Thursday, December 25, 2014

Hula Dancer on a Square of Flesh: Scene from my Father's Medical Education

" . . . dismiss whatever insults your own soul"
                                               --Walt Whitman

I often hear people mention that "a lot of doctors are poets." The list begins confidently with William Carlos Williams. It often ends there. My interest in Narrative Medicine moves from another list, the list of doctors who never wrote poems. At the top of this list is my father, an endocrinologist, a Fellow of The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons. My father is a brilliant physician. His patients adore him. Though he is retired a decade now, his patients friend me on Facebook to ask me how he is feeling. We don't often ask how doctors are feeling. More often we accuse them of not feeling.

While my father is in assisted living in Sedona, we talk often about Narrative Medicine, me as the poet, he as the doctor. To summarily arc his career: he started in research and was happy there, teaching and discovering insulin's effect on adipose tissue under varying circumstances. Publishing ceased in the late 1970s, at which time he decided to move to the U.S. and enter private practice. He grew his success to multiple locations and real estate holdings and lost it over two decades, leaving the U.S. in 1992 and opening a single-examining-room office in Hamilton, Bermuda.

He wanted me to be a doctor. I knew I could not. We fought about it. In that argument I threw a Royal Doulton coffee cup at his head. I missed by a centimeter. Ten years later I reconsidered and told him I would leave my MFA in Poetry program to study Medicine. This time, he argued:
"Don't do it. Poetry is the superior means of finding the truth."

I didn't withdraw from the MFA program. Another fifteen years later, I am developing the field of Narrative Medicine, a practice whereby doctors are trained to develop empathy by engaging literature. My father is my greatest ally. For years, I felt that I needed to justify poetry to him. Now, though, we justify medicine to poetry.

Poetry and Medicine both heal, one the soul, the other the body. Our fields have always connected by an obscure parallax. How far apart we were can only be perceived by blinding oneself in one eye momentarily, but we are connected. Now I talk with him to learn how he learned to be a doctor then I follow up with an email asking him about the story he has told.  He told me the other day the story about his first day at University of Toronto College of Physicians and Surgeons when one of the more advanced students stood in the hall stretching a "square shape" which as my father got closer he realized was a large piece of flesh cut from a dead person's stomach featuring a tattoo of a Hulu dancer, making it "dance." I wrote after:

Hi Dad,

I'm excited about our writing project. I'm going to ask you questions about your medical school experience to begin. I know the story of the tattooed flesh cut from the cadaver's belly. But I don't know how you felt as you walked down that hall. It was your first day. You see a more-senior student, or just a person down the hall . . .

Can you tell me your thoughts as you discovered what this was?
What did seeing this "do" to your ideas about medical school. It's a bit horrific to someone who hasn't been in medical school.


When we spoke today he told me he had never thought about this. He referred to John Irving's Door in the Floor, paraphrasing the writer's task as being one of paying attention. He said that a physician's task is to get information and "get out of there." He told me he was astonished by my three-dimensional thinking. I had to check the email I had sent to see if we were talking about the same thing. I wasn't aware I was being three-dimensional or astonishing. I was asking how he felt
"I mean, wouldn't seeing something like that insult your soul?"
"Insult your soul. That's Whitman, isn't it?"

I remember the first time I heard my father deliver an order to disconnect a patient's life support. We the family were gathered for supper when his beeper beeped. He dialed the hospital using the phone on the kitchen wall. I could hear him.

"Is the family gathered?"
Silence as person at hospital replies.
"Okay, then. Go ahead."

Then, he sat down and continued eating. I knew what had just happened. I stood and walked to my room. He followed.

"How could you just sit down after that?"

He told me the story of the first patient he "lost." He was devastated. His attending physician told him that he could choose to either be devastated each time a patient died or he could choose to be a doctor. That was the lesson. My father chose the latter. Hearing the story helped somewhat. We both returned to supper.

"Yes, Dad, it's Whitman."

"Did it insult my soul? If it did I never thought about it."
I told him I didn't think my questions were that astounding, that I thought they were the most obvious questions to ask. 

"No, don't sell yourself short, kid."

I have always sold myself a little bit short. It started the night the coffee cup shattered against the plaster of the dining room wall. It started when I chose to be a poet instead of a doctor. 

Now, to think that my consideration of seeing a human being holding another part of another human being (with a cartoon image of yet another human being inked upon it) in a joking, detached manner is unique or amazing, I would have to think that my father and I approach life from two extremes. Is it possible? Would others not be mortified by this image? Is poetic reasoning so different from clinical as to effectively render such a sight readable as two very separate texts?  One seeing it as okay and acceptable? The other seeing it as a horrendous and vile act?

