Monthly Archives: April 2012

SAME LAKE, DIFFERENT BOATS: The Power of Writing Through Grief

A talkative guy, Walt always said he invented social media.

Last night we wrapped up another grief writing group at HCS.

Once again, I feel like I’ve climbed a very high mountain, in the company of wonderful people. Once again, I feel honored to be the presence of people who are grieving the loss of someone they love.

Each group has been different: Different people. Different losses. All at different points in their grieving process.

Some are still in the raw, ferocious early stages, reeling from their loss. Some are caught in the soul-numbing middle stage, struggling to remember what “normal” even looks like. They are sure they’ll never feel “normal” again.

They fear if they let go of the grief, of those last difficult memories, they will truly lose their loved one forever.

And then there is this stage, where a tiny glimmer of hope and peace can be seen, and grasped.

The first stage is still scary to me. I remember talking to Lorraine, my supervisor, about taking on this work. I worried about saying the wrong things, or not knowing when to say the right things. If there even is a “right thing” to say to someone whose grief is so fresh and painful. “I’m so afraid I’ll make their grief worse,” I said.

“People are pretty tough,” mused Lorraine. “You’re not going to break them!”

She’s right. And that’s part of the beauty of this work, this writing process.

People begin this writing journey with such pain, it hurts to look at their faces.

We start slowly, with gentle writing “assignments”. We share what we’ve written.

(Yes, I participate, too, and I’m amazed at how it’s helped me. I pick a person I’ve loved and lost for each workshop. This one was for my friend of more than 35 years, Walt Spiller (aka “Walt the Mailman), who died in January.)

We exclaim over the similarities in our “crazy feelings”: “You feel that way, too??”

And yet each person’s journey is unique. Our experiences, the manner of our loved one’s death, their journey, is like no other.

The person we’ve lost is unique. Last night, as we read our last scribblings, one person said, “I’ve come to know who your loved one is, through your writing. I can actually see them!”

Each person has traveled their own road, but yet together. One person said it beautifully: “It’s like we’re on the same lake, in a different boat!”

The same lake…. This is the human experience, after all: We will all lose someone we love. We will all be lost to someone we love. With every birth, there will be a death. To borrow a quote from Canadian painter Robert Genn, “Every puppy begins in joy and ends in tears. So it is with people.

A different boat. Not every death is simple. Some are too fast–loved ones lost to heart attack or accident, no time to say goodbye. Some are too harsh–loved ones lost to suicide or murder. Some are complicated–our feelings for them are conflicted, our love tangled in anger, or fear, or resentment, or worn down to a frazzle after years of care and anguish.

All this, and more, is shared, once a week, in these little groups. Through the power of the written word, ideas are born, feelings are explored, insights are shared. The healing begins. In a safe and sheltering place, people put their lives back together, one little poem and one tiny thought at a time.

How that happens is a miracle. The writing does its work.

For all our frantic scribbling, writing is a meditative practice. It lets us get those swirling, maddening thoughts out of the racetrack of our brains, stops the ceaseless circling and speeding so we can be less reactive, less guarded. We don’t have to worry about the next wreck around the corner. We can slow down and look and see what is in our hearts, and commit those words to paper.

It’s a time to write what’s in our hearts, to say it aloud, to share it with the group. The power of our words–the power of us acknowledging our words, the power of others acknowledging our words–is healing. “I didn’t realize I felt that way!” “What you said is beautiful!” “I feel that way, too! I thought I was alone….” You hear this over and over in this group.

Over the weeks, we build up a portrait of that person. We see the role they played in our lives, and our role in theirs. We remember the times before the loss.

Gradually, instead of the harshness of fresh grief, there is…a softening. Instead of the heavy weight of sorrow, we carry memories–just as strong and durable, but lightweight and supple.

We laugh, we cry, we laugh some more. And we write, and we write.

We are writing down the bones.

There is forgiveness. There is gratitude.

When we part, on the last evening, I see their shoulders, which have been weighted down with grief, set with a bit of strength. I see their new-found confidence, their courage to meet a new day. We hug, we laugh, we cry. And we go home, some to empty houses and shattered lives, but with hope.

So what am I left with, at the end of these sessions?

I’m left with sympathy. Watching people struggle to understand this last, the greatest of human mysteries.

I’m left with amazement at the bravery the courage these people carry, often unaware of their own strength and bravery.

I’m left breathless at the beautiful words they bring forth from their experiences.

I’m left grateful that they trusted the process, they trusted me, to take care of them.

I’m left with respect for the dignity they bring to this journey.

I’m left with peace in my heart.

And I’m always, always left to stand, in astonishment and humility and gratitude, honored to in the presence of these people as they make this difficult, incredible journey.

Walt told a LOT of stories, but now I see they were always told with love, about love.

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Filed under art, grief journaling, hospice, life, writing

THE POWER OF NOW

This is a column I wrote for The Crafts Report, way back in 2010. (I remember it well….it was…ah…the year before 2011.) I just came across it, looking for something else, which, by the way, I haven’t found yet. (That’s how my life works, people. Embrace the serendipity.) But it make me laugh again, and maybe you will, too.

