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16 posts from April 2007

April 01, 2007

Robert Frost’s Two Tramps in Mud Time: A Poem for April

I found these seven lines from Robert Frost’s Two Tramps in Mud Time. I think they resonate well with the way that I’m thinking about this month—the way that reversals can happen suddenly—out of the blue—without warning. It might be warm, or at least sunny, beautiful, everything blooming, and then------not so much.

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.

He’s so matter of fact. This is the way it is sometimes—on certain days.

April 03, 2007

Two Steps Forward/ One Step Backward: What Resistance Can Look Like in a Writing Workshop

At the first meeting I introduce freewriting. The particular group I’m thinking of now is a small, highly motivated group, several people who meet every other week with the express purpose of recovering from depression. I have agreed, at the invitation of a psychiatrist, the group leader, to meet with the group for six sessions to explore writing and healing. Many in the group are new to freewriting. They try it—and seem to like it—the freedom it offers—the bit of release.

At the second meeting we continue with freewriting and concentrate more on bringing in strong, sensory details. The images that begin to emerge are both strong and sensory. High school bleachers. An empty chair. Cold water. The taste of sour apples. That whole second session could be described in a single word: flow. A flow of images and sensory detail and the release of emotion.

Then the third meeting. Ah, the third meeting. I go in to the third meeting with a rather vague expectation that we will simply pick up the flow and keep moving. I know better than to go into a workshop with expectations. But still I do it. I go into the workshop looking for a continuation of flow. I like flow.

We don’t flow.

I begin by offering a prompt for writing—and, I add, as I always do, write, if you’d rather, about something that is on your mind or heart. Go on. So we write. And we begin to talk about the writing—like the weeks before. But something is different this week. There’s a sense that everything has slowed down—is stuck—is heavy—like molasses—like quicksand—like slow motion.

“I was going to ask that we not write tonight,” someone says.

I nod.

Here’s the thing. I like flow. I prefer flow. But I’ve also begun to learn that if one is going to do any of this—this writing—this healing—over the long haul—more, say, than for one weekend—or one week—then resistance—a resistance to going forward—this sometimes-stuck-in-molasses-feeling—is part of the deal. I’ve seen this before. And I’ve seen it not infrequently after a period of strong flow and creativity. It’s as if there’s some natural check and balance, as if flow itself is wary of going on for too long unimpeded. An obstacle arises. An impediment to going too far too fast. The writing that for a time seemed exciting and freeing now seems boring, or fairly useless, or faintly ridiculous.

“This is really hard,” someone says.

I know, I say. Sometimes it really is.

April 05, 2007

What Resistance to Writing Can Sound Like on the Telephone

A woman—a patient of mine—a breast cancer survivor—had been writing and keeping notebooks of her writing for several years, including a prolific bout of writing during the two years since she’d begun seeing me as a patient. She was and is a self-taught, energetic, and increasingly skillful writer. She’s creative, funny and gifted with language.

One morning I checked my messages at my office to find this:
[paraphrased to the best of my recollection]

You know what, I just realized that all this writing I’ve been doing—all this writing in notebooks—it’s just silly, it’s just dwelling on things that I don’t need to be dwelling on. And I just wanted to let you know that I packed it all up—all my notebooks and files—and I’ve put them in boxes and dragged them out to the curb to be picked up with the trash. Just thought you should know.

[to be continued]

April 08, 2007

Getting a Second Opinion when it seems (if even for a Moment) that the Writing Looks Like Trash

Well, my first response to the woman with her boxes lined up out on the curb was to call her back. I asked her if the trash truck had come yet. It hadn’t. “Do you want my advice?” I asked. She said that she did. I said that when she came in the next time we could talk more about it, if she wanted, but for now I thought she should simply haul it back in, all of it, that her writing was much too valuable to be sitting out on the curb.

She ended up hauling it back in. And later I think she was glad that she’d done that.

I suppose what interested me most about this incident, and still interests me, is that she called. She put the boxes out on the curb for the trash truck—but then she called someone. I took her phone message as a question. Do you think the writing is trash?

No. I didn’t. I don’t.

Given a similar phone message, I’d do the same---call back with similar advice. I think a second opinion can be of much benefit when it may seem for a time that the writing—or some other potentially valuable thing—is of no worth. On that day, I was able to serve as that second opinion.

The Woodland Garden: An Image for Writing and Healing?

One of my favorite tasks in the garden is brushing back oak leaves—and finding out what’s come back—new spring growth---

Here are two things I uncovered in the garden in the past week. The first is bleeding heart, or dicentra spectabilis. I didn’t really have to uncover this one at all. It just popped up—and then started blooming its pink delicate hearts.


