Learning to Heal recipient of the Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing; Working Class Studies 2019
“Mind the Gap,” says the voice over the loud speaker and as I sit on the bench at the platform edge waiting for the train to unload the commuters coming into the city I think of ‘The Gap’. The book in my bag carries writing that looks back across the gap in time, from the days when we were nursing students to now. Each nurse author has written of where they have come from, and the events that bound them to their calling. Often it was touch, and the humble bed bath that was the sacrament that enfolded and claimed us as nurses.
Learning to Heal
Nurse Slater. The end of first year, receiving ‘Medicine in its Human Setting’
Sitting on that railway station bench, holding my bag and coffee (and croissant) I watched as the passengers got off the train, and walked quickly towards the exit, making their way down the escalator into their days in the city. It was a very definite ‘Miss Pym’s Day Out’ moment of watching: the dogged determination of the young man with his folding bike, the resignation of an older middle aged man, the nervous excitement of a young girl maybe hurrying to a new job. Then there was a very slim woman wearing a pencil pleated yellow skirt and pink blouse. She was determined not to let summer go – just yet.
The passengers are all off and the train is cleaned and ready for the few of us to board. It is a fast train from St. Pancras in London to Canterbury in Kent and I will take in a day at the ‘Working Class Studies Conference’ before the evening event at the University of Kent in Canterbury.
A knowing Taxi driver takes me to the campus and Keynes College, dropping me off exactly where I need to be. How many young students has he driven to their first day of college?
First there was Registration before going upstairs to the reception and classrooms. There were two book stalls, and on one, our book, propped up comfortably among communist manifestos and the rights of workers and all else.
Learning to Heal at the book stand
Looking through the program I circled three seminars to attend. What I heard time and again, is that when industry that has been built up is then taken away, closing factories but without providing alternative jobs or industry, it is the community that dies.
The evening light was soft and autumnal as I walked with a fellow participant from Nova Scotia University to the Darwin College Conference hall. The tables were prepared, and the buffet pans were being set up for the food that would follow. Terry Easton from the University of North Georgia introduced me to the other Tillie Olsen award winner, Ted Van Alst Jr. author of Sacred Smokes. We exchanged books and as I peeked inside his collection of stories I raised my glass of cider to his seeing. We sat together with his lovely wife Amie. My ‘End of Empire’ friends also came to the dinner offering moral support and a bed for the night.
Terry introduced us with these words:
“Judges named two winners in this year’s Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing. The interlocking stories in Theodore C. Van Alst Jr.’s Sacred Smokes provide “an authentic representation of working-class urban life in the 1970s,” one judge wrote, adding that ‘[t]he collection’s tone-perfect survival humor helps create verisimilitude and keeps readers engaged . . . despite its often-dark themes.’ The collection is ‘one of the few fictions about urban working-class Natives,’ and it reveals ‘the deep truths of growing up working class in 1970s America.’ Another noted ‘Van Alst’s ability to put the reader inside the head of the protagonist’ to reveal ‘the humanity and texture of life among those in the poverty/working class who actually enjoy being there, despite the many drawbacks and dangers.’
“The award is shared by Jeanne Bryner and Cortney Davis, editors of Learning to Heal: Reflections on Nursing School in Poetry and Prose. The collection illuminates worker-voices, and a judge noted, ‘the writing is emotionally strong, creatively composed, and an important addition to the literature of ‘what work is.’ Learning to Heal should be required reading in all nursing schools.’ Another praised ‘[t]he quality and ambition of the poetry.’ A third described Learning to Heal as ‘the best kind of writing working-class studies has to offer: actual workers telling their real-life stories with poetic, authentic, and instructional voices.’”
Ted went first and then I followed.
And this is what I said, for you all:
Thank you very much. It is a privilege to be honoured by ‘The Working Class Study’s Association’ and to share the 2019 ‘Tillie Olsen award for Creative Writing with Ted Van Alst Jr. and his book ‘Sacred Smokes’.
Thank you for including and acknowledging the work of nurses among all of you who are building appreciation of the role of work and exploring working class life and cultures.
Tillie Olsen is particularly close to my heart. Many years ago she penned me a personal thank you letter for my reading of Babette’s Feast on KPFA Pacifica radio. She was always listening to, and for, story and literature.
And Thank You for hosting this 15th Conference at Kent University in Canterbury. Canterbury was my father’s childhood home and where many, many years ago he was caned after being caught playing pop tunes on the Cathedral Organ.
Timing and dosage are everything in medicine and also in life and so I feel particularly fortunate to be able to represent the nurses whose work is included in “Learning to Heal, Reflections in Poetry and Prose,” and edited by Jeanne Bryner and Cortney Davis and Published by Kent State University, (The other Kent,) with a forward by beloved Judy Schaefer, all who have been writing of nursing in poetry and prose for over 30 years “Learning to Heal,” is a jewel and an important piece of nursing and cultural History.
Oft times we choose nursing as a pathway from one social environment to another, usually empowerment and – or – of a social context. But in the course of our training and then our work we are blessed with another kind of change. A movement of the heart and – for in the acts of caring and healing – we are given the opportunity of growing and healing ourselves.
In the forward Judy Schaefer quotes Sister Frances’s phrase from ‘The Silent Treatment,’ “Silence, once learned, is the tabula rasa upon which the art of Nursing thrives; Silence is a language spoken by all. It is the music that goes before every note of love that a nurse’s hands can offer.”
Those of us who are lucky enough to write of our work in this reflective anthology are blessed to give you our gifts again. The 51 nurses I represent tonight have been able to share their stories, their history, and interestingly, they have shared their fears and failures more than their glowing successes. Nurses and writers know how much we learn and grow through our mistakes and humilities. We write to share those stories and give courage and comfort to the nurses to whom we pass the lamp. Though our kind of student life was hard none of us would give up a moment of it.
Particularly there is Minnie Brown Carter’s story of being a ‘coloured’ nurse training and graduation in 1947. It is of particular relevance, a reminder to us all that this fight, in America and through out the world, is not over yet. Minnie, on the other side of 90, is still a voice calling for recognition of fair treatment for all.
There is Judy Schaefer’s delicate voice … from Pennsylvania
I’ve singing lessons
“So let me out of class
It is time to go
Throw a syringe like a dart
Remain alert to peristalsis after breakfast, lunch and dinner
Smile when you enter a room
See one, do one, teach one ….”
Cortney Davis’s soft New England tones purr like a crouching cat,
“I learned how cells collide then melt and peel into spheres,
multisided like soccer balls or Rubik’s Cubes.
I stabbed oranges until my hands ran with Juice, then patients
until my hands ran with grace.
I learned the quick save: airway entered upside down and turned into breath.
I learned to kiss death.”
While Jeanne Bryner sings out of her Appalachian heritage in Ohio remembering …
“I have rainbow pills, water from a jug, syringes, needles
kept in shallow drawers. I am here to help the heart’s fist
squeeze and twist its red mop. Pain is a forest. My Hands?
Both ends of a two-man saw, my will, its blade.”
At some point in your lives you may be touched by a nurse’s hand. However much pain you are in, however weary we are, whatever passes between us – it will have been our privilege to care for you.
Thank you very much.
For Cortney and Jeanne, From WCSA and us all