George Estreich/The Shape of the Eye Reading This Week

George Estreich will be reading and leading a discussion of his book, The Shape of the Eye: Down Syndrome, Family, and the Stories We Inherit, (Southern Methodist University Press, 2011).

Where: UW Health Sciences Library, Lower Level Rare Book Room

When: Thursday Feb 2, 2012 4:30-5:30pm

Free and open to all UW facutly, staff. students–also open to the public

The Shape of the Eye: Down Syndrome, Family, and the Stories We Inherit, by George Estreich (Southern Methodist University Press, 2011) is a memoir of one father’s struggle to care for, understand, and love his daughter Laura who is born with Down Syndrome. But it is so much more than that. Abraham Verghese states that Estreich’s book “…will become a part of the canon of narratives that are studied and taught in medical humanities courses.”

Video of the reading [QuickTime, 55 min]

The Search for Meaning

For anyone in/near the Seattle area next month, Seattle University is hosting “The Search for Meaning: Pacific NW Spirituality Book Festival” Saturday Feb 4th 9-5pm. Featured speakers include the poet Mary Oliver and James Martin, SJ, NYT author and official chaplain for the Colbert Report. There will also be many other authors there, including George Estreich, author of The Shape of the Eye: Down Syndrome, Family, and the Stories We Inherit (SMU Press, 2011) This event is free but you need to RSVP and get tickets for some of the events–follow the link above and hope to see you there.

Books as Bridges to Empathy—and to Ourselves

I was recently given a review copy of The Healing Art of Writing, Perspectives in Medical Humanities, Vol 1, 2011, University of California, Joan Baranow, Brian Dolan and David Watts, eds. Today I finished reading it and want to recommend it to you. This volume contains close to 100 different poems and essays by a group of writers, patients, nurses, and physicians who gathered for a weeklong medical humanities conference in the summer of 2010 at Dominican University in California. Suzanne Edison, who is a friend of mine and is a UW Poetry and Prose Rounds group member, has several excellent poems in the journal.(You can read some of her poetry at www.literarymama.com and www.washingtonpoets.org/owas)  In addition, Sharon Dobie, a physician in Family Medicine here at the University of Washington was also a conference participant and has several poems and an essay in the journal.

What I especially like about The Healing Art of Writing is its freshness and its West Coast egalitarian, communal, almost-hot-tub-but-not-quite sensibility. It includes essays given as speeches by various California university professors, as well as writings by previously unpublished writers/patients/family members/care givers—mixed in with writings by established poets and authors. Some of what made my heart sing is that at least three nurses have their work included: 1) Rebecca Ashcroft’s Lullaby, about being a night-shift nurse by choice so she could be with her children while they were awake, is both hilarious and poignant; 2) Terry Pauser Wolf’s The Stories Remain, a sort of nursing coming of age essay is memorable; and, 3) Marilyn Morrisey’s Cycling, an excerpt from her memoir of her physician-husband’s decline and death from pancreatic cancer is well crafted. John Fox, a poetry therapist, has an essay Poetry, Community and the Flourishing (Healing) Heart in which he describes a poetry therapy session with patients and nurses at a hospital in New Jersey. Towards the end of the essay he writes, “This is the blessing of nurses and nursing, that is, attending to the matter and person at hand, even to themselves.” (p. 155). I like this, as it captures some of the essence of what is best about nursing and doesn’t stray into the nurse as angel nauseating category.

David Watt’s opening essay The Healing Art of Writing is an excellent and accessible overview of medical humanities/narrative medicine from the perspective of a physician. But the most powerful ‘almost academic’ essay for me was Empathy and Characterization by Louis B. Jones. In the essay he is mostly speaking of the importance of writing and reading—especially of fiction—to health and healing—to nurturing empathy for others and for our own selves. This especially struck me: “Consider the three or four books in your own life that shed a useful light on your existence. Those books—even if you’ve grown since then, and left them behind—were at least as important as certain bridges you may have crossed once.” (p. 76).

It didn’t take me long to come up with my ‘bridge’ books. Here are mine in chronological order starting from age 14 and ending a year ago: Par Lagerkvist’s the sibyl, Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt: Ireland to India on a Bicycle, A.S. Byatt’s Possession. Jose Saramago’s All The Names, and Emile Zola’s Germinal. What are yours?

