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The Geology of My Spirit

Have you ever felt like certain landscapes nourished your spirit?

Sixteen years ago I took a road trip all by myself for about six weeks. Sometimes it still feels like yesterday. During that trip I spent about two weeks exploring a string of National Parks in Southern Utah from Arches near Moab through Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion, and some of the surrounding country. I was immersed in a landscape of otherworldly rock formations and a warm red colour palette completely foreign to the “50 shades of green” of the Pacific Northwest that I was accustomed to.

Somewhere in my spirit there was a desert rat just waiting to run free.                                                                                         

I listened with awe to Park Ranger lectures on desert plants, animals, and the history of the original human inhabitants of those lands. I went on that trip during a time of personal distress, when I felt worn out, lost and not at home in my own life. My spirit felt as dry as sandstone. I hoped to find myself again by getting a little lost out in the world. Coyotes, lizards, eagles, ravens, and a surprisingly beautiful tarantula let me see what belonging looks like to them. The tang of juniper and the burnt caramel scent of Ponderosa pines, and the prickling dry heat of the sun drying my skin after swimming in a cold river brought my spirit back home to my own body and senses.

Who knew my biggest learning would be from a Ranger talking about rocks?

I don’t honestly remember which park I was at for that lecture – but the impact has remained. The words themselves, “sedimentation, lithification, uplift, erosion,” still echo in my spirit like a drum, a poem, a call. The cyclical process of growing and forming, then being undone in some way, to reform in a new shape, is so universal that even rocks go through it. You could think of this as just psychology, but for me it touches on something essential enough that I choose to call it spirituality.

These incredible canyons, cliffs, and stone arches were formed when mud, sand, stone, and gravel was eroded from other mountains, swept downstream, and deposited in new layers (sedimentation.) Over time, with the pressure of its own weight, and with the help of minerals in the water, those materials became stone again (lithification.) More time passed, and forces from deep within the earth forced the layers upward (uplift.) And the cycle begins again as wind and water cut through the rock, eroding it and exposing the layers to view (erosion.)

All at once I could see myself at every place in that picture.

At that time I felt scraped thin, with all my layers, good and bad, exposed. I think that’s how it is for most of us at one time or another. Wherever we land in life, we build up layers of what works: thoughts, beliefs, habits – all the stuff that we end up thinking is “us.” We can turn into a kind of stone: brittle, unbending.

 Sooner or later though, a bigger force comes along, like a change or a loss, or even just the passing of time. But it acts on us like an earthquake, to shake us up. Maybe it lifts us up, maybe cracks us open. Then all those layers of habits and old beliefs, all the things good and bad that make us tick, are out there for everyone to see. We’ve been trying to bring the skills and the story of who we were before, along with us as we grow up or change circumstances, and it just doesn’t work. Hopefully seeing leads to learning, maybe a little loosening, but for sure it leads to change.

 And so we’re swept down another river again, until we can settle again into stillness and a new shape, until that no longer serves us, and we get to ride the whole process again.

Want to see the actual geology? Check out this site: https://www.nps.gov/zion/learn/nature/geology.htm

 

 

 

A Threshold Time

What is a threshold?

The first definition that comes to mind is a doorway or entrance – a line or step you cross over to move into another space. Fall is a threshold season. It lies between summer and winter. Halloween, or the Celtic Samhain, is a threshold day, roughly halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, marking the end of harvest activities and the beginning of a fallow time of rest. Some believe it is a thin place in time too, when the threshold between the visible and invisible worlds is easily crossed. Another definition of threshold is the amount or magnitude of something that is required for something new to happen, such as the temperature water must reach to turn to steam, or the amount of money you must earn to move into a different tax bracket, or the  knowledge you must attain to move to another grade in school. You  might want to think of both senses of the word when you think about what threshold you are crossing (or what state you are moving into) this coming winter.

 Honouring the past, crossing the threshold

One of the issues that I frequently work with clients on is how to honour and cope with transition. In traditional societies, human beings were supported through changes by many different rituals marking various threshold times, such as puberty, marriage, and death. In most rituals you will find a dynamic of “Yes – No – Yes.” We say the first “yes” by celebrating what was true or of value in the past phase, and then we say “no,” where we turn away from the past and say, “I’m ready to be done with that time of my life.” We then turn towards something new – that’s our second “yes.”  Here is a “yes – no – yes” art exercise I’ve given myself this fall to help me embrace this particular threshold season. It’s as much (or more) about the process than about putting it together into a finished piece, so feel free to omit the last step if you like!

