Word Medicine

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

Living in the Body February 16, 2015

Last Wednesday, after a particularly stressful week, I slept in for the first time in ages. I was tapped out in all ways, and even though I got up early and ate breakfast, I just had to crawl back into bed. I felt guilty about this, and when my housekeeper came, I explained to her that I was so tired, but that I had to get back up to the salt mine (my attic study).

“Oh, Mrs. Sara, no, if you are tired, you must rest. Es tu cuerpo!”

The way she uttered, “Es tu cuerpo,” stopped me in my tracks. It seemed self-evident to her that my body should be treated like the most treasured child. She said “tu cuerpo” with such tenderness and concern. And of course she was right.

I do know she is right. But my default attitude is to treat my body like a balky mule. I should know better. My illness has taught me many things, among them to pace myself and to listen to my body. Ironically, when I begin to have a bit of energy I seem to forget those lessons. I’m all on with doing, not listening. My body is at times my cell, sometimes my ally. It has betrayed me, it seems, or have I betrayed it? What is this “I” anyway,  how is it possible to be apart from the body it speaks of? Gregory Djanikian in his poem Mind/Body writes of this tension between mind and body:

How do they survive, riven

as they are, the one undoing

the other’s desire?

Tell the body to outrun

the mind, and the mind smirks,

whispering too loudly

this way   this way,

blocking all the exits.

And the body, luxurious

sensualist by pool side or in bed,

doesn’t it hear the mind’s

impatient machinery ticking

it’s time   it’s time?

 How do you reconcile such differences? It can be exhausting. My mind wants to be to get to the salt mine, and my body wants to luxuriate in bed.

 Joyce Sutphen, in her poem, Living in the Body, describes how the body will “pull you down into a sleepy swamp,

 Body is something you need in order to stay

on this planet and you only get one.

And no matter which one you get, it will not

be satisfactory. It will not be beautiful

enough, it will not be fast enough, it will

not keep on for days at a time, but will

pull you down into a sleepy swamp and

demand apples and coffee and chocolate cake.

My body does remind me of a child in its insistent demands. And yet when my children were irritable, demanding, out of sorts, I not only fed them, but I gave them attention. It is amazing how a little attention, rocking in the rocking chair, holding them, singing to them, for just a few minutes, would soothe them.  So I am wondering if instead of beating my body into submission, I might give it a little attention.

Ash Wednesday is coming up. I grew up with the idea of mortification of the flesh, and struggled all my life to subdue my demanding body. But I am wondering now about maybe taking a different approach. A yoga teacher friend suggested using Lent as a time to befriend our bodies, to be gentle with them. I’m going to try this approach–to feed myself good things, to rest when I’m tired, stretch when I’m cramped. To maybe not only accept this imperfect body, but to love it. To cherish it. Mi cuerpo.

 

The Body’s Story April 15, 2011

I’ve written before about my involvement with the Karen refugees that my church is helping to settle here.  I backed into this responsibility reluctantly.  I really only got on board because my son, Adam, 14, just loves these kids.  He has a knack with kids and with people from other cultures, maybe because he is such a good communicator and such a warm person.  At any rate,  our family responsibilities include me taking the mother, whom I’ll call Sunny, to the health department every few months to get her Depo shot.  She is thirty and has four boys, 3-11.  She also had a baby girl who died, either in Burma or in the refugee camp in  Thailand–that part of the story isn’t clear.

Sunny’s English is getting better, but is still very minimal.  Working with her I realize how much of language is body language, facial expressions, and idioms.  I often feel that she has much more to say, but is frustrated.  It is frustrating for us both.  But recently, it has gotten better, which I think has to do with simply with the fact that we have spent more time together.  The reason being, Sunny seems to be having heart problems.

The second time we went for the Depo shot,  she complained again–in a soft voice that dropped the consonants–that she had pain in her chest, tiredness, heavy arms and legs, sweating.  I had to urge her on to tell the nurse, and luckily we got a nurse who listened.  We also got a phone translator who eased communications.  The nurse concluded that Sunny couldn’t have her shot until she had seen the GP and been given the OK.

The  doctor was way out in the country.  “Teacher,” Sunny said, her hand on her chest, “Sometime I feel heavy, full.  Sometimes I feel empty.”  There were tears in her eyes.  “My husband say, maybe I’m sad.”  Although Sunny is warm and loving, in her thirty years she has lost a mother at three, lost a father, lost a husband, buried a child, lost a homeland, and a  language.  I believe perhaps her father and or husband may have fought for the Karen  cause.  She tells me, “I never forget them.  I never forget.”  Her siblings are scattered around Burma, Thailand and one in St. Louis.

