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5 posts categorized "Healing Places"

August 18, 2006

Emily's Healing Place: A Place to Heal from Anorexia

[Please note that, as with any patients I write about here, unless otherwise stated, names and certain identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.]

Writing about a healing place can offer the kind of moment that changes things. In fact, simply imagining a healing place can sometimes change things. I’ve seen this happen. One particular place that comes to mind is a place that a woman named Emily imagined.

Emily was twenty-seven years old, and weighed, when she first came to see me as a patient, fifty-two pounds. She’d tried and failed at several different treatment programs for anorexia and was under the care of an internist who was monitoring her physical condition. She was referred to my practice of mind-body medicine by a family friend who suspected that her condition might also benefit from being considered at the interface of mind and body. Emily concurred. And so we began.

After a few weeks Emily began keeping a journal.

It was, I believe, a few weeks after this that I invited her to imagine a healing place. One of her fears about beginning to eat again was the risk that any food she took in would make her stomach protrude—something she’d come to believe was ugly. She told me she’d like to imagine a place where it would be okay to have a stomach—a place where she wouldn’t feel ashamed of having a stomach. When she began to imagine such a place—a place where it might be safe to gain weight—she began to imagine herself at a barn among horses, this a place she’d loved as a young girl. She imagined brushing the horses, stroking them, placing her cheek against their flanks. She imagined mucking out the stalls.

She wrote about this place in her journal.

As with most good writing, it was the details that brought the place alive. The stroke of the brush against the horse’s hide. The warmth against her cheek. The horse’s breath. The sharp sweet smell of the stalls. The place became real through the details.

With practice, she became able to summon the barn in her imagination when she felt anxious. She imagined stroking the horses, and brushing them. She imagined—and then experienced—the feeling in her body of her body being accepted.

“The horses,” she told me, “they wouldn’t judge me if my stomach was pooching out. They wouldn’t care if I had a stomach or not.”

August 22, 2006

The Shelter of Poetry

Several years ago now, in the May/June 2001 issue of Poets and Writers magazine, a series of articles appeared on the topic, “Writing as a Healing Art.” Among these, perhaps the most compelling was a feature by Felicia Mitchell on Frances Driscoll, the author of a volume of poetry, The Rape Poems. Driscoll was working as a poet, beginning to publish her work, when in 1987 she was raped. She stopped writing after the rape. She believed, she said, that she would never write again. And then, gradually, poems began to come.

One such poem is entitled, “Island of the Raped Women.”
It contains these lines:

We all sleep through the night. We wake eager from dreams
filled with blue things and designs for hats.
At breakfast, we make a song, chanting our litany
of so much collected blue. We do not talk of going
back to the world. We talk of something else. . .
(Read the whole poem here.)

In the article in Poets and Writers, Driscoll speaks about the responses she gets to this particular poem:

Little girls barely out of their teens ask. Sometimes college women ask. The question is always whispered. The question is desperate and urgent. The question always breaks my heart. The question is, ‘Where is the island?

Where is the island? It’s such a moving question, such a poignant question. It also points to what is possible: words powerful enough to create an island. Words powerful enough to create shelter.

For the reader?
For the writer?
For both?

August 24, 2006

Terabithia and Tangalooponda: Healing Places in Books

I never had a fort when I was a kid. Maybe that’s why the fort in Bridge to Terabithia holds a particular pull for me. Or maybe it’s the details that Katherine Paterson, the author of the novel, lends it. Jess and Leslie are eleven when they find the perfect place to build their fort—a clearing among dogwood at the edge of the woods. They build the fort out of scrap board. They lay in provisions—clean water in old Pepsi bottles, a coffee can filled with crackers and dried fruit. Then at some point the fort and the land around it become a kingdom—and they give it a name—Terabithia. Such a lovely name.

There’s a passage in the novel where Katherine Paterson describes what it feels like for Jess, the boy, to cross over into Terabithia:

Just walking down the hill toward the woods made something warm and liquid steal through his body. The closer he came to the dry creek bed and the crab apple tree rope the more he could feel the beating of his heart. He grabbed the end of the rope and swung out toward the other bank with a kind of wild exhilaration and landed gently on his feet, taller and stronger and wiser in that mysterious land.
That’s what interests me—right there—the change possible in the body upon entering certain places.

