Word Medicine

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

An Invitation July 27, 2016

I’ve just finished Diane Morrow’s One Year of Writing and Healing: Writing to Transform the Experience of Illness, Grief and Other Trouble, a treasure trove of resources for anyone interested in beginning or deepening a healing writing practice.

Dr. Morrow begins her book with an invitation: to take one year of your life and write with the express purpose of “transforming difficult experiences into something…more bearable.” Her tone throughout is one of friendly invitation. What she offers comes from her own experience as a writer, a medical doctor, a counselor in mind-body training and a teacher. And as any good teacher would, she grounds the practice she offers in both time and space. Take a year, she says, to try these things, and moreover, I am going to walk you through each month, guiding you and building a solid foundation. In a low-key conversational tone, she creates a focus for each month, with chapters addressing each of the following: “Creating a Healing Place,” “Consider Healing as a Story,” “Drawing a Map,” “Developing  the Habit of Writing,” “Listening to the Voice of the Body,” “Making a Place for Grief,” “Figuring Out the Good Part,”  “Gathering Resources for the Long Haul,” and “Creating a Guest House.” Each of these chapters draw not only from her own experience and that of her patients and students, but also from an extensive knowledge of the literatures of both healing and writing, including excerpts and references to such seminal thinkers in their fields as Arthur Frank, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Pema Chodron and Peter Elbow. However, she wears such learning lightly, incorporating it into her book in an approachable way. Each chapter also offers exercises or prompts, all of which grow organically out of her own or others’ lived experiences. Although some of the material in this book can be found elsewhere—i.e., Arthur Franks’ exploration of the three healing types of stories—Restitution, Chaos, and Quest—Morrow interprets his work, expanding on it with examples from various sources, including the movie The Lord of the Rings.

Perhaps the most important chapter is the first two-month long chapter, “Creating a Healing Place.” This exercise in creating, inhabiting, imagining, conjuring and holding is the foundation for everything that follows. Morrow describes her own experience of going to a retreat at Santa Sabina, where she learned the process of interactive active imagination. It was there that she realized that writing could strengthen and deepen and hold the work of healing imagery. By creating a healing place inside one’s mind, one could have a sense of “deep refuge” in a portable retreat. “When we have this deep sense of security, it becomes possible—and bearable—to look honestly at the stories of our lives.”  She offers seven particular archetypes—seven ways of thinking about the landscapes we inhabit or could inhabit: Sea, Cave, Harbor, Promontory, Island, Mountain and Sky.“ Naming these archetypes “….allows us to look at the landscape freshly, to begin to pay closer attention to those spaces in the world which we most long for and need.” She suggests immersing ourselves, imaginatively, in the landscape, and discovering what it can tell us about ourselves, about where we are and where we would like to be. Do you need to nest inside a cave, away from the stresses of the world? So you need the viewpoint you might find high on a mountain? This extended imagination offers the chance to discover a correlative to our inner landscapes in a rich and interesting way.(By the way, check out another prompt here about landscapes : https://therapeuticjournal.wordpress.com/2016/07/26/landscape-the-desert/?iframe=true&theme_preview=true)

One of my favorite passages is in the section on Chaos stories. She writes: “Chaos can be an indicator of growth. Fear can be an indicator of growth. And it seems to me that just considering this—having some inkling about this—can change our experience. It can give us courage to keep moving with and through obstacles…..Meanwhile, I have sometimes found it helpful, at moments when obstacles arise….to imagine an older woman’s voice, a voice much wiser than my own. She tends to say something like this: Well of course, Sweetie, what did you thing? That it was going to be easy?” Diane Morrow herself is that wise encouraging voice. “Writing can become a powerful way to listen to your life, ” she writes. And this book is a powerful tool to help you in that endeavor.

another-april-book-cover

You can order the book here: https://www.amazon.com/One-Year-Writing-Healing-Experience/dp/0692610278/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1466428919&sr=1-1

All profits for the book go to Write Around Portland, which you can read about here: http://writingandhealing.org/write-around-portland.

You might also enjoy Diane’s blog,  One Year of Writing and Healing, http://writingandhealing.org/

and a radio interview: http://safespaceradio.com/2011/09/writing-and-healing/

 

 

What is the Meaning of Light if Darkness is Denied? December 11, 2013

Filed under: Grief,Spirituality — saratbaker @ 8:41 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

I fell into a blue funk this past Sunday afternoon.  Whether it was the cold, dark rainy day,  the aches and pains brought on by the weather, the fact that a friend is struggling in ICU after having been suddenly struck down by an aneurysm or a combination of all of them, I am not sure.

