Word Medicine

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

Listening to the Other January 12, 2017

We are our stories

We think we know people, but we don’t know anyone until we know their stories.

We all have our unconscious biases—maybe not against Muslims, Jews or Blacks, but maybe against Southerners, Republicans or white people.

wooden-models

My family is Irish. Generations of oppression shaped a certain reactivity, clannishness and defensiveness regarding the wealthy. We were certainly never privileged—we are hardworking, studious people. My parents were each the first in their families to go to college, something we never took for granted. As Catholic transplants to the South, we didn’t have an easy time of it. Walking to our integrated Catholic school (Catholic mission schools integrated long before public schools), we had to run the gauntlet of the neighborhood boy throwing stones at us, yelling “dance, nigger-lovers, dance.”

So imagine my surprise when, at a West Coast Writers’ Conference, the black woman assigned to room with me mounted a vocal protest over having to room with a white Southerner. When I tried to tell her my story, she glared at me, stony-faced, and then left the room in a huff.  In her eyes I was the Enemy. Period.  It was disorienting and shocking, and later, funny.

I’m as guilty as anyone, much as I hate to admit it. My family prized looks and fitness, and, although I rebelled against that, I can be almost unconsciously dismissive of slovenliness. I value clear thinking and am impatient with stupidity. And so it goes, a little ticker-tape of approval, disapproval, just barely registering.

But all that changes when we listen to each others’ stories.  In a hospital waiting room, I overhear a woman I might have dismissed talk with a friend about her grown son’s addiction, about whether she will have to throw him out of the house, and where he might end up. I recognize the anguish in her quavering voice, a recognition that closes the distance between us. In line at the crowded grocery store before a snowstorm, a grizzly man in cap and overalls, talks with his clearly aging mother. He reassures her he is bringing wood over before the storm, tells her she is welcome to stay with him. He must repeat himself 4 times at least, each time with patience and tenderness. These instances repeat as I go through my day, leaving me humbled. With each encounter, my stereotypes shatter a little, my wonder increases.  I begin to see people with stereoscopic vision—as three dimensional, not just one thing.

We are all full of contradictions. And in these dire times, in our political climate, it is so easy to reduce people to one or two obvious characteristics. We do it out of fear, mostly.  Instead of doing that, as a dear friend of mine teaches, we can approach each other with curiosity, compassion and courage.

I’m working on it.

 

 

 

Longing for the Light December 9, 2011

In the choir room, we practice our Christmas hymns.  “Let thy bright beams disperse the gloom of sin, Our nature all shall feel eternal day, In fellowship with thee, transforming day to souls erewhile unclean…”  The longing in the hymns for the coming of Emmanuel, for the coming of light into our darkness, never fails to move me.  More now, than in the simple faith of my childhood.  Because now I know how dark our darkness can be.

In the paper yesterday, the headlines included the death of a seven-year old Hispanic child, who had been raped, beaten and stabbed to death as she returned to her apartment from the apartment playground.  The younger two children were taken from the traumatized mother  because she was under suspicion of neglegting her child by allowing her to play in the complex playground.  I also read about the certain pain my daughter’s beloved friend endured when she was murdered at UNC, taken from her home where she was studying, and shot.  I heard about the troubled homes of the children my son goes to school with, one father so drunk he couldn’t pick up his child who was suspended from school for selling drugs and alcohol. A dear friend is still looking for work two years after being laid off.   She has to choose between food and medicine.  It is hard if not impossible to keep from giving up oneself to whole-hearted despair, or cynicism.

What can we do? How can we live?  our hearts ask us.

Christmas is for children, we think.  For the rest of us, it might be a respite or chance to “get” whatever the latest gadget might be, the one that promises to transform our life.  It might be precious time with overworked family members.  We keep our expectations modest.  And if the yearning for that elusive something rears up in us, we dismiss it as childish nonsense.  We are realists, we are adults, after all.