The second one I did have to uncover, brushing back oak leaves. For the last few years now, I’ve had it in my mind that this one is bear’s breeches---but I was wrong---it’s sweet woodruff. It comes back each spring—and it spreads. I like its tiny delicate leaves—and that green.


And I just learned from the UBC Botanical Garden site that it has all these other wonderful names: hay plant, kiss-me-quick, mugwet, rockweed, sweet grass, woodruff, bedstraw, sweet-scented bedstraw, May grass, our lady's lace, and sweet white woodruff.

April 10, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #31: Writing a Letter of Resignation

I wonder if many of us, if not most of us, at one time or another, in the teeth of resistance, much like the woman carrying her notebooks to the curb for the trash truck—I wonder if we don’t at least have to entertain the question: Is it time to quit?

(Well, maybe not entertain this question for weeks—maybe not feed it a series of meals, put it up in the guest room—but still, however briefly, entertain the question.)

Thus, as a kind of exercise in entertaining the question: the letter of resignation.

You are invited to write a letter of resignation to whomever you like and in regard to any activity or relationship to which you feel resistance. You would like to resign from your job? A particularly thorny relationship? The care of your house? The mowing of your lawn? The elliptical machine? Broccoli? What about resigning from writing? Or healing? You are invited to write a letter resigning from whatever and whomever you feel you most need to resign from. Include, if possible, your reasons for resignation. And, if you’d like, go ahead and set a date on which the resignation will become effective.

You may also write, in lieu of a letter of resignation, a letter outlining the terms under which you would consider staying.

[Please note: If you decide to write either of these letters, it’s probably prudent not to send it right away, if at all. Unless, of course, you are sending a letter to yourself, in which case you may go ahead and send it at any time.]

April 12, 2007

Marriage: An Image for Writing and Healing

In Love Actually, the movie, there’s a moment when the character played by Emma Thompson responds to a betrayal by her husband. Perhaps you’re familiar with the moment. She’s discovered a necklace that her husband has given as a gift to a young and attractive woman at his work. The marriage has reached a point of keen disappointment. There’s a scene where she absorbs this disappointment, alone in their bedroom, blotting tears with the heels of her hands. And then there’s a moment, later that same evening, when she approaches her husband as they’re walking out of an auditorium after watching their children in a holiday pageant. Because this is a movie, and because, after all, it’s Emma Thompson, she’s a bit more sane and clever than most of would be in a similar situation. She tells him that she knows about the necklace. And then she asks him: “What would you do? Would you stay, knowing that if you did everything would always be a little bit worse? Or would you cut and run?”

It’s such a good question. It’s such a good line. It’s a memorable line. But will it be worse? Does it have to be worse? Maybe in this case, after this particular necklace, it does have to be worse. Maybe. But does it always have to be a little bit worse after we discover that it’s not what we thought it would be? Or not what we once hoped it would be? Is it possible for it to be different—more flawed—than we once thought and still, somehow, to have a sweetness? Perhaps a different kind of sweetness—

Can writing still have a sweetness after we begin to discover its flaws and challenges?
Can healing?

April 15, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #32: Keeping a Process Journal: A Long-Term Solution to Writer’s Block

Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff, in their text, A Community of Writers, suggest that each writer keep something they call a process journal. It’s a way of learning from the ups and downs of one’s own process. It’s a way of learning more about what works for you as an individual—and what doesn’t.

In a sense you are beginning to write your own very personalized, and individualized, textbook of writing.

Elbow and Belanoff suggest, for instance, writing for a few minutes about the writing process itself whenever you have completed a significant piece of writing. What facilitated flow? What impeded it? “The goal,” they write, “is to find out what really happens—the facts of what occurred on that particular occasion. Don’t struggle for conclusions; trust that they’ll come.”

Another way to use a process journal is to turn to it before you finish a piece of writing—when you’re right in the middle. This can be of particular benefit if you’re stuck. Sometimes what is happening when we get stuck is that our thoughts are too complex and convoluted to write the next line. In a process journal it becomes possible to hit this problem head on—to write about it. For instance: I have too much to say. . . It’s too complicated. . . And then, having said this, you can begin the process of untangling the complicated threads. It’s too complicated because. . .

You can begin a process journal any time, including any time that you are stuck. You can begin it on a new sheet of paper or you can create a new document on your computer and begin there. You can begin a process journal by writing, I have too much to say. . . Or, I have nothing to say. . . Or, I wish I had something to say. . . Or, I wish that I wish I had something to say. . . Or I wish someone would bring me a sandwich because more than anything else right now I am hungry. . .

