First, Do No Harm

This is the second time I’ve participated in a reading/discussion group based on the theme of Literature, Compassion and Health Care.  Our group meets at the Walt Whitman Birthplace Site in Melville, New York and is facilitated by a physician/poet Dr. Jack Coulehan.  The aura of Whitman magically pervades the site and all its multitudinous activities, including our discussion group.

Whitman was a very compassionate person.  He spent several years during the Civil War at the bedsides of severely wounded soldiers consoling them during their darkest hours. Before volunteering for this job, he already had a fine-tuned affinity for humanity, reflected in his poetry.  His Civil War experiences served to further deepen his compassion for mankind.

The small size of our discussion group, about ten participants, allows us to have a “conversation” about the assigned reading: No Apparent Distress, by Rachel Pearson (2017) and Regeneration by Pat Barker (1993). In addition, about a dozen or so poems are also on the reading list,  several of them written by Dr. (Jack) Coulehan who is a published poet.

The author of No Apparent Distress wrote about her personal experiences with patients while training to become a physician. Since much of her early training took place in a student-run clinic in south Texas, as well as in a hospital for the poor and indigent, her experiences are colored by the poverty, poor education and discrimination her patients have suffered in addition to their physical and mental ailments.

The readings we are assigned and the discussions that follow are very relevant to the battle now taking place between Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act and Trump’s efforts to dismantle it piece by piece.  As the average citizen becomes poorer in America, and as the poor become even worse off than they already were vis a vis their health care,  we are heading toward the brink. With our current piecemeal, pay-as-you-go health care system in place, only a select group of middle class citizens with good jobs that provide low-cost, comprehensive health-care plans can afford to purchase a health care plan.  Others are forced to pay high premiums for their health-care insurance. We collectively fear for those who will increasingly be priced out of any kind of health care. Many people are now in more dire straits than they were a few years ago when the Affordable Health Care Act was passed.

As yet our group has only touched the surface of the body of issues that arise within our present health care system. As a four-year cancer survivor, I can all too easily remember the fear and anxiety I experienced regarding my health care and diagnosis. But because I am a retired teacher with an affordable health care plan in place,  I probably received the best care a middle-class person can get in the United States. I was lucky and survived.

I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have to rely on health care services delivered by the overworked and underpaid providers who serve the poor. Pearson provides several examples of how the poor can simply die for lack of appropriate or sufficient treatment as well as lack of consistency  in their care takers.

This is such an important conversation we are having, it ought to be made available to everyone so that we can all become better informed about the forces that drive our healthcare system including how changes are brought about, and what could be done to improve our health care.  Perhaps this goal could be achieved through a required course in high-schools or colleges (similar to the Health classes now offered to teen agers concerning reproduction) or in libraries which now serve as our community centers, or through churches and other non-profit institutions.

At the moment I feel very privileged. Privileged to be alive following a fourth-stage cancer diagnosis; privileged to not have to worry very much about my healthcare bills and the quality of my care; privileged to have the time in my life to participate in this unique seminar; and privileged to be able to share this experience with the Two Writing Teachers  blogging community which includes teachers from all over the United States and beyond.

In the United States we are still a long way from providing health care as the “right” of every individual.    What will it take to achieve that ideal?

A Poetry Immersion Weekend: The Joy of Connecting Through Words

(Jan Heller Levi, who sounds pretty important, said this about Marilyn Hacker (shown above) which is better than what I might say: “I think of her magnificent virtuosity in the face of all the strictures to be silent, to name her fears and her desires, and in the process, to name ours. Let’s face it, no one writes about lust and lunch like Marilyn Hacker. No one can jump around in two, sometimes even three, languages and come up with poems that speak for those of us who sometimes barely think we can even communicate in one.”)

I promised a post today about Madrid, the first stop on my recent three-city tour of Spain. However, since the photos are not yet accessible to me, I ask your patience and will instead write today about my poetry immersion weekend.

This weekend two events took place in my poetry world, unexpectedly back to back. The first event was part of a weekend celebration of the 198th birthday of Walt Whitman, held at the Walt Whitman Birthplace Site in Huntington, Long Island. Since my retirement, I avail myself of the wonderful programs and events that are held there.

I had signed up to audit a Master Class on Saturday given by the newly designated poet-in-residence, Marilyn Hacker, a poet unknown to me. I have been a poetry groupie since grad school at SUNY Buffalo when I had the opportunity to attend the poetry readings of many of today’s widely recognized poets including Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, Allen Ginsburg, Richard Brautigan, Robert Bly, Bob Hass and many, many others. (I now notice the absence of women on the list!) To me, a great poet is the equivalent of a rock star. Walt Whitman is my current rock star because he hails from my hood and is the source of most of my recent poetic inspiration.

The Master Class offered me the chance to meet a critically acclaimed poet and to attend her reading. I chose to “audit” the class because it was less expensive than full participation, and because I still think of myself as a fledgling poet. I hoped that by auditing the class I would learn from more experienced writers than myself.

Big mistake! Most of the group was comprised of closet poets, like me, who were looking for feedback on improving their own writing. Ms. Hacker began the Master Class with a prompt: a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks entitled “the rites for Cousin Vit” which she asked the participants to respond to in writing.

Although it was interesting to hear everyone’s “take” on the poem, I felt disappointed that the class was run more on a shared-participation model than as an opportunity to learn from the poet’s comments on each individual’s writing. When the class ended, three hours later, I felt I still knew nothing about the poet or her writing or why she was chosen poet-in-residence for 2017.

In the two-hour interval between the class and the reading that followed, I found myself outside in the lovely garden with a poet, Pramila Venkateswaran, I’d heard read at a previous event at this same venue. We had a leisurely, collaborative conversation about learning multiple languages, native tongues, losing fluency in a second language for lack of another native speaker to converse with (in her case, German; in my case, French). Many of her poems are focused on the role of women in society, with emphasis on some of the more mundane and tedious roles they are reduced to playing. She offers gentle, and even loving depictions of these women trapped in their daily lives.

The late-afternoon reading had a light turn-out which I actually appreciate because for me this makes the event more private and personal, as though the poet is engaging in conversation with close friends. Ms. Hacker’s poems have a far-flung reach, referring often to friends dispersed throughout many countries, including France and the Middle East. In her newest poems she intersperses English with bits of Arabic or French which immediately gives her poetry a cache not present in most American poetry. Having lived in different cultures she is able to throw a broad net and come up with a catch that forms the basis of a poem, rich in cultural details and exotic language.

I sat up late in bed last night, reading poems from her newest collection: in some she is reminiscing about a long bygone relationship; she writes of friends who’ve suffered incredible personal loss through the hardship of wartimes; she reflects on her own physical scars and psychological wounds. But above all, hers is a voice that notices, analyzes and then bursts forth in poetry that is life-affirming. Needless to say, the reading more than made up for what I felt was missing in her earlier class.

Sunday, I was invited to read a poem I had recently written and submitted to a local poetry contest. The awards were kept a secret. I was finally called to the podium to read my poem which was awarded Honorable Mention. I felt honored to be in the company of so many devoted and talented Long Island poets, young and old. The poet who organized the event, Gayl Teller, ended the evening by saying that “we are all richer for having shared each other’s poems tonight.” Her point is well taken; I certainly did feel the connection to others with whom I’d shared a weekend of poetry.

I’ll close this post with the poem I read. The inspiration for it was a talk I heard given recently by Neil Degrasse Tyson, our beloved astrophysicist. In it, I refer to something that changed my life about two and a half years ago.

If Only…

If only the grownups
had told the truth
all those dreary Sundays
rising early to go to church
to learn about the mysteries
of water changed to wine
feeding the multitudes with
a basket of fish and loaves of bread
and as if that were not enough
how He walked on water
and rolled away the stone from the tomb
invoking lightning and thunder
then rose from the dead

When, in truth, it really
comes down to a few molecules
or a rogue cell that has decided
to take your life away from you
no miracles, no lightning or thunder
nothing to do with sinners or saints
just the Big Bang, on a smaller scale,
cells put in motion,
chaos, then order,
life, then death

We know that
one cell can create a life
but did you know
that one cell can take your life?

Barbara Suter
Spring 2017