Word Medicine

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

The White Rabbit July 31, 2013

timeArtists, and the old, and the sick and the unemployed, often experience time in a way that non-artists, the young, and the well-employed do not.

 

This is not all bad, and can be good.  Nora Gallagher in her recent book, Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic, speaks of her sense of time changing when she learns that she has a rare and serious illness.  She said she looked at the people on the other side of the “glass,”  the non-sick, the “bizzy,”  who had all been like her, and she realized they didn’t see her, didn’t want to see her. Part of her wants to go back to being “bizzy,” because before she was behind glass, she had a clear sense of herself, her importance, her power, and her place in the scheme of things.  She learns, slowly, to acclimate to her enforced slowness and disability, and gradually comes to readjust her inner sense of time.  Instead of planning and executing, she begins to live in the present.  She says,

 

“If you stayed in the present, if you paid attention thoroughly to the now, what it had in it might come to you.  And if you did not pay attention to the present, you might miss essential information that might be exactly what you need.”

 

I had an experience the other day of transitioning from one sense of time to the other.  At the drugstore/post office in our neighborhood, I bumped into BJ, an artist friend of my father’s.  I have always felt warmly to him—he is gregarious, funny, and kind. I was also surprised to see him out and about, because he has cancer, and has had it for some time.  Truth be told, I wasn’t sure he was still with us until I saw him.  He was jaundiced and seemed to have shrunk a bit, but his eyes were full of mischief.

 

I was just leaving and had in my hand a list of errands to do.  My engine was revved and I didn’t want to linger.  But linger I did, because once we got family news out of the way,  he started regaling me with stories of his adventures with my dad, who has been gone eighteen years.  I was happy to hear about Dad having a good time—I think BJ might have egged him on to some shenanigans.  Then somehow we got on to writing letters, and I told him how delighted I was to get an actual hand-written note from my friend, who refuses to be “social media-d.”

 

We were off and running.  I glanced down at my to-do list with the sinking feeling I wasn’t going to get anything done.  BJ pulled out his pen, a Mont Blanc and told me how he writes with it on Crane stationary.  Then we talked about paper, about the satisfaction of writing on a good thick rag paper, and I felt suddenly nostalgic for stationary and fountain pens.  He says he spends a lot of time writing letters to old friends, all of them decorated with sketches.  One elderly woman had her maid read all her letters because of macular degeneration, and when she died, the maid wrote him and asked him to write her—she missed his letters!  He used to write another friend and when he died he wrote his wife, who shared them with her sister and when the wife died he wrote her sister, who shared them all with her cronies in a home in Florida.

 

Having thoroughly relinquished my future plans for the day, I stood there is awe of him.  Here he was, sick, but keeping all these people entertained and engaged while the rest of the world rushed headlong—no time, no time, said the white rabbit—to what?  Really, what was so important?  What is important, a wise woman said to me a few days ago, is Presence.  And that was what he was sharing with me, and so many others.

 

Funnily enough, I got all my errands done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

My Morning with Matisse December 3, 2012

30MATISSE1-articleLargeLast Friday morning, I was arrested by three images of portraits by Matisse reproduced in the Arts section of the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/30/arts/design/matisse-exhibition-at-the-metropolitan-museum-of-art.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0. ) I love Matisse, and hadn’t remembered seeing these paintings.  There was something elemental about them, with their simple shapes and limited palette.  At first, they almost seem childlike in their freshness and seeming effortlessness.    But as I read further in Roberta Smith’s wonderful review, I learned that “that Matisse’s progress was often grueling and yet….., he worked through his difficulties to a final image that exudes consummate freshness and ease.”  He revisited certain “scenes and subjects and at times also making superficially similar if drastically divergent copies of his paintings.”  According to Ms. Smith, “Always he sought an implicitly modern directness and rawness that created a brave new intimacy among artist, object and viewer. He claimed to work “toward what I feel; toward a kind of ecstasy.””

