Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

Wage peace — in breath, spirit, and community

While missiles flew in Libya, and Japan continues to reel from its natural and man-made disasters, I attended a medicine wheel ceremony last Sunday. The event, held on a part of Musqueam land in Vancouver, BC now known as Van Dusen Gardens, was designed to honor the spring equinox and share healing words in a sacred community space.

This was my first visit to the medicine wheel. I walked past the garden’s white and purple crocuses and mini-daffodils towards the Canadian Heritage Garden, where people sat nearby in folding chairs or on the grass on the outer perimeter of the medicine wheel, a 30-foot circle. At around noon, about 35 people gathered in this open area, which has been in active use for First Nations and other traditions since the late 1990s. The wheel was initiated by a Cree elder,  Amy (we used only first names), who shared drumming and stories with us. Under a blanket and hood and long, padded coat, she readily offered a kind smile and provided a soft-voiced presence of grace and wisdom. 

Our host Phil, a middle-aged Cree with a native drum and long, plaited ponytail, began by honoring the four directions, which correspond to mind, body, emotion, and spirit. He reinforced the need to heal Mother Earth, to ask for more balance, and he said that all faiths are honored within the medicine wheel. While each of us received a smudge (a symbolic cleansing ritual, using the smoke from burning sage or other herbs), Phil drummed and sang, drawing on music from Lakota traditions. (He spends time with Lakota friends at annual Sun Dance events in the U.S.)

Each of us was to have arrived with a stone offering for the wheel. A woman provided some small stones for those of us, like me, who came empty-handed. Phil invited us all, one by one, to address the group, saying in whose honor we were placing the stone in the circle. Clockwise, we began with those seated in the south, like me. I said that I was offering my smooth, rounded, grey stone in memory of my father, who died in October, and in honor of my mother, husband, and anyone who was trying to bring a voice to what lay hidden within them, asking that they be heard, including those in Libya willing to risk their lives for freedom. I placed my stone in the grass at the centre of the circle, putting a pinch of tobacco under it, as Phil directed us to.  

As we went around the circle in a three-hour ritual, each person stood and honored loved ones, dead and alive, or voiced concern and love for those suffering, including the Libyans and Japanese. Several people had close friends in Japan. One woman said that the Japanese men who were risking their lives to try and cool the overheated reactor at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima gave her great hope. She admired their courage and selflessness in an activity that served “the well-being of us all.”

At times, crows circled overhead in the sunny, blue sky and squawked periodically. A hawk perched in a nearby tree. Phil encouraged those who wanted to cry to invite such a cleansing. Several native elders spoke, drummed and sang. When the sun went in and it grew colder, Phil led us in an Algonquin stomp song; we moved clockwise around the circle and pounded the ground with our feet. He teased us for our lack of spirited stomping; it was more like timid tapping.

As a closing, Phil lit a ceremonial pipe and we passed it around the circle. Some wanted to draw smoke from it, others just tapped their right, then left shoulder with it. Overall, it was heartening to join with strangers in such a public ritual of combined vulnerability and strength. I liked that we moved beyond our individual pain or concerns to encompass the suffering of others around the planet. To me, this reinforced the view that we are all One.

In the spirit of this gathering, I share this poem by Judith Hill:

Wage Peace

Wage peace with your breath.
Breathe in firemen and rubble,
breathe out whole buildings
and flocks of redwing blackbirds.
Breathe in terrorists and breathe out sleeping children
and freshly mown fields.
Breathe in confusion and breathe out maple trees.
Breathe in the fallen
and breathe out lifelong friendships intact.
Wage peace with your listening:
hearing sirens, pray loud.
Remember your tools:
flower seeds, clothes pins, clean rivers.
Make soup.
Play music, learn the word for thank you in three languages.
learn to knit, and make a hat.
Think of chaos as dancing rasberries,
Imagine grief as the out breath of beauty
or the gesture of fish.
Swim for the other side.
Wage peace.
Never has the world seemed so fresh and precious.
Have a cup of tea and rejoice.
Act as if armistice has already arrived.
Don’t wait another minute.

March 26, 2011 at 5:07 pm Comments (3)

Write it raw

Several writers around me recently complained of writer’s block. This frustrating state of non-word flow usually occurs when someone is determined to write specific content in a certain way, but his or her deeper self is saying: “No, let’s go this different way, because that’s what you truly want to say.” If the writer ignores this inner prompt, writer’s block will set in.