Autumn into Winter: A Threshold Project

Materials:

Magazines, scraps of coloured paper, beads, feathers, or other natural and found items, glue, scissors, poster board or a shoe box or other box with lid.

 The first “Yes” The harvest

Sort through your materials. Choose a whole bunch of images and pieces to reflect your life over the last three months or so. Include everything, good and bad, that you can think of.

The “No” The garden clean up                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Sort through your collection from the first step. What images, or parts of the images you chose, could be trimmed down or cut out? Metaphorically speaking, is there anything that needs to be put in the burn pile? Can some of it be composted, or used as mulch to cover the tender earth through the winter? Put these images and pieces aside for now. We’ll call this the compost pile.

The second “Yes” – Embracing the fallow season

Take another look through the pile again. This time you’ll be looking for images or parts of images that feel new, tender, or in need of protection from the winter ahead. Is there any growth in your life that is still quite young and fragile? New thoughts, plans, or ideas on the horizon that you are ready to to turn towards? You can set these elements aside in their own pile too. These are the things in your life that can use the winter season as a time to rest and gather strength. They will benefit from being quietly nurtured until the next growing season. This is the tender new growth pile.

Putting it all together

You will now have three different groups of images now: a compost pile, a tender new growth pile, and what’s left is a pile of elements that are full grown and can be celebrated. You could stop here and journal about the process, or you might already have an inspiration for how you want to work them all into a collage on the poster board. If not, here’s an idea to try using a box:

Using a shoe box or other lidded box, glue the “compost pile” elements to the outside of the box (not including the lid). You might want to creatively cut or tear these images up, since you don’t necessarily want to see them anymore. These elements will act as mulch to protect the inside of the box.

Glue the items in your “tender new growth” pile to the inside of the box. These elements need to be protected through the cold months, nurtured beneath the soil.

Finally, those images that portray the elements from the past season that you want to celebrate can be glued onto the lid of the box. These parts of your life can weather the winter out in the open, and can give you a lift or boost your confidence whenever you need it.

As always, writing about your experience and any insights you get while working (playing!) this way can deepen the benefits of the project. I’d love to hear what you think of it! Enjoy the harvest!

 

Listening to nature; Listening to myself

Moving through nature, transitioning with nature

As some of you know, I make an effort to go on some kind of retreat annually. My preference is for that to include at least some time when I can be alone with myself, out in nature, in addition to time for intensive learning. This year (and last year too, actually) I found myself in Central Oregon, in the “high desert” region near Bend. I drove down there this time, and the experience of moving through several different types of forest, of climate, and geology was profound, especially during fall – itself a transitional season, moving from the light and warmth of summer to the cold and dark of winter.

From darkness into light…

I navigated Highway 101 from Port Angeles down to Olympia, Washington in the dark and nearly in the rain. My shoulders stood perpetually on guard, around the altitude of my ears, and I questioned my judgement many times as I squinted against the bright lights of oncoming cars and the constant, unfamiliar curves in the road. On the other hand, at that hour there was little traffic behind me wanting to go faster than I was comfortable with – a small but important blessing!

After a short and poor sleep at a cheap and noisy motel, and a lot of urban sprawl past Portland, my mood matched the sky as I finally entered the Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon. It was grey with rain-heavy clouds, and the scent of smoke from wildfires was strong. I knew the mountain was there – in fact the map told me I was driving right on the southern slope of it – but my senses didn’t reflect that reality at all. Where was the nature I was so desperately seeking? Where was the view I expected? Was I stuck with a narrow view of dripping aspens (still green, no interesting fall colour yet) and mind-numbing asphalt? Where were the poetic vistas I remembered from my last trip this way?

How many times do we not see the change until it’s already happened?

Suddenly, Highway 26 dropped out of the clouds and I found myself driving along widening canyons more tan and red than green and wet. The sky seemed to lift up and it was as if the rainy morning had never been. The road was the same, the curves were as scary, and yet … now it felt like the road would get me somewhere, the curves revealed a new potential photograph every second. And there were my beloved rock formations, undulating along the roadside where only seconds earlier I had seen nothing worth noting.

