The Arts and Trauma Healing

THI 2013On Monday, June 16th, many Ekphrasians participated in a Seminar on The Arts and Trauma Healing, held at Lehigh Valley Presbyterian Church. 

If you weren’t there, you should have been! It was a powerful event. The leader combined discussions, Scripture, and artistic activities. It was very much like a group therapy session. Here is the official description; below that are some of my thoughts and some from other participants.

This seminar followed a book and method designed by the American Bible Society to ask:


HWT 2013 EN Front Cover copyIt taught a holistic, interactive approach to engaging Scripture in the healing process for people who suffer from the mental, emotional, and spiritual effects of trauma. This workshop combined biblical truths with basic mental health principles. In it, we learned to address beliefs and emotions damaged by trauma, in their own lives and the lives of others. This session emphasized the importance of visual and performing arts in trauma healing.

The group was led by a trained facilitator, using the book pictured on the right. She guided us through conversations about why there is suffering in the world, what trauma is, what the stages of grief are and how people move through them, and the importance of bringing our traumas before the cross.

How did she do this?

* Drama!
* Visual art!
* Story telling!
* A Drum circle!
* More drama!
* Writing a lament!
* Music!

I would say that the connection between the arts and trauma healing can be summed up in the phrase Metaphor and Embodiment. Some of the activities we did were metaphorical: for instance, the evening ended with us writing our traumas in red ink on tracing paper, then putting them into water as we sang songs about the Crucifixion. The red ink came off, leaving the papers clean and the water stained. This is a clear metaphor.

Some of the other activities were ways to embody either our traumas or ways of healing from them. I found the visual art most helpful (which was a surprise; I have a huge mental block against drawing) — I ended up scattering little stick figures on a paper along with texts: quotes from poems or titles of books that seemed metaphorically connected to my own troubles.

medium_drum-circle1I also found the Drum Circle to be a wonderful activity, but it didn’t connect to trauma for me. The facilitator has found the drum circle to work for some people as a way of expressing and processing anger, kind of like hitting a punching bag. I just found it tons of fun! I haven’t made much music in the last, well, decade or so, and I’ve rarely had those moments of musical synergy when everyone in the ensemble just gets on the same vibe and something sublime takes over. This wasn’t that, certainly, but there was something in me that rejoiced at making rhythms together.

The dramatic readings, skits, and improvisations were also very powerful. There was a long, terrifying one in which four members of the group represented a family that had just lost someone in a car accident. They moved through the “villages” of anger to denial to new life. Three of the group participants in this drama are really family members and the owner/directors of a theatre group, so their performance was terrifyingly real. One of them wrote in her feedback form that the most difficult activity of the evening was: 

I think the one where we talked about grief and anger… It was difficult to do the improv regarding grief and anger. Partly because I was still processing what I was feeling from the drawings I had done. Then the music thing was very fun, but I think I was afraid of letting myself go… and I found all the clanging randomly at once to be overwhelming and chaotic.

She also said that she gained a lot from the workshop as a whole, because it tied into what she has been learning in her private life:

Working on exposing our wounds, expressing them to God, acknowledging and dealing with anger, expressing that to God, looking to Christ for healing… it just included some art handles in it.

She is preparing to start offering some art therapy sessions as a local shelter for women rescued from sex trafficking, and she said that these sessions have her “a spring board for ideas of the type of art projects to do with the women at the Truth Home.”

The evening ended with a session on forgiveness, and this turned out to be an emotional and volatile subject. We talked about what it is, what it isn’t, when it needs to happen, how it works, what it does for the victim and the offender, what happens when the offender is dead or otherwise unable to be contacted. One participant wrote that the particular conversations we had about forgiveness were “something that I haven’t spent a lot of time considering, and working through the different aspects of it was very enlightenling…. that session definitely had some difficult things to process, emotionally.” grief


June Meeting: Remember good old-fashioned workshopping?

Do you remember the good old days, when Ekphrasis used to be a straight-up workshopping/critique group? None of these fancy special guests, none of these extra events, no official and unofficial meetings. Just ordinary reading and critique. Sigh. Those were the long, lazy days of our bygone youth.

