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18 posts from March 2007

March 01, 2007

March Index


(in chronological order)

Quest: An Image for Writing and Healing

The Wounded Storyteller I--The Restitution Narrative

The Wounded Storyteller II--The Chaos Narrative

Chaos: An Image for Writing and Healing

Mary Swander's Fifth Chair: Honoring the Chaos Narrative

The Wounded Storyteller III--The Quest Narrative

Quest: A Word-Map from Visual Thesaurus

Writing Idea #26: Figuring Out Where One is on the Map

Toni Morrison on Beowulf and Grendel

The North Star and a Small Beautiful Boat

Writing Idea#27: What Am I Here For? (I)

Writing Idea #27: What Am I Here For (II)

Writing Idea #28: Consulting with the Wizard of Oz

Swimming to Antarctica: A Recommended Book

The Wreck and the Treasure

Writing Idea #29: A Title for Your Quest

Writing Idea #30: Choosing Chapter Titles

Quest: An Image for Writing and Healing

In The Wounded Storyteller, a book I plan to write about soon, the author, Arthur Frank, writes about the possibility of illness being transformed by an image of quest. He writes [p. 115]:

Quest stories meet suffering head on; they accept illness and seek to use it. Illness is the occasion of a journey that becomes a quest. What is quested for may never be wholly clear, but the quest is defined by the ill person’s belief that something is to be gained through the experience.

This is not to say that illness is ordinarily welcome—or that it’s all for the good. Not like that. In my experience, it’s rarely like that. (And I doubt that Arthur Frank is implying that it’s like that.) Rather, he’s pointing to that possibility that illness—or grief—or loss—or difficulties of different sorts—the possibility that any one of these can serve as an occasion that can initiate something that can be called, for lack of a better word, a journey. As Frank himself mentions [p. 117], the use of the word journey for various experiences may have become something of a fad of late, but that doesn’t mean that it has no meaning—or that it can’t be useful.

For me, the most useful thing about these words—journey—quest—is that they raise the possibility that illness and suffering might not merely be lost time. One can be moving even when it doesn’t feel as if one is moving. One could begin a journey of this sort and end up somewhere entirely unexpected—or one could come home at the end and begin to realize that one has brought something back—something of value—something of beauty.

Which is not to say that most of us don’t resist these kinds of journeys, especially at first—or as long as we think we can get away with it.

March 04, 2007

The Wounded Storyteller (Part One)--The Restitution Narrative

There are certain books that I can remember where I was when I first began to read them. Perhaps something like this has happened for you. I found this book in the Wake Forest Library, and I took the book and began reading it on a low stone wall near a creek not far from the library. This was several years ago now. As I read I had a feeling as if thoughts and stories inside my head were literally rearranging and falling into new patterns. It was as if the author, Arthur Frank, had taken the thousands of stories of illness and loss I’d heard in my life—many of these told to me by patients—and he’d placed them into a kind of new and pleasing order, one that made an inordinate sense.

Arthur Frank is a medical sociologist and a survivor of testicular cancer. He opens The Wounded Storyteller by quoting a woman, Judith Zaruches, with chronic fatigue syndrome. He quotes from a letter that she wrote to him:

The destination and map I had used before were no longer useful.

The Wounded Storyteller speaks to the stories people tell (and write) when the old story—the one used prior to illness or loss—no longer suffices. The book is a dense book—it contains many things. The part I have found most useful—most illuminating—is in the middle chapters of the book, where Arthur Frank names three kinds of stories that people tend to make in the wake of illness and suffering. He acknowledges, at the outset, the fluid nature of these stories. People move back and forth among the three kinds of stories—the stories intersect and overlap. Still, he points to the value of naming the kind of story one is tending to tell. (It’s a bit like beginning to know where one is on the map—or perhaps knowing which map one is using.)

The first story is one he calls the restitution narrative. At its simplest it goes like this: I was sick and then I recovered and now I am my old self again. Or, perhaps: I am sick now but I will recover and then I know I will be my old self. This is the narrative that arises most naturally in the wake of an acute illness—after the flu, or ordinary pneumonia, or a broken bone. It can occur in the wake of certain kinds of cancer, when, for instance, the surgeon comes back with the report that he or she got it all, that the margins are clear. It can also occur in the wake of a replaceable loss. A tree falls on a house and the roof is crushed—but then the roof gets fixed.

