Word Medicine

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

An Invitation July 27, 2016

I’ve just finished Diane Morrow’s One Year of Writing and Healing: Writing to Transform the Experience of Illness, Grief and Other Trouble, a treasure trove of resources for anyone interested in beginning or deepening a healing writing practice.

Dr. Morrow begins her book with an invitation: to take one year of your life and write with the express purpose of “transforming difficult experiences into something…more bearable.” Her tone throughout is one of friendly invitation. What she offers comes from her own experience as a writer, a medical doctor, a counselor in mind-body training and a teacher. And as any good teacher would, she grounds the practice she offers in both time and space. Take a year, she says, to try these things, and moreover, I am going to walk you through each month, guiding you and building a solid foundation. In a low-key conversational tone, she creates a focus for each month, with chapters addressing each of the following: “Creating a Healing Place,” “Consider Healing as a Story,” “Drawing a Map,” “Developing  the Habit of Writing,” “Listening to the Voice of the Body,” “Making a Place for Grief,” “Figuring Out the Good Part,”  “Gathering Resources for the Long Haul,” and “Creating a Guest House.” Each of these chapters draw not only from her own experience and that of her patients and students, but also from an extensive knowledge of the literatures of both healing and writing, including excerpts and references to such seminal thinkers in their fields as Arthur Frank, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Pema Chodron and Peter Elbow. However, she wears such learning lightly, incorporating it into her book in an approachable way. Each chapter also offers exercises or prompts, all of which grow organically out of her own or others’ lived experiences. Although some of the material in this book can be found elsewhere—i.e., Arthur Franks’ exploration of the three healing types of stories—Restitution, Chaos, and Quest—Morrow interprets his work, expanding on it with examples from various sources, including the movie The Lord of the Rings.

Perhaps the most important chapter is the first two-month long chapter, “Creating a Healing Place.” This exercise in creating, inhabiting, imagining, conjuring and holding is the foundation for everything that follows. Morrow describes her own experience of going to a retreat at Santa Sabina, where she learned the process of interactive active imagination. It was there that she realized that writing could strengthen and deepen and hold the work of healing imagery. By creating a healing place inside one’s mind, one could have a sense of “deep refuge” in a portable retreat. “When we have this deep sense of security, it becomes possible—and bearable—to look honestly at the stories of our lives.”  She offers seven particular archetypes—seven ways of thinking about the landscapes we inhabit or could inhabit: Sea, Cave, Harbor, Promontory, Island, Mountain and Sky.“ Naming these archetypes “….allows us to look at the landscape freshly, to begin to pay closer attention to those spaces in the world which we most long for and need.” She suggests immersing ourselves, imaginatively, in the landscape, and discovering what it can tell us about ourselves, about where we are and where we would like to be. Do you need to nest inside a cave, away from the stresses of the world? So you need the viewpoint you might find high on a mountain? This extended imagination offers the chance to discover a correlative to our inner landscapes in a rich and interesting way.(By the way, check out another prompt here about landscapes : https://therapeuticjournal.wordpress.com/2016/07/26/landscape-the-desert/?iframe=true&theme_preview=true)

One of my favorite passages is in the section on Chaos stories. She writes: “Chaos can be an indicator of growth. Fear can be an indicator of growth. And it seems to me that just considering this—having some inkling about this—can change our experience. It can give us courage to keep moving with and through obstacles…..Meanwhile, I have sometimes found it helpful, at moments when obstacles arise….to imagine an older woman’s voice, a voice much wiser than my own. She tends to say something like this: Well of course, Sweetie, what did you thing? That it was going to be easy?” Diane Morrow herself is that wise encouraging voice. “Writing can become a powerful way to listen to your life, ” she writes. And this book is a powerful tool to help you in that endeavor.

another-april-book-cover

You can order the book here: https://www.amazon.com/One-Year-Writing-Healing-Experience/dp/0692610278/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1466428919&sr=1-1

All profits for the book go to Write Around Portland, which you can read about here: http://writingandhealing.org/write-around-portland.

