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The art of healing strong

In the book, “Boys in the Boat,” about the making of the 1936 USA Olympic rowing team, Daniel James Brown writes about the painstaking process George Pocock went through to build the championship shell. He didn’t use power tools, but worked as an artisan, creating a shell that would be worthy of the “young men who gave their hearts to the effort of moving in through the water.”

He was introduced to a new wood as he matured in his trade, the western red cedar native to the Northwest. It wasn’t a “new” wood; it had been used by the ancient tribes of the area to build canoes. The wood was durable and light, perfect for racing, where the Spanish cedar he usually would have used, was not. The red cedar was easy to work with hand tools; light and buoyant, yet strong and flexible; able to bend but never giving in to warp or twist. The wood didn’t bleed sap but had its own natural preservatives that worked against rot in and out of the water.

He steamed thin sheets of cedar, letting them dry around the contour of the boat, and glued them in place without nail and screw. It was far more sleek and fast. It created a tension Brown described as “a drawn bow waiting to be released … giving it a kind of liveliness, a tendency to spring forward on the catch of oars” not found in other woods.

This switch to red cedar gave an “unflagging” resilience to the boat, the “readiness to bounce back, to keep coming, to persist in the face of resistance.” It created a sense of life in the shell that extended through the seats, the trim and into the strong backs that pulled the oars through the waters of the Puget Sound.

Pocock did not change the look of the shell as much as how it felt to the rowers. The new process and different wood maximized the shell’s potential. He had made the boat stronger to confront the adversity of its use.

Healing works the same way by building resilience like Pocock built into his vessel. Healing in veterans and others affected by emotional and life-threatening trauma echoes his revelation: changing the design and materials made the boat better and stronger.

Making one whole again is an admirable goal, especially when someone is broken. Healing has an end state, something to strive toward when pieces of a disconnected soul and rattled brain, like a puzzle, are put back together. Many vets faced life-threatening trauma in combat, while others faced sexual and other types of assault and harassment from within the military. One step in their healing process is accepting that, once rebuilt, the puzzle may not look the same, like the Spanish cedar replaced by red cedar. Another step is building skills to help confront adversity and manage the effects of trauma in the future. Healing often means coming to grips with the past on a daily basis; it means growing stronger, so the past loses its grip on the present and future. Healing strong means living in the moment and preparing for the future, fashioning a new shell from the pieces of the old one to slice through the water better and withstand the effects of water over time — or what life brings over time.

The Healing Vets Weekend, May 31–June 2, in Washington, will offer an exploration of healing in veterans. It will showcase healing strategies that offer relief from the effects of trauma, and will explore ways to heal stronger. It will give veterans and others in the community an opportunity to see, hear and participate in healing activities including a veteran art exhibit, an open house at Rose Haven, a series of TED-like talks on healing, a benefit concert, yoga and a bike ride, the Ride for Rose Haven, all involving examples that will bring an awareness of healing that has implications beyond veterans. To learn more about the weekend and to register for the Ride for Rose Haven, visit www.pamlicorose.org/healing-vets-weekend/.

Robert Greene-Sands is an anthropologist and CEO of the non-profit Pamlico Rose Institute for Sustainable Communities located in Washington.