Summer Reading Challenge 2016

IMG_7812Reading through the recent NYT article “12 New Books We’re Reading this Summer (and 6 Not So New),” with the list of summer reading by their book critics and staff, I was reminded that it is time to come up with my own summer reading challenge book list with a health humanities and social justice slant. Also, I was reminded to come up with a more diverse reading list than the one offered by the NYT. I did  similar list last summer (see previous blog post, Summer Reading Challenge with a Health Humanities/Social Justice slant ( June 2, 2015), with subsequent posts on my reading progress and reviews of the books.

My Summer 2016 Reading Challenge list of fifteen books is mainly composed of books I’ve acquired over the past few months during my cross-country travels, as well as from both the Association of Writers and Writers Programs (AWP) Conference in Los Angeles and the Health Humanities Consortium meeting in Cleveland. Four of the books on my list are truly ‘new’ books and the rest are new-to-me books. Here they are, listed from the bottom up as shown in the photo above:

Happy and thoughtful and humanistic summer reading everyone!

The Health Humanities Consortium

logo-1This relatively new group has provided a breath of fresh air in my life, as they manage to blend a not-overly-stuffy academic grounding with all the passion, creativity, and ‘meaning of life’ that the humanities has to offer. I’ve recently returned from their second annual conference and these both have easily been among the best conferences I’ve ever attended (and being an academic-type, I have been to numerous conferences). Great people doing great and important work to try and humanize health care and health professions education.

From their fresh-off-the press website:

“About: The Health Humanities Consortium is a community of scholars and institutions who work in the humanities and arts to promote, reflect on, and advocate health and health care in the world.”

Source: About

Sick Nurses

V0026904 Florence Nightingale. Photograph by Millbourn.
Creative Commons. Photograph by Millbourn. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk

Within the profession of nursing, we have a long and distinguished line of sick nurses who write. There was, of course, the mother of all sick nurses, Florence Nightingale, who, after the Crimean War, took to her bed with a mysterious illness that lasted for the last thirty years of her life. It was during this time that she wrote prolifically–letters and missives to the War Office, health care and social reform reports, and her now famous book Notes on Nursing.

Was her illness neurasthenia (nervous exhaustion, an actual medical diagnosis until the 1930s)? Was it a clever ploy to draw sympathy and support for her zealous cause of reforming nursing, hospitals–indeed, all of health care? Was it a clever ploy to have more protected time for writing and reflecting on the state of the world in need of her reform? Was it–as was taught to nursing students as late as the 1970s–the effects of tertiary syphilis? Was it–as current medical historian Philip A. Mackowiak postulates–a combination of bipolar disorder, PTSD from the horrors of the war, ‘Crimean fever’/brucellosis contracted from contaminated milk while in Turkey–and finally, the most likely cause of her death at age 91, Alzheimer’s Disease? (From his book, Diagnosing Giants: Solving the Medical Mysteries of Thirteen Patients Who Changed the WorldOxford UP, 2013.)

As Lytton Strachey puts it in his wonderfully intelligent short biography of Florence Nightingale in Eminent Victorians (Bloomsbury Press, 1918): “Her illness, whatever it may have been, was certainly not inconvenient. (…)  Lying on her sofa in the little upper room in South Street, she combined the intense vitality of a dominating woman of the world with the mysterious and romantic quality of a myth.”

Lady with the Lamp. Ministering angel. Pious Christian woman relieving suffering in the world. Nursing as a religious calling. These are the nursing myths we still live with. The nursing myths we as nurses–and especially as nurse writers–still perpetuate.

That’s what I kept thinking today as I read nurse and poet Cortney Davis‘ new book When the Nurse Becomes a Patient: A Story in Words and Images (The Kent State UP, 2015). Her book is part of the ‘Literature and Medicine’ series that includes the wonderful short story collection What’s Left Out by physician writer Jay Baruch. (Baruch’s book also happens to have one of my favorite book cover designs–check it out here.)

