.  I put them in a closet and shut the door, often with relief, as if I had corralled a host of ungainly monsters and put them out of sight.  Had I dared think that?  Was that really how I felt?  What if my family found out?  No, better to just leave those monsters be.

But lately, I’ve started reading my journals, and using them as seedbeds for other writings.  Folks have been doing this for years, but I think it is worth mentioning how different reading the journals and writing them are.  When we journal, it is much like dreaming.  We have to let ourselves go into the dream state, which is often irrational.  Journal entries can be disjointed, as are dreams.  Entries don’t stick to one subject, developing it, but free associate.  When we write in our journals, our feelings are often raw, unedited.  We are not judging what we are writing, nor looking for patterns.  But what I’ve found is that in rereading my journals, there are usually patterns of preoccupation, of themes, that stand out.  There are also those quickly dashed off impressions, often visual descriptions, that capture the immediacy of a moment that would have otherwise been lost.  There are both observations of the world, and observations of my inner world, all thrown in there together.  Often these become the basis of a story or poem.

While the story or poem is crafted with conscious intention, the impetus comes from a place that is less conscious, and often provides the energy needed to make the piece live.  Yet I need all the consciously practiced skills in my craft box to honor the initial spark, and to develop it into a piece that will be complex and satisfying.  And so to that end, I practice particular skills, the way a musician might practice scales.  At the moment, I am working through Poetry as Spiritual Practice, by Robert McDowell.  I just came across this:  “No writer of poetry escapes feeling discouragement many times….in any pursuit, it’s natural to feel, at times, a personal futility….Anyone who has ever played baseball marvels at the effortlessness in the performance of even the most marginal major leaguer, but that grace is a product of commitment and endless repetition, endless learning….”   And here is another quote, along the same lines: “The splashing of the ink around the brush comes by instinct, while the manipulation of the ink by the brush depends on spiritual energy.  Without cultivation, the ink-splashing will not be instinctive, and without experiencing life, the brush cannot possess spiritual energy.”  The Wilderness Colors of Tao-chi, quoted by Marilyn Fu and Wen Fong. From Tao-chi’s treatise.  Cited in Beat Not the Poor Desk.

I look at my painting.  I could abandon it here, or I could dip my brush into the yellow paint.

 

Trapped in the Ice January 22, 2013

I once found an old book at the flea market called “Be Glad You’re Neurotic”.  Just the book for me!  Written in 1936,  it has chapter headings like “You Hate Yourself. No Wonder!” and “Are You Getting the Most out of Your Insomnia and Dreams?”  I did not make this up.  I prop this old book on my shelf, title out, reminding myself to be glad.

Having a chronic illness is a sure way to intensify a neurosis.  I’ve been sick since Christmas, sequestered in the house for the most part, too exhausted to go out.  All plans for the future are on hold.  I’m waiting for the verdict from the insurance company as to whether, this time, they will approve my treatment.  Instead of being able to let go, to read and relax and wait to get better, I go into overdrive, fending off the feeling of impending doom.  Will I be able to keep up my walking routine?  To sing in the choir?  To write steadily?  My mind goes into ever more solipsistic rounds, and I become more tense, contracted– unable to heal.  I feel guilty for having a lousy immune system.  I read a book review about primitive tribes and identify with the sick woman left to die because she is no longer of use. I see her struggling to keep up with the tribe, only to die alone on the road. That’s me, I think, falling farther and farther behind. My mind turns in ever smaller circles, like the little swan trapped in the ice in “The Ugly Duckling.”  I can not stay in the present, or take deep breaths.  My mind is turning too frantically, even as my body is inert.  Intellectually, I know better, but I’m in the grip of something I can’t think away.the-ugly-duckling-english-school

This impasse is only broken when a friend calls unexpectedly.  Like me, Mari has a chronic illness and has lived with all the difficulties of people not understanding, of insurance companies that are unresponsive, of dreams that have to be let go.  I find myself articulating to her half-understood frustrations and fears.  All the thoughts and feelings that had festered in the sealed room of my mind come pouring out.  Yet, once they are not mine alone, they seem less formidable.  I feel myself taking deeper breaths, feel my body loosen.  Mari shares practical advice, and more importantly, she exudes a confidence I no longer have that thing will turn out.  Holding onto her confidence for me, I can let go of the death grip I have on the outcome of my illness.  I feel supported, and humbled.  I do not have to be God.  I can relax.  I am reminded again that I am not alone, and I am invited to experience a feeling of being held and nurtured.