Anyway, all that to say: We were all delighted and excited by our special guests, but we missed the solid four hours of workshop-and-critique. So in June we got back to it.

coversAbigail McB started us out with a poem called “Pagan Summer” and a brilliant discussion of the history of poetry in English. We had a lively discussion of the past, present, and future of verse, wondering what can be done that’s innovative. How can we go somewhere where no one has gone before? What do you think? What is the future of poetry in English?

Later Abby read a fable called “The Lion & the Hyena.” This and her poem were both published in the Minnemingo Review, the literary magazine of Messiah College. Both of her pieces are perfect, brilliant little works of serious literature, even while being light and occasionally funny.

Earl P read another a selection from the “Jotori Chronicles,” a fantasy with elves, dwarves, and dryads, continuing where he left off last month.

Then Besty G performed two monologues she is preparing for an upcoming audition. Her comical piece is “Mabel” from An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde, and her serious piece is Joan’s defense from Joan of Arc by George Bernard Shaw.joan

Marian also shared a monologue, but this is one she has written. It was an interesting perspective on the “single girl” archetype. It also involved eating ice cream, which prompted us to request Marian’s classic “sexy eating” routine, based on this little gem: Fine Dining with Tom Jones.

Speaking of movies, Jeff H played a classic movie of his, entitled Thr3e Rounds. It was the first draft edition, and he hopes to remake it. It’s a neatly-structured tale of three daily encounters and the little girl who wins the day. 

Andrew MacD read us lyrics from two songs that are intended to be part of a concept album entitled The Men Behind the Mask. It’s a profound exploration of a dark psychological journey. 

And Richard B read a selection from “The Reunion,” in which characters meet inside a ruined church and have a lively debate.


Caption Contest!

Here are several photos by Stephanie H. At our meeting on Monday, we were making up crazy and hilarious captions for them — primarily by modifying or mashing-up Bible verses. Please put your numbered captions in a comment below, then we’ll vote on the best ones. Thanks!


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Updated first chapter of “The Four Senses”

Here is a revision of my Three-Day Novel from 2013. Your comments and critiques are very welcome.


Chapter One

“Do you think I am blind?” I snarled. “Do you think I am deaf… and dumb… and, what, totally senseless?”

Jennifer shrank back, pressing her scrawny body against the bones of the chair.

“Of course not, Prof. Woods!” the tiny freshman whined.

“Look, Jennifer,” I growled. “I don’t want to teach you how to be a better criminal, but seriously! You copied an entire essay off the internet and dumped it in the center of a page. You didn’t even bother to change the font and spacing. I mean, there are blatantly obvious hyperlinks in it! Blue and underlined and everything. Did you think I wouldn’t even see that?”

She wound her ankles about the metal skeleton and started to sniffle. I lunged for a tissue box, dropped it, and fumbled with it in her general direction. As she took it, one of my hands moved to pat her shoulder, then paused in the air. I sighed, and my hand dropped in exhaustion, my shoulders sagging under the weight of another useless effort. Jennifer was supposed to be my success story this semester. I recalled her writing sample, months ago: the nonsensical sentences, random punctuation, vague clichés, and superficial ideas. I felt, in my sluggish body, the long hours we had spent together in this yellowing office, laboring over comma splices and in-text citations. Her progress had been tangible, marked by miles of red ink and piles of rewrites. Just last week, just minutes before the plagiarism, she was on the brink of learning to write an essay.

What a waste.

“Come on, answer me,” I barked. “Tell me what in the world you were thinking. Why did you do it?”

She dabbed at her dripping nose and started to mumble something about “didn’t understand the assignment… last minute… deadline… panicked…” Her squeaky-toy voice rose up towards a wail as the end of her little nose reddened. “And you’re such a hard grader and I never know what you are looking for and nobody ever taught me to write in high school and I’ve had such a hard semester, my boyfriend broke up with me and my car didn’t work and you wanted too many sources and I don’t even like to read…” All the time this gargantuan run-on poured out of her mouth she was crying, wiping her snuffly nose alternately on the tissues and on her pink sleeve, and whining higher and higher up the musical scale. Soon, I thought, even dogs wouldn’t be able to hear the high pitch.

I lifted my hand. “OK, stop. Just stop. I understand that you were scared. It’s not really your fault.”

