The Tales We Write in Water

We are all stories, aren’t we? Largely untold, and seldom transcribed, we travel through our lives like cups filled to overflowing, spilling drops like patterns on a dirty tablecloth. It’s often not so much a reticence that keeps our information bottled up, as opportunity to share it. It’s why, I suppose, there is such a need for counsellors. Therapists. Ears, not just to hear what we feel is important to us, but to listen. Someone to understand our need for time on the pedestal…

Diaries do that as well, albeit with little feedback unless they are publicized. No feedback in fact if they are left unattended and unnoticed in a drawer somewhere for fear of discovery -disclosure of inner secrets too personal to admit, embarrassing moments too painful to discuss, dreams we fear are out of reach. And yet the very act of writing them down may not be wasted: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170601-can-writing-about-pain-make-you-heal-faster

Okay, I don’t really buy the premise of the article suggesting there may be something immunologically regenerating about writing, that healing occurs faster, or that there may be beneficial effects on health in general –and yet I readily admit that, as a sometime writer myself, it intrigues me. I’ve always thought about it in terms of catharsis, but now I’m not so sure. In 1986, a psychology professor named James Pennebaker asked his students to ‘spend 15 minutes writing about the biggest trauma of their lives or, if they hadn’t experienced a trauma, their most difficult time’. Six months later, he discovered that this seemed to have had an effect on their general health as measured by fewer visits by them to the health center. A bit tenuous, it seems to me, but it was his subsequent analysis that interested me more.

‘What does the act of committing words to paper do? Initially it was assumed this simply happened through catharsis, that people felt better because they’d let out their pent-up feelings. But then Pennebaker began looking in detail at the language people used in their writing. He found that the types of words people used changed over the course of the four sessions.’ The students ‘[…] began by using the word “I” a lot, but in later sessions moved on to saying “he” or “she” more often, suggesting they were looking at the event from other perspectives. They also used words like “because”, implying they were making sense of the events and putting them into a narrative.’

The perspective change that evolved in their writing is fascinating. As I write this, I’m reminded of a fragment of a poem by Robert Burns (To a Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church): ‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as ithers see us!’… But, come to think of it, isn’t this very non sequitur an example of how the act of putting down words unlocks unexpected doors? Could writing be the Power to which Burns was referring…?

Well, perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch, I’ll admit, and yet…

I had travelled into town to buy a piece of technological kit at a store in a huge mall in the center of the city, when I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the noise, the movement, and even the smell of the thronging crowd flowing over and around me like a debris-strewn river. I wanted to sit down somewhere, but it was lunch time and all the benches were full, so I headed outside to a little dog park I’d noticed on the way in. Even there the pews were occupied, although admittedly, not by dogs, but people eating fast food out of wax-paper wrappers. I felt a bit nauseated and I didn’t think I could handle sitting beside one of them, so I chose a seat beside a young woman who had eschewed her stomach for a little notepad on which she was furiously scribbling. A thin woman, with short blond hair and a blue business dress, I thought at first she was just catching up on office work; the fact that there was neither a laptop nor a phone in evidence, seemed only passing strange. Her face, young and unblemished, was somewhere else – certainly not here, despite the soft breeze that rustled the leaves, and the sound of birds flitting from branch to branch above our heads. But she looked happy. Content. Absorbed…

It was pleasant sitting outside, and the trees that ringed the tiny urban meadow seemed to keep the more annoying attacks of traffic noise at bay. After a while I became aware of something I hadn’t heard since I was at school, I think: the sound of pencil hurriedly scraping across paper. There was something atavistically soothing about it –something that brought back childhood memories: the sound of walking on fallen autumn leaves maybe, or the soft hiss of bacon that my mother was frying in the kitchen… Sounds totally unlike what I was hearing, to be sure, and yet compelling. Comforting.

In my reverie, I’m afraid I began to stare at her –or rather, at the notebook on her lap. Eyes, when left unleashed do things that are hard to explain. Hard to justify. And because of my unsolicited proximity to her on the otherwise crowded bench, she noticed. At first it was a scowl that tried to shoo my eyes, if not my very presence away, but then, seeing my embarrassed smile at being caught in flagrante delicto as it were, she smiled.

“Just writing down some thoughts,” she said glancing at her watch and then carefully closing up the notebook as if it were a bible.

In some way exculpated by her words, my face relaxed.

“Sometimes I just have to write them down before my office thoughts take over,” she added, shrugging contentedly as she stood to leave. “Helps me cope somehow…”

I saw her walk away along the wide gravel path, stopping from time to time to stare up into the trees, oblivious, it seemed, to the city that roared around her. And as I watched, I have to admit, so was I.