I sipped my coffee and soaked in the images.  But perhaps what stood out most for me was the phrase, “he worked through his difficulties to a final image that exudes consummate freshness and ease.”  So often when we view art or read a finished poem or story, what we experience is the completeness, the inevitability of the work of art.  Because the work, if it is good, has the energy and spontaneity of the original impulse, we don’t appreciate the many stages of revision, the detours and setbacks that go into making it.  The awe we feel at what was once considered the “divine spark” overshadows the very human process, the often grueling process, that goes into creating a work.

Somehow I felt buoyed up to learn of Matisse’s process.  I know that in my own writing and very amateurish attempts at visual art, I’ve often given up before something was “done.”  Dispirited by the incompleteness, by the raw edges showing through, I haven’t persisted, or worked through a piece.  I’ve wanted to jump over the hard working through to the finished project, not realizing that it is in the working through that one often discovers the truest essence of the piece.

In the movie, A Late Quartet, Christopher Walken plays a cellist and teacher who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.  When one of his students criticizes another student, he tells them his story of meeting Pablo Casals when he was a young student, and playing for him.  What Walken’s character remembers are all the mistakes he made, but when he goes on to play with Casals later and tells him how mortified he was by the mistakes, Casals’ response was to remember what was felicitous about the young man’s playing.  So often as we struggle to create, we see only the mistakes, and too often give up on ourselves.

What does all this have to do with writing and healing?  Not everyone who comes to a healing writing class is interested in creating art.  However, I have found that participants are often very interested in craft, in “getting better.”  Offering our own experiences of process, and gently encouraging participants to persist through frustration, can lead to a sense of mastery, which is in itself healing.  By pointing out the positive, we can support them as they explore ways to deepen their work, and we can model the human enterprise that making art is.

 

Why Write? September 1, 2012

I have been involved recently with trying to save a beloved, historic community  pool in our town.  Activism is so much fun!  You immediately feel part of a community, and there is something new to engage with everyday.  As a kid, I always wanted to be Brenda Starr–that dates me–and now I’m getting my Brenda Starr kicks.  I use my writing skills for the purpose of something concrete and useful.

Sadly, I can’t spend all my time on activism.  I feel the tug of my own work waiting for me, stamping in the wings, getting a little impatient.  I’ve set aside these months to review where I’ve been and where I want to go.  It has been very nurturing, for instance, to look through old letters, finding pieces of myself I’ve forgotten.  I am “feasting on my life,” as Derek Walcott admonishes in his beautiful poem, “Love after Love.”   I sense I’m at a turning point–certainly my daughter’s marriage and my aunt’s death both have pushed the wheel of my life forward, and I’m trying to find my balance in this new place.

Speaking of Derek Walcott, when I was a very young woman, I went to a writers’ conference where he excoriated one of my poems, and I stopped writing poetry for 15 years.  “You don’t understand poetry,”  he raged at me, red-faced.  Since I held his work in high esteem,  I was as hollowed out as a tree struck with blight.  Now, as an older woman, I understand that every judgement of another’s work is in some way a projection of the judge’s own issues.  I would caution a young poet not to give away too much of her power, no matter how highly esteemed the judge is.

Having confidence is important to a writer, but a difficult trick.  Nadine Gordimer once used this simile about  writing a novel :  “it is like tight-rope walking over a chasm.  If you look down, you are lost.”  Stubbornly, a writer needs to go back to the well of his own imagination, even if that imagination is not in sync with the times.

I just read a marvelous review of the work of Gina Berriault by Daphne Kalotay in the September/October issue of Poets and Writers.  Ms. Berriault is one of my favorite short-story writers, and even though she had a good career, her work is still little known .  She had a marvelous restraint in her prose, and quiet empathy for her characters.  If you haven’t read her work, you should.  She had a sense of writing as both a vocation and a career, and the vocation came first.  She was never as well-known as many of us thought she should have been, but I think the fact is that she kept at it, she was true to herself, and whether or not she found favor in the marketplace wasn’t her not her primary concern.

