Word Medicine

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

Facing It November 5, 2015

Filed under: aging parents,Chronic Illness,Grief,loss — saratbaker @ 9:58 pm
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Autumn LeavesIt is dark November–gray, wet, the yellow and red leaves slowly drifting to the ground. I have always liked the melancholy of fall, its rich colors and long nights, but this year the season is not just a metaphor, but also a lived experience. I am in the fall of my life, and what I seem to be shedding  are my illusions—that death is not real, that summer lasts forever. Friends are dying, and children have grown and left. Many of my friends have been thrown up on the rocks of middle-age unexpectedly single, or having been laid off of jobs they thought secure, or, like me, are dealing with chronic illness. There is a general zeitgeist of shock. How did this happen? How did it happen to me?

Life has not turned out as expected.

Why are we surprised? We’d heard rumors, but chose to disbelieve them, children of a golden age that we were. But now, our feints and slights of hand no longer work.

it comes home, the flea-ridden bitch of desolation,

a thin dog with its ribs exposed like a lesson

in mathematics, in subtraction; it comes home, to find its bowl

empty—then the numberless

things for which to be grateful dissolve

like the steam from a fire just doused with water

on a day of overcast grays, lined

by a cold slanting rain—

(from “Facing It,” by Eleanor Wilner)

 

Yet, being alive, we still want to live—although how to live is the question. Jason Shinder in his poem, “Middle Age,” addresses the dilemma:

 

Many of my friends are alone

and know too much to be happy

though they still want to dive

to the bottom of the green ocean

and bring back a gold coin

in their hand. A woman I know wakes

in the late evening and talks

to her late husband,

the windows blank photographs….

 

Do we know too much to be happy?

Perhaps not happy in the way of our protracted youth.  We can’t unknow what we know, what we’ve experienced. There are losses and they are real. I think we are supposed to feel them, not minimize them. They are a part of our story, but not our whole story.

A friend thrown over by her husband ten years for a girl his daughter’s age has found a new, surprising love.

A friend laid off in the recession has been rehired and is now a senior and respected teacher.

Children have children; our street is full of the next generation.

Fall is a season, but not the only season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sacrifice March 27, 2013

Filed under: Spirituality — saratbaker @ 10:10 pm
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lobster boat

lobster boat

We watched a wonderful Indie movie the other night, Islander.   In the movie, a young man, Eban Crane, make a rash decision which results in a boy’s death and five years in prison.  When he returns to the island to win back his wife, who is living with another man, and daughter, Sara, he finds that the small island community regards him as a pariah.  He doggedly persists in reclaiming his life as a fisherman and father with the help of a veteran fisherman, Popper.  We watch as he learns that his own father, now dead, turned against him.  Popper tells a story about how his father, once Popper’s best friend, needed to be the dominate fisherman on the island, even to the point of trespassing on Popper’s territory.  When Eban asks what Popper did, he replies that he simply took his traps and moved.  Eban asks how he could do that, and Popper replies that it wasn’t worth getting into a fight, and that he and his wife had lived a quiet, happy life.  “You earn your peace by the sacrifices you make,” he says,”and not anything less.”

That line struck me, and I found myself thinking about it all the next day.” Sacrifice” comes from the Latin, “to perform sacred rites.”  The dictionary definition is the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable forthe sake of something considered as having a higher or morepressing claim.  In the context of the movie, a man had given up dominance and wealth in order to have a peaceful life.  When I was growing up, we were admonished to make sacrifices for Lent and to give our irritations and griefs up to God, as a way to give them purpose.  By forgoing candy, the idea was we would put God before our bellies, and by consciously giving our sorrows to God we were transforming them.  As I’ve grown older, the stakes have grown higher, and it seems that I can be dragged kicking and screaming through suffering, or I can understand that loss can be made sacred by the choice of how to bear it.  In our story, Popper could have lived a life of resentment or contention.  He may have seemed unnecessarily meek to some.  But he made a choice that peace and friendship trumped dominance.  Sacrifice implies the idea of conscious choice, of intention.  Eban has a choices to make.   Nothing can undo the past or the losses he’d endured, but by accepting that and refusing to operate out of a place of victimhood, he can become the father he wishes to be.  In the movie, Eben grows from a reactive, angry young man to a more vulnerable man, capable of love.

We tend to think of “sacrifice” as something unpleasant and negative, an atavistic trait of superstitious people.  Yet I wonder if the opposite is true.