The solution? Let go and surrender to what wants to come out. This can be a scary about-face for those who never start writing without an outline first. It might even require switching genres. Whatever the change, the words that flow will ring rawer and truer than those you tried to constrain with a structure that didn’t fit.

I recommend Victoria Nelson’s book Writer’s Block and How to Use It. Natalie Goldberg’s free-writing exercises in Wild Mind and Writing Down the Bones also provide inspiration for loosening your mind’s hold on words. This process works — I’ve done it for years. Try it, and let me know how it worked for you.

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To use writing as a spiritual practice requires immersing yourself in the unknown. Rabbi Rami, who runs a creative writing program at Middle Tennessee State University, provides three rules for this kind of writing:

  • Don’t write what you know
  • You can’t write what you don’t know
  • You must write.

Gee, and I thought that “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?” was enough of a mind-twist. His first rule — “Don’t write what you know” — jarred me because that contradicts the advice that every writer learns: “Write what you know.” Yet, I get it. We need to be humble enough to know that we don’t have all of the answers. We need to be okay with not knowing where we’re headed, and to trust that our words will get us there. As Rami says: “Authentic spiritual practice . . . is about living outside the system, any system.”

He recommends that you keep writing until you find something “deeply, disturbingly troubling,” until you’ve shattered all of your expectations, and then you marvel. I can attest to this. I’ve been working on a disturbing book intensively for almost four years; I started it about twenty years ago. It has been the most challenging and painful writing I have ever done, but also the most rewarding and freeing. As Rami says: “[T]here is a liberating wisdom in insecurity.”

Writing as spiritual practice is writing to be free, not necessarily publishable or even good. One of Goldberg”s rules of writing is “Give yourself permission to write the worst junk in the world.”  I like that. Now if only I could do that when I’m on deadline . . .

March 15, 2011 at 8:37 am Comments (0)

I need a sonnet, doc — fast!

Anna Karenina to combat compulsive behavior? Wuthering Heights to ease depression and promote hope of romance? Treasure Island to encourage extroversion?

More and more readers might soon be receiving prescriptions of “two sonnets by Shakespeare, read daily until condition improves” or “five love poems by Pablo Neruda, read morning and night, for two weeks or until symptoms subside.” 

Reading and writing have always been therapeutic for me, but I’ve never thought of assigning books for emotional and medical conditions. That’s part of a relatively new practice called bibliotherapy, which is growing popular among psychologists, doctors, librarians, and teachers. (I read about this in the October 2010 issue of Ode, a magazine that I love.) It involves reading specific texts in response to certain situations or conditions.

According to Ode, ancient Egyptians called libraries psyches iatreion or “sanatoriums of the soul.” In the early 1800s, psychiatrists in the U.S.  were discussing reading as a therapeutic tool. Today, doctors or therapists are writing literary prescriptions — prose, not pills — to help with physical discomfort, disability, emotional conflict or other suffering.

The therapy involves either writing or reading or both, drawing on texts from fiction to self-help books. Whether they’re medical or not, bibliotherapists give their clients reading suggestions based on their individual situations. “Reading can change and improve how we feel and behave,” says Joseph Gold, a former English professor and author of  The Story Species: Our Life-Literature Connection.

Brain imaging studies at the University of Washington in St. Louis, Missouri reveal that some areas of the brain, active while someone reads a story, duplicate the same areas involved when people “perform, imagine or observe similar real-world activities.” Apparently, while reading, our brains simulate what happens in a tale, using the same circuits as if the same things were happening to us. Neurologically, we become part of the action.

I find this fascinating. Obviously, any good book engages us and inspires our imagination, but I hadn’t thought of the physiological impact of reading. I’ve experienced first-hand the therapeutic impact of writing, not to mention its healing results in countless writing students I’ve had. (I taught creative writing to adults with mental illness for five years, and to regular students.)

However, within the broad writing community in North America, there are those who view “therapeutic writing” as a somehow lesser genre, something beneath the purity of “true” prose or poetry. They imply that it’s self-indulgent and therefore, doesn’t rise to the universal value of literature.

Well, let them keep their snobbery. I advocate reading and writing in any form to create greater self-awareness and healing. It works. Let’s make it official. Hurry for bibliotherapy.

(For this post, I drew on Ursula Sautter’s Ode article “Reading, writing and revelation: How the written word helps refresh body, mind and soul.”)

March 6, 2011 at 3:29 pm Comments (0)