I look to her as a model as I attempt to “get my work out” into the world.  I am not unhappy with the choices I have made and where I find myself in life.  I’m no superwoman, and my family came first.  I never stopped writing–even though for two years I was unable to write.  I stayed true to my contract with myself as I slowly recovered, even though I had no energy for a career.  I am even happy for those years of illness and recovery, for what I learned and the places they took me.  I am happy to have found another vocation, that of teaching writing as a healing modality.  Yet now, I find myself coming back to my own work, interrogating it.  What does it want to be, how does it want to be used? At a time when most people are safely gliding to retirement, these questions are still alive for me.

One writes for oneself, but also, in the hopes of readers.  My enduring model of the artist is of the chef in “Babette’s Feast.”  Authentic art is prepared with skill to give pleasure to both the chef and the diners–not all diners will appreciate the skill that goes into it, but the point is the feast itself, and the transformations that may come from it.

I find the vocabulary of the literary marketplace disheartening: pitchings, platforms and pandering.  However, I try to visualize my reader–someone to sit down with to enjoy a good feast.  Maybe fig tarts and lamb stews are not to everyone’s taste–all we can do is put them on the table.

 

When is Writing Not the Answer? February 13, 2012

Is writing or journaling always appropriate?  Does it always lead to healing?

Last week, one of the participants in my class read a short piece,”Why do I Journal?” in which said, “Sometimes pain doesn’t go away…..Hope–the jury is still out.”  I appreciated her honesty, and even more her pain-filled eyes as she turned to me.  Writing wasn’t helping her.  She was in a dark depression, a cyclical depression, and nothing she could pull up was helping her.  It had helped her greatly in the past, and the journal had been her companion.  But now–nothing. I thanked her for her honesty, which led to a discussion about the times writing may not be appropriate.  I suggested that finding comfort in other ways might help, and if she wanted to keep to her journaling rhythm, that haiku, with its focus on the external world, on nature, might be a good place to start, but not to add any more stress to herself by forcing introspection.

In contrast to her, another woman, new to the class, wrote several powerful laments about feelings of abandonment by her family when she became chronically ill.  Her poems were full of feeling–of hurt, rage, fear, despair.  This woman did find relief in her writing, at last expressing all the feelings that had burdened her as much as her illness burdened her.

What was the difference between each of these women’s experiences?  Is one experience “better” than the other?  What are the variables a writing facilitator should keep in mind when encounter such different responses?

Findings involving journaling suggest that “dwelling on emotions alone may be counterproductive in terms of health outcomes. …writers may be able to relive the physiological and emotional activation of the trauma during its recall, but because they are focused on the affective experience, they may not be able to work through the trauma to reach a state of resolution from which they have a different perspective.” (Lutgendorf and Ullrich in Lepore and Smyth,The Writing Cure, 2002, p.182).   In the case of an intractable depression,  intense introspection may not yield relief.  What is needed is a connection outside the self, as in nature, and a sense of being part of a community.  In this sense, the fact that this woman attends the class, responds to others, and is able to read of her failure to find comfort in writing, is in itself, salutary.

On the other hand, the second woman’s writing provided for her a strengthening of her voice, a relief of a burden of unexpressed emotions.  By writing about the chaos of her illness, she was able to come finally to an imagination of a place of refuge, where “No Harm is Done Here. ”  The class, by witnessing to her struggles, provided the very support that she had found missing previously.  She seemed to come into focus, both for herself and for us.  Her writing had been a gateway into a stronger sense of self, something that we would hope for all participants, yet it is not the only response.

As writing facilitators, I think we have to be aware that there is no one template for responding to writing.  Writing is not always a panacea.  I think we need to be aware of formulaic thinking, of assuming that one size fits all.  Sometimes confronting trauma head on is curative, sometimes it is destructive.   Sometimes introspection is fruitfull, sometimes it is not.  In this way, we can bring a more nuanced sensiblity to the process of leading writing workshops.

 

 

 

 

Voice Lessons October 26, 2011

For months, I’ve been receiving promotional emails about voice lessons. I’d “phished” for them in a moment of weakness, but then decided I couldn’t afford them. Finally, on my birthday, they were offered very reasonably. So I splurged. I could cancel anytime with no penalty, so I figured what was the problem? Still, I was skeptical. How good could a video lesson be, anyway?

