Odd Volumes

A personal library is not a collection of odd volumes:  It is the outward representation of one’s inner life, a mirror of the soul, the past spread out before your eyes.

                                                                                                        Michael Dirda

                                                                                                       The Washington Post

 I will be moving soon.  Time to choose among my possessions, decide what to pack and what to leave behind.  Books are the hardest to cull.  It’s not that I could not take them all—it’s that I want to travel light and make space for what is new.  When I was younger, this was easy, a matter of course.  Not now.

My well-thumbed copy of Sound and SenseAn Introduction to Poetry has followed me since high school.  It will make the move.  Knowing Woman by Irene Claremont de Castijello has been seminal in my development as a woman and will certainly come.  But what about Märchen der Brűder Grimm and the other volumes from German language study and travel in my 20s?  What about Thomas Merton and the other spiritual writers who enriched my 30s?  the outdated but once essential and still prized texts and reference books from my clinical years?  the anthologies in which my work appears?

Then there are the Tony Hillerman murder mysteries that I (who’d never read murder mysteries) was delighted to discover because they taught me about Navajo culture and introduced me to memorable characters like Navajo tribal policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.  There’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, a massive tome I bought one bleak winter but have never got around to reading because that stage of life seems to have passed and the collections of personal essays (Lewis Thomas, Bill Holm, Kathleen Norris) that have come to me at critical times in my life.  As my eyes roam each shelf, I am flooded with memories.

Dirda is right.  A personal library is a mirror of the soul, a record of one’s journey through life.  Still, all of my books, even those that won’t accompany me this time, have already left their mark.  That will be my consolation as I drop them off at Goodwill or some other station along the way to their next destination.


I’ve been reflecting on the massive AWP conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) held here in Washington D.C. last month where I was one of more than 12,000 writers gathered to celebrate and hone their craft.  I came, for the first and likely last time, to participate in a panel discussion hosted by Joan Baranow of Dominican University in California.  She titled it “Crossing the Line—Writing As a Healing Practice.”

Talk about crossing the line!  Here I was milling about in a crowd of writers at the D.C. Convention Center which, as it happens, is located directly across the street from the crumbling townhouse where Community Medical Care, the mom-and-pop family practice I was part of for almost two decades, is awaiting certain demolition as the neighborhood continues to gentrify. 

This unsettling observation put me in mind of an essay I wrote years ago called “Crossing the Road.”  I dug it out and reread it.  Here are the opening paragraphs:

            I am standing on a rise at the far end of Dayspring Silent Retreat Center in Germantown, Maryland.  Behind me is a narrow strip of woods and the curve of Neelsville Church Road which marks the property line.  Since I first started coming here over twenty-five years ago, development has pressed in on Dayspring.  What once seemed pristine and remote from metropolitan Washington, D.C. has become an oasis in the urban desert.  From where I stand, I see daisy fields rolled out like a white blanket at my feet, evergreen borders and the Lake of the Saints, a rest stop for migratory water birds.  In the far distance I can make out the porch of the retreat lodge, lined with wooden rocking chairs.  In stark contrast, across the road, I see the closely-spaced houses and yards of a fast-growing suburb.  Decks, grills, swing sets and plastic pools camouflage the busy, productive and often stressed lives expedited by the SUVs parked in the driveways.

             In one of the flashes of insight that I’ve learned to expect while on retreat, I realize that what I see spread out before me represents two worlds, the instrumental world where the business of everyday gets done, and the expressive world of Dayspring, set apart for the renewal of body and soul.  One swath of land, bisected by a country road, supports both.  My life is like this land, I thought.   

Yes, the instrumental and expressive worlds, the practice of nursing and the healing art of writing,  CMC and AWP.  My life, like Ninth Street here in the heart of Washington, has been home to both.

Prescribing the Ations

I often make the case for poetry as good medicine.  I think of poems as small capsules of meaning that heal the soul thanks to active ingredients like celebration, consolation, inspiration and revelation—call them the “ations” if you’re a clinician and want to categorize them alongside the statins, mycins, salicilates and other classes of pharmaceuticals.

Truth be told, I’ve rarely prescribed poems to patients, but have done so from time to time for friends and family members suffering from illness, anxiety or uncertainty .  I also prescribe for myself on a regular basis.  Here are a few of the “ations” and poems that I find therapeutic. 