The conversation ends with no judgment or even answers. And will continue.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

DENVER, a short story (wishing everyone a blessed holiday filled with kindness)

I arrived in Denver late at night, having flown across the U.S. losing hours along the way. Stella was four months. Her father and I had just ended it. I’d flown to Denver to spend Thanksgiving with my best high school friend, Audrey. Audrey’d said she’d leave the key under a flower pot on the front porch and would come back from Boulder in the morning, where she was presenting a paper on Kerouac. There was a snowstorm. She didn’t want to drive. The key, though, froze into the ice that gathers between the holes at the bottom of a flower pot so when I knelt (with my baby in a Snuggie inside my corduroy coat) to pick it up and feel around on the cold wood for the metal key I didn’t feel anything. I checked the flower pots on the steps and saw one at the far end of the front porch. When I lifted each of these, I moved my hand around on the snow planning to find that metal shape. I removed my gloves and felt the snow gathered under each one burn my fingertips.

I carried a lot with me that year everywhere I went. Having an infant was like being a bedouin burdened with brightly colored things. Part of this was out of necessity: I had to have a car seat for the shuttle, and I had to have a stroller because Audrey didn’t have a child, and I knew she’d want to show me all the places that Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy had hung out, got drunk, left one another behind. Maybe the Snuggie would have been enough, but sometimes I’d want to be able to do something without a baby strapped to my chest so I took the stroller. I also had to have a breast pump because once I’d breastfed on an airplane and forgotten to re-snap my nursing bra and pull down my shirt before getting up to get something out of the overhead. You only have to do that once to realize that milk-brain is a thing, a thing much more daunting than pregnancy brain which merely subtracts verbs from one’s vocabulary. Milk-brain subtracted minutes and hours from memory, a primal strategy no doubt to keep us always wondering if our offspring have fed, ceaselessly calling us back into the nursing rocker, the only furniture in the modern world other than a toilet wholly dedicated to one bodily function. Stella and I were still in that zone where when she was hungry my uterus contracted with all the tension of early labor. I needed a breast pump because if a pain is both unbearable and avoidable, one must do whatever it takes to serve the latter quality, even if it means toting a complicated bomb-resembling device cross-country. 

I had a four-day supply of Huggies Swaddler diapers because it does make a difference, two blanket sleepers, a pink snowsuit about four inches thick into which she was now safely stuffed, a week’s supply of onesies and “outfits” which I was into because I was a new, first-time mother willing to spend, if not fully in a financial position to do so, $50.00 on ensembles she’d outgrow in two weeks, and a peculiar contraption comprised of a brightly colored mat with two bendable bars that attach by arching over it much like the poles of a geodesic dome tent one might pitch on the side of Everest but without the nylon and instead with little clips from which hung a purple hippopotamus, a giraffe which had some kind of rattle inside it, a grey elephant, and a crinkly sort of zebra, and at the transept of these two bending bars attached a star with lights that flashed slowly in time to a little song that might not exist outside the realm of this one toy. 

My baby loved the star and the giraffe, and because Audrey didn’t have any children of her own, I doubted the presence of stars and giraffes in her home. I wanted to have something to keep Stella entertained. That’s the way I thought then, that the baby had to be entertained, as though the experience of being in a world for the first third of the earth’s cycle round the sun might not be stimulating enough. I had all this stuff divided between one suitcase for clothes and one very large duffle bag for Baby Things, including the stroller. Between these two objects I huddled on the floor of Audrey’s porch with my baby sleeping inside my coat and snow streaking the air. Where the fuck is the god-damned key, I swore at my scholarly friend.

I had a cell-phone, but the battery was dead. The houses on the street were all dark. It was after midnight. Families in Denver went to bed early. I regretted not telling the shuttle driver to wait until I was inside before driving off. Then I hated him for not thinking of it himself. The last hotel he’d dropped passengers at had been at least twenty minutes away, by vehicle. I wouldn’t be able to walk it. I pulled my hat down over my ears and double wrapped my wide wool scarf around my neck and shoulders, keeping the winter from Stella’s skin. 

Had I been alone, only me, I might have stayed there through the night. In the same way that before I found out I was pregnant I smoked cigarettes, I would have done something stupid. But as much as breastfeeding and the actual process of growing a baby inside of you make your brain a little slow, it makes you really smart in matters of life and death. There was no way I was going to let my baby stay outside all night a mile above sea level. I gripped the bannister and slipped down the steps and along the sidewalk and knocked on the un-illuminated next door. 

And waited.

Booking the flight to see Audrey was an automatic response to suddenly being alone, like turning on the lights when entering a room or buckling a seatbelt when entering a car. I hadn’t seen her in years, but it was the only thing that made sense. I had a baby. I wanted my best friend to see her. Then I’d arrived on the porch of a stranger’s house about to beg to be let inside, like the Virgin Mary begging to be able to give birth in the barn. Not for me. For the baby. I was alone and vulnerable and part of a story in humanity that aligned me with the one no one could deny assisting on a winter night. If no one answered, I’d make my way to the next house, and the next, and the night would go like that. Me, the woman in the snow with the baby’s heavy head against her breast inside layers of corduroy and wool. 

