A New Poem: Grandmother Cellist


The Sense of Hearing by Philippe Mercier

The Sense of Hearing by Philippe Mercier, oil on canvas, 1744-1747, via Wikimedia Commons.

Grandmother Cellist

For Joan Esch

Grandmother cellist,
play tonight your deepest,
most foundational sound,
your wrist drawing arcs
with the bow, your fingers
endearing themselves to the strings,
unending resonance, unending.

Dear Grandmother, you with these
young players, I know you are overheard
by someone in the kitchen,
her hands in hot water,
scrubbing the reek from a burned pot
after supper. Your arc of notes –
heard, too, perhaps, upstairs,
in some mother’s sick-bed;
she’s lying in after the birth.

Did you croon to her in labor?
The infant, released at last
from her body, crying
in this new world of breath.

– Mary Ann Barton


Notebook: Pilgrimage

The Sense of Taste by Philippe Mercier

The Sense of Taste, oil on canvas, 1744-1747, by Philippe Mercier, via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note:

Today’s post is a letter from the notebook I’m keeping for my work in progress, Rest, which is a book of my poems, essays, and stories about finding rest and renewal in the midst of hard times. Emma and the client mentioned are characters in one of the stories. — MAB

March 11, 2014

Dear Emma,

I’ve found a bewitching group of 18th-century paintings for our chapter on taking in the good through the five senses. The artist, Philippe Mercier, was born in Berlin of French Huguenot ancestry but worked mainly in England.

I’ll tell you, the luminous surfaces and fabrics and fruits in The Sense of Taste appeal to me not just because I grew up with my mother’s European porcelain and silver on our table, but also because I spent nine years at the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, fingering the silk chenille of a shawl at the Sunapee Fair or running my hand across a tiger-maple tabletop in the Wood Jury as the woodworkers scrutinized the joinery.

At the League, I learned how to stand next to an object, taking in the nuances of light, shadow, color, contour, line, and texture that develop within us, slowly, in the presence of art.

This book, Emma, is in many ways a journey of healing. Often, when I set out in my car for a new client’s house, I imagine myself going on a pilgrimage like the travelers in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. No matter what I find on today’s road, no matter how tired or sweaty or flustered or touched with grief or loss, at the end of the day I can wrap my weary shoulders in my shawl, or rest my eyes on some gem of the Italian Renaissance at my favorite museum online.

And on the pilgrimage, each day is a new destination. Perhaps, as sometimes happens, the circumstances are very dire, a client very alone in the middle of his last days.

I remember visiting, late one night, a man who had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He had been living with his sister and her husband, but quarreled with them — he didn’t tell me why — and moved to a rented room in a rambling old house with odd flights of stairs and uncertain plumbing.

How he had escaped the grip of hospital discharge planners I never knew, but he’d come home to die and was determined to do it on his own. I spent a week with him while the authorities worked with his estranged family to get him some more help. Shouldering tubs of water back and forth between the bedroom and the bathroom. Carting laundry up and down to the basement washer and dryer. All of this in the heightened atmosphere of grave illness. It’s something like wartime, the epic battle between us humans and disease, only instead of the cries of battle and the smell of blood, it’s the grunt of a patient hauling himself up on his side, and the faint breath of lavender incense against a background of cancer-related decomposition. He died on the weekend while I took my day off.

As I write this, a broad belt of sunlight streams over my right side, casting the moving shadow of my hand on the notebook page. I’m wearing my usual work uniform: heather-gray Perfect Fit cotton knit pants from LL Bean, a long-sleeved burgundy jersey from Talbot’s, my favorite mid-blue, rib-knit Bean sweater, and “Darn Tough” brand wool socks in a checkerboard pattern of rose, pink, green, and cream. It’s 55 degrees outside in this mid-March afternoon, and here in New England we’re all grasping for the promise of Spring like pilgrims on the exhausted edge of their last week before home.

Every day can be a pilgrimage, dear Emma. Every day.


Mary Ann

PS: For a beautiful essay on “Pilgrimage as Metaphor,” see this post by Jan Glennie Smith.

“When in Doubt, Write the Truth” by Elana Miller, MD

Elana Miller, MD, ZenPsychiatry.com

Elana Miller, MD. Photo courtesy of ZenPsychiatry.com

Editor’s note: Today I have something special for Joyous Paradox readers. Elana Miller, MD, the psychiatrist whose gutsy and eloquent posts I read at her Zen Psychiatry blog, has given me permission to share her remarkable essay about her experiences with cancer, “When in Doubt, Write the Truth.” Elana was diagnosed just before Christmas 2013 with stage IV acute lymphoblastic lymphoma. She wrote about the shock of her diagnosis in a widely read post, “Love Is… (Holy Shit, I Have Cancer).”  

“Hey there,” Elana writes in the About Me page of her blog. “My name is Elana and I’m a psychiatrist based out of Los Angeles, California. I write, I surf, I meditate, and I play ukulele. Here are a few of the things I believe in:

  • Not settling for being ‘not sick,’ but instead pursuing optimum mental wellness.
  • Discovering joy and happiness in everyday life, even amidst chaos and stress.
  • Synthesizing Eastern perspectives on mindfulness and spirituality into the Western view of the mind and brain.
  • Integrating traditional psychiatrist treatments with complementary approaches.”

Telling the truth is one way of finding joy, even in hard times. Read on, and see what you think. — MAB

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I wasn’t going to write a post today.

Usually by the time Tuesday rolls around, I’ve had a burst or two of inspiration and have at least an inking of an idea of what to say. But this week… nothing. Oh sure, there were a few ideas. They felt insincere, though, so I let them go.

This morning I told myself, why stress about this? People will understand if I take a week off from the blog. I figured I’d say, briefly, that I was feeling sick and not up to writing. Then, I’d come back to it next week.

It wasn’t until tonight that I realized what was really going on. The problem wasn’t a lack of things to write about. The problem was that the truth was painful, and I didn’t want to tell you.

But, how could I go wrong by telling you the truth? There is a purity in the truth, a vulnerability, a rawness. When you tell the truth, no one can tell you you’re wrong (or, you can safely ignore the few who try). When you tell the truth, you build a foundation. When you project an image, you build a house of cards.

Oh, and the truth is not an excuse to smugly hide behind while you say careless and insensitive things to others (“But I was just being honest”). That’s called being a douchebag.

Anyway. So, I decided, when in doubt, when I don’t know what to write about, I will tell you the truth.

I just ask you one thing in return. If you can, just stay present with me for this story. There is no need to reassure me, to tell me everything is going to be alright, that everything happens for a reason, that this all will be over soon, that I’ll be a better person for it. Do you really know if these things are true any more than I do?

(Oh, and for the love of god, please don’t tell me to “Be positive!”)

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The truth is that I’m in a lot of pain. By early evening my body aches from the weight of the day. If I’ve had chemo or a shot of Neupogen, it’s much worse. I feel sicker on the days I have chemo, even before the infusion, as if my body knows what’s coming and wants to tell me, “No, thanks!” The pain meds help, but not as much as they used to.

I thought switching from inpatient to outpatient chemo would be a breeze, but I was wrong. I thought the worst was behind me, but it’s not. As my body gets weaker, and less able to recover, the side effects get worse. I try not to think of how much treatment I have left (nine months…), but it’s hard to forget.

I didn’t have any nausea before, but I have it now. Even when I’m not nauseated, I have no desire for food. I’m losing weight, and even my cancer pants are getting loose. (Definition of cancer pants: the fashionable, smaller-sized pants one buys after losing weight from cancer treatments because one looks like a hobo in her regular-sized pants).

I’m lonely. It’s not so exciting anymore that I have cancer.I see people around me returning to their normal lives, and I don’t get to. I wonder if maybe I have to walk this path alone. If I didn’t feel so sick, and therefore emotionally hypersensitive, I probably wouldn’t care as much as I do.

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This hypersensitivity is both a blessing and a curse, because I can now read the subtle differences in how people say, for example, “Let me know if there’s anything you need!”

Because I need so much, I can read when a person means it, and will be there for me in any way that is humanly possible. I can read when the words are said out of obligation, or carelessness, or because a person would like to think they’re generous but isn’t really thinking about what they’re saying and will artful dodge my requests when I follow up. The latter hurts more—a lot more—than if nothing was said in the first place.