It isn’t that my friend is my best friend, but that she is an important part of our community.  She and her husband own a lovely shop with carefully selected toys and home goods that reflect her artistic bent.  She is a warm and spiritual woman, who recently went through training to be a dream leader.  And maybe my favorite fact about her, is that she has chickens, and each hen is named and loved.  Her illness has shaken the community, and reminded us that despite our best efforts, things—willy-nilly–can go terribly wrong.

So the seriousness of her condition was on my mind after church on Sunday when I experienced a feeling of such vulnerability and panic that I could hardly move.  I usually don’t mind solitude, but what this felt like was loneliness, abandonment.  I cast around for what to do, how to flee this constricting feeling.  Then I remembered to breathe.  I thought about being a witness, and not fleeing or repressing  or denying the feeling, but tried to invite it in, as Rumi advises us to do in “The Guest House”:

 

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.

I can’t honestly say the feeling got much better, but it became less terrible.  Luckily,

I was going to a chorale concert with my mother and busied myself getting ready for that.We drove through the pouring rain.  When we got inside the new atrium where the concert was being held, the contrast between the gray outside and the brightly lit interior could not have been greater.  Immediately, I felt better.  As I listened to the voices  singing Bach’s Magnificat in D, I traveled through the emotions expressed in the music—wonder, heartbreak, tentative hope and triumphant joy.  I looked at the emotions playing across the faces of the singers as their voices swelled or diminished.  I realized then in a visceral way how necessary the light, whether music or candle, is to see us through these short winter days that whisper the truth of death.

Despite our artificial lights, our gadgets that give us almost God-like powers, the perkiness of relentless Christmas songs, and the frantic rushing and shopping, are we so different from those who came before us? Are we so different from the ancient Romans, who celebrated the Saturnalia to dispel the gloom of winter, or the medieval Swedes, who celebrated dark St. Lucy’s day with a crown of candles?

And if we manage to really elude our inner winters, then what meaning does the light hold for us?  What is the meaning of light, if the darkness is denied?

candle

 

Grief Work March 22, 2012

Filed under: Spirituality,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 5:34 pm
Tags: , , , ,

About a month ago, when I was just beginning to recover from Christmas, I got a call from my sister-in-law in Wisconsin.  She’d found a lump in her groin–not a good thing for a woman just two years out from major surgery for melanoma.  The next call confirmed her fears–it was a recurrence.  Her surgery was set for early the following week–an extensive and painful surgery, which left her weak, bed-ridden, and as hopeless as I’ve ever heard her.  The following week her lab report came back–no clear margins.  On the phone, she tearfully asked me “why?”  Already stricken with fibromyalgia, and the common lack of understanding about that by those around her, she had spent the better part of the year taking care of her mother with Alzheimer’s.  “Why?” she cried.   I had no answer.  She might not make it to the wedding, she had said, but she would try.  After I hung up, I walked around in a daze, a cold stone in my stomach.

The same week that her labs came back, I learned that my beloved aunt in Maine, who had just buried her husband, was diagnosed with inoperable cancer.  My beautiful, earthy, spirited aunt who grew blueberries and swam in finger lakes and taught me an awful lot about having an open heart.   Then came the call that it had gone into her bones.  Before she had time to process the shock of the first diagnosis, she had to make decisions about treatments, and come to terms with the short time she has left.  “It’s damn awful,”  she said over the phone.  I was glad she could say it.  She still had her moxie.  I hung up the phone, a jumble of memories surging up–of how she’d always been there, a steady loving presence.  Now there was a cold stone on my chest.

By then I was sodden with grief.  Just when I thought I could take no more, that my mind, my tissues could absorb no more,  I come home to my husband on the phone and overheard him saying, “Yes, I’ll have her call you back.  But be warned, she’ll probably be crying….”  “I’m here,” I said, lurching for the phone.  “It’s Lil’s son… not good news, honey.”  My dear friend, Ms. Lili, was dying.  I wasn’t surprised–she had been declining for the last two years.  In her late eighties, she’d lived a good, full life, and she would be the last to consider her own passing a tragedy.  The sadness was all for me, for losing my “Jewish” mother, the one who thought I hung the moon, who called me darling, who once sent me an erotic love poem, saying if she was younger she would have given to her husband.  She often sat in my kitchen, drinking tea without sugar, “so I can taste the tea,” and eating my husband’s homemade cornmeal bread without butter, “so I can taste the bread.”  She supported me through rough years, when my illness and my husband’s heart condition, and the normal strains of life threatened to take us down.  She gave me prize-winning  day lilies, and never, ever lost her zest for life and her love of people.