Cortney Davis is a seasoned nurse practitioner and a talented poet. I especially like her poem “What the Nurse Likes” included in the now almost classic book, Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses (edited by Davis and Judy Schaefer, U of Iowa Press, 1995). But over the past decade or so, Davis’ work has become stridently religious (Catholic) and proselytizing (anti-abortion among other matters). The fact that her latest book was published by a reputable (and secular) university press, and has just received the Book of the Year Award (for the category ‘Public Interest and Creative Works) by the American Journal of Nursing combined to make me look forward to reading the book.

When the Nurse Becomes a Patient tells the story–through pictures and words–of her experience with life-threatening complications of what was supposed to be routine day surgery in 2013. She had an extended hospital stay and then convalesce at home. Davis, a life-long writer, found that writing had ‘left her’ but that she was able to paint images of her illness experience.

The print version is a children’s picture book size and the printing quality of Davis’ twelve paintings depicting her illness is quite good. Favoring Davis’ poetry over her prose, I was disappointed to find that it was plain prose descriptions that accompanied each full-page image of the corresponding painting. Two of the prose/painting combinations, “On a Scale of One to Ten” and “My Husband Cares for Me Tenderly” are both quite powerful and effective at evoking important aspects of her individual-yet-universal illness experience. But most all of the remaining ten prose/paintings were over-the-top religious, what with Dark Nights of the Soul (parts one a two no less), last rites (with a priest figure), and and “Angel Band” with–yes–nurses as angels and the figure of a nun in full habit by the patient’s bedside. And, of course, there was the requisite redemptive suffering bit in “I Offer My Suffering.”

Davis, like everyone else, is free to have and write about their own personal religious beliefs. People who are ill are typically driven to face existential crises, which can lead them to deepen (or abandon) a personal faith. But books like this make me despair of nursing ever breaking free of its overly-pious Victorian roots. It’s something that I suspect even Florence Nightingale herself (pre-cognitive decline) would have wanted for nurses and for the profession of nursing. We are not angels and suffering is not redemptive.

Carrying Stories: Beyond Self Care

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Girl with Balloon, street art by Banksy. This one found at intersection of K-Road and Queen Street in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015.

What to do with difficult stories? Stories of refugees, victims of mass shootings, of hate crimes, of rape, of torture victims, of people dying alone and unnoticed ?  It all gets overwhelming and depressing to hear or read these sorts of difficult stories, to carry them in our hearts, to bear witness to so much suffering in the world.

Of course, for many fortunate (perhaps unfortunate?) people, there is the option of tuning out these stories, turning off the news, unplugging from any non-vacuous form of social media. Taking a break from difficult stories.

But what about all the other people who cannot or choose not to disconnect? What about people whose work involves listening to these stories on a daily basis? Frontline health care providers who work with people experiencing trauma (physical, emotional, sexual). First responders. Counselors, mental health therapists, lawyers. Human rights activists. Researchers working on social justice issues. What can they do to, if not prevent, at least deal effectively with, vicarious or secondary trauma? And for those of us who teach/train/mentor students in these roles, how do we prepare students to be able to carry difficult stories while maintaining well-being?

In a previous blog post, “Burnout and Crazy Cat Ladies,” I explored the issue of ‘too much empathy’ and of pathological altruism, linking to some of the (then/2011) current research. After writing that post and some related essays, I began incorporating a new set of in-class reflective writing prompts for soon-to-be nurses in my community/public health course. I used these in a class session I titled “Public Health Ethics, Boundaries, and Burnout.”

The first writing prompt: ‘What draws you to work in health care? What motivates or compels you to do this work?’ And then later in the class session– after discussing professional boundaries (how fuzzy they can be), individual and systems-level risk factors for burnout, and asking them to reflect on how they know when they are getting too close to a patient, a community, or an issue–I gave them the follow-up writing prompt: ‘Referring back to what you wrote about what draws you to work in health care, what do you think are the biggest potential sources of burnout for you? And what might you be able to do about them?’

