Category Archives: Self-Care

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.

Pet Loss: Grieving For My Dog

Audrey - by Marion Evamy
Audrey’s memorial portrait by Marion Evamy of Red Art Gallery

I’ve been preparing to write this post for about 8 months…

thinking that it would be helpful for those who have felt left out of the discussion around grief because they are “only” grieving the death of a pet. For those who have been told that pet loss is “not the same” as mourning a person. In a sense, that much is true. There is no such thing as “the same” grief.  Every death is a terrible loss. Every grief is a complex experience of memory, pain, and myriad other emotions. No one wins in the competition of “who hurts worse?”

My dog, Audrey, died four weeks ago, and the preparation made no difference at all.

I have been conscious of watching myself grieve pretty constantly since then. It’s an odd experience, being fully immersed in the feelings and direct experience, and then unexpectedly finding myself popping back up into my head to think “I’ll have to remember this, so I can write about it later.” I don’t really recommend it, but it’s what is happening, so I guess I’ve just got to go with it. My hope is that both you (and later I, too) will find it useful.

Having to hit the “reset” button every other moment …

For me, anyway, that’s what it felt like for the first few days. That scuffle I’m hearing: no, that’s not Audrey following me, it’s just wind outside. Her collar jingling? No, that was a cellphone in the next room. Thinking that I should wait a few more minutes before getting up to go to the kitchen to make sure Audrey’s soundly asleep so I don’t disturb her? Oh, she’s not here; I can get up and do anything I want without bothering anyone. Except what I want is to have her here, to have to (to be privileged to) consider her, to be irritated by her constant needs. While I am surprised less frequently by her absence now, after a month (which feels like about two weeks), it still happens more than I expected, and I imagine that it won’t go away entirely any time soon.

Self-Care, whether you think you need it or not

I  thought it might be a hard decision to cancel appointments in my Art Therapy practice when Audrey died. I knew I’d “probably” need to give myself the same time and permission I advise to others to deal with her inevitable death. Good old ego, thinking only in terms of “probably,” and thinking that all the other pet losses I’ve “had experience” with would have anything whatsoever to do with this loss. I thought I’d feel responsible and a little guilty, so I might let myself waffle a bit on self-care. In the end, there was no question. I didn’t want to see anyone. I wanted so badly not to see anyone that I gratefully accepted my clients’ graceful responses to my last-minute emails telling them I had family circumstances that required my attention for two days. Thank goodness I did. And thank goodness there was a weekend and a “business and paperwork day” as a buffer zone in there too. I would have been good for absolutely no one if I had stuck it out and kept my appointments. I’m still catching up on paperwork.

So what would be useful for me to say here?

It surprised my “witnessing self,” how many of my assumptions about my own reactions were inaccurate. I thought my previous experiences were going to make more difference for me than they did. I thought I was completely committed to one particular course of action, and in the end I went with something else. What my heart wanted in the moment was stronger than any of my rationally considered plans. Perhaps what I want most to get across here, and what I know is still just outside the reach of my language, is the sensation of grief, beyond the whirling thoughts that want to explain explain explain – not really able to mask the true experience. No matter how often I slide upwards into heady observations, turning clever words and ideas over and over in my mind, that I would write a great little essay with, the solidity of the feeling remains, and grows oddly comforting. Stay with that, I remind myself. That is the truth; that is the medicine that will heal me.

Since my own art and poetry haven’t quite come through yet, I leave you with the image of Audrey painted by Marion Evamy of Red Art Gallery (above) and the words of David Whyte, a master of finding words for grief:

THE WELL OF GRIEF

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,

turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe,

will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering,
the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else.

from River Flow
New & Selected Poems
Many Rivers Press © David Whyte

Living in Dying

2013-09-02 19.50.03I know my dog is dying.

Audrey has been with us for almost three years, and, honestly, she rescued me, not the other way around. She is 15, of uncertain heritage with something of a wolfhound, and something of a border collie in there somewhere. Her temperament has always been uncertain as well. Not too trusting, not always polite, but quick to feel terribly ashamed of her bursts of temper.

We have a lot in common. I have always been a person who experienced what an old teacher of mine called “creeping enlightenment” rather than those sudden cataclysms of joyful change. As I watch Audrey move towards what is inevitable for us all, in her own doggy way, I find myself experiencing those new and painful cracks within that tell me I’m growing again. The creeping vines of changing awareness are once again at work inside me and I’d better be prepared to make some room for them. Open a window, let more light in, drink more water … and find the courage to let people in to support me, to be my trellis.

