TABLE OF CONTENTS
TABLE OF CONTENTS
You are again invited to suspend disbelief. In this case you are invited to imagine that you have five thousand dollars to spend solely on something—anything—any combination of things—that will contribute to your healing. Your task is to prepare a list of how you would spend this five thousand dollars if the sum were handed to you tomorrow. In addition, you can, if you’d like, include a narrative as to why these particular purchases might be important to your healing. If, after careful consideration, you decide that you need more than five thousand dollars, then go ahead and write about that.
The seventh chapter of The Writing Cure, an anthology by researchers in the field of writing and health, is written by Laura King, a research psychologist at the University of Missouri. Near the end of her chapter she poses this question: “What should people write about to enjoy the health benefits of writing?” Her conclusion is succinct. “Writing about topics that allow us to learn about our own needs and desires may be a way to harness the positive benefits of writing.”
It’s the kind of sentence that seems worth writing again, for emphasis: Writing about topics that allow us to learn about our own needs and desires may be a way to harness the positive benefits of writing.
And how then does one begin this process?
I liked the book, The Boxcar Children, when I was a child. I liked the original book in the series, the one that describes how four children survive as orphans by making a home in a boxcar. The children are so competent, and so resourceful.
After they become orphaned, the four children spend their small savings on milk and bread and yellow cheese. They pick blueberries in the woods. They discover an abandoned boxcar and they begin to make a home there, carrying pine needles into the boxcar and heaping them into four piles to make beds. They discover a creek that spills over into a waterfall. The water is cold. They find a hole in a rock behind the waterfall and the hole becomes their refrigerator. They’re so ingenious. They haul stones to build a fireplace. They dam the creek to make a swimming pool. They scavenge a dump and bring back treasure—a white pitcher, a teapot, a kettle, a bowl, three cups, five spoons.
Henry, the eldest boy, manages to get a job caring for someone’s yard. One of his chores involves thinning the vegetable garden. He saves the vegetables he’s thinned—baby carrots and turnips and tiny onions. He then buys meat with the dollar he’s earned and carries all of this back to the boxcar. The oldest girl, Jesse, takes the meat and miniature vegetables and makes a stew.
It’s a bit of a fantasy, how neatly things work out for the children, and it becomes even tidier toward the end of the book when their grandfather finds them, and he turns out to be not only kind but rich and he takes the children into his home. But the fantasy is such a satisfying one. It offers, I suppose, a kind of catharsis. The book opens with the four children standing in front of a bakery, looking in through at the window at the bread and rolls. The children are hungry, frightened. They’re like Hansel and Gretel, children out in the world without parents. And then, bit by bit, they manage to secure precisely what they need. Shelter. Water. Food. Fire.
At one point the three oldest children decide they want to teach the youngest child to read and the older children make a book for him using salvaged paper and a stick blackened in the fire.
Shelter and water.
Food and fire.
Paper and a writing implement.
Here’s that succinct sentence again by Laura King, researcher in writing and health:
WRITING ABOUT TOPICS THAT ALLOW US TO LEARN ABOUT OUR OWN NEEDS AND DESIRES MAY BE A WAY TO HARNESS THE HEALING BENEFITS OF WRITING.
One could stop right here, right now, and write this question at the top of a clean sheet of paper: WHAT DO I NEED? Or, WHAT DO I WANT? Or, WHAT DO I LONG FOR? And one could write pages for an entire month (or a year) in response to this question. I suspect this would be life-altering.
Or, then again, one could imagine one is an orphan, out on one’s own, and one discovers a boxcar like those children in the book. How would you set up your boxcar? What provisions would you lay in? What do you absolutely need to survive in your boxcar? And what else do you need? And then, if you like, you can consider that which you do you not particularly need but you’d really like to have it in your boxcar—because it would make your boxcar more comfortable—or more beautiful—or just because——
I like books that name the concrete things—the resources—it takes to make a life. I also like books about starting over. Thus, The Boxcar Children. And, a more grown-up version of starting over: Still Life with Chickens: Starting Over in a House by the Sea. The memoir, written by Catherine Goldhammer, and published this past May, describes Goldhammer’s move, newly divorced, with her 12-year-old daughter, from a spacious house in an upscale neighborhood to a small cottage on a pond near the ocean.