The porchlight came on, and a man in red Royal Stewart plaid flannel pajama pants and a cream-colored long john shirt and great thick hiking socks and a kind, long, pale and unshaven face answered. I didn’t have to say anything once he saw the little brown haired head emerging from my coat. I was a story that didn’t have to talk. He opened the door wide. Come in Come in.

The door opened into a universe of Family. The wooden floors peeked up through archipelagoes of toys, sweaters, coats, textbooks, notepaper, and wool socks of varying sizes. Sheet music lay on the floor around the piano, with one sturdy page standing straight in the place sheet music belongs. How long have you been outside?  The man’s wife, wearing also a cream-colored long john shirt and plaid flannel pajama pants and wooly socks , poured hot chocolate from a well-used saucepan into a dark blue mug with the word “LOVE” engraved some sunny summer camp afternoon. I was sure if I peeked at the bottom I’d see the name of the pilot of the plastic helicopter on the fireplace mantle or the hockey player whose black skates hung from a hook screwed into a two-by-four nailed to the wall by the front door. Worn blankets lay across the backs and arms of worn sofas to the degree where it was impossible to tell what was upholstery and what was adornment. A cuckoo clock on the wall had two little doors above the place the bird came out at 1 a.m. and out of which popped a little man who danced to a little song with a little woman then cheerily went back inside their instrument of time. I took Stella out of my coat and the Snuggie as I sat down, not long, just a few minutes. 

Here, I’ll hold her, she said, holding her arms out the way women hold their arms out to infants, this ancient thing, this “oh-please-give-her-to-me” favor, the desire of love itself. I didn’t hesitate. Stella was deep in the sleep infants can access in times of stress and extremely cold weather. She was moving her lips in a gentle pulse. Soon she’d want to nurse, but I’d have time to drink hot chocolate first. The marshmallows released their form. The warmth from the heating vent wrapped my legs under the long wooden table.

Wade and Leslie were my hosts’ names. They had two sons and a daughter, Jim, Drew, and Alice. all sleeping upstairs in their rooms, rooms I could picture as they told me about each one. Alice, it turned out, was the hockey player. Drew was the pilot at age 7, and Jim preferred improvising jazz to learning classical on the piano. Alice was 11. Jim 13. Nobody said anything about the way everything was everywhere the way other people always apologized for “such a mess” when their homes were almost spotless. 

When Stella unsettled and started to mouth the air like she was seeing angels, Leslie showed me to the room where I’d be sleeping. I sat on the bed and started to nurse while she simply swept a pile of unfolded laundry back into its blue plastic oval laundry basket and kicked it toward the corner of the room where already an ironing board stood with a pile of un-ironed shirts on top of it. I didn’t imagine the shirts would ever get ironed or that Wade was a man who would require them to be. 

We have this. 

Leslie opened the closet and wheeled out a white lacy bassinet with a pale blue star, a pink moon, and a golden mysterious other figure from the solar system bobbing from a musical device that also spun these around when Leslie pressed a white almost-invisible button on the side of the basket. The song was a lullaby I knew the words to, “slowly the big silver moon rises and peeks in the room . . . . “ It was the prettiest bassinet I’d seen. I was almost jealous I hadn’t found it myself. Leslie reached up to the shelf in the magical closet of baby things and brought down a silk blanket printed with pink sailboats and blue sheep. 

It's nice to the touch. But you wouldn't put it in there with her.

I told her about the bags I had left on Audrey’s porch. We’d completely neglected them. By now they’d be covered with ice and snow. Don’t worry about it. But Leslie left and there was a conversation and soon Wade was bringing the duffle and my suitcase to my little guest room. He picked a towel out of the laundry basket and wiped off the melting snow. Stella was on a break from nursing. I pulled down my sweater before he saw. I found the key, he said, It was frozen to the bottom of the flower pot by the door. But your friend didn’t leave the heat on. I booted it up, but it won’t be warm enough for you and the baby for an hour or so. Sleep here. We’ll move you over in the morning.

He drew down one feather duvet and two heavy blankets from the magic shelf and placed them on my mattress. I’ll leave you two. Good night. Glad you’re safe. He looked at Leslie, Love you.

Leslie held out her arms to hold Stella again, Why don’t you take a shower. I put some pajamas next to the sink. They should fit just fine. I pulled a pale purple blanket sleeper from my suitcase and placed it on the bed. I didn’t understand how Leslie could think her pajamas could possibly fit me, but the ones she’d placed on the shelf did fit, large enough for a woman who’d eaten the world in order to produce a healthy baby. It didn't at all feel strange leaving Stella with this stranger. I felt that I was in a house that was made for keeping children safe. If anything ever went wrong here it would be the result not of human neglect or human action. It would have to be something of an eerily impossible and terrible chain of events. The hot water melted the last bit of winter from my body. I hadn't taken a long shower since before giving birth.

