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.

Taking the Time for Grief and Change in an Age of Impatience

It takes our human minds and bodies time to integrate change.

Taking the Time for grief and change When the change involves painful feelings – and make no mistake, most changes do, even the most positive ones – we often need more time. But we bring so much impatience to our experience of change and grief – we want so badly to skip over the in-between time, the time that lies between what we used to be or have, and what we are becoming. We worry that we’re taking too much time, or too much of our friends’ and family’s attention, and we try to compress our adjustment period into a socially acceptable month, or six months if we’re lucky.

We live in a culture of extreme impatience and intolerance for the ordinary discomforts of waiting. We experience our desires for instant gratification as a need, practically as a matter of life or death. Unsurprising, in an age that sees 140 character Tweets as sufficient to address political truths, and that believes that 30 seconds is too long to wait for a web page to load.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a believer in grieving forever, and it is possible to get stuck in the process. What “stuck” looks like, however, is different for different people, and can’t be dictated by a tidy, one-size-fits-all timeline. Determining whether (and where) you are stuck is a gentle and sensitive process that takes due consideration of your strengths and skills, your situation, and your needs.

Growth and healing after a loss or major change require both protection and expansiveness.

Our shell keeps us safe... until it's too small and we need to change.
Our shell keeps us safe… until it’s too small.

Protection, however, doesn’t mean protection from your pain. I mean protection from expectations and judgement. It requires a degree of courage, to feel exactly what you are feeling, in the present moment, especially when that doesn’t match other people’s (or your own) expectations or wishes. And what do I mean by expansiveness? Our hermit-crab soul has grown out of its shell (or had it forcibly taken away by circumstances) and is fragile, naked, and afraid. To stay in the shell would constrict our growth, so we need the space to explore and expand. To stay safe while we do so we need to be in an environment that encourages bravery and experimentation, and offers acceptance of the messiness that comes with it.

Make no mistake, it’s a tough balancing act. And one of the best ways to find both protection and expansiveness is in TIME. Deliberate setting aside of time – preferably just a little bit longer that you’d really like to, or think you can “afford” – to be as present to yourself and your reality as you can be. It might look like thinking time, journalling, prayer, or staring at the ceiling. It might involve something active or creative like hiking, art, movement, gardening, or music. The requirement is that it involves you attending to your current, present, inner life and experience, and not to what you think those ought to be.

Playing with the edges of what you’re comfortable with is going to be how you grow, how you find your strength, and eventually where you will find your energy and joy again. And it’s worth the time.

If I can be of assistance in helping you determine if you’re stuck in a grief or change process, please don’t hesitate to contact me. You can book a free consultation by clicking here.

 

 

Mother & Daughter, Identity & Intensity

For Mother’s Day my daughter is texting me pictures of all the flowers she’s encountering in her day – it’s one of the sweeter of her many sweet expressions of love for me. No, I’m not going to lie and tell you that our relationship is characterized entirely by sweetness. Our relationship IS characterized by words like “very,” “more,” and words that end in “-er” and “-est.” We are both intense personalities, and therefore, like the “little girl who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead,” in the nursery rhyme, when we are good (or sweet or nice or loving to each other) we are very, very good, and when we are bad (or angry, or jealous, or sad with each other) we can indeed be “horrid.”

 The same can probably be said of my relationship with my own mother. I wish I had known my grandmother better, so I could tell how far back this line of intensity goes. I do know she and my mother could stick to their guns with a truly astonishing level of stubbornness when necessary. My solitary memory of my great-grandmother was her fondness for watching wrestling matches on television! I bet she was a fairly intense lady herself. My father’s mother and I also had an intense relationship. I remember vividly a particular day, when I was boarding with her while in graduate school, that I felt an incredible connection and tenderness for her while helping her with some cosmetic care. Only an hour or two later, we were having a real beauty of a spat about what we would watch on television, both of us with our heels dug firmly in, and chins stubbornly up in the air! (She wanted a Knight Rider re-run, I was in the middle of a nostalgic moment listening to Ernie sing about his rubber ducky and didn’t want to change the channel just yet…yeah, I’ve always been mature that way.)

 I believe that all of us formed our identities, in part, by testing them against each other’s intensity and strength. When I was a teenager, I know I thought I was fighting against something in my mom. My perspective has changed a lot since then, partly because of my own experience of parenting, but mostly from getting to know her as a woman in her own right, and not just as the role of “mother.” I had no idea at the time that the more I insisted on being myself, the more I was like her!

 I am incredibly lucky to have been surrounded by women who, one way or another, find ways to express themselves authentically, and who tend to get better at it as they age. For all of them, young and old, there are certainly lots of times when it isn’t so safe to express their opinions or characters, but when it is safe, or when it is necessary, they do it with gusto. Instead of crumbling in on themselves, they all continue to emerge and blossom, grow and develop their own spirits.

 So here I am, looking at a collection of blooms, everything from cut roses to street corner planters, and from charming paper creations to high-tech designer displays made of metal. Such incredible diversity and individuality! They fit in, or they don’t, with perfect sincerity. They are what they are. They don’t really care what the passers-by in New York think of them, or that their images have now been replicated on computer and phone screens thousands of miles away. May my daughter feel the same sense of comfort in her own skin. May I. And may all of you.

                                                                                                                                                      

Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is yet another one of those holidays that carries with it a whole lot of baggage! At its best it’s an opportunity to surround ourselves with warm feelings about our own mothers or to bask in our relationship with our kids. At its worst, it’s a focus for guilt, regret, anger, anxiety, grief, or feeling left out or unacknowledged. For some people I know, what they hope for each year is that it will pass quickly and with as little attention as possible.

I don’t think there’s any one, right way to handle Mother’s Day. But maybe there are ways to think about it that can help. Certainly one of the best places to start is an acknowledgment that the definition of  “mother” is an evolving, complex thing, even on a purely intellectual level. Add to that, the fact that (however you define it) the relationship between a mother and a child is also one of the most emotionally complex relationships we will experience, and you’ve got a recipe for disillusionment, faulty assumptions, and volatile reactions. So first of all, you’re NORMAL if you are riding a bit of a rollercoaster on the second Sunday of May every year.

I think it’s healthy to spend some time in our lives considering and tending to what we’ve experienced as nurturing in ourselves and others. Whether that happens on the specific day in the calendar our governments have chosen to publicly acknowledge as Mother’s Day, or in some other way of our own choosing, is probably less important.

Perhaps with more attention to the qualities of care, nurturing, love, and peace that the originator of the holiday wanted to honour her own mother for, we’d be a more peaceful, nurturing and loving society. If you want to know more about her and the history of Mother’s Day, Wikipedia has an interesting article you can read here. 

If you’re feeling grief, loss, or stress in any way related to your own relationship with your mother, or to your own experience as a mother, Art Therapy is a gentle way to work through the pain. Sometimes words, just like holidays, aren’t quite right or aren’t quite enough.