I’m tired, all of the time. I used to shoot out of bed early in the morning, even on the weekends, excited about all the things I would do that day. Now, I wake up around 11, and spent most of my time on the couch, watching mindless TV. When I have more energy, I play Sudoku on my phone.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not bored. I imagine boredom as feeling as if you have nothing to do. I have the opposite problem. I have so much I’d like to do, but I can’t do any of it.

I’m not quite sure why I’m telling you all this, other than I want you to know, and want to remind myself, that there is no shame in being in pain. It doesn’t always need to be fixed. It doesn’t always need to be corrected.

I know that people often try to reassure others in pain for the most well-intentioned reasons. We see another person suffering and it breaks our heart. We want to reach out and make it better. We want to say the “perfect” thing.

If you find yourself in this situation, let me offer an alternative. First, connect with what you’re feeling. What is happening in your body? What emotions are rising up? What thoughts are passing through your mind? Maybe you hate to see them suffer, or your heart goes out them, or you care so much that it hurts.

First, connect with your inner experience. Then, say something true.

When in doubt, speak the truth. When in doubt, write the truth.

– Elana Miller, MD

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Related Post: Staying Mindful While Facing Cancer: A Worksheet from Mindful Hub

You can read more posts by Elana Miller at her blog, Zen Psychiatry.

Today Love Asks Questions

Editor’s note: My husband and I are celebrating Valentine’s Day, so I wrote a prose poem, “Today Love Asks Questions.” The painting that inspired the poem is Koekkentrappestor (Kitchen Stairs) by the Danish painter Kristian Zahrtmann, painted in 1908, via Wikimedia Commons. — MAB

Today Love Asks Questions: A Prose Poem for Valentine's Day


Today Love Asks Questions

Today Love asks questions in the garden.

“Would there be someone in my life, dear heart, to come upstairs for embracing? Could it be you, my love, my heart? Could it be you?”

And then, because the sun shines, because the pots of salvia and lavender climb the steps, because the shadows love the reflections and the reflections enliven even dark spaces, because the woman sitting at a table at the end of the terrace wears a peach-blossom blouse, because the yellow petals make such a brilliant marriage with the terracotta clay pot next to the doorway, then Love answers her own questions:

“Yes. Yes. Yes.”

– Mary Ann Barton

Remembering Gladys, Remembering Lisette: Three Years On

Dear Readers,

These are moments from my notebook. Remembering Gladys, my husband’s mother. Remembering Lisette, my mother. Remembering three years ago.

January 7, 2011. Gladys Wiseman Ruzich.

A Friday morning. I heard my husband Steve say something on the phone to his sister Pat — some reference to death or dying, but I forget what it was — and I realized that this phone call was the phone call. The one you get from your sister when your 96-year-old mother dies.

I thought, “Oh, ok, what happens next?” I felt calm and pragmatic. I thought, “I have to go over and touch Steve to comfort him.” I went over to the table and questioned him with a lift of my eyebrows.

“Mom passed away at 7 o’clock,” he whispered, and went on listening to Pat. I put my hand on his shoulder and slid my arm around him, kissed his head.

Releasing Steve, I felt something in my arms and shoulders, some physical sensation that I can’t describe, but which released me from my earlier life. I knew that life was very big, very real, and now I was a grownup. One of the mothers had died, and in leaving the world behind she had left her place for me.

Why did I know that Gladys left me her place in the world? I don’t know. What I thought was something like, “Oh, my God, she really died. I have to shape up. I may really be needed.”

Then I drove to my appointment in Medford. I was late so I drove fast, trying to remember where to turn right off the Mystic Valley Parkway so I could take the little jog that gets you to the community health center without going right through downtown Medford’s busiest crossroads.

January 14, 2011. Lisette Berglund Hyde.

Another Friday morning. Steve and his daughter Elizabeth and her husband Jon-Michael and I are at Gladys’s home in Libertyville, IL, getting ready to go to the funeral home to prepare for her calling hours. Liz and Jon are arranging photographs on illustration board: Gladys young, old, alone, with family. I wish there were some way to display her life’s work, which was teaching young children to read, to count, to love silliness and rhymes, to look with wonder at the dinosaurs in the natural history museum.