I returned to my room where Leslie held Stella close. She'd dressed her in the blanket sleeper from the suitcase, and rocked where she sat at the edge of the bed. She’d placed a bag of Pampers next to the bassinet, for 3-6 month infants. I climbed under the blankets and felt the feather duvet and blankets smother me into safety. I welcomed Leslie’s rocking. She might have done it all night as I slept. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

We Thank You Very Sweetly: My Father's Favorite Patient and the Wizard of Oz

In thinking about patient narratives in healthcare, I think of my father's patient who had played the munchkin who hands Dorothy flowers in Wizard of Oz. One of the few munchkins with speaking lines, he was also one of the few of my father's thousands of patients whose story flowed over into my life. I think of the countless others, the faces in the shadowy rooms he visited "on rounds," (I sometimes went with him when I went to the hospital instead of walking home.) If I think of hospitals as libraries of human stories, with some of the books with spines broken open and others barely browsed, then Mr. Cucksey was fully made into his own feature film.

He was practically a part of our family, a mysterious circus and movie star uncle,  though I only met him once.

Mr. Cucksey lived in a community for the retired performers in Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus in Sarasota, Florida. His mobile home was connected by a small bridge with a bell on it to his wife's mobile home. According to my father, he and his wife lived separately but would ring the bell on the bridge when one wanted to see the other.

My father adored Mr. Cucksey and his wife. There were days he came home and told me he'd seen Mr. Cucksey and had shared with him various events from my own life.

Mr. Cucksey was a window in my father's medical practice, a world that otherwise dwelled behind the boundary of his white lab coat, tethered to strangeness by the yellow-rubber stethoscope cord around his neck. He is the evidence that my father loved his patients. On one occasion, my father cancelled a weekend trip we were scheduled to take: he was afraid Mr. Cucksey would die without him.

On one of those trips, Mr. Cucksey did. My father was heart-broken. We didn't take any more trips.

In designing a Narrative Medicine course entitled Patient as Hero / Doctor as Human, I often remember Mr. Cucksey as he stood in the dining room of our home tickling himself and cracking up, and cracking us up, a circus performer to the end. I also think often of my father and the sorrow he endured when Mr. Cucksey died. Looking at both sides of the chart that hangs at the end of the bed in the thousands of hospitals in the world, the shared vulnerability care invites us into comes to life, I am moved by the tensions story creates, the clinical ease its absence creates.

The course begins January 13.
And while I add, subtract, shift, and shape the syllabus, I think of Mr. Cucksey and my father, the doctor that loved him.

If you want to take the class, let me know. or just register at
If you want to hear Mr. Cucksey singing "We thank you very sweetly. You killed her so completely," here is the link:

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Losing Vivaldi

The other day I was listening to my playlist.  Vivaldi's Four Seasons came on and every note sounded so flat that if it weren't for the rhythm I wouldn't have known what it was. I couldn't over-ride it with imagination. I couldn't correct it by adjusting my hearing aids. This means I have to go back to the audiologist and get my ears tested in the dark little booth. Clinically, it means my hearing has declined considerably. Aesthetically, it means I have lost Vivaldi.

I have been listening to Vivaldi all my life. I know the Quattro Stagioni like I know the lullabies my grandmother sang to me and which I have sung to my daughter. I know them like I know Beatles songs.

Hearing aids are digital denial. They delay the actuality of deafness. Mine are excellent, and when I get them adjusted, I will hear Vivaldi again and enjoy that illusion that I can hear. However, here at the middle moment between technological cover-up and neurological over-ride, my degenerative hearing loss is laid bare. And all week I have felt dreadfully mortal, dreadfully frightened, and dreadfully sad.

I've covered it up with everything. From flirtation to food, I've compensated for the loss of this magnificent aspect of life, hearing Vivaldi naturally, with other faces of the life-force, love and nourishment.

Under it all though, and why I'm writing it here, in this blog that started out as serving this very purpose, my deafness is expanding.

I don't have an answer. And I don't have a desire to gloss over this, find the golden fleece. I don't want to tell you I am okay with this, and I don't want to hear any of the slightest attempts at telling me there is a good side to this. For this, just listen. And I'll try to do the same: just simply listen to deafness.

I've been fearing this moment for ten years. When I was first diagnosed at age 32 the first fear was losing music. Such beauty. The miracle of the song. These particular works I comprised in a list and played over and over again so I could remember each note. If I remembered each note, I believed, then I'd always hear them.

I didn't think I would hear something different, that the notes would lose parts of themselves. I didn't know enough about sound to foresee that. Lesson one in deafness: it's not about silence. It's about shape. The shapes of the sounds change long before the sounds vanish. That's the practice of losing hearing: it's a constant re-learing of the sounds sounds make.

Now, in order to hear Vivaldi's Four Seasons, at least until I get my audiogram then the adjustments to my hearing aids, I close my eyes in a quiet room.

Here, I hear it.

This is where I am now. With the memory of that music.

The beauty of Il Quattro Stagioni invites me to remember that they are, after all, about the seasons of life as well as the year. And this is an early autumn for me, the first of my five senses to go. I can hear as I write this the storms of those violins, tearing away the once full-sap shreds of summer. And that has always been my favorite part. And this is that. This is what that sounds like when I live it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Yellow Chair: The Time I Taught at the Juvee

Back in the 90s I taught at the Juvenile Evaluation Center out in Black Mountain. My students were teenagers locked up for anything ranging from possession of marijuana to sexual assault to assault with a deadly weapon.

All my students were working on a GED so they could get out before they turned 18. All had committed their crimes while high. All were in drug programs at the center--all in recovery and trying to see a new life.

It is illegal for me to write their names, but trust me when I say I know their names, and I know their stories, and I know what they dreamed of getting for Christmas.

I wheeled a piano out of a broom closet and played music on it while they did math. Some of them learned by ear and played for the others. I taught them equally, and I cheered them on. Next to my desk I had a yellow chair where any student could choose to sit if they needed to "chill out" and not be bothered or asked any questions. It was a place of sanctuary within an otherwise horrible place where, basically, we lock up children.

For the teachers who did not respect these students, these students did not behave very well.  They made life very difficult for the librarian who didn't let them touch the books or turn on more lights.
They knew when they were being talked down to. They recognized a teacher who was "phoning it in" like the one who had memorized every answer in the back of the textbook. The teacher I was replacing was in the hospital for a pencil wound to the kidney.  My pass rates on the GED were far and away better than any other GED instructor they'd placed out there.

My students learned from me because I taught them, not just the material.

We recognize when we're being treated and seen as people. We also recognize when we're being perceived through a false lens of judgment and thinly veiled superiority. I experience it when I know some guy is just checking me out but has no interest in my thoughts. I am a total bitch to such people. I shut down inside and feel a hatred for what they've allowed themselves to become. I even feel moved to a kind of violence I know isn't worth the consequence. Being seen as less than we are moves us to be less than we are. But like my students, when treated with respect and even challenged to rise to someone's good idea of us, I tend to open up and be kind and more myself.

I saw this every day in my students. Other teachers--with the exception of Ms. A---- who loved the boys and consistently held them accountable and told them to Stand Up Straight--experienced conflict with them, sometimes had a boy hog-tied in the foyer while the cops drove over, but for me they worked hard.

Toward the end of my time at the juvee, shortly before a whole chain of abuse stories broke into the public conversation and the place was shut down, the state made this big play for a great big fence with arched steel and razor wire to be constructed around the whole place, which while I was there was open, with children moving from building to building led by teachers and counselors.

The fence started going up, and my students' performance and behavior started to decline. It was as though they were giving in to the idea they belonged behind the fence. The yellow chair was filled with someone all the time, and I had to bring in extras.

The truth is the last time any harm had been caused by J.E.C. students' escaping had been in 1976 or something, more than twenty years before. The few times a boy escaped while I was there, they were spotted rather quickly because they'd shed their clothes and try to hitch-hike down the mountain in boxers.

I drove through the gates and into what looked the inside of a whale skeleton, even I felt I was driving into a place packed with murderous teenagers who held no sanctity for life and would kill me in an instant if I turned my back. But once I got in my classroom, there were my boys. Agitated but still eager to succeed, to take that practice test that would open the door to a new future.

During a math class one day, a boy asked if I believed in the statistic of the low number of African-American boys who'd live to see the age of 25. No, I said. The statistic, of course, suggests that it's the African-American boys who get themselves killed not that non-black people with guns will shoot them.

Now, I believe in the statistic while I still believe in African-American boys.

And I think of that fence.

I think of the razor wire and the white curves of steel and the message it sends telling everybody who drives by that black youth are killers and need to be locked up this way.

And I think of how this is how a culture perpetuates racism through solutions disproportionate to the problems. And I think of my students. And I hope they are safe.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Teacher Who Taught Me How to Teach

As I begin a new school year, I think of the teacher who taught me how to teach. Marianne Weaver.

The entire educational universe would be a different place if everyone could learn how to teach from Marianne Weaver. In every subject. In every institution. At every grade level. Marianne Weaver is that excellent a teacher.

I first stepped into Marianne's Muscle Pump class at the YMCA a year after I gave birth.

I had never lifted weights before in my life, having gone the yoga road through my twenties and early thirties but now suddenly completely uninterested in yoga. I wanted something else. Something tougher. Something that didn't ask me to develop an inner life. If there's anything I'd had enough of in that first year of motherhood, it was interiority, connection with my soul. I wanted pure, unadulterated body.

When I walked past Marianne's class and heard "Modern English" singing "I'll Stop the World and Melt with You" over a roomful of mostly women holding bars over their heads and moving their hips to the beat like they were holding beach balls, I thought I'd stepped into a Zero-Gravity chamber. I walked in, sweaty from some time on the treadmill, grabbed the gear I saw everyone else had, and I started lifting.

