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24 posts categorized "Healing Images"

October 24, 2006

Writing and Healing Idea #11: A Scavenger Hunt

YOU ARE INVITED What: A Scavenger Hunt What to bring: Books, catalogues, journals What to hunt for: Images The goal of this scavenger hunt is simple: to hunt for images. But what’s an image? Here’s one way to think about it: in the early part of the twentieth century there was a group of poets in England, France and America who called themselves imagists. Ezra Pound was one such poet. Also, William Carlos Williams, who once said, “No ideas but in things.” An often-cited example of an imagist poem is a poem by Williams, "The Red Wheelbarrow," that centers around the visual image of a red wheelbarrow glistening with rain water next to some white chickens. The imagists often concentrated primarily on visual images, but an image does not have to be limited to the sense of sight. An image can be more broadly defined as a word or group of words that appeals to one or more of the senses. An image is tangible. It’s a word you can see or hear or taste or touch or smell. A red wheelbarrow. Cinnamon coffeecake. Fresh orange juice. Hot black coffee. A yellow goldfinch. A cricket. A pumpkin. An acorn squash. Geese. The goal then of this particular scavenger hunt is to hunt for images—or things that appeal to your senses. Images that strike you. That surprise you. That please you. Images you want to remember. Or, simply, images you like. In your hunt, feel free to look through books of poetry, novels, children’s books, seed catalogues, field guides, magazines, any printed material including your own written material in the form of journals or pages. If you’ve ever written down any of your dreams, these can be an excellent source of images. Your memory can also be a source of images. Songs. Movies. Overheard conversation. The possibilities are endless. Make a list of images that appeal to you. Save the list.

October 26, 2006

Is There a Conflict Between Writing for Wellness and Writing Well?

Whvenn_2Not all writing is done with the intent of healing.
And not all healing requires writing.
Perhaps this is obvious--but perhaps it's also worth saying upfront.

I'm interested in the place where the two might overlap.  The place where writing and healing might overlap.  I'm also aware that each person's area of overlap might be somewhat different.  A tiny sliver?  A wide swath?

And, at this place of overlap--intersection--I found an article of particular interest: Writing Well: Health and the Power to Make Images.  The article, written by Mark Robinson, a poet and critic in England, appears in the journal, Medical Humanities. In the article, Robinson presents his hypothesis: "that the writing process itself is an integral part of any [health] benefit."  In other words, those same elements that foster good writing may also be some of the same elements that foster health.  And one such element is the use of vivid imagery.  The entire article is available online, and is well worth reading, but I’ll mention a few highlights here:

Virginia Woolf, in a diary entry from 1926, links her depression to having “no power of phrase making.”  In turn, she links her lifting of depression with a gradual recovery of the ability to write.  She writes: “Returning health: this is shown by the power to make images; the suggestive power of every sight and word is enormously increased.”

• In a survey of 34 poets—including not only poets receiving mental health services, but also poets with no particular physical or mental illness history and poets with several published books—84% responded that writing had had a therapeutic use for them.  These poets reported that they’d used writing to deal with stressful incidents in their lives, including the death of parents and children.  They reported using writing, among other things, to deal with emotions, to sort out thoughts, and to provide a means of catharsis.

• Interestingly, a number of these poets who were surveyed reported that when they did not write as regularly as they wanted they experienced negative mental and physical effects.  More than one poet mentioned that when (s)he was able to begin writing regularly again (s)he felt better.

• Finally, Robinson also reports on some work—a bit complex—but very interesting—in which a professor at Adelphi University, Wilma Bucci, proposes a model for why writing has an effect on physical and emotional health.  She proposes that writing works particularly well at stimulating health when the language of writing is grounded in specific and concrete images.  She describes a process whereby a person begins with a kind of amorphous knowing and then through the process of writing begins to form images, allowing for a “breakthrough in writing.”  A person moves from amorphous—literally no form—to an image.  A form.  A shape.  A something.  And this breakthrough can foster health.