It prompted me to wonder, “What changes might be happening underneath the surface, underneath my current mood or mindstate? What is acting as cloud-cover in my life right now?” Luckily for me, the very next day I got to take these questions into my Anamcara training community* and the three-day study retreat that brought me to Oregon. It’s so valuable to me to have a place (and people) who can help me to ask this kind of question in a spirit of mindful curiosity rather than judgement. It’s good to be accompanied and held while we look into the depths.

The metaphor of landscape – nature as mirror

It’s useful to ask myself sometimes, “What’s my inner landscape like today?” I can ask this question from the comfort of my desk or my bed. Sometimes the picture is dramatic: cliffs and canyons, or wild rivers. Sometimes it’s a more placid or domestic scene with meadow or lawn.

When I travel into a specific landscape, like the uniqueness of the high desert, I like to turn the question around a little. “How am I like this landscape? Where is my life dry? What is hardy or tough in me, growing despite the climate, like these junipers? Where am I like the Ponderosa pines, who thrive after forest fires? What makes up my layers, like these layers of rock that have weathered and become exposed over time? Where am I surprised by nourishment, like I was by that river at the bottom of a dry canyon?”

My hope is that these questions will bear fruit in both my work and home life. I would like to reflect some of the peace, strength, and power that I find in the desert. I would like to recognize and nurture the vulnerability in myself and others that is reflected in a landscape where it can take one hundred years to grow a layer of lichen, and where the layers built up over aeons can be suddenly upended by an earthquake, and then eroded again over more aeons back into sand.

 If you feel drawn to working on some of these deeper questions yourself, in an atmosphere of acceptance and creative exploration, I’d like to invite you to contact me for a conversation. You can contact me by e-mail here: openhearthstudio.com  or phone me at 250-595-0405. I am pleased to support people in person at my studio in Victoria BC, Canada, as well as by video conference call for those who live elsewhere.

*The Anamcara Project is a program of The Sacred Art of Living Center in Bend, Oregon. I am in my second year of apprenticeship.  https://sacredartofliving.org/

Inner Peacemaking and the Work of Reconciliation

Reconciliation between nations, peoples, and individuals

is something I am deeply concerned about, but often feel quite powerless about. I was invited this past weekend to present an arts based workshop on the topic of reconciliation. Before I said “yes,” I really wondered what I could possibly do or say in a mere sixty minutes that would make any difference at all. After I said “yes,” I was even more doubtful! In the end, and following the traditional advice to writers, I could only present what I know. What I know is not very much, and pretty narrow in scope, and yet it seems to me that it’s important to start with where I am – only from there can I start the bigger process of learning more and participating in more effective action.

Reconciliation work can begin within the individual.

My usual work involves helping people who are grieving a loss or navigating a major life transition. Reconciliation comes into this work as well, on a smaller scale perhaps. Sometimes it’s between people, but more often I’m working with reconciliation between the parts of a person that are somehow at odds with each other.

 We can experience conflict between new and old ways of seeing ourselves or the world when we go through a trauma or loss. We may feel torn between two (or more) parts of ourselves that want different things as we grow and change. For some people, loss is all about the inner conflict between a side that feels immobile with despair, and one that yearns and seeks for new hope. There may be warring emotions such as anger and guilt or resentment and love. Sweet memories may struggle to emerge next to regretful ones.

These are all pieces of ourselves that in our normal day-to-day lives are easy to ignore or even to truly be at peace with. In times of stress, trauma, or grief the fractures within us become visible and sometimes unbearably painful.

At the workshop, I invited participants to do some brainstorming.

  • What parts of yourself are you MOST comfortable with? What character traits? What emotions?
  • What parts of yourself do you feel most in CONFLICT with?
  • What do you tend to DO to those parts that you find least acceptable or comfortable?

The answers at the workshop were probably similar to some of the ones you’ve come up with yourself. We tend to be comfortable with traits like kindness, creativity, politeness: those things that we get praised for out in the world. Parts like shame, like anger, some things like introversion or assertiveness, tended to be ones that were less universally welcomed.

Love your neighbour as yourself… but what if you don’t love yourself?

I found it interesting that what people (me included) do to those parts of themselves they don’t accept, mirrors pretty accurately what we do to other people we don’t accept. We call ourselves names (“I’m so stupid!” “That would be selfish!”) We silence parts of ourselves – allowing only the “nice” emotions out, while the sadness or the anger are left behind, unexpressed.