And then you can keep going. I am hungry because. . . I have too much too say because. . . It’s too complicated because. . .

April 18, 2007

The Handless Maiden: A Story for Difficult Times

In Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a Jungian analyst and storyteller, retells a story about a handless maiden. It's a story that seems to me a kind of ideal story for a month in which I'm writing about ways in which a person can sometimes get stuck--hit obstacles--get bewildered. The story is one that I've found beneficial at crucial junctures in my own life, and it’s a story I have at times told in turn to patients or students when it seems that the labor that began so well—the first giddy success of creativity and vitality—has come to a grinding halt.

The story begins when a maiden loses her hands. She really does lose them—her entire hands. They’re cut off. It’s a moment of initiation. A loss of innocence. Her first serious loss. She has these stumps where she used to have hands, and she wanders, grieving, for many years. Eventually, she comes upon a pear orchard. Here, she encounters a beautiful pear—then a king. He’s a good king. He makes her a pair of silver hands and he fastens them to her stumps. They fall in love. It’s a particularly sweet kind of love for the maiden, coming as it does in the wake of grief, when she had only these stumps for hands and when she had all but given up hope. And this moment could serve, in one particular kind of story--say, a romantic story--as an ending. The king and the maiden have fallen in love. Happily ever after. Those exquisite silver hands. But this, as it turns out, is not the ending.

Estes writes:

. . . this is still not the lysis, resolution. We are only at the midpoint of transformation, a place of being held in love, yet poised to make a slow dive into another abyss. And so, we continue.

Continue reading "The Handless Maiden: A Story for Difficult Times" »

April 19, 2007

The Handless Maiden: What Happens Next?

I finished up with appointments this afternoon to find two e-mails in response to the piece of The Handless Maiden story that I posted yesterday.

"I can't bear it if this is the end of the story."
And, "So what happens next?"

The responses (as always) were welcome. And they led me back to Clarissa Pinkola Estes' Women Who Run with the Wolves to pick up the story where I left off: at that moment when the king's mother instructs the queen to flee for her life.

So what happens next?

The queen does flee, and then wanders into a large, wild forest. There, a spirit in white guides her to an inn run by kindly woodspeople. She stays there seven years and finds happiness there with her child. Her hands grow back.

Meanwhile, the king returns home from the war, believing what his mother first tells him in her anger--that she has killed the queen and his child as instructed. (At this point, she doesn't know how twisted the messages have become. She believes at this point that murder, in fact, was her son's instruction.) The king weeps and staggers in his grief before the old women relents and tells him in fact what has happened--the queen and the child are gone.

Estes writes what happens next:

The king vowed to go without eating or drinking and to travel as far as the sky is blue in order to find them. He searched for seven years. His hands became black, his beard moldy brown like moss, his eyes red-rimmed and parched. During this time he neither ate nor drank, but a force greater than he helped him live.

Finally, he comes to the inn. He is exceedingly tired, and he lies down to sleep. He wakes to find a lovely woman and a beautiful child looking down at him.

The king and queen embrace. They feast. They return to the king's mother, celebrate a second wedding, and go on to have many more children, all of whom, Estes writes, "told this story to a hundred others, who told this story to a hundred others, just as you are one of the hundred others I am telling it to."

Ah, the happy ending.
I do like happy endings.
But I also can't help noticing that, in this story at least, it takes seven years or more to get there. And it involves more wandering, that deep dark forest, hunger, thirst, extreme grief, black hands, a moldy brown beard, and those eyes red-rimmed and parched.

I'm reminded of a book title that is on my reading/to buy list but that I haven't gotten to yet: The Impossible Will Take a Little While.

April 22, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #33: Imagining Refuge

Imagine for a moment that you are at a point in the arc of healing when momentum is carrying you forward. There are positive signs, whatever those might be. There’s a feeling of hope. Of possibility. Of forward movement. And then imagine that just as you are beginning to consider it’s possible—healing is possible—imagine that you receive news of a reversal. Perhaps the reversal is felt in your body—pain, as bad as before, or worse. The fatigue has returned, and you’re mired in it. Or perhaps the reversal comes by way of a lab test or an x-ray. The tumor has grown. Or perhaps you encounter a rejection of some sort.

