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

 

The White Rabbit July 31, 2013

timeArtists, and the old, and the sick and the unemployed, often experience time in a way that non-artists, the young, and the well-employed do not.

 

This is not all bad, and can be good.  Nora Gallagher in her recent book, Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic, speaks of her sense of time changing when she learns that she has a rare and serious illness.  She said she looked at the people on the other side of the “glass,”  the non-sick, the “bizzy,”  who had all been like her, and she realized they didn’t see her, didn’t want to see her. Part of her wants to go back to being “bizzy,” because before she was behind glass, she had a clear sense of herself, her importance, her power, and her place in the scheme of things.  She learns, slowly, to acclimate to her enforced slowness and disability, and gradually comes to readjust her inner sense of time.  Instead of planning and executing, she begins to live in the present.  She says,

 

“If you stayed in the present, if you paid attention thoroughly to the now, what it had in it might come to you.  And if you did not pay attention to the present, you might miss essential information that might be exactly what you need.”

 

I had an experience the other day of transitioning from one sense of time to the other.  At the drugstore/post office in our neighborhood, I bumped into BJ, an artist friend of my father’s.  I have always felt warmly to him—he is gregarious, funny, and kind. I was also surprised to see him out and about, because he has cancer, and has had it for some time.  Truth be told, I wasn’t sure he was still with us until I saw him.  He was jaundiced and seemed to have shrunk a bit, but his eyes were full of mischief.

 

I was just leaving and had in my hand a list of errands to do.  My engine was revved and I didn’t want to linger.  But linger I did, because once we got family news out of the way,  he started regaling me with stories of his adventures with my dad, who has been gone eighteen years.  I was happy to hear about Dad having a good time—I think BJ might have egged him on to some shenanigans.  Then somehow we got on to writing letters, and I told him how delighted I was to get an actual hand-written note from my friend, who refuses to be “social media-d.”

 

We were off and running.  I glanced down at my to-do list with the sinking feeling I wasn’t going to get anything done.  BJ pulled out his pen, a Mont Blanc and told me how he writes with it on Crane stationary.  Then we talked about paper, about the satisfaction of writing on a good thick rag paper, and I felt suddenly nostalgic for stationary and fountain pens.  He says he spends a lot of time writing letters to old friends, all of them decorated with sketches.  One elderly woman had her maid read all her letters because of macular degeneration, and when she died, the maid wrote him and asked him to write her—she missed his letters!  He used to write another friend and when he died he wrote his wife, who shared them with her sister and when the wife died he wrote her sister, who shared them all with her cronies in a home in Florida.

 

Having thoroughly relinquished my future plans for the day, I stood there is awe of him.  Here he was, sick, but keeping all these people entertained and engaged while the rest of the world rushed headlong—no time, no time, said the white rabbit—to what?  Really, what was so important?  What is important, a wise woman said to me a few days ago, is Presence.  And that was what he was sharing with me, and so many others.

 

Funnily enough, I got all my errands done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inwardness November 15, 2012

Filed under: poetry,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 5:28 pm
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I awoke this morning to the shrill chiming of starlings, their chirps like knives sharpening–tinny, metallic, clanging.  I imagined their black beaks open, their tongues ululating in unison.  A siren started up, shrill too, gathering momentum, then faded.  The starlings  stopped suddenly then, as if a conductor had lowered a baton. The alarms ceased.  What followed was a luxurious quiet, peaceful and contented, pierced finally by the plaintive song of a single cardinal.

Last night, my daughter said on the phone that she felt like a “bad friend” when she didn’t post on someone’s Facebook page.  Two dear friends of hers have died tragically in the last four years, and “everyone” on their birthdays, posts about them.  She feels these losses deeply, but doesn’t always have words to express them.  “I prefer one-to-one communication,”  she said, and then, “time goes so quickly–I can’t believe how quickly it passes.”  It only gets worse, I told her.

I wonder about the need to be always on, always producing, always engaging, always communicating.  As I watch the hostas turn yellow and curl inward, the King Solomon’s seal return to the ground,  the oak leaves and acorns littering the ground, I think about how important it is to mark seasons, to know what season we are in our lives.  There are rhythms to our lives, times of engaging and times of retreating.  If  you are an artist of any sort, you have to respect those rhythms.  I think especially you have to respect fallow time, the dissolution of what worked and the openness to something new. Yet the culture at large has only one season, summer, and only one age, youth.  So there is always pressure to be on, to be producing, to be posting on Facebook, to be shrilly tweeting away.

