Love: Medicine Unboxed

These scrips were meant to be more frequent….sorry to anyone who’s out there. My excuse this time: I’ve been away.

Last weekend, immediately after my return, I was lucky enough to attend the tenth and final Medicine Unboxed, or at least the final one in the format it’s taken for a decade.

Medicine Unboxed is, or was, an annual two-day event in Cheltenham, curated by writer-oncologist Sam Guglani, blending medicine and the arts. Its presentations featured poets, doctors, dancers, novelists, scientists, and artists. Because I found out about it late, it’s always conflicted with Thanksgiving when we often go back to the States, and in latter years it sold out instantly, I have only gone twice; but I am so grateful to have been at what David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) calls “one of the most remarkable exchanges of thought and ideas that I’ve ever been privileged to attend.”

This is an event that my physician husband and I can both find interesting; it explores the areas of overlap between medicine and art. And unlike festivals where you choose between concurrent speakers, there is only one thing at a time, so everyone is experiencing it together. Each presentation builds on the last; a doctor talking of medical practice might refer to a poem heard earlier; a speaker on near-death experience might echo the medical content from before. As the day goes on, the intensity builds. The emotions deepen. The second morning, everyone arrives already enriched and awakened; the sessions are even more compelling. The event itself is a piece of art.

Each year, a different theme—Death, Maps, Wonder, Voice—and this year’s was Love. We returned from Heathrow during the morning session, but in the afternoon we heard Iona Heath and Raymond Tallis (“Medicine is a calling, not a contract”) on the current practice of medicine; woodworker-oncologist Sean Elyan, who makes solid things as a counterweight to the stress and uncertainty of his job; writer and bee-keeper Helen Jukes, led by Sam Giglani’s skilful questions to explain why working with bees is so fascinating (“contact with creatures that see the world differently”); Satish Kumar on ‘Ahimsa,’ unconditional love for oneself (“not selfish, unless it is more than the way we love others”) and for all creation; and triple amputee and palliative care specialist Bruce Miller speaking, via video from California, with such an incredibly vivid force that we almost wept as he told how he nearly died, but eventually found gratitude in being alive, even in feeling pain, in feeling anything. “Patients want to feel alive, more than be alive.”

We needed the break. It was followed by captivating performances from Jon Webster (harmonium, textiles, more); Stella Duffy (novelist, breast cancer twice, in a raw performance, body and soul); Max Porter (Grief is the Thing with Feathers, reading from his forthcoming book); Eley Williams (Attrib., brilliant short disquisitions, unpickings of love and awkwardness, coruscating verbal gymnastics); and finally, Nina Conti, ventriloquist, who with the brilliant Monkey wrung howls of laughter from our emotionally overwhelmed hearts. And that was just the first day.

Through the whole event, every poet (for example Liz Berry, Jo Shapcott), cartoonist (Daniel Locke), novelist (Will Eaves), singer (Sarah Gabriel, Melanie Pappenheim), other writer (Jessie Greengrass, Havi Carel), film-maker (Jason Barker), every musician and performer and speaker of whatever ilk, gave us something thought-provoking and moving and demonstrated once again the power of the arts to enrich and enlarge and mourn and celebrate our lives.

Alas, we couldn’t stay (unavoidable engagement) to hear the final session from Richard Holloway (once Bishop of Edinburgh; Leaving Alexandria). I wonder if he spoke about his recent book Waiting for the Last bus: Reflections on Life and Death. Near the end of it, he quote a bit of Louis McNeice that ends: “ ‘…The Stranger in the wings is waiting for his cue,/The fuse is always laid to some annunciation.’ ” He says, “The poet tells us to be open to the strangers in our midst or we’ll miss their annunciations, the good news they bring us. I get that. What is harder to get hold of is the idea that the stranger who is myself might also bring a gift if I welcome him home. How am I to understand that and act upon it? The clue lies in six words from those lines from Derek Walcott: ‘..give back your heart to itself.’ ”

Holloway counts himself among “those of us who have spent much of our lives wanting or pretending to be someone else,” and reminds us that the “desire to be a different person: someone better looking or cleverer or holier or purer or braver—anything other than the self we were” is one of those cravings which, as the Buddha tell us, are the source of human misery. Says Holloway: “Say ‘Yes’ to the stranger you were. He’s been in the wings all your life, waiting for his cue, waiting to be invited onstage. He doesn’t mind that you’ve left it till the curtain is about to fall.”

