(in chronological order)
YOU ARE INVITED
What: To let something fall apart
Where: In a healing place
You can start small. You can wait until you are ready. You can wait until it is the right time. You can choose one small thing in your life that has already fallen apart. You can choose one concrete thing—a favorite sweater, a cracked coffee mug. You can choose something larger. Your car. Your roof. Your marriage. Your heart. You can choose anything at all. You can write the words FALLING APART at the top of the page. Or write BREAKING. Or write BROKEN. Then begin. Write physical and concrete detail. Exaggerate. Exaggeration can be a way to make the falling apart more vivid. It can also be a way to get at a kind of truth. Write verbs. Break. Fracture. Collapse. Disintegrate. Crumble. Write sensory details. Write how the breaking feels. Write how it feels in your body. Write where you feel it in your body. If at any point this becomes too uncomfortable, take a respite. Step outside if you can. Look at the sky. Remember that at any moment you can, if you like, return to a healing place—in the actual world or in your imagination.
Some of the writing ideas I've put up on this site have to do with writing about difficult or painful experiences. Though research has shown that this kind of writing can, over the long haul, be healing, research has also shown that, in the immediate aftermath, writing of this sort can sometimes feel painful.
Many people report that after writing, they sometimes feel somewhat sad or depressed. Like seeing a sad movie, this typically goes away in a couple of hours. If you find that you are getting extremely upset about a writing topic, simply stop writing or change topics.
So, just a bit of a stretch—a bearable stretch.
I also think it’s helpful to remember lifelines—those things that reconnect us to a sense of safety and comfort and belonging. And then we can call on those lifelines when we need them—when we, for instance, stretch ourselves a little farther than we intended to stretch. A healing place can be a lifeline. A healing resource can be a lifeline. Healing language. A friend. A counselor. A doctor. A teacher. A nurse. . . .
Perhaps one of the most important things to know about healing grief--whether one is writing or not--is to recognize when one has become overwhelmed by grief--when the feelings have become too much--and then to ask for help. And not to hesitate to ask for this help from a health professional.
I wrote a few days back about having a few lifelines in place if and when you decide to do any writing about breaking. You can now, if you want, and if you haven’t already done so, formalize that. You can make a list of your own personal lifelines. Here are some questions that might help you in putting together your own list:
Are there places you can go when you feel like something is falling apart?
Are there places where you’ve been in the past that are safe and comforting?
Can you imagine these places when you need to?
Are there resources that make you feel safe and nurtured?
Is there someone you can call when you feel like something is falling apart?
Is there someone you can call to mind?
(This can be a person, living or dead, who you know well—or perhaps someone you have never met.)
Is there something or someone or even some words that you can remember—and call to mind—when you feel like something is falling apart?
Make your list as short or as long as you like.
Save your list.
I was raised a Catholic but for the past ten years or so, since joining a Friends meeting, I have considered myself a Quaker. One of the things I like about the Quakers is their potential for inclusiveness. Another thing I like is their use of language—the turn of certain phrases. And one of my favorite Quaker phrases is this one: holding something or someone in the light.
This phrase took on a personal significance for me one November, six years ago now. During that November I’d been seeing a patient, A., a man in his fifties, a member of our Quaker meeting, who had previously been entirely well and then had discovered that he had metastatic colon cancer. I’d worked with A. a little over a year, and during that year, while receiving treatment for his cancer, he’d done a great deal of work with healing imagery, including imagery with light. Perhaps, because his imagery was illuminating in and of itself, and because I have received his permission to do so, I will write some about his imagery here later.
But for now, what I want to say is that six years ago now, in November, his wife, S., had decided to gather a small group in their home for a Quaker meeting—a meeting whose purpose was, in the language of Quakers, to hold A. in the light. I’d been invited to come to the meeting, but had been unable to attend because I was flying back to Missouri that week to visit my mother who was suffering (and who, unfortunately, continues to suffer) with a rather severe mental illness.
That trip to Missouri was, for me, a difficult one. But this is what I remember—and why I am writing about this now: Before leaving southwest Missouri in my rental car to drive back up to Kansas City to catch a plane home, I checked my messages at work and found a message from S.—A’s wife. She reminded me that the meeting in her home would be that day, and she told me what time it would be—at eleven I think. And she told me, at the end of the message, that they would hold me in the light.
