During the past number of months I have been recovering from a back injury with many blog posts bubbling up in my thoughts. The overriding subject is that of pain. Pain as informative, instructive, as an experience, as a teacher. I know that today is Thanksgiving, and this is NOT a post of complaint, far from it.
This injury gave me an unexpected opportunity, even a mandate, to stop, slow down, take stock, be still. Taking a page from The Wae Center, a community of adults with developmental disabilities, I decided that if I couldn’t move very much , I may as well meditate every day, just as they do. When you have been going a mile a minute, stopping short can be a bit of a shock . I was seeking an anchor and steady ground.
About this time, a dear friend gave me a book called “The Energy of Prayer,” by Thich Nhat Hanh, a wonderful book that I highly recommend for anyone of any belief system who is interested in deepening his or her mindfulness, reducing stress, and softening the heart. In the appendices of the book , the author has outlined a number of meditation practices that are easy to try. My favorite is described as the five year old meditation, which invites you to visualize first yourself, then your father, then your mother, at the age of five, and to meditate on the vulnerabilities, fears and challenges of that time. Wait, I am making it more complicated than it sounds. Here is the simple directive, as excerpted from a page in the book:
“Breathing in, I see myself as a five year old child. Breathing out, I smile to the five year old child.
Breathing in, I see the five year old child, who is myself, as very fragile and vulnerable.
Breathing out, I smile to my five year old child in myself, with understanding and compassion. ”
This is repeated for your father, then your mother, and then acknowledging the challenges faced by each of them, manifesting within yourself, you being the ultimate conduit of healing. Even if you were to attempt the first segment of this meditation, I think you may experience some opening, softening of your heart, a palpable experience of lovingkindness towards yourself that, unbidden, will naturally spill out to others.
Getting back to the pain.
Parallel to this deeply comforting experience of lovingkindness, and reassuring sense of peace that seemed to well up from my moments of quiet meditation, was this thrumming drumbeat of relentless pain. Sharp, searing, burning, aching, presenting itself in all manners of nuance. I wanted to run, to sprint away from it. Yet, as limitless as my mind might feel during meditation, this ratfink pain had me corseted, teasing and taunting me with all the things I could not do. Again, I need to send a shout out to my friends at the Wae Center, whose daily embodied experience has been one of limitation for as long as they can remember, yet who are truly my mentors in terms of patience, gratitude and finding joy and fun, a lion’s share of the time. A shout out and a bow down.
Pain takes a lot of energy and there were many times when my default position was to find ways to distract myself from the experience. Which is one reason that I now can list all of Ally McBeal’s failed relationships in chronological order and have became an expert at typing while standing up and in a variety of other positions. My deep need for distraction and realizing the quantities of energy it takes to manage pain is causing me to reevaluate ways that others might “act out”, avoid, or make less than loving choices while doing their darndest to manage not only physical, but emotional, mental or psychic pain.
Healing happens in its own timeline. The body will not be rushed, and neither will the heart. As a wise woman recently told me, the universe has its own clock. No matter how much you want or plan for something to happen in a certain way, at a certain time, often, you just can’t force it.
The surprise bonus is that pain can also be a connector and it certainly brings out those friends who (thank god!) you just can’t get rid of, no matter how often you whine or complain or when the zen like wisdom of your enlightened five year old self disintegrates into the crabby, pessimistic tantrums of your fussy five year old self. Let’s face it, I’m not that good at meditating yet.
This Thanksgiving, I wish to say thank you to those friends who keep sticking around through the ups and downs, the pain and pleasure, both the fun and the not so fun stuff. Those who were and continue to be generous with their kindness and friendship. You know who you are! I love you lots. And I know there are some veterans with pain, illness and the like here in the blogosphere who humble me with their experiences. If you have any tips and insights on managing, surviving and thriving with chronic pain, I am all ears.
Thanks for reading this long and painful (pun intended) post. Happy Thanksgiving.
Images: Family photos of me at around age 6, Photo of pages 138-139 of Thich Nhat Hanh’ book The Energy of Prayer, How to Deepen Your Spiritual Practice, charcoal drawing by Miho Watabe
My American grandfather was an unapologetic racist. Pure and simple. I know this because when I was twelve, during a heated conversation at the dinner table, he used the “n” word. I left the table, refusing to eat with him, attempting to disown him. My gentle hearted grandmother Catherine followed me:”Don’t take it so hard. He had some real rough experiences in the south. He was beat up real bad by some colored folks.” Well, gee, I wonder why. There has to be more to that story. Everybody has an excuse for bad behavior. Everybody has a reason for hating someone. For making someone feel like the “other” or “less than.”
In spite of or regardless of the racist proclivities of her father, my mom ended up marrying a man from China. A man of color. And, I might add, she put the excellent book by John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me, into my sweaty little bookwormy adolescent hands one summer. Thank you Mom. A thousand thanks. Have you read this book? If not, I urge you to put down what you are doing and find a copy.