Most "group exercise" classes I'd tried were parapatetic in their organization: to the beat of techno the instructor rushes students through bits and pieces of routines that left me focusing more on keeping up then actually doing the actions. Marianne had found what worked for me without knowing me. Each song served one muscle group and involved only three or four actions, which I could learn then do while zoning out to the music.

Her songs were my songs. They were all our songs. Marianne's students loved Marianne's music. And no one loved Marianne's music more than Marianne, who swayed, laughed, and danced while lifting (is that allowed?), and even flirted with the room of us when the lyrics flirted with her. She made working out feel like we were at a slumber party, and she was the one you tried to stay up all night with playing pranks on everybody else but always fell asleep.

"I know it's getting heavy!" Marianne would say into her headset as we all stood holding our 9 pound bars in front of us for the entire bridge of "China Girl" "It's heavy for the woman standing next to you, too, and if you drop your bar, you'll stop inspiring her, showing her that she can keep holding it--so don't drop that bar. We're going to do this together."

She wasn't a cheerleader. She wasn't a coach like anything I'd seen before. She wasn't either chipper with encouragement or sadistic with harsh platitudes. She was a philosopher in spandex shorts and t-shirt, sometimes a ball cap. "What does that bar represent to you? Is it your career? Is it your family? Whatever it is, you don't want it to fall, do you?" She connected all the ways we were strong outside the exercise room to what we were doing in it. She built a community out of this hour-long gathering; she made us feel we were on one another's mission, that what we did in that space would determine the outcome of all our efforts between then and the next time we came together.

And like this, she got us all believing something I myself had never known before: I was strong, and I could get stronger as long as I kept coming to class.

So unique and effective was Marianne's brand of teaching that when she had to call in a substitute, half of the students just didn't go into class.

It was the difference between being yelled at for an hour and being supported for an hour.
It was the difference between being challenged to do something and being given a reason to do it.
It was the different between "working out" and "working together."

I took my Muscle Pump experience with me into my own classroom. In the same ways I had never been told I was strong, my students had never been told they could write or become the kind of person who could pick up a book and really get into it. I understood them better, and I dreamed up ways of getting them to hold their own burdens in a new way, inspiring each other as they did so--because everybody has burdens.

And our burdens make us strong.

I now understand that what I witnessed in Marianne's teaching was the difference between the old-school model of scolding and pressure and varying degrees of humiliation and something new, something I had not seen before--but something that definitely worked because I was dancing while doing clean-press-squats and simultaneous leg-lifts and flies.

That's what a teacher can do: take someone who declares they can't do something and reveal to them they can. Again and again.

Marianne has left my local YMCA. Those of us in her class see each other from time to time in other settings. We never met for coffee. We didn't develop friendships. We weren't in that space for that kind of community. We were in there to get strong, and when we see each other, we know we are, and we respect each other for what we know we can do.

So, as the semester begins, as I look over my assessment strategies and syllabi, as I ask myself how high can I raise the bar this time, I picture my students as though we were gathered in that exercise room. And I raise the bar pretty damn high. They can totally do it.

Thank you, Marianne.

An added note: Marianne has written a children's book which challenges our children to develop strong vocabularies and strong ethics. If anyone can make our children strong in these ways, it's Marianne. Worked for me.

This Is What Love Does - This Is What Love Does is a story about a newspaper delivery girl, named Dubzee, who embarks on an adventure, sharing her gift of selfless love, with the hope of restoring harmony and balance within her surroundings. This story is about values and putting these values into action. The reader is subtly reminded in loving acts of kindness we each have the potential to create a positive impact while understanding we are all connected to something bigger. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

O Captain: How Dead Poets Society and Robin Williams' Mr. Keating Shaped My Life

I saw Dead Poets Society in a theater in Piccadilly Circus in 1989. At the time I was a junior in college, studying theater, literature, and philosophy. My walks to class included passing by the former homes of T.S. Eliot, John Stuart Mill, and Sarah Bernhardt, mirroring my own passions, my own indecisiveness of what I should focus upon. I was acting in a play in a small South Kensington theater, but I was waking up at 3 am with a head full of poems that I'd crawl out my window and write by the streetlamps along Queens Gate Terrace, careful not to wake my room-mates. 

One evening after rehearsal, my director and fellow castmates decided to venture into town to watch a movie. I hadn't ever asked myself what poetry was or considered it to be something of a great gift. I had written it forever and belonged to it and loved it as one feels love for something always there yet forever surprising. But I walked out of the movie with a very clear view of what I would devote my life to, something that would entail all my passions, including theatre and philosophy, and cost me nothing if I held to it fast enough. 

"There's a time for daring and there's a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for," says Robin Williams' character, the beloved Mr. Keating. I finished the play, but after that I gave my life to poetry. And to teaching. Ten years later, I was hired to teach English at Christ School, an Episcopal boarding school for, yes, boys here in Asheville (well, Arden). For ten years I was "that" teacher, the one that spoke of poetry as sacrament, the one that got the boys dashing through the forest dressed in fake fur and mud enacting scenes from Beowulf, the one to whom the boys still send the occasional poem, penned through tears after a break-up. When a new department chair published an article entitled, "An Arsenal of Strategies for Teaching Boys How to Attack Poems," I knew my days of reading "Tintern Abbey" on the branches of a 250 year old oak or Midsummer Night's Dream under the arbors dripping with bees and wisteria were running out.

