Further shifts

Shifts are necessary now and again. Here are a some I am undergoing.

For example, readers of this blog will notice that the writer’s focus tends to move from interest to interest, month to month, year to year. And yet there’s poetry to consider, always. During the past year, I have read more non-fiction books than poetry books. More history. More memoir. More science. I have been pursuing the consciousness and neurology and physiology texts.

I have learned a great deal from all of this reading, and it is inspiring. I find, however, that it’s taken its toll on my writing poetry.

My shift now: Read more poetry.

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But what about my love for difficult books?

Well, there is no doubt in my mind that poetry can be difficult. Difficult to write, difficult to read, difficult to understand. Time to go there, further and deeper.

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Another shift: in the spring semester, I will be teaching a more advanced course in writing comp and rhetoric, one that will be more challenging for the students and especially for me. One of the arguments I will be making to them is that they recognize the need for credibility in the sources they use as evidence.

Making that case runs rather counter to the way US society operates. We shall see how well I can make my argument to these young people.

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One further shift–certainly not the last. There’s my constant inquiry into consciousness…because sentience and human beings–and their brains, and their mind-body problems, and their relationships, and their stories and metaphors and art forms and pains–intrigue me endlessly, I turn to books and art for understanding. I do not expect to learn what consciousness is, where it originates, or how it came to be. But I ask because asking is interesting.

The reading has been enlightening. Philosophy, yes, and neurology and cultural anthropology. Oh, and evolution, religion, and medicine. Not to mention texts on death and dying (and the unanswerable “is that the end of consciousness?”).

My shift here lately has been to read less and to encounter more. I have been volunteering as a hospice companion/caregiver relief assistant, sometimes in the home but most often at the inpatient hospice unit at a nearby hospital.

quanyin

There are bodhisattvas among us, and I have met them on the ward floor. This particular shift does not mean I will never read another book on consciousness, but it has reminded me that kindness is a constant act and that kindness is conscious and aware. It does not reside in a book but in the daily world, which is all we have.

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I have to work on that in my own relationships, the ones that don’t take place on the hospice wing.

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May I prove resilient to these shifts. The days are incrementally longer now. Time to read poems.

 

 

Transcendence & education

I am in the thick of midterm madness and have temporarily abandoned my post as speculative philosophical muser, gardening enthusiast and poet.

However, I maintain my efforts to stay in mindfulness whenever I can. In the car, on my way to work. In the phlebotomist’s chair, waiting for a blood test. At a staff meeting, or with a student–trying to be aware of what I say, and who the person in front of me is, rather than zone out and get anxious about the next thing I have to accomplish before bedtime. The practice, however badly I manage it, rewards me with moments of clarity and observation that help get me through a day and complement the practice of writing poetry.

waterfall

Mindfulness does not come naturally to me; I am a daydreamer by temperament, a tuner-outer. It is far too easy for me to get carried out of the now by thoughts of “what if” or “what’s next,” and if I function in that way, I am not living my life in the present moment. Poets may start out as daydreamers, but if imagining never turns to the practice of writing and revising and reading the work–the daydreamer stays a dreamer, and does not mature into poetry-writing.

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Among many other things, I am a teacher. I tell my students that English and Philosophy are “friends,” that they share many concepts, and that philosophy and English classes should educate people about The Big Picture. About life. I did not come to mindfulness or a consciousness of the value of the present moment in church or in school or on my own, though. People taught me. I came upon these concepts through philosophy–first, Western philosophy and later, Eastern philosophy.

Here are professors John Kaag and Clancy Martin presenting some of philosophy’s timeless questions (under the lens of Faust, for starters):

Faust knows everything worth knowing. And still, after all his careful bookwork, he arrives at the unsettling realization that none of it has really mattered. His scholarship has done pitifully little to unlock the mystery of human life.

Are we and our students in that same situation? Are we teaching them everything without teaching them anything regarding the big questions that matter most? Is there a curriculum that addresses why we are here? And why we live only to suffer and die?

Good questions.

In their article, Kaag and Martin take the question of life in the present, with its present meaning–if there is one–and propose an even deeper inquiry, one that I sometimes discuss with my colleagues in The Morbid Book Group. The authors write that

[w]hen dying finally delivers us to our inevitable end, we would like to think that we’ve endured this arduous trial for a reason. But that reason cannot, unfortunately, be articulated by many of the academic disciplines that have gained ascendance in our modern colleges. Why not? Why shouldn’t an undergraduate education prepare students not only for a rich life but for a meaningful death?

