hand portrait taken during poetry homes workshops by Tim Lewis

Review of six workshops

‘It is the experience of the senses that gives us the important notion of existence and awareness.’

Last year I visited the Venice biennale and I was struck by Herman De Vries’ work in the Dutch pavilion. The title of the exhibition ‘All ways to be’ expresses the idea that the experience and reflection on human existence takes many different paths and that we immerse ourselves in this experience of being through the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and body. In a way this explains why we have started the sensory workshops this summer at the support services in Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre. I have been meaning to write this blog for a while, waiting for time to guide me and retrospect to play its part. I find myself thinking that art is simply an excuse to get to what really matters. Then we must go through the process of analysing it all and presenting it on a kind of platter to the world when all you want to do is let it be.

Recently I watched a TED talk by BJ Miller, a palliative care physician. At one point he says, ‘There are mountains of sorrow that cannot move and one way or another we will all kneel there. Let death be what takes us, not a lack of imagination’. This thought has stayed with me. I think it picks up this feeling I have which is part exhaustion, part loss and part fear and which I try to attenuate through the process of art. Being part of these workshops has allowed me to be present and bear witness to other human journeys that intersect at the foot of this mountain. Somehow we have all gathered there. With understanding we have held each other, with respect we have heard each other and with love we have felt for each other. We have cried and we have laughed. We felt the need to be part of something, to share and express through our senses the simple things in life, be it a dance, a song, a smell, a memory….

Miller talks of a sensuous aesthetic gratification where in a moment we are rewarded for just being. He describes this as a loving of our senses by way of the body, the very thing doing the living and the dying. The senses give us the possibility of accessing what makes us feel human and connected. The senses allow us to express all that we don’t have words for; to follow impulses that make us stay present, in a place where there is no need for a past or a future. From aromatherapy and dramatherapy to movement/dance and music, the sessions provided the people attending with an environment to explore this engagement with their senses, letting them tell their story in ways only they might understand.

One thing that really stood out for me was the difference in the participants’ self descriptions from the first workshop to the last. In the first workshop, when the participants introduced themselves, they defined themselves through their illness. However, in the last two workshops called ‘Poetry homes’, the participants talked about themselves with all those present sharing their love of life, their dreams and who they really are. These sessions turned out to be a celebration of self and a sort of testimonial. Hand portraits were taken in process. People expressed their burdens, fears, tragedies, losses, regrets, separations and also their strengths, motivations, wishes, courage and joys.

The insights that were shared enlighten and support. How to live in awareness was a main concern and I will share my experience of it. To live happily and to be conscious of this happiness as we go through life and how this can be achieved by living as simply as possible was an understanding that came to light. One person pointed out that we have to be careful not to come to a point when we say to ourselves that we were happy and we did not know it. Another person said that she wants to change the idea that life is a struggle. Illness is seen as a sort of teacher and that illness can open up doorways that we would never have entered. She also said that we need to believe that we are enough…we can be happy just by being. I want to stay with this thought.