She tells me that she loves America, that she will never go back.  She tells me that in her village, a quiet village away from  the police, the children all played freely, the mothers doing their chores. One day the police came. “Rattatat, rattatat,” she goes, and then motions with her arms a sweeping motion.   “Mother’s look for babies,” she pantomimes, “go into trees, police get closer, babies cry.”  I stare at her, wondering if she was a child or a mother, wondering if maybe that little daughter didn’t die of natural causes.  “No, she shakes her head,”  I never go back.  “Rice, I carry, walk all day,”  and she pats the top of her head.  “No Piggly Wiggly!”  she makes a joke and we giggle and then she says it again, “Piggly Wiggly.”  I’ve taken her to Piggly Wiggly, and seen the amazed look on her face at all the food, which she buys in bulk to feed those five men of hers.  She shakes her head again, “No Burma. No chicken plant. No DVDs!”  Her second husband, twenty-five, works sometimes seven days a week at the chicken plant, a job you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, but for them  it is the key to the kingdom.

We get to the clinic, and there is an hour filling out forms, getting approved for the sliding fee scale.  At first they don’t want to treat her without a translator–they don’t have the phone translator service.  They are about to turn us away, but I convince them that we can communicate “enough.”  It is urgent–she is frightened as it is.  “All right, but you’ll have to see the nurse practitioner.”  Fine, I say.  We wait and wait.  Then we are called in.  The nurse who takes her vitals is lovely and gentle.  She has to wire her for an EKG, and I try to explain to Sunny what is going on.  Sunny is holding her breath in fear.  Her eyes are panicked.  The nurse says, “Tell her it won’t hurt.”  And I do, stroking her forehead.  And it doesn’t hurt, but it is invasive to have your body touched and taped and to be in a prone position, to be totally vulnerable.  It is for me.  It is for anyone, no matter how hard we rationalize it.

We  await and wait again to be seen.  Then a knock and a woman comes in the door.  She has a disapproving frown on her face and a very loud, brusque manner.  “Her EKG is abnormal.  She is not cleared for Depo.  She needs to see a cardiologist.  Any questions?”  We both just stare at her.  That’s it?  I take the records and thank her.  We silently leave.   We get in the car and I tell her she is going to have to see another doctor.  She nods, frowning.  I know that getting her to see a cardiologist will be an uphill battle.  I know that many doctors will just see a small brown asian woman who is a nuisance, a free-loader.  I wonder who will take the time to see or hear her, who will take the time to hear the story her body is telling.

 

Making it Human March 16, 2011

Filed under: Medical Humanitites — saratbaker @ 1:24 pm
Tags: , , ,

 

One of the participants in my workshop wrote this moving and authentic piece about her fears as she faced new health problems and a new doctor.  She also talks about issues of ageing and the unexpected relationships age can bring.  But most importantly, she describes how a doctor’s ability to listen, really listen, can have a healing effect.

 

Fears

by

 

Eileen O. Fancher

 

 

 

 

I have a new doctor.  I am  dismayed as I watch him walk  into the room  for he is young enough to be my son.  I want a seasoned doctor.  One who has been in the business of medicine  long enough to have seen everything  that I might ask him to  look at and diagnose.

 

I am fairly new at seeing doctors and now I have acquired five in a short span of time.   This new doctor is movie star handsome.  His good looks make me think perhaps he will be egotistic and not have very much time for a patient old enough to be his mother.

 

On our first visit he helps me up on the high examining table and lets me sit there, feet swinging and anxious while  I start  my long list of woes. I have come to see him because so many issues  have piled up that they are about to overwhelm me.  I have made a list and I want every problem solved.  I can no longer live with so much  uncertainty and worry about what is happening to my body.

 

He sprawls back in a chair and he listens and listens and listens.  He lets me describe every  complaint that I can’t seem to heal or cure.  He listens as I tell him a complicated  tale of my concern about  my fears of the what ifs and the maybes and he nods silently without comment.

 

Even though I sound as if I think that I am the doctor and I would like this done and that attended to, he never reveals any emotion except a continued deep and patient interest in every word I am saying.  Then he starts his quiet interrogation of just when it was that I noticed that symptom or how  I reacted to that medication.  He takes so much time with me that  after awhile I begin to feel edgy and anxious.  Surely he’s getting ready to make an exit. .   I am not used to this attention.  I’ve grown accustomed to a doctor breezing into the room with a clipboard, checking off items on a list and scurrying off.

 

Finally, when I have exhausted my anxious litany, he stares into space  for awhile  and then  announces quietly what we are going to do.

 

He makes no move to leave and so our conversation moves on to other subjects.  He is well informed and interesting. As I grow older, younger people often become involved in long conversations with me that go from one subject to another. This is a surprisingly pleasant benefit of aging….playing the role of attentive parent.

 

Finally, he rises to leave then stops in the doorway and looks back at me.  “I won’t have the good health that  you have when I am your age,” he says quietly. He starts forward and then turns back again, “In fact, I don’t think I  will live that long.”  This startles me and I   have no answer.   I pick up my purse and coat and join him to  walk down the long  hall.   I wait while he takes the time to find information and  fill out some  lengthy forms.  Then he presents me with the careful, hand- written report that I am to carry with me.