I have sung in the church choir for years, but always hiding behind stronger, more confident singers. Ever since I was a kid, I loved to sing. I remember belting out some musical tune, maybe something from the Music Man, and being told I was flat. I didn’t know what that meant, but I decided against singing in front of anyone after that. As a teenager, driving alone in the car, I would indulge sometimes, until I remembered I couldn’t sing and my song would peter out. When I first married, my husband, afflicted with perfect pitch, would, in his cool scientific way, observe that I was singing the wrong note as I did the dishes, that the song in question had perfectly reasonable notes and there was no need to improvise.

Never mind. In the privacy of my study, with all naysayers gone, I opened my first lesson. The singing coach, a male confection of blue eyes and a calm friendly voice, told me to forget everything I had ever learned about singing, about breathing. Great by me. He started off with just breathing, exhaling and speaking, showing how singing is an extension of talking. He had me wiggle my head, loosen my tongue, and just make sounds, as if sighing or exasperated. “Never mind about the note!” he said, and he didn’t have to ask twice. I was having fun. And the sounds I made were quite nice, I thought. Then he explained how constriction and tightness create the opposite of what we want, “We want power, not force,” he said, and sang a scale demonstrating force, with his face and neck tight and anxious, and then again, in a relaxed way, so that the sound just poured out of him, like water flowing out of a wide-mouthed pitcher. “See, that’s better, isn’t it?” he said soothingly. “We want trust, not fear. You try.” And he smiled encouragingly. I did, and it was better.

The next day in church I sang with new-found confidence. And that was only lesson one.

In many ways, writing is like singing. Writing to heal is first a form of self-discovery and expression, secondly a performance. When we write, and when we facilitate others, I think we all bear some legacy of constriction. Many people, even professional writers, have fears about addressing the blank page, which is why people like Eric Maisel write books like Mastering Creative Anxiety: 24 Lessons for Writers, Painters, Musicians, and Actors from America’s Foremost Creativity Coach.

If this is true for professional writers, how much more true is it for the untrained folks who brave a writing class. The people who come to us in a healthcare setting have varying backgrounds and varying degrees of confidence and skill. Some haven’t finish high school, and others remember with a sting the heartfelt paper returned to them marked in heart-sinking red ink. Some have set ideas of what writing is, and some have no idea. Most have a conviction that whatever they do will be “wrong,” that there is a “right” way to do it, albeit one that is written in invisible ink. These differences and beliefs offer a huge challenge to the facilitator. How do we get them to “never mind the note,” but to relax and open up?

As in singing, as in drawing, the first way is to allow enough relaxation so that participants can begin to see the process of one of play, of enjoyment. One way to do this is to connect with breath, perhaps by using a meditation that focuses on the breath. This allows people to inhabit their bodies. Then, instead of moving to the mind, we move to movement. This can be done through the kinds of doodling and clustering that Gabriele Rico uses in her seminal Pain and Possibility, so that writing as first experienced is a form of drawing. Another way to do this is to have writers read outloud, from the very beginning, so that the words they write are not merely sounded in the mind, but sounded through voice and body, embodied as in Robert Pinsky’s wonderful poem, “Rhyme” :

Air an instrument of the tongue,
The tongue an instrument
Of the body, the body
An instrument of spirit,
The spirit a being of the air……

Slowly, I’m learning to reclaim my voice, to delight in it. I’m finding I can do things I never thought possible. This is what I want for my students: less force, more power; less fear, more trust.

 

Elegy May 17, 2011

Easter Sunday and I am in Iowa City, waiting for the shuttle to take me to Cedar Rapids.  The Examined Life Conference: Writing and the Art of Medicine has been three heady days of talks, poetry readings and rich exchanges, but now I am tired and ready to head home.  I watch the clouds in the blue sky drift above the swiftly flowing river.  Easter Sunday without hymns or eggs, without family and friends, feels odd.