She wriggled and looked up at me under mascara-smeared lashes.

“I know they never taught you anything in high school. Believe me: I know.”

I thought of the high school where I had taught for one nightmare of a year: a year that nearly landed me in either the psych ward or my grave (not sure which is worse). Those kids had six English teachers in four years, and the Seniors I inherited had never been assigned a five-paragraph essay in their lives.

“It’s not your fault they didn’t teach you to write. You were just a little rat in a maze.”

“A—a little rat?” she gasped.

“It’s a metaphor. A comparison between two—oh, forget it. You’re just a pawn in a big broken game. That’s a metaphor, too. I’m mixing them. Never mind. It’s the whole stinking system. For nearly your whole education you’ve been taught only artificial formulas, tested on meaningless skills, and everyone was forced to stoop to the level of the lowest common denominator—” I saw her eyes had glazed over. “Anyway, you knew what you did was wrong, so why did you do it?”

“I just hoped I wouldn’t get caught!”

“Jennifer,” I intoned, “getting caught has nothing to do with it. You still damage your soul whether anyone finds out about it or not. Do you want to grow up to be a felon?”

But I broke off, scoffing at my pompous hypocrisy. Wasn’t I only a game-piece rigged up to teeter on their chess board, too? Who was I to scold this sad little girl?

“It’s a huge messed-up game, and they’re just playing with you, and with me, too.”

Suddenly my perspective shifted, and we were no longer Professor and Student, sitting demurely in an academic office. Instead, I saw us from above, from a great distance and a great height. Look at us. Me, dressed up in a second-hand suit, wearing glasses, a kid putting on a costume and pretending to be Teacher. Jennifer, with all those little zippered bags and backpack, notebooks and three-ring binders all color-coordinated, play-acting the Student. Pathetic. Neither of us adult enough to stop acting and get down to the real work. I wondered: Does anyone ever feel like they’re grown up, or is everyone pretending? Are we all little rats in a maze? I peered up at the convex magnifying lens of the recess lights, and crouched under bodily fear of the drop-ceiling tiles full of little indented eyes. Who was experimenting on whom? Who is prying open the lock-box of my skull, while I probe Jennifer’s brain?

“Whatever,” I muttered, shaking off the unlikely glimpse. “I have to report you.”

She looked about twelve then—maybe I did too—in cheap clothes, against a cruel chair.

“It goes on your permanent record. And you fail the course. It’s such a shame: you were going to make it, before you decided to commit a federal offense!”

Her eyeliner trickled down her face.

“You did this to yourself, Jennifer. I tried my best with you. All I can hope is that you will do better next time and have success in… whatever you do with your life.”

Jennifer had her hands over her ears.

I swiveled away. She started packing up all her pink Staples specials inside one another, zipping up pockets, cases, and bags, then slunk away. Yet another failure.


The afternoon turned rainy, and I stood in a glass-walled conference room, staring in at myself. Listening to what only I could hear: the ever-present ringing of my ears, the sea-shell muffle of the pulse in my head. The building breathed and muttered in its midday sleep. Who was I? My unfocused eyes doubled again my double reflection in the mist-smeared windows, and I felt very strange in my clothes. I was convinced I was a fake. I dream I am real, and I act like a grownup walking through a job in the world. Are we what we see and sense?

What is sense, anyway? I reached out my hand to the glass. Cool on the fingertips; patter in the ears; many nameless colors weeping past; scent of paperwork, scent of dust; flavor of failure in the mouth of my ambition. That’s a metaphor. A comparison. A mixed one. Never mind. Does everyone find it impossible to see what they see, feel what they feel? I nursed again my secret ache: a deep longing for someone to talk to about how hard it was to see what I saw, feel what I felt, hear what I heard. Does anyone think this way? Somebody must have written a book about sensory perception and creative expression.

I remembered a writing teacher who trapped me in a hallway after class, pressed her fingers against my hand, and got in my face. “What does that feel like?” she had hissed. “Tell me what it feels like. Not your thoughts, but your senses. Describe it!” I shrank into silence. “Speak up!” she barked then. “Give me some descriptive words! What do you feel?” Cold and trembling, I stuttered, “Uh, warmth? pressure?” She nodded. “That’s a start. Now, when you write—when you write about playing the piano, or patting a kitten, or making out with your boyfriend—” I pulled away from her, my unkissed lips dry and burning—“make me feel it. I don’t want to read about thoughts. I want to feel what you felt.”

