Word Medicine

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

Restoring Balance September 19, 2014

Filed under: Healing — saratbaker @ 4:56 pm
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Recently, my daily routine has been thrown off by the usual exigencies of life:  illness, weddings, fleas.

Instead of getting an early start, walking the dog and meditating in the cool of the morning, I seem to be rushing out of the house, leaving things undone—laundry, bills, insurance claims—myriad small things that add up to a crushing sense of playing catch up all the time.  I make lists:  get labs done, make vet appointment, pack Adam’s clothes, Jiffy Lube.  On the car radio, I hear of war and rumors of war, of conflicts whose intricacies I cannot hope to understand, and I have the sinking feeling of a widening disaster to which I’m somehow unwittingly a party. So much information to take in, to process.  My email is an overflowing disaster, as are the notices falling to the floor from my desk.  I seem to work unceasingly, yet have little to show for it.

I want more than anything to create order, simplicity and meaning.  I long to lose myself in the garden, where I can drop down into a river of being, my arms, hands, eyes working without thinking, my skin caressed by breezes, my ears filled with the soft rustle of the bamboo, the mourning dove’s call.  Yet I let everything else come first, and so I end up frazzled and depleted.  I haven’t solved the world’s problems or even my own.

Recently, I came across an article by Jerome S.  Bernstein which looked at Native American, in particular, Navajo, understandings of healing.  For the Navajo, illness is a symptom of lack of balance or harmony in an individual or in a community.  The Navajo believe that it is up to humans “to restore harmony when energies are out of balance.”  According to Bernstein, a medicine man he worked with put it this way, “Balancing the individual balances the world.”

The poet Adam Zagajewski in his wonderful poem, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” speaks to the tension of acknowledging the world’s brokenness and ruin, while also offering a way to restore a sense of harmony by remembering beauty:

 Try to praise the mutilated world.

Remember June’s long days,

and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.

The nettles that methodically overgrow

the abandoned homesteads of exiles.

You must praise the mutilated world.

 Further into the poem, he suggests

 Return in thought to the concert where music flared.

 I suppose that we rarely manage to find perfect balance in our lives, but the poet suggests that by both experiencing nature, beauty, and love and then by remembering those experiences, we can balance the ugliness of much of life.  What I really love about this poem is that Mr. Zagajewski doesn’t ask us to pretend that life is other than it is.  His is the mind that can tolerate paradox and live between the tension of the two.

In order to remember beauty, we have to partake of it.  So I’m going to try to make time for my garden, and for music, even if my to do list grows longer.  Maybe if I can restore my own balance, I can add to the harmony of the world.  It’s a nice thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trapped in the Ice January 22, 2013

I once found an old book at the flea market called “Be Glad You’re Neurotic”.  Just the book for me!  Written in 1936,  it has chapter headings like “You Hate Yourself. No Wonder!” and “Are You Getting the Most out of Your Insomnia and Dreams?”  I did not make this up.  I prop this old book on my shelf, title out, reminding myself to be glad.

Having a chronic illness is a sure way to intensify a neurosis.  I’ve been sick since Christmas, sequestered in the house for the most part, too exhausted to go out.  All plans for the future are on hold.  I’m waiting for the verdict from the insurance company as to whether, this time, they will approve my treatment.  Instead of being able to let go, to read and relax and wait to get better, I go into overdrive, fending off the feeling of impending doom.  Will I be able to keep up my walking routine?  To sing in the choir?  To write steadily?  My mind goes into ever more solipsistic rounds, and I become more tense, contracted– unable to heal.  I feel guilty for having a lousy immune system.  I read a book review about primitive tribes and identify with the sick woman left to die because she is no longer of use. I see her struggling to keep up with the tribe, only to die alone on the road. That’s me, I think, falling farther and farther behind. My mind turns in ever smaller circles, like the little swan trapped in the ice in “The Ugly Duckling.”  I can not stay in the present, or take deep breaths.  My mind is turning too frantically, even as my body is inert.  Intellectually, I know better, but I’m in the grip of something I can’t think away.the-ugly-duckling-english-school

This impasse is only broken when a friend calls unexpectedly.  Like me, Mari has a chronic illness and has lived with all the difficulties of people not understanding, of insurance companies that are unresponsive, of dreams that have to be let go.  I find myself articulating to her half-understood frustrations and fears.  All the thoughts and feelings that had festered in the sealed room of my mind come pouring out.  Yet, once they are not mine alone, they seem less formidable.  I feel myself taking deeper breaths, feel my body loosen.  Mari shares practical advice, and more importantly, she exudes a confidence I no longer have that thing will turn out.  Holding onto her confidence for me, I can let go of the death grip I have on the outcome of my illness.  I feel supported, and humbled.  I do not have to be God.  I can relax.  I am reminded again that I am not alone, and I am invited to experience a feeling of being held and nurtured.