Feedback from students about this in-class reflective writing exercise and the accompanying class content on boundaries and burnout, was invariably positive. Many of them said it was the first time in their almost two years of nursing education that anyone had addressed these issues. I understand that patient care, electrolyte balances, wound care and all the rest of basic nursing education takes priority, but it makes me sad that we don’t include this, to me what is fundamental and essential, content.

“…people who really don’t care are rarely vulnerable to burnout. Psychopaths don’t burn out. There are no burned-out tyrants or dictators. Only people who do care can get to this level of numbness,” Rachel Naomi Remen, MD reminds us in her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal (Riverhead Books, 1996). Something to remember when we are feeling overwhelmed by difficult stories.

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Here are some excellent resources:

 

The Exquisite Corpse Hits the Hospital

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“Imprint of the Intangible” Mixed media, 2000, Heather Hawley. University of Washington Medical Center.

The exquisite corpse is a French surrealist parlor game named after one of their first nonsensical collaborative sentences, “The exquisite corpse will drink new wine.”  There are written and arts-based (including drawing, collage, sculpture, theater, and dance) versions of the exquisite corpse. They all emphasize elements of unpredictability, collaboration, and tapping into unseen/subconscious sources of creativity. And just plain fun.

This summer I adapted the written version of the exquisite corpse for use in the hospital-based narrative medicine/health humanities course I am teaching. I first had students divide themselves into groups of 4-5 people, each person with a clean piece of paper. Then, I asked them to write one sentence across the top of the paper and base the sentence on one concrete observation about their classroom. I gave them 30 seconds to write the sentence and then asked them to pass their papers to their right. They had another 30 seconds to write a second sentence in response to the first. Before passing the paper again, they were asked to fold down the paper in order to hide the first sentence. We repeated this exercise a total of five times. At the end, they could unfold their papers, read, and share with the class what the group had come up with based on their initial sentence. Much laughter ensued. Then, I had each student write a short reflection on what the experience was like for them.

I learned this classroom version of the exquisite corpse at the 2015 Chuckanut Writers Conference from two writers/creative writing teachers, Brenda Miller and Lee Gulyas, who both teach at Western Washington University in Bellingham. Miller and Gulyas have a recent collaborative essay, “Come Closer,” published in Sweet: A Literary Confection (vol. 7, issue 3, 2015) and an intriguing interview by Carmella Guiol with them about this essay and their collaborative process (July 16, 2015). In their workshop, we were all writers of various sorts, and the prose/poetry pieces our groups came up with were quite funny, creative, and profound.

As were the pieces that my students produced, although they mostly were much more matter-of-fact and not as fanciful as I expected them to be. These were nurses after all–nurses tasked daily with life and death decisions. Flights of fancy and parlor games are typically frowned upon among health care providers. But, since teaching is in itself a creative endeavor, I try to take calculated risks in the classroom and try new things. For this one I’d give myself a B+ for effort.

Feedback from the students (from their written reflections) ranged from, “this felt like a drinking game” (note: no alcohol was consumed in the auditorium as far as I know), through “I don’t understand why we did this exercise,” to perhaps more insightful, critical thinking responses including these:

“Even though we are talking about the same topic we said or have different points of view about our classroom. How we described it is different person-to-person. This is common in workplaces, like when we have to write up patient care plans, we hardly agree on them.”

“I enjoyed the spontaneity of doing this exercise. So much of our class work and assignments has been related to following directions exactly and making sure we are doing everything right.”

“I’m thinking this would be a good tool if I was leading a patient support group or leading a class. Patients with chronic illness get told all the time about what it the right thing to do and this could be used to let them tell their stories a different way.”