Or perhaps, like Stephen Dixon, in his poem, "Sweetness," that I wrote about here in February--perhaps you can't bear "one more friend waking with a tumor", or "one more maniac with a perfect reason"----

Perhaps you are discouraged by the violence and heartache in the world----

Or perhaps you simply have one of those no-good awful terrible hopeless days. Perhaps it’s raining, hard, and you find yourself without an umbrella, the car parked another three blocks away, and maybe you’re carrying a paper bag, filled with groceries, and it’s wet, it breaks, the contents spilling down the sidewalk. . . .

Imagine now—at this very moment—in the wake of a sharp, and potentially devastating reversal—imagine that a figure appears. Perhaps an old woman? She has a kindness about her, and, also, she's been through some things, she seems to know things—there's something about her eyes. She can see, for one thing, the obvious—that you are cold and wet and tired. But she can also see that you have come to an abyss. A place of frustration. A dashing of hope. She knows that this is a particularly difficult juncture for you. And she also knows that the first step out needs to be of the most basic kind.

She invites you to come back with her to her cottage. She leads you back, ushers you inside. She shows you where you can take a hot bath. She lays out towels. A clean robe. When you come out of the bath she’s laid a place at the table for you—a bowl of soup, a basket of bread, a pitcher of water. You eat and drink, and, after you have done so, she shows you to a bedroom with a clean soft bed. You sleep and sleep, and she lets you sleep. When you wake you find her out in the kitchen. She offers you a cup of tea, or perhaps a mug of coffee. She asks you to sit at the table. And it’s only then, after you are warm and fed and rested, that she asks you to tell her all about it. About all that has happened and what your hopes were at the beginning and how, at least in some ways, those hopes have been dashed. She has, she tells you, plenty of time. She has all the time in the world.

What would you tell her?

April 24, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #34: The Next Step

This idea is a continuation of Writing and Healing Idea #33: Imagining Refuge. It picks up at a moment after the old woman in the cottage has invited you to tell her your story. It picks up after you have talked and talked—and she has listened.

She is, as it turns out, a good listener. And, it turns out that nothing in your story seems to rattle her. She’s interested—and concerned—but not rattled. She’s seen a lot. She’s no stranger to reversal. There is also a kindness in her. Her face is very very kind as she asks you: Did you think it was going to be like a rose garden? That it would be easy? That it would be possible to move forward on a matter of such significance without any danger? Have you not read the books? Seen the movies? The Lord of the Rings? The Harry Potter series? When you were young, she asks, were you not told the fairy tales? She smiles. It’s a rueful smile. It’s all right, she says. She knows it can be terribly terribly difficult at times. But she also tells you that she doesn’t want for you to remain too long in a place of such difficulty. She sits with you and begins to talk about a plan.

The first step and then the next and the next. She tells you that one step in the right direction can often be enough—and then one devises the next one, and the one after. She reminds you that, as with the story of the handless maiden, the baby is not ugly, that the baby was never ugly. She explains about the messenger falling asleep and about the twisted messages getting through. Then, after enough time has passed—when it is just the right time—when you are rested—and well-fed—and perhaps a bit clearer—she rises from the table and begins to pack you a satchel.

What do you imagine that she might pack for you?
What would you like her to pack for you?
Where does she think might be a good place for you to go next?
(Does she, for instance, think it best to stay with her a bit longer? Or does she suggest some other companion? Or a group of companions? Or does she suggest that it may be time now to go on for a while alone?)

What does she think might be a next step?
What do you think?

April 26, 2007

The Journey by Mary Oliver: A Poem for Writing and Healing

A few weeks ago now a reader of this site sent me some poems by Mary Oliver. (Thank you.) Out of the poems she sent, the one that strikes me most—the one that seems to fit best with the thread of this month—two steps forward and one step back—is this poem by Oliver that I’ve seen in a number of places. It’s a poem that speaks to that in the world which would pull us back. It’s a poem that speaks to what can sometimes be required in order to move forward.

The full text is here.

It’s a poem that seems to have touched a chord with a number of people.

Ten years ago, the NAPT (the National Association for Poetry Therapy) did a survey of poetry therapists, asking them which poems they most often selected to use with clients, and it turns out that of twenty-two poems frequently selected, this poem—The Journey—was at the very top of the list.

The poem speaks to a stark truth—that sometimes—in certain situations—one has to do what is necessary to save one’s own life—first-----

It's a poem of rather haunting images and I suspect that’s one of the reasons it so often touches people. The way that images—poetic language—can sometimes touch us at a deep place when other kinds of ordinary language can’t quite—

Today, these images—these eight lines from the middle of the poem—are the ones that strike me most:

You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations—
though their melancholy
was terrible. It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

April 29, 2007

Running: An Image for Writing and Healing from Natalie Goldberg

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg is one of those books that just seems to have had an influence. It was first published in 1986, but still now, it’s one of those books, people seem to find their way to it. Not too many years ago now, I was at my younger brother’s wedding, I was talking to one of his friends, he was beginning to take an interest in writing, I asked him if he’d heard of the book, he said, yes, in fact it was the book right now on his nightstand.

