Word Medicine

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

Confusing Times September 7, 2017

Filed under: aging parents,Grief,stress — saratbaker @ 8:35 pm
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“By yielding, we may obtain victory.” –Ovid

Do you know the term “at sixes and sevens?” That sort of off-center feeling of not quite knowing what to do next, a subtle disorientation? That is how I’ve been feeling lately. My mother is experiencing memory loss, and has been for some time. This was brought home to me in a dramatic way recently, when I saw how confused she was in a large store. I realized that we had turned a corner–we are in deeper waters than I had let myself realize. Things are changing quickly. My role is changing, and this woman who has always been so fiercely independent, is suddenly reliant on me in a way I never expected. It is bittersweet—sweet because she now allows me a kind of intimacy we’ve not had before, and bitter because I don’t want to lose her. As a friend of mine says, “life is a series of not-totally unexpected blows.”  Nothing about this is unexpected, but facing into the lived reality feels vertiginous.

Not long after our trip, I went to Earth Fare. I did a few errands and sat down to gather myself together and write a to-do list. It was pleasant to be in the neighborhood store, and I felt less alone with my own thoughts. I realized that I was holding my breath. So I tried to just breathe. There was nothing I could do about my sense of confusion, so I tried to relax into it. (The operative word here is tried.)

The-Queen-of-Hearts-S As I flipped through my tiny note book, I came across this line in a poem by Pamela Wilson: “Not knowing, even confusion, when met, reveals itself as wisdom in its potentiality, pure intelligence.” The poem was from a workshop by Johanna Royo on Heart-Centered Living during a one-day conference, Healing the World through Art, at the Georgia Museum of Art. Johanna described an experience of deep depression and loneliness in her life which led her to her practice of Heart-Centered Living. She said that at the very worst moment, she sat on the floor of her kitchen and it seemed that a huge black hole opened up. And then, instead of resisting it, she fell into it. And came out laughing. She realized that was the resistance and fear that were keeping her stuck.

Sitting there in Earth Fare, I saw an old friend I hadn’t seen in a while.  We chatted, talking about family, when she asked about my mother. She had known and loved my parents for a long time. Not only that, her husband had dementia for twenty years, a fact I had forgotten.  As I described my grief and fears, she nodded with understanding. It was a relief to talk about it with someone who didn’t shy away from the reality I was facing. She gave me good practical advice, and she also described the unexpected gifts that came from his illness. She said that over the course of his illness, he became much more affectionate. They shared an intimacy that in some ways was because of the illness. She described their last anniversary, which was celebrated in the hospital. Because the illness had made him blind, she had to describe the pureed food she was feeding him. They laughed about how when they married they never could have imagined celebrating their anniversary in such a way. She also described how, at the very end, when they thought nothing could reach him, a nurse singing a German folk song caused him to “wake up” and sing along with her in German. It was an unexpected gift of having him back, however briefly.

In a way I could never have orchestrated, I talked with the very person I needed to talk with that day. I left the store feeling lighter, clearer, and less afraid.

Note to readers: I have not posted since January. It was in January that my life felt upended—we had just inaugurated a man I feel is unfit to be president, my mother’s memory issues intensified, and I was under tremendous pressure to sell my book—which meant acquiring a whole new set of skills. My body protested. I am feeling on a more even keel now, and plan to post more frequently.

 

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Travels July 5, 2016

Marsh

Sitting on the porch of our rental house on Tybee Island, Georgia, I hear the morning calls of cardinals and the raucous caw of a crow in the palm tree whose fronds brush the screen of the porch. Across the dirt road, beyond the palmetto and live oak and Spanish moss, glimmers the water of the marsh, where a snowy egret slowly descends. The air is briny and heavy. I feel my body melt into the chair. Time has slowed and me with it. We call it Tybee time.

