Three months into the pandemic finds Covid19 has taken a sudden back seat to the prevailing news story: “Black Lives Matter.” All media—including local newspapers, radio broadcasts, television or internet reports—are saturated with pictures of outraged people marching in protest citing disproportionate police brutality against Black Americans and people of colour. The tragic death of George Floyd has fanned the flames of racism which has been smoldering for years in both United States and in Canada. These stories are raising awareness and serious questions not only about policing and systemic racism but also about the role that each of us can play to make a difference. As an art psychotherapist, involved in a service profession that often administers to the most vulnerable of society, what is my role? How do I even begin to become more engaged with the world and more socially responsible when sometimes the stories of these protesters seem far removed from my life experience?
Pondering this question reminds me of the “starfish story,” a story shared in one of my university classes years ago. Originally published in an essay by Loren Eiseley in 1969, “The Star Thrower” has appeared in various forms and publications and goes something like this (with apologies to the author for unintentional alterations): An older gentleman who walked daily on a long stretch of beach noticed that a recent storm had washed thousands of starfish up onto the sand. He came upon a small boy who was methodically (and futilely thought the old gentleman) tossing the starfish one-by-one back into the sea. As he approached the boy, the boy looked up in surprise. “You know you will never be able to save all of these starfish. There are thousands of them,” the old gentleman chided. “What difference do you think you are making?” Without hesitation, the boy stooped down and carefully picked up another starfish and flung it as far as he could into the waves. “It will make a difference to that one,” the boy responded. The old gentleman smiled knowingly and bent down and picked up another starfish to toss into the safety of the ocean waves.
I find my answer in this simple story—one step at a time, one starfish at a time. The story reminds me that the most common reason for procrastinating is that we see the challenges before us as overwhelming. In my training to become an art psychotherapist, one way of overcoming challenges begins with the cultivation of inner awareness and cultural competency. It starts with knowing my own story. Countless studio hours have taught me that “coming to know intimately the stories of our own lives through art making enables us to have empathy for the stories of others” (Hyland-Moon, 2002, p. 282). The very act of listening to another’s story, witnessing the art images that result, and making sense out of feelings is a privilege which informs me and opens the channels of communication. Rather than becoming overwhelmed by the damage we have done to each other as human beings and losing hope in the possibility for change, perhaps listening to one another can be that first step—one starfish at a time! Perhaps simply through sharing personal stories and really listening to one another, we can open our hearts and walk a pathway to better understanding and appreciation of our similarities and our differences.
Simultaneously as pandemic restrictions are loosening, signs of spring are exploding all over our country. Wildflowers are erupting, birds are serenading, and the glorious sun is warming our faces from its new height in the sky. In the Kootenays, the balsamroot or “sunflowers” as they are affectionately known, transform the dreary brown hills into natural gardens of splendor. There are visible and audible signs of hope everywhere.
Today is also the beginning of the week dedicated to remembering Laudato Si’ (the Encyclical letter on the care of our common home). Pope Francis invites us to celebrate the 5th anniversary of Laudato Si’ (https://laudatosiweek.org/ ) by “undertaking a shared commitment to help build and strengthen constructive attitudes aimed at caring for creation” (Vatican news, 2020). How exactly do we become better stewards for our common home?
It is my belief that we need to fall in love with Mother Earth in order to protect and value her. Perhaps this time of quarantine is providing the perfect opportunity to reaffirm this love with all of creation—we have time to listen, to really see, and to breathe in the balm of new life. Here is a brief focusing directive to open up your senses: You may do this by yourself or with a partner. Place yourself in a location where there are trees and greenery—your backyard works!
Go outdoors, somewhere away from the noise of traffic (which can be your own neighborhood these days!!) Bring an art journal or writing pad and a pencil.
Close your eyes and count backwards from 10. When you reach 0, allow yourself to listen carefully to the sounds around you. Open your eyes and write down 6 things that you hear.
Close your eyes again and count back from 10. Now pay attention to your olfactory senses. Breathe in deeply and write down 5 things that you can smell.
Close your eyes one more time and count back from 10. Reach out and touch your surroundings (without opening your eyes) and record 4 things that you can feel.
Open your eyes and observe the first 3 things you see. Record these in your journal. You may choose to draw a small image of your observations too.
Spend a few minutes writing about this experience. Were there any surprises? Did some of the sensations remind you of another time or place? Which of your senses was most attuned to this experience? If done with a partner, compare & contrast your results.
As we enter into our third month social restrictions during the Covid19 pandemic, you may wonder, as I do, how exactly am I managing to get through this? A common question asked of clients in many different therapeutic settings is this: “What gets you through when times are tough?” What are the values or qualities you possess that come to the fore when you need them most? More often than not, we find it much easier to identify our weaknesses rather than recognizing our strengths. Part of the reason for this may be that historically the mental health profession focuses more on remediating deficits than on developing strengths.
