Word Medicine

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

State of Mind May 30, 2016

Filed under: The Art of Ficition,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 8:27 pm
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I learned a lot from my friend Cecily Gill, who died this spring at a good old age.

We used to paint together during her long convalescence.  I was the last in a long tradition of amateur painter–nieces, friends, granddaughters–who tromped off into the woods of Maine to paint with Cess. Only, we didn’t tromp—she could barely traverse the few yards from bed to dining room table. I’m only a middling artist, but I treasure the times we spent together painting. I learned not from her direction, because she gave very little, but from her presence. When painted, she was in conversation with the canvas, totally absorbed.  A kind of full stillness descended a vibration of peacefulness alive with movement. I too was able to drop into my work, too. When I got stuck, I would ask her for help, which she gave in a direct, no no-nonsense way, with a large helping of encouragement.(I come from a family of artists, so my standards are high and my confidence low.) When we would talk about the paintings afterwards, I was struck by how she acted as if she was as much a participant in the process as a creator. Sometimes she would shake her head with wonder and stare at her painting, saying, “Hmm, what is it?” It was as if her paintings surprised and sometimes delighted her as much as anyone else. Her openness to process and her willingness to go into the unknown, wrestle with it and come out with something—whatever it is.

From Cess, I learned to trust the drop down into myself and be safe there. The process of writing is not unlike that of visual art. Jim Harrison, the author of many books, including The Woman Lit by Fireflies, who also died this spring, has this to say about the process of writing: “….I feel absolutely vulnerable, and recognize it’s the best state of mind for a writer….your mind feels a rush of images and ideas. You have acquired humility by accident. Feeling bright-eyed, confident and arrogant doesn’t do this job, unless you are writing the memoir of a narcissist. You are far better off being lost in your work and writing over your head. You don’t know where you are as a point of view unless you go beyond yourself….”  (from The Ancient Mariner).

“….unless you go beyond yourself.”  The desire to create comes from a longing to not only go into yourself, but also beyond yourself.  The intense effort, the willingness to not know, to offer yourself openly, to be surprised, to make a fool of yourself, to fail or not fail, and to be OK with either, and consider the time well-spent—that is what I learned from Cess.

The last time I spoke with Cess, I told her how her paintings made me calm and happy. “Magic,” she said, her eyes shining, acknowledging their mysterious provenance.




The Kindness of Strangers July 12, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 9:09 pm
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Everything can change in an instant.  On July 4th, the last day of our beach vacation in Duck, N.C., I went for a late afternoon swim.  All week the water had been calm, and I had been swimming, often by myself early in the morning.  I love the ocean, and often feel more at home in water than on land.  I noticed that evening that there were more surfboarders out, that the ocean was choppier, but these were tangential thoughts–my real thoughts were on the Elizabeth Bowen novel Iwas reading.  For me it was the thirties in London, tulips arranged in a glass vase and Lady Charlotte snooping into everyone’s business.  I waded into the water and had my swim, tiring quickly.  As I tried to get out, the waves that had earlier shoved us out gently crashed around me, and I couldn’t get my footing.  So I decided to body surf out.

I didn’t catch the wave just right, and it felt as if a giant hand had slammed me head first onto the shore.  My body followed, and as I tumbled forward I heard a distinct snap and felt my neck and back give way.  I was spun head over heels several times, then landed, half reclining on the beach.  The surf surged around me and I was overjoyed as I felt and moved my arms and legs, but as I tried to push myself off the sand to stand, I was struck by the most  intense pain of my life.  It felt as if there was a stone on my ribcage.  Terrorized, unable to move, I waved to the people on the shore, but no one seemed to see me.  I tried to cry out “help” but I could barely breathe.  I realized that if no one saw me, the sea would drag me back in, and I would be helpless to stay afloat.

Finally, a woman about my age caught my eye.  At first she started to wave back, as if I might be someone she knew, but then she must have seen the look of panic on my face.  She and her mother came running into the water, and she held me up as I screamed in pain.  She shouted for the lifeguard and she and her mother held onto me until the lifeguard and firefighters could stabilize me on a board.  The whole time I looked into her eyes, whimpering, ‘don’t leave me.’  It was exactly like my experience of childbirth, where the one nurse, a stranger until that moment, becomes the most important person in your life.  “Don’t leave me,” I cried through the pain, gripping onto her arms, and she said, soothingly, “I won’t leave you.”  And she didn’t; when they put me in the ambulance she was there, crying.

In the ambulance, I couldn’t stop crying.  I had never felt so alone, so out-of-control, so vulnerable.  I said to the EMT, “I’m afraid I’ll be paralyzed.”  I had trouble breathing, and every wave of panic made it worse.  The EMT, her name was Amanda, kept reassuring me that my grip was good, my vitals good, the prognosis good.  She also said she knew how painful it was; she was recovering from back surgery. She did not make me feel ashamed for my tears, for my moans of pain. I hung on her every word; she was my lifeline, my oxygen.  She held my hand and looked into my eyes.  When I was finally delivered to the emergency room, she came to say good bye and wish me luck and there were tears in her eyes.

I was taken by ambulance to a trauma center in Norfolk, Va.  I woke up alone in the emergency room.  I felt the panic rise and I couldn’t breathe.  I heard someone emptying trash and called out, but no one answered.  It sounded like a party was going on somewhere.  I cried out again, and passed out. When I woke up, there was a young woman.  “We are waiting to put you in a room,” she said.  I said, “But you left me alone.”  “We’ll get you there soon,” she said, and took my hand.

I was only in the hospital essentially a little over four days.  The nurses were on two day twelve hour shifts.  The nurse I will never forget was Emily.  A black woman in her fifties, she had an incandescent smile.  She made me feel cared for; she went beyond doling out pills.  She straightened my bed, listened to my lungs, and wasn’t afraid to lay a hand on my head, look me in the eyes.  When she heard they were going to discharge me, she was furious.  “You are in no shape to be discharged!” she said.  When she was leaving the last night of her shift, my brother Jon, who had driven from Raleigh, and who is always so kind, made a point of telling her how much we appreciated her care.  I added that it was hard, I knew, to be a nurse these days.  Her eyes filled, “It is hard to nurse the way I want to,” she said.

I will write in another blog about my experience as a patient, about the best and worst of modern medicine as I experienced it this past week.  But what I want to convey is that all of these people went beyond what many would consider their responsibilities to not only come to my aid physically, but to meet me in my terror and vulnerability, to not shame me for it, and to companion me through the darkness.  They entered into what Martin Buber called a relationship of “I and Thou.”  Arthur Frank in The Wounded Storyteller, says “Living for others is not an act of exemplary goodness.  Persons live for others because their own lives as humans require living that way.  The self is understood as coming to be human in relation to others, and the self can only continue to be human by living for the Other.”

The woman in the black blouse walking on a beach in Duck,  Amanda, Emily and countless others I encountered this week lived this truth and because of them, I didn’t drown, or descend into panic.  Because of them I was given the courage I needed to take the next step.


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