The shuttle driver comes, a wizened elf with two hearing aids, and gamely grabs my overloaded suitcase.  He tells me Easter isn’t big at his house–one daughter, a stewardess, will be in Maui, the other is in Boston.  We pass a hawk standing on the curb, calmly scanning the road, and my elf remarks that he’s killed two of them who were eating his wife’s songbirds. That leads him to the story of the old Tom Turkey and his mate, the two of them standing in the middle of the highway.  “Yep, I passed them twice today. They’re  gone now,” he says, “not killed, just wised up and got out of the road.”

I ask him about his daughter in Boston, but he can’t hear me, which is fine, because I’m out of talk myself.  I gaze out the window as the miles of now gray clouds gather over the golden stubbled fields, the black, black earth, the greening hills.  We pass a creek, a silvery snail trail in a marshy field, stands of trees reaching bare branches to the sky.  A trio of blackbirds startle, exploding like scattershot.  I am silently marveling at the balm nature is, how these sights soothe me, when we come upon a strip mall of big box stores plunked down in the middle of empty farmland.  It looks incongruous and  arrogant  in the windswept landscape.  Then we are back into pure farmland, the patchwork fields unrolling like a Hockney painting–patches of green, black and gold.  A dilapidated red barn and farmhouse appear,  walls sagging, roof showing sky, sheltered by large trees.   My heart goes out to the abandoned place, a place that seems singular, built on a human scale, and I find myself imagining the life lived there.  I picture a rusted plow still in the barn, a pitchfork and spade, their wooden handles worn smooth with the farmer’s hand.  I imagine the interminable snow storms, the smell of wet wool and kerosene inside the house, cornbread baked in an iron skillet over a wood fire.  I tell myself not to romanticize it, to remember the children born dead on kitchen tables, the lack of resources, education, stimulation, and yet, still, I can’t help imagining a child walking through those woods, fishing in that clear stream, time stretched out for him like the field itself.

The night before, I had the pleasure of attending a reading by poet Robert Pinksy.  He called himself a crank, aware of our possibility of self-annihilation, the fact that we may leave our civilization to the cockroaches.  There was an elegiac feel to many of the poems, and he said he is aware more and more, not only of his physical and spiritual ancestors, but also of the ancestors of words.  Using Yiddish as an example, he said “We lose whole worlds when it dies.”   As an example, he cited aYiddish expression his grandmother used that meant literally, “Go away!” but meant, actually, “Come here!”  The intimacy, the humor, the play of feelings in one short expression, gone.  I thought of that as I passed the old farmhouse, thought of the words and worlds and experiences lost to us, those of my prairie ancestors, my Irish immigrant ancestors, all superseded by ever more current jargon, the often reductionist speech of the academy, of the various professions, or the vacuous shorthand of tweets and textings.

Pinsky in his poems, insists on the singularity of the made thing. He takes  something as simple as a shirt, examining the way it is crafted,  its “nearly invisible stitches” and from there imagining it being turned in a sweatshop by “Korean or Malaysians/Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break.”  He examines a cuff and imagines the Triangle Factory fire, then notices how the patterns  match perfectly “….like a strict rhyme/Or a major chord” and then his mind segues to the clan tartans “Invented by millowners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,/to control their savage Scottish workers…”  ( “Shirt). Language, for him, is a repository of living history; poetry, for him, is embodied breath.  “Air an instrument of the tongue,/The tongue an instrument/Of the body, the body/An instrument of spirit,/The spirit a being of the air.”  (“Rhyme).*

An old man shoots a hawk that kills his wife’s songbirds.  A worn spade handle disintegrates in a barn, its owners’ descendants, oblivious,  shop for shirts made in sweatshops by people who place votive offerings to golden Buddhas.  It is the world; it is the world we weave with words.

Robert Pinksy, Selected Poems, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York

 

After a Long Absence October 6, 2010

Dear Readers,

I hope you are still out there.  I guess I needed a long hiatus to swim, relax, just be.  But fall is finally here and I’m half-way through my fall writing class at the cancer center, and as always, I marvel at what a privilege it is to be witness to the richness of so many lives and so much courage.  Because it takes courage to face the empty page, to face, as one of the participants said yesterday, “my demons.”