I tend to picture this first narrative like a simple algebraic equation. If I was X before my illness, then I know the story has come to an end—and a good end—when I am recovered to X again. I am back at work. I’m running again, or swimming, or driving, or dancing, or whatever it is that makes me feel like I am my old and familiar self.

X = X.

This is a very useful narrative, I think. It’s a very comforting narrative. It works for many things, including many illnesses. In fact, I don't know that I know anyone who gives up this narrative unless they absolutely have to.

The second kind of narrative--the chaos narrative--can be found here.

And the third kind of narrative--the quest narrative--can be found here.

March 06, 2007

The Wounded Storyteller: A Recommended Book (Part 2 of 3)--The Chaos Narrative

The first kind of narrative Arthur Frank writes about in The Wounded Storyteller is the restitution narrative. That’s the one where a person goes through some kind of illness or trouble and then becomes restored to one’s old self. (X = X.) The second kind of narrative possible in the wake of illness or loss is much less tidy. I can’t think of a simple equation that could represent it. The second narrative is the chaos narrative. It’s the kind of narrative that results, often, when the restitution narrative breaks down.

Frank writes:

Chaos is the opposite of restitution: its plot imagines life never getting better.

An example Frank uses here is that of a woman with chronic illness trying to take care of her mother who has Alzheimer’s. She’s trying to tell something of what it’s like—a glimpse of the chaos in the kitchen—as she’s trying to make dinner:

And if I’m trying to get dinner ready and I’m already feeling bad, she’s in front of the refrigerator. Then she goes to put her hand on the stove and I got the fire on. And then she’s in front of the microwave and then she’s in front of the silverware drawer. And—and if I send her out she gets mad at me. And then it’s awful. That’s when I have a really, really bad time.

Chaos stories can feel really, really bad.

They’re hard to experience.
They’re hard to tell.
They can also be hard to hear.

But, Frank argues, it’s necessary that they be heard. He writes:

The need to honor chaos stories is both moral and clinical. Until the chaos narrative can be honored, the world in all its possibilities is being denied. To deny a chaos story is to deny the person telling this story, and people who are being denied cannot be cared for. People whose reality is denied can remain recipients of treatments and services, but they cannot be participants in empathic relations of care.

To deny a chaos story is to deny the person telling this story, and people who are being denied cannot be cared for.

He’s saying a lot here, and I’m quite sure not everyone would agree with him, but I think he’s onto something. He continues:

Those living chaotic stories certainly need help, but the immediate impulse of most would-be helpers is first to drag the teller out of this story, that dragging called some version of ‘therapy’. Getting out of chaos is to be desired, but people can only be helped out when those who care are first willing to become witnesses to the story. Chaos is never transcended but must be accepted before new lives can be built and new stories told. Those who care for lives emerging from chaos have to accept that chaos always remains the story’s background and will continually fade into the foreground.

He’s walking, I think, a delicate balance here. Getting out of chaos is desirable. But you can’t get out without first honoring it somehow.

So how is a person to honor chaos?
And how do you eventually find your way out?
Can writing help?

I’ve found it can sometimes help during chaos just to begin to name it as chaos.
Oh, this is chaos.
A person could write just that line, I suppose. Oh, so this is chaos.
Oh, I see.
X is no longer going to be X.

[to be continued. . .]

March 08, 2007

Chaos: An Image for Writing and Healing

Definitions of Chaos:

  1. Any condition or place of total disorder or confusion.

  2. Often capital C. The disordered state of unformed matter and infinite space supposed by some religious cosmological views to have existed prior to the ordered universe.

  3. And, courtesy of Visual Thesaurus:


Mary Swander’s Fifth Chair: Honoring the Chaos Narrative

Before I go ahead and finish writing about Arthur Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller, and make my way to his third kind of narrative, the quest narrative, I thought I’d put in a passage from an essay by Mary Swander, an essay that manages to convey well, I think, something of the chaos narrative—and how hard it can be sometimes to get someone to listen to, and help hold, the chaos narrative.

In an essay, called “The Fifth Chair,” in the anthology, Healing Circle, that she co-edited, Mary Swander writes about her experience with myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord, which resulted for her in an extremely painful, chronic, relapsing, and at times immobilizing illness. At one point she finds herself requiring a wheelchair, dreading sunset because her joints had this tendency to lock up during the night, immobilizing her in her bed. And she writes about how listeners—these nearly always able-bodied listeners—had a tendency, to interrupt her story of illness, her at times perhaps chaotic story of illness, and insert their own meaning.