I watch her for cues and clues to what she needs, and find I need those things too as I prepare to wade into grief again. We walk much more slowly now. We save our energy for when the foolish squirrel  wanders into our vision and THEN we put on a burst of speed, and enjoy the hell out of the 10 second run, goofy grin on both our faces. She needs to watch what she’s eating, so as not to disturb the very inconveniently placed tumour that won’t stop growing. It wouldn’t be a bad idea if I paid more attention to my diet too… We stop and smell every … single … thing …. I stop multi-tasking with my phone while I’m walking her and let myself notice that there’s a certain flower bed in our nearby park that has been planted with hundreds of hyacinths that bring me memories of a t-shirt in grade 5 that had (yes, really) a scratch-and-sniff decal of a hyacinth on it. She is clear when she’s done and wants to go home. I have a harder time with that one.

Each new grief brings back memories of every dying we have ever experienced.

I remember my friend who died on the last day of high-school. I remember the boy who took his own life in middle school, who I so regret not making my friend. I remember my grandparents, each of whom died in their own way, consistent with who they were. I remember other pets, from Tippy to Sean to Nanna to Zeke and on and on. I remember and revisit the traumatic experiences when death has come too close to my beloveds. Through the surgeries I’ve had to wait through, breathlessly, when the mortality of my parents, my nephew, my child, my friend reaches up and slaps me in the face. And then not just theirs but mine, and yours, and every living thing. If I’m not careful, I step back into the fear. I step back into the closed room where the sun doesn’t shine and the vine cannot grow.

Instead, I’m going to choose to walk with Audrey. She’s smart, this dog of mine. When she hurts and needs our help, she does let us know -thanks to that wonderful temper! When she’s happy she does not hide it behind dignity. I’m going to honour my memories, the painful and the good, with gratitude. I’m definitely going to be making a lot of art to help me see and hear what my soul needs more clearly! I’m going to keep facing forwards, into the sun. And if I should happen to fracture a bit, in this wonderful tension between past and future that is our current life, then that’s where the vine will creep through, blossom, and bear fruit.

Collage: The Path of Least Resistance?

Are You Feeling Resistance?

Collage: Familiar Materials
What might it take for me to grow through this resistance?

When I’m feeling it, what I notice first is all the excuses I make. For instance, in the case of getting down to my self-prescribed practice of making daily art I might procrastinate by saying, “I don’t have time right now.” “I’ve only got a pencil and I want paint.” “I’m hungry.” “This paper is the wrong size.” “I’m not in the right place.” “I’m alone and I’d rather do this with someone.” “I’m around other people and I’d rather do this alone.” I’m sure most, if not all, of those phrases sound familiar. Even if we don’t say them about art-making, we say them about something in our lives: exercise, making a doctor’s appointment, contacting an old friend…  We avoid. We resist. It’s in our nature. And yes, I’ll get to talking about collage in a minute.

Human beings favour stasis over change

We prefer the known to the unknown, and the same to different, in general. Sure, we all know an adrenaline junkie who thinks it’s great fun to leap off cliffs to feel the rush, but that rush is created exactly because adrenaline is produced when we are confronted with something we don’t expect or that our system interprets as dangerous! It triggers our biological fight/flight/freeze response!

And that’s a good thing. We are this way for a reason. It’s best to avoid the lions and tigers and bears. They bite. But not everything our bodies or our minds interpret as a tiger is a tiger. And that’s why we’re lucky to have the ability to think things through and to go beyond our first glance or our innate assumptions. That scary shadow in the corner looks like a monster, but I can turn the light on and see that it’s my pile of dirty clothes. If I worry about making art in a group, I can come to realize that everyone is not looking at me.

Resistance to our own creative urge

Open Door Collage
What treasures might I find if I walk through that door to the unknown?

In my experience as an Art Therapist, I’ve found that for those unused to making art, it’s important that I find a way to introduce the idea in as non-threatening way as possible. “I have to warn you: I can’t draw!!” is a panicky statement that I hear from many clients, even those who have bravely chosen to see me for counselling specifically because I do work with art. I hear that kind of exclamation as an expression of past hurts – someone, at some time, has judged you. Maybe it was just you doing it to yourself, but as often as not the judgement came from outside, and from someone whose high opinion was really important to you. It probably wasn’t even intentionally hurtful. “Neat! A pretty flower! Shouldn’t the leaves be green though?” Little corrections to our creativity when we are young or vulnerable can create a sense that we are somehow “wrong” in our selves.  Interestingly, even positive feedback (especially of the praising sort) such as, “Oh, that’s beautiful! Let me put it on the refrigerator!” can create resistance too. Even though it might feel great in the moment, somehow, underneath the praise, we can still hear the comparison to a hypothetical piece of art that isn’t good enough to be displayed! The result is sometimes the opposite of what was intended. Now I’m afraid I can’t live up to the expectations that have been raised by this success!

