Thursday, March 13, 2014

Narrative Medicine . . . Narrative Everything

Last February I attended the Columbia University Narrative Medicine workshop led by Dr. Rita Charon and the remarkable faculty of the Columbia Program in Narrative Medicine. I had heard about Narrative Medicine while showing a Lee Gutkind video to my Creative Nonfiction students at The Thomas Wolfe Center for Narrative at Lenoir-Rhyne, the M.A. program I direct and get to see unfold. Gutkind was listing the subgenres and applications of CNF. When he said "Narrative Medicine," I knew I'd found my next fascination.

In Narrative Medicine, care providers develop narrative competence, the ability to recognize, interpret, metabolize, and be moved by stories.

Be moved by stories.

Something happens when a group of people get together and close-read a story or a poem. It isn't a book club, though book clubs are awesome. It isn't a class, though classes are awesome. It is a community moment, one where strangers move through an experience together and are transformed in the process.

In reading the story, we are not allowed to self-relate the material. We aren't here to talk about ourselves. We aren't here to make it about us.

Instead, we stay close to the text. Everything that is spoken is drawn directly from what is on the page. In this manner we identify the plot, the context/frame, the literary devices at work, the temporal scaffolding, and the desire of the story. We catch ourselves drifting into our own stories then remind one another to keep focused on someone else's, the story told on the page.

This is the seed of the empathic training found in narrative medicine.

We are not here to show how smart we are, how well we can read, or how well we can analyze literature. It isn't English class. We are here to be moved, to indulge our humility, to allow a story to change us.

To allow this, we let our guards down. We make guesses at meaning, we bumble about with literary terms, we discover together passages that we might have skimmed when reading at home but which suddenly become revelatory in their significance.

We expand the story among us, each of us at the table offering a new observation. We contradict and enter the contradictions with the humility of awe and wonder.

The way stories were "taught" in school led to quizzes, right and wrong answers.
This is different. There are no wrong answers, only new possibilities.

People who are charged with the responsibility of knowing and certainty indulge the paradoxical and confounding. We are made to feel comfortable in this space, which then prepares us for these spaces as they occur off the page, in day-to-day situations and stories.

This is Narrative Medicine.
All life is a story. In these sessions, we discover how to read it.

The next session is March 18 at Lenoir-Rhyne Asheville. The story and free registration is here:

Monday, October 21, 2013

Arthur Miller and the Berlin Wall: Why I Stopped

I talked to my scene partner today. Andrew.
Andrew takes care of his grand-mother and studies theater at the New York Studio 3 here in Asheville. He performed with his other scene partner, Bruce, last night. A scene from Death of a Salesman. Kelly, the teacher, told everyone she wants us to choose scenes that challenge us, that stretch us. Scenes that are dramatic.

I spent more than an hour last night searching for scenes and scripts online. I ordered two books of scenes and also a copy of All My Sons.

As I looked, I realized there are a few certain scenes I really want to do. These are scenes that have been with me for the past 25 years or so. One is a scene from Fool for Love which I saw two actors in my drama class in college perform exquisitely. Another is a scene from Betrayal which I did back in London in 1989. Another is the Eugene O'Neil play Long Day's Journey Into Night was always in our house growing up, and though I never read it all the way through, I feel it is, like these others, a stepping stone in this path backward to get something I left behind.

I was talking with Brett today about this sudden decision to take an acting class. I told him--and he is only one of two people I have told about this, and I'm not promoting these blog posts--I am keeping this in a semi-quiet-- I told Brett that theater classes were always about community. Scene work was done with a partner. Plays were done with multiple communities working together. When I left theater, I went solo.

Poetry is not about community. Say anything about it that you like: you write that shit by yourself, and the majority of work is only ever seen by you.

Also, scene work is about talking to someone else. Dialogue is life. I have forgotten how to do this.

Things that happened in 1989, the year I left the theater, not in this order:

  • the Berlin Wall came down
  • I studied in London
  • my grandmother died
  • my parents split up
  • during intermission of Betrayal another student came back stage and grabbed me in my dressing room. I got away, but when I reported the incident the school brushed it off as a "cultural difference (he was Egyptian)" and the attacker sent me roses with a card with a joke on it and life continued as normal.
  • I met a man who would figure deeply into my life but never fall in love with me
  • started to "hear" poems in my head while I slept so would sneak out onto the little verandah over Queens Gate Terrace and write them out until I could sleep. These poems were powerfully symbolic and entirely dissociative, but beautiful. It was the first time I didn't rhyme.
  • started to paint, too.
  • left theater and never did it again until now.
There is a thrill to this. I have taught literature for 20 years now. Something about acting: you are stepping inside a work of literature. You are not analyzing it. You are not reading it. You are it.

If reading is a means of placing one's mind in another's, acting is placing one's soul.

I don't know how I am going to memorize these scenes. I need to have them "cold," as Kelly says. I need to have them cold.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

I Used to Be an Actor

New York Studio 3

Dear Shannon,

Richard asked that I send in my resume so please share this with him. 

You will see my current resume tells the story of my teaching career, which continues as I direct the graduate writing program at Lenoir-Rhyne University. Part of this story tells of my directing theater at a private boarding school for boys for ten years. 

It also tells the story of my writing life as the poet laureate of the Blue Ridge Parkway and award-winning architectural historian, and as a late-deafened writer of memoir on deafness to whom NC Arts Council awarded a much needed fellowship. And of my performing life as a poet and storyteller at various venues.

There's another story, the one that these others reflect but don't tell.

Twenty years ago I stopped acting. I was living in London and playing the role of Emma in Betrayal at a little theater in West Kensington as a student in the theater department at Richmond College. I'd studied theater through high school and the first two years of college. In London, though, I decided to pursue poetry. A series of mysterious events led me to this, and the commitment was more of a vow than a decision. And poetry's served me very well.

I became a performance poet and still can hold a crowd, and this was no doubt an extension of my theater practice into my written world. I'm moving more toward storytelling now, allowing the things I say around a poem before presenting it to become the core of what I say. Having followed the "call" of poetry for two decades, I feel it has given me much and even saved me as much as an art form can save a person, but I am emerging, again, into something else. 

I don't have a cut-dry answer to why I changed course twenty years ago. I can say that I walk past theaters the same way I walk past pianos I never learned to play well. I recall a series of events that "silenced" me as an actor, experiences that drove me into the more private life of the page. Perhaps there's greater truth in that than I have ever stated. 

The art of acting is in me. The courage to do it is in me, as is the desire. It is an act of reclaiming to sign up for this course, though I can also "justify" it by saying I am writing a screenplay/moving into storytelling/directing a graduate program of which scriptwriting is a part. I can call this action a number of things, but the truest of them is that I am open to discovering a deeper reason than one I know. 

I am drawn to the literature about your program, about authenticity, about inhabiting. As a teacher of writing, I urge and carry my students to these places. I am seeking to be sure I am there myself in the challenge and the churn of a class, as a student.

I haven't felt so excited to begin something in a very, very long time. Thank you for offering this.


Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Resolution for the City of Asheville Written After Seeing a Group of Singers Disbanded Because the Crowd Became Too Large


Whereas, the City of Asheville situates itself in one of the most beautiful locations in the world, and

Whereas, the City of Asheville’s founding visionaries E.W. Grove, Fred Seely, George Vanderbilt, Thomas Wadley Raoul were all devotees to the Aesthetic Age which embraced a certain wildness of spirit and allowance for Beauty, and

Whereas, the City of Asheville’s preserved architecture was designed by the masters of the Aesthetic Age finding in Asheville an open space in which to practice the new “Fine Art” that elevated people's character through proportionate balance of order and the unforeseen, and

Whereas, City of Asheville’s favorite son Thomas Wolfe bore witness to the passion and Beauty of the city in words so powerful William Faulkner named him the greatest writer of their generation, and the City did not listen, and 

Whereas, the City of Asheville’s brickwork of former slaves and their sons create visual music of jazz and blues in the very makings of our buildings, and

Whereas, City of Asheville father Tony Lord saw fit to plant trees along Haywood Street and other streets so the city would remain connected to the natural world even in the midst of growth, and

Whereas, the City of Asheville stands on Cherokee hunting grounds that yet speak to us of bear and deer and elk, and

Whereas, the City of Asheville was devised by Masonic observation of there being a necessity for mystery and wonder in the fabric of the buildings that reflect the fabric of the earth, and

Whereas, the City of Asheville’s musicians and the artists attract visitors and new residents more than any other attractors, save the earth the city stands upon, and

Whereas, the City of Asheville is comprised of humans who love to dance and enjoy life with all the vivacity and joy being human is the rite of, and

Whereas, the City of Asheville is made up of dreamers and poets who do and do not write poetry but who always dream, and

Whereas, the City of Asheville is a difficult mix of spirit and matter and of people who see the world in terms of both spirit and matter in different proportions, assigning different values to each, and

Whereas, the City of Asheville’s leaders and law-enforcers are all human and also love to dance and enjoy the city’s romantic and creative offerings, and

Whereas, the City of Asheville is as informed by the wilderness of the Appalachians as it is by rules and laws and governance that may or may not respect the wilderness of the Appalachians which is permeative and inviolate in all of us, and

Whereas, the City of Asheville is a nexus of healing, art, and commerce, and in all of these are woven the currency of life and all that supports life, including fun and upredictablility, and

Whereas, the City of Asheville is never immune to the wonders of creative energy, and

Whereas, creative energy can at times seem a threat to structures and ordinances man-made and imposed in effort to maintain order out of fear that things might go too far, and

Whereas, creative energy is not a threat to order if order is dynamic and well-conceived and acknowledging of the human need for delight, and

Whereas in all things, even in the City of Asheville, joy is the order by which the soul abides and does not deter, destroy, or harm anyone, and

Whereas, the City of Asheville was, in fact, created as a place for play, respite, escape, and indulgence in pleasure found less availing in other cities, and

Whereas, that spirit of play will forever define the City of Asheville,

Let it be resolved that the City of Asheville be unafraid of romance and creativity as these elements express themselves in the actions and words of its citizens and that the City of Asheville embrace and celebrate, through allowance and trust of practioners of these elements, rather than constrain and attempt to control them through dissipation and exclusion, and

Let it be resolved that the City of Asheville is comfortable with and honoring of Beauty in all its forms and will relax in its presence to permit the spirit of the City to surface and enjoy itself unhindered at any time of day or night.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

A Note to the NC Legislature Regarding MY MENSTRUAL CYCLE

Dear NC House,

I am certain it is my fault, this recent flurry of women's-reproductive-rights-deflating activity. Because I am a woman, and, as you well know, since the Fall of Man, pretty much everything has been my fault.

The lack of jobs? My fault. Had I only had the sense to hand in my riveter and overalls after the boys came home from the war, and returned to vacuuming, which once had given me so much joy, we would not have the job crisis we have today.

The S & L crisis (not SNL, as a friend had to point out to me last week)? I'm sure it's my fault, too, since it seems only women such as Martha Stewart seem to do any time for any questionable Wall Street activity, just as racism is probably my fault, too, since it seems only women such as Paula Deen (not that I defend her but I've seen worse from Donald Trump) seem to suffer any consequences for their ideas while of course men are forgiven because they are, after all, only men.

So, it must be my fault as well that you know so little about my body.

And this I understand. See?

Ever since I got my first period at the age of 12--I'm sorry I haven't told you that before. Yes, 12, while my family was traveling in Europe, also the summer of my first kiss, see how it all goes together? Anyway--ever since I got my first period, I have been very careful to hide it from you.

In accordance with standard grocery store scripture I have gone to the "baby" aisle to buy my "women's" products which are safely hidden from men's view. I have secretly -- oh so secretly -- stood in conversation with people in public, men and women, while my body felt as though a stegasaurus was being pushed through a fallopian tube then coached to claw my uterine lining from its place during monthly cramp time. I have bled in your presence, and you've not known a thing.

Even knowing that women in the Netherlands get three days off work, paid, to accommodate their monthly "visitor," "Aunt Spot," "Visit from Mother Nature," their "MENSES," I have taken perhaps one day off in my entire working career even if I had a hot water bottle curled up in my lap under my blazer and skirt and had to wrap a cardigan around my waist to move around the office because it was one of those, ahem, heavy flow days.