She writes:

A huge chasm opened between me and the rest of the world. I looked toward others for support and a cacophony of well-meaning voices rose up to fill the empty spaces. You’re making a joke of everything, taking this too lightly, some said. You’re making too much of a deal of this, others said. You’re not asking for enough help. You’re asking too much. . . I know what it’s like, I had gout for five days. You look good. You look like my grandma. I know what it’s like, I had the flu for five days. You must’ve done something really horrible in your past life to bring this on yourself now. You’re such a good person, why’s this happening to you? Are you depressed? I’m glad you can be so cheerful. Why don’t you move to town? Why don’t you go to New York and see your specialist? Why don’t you move to New Mexico?

I love that paragraph. It sounds so—right. I think she gets it right—that’s what people do. Or that’s what they sometimes do. And Swander’s grace here, I think, is in seeing these voices as essentially well-meaning. There’s also a nice sense of comedy—juxtaposing these voices—conveying the cacophony they make.

But what then?

Swander writes in her essay how she turned away from these voices—took a respite.

I stopped answering E-mail and the phone. I stopped playing the radio and the stereo. I let the silence fill my room. I read Thomas Merton, Aldous Huxley, Hildegard of Bingen. I read Meister Eckhart, Thomas a Kempis, and the Rule of St. Benedict. I read Walt Whitman, the Book of Job, Lao-Tzu, and Mary Baker Eddy.

Whereas before, that cacophony of voices was filling up the empty space, she writes of how—instead—something new—-----I let the silence fill my room.

And that list of writers she chose to read. I’m not familiar with all of them, but of the ones I am familiar with, they’re writers who seem to know something about silence—and about empty space.

Maybe that’s something that the chaos narrative needs—sometimes.

Empty space.

Having written that, it occurs to me to ask a next question: what books would you choose to carry along if you knew that you were going to be entering chaos?

My choices—something by Pema Chodron, I think, and Sogyal Rinpoches’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. And maybe one of Michael Connelly’s books.

March 11, 2007

The Wounded Storyteller: A Recommended Book (Part Three of Three)—The Quest Narrative

I’m returning now (finally) to The Wounded Storyteller, and to the third and final kind of narrative Arthur Frank suggests a person can make in the wake of illness and suffering—the quest narrative.

He defines this narrative thus:

Quest stories meet suffering head on; they accept illness and seek to use it.

He outlines a structure for this quest story, borrowing from Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces. He describes three key stages of a quest, which I’m including here with a few comments. (These stages may already be quite familiar to many of you.):

Departure: This begins with some kind of call. In a mythic hero or heroine story this call might be that moment when something or someone entirely new appears and sets an adventure in motion—say, for instance, a stranger appears with a rumor about a holy grail that needs to be located. In an illness story the call can be a symptom—a call from the body itself. Or it can be that moment when a doctor gives a name to the symptom. Included in this first stage is the typical response to this call—for most heroes and heroines as well as ordinary folks—“the refusal of the call.” No, this can’t be. No, I must have heard wrong. No. “Eventually,” Frank writes, “the call can no longer be refused—symptoms are unmistakable, diagnoses are made—and what Campbell calls ‘the first threshold’ is crossed.” Crossing this first threshold ushers in the second stage of the quest.

Continue reading "The Wounded Storyteller: A Recommended Book (Part Three of Three)—The Quest Narrative" »

March 13, 2007

Quest: A Word-Map from Visual Thesaurus

Here's a graphic of the word QUEST, courtesy of Visual Thesaurus:

Writing and Healing Idea #26: Figuring Out Where One is on the Map

Imagine, for a moment, that there’s a map and imagine that there are three kinds of roads one can follow on this map. There are probably a million or so roads but say, for the sake of argument, that there are three main kinds of roads. And say that they each of the roads has a name. Maybe on your map the roads have catchier names than these—you can rename them if you like—but, nonetheless, here are three types of roads you can use as a kind of starting point:

Draw the roads if you like—or begin to draw them inside your mind.
Then write about what the roads look like on your map.
Write about which ones you’ve taken.
Write about which ones you wish you could take.
Write about the signs on these roads.
Write about where each of the roads might lead.
Write about where on the map you are right now, at this moment.

(And if you'd like some company as you're writing and imagining you can look at The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost's preeminent poem about roads. Press play at the website page if you'd like to hear Frost himself reading the poem.)