Celebration: Bugs in a Bowl, David Budbill

Consolation: Go Down, Dom Helder Camara

Humiliation:  The Mistake, James Fenton

Inspiration:  New Water, Sharon Chmielarz

Lamentation:  Dirge Without Music, Edna St. Vincent Millay

Meditation:  The Way It Is, William Stafford

Revelation:  The Guest House, Rumi

A Book of One's Own

I love lists. They’re concise, reductive, easy to absorb. That’s one reason I was drawn to Thomas Mallon’s, A Book of One’s Own—People and Their Diaries.  In it he devotes a chapter to each of seven types of diarist and gives examples of their work. By and large these diaries are not crafted or written with the benefit of reflection. But, he says, they continue to attract readers down through the decades.  There are the

·        chroniclers whose writing is rooted in the idea of dailiness and is meant to preserve impressions

·         travelers who record the sights and sounds of places they want to remember

·         pilgrims whose destination is inward, who want to realize their full potential

·         creators in whose private pages imagination comes to life through notes and sketches

·         apologists: the idealists, propagandists, and spurned lovers who want the world to sit up and take notice

·         confessors, animated by secrecy, who hold private conversations with God or some other embodiment of conscience

·         prisoners—the jailed, the invalid or otherwise incapacitated who are given voice in this medium

The big reason I dove into Mallon is that I, too, write my life.  Which of these diarists am I?  Except for one year in which I made a regular effort to explore my professional role (chronicler, pilgrim, apologist), I have not been a collector of days.  Nor have I adopted a consistent form.  Here’s my list of the molds into which I’ve poured my experience:

·         commonplace book (to-do lists, stray jottings about what I’ve read or thought, observations about events, places or people, numbers I want to remember)

·         journal (reflections on my life, musings from my imagination)

·         sketchbook (though I’m not a gifted artist, I often sketch or paint when I travel)

·         visual journal (a mix of words, collage, mandalas, headlines or illustrations torn from periodicals, drawings, photographs, interesting scraps paper or fabric)

·         pocket notebook with uncharted lines gathered from patient encounters, random observations from my professional life

·         this slowly evolving blog, Veneta’s Notebook

Letters to the future

Recently I found myself in the grip of Paul Monette’s 1994 book, Last Watch of the Night, a collection of passionate autobiographical essays about his last years with AIDS—before long term survival became the norm.  He addresses his own coming out, gay life, the impact of AIDS on the gay community and his own relationships, the importance of activism and the consequences of silence.  “It is simply not enough to be an artist, unengaged,” he writes.  “I consider the work I’m doing…as a kind of letter to my gay and lesbian children in the future…”

Letters.  I, too, compared my poems to letters in the preface to Clinician’s Guide to the Soul.  Literature in the guise of direct personal communication can do useful work in the world.  It can inform, challenge, heal, entertain, and create and sustain community. It can take distressing themes like illness and death and, rather than repel us, draw us to them.  Not only does it form a vital part of the record of human experience, it’s a seedbed for insights, ideas and action.

The One Book I Carried

I’ve heard Brian Turner speak eloquently about his time as a soldier in Iraq and I’ve read many of the poems it inspired.  In the British litmag Port he writes about the one book he carried in his assault pack the whole year he served there, an anthology titled  Iraqi Poetry Today.

I could take my last breath in this land, he observed. And, were that to be the case, I wanted to try my best to understand the deep history of where I was in the most nuanced and meaningful ways possible…by living with the poems and the work of poets…

 In a less dramatic but nevertheless powerful way, my work as a nurse brought me into contact with illness and death on a daily basis, so Turner’s choice of books made me think about what I carried—or might have carried—in my uniform or lab coat pocket for enlightenment and comfort.  While there are many poems, essays, memoirs and stories that were intensely meaningful to me during my clinical years, there is only one I clearly remember carrying into “combat.”  It was a 4x6 inch blank notebook.  I’d step out of an exam room or hallway, fish around in my pocket for the book and quickly record what had seized my attention.

Even now, when I open to a hurried scribble, the hush that falls as my fingers hesitate over the left breast, I am swept back to an encounter with a specific patient in an exam room at the women’s clinic.  I remember what this experience meant to me as a clinician and a woman whose sister had just died of breast cancer.  That phrase never found its way into a poem but it is still among the things I carry.