I am not a person who talks frequently or easily about religion, or of spiritual matters for that matter. I was raised Catholic, but, the way I remember it, most of the language for things of the spirit stayed inside the church; it resided in the liturgy and in formal prayers. I’m the kind of person who tends often to think that spiritual matters are so large—or so something—it is difficult to find language for them. But that morning—driving back to Kansas city—one of those lit-up November days and the landscape is very flat there and the sky is very large—on that morning I felt the beauty of the Quaker language—of S’s language—and the comfort of it—to be driving away from a difficult time—a difficult place—and while I was driving to carry the sense—that knowing—that for this one drive—this hour—I was being held in the light.
When I think about what’s possible with writing—and, in particular, writing that has to do with breaking—or with grief—this is one of the images I hold for writing: that writing is a way to take something or someone—including something or someone who is breaking—and hold it in the light.
In 1983, James Pennebaker, a psychologist, then at Southern Methodist University, conducted, along with one of his graduate students, Sandra Beall, a study of forty-six college students. Students in one group—the experimental group—were instructed to write continuously for fifteen minutes about the most upsetting or traumatic experience of their lives.
Their instructions included the following:
In your writing, I want you to discuss your deepest thoughts and feelings about the experience. You can write about anything you want. But whatever you choose, it should be something that has affected you very deeply. Ideally, it should be something you have not talked [about] with others in detail. It is critical, however, that you let yourself go and touch those deepest emotions and thoughts that you have. In other words, write about what happened and how you felt about it, and how you feel about it now.
In essence, these students were being invited to write about a time when something had fallen apart.
Students wrote sitting alone in a small cubicle in the psychology building. They wrote on four consecutive days and did not sign their names to their pieces. These were not students who had been recruited because they were experiencing emotional or physical problems. These were ordinary college students recruited from introductory psychology classes. They wrote about the divorce of parents, about loss and abuse, about alcoholism and suicide attempts. They wrote about secrets. And in interviews conducted after finishing the four writing sessions, students actually reported feeling worse than they had before the writing.
But four months later, these same students, compared to students who had written about trivial topics, reported improvements in mood and in outlook on life, and, perhaps most surprisingly, improvements in their physical health. When data came in from the student health center, it revealed that this same group of students had in fact visited the student health center for illness, on average, only half as often as their peers.
This particular kind of writing—writing one’s deepest thoughts and feelings about trouble—is sometimes called expressive writing. And it’s the kind of writing about which much of the research on writing and health has been conducted. Since that early study in 1983, expressive writing has been tested in a wide range of settings. It’s been shown to improve self-reported health, psychological well-being, grade point average, and re-employment after lay-off. It’s been shown to benefit women with breast cancer, to decrease blood pressure in people with hypertension, to mitigate pain and fatigue in those with fibromyalgia, and to improve markers of immune function for those with AIDS.
In an afterward to The Writing Cure, a compilation of research and theory published nearly twenty years after Pennebaker’s first study on expressive writing and health, he reflects on some of the implications of the body of research in the field.
All of the evidence would suggest that writing brings about a general reduction in biological stress. That is, when an individual has come to terms with an upsetting experience, he or she is less vigilant about the world and potential threats. This results in an overall lowering of defenses. . . . Given the broad range of improvements in health outcomes, it would be prudent to conclude that writing provokes a rather broad and nonspecific pattern of biological changes that are generally salutary.
I find this research on writing and health a reason for hope. It suggests that though bringing painful fragments of experience to the surface through the process of writing may feel painful in the short term, there’s a potential for a tangible benefit in the wake of this pain. That is, writing about such fragments can lead to health benefits on the other side. At the same time, I feel like each person (of course) gets to make that choice: if and when to touch on painful fragments. I, for one, never push people to do this before they’re ready. I’ve come to learn that most people have a kind of inner sense or knowing that lets them know when they’re ready to write about trouble. And if they’re unsure? Well, one way to deal with being unsure is to write the question at the top of a blank sheet of paper. The question itself can become a kind of title: Is Now a Good Time to Write About Falling Apart? Is Now a Good Time to Touch Grief? And then a person can write and write and see what comes----
[Note: For sources on this brief review of writing about trouble, I used Opening Up, by James Pennebaker, The Writing Cure, edited by Stephen Lepore and Joshua Smyth, and some of the articles on the right sidebar of this page that I've listed under Selected Research and that I’ve linked, whenever possible, to their abstracts.]