We can’t go back to childish ways, nor should we want to.  We know the world for what it is.  We know that wishes often don’t come true.  We know that precious children are wantonly destroyed.  It is hard-won knowledge.  And yet to dismiss our yearnings for the light, for transformation within ourselves and in our worlds, is equally as  foolish as indulging  a childlike fantasy that the world is a large Disneyland.  The high Holy Days of winter, in whatever tradition, honor both the inky darkness, and the light that often does shine in our lives, despite all.  And they ask us to live in the tension of knowledge of the dark, and the heart’s yearning for wholeness.

Please accept this offering of a poem, and the wish that light will come to you this winter solstice, and you will recognize it.

Hodie Christus Natus Est

Solstice Song in Four Parts

HODIE

Today.

Not tomorrow.

Not yesterday.

This night.

Not some perfected end time.

   Tonight.

Here on earth,

this earth,

this fire,

this hearth.

These clinking glasses

these voices ringing.

Our voices.  Not angels’.

Our voices, cracked and sweet, tired,

but singing.

CHRISTUS

The light in us

all.

We, like winter stars,

alone in the night sky,

constellations dancing together,

then apart,

circling this earth.

Our fires finite,

our fires bright.

NATUS

Born to us.

Born of dust in cattle and rank hay,

dust enlivened with breath.

Born of breaking waters,

born of blood and old enmities.

Out of this

a new thing.

A child.

Mild,

tender,

new light to walk the earth.

This earth.  Our earth.

EST

Is.

Not was

or will be.

But is.

Now.

Here.

To us,

this night.  Out of our darkness

of broken bodies, broken dreams, losses,

failures, sins,

we light candles

to

what

is.

 

Voice Lessons October 26, 2011

For months, I’ve been receiving promotional emails about voice lessons. I’d “phished” for them in a moment of weakness, but then decided I couldn’t afford them. Finally, on my birthday, they were offered very reasonably. So I splurged. I could cancel anytime with no penalty, so I figured what was the problem? Still, I was skeptical. How good could a video lesson be, anyway?

I have sung in the church choir for years, but always hiding behind stronger, more confident singers. Ever since I was a kid, I loved to sing. I remember belting out some musical tune, maybe something from the Music Man, and being told I was flat. I didn’t know what that meant, but I decided against singing in front of anyone after that. As a teenager, driving alone in the car, I would indulge sometimes, until I remembered I couldn’t sing and my song would peter out. When I first married, my husband, afflicted with perfect pitch, would, in his cool scientific way, observe that I was singing the wrong note as I did the dishes, that the song in question had perfectly reasonable notes and there was no need to improvise.

Never mind. In the privacy of my study, with all naysayers gone, I opened my first lesson. The singing coach, a male confection of blue eyes and a calm friendly voice, told me to forget everything I had ever learned about singing, about breathing. Great by me. He started off with just breathing, exhaling and speaking, showing how singing is an extension of talking. He had me wiggle my head, loosen my tongue, and just make sounds, as if sighing or exasperated. “Never mind about the note!” he said, and he didn’t have to ask twice. I was having fun. And the sounds I made were quite nice, I thought. Then he explained how constriction and tightness create the opposite of what we want, “We want power, not force,” he said, and sang a scale demonstrating force, with his face and neck tight and anxious, and then again, in a relaxed way, so that the sound just poured out of him, like water flowing out of a wide-mouthed pitcher. “See, that’s better, isn’t it?” he said soothingly. “We want trust, not fear. You try.” And he smiled encouragingly. I did, and it was better.

The next day in church I sang with new-found confidence. And that was only lesson one.

In many ways, writing is like singing. Writing to heal is first a form of self-discovery and expression, secondly a performance. When we write, and when we facilitate others, I think we all bear some legacy of constriction. Many people, even professional writers, have fears about addressing the blank page, which is why people like Eric Maisel write books like Mastering Creative Anxiety: 24 Lessons for Writers, Painters, Musicians, and Actors from America’s Foremost Creativity Coach.