Overcoming Resistance

Fear drives resistance.
What I fear may be merely an illusion.

We don’t want to be governed solely by our biology or by the habitual thought processes that we’ve developed to deal with that biology! So what do we do when we know we would be better off just doing the thing we’re feeling resistance to? Sometimes we need to find a feeling of safety – an anchor if you like – that we can hang on to while we jump into the unknown or the frightening. The adrenaline junkie ties himself to a bungee cord, and he probably  has a trusting relationship with the person who set up the adventure in the first place! When I ask a client to jump into their creativity, it’s important for me to find out where they feel safe, and where they feel vulnerable. We move outward from a point of comfort and familiarity, with the assurance that we can always backtrack to safe footing if it gets too rough out there. 

Collage as the Path of Least Resistance

Collage has a few characteristics that make it a good choice for working through resistance. Magazine images, pictures from old calendars, catalogues, and greeting cards, and scraps of coloured paper of different types (origami paper, tissue paper, wrapping paper…) are all familiar materials that we do not necessarily associate with art, and especially not with that really scary thing, Fine Art. This is not to say that collage can’t be Fine Art, capitalized and everything: it definitely can. But when we are looking for materials and techniques that are going to ring fewer warning bells about lions and tigers and bears in our primitive brain, using the familiar and “everyday” is the way to go! You aren’t required to have particular skills in drawing. You don’t have to manipulate special tools; you might want to use scissors and a glue stick, but you can tear the paper instead, and you might even just want to arrange your images without anchoring them down permanently. Taking a picture of the arrangement and keeping that can work just as well!

So, to get back to my promise to myself to make art every day as a way of taking care of myself, keeping my “baggage” to a minimum, and generally staying happy: what about those days when I’m feeling particularly burdened by anxiety about it? What about my days of heavy resistance? What about those days when the good paint and the high quality paper scare you and your self-talk is all “you’re going to waste it!” “what’s the point?” “it’s not going to be good anyway?”

No specialized materials necessary!
The familiar can be a safe gateway to the adventure of traveling beyond our resistance.

Pull out the recycling bin. Take a deep breath. Spend at least five minutes roughly tearing out images and words that just feel right – whatever appeals or feels important in whatever way. Try not to get caught up reading the latest article! Then look through the pile you’ve collected and refine it- cut or tear the images more precisely if you want, and start to arrange them on a larger piece of plain paper. Glue them down – or not. Stand back and look at what has arisen out of the exercise. What feeling tone does the new image have? How do you feel while you look at it? You can write about it in a journal, or just ponder it for a while. Give collage a try and see if it might be a way to move through your resistance! (…and while you’re at it, make that appointment for a mammogram, and get in touch with an old friend!)

What is an Open Studio?

An open studio is where you are accepted and encouraged, wherever you are on your creative journey.

The Open Studio
Ready for you to come and make art!

Open Studios are places that are built on the principle that engaging in the creative process is a healing activity.

The Open Studio is a concept that has been in place in Art Therapy for many years, and many examples of them exist. Some are found in institutional or residential settings, and others are embedded in communities, offering a place for artistic engagement to people of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds.

Open Studios are OPEN! They invite the participation of everyone who comes, at whatever their skill level. The Open Studio at St. George’s in Victoria, BC is an almost-two-year-old program held in the Parish Hall of an Anglican Church in Cadboro Bay Village. Begun in 2013 as a brief, 12 session pilot project, it has bloomed into a vibrant community of artists – teenagers and twenty-somethings right through to retirees – who hang out with each other once or twice a week to create everything from hand-made clothing to acrylic paintings. Certainly sometimes you will find a senior helping a teen learn to sew, sometimes it’s the younger ones helping their elders with taking a digital photograph with their phone, but it’s rarely a stereotypical interaction. I’ve seen tears shared, subtle and tender expressions of caring, and raucous laughter. There is mutual respect, a sense of fun, and true joy in this varied and expanding community.