But whenever we feel something, the sensation withdraws to a distance and seems to hide itself behind itself. How can I write about what I sense if I can’t even sense it when I do? What is a perception, anyway? If it is bound to time, then when does it happen? I see a word on a page; I glance away. In what fraction of a second did I see it? You can halve the time, then halve again, and again, forever. How do we ever travel from point A to point B? The mind is a womb, dark and silent. In it, maybe everything is imaginary. Is this world even real?

At one of the scuffed tables, I sat down and scribbled in my journal. As I scrawled, I strained my eyes to record everything they saw around me. I reached out with every sense, searching for anything I could perceive and trying to process the perception. But it didn’t last. Everything flows away in the stream of time. Maybe I would write a poem about the five senses, or however many there are. Maybe I would even write a novel. It could begin: “The senses all work together in happy harmony.” How does that work?

How does sight work? I see somebody’s eyes, and he sees mine. Our eyes “meet,” or that’s what people say. How do they do that? It’s shocking. Doesn’t anyone know how shocking that is? How do eyes reach across a room? When two people’s eyes “meet,” what stuff is touching? When I meet someone, I put out my hand, our hands shake, and our skin touches. (My unheld hand was cool and dry in its loneliness). When I look at somebody across a room, what matter, what material substance, comes out of my eyes and comes out of his, to touch in the middle of the room? How do eyes touch across a space? If it is light that touches my eyeballs and then flashes across the room, how does it stay separate from the light that is all around, in the air, in the room? Whatever it is, it must happen ahead of time—like, the stuff must leave my eyes before I look, in order to get to the middle of the room at the same time as his, to merge halfway, and then make it back to my eyes again at just the moment that we think we “see”! That’s insane. It seems like a weird kind of predestination. Something foresees that we will see. That’s a bit too deterministic even for me!

What is a writer to do? And how can I teach students to write if I cannot write myself?


But the time had come, as the walrus said, to speak of many things, like getting to class on time…. That’s not what the walrus said, but I had only twenty minutes left to print a handout and copy it before I went to face what was left of my dwindling class. I put away my journal.

My phone chimed in my pocket. I pulled it out and read:

From: Aurora Dunne>
To: Cassandra Woods >

check this out!
April 12, at 3:05

Hey, Cass, I’m in the airport, just catching up on emails here during a layover before I fly out on the last leg of my trip home, and stumbled on something you’d like. Have you seen this fiction blog?

Really impressive writing. All these different voices, different tones and styles as if all the different characters wrote the various posts, yet there’s a kind of story weaving through as you go along. And it’s got a wild premise. I’m guessing this kind of online fiction is the way to go in the future–kind of reader-generated, to some extent, like the old choose-your-own-adventure stories. You know, like “Three of Swords,” or even 50 Shades started out as a blog. Let me know what you think. You should jump on this kind of stuff and write online blog-novels and make millions!

OK, I’m on my way home from–well, I can’t say where I’ve been, but you can guess if you look at the headlines. Uprisings. Genocide. The worst place to be right now, if you live there; Americans are still OK. But it was ghastly: bodies in double rows down all the corridors of the hospital, and mostly children. I took pictures and will tell you all about it. I’ll call you!

Whew. What do you say to that? That’s Aurora for you.

Aurora Dunne. She swirls past me in her own glorious whirlwind, tearing around the globe, saving the world, and binding wounds, impervious to it all. From our earliest childhood friendship, when we took music lessons together, she won all the competitions while I forgot the piece halfway through and made a fool of myself on stage. She could ski; I fell and broke my ankle on the bunny slope. She got poetry published in the school paper without even revising, while I thought of myself as a “real writer” and never finished so much as a sonnet. She painted, drew, danced, rode horses, swam on the school team, played soccer….. I lay around my house reading novels. She was a guy magnet from Middle School onwards, while I had only one squalid heartbreak to my name. Then she started studying medicine, and found the meaning of her life.

