Finding Our Words for Fusion by Ahava Shira
Welcome to "Back Stories". Our third TOPS Guest Blog Series feature writer is Ahava Shira.
INTRODUCTION by Martha Carter
I like telling the story that when I first met Ahava, she came bounding up to me with a big smile and a big hug, enthusiastically announcing to everyone within earshot that she had had the same scoliosis surgery as me! Her unbridled delivery caught me by surprise, because at that time, my scoliosis was not something I spoke about often, and, in general, people aren't usually happy when talking about their surgeries. I immediately adored her.
Since then, we have shared a number of different scoliosis experiences together: taking various workshops, attending each other’s classes, and collaborating on a long-dreamed-about dance for Ahava that she bravely performed as a solo.
While planning for TOPS’ first Fusion Retreat in September 2018, it occurred to me that I needed to schedule time during the workshop to give participants an opportunity to talk about their particular fusion story. I knew it would be important for everyone to share their unique experiences, but I was afraid that it might take up too much time, or get too emotional, or be too confrontational for the more introverted folks.
That's when I thought of Ahava, and her wonderful writing techniques. Not only does she completely understand the reality of having a fused spine, but she is a professional facilitator, masterful at guiding each person to express themselves in their own way, in their own time, with their own words.
After every movement session, Ahava would get everyone writing, and it was fantastic; a perfect addition to the depth of the retreat, and we look forward to doing it again for the next Fusion Retreat in June 2019.
Finding Our Words for Fusion
I wrote this poem in the 1990’s, and used it as the intro to my solo dance performance at ArtSpring on Salt Spring Island in 2014. Here I share it in two pieces, at the opening and (almost) closing of these writings.
Sweet young thing gets strapped into
Corset made up of plastic and metal
On her thin adolescent body, creating bruises
Little did she know what she was getting
Into, the pain of the staples being removed post-
Operation, they fused her spine with a steel rod
Securing her to be in this way forever with
Intense emotional trauma never expressed
Somebody get me out of here!
“I write because I want to find something out. I write in order to learn something that I didn’t know before I wrote it. I was taught, however, as perhaps you were too, not to write until I knew what I wanted to say, until my points were organized and outlined.”
On the weekend of September 7-10, 2018, a remarkable thing happened. The first ‘Fusion Retreat’ for people with fused spines was held at Ocean Resort in Black Creek, British Columbia. As a woman with a fused spine, I was eager to attend. Then the director, Martha Carter, asked me to facilitate writing sessions as part of the retreat.
I am a writer, who has been “finding my words” for 30 years, first (and ever still) in journals, then in poems, stories (fiction and nonfiction) and stage plays, memoir, and most recently, through visual collage.
Although I love to write when I am by myself, sitting at my desk in my studio on Butterstone Farm, halfway up Mount Maxwell in the Cranberry Valley on Salt Spring island, I also love to write with others. Which is what my sessions at the Fusion Retreat were all about.
Back in February 2007, I gathered two journal-writing friends in my living room to explore what would happen if we wrote in our journals together. After two and a half years of monthly gatherings, we decided to write a book about what we had discovered. In 2014, the three of us published Writing Alone Together: Journalling in a Circle of Women for Creativity, Compassion and Connection.
Extending journal writing from a solitary practice nourishing individual writers to a communal practice fostering supportive connections between them, Writing Alone Together promotes individual authenticity and collective diversity. Rather than judge and critique each other, practitioners celebrate one another’s unique expression and empathize with each other’s experience.
During the three days of the Fusion Retreat, I invited retreat participants to explore their stories of scoliosis and fusion by guiding them through the four practices established in our book:
1. Writing Freely
2. Reading Aloud
3. Listening Deeply
4. Bearing Witness
To ease the pressure to get their whole story down on the page, I offered prompts of a word, phrase, quote, or question to help participants focus on pivotal moments and on creative ways of telling. As their spontaneous words flowed courageously and, at times, with hesitation, I encouraged them to trust whatever they wrote.
“Nothing you say is wrong. These are your words, your stories, your feelings. We will hold them all with respectful attention and compassion.”
“‘A journal is a place to fail. That is, a place to try, to experiment, to test one’s wings.’ For the moment, judgment, criticism, evaluation are suspended; what matters is the attempt, not the success of the attempt.”
Dorothy Lambert / Sid Brown
As we sat together, our pens surging like the waves visible through the room’s eastern wall of windows, our stories began to unravel from memory, the words unwinding from bodies bound by hardware and trauma, unseen yet felt deeply.