 

As I drive away in the sunshine with music playing on my car radio, I realize that I feel extremely happy.  No just slightly happy but joyously, exuberantly happy…happier than I’ve felt in a long time.

 

It’s then that I  realize how deeply I had been fearing what lay ahead. I had lived with those  fears for a long time, not putting them  into words for  my friends and family  because my fears were shapeless and  unproven,  perhaps even baseless and without substance.  Being able to  voice  everything that was on my mind today had given me a wonderful feeling of release.

 

 

The  intense joy I feel  as I drive home surrounds me  like a warm blanket.  My anxieties have melted.   Thinking  back, I realize that never once did my new doctor reassure me in words that everything was going to be alright.  Instead, he quietly listed the steps  we would follow to find out the answers.

 

Doctors who listen and take the time to explore a patient’s fears have enormous influence on the patient’s health.  I wonder if they know just how much.   There is more healing in quietly  listening  than in all the prescriptions ever written.

 

Then I think about my new doctor’s strange comments about not living a long life;  about his need  to share  his own fears.  I feel bad that I could think of nothing to say that might have been of some comfort to  him and, as I turn out onto the main highway,  I  hope that he has someone who will sit back and listen to him,  for he too seems beset with worries about his future and the unknown.

 

 

 

 

The Soul is Shy May 6, 2010

I’m reading A Hidden Wholeness: the Journey Toward an Undivided Life, by Parker J. Palmer.  Sometimes a book comes into your life to answer your questing or to reaffirm an intuition.  This book does both for me.  My workshops are built on the premise that each person’s Self knows what the person needs to be whole, that what we provide are the tools and the space to dialogue with the Self .  The other main premise is that we need to be witnesses to each other’s stories, that a respectful community of people willing to be present and to listen creates the conditions for a person to hear herself more clearly. A Hidden Wholeness addresses both these issues, but fleshes out why and how “the blizzard of the world” has overturned “the order of the soul” and the conditions that he has discovered in twenty years of working and teaching that open a place for the soul, “that life-giving core of the human self, with its hunger for truth and justice, love and forgiveness.”

One of the conditions for holding a healing space is to avoid “fixing, saving, advising and setting each other straight.”  This is one hard discipline, not just for the facilitator but for the other participants as well.

Let me tell you a story.  Two days ago, a member of our group, a wonderful, grandmotherly, lively woman in her sixties, told us that she had been in and out of the hospital for the last two weeks.  Sitting there in a beautiful apple green shirt and gold necklace, with her dancing brown eyes, she described how she had to take her elderly husband, now with full-blown dementia, to the hospital with her because he would not be left with anyone else.  Her heart is failing, and because she had cancer five years ago, has about three other serious conditions, it is clear she will not get a heart, which go to younger, healthier candidates.  She told us her liver and kidneys are shutting down.  She said all this without self-pity and even with humor.  Looking around at our stricken faces, she laughed, “Aw, honey, that’s the least of it.  I could tell you stories.”

The mother/fixer in me was inwardly screaming, “Surely there is respite care!  Surely something can be done!  She deserves to live!”  I really like this woman who I’ve gotten to know over the last two years.  She writes incredible stories of growing up in the South when you still had a mule and chickens in the back yard, and only went to town two or three times a year.  She has described growing up with a nanny and never being able to tell her she loved her, of throwing out her learned prejudices, of teaching in the public schools where she had children plant gardens  and kill chickens to learn about survival out West, of teaching a class of recalcitrant, truant children she was saddled with how to have a proper tea.  She had us in stitches over her descriptions of her  large, shaggy boys holding the teacup with their pinkies extended, politely asking each other if they would like another cup.  Those kids, white and black,  came back to her, and told her how much she much she had meant to them many years later. Why?  Because she saw past their color, their labels, and she believed they could learn to serve tea.  She believed there was more to them than they believed themselves.

One of our participants gently asked if she knew of the Alzheimer’s support group.  She waved her hands and rolled her eyes. “Oh, lordy, yes, I have all that literature,” but it was clear she had no intention of going.  “He won’t let anybody else take care of him,” she said.   Others made sounds of dismay, spoke soft words of comfort, but I maintained silence and soon we all fell silent.  We were there to witness, to allow her to speak her sorrow, to speak the truth of her life.  Everything in me wanted to excoriate a system that would not save her, to arrange for respite care, to find ways to make this not so.  But it was so.  What we could do for her was to simply hear it.

The silence grew from slightly uncomfortable to more comfortable.  We went on with our group sharing.  We went on to write Renga.  We went on to listen and to attend to each other’s stories.

The soul, writes Palmer, “is creative: it finds its way between realities that might defeat us and fantasies that are mere escapes.”   The soul is also shy, and sometimes needs a cup of tea, or a circle of loving hearts offering silence.  

 

 
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