We rent a different house on the island each year, and this year there was a bonanza. The house was loaded with books. I don’t mean the usual shelf of worn paperbacks, but stacks on every horizontal surface, in window nooks, stacked precariously on shelves, coffee tables, bedside tables. And what books! Really good fiction and non-fiction by Anne Lamott, Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver, and many more. I had brought a load of my own, enough for my daughter and me. But there is nothing like the thrill of looking through someone else’s stash. I couldn’t settle on a book until into my hands tumbled Sue Monk Kidd and Anne Kidd Taylor’s Traveling with Pomegranates. It was a book I didn’t know I was hungry for. After one page, I was riveted.

A memoir of both inner and outer travel, I was particularly taken with Sue Monk Kid’s description of coming to terms with aging, of letting go of a younger version of herself. She describes going to Eleusis with her daughter Ann, and feeling the grief both of the loss of her daughter to adulthood, and the loss of the inner “girl” in herself, the inner youthful energy. She writes: “How did this happen? Where did time go? Where did we go? Those other selves?” Yes, I thought, exactly. Where did we go?

Contemplating the myth of Demeter and Persephone (as well as Demeter’s mother, Hestia), Sue makes a sacrificial gesture of cutting a lock of her hair and dropping it into the well at Eleusis. She had read that if one accepts aging, there is the potential to grow into the fullest version of oneself, and that is her intention. But to do that, she has to feel this grief, to descend into Hades herself, to submit to the dark.

Here at the beach, in this place of liminality, of the meeting between consciousness and unconsciousness, between solid ground and mutable water, I stand on a similar threshold. Because I had a child late, facing into old age has been somewhat delayed for me. But as my son leaves for college, I am becoming more and more aware of my age. I want to face it gracefully and with consciousness, but like all of us, I shrink from the task. Where are the guideposts along the way? Change is inevitable, but transformation requires engaging with the process.

For Sue, she found strength in a new relationship with Mary in her many guises. Having rejected the plaster pastel version of Mary–as I did–she had resorted to a cosmic idea of Mary. But in her distress and need, she craved a more personal encounter. With each encounter with Mary in Greece and France—as Isis, Panygria, or the Black Madonna—she experienced a deepening in her understanding of the mysteries of a woman’s life. In the narrative of Mary’s life, she limned the patterns of every woman’s life. One aspect of a woman’s life is found in the visitation to Elizabeth, which Kidd sees as the necessity of seeking community with other woman. This resonated with me, as I had a pilgrimage of my own to make.

My friend Susan Murphy is one of the world’s premier aerial dancers. After a successful New York career, a West Coast career and then establishing a successful trapeze company and school in Athens, Georgia, she moved back to the coastal marshes of her youth. I had been trying to get down to see her for years, and here was my chance. For me, Susan has been a soul sister, someone I can go deep with. I had had several dreams about Susan the month before. Like Mary visiting Elizabeth, it seemed somehow fated. So I headed down the highway to her marsh studio.

She lives deep in the marsh, and time seems even slower there than in Tybee. We talked about spirituality, poetry, nature, aging, and especially the matrilineal legacy. We talked about where we had come from and what we would leave behind. She is caring for her aging mother, as is just about everyone woman I know. Even though she was tired, she graced me with a poem and dance she had created in honor of her grandmother and great-grandmother. As I watched, it seemed like the embodiment of the Hester-Demeter-Persephone triad. “Dance is the expression of the Spirit,” said Isadora Duncan, quoted in Pomegranates. 

That is what I did on my summer vacation. I hope you enjoy Susan’s poem below. May the book you need falls into your hands sometime soon, may you encounter someone with whom to share your spirit, and may you dance.

 

Susan’s Poem

My Precious One

Dearest darling girl

My Dearest Susan

 Through the years Grandmama began each of her many letters to me with those endearments.  Can you imagine?  Her love was all-embracing and unadorned.  Every day she blew though her whole reserve.  

 Grandmother never felt comfortable at stand-up cocktail parties.  “I couldn’t be on my feet that long,” she said  “and because I didn’t drink, I never knew what to do with my hands.”  But she knew what to do with that big ol’ heart of hers.  She knew what to do with that big ol’ heart of hers.  Her radiant love flowed out of her, an artisan well of life-giving waters.  Grandmama….