Lately I’ve noticed that at least once a week, someone we’ve never met before walks in to the Open Studio and tells us “I saw your sign outside and I was curious!” As often as not, that contact is the beginning of another person’s journey at the Open Studio. Of course, it can be intimidating to join something new, especially if your personal history does not include a lot of positive messages about your creativity. Our invitation to you is to check out that feeling of discomfort when you think about creating art in the company of others. What’s it like? When have you felt it before? What  might be different in a place where the focus is on how you feel while you make art instead of on what you make? We try our best to make everyone as comfortable as possible. You can work in solitude; you can work at a table with several others; you can ask for help; you can ask to be left to your own devices. We’ll offer you some coffee or tea!

The unique thing about an Open Studio that practices Art as Therapy is that you will have the opportunity to reflect on your creation with an art therapist. An art therapist is trained to help you look at the images with compassion for yourself, encouraging you to listen deeply to your own inner wisdom. You may find parallels between the way you make art and the way you live your life, or between the image you have created and your life circumstances, or between the way you feel about the image and the way you feel in a particular situation. It is your interpretation that counts – we are there to support you in your search for meaning.

You are invited to join the adventure! Come to the Open Studio at St. George’s on Monday mornings from 9-12 or on Wednesday evenings from 6-9!

On Success and Failure

Walker Doll: Success and FailureA lot of graduation speeches are being  made across the country this month.

I’m sure a lot of them are all about success  and failure, and how to achieve one and avoid the other.

What I liked best about the one  I heard at my daughter’s graduation was that it was mostly about failure.  Success and failure are awfully loaded terms, aren’t they? One gets you the ticker tape parade and the best seats in the house; the other leaves you staring at your own toes, left behind while the “cool” people go to the dance. They seem to be mutually exclusive, but in real life I believe they are merely two sides of the same coin, and you can’t have one without the other.

So why was a speech about failure so great?

Firstly, it wasn’t all about how great and unique and special each one of the thousands of graduates was, and how they were all destined for greatness. I’m glad we, as parents, were allowed to simply appreciate our kids, whatever their potential. More importantly, it was very real. We all fail. We cannot hope to pass through life from one mountain top or cresting wave to the next.

There are downhill sections of every trail. And frankly, those times are what we  need the caring advice of our elders for!

Not the days when everything is coming up roses or when we get the job of our dreams. But the days when we just KNOW we’re not EVER going to get the job of our dreams (even if we might, actually, some day). Those days are the hard ones. It’s good, at the beginning of a long journey, to see someone we admire admit that they have failed on their journey, not once but many times, and admit that the fear of it still causes nightmares!  And when that someone is practically a synonym for success the way Martin Scorsese is, all the better!

Maybe that speech was more typical of one delivered to graduates of an art school, or maybe not- we are living in times where a gritty realism is appreciated- but I do think that the reframing of failure as a natural part of success is more likely among artists. Failure is where we learn, where we refine our ideas and our ways of communicating them.

An artist sees failure as a necessary element of the rhythm in art making.

Florence Cane, in The Artist in Each of Us, pointed out that there needs to be both active and passive modes in creative work. We need to sit still and consider, ponder, and discern just as much as we need to be engaged in actively applying brush to canvas or hands to clay. I believe we also need to experience what doesn’t work just as much as what does work in order to sustain an artistic process (or a happy life!) over the long term.

If it weren’t for our moments of not-knowing, for our mistakes, we would never experience the magic of serendipity or the glorious surprise of something truly new and unexpected.

If we let go of a narrow definition of failure and start to see it as an enrichment of our knowledge and experience, a re-calibrating of our compass, or a refinement of our technique, we can also transcend our narrow definition of success, and begin to enjoy each moment of our creating, our journey, and our life as the jewel that it is!

DISCLAIMER: This information is not a substitute for professional psychological advice, diagnosis, or treatment. All content provided by Frances Bryant-Scott, RSW, BCATR is intended for general information purposes only. Never disregard professional medical or psychological advice or delay seeking treatment because of something you read in this blog (or any blog for that matter!)

An Art-Ful Exercise of Imagination

Shall we go for a walk together?

Walk in Shuswap

We know that walking is good for us – all that cardio exercise and stuff, right? And on some level most of us feel that getting outside is good for our soul too…

where we can smell the air and get in touch with nature.

There can be more to the Art of Walking than that, though. Walking is a very rich metaphor. When we walk, we travel. What’s our current journey in life like?  Are we travelling with a purpose, or meandering with no concrete goal just yet?