I would like to tell you that I went straight to my journal to deal with my grief.  I did not.  I went straight to Tuesday Morning where I bought a red enameled braising pan I’d been eyeing, as well as unnecessary lemon soap, and skeins of moss green cashmere and silk yarn to add to my stash.  I went to the nail salon and got massaged.  I bought glossy magazines.  “Good, Mom, good,” my son Adam said, “that will make you feel better.”  I could not read a poem or write a line.  I stared at recipes from Provence and envisioned using my red pan to make rich and tender dishes.  I was buffeted by gusts of grief and gratitude, by memories, and a keen sense of the shortness of our time here.  I picked herbs, I cooked, I listened to Satie and Arvo Part. These things tethered me to the earth.  But I could not find language.  I could not find myself as I had been.

But that’s it, isn’t it?  We are not supposed to be as we had been.  A friend of mine used to say, “Life is real. Too bad.”  There is no distancing these losses, there is no denying them.  They are experienced in our bodies, they alter the narratives of our lives.    There is only the living through them, and that takes energy and being willing to say yes to this, even if it is not what I would have chosen.   Even if it means I lose the illusion of control.  I would like to think that Rumi’s poem applies here:

The way of love is not a subtle argument.
The door there is devastation.
Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
They fall, and falling, they’re given wings.

Next week I fly to Maine to say good-bye to my aunt.  I know nothing but that I hope to be present to her, as she has been to me all my life.  I hope to be given wings.


 

Heart Goals January 3, 2012

I was supposed to be writing down my goals and aspirations for the New Year, but I couldn’t focus. With the tsunami that is Christmas, I had stopped writing for several weeks.  In the aftermath, I came down with the flu.  For anyone else it would be a bothersome interruption to their “normal” life, but for me it was the threatened return to a prolonged state of invalid-hood.  How was I supposed to make plans, if I didn’t know from day to day what level of energy I had to work with?  Could I make one plan for well me, another for sick me, and then try to merge them?

The day before, as I struggled asthmatically to walk the dog a few blocks, I had met a friend jogging blithely down the street.  She’d stopped to chat, jogging in place, her cheeks rosy, her breath puffing energetically in the cold air.  She was training for a half-marathon, she said.  It had all started a year ago when she joined the WOW Boot Camp.  I should join! she said. It is so much fun! I muttered something about not being able, and she just laughed and said sure I could, I could do it more gently.  I thanked her and went on—how to tell her that too much exercise poisons my cells?  No point.  But it plunged me into a welter of envy, grief, despair that I was unprepared for, that I thought I’d dealt with and put to bed years earlier.  Here they were, leering at me with their ugly faces, their voices enumerating my bottomless inadequacies.

I dream that I join the bike group three of my friends are in. I tell Todd about my dream.  “Don’t even think about it,” he says, “besides, they’d resent you for slowing them down.”   It all pricked, hurt, felt raw.  I saw my friends passing me by in the grand parade of life, and it felt as if I were being punished for doing something terribly, terribly wrong.

I’ve been reading about having compassion for yourself, about holding your pain with tenderness.  So one day, driving across town by myself, I did as suggested, I put my hand on my heart and said, “I care about your pain,” over and over to myself, feeling pretty silly and mechanical.  But then a funny thing happened:  all those tears that I’d been holding back automatically, started up.  I had begun to feel as if I couldn’t cry; I hadn’t cried in so long. I would like to report that I had a good therapeutic cry, but I was driving to see someone who couldn’t handle a swollen, red-eyed me, so I sniffed the tears back.

I finally got back to my journal, feeling overwhelmed and inadequate.  I scribbled the usual frets and complaints and then wrote this sentence: “Old griefs had got her by the throat; she could not move.”  Ah, I thought, ah. I get no pass; there are no shortcuts.  I can teach about writing until the cows come home, but I have to do it.  Knowing is not enough, it is in praxis that the healing happens.  Even if it means encountering the old griefs, the ugly envies, the swampy despair.  Especially if means that.  Except, hand on heart, “I care about your pain.  Your pain is worthy of attention.”

Maybe this is my true goal for 2012.

 

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.

 

After a Long Absence October 6, 2010

Dear Readers,

I hope you are still out there.  I guess I needed a long hiatus to swim, relax, just be.  But fall is finally here and I’m half-way through my fall writing class at the cancer center, and as always, I marvel at what a privilege it is to be witness to the richness of so many lives and so much courage.  Because it takes courage to face the empty page, to face, as one of the participants said yesterday, “my demons.”

That particular writer wrote a short, spine-tingling impressionistic piece about spousal abuse, using the image of being put into a rotten, rat and snake infested well, of calling and pleading for help, only to have her husband stand at the top of the well, laughing at her.  The visceral images and strong verbs: rotting, slithering, pleading, had the group by the neck.  We felt the terror, without the word terror needing to be used.  In the reflection she wrote about the act of writing that piece,  she said that even though it was hard to go back to that experience, once she got it on paper she felt better, more at peace.