This last point seems to resonate with Virginia Woolf’s reported experience (thus the title of Robinson’s article) and also resonates with my own experience.  When something that has been amorphous emerges as an image—a concrete something with a concrete name—this can offer a kind of breakthrough—and that breakthrough can both make for better writing, and at the same time, it can feel good—it can look and feel like healing—

October 27, 2006

Count Crackula: An Example of a Breakthrough in Writing and Healing

I wrote yesterday about Mark Robinson’s article: Writing Well: Health and the Power to Make Images. I wrote, among other things, of the way images can sometimes offer a kind of breakthrough. And it occurred to me that it might be useful to offer an example of one such image. The one that comes to mind—perhaps because it was the first time I recognized this kind of breakthrough—is an image that emerged over ten years ago when I was teaching creative writing to a group of men and women recovering from addiction.

Count Crackula.

This image emerged in a tale that R., one of the more inventive writers in the group, came up with. He had written a tale—a kind of myth about addiction—and he’d named his characters. The nemesis in his tale was Count Crackula. And when R. read this story aloud to the group—when he named Count Crackula—it was as if this character burst into the room. Something new was happening. You could just feel it. Addiction wasn’t quite so invisible or shadowy. Crack was Count Crackula. A worthy—and vivid—and slightly ludicrous—opponent. (I tend to see the count from Sesame Street when I hear this name, though others may see a different visual image.) In any case, a crackling of energy had come into the room like that feeling in the air just after a flash of lightning---

Names have energy. They can take something that was previously invisible—or amorphous—and give it a form.

November 07, 2006

On November and Breaking and Holding that which is Breaking in the Light

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.

November 26, 2006

Pensieve: An Image for Writing and Healing

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?
A poem?

December 03, 2006

Mosaic: An Image for Writing and Healing

J., a patient, was telling me one morning about these dishes that she’d bought and she loved them. This was a couple of years ago now. Each of the plates was a different color—primary colors mostly—yellow, blue, red, green. Each plate was also painted with different shapes—stars and spirals—so that a red plate might be covered in yellow stars, a green plate painted with blue spirals. She really liked the plates, she told me, but already one of them had broken. She didn’t intend for the plate to break. She didn’t want it to break. It wasn’t even her fault that it broke. It just, well—broke. She was disappointed at first, but after a while, she told me, she’d begun to give in to it—the inevitability. Plates break. She’d begun saving the pieces, she told me, and when she collected enough of them she was going to make a mosaic table.

December 13, 2006

Collecting: An Image for Writing and Healing

Over twenty years ago now, when I was in medical school at the University of Missouri, I wandered over to the main campus looking for a writing class, and, in a stroke of good fortune, found an excellent writing teacher, Janet Desaulniers. She was all the good things you want a writing teacher to be—smart, funny, attentive, encouraging, dexterous with language and form. She teaches now in the MFA program in writing at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Last year she did an interview with Alex Shapiro which appears in the on-line magazine, Identity Theory. The entire interview is worth taking a look at, but the bit I want to draw attention to here is the bit, about halfway through, when she begins to talk about writing the story, “After Rosa Parks,” which appears now in her fine collection, What You’ve Been Missing.

She talks about how when she was first trying to write “After Rosa Parks” she would start with a piece of something—a strong something—a moment or a snatch of dialogue—and then she’d find herself forcing it, trying to make it into a scene, trying to make it become a story. She says this:

It was so utilitarian. Not to mention agonizing. I kept killing each spark of promise because I kept pushing each one past what I knew for sure. And that’s how you end up telling the kind of lies fictions cannot tell. Anyway, enduring the pain of failing and failing that story, which I very much wanted to tell, opened me up to seeing early composition in new ways. Now I start with collecting things. I don’t try to know anything and lead anything.

