Pain is an important signal. We feel something hot and pull our hand away. A knee hurts and we ice it. Pain is the body’s way of telling us to pay attention to something and give it some attention. But what if pain also tells us about our emotions? Mad in America recently published my essay entitled “Learning to Speak the Subtle Language of Pain.” My hope is that someone with an experience like mine will find comfort and resonance in my story.
Here’s an excerpt: “It gradually dawned on me that my back pain was another mask that depression wore. Instead of crying and feeling overwhelmed or giving up, my body was sending distress signals to help me realize that I was in a difficult spot.”
I planned my recent trip to Paris with the wistful notion that it would be a grand farewell to my favorite city. After all, I reasoned, this trip would mark my third to Paris in four years–and my fourth trip overall if I wanted to count my college visit in 1972. “You’re getting older, Ann,” I told myself, “there are many more places you want to experience while you still can.”
I planned accordingly–making sure to visit the places I absolutely wanted to see one more time–La Musee D’Orsay with lunch in the 5th floor cafe, a couple of hours with Monet’s Waterlillies in L’Orangerie, a last look at Notre Dame, and lunch at L’As du Fallafel in the Marais, per my son’s recommendation. And of course, a visit to La Durree on the Champs Elysees for their fabulous macarons.
I felt excited and vaguely uneasy at the same time. As I visited each place on my itinerary, I grew more and more enamored with Paris. Would this really be my last visit? Riding the Metro home each night to my B & B near the Eiffel Tower, I wanted to freeze the hands of the clock so that I could savor Paris even longer.
And as I visited L’Orangerie and saw Monet’s fabulous Waterlilies again, I was saddened by the buzz in the room and the constant selfie-taking tourists who blocked everyone’s view of the panels.
In contrast, I simply stood in front of a panel, and focused–trying to breathe in its beauty and the rich depth of the colors. I didn’t even try to take a picture-as I had the year before. I knew the colors would be a vague shadow of the beauty before me, and I heard this line from “Postscript” by Seamus Heaney: “Useless to to think you’ll…capture it more thoroughly.”
And on my last day in Paris, where I simply savored every bite of food and every grand view, I knew I was foolish as well. Foolish to limit myself to any idea of not returning to Paris. And foolish to rush through my days, as I so often do. Instead, I want to pause and let the experience “catch my heart off guard and blow me open.” I’m working on it…and imagining another visit to Paris.
Postscript by Seamus Heaney~from The Spirit Level
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-gray lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of a flock of swans,
Their feathers ruffed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or crested or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
When I decided to go to a language school in France this year, I had two goals: to become more fluent and to improve my vocabulary. I was excited about attending Coeur de France, a French immersion school tucked away in Sancerre, a tiny town in the middle of the Loire Valley.
The school experience began smoothly when I met Marianne, the woman who ran the school and made decisions about placement in the classes. “You speak much better than your test scores led me to believe,” she told me when I showed up for the first day of class. “I’m placing you in a higher-level class.”
I was thrilled! Yes, confirmation from the “principal” that my French was better than I thought. But after two-and-a-half days of verb tenses that I’d never learned and pronouns I’d never even seen, both my teacher and Marianne moved me to a “more comfortable level” where I could keep up with the grammar. “I haven’t studied French grammar in over 40 years,” I told them,” but still, I felt close to tears and the word FAILURE drummed inside my head.
The new class moved at a slower pace and the other students struggled more with conversation than I did, but at least I could keep up with the grammar. Still, I knew the class was too easy for me and resigned myself to its less than perfect fit. “Just relax,” I told myself, “you’re in France!” Despite my diligent attention to homework and commitment to using French with all of my classmates–in and out of class–I felt my goal of becoming more fluent slipping away every day.
As I rode on the train towards Paris a few days later, I managed to dispel my funk of disappointment. I quickly realized that I needed to adjust my goal of increased fluency. I had learned many new words, and I understood more of the language. Plus, I noticed a great leap in my ability to read in French.
But the biggest lesson for me was how much time, effort, and psychic energy it would require to really become fluent. And I knew more deeply than ever before that I wanted to take that energy and put it into my writing.
My Parisian hosts, Genvieve and Claude, confirmed what I’d suspected about the focus on grammar–I already knew the four main verb tenses that you use in conversation and could use them reasonably well. “Your French is improving,” they both assured me. “You speak much better than last year when you stayed with us, and better than the first visit as well.”
Sitting at cafes, sipping espresso, and musing in my journal nearly every day led me to a solid realization about how I’d managed to re-learn French after 40 years. The program I’d used so successfully–Behind the Wheel French–had two elements that my classes in Sancerre lacked–repetition and practice.
I practiced the verb tenses over and over in different contexts as I listened to the instructor and spoke French during my frequent jaunts in the car. I read the accompanying book every day to refresh myself. And I realized why I’d felt so frustrated at the language school–every day was a new lesson with little to no review or practice of what we’d learned from the day before. And as a teacher, I knew that repletion and practice were essential components for retention.
So, while my classmates may have benefited from the approach used in the school, I knew I needed a different kind of instruction. And as I interacted with my “French family” and the many people I encountered in Paris, I felt batter about my command of basic French. I functioned well in simple conversations, and the rest of the time, I simply said, “Repetez still vous plait, plus lentement.” Can you please repeat that more slowly?
Memories are full of many images, and none are more powerful than the voices of those people in our lives whom we’ve loved and who have challenged us. Ann Bracken and Ann Quinn will read from their collections of poetry dealing with memories whose power has shaped them and influenced their writing journeys. Come for an inspiring evening of poetry and conversation with two local authors.
Ann Bracken, an activist with a pen, who grew up in Catonsville, has authored two poetry collections, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroomand The Altar of Innocence, serves as a contributing editor for Little Patuxent Review, and co-facilitates the Wilde Readings Poetry Series. Her poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in anthologies and journals, including Bared: Contemporary Poetry & Art on Bras & Breasts, Fledgling Rag, and Gargoyle. Ann’s poetry has garnered two Pushcart Prize nominations and her advocacy work centers around arts-based interventions for mental health and prison reform. Website: www.annbrackenauthor.com
Church member Ann Quinn, who has led a bi-monthly Writer’s Group at CPC for the past five years, is a poet and essayist, editor, teacher, mentor, mother, and classical clarinetist. In her poetry collection, Final Deployment,published by Finishing Line Press, the child of a Vietnam War naval aviator matures into motherhood and experiences the death of her own mother. These poems remind us of what nature teaches about death’s necessity and its potential for transfiguration. Ann’s award-winning work has been published in Potomac Review, Little Patuxent Review, Vietnam War Poetry, Haibun Today, andSnapdragon, and is included in the anthology Red Sky: Poetry on the Global Epidemic of Violence Against Women. She conducts writing workshops and music camps, volunteers in schools and libraries, and plays in a symphony orchestra. Ann holds an M.F.A. in poetry from Pacific Lutheran University and lives in Catonsville, Maryland with her family. Visit her at www.annquinn.net
Join us for this inspiring evening of creative listening and conversation. The authors will have copies of their books for sale, and refreshments will be served.
Dorothy Wetzler Bracken designed and painted this dress as a student at Maryland Institute College of Art in the 1930s. Although she graduated in 1935 with a degree in costume design, she was never able to pursue her artistic talents. Mom kept her dreams to herself until the late 90s when I discovered a portfolio of her designs and she confessed, “I always wanted to be a fashion designer.”
Dorothy’s story could have been a happy one—she married, had many friends, and eventually had five children. “I was thrilled every time I found out I was pregnant,” she often told me. Yet, postpartum depression plagued Mom following nearly every birth. After her fifth child arrived, Mom was hospitalized, received electroconvulsive therapy treatments, took copious amounts of psychiatric drugs, but sadly, she never recovered.
Because I always managed to recover from my own depressions, I puzzled over Mom remaining trapped in chronic depression for over 40 years. Until I found Dad’s collection of old insurance and medication records, newspaper and magazine articles, and letters to doctors stashed in my sister’s attic.
Those records told the story of my father’s futile attempts to get help from Mom’s doctors, most of whom only saw her twice a year despite a suicide attempt, hospitalizations, accidents (probably due to overmedication), and many electroconvulsive therapy treatments. Most troubling of all were the lists of Mom’s prescriptions that Dad had saved: Thorazine, barbiturates, antidepressants, amphetamines, and benzodiazepines.
Mom’s doctors were practicing polypharmacy: giving a patient more than one drug to treat a condition. The same thing that happened to me with opioids in the late 90s; the same thing—with different drugs—that’s happening now. And oftentimes the chemical load becomes so great that it’s impossible to tell what’s actually going on for a patient vs. the interactions of the medications. Now I know at least one reason Mom never got well.
What happens when you get over 125 writers together in one place and give them prompts, papers and pens? I found out when I attended the Philadelphia Writers Conference for the first time about a two weeks ago.
I attended several workshops and was really inspired by the one on using color that was facilitated by the wonderful Philly poet Yolanda Wisher. After reading a masterful poem called “Blue” by Yusef Komunyakaa, we all tried our hand at a similar piece after selecting a line of his as a jumping off point. Wow! The five of us went in all different directions, and I felt like I’d been given a jolt of lightening energy to infuse my work with freshness. Yolanda gave us paint chips to take home and assigned us the task of writing a poem with words like rust, pilgrimage foliage, and aztec brick—I’m still working on that poem. And Sunday morning was a pairing of watercolors and poetry—here’s a picture of the final product.
Another high point of the conference came with a workshop led by the keynote speaker and prolific author Jonathan Maberry. He showed us how to create a pitch for agents that would generate a request for a proposal or a manuscript. All I can say is that I rewrote my pitch immediately and two out of three agents I met with asked for a proposal. All three complimented the pitch. Thank you, Jonathan.
Asali Solomon gave an impressive welcoming speech which encouraged all of us to write about the macro issues of the day using the micro lens of our own experiences. Sandy Shea, of the Philadelphia Inquirer, led us in a thoughtful workshop on how to craft an op-ed for publication, and lastly, Jenn McCreary led us in a fabulous workshop on the political nature and uses of erasure poetry.
Brovo is all I can say. Well worth the time and money to go to Philly for the workshops alone. The planning committee is taking a year off to regroup and plan for updates, but they’ll be back in 2021. So will I!
Last week a wonderful art exhibit opened at Slayton House in Wilde Lake Village Center here in Columbia. Two local artists, April Rimpo and Elaine Weiner-Reed opened their exhibit entitled “Portraits of Life: The Art of Storytelling.” What made the evening special was the collaboration that April and Elaine had arranged by seeking poets and musicians to write songs and poems to accompany their paintings. Along with several other local writers, I participated in the event and wrote two poems–one to go with a painting by Elaine and one to go with a painting by April. The energy of the visual art and the spoken words created a powerful atmosphere in the gallery. Here are my poems to accompany Elaine’s painting “Come What May” and April’s painting “Time At the Bus Stop.” Enjoy! And stop by Slayton House to catch this amazing exhibit.
“Come What May”
What mirage led me here
thinking I could draw strength
from the glass towers and the shimmering golden lights?
I sought anonymity to begin again
but discovered instead how lonely
a park bench could be.
I sought a fresh beginning,
an unblemished day
but crammed my head full of too many memories.
With no one to lean on
I stand taller
With no one to shield me
perhaps I’ll soar.
“Time At the Bus Stop”
I had a vision that if we came here
we’d find a new kind of fortune.
But who feeds guests with scraps
from cans instead of
platters heavy with fruit?
My grandson places his hand of my knee
and pleads “Where is my bed?”
“I don’t want to sleep on this hard step again.”
But steps are all I can see
one step for food, the next step
maybe someone will smile.
When I went through training in journal and poetry therapy, one of the mantras threaded through our work was “Change your story, change your life.” We spent a lot of time rewriting stories and talking about how shifting the narrative could result in a more positive outcome. That’s why I wrote my post for Mad in America about overmedication and recovery–I couldn’t change my mother’s story, but I was determined to change mine.
The post details my story of overmedication and its harm, along with my mother’s story. When I found my father’s records about her illness, I was shocked to see that Mom received very little therapy over the years, but year after year, psychiatrists prescribed barbiturates, amphetamines, Thorazine, and antidepressants. People tell me that wouldn’t happen now–but my story, 35 years later, parallels Mom’s. Mom and I suffered needlessly because of overmedication, and I hope to be a voice for change so others don’t experience the same fate.
I have a few summer events scheduled as well as one for September. I’ll have more details and registration links once they are posted. Hope to see you in a class soon!
Thanks to everyone who came to the Roland Park reading. You were a great crowd, and I appreciate your support!
Hamilton Street Club, June 5, 2019, Baltimore 12pm-2pm
I will discuss and read poetry from my 2015 volume, The Altar of Innocence, which explores ideas associated with family secrets and trauma and the many ways a family is affected by the serious emotional struggles of other family members. Because I have training and wide experience in using poetry and the arts in healing, I will also discuss how poetry and journaling can be used to reach those who struggle with the all-too-common human experiences of severe emotional distress.
Currere Exchange: Conference in Oxford, Ohio June 12-14, 2019
I’ll be presenting a proposal for an art installation exploring my mother’s journey to conquer her nearly 40 years of depression and anxiety. Using a variety of artifacts, including letters, prescription records, and insurance forms, I detail my mother’s journey and raise questions about the nature of depression and the current models of treatment.
Jump-start Your Creative Writing: East Columbia Library, September 11, 2019 1-2:30pm (registration details coming soon)
Do you have stories inside just begging to be told? Do lots of great ideas fill your imagination? Is there something you want to say but you don’t know where to begin? Then this class is for you. Ann Bracken has published numerous essays, interviews and two books of poetry since she began her writing career. During this class, students will explore a variety of basic techniques to enhance any type of creative writing you want to pursue, including memoir, fiction, and poetry. In this class, we’ll explore and practice using image and figurative language, specific and concrete details, and varying the pacing and rhythm of lines and sentences. All of these techniques can help to propel your writing from good to great.
Ann Quinn and I will be reading from our collections on April 4, 2019, at the Roland Park Branch of the Enoch Pratt Library from 6:30 -8pm. More information is available if you click on the link below. Hope to see you there!
Voices That Are Always With Us: Memories are full of many images, and none are more powerful than the voices of those people in our lives whom we’ve loved and who have challenged us. Ann Bracken and Ann Quinn will read from their collections of poetry dealing with memories whose power has shaped them and inspired their writing journeys. Come for an evening of poetry and conversation with two local authors.