She did not, she tells us at the outset, have a year in Provence or a villa under the Tuscan sun. What she had was her cottage in a town on a peninsula wedged between the Boston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean, a town she describes thus—
Once the home of a large amusement park with a famous roller coaster, it had developed haphazardly, with recreation rather than posterity in mind. Big houses sat cheek by jowl with tiny ones, shoehorned together on tiny streets. Some of them were beautiful and some of them were decidedly not. The seaside lawns tried valiantly to be green, but they were small, and some of them had remnants of the amusement park in them: an oversized pink teacup with bench seats, a faded turquoise bumper car.Goldhammer’s memoir is filled with vivid tangible named things:
That oversized pink teacup
A large salt pond
A new coat of off-white paint
And, of course, chickens
Rhode Island Reds
A Silver Laced Wyandotte
A Light Brahma called Big Yellow
And then all the supplies needed to take care of those chickens—
A brooder light
A refrigerator box
A utility knife
A handsaw. . .
Here’s something else I like about Still Life with Chickens—Catherine Goldhammer is as resourceful as those boxcar children. She makes do. She does not, for instance, have that year in Provence. Nor does she have a table saw. At one point in her story, she sets out to make a particular kind of chicken run—a triangular structure called an ark. Before she builds the ark she names what she needs: a table saw, an electric miter saw, and sawhorses. Then she acknowledges that she has none of these things. What she does have: a dull handsaw, a right angle, a pair of green plastic chairs. She makes do. All in the company of six chickens who cause her at times to question her sanity.
But then—the eggs. Page 112.
Eventually we got blue eggs and green eggs, pink eggs and brown eggs. We got whitish eggs, speckled eggs, freckled eggs, and eggs with white patches. We had one enormous egg with two yolks, and a wide variety of other sizes: small and oval, big and round, tall and thin. Sometimes I found eggs that had just been laid, warm and slightly damp. Finding a warm egg felt miraculous. Putting a warm egg into someone’s suspecting hand was like handing them the moon.Ah, the eggs.
Unlike The Boxcar Children, there’s no rich grandfather who steps in at the end and makes everything easier. That’s one of the things I like about Still Life with Chickens. It’s one of the things that makes it a grown-up book. And ah—those eggs.
Consider a time when you wrote something—a letter—a journal entry—a word—a blog entry—that changed something—anything—then begin to write about it—write about what you wrote—and then the change that happened after—or during—no matter how large or small the change—no matter how quiet.
Or, alternatively, consider a time when you read something—a poem—a book—a letter—a blog—and the words you read caused something to shift—something—anything—write about the words—the experience of reading those words—write about the change that happened.
Perhaps it is not the poet who is healed
but someone else, years later.
Yesterday I decided to make beef stew. My grocery list was straightforward—stew beef, a large onion, red potatoes, one sweet potato, carrots, and a can of V-8 juice. (I make a pretty simple stew.) There's something satisfying about such clear simple lists.
When Harry Potter is preparing to start his first year at Hogwarts he’s handed, by Hagrid, an exceedingly straightforward list.
Pages 66 and 67. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. By J.K. Rowling.
Three sets of plain work robes (black)
One plain pointed hat (black) for day wear
One pair of protective gloves (dragon hide or similar)
One winter cloak (black, silver fastenings)
7 course books, titles and authors listed, including The Standard Book of Spells (Grade I)
1 cauldron (pewter, standard size 2)
1 set glass or crystal phials
1 set brass scales
An owl OR a cat OR a toad
I love the details—the specificity—in Rowling’s list. And I wish I knew of such a straightforward list—such a specific list—for the process of healing. Or for the process of writing and healing. I don't. The problem: every person is so different. Or, to put it another way, we’re not all going to the same school.
At the same time, there are, it would seem, these common threads. And these common threads can act as a kind of template—a jumping-off place—for a person who might want to develop—or revise—their own individualized supply list.
Here are a few common threads I’ve observed over the years in writing and healing supply lists:
Something to write with (pen, pencil, crayon, laptop computer, etc. . .)
A room of one’s own—or a desk of one’s own (or maybe a chair of one’s own)
Green growing things
Time to think and daydream and walk
A time and a place to grieve what needs to be grieved
People who get it (whatever it is)
Animals who get it (dogs, cats, horses, cows, etc. . .) (owls? toads?)
A bit of a sense of humor about the whole deal
Some kind of work or activity that matters (though not necessarily one’s day job)
A connection to some larger sense of meaning
This is not meant by any means to be an exhaustive list. These are merely some common threads—a kind of template. And when it comes to individual supply lists—I think each one is probably different.