Seeing early composition in new ways. Collecting. And she goes on to tell how she started this process of collecting with one of her students. He was a talented writer, had been in the writing program at Chicago for three years, and he was feeling this kind of suicidal desperation because he hadn’t yet written anything he felt was good enough. And she made this deal with him—1666 words a day. For a month. That was the deal. Not trying to make these words be anything yet. Not trying to write a story—or a poem—or even an essay. Just collecting things. She describes it like this:

. . . once you start collecting things you come to respect discrete units of significance for what they are. You don’t say, Oh, I own this really good interlude, now how can I hook it up with something else? Because you’re not making. You’re collecting. So it’s all about listening to the sound of matter. Of significance. It might be an observation; it might be a piece of dialogue. If you have to write 1,666 words a day, everything’s game. At breakfast my husband would say, “You know, I think this sweater’s going to change my life.” And after I finished laughing, I thought, Right, I’m taking that.

Discrete units of significance. I like that. Later in the interview she talks about the next steps—taking these units and using craft to create and discover form in these units. But I’m interested now, and first, in the units themselves. The early stage of composition. And I’m writing about this here because I’m trying to write this month about finding forms for writing in the wake of loss and illness. (It may not be entirely obvious that this is what I’m trying to do, but it is where I’m aiming with all of this.) The way it sometimes happens that loss and illness can disrupt old forms—interrupt them—or sometimes make it seem like the old forms are not quite so relevant as they once were. Or maybe not as feasible as they once were. I’ve seen recovery from addiction disrupt old forms. I’ve seen serious illness do this. I’ve seen postpartum depression do this. Even childbearing can do this. That ironing board [from my last post] in the middle of the room. The ordinary—and sometimes not so ordinary—interruptions of young children. Any one of these things can interrupt old forms—can interrupt a formerly coherent story—or what seemed to be a coherent story.

There’s actually a piece research on writing and health that shows that finding and creating coherence in a narrative can promote health—and I’ll have to get to that this month—but first I think it’s important to celebrate the pieces—to not aim for coherence too soon. There’s that bit above from Janet’s interview: when we push something we can end up telling lies. The kind of lies fiction cannot tell. Yes. Yes. To refrain from forcing narrative is a way to keep from telling lies. It’s a way to tell the truth. One piece of truth and then another piece. And not even trying to figure out in the early stages how these pieces might fit together. Not forcing them into a form that doesn’t fit them------

Thus. . . collecting. Perhaps collecting as a way to begin (again) when something has been disrupted or interrupted. Just collecting. Nothing more than that and nothing less. Maybe 1666 words a day. Or maybe 606 words a day. 106? For any given person it might be different—how many words are enough. But, in any case, collecting. Gathering the raw material. And with a hunch, perhaps, that the gathering itself might matter.

January 01, 2007

All the Pieces Laid Out on the Table: An Image for Writing and Healing

A couple of years ago now, a woman in one of my writing workshops at Cancer Services, Rosetta, a breast cancer survivor, was writing about healing place. One of the things she ended up writing about was trying to find a place where it might become possible to put all of her questions out on the table. Questions like: What now? What next? Where do I go from here? I like her table image. I can see it. And her image seems to me now a fitting image for writing and healing this month: all of the pieces laid out on the table. Pieces perhaps of your own story. Pieces of your own writing.

Some of the pieces may be jagged. Some may be worn by the elements, like sea glass. And perhaps a pattern has begun to emerge out of the fragments—a clear shape—a lovely mosaic. But who knows? It may have fallen apart again. As far as I can tell, that’s the way it goes with forms and patterns—they come together and fall apart.

Say you wake up one morning then—you make your way to the table--there's a clear slanted light. Or maybe it’s late, the rest of the world gone to sleep, the room quiet, there’s just the one lamp. Maybe you find yourself touching the pieces. And maybe as you are touching them, and maybe only for a moment, it becomes possible to ask the next question. Among all these pieces—

What was the good part?
What is the good part?
(Is there a good part?)
(Is there more than one?)

[Note: The picture for this month was taken last August when the black-eyed susans were blooming in my yard. It seems to me that one of the good parts of January, when the garden may be a bit brown and sodden—it’s very sodden here now after several days of rain—one of the good parts is remembering those perennials that may be lying dormant, waiting for the right time to break the surface.]

