Word Medicine

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

Hitting the Target September 16, 2013

I keep returning to Anna Kamienska’s  notebooks.  They are so companionable.  Even though she was a mid-century Polish poet,  there is nothing dated or unfamiliar about her observations. Recently, I stumbled upon this:

In Pedro Arrupe’s book on Japan I find useful comments on shooting with a bow. A Japanese man instructs a missionary:

Holy Father, you must not think about the target, the target has no meaning here. And you must not worry about hitting it. Above all you must strive to become one with the target, and only then do you calmly release the arrow. The arrow will fly straight to the target. But if you tighten your nerves instead of the string, you may be sure that it will never reach the goal.

Doesn’t this sum up the whole struggle of the creative process?  We want so much to make a bulls-eye, and yet so much of our effort misses the target entirely, arrows shot wildly in the general direction because of tightened nerves.  Or at least that is my experience.  What does it mean to become one with the target, for example, for a writer?  How do I maintain calm?

Nadine Gordimer once said that writing a novel is like walking on a tight-rope over an abyss.  Do not look down, she says, or you will lose your footing.  I know that sometimes I’ve looked down only to be gripped by icy terror.  That’s just asking for your worst internal critic to paralyze you on the spot.  Work has flowed, for me, when I can be self-forgetful.  It is when I am not asking myself, “how am I doing?,” but rather contemplating my subject so deeply that I am living it.  That is one of the secret joys of writing fiction, especially long fiction.  The excitement comes in unexpected discoveries,  in witnessing beauty that doesn’t come from you but through you.

I think we can recognize a work of art in which the artist has become one with his subject.  This weekend I went to Greenville, SC to see the unveiling of a sculpture honoring Peg Leg Bates, the amazing one-legged tap dancer from Greenville.  Never heard of him?  Neither had I until this weekend. From Wikipedia:

Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates (October 11 1907 – December 8, 1998) was an Afro-American entertainer from Fountain Inn, South Carolina. Bates lost a leg at the age of 12 in a cotton gin accident. He subsequently taught himself to tap dance with a wooden peg leg. His uncle, Wit, made his crude first “peg leg” after returning home from World War I and finding his nephew handicapped. Bates was a well-known dancer in his day. He performed on The Ed Sullivan Show approximately 58 times, and had two command performances before the King & Queen of England in 1936 and then again in 1938] He retired from the dancing business in 1996.

At the unveiling ceremony, much was made of the fact that Peg Leg never let his disability stop him.  Watching the You Tube videos would inspire even the most cynical.  Peg Leg danced like a dream, incorporating his wooden leg into his routine in heart-stopping displays of balance and grace.  I loved that he didn’t have a leg-like prosthesis, but a humble wooden peg.  He wasn’t hiding, he was what he was, but he wasn’t defined by it either. He was totally in the flow of his dance, and so is the viewer.

The sculpture here, by Joe Thompson, is an example of a work of art created by being one with the target.  Crafted from nuts and bolts, this abstract metal sculpture nevertheless powerfully conveys a sense of arrested motion and the graceful form of the spirited living human body .  Ron Barnett in GreenvilleOnline, quotes a Bates relative at the unveiling:

Bates relative, Veldon Bates, said he thought the statue captured the essence of Bates’ perseverance and determination in turning his handicap into a blessing. “I guess you could say the hardness of the nuts and bolts is basically the way he came up — hard in life,” he said. “I think it’s nice.”

Sculptor Joe Thompson said he tried to convey Peg Leg’s indomitable spirit with each piece of metal he welded together. “Reflecting on this remarkable man, I realized that he organized his life around a very straightforward and clear idea: He decided that he wanted to dance no matter what,” Thompson said. “In every photograph of him, he is smiling. If you watch his clips from the Ed Sullivan show, you see a man filled with happiness, determination and vitality,” he said. “And so it was through this very simple idea of doing what he loved that he transformed himself and transformed the world around him. Dance is what he did, and dance is what I hope to convey in this work of art.”

Sculptors, dancers, musicians and writers who stay with us, whose works powerfully affect us, affect us precisely because they are able to convey something beyond themselves.  They may or may not practice archery, but they know how to hit a target.

