something to say

10 November 2009

I remember sitting in the ground floor office where I worked in Detroit years ago and watching a man outside who was walking around with a large book; it looked like a holy book of some kind.  The man was desperately trying to get peoples’ attention about something that had to do with the book which lay open in his hands.  If he approached a car, windows were rolled up.  If he approached people, they crossed over to the other side of the street and hurried away.  And I don’t blame any of them, I’m sure I would have done the same thing.  Mentally ill street people are strange to us, often scary, and most of us aren’t equipped to know how to deal with them. 

But what struck me then, and continues to strike me now, is the tragedy that this fella had something to say, of seemingly great importance to him, and no one to say it to.  I just couldn’t imagine how that would feel.  I’ve said it before in this spot, but I think one of the most tragic things about street people and the homeless is that we make them invisible.  

Now I walk by as many homeless people begging as everyone else.  But sometimes I’ve found that just looking at them and acknowledging them is enough.  Well, it’s not enough – I’m sure money would be much more useful for whatever it is that sustains them one more day, but you do find gratitude when you look them in the eye and say “sorry buddy, no change in my pocket today” or “god bless you too” or laugh wryly at a jokester. 

Street people are hard to look at.  They’re usually dirty and sometimes roughed up and often mentally ill.  But at one point they belonged to someone, at some point in their lives someone cared for them.  At some point, they weren’t invisible.

I used to follow a blog semi-regularly, one of those humorous life blogs.  One day the writer posted a picture of a mentally ill street person that had ensconced himself outside her hair salon as she was getting her hair done one day.  And the fella was pretending that he was admiring his hairstyle and appearance in an imaginary mirror on a tree.  Maybe our guy was taking the mickey out of all of the salon ladies inside, but the hilarity that ensued among the readers of the blog was not with him – it was at him.  His strangeness and ragged appearance were put up for great enjoyment and merriment on the light-hearted blog.  I politely called them on it – I said: “I’m all about humour.  But I don’t see what is funny about ridiculing a mentally ill person.  What if that were you, and you were vulnerable – say you fell down in front of a large window and everyone inside thought it was marvellously funny and joked at your expense even if you were permanently injured?”  And I got a very kind reply from the writer who said she understood my point, but the merriment at the crazy guy’s expense continued on for a few days and my comment was clearly forgotten.

Those that have read me for awhile know that those people who live their lives on the outer edges of a society have always moved me.  Sometimes they’re trying with all their might to break through, like the man with the holy book in Detroit or the lady who used to sit in my English classes in university; sometimes they don’t seem to need to at all, like the man on the blue bicycle.  But more often than not, they have something to say. 

I thought of that again when I found this project: Signs, a collection of homeless peoples’ cardboard signs – a way of communicating used by that community for a long time.  These signs are a way to get a thing said in a one foot square piece of cardboard.  The project includes photographs of people which are striking, honest and yes, sometimes hard to look at.  For a few moments as you look at the pictures, these people are not invisible.

Thanks to John Foster and his marvellous blog, Accidental Mysteries for posting the Signs project.  I visit his blog daily, and it’s always worthwhile.


queen of hearts

29 October 2009

As a baby, her face would light up with the most infectious bliss when she set her eyes on a loved one. As a toddler, she could contort that little face into the most miserable misery or ferocious ferocity when things didn’t go her two year old way.

I remember once when she was about five, my sister and I were out walking and she and her brother were ahead of us on their bikes. She was WAY finished with this bike ride and absolutely couldn’t bear to pedal one more centimetre. And her mother, as mothers do, was ignoring the whining and the complaining so she expressed her unhappiness with her entire body ensuring we could, from a block behind, fully understand her feelings. You never saw such draping and flopping over the front of any tricycle – you’d swear she was operating a slave ship and she was the only rower. I tell you, Sarah Bernhardt had nothing on this kid. Margaret O’Brien? Forget it.

Another time we had a birthday cake and sang Happy Birthday to her up at the cottage and I swear you could have given that kid a hundred presents and a thousand lollipops and they wouldn’t have been even a smidge as wonderful as that birthday cake.

Ever since she was a tiny little tot, she’s been an actress, wearing her emotions from the top of her head to the tips of her toes.  Tonight she’s playing the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland.

Knock ‘em dead kid.  You’re the queen of a lot of hearts already.