To heal, it seems, we need each other.  I can do my yoga practice at home, but doing it in a group seems to be a fuller experience.  I have had profound experiences of healing from healing touch, from massage, from the caring physical therapists who have put me back together, from chats with friends, from therapists, from writing groups, from the liturgy.  And each time, I feel humbled and grateful, called back to Reality as sacred, freed from my ego’s need to control.

Before Mari’s call, my story about my illness was one of loss and desperation.  Yet, as she offered her generous insights, I was able to reframe my story.  My feeling of helplessness diminished and my sense of agency grew, even as I was able to let go of controlling the outcome. My story of isolation became a story of hope.  In the book, Narrative Medicine: the Use of History and Story in the Healing Process, Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD,  talks about the importance of community in helping someone re-author their story.  “We need the group to re-author our stories.  Rarely can re-authoring be done in isolation.”

We need others to help us heal, although not everyone can help you re-author your story, as Naomi Shihab Nye says in this poem:

You Have to Be Careful

You have to be careful telling things.
Some ears are tunnels.
Your words will go in and get lost in the dark.
Some ears are flat pans like the miners used
looking for gold.

What you say will be washed out with the stones.
You look for a long time till you find the right ears.
Till then, there are birds and lamps to be spoken to,
a patient cloth rubbing shine in circles,
and the slow, gradually growing possibility
that when you find such ears
they already know.

Thank you, Mari Braveheart-Dancer, for being those ears.

 

The Art of Medicine in Metaphors December 20, 2012

Fellow “healing writer” blogger, James Borton, has just come out with a new book , The Art of Medicine in Metaphors: A Collection of Poems and Narratives.

I met James at the 2011 Examined Life Conference hosted by the University of Iowa Writing Program and the Carver College of Medicine and was riveted by his story.  Like many of us who have experienced a life-changing health crisis, he returned to the world with a mission.  He began the blog, allheartmatters.com, where he generously writes about Medical Humanities and solicits healing narratives.  His anthology is a welcome addition to the growing literature on writing and healing.   He describes his book below:

Poetry and stories about illness address more than just the symptoms of disease. Narratives and poems are the pathways for people to make sense of and discover meaning in life’s difficult events. Three years ago, I learned a painful lesson about how a pa­tient bleeds a story. Following a triple bypass, I emerged after nine dark days from a coma after losing all of my blood from a ruptured coronary artery. It is no wonder that my call to others to learn about their broken health stories met with remarkable responses.

Every patient’s story, whether it be through the admission report, the clinical medical chart, or the arc of an entire life history, translates into a valued healing narrative. The poems and stories presented in this anthology are all written from the heart. They are about losses and they are also about gains. What patients and doctors continue to understand is the power of telling and listening to personal stories.

This anthology includes thematic re­flections on death, diagnoses, fears, humor, joy and transforma­tion—both physical and spiritual. These writers all succeed in telling their story, sharing their brokenness, discovering healing metaphors, and—at unexpected moments—offering grace and renewal.

James Borton teaches in the English Department at Coastal Carolina University and is a faculty associate at the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities at the University of South Carolina. He is also a past National Endowment Fellow at Yale University.

AOM Tear Sheet

 

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 Kindness of Strangers, Part ll April 21, 2010

Filed under: Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 12:28 am
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Dear Readers,

A young friend, Rebecca Corey, describes how her world was upended in an accident while she was studying in Tanzania this winter.  At her young age, she has clear insights into the issues of pain and suffering, as well as the interdependence of us all.  Please read her riveting post at :  http://networkedblogs.com/34bIb.

Best,

Sara

 

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.

 

Ruined October 5, 2009

The small yellow vase was a marvel. I spied it years ago at a local arts fair. It could fit into the palm of your hand, its body a fat perfect sphere, its neck slender, impossibly delicate, giving way to disk-like porcelain collar around an opening for just one tiny stem and bud. The glaze over the body was a delicious pale yellow mottled with white–buttery, happy, the wings of a butterfly.

Over the years, the vase has brought me joy in its tiny self-contained perfection. I treasure it. It, I suppose, became something more for me than an object d’art. Through all the years of illness, it stood in my bedroom as a reminder of something–of beauty, fragility, completeness. It was graceful the way a dancer’s line is –effervescent, hardly there, hardly anything, except sometimes, everything.