I am reading another friend’s fascinating and lengthy memoir.  On our morning walks she has described how she had to write this tome, to put the chaos of her young experience into some kind of order.  She has for years gone home after work and written, often times feeling guilt at not being more accessible to her children.  Yet, she maintains, she had to write this to be a whole person, and she feels that she is a more authentic parent for it.

The poet Karl Shapiro has this to say about writing and pathology: “The prevalence of the tragic and the pathological in great works of literature has misled many theorists ino the belief that art is symptomatic of psychic disorder, whereas it is the opposite.  Art is a way of reaching for wholeness by way of the assimilation of the pathic into the joyousness of the unified being….”  (Foreward, Life on the Line: selections on words and healing).

Another writer of breathtaking courage I have the honor of having in our class, wrote a long piece about years of being stuck, of facing the feeling of not making a difference, and yet also of affirming that it has only been

through her suffering that she has become “real.”   She ends her lament about “time  (that) cannot be regained,” though, with the observation that it is “time to change how I see…..time to love.”

For those of us attending to these works, we borrow courage to look at our own demons, to know that we can face them and know that we too can survive.  For the writers sharing their work with us, those demons b

ecome less potent because the writers are no longer alone with them.  It is this sharing which I think brings the process of healing to another level.  We are meant not only to create art, but to share it, for our own good and the good of all.

So here we all are, imperfect, striving for wholeness, facing our demons, becoming, slowly, more “real.”  It is time.

 

The Rest of the Story July 5, 2010

Filed under: Spirituality,trauma,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 5:57 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I am trying to find the woman who saved my life a year ago.

Just when you think you have “processed” a trauma, you find out, you’ve only just begun.

I called the EMT unit on Duck, N. C.  I thought they might have her name as she was a witness.  The fellow said it was unlikely, and it would take about a week, but he’d look it up.  He said they try to keep all that information confidential. I said I understood, and I would give them permission to give the woman my name, but that I very much wanted to tell her the rest of the story.  That seems important to me.  If she hadn’t seen me, if she hadn’t run into the water with her clothes on, if she hadn’t sent her mother to get the lifeguard, another large wave would have taken me out and that would have been that.  Instead–out of all the hundreds of people partying on that beach last July Fourth–she saw me and saved my life.  Not only that, but she allowed herself into my pain.  When she came to me, I grabbed her hard and cried, “please don’t leave me.”    She looked right into my eyes and said she wouldn’t leave me.  And she didn’t

My daughter said that when they loaded me into the ambulance, a woman who matched her description  had been at the ambulance door, weeping.  As terrible as it was for me, it was also painful for her to be wrenched out of her celebrations, her relaxing beach vacation, her sense of  “all’s right with the world.”  I hope she had a good stiff drink that night.

As I explained to the EMT what happened and why I wanted to contact her, I started crying.  It all came back, that feeling of vulnerability, of pain, of complete and utter helplessness.  Everything I haven’t allowed myself to feel as I focused on each small step of my recovery. Every time I’ve mentioned it this week, the same thing happens.  It is as though, as a friend suggested, my body had to heal and become strong enough to experience all these emotions.  I write about trauma, for pete’s sake, I should know what to expect.  But it is taking me by surprise.  What I had taken as strength seems to have been postponed grief.  But this feels like good grief, as if my tears are finally re-hydrating me, the way a summer storm revives the earth, clears the air.

If I find her, this is what I will tell her: that on the one-year anniversary of my accident, I sang in the choir, and that the psalm for the day was Psalm 30,

“O LORD my God, I called to you for help
and you healed me.

3 O LORD, you brought me up from the grave [b] ;
you spared me from going down into the pit….

You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy…”

I will tell her that my son asked me to play tennis after church, and I was able to do it.  I will tell her that after our tennis game we went swimming. I will tell her that I am taking the tango lessons I’ve always dreamed of taking.  I will tell her that I went to a cook-out last night surrounded by old friends.  I will tell her that I’m beginning to write again.  And yes, it was a hard year, wearing a body brace for six months, unmitigated pain, that I was often  impatient with the slow process, that I sickened of the color of our bedroom wall, of having to sleep in a hospital bed.  I will tell her it isn’t over, the pain is still there, but it is nothing compared to the joys that surround me.  Nothing compared to the knowledge I have of how precious each day is, of how deeply I am loved.

I hope I find her. I have so much to thank her for.                 madeira beach

 

 
%d bloggers like this: