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!

 

 

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

 

 

Quiet earthiness

The beloved life partner of a long-time friend was interred in a green burial today, a glorious May morning full of flowers (she loved gardening…); and I find myself with little to say.

It’s been that way for the past two weeks. Not exactly writer’s block, as I have in fact drafted several poems, but an extreme sense of turning-inward. My nature is reflective–I’ve always fallen into the introvert category (INFP for those who are familiar with the Myers-Briggs assessment)–but my job requires pretty constant interaction with other people, students and colleagues for the most part, and quite a bit of listening and talking. I enjoy my job and find it rewarding; but the stressful weeks just before exams, when term papers are due, can be challenging for a person whose inclination is to read books and putter in the dirt.

I planted seeds in the earth, and picked flowers. And then placed flowers on a coffin woven of reeds which was lowered into the earth.

Returning home the quiet overcame me. I’ve been reading poetry today instead of the Sunday New York Times.

Also, I’ve been reading books on “good death” and “mindful dying,” and the guidance of some sensitive and experienced authors seems appropriate and grounded.

But grief is hard. It’s probably one reason we invented philosophy, religion, and poetry.

Shadblow, also known as serviceberry.

Shadblow, also known as serviceberry.

One of my go-to anthologies for sorrow is Pinsky’s The Handbook of Heartbreak, which I’ve mentioned in a previous post. In addition, I opened Christian Wiman’s book Every Riven Thing at random and came upon his poem “From a Window“–

Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving…

 

The poem comforted me (and I read other poems today, by other poets, that also comforted me). This one ends with the following stanzas:

 

Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would

 

(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man’s mind might endow

 

even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,

 

that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.

 

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The joy comes in, somehow, through the quiet and the dirt and the trees.

Art, story, story, art

Yesterday, I attended a reading by former US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan in a more intimate setting (a luncheon) than I’ve ever been privileged to hear her at in the past. An audience member asked her how she would define art. Alas that I don’t write quickly enough to have taken her words down verbatim, but she offered a lovely answer.

She said that if a person cannot really be happy without doing it, and cannot keep from needing to do it, and if it nourishes or gives back to that person in ways nothing else can–then that “it” is art, in her opinion.

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I suppose art also ought to speak to others, but I am not sure that is as necessary as art critics think it is.

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Speaking of critics, and of art, I was impressed with Hilary Mantel’s 1998 novel The Giant, O’Brien for reasons that made a few critics rather lukewarm about it. The author is best known for her amazing historical works, well-researched and full of believably human perspective. O’Brien is a departure in several respects although still historical fiction. I read this book as an ambiguous moral tale, a myth, a story about stories (and art) and a depiction of ways the Enlightenment created significant losses in the midst of its gains. So I was less bothered by the exaggeration of certain personalities or minor plot gaps. O’Brien, a storyteller of the most shamanistic/primitive sort, also possesses a modern (Enlightenment) intellect and an artist’s “intuition.” But he never achieves fame, or the goal of restoring a beloved pub–the place he learned his craft–and dies painfully and slowly, impoverished and nearly abandoned.

As O’Brien nears death, Mantel writes that there comes “a point in fatigue or pain when logic slowly crumbles from the world, where reason’s bricks sieve to crumb. Where content flits from language…and departs.” And her character, the giant–who embodies in his hugeness the epitome of mythical narrative, the kind that sustains us even in dire poverty–eventually comes to the conclusion that the poor among us lose all. Of the poor man, he muses:

Stories cannot save him. When human memory runs out, there is the memory of animals; behind that, the memory of the plants, and behind that the memory of rocks. But the wind and the sea wear the rocks away; and the cell-line runs to its limit, where meaning falls away from it, and it loses knowledge of its own nature. Unless we plead on our knees with history, we are done for, we are lost. We must step sideways, into that country where space plaits and knots, where time folds and twists: where the years pass in a day.

What within us plaits and knots and folds and twists but the brain itself? We pass along our knowledge and, more importantly, our stories. That is done from brain to brain through language and music and art, even as the individual brain comes to the end of its viability and vitality. We step sideways into another person’s brain, just as O’Brien’s listeners memorize his tales, his cadence, his figurative speech. So, in the end, O’Brien is wrong.

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I attended a funeral today at which the officiant encouraged us to keep the departed alive in our hearts and for the future by telling stories he had told or by relating stories about him to anyone who might listen. I know I have previously written about this idea in conjunction with readings and philosophers and art and literature. The more I encounter it, the truer it seems to me.

