Word Medicine

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

Listening to the Other January 12, 2017

We are our stories

We think we know people, but we don’t know anyone until we know their stories.

We all have our unconscious biases—maybe not against Muslims, Jews or Blacks, but maybe against Southerners, Republicans or white people.

wooden-models

My family is Irish. Generations of oppression shaped a certain reactivity, clannishness and defensiveness regarding the wealthy. We were certainly never privileged—we are hardworking, studious people. My parents were each the first in their families to go to college, something we never took for granted. As Catholic transplants to the South, we didn’t have an easy time of it. Walking to our integrated Catholic school (Catholic mission schools integrated long before public schools), we had to run the gauntlet of the neighborhood boy throwing stones at us, yelling “dance, nigger-lovers, dance.”

So imagine my surprise when, at a West Coast Writers’ Conference, the black woman assigned to room with me mounted a vocal protest over having to room with a white Southerner. When I tried to tell her my story, she glared at me, stony-faced, and then left the room in a huff.  In her eyes I was the Enemy. Period.  It was disorienting and shocking, and later, funny.

I’m as guilty as anyone, much as I hate to admit it. My family prized looks and fitness, and, although I rebelled against that, I can be almost unconsciously dismissive of slovenliness. I value clear thinking and am impatient with stupidity. And so it goes, a little ticker-tape of approval, disapproval, just barely registering.

But all that changes when we listen to each others’ stories.  In a hospital waiting room, I overhear a woman I might have dismissed talk with a friend about her grown son’s addiction, about whether she will have to throw him out of the house, and where he might end up. I recognize the anguish in her quavering voice, a recognition that closes the distance between us. In line at the crowded grocery store before a snowstorm, a grizzly man in cap and overalls, talks with his clearly aging mother. He reassures her he is bringing wood over before the storm, tells her she is welcome to stay with him. He must repeat himself 4 times at least, each time with patience and tenderness. These instances repeat as I go through my day, leaving me humbled. With each encounter, my stereotypes shatter a little, my wonder increases.  I begin to see people with stereoscopic vision—as three dimensional, not just one thing.

We are all full of contradictions. And in these dire times, in our political climate, it is so easy to reduce people to one or two obvious characteristics. We do it out of fear, mostly.  Instead of doing that, as a dear friend of mine teaches, we can approach each other with curiosity, compassion and courage.

I’m working on it.

 

 

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Heart Goals January 3, 2012

I was supposed to be writing down my goals and aspirations for the New Year, but I couldn’t focus. With the tsunami that is Christmas, I had stopped writing for several weeks.  In the aftermath, I came down with the flu.  For anyone else it would be a bothersome interruption to their “normal” life, but for me it was the threatened return to a prolonged state of invalid-hood.  How was I supposed to make plans, if I didn’t know from day to day what level of energy I had to work with?  Could I make one plan for well me, another for sick me, and then try to merge them?

The day before, as I struggled asthmatically to walk the dog a few blocks, I had met a friend jogging blithely down the street.  She’d stopped to chat, jogging in place, her cheeks rosy, her breath puffing energetically in the cold air.  She was training for a half-marathon, she said.  It had all started a year ago when she joined the WOW Boot Camp.  I should join! she said. It is so much fun! I muttered something about not being able, and she just laughed and said sure I could, I could do it more gently.  I thanked her and went on—how to tell her that too much exercise poisons my cells?  No point.  But it plunged me into a welter of envy, grief, despair that I was unprepared for, that I thought I’d dealt with and put to bed years earlier.  Here they were, leering at me with their ugly faces, their voices enumerating my bottomless inadequacies.

I dream that I join the bike group three of my friends are in. I tell Todd about my dream.  “Don’t even think about it,” he says, “besides, they’d resent you for slowing them down.”   It all pricked, hurt, felt raw.  I saw my friends passing me by in the grand parade of life, and it felt as if I were being punished for doing something terribly, terribly wrong.

I’ve been reading about having compassion for yourself, about holding your pain with tenderness.  So one day, driving across town by myself, I did as suggested, I put my hand on my heart and said, “I care about your pain,” over and over to myself, feeling pretty silly and mechanical.  But then a funny thing happened:  all those tears that I’d been holding back automatically, started up.  I had begun to feel as if I couldn’t cry; I hadn’t cried in so long. I would like to report that I had a good therapeutic cry, but I was driving to see someone who couldn’t handle a swollen, red-eyed me, so I sniffed the tears back.

I finally got back to my journal, feeling overwhelmed and inadequate.  I scribbled the usual frets and complaints and then wrote this sentence: “Old griefs had got her by the throat; she could not move.”  Ah, I thought, ah. I get no pass; there are no shortcuts.  I can teach about writing until the cows come home, but I have to do it.  Knowing is not enough, it is in praxis that the healing happens.  Even if it means encountering the old griefs, the ugly envies, the swampy despair.  Especially if means that.  Except, hand on heart, “I care about your pain.  Your pain is worthy of attention.”

Maybe this is my true goal for 2012.