That particular writer wrote a short, spine-tingling impressionistic piece about spousal abuse, using the image of being put into a rotten, rat and snake infested well, of calling and pleading for help, only to have her husband stand at the top of the well, laughing at her.  The visceral images and strong verbs: rotting, slithering, pleading, had the group by the neck.  We felt the terror, without the word terror needing to be used.  In the reflection she wrote about the act of writing that piece,  she said that even though it was hard to go back to that experience, once she got it on paper she felt better, more at peace.

I am reading another friend’s fascinating and lengthy memoir.  On our morning walks she has described how she had to write this tome, to put the chaos of her young experience into some kind of order.  She has for years gone home after work and written, often times feeling guilt at not being more accessible to her children.  Yet, she maintains, she had to write this to be a whole person, and she feels that she is a more authentic parent for it.

The poet Karl Shapiro has this to say about writing and pathology: “The prevalence of the tragic and the pathological in great works of literature has misled many theorists ino the belief that art is symptomatic of psychic disorder, whereas it is the opposite.  Art is a way of reaching for wholeness by way of the assimilation of the pathic into the joyousness of the unified being….”  (Foreward, Life on the Line: selections on words and healing).

Another writer of breathtaking courage I have the honor of having in our class, wrote a long piece about years of being stuck, of facing the feeling of not making a difference, and yet also of affirming that it has only been

through her suffering that she has become “real.”   She ends her lament about “time  (that) cannot be regained,” though, with the observation that it is “time to change how I see…..time to love.”

For those of us attending to these works, we borrow courage to look at our own demons, to know that we can face them and know that we too can survive.  For the writers sharing their work with us, those demons b

ecome less potent because the writers are no longer alone with them.  It is this sharing which I think brings the process of healing to another level.  We are meant not only to create art, but to share it, for our own good and the good of all.

So here we all are, imperfect, striving for wholeness, facing our demons, becoming, slowly, more “real.”  It is time.

 

Climbing Above June 16, 2010

I recently received a call from one of the social workers at our cancer center.  She was concerned about a woman in my group who had scored high for depression on our intake forms.  She wondered why I hadn’t referred her for individual counseling.  “She didn’t present as depressed,” I explained.  As a matter of fact, she had been one that I least worried about.  She was engaged, lively, full of humor and right on the mark with new skills and ideas.  I knew the facts of her life; they were dire, and those facts would stand, to everyone’s grief.  But for two hours a week, she was not mired in those facts.  She was free to exercise the other parts of herself that were neither patient nor caregiver.  She was free to think, imagine, communicate, laugh. In the past, I have referred participants to our counselors, or have gently suggested that they might find what they need there instead of in the writing group.  But in this case I saw no reason.  It seemed she was doing what she needed to do to help herself.

Ted Deppe, a splendid poet and psychiatric nurse, often writes about his pediatric charges.  In a poem called “The Japanese Deer,” he describes taking the children on an outing to the Lost Village. On a walk in the countryside, he truly gets lost, then comes upon an “apparition of apple blossoms.” The children break ranks and run towards the trees, climbing the upper branches and adorning themselves with apple blossoms.  Here is a stanza from that poem:

What’s true in this story is that Marisol,

raped repeatedly by her mother’s boyfriend,

and Luis, who watched from the hall as his stepfather

stabbed his mother to death–nothing

can change those facts–climbed for a short time

above the brambled understory, outside history,

discovered a fragrant scent on their hands,

shredded more petals, rubbed the smell deep in their skin.

In the poem, the children are entranced by the apple blossoms and the idea of tiny Japanese deer.  Although they didn’t actually see the deer, the idea of them is so real, some of the children were sure they’d “seen the whole herd.”  I love this poem.  It does not deny the horror of the children’s lives, but it also does not deny them their moment of transcendence.  I love the visual pun of the brambled understory and climbing up above the facts of their histories. Our histories are a part of us, but they do not define us.  I love also how this moment is sensual, how instinctual the children are in rubbing “the fragrant smell into their skins.”  One thinks of all the Biblical stories of anointing by fragrant oil in the presence of the sacred.  This moment was sacred, and Deppe suggests this beautifully.