My cellphone rings. It’s the director of nursing at Walden Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Massachusetts. My mother, Lisette, has died the day before her 102nd birthday.

“Oh,” I said out loud, “it’s my mother. She died.” I felt awed. She had been living with Alzheimer’s disease, on hospice care for the last two years. I’d begun to imagine this day would never come.  And then again, I wasn’t there. Surely she wouldn’t die without me.

Arriving at McMurrough Funeral Chapel that afternoon, I went right up to Gladys in her coffin. I put my hand on hers, patting her, murmuring. I know people often say that when they see their loved ones after they have died, they are struck by absence. The person is no longer there. But for some reason, I’m not like that. To me, perhaps because I’ve taken care of people in their homes and hospitals who are not able to interact, the person is always there, no matter how inert.

January 17, 2011. Phaneuf Funeral Chapel.

A Monday morning. At the Phaneuf Funeral Chapel on Hanover Street in Manchester, NH, we meet Marie, who is more or less 35 years old. She wears a black-and-white check suit and a slightly formal manner. Steve, bless him, has taken the day off work and driven me up to see my mother for the last time. Marie says that my mother is in the small viewing room off the chapel.

“She is resting in the container in which she will be cremated,” Marie tells us. “You will see cardboard sides of the container, though there are wood pieces for reinforcement. She has a pillow under her head. She’s on a cart that we use for moving people around the facility. Her hair is as it was in the nursing home when we picked her up. It’s kind of arranged, tucked in around her head. She’s wearing the johnny she was wearing. There hasn’t been any cosmetic work or washing of the body.”

Marie opens the small door — no, I open it — and I step down three steps to stand beside my mother’s container, looking at her head and face. A quilt is draped over the box just above the level of her clavicle. Her mouth is a bit open and her upper lip is slightly raised on the right side. You can see that her lips are pale, almost waxy. I remember that when a client of mind died I saw her lips go from flushed with blood to drained, white, a little stiff as if molded on the edges.

My mother’s forehead seems smoothed free of wrinkles. I see her high hairline, the fine, white hair tucked around her skull. Prominent cheekbones. Her nose is slightly turned to the right at the tip.

I fold the quilt back, gently, and reach down, raising my mother’s right hand and putting it on her breast. Her johnny is the white-with-tiny-blue-flowers kind that you see in the hospital. Her hand is cold. I put my hand on it, feel the skin move under my fingers. I remember touching Gladys’s hand, just three days ago. I put one hand on my mother’s forehead, the other on her hand. I make commiserating noises. I turn and put my arms around Steve. He’s warm. The room is very small.

February 2, 2014. Here at home.

As I write this, I realize that I don’t know how you will feel, reading it. I hope it’s not too much.  For me, the important thing about these moments from my notebook is the love, and the reality of loss. In the kitchen tonight, Steve is playing a CD, the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3, in a minor key that is all too appropriate for the sadness of my memories.

Ginsberg the cat jumps up on my lap as I sit at the computer.

“How does she do it?” I ask Steve, jokingly, as I rub our cat lovingly under her chin. “How did this cat get to be so cute?”

“It’s in the job description,” he replies.

Here at home, in love and sadness, the music plays on.

Thank you for listening,

Mary Ann

How Art and Music Bring Happiness to Dementia Care: Part 1

Editor’s note: As caregivers, we can use art and music to connect with those we know who are living with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. Today we’ll start with an engaging art exercise that I’m sharing with my co-workers at Caring Companion Home Care in Concord, MA. — MAB

How Art and Music: Title

Page 1

Art and Music Bring Happiness: This Woman Has Dementia

Page 2

Art and Music Bring Happiness: The Solitary Cedar

Page 3

Art and Music Bring Happiness: A Radical Question

Page 4

Art and Music Bring Happiness: Jump for Joy

Jump for Joy at the Marigold Festival, Winterville GA USA. Photo by David Noah, 2013, via Wikimedia Commons.

Page 5

How About Art?

Watercolor Postcards Art Exercise CCHC 2014



Page 6

Stay tuned for another post in this Joyous Paradox series, How Art and Music Bring Happiness to Dementia Care.

In the meantime, check out these links!

Art and Music Therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease from WebMD

Painting in Twilight: An Artist’s Escape from Alzheimer’s