And there's another place, in another novel—A Map of the World, by Jane Hamilton. The central character, Alice, is looking for her bathing suit one summer morning when she comes upon a series of maps she had drawn as a child. Her mother died when she was a young girl and the maps carry her back to a place, Tangalooponda, that she conjured in the wake of that loss:

I took out the sheaf of papers and knelt down, spread them on the floor, ran my fingers over the lime-green forests, the meandering dark blue rivers, the pointy lavender mountain ranges. I had designed a whole world when I was a child, in secret. I had made a series of maps, one topographical, another of imports and exports, another highlighting mineral deposits, animal and plant species, another with descriptions of governments, transportation networks, and culture centers. My maps had taken over my life for months at a time; it was where I lived, the world called Tangalooponda, up in my room, my tray of colored pencils at my side, inventing jungle animals, the fish of the sea, diplomats and monarchs. Although there were theoretical people in my world, legions of them, all races and creeds, when I imagined myself in Tangalooponda I was always alone, composed and serene as an angel in the midst of great natural beauty.

When I imagined myself in Tangalooponda I was always alone, composed and serene as an angel in the midst of great natural beauty.

Is it possible then?
Can great natural beauty effect a change in the body?
Can drawing a map of a place with great natural beauty effect this kind of change?
Can writing about great natural beauty do this?

August 29, 2006

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

Ernest Hemingway was a genius at creating healing places with words. Here are two.

The first is set in Michigan. Hemingway’s family had owned a cottage on a lake in Michigan and he spent summers there as a boy. Consider this place which he recreates in a story called, “Summer People,” one of his Michigan stories.

Halfway down the gravel road from Hortons Bay, the town, to the lake, there was a spring. The water came up in a tile sunk beside the road, lipping over the cracked edge of the tile and flowing away through the close growing mint into the swamp. In the dark Nick put his arm down into the spring but could not hold it there because of the cold. He felt the featherings of the sand spouting up from the spring cones at the bottom against his fingers. Nick thought, I wish I could put all of myself in there. I bet that would fix me.
It’s the details again that bring the place alive. The water lipping over the cracked edge of the tile. The close growing mint. The featherings of sand.

A second healing place that Hemingway created is a more famous one—a clean well-lighted place in a story by the same name:

In the story an old man sits on the terrace of a café at closing time. It’s late, but the old man, the last customer of the night, is reluctant to leave. A waiter wipes off the old man’s table with a towel and shoos him out. This waiter is eager to get home to his wife, his warm bed. But a second waiter, older than the first, is sympathetic to the old man’s need to linger. First, he tries to explain this to the younger waiter, and then, when the younger waiter loses interest, he tries to explain it to himself, or to whoever will listen—what it is about this particular place that is important: “It is the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music.” This waiter is very clear about what is necessary for him.

This is something writing can do—allow us to become very clear about what is necessary for us.
What kind of place?
What kind of light?

September 22, 2006

A Healing Resource Center: Food for Thought (and Writing)

I’m imagining, this morning, a place. Perhaps in the mountains of North Carolina, a place like Wildacres Retreat Center. Or on the Pacific Coast, a place like Asilomar.

I’m imagining an old summer camp, but one that’s been refurbished—with modern buildings, and amenities. A fireplace in each of the guest rooms. Decks. Wide porches. A juice bar in the lobby. Perhaps an espresso bar. And then, on the grounds, a short walk from the lodgings—five centers:

• A Nutrition Center
• A Fitness Center
• A Center for Addiction Recovery
• A Center for Creativity
• A Center for Meditation and Rest

Say it’s early afternoon when you arrive at the center. Plenty of time to unpack, take a shower, settle in, rest for a while in your room. When you’re ready you can wander down to the lobby and request a tour.

You have, let’s say, two weeks to spend at the Healing Resource Center. And you’ll be informed upon your arrival that you can spend these two weeks however you like. But first--a tour.

The tour begins at the Nutrition Center—a low sprawling building of stone and glass. You follow the guide into a large room, find a long buffet table arranged with platters. Blueberries and orange sections. Slices of watermelon. Slices of whole-grain bread. An array of cheeses. Also peaches. Plums. Tiny carrots. Bowls of walnuts and almonds and sunflower seeds. Several pitchers of clear water with slices of lemon. It’s late afternoon and, before you go back to tour the kitchens, the guide invites you to take a plate and help yourself to a snack, pour yourself a tall glass of water if you’d like.

As you walk down the length of the table and begin selecting your food, the guide explains: “The goal here at this center is to provide a kind of immersion experience with healthy food. The goal is to engage your senses. Colors. Touch. Smell. Taste. And, eventually, if you wish, you can work with one of the chefs back in the kitchens. . .” As he’s talking you pick up a plum. You bite into the plum. . .

And then what happens? What happens next?
You could, if you wanted, write about it. Like one of those choose-your-own-adventure stories where you get to choose the ending. (Okay, maybe it's not a big adventure. But it could be a little adventure--or it could turn into an adventure---)