March 15, 2007

Toni Morrison on Beowulf and Grendel: Two Very Different Kinds of Quest Stories

Evening before last, Tuesday evening, I got a chance to see, in Greensboro, a lecture by Toni Morrison, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Beloved and Song of Solomon, among other novels. I’d never seen her speak before. She has a wonderful—and inspiring—presence. She’s a natural storyteller—dramatic, funny, pausing in all the right places. She held the audience in her hands. And the stories she happened to tell were, interestingly enough, quest stories.

She began with a brief introduction—her belief in the importance and power of story. She then proceeded to retell the ancient story of Beowulf—an epic narrative about a monster, Grendel, who ravages a Scandinavian kingdom. She told, first, the original story in which Grendel is depicted as the epitome of pure senseless evil, devouring the citizens of this kingdom for no reason other than because he can. And then a hero arises—Beowulf. This hero’s quest involves protecting the kingdom, defeating the monster. He manages, in battle, to cut off the arm of Grendel. But then the story—and the quest—becomes more complicated. Grendel, the monster, returns home to his mother and she turns out to be a yet fiercer monster—and vengeful. She launches her own attack on the kingdom, slaying large numbers of citizens and placing their bodies in her pouch. (Here Ms. Morrison added one of her nice touches, offering a memorable visual image: How wonderful, she said, how perfect, that the mother was carrying a pocketbook.)

Beowulf’s quest continues. He follows the mother monster to her lair, engages her in battle, and manages to take her sword and, with this sword, cut off her head. And the blood from her body proceeds to melt the sword.

The original Beowulf is a bloody quest story—the hero’s quest ends in violence and conquest.

But then, as a counterpart to Beowulf, Ms. Morrison offered another story--a shift in point of view—a different kind of quest story. Drawing from John Gardner’s novel, Grendel, she offered a retelling of the story from the monster’s point of view. There's not enough time or space here to do Gardner’s novel justice—but this is the part that I took away from Ms. Morrison’s lecture. In the retelling of the story, Grendel has an inner life—he is no longer a beast, Morrison told us. And, unlike the original story, he is capable of some degree of transformation. This transformation occurs, at least in part, via a character in the novel, Shaper, who is a poet. And, she suggested, it is through language—the comprehension and use of language (rather than his former bestial sounds)—that Grendel is transformed.

This second story offers a very different kind of quest—a quest that Arthur Frank might call a post-modern quest—a quest that has to do with inner transformation rather than with conquering.

Ms. Morrison suggested two things near the end of her talk that separate humans from other creatures—that separate us, she said, from, for instance, asparagus. First, love—namely the ability to care for creatures that are not our own and from which we may not receive benefit. And, second, language. Ms. Morrison believes language is capable of transformation. She believes, I think, that language is capable of transforming evil. Of transforming individuals. Of transforming kingdoms. Of transforming countries. Of shifting stories from violent ones to stories in which something new happens. And she said this the other evening with such a confident and august presence—it was inspiring----

March 18, 2007

The North Star and A Small Beautiful Boat: Images for Writing and Healing

In her book, Reviving Ophelia, which recounts many of her own experiences in counseling adolescent girls, Mary Pipher tells about how she uses the North Star as a metaphor with the girls who come to her. She writes:

I tell clients, ‘You are in a boat that is being tossed around by the winds of the world. The voices of your parents, your teachers, your friends, and the media can blow you east, then west, then back again. To stay on course you must follow your own North Star, your sense of who you truly are. Only by orienting north can you chart a course and maintain it. . .’

Even in the Midwest, where we have no large lakes, many girls have sailed. And particularly in the Midwest, girls love images of the sea. They like the images of stars, sky, roaring waters and themselves in a small, beautiful boat.

I like these images too—the sky, the stars, the water, that small beautiful boat. I was trying to think of a poem that might resonate with these images and I remembered a song by Mary Chapin Carpenter—Jubilee, a song she wrote herself and which appears on her CD, Stones in the Road. Here are four lines from the song, :

And I can tell by the way you’re searching, for something you can’t even name / That you haven’t been able to come to the table, simply glad that you came / When you feel like this try to imagine that we’re all like frail boats on the sea / Just scanning the night for that great guiding light announcing the jubilee.