Our favourite drama queen

claim your moments

5 September 2009

I’ve come across this video in a few of my “regular read” blogs over the past few days.  I’m posting it because it reflects the challenge I give to all memoir writers I meet:  “claim your moments.” 

As you watch this, don’t think about why.  Just think about your life’s moments – give them their due attention. 

kids see lots if you ask me

4 September 2009

A few weeks ago I started reading May Sarton’s journal, “The House by the Sea.”  And then I stopped because work happened.  Today I picked her up again today and came across this passage:

“I do not believe that keeping a journal is for the young.  There is always the danger of bending over oneself like Narcissus and drowning in self indulgence.  If a journal is to have any value either for the writer or any potential reader, the writer must be able to be objective about what he [sic] experiences on the pulse.  For the whole point of a journal is this seizing events on the wing.  Yet the substance will come not from narration but from the examination of experience, and an attempt, at least, to reduce it to essence.  Secondly – and this is curious – what delights the reader in a journal is often minute particulars.  Very few young people observe anything except themselves very closely.  Then the context – by that I mean all that one brings to an experience of reading and thinking and feeling – is apt to be thin for the young.  And to get to the nub, I guess what I am suggesting is that rarely is there enough of a self there.”

I heartily agree and heartily disagree with Sarton’s ideas.  Yes, I too believe the job of the journal is not merely that of a vehicle for self absorption.  Its job is to facilitate seeing – both behind and beyond the end of one’s nose.  I truly believe that if you spend time writing what YOU see, you become more compassionate and appreciative of the world you find.  I believe, as Sarton does, the journal is for “siezing events on the wing” and in doing so, we look for the essence and thus the beauty in experience.

I don’t share, however, her idea that the young are not capable of seeing beyond the ends of their collective noses.  I have encouraged my own daughters to journal from the time they could express themselves with a pen, and I have done same with my nieces and nephews.  And each one of them exhibits a large and original self as it exists within the big ol’ world.  And each one of them finds appreciation in those “minute particulars” as Sarton calls them. 

Yes – I do believe that with each year on the planet we grow more wise and more appreciative of the small gifts.  But the gifts are not just available to the mature.  Everyone’s story has value – and every child and young person is as deep as a well if we ask them to be. 

And we would all be well served to remind ourselves of the clarity of vision we once had – which would only strengthen the depth of the knowledge and joy we continue to collect as we walk along this life’s journey.  Sure – many youth and young adults are focused on the self.  That’s because they are looking hard to find that self!  Maybe it’s our job to foster that seeking rather than tell them there isn’t anything worth finding until they have been graced with the gift of years.  See, that’s the thing about years – each one builds on the last.  Each story is a chapter.  And the early chapters are setting the stage for all things new and innovative. 

Give a kid a journal today.  Invite them to “sieze those events on the wing” and search for the essence in each experience.  Because from my experience, they’re really good at it.

Expressive arts activities scare me.  Many of them are derived from psychotherapeutic practices, and those scare the hell out of me.  There are certain cans of worms that are just begging to be opened, and I figure if I work with expressive arts activities enough, those cans of worms are eventually going to be opened.  As they should I suppose. 

People come to expressive arts for lots of different reasons.  Some people want to enrich their counselling, healthcare or teaching practices.  Others think the arts are a great basis for exploring and expressing the self.  And others just want to play and develop the creative process.  Some just have things to say, and need to find ways to say them.  I want to help people tell their stories, and the expressive arts world offers an abundance of fun and rewarding strategies for enhancing creativity and expression.

To help others utilize expressive arts, for whatever reason, you have to do some of the therapeutic stuff, the internal explorations.  For me, that’s always a personal challenge, particularly doing that out loud.  In front of people.  I’m an avoider – naturally inclined to leave those cans of worms closed.  And I’m reserved.  I feel quite comfortable expressing myself in writing.  It’s safe.  It’s solitary.  As for the other arts – not so comfortable. 

Last week I did some of that work with uncharacteristic courage.  I danced without inhibition.  I did theatre games without fear.  I told stories aloud and be damned my sieve-like memory and drifty focus. 

I felt good.  I wasn’t tackling nagging cans of worms like some were.  I was just doing.  Expressing in ways that are usually most uncomfortable for me but this time they weren’t and it felt really good.   

