Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Still Asking Questions
Monday morning, my partner Ann and I returned to Seattle from Black Mountain, NC, where I attended The National Poetry Therapy Conference, and she hiked. I had known very little about poetry therapy when I signed up: a year ago my college friend Susan sent me a one-page article about poetry therapy, so I had looked up the organization and discovered the conference. I knew that I loved poetry and was planning to go into therapy with people with life-changing health conditions, so I figured poetry therapy would be a good thing to learn about. It was.
Attending The National Poetry Therapy Conference was much like our recent trip to Cuba: I have more questions as I leave, but they are better questions than I came with. (Our Cuba guide Yeraldine told us to expect this at the beginning of our trip to Cuba, but perhaps this is true in any learning experience. If I were still a high school Language Arts teacher, I would include Yeraldine’s wisdom with another admonition that I used to post on the wall for the first day of class…and all year long: “Do the right thing even if no one is watching.” I would now add: “You will come in with questions. You will leave with more questions, but they will be smarter questions.”)
Before I went to both Cuba and the poetry conference, I expected to be enraptured, so my questions were about how: In Cuba, my big question was, “How do we change the American society so that we have no homeless people?” I came home with that question rather than having it answered, but the question became more nuanced. More aware of the economic shortcomings of the Cuban system, I began to wonder, “How can we have more equity in our economic system and still have a hearty economy?”
My questions after the poetry therapy conference also became deeper, informed by what I had learned. I went to the conference with one essential question: “What is poetry therapy and how do I do it?” After the conference, on the plane from Charlotte, NC, to Seattle, WA, Monday morning, I read a book that I had seen on two presenters’ bibliographies, Transformative Language Arts in Action, and I am leaving the conference and the book with a more informed question: “What is the purpose of reading and writing poetry, and how do I stay true to that purpose as I use it in healing?”
In my first session, a pre-conference session called “Journals Quick and Easy,” facilitator Kay Adams invited us to respond to six increasingly complex journal prompts she uses with clients. In response to one prompt, I wrote:
My arm hurts. Not a lot. Just a little. But today I feel tired of this tennis elbow. Today I feel tired in general. I feel impatient with myself and my limitations. I am tired of this fatigue that leads me to skim over directions, to prepare partially, to be part of the way in my life. I want to be here wholly. All the time. But I’m not. I know that’s not new to my post-brain tumor life. I know that I’ve never been consistently wholly present. I’ve always rushed and tried to do more than I can do. I have been more present since I’ve slowed down after my brain tumors forced me to, and that’s been a gift. But what if there are things I want to do that if I’m going to do them I’m going to have to overdo it? Cuba…this conference… Do I just decide not to do things that are hard? What about that?
This writing moved me so quickly to asking a hard question, so hard that I often look at it on the periphery but do not look at it straight on. I know that I will keep trying to do things that are hard if they feel life-giving to me, but I do wonder if—as my 95 year-old neighbor Annabella often tells me—I am overdoing it: more aware than I was before surgery but still participating in this form of contemporary violence, as Thomas Merton described it:
There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence, and that is activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of this innate violence.
To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone and everything is to succumb to violence.
The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace, because it kills the root of the inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.
The writing gave me this moment to ask myself a question I generally prefer to avoid as I set out to prove to myself and others how much I can still do. The question doesn’t neutralize my activism. Perhaps it re-grounds me in peace.
Throughout the conference, leaders offered prompts that deepened my thinking about healing. I often wished that I had experienced this conference when I was still teaching high school. Saturday morning, for example, I participated in Nancy Scherlong’s Session on Wellness Metaphors. Early in the session, Nancy used the term “post-traumatic learning,” a play on post-traumatic stress and one that I could identify with. Nancy invited us into many strategies that she uses. I especially appreciated a time when she posted seven quotations on the wall and invited each of us to read them. We were to stand with a quotation that resonated with us. No quotation could have fewer than two people or more than four, so there was some negotiation before each of us stood in a group by our quotation and talked about the quotation together.
Several quotations tempted me, such as Rumi’s
If Light is in your heart,
you will find your way Home.
And Eleanor Roosevelt’s, “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
In the end I stood with two other women who chose a poem from the Japanese poet Masahide, a poem I have loved since my friend Ellen sent it to me long ago:
Barn burned down.
Now I can see the moon.
After the activity, I wrote, “The structures of my world went away, burned completely down, with radiation. And what a surprising gift that has been. Now I see—and live—differently.”
This wasn’t Pollyanna speaking. This was true, another element of my life since brain tumors and no less real than the doubts. I could have spent the whole weekend with Nancy and learned more that helped me and would help others.
I found three other sessions particularly powerful. The three were sample beginning, middle and ends of a poetry therapy group. Like in the other sessions, my deepest learning was about myself, and the structures helped me imagine leading groups like this. We met the first two mornings at 7 am (4 am Seattle time—uggh—The last morning we met at 9 am, still early—6 am Seattle time—still early but closer to humane.) A group of sixteen people met together in a large group and then divided into two smaller groups, each with a facilitator.
On the first day, my favorite, we read together George Ella Lyon’s poem, “Where I’m From,” a poem that I used in my high school English classes after discovering it in one of Linda Christenson’s books. In this group, we all talked about where we are from, and a few people cried as they noted the difficulty of separation from that place. The depth of the sharing helped us grow amazingly quickly together: I had found this effect with high school students, too, but I was surprised by the effect on this diverse group of grown-up professionals from various American regions and England.
On the flight home this morning, I read the book, Transformative Language Arts in Action. Some of the chapters weren’t helpful to me, like chapters on the brain effects of storytelling (I’m already a believer), and chapters on the “how to’s” of this kind of group. (They felt like beginning teacher pedagogical tips that probably would have been more helpful if I hadn’t worked in secondary education for 27 years.)
There were, however, pieces and lines that spoke to me. One line, quoted in Ruth Farmer and Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s introduction, was from Paulo Friere, an educator and philosopher whose writing is often too abstruse for me to follow. Friere wrote, “To speak a true word is to transform the world.” As one who witnesses the power of previously unspoken truths in my own life—hinted at in the shadows, in the periphery of my awareness—but brought into the light of awareness thirty (I am a lesbian) or forty-three (I have a big nasty brain tumor), years into living, I believe in the healing, even the revolutionary power of the spoken truth. Perhaps, I begin to think, working with others in healing and in truth will be my contribution to creating a better world.
In another piece, in a snapshot of the poet and writer Seema Reza, who worked at the time of publication with veterans in Bathesda, Maryland, Reza writes, “I began a search for new answers, and in my search I have come to accept the search itself as a way of life.” This brings me back to Yeraldine’s comment, which I quoted at the beginning: “You will come in with questions. You will leave with more questions, but they will be smarter questions.” I though, at the beginning of this writing, that such a truth informs all educational experiences. Now I am thinking that my greatest educational experience includes classrooms but is not limited to them: it is my life. Perhaps Reza leads me not to an answer but to embrace a way of living as a search, perhaps not for answers but for more nuanced questions.
So what did I learn at the National Poetry Therapy Conference? A lot, though I’m not sure exactly what. I learned something about what poetry therapy is and how a person might do it, but my most profound learning went much deeper as I deepened a question that I have had for as long as I can remember: “Who am I, and how will I serve?”
I still don’t know, but I suspect that poetry and community-building and seeking for kindness for all people and asking questions will continue to be part of my life.
As I do so often, I return to the poet Mary Oliver:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Perhaps, Mary, I will just keep asking questions and breathe the beauty in asking.