The other night, I happened to glance at it and see that something was wrong. To my horror ,the collar now had two jagged triangular gaps. By and large, I”m not too attached to things. Pottery and glasses get broken all the time at our house and I usually take them in stride. All the porcelain lamps have been glued and reglued. But somehow, the damage to the little pot got to me. I felt my heart race and I snatched it up and stomped into the TV room where my innocent husband was sprawled in front of Jay Leno. “Did you know about this!?” I hissed. He looked sheepish. He’d been fixing the blind in the bedroom and knocked it off the shelf. “it had been damaged before,” he said, “I couldn’t find the pieces this time.” I was filled with a seething rage; I felt like throwing the vase on the hearth tiles, smashing it into little pieces. I hated it! What good was it if it was broken? The whole beauty of it had been its perfection. It was ruined. Ruined! I couldn’t be put back together and it would never be the same.

I wept myself to sleep in my hospital bed.

The next morning, walking in the neighborhood, my neighbor Patty stopped and asked how I was. I found myself telling her it that it was a long, slow, hard recovery, and then I heard myself say, “I’ll never be the same; my spine will never be straight.” And I felt my eyes fill, my heart pound. Usually, I emphasize the positive–I’m alive, I’m not paralyzed. I’m not especially close to Patty, but for some reason, it came out. She said, “You know, you have to mourn it, there’s no way around it. You’ll go through all those stages of grief. You can’t hurry it up.”

Her words were a gift.

Well, I’m pretty good at fooling myself, but I guess I’ve worn out denial. I’ve tried bargaining–if I do my exercises, work, be exemplary, if I endure the pain, maybe I can preserve the illusion that I’ll be good as new someday, maybe I won’t have to mourn my losses: my strong back that I always relied on, my waistline, just the wonder of a body that despite CFIDS, despite asthma, would ride a bike, swim, garden,do yoga. All without too much consideration. I will heal, but I’ll never be the same, and I will probably never be pain free.

Geovanna, the woman who helps me with the house and with whom over the years, I’ve shared all the woes and joys of a woman’s heart in a motley but thoroughly lucid Spanglish, came up to me a few days ago holding the vase and two small pieces of white porcelain. “I know you love this,” she said, “maybe Mr. Todd can fix it for you.” She handed them to me, giving me a quick hug. Mr. Todd fixed it and put it on the shelf. You have to look for the cracks. I am very glad I didn’t smash it into pieces.

 

A Simple Bowl September 17, 2009

I’ve been trying to use what little energy I have recently to send out query letters to agents. It is a strange process, so divorced from the impetus and act of creating a piece of fiction. When writing fiction or poetry, I feel centered, for the most part, and alive and excited. I don’t feel any of those things when querying agents. Instead, I feel weighed down by the effort of selling myself, by a feeling that the whole process is somehow inauthentic, by the overwhelming odds against any writer, but especially one who has taken a long hiatus due to illness.

Yesterday, sitting in my physical therapist’s waiting room, I was fuming to my husband about a book I’d just finished reading that I found mediocre, despite sensational reviews. A thin, frail man walked in who looked vaguely familiar. It took me a moment, but then I recognized M.S., a wonderful potter who has been battling leukemia for many years now. Just that morning, I had put my strawberries in his lovely white and black bowl. The bowl has an asian flavor, with a pediment and steep conical sides. It has always given me a lot of pleasure, both the shape and the glaze: it is a perfect small bowl. It is a bowl I can imagine a Buddhist monk using.

M.S. looked up when my husband called his name. He came over and we exchanged greetings–my ever present body brace always providing a subject for conversation. Close up, I could see the sores on his skin, his sparse hair, his face puffy, no doubt from steroids. No matter how many years I’ve worked with cancer patients, the ravishing of the disease and the treatments is always a fresh shock. We asked after his wife, a painter, and he caught us up with her. There was a pause, and then he said, “and I guess I’m just a medical patient now.”

Such a simple statement, but such a painful one. For anyone, the loss of work is painful. For an artist, especially as finally tuned as M.S., it must be a cruel loss. One thinks of Beethoven descending into deafness, stubbornly composing in that silence, of Picasso, the old man, confronting the canvas until his last day. “Who can tell the dancer from the dance?” Making art transforms the maker, just as it transforms the material. It can be a solace, one I wished he still had.

I felt my eyes fill and I didn’t want him to see. Thankfully, I was called for my therapy session. Lying on the table, I felt keenly my own brokenness as well his, and I was washed over with the brevity of life. What I want, I thought, is to make stories as beautiful and functional as his bowls, stories to hold whatever fruit or emptiness the reader’s life needs contained. That is what I’d like to put in my query letter.

 

 
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