I have used entire tree's worth of toilet paper to wrap and wrap and wrap and wrap . . . and wrap my blood-tinged feminine products to prevent another human being from having to witness the fact that I am a woman, and I bleed, when visiting at friends' or using a public restroom to preserve the illusion that I am not human at all.

My baby was born entirely from an ideological perspective that has nothing to do with my body.

So, I understand exactly why it can seem so permissible to you to draw lines across it, to discuss"it" in strange detail as an "it," and not an "I" or "She," because I have kept you in the dark all these years, preserving all this "feminine mystery" in hopes that at last, if I am obedient enough, if I never speak of my body, you will forget I have one and I will be free to live inside it as myself.

But this contract seems not to be working.

I think this idealogical division between "women's health" and actual "women," is the very result of my acquiescence. As your teacher in grade-through-high school I should not have hidden the fact that I was ovulating from you. I should have laid down the chalk/dry-erase marker/laser pointer, and have placed both hands over my ovaries and applied gentle pressure as the millions of little follicles worked to emit a singular teensy tiny egg.

I should have kept a cot in all the offices where I worked so when I felt thunder in my uterus, I could have simply told you I am having my period today and it fucking hurts when you talk to me.

I should have not pretended to be enjoying dinner on dates with you when I had a 103 degree adhesive heating element stuck to the belly of my granny panties just so I could bear being upright.

I should have worn pads at the beach. Better, I should have let it run down my legs as I emerged all beautiful and bikini'd from the raw ocean which soothed me.

Because you wanted to admire me as a woman, I should have told you the whole truth of being one.

Then all of this wouldn't be such a mystery.

I wouldn't have deprived you of this opportunity to develop empathy for me, your sister-in-species.

You would perhaps then understand that for one week of 12 months a year for 32 years, I have gone through more pain than all your semi-finals-reaching high school football team player buddies combined, each month, and that all this qualifies me quite well to decide what I do and do not want passing through my cervix, whether it be you, blood, or a baby.

So, I hope you will accept my apologies.

I think you needed this body narrative all along. So here it is.

I am having terrible cramps today, and because it is 4th of July I am thankful to have a day of rest, to feel each one of them pound through my pelvis, a sort of reminder that I am a woman keeping time, I am the earth's pulse, and I have the power of giving birth if I choose to do so, and also that I am attuned to the phases of the moon and have the gift of intuition and a lot of other stuff that freaks you out because I also don't talk about all that stuff nearly enough.

As you can see in the photo above, I have purchased, from the secret girl section of the grocery store my "Always" Ultra Thin pads and a great big bottle of Pamprin. The pads soak up the blood, in case you didn't know. The pills help quiet the cramps and lessen bloat. You know about bloat, don't you? It's when you puff up like a balloon and feel you might, at any moment, burst. But don't worry. You only feel like you've gained 20 pounds. Everyone else seems to think I look fine. But thanks for asking.

I will send another report in 28 days.

Monday, July 01, 2013


Ode to Joy

O God! – you have no threefold being and are independent of everything, you are the true, eternal, blessed, unchangeable light of all time and space. . . You are present throughout the whole world and sustain all things. 
                                                                                                       A translation by Beethoven of Hindu text*

The moon begins below the water, always.
In all things, it begins this way, the left hand the rhythm in
an enduring lunar pulse that pulls and draws,
attracts and yields, however far the right hand ventures
closer to the sun then to return, then to succumb
and venture deeper.
At the wall of the dining room in Lawrence Park, Toronto, 
the old, nameless upright stood.
Sheet music ragged, yellowed, the notes blackened
by endless playings, peeked out from inside the wooden bench
like the slivers of sun during an eclipse. The only piece
my mother played was the Pathetique, and its horrible chords
born of the same first material as the moon itself,
as the heart itself, as the soul itself, poured out through the home
drawing everything inside of them, almost as though inside of her
who otherwise was chipper and always home. Home, though,
when she played, was her world, a burgeoning shoulder of genius
edging out the domestic and the doomed.  
When my hands could reach an octave I chose to play Moonlight.
Teachers after-schooled me in “Big Chief Crazy Horse” and “See the Bear
on the Two Feet Begging for  a Bite to Eat,” which I played in recitals
wearing a pink dress. But in secret I collected the names of notes, that limited alphabet
of limitlessness, and carried them home to that wall, that piano darker than night
and began the metamorphosis of girl into woman at the age of eight.
It would be my song. My place to put things that never made any sense.
My survival, and after a time, my Joy once I learned to see what Joy is:
something belonging never to us, but only to the soul.
Beethoven translated two passages from Hindu prayer.
The Illuminati dissolved by the time he was 14, he found his own path
to Elysium and scored it with sand and ink, wax and fire. Moving deeper
under the water, he rose. Churned the emotions of the godhead into sound, 
he was Arjuna engaging the battle that carries him inward all the way to God.
Each sonata was another move from light to illumination.