 

 

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.

 

Incantations October 30, 2010

In our workshop this week, we ended up talking a lot about the sounds of a piece, and how each writer has her own signature sound.  This was most apparent in rhythm.  We noted that one writer’s prose has a “stately” feel to it–understated, elegant, with gentle lifts and falls.  Another writer’s work surges forward in an urgent, emotional tide that builds to a climax, then dissipates, just as a wave does, and ends in a peaceful resolution.  Still another writer’s work could be distinguished by her rhythmic repetitions.  All her work has an incantatory quality, the kind of repetitions you find in witches’ spells, or in prayers.  That is how the work comes to her, she says, she doesn’t choose to write like that.  She just does.

Gregory Orr in his book, Poetry as Survival, writes that incantation is the third “ordering” power of the lyric, “capable of dealing with even more extreme disorderings, catastrophes so powerful that the self is unable to shape them towards the coherence of story or the complex concentration of symbol.  With incantation, the self discovers that it can be sustained, if all else fails, through rhythmic repetition alone.  In these instances, incantation is like a woven raft of sound on which the self floats above the floodwaters of chaos.”

The writer of incantations in our group has been slowly emerging out of such floodwaters.  Her history includes her mother’s early death, life in an orphanage, a raging, mentally ill stepmother, and a traumatic marriage, not to mention cancer and other health issues.  Her writings have always had this incantatory bent.  In addition, they often have been written in third person, which has created a distance between her own traumatic experiences and the emotions and words on paper.  It has only been in the last several months that she has started to use first person.

I think that for some of the other participants her incantatory pieces were perplexing.  So many repetitions!  Where was it all leading? I didn’t always  know.  Yet, I held fast to the principle that the “self”, the healthy ember at her center, was guiding her process.  And slowly but steadily, she has emerged like a butterfly from her chrysalis–an image she often writes about.  She has lost weight.  She reports more and happier interactions with her family.  Other members of the group remark on the positive changes they see.  She now talks about herself more, about her plans, and even her past.

As facilitators, we don’t always know what participants are working through or how their writing helps them move towards wholeness.  I only recently stumbled on the Gregory Orr quote as I was reading Poetry as Survival and  had a real “ah,hah!”  moment.  This is why I think it is so important to respect each person’s process, to give them the space and the tools to find their own rhythms, rather than to too narrowly define therapeutic goals for them.  Sometimes it is only in retrospect that we are able to understand how their writing sustained them.

 

 

 

 

Climbing Above June 16, 2010

I recently received a call from one of the social workers at our cancer center.  She was concerned about a woman in my group who had scored high for depression on our intake forms.  She wondered why I hadn’t referred her for individual counseling.  “She didn’t present as depressed,” I explained.  As a matter of fact, she had been one that I least worried about.  She was engaged, lively, full of humor and right on the mark with new skills and ideas.  I knew the facts of her life; they were dire, and those facts would stand, to everyone’s grief.  But for two hours a week, she was not mired in those facts.  She was free to exercise the other parts of herself that were neither patient nor caregiver.  She was free to think, imagine, communicate, laugh. In the past, I have referred participants to our counselors, or have gently suggested that they might find what they need there instead of in the writing group.  But in this case I saw no reason.  It seemed she was doing what she needed to do to help herself.

Ted Deppe, a splendid poet and psychiatric nurse, often writes about his pediatric charges.  In a poem called “The Japanese Deer,” he describes taking the children on an outing to the Lost Village. On a walk in the countryside, he truly gets lost, then comes upon an “apparition of apple blossoms.” The children break ranks and run towards the trees, climbing the upper branches and adorning themselves with apple blossoms.  Here is a stanza from that poem:

What’s true in this story is that Marisol,

raped repeatedly by her mother’s boyfriend,

and Luis, who watched from the hall as his stepfather

stabbed his mother to death–nothing

can change those facts–climbed for a short time

above the brambled understory, outside history,

discovered a fragrant scent on their hands,

shredded more petals, rubbed the smell deep in their skin.

In the poem, the children are entranced by the apple blossoms and the idea of tiny Japanese deer.  Although they didn’t actually see the deer, the idea of them is so real, some of the children were sure they’d “seen the whole herd.”  I love this poem.  It does not deny the horror of the children’s lives, but it also does not deny them their moment of transcendence.  I love the visual pun of the brambled understory and climbing up above the facts of their histories. Our histories are a part of us, but they do not define us.  I love also how this moment is sensual, how instinctual the children are in rubbing “the fragrant smell into their skins.”  One thinks of all the Biblical stories of anointing by fragrant oil in the presence of the sacred.  This moment was sacred, and Deppe suggests this beautifully.