Sitting on chairs or cushions on the floor, journals in our laps, we gave our hearts permission to verbalize unspoken pain, frustration, anger.
For many of us, it was the first time being in a room with others whose spines were fused.
“Memory is more metaphorical than literal.”
This kind of writing is about inquiry, discovery and healing. Healing comes when we take ownership of the memories by giving them space and voice. By telling what happened we also get to feel what happened, and to connect what happened with who we are now.
Here is one of the writings I did while I was there. The prompt I started from was I remember:
I remember the staircase leading up to the clinic in the children’s hospital or was it an escalator, the one floor up we had to go to meet the doctor or was it a nurse who met us there. But first we sat outside on small wooden chairs (or were those the chairs my parents sat on when they were sitting shiva) waiting for our turn. Our turn, my mother and I.
(I feel a welling up in my gut)
It was always the two of us. My mom and I.
(Another welling up in my gut)
How she loved me, stuck with me as I navigated this crazy journey of the braces.
Yes they were checking up on the braces at the clinic but I don’t remember what the clinic looked like on the inside. Only the waiting area outside with those chairs and the stairs/escalator one floor up from the multiple glass doors into the hospital on Atwater.
I remember the walls of the prosthesis store covered in appliances, fake shoes, wheelchairs but I never looked closely, passed through to the room with no windows and a padded raised couch with brown vinyl covering like the examining table at Dr. Gordon. Was my mother there with me?
I remember Greg and Carlos, my two scoliosis hotties, how I loved going to see them, my attraction to them giving each visit a positive spin. We flirted. We flirted and I hated the braces. I hated having to wear them because I wanted to look normal like everyone else. No. I wanted to look beautiful like Barbra Streisand in A Star is Born.
It can be as healing to acknowledge what we don’t remember as what we do.
At the end of that writing period, I invited the participants to reflect in a few words on how they were feeling after having written.
Here is what I wrote:
I feel sad, tender, curious and warm toward the girl I was. The girl who experienced this. Warm and tender and open to learning more and more of her story.
“The sorrow of loss metabolized into something alive and good.”
Here is a poem I have written since about what I heard during our writing and reflecting:
We were parts of their experiments
their methods changing
devised by their orthopedic minds
we were prodded and poked,
undressed and stretched
braced and embarrassed,
fused and confused.
all our varied surgeries
so many strange and sordid ways
to contain the curves.
Our curves. Like these words,
are hard to contain, emotions flaring,
hearts daring to petal open.
“I am not alone.”
“This is hard.”
“What will this body do next?”
Sooner or later
Comes the time when one has to
Overcome the anger, the sadness
Let the past be what it was, look for
Open new doors to joy and freedom while
Standing in the cage
Invent a meaning to take you higher
Surrender to life as it has been given
“It can be very awkward to move from between seeing with the eye of judgement and the eye of the heart, half caught in an old way of being and yet sensing, even remembering, that a larger and more generous vision is possible.”
J. Ruth Gendler
What a wonder it was to write with these women, to listen to their stories scratched out in ten or fifteen minutes at a time. An honour and a privilege.
We came from: Seattle, California, New York, Vancouver. From varied lives all linked by our experiences living in these bodies with fused spines.
We wrote for ourselves and with each other. We wrote with ourselves and for each other. Through Writing Alone Together, we learned to give ourselves permission to tell the messy truths, the inconvenient “I forgets”, and the strange tidbits we remembered.
As we let our words flow, we learned there are always more, and we don’t have to get it right the first time. Or second or third.
Because whatever we write is right.
And when we read them to the group, we chose which parts we wanted to share, or not. Listening to each other with a kind and curious attention, we held a space for the words to land gently so we felt safe to keep sharing, and able to keep hearing.
“Hearing each other’s stories actually raises our levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin… It helps to join us together in some tribal way.”
Together, we found our words for the feelings, sometimes murky or uncomfortable. Acknowledged those who accompanied us on our journeys of illness and healing: family, doctors, friends. Considered the complications of new stages of life: sex, pregnancy, parenting, menopause, ageing.
Every time I facilitate Writing Alone Together, I am touched by the writers. Awakened again and again to why I write and why I mentor writers:
To celebrate what it means to be alive in a world of such diversity, beauty and wonder. To open my heart to human suffering, my own and others. To dwell in compassion for all beings.
If you would like to read more about the book, and/or purchase a copy, visit http://writingalonetogether.com
If you would like to learn more about my work with Writing Alone Together and other ways I mentor writers, visit my website at www.lovinginquiry.com