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.
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.
A recent Saturday morning at the beach was cloudy interspersed with intermittent drizzling rain. Hoping for the promise of the sun breaking through, I waded into the waves, enjoying the gooseflesh sensation of gentle chilly breezes coming off of the Atlantic. Looking down, I saw this beauty of a conch, free floating in the shallow tides. Assuming she was meant for me, I scooped her up and brought her home.
Influenced by Carl Jung and his respect for symbols and their cultural context, I did a bit of research into the meaning and uses of conch shells across various cultures. I learned that the conch is one of the 8 Auspicious Symbols in Buddhism. Among other things, its spirals represent infinity and the journey of life from birth to death and beyond. For me this is a relevant reminder, since I am about to embark on a new journey, working with a hospice program as an art therapy intern this fall. I love how the universe offers support in simple everyday occurrences, like finding a seashell or catching sight of a dove, when you pay attention and make it yours.
I’m engaging in a sketchbook meditation of sorts, based on guidance from Pat B Allen’s books that hold top spots on the list of indispensable books in my library. From one chapter entitled: Knowing Drawing, ” If you discover that you really like drawing objects, consider getting a sketchbook and drawing the same object until every page is filled. Choose something simple and let ourself see it as deeply as you can. Drawing in this way is a meditation.”
I began with chalk pastels, since I love the color and the way they can be blended for softness or applied with clear, defined strokes. I like the flexibility of this medium and the way the vivid pigment lays on the paper. Unless you use a blending tool, fingers work best, and simply blowing on the paper works well to remove miscellaneous dust. Chalk pastels need a fixative if you wish to keep the image for a long period of time without alteration. For my purposes, I’m fine with allowing for the inevitable smudging which may occur as I continuously handle the sketchbook. I’m interested in the process, what the images bring to mind and how it expresses my feelings in a particular moment. I like noticing how looking at the resulting marks makes me feel.
Yesterday I tried graphite pencil, colored pencil and marker, alone and separately. I also tried different approaches to the image:
1. Looking at the shell and attempting to draw it exactly as I saw it, in a photographic manner.
2. Looking at the shell for some minutes, then looking away and drawing the general impression that was left for me, expressed in abstract swirls and spiraling marks.
3. Looking only at the object, placing my pencil on the paper and never lifting the pencil from the page and never looking down at my drawing until I felt finished. This technique is known as blind contour drawing.
This last approach was the most interesting by far. When I finished and glanced down at the result, I immediately saw a bird and embellished it with colored pencil, pastel, and finally a black Sharpie marker for definition. What emerged was Shellby, the Hellacious Hen or my version of Angry Bird. This may have something to do with the fact that world news was playing in the background as I drew, easily getting me in touch with sad and angry emotions. I’m sure this bird has more to say to me!
When feelings that I see as “negative” come up in a drawing, often my first reaction is resistance or an impulse to smooth things over, literally, with a pleasing color or shape. More and more, I have come to simply accept the feeling or state of mind with neutrality and without judgment. After all, feelings are there for a reason, and if I look and listen to them, usually are there to help me along in this journey.
Tiny white baby star, bundled in pink innocence, far flung across the universe, it survives, it grows, it spreads, on and on into the full moon with a passion flower center. An eyeball, an ovum, a cycle of moons waxing, waning, birthing, becoming, fulfilling, dying. Purple and gold and red and white and black like ink from an inkwell.
For a moment I imagine I can see my life’s entirety from start to finish. Only God knows, as we may say. Tasty illusions, scary thoughts, mysteries for contemplation, what one life manifests. The potential of preconceived notions float in brilliant cosmic technicolor. Just one life. How marvelous is that?
Won’t you stop for a moment and just savor this?
Images: my open studio process drawing, May 2014. Evanston, Illinois. various pastel on paper
Today the thought came to me that I am a better person when I make art. What makes me better? When I put my hands on material to play, explore, create something, I enter a zone of permission, a micro country of unconditional positive self regard. I learn that there is no wrong mark, no bad color, no mistake in what my hands squeeze out, or in which color I choose.
I learn to go with the flow in a relaxed way without pressure for the outcome. These are experiences that are a luxury in other parts of my day where I need to meet a deadline, complete a project, facilitate a meeting or complete a report.
Is my result childish? Unfinished? Hand wrought or even awkward. Sure, it may be, but when I think of all the years, the hours, the time I spent NOT making art, I truly am just a beginner, a child at play exploring something important. If it looks unfinished, I’m relaxed with that. I don’t want to be finished yet. It feels like love and I want it to keep on going on…and feeling this way makes me want to be extra kind to the people around me. If it looks like love, if it feels like love, well, it must be love. World peace through making art.