To Awaken Soulfulness in the Human Voice
THE INSTITUTE FOR
Writing prompt for readers from Don Winslow
Writing Prompt adapted from pages 135-140 of Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-making Recognizing the Essence of Your Partner
Take time to think and write about your husband, wife, lover or anyone who is beloved by you.
What struggles do they face? What do you experience in seeing them suffer?
Contemplate the qualities of this loved one and what they most enjoy about life. What do they bring to your relationship through their essential traits and gifts?
How does their presence in your life affect how you experience the world around you?
Engage your imagination when you think and write about your partner and describe them from a wider, metaphoric perspective.
to be emotionally expressive, a place I had never visited.
Don is a retired chemical research engineer. He found poetry recovering from radiation treatment for prostate cancer. He was invited to read his poems on National Public radio.
As a 78-year-old research chemical engineer who was 20 years into his retirement, I never expected to start writing poetry. My college training and 37-year career were exclusively technical, with a minimum of courses in the humanities.
Prostate cancer for me and breast cancer for my wife Marion jolted my calm, relaxing lifestyle and led me in a very different direction.
While recovering from radiation and a subsequent operation I took a workshop at the Wellness Community in Del Marva from John Fox on Healing Through Poetry. This new outlet for my raging emotions led to the Compassion 101 poem.
Do Doctors take Compassion 101?
Are they taught how to treat us with kindness?
Can Considerate Cancer Care be instilled from without?
Compassion must come from somewhere, but where?
If Doctors do take Compassion 101
Do they get marks from the teacher?
Are there A students and B students?
And what about the dunce of the class?
Three doctors knew my prostate well,
One said, “Call me at anytime!”
The second said, “Daytime or nighttime!”
The third said, “Do you realize how many patients I would have to call?”
Should I feel lucky to have had two doctors with A's and only one with an F?
Originally written just for me it seemed to express the feelings of other patients. Interest in that poem led to invitations in 2005 and 2006 to speak to medical students at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey about the need for compassionate doctors.
My poems and the stories of my fellow cancer support group members tried to make clear the strong feelings of the patient about the need for considerate cancer care from the doctor. Those appearances led to sever- al TV interviews, a poetry reading on National Public Radio, an article in the Wall Street Journal, and a mention of my poetry as a way to heal in the new book, The Total Cancer Wellness Guide.
I’ve written many poems with titles like: Meditation I, My Wellness Shelter, Biopsy and David’s Choice. David was a member of my support group. This poem describes our last meeting with him. His metastasized cancer kept spreading and he asked for our advice. He went home and died, peacefully, within a week.
Six of us sat in a circle
Talking about David, with David.
Too much radiation, more and more chemo,
Which way to go, what to do next?
Ours to advise and support,
His the decision to make.
Continue chemo? Open Wound Clinic?
Any new treatments to try?
And then with a thunderclap of clarity,
Came a quiet whisper of wisdom!
It’s all right David,
It’s all right to let go!
David went home, Hospice came to him.
Family and friends, he in his favorite chair.
Go gently, dear David,
Go gently into that good, peaceful, healing, night.
I wrote a poem inspired by my wife called Marion’s Garden of Hope. Marion, is a master gardener. Her year of treatments and operations for breast cancer in 2006 was a difficult one. She had to watch me fumble around in her garden, trying to follow her directions. I felt bad for her; I knew she was itching to get back to her favorite pastime. To see her finally choosing plants from catalogues and being able to dig into that soil was uplifting—for her and for me.
Marion's Garden of Hope
Last year’s garden was bleak,
A few annuals were all she could do,
Mammograms and Mastectomies, Radiation and Reconstruction,
They took up most of her time.
This year’s sun is stronger and brighter,
She’s planting perennials now,
Marigold and Meadowsweet, Rudbeckia and Rose of Sharon, Perennials for all those years to come!
The poem just poured out of me. It was a reflection on Marion's fight with cancer and her hope for the future, written within the framework of her love of gardening.
Poetry has allowed me to be emotionally expressive, a place I had never visited. It may sound trite but it opened up a whole new world for me, a world I explore daily, a world I delight in. Poetry has also given me a vehicle to help other people face cancer and to make physicians aware of their responsibility to treat us with respect for our human- ness and our dignity.