 Now my great-grandmother, Munzie, was one of the first women lawyers inGeorgia in the 1930’s.  She was one of the first civil rights lawyers in the South.

Munzie would say to me:  Don’t just FEEL.  Put your feet to the fire with all those feelings.  Put your feet to the fire with all those feelings. And follow your heart, you’ll suffer either way. 

I dance for Grandmama’s unquestioning heartbreaking devotion.

I dance for the love she, as an orphan, never had yet somehow    

         found to give 

I dance for my great-grandmother’s fierce pioneering spirit

            and the love she voiced in her tireless fight for

            social justice

I dance for the vision they had of a better world…a world of fair

            treatment for all and unremitting tenderness for the one. 

I dance for the pain of their unfulfilled dreams.

I dance for the possible fruition of their spirit, living in me.

I dance for all their genes, humming in my body.

I dance for the genes I pass on, a different way than blood.

I dance in sadness and joy, remembering and honoring, their lives and

    their loving.

I dance…yes… believing in a better world…believing that the walls that separate

    us could    start    tumbling    down.

I dance for the possibility of our hearts opening to kindness, compassion and love.

I dance for you.

I dance for me.

I dance.

The Marsh Studio

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside the Circle February 5, 2014

Mary Gelpi in her January 27th post, Unwell, Unafraid (http://25pillsaday.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/unwell-unafraid/), on her blog, Fibromy-Awesome, writes a cogent description of what living with Chronic Fatigue/Fibromyalgia is like:  “A crash day followed by a crash day followed by a crash day. Somehow it’s worse when you’ve been feeling well.  All the years I’ve been sick, all the crash days and months, and I still can’t remember how bad it feels. It always pulls the rug out from under me–more so if I’ve had good health. Over and over, I forget. How incapacitating it is. How depressing it can get. When you’re moving and doing and performing tasks, you don’t think about these things. You don’t have to. You’re fitting in and alongside the rest of the functioning, productive world and that’s how you like it.”

 

This is one of the best descriptions of living with CFIDS/Fibro that I’ve read.  But I winced when I read it, because Mary is my daughter’s age, and I hate the thought of her having to deal with the compromises this illness brings at her age. Yet I admire her for her honesty and spunk.  At twice her age, I still haven’t been able to figure out how to manage the push/crash cycle of living within the boundaries of this illness.  As she says, it is worse when you’ve had a period of time feeling well.  My vet once said animals heal more quickly from things like strokes because they don’t know they’ve had a stroke—they just want to chase the ball.  In a sense, our animal bodies just want to get up and go when we are feeling well.  We may know intellectually that we have to be careful, but it is so delicious to feel that small burst of energy, that we just go with it.

 

I think for me another difficulty is how I perceive myself.  Reacting to the role of invalid, which makes one feel in-valid, I sometimes push myself to go and do in order to experience myself  having both social roles and mastery in some areas of my life.  This isn’t always bad—on the contrary, I’ve been surprised at how often things turn out well.  But I have created a life in which there is a lot of down time.  From the outside, it would seem, perhaps, that the circumference of my life is small, but there is often great richness within that small circle.

 

I think perhaps the biggest problem is not just figuring out how to participate in life as a person with chronic illness, but also what attitude to take towards our own difficulties.  Ironically, for me when I was at my sickest, it was when I was able to accept my illness and release my expectations, that I began to heal.  I read Kat Duff’s beautiful book, The Alchemy of Illness, which I can’t recommend highly enough.  I learned radical acceptance from her, and found in that dark night of the soul that there is something in us that is not dependent on our abilities or accomplishments, and is our truest nature.