January 14, 2007

Wild Geese: An Image for Writing and Healing

Three times in the last month I have come across, in three different places, the poem, “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver. After the third time, I thought this might be a poem I ought to pay some attention to.

The poem opens with the speaker telling us, her reader, that we do not have to be good, we do not have to walk on our knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. And, then, this line:

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

It’s a radical line. Maybe a radical poem.
It goes against the grain of business as usual.
(The way the mind and the will are so often, for so many of us, yanking the body around to places it doesn’t really want to go—places even, sometimes, that can make the body a tad sick—or sicker.)
(And sometimes maybe this is one of those silver linings of getting sick—or so people will sometimes tell me—the small good part—how a person can begin to learn to quit yanking the body around. The stakes are too high anymore to do all that yanking. Sometimes illness is the beginning, for some people, or so they tell me, of beginning to pay closer attention to what the body loves and needs—and what it doesn’t.)

I’ve been carrying the poem with me this month, looking at it now and then, and now, today, there’s one particular word that seems to jump off the page: meanwhile.
MEANWHILE as the good part?
Because after the speaker of the poem tells us we do not have to be good, we do not have to walk on our knees for a hundred miles, repenting, we only have to let the soft animal of our body love what it loves, after that she invites us, the reader, to tell her of our despair and she will tell us hers—
And then there’s this shift—this leap—and she writes:

Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes. . .
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again. . .

It’s as if the camera had been close in—a history of despair—or a history with some despair in it--but then—a shift—the camera pulls back---a shift to a larger landscape—a leap—meanwhile—somewhere—those wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home.

February 01, 2007

Thirteen Ways: An Image for Writing and Healing

In a letter about his poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird", which can be found here, Wallace Stevens writes that the poem “is not meant to be a collection of epigrams or ideas, but of sensations.”

The poem is made of up thirteen stanzas—thirteen sensations—each marked by a Roman numeral. Each stanza has the word blackbird in it.

I like the second stanza. Number II:

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

I also like the ninth. Number IX:

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

I like the way that each way of looking at a blackbird is distinct and complete unto itself.

I like the sense in the poem of worlds beyond the landscape of the poem itself—a blackbird marking the edge of one of many circles.

In his book, Writing With Power, Peter Elbow, who is also the author of Writing Without Teachers, suggests a writing exercise in which one follows Wallace Stevens’ example and writes a poem “that looks at or talks about the same thing over and over again.”

Elbow writes [p. 112] of how he did this himself with a cherry tree—looked at it in different ways and made this discovery:

I see now that it is about missing the house on Percival Street where we used to live. . . If I had tried to write a poem about missing that house, it probably would have been terrible. Being stuck with having to write tiny stanzas about that cherry tree did it for me.

The cherry tree gave him a way in to writing what he wanted to write—perhaps to what he was longing to write.

The thirteen ways gave him a way in.
Gave him more than one way in.

I tried this exercise once with a writing workshop I was teaching to women with cancer. I told the women they could choose to write thirteen ways about anything at all and they chose to write about cancer. They wrote as a group, taking turns, the stanzas coming fast, one after the other. They actually ended up writing sixteen ways of looking at cancer. Then one of the women who had been absent came the next week and she added two more ways and they ended up with a poem, “Eighteen Ways of Looking at Cancer.”

What I noticed in that workshop when the women were writing those different ways was that knowing they were writing a lot of different ways had a freeing effect. They weren’t writing the only word on cancer—the last word on cancer. They were just writing one way of looking at cancer, and then another, and then another.

You could try it if you wanted. You could become one of the ones looking. You could write seven ways or sixteen ways or eighteen ways of looking at . . . what?

February 25, 2007

A Memo from J.D. Salinger’s Seymour: An Image for Writing and Healing?

