Word Medicine

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

Feeling at Home at Christmas December 9, 2016

bonehouse

I have passed out of mind like one who is dead

I have become like a broken vessel.

Psalm 31, verse 14

The challenges of living with a disability or chronic, invisible illness are heightened this time of year. For me, at least, and I suspect, for many. Because there are more calls on my limited energy, because I can’t entirely eradicate the specter of a Martha Stewart Christmas, because I want so desperately for it to be a magical season, I am more exhausted and frustrated than ever. Even for a “well woman,” Christmas is like pulling off a major Broadway production single-handedly. I now understand why my mother, when she cursed, said, “Christmas!” She had six children, an artist husband and not a lot of cash. She worked tirelessly to make it fun and beautiful and it was, but it cost her.

The dilemma of how to participate in life while also respecting one’s limitations is heightened  this time of year. This year, I’ve been thinking not only how to accomplish what needs to be accomplished, but also the kind of experience I want to have—as well as the kind of experience I want others to have. As Gertrude Mueller Nelson says in her profound book, To Dance with God, “This year we want our Christmas to be different. We want to be touched by the season—moved at a level that lies deep in us and is hungry and dark and groaning with primal need.”  The days grow shorter, and a primitive anxiety underlies our preparations, not only about the return of the sun, but also about whether our needs for belonging, contentment, and joy will be fulfilled. We want to feel really, truly, at home.

But when you are disabled or chronically ill, it is difficult to feel at home in your body, any time of the year. There is the daily management of energy, pain, protocols, pills. There is the sense of being left behind, of having “passed out of mind” from our communities. There is the internal management of our stance towards our illness, the battle between acceptance and resistance, the struggle between resentment and gratitude.

“The body itself is a dwelling place, as the Anglo-Saxons knew in naming it banhus (bone house)……” wrote Nancy Mairs, who was afflicted with MS. Many years ago, I picked up her book, Remembering the Bone House. The book is a memoir of how, despite depression and multiple sclerosis, she reclaimed her body and her life: “Through writing her body, woman may reclaim the deed to her dwelling.” She insisted on pushing against her limitations to participate fully in life, while never denying the impact of her illness. Yesterday, I read she died at the age of 73 last Saturday. The NYT obituary notes her aversion to such euphemisms as ‘differently abled.’ “I refuse to participate in the degeneration of the language to the extent that I deny that I have lost anything in the course of this calamitous disease….”  In her many essays about living with illness, she insisted on both facing the reality of her condition while also finding the good in her life.

“To view your life as blessed does not require you to deny your pain,” she wrote in the     introduction to Carnal Acts.” It simply demands a more complicated vision, one in which a  condition or event is not either good or bad but is, rather, both good and bad, not sequentially but simultaneously. In my experience, the more such ambivalences you can hold in your head, the better off you are, intellectually and emotionally.” *

In another essay, “A Necessary End,”  from A Troubled Guest: Life and Death Stories (2001), she discussed “the role of affliction in perfecting human experience….(it is) simply an element in the human condition, to be neither courted nor combated. To refuse to suffer is to refuse fully to live.” *

Perhaps this Christmas, I can let go of perfectionism, and only do what I can. Maybe this year, I can accept my illness as simply an element in the human condition. Maybe I can dwell more easily in my bonehouse, not berating myself for my shortcoming, but comforting myself.  And maybe, just maybe, I can then be present to whatever grace comes my way.

*New York Times, December 8, 2016

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

Thanksgiving Panic November 23, 2011

Had a moment of panic in Trader Joe’s today.  By the very fact that I was in Trader Joe’s, the ultimate Bobo store, it would seem I’d have no reason to panic.  Yet I was overcome with “doing Thanksgiving.”  I want it to be lovely–the house beautiful, the food delicious, everyone relaxed.  But instead of rolling up my sleeves and getting to work, I want to crawl under a rock.  Even though Todd is a great cook, and I have help cleaning, I found myself oppressed by the distance between what I want and what I am able to do.  To add to that, I’m coming off a really tough treatment for CFIDS, which has left me dizzy and my digestive system a wreck.  How am I going to pull this off?  How am I going to be the relaxed, gracious hostess I want to be?  And then, to really crank up the misery, I think, my table will never be as elegant as my mother’s.  At my age, I will have failed Womanhood 101.  Again.

There is absolutely nothing to be done about myself in this state but to take a walk.  So I get out the leash and Maisie, my overweight labradoodle, is at the door.  We step out into an absolutely gorgeous fall day, unseasonably warm.  There is a light breeze and golden leaves eddy around me.  A Japanese maple blazes a deep red across the street.  I tell myself to just breathe, to be in the now.  Bombs aren’t falling, the earth isn’t trembling.   The holiday is supposed to be about thanks, you idiot, I tell myself.  And so I start saying thank you to the leaves, to the sky, to the clouds, to the heavy orange persimmons hanging from a neighbor’s tree (that I’d like to steal).  And it helps, a little.  Let go, I keep saying, let go.

Then I meet a grandfather strolling with his 5 month old granddaughter.  His wrinkled face is lit up like the trees.  I look at the baby, Elly, and she gazes back at me with enormous blue eyes.  She looks intently at me , and then smiles.  I feel like I’ve won the lottery. I continue on my walk, my step quickened.  I start to make my way towards a small park, and see an old friend checking her mail.  We stand and talk in the sunshine.  Her son is disabled, and has serious issues with his neck.  A former middle-school teacher, Marianne’s life now is largely that of a caretaker.  She tells me her sisters want her to have more of a life.  “But Taylor is my life,” she says.  Not the life she would have chosen, but the life she has.  I think of the book I’m reading, Radical Acceptance, and how she exemplifies the principle of accepting what is, rather than moving heaven and earth to make reality more to your liking. Marianne is funny as hell, too, and you don’t get that kind of funny when life has been a bed of roses.  “I’m convinced,” she says, “that life would be 100% better if I could lose weight.”  We laugh ruefully.  Who doesn’t believe that?

We part, fortified with hugs.  I start to make my way back.  The leaves swirl around me.  I do feel in the moment. For a moment.  I feel at peace, enjoying the sun and the breeze.  The moving leaves remind me of a movie we saw on Netflix several nights ago, Cherry Blossoms.    In it, a middle-aged man’s expectations are totally upended, but in the process, he is transformed from a grumpy, closed character, to a man with a fully human face, a face alive to the world, in all its glory and sorrow.  In the final scenes, cherry blossoms quivered and fell.  Watching this film, I felt a renewed sense of life’s beauty and mystery.

I would like to say that I have been able to maintain a sense of peace and calm and that also my house is picture perfect and my silver polished.  I have not.  I am hiding out in my study, hoping the elves will come. But as soon as I turn off this computer, I’m going in there and putting on some music and making my stuffing.  I hope I will look out at the falling leaves, and remember life is change.  Live only this moment.
I hope I remember to be grateful.

 

 
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