For Ode to Joy, Beethoven used the words of a poem by Schiller, an Illuminati text:
Those who dwell in the great circle,
Pay homage to sympathy!
It leads to the stars,
Where the Unknown reigns.

The cannons at the end are the musical equivalent of Bhagavad-Gita
Book Four. But what I hold to, still, what holds me the most, in his deaf
hands lowering me into the water so gently, like a lover who knows
the works of my mind so far down, so sounding me that all the notes
flow inward, it is the Moonlight’s first movement, the depth of inspiration
occluding all surface appearance, that I go into. And it is religion because 
of its awful longing that meets the soul below the space it speaks from
and carresses it into light. To play it is dreadfully uncomfortable even
after nearly thirty years. I’m not that good, and it reminds me I’m even
worse, but that’s the lesson of Beethoven. To know perfection is to never
possess it, but to work the hands’ skills as they are given, to when the wrong
note is played not stand and move from the piano to something so much easier,
but to stay. The piano wants to be played, and the wrong note pleases the soul. 
Discord pleases the soul so much that Beethoven built the discord into the music. 
He left some notes for only the soul to play, for us to encounter it there on the page
and ask, “No, this can’t be right?”And it is right. And the wrong notes
open the questions into minor keys that once corrected are still minor until
the third measure of the second page when the hands land on major
again, and for a moment there is knowing, there is correctness, but there’s
no God. So he descends us. Again. And this submersion is a sequence of
the soul’s work, a beautiful subtraction of the certainty the hands must
learn to play so the heart can walk in this world, unafraid of the unknown.
The unknown takes practice, and the piece therefore is complicated. 
To learn to play this, says Beethoven, (me, having written the question
in one of those little notebooks), is to learn how to love.
He didn’t care much for people but gave his life to serving humanity.
“How can I not believe in God when I work so closely with him everyday?” he said.
And that God was the God he bore into using notes like tools for gently
brushing away the cosmos. 

Fitting this into a small, antique upright in a dining room, my mother
work flare denim jeans and a black turtleneck. It was Toronto in the 1970s,
and the boatswain whistle hung round her neck, a model for what my parents
saw as a sideline business as my father sought fellowships for research.
The world was disco, but the home was piano. When it was silent,
everything was known and certain and would last forever. Snow covered
the spruce in winter. The spruce re-appeared in Spring. The driveway 
was gravel. The house was made of brick. It had Red shutters. The address:
125 St. Leonards Avenue, the patron saint of chefs, captive women, and wounded
animals. French lessons on Wednesdays. Dinner: roast beef on Sunday.
But when she played, the whole of it trembled as the Unknown entered
the house, and taking a seat on the leather couches they brought with us 
back from England, spread its arms wide and carried us all down into Heaven.

*Beethoven’s Letters with explanatory notes by Dr. A.C. Kalischer (trans. J.S. Shedlock), 1926.
Photo: Rex Features