Imagine for a moment that a package comes in the mail. And imagine that inside this package are tokens of something—or of many things—that you have lost. Fragments perhaps of something that has broken. And imagine now that you can do anything with this package that you like. You can open the package—or not. You can carry it somewhere and place it there. You can use it as a door stop—or a paper weight—or an extra table. You can mail the package to someone and ask them to hold it for a while.
Imagine the package in as much detail as possible.
And then, when you’re ready, write about it. Write about the package itself. Write about how it looks. Write about its color—its texture—its weight. Write about how you feel when you look at the package—or when you hold it. Then take a moment and consider what you’d like to do with it. Not what you think you should do. But what you really want to do. Whether you want to open the package. Or whether you’d like to keep it closed for a while. Write about that. Write the details of it. Write about what you want to do. And then write about what happens next.
Pema Chodron is the first American woman to receive full ordination as a Tibetan Buddhist priest. She is now director of the Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan monastery for westerners. And, in her book, When Things Fall Apart, she tells, among other things, how she first got started on the Buddhist path. It began, she says, on a day in early spring; she was standing out in front of her house in New Mexico when her then-husband drove up, got out of the car, shut the door, and proceeded to tell her that he was having an affair and wanted a divorce.
She describes the next moment this way (p. 10):
I remember the sky and how huge it was. I remember the sound of the river and the steam rising up from my tea. There was no time, no thought, there was nothing—just the light and a profound, limitless stillness. Then I regrouped and picked up a stone and threw it at him.
I love it that she tells us about the stone. She writes about the profound, limitless stillness. But she also writes about the stone. This makes her more human. And it’s from this very human place that she writes about how to take moments of disappointment and sorrow and loss and anger and discomfort and use them as opportunities for becoming fully awake. Not by turning away from these moments but, rather, to do something that goes a bit against the grain: turn towards them.
She writes (p. 10):
The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation. . . To stay with that shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—
The most natural and ordinary thing in the world is to want to turn away from pain—or anger—or chaos—or a rumbling stomach—certainly I myself find it natural and ordinary—but when I’m reading Pema Chodron or listening to one of her tapes I feel, sometimes just for a few minutes at a time, or even a few seconds, that she’s onto something—this turning toward rather than turning away.
She’s so kind. She seems to understand how difficult it can be to turn towards discomfort. And she suggests that the way to do this—what can make it possible—is to practice something she calls maitri—this a Sanskrit word for loving-kindness or unconditional friendliness. She suggests that we practice this unconditional friendliness, first, toward ourselves. And she offers practical suggestions for how to do this in a variety of ways, including through the practice of meditation.
She writes (p. 21):
Sometimes we feel guilty, sometimes arrogant. Sometimes our thoughts and memories terrify us and make us feel totally miserable. Thoughts go through our minds all the time, and when we sit, we are providing a lot of space for all of them to arise. Like clouds in a big sky or waves in a vast sea, all our thoughts are given the space to appear.
Sometimes, when I’m reading Pema Chodron, I get a sense of that big sky, that vast sea. I get a sense that no matter what is falling apart—no matter what has fallen apart in the past—no matter what will surely fall apart in the future——I get a sense that it is all held by that big sky—that vast sea—
There’s a story by Anton Chekhov entitled, simply, “Grief”. I first learned about the story from Mary Swander’s essay, “The Fifth Chair,” in the anthology, Healing Circle. The story itself can be found in The Short Stories of Anton Chekhov. It speaks particularly well, I think, to what it is that grief may require.
When the story begins a cab-driver waits at twilight in the snow for a fare. His son has died the previous week. He waits a long time in the snow, and then finally—a passenger. As the evening wears on, the cab-driver attempts conversation with three different passengers. Three different times he attempts to tell his story—what has happened with his son. Each of the three interrupts him. One closes his eyes to stop the story. One informs him that we all must die. One simply gets out of the sleigh. Still later, the cab-driver attempts to stop and speak with a house-porter, but the house-porter tells him to drive on.