What might your own individualized list look like?
I’m imagining an old summer camp, but one that’s been refurbished—with modern buildings, and amenities. A fireplace in each of the guest rooms. Decks. Wide porches. A juice bar in the lobby. Perhaps an espresso bar. And then, on the grounds, a short walk from the lodgings—five centers:
• A Nutrition Center
• A Fitness Center
• A Center for Addiction Recovery
• A Center for Creativity
• A Center for Meditation and Rest
Say it’s early afternoon when you arrive at the center. Plenty of time to unpack, take a shower, settle in, rest for a while in your room. When you’re ready you can wander down to the lobby and request a tour.
You have, let’s say, two weeks to spend at the Healing Resource Center. And you’ll be informed upon your arrival that you can spend these two weeks however you like. But first--a tour.
The tour begins at the Nutrition Center—a low sprawling building of stone and glass. You follow the guide into a large room, find a long buffet table arranged with platters. Blueberries and orange sections. Slices of watermelon. Slices of whole-grain bread. An array of cheeses. Also peaches. Plums. Tiny carrots. Bowls of walnuts and almonds and sunflower seeds. Several pitchers of clear water with slices of lemon. It’s late afternoon and, before you go back to tour the kitchens, the guide invites you to take a plate and help yourself to a snack, pour yourself a tall glass of water if you’d like.
As you walk down the length of the table and begin selecting your food, the guide explains: “The goal here at this center is to provide a kind of immersion experience with healthy food. The goal is to engage your senses. Colors. Touch. Smell. Taste. And, eventually, if you wish, you can work with one of the chefs back in the kitchens. . .” As he’s talking you pick up a plum. You bite into the plum. . .
And then what happens? What happens next?
You could, if you wanted, write about it. Like one of those choose-your-own-adventure stories where you get to choose the ending. (Okay, maybe it's not a big adventure. But it could be a little adventure--or it could turn into an adventure---)
In Frederick, the children’s book by Leo Lionni, a chatty family of field mice live in an old stone wall. Winter approaches. All the mice set to work, gathering corn and nuts and wheat, except for Frederick, who sits apart from the others, doing nothing, or at least he appears to be doing nothing. He’s the daydreaming mouse. The lazy mouse? The other mice scold him. Why isn’t he working? He tells them he is working. He tells them he’s gathering sun rays for the winter days. Yeah, right. How does one gather sun rays? They ask him again. Why aren’t you working? He tells them he’s gathering colors. Right. Sure. Finally, Frederick tells them he’s gathering words.
Winter comes. The mice hole up in the stone wall. At first all goes as well as can be expected in winter. The mice are well-fed and content. But the time comes when they have used up all their provisions. It’s cold. They’re feeling a bit less chatty. Finally they turn to Frederick. They ask him about his supplies.
He tells them to close their eyes. When their eyes are closed he begins:
‘Now I send you the rays of the sun.
Do you feel how their golden glow. . .’
And as Frederick spoke of the sun
the four little mice
began to feel warmer.
Was it Frederick’s voice?
Was it magic?
Next he conjures colors. Blue periwinkles. Red poppies. Yellow wheat.
And what happens? “. . . they saw the colors as clearly as if they had been painted in their minds.” And they were nourished by them.
Sometimes we forget what nourishes us. The winter comes and we forget. Words are a way to remember. We can write them on index cards, or on the palms of our hands. We can write them on the back page of a notebook, or the front page. We can write them in fall on those days when the harvest feels especially plentiful. We can store them like Frederick, and pull them out on flat winter days when we are most in need.
What do you hold your writing in?
A folder on your computer?
A series of folders?
A box with a lid?
Virginia Woolf was right. Writing does thrive in a room of one’s own. But what about when one doesn’t have a whole room for writing? What about a table of one’s own? A file cabinet of one’s own? A portfolio? A box?
If you don’t yet love the container in which you’re holding your writing—consider buying a good box. (Even if you don’t yet have a lot of writing. Even if it’s just a few loose-leaf pages. Or a couple pages printed from your computer. Or a single page. Or a single word) If you’ve started, or restarted, a new writing project—or a new writing habit—consider buying a good box in which to hold it.
A new box or portfolio can serve as a kind of sign—or signal—that a project is a serious one—and deserving of its own container.