I recently picked up a used copy of Ekhart Tolle’s THE POWER OF NOW at a local thrift shop. It’s a well-loved, well-read copy–the previous owner underlined and highlighted almost every single page. I especially loved the “!!!” and “YES!!” and “THIS IS IMP.!!” written in the margins. Just in case I missed what was going on.

I don’t want to make fun of that person nor the book though. It really does have some thoughtful things to say. It’s about being “in the moment”—not reliving a painful past, nor anticipating the future at the expense of the “now.” It takes a lot of practice, though. Otherwise, you end up watching a clock and saying things like, “NOW….it’s 10:30:24.” “NOW….it’s 10:30:31.”

On this particular day, I’d worked hard in the studio. I’d promised two of my galleries I’d restock them quickly, as they’d sold a lot of my work lately. A LOT of my work. (Whoo hoo!)

I worked on a popular new series of jewelry, with a more organic, simpler designs. It seems to appeal to people who like my aesthetic, but want something more “neutral” than powerful animal totemic work. (What?? You don’t want a giant ivory bear hanging around your neck when you go to the supermarket??) (I can joke about my work, but you can’t, okay?)

I’d been focused and busy all day, “in the zone”, moving easily from one production task to another.

Later that evening I was dashing around town to finish up some stuff so I could relax “later”. You’d think by now I’d know that “later” rarely comes.

The last errand took me across town and back. On the way home, I thought maybe I could practice being “in the moment” in my normal life, too.

So instead of wishing I could hit all the green lights, or cursing the idiot who pulled out in front of me at the rotary, I tried to slow my breathing down. Breath…… In. Pause. Out.

I relaxed and observed what was going on right now.

“I’m driving the car,” I thought. It felt like flying. That was neat.

My knee ached a little. “My knee hurts,” I thought. But that was a good thing. It meant I’d gone for a long, vigorous walk with our dog Tuck, playing “monster chasing dog” and “kick the pine cone” and “grab the stick and pull” games. (Dog training tip: A tired dog is a well-behaved dog.)

“We have a dog!” I thought. Tuck, sitting in the back seat, chose that moment to stick his head forward and nestle it gently next to mine. Sweet. Except for the doggy breath. I’m still not used to that.

“I’m cold,” I thought. Not painfully cold, just enough to feel it. Refreshing.

“I’m on my way home to my family.” That felt good, too.

I drove through the town square. “This is a pretty town,” I thought. Keene does have a really nice downtown. This is where our kids grew up. No matter where we end up, it will always hold a special place in our heart.

“It’s a beautiful evening,” I thought.

And then I thought, “I’m driving through a cloud of soap bubbles. And I was.

Someone in an apartment above had opened a window and blown soap bubbles to drift down to the street below.

It was wonderful. Quite a lovely moment.

Then I saw a very flat, very dead squirrel, and that moment was done.

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Filed under art, life, life lessons, world peace

ASK THE TURTLE

Years ago, I was driving along a New Hampshire highway, and spotted a turtle by the side of the road.

From the tomb of King Tut, one of four guardian figures believed to be modeled after his mother. I see protection, gentleness, peace, love and serenity.

My heart went out to it. So many times, you see crushed turtles on the road. They simply can’t move quickly enough to escape the rushing traffic.

Now, on the other side of the highway was a lake.

Clearly, the turtle was confused, and needed help. So I pulled over, picked up the turtle, and took it to the lake side of the road.

I was so proud of my good deed. I patted myself on the back for taking the time to help a little turtle.

Imagine how embarrassed I was to learn, years later, that I had done exactly the wrong thing.

Turtles don’t get lost.

Female turtles have powerful drives to do exactly what this one was doing. They travel long distances to a safe, dry place away from their watery home, to lay their eggs. When they’re done, they return to the water.

I had simply prolonged this poor turtle’s journey. And forced it to cross the dangerous highway again.

I read an article about our nation’s tendency to offer international aid, with good intentions. But we often neglect to let each country determine what aid it really needs. The author used the same example of giving misguided ‘help to the turtle. “Ask the turtle,” she admonished. “The turtle knows exactly what it needs.”

I love this story, though I still feel bad for my own turtle.

I had a phone consultation with Lyedie Lydecker a few days ago. With a messy studio, new projects looming, new work I want to do, small orders I need to fill, upcoming knee surgery and the resulting loss of income (I can’t do my big League of NH Craftsmen’s Fair this year), I’ve been overwhelmed with how to best use my remaining non-invalid time. I’d ask Lyedie to help me sort it all out.

She listened, which is a blessing in itself. So many people listen, but then try to fix. (I do that!) I was listened to with exquisite care.

But the best insight was how to approach my studio.

It’s such a mess, and the thought of cleaning it now is overwhelming.

Now, about our studios…. Lyedie firmly believes that our studio isn’t just a physical space to work. It’s a partner in our creative process.

She said, “Ask your studio–your beloved partner in your creative process–what it needs.

As I look over the notes I took of our conversation, I flashback to an article I wrote almost eight years ago. As I reread it, I’m astounded by what I wrote that day.

Because it echoes Lyedie’s words so clearly, it’s eerie.