To heal, it seems, we need each other.  I can do my yoga practice at home, but doing it in a group seems to be a fuller experience.  I have had profound experiences of healing from healing touch, from massage, from the caring physical therapists who have put me back together, from chats with friends, from therapists, from writing groups, from the liturgy.  And each time, I feel humbled and grateful, called back to Reality as sacred, freed from my ego’s need to control.

Before Mari’s call, my story about my illness was one of loss and desperation.  Yet, as she offered her generous insights, I was able to reframe my story.  My feeling of helplessness diminished and my sense of agency grew, even as I was able to let go of controlling the outcome. My story of isolation became a story of hope.  In the book, Narrative Medicine: the Use of History and Story in the Healing Process, Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD,  talks about the importance of community in helping someone re-author their story.  “We need the group to re-author our stories.  Rarely can re-authoring be done in isolation.”

We need others to help us heal, although not everyone can help you re-author your story, as Naomi Shihab Nye says in this poem:

You Have to Be Careful

You have to be careful telling things.
Some ears are tunnels.
Your words will go in and get lost in the dark.
Some ears are flat pans like the miners used
looking for gold.

What you say will be washed out with the stones.
You look for a long time till you find the right ears.
Till then, there are birds and lamps to be spoken to,
a patient cloth rubbing shine in circles,
and the slow, gradually growing possibility
that when you find such ears
they already know.

Thank you, Mari Braveheart-Dancer, for being those ears.

 

Brancusi’s Egg January 16, 2013

I  am happy to announce the publication of my poetry chapbook, Brancusi’s Egg,  from Finishing Line Press.  The poems have been written slowly over many years, and written primarily for myself.  I am an accidental poet.  Until I began teaching creative writing as a healing modality to cancer patients and caregivers in 2001, I had written primarily fiction.

In 1995-6, a series of health and personal crises completely changed my world.  Those who have followed this blog know that I became bedridden and unable to read and write for two years, although a novel of mine had been a finalist for national award only several years earlier.  I had to learn to read and write all over again.  When I was strong enough to work part-time, I offered to teach creative writing to cancer patients and caregivers at our local outpatient cancer clinic.  Luckily, the director of the clinic was open-minded and agreed.  Thus began my privileged work with others who were undergoing or had undergone the same type of “night-sea” journey that I was undergoing.

The poems here are primarily the result of doing the exercises I assigned to my patients.  I had given up poetry long ago when a famous writer at a workshop I attended demolished my confidence as a poet.  It was only as private exercises that I could see my way back to writing poetry—not solely as literature, but as a cry of the heart.  I hope these poems reflect my ongoing attempts at both authenticity and art.  Here is one poem from the book, “Lumbar Puncture,” which was included as a commended poem in The Hippocrates Prize anthology, 2011 :

Lumbar Puncture

I laugh while they do the puncture,

keeping up a steady stream of one-liners:

“Whiskey is my preferred pain killer” and

“don’t worry, if it hurts, you’ll know–

The whole place will know.”

I’m good at entertaining.

Relax, the doctor says.

Chris, the nurse, has her hands on me.  They are warm.

I think of my dog at the vet’s, her eyes darting, frantic.

I am all animal, knees to chest.

The doctor counts my vertebrae.

I think of spare ribs, I think

of making a joke.

Chris shows me the four vials of spinal fluid.

Clear, like water,

but full of meaning some bio-magician will decipher,

predicting my future:

a gradual loss of muscle control,

wheelchairs, and being fed

like a child, or not—

just some anomaly in the brain,

this shadow, this lesion.

My husband reads an article, “The End of Physics?”

I glance at it, eyes glazing.

The world is full

of mysteries I do not understand.

I understand his passion,

but I don’t care

where the atoms are in the box.

Do you feel the energy?  my PT says, and

I do.  I feel the colors of my chakras;

sunlight makes sense to me,

dogs wrestling in it.

The part of my brain with the shadow on it

houses memory, language, emotions,

each function a Tarot card waiting to be turned.

Will I learn to understand physics without them?

St. Augustine had a dream.  In it a small boy

tried to empty the ocean into his bucket.

The dream, the saint said, was a metaphor

for trying to grasp God with our minds.

The world is full

of mysteries.

The world is full.

9-3-08

Capture-2

 

 
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