One of the first writing workshops I ever took—this at the University of Missouri in Columbia—was taught by Janet Desaulniers, a woman who I’ve written about here before. One evening she began class by reading to us an extended passage from a J.D. Salinger story. The workshop was a fiction-writing workshop. She’d been reading our stories for weeks. And she prefaced these pages by Salinger by telling us that she sometimes felt a lot of responsibility, knowing that, at least for some of us, she was our first reader. She took this seriously—being a reader. It was one of the things that made her a good teacher.

The passage she read was from, “Seymour, an Introduction,” this one in a series of stories that Salinger wrote about the Glass family. In this particular story, Buddy Glass, a writer, is telling about his older brother, Seymour, a young man whom he idolized and who is now dead. In the passage she read to us Buddy Glass is telling about a time when he was twenty-one years old and living with his brother, and had the habit of reading his stories aloud to him. And Seymour would then write responses to these stories, lengthy responses, sometimes writing them on shirt cardboards, or on whatever he could find at hand. Here is one particular memo, this written by Seymour on notepaper from the Bismarck Hotel in Chicago and placed on Buddy’s breakfast plate beneath a half a grapefruit.

It’s daylight out, and I’ve been sitting here since you went to bed. What bliss it is to be your first reader. It would be straight bliss if I didn’t think you valued my opinion more than your own. It really doesn’t seem right to me that you should rely so heavily on my opinion of your stories. That is, you. . . . You must know yourself that this story is full of big jumps. Leaps. When you first went to bed, I thought for a while that I ought to wake up everybody in the house and throw a party for our marvelous jumping brother. What am I, that I didn’t wake everybody up? . . . Excuse this. I’m writing very fast now. I think this new story is the one you’ve been waiting for. And me, too, in a way. You know it’s mostly pride that’s keeping me up. I think that’s my main worry. For your own sake, don’t make me proud of you. I think that’s exactly what I’m trying to say. If only you’d never keep me up again out of pride. Give me a story that makes me unreasonably vigilant. Keep me up till five only because all of your stars are out, and for no other reason. Excuse the underlining, but that’s the first thing I’ve ever said about one of your stories that makes my head go up and down. Please don’t let me say anything else. . . .

I could write more here. But I’m thinking perhaps that I shouldn’t write anything else. Except perhaps to say that I think this whole notion of a first reader—and how that first reader responds—or how one imagines that this first reader might respond—has something to do with writing and healing.

March 01, 2007

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 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:


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 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.

April 08, 2007

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 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 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---

May 03, 2007

Green Apple Soap: An Image of Healing Conversation from White Oleander

White Oleander, the novel by Janet Fitch, is a lovely and often heartbreaking story of a girl, Astrid, in search of a mother. Perhaps you’ve read it. (Or seen the movie—Michelle Pfeiffer plays Astrid’s birth mother, Ingrid.)

The first thirty-eight pages of the book depict scenes of Astrid with her mother—a poet, extremely gifted, very beautiful, and also exceptionally self-absorbed—a woman who requires her daughter to serve as a kind of audience for her own life. Eventually, Astrid becomes a reluctant and then bewildered audience as her mother plots the murder of an ex-lover, carries out the murder, and then is sent away to prison. This leaves thirteen-year-old Astrid an orphan, a child whose name becomes, in her own words, Nobody’s Daughter.

The remainder of the novel is a story of Astrid’s odyssey through the foster care system, her quest to become Somebody’s Daughter.

In Astrid’s fourth foster home she finds herself under the care of a woman by the name of Claire. This woman, Claire, is the first foster parent to actually see Astrid as a person separate from herself. She is, at the same time, the first mother who helps Astrid begin to see herself. There’s one particular conversation, very simple, and especially poignant in that it’s the first conversation of its kind that Astrid has ever experienced. Claire asks Astrid if she likes coconut soap or green apple.

Astrid finds the question baffling-----

She wanted to know all about me, what I was like, who I was. I worried, there really wasn’t much to tell. I had no preferences. I ate anything, wore anything, sat where you told me, slept where you said. I was infinitely adaptable.