Then they compose a nice thumbnail sketch outlining some major definitions and explorations in Western thought and then suggest that higher education’s typical intellectual approach to The Big Questions has, to our students’ loss, lacked fullness of the lived experience as a part of its inquiries.

The need to have authentically lived and also to know what to do about dying are knotted together in a way that none of our usual intellectual approaches can adequately untangle. It is related to the strange way that experience is both wholly one’s own and never fully in one’s possession. Experience is, by its very nature, transcendent — it points beyond itself, and it is had and undergone with others.

The authors write, “Who needs transcendence? We suspect that human beings do.” I am certainly in agreement there; exactly how to convey transcendence to students is probably beyond the scope of most college professors, but we can encourage them toward inquisitiveness. We can be mindful about where they are now, and where we are now:

The meaning of life and death is not something we will ever know. They are rather places we are willing or unwilling to go. To feel them, moment by moment, to the end, authentically, thoughtfully, passionately — that is an answer in itself. And for us as educators, to show our students the importance of trying to go to those places — that may be one of the best things we can teach them.

What are we teaching our students about experience and the fullness of the present moment?

“…he not busy being born is busy dying” (“It’s Alright, Ma” Bob Dylan).

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And even those being born are already dying. What have we got but the moment? I try to be mindful of that.

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Read the article here.

The ethicist & the healer

The “Morbid Book Group” recently read John Lantos’ book on ethical issues in Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs), The Lazarus Case. As one of our members is a pediatric physician, one is a NICU nurse, another a hospital social worker, and another a former obstetrics nurse–we had quite a bit at stake when discussing this book, and quite a few different perspectives. Add to the mix my armchair-philosopher and educator point of view and all the questions a non-medical person has to ask to clarify the issues, and we spent the evening in lively and often challenging discussion.

Lantos tells his readers that medical ethics questions are not really answerable. They depend too much on cases, contexts, and–whether we like it or not–economic situations. An example: Until third-party payer systems are dismantled or significantly changed, confirms the doctor in our book group, NICUs will continue to be profit centers in addition to places where terrifyingly premature babies are saved, or not saved, not so much by technology as by individual circumstance over which doctors and nurses have less control than the parents of these neonatal patients may think.

The NICU nurse told us that Lantos’ book made her question her vocation. One of his observations is that NICUs have become the profit-hub of many hospitals in the USA; then, he asks tough ethical questions about “viability” and “pain and suffering.” The nurse says she sees these babies suffering and feels that too often, the suffering is prolonged when the baby is clearly unlikely to survive–prolonged because the parents cannot let go and the technology promises miracles that only occasionally occur. The doctor in our group gave us her point of view, which many of us found a bit too “scientific”–but that’s how doctors are trained, as she reminded us, while acknowledging heartily that doctors need more real-life experience in compassion, listening, and psychology than they receive in med school or as interns.

tulip

These are the sorts of circumstances that lead us to philosophy. Lantos writes: “Moral reflection begins with a particular type of suffering,” when we are faced not with abstract ethical dilemmas but genuine, frightening, life-altering situations. Lantos argues that doctors must not be “passive vessels” dispensing adrenaline, oxygen, delivering technology to a human being whose individuality the physician may not even notice in those crucial moments. He does not deny that there is value in the dissociated emergency response protocol, when the doctor’s training takes over and pulls the person acting away from emotion.

There is a “but,” however. Lantos says there are times when the healer is the medicine, when trust in the doctor, and the doctor’s willingness to take time to listen to the  patient, can “create a moral framework for dealing with the limitations of being human, of getting sick, suffering, weakening, dying,” when it is understood that the patient might die while under the healer’s compassionate care, and there need be no blame.

How do we get our society there?

“We make changes in medicine the way we make changes anywhere,” says our book-group doctor. “All of you are asking me very hard questions. I don’t have answers to all of them, and you may not agree with my answers or my rationale. And that’s great! Medicine needs to be challenged. There is no way for the medical industry–and it is an industry–to grow in a more positive way if patients and their families, ethicists, and even the damned lawyers remind us that behind the technology is always, always, a singular human being…it ain’t just a science. It’s an art.”

Doctors do need to be educated in the humanities, we agreed, and to spend more time learning about culture and psychology through experiences that develop compassion. Patients need to learn to ask more specifically for that kind of response, and to let hospital administrators understand how often it is lacking. Most of all, we need not to shy from asking the Hard Questions, those life-and-death ethics questions. Not for the sake of answers, but for the sake of discourse and understanding.