And then there was the sand tray. 

Sand tray (or sandplay therapy) is best known for its use by psychoanalysts and play therapists in creating a safe “world” in which to symbolically represent one’s internal self.  The client will choose from a variety of miniature figures and toys and create a scene or world in a tray of sand.  The client and/or the therapist will then interpret what is symbolically represented in the tray.  Expressive arts practitioners utilize sand tray for freeing and creating stories, and all the interpreting is left to the person making the world.  The expressive arts practitioner may ask questions designed to open or highlight certain elements and/or characters and/or objects in the story.

I’m usually one of the ones who are happy to let others take the “action” role in these types of activities, but when it came time to experiment with the sand tray, I jumped in and said, “this stuff scares me, so I should do it.”  I approached the activity with what I thought was a blank slate.  I wanted to assemble and place the figures and toys without thought, and come up with a story completely off the cuff, and enjoy playing with my imagination and exercise my [very limited] improv muscles. 

As it happened, there was nothing ridiculous about the world I created in the sand tray.  The themes are not new.  I told an old story of searching.  Looking for home.  Searching for place, and space and solidness and not finding it.

What’s new is the interpretation.  It’s a story is about mindfulness. Being mindful of the things that are driving the search, and recognizing the places you’ve already been so you aren’t walking in circles.  It’s not a story about the end, real or anticipated.  Really, there’s nothing futile in searching and not finding the pot of gold right away; there is nothing to be gained in trying to see the end before you get there.  As I wrote in a story years ago – it’s like jumping to the end of the book, when the story is right here, right now. 

Funny, that particular story is one that I told aloud last week.  I told that one because I know it, am familiar with it and I could then focus on the challenges of telling of it aloud.  That’s what I thought.  Uh oh. 

On we go, me and my cans of worms.  I think it’s time to get off the main road.


To learn more about sand tray, click here:

dancing for mitch

14 June 2009

There’s a scene that always really moves me in the movie Elizabethtown.  The scene is during Mitch’s memorial service and his wife Holly is on a stage, in Mitch’s world, far away from her world.  Holly is taking her turn to speak about Mitch to the reluctant audience that is Mitch’s family. The thing that is so moving is that she has her hackles up against the suspicious relatives when she walks into the room, but when she gets on the stage she gives them the whole honest truth about how she has been managing her grief.  About how Mitch’s death panicked her, and she felt the overwhelming need to accomplish and learn all the things she had never accomplished and learned while he was alive to share them with her. 

As she moves into a largely inappropriate comedy sketch (a result of her needing to learn how to laugh), she starts to break down the audience’s armour.  And by the time she sets the needle down on Mitch’s favourite song, Moon River, and begins to tap dance for Mitch, (another hastily learned thing), she finds loud support and applause.  Holly kicked away the hackles, and she was rewarded with love.

Once I took a writing class in which there was a young girl who overcame great personal fear just to tell her stories to us each week.  You could see that fear in her.  You could see her summoning inner resources even as she lingered for a moment looking in the window of the classroom before her hand would function against the door handle and open the door. 

Every one of her stories reflected her facing off against that wall with a determination that belied her masked exterior.  Her stories inspired us, and our reactions to her readings of them conveyed that.  But she didn’t finish the semester, and I remember wishing otherwise to my friend who was the facilitator.  “She’s just not ready” said my friend. 

There are lots of reasons why so many of us harbour the idea that risking honesty and truth will result in some sort of failure.  Maybe, as Elizabeth Gilbert suggests below, we could shift the responsibility of our expression to another force.  Our Mitch, our muse, or a higher power altogether.  And then maybe we can put it out there without those hackles that hold us back. The failure would not be ours to risk.

Last week, someone in my class took a personal risk and told a story.  That person reminded me of Holly.  Because like her, that person was rewarded with unbridled thanks and support. 

“We’re all in it together” said an old friend of mine recently.  Yeah, and that’s why we love to hear each others’ stories.  I really hope that young girl discovered that truth; that she’s found the gumption to shed those hackles.

channel it instead

7 June 2009

In every course I’ve developed, I’ve devoted one class to nurturing the artist.  Lately I’ve shown this video of a talk by Elizabeth Gilbert in that class.  My friend Sheryl sent me the link the other day, thinking I’d like it.  I assured her I do.  A lot.  And thus posting it here.