Sculpture Peg Leg Bates 1255172_290453047762733_1388485100_n



Movement is Life August 31, 2009

From my journal, a day before the accident, written while I sat at the beach:  “A tern lifts and lowers in the stiff off-shore breeze, popping up like a Jack-in-the-box.  A movement in the sand catches my eye, something shiny, and I see a sand crab slip into its hole.  Movement is life.”

Last week,  a friend brought lunch.  I’m still in my brace and can’t drive, so company was welcome.  She came in wearing very pretty sandals.  I asked her where she’d found them.  “The Potter’s House,” she said. The Potter’s House is our local thrift store.  “Let’s go,” I said, and so we did.  Even though my back hurt and I was tired, it was fun to get out, to poke around for unsuspected treasures.  There was a group of young college men looking for jackets, two middle-aged white women perusing piles of baskets, and an older black woman slowly and methodically working her way through a rack of dresses.  I sat on a plaid couch, waiting for my friend, eavesdropping on the students as they discussed the merits of various jackets. I felt part of the flow of life again.  Like a crab, I’d crept out of my hole, propelled not by necessity, but by simple shoe lust.

When my old dog had a stroke several years back,  she was on her feet in no time, eager to go on her customary walk, despite her off-kilter gait and cocked head.  My vet said dogs heal from strokes faster than people because they don’t realize they’ve had a stroke, they just want to go out and chase balls.

A friend reports that another friend spent the summer in Spain at a tango festival.  This woman is an avid dancer.  A year and a half ago, her most lovely and gifted daughter was brutally murdered.  She might have stayed in her hole, and no one would’ve blamed her.  I imagine her dancing the tango, that most sensual and life-affirming dance, imagine strains of violin and accordion music on a hot Spanish night.  And I imagine her daughter in the candle-lit crowd,  applauding her mother, as I do now, applauding her insistence on living passionately, even in the midst of unspeakable pain.

These two friends are thinking of going to Argentina to dance next year.  I’m thinking of going with them.


How Does it Feel To Dance? January 7, 2009

I wanted my twelve year old, who is a sensitive soul, to see the movie Billy Elliot, which is currently a hit on Broadway. I had remembered how much I enjoyed it years ago, but had forgotten what a terrific movie it was. As a former dancer, I wanted to share my love for dance with Adam. I also wanted him to see a story about a boy who was artistic and still a real boy, and how important it is to be true to yourself, especially to your passions.

I hadn’t anticipated what conflicting feelings the movie would bring up. I have fibromyalgia, and many days my body feels as if it is encased in a cement cast made of pain. But seeing the movie, I remembered when everything made me jump, twirl, soar. I remembered dancing past exhaustion. In the movie, when one of the judges at the Royal Academy of Dance asks the twelve-year old Billy what it feels like to dance, and he answers that “it feels like fire….I forget everything…I feel like I’m flying,” tears came to my eyes. Yes, that is what it feels like. To be so one with your body, so alive! My tears were for the dancing I would never do again, for the body that had been so supple and strong, so free of pain.

In my enthusiasm, I showed Adam an ancient photo of my sixth grade recital. There I was in front, my arms long and graceful, my position perfect. But on my face I had the most anxious look. “Why do you look so weird?” Adam said, and I said it had something to do with not wearing my glasses. But looking at my partner, her arms not so perfect but her face suffused with joy, I knew the expression wasn’t just the product of myopia. It was also a product of anxiety, of wanting so badly to get it just right and the fear of being imperfect.

Later that night I looked at recent photos of myself. I am overweight, not young, but there is a softness to my face. There is enjoyment. There is acceptance. You would be hard put to put the photo of the young girl with the one of the woman. Kat Duff, in her wonderful book, The Alchemy of Illness, talks about the transformations that can occur in the crucible of illness. I know that for me, I’ve been forced to give up the illusion of perfection and the need to constantly prove myself. And that is a grace.

I do dance, sometimes, when the opportunity presents itself and I am well enough. And sometimes I feel the fire and forget myself.

And yes, Adam enjoyed the movie.


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