I’m sitting in the vestibule of Morristown Medical Center guarding our bags while Donna, CKP administrator, gets the car. God Bless Donna! We’re coming from CavanKerry’s first Poetry Heals Writing Workshop which we’re co-sponsoring with the New Jersey Council on the Humanities in celebration of National Poetry Month.
Joan Seliger Sidney, author of Body of Diminishing Motion, our second LaurelBook, led today’s workshop. Joan is an extraordinary person. Confined to a wheelchair for the better part of her adult life as a result of Multiple Sclerosis, Joan does more than most of us—swims daily 18 laps without stopping!, cross country skis, teaches, just finished another MFA, fund raises for the MS Society, writes poetry and children’s books and enjoys her husband, Stu, their 4 children and 6 grandchildren. Her spirit though is what inspires me most; she is happy, energetic, and eager to share her story and her poems with those who need them most. Just as her book is startlingly open and honest, so is Joan in person– whether she’s relating one on one, to an audience, or in this case, a workshop of 20 medical professionals including doctors, medical students, nurses and therapists. And off to the side, listening, smiling, searching out chairs for each new attendee is her warm and affable husband and partner, Stu, visibly pleased to be there and proud of her work and efforts.
Gradually, gracefully, without a hint of self pity, Joan takes us through the evolution of her disease remarking on her own denial and resistance, her impulse to protect her parents, Holocaust survivors, from the truth of this devastating illness, and her travel to France for specialized treatment and in search of a cure, leaving husband and children behind for 3 years. And Joan doesn’t protect us—or herself—from the underbelly of MS—the erupting bowels, the treachery of physical therapy, the burning excitation of overstimulated nerves, the inability to walk—all the while adamantly but good -naturedly insisting that she will someday. And she works hard to make that possible not only for herself but for all of her fellow sufferers in her annual crusade to help raise funds to find a cure. But Joan doesn’t feel sorry for herself, and she doesn’t engender pity in us; she is far too grateful and preoccupied with living every drop of her life. When one of the participants commented on her amazing energy and rigorous work-out schedule, she laughed and said, “I’m on a crusade. To walk again!”
After reading several poems from Body of Diminishing Motion, a remarkable title considering that one would easily describe her as a body and spirit in persistent and vigorous motion, Joan also read new poems welcoming comments from attendees and asking them how they saw themselves using poetry in their work with patients. Next she introduced us to the list poem and encouraged us each to write one beginning with the title “I Prefer”. For the first time in any workshop I’ve attended (and there have been scores), every person wrote and read their poem to all of us. That’s what openness in a leader reaps. Usually, even under the best of circumstances, some workshop members are too shy to read their poem—which may well be their first attempt –particularly in the presence of a master poet like Joan whose literary gifts are so abundant. But this didn’t happen to anyone last Thursday. Everyone was inspired; everyone wrote, and everyone read! Particularly moving for me was peeking over at Donna who is not a poet and is one of those people who believes poetry is for poets—who was eagerly writing like the rest of us—and who turned to me at the elevator announcing proudly, “I wrote a poem!” the way accident prone klutz that I am might announce, I skied down that mountain! Poetry had made a friend in Donna. Poetry made lots of friends that day. And Poetry heals. It does. And Joan showed us how.
CavanKerry is grateful to Joan for leading this workshop as we are to Teresa Carson, author of Elegy for the Floater, who will lead another for interns at Cooper University Hospital in Camden and Gray Jacobik, Little Boy Blue, another at Overlook Hospital to today, Thursday, April 12, and Teresa will lead a second at Newton Medical Center on April 26.
Our sincerest thanks to the NJ Council on the Humanities, particularly its Associate Director, Mary Rizzo, for inviting us to participate with them in their Literature and Medicine Program and to the Arnold P. Gold Foundation for Humanism in Medicine, our LaurelBooks: Literature of Illness and Disability co-sponsor.
Please visit the NJ Council for the Humanities website (www.njch.org) and listen to Teresa read three of her poems from Elegy and download a poem or two (or twelve!) for Poem in Your Pocket Day which we are also co-sponsoring with the Humanities Council. As part of our GiftBooks program, each of the participants of these programs receive a complimentary copy of the workshop leader’s book. All of these events are extensions of CKP’s commitment to community: to bring poetry to people where they live, work and receive services.
-Joan Cusack Handler