It starts out like this:
“For years the idea had haunted me, and that night it returned more insistently than ever. If a white man became a Negro in the Deep South, what adjustments would he have to make?What is is like to experience discrimination based on skin color, something over which one has no control?”
Published in 1960, Black Like Me details the experience of a white journalist who was so consumed with the above question that he sought the advice of a dermatologist and temporarily altered the pigmentation of his own skin through radiation and medication treatments designed to alleviate vitiligo (a disease that causes loss of skin pigmentation). Following these uncomfortable treatments, and augmenting his new identity with makeup and a shaved head, Griffin proceeded to travel through various cities in the south, beginning with New Orleans.
By the end of his story, we learn that once Griffin’s journey is complete, chronicled and widely shared through public media, Griffin and his family become targets of hostility within their own hometown of Mansfield, Texas. This leads to their eventual decision to sell their homes and move to Mexico. They had to LEAVE THE COUNTRY to escape the repurcussions that arose from simply shining a light on racist conditions that existed in the segregated south. After receiving thousands of letters, the author concluded that many conscientious white citizens were more fearful of their racist neighbors than anything else. He also includes poignant anecdotes of his encounters with black individuals he met along the way, most who were deeply committed to forgiveness, determined that the proper response to racism is love, not hate. That the way to change is through peaceful, legal channels.
As I re read this book today, while so many of us grieve over lives tragically lost in South Carolina, with the Confederate flag waving high and proud over the state’s capitol, I ask myself, what has changed during my lifetime of half a century?
Within our own home, my family has always lived in a state of racial ambiguity and blurred racial identity. We have ancestors from China, Japan, Germany, France, Wales, Poland, Ireland and Russia. That we know of. My husband’s adoptive daughter is of Black and Japanese heritage. I have uncles who each fought on opposite sides of the Korean War. My daughter, a new graduate with a degree in anthropology, asserts that race is a myth, a concept that is not supported by biological science, but is rather, a cultural construct, determined by an individual’s physical appearance. But even this mere categorization doesn’t account for the hatred, the scorn of other, the assertion of superiority or inferiority of one category to the other. It’s all so deeply troubling.
This morning I listened to the statements made by families of those who were slain at the African Methodist Church in Charlestown. I couldn’t help but weep as I listened to their sincere expressions of grief that were interwoven by the commitment to forgive, to not return hate with hatred but with love. I am thoroughly in awe of them.
I sit here and wonder how long it will take for a real change of heart to occur. My dad would say, “It’s up to you kids now, to change the world. ” He said that on his deathbed, toasting my daughter and her collegiate cohorts. “ What I’d give to have my future ahead of me, “ he said, “ But I had my time, now it’s your turn. The future is up to you!”
That shooter at the church was only 21 years old. Our country, our world is crying out for healing. And it is days like this that I miss my kind-hearted, felonious miscegenistic parents something fierce.
Photo of Mom and Dad on a date in the late forties, also in Chicago.
I am home recovering from a back injury and have turned to a drawing meditation as a way of staying grounded and positive. It is easy to complain when one is in pain or physical discomfort and I decided to focus on an image that represents a moment in time when I felt abundantly filled with love – my wedding day. I did a tentative sketch and then went at it with colored pencils. I have been working on this for the past two weeks in small increments of time as my body allows. I must note that the color palette and some of the symbolism is directly referenced from an original ornament by artist Kate Cartwright. *
This portrait is still in process, but near completion so I thought I’d share. The other inspiration for this idea of self portraiture contemplative drawing came from a friend and fellow art therapy cohort, Linda, who has a very cool directive involving trying on different labels for self descriptors as a way to promote self compassion. This portrait represents my efforts to exchange the label of “in pain and cranky” to ” radiating love and compassion for myself and others.” As I said , it is , and I am, a work in progress.
*you may view Kate’s beautiful art at http://www.katecartwrightart.com
Throughout April there was a nagging, guilty, prodding awareness that I had no postings here. Today, with May tiptoeing in on rays of chilled sunshine, the lines from T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland kept running through my head:
I. THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD
APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Then I realized that this April marked year three anniversary of “The Deaths” and so I am officially letting myself off the hook. April did have a bit of a bite to her, and I only have images to offer here, not many words. And in anticipation of the warmer spring and summer to come: Images: 1. hibernation mandala in gouache and colored pencil on panel, 2. photo of Mom at 17, 3. chalk pastel meditation on unlined index card in anticipation of summer.