Tuesday, June 25, 2013



It's because now my life's as good as an ABBA song.
--Muriel’s Wedding

Because Love is all there is in this SUMMER NIGHT CITY,
Because If it wasn't for the nights, we think that we could take it,
Because we expect HAPPY HAWAII and get a MUSICIAN with FUNKY FEET
Because THAT’S ME, in the car where the ABBA CD blares strobe light satisfaction, rearview mirror turns mirror ball. 
Because I enter a WINNER-TAKES-IT-ALL as the low bass line of ABBA subverts my bottom line,
Because my history falls from the shelf because it's WATERLOO, I couldn't escape if I wanted to,
Because we DANCE WHILE THE MUSIC GOES ON in the heart's dopamine disco,
Because CHIQUITITA, I’ll tell you what’s wrong,
Because I turn that music on and I forget everything.
Because I am 8 again, arms out spinning Disco innocence in my best friend’s basement.
Because I think I’m GOOD AS NEW, that new is good,
Because I don’t consider the co-dependent implications when ABBA sings: All the love you gave me, Nothing else can save me, SOS,
Because I don't mind the ARRIVAL from FREE AS A BUMBLE BEE to LAY ALL YOUR LOVE ON ME,
Because I’ll follow the music from HEAD OVER HEELS to HOLE IN YOUR SOUL,
Because I WONDER if all life is  an INTERMEZZO between one world and the next, 
Because I am all DUM DUM DIDDLE wedding myself to the rhythmic mystery with
in the I DO I DO I DO of the soul, 
Because A MAN AFTER MIDNIGHT does not drive the darkness away but often only brings it closer,
Because they knew muffled voices make you feel you’re CRACKING UP
Because  JUST LIKE THAT the LOVELIGHT goes out,
Because there had to be HAMLET III PARTS 1 AND 2,
Because I only think that I belong here,
Because he’s an ALLEY CAT, or just another VISITOR,
Because I look into his ANGEL EYES and I’m hypnotized in that sweet
thrill of DISILLUSION setting in from far out 
Because there is nothing in the air this night,
Because the stars aren’t bright, 
Because you're not FERNANDO,
Because It's just the universe calling me BABY,
Because Listening to its music, the lights appear across the Rio Grande,
Because none of us have time for the sequined submission of love’s illusion, 
Because “I've seen you twice, in a short time/ Only a week since we started
It seems to me, for every time/I'm getting more open-hearted”is not a valid argument,
Because we know they all got divorced and won’t perform together even for a Billion dollars,
Because it is all JUST A NOTION, 
Because if I had to do the same again, I would,
Because nothing moves a world like folk songs,
Because the heart is always asking us to TAKE A CHANCE and like Napoleon surrender,
Because here in Studio CRV, with ABBA loud on my stereo, I’m a HOVA’s VITTNE to TROPICAL LOVELAND, 
Because windows down at a stoplight, everyone who hears is MARIONETTE to this music,
(Because They believe in angels, too.)
Because I know I’ll be STILL ALIVE on whatever MORNING WITHOUT YOU comes,
Because I LET THE MUSIC SPEAK, easing me gently, urging me like a lover,
Because I’m out there, spinning the color-glow of the floor tiles in rainbows under my macrame shoes, Because this is the holy nightclub of experience,
Because after it was done, Agnetha bought an island and lives there alone with her horses,
Because THE CRAZY WORLD inside this one is calling,
Because It says, I am CRYING FOR YOU,
Because I believe in angels,
Because ABBA opens the world to all the KISSES OF FIRE,
Because the VOULEZ-VOUS calls from the center of the eternal stereo,
Because it says YOU’RE MY KIND OF GIRL, 
Because they make all the world dance wearing a WHITE SOMBRERO,
Because we're here to BANG-A-BOOMERANG, make all the bells RING-RING, the RUBBER BALL MAN bounce out of bounds, til it’s SO LONG, TIGER, 
Because KNOWING ME KNOWING YOU is the best break up speech ever written,
Because ANOTHER TRAIN ANOTHER TOWN also lead to home,
Because walking through an empty house with tears in our eyes is just the B-side of TAKE A CHANCE,
Because we find ourselves SITTIN‘ IN MY PALM TREE waving HASTA MANANA
to another RICKY ROCK N‘ ROLLER or SUZY HANG-AROUND who wanted 
Because I shine once more like I did before,
Because WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE, we will again walk this TERRA DEL FUEGO,
Because we remember we are EAGLES and this, too, is how we soar, 
Because it goes ON and ON and ON,
Because we’re still more SUPER TROUPER, than NINA, PRETTY BALLERINA, 
Because ONE OF US saw herself as concealed attraction, away from the heat and the action,
Because the DREAMWORLD and the real are in harmony here UNDER MY SUN,
Because see that girl, watch that scene?
Because the heart is the real DANCING QUEEN.