Astrid goes on to tell Claire that she doesn’t know if she prefers coconut soap or green apple but Claire will not allow equivocation. She presses her to decide.

So I became a user of green apple soap, of chamomile shampoo. I preferred to have the window open when I slept. I liked my meat rare. I had a favorite color, ultramarine blue, a favorite number, nine.

May 08, 2007

The Guest House by Rumi: A Quiet Revolution?

I came across this poem, The Guest House, by Rumi, for the first time, week before last, when I was looking for a clean link for Mary Oliver’s poem, The Journey. Here are the first twelve lines:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

Some momentary awareness comes

As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

Who violently sweep your house

Empty of its furniture,

Still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out For some new delight.

How wonderful is that? The image of sorrow and all the other emotions—joy yes—but also the difficult ones—anger—shame—fear—all as visitors—some pleasant visitors and some more difficult ones—and all of them guests. And guests with a broom no less. Sweeping through the rooms—clearing it. Rumi’s lines here resonate for me with those lines by Paul Simon from his song, “Sound of Silence”:

Hello darkness, my old friend

I’ve come to talk with you again.

But now I’m picturing Darkness with a broom.


See also:

Full text of Rumi's poem

More about this poem at my new site

Healing Poetry entries

November Angels

May 20, 2007

An Unwinding Ball of String: An Image for Writing and Healing

Consider this conversation, one which takes place on a porch in Los Feliz, California inside the novel, Jamesland, by Michelle Huneven. The conversation takes place between a young woman, Alice, and a Unitarian minister, Helen, who is in the neighborhood passing out fliers for a lecture series. Alice offers Helen a glass of Red Zinger tea and the two of them sit on Alice’s porch. They talk, one thing and another. At one point, Alice finds herself beginning to tell Helen, the minister, about a deer that wandered into her house in the middle of the night.

Helen, the minister, interrupts.

‘Hold on.’ Helen held up her hand like a traffic cop. ‘A deer came into your house? I’m sorry, but you’re going too fast. And please move your hand away from your mouth so I can hear you. Please, start at the beginning, and take your time.’
. . . Now that she had a willing ear, Alice’s story of the deer unwound like a ball of string rolling down a street. This was the first time she’d been able to tell it all the way through, without interruption, and nothing she said seemed to invite dismay or contradiction. Helen nodded and sometimes narrowed her eyes as if listening to a familiar piano sonata or poem. . .
Encouraged, Alice gave all but the most lunatic details—she left out the fight with her married boyfriend, her raising-the-fawn fantasy, that the deer had seemed to desire pursuit. Hypnosis, she’d heard, was like this: perfect recall with no self-incrimination.

Take your time, the minister says. How often these days does any one of us get to hear those words when we’re on the brink of telling a story? Once a week? Once a month? Once in a lifetime?

No rush. No impatience. No contradiction. No self-incrimination. None of the ordinary obstacles. A full suspension of disbelief on the part of the listener. And, in this place of suspension—a ball of string unwinding.

And what (again) might writing have to do with it?

Writing, I think, can augment the unwinding.

Writing and then—perhaps—putting a piece of writing out into the world, and then getting news back that the writing is heard—received—can be a powerful way to encourage the ball of string to unwind, down through one layer, and the next, ever closer to the center.

Writing can take us deep. Putting writing out into the world—and receiving a response—can take us yet deeper.

This can happen anywhere.

It can happen on a porch. For a year or two after I first moved to North Carolina, I helped form and then met with a writing group. The group eventually fell apart, but before it fell apart, for that year or two, one evening every other week, it provided a structure that allowed something to happen—the sharing of stories and a response to those stories. We always met at the same house. Her name was Alice actually, like in the book. We met at Alice’s house. And I remember a particular evening on her screened porch, this in the summer, at twilight, that certain quality of evening summer light, a dog barking somewhere down the street, a child being called inside for supper. This was in Greensboro, North Carolina. I was sitting on the swing, idly pushing it back and forth. Sylvia was sitting on the glider. It was time for the group to end, but I wasn’t quite ready for it to end yet. I wasn’t quite ready to leave that pool of light and stillness on the porch.