There’s so much that the cab-driver needs to tell. Chekhov writes:
One must tell it slowly and carefully; how his son fell ill, how he suffered, what he said before he died, how he died. One must describe every detail of the funeral, and the journey to the hospital to fetch the defunct’s clothes. His daughter Anissia remained in the village—one must talk about her too. Was it nothing he had to tell? Surely the listener would gasp and sigh, and sympathize with him?
The details must be told. And then—that gasp—that sigh—from the listener.
At the end of the day the cab-driver returns to the stables. He begins to speak to his horse:
Now let’s say you had a foal, you were that foal’s mother, and suddenly, let’s say, that foal went and left you to live after him. It would be sad, wouldn’t it?
The horse munches his hay and breathes his warm breath—and does not interrupt him. And that is how the story ends—with the cab-driver telling his story, finally, to his horse.
Perhaps what grief requires, as much as anything, is that the process not be interrupted. That it find a time and a place in which to unfold--with a companion (when possible) and without (too much) interruption. And, perhaps, at least for some of us, writing can play a role in this process.
Writing as a companion that does not interrupt?
Writing as a prelude to telling the story to a companion?
I have, for a long time now, loved the way that Andre Dubus writes. I love the clarity of his writing, the specificity, the rhythm of his prose, and something else too—this sense in everything he writes as if he knows something about loss—knows that all of this—everything—is impermanent—but he’s writing lovingly about it anyway. I could recommend any one of his books. His early story collections. His selected stories. His second book of essays, Meditations from a Movable Chair. His last book of stories, Dancing After Dark, which was published in 1997, two years before his death from a heart attack. But it’s this book—Broken Vessels—his first book of essays—that speaks, in a very personal way, to falling apart.
In July of 1986, Dubus stopped one night at the side of the highway to help a motorist in distress. While standing on the side of the road he was hit by a car. The impact cost him one of his legs and much of the use of his second leg, landing him in a wheel chair. Broken Vessels is a book of essays he published in the wake of that impact. The title essay, “Broken Vessels,” which is also the final essay in the book, begins this way:
On the twenty-third of June, a Thursday afternoon in 1988, I lay on my bed and looked out the sliding glass doors at blue sky and green poplars and I wanted to die. . .
“Broken Vessels” is an essay saturated with loss. The loss of running. The loss of walking. The loss of his wife and children. (He underwent a separation after the accident.) The loss of writing—which happened after he’d lost his family.
But the essay is not only about loss. The essay points to what is possible when one can find the right place to express this loss in some way. p. 171:
The best person for a crippled man to cry with is a good female physical therapist, and the best place to do that crying is in the area where she works. One morning in August of 1987, shuffling with my right leg and the walker, with Mrs. T in front of me and her kind younger assistants, Kathy and Betty, beside me, I began to cry. Moving across the long therapy room with beds, machines, parallel bars, and exercise bicycles, I said through my weeping: I’m not a man among men anymore and I’m not a man among women either. Kathy and Betty gently told me I was fine. Mrs. T said nothing, backing ahead of me, watching my leg, my face, my body. We kept working. I cried and talked all the way into the small room with two beds that are actually leather-cushioned tables with a sheet and pillow on each, and the women helped me onto my table, and Mrs. T went to the end of it, to my foot, and began working on my ankle and toes and calf with her gentle strong hands. Then she looked up at me. Her voice has much peace whose resonance is her own pain she has moved through and beyond. It’s in Jeremiah, she said. The potter is making a pot and it cracks. So he smashes it, and makes a new vessel. You can’t make a new vessel out of broken one. It’s time to find the real you.
The cab-driver in Chekhov’s story needed to tell what clothes his son was wearing when he died. Dubus had his own story that he needed to tell: I’m not a man among men anymore and I’m not a man among women either.
