Word Medicine

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

The Shape of Absence January 19, 2016

Filed under: loss,The Art of Living,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 9:28 pm
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shindig dog-1

The Shape of Absence
The absence of shape:
No black triangle in the door in the morning, ears pricked, tail thumping
No rectangle of black fur on the morning rug, sighing.
No curled comma at my feet, snorting and dreaming.
Just air. Just air.
The NYT Science Times today says that dog bones have been buried with humans as far back as 14,000 years ago, but that DNA evidence for dogs, some think, goes back as far as 30,000. Are dogs our “friends” or simply clever parasites, adept at begging and obsequious behavior? The article seems to come down on the side of parasites.

For me, I don’t care. I know what I know. In my book, dogs make us more human. They require the best from us—discipline, care, attention, play. They give back what a lot of humans don’t—unconditional loyalty, presence, responsiveness. My dog always knew when I was sad while the rest of the world went on by. I miss her sweet head on my lap now.

“You can take it away, as far as I’m concerned—I’d rather spend the afternoon with a nice dog. I’m not kidding. Dogs have what a lot of poems lack: excitements and responses, a sense of play the ability to impart warmth, elation . . . .”
Howard Moss

Dogs keep us honest. As the poet John Brehm writes in “If Feeling Isn’t In It,”

Dogs can smell
fear and also love with perfect accuracy.
There is no use pretending with them.
Nor do they pretend. If a dog is happy
or sad or nervous or bored or ashamed
or sunk in contemplation, everybody knows it.
They make no secret of themselves.

Now, I know that many people believe that the above poem is anthropomorphism of the highest order. What I might perceive as love is simply, in the words of the immortal skeptic I live with, adaptation and behavior based on the fact that I feed the dog on a regular basis, and so it is attached to me. But what is love if not food, and walks? I know what I know. I know love when I feel its absence.

We are a peculiar species. Smart, able to reconstruct the DNA of animals dead for millennia, but so often unable to see the very thing before our eyes. Every day, when I take my now dog-less walk, I see people of every imaginable shape, walking their dogs of every imaginable size. People who wouldn’t otherwise stop and talk, stop and talk about their dogs. The reclusive single woman, the retired professor, the teenager forced to walk the family dog. They are out of their houses, away from their phones, doing what homo sapiens do best, socializing. Would they be out without their dogs? Doubtful.

Oh, our lives are so much more than our thoughts. Dogs remind us of that.


Love is What Carries You December 12, 2012


 Love held us. Kindness held us. We were suffering what we were living by.

I began to know my story then. Like everybody’s, it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the thread that holds it all together?…. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.

Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter

As I flipped through my address book yesterday to make my Christmas card list, I was caught short by all the names of those I have lost this year: my beloved courageous Irish aunt, Sheila; my Jewish godmother, Lily; my dear friend Cecelia.  All of these women have blessed my life, in ways both sweet and profound.  When my birthday passed without my aunt’s card, I felt an orphan.  Her steady support throughout my life has been like a vigil candle. I miss that light now.  I miss Lily’s quirky and affectionate and sometimes outrageous letters, like the one that included an erotic poem that she said she would have loved if she had been my age at the time (46?) instead of her age (80?).  I miss Cecelia’s elegance, fierceness and mystical streak.  I think of how I took them all for granted, as if they would live forever.

Selfishly, I know that part of what I miss is that no one will ever look at me with quite the same indulgent affection as they did, that I am no longer the young woman who drank endless cups of tea and poured out my heart, certain of loving ears.  With their deaths I feel I have stepped into a new phase of my own life, one in which I have a new role to play.  Wendell Berry in his poem “Ripening” speaks to this process of our lives becoming peopled with our beloved dead, even as we give up the pleasant illusions of youth:


 The longer we are together

the larger death grows around us.

How many we know by now

who are dead! We, who were young,

now count the cost of having been.

And yet as we know the dead

we grow familiar with the world….

 What does he mean, that we “grow familiar with the world?”  Perhaps that we know its true dimensions–the cost of living and loving—rather than our fantasies of what it should be. My friend Jane, who suffers from Alzheimers yet still retains sharp memories of her past, said to me recently, after describing her mother’s illness and death at fifty-four and how hard it was for her then, “People are just going to have to get with the fact that life is hard.”  I thought of my post-war generation, of how privileged we have been and how it comes as a shock to us that, indeed, life is hard.

Every Christmas we make a pudding out of persimmons.  We prefer wild ones, but will use “borrowed” persimmons from a neighbor’s tree.  The trick about them is that they have to be touched with frost to make them sweet.  Grief is like that frost, it can soften and sweeten us, as Berry concludes in his poem:

Having come/the bitter way to better prayer, we have/the sweetness of ripening./ How sweet

to know you by the signs of this world!persimmon







art: http://dkirkeeide.blogspot.com/2010/10/mysterious-persimmon.html


Sex, Death, Cooking (and Writing) December 6, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 9:05 pm
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My son came home from school sick the other day.  While eating pea soup at the kitchen table, he told me what fun his health teacher is and how funny it was to rifle through her big box of condoms, birth control pills, diaphragms.  I felt a little sick myself, about as green as the soup we were eating.  Adam is newly thirteen, and while coming into his own, still–so young.  I believe in sex ed in theory; in practice, I’m more ambivalent.  Couldn’t he just not know for a while, let his head be filled with BB guns and video games and The Godfather and Wimpy Kid books, which he still reads?  “I, uh, guess it’s kinda weird to, uh, learn about all that stuff when you’re not going to need it for a while…..” I trailed off limply.  “Of course not, Mom, you don’t have to say, that, sheesh,” he said, in disgust.  How uncool.  But I wondered if part of being home sick was being confronted head on with “all that stuff,” with having to find some way to assimilate it and find a stance towards it.  I remember my milder, less graphic, introduction when I asked my mother about the word ‘rape’ in sixth grade, and my shock and disgust when she described the terms of sex to me.  I wanted mainly to forget about it, to go back to not knowing.  I imagine that today’s kids aren’t that much different.  It’s a big mystery to lean into, grow into, and it means leaving innocence behind. Sex ed is life-long; the technical information is the least of it.

In the last month, I have attended two funerals and a woman I have worked with at the Cancer center for eight years is dying.  She is not my first participant to die–there have been three others.  It has been a privilege to work with each person, and to be with them even as they part from us.  As a young woman, I dreamed of all the trips I would take, the places I would visit, and death was not on that list.  Death was like a faint rumor, one easy to refute.  Now, it is clear I will probably not visit many of the places I’ve imagined, but I will take that final trip.  So, I’ve suddenly become interested in home funerals, in the particulars of hospice.  Like a child smuggling porn to try to figure out the adult world, I read about these things.  Still, like that child, nothing will prepare me for the real thing. It has to be lived.

The day Adam came home from school, he made a sponge cake. He is mastering a repertoire of cakes.  I lean towards stews, curries. The other night I made braised lamb shanks with red wine and basil with polenta.  I seasoned it with the salt of my tears. I imagine that, overwhelmed with our various mysteries, we both find comfort in cooking, in the way of taking raw and inedible ingredients and transforming them into something sustaining and pleasurable.  The cooking brings us into the moment, into our bodies, into the stream of life.  Cooking helps us digest the indigestible.  It is a gift we share, a pleasure beyond nourishment.  Writing is like this, too.  We take the raw ingredients of our lives, we cook them, offer our strange and particular melange in the hope of nourishing ourselves and others. Just as in the Jewish Seder, we taste our tears, the sweetness of our lives.


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