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Healing Ministry 61

Volume 12, Number 2, Spring 2005

H ealing techniques

In the same place:

Therapeutic ground-
ing in poetry groups
Father Thomas Johnson-Medland, CSJ


“We spend our whole lives in there—but they have not gone do not mean their food, clothing,
the same place and never away. medicine, or shelter. Instead, I
leave . . .” Our lives are like those moun- am talking about their basic need
—Charles Wright, tains. We tend not to stray too far to remain attached to the lives
“Returned to the Yaak from where we are. There are they have lived.
Cabin, I Overhear an Old pieces of our identity that follow At this moment, our lives are
Greek Song” in Appalachia us through all the days of our built on all of the countless
lives. Some of this is a result of moments that have gone before.
our family ties, our social orien- Each event we have experienced
In this line, Charles Wright tations, or our faith; however, and each trial we have surmount-
identifies both who we are and some of it simply seems to be ed comprises our present day
the Appalachian Mountains. part of this magnetic collection of identity. We are, like the universe,
These mountains, some of the cells and atoms we call “I.” the sum total of our matter—some
oldest on the planet, have not I have noticed this steadfast- of that matter exists down in the
strayed from where they have ness and grounding more and basement of our years, out of sight
always been. They have slowly more each day I am alive. I have and hidden from the present time.
changed shape—some erosion also noticed it in the lives of the However, we tend to neglect the
here, and an alluvial fan elderly. Many of the men and past in order to focus on our pre-
women living as institutional- sent. Nevertheless, the past con-
Father Thomas Johnson-Medland, CSJ, Light- ized elderly are not having their tinues to inform who we are and
house Hospice, Cherry Hill, New Jersey. basic needs met. By basic needs, I how we behave.
62 Healing Ministry
62 Healing Ministry
Volume 12, Number 2 Spring 2005
Volume 12, Number 2, Spring 2005

People spend their lives at- nature and color. in which we read the haiku of
tached to things around them The mere mention of Robert Basho and Issa, a resident perked
and things that come their way. Frost, Goethe, or Tagore opened up and added, “I like these. My
Sometimes these things include a the eyes of the men and women daughter wrote one a long time
song, at other times it is a poem, with brightness. I was amazed to ago. It went something like this,
story, painting, letter, person, see previously silent attendees sit ‘Your tear falls on my ear, that I
place, or pet. You could add to up and talk about poets I did not may know your pain.’”
this list for hours; but, my point believe they would know. These I was rendered to tears myself.
is, there are things that make up were people that had formerly This particular resident had
who we are, things that inform only listened, but when their ears never spoken during the first two
our identity, that alter and enrich heard a name from the annals of sessions. Her words, which came
our lives. their past, they engaged with from a deep place within—a place
Five months ago, our hospice vigor—acting like 20- and 25- that we tend to forget does exist
began a program designed to year-olds. for those who are institutional-
add value to the lives of residents The new vitality that these ized—brought tears to the eyes
in facilities within our service simple poetry sessions have of many in attendance that day.
area. This program offered a added to the lives of the residents There are numerous other
poetry reading once a month in has astounded me. The original examples I could give to demon-
three different facilities. The goal of the poetry sessions had strate the value of these poetry
poetry readings lasted from 15 to been to decrease isolation among sessions. As a result, we have
30 minutes and were offered to the residents; however, the im- decided to devote more effort to
all those who were interested. pact of these groups has been this program. We have found
Thus far, interest in and atten- more extensive than I had hoped. volunteers to work with us to
dance at these poetry readings They have connected people to a help expand it. We challenge
have been wonderful. Although I fuller version of their lives—to churches, schools, and our com-
felt this project would add some their greater selves. They have munity to send us volunteers.
dimension to life in an institu- enhanced resident’s memories of Coping with who we are at the
tion, I was unaware of how how large their lives really are. present moment is only possible
deeply the connection to art was They have bridged the gap to the if we consider all that we have
needed in the lives of the elderly. person they had forgotten they collected along the way. Our pre-
Bringing art back into their once were. This has been true sent is informed and enhanced
lives produced some encouraging even for the Alzheimer’s pa- by our connection to the larger
results. Participants in our poetry tients. I often wish that the entire “I”—all in the past that has made
groups have been reminded of staff of the facility could be pre- us who we are. When we recog-
their many days gone by. Simply sent at the poetry sessions so that nize this bridge to fullness and
hearing a line about “cold white their residents would dumb- commit to its value, then we
snow” produced five minutes found them as well. I am sure move further away from the
worth of conversation about that their presence would alter helplessness and depression that
childhood memories of snow the mix, though. the institutionalized elderly
and winter. A line from a poem So deep and so wise are the often feel. Reintroducing poetry
about a “warbler” produced a 10- hearts of the people for whom we has been an effective way of
minute talk about walks in provide care. During one session doing just that.