 The last question I asked the workshop participants was, “Does this affect your relationships or anything else in your life? How?” Most participants agreed that ignoring, silencing, mocking, or hating parts of themselves didn’t work. At best it created havoc in their own hearts, and at worst it resulted in disastrous interpersonal dynamics.

Creative inner reconciliation: Self-portraits from found objects

Presumably, since you’re reading a blog on an art therapist’s website, you’ve experienced, or are at least willing to play with the notion of creativity as a means of self-expression and self-exploration! Here’s what I asked my workshop participants to do, and I invite you to try too.

I offered them a large and diverse collection of stuff – all kinds of stuff – from sticks, stones, feathers, and shells, to bottle caps, ribbons, beads, and burnt matches. Everything from the precious to the discarded and broken. You can collect such things on a walk outside, from your junk drawer, the recycling bin, from your box of broken jewelry you haven’t got around to fixing.

  • Look over the materials, and choose some. Choose a bunch of things that have some emotional charge for you, negative and positive – both the things you like or are attracted to, and the things that you really don’t.
  • After you bring them back to your workspace, arrange them to create a face – a self-portrait – as abstract or realistic as you like. You can glue them down onto a piece of cardboard, or simply take a photo of your creation and put the materials back.
  • Don’t try to plan ahead while you’re picking your materials. Trust that you’ll be able to make a picture out of what you choose. Let it be as intuitive as possible.
  • Try to bring an attitude of friendly curiosity to your selections and your arrangement – it’s not about making Big “A” Art, it’s about engaging your heart and mind and hands in the process!

After you’ve made your self-portrait, here are some questions that can be helpful in working toward some inner reconciliation:

  • What parts of myself have I allowed into this portrait?
  • Are any parts missing?
  • Does this portrait show me anything new about myself?
  • How can I love this person that I made here?
    • …when I see her or him in the mirror?
    • …when I see him or her out in the world?
  • What does this person need? What do these various parts need?

 There aren’t any perfect answers to these questions. And reconciliation, on the world stage and in our own hearts, is an ongoing, ever changing and evolving process. If you try this exercise, I’d love to hear about how it went for you! You can post pictures on the Open Hearth Studio Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/openhearthstudio/

 

Telling Our Grief Stories to Heal Our Grief

When people tell me their grief stories

they often ask me “does this sound normal?” Because everyone goes through grief in their own way, it can be hard to see what might be normal about your own experience. The fact that our culture doesn’t encourage us to talk much about death, grief, or the down-side of change makes it even harder, because you might not have heard many other people telling their stories about what it was like for them. Worse, you might have been subtly discouraged from telling your own grief stories by (hopefully well-intentioned) people telling you how to feel or jumping instantly into their own experiences without hearing yours. I’ve seen this cultural habit leave people feeling isolated and stewing in their memories, feelings, or fears, afraid to speak their truth in case it might start a flood of unwanted advice or hurtful platitudes. Some end up just hoping the pain will somehow go away on its own over time. Sometimes it leads to a sense of bitterness and cynicism about the possibility of healing at all.

That’s why it’s so important to be open to hearing mourners’ own stories.

Truly hearing means listening to understand, rather than to come up with the perfect response that will fix the grief. I know it’s hard to sit with someone (including ourselves) while they are feeling horrible, and not to leap in with something we hope will make them feel better. What we don’t necessarily see at the time, through the tears, is the healing that happens through the telling itself. We are story telling creatures, whether that’s with pictures or words; human beings make sense of our world this way. When we tell a story, even if we’ve told it over and over again, we come to understand new things about it, about ourselves, about other “characters” in the drama, and even about the world itself and how it works. There is a really great article on the importance of telling your story here.

Mourners worry that if they keep telling the same story

over and over again their friends and family will get frustrated or bored with them. Sometimes friends and family worry that the mourner will get stuck in their grief if they let them keep talking about it. For both mourners and supportive listeners, the important thing to remember is that we can always listen deeper into the story, each time it’s told. Telling them you’d be interested in hearing about their memories of the person who died, or about what it’s like for them right now can be a loving thing to do. Of course it’s also always a good idea to let the person know that they don’t have to answer you if they’re not comfortable! A really wonderful little resource about what to say when you don’t know what to say is the book There Is No Good Card For This: What to say and do when life is scary, awful, and unfair to people you love  published this year by Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell. I found it useful for thinking about my own grief, too. It really validated my feelings and helped me understand my own needs a bit better.