I'm 78 years old, retired since 1987. My prostate cancer remains in remission, side effects have diminished. Anew emphasis on health led to classes in Yoga and Tai-Chi. Improved leg strength allowed me to complete two half-marathons, one in Ocean City, MD, the other on the island of Jamaica. Both races were fundraisers for The Wellness
Last summer I was able to return as a volunteer naturalist at the Assateague National Seashore. I teach visitors how to clam, crab, fish in the surf, and to better understand our coastal environment.
The subjects of my poetry have expanded from just cancer and pain to include my whole world. I now see metaphors and similes in everything I do. My daily walks have become meditative walks where I have worked out poems on clamming, body surfing, bait fish, and old age.
Editor’s Note: We asked Don if he would like to update this essay by telling us what he is currently up to. He reports:
Writing For Wellness
Our Writing for Wellness program at the local Library began in 2010, sponsored by the Cancer Support Community. It was based on a program started by Julie Davey in California, and outlined in her book, Writing for Wellness- a Prescription for Healing. I use prompts from many sources, including Poetic Medicine and Finding What You Didn't Lose. In 2012 the CSC closed its doors due to lack of funds. We continued the program, and opened it up to help anyone in search of healing.
In addition to Cancer survivors we now have victims of abuse, divorce, Alzheimer's disease caregivers, a legally blind poet with her guide dog, widows, 26 year old mothers with crawling babies, etc. We have between 6-16 members at meetings and 33 on our mailing list.
With Ruth Alcorn I co-facilitate a ten month program at the Ocean City Library studying the progress of modern poetry from Whitman and Dickinson to the present. With the help of Al Filries of UPENN we have adapted his online course to include monthly meetings to discuss, as a group, close readings of poems from the differing schools of poets.
I still volunteer at Assateague National Seashore as a volunteer naturalist. Months ago the Yosemite Conservancy contacted Superintendents asking for stories from park employees and volunteers about their experiences in parks. Inspiring Generations: 100 Stories from the National Park Service is a book project in the works in anticipation of the Centennial celebration of the NPS in 2016. I submitted a story "Roving at Old Ferry Landing" that has been selected for inclusion in this new book.
Life is good!
Poems by Don Winslow, all written since this essay appeared:
Why was I writing my 1961 thesis on
The Antoine Equation when I could have been
Writing poetry, like my 2005, “What is Love”?
Because I didn’t know that caterpillars could fly.
Why was I writing a 1975 Patent Application on
“Novel Copolymers” when I could have been writing
Poetry like my 2006, “Why is the Rhyme so Sublime”?
Because I didn’t know I was in a chrysalis for 75 years.
Radiation treatments ruptured that hard, confining cocoon.
Out went the cold, analytical, objective writings. In came
The soul-warming, expressive, subjective musings.
The caterpillar is gone; the butterfly flexes his wings.
—Don Winslow, 2014
A recent submission to a poem contest, based on a poem by Countee Cullen.
Yet Do I Marvel
Like Countee Cullen, yet do I marvel, but not
Why You bid a black man sing.
I struggle as Tantalus did, when I
Reach up to pluck a metaphor from
My tree of knowledge.
The branch pulls back, evades the
Searching fingers of my mind.
And when I stoop to drink from
De Leon’s spring my pursed lips
Never reach his magical water,
While above me looms that baleful rock.
So my query, if You choose to answer,
Why wait till my dotage
To bid me sing.
—Don Winslow, 2015
The poem published in The Delmarva Review in 2009.
I found my inner peace in St. Margaret’s Church,
Repeating the names of saints, ending with “Pray for us”.
My mind quiets and contemplates.
I found my inner self in my own silent room,
Breathing mindfully, calming all my senses.
My psyche quiets and examines.
I found my soul in Sinnepuxent Bay,
Focusing, feeling, finding clams with my mind-eyed toes.
My spirit quiets and reflects.
Inner peace, inner self, soul—all the same goal,
But each road, each path, is so different.
Does it matter which one I take?
—Don Winslow, 2009
© 2006-2016 The Institute for Poetic Medicine and John Fox