Friday, March 27, 2015

A Lesson from Marie Howe

A few months ago while ambling along the Hocking River, a voice rich with wisdom came through my headset via a podcast. In hopes of divining further truths, I listened to it again and again. The voice belongs to Marie Howe, the poet, who happens to be at the Spring Lit Fest at Ohio University

Howe's podcast talk of poetry akin to spells got to that funny place inside me where light can penetrate undiscovered territory. Oo oo, I thought when Howe said, "... we all need to walk around with, a handful of counter spells, you know. And, and poetry, when you think of its roots, you know, is that." I bought her book The Kingdom of Ordinary Time so I could sit with her words on my search for counter spells.

Howe read her own poetry on opening night, but I had missed it so I hustled to Alden Library for her talk- in case you noted a black blur streaking up East State Street. Except she wasn't first so I was alright, and Brian Doyle was wonderful, but I'll save that thought for another time. 

This day Marie Howe read others' poems. Then she talked us through the fine words and quiet spaces found within those poems. She told us that poetry holds a silence at the center of it, "the what that cannot be said or reduced." (No wonder I can't write a poem!)

Then, Howe gave us a writing assignment. She asked us to contradict ourselve, to force ourselves from where we want to go. This was Howe's writing prompt "I did not know...."

Here goes...

The Man Who Could Not Hug

When it came to choosing a career, I wanted to do something real, that was action oriented, and that could be done in a variety of settings. I  became a nurse. However, I did not anticipate that I would watch the dying or listen to others' pain, nor did I imagine the hands I would hold or the old skin I would polish until it gleamed. Sometimes things smelled awful, but still it was a job made of moments tangible with presence, the real stuff I had sought and more.

Now I sit here with words. Words do not smell or weigh of anything and yet with words I am in a hospital room where a man’s blood pours out, gushes like a spring river, from every cavity. The smell of lead or maybe something dying permeates the moment in my memory. The rustle of blue plastic pads and the hum of fluorescent lights throb in my brain. The sounds are punctuated by a vision of hands and arms that disappear into the deep cavities of a man's body.

Someone at every limb pours something into him though his insides seem to be coming out faster than we can pour it back. The team presses on, there are bags and bags of fluids, blood, fresh frozen plasma, staff replacements rotate in, we can keep this up seems to murmur in the energy of the room. 

In my memory, there are ten of us to the one of him. The senior nurse encourages me, "We can do this." She must see the doubt in my face. I nod my head unsure, but keep my eyes on my hands, my work. I have never seen anything like this. I will never again because before long I will choose other work, but in that moment I am appalled at how close to the edge we are with this man's life going out of him like a waterfall.

We fight, each on our front, with his body at the center in hopes of restoring him, of calling him back. Our weapons of choice are blood, fluids, and medicines. It goes on and on for hours. When I leave at day’s end, the floor is littered with empty plastic bags.

About a year later, I am floated to the Surgical Trauma Unit on the day shift a few days before I will be moving across the country. That afternoon, a man with no arms walks into the floor, to say hello to a place he can’t quite recall, but his family can.  He has come back to see the place that saved him, I think.

Only it never works quite like that.

As a crowd of nurses, residents, doctors, and other staff spontaneously gathered around him, I remember wondering, What will he say? Maybe he'll thank us for our hard work. Only a few patients returned to the units when I worked there.

This man who had lost his arms, to his shoulders from an injury that had brought him to us, said this gem, “I miss being able to hug someone. I didn’t know how important that was when I had arms, but now that I can’t, I know it is the greatest thing I’ve lost.”

I turn and walk away so I could stuff my heart back down into my stomach, or under it, or wherever the hell it is supposed to go or stay.

I keep going back to that wretched moment where I turned and walked away from that man and the group surrounding him, too much pain. See, I’m that weepy soul that cries over every little thing if I don’t keep a collar on it- I pull, it tugs, shimmies, and morphs as if Houdini so I tookoff in part to avoid spilling tears at work.

Howe's prompt, "I did not know," however, flipped me to this story that I keep telling, the story of the man who could not hug, because it touches regret and lost chances. I see now that through the pain lies the path to what is important. It hurts because it matters. My stuffed downed regrets lead me back like the trail of moonstones that Hansel left in the woods. Pains linger and remind me that they must be faced before they can truly be put to rest.

When you fear giving a hug consider the idea of not being able to give a hug.

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