I like the images in her lyrics. The words she chooses. Frail, for instance. That sense that the boats are frail--or sometimes frail. The sense she offers of all the other boats out there on the water. And that image of what the star might be pointing toward. (When I first heard this song, several years ago, I had a vague notion of what a Jubilee might be, but then I looked it up and there was more to it than I thought. According to the Hebrew Bible, a Jubilee year occurred every fifty years and, apparently, during this year, land was returned to original owners, debts were forgiven, and indentured servants were emancipated.)

A person could, I suppose, imagine healing as a quest made by water rather than by land. One could imagine traveling in a small and beautiful boat. And then there would be that star in the sky, brighter than all of the others, and holding steady, no matter which way the wind was blowing.

One could imagine, if one wanted, that the star has a particular name. And that it's pointing toward something.

March 20, 2007

Writing Exercise #27: What Am I Here For? (Part 1 of 2)

When I trained in healing imagery in San Rafael, with the Academy for Guided Imagery, I learned, on the last day of my training, an imagery exercise that can be used for the discovery of deep purpose. To be honest, when we were first introduced to the exercise, I, along with a friend who I was there with, thought the exercise seemed, well—almost silly. Too simple to be useful, I thought. Or too something. I was wrong. This exercise, which we proceeded to practice in small groups, proved to be surprisingly powerful.

Since then, I’ve introduced this exercise to a number of patients. And I’ve begun to see that, at least some of the time, this exercise can point a person toward something. It has the potential to get at something deeper than short-term goals, deeper than the job at which we work, deeper than any salary or accolades we might receive for that work. It has the potential to move a person toward certain core kinds of questions—questions particularly relevant if and when a person finds themselves facing a life-threatening or life-altering illness, or when a person finds themselves facing a life-altering loss.
(And one of the things an examination of these questions can do, I’ve noticed, is help a person feel calmer and more at peace—get a glimpse of the bigger picture as it were—and this itself can mitigate a stress response and, in the process, augment healing. Lawrence LeShan, who has been called the father of mind-body medicine, proposes in his book, Cancer As a Turning Point, that getting in touch with one’s purpose—or what he calls zest—can have a significant and salutary effect on the immune and healing system.)

What really matters? What will matter when it’s all said and done?

I attended a Jesuit college. One of my professors at that college, Father Nesbitt, a Jesuit priest and a the teacher of my first theology class as a freshman, once told us that the question to ask ourselves when we wake in the morning and first look in the mirror to wash our face is this: What am I here for?

This is an exercise that looks at that question.

So---the exercise, which I've translated into a writing exercise:

  • You begin by folding a plain piece of paper in half and then half again, so that when you re-open the piece of paper you have four rectangles. At the top of the first rectangle you write the first heading: WHAT I LIKE/ WHAT I LOVE
    Then beneath this heading you make a list of all the things that you like and love. These can be small things or big things. Chocolate? Rain? The color periwinkle?

  • At the top of the second rectangle you write the second heading: GIFTS AND TALENTS
    Here you make a list of all those things that you happen to be good at. These can be concrete things like fixing cars or gardening. These can also include more abstract things like kindness or listening or seeing patterns.

[to be continued]

March 21, 2007

Writing Exercise #27: What Am I Here For (Part 2 of 2)

If you haven’t already looked at the first part of the exercise you can find it here. This second part of the exercise, presented below, will lead you to fill in the third and fourth rectangles on the sheet of paper—and then invite you to take a next step—and perhaps a next one.

  • At the top of the third rectangle write: WHAT’S IMPORTANT TO ME Here you list any and all things that are important to you, moving again, if you like between the concrete and the more abstract.

  • In the final rectangle you write: WHAT I FEEL I MUST DO BEFORE I DIE
    I’ve seen people write everything in this rectangle from visiting a certain country to reconciling with a particular person to finally getting their hair right. Make this list as long or as short as you like.

When you’ve finished filling in the four rectangles, take out another sheet of paper and fold it into four rectangles like before. On this new sheet of paper you are going to record four images, one in each rectangle, each image corresponding to one of your lists.

In order to discover these images, you may want to give yourself a block of uninterrupted and quiet time—say, twenty to thirty minutes if possible. Then, beginning with the first list—What Do I Like? / What Do I Love?—read the list, either silently or aloud, over and over, noticing what image begins to arise from the list. This image can be anything that you can see or hear or touch. It can be a shape or an object—a color—an activity—a creature—a person—a vegetable—anything that seems to fit somehow with the list that you’ve created. The idea is to find a single image that resonates with the entire list. If you find it difficult to choose one best image—just pick an image—any image that appeals—knowing that you can always come back and change the image—revise it—amend it—if you want to later. You can write a word for this image—or you can draw it. Either.