In thinking over how this went–my first attempt at doing the exquisite corpse exercise with a group of hospital-based nurses–I’ve realized I probably need to fine tune it for this setting and for these ‘parlor game’ players. Next time I would keep everything the same with the exception of the initial sentence writing prompt. Instead of having them write about their classroom, I’d ask them to write a sentence about a recent frustration at work–and that it can be a minor and seemingly frivolous frustration (in oder to keep it from getting too deeply emotional for this collaborative writing exercise). My aim would be to have it more directly pertinent to their work as nurses, while maintaining the fun, spontaneity, and collaborative nature of the exercise. As physician-educator and innovator in the health humanities Alan Bleakley says, “health humanities creates a serious play space.”

The Art of Nursing

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“Array” 1999, cut and fabricated aluminum, by Irene Pijoan. Harborview Medical Center. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign /2015.

Entering week seven of a nine week narrative medicine/health humanities course I’m teaching to a group of nurses at Harborview Medical Center. This is my third summer teaching this course, but my first time teaching it in a hospital setting. This is also the first time I have taught it to a class of experienced and currently working RNs.

I’ve always focused on introducing students to the practice of narrative medicine, of learning to apply Dr. Rita Charon’s close reading drill, and of expanding that to include my ‘closer close reading drill‘ to various forms of literature. This year I kept those elements, but have added art to the course.

It helps that we are surrounded by amazing artwork throughout the Harborview Medical Center complex. Even in (and outside of) the otherwise functional-looking Research and Training Building where our classroom is located, there are the art installations shown in these photographs. “Array”depicts cerebellar neurons, tied to a Harborview research emphasis of neurology and also “metaphorically mimics the scientific process itself”–according to the placard beside this piece. At the building’s entrance is “Integument” representing the leadership of Harborview in the treatment of burns and trauma. And, according to the placard, “The integument motif also metaphorically references the cutting through the outermost surface of the building, implying that it too functions as an extended body.”

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“Integument” 1999, cut and fabricated aluminum, by Irene Pijoan. Harborview Medical Center. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015.

As part of their small group presentations on topics such as death/dying, disability, and racism in health care, I have students include a piece of Harborview art that speaks to them about some aspect of their topic for their class presentation. I also had my colleague, poet, psychotherapist, and educator Suzanne Edison lead the class in an exploration of ekphrastic poetry.

While the students have been open to the inclusion of art in this health humanities course, there is one in-class art activity I added this year that seems to have engaged them the most. It was a blind contour drawing activity that I learned from Drs. Catherine Belling and Martha Stoddard Holmes in a workshop at the Health Humanities: The Next Decade conference this past May at the University of Colorado Center for Bioethics and Humanities. As Belling and Holmes pointed out, this activity includes art (the doing/drawing) and humanities (refection/writing).

Here’s how it works: 1) have students pair up and sit face-to-face, 2) each student has a blank piece of paper and a pen/pencil, 3) each student looks at their partner’s face for two minutes, while drawing their face on their paper–without looking down at the paper, 4) after drawing (and laughing) and then showing their portraits to their partner, each student writes for 4-5 minutes–reflecting on what the experience was like for them, and exploring whether they were more more uncomfortable being observed or doing the observing–and why.

This in-class activity led to much laughter, but also to a rich class discussion of the experience and its connections to their work as nurses. The best kind of classroom learning activity: fun, engaging, profound.

The Ugly Underbelly of the Health Humanities

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“Release Your Plans” oil on canvas by Denver-based artist Daniel Spricks.

Ugly, as in ‘unpleasantly suggestive, causing disquiet, likely to involve violence of some sort, repulsive.’ Underbelly, as in ‘beneath the surface, hidden, vulnerable, corrupt, sordid.’ Health humanities, as in the relatively new transdisciplinary field linking the arts and humanities with health and healthcare. Health humanities is both the term and the international movement intended to widen the more traditional field of medical humanities with its focus on physician practice and physician education. (See The International Health Humanities Network for more information.)