The social worker and I grieved together over my writer’s  plight.  Yet I have had the privilege of listening to her wonderful stories, full of beauty and drama and pathos and humor.  I think of the last line of Deppe’s poem “….impossible, all of it,/but this is the way he remembers it; this is the truth.”

“The Japanese Deer,” from Cape Clear  New and Selected Poems, by Theodore Deppe, Salmonpoetry,  www.salmonpoetry.com

 

 

 

The Soul is Shy May 6, 2010

I’m reading A Hidden Wholeness: the Journey Toward an Undivided Life, by Parker J. Palmer.  Sometimes a book comes into your life to answer your questing or to reaffirm an intuition.  This book does both for me.  My workshops are built on the premise that each person’s Self knows what the person needs to be whole, that what we provide are the tools and the space to dialogue with the Self .  The other main premise is that we need to be witnesses to each other’s stories, that a respectful community of people willing to be present and to listen creates the conditions for a person to hear herself more clearly. A Hidden Wholeness addresses both these issues, but fleshes out why and how “the blizzard of the world” has overturned “the order of the soul” and the conditions that he has discovered in twenty years of working and teaching that open a place for the soul, “that life-giving core of the human self, with its hunger for truth and justice, love and forgiveness.”

One of the conditions for holding a healing space is to avoid “fixing, saving, advising and setting each other straight.”  This is one hard discipline, not just for the facilitator but for the other participants as well.

Let me tell you a story.  Two days ago, a member of our group, a wonderful, grandmotherly, lively woman in her sixties, told us that she had been in and out of the hospital for the last two weeks.  Sitting there in a beautiful apple green shirt and gold necklace, with her dancing brown eyes, she described how she had to take her elderly husband, now with full-blown dementia, to the hospital with her because he would not be left with anyone else.  Her heart is failing, and because she had cancer five years ago, has about three other serious conditions, it is clear she will not get a heart, which go to younger, healthier candidates.  She told us her liver and kidneys are shutting down.  She said all this without self-pity and even with humor.  Looking around at our stricken faces, she laughed, “Aw, honey, that’s the least of it.  I could tell you stories.”

The mother/fixer in me was inwardly screaming, “Surely there is respite care!  Surely something can be done!  She deserves to live!”  I really like this woman who I’ve gotten to know over the last two years.  She writes incredible stories of growing up in the South when you still had a mule and chickens in the back yard, and only went to town two or three times a year.  She has described growing up with a nanny and never being able to tell her she loved her, of throwing out her learned prejudices, of teaching in the public schools where she had children plant gardens  and kill chickens to learn about survival out West, of teaching a class of recalcitrant, truant children she was saddled with how to have a proper tea.  She had us in stitches over her descriptions of her  large, shaggy boys holding the teacup with their pinkies extended, politely asking each other if they would like another cup.  Those kids, white and black,  came back to her, and told her how much she much she had meant to them many years later. Why?  Because she saw past their color, their labels, and she believed they could learn to serve tea.  She believed there was more to them than they believed themselves.

One of our participants gently asked if she knew of the Alzheimer’s support group.  She waved her hands and rolled her eyes. “Oh, lordy, yes, I have all that literature,” but it was clear she had no intention of going.  “He won’t let anybody else take care of him,” she said.   Others made sounds of dismay, spoke soft words of comfort, but I maintained silence and soon we all fell silent.  We were there to witness, to allow her to speak her sorrow, to speak the truth of her life.  Everything in me wanted to excoriate a system that would not save her, to arrange for respite care, to find ways to make this not so.  But it was so.  What we could do for her was to simply hear it.

The silence grew from slightly uncomfortable to more comfortable.  We went on with our group sharing.  We went on to write Renga.  We went on to listen and to attend to each other’s stories.

The soul, writes Palmer, “is creative: it finds its way between realities that might defeat us and fantasies that are mere escapes.”   The soul is also shy, and sometimes needs a cup of tea, or a circle of loving hearts offering silence.  

 

 
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