I wonder how all our gadgets for communicating make that communication somehow thin and meaningless.  I think of letters I’ve saved over the years and still read, how I’ve labored over letters to send, feeling the importance of trying to frame the communication just so.  We don’t have time to experience our lives if we are always rushing to represent them, do we?  The sort of mass communication we’ve grown used to can also be a trap–we are curating our image, advertising it, not truly communicating.  Don’t get me wrong, I use all these things too; I just don’t want to be used by them.  I want to be clear about what is what.

It was interesting to read the poet Jack Gilbert’s obit in today’s New York Times  for these very reasons.  In today’s celebrity-driven world, here was a poet who eschewed publicity.  In 1962, for six months, he was famous, and this is what he had to say about it:

“I enjoyed those six months of being famous,” he recalled in the Paris Review interview. “Fame is a lot of fun, but it’s not interesting. I loved being noticed and praised, even the banquets. But they didn’t have anything that I wanted. After about six months, I found it boring. There were so many things to do, to live. I didn’t want to be praised all the time — I liked the idea, but I didn’t invest much in it.”

Here is a poem from the obit, “Brief for the Defence.”

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies

are not starving someplace, they are starving

somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.

But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.

Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not

be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not

be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women

at the fountain are laughing together between

the suffering they have known and the awfulness

in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody

in the village is very sick. There is laughter

every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,

and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,

we lessen the importance of their deprivation.

He may not be to everyone’s taste, but I’m not sure if his singular voice could have achieved what it did in this poem if he’d been looking for twitter followers.

Maybe all of this is just a brief for my defence, for taking time off  to gather energy in like a root vegetable.

(http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/15/books/jack-gilbert-a-poet-off-the-literary-grid-dies-at-87.html?_r=0)

By the way, our anthology of writings for and about cancer patients, A Communion of Sorts, is now available as an ebook for iPad or iPod.  http://store.blurb.com/ebooks/333382-a-communion-of-sorts  

 

Prisoners March 8, 2011

It has been a rough winter, no doubt about it.   I’ve had flu, strep, and what now looks like pleurisy.  Every time I got up, another wave knocked me down.  I finally acknowledged that I had to resume my old habit of resting and pacing myself.  It was hard to have to acknowledge that.

I wrote in my journal that having this illness is like being in prison: you are confined, the world passes by without you.  Also, you never know when you will be violated, not by another person, but by some passing virus or bacteria.

Perhaps because that image of prison was on my mind, I found myself reading about Lori Berenson, the American political activist held in Peru for the past fifteen years on trumped of charges of terrorism in the Sunday New York Times Magazine (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/06/magazine/06berenson-t.html ).  One of the curious things she talked about was how carefree she was when she thought that her sentence wouldn’t be commuted . At the beginning, many terrorist prisoners, like Berenson, had life sentences. “It was somewhat carefree because you didn’t have any concrete sense of the future,” she told me. In a similar way, when I was sickest with CFIDS,  I also had no future.  There was only the present moment, and it was, in a sense, freeing.  As I got better, one of the hardest things was learning how to cope with a sense of a future, with participating in life.  How to apportion time and energy?  What goals were worth working for?  How to re-enter the stream of life, not as I was before, but in a new way that respected my limits, but also tested them?  These were and are difficult issues.

Another prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, recently freed from house arrest, talks almost wistfully about her house arrest.  Now she is exhausted by the demands of political life; then she got up and did her yoga and meditation, and worked in her office.  Then she had a sense of being in control of herself, even if she was not able to be a player in her country’s future.

I am happy to be in the world, even if to do so requires nun-like bouts of rest and saying “no” more often than “yes” to social activities.  I want to forget that I have this illness, but it doesn’t forget me.

Another way having this illness is like a prison sentence is that it feels like punishment.  Like Job, I search and search for the sins that have brought me to this place.  Like Lori Berenson, I feel falsely accused.  Like sufferers of lupus, Multiple Sclerosis, and TB before us, patients with CFIDS are often held responsible for it. I want to protest my innocence and be acquitted.  But as the DoDo bird said in Alice in Wonderland, “There is no judge, there is no jury.”  There is only the absurd world of this disease.  Made even more absurd and unbearable by the lack of understanding around it.  Today’s Science Times had a very good article about the difficulty of defining Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/08/health/research/08fatigue.html?ref=science).  After last month’s article in Lancet which maintained that graded exercise and CBT could improve the lives of patients with CFIDS, many people have come up to me to tell me the good news.  Only the fact is, they have no idea of the complex immune, endocrine, and circulatory issues that I have to contend with, no idea of the level of exhaustion even mildly overdoing exercise can cause, no idea of the sensory overload that can catapult me into a relapse.  They have no idea of idea that sitting at the computer in the time it takes to write this post means I’ll  have to rest for an hour.

They have no idea.  Because they have never been to prison.

 

 

 
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