May 31, 2007

Fishing: An Image for Writing and Healing

The following passage, from Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers, resonates nicely with the image that Michelle Huneven uses for conversation in her novel, Jamesland. There she writes about conversation as an unwinding ball of string. Here, the string is cast out onto the water:

Elbow writes [p. 77]:

Writing is a string you send out to connect yourself with other consciousnesses, but usually you never have the opportunity to feel anything at the other end. How can you tell whether you’ve got a fish if the line is always slack?

The teacherless writing class tries to remedy this situation. It tries to take you out of darkness and silence. It is a class of seven to twelve people. It meets at least once a week. Everyone reads everyone else’s writing. Everyone tries to give each writer a sense of how his words were experienced. The goal is for the writer to come as close as possible to being able to see and experience his own words through seven or more people. That’s all.
To improve your writing you don’t need advice about what changes to make; you don’t need theories of what is good and bad writing. You need movies of people’s minds while they read your words.

This is, I think, a terribly interesting notion—that what we may really want—at least some of the time—when we put words out there---is not evaluation—or approval---or even agreement—but this something else---this other thing--—this kind of movie of someone else’s mind---a movie of another consciousness receiving the words.

Would this be the fish then? The fish caught?
And this as one way out of darkness and silence?
And, at the same time, a way to make writing clearer and stronger and more meaningful?
Well, I’m all for that----

June 01, 2007

Nine Images for Writing as Healing


Writing as a clean well-lighted place. A cafe that is always open.


Writing as a pumpkin--that sense of possibility.


Writing as a broom--sweeping out the guest house that is the self.


Writing as a map to a healing quest.


Writing as a pensieve--a container in which to spot patterns and links.


Writing as a small beautiful boat--a vehicle for a healing quest.


Writing as a way to remember the sky.


Writing as a Refuge.


Writing as an unwinding ball of string.

[Please note that the sources and links for the above graphics are the following: The cafe painting is by Linda Paul. The pumpkin photo is my own. The broom photo is from a site called shelterrific. The map image, is from Wikipedia. The pensieve is from the Harry Potter Lexicon. The sailboat photo is from 72 Seconds. The wild geese photo is found here. The cottage painting is by Thomas Kinkade. And the string photo can be found here, where you can also learn how to measure the distance to faraway galaxies.]

June 12, 2007

A House with No Door: An Image for Writing and Healing

For the past week or so I’ve been looking for a poem that would speak somehow to revision—and I couldn’t quite find what I was looking for. And then I found this poem by Rumi. It’s not what I thought I was looking for—it does something slightly different. But at the same time it feels like the right next image for revision. For looking again. For looking at the big picture.

And what was it again that I wanted to write? What did I hope would come of this? What can I do with the pages I've written? What do I hope will come of this?

Not infrequently, I find that when people come up against a serious illness or a serious loss--or any kind of significant transition—they may find themselves, eventually, asking certain kinds of questions: And what is it that I'm here for? What is my piece? What is my gift? What do I want to leave behind?

Rumi’s poem, Every Craftsman, speaks to these questions.
Here are the first 17 lines:

I’ve said before that every craftsman
searches for what’s not there
to practice his craft.

A builder looks for the rotten hole
where the roof caved in. A water-carrier
picks the empty pot. A carpenter
stops at the house with no door.

Workers rush toward some hint
of emptiness, which they then
start to fill. Their hope, though,
is for emptiness, so don’t think
you must avoid it. It contains
what you need!
Dear soul, if you were not friends
with the vast nothing inside,
why would you always be casting your net
into it, and waiting so patiently?

Rumi’s poem is another way of asking: What is the one piece of writing that you, and only you, can write?

What emptiness is waiting to be filled?

Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish writer, said (among other things) in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I write because I want others, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey.”

What sort of life is it that you—and only you—can write about?

What gap is waiting?