Word Medicine

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

Prisoners April 25, 2013

My long time yard man is in jail again.  He had left given me a paper a few days ago with a list of treatment facilities and told me that his probation officer told him if he wasn’t signed up by the following Tuesday, it was back in the clinker for him.  The list made little sense, but I called around and discovered that a) there were no Level II treatment facilities in town and b) they cost more than he made a month, especially since he would not be able to work.  I tried to get back to his overworked probation officer, but it when I did, it didn’t change anything.  He was going back to jail.

One of my dearest friend’s husband threw her off after a twenty-five year marriage.  My friend is a gentle, bright woman, who trained in Europe to become an architect, and then got a landscape architecture degree while raising her child here.  Her husband didn’t want her to work, wouldn’t let her get a green card.  So here she is in her fifties, with a punitive ex-husband who is living with a woman her daughter’s age, and no career or means of support but a lousy low level tech job.  She is facing impoverishment.  No matter how she looks at it, there is no way out, only frustration and anger.  She feels the prison cell walls for give, for a possible way out, but can’t find one.

I’ve been sequestered indoors for a month due to allergies that add to my body’s already overburdened immune system.  Never healthy, the added feelings of illness and inability to get outside has been increasingly demoralizing.  My daily walks with my dog and  sitting in the garden have been curtailed.  These small things make my daily routine pleasant, and take me out of the kind of neurotic preoccupation with my own health ill people are prone to.  My sense of isolation increases, and I feel slapped up against my body’s limitations again.  It is hard to see a way out.  I forget that this illness waxes and wanes, and all I see are the walls coming closer.

The poet Ellen Bass, in her poem, “In Praise of Four Letter Words,” writes: In lockdown within our own skins/we’re banging on the bars with tin spoons/screaming in the only language strong/enough to convey the shock/of our painful need…..

I’m reading Bonhoeffer, the biography by Erix Metaxes.  ( Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the German theologian involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler). I’m currently at the end, when Bonhoeffer is in the Gestapo prison in Berlin.  There is a very moving description by another inmate of how, despite the fact that they were in solitary cells, the doors of the cells remained open in the morning and evening as the prisoners returned from eating and washing.  “During that time, we were eagerly talking to one another through the slits in the hinges of the doors separating us….we seized every opportunity to inform each other of our thoughts and experiences.  Only somebody who has been in strict solitary confinement is able to understand what this chance of talking to somebody meant to us during those long months….”  He goes on to report how Bonhoeffer “always cheered and comforted me…” and how he was always full of hope.”  (pgs. 498 &499).

I find this passage very moving.  I think, to some greater and lesser degrees, we are all in the solitary confinements of our own experiences, circumstances, thoughts and feelings. We can not always change the facts of our circumstances, but we can “inform each other of our thoughts and experiences….” and in this way find relief in the telling. If we can learn to be the ear the other needs, we my also give comfort.  There is always the possibility in this kind of exchange, of hope.

I am hoping my yard man is released soon, and that my friend finds a job suitable to her abilities, and that the insurance company will finally approve the treatment my doctor has been trying to get me for a year.  But in the meantime, I’m keeping the door of my cell open.   1296078708DvVAx0

 

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.

 

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.

 

Our Storied World June 17, 2009

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Here is a wonderful and true story: A friend of mine, a visual artist, until recently worked at a charitable organization that was slowly dying due to the recession. My friend, let us call her Z., worked mostly with the Hispanic p0pulation, trying to help them navigate various social agencies, food banks, legal aid agencies. I’d often dropped by to visit her, and find her with a child on her lap, speaking to the mother in fluent Spanish, or helping a troubled teenage boy calm down by doing collages with him. Even as the agency’s funds dried up, my friend, who has no margin for error in her own slim finances, would often open her own wallet and give what little she had. She didn’t do it every time, but if she felt the person’s plight was truly awful, she explained that she did it to live with herself.

One day a young man wandered in. He’d had to drop out of school, he had no money, hadn’t eaten in a while, and couldn’t find a job, although he’d been looking. My friend gave what information she could, but she noticed a certain dullness in his eyes and recognized it for what it was–the dying of hope. She opened her wallet and gave him a twenty and he thanked her and left.

Not long afterwards, Z. was laid off from the organization. She went into a funk, hibernated and licked her wounds, then turned to the thing she knew would help her find her way. She got her paintings down from the attic, began to look at them again, began doing some new work. In the spaciousness of the her new days, she found herself making art. She’d applied for jobs, but none came through. Still, it wasn’t as if she had nothing….she began to slowly envision her self as a working artist. It was as if the Universe had conspired to get her back to her true work.

Still, one has to eat. She was downtown one afternoon and poked her head into a little Italian restaurant. It was close to the end of lunch service, and she was the only one in the restaurant. A young man came over to take her order. They looked at each other and she recognized the young man she’d given a twenty to. He said, “I know you,” and she smiled and acknowledged it, not wanting to embarrass him by reminding him of how they had met. Far from it, the boy was eager to chat. The day she had given him the twenty, he had been at a low ebb. But he had gotten something to eat, then applied for this job at the restaurant and gotten it. She was delighted to know how the story had turned out; so many of the people she had helped simply disappeared.

She visits the young man often now, and the irony of their switched places isn’t lost on her. She’s become friends with the owner, who wants her to hang her paintings in the restaurant. “Was it random chance or something else that led me there?” she asks. At any rate, it was a fortunate and happy accident.

“The moment I heard my first story/I started looking for you…” Rumi writes. We are our stories. We not only understand our world through story, but we make our worlds through stories. We tell, we receive, we stand in amazement and awe at the gift of story. Our hearts wither for lack of good stories.

Dear reader, I wish you a storied world.

 

 
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