And, perhaps one of the most remarkable things about his essay, this story is heard. Mrs. T. does not interrupt. She does not offer false reassurance. She does not even try to argue with him, though she could, certainly, have made a number of legitimate arguments. (By whose definition is a crippled man not a man? By what rules? Who is it that gets to define what a man is?) Mrs. T’s genius is in her initial silence. And it’s only after Dubus has finished speaking that she offers not an argument, but, simply, an image: The potter is making a pot and it cracks. So he smashes it and makes a new vessel.
Dubus is entirely free to reject the image or accept it. The image is simply put out there. Image as invitation rather than argument: The potter is making a pot and it cracks. So he smashes it and makes a new vessel.
Dubus begins in June looking out at those poplars, unable to write—and wanting to die. We know, because he has written this essay, that he became a man who could write again. It would seem that Mrs. T. had something to do with that. A woman who was able to hear—and help him hold—his grief. And that image she offers: that smashed pot. That new vessel.
This writing idea springs directly from the passage by Andre Dubus that I posted above. Because it occurs to me that before embracing what remains it might sometimes be helpful, simply, to list it.
You can make a list of what remains. And then you can, if you like, take this list and carry it with you. You could carry it with you through the holidays. You could carry it in a wallet—or in a purse—or in your pocket. You could, I suppose, write it in tiny print and fold it and place it in a locket. And then you would always have it there with you—like a reminder—what remains.
I was looking for something to put up about loss and gratitude before taking a brief break for the Thanksgiving holiday and then I remembered this from the end of Andre Dubus’ essay, “Broken Vessels,” (which I wrote about earlier this week).
The passage can be found on p. 194 of Broken Vessels, this the next to the last page of the essay, and the book.
A week ago I read again The Old Man and the Sea, and learned from it that, above all, our bodies exist to perform the condition of our spirits: our choices, our desires, our loves. My physical mobility and my little girls have been taken from me; but I remain. So my crippling is a daily and living sculpture of certain truths: we receive and we lose, and we must try to achieve gratitude; and with that gratitude to embrace with whole hearts whatever of life that remains after the losses. No one can do this alone, for being absolutely alone finally means a life not only without people or God or both to love, but without love itself. In The Old Man and Sea, Santiago is a widower and a man who prays; but the love that fills and sustains him is of life itself: living creatures, and the sky, and the sea. Without that love, he would be an old man alone in a boat.
I like the language Dubus uses here—the way, sometimes, we have to work to “achieve” gratitude—the way this might not always come naturally—but still it can come—at least at moments--and sometimes those moments can be enough: moments in which we are able to embrace what remains.
The end of a holiday weekend. Shirt-sleeve weather here. Garden weather. November light. I’ve been thinking some about containers. Pots. Bowls. Baskets. . . . If falling apart creates pieces—fragments—shards—then it stands to reason that we might sometimes need containers in which to place all of these pieces.
Week before last a young woman, a patient, was telling me that she wanted to find a place or a something in which she could put her stress and anxious thoughts. I asked her what this place or something might look like and her answer was immediate, spontaneous, the way images sometimes are: A PENSIEVE.
This is an image that I’ve seen emerge before, and one, that when I first came upon it, seemed to me a nearly perfect image for writing and healing.
For those not already familiar with the image, I’ll describe it briefly here. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book in J.K. Rowling’s series, there’s a moment when Harry finds himself alone in headmaster Dumbledore’s office. Beckoned by a silvery light, he opens a cabinet, and discovers a stone basin filled with a silver and vapory substance. Harry peers deeply into the basin and then—in that moment—finds himself transported into another world—a scene from the past in which Dumbledore figures as one of the characters. When he returns, called back by Dumbledore’s voice, the headmaster proceeds to tell him that the basin is called a pensieve, a device useful when one’s thoughts become overcrowded or overwhelming. Dumbledore explains:
One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them in the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.
I love this notion of siphoning. I also love the notion of having a place to put thoughts and feelings—and perhaps other kinds of fragments. A basin—and perhaps a beautiful basin—a basin with a touch of enchantment—when it feels, for instance, that the mind and/or body cannot hold another speck. Or when it feels that what remains (after breaking or loss) are all these pieces—fragments of things. The possibility, then, of placing some of these pieces into a basin. And the possibility of seeing links and patterns in such a basin—
A notebook as a basin?