If you want a breezy article about how to go about the process of talking about what we fear and wonder at, here’s an article from HuffPost. A reply to Lantos’ critique of NICUs from Jonathan Muraskas and Kayhan Parsi is here.

 

 

 

 

The morbid book group

[FYI, readers, I have a poem in this anthology, which relates to this post.]

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A little over a year ago, I was invited to participate in a book discussion group that  focuses on texts that offer varying perspectives concerning health, surviving cancer, different cultural views of aging, and dying; books on “dying well,” hospice and palliative care, and on hope and healing; books on chronic pain and on neurology and the medical establishment, on birth traditions, on the history of medicine. We have also read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, Still Here by Ram Dass, and discussed books that have topics such as placebo effects, psychology, alternative medicines, the pharmaceutical industry, hospitals, the training and practice of doctors, and the death & dying ‘industries,’ including works by authors with personal and moral perspectives on how to live (and how to die). The people involved have included a pediatric palliative care expert, a NICU nurse, a hospice team spiritual counselor, a minister, a former nurse and massage therapist who’s a tai chi instructor, and others–most of us “of a certain age,” by which euphemism I mean we have been living through the experience of having parents in extreme old age and of having long-time friends who now contend with chronic or potentially fatal illnesses. At least one of us has survived cancer.

For a perspective on how most Americans view a serious study of such topics, I offer my husband’s assessment. He calls this “the morbid book group.”

In fact whenever I mention that I participate in a book group (a popular American activity), people ask me if the group has a theme; I tell them, “The theme is medicine, and wellness, and how we die.” And there’s inevitably a pause, and usually my friend asks, “Isn’t that kind of depressing?”

No. It has not been depressing, in fact. I have gained more than I can say from these books and from our small group discussions: information, perspective, philosophy, insight, dare I say wisdom? Not to mention freedom to talk about those things we tend to evade in polite conversation, the space in which to say “This really sucks” or “This saddens me deeply” or to ask, “What can we do?” The book selections have led to great discussions–and have helped me to forge some new friendships as well as to confront and accept different points of view on controversial issues surrounding health care. And death, yes (hello morbid books!), and grief, and–most of all–compassion.

Difficult books? Challenging reading? Have I ever shied from it? I relish exploring this kind of non-fiction-fact-science-ethics-cultural criticism. Participating in this book group is one of the highlights of my current life experience; it’s up there with my long-running poetry critique group and my MFA years in terms of transformational engagement and exchange of ideas.

Below, a list of some of the books we have read and talked about. Just in case any of my readers wish to begin a morbid book group of their own.

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Radical Remissions, Kelly A. Turner

Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Katy Butler

Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson

Death’s Door, Sandra Gilbert

Living with a Wild God, Barbara Ehrenreich

Still Here, Ram Dass

Being Mortal, Atul Gawande

The Anatomy of Hope, Jerome Groopman

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche

Birth, Tina Cassidy

The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison

Counterclockwise, Ellen Langer

The Pain Chronicles, Melanie Thernstrom

Choosing Civility, P.M. Forni

Healing Spaces, Esther M. Sternberg

Die Wise, Stephen Jenkinson

…& more ahead, as we plumb consciousness, placebos, the medical hierarchy, and compassionate ways of living in the world. By the way, readers–suggestions for further readings are welcome!

 

 

Jisei

I have been re-reading a lovely anthology called Japanese Death Poems, edited by Yoel Hoffman. I purchased this book years ago when I was immersed in the study of haiku, haibun, and the early Chinese poetry forms and approaches that influenced many Japanese poets. Hoffman’s book offers excellent examples of jisei (poems composed near the moment of death) and his informational text places the poems in the context of various cultural, economic, power, and belief structures.

For a person raised in a contemporary western culture, the concept of death as a constant partner in our consciousness seems–while perhaps obvious–rather uncomfortable. We are not likely to approach our deaths with a sense of acceptance, let alone friendly understanding: “This is how it is.” But the death poems, as I read them, suggest that while death is universal, each person’s awareness of it is unique, even among people in the same culture who may hold similar beliefs.

Jisei intrigue curious folk, because death is A Big Thing to Be Curious About. Digital photographer Hank Frentz, a young artist who’s been inspired by Hoffman’s collection of jisei, has posted a series of mysterious and beautiful photos paired with the death poems, a sample of which can be viewed here. Please follow the link, as his photographs seem to me to be aesthetically and “spiritually” close to the poems he chooses, creating a kind of haiga (俳画) effect.