The bereaved spouse at this funeral is a person who is losing her own story through senile dementia, though she has some occasional awareness of her memory loss. Her ability to carry on her husband’s narrative is already deeply diminished or perhaps completely gone.

These are among our risks.

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These words brought to mind my long-time friends, the craft-artists David Ellsworth (turned and other wooden forms) and Wendy Ellsworth (beaded forms). This month, for the first time in their many years together, they have a joint exhibit in the gallery space at Jenkins Arboretum (Devon, PA). The photos below are snapshots Wendy took, and their individual work is best viewed in person or on their studio website. [Contact the artists for permissions, photos, information about workshops and talks.]

Wendy Ellsworth's seaforms, and a necklace

Wendy Ellsworth’s seaforms, and a necklace

Wendy's "Sunset" (with David's turned-wood frame/container)

Wendy’s “Sunset” (with David’s turned-wood frame/container)

David Ellsworth's "Emergence" series

David Ellsworth’s “Emergence” series

I have known Wendy and David for over 25 years, and I can testify that the work each of them does fits Kay Ryan’s description of art. They are artists, and their work nourishes both of them–and nourishes us, the beneficiaries, as well.

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For today, these are my stories.

www.ellworthstudios.com

Grief, poetry

I think it is important that people read Mark Doty’s deep and appropriate comments on whether (or, possibly, how) poetry can console “a grieving public.” It’s on the Poetry Foundation’s website.

Doty’s poetry has always struck me as particularly powerful at evoking, and embodying, the way the world that is (physical, phenomenological) intersects with the world of the mind (both intellectual and emotional). He is likewise an excellent, reflective, poetic prose writer and memoirist.

On this day, which still sears pretty heavily into the collective and individual consciousness of many U.S. citizens, Doty’s observations about public and private shared grief, and how we “process” such emotions are apt and compelling. Doty begins with Wislawa Szymborska’s heartbreaking, and controversial, poem “Photograph from September 11.” In his commentary, he asks, “What can the artist do, in the face of the dreadful, that which can’t be assimilated?” and says that

To name it is to diminish it and, in the process, to come head to head with the inadequacy of the tools of poetry to circumscribe such experience. It is a gesture recognizable from Neruda’s great poem occasioned by the Spanish Civil War, “I Explain Some Things,” in which he writes that the blood of the children ran in the street “como el sangre de ninos”—“like the blood of children.” There is no adequate gesture, nothing in the arsenals of figuration that will serve; only a terrible plainness of saying, or of pointing toward what cannot be said, can rise to these occasions.

He observes–and I have to agree with him here, “I understand the human need…to give shape to grief, but surely the first response to such a rupture in the fabric of the world ought to be a resonant, enormous silence. To come too quickly to words is, ultimately, a form of arrogance; the easy poem suggests that loss is graspable, that the poet has ready command of speech in the face of anything.”

Elegy takes me awhile. Silence and the awe of disbelief and the need to think come first; indeed, are necessary. For me, perhaps the most stunning September 11 “elegy” is, surprisingly, from Blue Man Group: the mostly wordless video “Exhibit 13.”

Doty moves on: he says, “All poems of public grief are private poems first. If, that is, they are any good, and not merely occasional pieces that serve to mark a moment and reinforce what people already think.” True. And then, these words, which artists are more likely to understand than no-artists, because there is potentially something “hard” in them–

The act of making a poem is a movement from private feeling and perception, the inchoate stuff of experience, into the shared realm of language. At some point along the way, the poet usually becomes less interested in understanding or naming experience, and more intrigued by the words themselves, by the patterned arrangement of sound and silence on the page and in the ear, the pleasures of giving form. And it is a pleasure, poetic making, even when what is being shaped is dreadful.

The aesthetic, the gorgeous, emerging from horror. Isn’t that almost–almost–manipulative? Doty recognizes and disabuses us of that notion by citing his own experience of writing about AIDS:

I was setting things down for myself because I needed to, and then experiencing…that progress toward impersonality which comes with the making of poetry. That must be among the strangest of poetry’s many paradoxes: that we are driven to write by fire and then must distance ourselves to a cool dispassion in order to make those flames burn for anyone else. That is not a heartless thing, or an opportunistic one, to turn your experience into art.

Yes, please read his essay if you are interested in what art is and what it does and how it relates to public experience of any kind.