Dead Poets Society is a cautionary tale, warning teachers and students alike about the dangers of a life lived at the core of passion, a life lived "deliberately." This excusing of the poetic life from any "pragmatic (a term so often used to escape the aesthetic, when in fact aesthetic consideration is necessary when looking from all sides, no?)" course extends to this day. I can safely say, though, that in ten years spent teaching boys in the Keating Style of Barbaric YAWP-ing, all of my boys survived.

Twenty five years after seeing a movie that warns against routing out "all that was not life," I still teach in a way that lets knowledge infuse life with meaning and not stay dead on the page, and I still write. I have not abided by the Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D., scale of poetry, as the gruff headmaster commands Mr. Keating do, and I have a full, rich, beautiful, caring, and meaningful life. It takes courage to live such a life, to gather the rosebuds, to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. There have been temptations to surrender to an idle kingship. But what kingdom would I rule?

Dead Poets Society and Robin Williams' performance accomplished the near impossible: into the material heyday of the 1980s, the film stirred a subversive and life-affirming message: live for beauty. That Neil's dad couldn't stand to see his son crowned with ivy and sprinkling water upon lovers' dream-cast faces is the warning any of us face when moved to contribute beauty to the world: a fear of pissing off Dad. But Mr. Perry (the actor of which played Mork's love's Mindy's dad in the actor's TV debut) sees the smoke rise from the cold space behind the stentorian desk and learns the ultimate lesson about life-force for which the film framed poetry to be the very voice. The film said this is a voice that should not be taken from the world, not for all the money in it.

Thinking through all the actors who might have played Mr. Keating, none comes to mind as any so well-equipped with the depth and joy and mysterious beautiful sorrow and beauty of Robin Williams. If as Mr. Keating says, "No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world," then so can powerful performances. This one absolutely not only changed my life but set its course, so I say from my heart, "O Captain. My Captain."


Thursday, August 07, 2014

Ten Responses to "Do You Read Thomas Wolfe?" That Won't Make You Sound Like an Idiot

As Thomas Wolfe becomes increasingly famous, again, and as Asheville rises with the Wolfean tide, again, here are some responses to the question, "Have you read Wolfe?" that won't make you sound like an idiot, even if you don't read Wolfe. The key here is to avoid saying, "His sentences are too long."
10. The Planned Engagement:
Like a lot of people of my generation, I haven't come across much Wolfe. I plan to pick up a copy of the short stories. Do you have a favorite?
9. The Deflection:
Oh, you like Wolfe! You can tour his house here! It's just over there on Market Street. You can also stand in his shoes. They've been bronzed!
8. The Shut Down:
I have indeed! I've read every word, and the journals, and the letters, as well as multiple published versions of Look Homeward, Angel. I found O Lost to be much more satsifying and loved reading the two side by side, highlighting the altered passages. My dream is to spend a summer thumbing through the original drafts, all two million words of them.
7. The Shame
Oh, you know, living here in Asheville, with so many descendants of the actual characters in Look Homeward walking around, teaching your kids, running the florists and being doctors and all, it's a bit bad of form to read Wolfe. If you do read him while you're here in town, it's best to keep it on the sly. Like a speakeasy, only for books. A read-easy, if you will. We'd be wise not to talk about it further, not in the open like this.
6. The Passion:
I had a girlfriend who loved reading Wolfe, and we read Of Time and River while we backpacked around Europe back in the 80s. It was the best few weeks of my life, then she dumped me on the Rhine for a Spanish soccer player, and I threw my copy overboard. It's now all soggy at the base of the Lorelei. But I loved every word of it. (Sigh heavily til interlocutor changes subject to avoid your total breakdown)
5. The Scholar:
At this time, I'm more interested in the criticism surrounding Wolfe. (Then just wait . . . you probably are safe from further engagement. If you discover you are not, run.)
4. The Side Step
Wolfe is such a stunning asset to American literature, and it's exciting to see his legacy revived. While it's been some time since I read You Can't Go Home Again, there's no doubt that it's one of the greatest books in the English language. I just wish they hadn't changed the name from Eugene Gant to George Weber. (interlocutor here will no doubt enjoy a monologue espousing his or her shared sentiments; conversation will very likely veer into the editing narrative, which you can happily let interlocutor control at no expense to your literary profile)
3. The Techscuse:
I think all my technology usage has made my brain incapable of reading Wolfe the way it's meant to be read, which I understand is to allow time for each paragraph to wash over you, each sentence to take form in your mind before you move on to the next. I'm eager to remedy this, but my job requires me to be plugged in all the time. (yes, this is dangerously close to "the sentences are too long," but it has a reflective context. Interlocutor might even pity you then walk on)
2. The Sentimental Journey:
My father used to read Wolfe to me when I was a kid. I still have his copy of Look Homeward, Angel, all beaten up from his college days. I pick it up from time to time, but it makes me very nostalgic, which I suppose Wolfe would have wanted.
1. The Best Answer:
I am two-thirds of the way through Look Homeward, Angel now. I read it at his grave for an hour each day over in Montford, when the weather's nice, and on the porch of the house, if it's raining. With a thermos of coffee and a flask of Makers.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Rise of Valerie Macon