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I have also been revisiting Earl Miner’s translation of Shiki’s brief verse diary, “The Verse Record of My Peonies.” Written in 1899, when Shiki was suffering agonizing pain from spinal tuberculosis (he died in 1902 at the age of 35), the haiku and the prose of the diary recommend the reader to an understanding of physical pain, uncertainty–will I live, or die?–and humor, friendship, grieving. The diary is as layered as a peony blossom; each time I read it, I find something new to contemplate in its few pages: joy, aesthetics, nature, the human body, the solace of friendship and the isolation of illness, the nearness of death, the challenge of uncertainty, the many ways poetry can supply a place or grounding for a person struggling with ambiguities.

Two flakes fall
and the shape of the peonies
is wholly changed.

[tr. Earl Miner]

 

Composer Libby Larson has used Shiki’s verse diary as a text basis for a 7-minute composition for voice available here.

 

 

The skill of grieving

In a recent post, Sigrun of the blog sub rosa pointed me to Poetry Society of America’s page on Natalie Diaz; I’m even going to post the same paragraph she does, in which Diaz states:

When I write, I bring all of my truths, even the Judas-truths that make me feel like the betrayer whose dirty hands are resting on the table for everyone to see, including God. For me, writing is less a declaration of those truths than it is my interrogation of them. Uncovering the darkness in me that led to some of the poems about my brother also lights up the hard, bright way in which I love him and the small wars I wage to win him back…the truths that have built in me a strength and compassion that help me to survive this world. Truth is that little animal we chase and chase until we suddenly glance over our shoulder and realize it has been chasing us all along.

This passage about “uncovering the darkness” and the hard ways in which we sometimes love–maybe with some people, there is no other way to love–interestingly coincides with my recent reading of Stephen Jenkinson’s Die Wise, a manifesto on how we die and how we might die better (wiser) if we carried our darkness better, as Diaz suggests in the passage above. While I am reading Jenkinson for specific reasons around end-of-life concerns, there’s no doubt that there is often poetry in his philosophy that we need to learn the skill of how to grieve and to learn all that such a skill contains, including its “Judas-truths” and its unflinching confrontation with the ways in which death is a gift to us collectively and individually.

Most of us do not see death as any kind of gift, and Jenkinson admits it can be a challenging perspective; he endeavors to persuade the mostly-American or European reader that each of us and each of our societies or cultures would benefit by reclaiming death as a natural sequence in our being in the world.

Claiming or reclaiming death (you might read here: darkness), says Jenkinson, requires us to face the fact that we have no language for dying, not really. He says “we are taught almost nothing about what language to use or why when we are trained for the job [of tending to the dying].” The Dying, he writes, are “them,” meaning they are “not us.” Which makes them outsiders and invisible and yet all of us die; we are all of us dying–and we work so hard to distance ourselves from the fact.

Poetry is a language that, I think, sometimes guides us toward the hard truths, when poetry is well-made and conflicting and sundered with surprise. Poetry isn’t the language that gets us to dying, exactly; but it can do some of the hard work of teaching us how to grieve.

This is not to say that poets or artists are any better at dying than the rest of us. Sometimes the darkness uncovered in the fiction or poem or painting is true and authentic and deep, but the artist does the grief-working well in art and not so well in life’s physical dying process. Artists who choose suicide may be people who suffer pain and can express it artistically without actually learning the work of grief, which differs from suffering. If we learn that anything that does not last forever is meaningless (an idea drummed into many of us through the concept of “eternal life”), we are apt to feel bereft at every loss and may embrace a kind of horrible existentialism. Sometimes our artists strive to overcome the meaningless through lasting works of art, but their personal desire to be somehow immortal may bog them down as death nears.

We admire this artistic striving, but it is a kind of working against our darkness rather than confronting it with the love Diaz mentions. Jenkinson writes: “Dying isn’t the end of true things…It is one of the true things, that is all.” [My italics.]

However, I do believe that art–particularly the storytelling arts–can offer much in the way of teaching us the physical, on-the-level, hard work of grieving. Really good novels and plays can help teach us if no one in our “real lives” does. Even if we weep at the end of the book and wish the author had chosen a different way of ending it. Good poetry that leaves us excited and confused by complexity or blasted with gut-level sorrowing might be teaching us the ways of grief we aren’t learning from our culture.

