the topics we avoid

I mentioned to my evening class that I needed ideas for blog postings. One student asked me, “Have you written about your mother lately?”

I responded in a nano-second. “Ah, yes. I could write about topics we avoid writing about.”

Yes. Of course I would make that connection. I don’t write a lot about my mom. Dementia has proven to be a helluva topic to write about. OK. Let me rephrase that. My mom’s dementia–not just dementia as a medical brochure–that topic flits away from me. Maybe that’s why I’m always on the lookout for good writing on dementia. I treasure writing that puts into words what remains unspeakable, wordless, language-mangled.

Some topics demand their own schedule. My friend, Ana, a poet who died of ovarian cancer in January, 2009, only began writing about her cancer towards the end of her three-year struggle. She wasn’t ready to write before then. I remember giving her the prompt “green” over the phone, and I remember listening to Ana read me her freewriting based on that one word. I remember her writing about a plant in the waiting room before she went in for chemotherapy.

I don’t write much about my mom’s dementia because I don’t like a lot of my thoughts and feelings. I don’t like that sometimes I worry more about getting dementia than I worry about how my mom feels when her tongue reaches for a word and trips over a new-born nonsense word. I don’t like our throwaway culture of our elders, and as much as I am happy about the place my mom now lives, no place offers full dignity for the aged. I don’t like that I sometimes fidget during visits with Mom instead of being still, being there, accepting the vastly different reality that is my mom’s brain on dementia.

There’s no wrapping my own brain around the brain-twisting, funny-house mirror that is dementia. I can’t pin this experience down, this being a daughter to a mother whom I often do not recognize. I can’t fix my own feelings with a straight pin to a cork board and dissect what refuses to coalesce into language.

The topics we avoid hold creative and healing power. Those topics demand respect, patience, and courage. Treat them as the sacred vessels they are; honor their language and their timetable.

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writing improves your health

I’m reading Louise DeSalvo’s Writing As a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, and in chapter two (“How Writing Can Help Us Heal”), DeSalvo details the experiments of James Pennebaker, a psychologist who studied groups of students (at Southern Methodist University, where Pennebaker, and his associate, Sandra Beall, both taught), who wrote in a journal for fifteen minutes, four days in a row.

One group of students wrote about traumatic experiences, but this group was divided into three, with the following guidelines: 1) write about the trauma and the emotions, 2) just describe the trauma, and 3) write about the events and the emotions of the trauma at the same time.

Guess which group initially felt negative feelings but four months later, said they had a much more positive outlook, and six months later, showed improved health (visits to student health center dropped 50%)? You guessed it–group 3.

In DeSalvo’s words, here are Pennebaker and Beall’s findings:

  • to significantly improve your spirits long-term, you must endure difficult feelings initially

  • To improve health, we must write detailed accounts, linking feelings with events. (22)

DeSalvo offers a caveat in this chapter: If you’re going to write about trauma, be sure you’ve got support (support group, therapy, dedicated listener).