I have just returned to my life in Seattle after four days in Denver spent pondering the ugly underbelly of the health humanities. I was a participant-observer at the 4th Annual International Health Humanities conference, Health Humanities: The Next Decade, held at the University of Colorado School of Medicine Center for Bioethics and Humanities. The stated purpose of the conference was to “…bring together scholars, educators, clinicians, health advocates, students, patients and caregivers in an effort to identify the core issues and guiding values as well as define the expanding scope of the health humanities.”

Out of 100 or so conference participants, I believe I was one of only three nurses. Professor David Flood from the College of Nursing and Health Professions at Drexel University served as a conference committee member, but there were no nurses (unless they were deeply closeted nurses) who presented at the conference. The third nurse was Jamie Shirley, PhD, a terrific nurse ethicist and lecturer at the University of Washington Bothell campus. At the risk of adding to the tiresome ‘whiny nurse syndrome/trope in academese,’ I can’t help asking, “Where were the nurses?” As this was hands-down the best, most thought-provoking conference I’ve ever been to–and was, correctly I think, proclaimed as a historic conference with far-reaching consequences–why weren’t there more nurses at ‘this table?’

What I most loved about the conference was that the planners, speakers, and participants all openly acknowledged and explored the ugly underbelly of the health humanities. Not just who/what groups of people are included and excluded within the theory and practice (and international conference) of the health humanities, but other and perhaps more uncomfortable questions, such as:

By attempting to train medical, nursing, and other healthcare professions students in ‘narrative competence,’ are we turning this into yet another skill to include on a checklist? (The ‘tyranny of competencies’ as it has been called.) And, as Katie Watson, JD of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine pointed out in a session on narrative advocacy, is a focus on narrative competence ignoring the fact that perhaps this is intrusive, itself a form of violation–of violence? Do we as teachers of the health humanities understand what it costs our students (as well as ourselves) to be opened up/made more vulnerable to the emotional pain of patients, of families, of communities, and of the world? Do we do enough to help our students ‘learn how to carry’ (or perhaps how to carry and then let go of) traumatic patient/community stories? Where does the ‘enterprise of narrative medicine’ fit within the health humanities? What are the professional consequences of doing radical art, radical writing, radical practice, and I’d add, radical teaching? By attempting to widen medical humanities to health humanities, are we adding to the cult of healthism?

And an ‘ugly underbelly’ question that I asked in a session yesterday (when I stepped outside of my observer role): why is religion/spirituality seemingly a taboo topic within the health humanities? Throughout the conference people tip-toed around religion and spirituality. Don’t people see that the privileging of secular humanism, the marginalizing–or worse, belittling–the role of religion and spirituality within our world, within healthcare practices, within health policy, within our own lives, is a grave danger? I’m not referring to a grave danger to our ‘souls,’ whatever that may mean, but rather to our lives together in communities, to the common good, to the civil discourse necessary for democracy.

New Orleans Bottle Djinn: Stealing Stories?

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New Orleans, Louisiana, French Quarter, May 2014. Part II.

How do people deal with and bear witness to trauma? How have the people of New Orleans collectively chosen to remember Hurricane Katrina?

As I wrote in my previous post “Collective Sites of Memory: New Orleans” (3-28-15), those were some of the questions I was pondering last May as I returned to New Orleans for the first time since Katrina. Having visited–and been disappointed by–the Katrina National Memorial Park in New Orleans, I decided to visit the permanent exhibit “Living with hurricanes: Katrina and beyond” located at the Presbytere Louisiana State Museum in the heart of the French Quarter.

Greeting me in a wildly disorienting way as I entered the main door of the museum building, was the art installation shown in the photos above. Hundreds of ‘floating’ glass bottles with messages curled up inside them, all hanging from the ceiling. Interspersed among the bottles are ghostly blue glass hands, reaching down–or wait! are they reaching up out of the deluge, the person attached to the hand drowning and asking to be rescued? I stood in the middle of the foyer gazing up at the display as the lights surrounding them gyrated from blue to purple to pink to red and back again–trying to figure out which way was up and which was down in this display. Who are the rescuers and the rescued? It felt as if I was simultaneously the rescuer and the rescued—floating in the midst of the primordial sea of life.