When a loved one dies, we often get lost, pushed away from grief through the signing of papers and the bland condolences of marginal friends and the plea to move on with our lives. Good poems can keep us dangling in the now of real grief and force us to figure our way through the losses we incur–losses which do not exclude even our selves. Because “death waters the living.” And so does poetry.

http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/82820.html

Rain [La Pluie] Vincent van Gogh, 1889. Thanks to the Philadephia Museum of Art

 

 

In memoriam

Ariel Dawson, 1959-2013

I recently learned that a friend who was hugely significant in my life once, but with whom I had lost touch for 15 years, no longer walks the same earth that I do; in fact, Ariel Dawson died in 2013, unbeknownst to  me.

Ariel Verlaine Dawson

Ariel Verlaine Dawson

It is hard to lose friends, but losing the friends of one’s youth–those intense, passionate friendships that teach human beings how to navigate the world of human relationships–that loss cuts in a different way. For Ariel is perhaps the reason I am a writer. No–I would have become a writer. She is the reason I decided it was possible to be a poet. She amazed me with her vocabulary, her insights, her evaluative reading, her positively voracious and precocious reading, her charm, her gentle goofiness, her forthrightness, her neurosis; she seemed to fear nothing (but that wasn’t true); she had published poetry in real journals before she was 17 years old; she read Rilke and Yeats; had affairs with well-known poets; spent years fathoming Jung. In 1994, she wrote an opinion piece for what is now AWP’s Writer’s Chronicle responding indignantly to Dana Gioia’s article “Can Poetry Matter?”–a piece that started quite a dust-up among defenders of what has been termed “new formalism.”

Ariel had always been the sort of person who chose to disappear and then to reappear, to my joy, months or years later to take up the friendship without pause–and often without explanation for her absence. She had her reasons, and I respected that; but I missed her.

Ariel, 1977 or 78

Ariel, 1977 or 78

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In the early 1980s, my (also late) friend David Dunn and I were publishing chapbooks under the small-press name LiMbo bar&grill Books. We approached Ariel for our second-ever chapbook: Poems for the Kazan Astrologer. She was, at the time, teaching creative writing at Old Dominion University. We were very happy with the outcome, but we had no good method of distributing the books. I may still have a box of 25 or so of these books somewhere in my attic.

Then Ariel became more intensely interested in Jungian psychology, though it had long been a passion of hers.

In subsequent years, she wrote less and less poetry and stopped submitting her work for publication. The response to her Writer’s Chronicle opinion was, I think, a bit shocking to her, though I know she stood by her opinion. She just decided, perhaps, that she felt more at home in the world of Jung and his followers.

During the past decade I have often tried tracking her down, imagining the internet would find her. My job at the college has made me a rather adept online researcher, but all that ever showed up was a listing for her psychotherapy practice in New York City. The number was incorrect.

Then, my father became very ill and other issues crowded my mind. Searching for a friend who clearly wanted to remain anonymous in an electronic era was not a priority.

Besides, I always assumed that Ariel would suddenly re-emerge, call me–my phone number remains the same as it was last time I saw her–and mention she was going to be in the area, and could she stop by? That’s how it had been before. And I’d be thrilled to see her, and we’d talk about poetry and art, and politics and pets, cheese, philosophy, psychology, parents, wine…

I assumed incorrectly. That’s what happens with assumptions. Just this past week, when I finally found myself with some spare time, I tried an internet search again. And found her “electronic obit” online, and the fact that she’d died in February of 2013.

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I have no words to express how this information feels to me.

And also–

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Arthur Cadieux, 1943-2015

Arthur Cadieux in 1978, a photo taken by Jim Terkeurst.

Arthur Cadieux in 1978, a photo taken by Jim Terkeurst.

 

 

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Arthur 2011, Eastport, Main

Arthur in 2015. Photo Elizabeth Ostrander.

Arthur in 2015. Photo Elizabeth Ostrander.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Arthur Cadieux was my art teacher at Thomas Jefferson College in the late 1970s. He and his wife, Helene, were exceptionally kind to young adults who had an interest in art and in observing the world around them. We had dinner at their house in Michigan and at their loft apartment in New York City. Years later, after Helene’s tragically early death, and after Arthur had moved back to Maine, he let me stay at their cottage on Leighton Point (he lived in a smaller house in town) so that I could have a personal “writing retreat.” He deeply understood the creative person’s need for reflection, evaluation, thought, imagination, boredom, and occasional moments of lively talk.  The universe needs people like Arthur Cadieux, talented and generous, who are constantly pushing their own boundaries. Many of us who benefited from his friendship will miss him. Arthur’s paintings can be found at his website, arthurcadieux.org.

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May they be free from suffering and causes of suffering.
May they never be separated from the happiness that is free from suffering.