April 2018

Monday, April 10, 2017

Quiet and Healing

Yesterday, I finished reading Sue Klebold’s powerful memoir, A Mother’sReckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. Before reading Klebold’s memoir, I read Julie Anderson Love’s memoir Disrupted:On Fighting Death and Keeping Faith about her experiences with a brain tumor in the same place where my ependymomas were, though her tumor was much more aggressive. I had expected Anderson Love’s memoir to resonate with me: I had not expected Klebold’s story to resonate with me in the way it did.

Klebold was the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of two student shooters at Columbine High School. In 1999, the boys shot and killed thirteen people in the high school (twelve students and a teacher) and injured twenty others before turning their guns on themselves.  As Dylan’s mother, Klebold is trying to make an uneasy peace with her own loss in his suicide and questions about her own culpability with the people he shot and otherwise terrorized. 

I have often argued on this blog that my losses from brain tumors have not been tragic: Klebold’s losses were, and I read the book because a friend recommended it as a beginning to understanding the losses of those who were close to a person who committed suicide. I read to understand someone else’s experience, not my own.

However, as good writer’s do, Klebold brought me into her story, and I feel compassion and common humanity with her. I do not compare my losses to Klebold’s. My first brain tumor was as easy to explain as my fingernails. I do not believe I or anyone else decided that I would have brain tumors. In my case, there is no guilt, no wondering about culpability.

I’m just surprised in the way that some of Klebold’s learnings resonate with mine. She had worked for years as a teacher for student’s with disabilities, and she wrote, “Over the years of working with people with disabilities, I had observed that profound loss often brought with it a depth of gratitude for life, a sense of joy, and an ability to be in the present that people untouched by tragedy could not always access.” This has certainly been true for me, and is the central message I seek to communicate.

Klebold writes, too, about the importance of connecting with other people who suffer after someone’s suicide, especially those whose children have committed murder-suicide. I, too, find healing in connecting with others who have experienced loss, especially those whose losses are due to brain tumors.

Klebold also writes about the importance of humor in her life. In my first days home after brain surgery, I was awake for a couple of hours a day, and organized my sleep so that I could watch Ellen Degeneres, a show that I found hilarious. Humor remains important to me. If you’ve been reading this blog, perhaps you know that already.

Humor has been a way to connect with others in a way that often surprises them--and me. Besides, there have been so many absurdly humorous moments since my tumors (like the stranger who told me that I was lucky to have disabilities so that I could have a good parking spot or the guys who helped me across a street I didn’t want to cross. What could I do but laugh and shake my head?) Writing connects me with others, too. (Thanks for being here. Your presence means more than you know.)

For me, writing has been a way to understand myself and my life since my tumors. Writing is part of my ongoing healing. I suspect that writing is part of Klebold’s healing, too, a way for her to frame her life with her son and their history, as well as her ongoing life since his murders and death.

There’s a good deal of preliminary research  showing that writing, particularly when it’s connected to making meaning of difficult events, is therapeutic. I experience this and think it may be a way I can be helpful to others. A couple of years ago, I attended a training from a Seattle-based group called Pongo on how to write poetry with youth in juvenile detention.  Their founder Richard Gold has said, “The act of writing is an act of resilience.”

As I seek to be of service since my disabilities have made it impossible for me to have a job, I find myself helping others tell their own stories, to themselves and to others. I serve as a mentor in a writing group for young adults who are homeless (or as one corrected, “houseless.”) 

For the last year and a half I led a poetry-reading group in an assisted living facility with elders, many of them experiencing various stages of memory loss, and sought to trigger their memories and help them share their stories with one another. When I was there, I helped one writer, a woman of humble but deep wisdom and humor, and I am continuing that individual work though I don’t lead the poetry group any more. 

In the fall, I will lead a couple of reading sessions at a neighborhood senior center, and in addition to that I have volunteered to organize poetry writing and performance for a dementia event. I also may apply to work with Pongo, writing poetry with youth in a juvenile detention center near my home. 

As before my tumors, there’s so much interesting and helpful to do that I need to be humble enough to know my limitations and not to succumb to the violence of overwork that Thomas Mertonwrites about:
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its 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 in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.” 

As I think about this tendency that I see in myself as well as others, I’m wondering why we Americans overwork so much. Any stats show us that Americans work more hours with less time off that just about anyone in the world: we’ve even surpassed the Japanese in average annual hours worked. (The Japanese culture pushed working so hard thatit needed and created a word for “work death.”)

You may argue that as a person who can work only up to eight hours a week, I’m not in danger of overworking. You might argue instead that I’m in danger oversleeping. (I need to sleep about 15 hours a day: fatigue since neurosurgery and radiation has been a bear.) However, there’s something about that psychology of working as many hours as I can, even to the point of nausea, that compels me as it did before my tumors. (I just don’t get paid now, and I am better at taking time to rest and write.)

I seek to learn the wisdom of keeping quiet, as in Pablo Neruda’s poem of the same name :

“Keeping Quiet
Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth, let's not speak in any language; let's stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines; we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars, wars with gas, wars with fire, victories with no survivors, would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death. Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I'll count up to twelve 
and you keep quiet and I will go.”
-- by Pablo Neruda from Extravagaria (translated by Alastair Reid, pp. 27-29, 1974).

Perhaps this time that calls us to action for justice for the vulnerable also calls us into silence. As my Irish taxi cab driver told me decades ago, “It’s a conundrum.”

Throughout the Lenten season our church has organized small groups reflecting on the theme, “Faith in a Time of Fear: Prayer and Activism.” The funny thing is that our small group has never met as a full group because so many of us are too busy with activism to come. Back to humor in the absurd.

Now I'll count to twelve and you keep quiet and I will go. 

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