The Shape of the Eye

Our Poetry and Prose group took a summer break and are planning to gear back up in the Fall. Meanwhile, here is information on a great book to add to your late summer reading list—and information on the author’s book reading coming up here in Seattle next month:

When Laura Estreich is born, her appearance presents a puzzle: does the shape of her eyes indicate Down syndrome, or the fact that she has a Japanese grandmother? In The Shape of the Eye, George Estreich, a poet and at-home dad, tells his daughter’s story while reflecting on her inheritance–from the literal legacy of her genes, to family stories, to Victorian medical history. To read an excerpt, and to read praise from Abraham Verghese, Michael Berube, Kim Edwards, Timothy Shriver, and others, visit georgeestreich.com.

George Estreich will be reading and signing books in Bellingham, at Village Books, on Saturday, September 10th, at 7 p.m.; and in Seattle, at Elliott Bay Book Company, on Sunday, September 11th, at 2 p.m.

new time/location for Theresa Brown’s talk

Due to severe weather in Chicago area, Theresa’s flight was delayed. Therefore, we have rescheduled her talk tomorrow (Thursday May 26th) from 1:30-3:30pm, South Campus Center Rm 303

Theresa Brown’s talk “Nurse as Writer, Writer as Nurse”

For those of you in the Seattle-area, Theresa Brown will be speaking at a public event next week at the University of Washington. Sponsored by Poets and Writers and the School of Nursing, Ms. Brown will give a talk entitled “Nurse as Writer, Writer as Nurse,” UW Health Sciences, Room T-625, Thursday May 26th 10:30-12:20pm. The following is the blurb I wrote to describe the event:

Theresa Brown is an oncology nurse, author of Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life, and Everything in Between (harperstudio, 2010), and is a regular contributor to the New York Times’ Well blog. In a recent article entitled “Nurse as Writer, Writer as Nurse” in the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, Ms. Brown addresses the most common questions people ask her, such as, “What about patient confidentiality?” “Do you take notes at work?” and “How do your coworkers (and employer) feel about your writing?” A former English professor who found her true calling as a nurse, Ms. Brown will talk about her dual paths as writer and as nurse.

A Separating Silence

That is taken from one of our poems this week, “Thanksgiving, Visiting My Brother on the Ward” by Peter Schmitt. It is a complex and haunting poem about a “well” brother visiting his “unwell” psychotic brother in a psychiatric ward of a hospital. “If only he were faithful to himself/and took his daily pills…But what is the point/of such constancy when the world itself/has so profoundly turned away?

The opening writing prompt was to think about a “difficult patient” or a time within a health care encounter when the communication wasn’t going well, when the other person was ‘pushing your buttons’—and to write about that. We shared and discussed the resulting writing and did a bit of unpacking of the term “difficult patient.” We then read a rather light and wryly humorous short poem, “Overblown,” by Hal Sirowitz. One of our members reminded us astutely that something we might dismiss as easy to understand and ‘light’ might contain nuances of deeper meaning that we can easily miss. Another member asked what made this a poem to begin with—just the way it is written on the page? We then turned to a close reading of Peter Schmitt’s longer poem, written in a more traditional format of a poem. This led to a discussion of the nature of mental illness, especially of psychoses and the effects on the people directly suffering from them as well as friends and family members who care about them. The closing writing prompt was to take a particularly poignant line from one of the two poems and write from it.

I also shared some of my experiences and perceptions of attending and presenting at The Examined Life narrative medicine conference last week at the University of Iowa Carver School of Medicine. I heartily recommend it as a friendly, relatively interdisciplinary and not overly academic egghead conference. Great people. Don’t recommend the coffee. Some of us from the conference are beginning to plan a narrative advocacy conference to be held in Seattle, and our P&PR group this week came up with a partial title of “Doing It Differently.” We have good coffee here, as well as a unique mix of activists and writers and different sorts of health care providers (including CAM). So far we have begun to identify people such as Martin Donohoe, MD at Portland State to be part of the conference. If you don’t already know of his work, check him out at his Public Health and Social Justice website: http://phsj.org. So stay tuned for the conference, and if you have suggestions for people/speakers/topics, please send them my way.