You might also enjoy Diane’s blog,  One Year of Writing and Healing, http://writingandhealing.org/

and a radio interview: http://safespaceradio.com/2011/09/writing-and-healing/

 

 

The Moon, Not the Finger May 4, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pale, then enkindled,

light

advancing,

emblazoning

summits of palm and pine,

 

the dew

lingering,

scripture of

scintillas.

 

Soon the roar

of mowers

cropping the already short

grass of lawns…..

 

miner’s lettuce,

tender, untasted,

and other grass, unmown,

luxuriant,

no green more brilliant.

 

Fragile paradise.

 

At day’s end the whole sky,

vast, unstinting, flooded with transparent

mauve,

tint of wisteria,

cloudless

over the malls, the industrial parks,

the homes with the lights going on,

the homeless arranging their bundles.

. . .

Who can utter

the poignance of all that is constantly

threatened, invaded, expended

 

and constantly

nevertheless

persists in beauty,

 

tranquil as this young moon

just risen and slowly

drinking light

from the vanished sun.

 

Who can utter

the praise of such generosity

or the shame?

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Reverie and Engagment August 20, 2015

I’ve been thinking about the conditions conducive to writing recently, since I seemed to be experiencing a mild writer’s block.

I was finding myself a little too happy to read my emails—always a bad sign.  I try not to open those until the afternoons, supposedly devoting myself to a “higher calling” in the mornings. But I was finding excuses: worries about a friend, responses from some queries I’d put out.  It was a Monday morning, and I was restless.  The sky flashed with lightening, thunder shook the house, and everything and anything seemed more interesting than what I might put down on paper.

Then the electricity went out. In the yellow-green light that remained, I found myself, out of boredom and lack of gadgetry, scribbling some images on a yellow legal pad, playing around with them. Relieved of the pressure to respond or interact, I suddenly had nothing but time. Time became a medium of space, a fullness, a restfulness.

Yesterday, I heard an “On Being” podcast interview of John O’Donohue talking about time. He said, “In America, you view time as the enemy. So there is not time to cultivate the inner life.” He then compared it to the west of Ireland, where he said, time seems endless, and the landscape is timeless. His comment rang true for me. I know that in order to write, I have to almost slam the door on time, to disregard it. But it is always there, panting heavily on the threshold, whining about all that needs to be done. There is an anxiety that I wake up with, which we all wake up with, that there is so much to be done and I will never be able to do it all. This anxiety is not conducive to works of the imagination.

For the imagination to have a chance, then, we need a sense of time that is unhurried. We need reverie. And for reverie, we need to feel safe. One of my favorite thinkers, Gaston Bachelard, wrote a wonderful book on reverie, The Poetics of Reverie:  Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos. He wrote:

reverie-1919 (1)Reverie illustrates repose for a being… it illustrates well-being. The dreamer and his reverie enter totally into the substance of happiness.

                    Reverie helps us inhabit the world; inhabit the happiness of the world. The soul does not live on the edge of time. It finds its rest in the universe imagined by reverie.

Reverie gives us the world of a soul [and] a poetic image bears witness to a soul which is discovering its world, the world where it would like to live and where it deserves to live… Poetry forms the dreamer and his world at the same time.

So, I believe with Bachelard that reverie is one of the essential conditions for creative work.  However, from my experience, I think that there is another component. That is engagement.

I have found that when I am not engaged with the world, that my work begins to dry up. By engagement, I don’t mean busyness. I mean meaningful contact, purposeful effort, or simply enjoying, being curious about the world of man/woman and nature. I can easily fall prey to neuroticism, and when that happens, I know that I am not as engaged as I should be, that my work, instead of reflecting the world as it is in all its complexity, can become a shadowy world of my projections. That’s when I know I need to get out, walk, talk with people, go someplace.

John O’Donohue also addressed this aspect of the creative life when he said, “Our gifts are given for the community, not for ourselves alone.”  If that is true, we need to be engaged in community. That is something different from ego posturing or status consciousness. It is being interested in the mystery of otherness, in those we live with, in their “infinite variety.”

It might seem that these two conditions are opposed to each other, but I don’t think so.  It is more that they are both necessary, in different degrees. Sometimes we balance them; often, we don’t. When we begin to feel played out, it may be time for reverie. When we begin to feel dull, it may be time for engagement. We live in a culture that is extroverted in the extreme, however, so my bet is that it is harder to find time for reverie.