Then move on and do the same with the second list, and the third, and the fourth. You can, if you like, do this over a period of days.

When you finish you will have a piece of paper with four images that can all be considered aspects or facets of your purpose.

You can carry these four images around with you—in your pocket—or in your pocketbook—or in the back of your mind. You can hold them lightly. It may happen that the four images seem to want to come together into a single image. If so, you can draw or write this single image at the center of a new sheet of paper.

When you finish you will have a single image or a series of images—either.

This image—or series of images—can become, if you like, a kind of touchstone. It can become your own North Star. It can become something you write about now and then—or something you hold in the back of your mind. It can become something you can steer by when it seems like the wind is blowing this way and that.

March 23, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #28: Consulting with the Wizard of Oz

I had a dream the other night that a patient came to me and she asked me if I thought that it would be a good idea to bring her illness to the Wizard of Oz and ask him what to do. Inside the dream I thought about it for a while, and then I said, yes, I do think that’s a good idea, but I need you to tell me more about what that would be like for you.

What would it be like?

Say, that you were the one caught up in the tornado, landing in an entirely new and strange place, and you told a good witch in a lovely dress that you had just been diagnosed with an illness—or another problem had befallen you—stress—loss—some new and thorny problem—or an old and thorny problem—any one of these will do—and say that you told her that what you really wanted was to get back home (as if maybe you suspected that if you only got home you could deal with this—you could figure out what to do next) and the good witch said, well, the smartest one in these parts is the wizard---and I would suggest you follow this road here. . .

What would happen next?

(And, let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that if this were an illness of some sort you’d already done the usual things—consulted a doctor, seen a specialist perhaps, started some sort of treatment. Say that you were looking for a little more help—not so much with medical care at this point but with the process of healing—figuring out what else you could do, in addition to medical treatment, that might augment the healing inside your body, that might make a difference. As if medical treatment were only the beginning of the quest—say, the crossing of the first threshold—and not its end.)

What might the road be like on the way? Would there be helpers? Someone as kind and bumbly as that scarecrow? As innocent as the tin man? And say you made it to the Emerald City? What would you find when you got there? What would you ask? (Would you want to ask something about purpose? Your quest? Your next task? Or maybe just something about getting back home?) What would you hear in response? And then what would happen next?

March 25, 2007

Swimming to Antarctica: A Recommended Book

Lynne Cox, author of Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer, strikes me as a kind of ideal heroine for this month in which I’m writing about quest. There’s a kind of purity—a single-mindedness—to her narrative that has a certain appeal. She’s one of those rare people who discovered her own personal quest—her purpose in life—at the age of nine. And then she had the good fortune, and the good sense, and the persistence, to be able to carry this out.

One summer morning, as she tells it, and when she was only nine years old, she found herself in an icy-cold swimming pool in Manchester, New Hampshire, swimming laps in the middle of a storm. She was there by choice. All the other swimmers in her club had begged the coach to get out of the water, leaping at his alternative proposal of two hours of calisthenics in the locker room. This was a serious swim club. Those children who had fled the cold water for the locker room could look forward to upwards of 500 sit-ups, 200 push-ups, and 500 leg extensions.

Lynne Cox stayed in the water. When it began to hail, she stopped her laps and crouched in a corner next to the steps and covered her face with her hands. When the hail changed over to heavy rain she went back to swimming laps, entirely alone in the pool, hailstones floating around her in what she describes as a “giant bowl of icy tapioca.” She wasn’t one of the fastest swimmers on the team. She was, by her own description, chubby, and because she was slower than many of the others, she rarely got a chance to pause at the wall of the pool for breaks the way the others did. What she had was endurance. And a love of the water that was nothing short of extreme. She was nine years old, swimming through ice-water that everyone else had fled, and, rather than being frightened of the storm, she was exhilarated by it:

The pool was no longer a flat, boring rectangle of blue; it was now a place of constant change. . . . That day, I realized that nature was strong, beautiful, dramatic, and wonderful, and being out in the water during that storm made me feel somehow a part of it, somehow connected to it.