Your path through grief starts with your story.

Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er wrought heart and bids it break.        Shakespeare, Macbeth IV:iii

You can find lots and lots of personal grief stories on YouTube, Ted Talks, and blog sites. I think this is because finally we are beginning to recognize the importance of telling them, while not being quite ready as a society to hear these stories without the escape valve of clicking away. Reading and hearing these stories can be helpful to some grievers; others’ stories can give words and a shape to our own struggles when we’re not able to tell our own. In the end, however, it’s your own story that will you show you the path you need to take through grief.  Your story will illuminate what is important to you. Your deepest hurt can show you what your deepest needs and desires are. They can be the compass that points the direction to your greatest healing.

 Many times my clients have come to me because they feel they’ve exhausted the energy of their friends and family to hear their story any more. So often the people closest to us when we grieve or go through big changes are experiencing their own difficult journey. The first step I take with them is to make room for telling the story, with or without words, in whatever way and at whatever pace works best for them. As the story unfolds, they can begin to see where they want to go, and we can work together to map their path.

 

Signposts on the Path Through Grief

You’ve probably heard about the five stages of grief…

Stages of Grief
the 5 stages of grief

…originally talked about by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her book, On Death and Dying. She labelled five distinct stages that people who are coming to terms with their own death generally seemed to go through: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. The five stages of grief model was an incredible breakthrough at the time because it identified a lot of what grieving people go through as being normal and healthy.

Kübler-Ross never intended those stages of grief to be used as a model for how people ought to approach their own mortality, or how we ought to experience grief for someone else’s death. As human beings, we so badly want to be certain about things, don’t we? We often think, “if I just knew how I was supposed to do this, then I could work really hard and do it right.” The reality is, the process of grief isn’t a tidy series of steps or stages that we can do once and be done with it. It’s really important to remember that we all grieve in our own unique way. That way is impacted by our personality, our situation, our relationship with the person (or pet, or job, or role) that we have lost, and many other factors.

Other grief experts later identified specific needs that all people seem to have during the grieving process. An author I very much admire is Dr. Alan Wolfelt. He has written a number of very helpful books addressing griever’s needs in all areas of life, from the physical to the mental and emotional, to the social and spiritual. He focuses on our human needs for recognizing the reality of our loss, feeling the pain and other emotions associated with it, remembering the person who died, adapting our self-identity to our new situation, searching for meaning in our life, and accepting the help of others. When I first read his work his thinking really resonated with me, and it still does.

Mapping Grief

In my own work with people who are grieving, whether they are working through the death of a loved one in their life, or coming to terms with a major life We need a map to guide us through our grieftransition that results in a sense of loss or overwhelm, I’ve noticed another thing that seems nearly as universal as the needs of grievers. It has to do with the way we imagine and talk about ourselves in grief. The process of loss or change often leaves us feeling lost ourselves – adrift on an unknown sea, perhaps, or wandering in an unfamiliar and harsh landscape. The words that my clients and I have used to describe our own various experiences of grief have so often been ones that bring up images of a place: sometimes terrible, always strange, and often frightening or lonely.

In short, it’s not so much that we need to know the names of stages of grief, it’s that we need a map of our grief, and a compass to guide us. It’s pretty common for a while at the beginning of grief to want to find THE map – something to tell us exactly where we are, and how long it’s going to take us to find our way back home again, and which road to take. Oh how I wish there was just one!

What eventually has become clear to me is that the best grief maps are those we have made ourselves. Maps we’ve drawn of the contours of our own lives and what we know about how to navigate our own challenges with the tools we have and know best. In order to make an accurate map, up until mapmakers could access a real-time satellite photo of a place, you needed to be in the place itself, tread the ground, and measure carefully. This is doubly true of geographies of feelings and relationships. There are no satellite cameras or Google Maps for this. The mapping of grief is a process that takes time and care, and needs a lot of support. I won’t try to stretch this metaphor any further or it will fall apart – but remember how many ships all those historical explorers used?

Your path through grief…

Signposts for grief journey…will depend a lot on what kind of terrain you’re trying to navigate. In the next few weeks, I’m going to write more about grief maps, and the kinds of helpful signposts we’re likely to need as we make them for ourselves. For now, if you find yourself struggling and feeling lost as you grieve, I hope you’ll remember to be kind to yourself, and accept as much support as you possibly can. One place you can start is by downloading my e-book, Finding Peace In Your Grief, right here, for some practices from Art Therapy to help you create the calm space to nurture yourself during this time.