I firmly believe that we already know what we need to know. Sometimes it takes someone else to tease it out of us. And sometimes we just need someone to tell us.

So how do I ask my studio what it needs? Hmmmmmm……

Someone once told me how to do just that. The universe will give us everything we ask for, she said, if we would ask the right way.

You look down and close your eyes, droopy. Then expand and stand tall. Raise your face to the sky, turn your hands out, and ask. Out loud. Ask for what you want with your whole heart. (I did it a few times, and it worked so profoundly, I was scared to ask any more. Mistake!)

Now what does that remind me of??

I realize today I’ve seen this posture before.

You can see it in the figure above, one of a group of four female figures I saw in the King Tut exhibition in Toronto many, many years ago. They are guardian figures (of Tut’s sarcophagus?), believed to be modeled after his mother. They protect the remains of her beloved son, with serenity, with peace, with gentleness and love.

So that’s what I did this morning. I entered the studio today as a supplicant, as a loving partner, eager to restore my beautiful relationship with my beloved space.

I asked my studio what it needed from me.

Because I was willing to see, to listen, to feel, to love, I heard what my studio needs.

And it was not what I thought it was. It doesn’t want much. There are no demands, no resentment, no punishment or resentment. Just a few gentle requests. All things I can manage, and all things that will return tenfold in joy.

Today, I asked the turtle.

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Filed under action steps, art, cleaning the studio, craft, living with intention, mental attitude

LEARNING TO LOVE YOUR TO-DO LIST

My to-do list: It's not what you think it is!

Your to-do list is really a travel brochure.

My plate is loaded. Full up. Spilling over.

I have so many projects in the air, I’ve been suffering major brain buzz. I hardly even know where to start.

Now, life coach and writer Martha Beck has a great article on how to unhook yourself from a to-do list. I think she actually suggests scheduling “empty time” in there.

And I know my life is so much more than a to-do list. One of her clients, on her deathbed, jokingly said, “At least this is one more thing I can cross off my to-do list!”

But I needed something more. Something that felt more like my whole approach to life. And this morning, I found it.

I was writing my morning pages–the “brain data dump” I try to do every morning. Sure enough, “more things I have to do” kept popping up as I wrote, and I dutifully added them to today’s ever-growing list. It’s already so long, I couldn’t possible complete the tasks in a week, let alone a day.

With a big sigh, I started to prioritize my tasks. What could wait? Which ones were more important? Which IS more important–the ones about my family? The ones about the latest foster puppy? The new open studio tour I’m working on? Cleaning my studio so I can HAVE an open studio? What about my upcoming surgery? Should I focus on getting healthy? What about my phone date with Lyedie this afternoon? (You can read more about integral coach Lyedie Lydecker here and read my article about her here.

Ah. Lyedie. What was that she said about time?

It’s not about priorities. It’s not even about balance–balancing family time with art time, friend time with exercise, pet care with health care.

It’s about awareness, and intention, and engagement.

For me, it’s about crafting a whole life. Seeing, learning, participating, growing. Not sideways(sigh), but inside-ways.

That’s when it hit me. What my to-do list really is.

It’s a travel guide for my life.

It’s not an AAA road map. It’s a list of possibilities.

Priority be damned.

Some of these tasks aren’t high priority. But they also won’t take much time or effort. Or I can do them on my way to another, “higher priority” task.

Some are totally unimportant. But I like doing them. They look like work, but they are actually fun.

Even some of the most important ones aren’t necessarily time-sensitive. They’re big, but they can wait. And sometimes, they can’t happen until other smaller, simpler steps are taken.

But what really blew me away today was thinking about the unimportant, quick, not fun, actually dreaded tasks on my list from a week ago.

It involved picking something up from a person I’ve had totally negative encounters with. This person is sarcastic and resentful, in a job they hate and not getting the recognition they feel they deserve.

I thoroughly dreaded the pick-up, and had to force myself to do it. Actually, I did it first because I wanted to get it over with.

I decided to be my higher self for just a few minutes. I said I was sorry for the circumstances behind their donation.

And the walls of anger came tumbling down.

I’m sorry to be so circumspect, but want to protect their privacy. Let’s just say that I saw another side to this person, a totally different aspect of their life that blew me away. They opened up to me, sharing their sadness and joy, their dreams and hopes.

It turns out I was able to speak to that in a way that encouraged and supported them. I gave them the small thank-you gift I’d prepared, and they were delighted and grateful.

Now, the point here isn’t that all people (okay, almost all people) have an inner beauty, if only we knew where to look.

The point is, this was an item on my to-do list I’d dreaded. And it was actually a door into something powerful and profound.

There was a connection, a reconciliation, a new way to interact with this person in the future.

And it all came from a place I never could have predicted.

Now I’m sitting here with that same to-do list.

It looks different. It doesn’t seem to fill me with as much anxiety. Time doesn’t seem like a upside-down bottle of sand with grains running out the bottom.

It looks like a travel guide to a mysterious, exciting and beautiful new country, a country I’ve wanted to visit all my life..

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Filed under art, balance, craft, life lessons, living with intention, mental attitude, mindfulness, to do list