Word Medicine

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

Reverie and Engagment August 20, 2015

I’ve been thinking about the conditions conducive to writing recently, since I seemed to be experiencing a mild writer’s block.

I was finding myself a little too happy to read my emails—always a bad sign.  I try not to open those until the afternoons, supposedly devoting myself to a “higher calling” in the mornings. But I was finding excuses: worries about a friend, responses from some queries I’d put out.  It was a Monday morning, and I was restless.  The sky flashed with lightening, thunder shook the house, and everything and anything seemed more interesting than what I might put down on paper.

Then the electricity went out. In the yellow-green light that remained, I found myself, out of boredom and lack of gadgetry, scribbling some images on a yellow legal pad, playing around with them. Relieved of the pressure to respond or interact, I suddenly had nothing but time. Time became a medium of space, a fullness, a restfulness.

Yesterday, I heard an “On Being” podcast interview of John O’Donohue talking about time. He said, “In America, you view time as the enemy. So there is not time to cultivate the inner life.” He then compared it to the west of Ireland, where he said, time seems endless, and the landscape is timeless. His comment rang true for me. I know that in order to write, I have to almost slam the door on time, to disregard it. But it is always there, panting heavily on the threshold, whining about all that needs to be done. There is an anxiety that I wake up with, which we all wake up with, that there is so much to be done and I will never be able to do it all. This anxiety is not conducive to works of the imagination.

For the imagination to have a chance, then, we need a sense of time that is unhurried. We need reverie. And for reverie, we need to feel safe. One of my favorite thinkers, Gaston Bachelard, wrote a wonderful book on reverie, The Poetics of Reverie:  Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos. He wrote:

reverie-1919 (1)Reverie illustrates repose for a being… it illustrates well-being. The dreamer and his reverie enter totally into the substance of happiness.

                    Reverie helps us inhabit the world; inhabit the happiness of the world. The soul does not live on the edge of time. It finds its rest in the universe imagined by reverie.

Reverie gives us the world of a soul [and] a poetic image bears witness to a soul which is discovering its world, the world where it would like to live and where it deserves to live… Poetry forms the dreamer and his world at the same time.

So, I believe with Bachelard that reverie is one of the essential conditions for creative work.  However, from my experience, I think that there is another component. That is engagement.

I have found that when I am not engaged with the world, that my work begins to dry up. By engagement, I don’t mean busyness. I mean meaningful contact, purposeful effort, or simply enjoying, being curious about the world of man/woman and nature. I can easily fall prey to neuroticism, and when that happens, I know that I am not as engaged as I should be, that my work, instead of reflecting the world as it is in all its complexity, can become a shadowy world of my projections. That’s when I know I need to get out, walk, talk with people, go someplace.

John O’Donohue also addressed this aspect of the creative life when he said, “Our gifts are given for the community, not for ourselves alone.”  If that is true, we need to be engaged in community. That is something different from ego posturing or status consciousness. It is being interested in the mystery of otherness, in those we live with, in their “infinite variety.”

It might seem that these two conditions are opposed to each other, but I don’t think so.  It is more that they are both necessary, in different degrees. Sometimes we balance them; often, we don’t. When we begin to feel played out, it may be time for reverie. When we begin to feel dull, it may be time for engagement. We live in a culture that is extroverted in the extreme, however, so my bet is that it is harder to find time for reverie.

I’ll leave you with this:

Matins
I arise to day… In the name of Silence / Womb of the Word, / In the name of Stillness / Home of Belonging, / In the name of the Solitude / of the Soul and the Earth

John O’Donohue

 

Shame/Grace June 19, 2013

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Two nights ago, our children from Bethesda were visiting, and we had a party with a few friends.  I had just come back from visiting my sister, who was appalled that I didn’t have an iPhone, and didn’t text.  We were talking about the pros and cons of iPhones, when one of our guests, a man of bottomless curiosity, asked what the name Bethesda meant.  “It’s in the Bible,” he said, looking meaningfully at me as if that meant I should know the name.  “Well,”  I said,  “I have read that book any number of times, but I can’t remember everything.”  So he whipped out his iPhone and looked it up.

 

This is what he found on Wikipedia under Pool of Bethesda:  “The name of the pool is said to be derived from the Hebrew language and/or Aramaic languagebeth hesda (בית חסד/חסדא), meaning either house of mercy[3] or house of grace. In both Hebrew and Aramaic the word could also mean ‘shame, disgrace’. This dual meaning may have been thought appropriate since the location was seen as a place of disgrace due to the presence of invalids, and a place of grace, due to the granting of healing.”

 

I hadn’t really cared about the name, but this grabbed my attention.  It brought home to me how ancient the twinning of shame and illness is.  And even though we are modern people who believe that we no longer “blame the victim,” both for those who are sick and for  others around them, I think shame still plays a potent role in our experience of illness.

 

In my own experience of illness, I often find that along with the pain and fatigue comes the vinegary presence of a lingering guilt.  I may tell myself it isn’t my fault that I am sick, but I feel as if it is.  I wonder how much of that conditioning goes back for hundreds of generations, when sin and sickness were seen as one and the same?  Or is it the American belief that we can do anything if we try hard enough, which makes failing at wellness such a trial?  No one wants to be a burden to others, no one wants to fall behind.  When you are sick, though, it becomes hard to feel you are contributing or participating in the life around you.  To be an invalid is all too often to be in-valid.

 

As for how others respond to sickness, I think as a society we find chronic illness in particular, unacceptable.  We don’t have mechanisms to cope with it.  Fear probably plays into this, as it did for the leprosy patients at Carville, Louisiana who were taken from their homes and deprived of family and name, so that the remaining families would not be burned in their homes or run out of town.  Leprosy, in America even in the twentieth century, was seen as the fault of  ill.  Today, we use fighting metaphors for cancer, and yet what about the person who doesn’t “win” against cancer?  Is it because they didn’t fight hard enough?  We tend to turn our backs on people who aren’t winners. It is too painful for us.

 

Here is the first stanza of a poem I wrote recently.

 

 

What do the healthy

have to do with the ill?

Why would they want

to hear the news–

that the body is fragile

and we live at its will?

 

But what about grace? What about healing?  What about the image of healing waters?

 

John O’Donohue has written that when we are in our deepest suffering, that we should offer ourselves the oil of compassion, because we are experiencing the most essential aspect of being human.  It is suffering, he says, which allows us to truly connect to others. Yet, how hard this is to do!  How much easier to blame ourselves, and to struggle against our circumstances.  How hard to sit with what is, and look for the blessings there.

 

Kat Duff, in her wonderful book, The Alchemy of Illness, which I read at the worst stage of my illness, doesn’t see illness as the enemy to be struggled against, but as part of the human experience which offers opportunities for spiritual growth.  I have found that in my own life, while I wouldn’t wish this illness on anyone, it has brought me many gifts as well.  Healing, it seems, is not just for the body, but for the soul as well.  I have seen in the cancer patients that I’ve worked with great healing as they jettison a lot of unneeded baggage, and find their true voices.

 

I love the image of healing waters, of being suspended in them, of washing away all that burdens you, both physically and spiritually.  Water is receptive and holding, cleansing and renewing.  Here is a photo of the pool of Bethesda.

 

Our children left today to go back to Bethesda, which I hope will be a place of grace for them.  Richard left with his iPhone.  I’m taking my iPhoneless self for a swim.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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