The brightly-colored bottle display also reminded me of that uniquely Southern folk art of bottle trees, shown here in a classic black and white photograph by the venerable writer (and WPA photographer) Eudora Welty. The folk belief is that placing bottles on trees away from the main entrance to the house will help to capture and repel ‘bottle genies’/djinn/or ‘haints’—spirits that haunt a place. The bottle trees are thought to protect people and their homes from calamities. Maybe all the pent-up bottle djinn in the New Orleans area had been released by Katrina.

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House with bottle-trees/Simpson County/1941/ Eudora Welty. From Eudora Welty Photographs, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 1989.

I have the habit of always looking at a piece of art before reading the accompanying information placard, which often ‘explains’ or interprets what the artist is aiming for. I like to experience the art before being told what it is I am looking at (or hearing), and how it should make me feel. But after several minutes of standing in the museum’s foyer gazing at the bottles and light show, I read the placard below:

IMG_2173The “Message of Remembrances”  (notice the singular ‘message’ in the title) was next to the official entrance to the Katrina exhibit, with a large sign stating “Resilience.” Oh no,  here we go with the official scripted, up-with-people resilience narrative, I thought, as I entered the darkened room.

‘Resilience’ is an oft-used and ill-used term. ‘Bad things happen to good people, but what doesn’t break you makes you stronger.’ I am highly suspicious of resilience and any context within which resilience is mentioned. I put it in the same category with all those ‘redemptive’ novels according to Oprah: catharsis equals a nauseatingly Hallmark Moment.

But, okay, I will attempt to suspend my critical stance and give this museum exhibit on Katrina an honest chance,  I told myself.

As I snaked my way through the rooms of the exhibit, I found quite a lot to admire in how the curators had chosen to ‘tell the story’ of Katrina. The first few rooms were dark and immersive, showing billowing smoke from one New Orleans building, next to a display of an ax stored in the attic of a ‘mock’ house (an essential home safety precaution that I didn’t know about–many people in Katrina got trapped inside their attics in the rising water and drowned because they couldn’t cut an escape route through their roofs).

Then I entered the second room of the exhibit, filled with separate displays on ‘ordinary heroes’ (what is an extraordinary hero–Wonder Woman?), hospitals, First Responders, seats from the Superdome (fiasco), samples of emergency cans of water from the Red Cross, and MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat that included little bottles of Tabasco hot-sauce). There was a brief and somewhat sanitized display labeled “Race, Class, and Inequality” with a heavily edited quote from then President George W. Bush. This second room was filled with random flashing lights of red, yellow, and that freaky blue again, echoing the bottle display.

There was quite a lot of content on the effects of climate change, environmental degradation, and engineering mistakes that all compounded the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Audio-recordings of Katrina survivors played on an endless loop. An African American man, a former resident of the most severely affected Ninth Ward had this to say: “The water in the vast area matched the speed of a second hand of a clock—that was the amount of time it took for that water to rise. I don’t remember hearing it before: a sound like a freight train.” I found his first person testimony both eloquent and haunting, and I listened to the loop several times to make sure I wrote down his exact words.

But one section of the Katrina exhibit has continued to bother me. It takes up the most space in the middle-part of the exhibit, being eight or nine panels, sections of the actual walls in a central New Orleans housing project apartment. The walls preserve the ‘wall diary’ of Tommie Elton Mabry, a 53 year old man (shown in photo below in front of his wall diary/ ‘ledger or graffiti’ as he called it–written with a black Sharpie.) Mabry, who had been homeless ‘since Regan was president,’ stayed in a first-floor apartment in the deserted high-rise B.W. Cooper public housing development in downtown New Orleans. Starting the day before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans until two months later when he was forced to leave by the housing authority officials (the building has been torn down).

