Recently I was asked by Karen Van Vuuren, the Executive Director of Natural Transitions, to write an article for Natural Transitions Magazine about the intersection of poetry and chaplaincy within the world of hospice.
It’s an article that’s been brewing in me for a long time. Poetry, chaplaincy, and hospice work are the most natural combination in the world to me, though it’s not always easy to define just why this is the case. Somehow, poetry (and writing in general) help me to metabolize both the pain and the beauty I experience in hospice work, allowing me to honor both without carrying either for too long. Chaplaincy helps me stand in that place between pain and beauty without running away, or being sucked in too deep. Hospice keeps me grounded in the beautiful, awful privilege it is to be human in this world: to love, and to suffer loss. I don’t know how to chaplain without a healthy sense of the mystery on either end of our lives, and I don’t know how to write without a grounded sense of the reality that “everything dies, and too soon.” All three are critical ingredients in my life right now, so it was an absolute honor to begin my reflection on this intersection through my article for the journal, which focuses largely on the various writing workshops I’ve been offering to help others work through their own losses.
I HIGHLY recommend you buy a copy of the magazine (only $1 to download), not for my article but for all of the other beautiful and crucially informational articles involved. This is one of the few magazines I read cover to cover whenever I get my hands on it. Spend a well-placed dollar and give it a solid read with a cup tea: Click here to see all issues; my article is included in Vol. 8 No. 1: “Faith Communities.” “This issue of Natural Transitions Magazine spotlights heart-centered and healing rituals around death in our faith communities. We hear about Orthodox Christian practices where the deceased is treated as a likeness of God, Bahai and Zoroastrian traditions, as well as one writer’s dance with Jewish rituals around death.”
Here is a small teaser of what I wrote for the magazine:
I have the unusual distinction of being a hospice chaplain who has her Masters in Poetry, rather than Divinity. (As if one could master either!)
When you are a chaplain, people assume many things about you, and I often get called “Pastor,” “Sister,” or less frequently “Reverend.” Though I attend an Episcopal Church and have a background in religious studies as well as professional training in pastoral care, these days I find that my identity as a chaplain is more fundamentally rooted in my identity as a poet, as well as in the path of the shaman, than it is connected to the identity of pastor or preacher. Of course, I rarely disclose this fact to my patients as it’s rarely pertinent to the provision of spiritual care. As a chaplain, I enter into the framework of whatever is meaningful to my patients, whatever is providing them with strength, courage, or fear and doubt, and we work from that place in order to create meaningful discussion, ritual, presence. And typically, though I never lie about the titles I do and don’t carry, I tend to accept whatever role my patients are wiling to bestow on me. As one of my supervisors tells me repeatedly, it is our patients who ordain us in this work. Still, in this work I am most primarily a poet, and poetry remains my primary spiritual modality. It was poetry, after all, that helped me through the experience of my own mother’s death, and eventually poetry too that allowed me to welcome a new and expanded faith back into the picture.
It’s rare in my work that I get to bring poetry directly into patient care, but poetry is the place I take the work when I need to give it over, to metabolize my day, to let in the hurt and also the beauty and to place both side by side on some altar. Often I find that once I have written a poem about a patient or patient encounter, I am finally able to let go of whatever it was that haunted me, having honored the connectedness or memorialized the hurt I carried out of the encounter with me.
And here’s just one more teaser from the article, a poem that Natural Transitions graciously published along with the article itself. When I teach a workshop, I force myself to do the writing activity along with my students. It’s an act of humility, really; often I’m so wiped by the time I get to a class that I’m tempted to just set the timer and watch the pens move. But I find over and over again that forcing myself to write alongside my “students” forces me to be honest with them about the process, immersed as I am in it myself, and it forces me to step more fully into my faith in the process. Sometimes, often, I am rewarded by the surprise of what’s waiting inside me to be written, just as I have promised my students that they too will be surprised. The following was a poem I wrote while teaching at the Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community in Las Animas Colorado as a Denver Lighthouse Writers Workshop Writer in Residents. The poem was an unexpected gift I gave myself. Many thanks to Natural Transitions for giving it a home in print:
PORTRAIT OF MOTHER AND DAUGHTER
She’s standing up, straddling the portable commode,
her soft black leggings down around her ankles.
I am wiping her after she is done
and for the first time I feel how soft and frail
she is down there; for the first time I see
how much of her has become thin, and soft as bruised petals.
The hair is gone here too
as it is from her head and the rest of her,
a thing I should have expected
but hadn’t thought about.
We never talked about this moment.
I never asked what shame or pride or love it held for her.
But I tell you: I carry no greater memory
than this, of cleaning and caring for
this place where I am from,
this bare and honest earth,
this old house of passion
now a country cottage
who has begun the slow collapse
back into the wild garden of herself,
who is showing me even now the path home,
my own way forward
into soft earth,
the wild fertility of ruin.
And finally, if you are in the area, we have two more “Writing out the Loss” grief & poetry workshops at The Natural Funeral parlor in Lafayette, co-sponsored by Natural Transitions and Compassus Hospice. It’s free and welcome to all who are wanting to work through their own losses. Please join us!