I am thoroughly enjoying collaborative art making, or image dialoguing with friends and colleagues. This is a photo of a healing hand mandala that my colleague, Jacqueline and I made by passing the paper back and forth at various intervals after work one day. Wanted to share it with you – it makes me happy to look at it and reminds me of how rich life can be when you trust the process and the loving, respectful flow of relationships. When you relate to one another in different ways, it’s fun to see what new discoveries arise.
Happy Sunday, Happy March!
Once a month, usually on a Saturday morning, my dear friend Esther and I meet together at a local coffee shop with art materials in hand and set about to have a dialogue in images. What we do is an adaptation of the Open Studio Process I have been studying this past year. We set an intention before we begin, the overall intention is to honor and nourish our relationship through art making. Individual intentions might then be ” I allow myself to be seen and loved through my art making, ” or ” I am open and playful as I explore these art materials” You get the idea.
We each have a paper with an empty mandala or circle drawn in pencil. Then we begin, with each of us adding an element , working for about 20 minutes at a time, then exchanging drawings. Once the exchange happens, we carefully look at one another’s drawing and respond by asking the following questions: What does it need? What does it make me think of? How does it make me feel? or simply by letting our hands follow the process. Esther began her image above with two girls jumping rope, I piped in with the third purple skinned lass and parrot, and so on and so forth. I love how Esther gave the parrot a tree, complete with a Grandmother spirit watching over their antics.
In this image, I began with the bear – I can’t quite tell you why – the girl on an island under a tree, and a colorful little fish, watching with an attentive eye while blowing bubble creatures. Once again Esther gave the girl two friends, a home, a campfire and even a boat as a way to get on and off the island. I love this scene, it’s wildness and it’s protective, fortified enclave, it’s silliness and it’s seriousness. Let me invite you to do a friendhsip mandala with someone in your life with whom you can be seen. I promise it will nourish you and remind you of your riches, over and over again.
On this icy, foggy, frozen in day, I put my energies into Dad’s old moniker: Keep the clean and everything else will fall into place. I’m suspecting that this is a remnant of the Chinese Kitchen God, translated through the heart and hands of my engineer father who always had a word of wisdom, albeight practical and earthbound. Have you ever found that the best ideas come to you when your hands are in hot soapy water? My thoughts turned to a current graduate school project: my cultural self portrait.
The creative problem given was to fashion an aesthetically cohesive self portrait using your choice of media that reflects your cultural identity, values and experience. For those familiar with the multicultural counseling acronym: ADDRESSING, you will know that the following elements are considered:
A for Age and generational influences
D for Developmental and acquired
R for Religion
E for Ethnicity
S for Socioeconomic status
S for Sexual orientation
I for Indigenous heritage
N for National origin
G for Gender (1996, Hays)
Just reading through this acronym, for me, opens up perspectives of the various facets making up the unique identity and experience of any one individual.
For my own portrait, I found that I see myself as heavily impacted by the religious and ethical values of my parents. Mom’s Catholic upbringing resulted in my lifelong education within the Catholic school system with teaching nuns figuring strongly in my learning and academic experiences. Dad’s Confucious based system of ethics was infused in so much of our homelife, this was a silent education communicated through decisions, actions and interactions of daily life. Living in a biracial household with one immigrant parent and one parent living with mental illness was isolating. It is no wonder that my support came from these value based and more or less spiritual elements. To communciate this more directly, and to accentuate the dark figure from the dark background, I surrounded her in phrases that reminded me of my parents, and places with strong personality where my parents lived or where I lived that contributed to my cultural identity.
One thing that did startle me was the appearance of a skull as my artistic process emerged, and in particular its central placement as the face of the figure. Even though I am a person who thinks about death often, one who has experienced loss, and am currently working in a hospice program learning about art therapy with bereaved children and adolescents, I was STILL surprised to see this grinning skull appear. It rather gave me the creeps, the chills and the full on heebie jeebies. This is supposed to be a “Self Portrait” emphasis on self, note the skull face. CREEPY.
But after reflecting and reading up on the archetype of death as transformation, I suddenly felt surprisingly good, warm, even affectionate towards my little skull faced figure. When I view death or ending as creating the space for beginning, as part of a circular cycle of life that happens rather frequently as we grow, explore, learn and change, I feel empowered rather than devastated, interested rather than in despair, hopeful and energized
What would your cultural self portrait look like? Which archetype are you feeling resonance with these days?
Image: by me, rendered in chalk pastel on black drawing paper. words included as follows: Keep the kitchen clean, Joi de vivre, Be kind, Be kind to others, Love you lots, Eat the bitter in bitterness and become man above men. Thank you, world. Places included: Shanghai, Topeka, NYC, Riverside Drive, Chicago, The French Concession, San Francisco, Soo Chow, (and how funny I did not include NJ where I have lived so many years – I must be in denial, ha ha )
Information on the ADDRESSING Acronym : Hays, P.A. (1996) Addressing the complexities of culture and gender in counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development, 74, 332-338.