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Tommie Elton Mabry in front of his diary of Katrina written on wall of New Orleans Housing Authority building. Photo: Thomas Neff, November 2005.

What bothers me about this part of the exhibit is the unacknowledged ethical issues, power dynamics, and inherent racism and classism. Mabry’s diary entries are written in about a fourth or fifth grade level, include frequent f-bombs, and many of the entries focus on him getting drunk or nursing a hangover. These all highlight negative stereotypes of homeless people, and especially of African American poor people.

In the photo and in several local newspaper articles (see below), Mabry appears to be proud of the fact that his diary is now on permanent display in a museum. But did anyone bother to ask his permission before they preserved his ‘wall diaries?’ Did anyone consider setting up some sort of appropriate payment–or housing fund– for use of his words?

Tommie Elton Mabry died of a heart attack in 2013, at the age of 58. He was still homeless and couch-surfing at the time of his death.

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Resources/related articles and videos:

“After Hurricane Katrina struck, Elton Mabry used writing as a way to survive the storm” by Maria C. Montoya. The Times-Picayune, August 23, 2008.

“The diary of Tommie Elton Mabry” (video). The Times-Picayune, September 1, 2010.

“Hurricane Katrina survivor and chronicler Tommie Mabry dies at 58” by Elizabeth Mullener. The Times-Picayune, February 1, 2013.

“Jungleland: The Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans gives new meaning to ‘urban growth,” by Nathanial Rich. NYT, March 21, 2012.

 

World Storytelling Day: Wishes

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World Storytelling Day 2015 logo. Design by Mats Rehnman.

Once upon a time…Happy World Storytelling Day. Happy first day of Spring for those north of the equator and happy first day of Autumn for those south of the equator.

The theme of this year’s World Storytelling Day: A Global Celebration of Storytelling is wishes. The fun logo (shown here) for this year’s events is by the Swedish professional storyteller Mats Rehnman. What a fun job title to have!

Richard Kearney, in his gem of a book On Stories (Routledge, 2002), begins with, “Telling stories is as basic to human beings as eating. More so, in fact, for while food makes us live, stories are what make our lives worth living.” He then ends the book with, “There will always be someone there to say, ‘tell me a story’, and someone there to respond. If it were not so, we would no longer be human.” Kearney (Professor of Philosophy at Boston College and University College Dublin) also points out that all of us are in search of a narrative, a story–not only to try and make sense of this messy thing called human existence/life, but also because, “Our very finitude constitutes us as beings who, to put it baldly, are born at the beginning and die at the end.”

But on to this year’s World Storytelling Day theme of wishes. Wishes, as in the fairytale line “I’ll grant you three wishes”? Or wishes as in the Five Wishes healthcare end-of-life (end of the story) advance directives advocated by the U.S.-based group Aging With Dignity? The line ‘if wishes were horses’ kept coming to me this morning as I fished for wishes–for the meaning of wishes–for stories about wishes–in my head (pre-coffee).

The saying or maxim “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride” seems to be of Scottish derivation, first recorded in the 17th Century. It was–and is–an admonishment for hard work instead of ‘useless’ daydreaming/wishful thinking. It was used as a heading in copybooks for British schoolchildren to practice their penmanship with by ‘writing this out 100 times’ or whatever their schoolteachers had them do.

Here is a stanza from Rudyard Kipling’s poem (published in 1919 yet so very relevant today)  The Gods of the Copybook Headings:

“With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,

They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;

They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;

So we worshiped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.”

Tell a story (not a lie) today to a child or someone ill or dying or to a random person in your life who needs to hear a good story. Or to yourself. About wishes. About dreams (of the moon as cheese). About what it means to be human.

The End.

