Prairie Lights

IMG_0787A week or so ago I returned to Iowa City to attend this year’s Examined Life narrative medicine conference at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. I was there two years ago for the same conference and at that time I kept asking myself why Iowa was such a center for creative writing in our country. I think I concluded that it had to do with the fact that there’s nothing else to do in Iowa City except drink, write, and watch the corn grow. I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but I have yet to discover it. Two years ago when I first visited the town, I wasn’t much impressed by the indie bookstore in town, Prairie Lights. I was being a Seattle big city snob. This time I spent more time in Prairie Lights and it began to grow on me. I adored having my soy latte served in grandmother’s flowered china alongside water served in a canning jar. The bookstore has a small-town friendly vibe and the staff people are helpful and enthusiastic about all things literary. They helped me track down, buy, and read Grantas Summer 2012 edition “Medicine,” which features Chris Adrian’s excellent short story “Grand Rounds.” Out of the sixteen authors included, only three identify as working in health care—and all three of them are male physicians. But OK, who’s counting (except me). The likes of Alice Munro are included.

I was trying to make sense of Chris Adrian’s sort of Grand Rounds keynote speech that I had just sat through at the conference. The official title of his talk was “Uselessness.”  The proposed objective of his talk was: “Participants will reflect, perhaps usefully, on their own anxieties about uselessness as artists, medical providers, humanists, and scholars.” It was a bit of a rambling speech that he read off of an ipad mini from behind a podium to a packed medical school auditorium. I tried to listen to his talk, but was often distracted by the sound of my seatmate—a NYC female physician dressed head to toe in animal print and clutching her animal print covered ipad—snoring loudly, her head falling with a thunk onto my shoulder. Discourses on existential crises will forever be labeled in my mind under the category “fake dead animals.”

There’s a point to this somewhere. To this blog post. To Chris Adrian’s University of Iowa keynote Grand Rounds speech. To the primal animal snores of my med school auditorium seatmate. To the coffee grounds left in the bottom of my Prairie Lights soy latte… Ah yes, it is that I refuse to think this is useless.

Cornbread Therapy and Sweet Survival

James W. Borton has edited an anthology entitled The Art of Medicine in artofmedicineMetaphor: A Collection of Poems and Narratives (Copernicus Healthcare, 2012). At 156 pages and including 78 poems and short nonfiction essays, the anthology will be available for purchase ($14.95) at the end of January 2013 from both Amazon and Ingram Books.

I met James Borton in 2011 at the University of Iowa’s Examined Life Conference: Writing, Humanities and the Art of Medicine. Mr. Borton is a career journalist who teaches English at University of South Carolina/Sumter Campus. A year or so prior to our meeting, Mr. Borton survived a major complication of heart bypass surgery that left him in a coma for close to a week. After his own life-threatening illness, he turned to the healing power of writing. He maintains a blog All Heart Matters and teaches courses and workshops on Narrative Medicine. His anthology includes the work of a diverse group of people—doctors, nurses, other healthcare professionals, patients, family members—who have taken his workshops or courses in South Carolina. With only a few exceptions this is an anthology of work by non-professional writers—which I consider to be one of the book’s greatest strengths. It makes the anthology fresh and highly accessible to a broad audience.

I’ve read the entire anthology twice over the past several days and have enjoyed it. Each time I read any of the entries I am transported back to my Southern roots. There are the frequent religious references to angels and prayer (this is the buckle of the Bible Belt after all), mixed in with mentions of Mississippi Mud Pie, cornbread, chopping cotton, fixing trucks, and reading Southern Living magazines in chemotherapy waiting rooms. There’s a lovely essay “Learning to Breathe” by Patricia Dale about her psychiatric hospitalization experience. Sam Watson’s poem “Another Reason to be Pleasant” should be required reading for anyone working in the OR or pre or post-op. Mailaika Favorite’s poem “Snake” has changed my relationship with my spinal cord and vertebrae. Selena Larkin’s poem “Sweet Survival” about living with diabetes, and Jennifer Bartell’s essay “Cornbread Therapy” about her chemotherapy experience, both conjure up the scrappy, witty and warm Southern women I know well. And finally, Debra McQueen’s two essays, “The Roundup” and “Alternative Medicine” are beautifully written and are ones I can see myself using in my teaching. So ring in the New Year by eating black-eyed peas with ham hocks and placing this book on your ‘to read’ list.

As usual, Arthur Frank says it well in his endorsement of The Art of Medicine in Metaphor:

“This anthology will be of particular use to people who want to write about illness and healthcare but are having trouble getting started. These poems and short stories show how writing teaches observation, observation precipitates understanding, and understanding can be a form of healing.”

—Arthur W. Frank, author of The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics (expanded edition forthcoming, 2013)