If this is true for professional writers, how much more true is it for the untrained folks who brave a writing class. The people who come to us in a healthcare setting have varying backgrounds and varying degrees of confidence and skill. Some haven’t finish high school, and others remember with a sting the heartfelt paper returned to them marked in heart-sinking red ink. Some have set ideas of what writing is, and some have no idea. Most have a conviction that whatever they do will be “wrong,” that there is a “right” way to do it, albeit one that is written in invisible ink. These differences and beliefs offer a huge challenge to the facilitator. How do we get them to “never mind the note,” but to relax and open up?

As in singing, as in drawing, the first way is to allow enough relaxation so that participants can begin to see the process of one of play, of enjoyment. One way to do this is to connect with breath, perhaps by using a meditation that focuses on the breath. This allows people to inhabit their bodies. Then, instead of moving to the mind, we move to movement. This can be done through the kinds of doodling and clustering that Gabriele Rico uses in her seminal Pain and Possibility, so that writing as first experienced is a form of drawing. Another way to do this is to have writers read outloud, from the very beginning, so that the words they write are not merely sounded in the mind, but sounded through voice and body, embodied as in Robert Pinsky’s wonderful poem, “Rhyme” :

Air an instrument of the tongue,
The tongue an instrument
Of the body, the body
An instrument of spirit,
The spirit a being of the air……

Slowly, I’m learning to reclaim my voice, to delight in it. I’m finding I can do things I never thought possible. This is what I want for my students: less force, more power; less fear, more trust.

 

Put To the Test March 28, 2011

I was thrilled last week to find that I am a commended poet in the 2011 Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine.  All poems will be included in an anthology which can be pre-ordered on this site: http://go.warwick.ac.uk/cpt/poetry/symp/The awards for commended poets and other awards are due to be made by the judges Broadcaster Mark Lawson, former Welsh National Poet Gwyneth Lewis, and leading GP Professor Steve Field on the afternoon of the International Symposium on Poetry and Medicine on Saturday, 7th May at the University of Warwick campus.

I wrote “Lumbar Puncture” after a frightening episode with a visual migraine that lasted over six weeks.  When the tests showed a slight shadow on my brain, the doctor wanted to check for MS.  I wanted to express the physical vulnerability of the test and radical spiritual destabilization that I experienced while I waited for the results.  If I lost these functions, who would I be?  Luckily, the test was negative, and I wasn’t put to the test.

Lumbar Puncture

 

I laugh while they do the puncture,

keeping up a steady stream of one-liners:

“Whiskey is my preferred pain killer” and

“don’t worry, if it hurts, you’ll know–

The whole place will know.”

I’m good at entertaining.

 

Relax, the doctor says.

Chris, the nurse, has her hands on me.  They are warm.

I think of my dog at the vet’s, her eyes darting, frantic.

I am all animal, knees to chest.

The doctor counts my vertebrae.

I think of spare ribs, I think

of making a joke.

 

Chris shows me the four vials of spinal fluid.

Clear, like water,

but full of meaning some bio-magician will decipher,

predicting my future:

a gradual loss of muscle control,

wheelchairs, and being fed

like a child, or not—

just some anomaly in the brain,

this shadow, this lesion.

 

My husband reads an article, “The End of Physics?”

I glance at it, eyes glazing.

The world is full of mysteries

I do not understand.

I understand his passion,

but I don’t care

where the atoms are in the box.

Do you feel the energy?  my PT says, and

I do.  I feel the colors of my chakras;

sunlight makes sense to me,

dogs wrestling in it.

 

The part of my brain with the shadow on it

houses memory, language, emotions,

each function a Tarot card waiting to be turned.

Will I learn to understand physics without them?

 

St. Augustine had a dream.  In it a small boy

tried to empty the ocean into his bucket.

The dream, the saint said, was a metaphor

for trying to grasp God with our minds.

 

The world is full

of mysteries.

 

The world is full.

 

4/2010

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 
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