Word Medicine

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

Boon August 22, 2014

My daughter called last week, weeping into the phone about Robin Williams death.  “It is as if a part of my childhood is gone,” she sniffled, “he was so great.  I just loved him.”

 I was happy that my daughter at 28 could feel things so deeply.  On hearing the news, I was shocked and saddened, but it didn’t come at me with the force it did her.  We become drier, I suppose, with the shocks of living, if we survive to middle age.  When I heard that Mr. Williams had Parkinson’s as well as the black dog depression,  I shook my head ruefully.  It just keeps coming, it never ends—“it” being life, La Vida, as my housekeeper says.  Life is full of troubles, if you haven’t heard. 

 A friend of mine says, “Until three years ago, I didn’t know what people were talking about when they said life is hard.  Life isn’t hard, I’d thought, it’s a blast.  Now I know what they are talking about. Boy, do I.”  My friend is fifty; three years ago her husband left her for another woman.  Another friend’s dying mother has come to live with her.  My friend is up at 2, 4 and 6 am, taking care of her mother, lifting her heavy, numb legs off the bed, supporting her the few steps to the potty.  Her sleep is fragmented. She feels trapped, stressed, alone.

My childhood friend’s mother went through a protracted and painful death this spring.  The day she died, my friend wasn’t with her, because she was seeing a surgeon about her recently discovered colon cancer.  The memorial service had to be put off because my friend had to recover from her own surgery. She hasn’t had a chance to mourn her mother, or herself because her father has Alzheimer’s and she is busy making arrangements for him while getting her parents’ home of forty years ready to sell.

 We have gone through our own harrowing.  One of our beloved children has fallen down the rabbit hole of drugs and alcohol.  It feels as if we’ve been in an earthquake: the ground is Jell-O, and none of the walls seem solid.  How is this our life?  My husband and I are stunned, numbed, shaken.  Everything has shifted, become unrecognizable. 

 And yet. And yet, even acknowledging La Vida as I do, even acknowledging my age, illness and limitations, I still dream of dancing on tabletops, of drinking wine on the coast of Croatia as the sun sets on the Adriatic.  As Jason Shinder writes in his poem, “Middle Age”:

 Many of my friends are alone

and know too much to be happy

though they still want to dive

to the bottom of the green ocean

and bring back a gold coin

in their hand ….

Foolish, maybe.  But how do we survive La Vida without the consolation, the idea of the gold coin?  Without the belief there is a boon to be had, do we just put our heads down and plod through? 

 Robert Pinsky suggests, in his poem, “Samurai Song,”  a boon, but one of subtraction, not addition. 

When I had no roof I made

Audacity my roof. When I had

No supper my eyes dined.

 

When I had no eyes I listened.

When I had no ears I thought.

When I had no thought I waited….

 

When I have no means fortune

Is my means. When I have

Nothing, death will be my fortune.

 

Need is my tactic, detachment

Is my strategy. When I had

No lover I courted my sleep.

I find this poem strangely affirming, especially the line “When I had no thought I waited”.  The speaker is confident, centered, and in command of himself.  He is not thrown by external circumstances.  He does not define himself by his poverty, but by his abundance.  He is able to do this because “detachment is my strategy.”  He, it seems to me, has won this poise not through a life of ease, but a life of adversity.  No one and nothing can take this boon of “self” from him. We may know too much to be happy, but we still can be joyful.

I still want to drink wine in Croatia, to dance the tango in Argentina.  But in the meantime, I am looking for the gold coin right here, right now.PAS_2012_hand

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When is Writing Not the Answer? February 13, 2012

Is writing or journaling always appropriate?  Does it always lead to healing?

Last week, one of the participants in my class read a short piece,”Why do I Journal?” in which said, “Sometimes pain doesn’t go away…..Hope–the jury is still out.”  I appreciated her honesty, and even more her pain-filled eyes as she turned to me.  Writing wasn’t helping her.  She was in a dark depression, a cyclical depression, and nothing she could pull up was helping her.  It had helped her greatly in the past, and the journal had been her companion.  But now–nothing. I thanked her for her honesty, which led to a discussion about the times writing may not be appropriate.  I suggested that finding comfort in other ways might help, and if she wanted to keep to her journaling rhythm, that haiku, with its focus on the external world, on nature, might be a good place to start, but not to add any more stress to herself by forcing introspection.

In contrast to her, another woman, new to the class, wrote several powerful laments about feelings of abandonment by her family when she became chronically ill.  Her poems were full of feeling–of hurt, rage, fear, despair.  This woman did find relief in her writing, at last expressing all the feelings that had burdened her as much as her illness burdened her.

What was the difference between each of these women’s experiences?  Is one experience “better” than the other?  What are the variables a writing facilitator should keep in mind when encounter such different responses?

Findings involving journaling suggest that “dwelling on emotions alone may be counterproductive in terms of health outcomes. …writers may be able to relive the physiological and emotional activation of the trauma during its recall, but because they are focused on the affective experience, they may not be able to work through the trauma to reach a state of resolution from which they have a different perspective.” (Lutgendorf and Ullrich in Lepore and Smyth,The Writing Cure, 2002, p.182).   In the case of an intractable depression,  intense introspection may not yield relief.  What is needed is a connection outside the self, as in nature, and a sense of being part of a community.  In this sense, the fact that this woman attends the class, responds to others, and is able to read of her failure to find comfort in writing, is in itself, salutary.

On the other hand, the second woman’s writing provided for her a strengthening of her voice, a relief of a burden of unexpressed emotions.  By writing about the chaos of her illness, she was able to come finally to an imagination of a place of refuge, where “No Harm is Done Here. ”  The class, by witnessing to her struggles, provided the very support that she had found missing previously.  She seemed to come into focus, both for herself and for us.  Her writing had been a gateway into a stronger sense of self, something that we would hope for all participants, yet it is not the only response.

As writing facilitators, I think we have to be aware that there is no one template for responding to writing.  Writing is not always a panacea.  I think we need to be aware of formulaic thinking, of assuming that one size fits all.  Sometimes confronting trauma head on is curative, sometimes it is destructive.   Sometimes introspection is fruitfull, sometimes it is not.  In this way, we can bring a more nuanced sensiblity to the process of leading writing workshops.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 
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