I’ll leave you with this:

Matins
I arise to day… In the name of Silence / Womb of the Word, / In the name of Stillness / Home of Belonging, / In the name of the Solitude / of the Soul and the Earth

John O’Donohue

 

Leave the Critic at the Door April 30, 2015

Dear Readers,

I am sorry for the long delay between posts, but I am excited to tell you about my new website at www.saratbaker.com. It has been retooled to reflect new workshops my partner, Jan Turner, and I are offering in the Athens area. Please take a look at it!  I’m also happy to report recent publications in The Intima, www.theintima.org, a literary journal which has grown out of the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University,an essay in China Grove Journal, and a short story coming out in May in Confrontation, a literary journal.

Now to the post, which is about process. I read recently that Elizabeth Bishop sometimes took years to finish her poems, which gave me great hope. I often start a poem with gusto, but find that I lose the thread, especially if I think too much! Ray Bradbury once said, “Don’t think. It kills creativity.” I think there is truth to this, although I might phrase it,“Wait to think.”  Wait until you are deeply involved in the process before looking at a piece critically.

I try, whether in a story or poem, to get a quick sketch down in one sitting, or at least, in the case of a story, a good nugget. Right now I’m in the middle of story, which was interrupted by a bad cold, family obligations, and life in general. Now I am struggling to finish at least one draft. My rule is not to chuck anything until I get through one draft. But the temptation has been to chuck it, as in the “cooling off” period, I see all its flaws. Furthermore, I’ve been making a study of the writer Gina Berriault, and after reading her incredible story, “The Diary of K.W.,” which is as perfect a story as I’ve ever read. (If you don’t know her work, you should.)  But my rule is to finish one draft, and to do this I have to go back into the dream of the story, and leave my critical faculties behind. I think we read out of the same impetus as children explore abandoned houses. We are looking for something numinous, although we are not sure what. We write for the same reason, and to cut ourselves off from the dream too early, to try to make it conform to this or that criteria, can kill it.

I am proud of my critical faculties, which I’ve worked hard to attain. And it would be  easy at this point in the process to swoop in and destroy this embryonic story because it is so lacking. But there was something that urged me to start it, and I want to honor that. Its problems will, I hope, force me to grow as a writer, even if it fails in the end. That is part of the process. Isak Dinesen said, “I write a little every day, without too much hope or too much despair.”

So I’m working on non-attachment to my work, attempting to approach the work lightly, with curiosity instead of fear.  And waiting until I’m good and ready to invite the critic in.

 

