metaphor as medicine

good morning good morning — I’m morning pagesing here again today, as I’m up a bit later than I’d planned. The snoozed alarm kept harping at me, and I’d think, Doesn’t it know I’ve already asked it to let me sleep more? I think this alarm doesn’t know how snooze is supposed to work. I am, maybe, a bit tired. I’ve got some lemon zinger tea added to this morning’s green, to do small battle with the sick that wants to lodge itself in me.

What all is waking itself in you today?

I am just realizing, this morning, that the dark has arrived again — here it is, quarter after six, and still outside my windows the light is dim, the early commuters rushing toward the highway still need their headlights, the birds are even quiet yet. And I am thinking about how we story, how we metaphor, what’s dark around us.Even though it might not feel fall-like outside when the sun is up and we are in Northern California, where summer arrives in September and October, we still have this shifted quality of light that tells our bodies, communicates with our inside selves, that the time is coming when we can get quiet, go inward, nest into whatever needs nesting into. I have been thinking, ever since FemmeCon, about the way we metaphor darkness in this culture — a writer at Alex’s and my workshop called this out, again: how darkness is entangled with difficulty, badness, hardship, and how light, we know, is associated with goodness (especially white light!), ease, safety and comfort. I loved this point getting raised, and talked a little about the power we can experience when we shake up the metaphors that we’re raised within, that we’re trained into — what happens when we turn the mainstream ideas over, when we write about light as something brash, challenging, difficult, and when we write about, let’s say, the nurturing darkness, that which can swaddle and contain what in us is just emergent, still forming, still pupal, still growing its wings.

The darkness of this time of year is, for me, a feeding time. I feel grateful every year when we move into fall, when the dark stretches beyond 4:30 am, reaches its lovely fingers toward 7, holds me close (and helps the puppy sleep longer!) and invites me to unpack what has been tucked inside all year.

Last night I got to do a couple of my favorite things: first, attend a poetry reading; second, fall asleep with a book in my bed. I went to the launch of Granta 120: Medicine, which was cosponsored by the UCSF Medical Humanities program. Victoria Sweet read from her new book, God’s Hotel, which is a history and memoir of her time working at Laguna Honda hospital in San Francisco. And, too, Kay Ryan, former poet laureate and all-around brilliance, read from her work and spoke about story and body and metaphor. (The book I fell asleep reading last night was her most recent collection, The Best of It, which, you know, won the Pulitzer.) What a wonderful thing it was to have to stand in the back of the small Book Passage there at the Ferry Building because so many folks had turned out on a Tuesday night to hear poetry and story. And then it may be that I was somewhat awestruck listening to Kay Ryan, just right there at the front of the room like a regular person, talking about metaphor as embodied, as necessarily embodied, as perhaps an essential aspect of our human embodiment. Ok, she didn’t say that last thing. I’m putting those words into her mouth — what she did say was, let me see if I can get this right, when she gets an idea for a poem, she’s often following the call of a metaphor which has a life of its own, which wants to live, which needs her in order to emerge. She writes in bed, she says, in her pajamas — so I’m going to grow my metaphor over her: she allows the dark and dream time to linger and commingle with the light, she holds the cocoon around this emergent life, around this vessel of meaning/idea/beauty.

Both she and Dr. Sweet spoke about medicine as story: Dr. Sweet said that a physician is ahead of the game if she is able to find the right metaphor for the right body at the right time; that metaphor will shape how we are able to understand what’s happening with that body (i.e., thinking of the body as a plant, or a machine, or a computer). If we can only imagine one story for every body, if we try to force every body into the single story that we can read, we will miss much about those bodies, our own bodies, our world.

We medicine ourselves, too, when we engage in new and shifted metaphors for our experiences — what happens when we think, for instance, of healing as a welcomed fragmentation instead of wholeness? What are the stories we have for our different identities: survivor, man, woman, queer, straight, working class, healthy, sick…? What happens if we turn those stories over and write into their “dark” sides, the sides we haven’t illuminated, the sides that live unlit and fertile with surprise?

Here’s one from Kay Ryan for this morning:

Swept Up Whole

You aren’t swept up whole,
however it feels. You’re
atomized. The wind passes.
You recongeal. It’s
a surprise.

Thank you for the way you allow the stories of yourselves to shift and open today, and, too, how you hold your exact metaphors close and tight. Thank you for your wisdom, your dark clarity, the burrowing power of your words.


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