Multicultural Contradictions

We started off this week with the following writing prompt: Write about a person or patient you know who has a very different heritage/cultural background from your own. What was it like for you when you first met this person?  We then read and discussed Sherman Alexie’s short-short essay “What Sacagawea Means to Me,” which explores his own feelings about his cultural heritage. He begins the essay with, “In the future, every US citizen will get to be Sacagawea for fifteen minutes.” He then ends the essay with, “I am a contradiction; I am Sacagawea.” He packs a lot into what amounts to a three-page essay and moves back and forth in time like a master trickster. He includes the memorable statement, “The Lewis and Clark Expedition was exactly the kind of multicultural, trigenerational, bigendered, animal-friendly, government-supported, partly French-Canadian project that should rightly be celebrated by liberals and castigated by conservatives.” The final writing prompt was to turn the tables—return to the subject of the opening writing prompt and write about the meeting from the other person’s perspective—what it must have been for them to have met you for the first time.

A local resource I brought in today was Pongo Teen Writing (www.pongoteenwriting.org), a local group of volunteer writers who meet with teens in juvenile detention and area shelters to help facilitate the teens writing poetry. They consider this therapeutic writing with a larger social justice advocacy element. I’ve worked with many homeless teens in health care settings over the years who have been helped by Pongo Writing. They have terrific online resources and tips for how to work with teens on poetry and are offering a one-day training May 14th in Seattle. ~Josephine

Celebration of National Poetry Month

I began by sharing some word-salad nonsensical ‘poetry’ from the blog’s spam: “I, conversation bite dura seal retail outlets” and “The sorry slipped Thalidomide road wrestling twigs.” We progressed to better poetry.

Our first writing prompt was adapted from Addonizio and Laux’s wonderful book The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry. Describe an object that you associate with a particular patient or friend or family member. Write about that object through the description of the person’s use of it—create a portrait of his/her character. We then read and discussed Galway Kinnell’s poem “Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight.” This lovely poem was recommended by one of our Rounds regulars. To me it captures the fierceness of a father’s love for his daughter as in no other poem I know of. “I would suck the rot from your fingernail” as an example of that love. The second poem we read was a meta-poem—or a poem about poetry, Billy Collins’ “The Trouble with Poetry: A Poem of Explanation.” In the second stanza he writes, “the trouble with poetry is that it encourages the writing of more poetry, more guppies crowding the fish tank (….).” Poetry also encourages him to “sit in the dark and wait for a little flame to appear at the tip of my pencil.” We ended with a writing exercise of found poetry, taking words and phrases from the two poems we read and composing our own poem out of them.~ Josephine

The Great Conversation

Just to be clear, this refers to the Great Conversation of the history of Western Thought and not the Catholic version of talk in purgatory. This week we read and discussed part of the chapter “Snow” in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I discovered several drawbacks of using such a reading for Poetry and Prose Rounds. The first was that it is almost impossible to adequately photocopy part of a chapter from the middle of a 700 plus page hard copy book. The second was that it is a difficult book to summarize quickly for people who are unfamiliar with it. Some sort of understanding of the characters and the various overlapping plots of the book are important to guide any discussion of a portion of the book. Having read this book twice in the past year, I was eager to share a part of it in Rounds.

The summary I gave of the book was this: It is the story of Hans Castorp, a rather fumbling simple-minded German young man who goes to visit his cousin who is a patient at a TB sanatorium in the Swiss alps. He intends to stay three weeks, but becomes sick with TB and stays seven years. Through his various relationships with patients, visitors and hospital staff, he wrestles with issues of time, illness/death, art—so that the book sums up the mental life of the West. At the end of the book he decided he is well and leaves to join the army in WWI. Throughout the book, Mann discusses the interrelationships between art, disease and death. In an essay on Dostoyevsky, Mann writes, “…certain conquests made by the soul and mind are impossible without disease, madness, crime of the spirit.”

We talked about the concept of “sick role” from Talcott Parsons and the various rules of sickness within our society. Our first writing exercise was to write about the last time we were sick—not Arthur Frank’s “deep illness” (life shattering/dislocating—more in line with the quote from Mann above), but rather a mild illness of a ‘cold or flu.’ After reading and discussing the dream sequence and ‘awakening’ of Hans Castorp, we each picked out one line of Mann’s work and wrote a poem or prose piece off of it. The phrase I chose was “…a dream poem of humanity.”

~Josephine