Is it a pilgrimage, a crusade, a shopping trip, an exploration, a rescue mission, a vacation?

Is it a saunter, a slog, a hike, a climb, a trek, a jog, a march or a mad dash? Do you lope, limp, mosey, swagger, strut, sashay, goose-step, trot, or tip-toe tentatively? 

Next time you’re on a walk, and it doesn’t matter what kind – you could be doing it for health and relaxation or for errands – indulge your imagination. See your walk as an epic journey! What pitfalls do you encounter? What supports or friendly strangers (à la Tin Man on the Yellow Brick Road!) help you along the way? Is there a fairy-tale witch in disguise, waiting to give you a magical gift in return for your kind gesture?

Letting your imagination have free-reign for a time each day nourishes your ability to observe small details and to see your life from a different perspective. Doing so while you are walking adds a kinesthetic and sensory dimension to the experience.

When you get home, perhaps your journey can be translated into art: a poem or drawing or map. Maybe it can become the basis for tonight’s bedtime story for your children (or you!) And sometimes, the story you weave out of your walk can inspire you to journey differently tomorrow.

Some neat walking inspirations:

DISCLAIMER: This information is not a substitute for professional psychological advice, diagnosis, or treatment. All content provided by Frances Bryant-Scott, RSW, BCATR is intended for general information purposes only. Never disregard professional medical or psychological advice or delay seeking treatment because of something you read in this blog (or any blog for that matter!)

The Art Therapy Guide to Getting Dressed!

Reflections on the Art of Personal Adornment

You’ve heard the sayings “dress for success,” “the clothes make the man,” “putting on my warpaint,” “power dressing,” and “wear your heart on your sleeve.” Our language is full of idioms that show  just how important what we wear is to us, beyond mere protection from the elements.

What we put on our bodies, whether that is make-up, a tattoo, jewellery, or clothing, can have a much deeper meaning than simple decoration.

Personal adornment has been an important part of culture around the world for as far back as we can find artifacts.  Masks and costumes continue to be used in ritual; special garments can denote status or membership in a particular social or professional group; jewellery has been everything from a sign of wealth and even legal tender to a tool for prayer. Faces can be painted to prepare for war or for a first date, with equal attention to detail and “getting it right”! Sometimes it’s about creating an impression on someone else, whether the intention is to attract or intimidate.

But lately I’ve been looking at it on another level too, as a place for creative expression of who we are in the moment, who we might want to become, and of how we feel or what we need.

As a part of my work in art therapy, I’m particularly interested in everything we humans do that involves the senses and our creativity.  And guess what? Personal adornment is all about touch and the visual sense

Do you prefer clothing that wraps you comfortingly in something soft, or that makes you feel invulnerable, like you are wearing armour? Are the colours soothing? Shocking? Warm or cool? Is your jewellery small and inconspicuous or large and highly textured? Are there particular symbols that feel important for you to wear? Are they visible to others or not? The answers to these questions will differ greatly from one person to another, and from one day to another even in the same person.

Next time you’re getting dressed, think about it!

A hand-me-down sweater from your best friend or your favourite brother can be a comfort during hard times. A necklace with a special symbol or a particular stone or gem worn close to your heart can keep you physically and emotionally aware of what your heart needs today. A ring that you can see and touch throughout the day can have the job of reminding you to look for something positive in that moment. A vest, scarf, or a necktie can be a tangible metaphor for “suiting up” to meet a challenge head-on.

  • Will today be a day I need to be surrounded by my favourite, most comforting or most energizing colour?
  • Is there a symbol of my faith, my gratitude, or my particular strengths that I can wear or carry with me today to help me meet a challenge?
  • Is there a way my clothing, my jewellery, or even my make-up can help me to focus on a quality that I’m trying to bring into my life? Do I need more softness or compassion for myself and others?
  • Do I need to feel a little bit tough or armoured today? Do I have a garment or a piece of special jewellery that can remind me of my boundaries and that it’s ok for me to stick to them?

When you choose, whatever you choose, do it with mindfulness and intention. You can give yourself the gift of a little self-care that will keep on giving all day long!

What do you do for yourself in terms of adornment, clothing,  and colours?

DISCLAIMER: This information is not a substitute for professional psychological advice, diagnosis, or treatment. All content provided by Frances Bryant-Scott, RSW, BCATR is intended for general information purposes only. Never disregard professional medical or psychological advice or delay seeking treatment because of something you read in this blog (or any blog for that matter!)