In contrast, experts in the art therapy field have always known that focusing on strengths is a precursor for healing, Positive psychologists, too, report that when clients are able to identify the qualities that have helped them surmount their challenges, they not only experience empowerment but also foster resilience for future adversity. (Peterson, Park & Seligman, 2006) The question remains, however; how do we mine for strengths when we as humans are more naturally attuned to our weaknesses—especially when our lives have changed so dramatically?
I believe that art therapists have a leg up responding to this question. The very nature of “artwork can showcase strengths in ways that verbal strategies alone cannot” (Chilton & Wilkinson, 2018, p. 109). There are many art therapy interventions and directives which naturally mine for strengths. One simple example to try is explained below:
Browse through some magazines or picture books and select an image which suggests strength to you. Spend a few minutes with the image. Ask yourself what qualities the image brings forward. Dialogue with it…give the image a name. Determine what it is that attracted you to the image. Then either attach it to a journal page or piece of paper and write beside, on or below, 10 to 15 qualities of strength that this particular image evokes in you. You can take this a step farther and compose a little poem with your words or create another art piece using just one of the strength attributes. When reflecting, notice how many of these strengths you might recognize in yourself. You may be pleasantly surprised!
A huge part of the social distancing restrictions which are part of staying safe during the Covid19 pandemic require us to physically stay apart. Now thanks to technology we are able to connect virtually using many different platforms. However, as a fellow human I ponder how the ongoing lack of physical touch with extended family and friends will contribute to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness in the long haul. According to clinical psychologist Dr. Jim Coan, we are born with a built-in dependence baseline which helps us maintain hope through connection with others. When things get tough, we get by with a little help from a friend. An integral part of this regulation strategy resides in physical touch. Research has shown that even a simple touch on the forearm can bring comfort to someone who feels lonely or afraid. “Our ability to feel connected to others has important implications for our ability to act in the world (Coan, 2018).
I like to think of this valued human connection as spiritual guide Joyce Rupp defines: “kinship—a rich bond that calls forth to the deepest part of ourselves…a sense of belonging, a union of spirits, a loving appreciation, a deep communion with others, and a mutuality of understanding” (Rupp, 1966). Okay, what does all this have to do with art therapy, you might ask? Well, virtual connection has its obvious merits, but I am challenging you to consider a deeper form of connection, one which might touch someone in a kinesthetic way—both for the creator and the receiver.
The art directive for this week is a simple one: Design & color a postcard for a loved one who may be feeling particularly alone during this pandemic. It can be as simple or complex as you are comfortable with. Use whatever art materials give you pleasure and add a short heartfelt message. The benefits are threefold: a) you move away from focusing on your own feelings for a short time b) you give a loving gift of felt kinship to another and c) you create something tangible which can be shared by physical touch. Think of this gesture as a therapeutic flower for someone you love. “There is so much hope in a little flower and so many flowers in a little hope” (Mehmet Murat ilan, Contemporary Turkish Playwright, 2019).
It has now been one month since social restrictions have been put into place in Canada; exactly one month to the day that my new art psychotherapy studio closed. In an effort to stay connected with the community, I am posting a weekly blog. With the rising number of confirmed positive cases of Covid 19 and the staggering number of deaths combined with the inconsistency of information, it is easy to become overwhelmed.
We humans are travelling on a journey like no other, and our usual coping strategies are being put to the test as physical contact is limited. Being confined is not how we are used to living! Many, like myself, are asking, “how then shall we live?” Of course, there is no easy answer. Living conditions during this pandemic vary greatly from those who are struggling to find food to those who continue working at home or on the front lines. A call has arisen for new forms of fraternity, solidarity and hospitality. “How then shall we live becomes how then shall I live?” What tools could I offer to support my community? As an art psychotherapist, I believe humans are natural problem solvers and have the basic instincts to get us through this global crisis. Creative art expression, in all its forms, is incredibly healing and has the capability of taking us to a less threatening place—one devoid of worry and rich with pleasure.
I wish to extend an invitation to you to try adding one or some of the following coping mechanisms into your daily routines. (These are gleaned from various sources, but tweaked with simple ideas for creative art or writing prompts that might free you from your worries even for a few minutes). I will be posting specific art/writing directives eachweek for your consideration.
Pray: Regardless of your beliefs and understanding of a higher power, prayer is hugely healing. Try writing your prayers out or painting a symbol of your hopes—Prayer unifies us and helps us not to feel so alone.
Get outdoors: Go for a walk, listen to the birds or how “quiet” your neighborhood is. Fresh air and nature are therapeutic and clear our thinking. You may want to record a special event in an art journal or try composing a little poem…for yourself only.
Keep connected: Stay in touch with family, friends, and co-workers. There are many platforms by which to connect virtually, but try other creative ways such as drive-by’s, snail-mail postcards or letters, talking over the neighbour’s fence, sharing recipes, or reaching out to someone who is alone.
Be grateful: Even amidst this new way of being, there is always something to be grateful for. Try starting your day by writing out a short gratitude list or drawing one thing you are grateful for. Some folks are recognizing the silver lining of slowing down and staying in the moment. We can become more appreciative of the gifts and people who make our lives special. And…there is no time like the present to tell them you love them!