Mannequin Monday – A Sense of Compassion
Clothing our blank forms again, with an awareness of suffering. A sense of compassion. This week’s short story Friendship and Art comes from Alan Ziegler, courtesy of Narrative magazine. This week’s interview is from NPR, Scott Simon talking to Dr. Suzanne Koven, formerly with Massachusetts General Hospital. And I offer a writing sample of my own about street art.
This Week’s Story
Read Alan Ziegler’s iStory here.
“It’s nice,” I reply, the words you use when you want to break a poet’s spirit..” As Alan Ziegler says in Friendship and Art, the words you use to break a poet’s spirit. A writer’s spirit. Narrative magazine again brings us a compelling piece of fiction, one of four iStories. How devastating to an artist to say something like, your work is nice. And in this story it’s said deliberately. Intended to break spirit. A moment of compassion extended to a friend has two years later become a poetic description of a cold person’s tolerance.
This reminds me of an interview my wife and I conducted with record producer David Malloy in Nashville years back for Music and Sound Output magazine. David was walking us through his Emerald studio, explaining the equipment, listing his gear. He introduced us to young singer/songwriter Anthony Crawford. He played one of Crawford’s songs that he was producing. I commented naively that Crawford’s voice reminded me of another established country singer. David jumped on me immediately. Don’t ever tell an artist his work sounds like someone else’s work, he said. His work stands alone. I never forgot that message.
Words can be harsh. Intended or not. Written or spoken.
This Week’s Interview/Podcast
Scott Simon from NPR interviewed Dr. Suzanne Koven on dealing with compassion among medical personnel. Here’s the transcript:
Suzanne Koven, a medical doctor and Massachusetts General Hospital’s first writer in residence, says the healthcare center is the setting for thousands of real-life stories.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Hospitals are real-life settings for human drama with thousands of stories. Massachusetts General Hospital has a writer in residence to encourage writing and reading. And Dr. Suzanne Koven says that the interest from hospital staff is now greater than ever. We’re joined now by Dr. Suzanne Koven, who was a writer and a physician with Mass General for more than 25 years. Doctor, thanks so much for being with us.
SUZANNE KOVEN: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: And what does a writer in residence do at a hospital?
KOVEN: It’s a fairly unique role in my hospital because my focus is primarily on the staff. So I do a lot of writing, coaching, mentoring and editing. And I run reading and writing groups and also organize literary events, poetry readings and so forth.
SIMON: Is the idea to encourage reflection and to say to them, look; you’re going through weighty experiences; this is one way of getting your emotions around them?
KOVEN: Yeah, I think that’s actually a good way of putting it. Health care workers are exposed to a lot of human stories – probably more than the average person. And yet, because of the restrictions of time and confidentiality, we can’t share those stories too much. Reading, writing, particularly looking at literature together provides a different kind of window into the human condition, which we’re steeped in so much day to day in our work.
SIMON: You have a poem that you favor, I gather, by William Carlos Williams, who was, of course, also a doctor. Here’s a reading of his poem “Complaint.”
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED READER: (Reading) They call me, and I go. It is a frozen road past midnight, a dust of snow caught in the rigid wheel tracks. The door opens. I smile, enter and shake off the cold. Here is a great woman on her side in the bed. She is sick, perhaps vomiting, perhaps laboring to give birth to a 10th child. Joy. Joy. Night is a room darkened for lovers. Through the jalousies, the sun has sent one gold needle. I pick the hair from her eyes and watch her misery with compassion.
SIMON: My gosh, those final lines – and watch her misery with compassion. What does this poem let doctors and health care workers at Mass General talk about and open up inside themselves?
KOVEN: To me, what this is about is this physician’s sense of what, in this case, his duty is. And at the very end, having gone all the way to thinking of the sick room as being darkened as for lovers and the golden needle – needle, of course, being a medical term and here being a needle of sunlight, so really complicating our sense of what the medical role is – he finally seems to land where he needs to be – a witness, a companion to suffering. And I think that health care workers I’ve read this poem with very much recognize themselves in it.
SIMON: I think people listening to us will point out that doctors don’t get any time to talk to patients these days. They always have to be, you know, typing into a laptop. How do you have that bond of trust exist between a physician and a patient now?
KOVEN: I think that reflection, such as that we do in these reading and writing groups, really helps connect us to the deepest meaning of our work. And the truth of the matter is that if we’re entering data on a computer and not looking at a patient, we’re not watching anybody’s misery, or joy, for that matter, with compassion. And so I find that reading poems remind us of what our calling is and what actually gives us the greatest joy. And, of course, there are practical constraints. But I think many of us and, in fact, even many right now on the front lines – there’s so many stories coming out of people in goggles and masks who are still able to have intimate interactions with patients and their families at absolutely the most difficult time.
SIMON: Dr. Suzanne Koven is Massachusetts General Hospital’s inaugural writer in residence. Her book “Letter To A Young Female Physician” comes out next year. Dr. Koven, thanks so much for being with us.
KOVEN: Thank you so much for having me.
The writer-in-residence program at Massachusetts General uses writing, literature, poetry to help medical staff deal with the human drama inherent in hospital settings. Words that induce heightened compassion. As the cited poet, William Carlos Williams, says, “I pick the hair from her eyes and watch her misery with compassion.” The physician, the medical person, is a witness to suffering.
Such an appropriate message in these days of widespread disease. COVID-19 has devastated so many lives, medical personnel among them. In some cases being a witness to suffering, compassion, is all anyone can offer.
Six years ago I photographed a street art depiction of the Trojan Women. What struck me the most was the artist’s willingness to create a piece of art, knowing that it would be painted over to make way for another work of street art. The artist, whose name I never discovered, was not only creating the piece to advertise a play being performed in a theater inside the building. They were also creating a wonderful sense of compassion for the long-ago plight of the Trojan women.
As Though Your Words May Die
All creative artists reach a point where they have to let go of their created work. Publish it, display it, sell it, screen it. Let it go.
For some artists an even deeper sense of abandonment is at play in their creative process.
Several years ago I attended a performance of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, his epic indictment of war written in 415 BCE. Outside the black box theater, located in the arts district of LA, a street art mural publicized the current production. The artist – I don’t know who – created the piece knowing that it would only be there for a month or two, then be painted over for the next show’s ad.
Here are a few pictures of the street art. Can you see the desperation that the street artist captured? The dread, the bloody horror in the women’s eyes? The Trojan women’s nation had just been defeated in war. They lost their husbands and children. They faced a life of servitude.
The artist knew going in that the art would be destroyed. It reminds me of the Zen monks who create intricate sand mandalas (paintings), only to ritually obliterate them, as a testament to the impermanence of life.
For a writer, this holds a lesson. Create with abandon. Let the abandonment free up the creative process. Don’t worry about whether your words will endure. Ray Bradbury once said, “In quickness is truth. The more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling or tiger-trapping.”