(to the tune of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald")

The legend lives on from the Catawba on down,
Of the poet named laureate by McCrory,
Folks said O Brother. No one had heard of her,
Not a song, a poem, or story.
Of the governor and crew, none of them knew
Anyone reads this weird stuff they called poetry.
The post it was said was every bit as good as dead,
And he appointed a woman named Valerie.

(slide guitar in mournful sea chanty moan of Lake Superior)

The Laurel is the pride of the Creative side,
For whom the work of the words is of value.
The craft of the verse seems obsessive at first
But like love it serves to enthrall you.
And from Valerie’s pen flowed the truth of men
In lines that felt as they fell like renewal.
This was the gift of the poetic shift,
A storm in the soul that will call you.

(slide guitar in mournful sea chanty moan of Lake Superior)

When the press release came, the voices weren’t tame
That questioned the governor’s decision.
There was protocol in place and credentials to name
He’d completely ignored for some reason.
From Hendersonville high to Okracoke low
The poets posted on Facebook their questions.
Then the Monitor and then NPR
Gave North Carolina poetry their full attention.

(slide guitar in mournful sea chanty moan of Lake Superior)

Meanwhile at her desk, our poet laureate,
Valerie Macon, deleted her website.
Erased any clue of any image she once drew
With words that had given her delight.
The poems she loved, felt had come from above
Now trapped her in the harshest of spotlights.
For overnight fame was never good when it came
On the wings of a politician’s oversight.

(slide guitar in mournful sea chanty moan of Lake Superior)

Things had been quiet on the poetry side.
And since school it'd been easy to avoid it.
But now passions flared and the Governor was scared.
He thought it would be easier than this to destroy it
Within a matter of hours, he came down from his tower
And said Everyone can be a poet.
Like this he'd deregulate the Arts of the state.
By taking them into his pocket.

(slide guitar in mournful sea chanty moan of Lake Superior)

For seven long day’s neath the nauseating haze
Of the governor’s unceasing hubris.
Valerie’s pen beckoned Please use me again,
It wasn’t your idea to do this.
But Poetry’s shy when it’s been crushed by the sky.
It’s not something on the ego’s to-do list.
It’s a soul-given task, a beloved craft,
And McCrory’s great stunt abused it.

(slide guitar in mournful sea chanty moan of Lake Superior)

Now, poets are called hostile and cold
Instead of peaceful folk who like language.
Professor and King are for him kinda the same thing
And they needed to go out with the garbage.
Yet under it all, there’s yet this constant, wild call
Like a prayer that's as old as the ages.
The storm now has passed, and the poets all ask
Valerie, won’t you please come and write with us.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014


                                    for James Shaver

I want to live every moment as a promise unbroken and
flowing to my grandfather who when we walked to water pump
In the park in Orillia looked up and announced in his French
Canadian ancestry, “Quelle mélange de couleur” and I asked
him what he’d said and he, being deaf and understanding
the question to mean I hadn’t heard him, repeated it en
Francais and I somehow understood him the second time
and didn’t need to hear it the third. Language is its own
water underneath the earth of thought.

From his deafness, now my deafness, he only spoke to
illuminate, to magnify some lost treasure the rest of us
were missing. Family arguments died under the blade
of a Shakespeare quote. Rough waters calmed. “You
going to be a poet, pet?” he asked as we clipped the wet
laundry onto the line between their cottage and the next.
There was only one correct answer and I said it, cool cotton
heavy in my hands one minute, dancing in the sunlight
the next.

“Genius,” he called me after Alzheimer’s had stolen my
name. “Poet,” he stroked my hands as I tried to feed him
cranberry juice through a straw he refused. I watched
prose dissolve into poetry under the overwhelming tide
of mind-loss, beginning the moment he locked his keys
in the car without setting the brake so it rolled into the
ocean. He stood and watched it, then announced we’d
be walking home that day. 

There is, he told me, years before, an eloquence
to silence, perhaps my hardest lesson as we knelt in the
canoe and pushed off from the Simcoe beach, the water
droplets our paddles carried over the surface the only sound.
A whirlpool’s hush from a J-Stroke kept us straight. In the silence
he taught me the depth of life, interminable, exhausting. Those
evenings we paddled for hours. And when we returned, I had
the golden feeling of nothing having happened of value. But he

would assure me in his long wordless strides something beautiful had.

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: