Picture a house with broken kitchen cabinets and mouse droppings, cobwebs hanging from the dining room ceiling. Narrow footpaths between stacks of magazines and catalogs. You don’t see food wrappers or pet waste, but the once-beige carpet is stained and splotched, having passed its five-year expiration date four times by now. The aging, almost elderly, couple living here can’t put up a Christmas tree anymore. Guests, when they can’t be turned away, have nowhere to sit in the three-bedroom, three-level house with a separate sub-basement and garage.

This house isn’t from the reality TV show Hoarders. It belongs to my relatives.

I’m working on my PhD in English and American Literature, and as part of this activity I’ve found myself thinking a great deal about Time and The Body, particularly about memory and emotional attachments as embodied by things. I’ve also found myself staring with horrified fascination at the people on Hoarders, thinking there but for the grace…

We moved so many times when I was growing up—abrupt emergency moves, where many of my familiar treasures were lost or left behind—that I’ve become perhaps hyperaware of the paradoxical action a memento can have. It may serve as a root to a nourishing past or as an anchor that impedes your progress into the future. Sometimes both.

Looking at things through the lens of Time, I see the recent yard sale my family had as a sort of temporal recalibration: sure these footie pajamas remind you of a sweet then and you might have a place for this art print in the future, but do you have use or love for this item right now?

Circumstances that ripped from me objects I valued—such as a stint of homelessness when I was twelve—made me prone to processing my feelings and thoughts in writing and painting. They also made me appreciate the simplicity of a clean room, a clean slate, an empty apartment and all the possibilities it could contain. Though twelve-year-old me mourned the loss of my truly extraordinary dress-up box, I came to love being unencumbered too. It helped that I started embodying my attachments with notebooks. They’re much easier to curate than, say, a garage full of my grandparents’ furniture.

But the impulse to gather and keep is still there. As I study, I want to hoard up into my memory every interesting notion and promising line of inquiry I encounter. My physical space may be relatively clutter-free, but part of my labor now is distinguishing the point at which, for me, a rich and fertile collection of ideas becomes a dangerously top-heavy load. It causes me a twinge—sadness—to confront the truth that there are more paths I’d like to follow than there is time for me follow them.

The odor of death is what we want the hoard to disguise.

feedback infographic

CCL: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

When it comes to being a critic of other writers’ works-in-progress, I’ve hit all the points on the continuum from tactful expert to boorish junk show. I’ve been on the receiving end of the gamut of criticism too, and have concluded that criticism of the constructive persuasion emerges only from a shared understanding between artist and critic.

Ideally, critic and creator agree on the kind of feedback that’s called for. For example, some teachers and editors are in the business of achieving a certain quality of performance by a deadline. Their prime directive (a la Jean Luc Picard) does not include pussyfooting around your delicate feelings. The best editors (in my opinion) know how to be honest without causing unnecessary harm (see nonviolent communication), but the assumption is that you, the creator, are so committed to excellence, you’ll set aside your ego and thank them for the chance to make your work better.

Other times, the work’s sole purpose is to express the author’s ideas and feelings. No particular reader in mind. No ad rates to justify. No public to sway. Just one soul out loud. The cancer survivor’s workshop is designed for just this kind of work: using writing to connect with oneself and with other survivors.

But how do you give feedback in this context? Do you just nod and smile? If the creator actually wants suggestions—wants to make sure the work carries its message to an intended audience—then isn’t it a disservice to softball the feedback?

Because participants in the cancer survivor’s workshop have expressed different needs regarding feedback, and ours is a student-centered class to the nth degree, one of my main tasks is to find ways to offer differentiated approaches to feedback. The method I’m using for this group is to ask each creator which she or he prefers after they’ve read their work aloud: No feedback or Two Questions. If the former option is picked, we just say thank you and move on to the next author. If the latter is chosen, we discuss (1) What stood out? And (2) Is there anything one would like more of?

So far, folks seem to be happy with this approach, based on the informal feedback I’ve received. But I’ll be collecting formal feedback on the course this Saturday, and perhaps will learn that adjustments should be made before running a workshop like this again. Well, if that’s the case, I am committed to excellence…

Jorge Rojas, HCI’s “Art Guy” teaching classes to survivors

When Angie dug her fingers into my shoulders, I sighed. When she found the knots of my levator scapulae, even her hands, which were large and corded with muscles, couldn’t press too hard or go too deep. But when it was time for me to lie on my back and she brushed the skin over my clavicle lightly as a dragonfly, I bucked off the table as if she’d jabbed me with a lit match.

As good with the intangible side of massage therapy as with the rest, Angie remained neutral and let me settle back. She asked me about the pressure and we continued: chest, arms, hands, feet, and all the while I was marveling at the sensitivity of such an erstwhile part of my body. It occurred to me I had no memory of anyone having touched my clavicle before. My neck, yes, my boobs, sure. But that unassuming span between the public and private areas of my upper body? At that point in my then-young life, no lover had been inventive enough to be inspired and no medico had cause to linger there. The mere weight of Angie’s attention, expressed by fingertips, had been enough to elicit shock from the cells of my skin.

Another reason I was surprised by my reaction was that the massage therapy was part of a project: I was on-purpose healing a trauma that was both emotional and physical and that (I thought) had nothing whatsoever to do with my upper chest. I’d worked through the emotional stuff—writing, painting and dancing had been instrumental in that—but it’d become clear I’d developed what bodyworkers call holding patterns—habits of movement and tension that develop from a defensive response to a specific situation, like an injury, and become so ingrained, they can ultimately impair the body’s functioning. And so I expected Angie to find numerous imbalances in my back muscles, to advise me on ways to realign my off-kilter hips. I didn’t expect her to give to me a part of myself that had escaped my notice, perhaps for the very reason that it had not been the site of damage.

Over the years, Angie and I have talked about the role of the witness in healing. As a bodyworker, a large part of her job is to create and hold a safe space in which another person can unfold and make discoveries like the one I had.

“Most of my clients would benefit from simply lying down for an hour in the middle of the day but won’t let themselves do it unless they’re paying someone a hundred bucks,” she once said, only half joking.

Her quip made me think of my many experiences on her table. We both knew the value of her skill, which combined hard-earned knowledge of anatomy and physical processes with a deep intuition and excellent training. Without taking anything away from that, I could see what she meant about the simple act of being there for yourself. But I’d done so much of that already, I’d reached a point where I needed to do some of my healing work in the presence of another person, someone I could trust.

She agreed that sometimes having a witness is in itself valuable and went on to describe the labor involved in facilitating a healing experience for someone. Her philosophy, not uncommon in bodyworking, is that her job is to help people get unblocked so their body’s natural process of recovering health can proceed.

I can relate: as a writing instructor, a great deal of my labor goes into setting up a situation in which people feel they have a reason to write, which often includes having a live, present audience for their work. There’s an exchange of energy between the witness and the author; sometimes, that exchange is needed more than suggestions and elaborate discussions of “what’s working” in a given piece.

In the writing workshop for cancer survivors, I’m the Angie. And it’s such a simple thing, the job of a witness. To be there. To listen, not simply hear. To watch. To hold for time, in your consciousness and, in this case, in a collective, a space in which some else can unfold.

Simple, but not always easy.

As I told the group at our first meeting last Saturday, ours isn’t the kind of workshop where we’re pushing each other to reach some external standard, some Platonic ideal of literary production. Those classes exist and can be tremendously useful depending on your goals, but that’s not our agenda. Our aim is to explore, to share, to witness. I know that “good” work can emerge in this context. More importantly for our aims, I know that even if the author is writing about some little happenstance, an image or a moment that has nothing whatsoever to do with their trauma, something very good for them might happen. Through sharing their work with a roomful of compassionate witnesses, they may find a forgotten part of themselves.

When winter—figurative or literal—presses you to the ground, what fires you up to take your next helping of life? What’s your invisible sun?

For me, the answer is art—which I define very broadly, by the way. Writing is my trade as well as my main artistic squeeze, but sometimes words are both too much and not enough, so I paint or dance or (lately) knit odd-looking hats and mittens. I cook. Why you make a thing is sometimes more important than what you make or whether it’s useful afterward.

The why of art-making is on my mind today as I plan a writing workshop for cancer survivors and their families. Too many people miss out on the raw energy they gain when they engage in the labor of making a thing just for the satisfaction of making it, so in this case, my aim is a workshop that helps people recharge. To bask in the glow of their respective invisible suns.

G., my contact at the wellness center for which I’m running the workshop, tells me we have 12 registered. I look forward to hearing from each one of them their why for joining the class, and we’ll take the what from there… Over the coming weeks, I’ll be using this blog space to share posts that may be of interest to these participants. If you’re not in the class, you’re still invited to check in too; if you have any insights, suggestions or questions about how writing and other art-making can bank the creative fire that makes life worth living, drop me a line.

All my best,

JG

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