 

And of course, you can contact me for a personal conversation about working together on mapping your path through grief.

I’ve included a couple of additional resources for you. More on the 5 stages of grief.  And another great article on The Journey Through Grief

 

 

Welcoming Love: One Small Part of Moving On

Last month I wrote about moving on after my dog died

Moving on, photoI’d like to share how it’s been working out. It might be just me, but I do find that once I open up to an experience, I seem to be granted the opportunity pretty quickly! Having decided that it was time to at least start thinking about welcoming the love of another dog into our lives, my husband and I (well, okay, mostly I!) allowed ourselves to surf the various local dog rescue websites. We knew a few things about our limits – no dogs with so much emotional baggage this time that they couldn’t be trusted with other dogs or people. We wanted an adult, or even a senior dog that was already known to be safe with cats. Oh yes – we also both wanted at least a medium sized dog. Famous last words!

Picture after picture, story after story

The number of dogs that need a home is staggering, and heartbreaking. But not every one of them would be happy with us, nor would we be happy with all of them. Boundaries can be tough to hold on to when you’re confronted with suffering. I had to remind myself many times that, even if I’d feel really good about rescuing a dog from Iran or Thailand, I wouldn’t know until they were with us if they would be a good match for our household, and that handling some of their issues would create a level of stress for us that would therefore create stress for them too.

Being self-compassionate is not selfish.

 A regret I still hold about our life with Audrey is that her emotional issues probably would have been better served in a family with no cats, or by an owner more savvy with fear-based aggression. We did our best, and she knew she was loved, and I also know that our best wasn’t always THE best. It was good enough. With a new dog, I wanted to be better prepared and less impulsive, while still following my heart. It’s been an interesting balancing act.

Fast forward (really, really fast…)Big love

So somehow we found ourselves looking at an organization that rescues Greyhounds when they can no longer race … and there’s this lovely fellow with a missing toe and eyes like a deer … Welcome home, Aodhán! (Which we’re pronouncing Aidan, possibly incorrectly, but we don’t think he cares much.)

“The 40-mile-an-hour Couch Potato”

 I am learning a great deal about Greyhounds at this point. Aodhán is definitely “at least” a medium sized dog – not quite Great Dane sized, but awfully tall nonetheless. In between bursts of manic playfulness he spends hours and hours asleep. I would like to move towards inviting him to join me in the office, to keep me (and those clients who are willing to have him) company. He needs a bit more work on polite manners, and I think he’ll be great when we get there. He’s not taking up the space in my heart that Audrey left; he is creating his own space there, and I find that there’s room for them both. It wouldn’t be true to say she would have liked him – she didn’t like any dogs – but somewhere in her Wolfhound soul I’m pretty sure she is glad that at least we got another long-legged sighthound!

I’ll let you know when he’s ready to join the Open Hearth Studio staff. Until then, keep your tail wagging!

Moving on: Good-bye Audrey New love, moving on

 

Am I Ready For a New Dog? Moving On After Loss

How long should this take? Am I supposed to be moving on already?

 

red heart, broken with threaded stitches

These questions come up for my clients all the time, regardless of whether they’re grieving the end of a relationship, a big change in their circumstances, or the death of someone deeply important to them. “How long am I supposed to feel this way?” “Someone told me I had to wait a year – when am I allowed to make some big decisions?” “How do I know I’m ready to have a new relationship?” “People are telling me I need to be moving on already.” And for me, for a couple of months now, “Am I ready to welcome a new dog into my heart?” “Can I handle having to go through falling in love again, knowing I’ll just have to watch another friend die?”

Moving on doesn’t mean the end of the feelings.

A few months after our dog Audrey’s death, I had to acknowledge that sticking with my intention to keep going for a healthy walk by myself every Should I be moving on?morning wasn’t happening. I didn’t like being out there without company, I hated bumping into my feelings every time I passed landmarks like where we were when I first saw the symptoms of her cancer, and the ice-cream joint where we shared her last treat, and I was also frankly enjoying the freedom NOT to get up ridiculously early because an elderly doggy bladder needed me to. Yet as time went on, I began to identify another feeling upon waking up, sometimes even at 6 am – a tiny hint of an urge to get out there anyway, the desire to move. I mostly just watched that feeling, and didn’t act on it. I would go to considerable lengths to convince myself not to get up. “It’s too cold; it’s too dark; I need sleep/rest more than exercise; it’s probably dangerous out there without a dog.” I noticed the same messages would play even at a really good time for a walk on a warm sunny evening. “I should stay home and work this evening instead.”