Medicine Unboxed was something “you had to be there” to understand. I can’t convey what it was really like. But I want to say ‘Thank you’ to Sam Guglani and his team, and to all the performers, for helping remind me of the power of art, of intuition, of what has been called the soul; and of how I might “give my heart back to itself,” before it is too late.

Tongues of Fire

I have just taken, from the shelf beside my morning chair, a book that has been there a while but that I haven't looked at properly till now: Tongues of Fire: an anthology of religious and poetic experience (Penguin, 1985), introduced and edited by Karen Armstrong. It was published in association with Channel 4 to accompany their television series of the same name, which I'd love to have seen. Craig Raine was consultant and other poets who participated were Seamus Heaney, Peter Levi, Czeslaw Milosz, D.M. Thomas, and Derek Walcott. Karen Armstrong dedicates the book to them "in gratitude for all they have taught me."

What is it about the writing of Karen Armstrong? Reading anything of hers, I feel illuminated, excited, my mind somehow expanded, as if I understand in a fresh way, for the first time. I've felt the same while listening to her speak. She has an extraordinary gift for communicating ideas, and making them somehow ignite with personal meaning for the reader or listener. Her chosen subject, as is well-known, is religion, although she lost the fervent Roman Catholic faith that drew her into a convent when very young.  In 1985 she describes herself as an unbeliever; currently she's promoting the practice of compassion, key tenet of all faiths, and has founded the Charter for Compassion, now an international movement.

In the introduction to Tongues of Fire, she speaks of the religious paths of the Mystic and the Sectarian. The mystic's way is not for everyone, she says; we're not all capable of that dedication to meditation, that ego-denying journey into the "cloud of unknowing." The Sectarian follows a particular religious tradition and takes comfort from its rituals and community. Being Karen Armstrong, she illustrates the possible pitfalls and illusions of both paths, as well as the benefits. 

The true mystic's path is an agnostic one; the deeper the contemplative goes, the more he or she realises that nothing can be known about the divine. This book's brilliant and wide-ranging introduction, with quotations from mystics, Einstein, William James, and the Buddha, homes in on the connection between mysticism and that other realm of unknowing, poetry.  "Frequently," she says, "poets feel themselves possessed by something outside themselves just as the Apostles [at Pentecost] were 'filled with the Holy Spirit.' It is interesting, too, that this 'Spirit' manifested itself in terms of inspired language. The 'something' that appeared 'seemed like tongues of fire.' " 

There are other links between poets and mystics, illustrated In the anthology with poems by seekers of various faiths as well as "poems that are not specifically religious, but which show how closely the experience of the poet mirrors experiences that we usually label religious."  And what wonderful poems, ranging across centuries, cultures, many faiths, and none. Keats, Yeats, Hafiz; Moses Ibn Ezra, Emily Dickinson, Rumi; John of the Cross, Larkin, D.H. Lawrence. 

I should have looked at this marvellous book (which you can still find second-hand, as I did) long before. But then, some books are waiting for the right moment.                                                       

Here's something I have discovered in its pages this morning:

My friend, my friend, I was born

doing reference work in sin, and born

confessing it. This is what poems are

with mercy

for the greedy

they are the tongue's wrangle

the world's potage, the rat's star.

That's the final stanza of Anne Sexton's poem 'With Mercy for the Greedy [for my friend Ruth who urges me to make an appointment for the Sacrament of Confession].