WRITING ABOUT ILLNESS
I recently read about a study which showed that walking through a leafy, green area can reduce brain fatigue. What can be more draining than illness—on your brain, your body, your heart, your soul. Telling a story is like a walk. Following your mind as it journeys through what has happened, your scenery takes the form of revelation and insight, of compassion for yourself and others. This is what I discovered during the writing of my own story, Motherhood Exaggerated, a chronicle of my transformation as a mother while caring for my daughter during her treatment for and survival from Ewings sarcoma. If you are a patient, a caregiver, a family member, a doctor, a healer I will be posting writing prompts and exercises to help you travel through your experience. I do not subscribe to the idea that we can move on from trauma, but, through writing, we can begin to move with it. The prompts will be varied. Many will not be specifically about illness but are gateways; it is up to which direction you go once you have passed through. Some will be about writing techniques that can take you into deeper forests. None will insist that you use a specific form, correct punctuation, have a certain word count, or write for anyone but yourself. Examples are provided only as guidance, not to copy.
I have always been fascinated with hands. People who have had plastic surgery end up with faces whose stories have been erased, with tummies that no longer show evidence of the lip-smacking meals they digested, and with breasts upon which it would seem no baby ever nursed. Hands, though, continue to tell a story all through life. My mother’s hands had the heft and authenticity of sterling silver. But during her depression when I was a teenager the steeple formed by her fingers became as porous as an ancient church ruin. My father now has Alzheimer’s and his hands are restless, two spiders that can’t figure out where to build their webs. My hands no longer hold knitting needles, cigarettes, my silver flute, a syringe aimed at my daughter’s thigh.
Study your own hands. Look at your nails, the creases around your knuckles, the length of your fingers, age spots and veins, scars. Run your hands against each other. Where are the rough spots? The areas that have remained protected? Close your eyes and think about the gestures you make when you talk, how you hold a pencil, the nervous way they keep touching your hair or tapping the table. Now create a self-portrait by writing about your hands: what they used to do and what they do now; what they touch, stroke, slap, create, pull toward, or push away; what makes them shake or sweat; show your hands when they are angry, nervous, impatient, sad, laughing, dancing, sleeping, bored. What about rings—do you wear them, do they tell a story, do they still fit? Do your hands hold the hands of others, who holds yours; etc.
Here are the first few lines from Nan Coleman’s poem called Body Inventory from Spilled: a collection by Dry River Poets (Casa Luna Press, 2011)
My hands laid bricks
rinsed a diaper in a public toilet
held my boy’s forehead as he vomited
then gripped the seat as I did
rolled dice dealt cards
dialed the phone hung up
turned a page
slammed a book closed
Try this same exercise using other parts of your body.
Write about someone else’s hands as they interact with yours.