 

What’s Wrong with this Picture??? October 15, 2010

I usually have one, two or more nurses-usually retired, working nurses don’t have time for writing–in my classes.  I’ve heard for years about the crying closet–usually a supply closet a nurse can go into to grieve privately when she/he loses a patient.  I’ve heard the story of a child dying in a young nurse’s arms, and how, as a mature woman, the nurse is still carrying the grief of the death with her.  I’ve known a student nurse who had severe stress after working on an oncology floor, but who had no way to process that stress.  We talk about caring for the caregiver, but when are we going to do something about it?

Yesterday, a working nurse told of how she cared for both her dying parents while a myriad of other disasters  befell her.  She had always, she reported, been known for her skills.  But when she asked her superior to give her some leniency, as she was grieving, she was told that she didn’t have the “luxury” to grieve, and to get back to being the high-functioning performer she had been.

Another retired psychiatric nurse, told of being put in an ICU unit.  Overwhelmed by being in a position she wasn’t trained for, she was later scolded for not–I repeat, not–letting a patient (who was an addict) bleed out.

Both nurses were taken to task for spending too much time with patients.

Hospitals today are under tremendous financial stress which translates into worker stress.  The question is–can overburdened caregivers give quality care to patients?

Arts experiences are one way hospitals can address the stress of caregiving.  Art at the bedside–writing, art, music, even dance, relieves the burden of care for nurses.  And weekly arts sessions held for nurses provide a way for them to help heal themselves, bring themselves into balance, and create more compassion for themselves, their patients, and each other.

One of the best sites to read about arts in healthcare is Marti Hand’s site:http://creativityinhealthcare.com.  A nurse and painter herself, she has done extensive research on how creativity heals.  In her latest post, she quotes David Bohm, “Creativity is fundamental to human experience. ”  We need to bring more humanity back into the healthcare environment, and arts interventions can be an important part of that effort.

Someday, there may not be a need for a crying closet.

 

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

 

 

 

An Abundance of Need January 21, 2010

In The Wounded Storyteller, Arthur Frank quotes Nancy Mairs, poet and essayist, as saying that “all persons have abundances and all have lacks….your abundance may fill someone’s lack, which you are moved to fill….”  I remembered this the other night after my first meeting with my winter class at the cancer center.  I had not taught for almost 6 months.  In those months, my life revolved around therapy for my broken back, and it has been less than a month since I shed my body brace and have been able to drive. In the months of rehabilitation I lived a twilight life of sleep and physical therapy. Slowly the more normal rhythm of life claimed me: church on Sundays, lunch with friends, short forays of shopping, longer walks with my dog.  But I still feel fragile and tired. So when I drove to work Tuesday afternoon, I was more aware of that fragility than my competence.

This class was a mixture of women who had taken the class before and several newbies.  That is always a challenge because I need to bring in new material instead of relying on the tried and true, and perhaps more importantly, I need to make sure that the newbies were made  to feel part of a group that has already forged its own dynamics.

So, the first thing I asked of the group was to tell their stories.  They didn’t need to be coaxed.  A new, lovely, quiet lady opened up with a harrowing tale of  family members felled by breast cancer, gene testing, prophylactic mastectomies, and then finding that she had a rare form of cancer in her abdominal lining.  Another woman told  how she rejected implants and instead had flowers tatooed on her flat chest. Each story was like that, trauma upon trauma, terrifying diagnosis and painful treatments, including stories of loneliness and heartbreak.  By the time they were done, I realized I was the only woman at the table with breasts.  The storytelling, though, had brought the women into a deeper connection with each other, an almost palpable feeling of sisterhood.

Yet fragile myself, I felt in danger of being swamped by the sheer concentration of pain.  I was tired and in pain myself, and stressed by my wish to hide those facts. How could I offer anything to counter the pain of these brave women?

One of the first activities we always do is collaging our journals.  It is a relaxing, fun exercise, allowing for easy exchanges in the group.  More importantly, the images we are drawn to often are potent symbols for healing.  While we were collaging, one of the participants turned to me and said, “I noticed you were moving as if you were in pain. May I do some Reiki on you?”  I told her yes, I was in pain, and I would appreciate her help. Her hands on my back radiated warmth and I could feel my muscles relax.  And that was when I looked around the table and realized that I was not the helper, but that we all helped each other. We all had something to offer, even if it was an abundance of need.

One of the things I love about this work is that I can’t be anything else but what I am at that moment.  Perhaps the main competency is simply that: authenticity.  Driving home that evening, I turned off the radio, and allowed myself to savor the pink clouds in the west, the faces of the people walking in the warm evening air, the new ease of my body.  My own fragility no longer seemed like an obstacle to be overcome, but the very thing which I offered to others.

 

A New Heart November 28, 2009

Two weeks ago, a young woman who had been my daughter’s friend since early grade school, leapt to her death off her apartment building.  She was part of a  group of friends who  had stayed together through high school, experiencing an almost idyllic stability unusual in today’s world.  They were mostly children of academics, highly talented, bright, beautiful, funny.  They went to prestigious universities, garnering accolades, and all seemed well, until a year and a half ago when one of “the friends,” class president at UNC, was dragged from her apartment and brutally murdered one night.  Her death had become the defining moment of their lives, which are now divided between Before Eve and After Eve.