 

Yet as we heal, we are also asked to revisit the question of how to live our lives, with what attitude. It seems we have to resolve the issue over and over again, that it is never settled once and for all.  I recently came across this in Helen Luke’s book, The Way of Women, in an essay on suffering:  “A question to be asked in moods of weakness or depression is, ‘Am I grading myself or am I recognizing the golden opportunity to suffer and so deny to some small degree the ego’s demand for prestige?” She writes that deadly guilt is often inverted pride, and we have to be on the lookout for false values, as in “I ought to be like God himself, free of all weaknesses.”  However, and this is such an important distinction for me, she doesn’t equate acceptance with resignation.  “Hope for release is another thing, both natural and right, as are also the efforts to come out of a mood or sickness…..real acceptance will lead us to seek appropriate help.”

 

I want to be a productive, functioning social being, just like my dog will always want to chase the ball.  Living with this illness is never knowing on any given day who I will be, what I can do.  I can’t pretend that I like crashing.  I just hope I can get better at acceptance.

happy-dog-chasing-a-ball

 

The Work of Dying April 13, 2012

Filed under: cancer care,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 4:18 pm
Tags: , , , ,

A friend of mine who has been a grief counselor for thirty years said, “I just don’t understand death.  How someone can be here and then be gone.  I just can’t understand it.”

I was grateful to her for saying that.   I had just told her that my beloved aunt had died. Although I wasn’t with her at the moment of death,   I had spent the week before with her, in the hospital, where she was supposed to be recovering from emergency surgery, but instead, as the week passed, was clearly succumbing to end stage cancer.  It was, despite the pain and trauma, a week of great sweetness for me.  Now I felt the unreality of her being gone, yet also I was enveloped by the sacredness of my time with her.

I have never been with anyone who was actively dying before.  It seemed like labor, a great work that was being accomplished.  My aunt has given me so much in my life–her love, her example of courage, her generosity of spirit, and she gave so much to me in these last days.  I watched as she had to let go of one hope and expectation after another.  She had thought she would have another two months, at least, of visiting with friends and family.  She wanted to go home in the worst way, to putter in her garden, to watch her birds, to feel the sun on her face.  The doctor had to tell her she would not be going home.  Her face crumbled in tears for a moment, then she wiped them away, and gave the doctor a radiant smile.  “I will be very happy at Hospice House,” she said.  Her husband had been there, and she felt they were like family.  She did this over and over, letting go and opening up to the next thing.  Letting go of her mobility, letting go of her loved home, letting go of her ability to read, of her ability to speak, and yet never with bitterness. Sadness, yes, but not excessive.  She had this trust, this faith, that allowed her to be open to what was, instead of clinging to the way she might want it to be.

She was open to the CNA’s and nurses, always thanking them, always appreciative.  One of the CNA’s washed her and rubbed her back with such tenderness that I almost cried.  “Wonderful,” Sheila said in her now roughened voice, and sighed.  I could see that she was soaking up the massage.  I realized how important the little things are, the sips of coffee, the touches, the cold cloth on the forehead.  She would ask for what she wanted, and receive it with great appreciation.  When she was changed to palliative care, and could not really eat,  she hankered after tomato juice and chicken salad sandwich.  Cindy, the CNA, finally got it for her.  She could only sip a little, nibble a tiny bit.  “Ah, great.  Thank you,” she said, then closed her eyes after the exertion, and fell asleep.

She never stopped being my aunt.  Earlier, when she could still speak easily,  she told me to go home and get some rest.  “You’re getting that glazed look in your eyes,” she said.  “There’s a good bottle of wine in the garage next to the freezer.  Go home and drink it.”  The next day when I  came back to the hospital, she asked me how I liked the wine, one of her favorites.  I told her I loved it, which was no lie.   I was a little guilty for abandoning her, and eating and drinking and sleeping so soundly.  She kissed her fingers and winked. “Delicious,” she said.  Once I asked her if there was anything I could do for her.  Again, this was earlier, and she said, “You can stop looking so concerned!”  in her no-nonsense, New England way.  When her daughter and husband came, she shushed them when they were speaking too loudly.  We all laughed at that, at how intact she was even as she was letting go.

None of this was our timetable–Sheila had just buried her beloved husband, after years of care-taking, and she and we had envisioned some time for herself, some time to enjoy her many friends and activities.  It didn’t seem fair.  Not by our standards.  But it was clear that Sheila was doing her work, that her spirit and body were following some other agenda than the one we had for her.  As sad as it was for all of us,  I think she was up for it.  I think she’d tell us all to “stop looking so concerned.”

 

La Vida January 26, 2011

Filed under: Chronic Illness,Spirituality — saratbaker @ 6:52 pm
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Today is cold and blustery.  The rain finally gave out after almost twenty-four hours.  I woke in the night to hear it pelting angrily at the roof and windows, and I hoped our hundred year old house would not spring any new leaks.  This morning there were a few last hiccups of rain, and then scudding low gray clouds.  I couldn’t pull myself out of bed for my exercise class, whether because of the lingering virus Todd and I have been passing back and forth, or the exhaustion that is always at my elbow, ready to take over.  All my pretty plans evaporated.  It would be a day of letting what would be, be.

Thankfully, G., our Peruvian housekeeper came after missing a week because of snow.  The house was beginning to turn into a monster, making me feel even more out of control, so I looked forward to her ministrations as I always do.  G. came to me  over a decade ago, in the midst of the worst of my illness, when I could barely stand up.  The first time I was supposed to meet her, I drove all around town, losing my way.  I was still so sick with fibro fog that I couldn’t navigate the town I had grown up in.  When we finally did meet up in the parking lot of a video store, there stood this young, beautiful woman.  She did wonderful work, but even more than that, over the years, we have shared all the ups and downs of “La Vida”, including teenage children, stubborn husbands, the deaths of those close to us–all in an animated Spanglish.  She is such a bright presence, laughing over the animals’ antics, enthusiastically rearranging the furniture, conferring over various domestic decisions.  I call her my angelita.

Today she told me about her talented, impetuous son, a musician studying film Atlanta.  At twenty, he is living at home to save money, but he also wants to live as if he were independent. She feels he is in danger of failing the school they have borrowed money to pay for. He is in a relationship they feel is distracting him from his responsibilities. I have watched  G. and her husband work hard to become legal, sacrificing their own comforts to give their two children every opportunity in this country.  We shake our heads and shrug.  La Vida.

The door bell rings and it is B., our itinerant yard man.  He stands there dripping wet in his jacket.  The trees toss wildly in the wind; it is freezing. “Sara, do you have any work?”  I know that he has probably walked miles from the other side of town in this god-awful weather, to earn a few bucks.  He tells me his pension hasn’t come in yet, he just needs to eat.  We have a long history, B and me.  I’ve long given up the idea that things will change for him, an idea I worked hard to help realize in the first twenty years of our acquaintanceship.  I was encouraged at Christmas–things seemed to be getting better for him, he was going to school to learn to read (he has a learning disability) and he was going to church, trying to “get himself together.”  But he came by a few days ago and he had been drinking.  This is how it goes.  Today, I had  little money and  little work, but enough.  The overgrown dead plants in my garden needed cutting back, a chore that I’d put off.  I had just been thinking yesterday that the garden looked raggedy, that I wish B. would come by.  And here he was.

Tired as I was, I knew I’d feel better if I got out and walked.  Besides, I hate the guilt of shorting my dog on her walks.  The air was bracing, and it felt good to be out walking, moving through world.  The light played over the streets and trees and houses the way it does often at the ocean, patches of illumination giving way to shadow.  A flock of starlings landed in the bare branches of an oak.  The air smelled clean from all the rain.

Walking, I though of our priest’s sermon, how he always remembers the poor, admonishing us to reach out to those who have less than us.  I’ve noted on my blog before  Nancy Mairs, poet and essayist, saying that “all persons have abundances and all have lacks….your abundance may fill someone’s lack, which you are moved to fill….”  This remains one of my touchstones.  To me, G. and B. and I are all poor, in our own ways.  G and B perform physical task for me and I give them money.  But there is so much more to the transactions than these simple facts.  There are years of trust, loyalty, mutual regard.  So on a day when I am keenly feeling my own lacks, I am also feeling my keenly my abundance.

 

 

 

 
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