I first came across the book myself nearly twenty years ago now. April 1988. I know the month and year because I was on a trip to New Orleans at the time. It was the first time I’d ever been to New Orleans. One morning, while my husband was in meetings, I rode the St. Charles Streetcar (which, I’m pleased to report, is due to be back up and running its old route at the end of this year). In any case, I got off the streetcar at a stop near Loyola University and I went into a small bookshop and I came across Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones. It’s not a long book—as I remember, I read much of the book while I rode the street car around on its loop a couple of times, and I still had time to look out at the city.

I was very taken with the book. What I liked most about it, and still like, is this sense she conveys of writing as a practice, a lifelong habit, something that one does, and can continue to do, through different kinds of weather—different moods—the sense that one can stay with it—like with running—or meditation. And that staying with it in this way can lead to something of value.

She writes [p. 11]:

This is the practice school of writing. Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Some days you don’t want to run and you resist every step of the three miles, but you do it anyway. You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run. It’ll never happen, especially if you are out of shape and have been avoiding it. But if you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance. You just do it. And in the middle of the run, you love it. When you come to the end, you never want to stop. And you stop, hungry for the next time.

But if you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance.

And in the middle of the run, you love it.

I’ve never been a runner, but at different times in my life (not right now—sigh) I’ve been a regular swimmer. And I feel as if I’ve had similar conversations over and over, in the locker room at the University pool in Missouri, at the YMCA in Durham, North Carolina, at the Rockville Swimming Pool in Maryland, and here, at the YWCA and then the YMCA. Conversations with wet hair after swimming. Someone says, I wasn’t going to come this morning. I know, me neither. It was so hard to get going. The rain (or cold, snow, heat; or sometimes it’s exams, work, children, holidays, grandchildren. . .) But now---I’m so glad I did----

Sometimes it does seem to be just a matter of getting started—say putting on one’s running shoes—or lowering oneself in the pool (often a tough moment—that cold cold water)—and then starting—one arm stroke and then another—one stride and then another—however slow at first---but moving---and then---sometimes---breaking through---

April 30, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #35: My Favorite Piece of Writing Advice from Natalie Goldberg

In her book, Writing Down the Bones (published in 1986), Natalie Goldberg includes a wonderfully direct piece about how hard it is to get the conditions just right for work to flow. What she says here is true of writing, and it can be true of healing, and it can be true, I suppose, of any serious work. And sometimes, she suggests, the antidote may simply be to acknowledge this—that the conditions are not perfect, never perfect, that the world is filled with competing demands and distractions.

So----her advice:

Okay. Your kids are climbing into the cereal box. You have $1.25 left in your checking account. Your husband can’t find his shoes, your car won’t start, you know you have lived a life of unfulfilled dreams. There is the threat of a nuclear holocaust, there is apartheid in South Africa, it is twenty degrees below zero outside, your nose itches, and you don’t have even three plates that match to serve dinner on. Your feet are swollen, you need to make a dentist appointment, the dog needs to be let out, you have to defrost the chicken and make a phone call to your cousin in Boston, you’re worried about your mother’s glaucoma, you forgot to put film in the camera, Safeway has a sale on solid white tuna, you are waiting for a job offer, you just bought a computer and you have to unpack it. You have to start eating sprouts and stop eating doughnuts, you lost your favorite pen, and the cat peed on your current notebook.

Take out another notebook, pick up another pen, and just write, just write, just write. In the middle of the world, make one positive step. In the center of chaos, make one definitive act. Just write. Say yes, stay alive, be awake. Just write. Just write. Just write.

There it is. Just write. For ten minutes or fifteen minutes or twenty minutes. About anything at all. About, if you like, the dog that needs to be let out, that solid white tuna on sale, your mother’s glaucoma. . .

In the teeth of resistance, make one definitive act. Just write.

Writing and Healing Idea #36: A Letter for Breaking Through Resistance

If you want to write and you can’t write, and when all else has failed, you can always write a letter—a letter perhaps something like this:

To Whom it May Concern:

I have not written a word in six weeks. Please send any advice or encouragement that you can muster.


And then, if you like, you can write yourself a letter back. And you can, if you like, go ahead and mail either of these letters to yourself. There’s something about getting a letter in the mailbox that can give it that certain extra punch.