The artist as a person who decides

I found so much fodder for reflection in Kim Stafford’s book, “Early Morning—Remembering My Father, William Stafford,” that I feel compelled to capture a bit of it here.

William Stafford, poet and, for over thirty years, a teacher at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon,   tells his son,  “A student comes to me with a piece of writing, holds it out, says, ‘Is this good?’  A whole sequence of emergencies goes off in my mind.  That’s not a question to ask anyone but yourself.  Others may be able to accept standards from another.  But an artist is a person who decides.”

Counseling students, he would say,  “Once you decide to write in your own voice, for your own purposes, in your own way—then the act of writing is your teacher.”

My training and years of experience as a nurse have taught me a great deal but I believe that a regular practice of keeping  journals and writing poems and essays inspired by my work has made me a more astute and resilient clinician, compassionate caregiver and enlightened observer of the health professions. In that way, my writing is good.  I have become an artist, a person who decides.

The Way It Is

I love reading William Stafford, the plain-spoken but so evocative chronicler of the daily and the extraordinary.  In fact, I think of two of his poems as bookmarks in my own story as a nurse.  I first read “Strokes” back in the 1960s.  I clearly remember being on a bus, crossing the Oakland-Bay Bridge from my apartment in Berkeley to my classes at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco.  The first line was, for me, an early epiphany about the nature of illness:

The left side of her world is gone—
the rest sustained by memory
and a realization:  There are still the children.

At 22, I’d acquired the technical skills I needed to nurse a stroke patient but had little sense of what life was like after the victim left my care.  A powerful and startling revelation.

I came upon “The Way It Is” somewhere around 2000, when my career path had taken many a turn and brought me out of clinical practice into the realm of writing and medical humanities: 

There’s a thread you follow.  It goes among
things that change.  But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread…

The phenomena that illuminate our lives are many and various—advice from a mentor, a seminal event, a memorable dream and so on.  For me, poems also serve this purpose.  The poets who make them help me distill meaning from experience and sharpen my vision of the world I inhabit and what may lie beyond it.

Pen in Hand

Finally, years after buying it in the Florence Nightingale Museum at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, I’ve read “Suggestions for Thought,” a heavily edited version of the 800-page manuscript Nightingale wrote in her thirties.  It was often a tough slog, even with the editors’ help, which accounts for my previous false starts,  but I come away impressed with her intellect and views on everything from women’s place in the family (she’s bitter about it) to God, universal law and life after death.

As I writer, I was taken with her observation that, “Few, except Descartes, ever thought without a pen in their hands.”  At first, I was puzzled by the reference to the philosopher, even read a bio and his “Discourse on the Method” in an effort to understand it.  Maybe she’s referring to his statement that he had abandoned scholarship, “resolving to seek no knowledge except what I could find in myself or read in the great book of the world.” In another place, he says he “often found that something that seemed true when I first conceived it came to look false when I tried to write it down.”

As a nurse I, too, have spent many years studying the great book of the world but have to side with Nightingale about the value of thinking with pen in hand.  Whether it’s on a post-it note, a yellow pad, the rough draft of a manuscript or an entry in this notebook, that’s where I find out what I’m thinking and (like Descartes) what’s true and what isn’t.

On Hindsight and Vision

Some food for thought from jazz pianist and teacher Kenny Werner:  “Once I was asked, ‘What is the next stage of evolution in music…?’  My answer was that the evolution of music is not the issue.  It is the evolution of the musician that’s most important.  The artist must take his rightful place in society as a teacher, metaphysician and visionary.”

How does that apply to those of us who practice the art of writing?  I can speak for myself.  My early poems and essays told stories of my patients and my own experiences as a nurse clinician.  Later, I began to write on themes that recurred in my work: birth and death of course, but also subjects ranging from guilt over poor clinical outcomes to the presence of computers in the exam room.  These days, I’m taken with what I think of as heresies, my deviations from orthodoxy.  I approach heresy as a health professional but also as a rational and spiritual being.  My poem, “Reference Range,” questioning the value we place on lab tests and screening exams is one example.

Reflecting on my decades as a nurse, family caregiver and writer, I can see how my thinking and practice have evolved.  Hindsight doesn’t make me a visionary but it does help me appreciate my journey through this life and the occasional clearings I stumble into where I can stop, catch my breath, and ready myself to take the next step along my path.