This new death has only reopened the not-yet-healed wound.  Whether the new death was a result of a manic high, of hidden despair or stress, we will never know.  All that is know is that is vibrant, loving, funny and gorgeous young woman who had been a part of all our lives, is no longer with us. Why, the young women keep asking each other and us, their mothers, why?

We are drivinheartg to the cemetery.  I am sitting in the front with one of the other mothers, and two of the daughters in the back seat, although not my daughter, who is in another car full of her friends.  We are trying to untangle the events that led up to the unimaginable, as if by parsing it out, we could lessen the hurt.  My friend begins to weep, recalling her own mother’s death when she was twelve.  Every new, tragic death, it seems, resurrects the old ones, makes them fresh, raw.  Then one of the girls brings up how she had been very depressed and how a river near her house had saved her.  “No joke,” she said, “I know that sounds weird but I swear that the river saved me.  I would just go and sit by it all the time and finally the depression just went away.”  The other young woman recounts how depressed she was in high school, and how one day she threw all her belongings in the hall and slept with nothing in her room, like a self-flagellating monk.  I told them the story of being their age, twenty-three, and flying home, angry and depressed. A middle-aged man next to me offered some kind words to me, and I rebuffed him coldly.  How could he offer such easy kindness?  He was obviously unenlightened, some soft bourgeoisie.  I was an intellectual girl, all right, I could deconstruct a text and situation with the best of them, little noticing that once you shred everything down to its finest units, you are left with very little.  I had an uneducated heart.

What can we offer our children in their moment of great need?  We can’t get to the bottom of these deaths–tragedies and mysteries beyond our comprehension, suffering almost too hard to physically bear.  Brought down myself by illness in the face of this latest loss, I happened to pick up the wonderful book by Kat Duff, The Alchemy of Illness.  I turned randomly to a page, and this is what I read:  “The Nahuatl peoples believed that we are born with a physical heart, but have to create a deified heart by finding a firm and enduring center within ourselves from which to lead our lives, so that our hearts will shine through our faces, and our features will become reliable reflections of ourselves.Otherwise, they explained, we wander aimlessly through our lives….”  She goes on to suggest that the sufferings we endure, physically and emotionally, by being consciously borne, can open us up and soften us. By offering our suffering as a sacrifice, we can “heal by resuscitating our hearts.”  “In our hearts, which many native peoples consider to be the seat of true intelligence, we discover the simple capacity to feel our losses, sorrow, and shame, and have compassion.”

We educate our children’s minds, but we often abandon the education of their hearts and souls.  There is nothing we can do to bring these wonderful young women back to us, and we can never answer the question “why?”  But we can offer the suggestion that their deaths are not in vain, if from our deep sorrow, we can grow new hearts. In the car that day, winding through the cemetery, we made a start.

 

A Simple Bowl September 17, 2009

I’ve been trying to use what little energy I have recently to send out query letters to agents. It is a strange process, so divorced from the impetus and act of creating a piece of fiction. When writing fiction or poetry, I feel centered, for the most part, and alive and excited. I don’t feel any of those things when querying agents. Instead, I feel weighed down by the effort of selling myself, by a feeling that the whole process is somehow inauthentic, by the overwhelming odds against any writer, but especially one who has taken a long hiatus due to illness.

Yesterday, sitting in my physical therapist’s waiting room, I was fuming to my husband about a book I’d just finished reading that I found mediocre, despite sensational reviews. A thin, frail man walked in who looked vaguely familiar. It took me a moment, but then I recognized M.S., a wonderful potter who has been battling leukemia for many years now. Just that morning, I had put my strawberries in his lovely white and black bowl. The bowl has an asian flavor, with a pediment and steep conical sides. It has always given me a lot of pleasure, both the shape and the glaze: it is a perfect small bowl. It is a bowl I can imagine a Buddhist monk using.

M.S. looked up when my husband called his name. He came over and we exchanged greetings–my ever present body brace always providing a subject for conversation. Close up, I could see the sores on his skin, his sparse hair, his face puffy, no doubt from steroids. No matter how many years I’ve worked with cancer patients, the ravishing of the disease and the treatments is always a fresh shock. We asked after his wife, a painter, and he caught us up with her. There was a pause, and then he said, “and I guess I’m just a medical patient now.”

Such a simple statement, but such a painful one. For anyone, the loss of work is painful. For an artist, especially as finally tuned as M.S., it must be a cruel loss. One thinks of Beethoven descending into deafness, stubbornly composing in that silence, of Picasso, the old man, confronting the canvas until his last day. “Who can tell the dancer from the dance?” Making art transforms the maker, just as it transforms the material. It can be a solace, one I wished he still had.

I felt my eyes fill and I didn’t want him to see. Thankfully, I was called for my therapy session. Lying on the table, I felt keenly my own brokenness as well his, and I was washed over with the brevity of life. What I want, I thought, is to make stories as beautiful and functional as his bowls, stories to hold whatever fruit or emptiness the reader’s life needs contained. That is what I’d like to put in my query letter.

 

 
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