Mental health is an issue for us all — one way or another. Me, included. This post is about mental health. And writing.
In October my friend Valerie Morton was invited to take part in a Healing Poetry event organized and run by Ver Poets in St Albans Hertfordshire. The question asked of each speaker and the theme for the event was ‘Can Words Heal?”
Valerie is a poet and has worked at a mental health charity — so in her talk, she focused on these experiences. She tells me there was a good audience of enthusiastic poetry lovers, and it was a very successful event. And she thanks Ver Poets for hosting.
Since I couldn’t attend in person (but wanted very much to find out what she’d said), I asked Valerie if she’d send me her speaking notes. She kindly did so, and then we both agreed that we would like it shared to a wider audience, so I’m very pleased to have Valerie do this on my blog, as guest writer.
Here’s the transcript of Valerie’s presentation, with some extras, including a special photo of Emily, Valerie’s mother. Valerie’s bio is at the end – with links to her two most recent poetry collections. Enjoy!
CAN WORDS HEAL?
Time is Up
He didn’t say the words but his eyes
strayed to the clock and his hands
folded me away like meat in a sandwich.
He switched off the inviting smile
that had opened up a can of worms,
leaving them squiggling in the churning
depths of my stomach. “See you next week –
same time”. Too late now to ask
what I was supposed to do in between.
Anyone who has experienced therapy will be able to identify with that little poem.
People still tend not to talk comfortably about mental health issues – they will readily give you all the tiny details of the time they broke a leg, or had the flu, or had an operation, but mental health is still, unbelievably, a taboo subject for many. Although things are getting better there’s still a long way to go towards more understanding of what mental health is …….. just another part of our bodies as much, if not more than physical health because it is vital to our well-being all round. They are inter-related. No one of us, unless we are inhuman, will escape one or the other at some time in our lives and there is a loneliness and sense of loss with all illness when our mortality is threatened or our foundations are rocked.
When I was a kid the kitchen in our house was the centre of everything – it was a very small house with a very big kitchen – the table was where my brother and I did our homework as my mother cooked and did her chores. And our reward would be her reciting poetry to us – she had no formal education but like many of her generation had learned classic poems off by heart – and so the kitchen became her stage from where she took us to the world of The Ancient Mariner, The Lady of Shallot, and Wordsworth, Tennyson and Coleridge became household words to us.
It wasn’t until much later in life that it occurred to me that it was her own way of relieving the drudgery of domestic life, lifting her spirits to somewhere else, and gifting us something that was outside the everyday. It was, in effect, her own therapy through very
difficult times and the hardships of WW2 – it was certainly no fun to be in London with bombs dropping all around. It was the greatest gift she could have passed on so I can only recognise it with a poem:
It was my mother’s stage
where she trod the boards
in her oversized apron,
its huge pocket
a magician’s hat, full
of surprises, a lucky dip
of scribbled words
on paper scraps.
I’d do my homework
to the rhythm of her chopping –
an onion here
potato there –
skinning for her famous fish pie
in tune with The Ancient Mariner –
from side to side,
dropping them, sizzling into the pan.
She set many a feast
on that stage,
into The Lady of Shallot flowing
down to Camelot, decked
with garlands. As fires burned,
she finger-fed hors d’oeuvres
of Shakespeare, the comfort
of sunshine after rain;
all the flavours of love.
After suffering a life threatening illness myself as well as the tragedy of the premature loss of my first husband, I found painting and writing helped me regain my own sense of identity and self-esteem – it was a truly cathartic experience. So much so that I wanted to share this healing and empowering process with others so I offered creative writing sessions at a local mental health charity. Writing down thoughts and feelings about stressful events and traumatic experiences is not only beneficial to emotional healing; it reduces stress, improves physical health and produces a sharper sense of well-being. It is also its own gateway too, as in a way you become your own therapist.
I wrote this little poem in response to the sense of displacement I felt soon after the death of my husband:
After they told me
the morning stayed where it was –
tilting on the edge of winter.
The day didn’t notice but hurried on
towards its own midnight finale –
as if nothing tumultuous had happened
to throw it off balance,
flip it on its back
like a beetle waving its legs fruitlessly –
hoping that somehow
it could turn itself back to before.
When I first met the group I was going to work with for the next three years not one person would look me in the eye – here were five bright, intelligent and gifted people who felt unaware of their own worth. I presented them with notebooks, pencils, and asked them to try to write a few words every day for the next week about something they observed as they walked to the centre, to the supermarket, or looked from their windows to connect with any little thing that was happening outside. Even the cracks in the pavement hold a story if you look carefully enough.
And I was delighted when a week later they all came back full of excitement, with their notebooks full of observations they couldn’t wait to share – I remember those first observations well – we had dogs, a crowd of motorbikes gathering outside a pub, a vase, colours, trees, a supermarket receipt, a pair of shoes, and a very much loved pink hat.
It was so rewarding to see my group develop higher self esteem through not feeling alone in their emotions, able to express an upside down world in their own words, and develop more awareness of the world about them …. they no longer looked down at the pavement but up at the sky. They learned that metaphors are a valuable tool for describing unusual feelings. We shared many laughs over some of the metaphors we all came up with.
Over the next few years they were to develop a confidence in reading, in sharing, in seeing their poems posted on the notice board, in telling me through a poem what their week had been like – good or bad – it didn’t matter. It all made a poem – one of the strongest images I have is of their poems about their shadows – there is so much mileage in that subject and it enabled me and each of us to discover the person they may have been, are now, or may want to be. Shadows have a habit of not standing still and this became the most important therapy for them all. It gave us much to talk about – our dreams, our fantasies as well as the reality of our everyday lives.
What I would say to anyone is write things down, keep those notebooks, let your words linger forever on the page – don’t let them fade. Every word you write is important to you – don’t worry about anyone else. But if you want to share, then share with friends, families, groups, anyone. Your words are a powerful reflection of who you are.
And talking of ‘shadows’ I also benefited from setting my group challenges, so I will finish with my own effort which was subsequently published in a beautiful ekphrastic booklet called a Book of Sand compiled by Karen Dennison.
[ note from Elly – Book of Sand is a chain of responses alternating between poets and artists. Here’s the front cover and below Valerie’s poem “Bedroom” you’ll find the painting by Sam Smith, who responded to Valerie’s poem. And her artwork follows Valerie’s poem in Book of Sand. The pamphlet can be ordered from Karen here. ]
After the door closes
and Ma’s footsteps fade,
the patterns on my curtains
throw shadows on the walls.
On moonlit nights
they take me far from troubled
days, playground bullies
and mean-girl whispers behind
the bike sheds. I go where trees
chitter to playful leaves that wave
on their way to the forest floor.
I fly among whirling shapes,
dance with a paper wolf –
together we pick sunflowers
that will never die. Quirls
from our breaths mist the air.
In the morning Ma lets in daylight
through cracks, invites it piece
by piece, waits till I’m at school
to pull the curtains right back
when all she can see is dust dancing
on the window sill.
THANK YOU FOR LISTENING
[ Note from Elly: and Thank You, Valerie. ]
Bio:Valerie Morton’s work has appeared in various magazines and anthologies in the UK and USA, and has won or been placed in a number of competitions. She completed an Open University degree in 2011 and has taught Creative Writing at a mental health charity. She has two collections published by Indigo Dreams Publishing – Mango Tree (2013) and Handprints (2015). During 2016 she has been Poet in Residence at the Clinton Baker Pinetum in Hertfordshire, UK where she has run a series of workshops and published an anthology. She is a member of Ver Poets and hosts poetry workshops at her home.