After all, it’s always far easier to stay stuck…

…in a warm bed, or in patterns that feel safe, but really aren’t. By refusing to walk or have a more balanced life, I wasn’t even avoiding the feelings of sadness. Instead I was actually doubling my pain. No exercise, increasing stress, and a life tilting more towards “all work and no play” – all things I thought I’d already handled! Time for using the tools I had been ignoring, right? I have to thank my husband for a small off-hand comment on one walk that I did go on with him. He said something about how I was walking made him imagine that I was holding Audrey on a leash next to us. It was sweet and funny. It made tears come to my eyes, and suddenly it also made everything feel lighter.

I love how imagination let me see a new way through.

Silhouette of dog and master - what if she'd like me to start moving on?I thought: What if I did let myself play with the idea that she was here, and that she’d like me to get going? What if I said to myself, “I’m taking ‘Audrey’ for a walk because it’s good for both of us,” and then followed through? Would that feel different? Would I maybe get out there more? Lo and behold, what looked like a silly mental game has allowed me to listen better to my own inner desire to get moving at least once, and sometimes twice a day! Of course I haven’t completely silenced the sabotaging voices that tell me to stay in bed or cocooned at home! What has happened is that I’m gradually moving on out of that stuck place, and I’m less afraid to feel what I really feel, and know what I want. And one of those things is to have doggy company again when I walk. Even if it comes at the expense of sleeping-in time, and even if it means we have to walk past the ice-cream stand, and even if I have to experience strong and painful memories. I can also make some new memories with a new friend. I’m feeling excited, and more peaceful with the awkward combination of my sad and happy memories. I can imagine myself joyfully accepting a slobbery face-wash and seeing if the laser pointer is still as good a game as I remember.

 You can assume you’ll see some news about my search for a new dog in the near future!

 

How Art Making Nurtures Resilience

 Resilience is a bit of a buzzword right now

 And there are good reasons for that. Focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses has a great track record of bringing people to healthier, happier lives after trauma. This focus isn’t meant to deny the pain or woundedness of our lives, however. Resilience is the characteristic of being able to bounce back after stress or injury. Like a rubber band, we don’t know if it’s working until we’re tested – stretched – by adversity. How can we work on increasing our natural resilience?

Art making is a natural resilience booster.

Art is a place where we can make mistakes that don’t have earth-shattering consequences. We can practice problem solving and decision making in a piece of art. We can try new things and experiment. We can see our situations or our histories and possibly even ourselves in new ways. Art lets us put the intangible and tangled thoughts and feelings of our inner lives into a visible form where we can attend to them compassionately. We can view our habitual reactions to frustration or  success, and learn new ways to reflect and respond thoughtfully. Art can do all these things, and more …

 … as long as it’s supported by a safe container.

Resilience
Resilience

To make art in the pursuit of healing – in the pursuit of higher resilience – the artist needs to feel emotionally safe. A number of factors play into emotional safety.

Freedom from judgment or punishment. Art making to deal with pain, loss, or trauma should be done in a place that is sheltered from the curiosity of those who do not know how to react in a healing way. Art made in this spirit is not to be shared lightly, nor observed out of mere curiosity, or subjected to critique.

Freedom from inner sabotage. Sometimes the danger of judgment comes from the artist’s inner critical self as well. It’s helpful in such cases if the artist is able to rely on someone else’s voice of acceptance and compassion. A supportive therapist can be that voice. So can the knowledge that there are others who have been down the same road and battled the same inner discouragement, and that those inner self-shaming voices are only the voices of fear, not truth.

Respect for the limits of emotional tolerance. One of the more subtle boundaries that need to be maintained around the creation of art as a healing modality is the level of emotional intensity that an individual can tolerate before either shutting down or becoming overanxious. Neurobiology has taught us that only in a state of relaxed alertness does new learning take place. This is different for each one of us depending on character and personal history, and can vary from day to day or minute to minute. For those who have suffered trauma it is an especially delicate balance to maintain. It takes care and skill to create a comfort zone that allows for challenge without boomeranging into deeper trauma. There always needs to be permission to back off, clear grounding techniques to help you do so, and confident encouragement to try again another day.

