Grief is a sacred journey

Hearing the Poet’s Heart

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Joyce Holmes McAllister (The Healing Muse)

Joyce Holmes McAllister (The Healing Muse)

I sat in the front row of Weiskotten Hall in Syracuse, NY, just a few seats from the poet Joyce McAllister. We’d come for the launch party of The Healing Muse 2016. I came to read my prose piece about my brother’s death. Even more, I wanted to hear other’s read and connect to this community.

A woman bent close to Joyce and complimented her on the recent publication of Before We Knew. This chapbook, Joyce’s first, was published in 2016, her 85th year.

Kathy Kramer, another Ithaca poet who has had many poems published in The Healing Muse, drove Joyce to the reading. I’ve been to many Healing Muse gatherings since my first publication in the journal three years ago. Joyce and Kathy are always there, sharing their inspiring words.

Weiskotten Hall, SUNY Upstate Medical Center

Weiskotten Hall, State University of New York Upstate Medical University

When it was Joyce’s turn to read, Kathy stood and held her friend’s right elbow, like a daughter, like a lover, stabilizing each cautious step. The Healing Muse editor Deirdre Neilen moved to Joyce’s left side, one hand on Joyce’s rounded back and the other on her left elbow. Their tenderness supported me, too.

I watched as Joyce stepped to the stage with the determination of an athlete. She carefully opened her pages on the podium and smoothed the folds. Each page was three sheets wide with black block letters two inches high marching boldly across a white expanse.

If my hearing showed up on paper, the letters would look like that.

Joyce grinned at the audience while someone adjusted the reading light. She didn’t hurry or apologize. She was a proud diva, a poet with thick glasses and cheeks flushed pink. I didn’t detect a drop of the shame I often feel about my own infirmity.

My eyes were wet before Joyce read a word. The hall was hushed, expectant. Out of silence, her voice rose from her belly, deep and vibrant, filling the room.

She read her lines like they mattered, the way they deserved to be read. The way we needed to hear them. Then Kathy read Joyce’s second poem with the same conviction. When they were through, the audience clapped and clapped. Was I the only one in tears?

Joyce at a Healing Muse gathering

Joyce at a Healing Muse gathering

I heard every word and understood each line–a small miracle for me. Despite the microphone, I struggled to hear the readers that day. Some were shy. Some hurried through. I wanted to tell them they deserved to stand at that podium. “Watch Joyce,” I wanted to say. “She’s showing us how to believe in our words.” Each reader had a piece accepted by this beautiful journal focused on medicine, illness, healing, and disability. “Your work matters,” I wanted to tell the timid ones. I needed to remind myself, too.

Some days, I want to run from the world. I want to surrender to deafness and be a hermit. Rip out the hearing aids. Throw out the phone. Stop straining to decipher muddled voices. Stop bothering to put my friends through one more repetition of the meaning I missed.

But there stood Joyce, a woman who knows darkness and hardship—her husband’s illness and death and the indignities of age. And blindness. An unimaginable hardship for a poet or anyone, but does she let it stop her? No.

Copies available at The Healing Muse

Copies available at The Healing Muse

When it was my turn to read, I didn’t apologize before I began. I asked if people could hear me. They nodded that they could. I didn’t apologize when tears rolled down my cheeks. Instead, I followed Joyce’s lead, looked up and out, and read my story as though it mattered.

***

The Healing Muse is the annual journal of literary and visual art published by SUNY Upstate Medical University’s Center for Bioethics & Humanities. You can find excerpts at the Healing Muse Cafe blogspot. You can also find readings of my first Healing Muse article, “Only Kindness Makes Sense,” and Joyce’s poem in that same issue, “First Winter.”

For another post about the challenges of hearing loss, see I Want to Understand You: Hearing Loss, Grit and Grief.

 

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21 Comments
  1. Such sensitivity. Such awareness. You always inspire me.

    • Thanks so much, Mary. I love being inspired by older women who are creative and full of life despite setbacks and infirmities. Here’s to the Wise Crone in all of us.

  2. This was so beautiful Elaine. Stand up and be heard and proud. The eyes take in what the ears may not pick up sometimes, but it’s all the same message. 🙂

    • Thanks, Debby. Sometimes I need courage to keep moving forward with workshops, readings, and any time there’s a discussion where I have to hear every word said by someone else. Joyce shows me how to show up with honesty, good humor, grace, and trust.

  3. What a poignant line about Joyce: “She’s showing us how to believe in our words.”

    Your record of her body language helps bridge the gap between simply hearing and really listening, a true art. It’ s all about believing in our selves and our message, isn’t it? Thanks for pulling me into these tender moments, Elaine.

    • Thanks for your comment, Marian. The first draft of this piece was written a few hours after the reading. I was inspired by the graceful way Joyce handles her blindness and need for support–and I’m always inspired by her poems. As you might guess, I’ve become a keen observer of body language. There’s a link to a reading of Joyce’s poem “First Winter” at the end of the blog. It was written the first winter after her husband’s death. So simple, grounded, and moving.

  4. That’s lovely. The cover art on Joyce’s book intrigues me – it reminds me so much of Lois Lenski! Do you know who the illustrator is?

    • I don’t know the cover artist, Paula. I’ll try to remember to ask Joyce. Today, I’ll make a copy of this post with very large letters and mail it to Joyce–as I promised.

  5. Beautiful, just beautiful.

  6. How lovely all around, Elaine. You the younger writer learning from and loving this amazing elderly poet. Speaking from the belly. Claiming a voice.

    I listened to “First Winter” as you suggested above. It touched me deeply in this season of darkness and waiting. Thank you. So glad you are not retreating into your hermitage. At least not all the time.

    • Thank you, Shirley. It’s nice to be the younger one sometimes, isn’t it? I loved “First Winter” for the same reasons. My hermitage has old fashioned stone walls (like the foundation of my house) so life finds a way to flow in and out.

  7. That is wisdom — to come to that inner place of knowing our words matter. Beautifully captured and told. Congratulations to you all for publication!

    • Thank you, Charli. Being with Joyce that day helped me remember what I so easily forget. I’m around many elders because of my mother-in-law. It takes a powerful woman to absorb life’s blows and kept pouring out creative spirit and love.

      The Healing Muse is a beautiful journal. It’s a pleasure and an honor to know some of the people who make it happen each year.

  8. Thanks Elaine so much. I too am moved by the kindness and tenderness so evident in your words. I was with you in that hallowed place every step of the way.

    • Thank you, Susan. It’s wonderful to listen to and learn from powerful women who are older than I am. There aren’t many of those around.

  9. Thanks for this lovely post, Elaine and the inspiration from both you and Joyce.

    • Thank you, Joan. A site for writers discovered this particular blog and will share it with their readers in January. I’ll tell Joyce after we get the details ironed out, but I’m sure she’ll be thrilled to be an example of what can happen when we believe in ourselves and our words.

  10. Oh how I wish I could have been there. I could feel your pride, inspiration, and tears though through your words. Learning from a wise and experienced teacher – what’s better than that? Cheers!

    • Robin, some of your shorter pieces would be appropriate for The Healing Muse. You can be there–as a listener (there’s a reading at Buffalo St. Books in April for the 2016 journal) or reading your own work in the future. I love this community and I love The Healing Muse. I read a few poems or a prose story every evening and slowly make my way through the whole journal. It has wonderful images, too. Just right for you.

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