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The Art of Healing Through the Arts

Updated: Mar 15, 2022

Building Community, Overcoming Pain Through Spoken, Sung, and Visual Arts

Posted October 26, 2013

Paula J. Caplan Ph.D. | Psychology Today

Amid the brown, barren-looking, high desert landscape of Joshua Tree, California, which is not far from the huge Marine base at Twenty-nine Palms, great vibrancy comes from Mil-Tree, a collective aimed to help veterans through connection and the arts. Last night, I had the deeply moving experience of attending an event called "The Art of War" at Radio Free Joshua Tree Listening Lounge at 61597 Twenty-nine Palms Highway.

Mil-Tree's founder, the phenomenon named Cheryl Montelle, emceed with warmth and great sincerity the program, which was co-sponsored by the local Arts Council, Hiway 62 Art Tours, and Arts Connection. The shape of the program was this: A number of musicians and poets each had a lyric or poem displayed on the walls next to one or two works of visual art that were connected to or had in many cases been created in response to that lyric or poem, which were sung or performed.

Last night, musician Walt Cronin opened with a beautiful song, from which one phrase especially grabbed me and has not let go: "Healing comes from looking closely." In listening for many years to veterans from all eras, I have each time been struck by how healing happens when a veteran who has been suffering in isolation -- or at least in isolation from anyone other than close family and friends and other veterans -- begins to heal in important ways when given the chance to speak, telling their story or even talking in fragments, to a nonveteran who gives them the gift of the time and space to do that, bearing witness and listening with respect, without judgment, and in confidence. What the veteran says is a way of looking closely and thus of healing, and it also transforms the listeners.

After Walt's song, many wonderful poems were read -- and in one case excerpts from letters to servicewoman Jodi Callahan when she was in Desert Storm were read -- and the related visual art works were pointed out.

I cannot here do justice to the depth and variety and quality of both the spoken and visual art, but at at the bottom of the page, you can hear many of the verbal ones.

I must mention briefly three of the spoken pieces, not because the others were not also wonderful but because for various reasons, these affected me so powerfully. Ralph S. Carlson's "Perimeter Guard: Another Quiet Night" ends the description of a harrowing incident in combat with the words that one gentle soul "names his every breath thereafter a gift." I caught my breath upon hearing those words, because my late father, Jerome A. Caplan, a gentle, gracious soul who was drafted and fought at the Battle of the Bulge, often said with gratitude that since that battle, he had been living on borrowed time. And I thought of how my late, dear friend, Tom McDonald, a Vietnam veteran, used to say with quiet reverence, "Life is a gift."

Katherine Barta, whose late husband was a veteran and who has been a caretaker, read her beautiful poem, "In Enemy Territory," about someone matching their own humanity to that of a wounded "enemy" soldier, saving the life of the latter and welcoming her or him to their own home.

Then Ted Haler, a Vietnam veteran, read "First Tour," which is profoundly affecting all the way through and ends with an unexpected twist that packs a wallop that moved me to tears. I won't tell you what it is about, because I hope it is on the Radio Free Joshua Tree broadcast referred to above. If it isn't, I will see if I can find out if it is available somewhere and will post that here.

James Loomis, a more recent veteran, read his poem, "We Mighty Warriors," about his excruciating attempts to come home. I have always thought that, while on the one hand it is important to have Veterans Day as an official day, it is tragic that so many nonveterans ignore veterans the rest of the year. James Loomis expresses this in a deeply personal and stunning way that every American ought to have to read. I hope that this one, too, is on the Radio Free broadcast, and if it is not, I will see if I can direct you to a place where you can read it.

The program ended with Ted Quinn's performance, singing and on guitar, accompanied by the wonderful cellist Jennifer Irvine, of his "The Ballad of Kythe Yund" about an anguished veteran Ted knew who took his own life.

I do not have a listing of the wonderful and varied works of visual art, but I can mention specifically the one by Marsha Straubing, who told me last night, when I said, "I never knew you were an artist," "I didn't know I was." I mention it not just because she is the one artist I happened to know but also because it was among the most imaginative and moving of an array of stirring creations.

Every community should have an event like this, bringing together veterans and nonveterans in their area, using spoken words, music, and visual arts to connect and thus to heal. Let me amend that: Every community should have many such events.

©Copyright 2013 by Paula J. Caplan All rights reserved

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