The Group

Nursing, administrative, medical, social work professionals, and trained volunteers at a New England hospice organization.

The Program

"Learning the Trees" served as the text for the first session of a three-part Literature & Medicine series for a group of hospice staff and volunteers. The Nemerov poem began our extended reflection on a significant conundrum of care giving: how does one care for a single individual, when there are so many others to consider? What is the cost—human, economic, psychological—of caring for one at the expense of others, or of many at the expense of an individual, including oneself? Conversely, how do we know when it’s time to turn from the one to the many others, and what resources are required? The larger questions embedded in all of this concern the challenges of compassion and humanitarian response.

I chose "Learning the Trees" to begin these conversations because it embeds and embodies central questions about the role of knowledge and language in our relationship to the one, and the many. How does language enable "cooperation" with the needs and presence of the "one in front of you," and when does language "compete" or hinder? When do we need the provisions of language and knowledge in order to make sense of experience and affect important change; and when do we need different names for the "chaos of experience"? Does language merely represent experience? Or does it create it? In the words of the poem, if we "learn the language" for dying and grieving processes in all their physical, medical, social, familial, cultural, psychological, and spiritual dimensions, as well as the "categories" of patients and families, are we "sufficiently provided" for the "chaos of experience"? The poem suggests at the beginning that language precedes and prepares for experience. But the poem itself then says that language and nature mirror each other “confusedly.” When do we need to let words go and be silent?

Overview

Participants began by pairing off and telling personal stories of a significant or delightful learning experience. Then they introduced each other by re-telling the story they’d heard from their partner. This opening exercise seemed to connect participants right away to the language and enacted experience of the poem. There were stories of growth, passion, surprise, delight, fear and overcoming fear, of deep shifts from being right to being present, of renewal, confidence, of inspiring teachers, of unexpected teachers. There were no stories that ended with classrooms, textbooks, or degrees, even though a handful started there. "The chaos of experience" was the proving ground. 

After we read the poem out loud, the imperative in the first stanza provoked plenty of friendly disagreement. Several people resisted being told how to learn, and of those, most insisted that experience was the most reliable teacher. Others countered that without a common language, there would be no ability to communicate experience at all, and that we all needed some foundation for framing the "chaos." The problem, they reflected, arises when one retreats behind language, and people or things then become mere examples of "catalogue and category," a short step to prejudice, and worse. One staff member spoke of the perfect match of the poem’s tree-learning metaphor with an early training experience. She had studied schizophrenia for many weeks, and the day came to work with a schizophrenic individual. "Nothing the books said," she explained, "fit the actual person in front of me. All I could do was sit and be okay. And I’ve never forgotten either the woman, or the difference in her actual self from the 'average' one I had learned about in the classroom."

Regarding the last line, we talked about the difference between the silence of ignorance and a silence that honors the limits of language. One participant noted that the word "comprehensive" shares a double meaning, of "encompassing" with something "comprehended" or understood. Such a silence is achieved through the recursive testing of language against experience, experience against language, and of the refinement and deepening of both. "When I read this poem," said another participant, "I see the forest of people I meet with every day, and realize that ultimately there are no words for their experience."

Next Time

I wish there had been time to talk about the poem as a teacher, or containing a teacher, but perhaps bringing that to overt attention may have somehow diminished its "teaching" role in the conversation that followed. Hard to say. But one thing’s certain—this poem is now high on my list for future conversations.

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