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Life’s Like That

Why is Life so hard to define? When I was in school, it was easy –as mentioned in a BBC article on the topic: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170101-there-are-over-100-definitions-for-life-and-all-are-wrong -Life was MRS GREN (Metabolism, Reproduction, Sensitivity, Growth, Respiration, Excretion, and Nutrition). That’s all you needed for the exam –although I’m glad they never asked for an explanation of Sensitivity. But times change, and as do definitions, so by the time I was in university, I was confused. Every faculty had its own perspective –chemists defined in terms of chemicals, biologist preferred DNA, and physicists were partial to the dynamics of molecular properties that bypassed structural components in favour of information transfer.

Me? I wandered around a fair amount in my undergraduate years before I ended up in Medicine so, already rainbow-hued, I opted for a just-right-baby-bear definition -not too much of anything. By then, I understood that Life was an amalgam –but the product and not the recipe. The final taste, and not the way the ingredients are cooked. Telos, I suppose, rather than methodos– words sufficiently nebulous as to dissolve in most of the more erudite proposals. To me, Life is a story – scilicet, a spirit-  and one whose progress is tied to the outcome. We humans are requisite classifiers and groupers –itself a story- and we thereby miss the uniqueness of entity, the magic of identity; for us, something is either alive or not. Black or white. It’s an important distinction to be sure, but as I said, it misses the pungency of the flavour. The excitement of the effect. The Proustian Phenomenon of the madeleine biscuit soaked in tea… My route explains nothing, I’ll concede, and yet somehow, it’s what makes it Life, and not something else.

But I was always hopeless at philosophy, and despite my zeal for it, perhaps wisely accepted parental advice and wandered off into Medicine and eventually a career as an obstetrician/gynaecologist. I suspect they were concerned that otherwise I might end up living with them at home.

From time to time, however, I am still tempted to wax lyrical on Life with the occasional patient who seems to require some additional prodding with regard to their own. I can’t say I’ve achieved any truly publishable results, but the process is nonetheless enjoyable for me on those otherwise interminably complaint-ridden days that crop up from time to time.

It usually requires a stimulus –an opportunity when my input would not be construed as an imposition on their time with me.

Janet, for example. She was a forty-one year old woman who had pursued her own career as a lawyer at the apparent expense of a stable relationship. Intelligent, and attractive, she had finally ‘decided to accede to an intimacy request’ from an acquaintance –that’s how she put it- and when she had first made the appointment had wanted some advice as to how to avoid pregnancy. Her would-be partner was an older man who had not felt comfortable using condoms however. So he hadn’t. And she was. Not only that, but she was confused about it.

“Doctor, I’m almost forty-two years old, and despite the occasional ‘dalliance’ I’ve never been able to become pregnant…” She stared at me like I was somehow to blame for the vagaries and vicissitudes that had befallen her.

I could almost see the quote marks around her word ‘dalliance’. “You said ‘able to become pregnant’, Janet. Were you trying?”

She shook her head almost before my question reached her, but I could tell by her expression that she wasn’t sure. “Life is such a precious thing… I’d want to be sure about everything…”

“Like…?”

“Like whether I could care for it. Whether I would regret whatever decision I made about a pregnancy I hadn’t planned.” She didn’t even mention what effect the father might have on the process. “So…” she thought about it for a second. “…So I suppose I’m happy I didn’t have to make that decision before…”

“And now…?”

She shrugged and sent her eyes, like beggars, to ask my face for something –wisdom, maybe; suggestions, at least. “I mean, what are my chances, doctor?”

“Chances?”

“You know, that I won’t miscarry anyway. Remember, I’m forty-one now… And there’s also a risk of genetic malfeasance, isn’t there?”

Even though I have many lawyers as patients, I’d never heard the risks of pregnancy in an older mother put quite like that… I’m definitely in the pro-choice camp, as she well knew, so I realized she wouldn’t think I was trying to sway her ultimate decision no matter what I said. But still… “We can do the usual prenatal testing to identify any genetic problems beforehand, Janet. And yes, miscarriages are more common with pregnancies in older mothers…”

Her eyes grasped at the hems of mine like supplicants. “And if I were your daughter…?” I knew I had to be careful then -she was asking for an opinion, albeit framed as a personal one.

I sighed and sat back in my  chair. “A new life is a new story, Janet –a bit of yours, a bit of the father’s- but at this stage, most of it is still an idea somewhere. It doesn’t have to get written to qualify –we all have ideas inside when we stop and think about them. We write down some of them, I suppose but sometimes even then, we just can’t get the wording right. Or the idea, once on paper, doesn’t seem what we thought. Remember, a story is no less a story for not being completed, and no less a creation for not being read… But sometimes, you just have to take the chance that you’re on to something.”

Her eyes flew away and settled on her lap for a moment. “You’d make a great lawyer, doctor,” she said, with a mischievous smile, her eyes back on mine once more. “Obfuscation is something they just can’t teach…”

I’m not sure she followed my argument so I risked a little smile. “Isn’t it what you do when there really is no case to be made beyond a reasonable doubt?”

She rolled her eyes and chuckled. “I don’t take cases like that anymore.”

I suspected she hadn’t this time, either.