Made Things May 11, 2013

Filed under: Craft,creativity,Process — saratbaker @ 7:41 pm
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I was wandering today in the J & J Flea Market, “The Biggest in Georgia,” with a young friend.  I love flea markets, because you can get a sense of other people’s lives, both past and present.  We passed an old man with a wizened face and a patchy faded blonde beard playing guitar with a young girl sporting a nose ring.  She set to those strings with flying fingers singing an old country song I wish I knew.  We saw little Hispanic boys clutching a small fuzzy dog, and passed through a market that smelled like Mexico.  We saw chickens and game cocks and a duck in a cage.  We passed a table with cast iron pans and I told my friend how you can’t beat cast iron for cooking.  There were white country folk selling plants, and a large black man covered in tattoos and gold chains and cowboy boots with a sweet expression on his face.  There were cheap Chinese designer bags, and tons of books.  We found a great booth with ridiculously inexpensive rings and pendants made with Botswana agate, amethysts, garnets and chalcedony sourced from all over the world. My friend was talking about making art and how it will be so cool when you won’t even need anything, you’ll just imagine it and the computer in your brain will make it.  Hmm, I said, I don’t know how cool that will be.  Why not, she asked?  Well, I said, one of the things about art is that the medium, the material, often resists you, and that is why the image in your mind is often different than what comes out on canvas or paper.  You have that momentary inspiration, and then in attempting to make the thing—poem or painting, garden—you have to deal with the medium, which is balky and not always easy to work with.  Take watercolors, for instance.  How many great results happen by accident?  You just have to go with it sometimes.  Or a plant volunteers in your garden that you didn’t intend, but you find that it works for you.  Or you plant something and it just doesn’t want to be there.  Or language—part of the fun of writing is that it is a discovery, you don’t always know where a poem will take you. Still, she said, I think it will be cool.  Well, there you have it, I thought. Kids today—they’ve grown up with computers, and it is all so natural to them.  Then I wondered if our next stage of evolution will be human/robots.  Which no doubt she would think is cool. We walked by a booth and I spied a piece of quilt.  When I opened it, I saw a beautiful pattern of golds, olives and purples.  It was distinctive—the maker had a fine aesthetic sensibility. It was small, a lap robe. I asked the man where he had gotten it.  An estate sale, he said, an old black woman in Alabama had made it and he had once had hundreds.  I asked him how much, and he said 5 whole dollars.  I bought it.  Maybe some of her spirit is in the quilt, I said to him; it needs to be appreciated.  I looked at it more closely.  The stitches were all by hand and as fine as anything I’d ever seen.  The cloth was wool.  I know that in the Depression old coats were cut up to make quilts; I have an Amish quilt made almost entirely of dark coat fabric.  The fabrics were in fine shape, but clearly old. I imagined the woman putting together the quilt from things she had on hand, making do.  I imagine her on her hands and knees, laying out the pattern.  I imagine her taking the time to make those tiny stitches, maybe after a day of picking cotton.  I imagine her satisfaction at the results, after the patience and effort. I looked around the booths, at junky plastic toys and jewelry made in sweatshops and hand carved walking sticks.  Most of it wasn’t art, or even craft, but I had a pang of nostalgia for all the humble made things.  I am not anxious for a future where we think things into being.  I want a world where serendipity can happen, where the medium has to be wrestled into form. I put my quilt in my study, over the back of the futon. I think it is very happy there.

 

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

 

 

 

Fish Gotta Swim, Birds Got to Fly April 26, 2010

My soon to be nine-year old neighbor, Olivia, brought over her big find of the spring: a tent caterpillar .  She had found an old glass fish tank and lined it with dirt and leaves, put her new friend in and then “asked Google” about the critter.  She and Google must have had quite a conversation, because Olivia was there to tell us that he was an old caterpillar, and look, there he is beginning to spin his web.  “Where does it come from?” she said, looking at the creature.  Her mother and I squinted.  “It seems to be coming out of its mouth,” her mom said.  I told her spiders spun their silk out of their tummies (probably the limit of my great repository of knowledge about the physical world.)  We sat and watched the tent caterpillar do its thing.  “Google said it turn into a moth and only lives three days,” Olivia said gravely.  We all wondered at this.  My husband added that tent caterpillars are despised in this part of the world, their large webby cocoons festooning trees obliterated by the animal’s hunger.

Today I was talking with a friend, a painter, who is going to teach painting at a seminary, where all the seminarians are required to take classes in all the arts.  What an idea!  I told her about my interest in medical humanities, and we compared notes on teaching seminarians and med students, often young people who have had only limited exposure to the arts.  “I’m not trying to make artists out of them,” she said, “but bring them into the flow of the process, let them get lost in the process.”  I told her of often having people in my classes who had had little or no previous training, and how, once they got past fear and inhibition, they often produced powerful work.  “Creativity is part of us,” she said.  We talked about how creativity grounds us, heals us, quite contrary to the popular idea of it being the purview of a select, esoteric few.  It is, indeed, our birthright.  What teaching art to these students does is simply give them some tools to explore themselves, their life situations, their feelings.  It comes out of us naturally, just like the tent caterpillar’s cocoon.

I’ve always felt a great love for the “writing spider”, the large black and yellow spider that, if you are lucky, graces a summer garden.  Just as the spider must weave her web, so to I must write, others must dance, make art, sing their songs, knit, design bridges, solve equations.  I met a wonderful artist at the Hambidge arts colony once who said the how wasn’t the question, it was the why.  She could figure out how, but she didn’t know why.  She just knew it was what she had to do to be whole.

Olivia’s caterpillar is making great strides on his cocoon.

 

 
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