The Limits of Words

"Bruno knew he was a good writer. No doubts there. But what he didn't know was how long it lasted: this state of good writerliness. He feared that being a good writer wasn't a constant. It wasn't a state or a plane of existence. Maybe it was a pinnacle you reached only momentarily. What he feared more than anything in the world was that each writer had a limit. A tab. And when your credit ran out, you were done, the well run dry."

David Baker

Vintage, 2015

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The Homeless Rose

We were sitting outside drinking beer at a moderately clean, somewhat uncomfortable micro-brewery in downtown Gainesville. The air was dry and cool. It had not rained for a month and probably wouldn’t for several more. We were saying good-bye to a friend—ten or so of us gathered around a table with only four chairs. Some us leaned on the wrought iron rail; others propped their elbows on a round bar table; a couple of people shared the chairs.

Suddenly a man appeared on the sidewalk and bent over the rail ever so slightly. He held an assortment of roses, various sizes and colors, as if they had been just recently plucked from someone’s backyard.

“Hey, man? A nickel? Just a nickel,” came a deeply resonant and pleasant voice. An educated voice. I looked up. I began to smile. A woman always smiles when she is offered a rose. I think this reaction is as old as myth and may seem sexist to the modern woman, but I think an honest soul search will produce agreement. I would have given him a dollar. But his eyes were focused on the male members of our group. I imagine he thought a gentleman would certainly buy a lady a rose. I glanced across the table. My friends turned stoic. No one spoke. And so our interloper babbled on with his monologue. I felt uneasy. I wanted to reach in my purse and give him money.

He left the rose. “Aw. I don’t need a nickel. You can have it!” And then he turned his attention toward working the crowd at the other end of the sidewalk patio.

Without moving or lowering his voice, one of our group said, “The roses are from the city park, and he gestured toward the east. “They’re from the park.”

Soon the peddler came back with a few dollars in his hand but no roses. He muttered and recaptured the flower he had left on our table.

“I think you should have it,” I said. Not really knowing what else to say. He mumbled and walked away, holding his last rose like a cherished prize in his hand.

So the roses were from the park. The man had stolen them. Stolen public roses and wandered around downtown selling them for a dollar or less. It seemed like simple commerce and trade to me: the foundation of this country.

How is this any different from the first settlers who came here, stole property from Native Americans and sold it to other settlers? Or any different from men who stole other men and women and sold them to the highest bidder?

These were roses. Roses from the park. Free roses. Roses that grow on public land. Roses that are a renewable resource. Roses that thrive the more they are picked. Roses that offer pleasure.

But this man was disdained for picking them. For violating some law that says you cannot take roses from public land.

And from whom, I wondered, was that public land stolen?

Creative Writing: Essay, Nonfiction

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Creativity, Expression, and Other Gifts from the Earth

When I worked in the Arts in Medicine program at Shands in Gainesville, Florida, I collected so many wonderful and inspiring stories from patients. They shared wishes, dreams, real-life, and more. I learned so much from each encounter and these stories stay with me. They are keepers.

In 1997, I worked for many months with a girl, a young woman really as she was quite mature for her fourteen years. At one point she had to spend time in in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, and I had permission to work with her there. The following entry is from the reflections that I wrote after the encounter in PICU.

Bearing gifts of origami birds and crayon-colored butterflies, I cautiously enter the PICU. I watch as a young woman, hooked up to more than a dozen IV lines and monitoring attachments, spits up blood while her mother, not more than twenty-eight herself, holds the girl's hand and wipes her mouth with a wet washcloth. I watch as the mother anticipates her daughter's expectoration and swiftly removes her oxygen mask to hold the hospital-issue plastic tray under her chin. I see the catheter line perched beneath the sterile white sheets and the standard light yellow hospital blankets.

I think about my meager offerings. Pieces of paper folded into birds and frogs. Poems and and stories and mythical animals made out of Fimo clay. And of course, genuinely kind words about the girl’s insightful writing. Her mother is proud.

As an Artist in Residence with the Shands Arts in Medicine program at the University of Florida I try to bring the healing gifts of creative expression to patients. I try to help them reach deep within and find a part of them that has not been torn apart their disease and by the attempt at cures. By her chronological age, this patient is considered a child, but she is fact a wise young woman, poised and deep, despite (or perhaps because of) her illness

Past the medical gadgetry and life-support systems, I see something else. I see life and I think about Theodore Roszak, a journalist and author who in The Voice of the Earth wrote that we as a society must begin: “…to see the needs of the planet and the person as a continuum.”

I had just read those words, and somehow looking at all the chemicals being pumped into the young healthy-looking body (yes, the paradox: some seem to arrive healthy and leave decimated) makes me realize that we are criminally ignorant about the source of our healing and the source of our illness.

We ignore the earth as the foundation for our well-being, and we replace it’s regenerative powers with horrors that may someday be labeled worse than medieval. We are incapable of connecting with the rhythm of life (and death) of this planet. We fancy ourselves better than it, and we devise ways to overcome its threat, its strength, and its superiority. I have no illusion that we tame it. I have only to watch the ravaged little bodies on the pediatric units to know that the paltry attempts at "fixing" nature amount to a painful insanity that denies the truth about us and the earth.

We have forgotten, as Roszak writes, that “all medicine was in times past understood to be ‘holistic’ — a healing of body. mind, and soul …”

While the holistic approach to healthcare is making strides into mainstream medicine, I see another avenue that is perhaps swifter and less threatening: the creative arts. Helping people express themselves through art — visual, performing, literary — offers a connection to our nature, our nature that springs from the womb of the earth, where I believe we will ultimately find a healing power greater than the alchemy dreamed up in scientific laboratories. The act of expression is an act of creation, and every act of creation is healing.

I leave the hospital. I walk out into the cool night air and look back at the concrete structure. I see the cement and the asphalt and the futuristic ventilation system —  and the windows that do not open. I see how we seal ourselves from the life that surrounds us, the life that struggles to survive against our efforts to subdue its chaotic lust for expression.

I cry about the young woman I have just visited. I wish for her to dance in the moonlight and touch the flowers that grow within her heart. I wish for the doctors and the nurses and researchers to reach within their souls and find the earth-centered creative spirit that nurtures life. I wish them to dance down the halls, draw pictures on their patients charts, and sit with the sick and dying telling stories and listening: listening to the cycle of life and death. It's not about living: it's about being and being there for each other. It's about expressing the deep life within us, even if that expression only lasts a moment in time.

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