The social worker and I grieved together over my writer’s  plight.  Yet I have had the privilege of listening to her wonderful stories, full of beauty and drama and pathos and humor.  I think of the last line of Deppe’s poem “….impossible, all of it,/but this is the way he remembers it; this is the truth.”

“The Japanese Deer,” from Cape Clear  New and Selected Poems, by Theodore Deppe, Salmonpoetry,  www.salmonpoetry.com

 

 

 

On Being a Recluse April 9, 2010

“And then there’s a lecture by Cornell West, and a wonderful Tchaikovsky concert, and how about going to see Spunk at the Morton?”  My friend’s breathless voice reels off the plethora of activities available in our college town this weekend.

I love my irrepressible friend, she of the bubbling enthusiasm and indefatigable energy.  I hedge.  I don’t know how to tell her I’m in no shape to do any of these things. I’ve been active lately, and she’s gotten used to it.

I would have loved to do all these things in my parallel life, the one I live in my imagination.  In my parallel life, I not only volunteer at my son’s school, ride bikes with my son and my husband,  go to concerts and plays, but I also have redecorated my house and give dinner parties “a plein aire”.  I’ve managed to get my novels published and I travel around teaching.  My husband and I vacation in Greece.  I get up early, work out with my personal trainer, and go to bed late after earth-shaking sex with hubby. Well and often.  I collect original art and sing jazz at local dives for fun on weekends. And oh, I just won an international tango contest and my photographs–just a hobby–hang in collections around the world….

In my actual life, I slowly and gingerly make my way into the day. If I’ve “overdone it” in some way–either physically or mentally–the day before, as I did yesterday and the day before, I am in pain and stiff from head to foot.  If I’m lucky, I’m out of bed by eight. Usually not. If I haven’t rested my still recovering broken back, the twinges of pain become adamant sledgehammers by three in the afternoon.  My personal trainer is my dog, Maisie, and on good days we take a half hour walk.  On bad days, like today, I struggle for fifteen minutes, the air in my lungs like knives, and flinging myself on the couch as soon as we return.  I then sort out the tasks that have to be done–teaching preps, doctors visits, the endless filing of claims–from the goals I’d like to get done–work on novel, finish essay–and I try to get the first done so that I can get to the latter.  Some days it is a personal victory to merely get the bed made, the dishes put away, the exercises done and maybe an hour at my desk before brain fog or pain make it impossible. Sometimes my despair at the necessary smallness of my life overwhelms me. On good days I have the energy left over to see friends, to go to a movie, to a party.  And when I’m there, I look and act “normal” and nobody thinks of me as sick.

No one has any idea of the careful husbanding of energy it has taken to have that moment. I even fool myself.  Then, like Cinderella, the clock strikes and I am back in my rags and ashes.

Probably one of the least understood aspects of chronic illness is how it shapes or distorts one’s identity, especially one’s social identity.  We are social animals, after all.  My need to connect with the world, to be part of a social matrix, is just as strong as in a person who is not sick.  But I cannot physically keep up a “normal” level of  interaction.  And I know I confuse people with my popping up and fading-out routines.

So, the question is, how to satisfy the desire to connect with the need to withdraw?

Hillary Mantel, who won this years Booker Prize for “Wolf Hall,”  says she became a writer because of illness.  One thinks of Keats, writing poetry as he is dying of TB, of Virginia Wolf”s essay, “On Being Ill,” of John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, his meditations on health, illness, and suffering, of D.H. Lawrence.  Forced by their health to withdraw from the active world, they nevertheless were passionately engaged, sounding the depths of  their own experiences and sending the world dispatches. Writing, they refused to be obliterated as personalities by illness, refused to let illness define them, even as they reported, like journalists at the front, on the losses illness entailed.

When I was in sixth grade, I wanted to be Brenda Starr, the star-eyed, red-headed reporter .  I remember how avid my twelve-year-old self was for experience of the world.  We spent a summer in Mexico and I remember thinking that I wanted to travel the world as a journalist or work in the UN.  That girl lives on.  She’s just sending dispatches from a very different place.

 

 
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