Writer and nurse Catherine Klatzer organizes it all in her poem “Order.” I like that it is written in second person, puts the reader in the space of the patient who is “so civilized / so well-behaved.” I can relate to the narrator, finding comfort in gathering forms and ensuring everything is in order, even in documenting the pain. I can sense the absurd tension in deciding if the papers should be sequenced in chronological or reverse chronological order. The poem hints that there is a kind of respite, however ill-conceived, in controlling what we can control even when there exists an “an impossible rupture.”
Writing Prompt: Have you ever felt that “something is tearing, ripping open” yet you moved forward with assembling order to your life, to your medical records? How is ordering what is tangible helpful when we are bombarded by the chaos of illness? Alternatively, consider medical records. If you’re a provider, what is different about working with electronic records versus paper charts? As a patient, how do you compile your medical records? Are they neat and organized? Is there a sense of confusion or comfort when you read them? Write for 10 minutes.
Here’s a holiday poem, compiled by author Kwame Alexander, consisting of contributions from NPR listeners. This community poem is made up of lines about what listeners like most about this time of year. However you celebrate, or ache, on this day, may you find light and hope as a new year dawns. Peace and joy to the world.
I didn’t get a free write done this week but did attend the launch party for the 2017 Till Chapbook. This local organization supports writers, builds community and hosts a writing residency at Smoke Farm each summer. Last June I attended the residency and spent several days reading books on craft, floating down the Stillaguamish River, attending workshops by the likes of the Jane Wong and Claudia Castro Luna, ate homemade fare by our fabulous chef and wrote, among other things, my first published poem Instead, which you can find in the 2017 Till Chapbook. I’m grateful for the talented writers I met and enjoyed hearing several of them read their work at the release party this week. Here’s to Till and the writerly community they cultivate.
Poet Rachel Hadas describes how those near the end of life grow distant before they pass in “The Second Floor.” She begins with a dream, consisting of “a harried pilgrim to a shrine.” She states that “[a]s quickly on their short legs toddlers move, / tall parents lumbering in slow pursuit, / so they speed onwards, people whom we love.” I like the unexpected juxtaposition of the unsteady toddler at the beginning of life to the dying loved one at the end. She paints an image of Sam and his daughter cradled together in “[s]leep and love, the quick, the nearly dead.”
Writing Prompt: Do you agree with Hadas’ assertion that the terminally ill are “somehow out of reach well before the grave?” Why or why not? What role do dreams play in our processing of ill or dying loved ones? Have you experienced such a dream? Write for 10 minutes.
I’m enjoying a second Thanksgiving feast with family today so will forego the usual Free Write Friday post. Instead, in honor of the pumpkin pies my three children enthusiastically helped me bake this year, enjoy this poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, “The Pumpkin.” May you and yours enjoy good food, conversation and connection this holiday weekend.
Oh, greenly and fair in the lands of the sun,
The vines of the gourd and the rich melon run,
And the rock and the tree and the cottage enfold,
With broad leaves all greenness and blossoms all gold,
Like that which o’er Nineveh’s prophet once grew,
While he waited to know that his warning was true,
And longed for the storm-cloud, and listened in vain
For the rush of the whirlwind and red fire-rain.
On the banks of the Xenil the dark Spanish maiden
Comes up with the fruit of the tangled vine laden;
And the Creole of Cuba laughs out to behold
Through orange-leaves shining the broad spheres of gold;
Yet with dearer delight from his home in the North,
On the fields of his harvest the Yankee looks forth,
Where crook-necks are coiling and yellow fruit shines,
And the sun of September melts down on his vines.
Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West,
From North and from South comes the pilgrim and guest;
When the gray-haired New Englander sees round his board
The old broken links of affection restored,
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before,
What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye?
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie?
Oh, fruit loved of boyhood! the old days recalling,
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!
When we laughed round the corn-heap, with hearts all in tune,
Our chair a broad pumpkin,—our lantern the moon,
Telling tales of the fairy who travelled like steam
In a pumpkin-shell coach, with two rats for her team!
Then thanks for thy present! none sweeter or better
E’er smoked from an oven or circled a platter!
Fairer hands never wrought at a pastry more fine,
Brighter eyes never watched o’er its baking, than thine!
And the prayer, which my mouth is too full to express,
Swells my heart that thy shadow may never be less,
That the days of thy lot may be lengthened below,
And the fame of thy worth like a pumpkin-vine grow,
And thy life be as sweet, and its last sunset sky
Golden-tinted and fair as thy own Pumpkin pie!
In “Feeding Tube” author Susan Kelly-DeWitt relays a memory of paper birds that a patient’s family hung over the hospital bed “—wild tropical birds, macaws and toucans, parrots and cockatoo.” The visual that Kelly-DeWitt provides is vivid. The reader comes away feeling that humanity reigns over the mechanical devices that tend to dominate the hospital landscape.
I remember very little about the physical details of the critical care hospital room where I participated in my first code as a medical student. I do remember sitting by the resident physician as he wrote his note in the patient’s chart at the nurses’ station just after the man had died. I looked across the desk into the patient’s glass-walled room, my eyes fixed on an elaborate dream catcher hung carefully, just over his bed.
Writing Prompt: The hospital can sometimes feel a like a sterile, mechanical place. Think of a moment or an item, like Kelly-DeWitt’s paper birds, that struck you as out of place or particularly telling about a certain patient, their family and their life. Write for 10 minutes.
I was at the Write on the Sound Writers’ Conference all weekend, so wasn’t able to prepare a Narrative Medicine Monday post for today. I’ve been reflecting, among other worthy writerly thoughts, about how I attended WOTS last October, just one year ago, as my first ever writing conference. At that time I gingerly entered each room, compressing myself into an imposter, sure that I would be discovered as a fraud. I imagined my fellow attendees, accomplished published authors thinking, “What are you doing here?” The entire writing world, culture, was foreign to me. I struggled to fit pumping in between conference sessions, even nursed a four month old baby in the car briefly while my family was passing through town. I’m now done with the harried, urgent stage of pumping; have retired my trusty Medela Freestyle and all its various plastic components for good. It’s remarkable to me that it’s only been one year. In those twelve months I have developed detailed writing goals, including a complete nonfiction book proposal, a regular blog and platform plan and have my eye on contests, training programs and retreats and residencies to further my work and aspirations as a writer.
I’m currently taking an online poetry class, which is stretching my every writing muscle. I’m back to basics, learning about sound and syntax, metaphors and consonance, iambic pentameter and anaphora. Both my poetry class and one of the weekend conference sessions highlighted this poem by Robert Hayden: “Those Winter Sundays.” As a mother myself, entering middle age, reflecting on much of my perceptions and misconstrued moments of my youth, this poem spoke to me this week. Try reading it out loud and note the tools Hayden uses to portray his father and his perception of his father, both in his youth and looking back as an adult. What speaks to you in a poem? Have you tried reading poetry out loud? I’m grateful to be learning more about poetry this fall and hope to share more with you in the coming months.
Virginia Chase Sutton’s wrenching poem “Lithium and the Absence of Desire” warns of what may be lost in taking a necessary medication. She deftly describes the world before starting lithium and the reader is entranced along with her, “dozing in light and soaked color.” Despite side effects causing a graying of her world, the author dutifully takes “the medication as prescribed.” Written in second person, the reader is drawn into her longing for what she has lost and together we collectively struggle in vain: “Strain all you will but you have given desire away.”
Writing Prompt: This poem describes a negative, even devastating, side effect of a medication, yet the writer recognizes there was “No choice since you must take the pills.” Have you experienced a minor or life-altering side effect from a medication? Describe life before and after starting the medication. Did you keep taking the medication as prescribed, or did you search for a different treatment? Write for 10 minutes.
Student and poet Thomas Nguyen writes of memories and loss in “Erasure.” In his poem Nguyen is instructional, warning how time affects our connection to those we’ve lost: “Accept that time makes things distant, that his absence doesn’t bleed into your memories as much as it used to.” There are only a few significant people in my life who have died, but I can identify with Nguyen who needs to try “harder and harder to remember the last time” he saw his mentor.
Nguyen notes that the patient speaks of his melaonmas as if they were part of his garden: “My dermatologist taught me how to care for them.” Nguyen goes on to contrast this with the green moss on the windows of his home. Do you agree with Nguyen that “life always adds?” Do you find this contention comforting or suffocating, or both?
Writing Prompt: Have you spent time with a loved one or patient who was nearing death? If time has passed, how have your memories of this person been affected? Recall the last time you saw them. Outline the details, like Nguyen’s memory of “neatly-pressed khakis.” Write for 10 minutes.
In “The Permanent,” Amy Burke Valeras takes us back to the 1980s when perming your hair was a thing. In the first half of the poem, Valeras opens up about her struggle with her hair; I could relate. I similarly begged for an ill-advised perm the same year, the same age as the author. I like how Valeras makes her hair a central character of the poem. We battle along with her preteen self as she tries to tame the “frizzy poof.” We can understand when, two decades later, she is told she has cancer but all she can think of is: “My hair!”
Writing Prompt: Think of an every day aspect of your life, of your body, that you took for granted or had a different relationship with until you became ill. Consider level of energy during a bout with the flu, walking with a sprained ankle; maybe you have lost your hair to chemotherapy or a breast to invasive cancer. Write about your relationship with this aspect of your body before you became ill and after. How did things change? Write for 10 minutes.