“I think what the poet must do is pay attention to the nature of subjectivity, to the experienced, lived hour, and trust the paradox that if we succeed in representing that, we may approach speaking to our fellow citizens. I hope so.”  ~Mark Doty

More posts on grieving and art:  Despair&Fear, December 24

“The difference between Despair/And Fear”

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Events such as the tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan, devastating earthquakes or hurricanes that result in high death tolls, industrial accidents that destroy communities—these seem impossible to control and blame is hard to place, even in the latter case. News coverage in such situations tends to focus on damage and recovery efforts, then shifts to the next drama. Tragedies wrought by specific human perpetrators, however, become media spectacles here in the USA. The same few seconds of terrible footage repeatedly fill television and computer screens; viewers feel drawn into the activities of SWAT teams and reporters and the compelling speculations of forensic psychologists, terrorism experts, social commentators, politicians, witnesses. There are heated exchanges on social media forums.

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I’m beginning to believe societies get the popular culture they want or, alas, deserve (late Rome’s “bread and circuses,” anyone?). The circuses give us what society’s members, apparently, want to consume. Art, however, offers what they need, whether or not they want it. During times of media frenzy, when the culture in which I live seems numbed by “infotainment” and nonstop visual and audio coverage of tragic events, I find myself turning to art—usually poetry—for grounding, for solace, for affirmation of the human spirit and for a way to confront human truths.

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I do not suggest that poetry necessarily comforts. Often, it wears me ragged, forces me to wrestle with ambiguities, to question my values. Sometimes, art brings me to tears.

I do not consider these results to be negative results. These reactions are human reactions; I am reminded of my humanity through my engagement with art.

A good little anthology for times of grief is The Handbook of Heartbreak, edited by Robert Pinsky. Pinsky’s selections cover the human spectrum of sorrows: broken romances, dead pets, war, disaster, family and social losses and the desolate emptiness of depression, sorrow that is concrete and existential, spiritual and personal and cultural.

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Speculation is something inquisitive minds do well, but it is easy to believe our speculations, to forget they are merely imaginings that may or may not be valid. When a crime becomes a widely-broadcast web of information blips, the suspect is forejudged in the court of public opinion; I feel concerned about our nation’s commitment to the concept of innocent until proven guilty in a court of law (how on earth will that be possible?). What irks me most about media coverage of the Newtown, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Tucson, Boston Marathon, Columbine and other killings is the retreat into a kind of contorted deductive reasoning based on imaginative constructions of human intent and purpose—the search for motivation that drives the forensic end of these crimes becomes a news story led by experts who imply they can get to the truth. But can we ever know the truth? Each human being is unique and ultimately unexplainable, and often the way we are best reminded of that fact is through art: fiction, theater, paintings, poetry. On his New Yorker blog, Adam Gopnik notes:

Experts tell us the meaning of what they haven’t seen; poets and novelists tell us the meaning of what they haven’t seen, either, but have somehow managed to fully imagine. Maybe the literature of terrorism, from Conrad to Updike (and let us not forget Tolstoy, fascinated by the Chechens) can now throw a little light on how apparently likable kids become cold-hearted killers. Acts of imagination are different from acts of projection: one kind terrifies; the other clarifies.

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We need clarity.

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I might add that in my day job, I work with young people between the ages of 17 and 24, day in, day out. These young adults experience varying levels of frustration, confusion, numbness, fear, anxiety, excitement, need for risk, need for security, withdrawal, social discomfort, and inner turmoil. I cannot look at the perpetrators of recent civilian massacres without thinking of my students. I do not mean that I am wary or that I think one of my students might snap; what I mean is that I feel compassion for the conflictedness each human being is capable of feeling and that I understand all too well that not all of us are capable of contending with that conflict.

Some of us can accomplish through acts of imagination the confrontation with what terrifies or numbs us. These people include our artists. Those who cannot express or embrace the confrontation are at risk of projecting the inner conflict, fear, or insecurity elsewhere, as Gopnik makes clear.

Can art make us safe? We live in the world: not an inherently safe place. I think if we embrace what art offers us we will not be in retreat from the truths of the human experience but will learn to confront truths, even those that are uncomfortable. Art gives us insight, a step toward understanding. Can art grant us clarity? I think so.

Therefore, Emily Dickinson (305):

The difference between Despair
And Fear—is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck—
And when the Wreck has been—

The Mind is smooth—no Motion—
Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust—
That knows—it cannot see—

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