A Mrs. Milligan saw the tail end of this three-hour swim from her car in the parking lot. She was the mother of another girl on the team, a fast girl who had already qualified for nationals. When Lynne Cox finally climbed out of the pool, Mrs. Milligan met her with a large towel. She rubbed Lynne’s back with the towel, at the same time speaking into her ear: “Someday, Lynne, you’re going to swim across the English Channel.”

Continue reading "Swimming to Antarctica: A Recommended Book" »

March 27, 2007

The Wreck and the Treasure: Images for Writing and Healing

I recently came across a poem, Diving into the Wreck, by Adrienne Rich. (I found it in Staying Alive, the anthology. You can also find it here.)

The poem is a quest poem—but it describes a different kind of quest, a kind of counterpoint to Lynne Cox’s Swimming to Antarctica. Not a quest across the water. But down.

It begins—the first six lines—with a gathering of resources:

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask

It’s interesting to me how just typing these lines allows me to pay a kind of closer attention to the language than I do when I ordinarily read. It slows me down. Especially coming to that last line—the grave and awkward mask.

So, then: a book of myths, a camera, a blade, body armor, those absurd flippers, that grave and awkward mask. These are the resources for this dive. And no companions. Not this time. The speaker of the poem announces this at the end of the first stanza: she’s not doing this with a team like Cousteau—but alone.

A ladder appears.
She begins to climb down.
Down through layers.
Down through blue, then bluer, green—then black.

This is a different kind of quest.
A metaphorical quest.
A quest down through layers.
And why keep going?

In the sixth stanza, she names the reason for this particular quest:

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
And the treasures that prevail.

The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
And then those lines naming two companions:
the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.

It seems to me that most people I talk to about quests of one sort or another need to know two things—especially for the difficult quests—the ones that involve some exploration of wreckage, some measure of sorrow. I think we need to know that the exploration itself has some meaning—a purpose. And I think we need to know that there’s some possibility—some hope—even perhaps a promise—of treasure—jewels amid or beneath the wreckage. What Arthur Frank would call the boon of the quest. There has to be some boon.

I had a writing teacher once who used to say that stories need to be bearable. One way, I think, of making stories of wreckage bearable is to figure out what the treasure is—to recognize the treasure amid the wreckage. No matter how elusive—or unexpected—no matter that the treasure doesn’t look the way we thought it would look when we finally come upon it.

March 29, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #29: A Title for Your Quest

Imagine for a moment that someone approaches you and tells you that they want to write a book about your life. But they need some help. They need a title for one thing. Perhaps they invite you to call out the first title that comes to mind. Then the second title. The third. Perhaps they tell you they need you to make a list of all the titles that come to mind and when you’re finished they offer to help you choose the best one. And perhaps it might help while you’re thinking about your own list of possible titles to consider other titles.

You may want to look around your own bookshelf for ideas. Or a trip to the bookstore might provide inspiration. Or a trip to the library. Memoirs especially can be a good source of titles that embody a sense of quest. Here are four (five actually), drawn from my own bookshelves, and offered along with a brief summary of what each title depicts:

  • Meditations from a Movable Chair. Andre Dubus’ collection of autobiographical pieces, written after Broken Vessels (that searing memoir published after he lost his legs in an accident) and describing life as he sees it now from the vantage point of his wheelchair.

  • Holy Hunger. Margaret Bullit-Jonas' memoir about healing from an eating disorder and, in the process, reframing her hunger as a spiritual hunger.

  • Breaking Clean. Judy Blunt’s memoir of leaving the flats of Montana and her life as a rancher’s wife to pursue her own dreams.

  • Stronger than Dirt. A husband and wife’s memoir by Chris Losee and Kim Schaye about leaving Brooklyn to start a flower farm in upstate New York.

Writing and Healing Idea #30: Choosing Chapter Titles

This writing idea is offered as a companion to Writing Idea #29: Choosing a Title for Your Quest, which appears below. Say that this same person who needs you to generate a title for your book—your quest—also needs you to generate chapter titles—a structure for getting started. What might you name the chapters of your memoir?

As with book titles, other people’s chapter titles can spark ideas.

Here are some archetypal chapter titles from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces:

  • The Call to Adventure
  • Refusal of the Call
  • Supernatural Aid
  • The Crossing of the First Threshold
  • The Belly of the Whale
  • The Road of Trials

And here are some chapters from Judy Blunt’s Breaking Clean:

  • A Place of One’s Own
  • Salvage
  • Lessons in Silence
  • The Year of the Horse
  • The Reckoning

What might your own chapter titles be?