Oh, Aurora. She can save lives with one hand and package them up like neat lab experiments with the other. She was in Haiti right after the earthquake, sawing off legs with back-room carpentry tools, without anesthesia. I got a newsletter in the mail with pictures that I couldn’t stomach. She was in New Orleans almost before Katrina had finished pouring in floods of filth, following around after the teams that spray-painted body counts on doors, working her way around the Superdome with pathetic supplies for the displaced thousands. She was in Japan after the tsunami; I don’t even know what she was doing there, but I assume she was evaluating the severity of radiation exposures. How much horror can one person see? I have seen nothing, and yet I limp along with a wounded mind. What is her mind like inside? Maybe living a life of service heals the broken brain.

I wonder if I will ever grow up.


May Meeting: Mahlika and Hildegard


Mahlika Hopwood

I am behind the times! I haven’t carved time out of my other reading, writing, and editing projects, both academic and creative, to keep up with Ekphrasian blogging. But here at last is a report on our May meeting. I hope to follow up with reports on our three-ish June meetings soon.

For our May meeting, Medieval scholar Mahlika Hopwood traveled down from the Bronx, where she is pursuing a PhD at Fordham University, to talk to us about Hildegard of Bingen. I learned a lot about this fascinating Mystic from Mahlika’s talk.

But first, Betsy G shared a little short story that turned out to be a dream. We discussed how to revised this work to take it from mere dream-record into the realm of the “literary.” And then later, our talk about dreams proved relevant to thoughts on Hildegard’s visions.

Hildegard_von_BingenHildegard of Bingen was an amazing person. She was a nun and abbess. She was a rock-star gardener; poet and Inklings scholar Malcolm Guite has a great sermon about her ecological work.

Two themes in Mahlika’s talk stood out.

1. Visual Art

Although it does not appear that Hildegard was herself an artist, she fostered the visual arts among those in her convent. Check out this site with a slide show of the works she commissioned. What astonished me is how “Eastern” these works are: they look like nothing so much as Buddhist Mandala. Their ideas are very similar to Charles Williams‘s concepts about holism, coinherence, and exchange. She pictured the universe as an egg, or as a heavenly rose like Dante’s. She had vivid visions of God’s presence and working in the world, such as the one on the left, in which the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is like a fiery hand gripping her head and forcibly transferring the revelations to her mind. We can see her writing them down, but her faithful secretary also waits off to the right to help her capture her visions in words.

Hildegard enjoyed a startling degree of academic, religious, and personal freedom for a woman of her time. She ran her own Abbey. She was highly literate in several languages. She wrote her revelations in influential forms. Her visions were approved as genuine by the Pope after an examination for their doctrinal soundness. She even traveled around preaching! And… she wrote music.


2. Music

Another part of Mahlika’s presentation that I found very impressive was Hildegard’s musical skill. She was a composer; check out her music here or here or listen to some of her compositions on youtube. More than that: she thought of the world in musical terms; she used music as a metaphor, or a fully-developed allegory, for spiritual reality. But it was more than an allegory: it was a unified, spiritual-scientific way of picturing the cosmos. The planetary spheres sing, and their harmony holds all things together in musical relationships. It is far more complex than that, but I hope that you go and read up on her life and work for yourself!



After Mahlika’s presentation, several members of the group shared their work, and we had the usual lively discussions, full of remarks about what we liked and suggestions for revision and improvement.

Jeff H shared a chapter from the novel that he wrote during the 2013 Three-Day Novel Contest, entitled No Sand for a Beach. You can read his prologue and first chapter here.

Earl P read the opening section of his Tolkienian narrative of elves, dwarves, and — spoiler alert! — dryads: a short story with the preliminary name “Jotori Chronicles.”

Richard B shared drawings from the Kimmeriorian character set; you can see some of his other work here to get a sense of his style. These pictures led to a very, very lively discussion (debate?) about the perceived sexism of his depictions, both written and visual, of women. We talked about working within and/or subverting the expectations of the graphic novel/superhero genres.

Finally, Joshua L shared some of his photos from Players of the Stage’s production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. The director, assistant directors, and major members of the cast are all Ekphrasians and were present to enjoy his beautiful photos.