Harborview Art Walk and Ekphrasis

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Harborview Medical Center, Seattle Photo: Josephine Ensign/2015

What do art and poetry and Seattle’s largest public hospital have to do with each other? My colleague, poet Suzanne Edison, and I set out together this week on a mission to find possible answers to that question. We spent a half day doing our own art walk through the lovely and eclectic collection of public art at Harborview Medical Center in downtown Seattle. Then we sat in one of the hospital’s street-side cafes facing the Medic One emergency bays, sipped coffee amidst the occasional swirl of red lights and sirens, and wrote Ekphastic poetry in response to pieces of art that particularly moved us.

Our wonderful King County-based arts and culture organization, 4Culture, has a useful webpage with links showing photographs and describing some of the major pieces of art at Harborview. As they state:

“The Public Art Collection at Harborview has been growing since 1977 and is based on the belief that the arts can counterbalance the emotional, psychological, technological and institutional intensities of the medical center by reducing stress and conveying a sense of individual dignity and worth upon all who enter its doors.”

In choosing the artwork for display in public spaces–busy hallways, specialty clinics, and the numerous waiting room areas–careful consideration is given to things like inclusion of a diversity of artists, artistic styles, and themes. Peggy Weiss, who directs the art program at Harborview, explained to me that they have to try and balance having art pieces be interesting and healing across the wide range of patient populations they serve. (See my previous blog post “A Photo Ode to Harborview” from 1-31-15 for another ‘take’ on Harborview and for photos of its outdoors View Park artwork).

I took photographs of pieces of art and of particular spaces inside and outside the main Harborview (old) hospital, being careful to exclude any people in order to respect patient (and staff and patient family member’s) privacy. Here are some photos of art that I found most engaging and moving:

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Artist: Dempsey Bob “The Wolf Helper” 1999 cast bronze and horsehair location: atrium in main hospital. Photo: Josephine Ensign/2015.
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Artist: Sultan Mohamed “Royal Family,” 1997 oil on canvas The placard explains that he was inspired by the saying by Ethiopian elders, “Religious beliefs are an individual right but the country belongs to everyone.” Location: in hallway outside entrance to cafeteria Main hospital.
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Artist: Peggy Vanbianchi “Journey: Hands” Mixed Media Location: waiting room of Radiology/outpatient, second floor of main hospital
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Artist: Peggy Vanbianchi “Journey: Journal” mixed media Location: waiting room of Radiology outpatient department second floor of Main hospital.

This piece, ‘Journal,’ with its collection of enigmatic words, such as ‘refuge,’ ‘passage,’ ‘quest,’ ‘search,’ and ‘restore,’ lent itself to our first writing prompt: Take a word from the journal and write from it. I chose ‘refuge’ and wrote a free form poem that took me in surprising directions. The other writing prompts that we came up with were: 1) Write as if two pieces of art are in conversation, 2) Take one piece of art and write from its perspective, and 3) Have a figure in a piece of art be in conversation with the artist.

My main poem that came out of our art walk/Ekphrastic poetry writing day is titled “Harborview Refuge,” and has somehow manifested itself back into its own piece of art of the same name. Using my black and white photographs on various photo transfers (packing tape and acrylic gel medium), along with bits of my poem written on strips of bandage tape, here is my work-in-progress:

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As you can see from these three photographs included in my mixed-media art piece, I am taken by the Art Deco architecture and details of Harborview’s main hospital, which opened in 1931. The almost Gothic gargoyle-looking figure on the right adorns the top of the pillars at the main entrance to the ‘old hospital,’ next to the emergency department.

Harborview Medical center has a tradition of ‘poetry happens.’ Seattle-based writer Wendy Call was a Harborview writer-in-residence in 2010/2011. She worked on a project Harborview Haiku and American Sentences. As part of her project, Wendy shared her poetry with patients and staff and also encouraged them to write their own haiku/American Sentences.

And for anyone who wants to read some recent examples of ekphrastic poetry (and perhaps be inspired to write/submit your own poem in response to a photograph), take a look at Rattle‘s Ekphrasis Challenge.