Sense and Sensuality
Excerpted from The Write Prescription: Telling Your Story to Move With and Beyond Illness by Judith Hannan
Writing about physical or mental illness, and the trauma and uncertainty it brings, can be daunting. Whether you are the patient, a caregiver or a family member, what has happened is so big and so life-altering, we can become defeated before we start. The Write Prescription: Telling Your Story to Live With and Beyond Illness, offers personal reflection, writing examples, and prompts that are gateways which take you into small moments and single events. An early chapter in the book invites you to bring all of your senses into the creation of a scene. The chapter excerpted below, is an invitation to explore how your senses and sensual experience has been altered by illness.
Sense and Sensuality
College, for me, was a time of deadened and distorted senses. The ground never felt solid under my feet; standing still felt like balancing atop a raft in a rough ocean. Food had turned gray; my body refused its entrance. My eyes no longer thirsted for nature; despite the full moons and the changing foliage of the seasons outside my dorm, my eyes stared instead at my walls of cement blocks. I thought I could no longer sense beauty. But I still had music, the only medium which moved me beyond my body when the rest of the world was drained of its color.
The sound of the voice in song was the only sensory experience in which my mother found transformation in her final year when she could no longer eat the salty and vinegary foods she loved, when a swim in the ocean could only be imagined, when her hands could no longer immerse themselves in the dirt of a garden. As writer, philosopher, and cancer survivor Mark Nepo says in his book, The Exquisite Risk, “… song is not a luxury but a necessary way of being in the world, of keeping the soul anchored in hard times, a way for each of us to experience the fullness of life, no matter what difficulties we wake in.”
Eating is another experience of the senses. It was one of the few left to my father when Alzheimer’s disease stole his ability to read, to understand or make speech, or to experience the satisfaction of running his hand across a piece of wood he had just sanded. Dining might have become difficult for him but he still responded to flavor and texture. He also responded to visual beauty. On a summer visit I made to his home in the mountains of New Hampshire a year before he died, my father called me over as soon as I got out of the car to look at his orange Rhododendron bush. It was a striking plant, startling in the sunshine against the backdrop of distant mountains. Our mutual enjoyment of the sight was a moment of communication between us.
- Hearing, sight, touch, taste, smell. Write about moments when your senses were engaged or were lost. Which senses did you value most before illness; which ones offer you the most transcendence now.
- Write about a specific meal. If it was at home, write about the preparation, setting the table, the dishes used, who was there, what was on the menu. Relay the conversation or the silence. Who cleaned up? Maybe the meal was interrupted before everyone was finished. If the meal was at a restaurant give details of the setting, what you ordered, what you wore, who you were with, the occasion, your comfort level, how you felt on the ride or walk home.
- Lovemaking is a primary and primal sensual experience. Write about the impact illness has had on physical intimacy and drive.
- Write about a time before illness when music or another art form transported you, brought you from one state-of-mind to another. Show yourself turning to music, theater, dance, literature, or art after a day at work when you were ready to give notice, following a fight with a friend, during a slog through rush hour traffic. Write about the physical sensations within your body. Do the same during a time of illness, caregiving, or grief.
- Set aside twenty to thirty minutes to immerse yourself in your art form of choice. For example, if its music, close your eyes and, without analyzing, allow yourself to feel how your body and heart are responding. Let your thoughts float by without comment. When the music is over, take five to ten minutes and, without pausing or lifting your pencil from the paper (or fingers from the keyboard) write whatever comes to mind about the experience