POETS & WRITERS IS MORE than a magazine. We are a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving creative writers. We pay fees to writers giving readings and leading workshops, provide information and advice to authors, and help them connect with one another and with audiences. We also sponsor a number of awards and prizes. Learn more at pw.org.
A Container for Healing
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Workshops program has paid writers fees for giving readings and leading workshops since 1970.
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Last year Poets & Writers funded two workshops in Tucson, Arizona, led by writer Deborah Mayaan and Rabbi Stephanie Aaron. We asked Mayaan to reflect on the first workshop, which occurred just a week after the shooting that took the lives of six people and injured thirteen others, including congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
We were stunned by the phone call that came in on the morning of January 8, 2011. A half dozen of us had already gathered in a family’s living room for a relaxed in-home prayer service that was to begin shortly. We were waiting for others to trickle in, and assumed the call was from a latecomer asking for directions. Instead our host, a close friend of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, blurted out, “Gabby’s been shot!” In the hours that followed we pieced together fragments of news about the situation.
My first responsibility was to call Rabbi Stephanie Aaron, who cut short her family vacation to return to Tucson and provide spiritual counsel to Giffords and other members of Congregation Chaverim, a Reform Jewish congregation, and also to help the nation heal. Many community groups in Tucson scrambled to create venues for processing what had happened. Thanks to Poets & Writers, there was already one such forum in place. Several months before, when Rabbi Aaron asked me to lead a writing workshop at Chaverim, I remembered the grants available through Poets & Writers’ Readings/Workshops (R/W) program. The application process was easy, and with the funding we received, Rabbi Aaron and I worked together to develop workshops at both Chaverim and a local senior center.
We organized the workshops around the topic of writing an ethical will, a spiritual tool for making peace with our ancestors and our own lives, so that we can live out our most important values and pass them on to the next generation. On January 16, 2011, when we convened our first session, the topic seemed timelier than we could have imagined. Rabbi Aaron began by saying that when there has been a tragedy, we learn together in honor of those affected. The participants reflected on how the shootings reminded them of the importance of resolving our issues with others. As well as having a legal will to cover financial matters, writing an ethical will would help us come to peace with the people in our lives, and leave a clear spiritual legacy. We began with an easy writing exercise in which the writers reflected on happy memories. They noted values that had been passed down to them, such as a love for learning or a connection to nature. Then they wrote about a lesson they had learned the hard way, and honored that, by attempting to heal negative family patterns, they might improve the family legacy and pass on healthier values. Afterward they compiled lists of key values, which we encouraged them to take home to share with family members, perhaps to spark a discussion about how best to embody those values. While giving feedback on the workshop, several participants noted that the compassion they felt in the session allowed them to look deep within themselves and to risk sharing their words with the group.
In Jewish mysticism, the Hebrew word chesed refers to loving-kindness or compassion. To prevent “compassion fatigue,” getting burned out from giving and giving, chesed must be balanced with gevurah, a strength in setting boundaries. Functional boundaries can create a container in which it is safe to feel.
A writing workshop can create such a container not only for its participants, but also for the writer who facilitates it. People may yearn for a place to focus on writing yet lack the ability or willingness to pay a fee that will provide a living wage for the writing teacher. The funding from Poets & Writers allowed me to contain my own concerns about money and focus on developing the material for the workshops and preparing myself to teach from a calm place of abundance. All our communities need writing workshops that serve as containers for healing. I am grateful for the support of Poets & Writers, which allowed us to provide such a container at Chaverim.