Next time I’ll write more about some useful grounding techniques to help you find moments of peace during challenging times.

It’s All About The Process

People tend to ask me the same question when they find out how I help people.

“Do I have to be creative, or an artist?” they ask, with a look of fear in their eyes. I get the feeling that if they were less polite they might have already left Art Processmy office, leaving a person-shaped hole in the wall like in the cartoons. I always answer them the same way, “No, this isn’t about making pretty Art, with a capital A, it’s all about the process.” I love this question, and I’ve never gotten tired of it, because it leads so nicely into why I use art materials with my clients to help them find their way through their struggles with grief, loss, and life transitions.

So what does art that’s all about the process look like? Honestly, it can look like anything at all, from a page left blank for an hour, to a piece of clay that has gone through a thousand shape changes, to a piece of art that could earn a place on a gallery wall. Art made for the purposes of personal growth, change, or healing is united in its intention, not in its form. Some professional artists do begin with an intention to focus on process, and then shift their intention to form and outcome after some experimentation. The line can blur. But what I’m asking you to do when you come into my office-studio is truly ALL about the process.

Let me give you an example. I’ve been talking with a dear friend a lot about mid-life, and about how our purpose and perspectives change so radically. She left me with the beautiful and challenging question, “Who are you?”  When I was a teenager, that question had the power to throw me into instant turmoil. It often came in the negative form of “Who do you think you are?” when I would do or say something that wasn’t what those in authority wanted to see. It’s also the question that comes up in the middle of the night for many of us when we’re feeling unworthy or incapable.

“Who are you, now?” is the question I work with on a daily basis with my clients who are readjusting their entire life to fit around the loss of a vital person, relationship, or role in their life. But it’s been a long while since I’ve intentionally sat with it, in a curious way, about myself. Not trying to come up with a definition of myself in the old ways, like “I’m a mother, a therapist, a wife, a friend….” or “I’m a person who likes…” or believes or does certain things. Just to sit with the huge question of “who am I?” and to wait for an answer. Clearly the only way for me to hang out with this question was with art!

I start with the paper.

Art ProcessIt’s a terrific (= terrible, terrifying) question, so: big paper – 4 x 4 feet. How about some movement to start, to pull me down out of my head? I cover the paper with plain white gesso – big, loose strokes with a huge brush. The paper’s too thin, it’s stretching and just about to tear… why didn’t I use something stronger? Just breathe. Wave the hair dryer around; my head is as noisy as it is. What’s my next step? Keep moving. I pull out some big charcoal and make as big a circle as I can. It feels good to do it, so I keep going. The black on white and the crackle of the paper as it reacts to my movement reminds me of newspaper, of text. I write the question, “Who Am I?” as big as I can, in charcoal and then in white paint. I hate how it looks – aggressive. It’s never asked just once though, I think, so I settle in to the effort of writing the question over and over across the whole paper. I look up how to write a proper cursive “I” on the internet. Nice avoidance, but the effect feels better, friendlier. Keep breathing, keep trying not to just jump in there with an answer.

Black and white get boring… and my arm is really tired and sore! Yellow, then oranges and reds. More circles. What’s important in my life? I’m thinking as I paint. How much space and time do I give myself to be with those things, to even know what those things are? Lines happen, dividing up the space, filling in, covering up. Feeling a tightness around all the things I don’t give time or space to, and a desire to just run away from the question. “Who am I?” I’ve given it a few hours of work so far. It’s not done yet – in the same way that I’m not done yet. I’m thinking of pulling it out to work on it progressively (once a week maybe?) over a long period of time, just to see what will happen.

Art ProcessIt’s not supposed to be pretty (but I do like parts of it.)

It’s not immune to my self-judging voice that fears rejection and embarrassment above all else (but I think it’s important not to make my clients do anything I’m unwilling to do!)

So, yes, even though it’s not about the end product, I do recognize that asking you to do art that’s “all about the process” is still a mighty scary thing. I promise that I know what it’s like to put paint on paper, or form to clay, in front of someone else. I know what it’s like to wait for the other shoe to drop – of judgment or disappointment or failure – to watch the paper tear and the clay crack and fall apart just when it might have been becoming beautiful. But what I also know, and know deeply and for certain, is that it IS the process that’s beautiful. It’s the learning and the yearning in YOU that are beautiful.