[I am very pleased to introduce this poem submitted by Danielle Crawford, a young woman at Fairhaven College in western Washington state. She began writing this poem while in her first "official" poetry class, four months ago, and she is now, she tells me, passionately pursuing a double major in creative writing and fine art.] Four Chambers for Tyler David Tandeski In memoriam [October 1, 1999] I. It stinks like cotton swabs turned cold beside Mother’s under-ripe belly. Six months have passed. She sits, waits: hunched, hurt on that inhospitable bed. I can’t tell her this, but she’s aged a decade in a day. Never looked so frail: a daisy, withered by the worst of winters. The October sky— Mom’s crying again, laying above peppered linoleum, under so many lights there’s nowhere left to hide. She’s naked, barren beneath the gown. I try to resist, but join her, weep. * The doctor’s eyes are dull with mock concern. I, twelve, confused, want to escape. In their crisply clean uniforms— uniform sterility— they stare, then speak: The human heart has four chambers… How were we to know God gave you only two? * Years of wait and worry plagued my parents. Mom’s stiff as the starchy parchment paper she’s now lying on. Emotions repressed, her words are strangled: It’s done. II. Did we make the right choice? After the initial miracle of you, I guess we believed in invincibility. An age-old wish, the desire to rewind. Would it have been selfish—? We thought of the steps you never took. We kissed the ground you never set foot upon. Since you’ve been gone, we’ve lost our footing, our solid ground. I try to picture what you’d be like now. I’ve dressed your name up in costumes, cloaked your memory with denial, anguish, rage… anything I could muster, paralyzed. I don’t wish to remember you this way. I’m back where I began: without a clue. The cotton, the clothing, that cold room, my memory, too— it’s all too white. I can’t help but wonder if, taken, you took color from our lives. ‘99. Now seven more. You would be eight, Tyler, had you survived half a heart and Down Syndrome. I’m greedy; I want you next to me. You still are my brother. I think of you, whose footprint—only an inch!— left a lasting imprint. The human heart has four chambers… Your heart was stronger than mine for letting you go. We need your malformed heart to mend our own.
Thank you again to Danielle Crawford for her poem, “Four Chambers for Tyler David Tandeski,” which I posted earlier this week, on Monday. I was moved by the poem when I first read it—and continue to be. And I thought I would offer a few reflections here—not analysis so much, but, simply, one reader reading—a snippet of my own reading and reflection. The poem got my attention with the first line: It stinks like cotton swabs. Oh, I thought, I’m in some kind of clinical setting—cotton swabs—a strong smell—and someone is going to say something honest about it—a visceral sensory impression. And then the next image that got through to me: that inhospitable bed. A play on hospital bed? But it’s inhospitable-----yes----(I’ve seen this bed. I’ve been in rooms like this.) And then the images accumulating: the October sky. . . the peppered linoleum. . . naked. . . Pain given concrete detail. (The kind of concrete detail that’s essential both to poetry and to the process of mourning. Thinking of what Chekhov’s cab-driver needs to say: the details of his son’s death, the trip to the hospital to fetch his clothes.) The details then, in this particular poem: the starchy parchment paper And those words----It’s done. (I can see that. I can hear those words.) And then—Part II— A sense of the child that would have been— A sense of strong feeling trying to find language And then the name—there near the end—Tyler-----the importance of remembering the name—making memorial. Peter Elbow, in Writing Without Teachers, says, that when it comes to writing, our biggest fear is not rejection—but its absence—the absence of acceptance and rejection. Our biggest fear is that no one has heard at all. He writes:
I’ve often had a kind of surreal, underwater vision of social reality. . . Everyone walks around mostly out of communication with everyone else. Someone has turned off the sound, cut the wires. It’s all fog and silence.
I think one of the things poetry can do—and other kinds of writing can do—and reflection on writing can do—is cut through the fog a bit. I’ve tried to offer, here, a few snippets of how this occurred for me—a cutting through my own ordinary layer of fog as I read Danielle’s poem. A sense that I could hear and see something of those images she offered. To put this another way, I had a writing teacher who used to say that we all walk around half-asleep and writing has the potential to wake us up. Yes, it’s rather like that. Sometimes it’s like that. We come across an image—fresh language—and we stop in our tracks. We see something—something perhaps familiar—but in a new way.