SmART meets heART

When I was teaching, an art teacher in my building approached me with an opportunity to attend an institute on integrating the arts across the curriculum.  Being an English/Language Arts teacher professionally and a creative person personally, I jumped at the chance.

SmART Schools, the brainchild of Eileen Mackin, Ed.M, offered intensive multiple day workshops for educators of all genres showing hands-on ways to access all manner of information and curricula.  Ideally, an entire community or school system would ‘buy-in’ for the optimum effect.  At the very least, a team of teachers (one from each discipline, all assigned to a core group of kids) could attend together to align their methods.  That first year, one of three I attended, I was the sole participant from my team, only one of four total from my building.  Another year, two team teachers I worked very closely with came along.  Once, I convinced my entire team to come along.  While complete buy-in is ideal, even one practicioner of this method benefits children immensely.

While reading a novel together as a class, we created tableaus of images from the book with our bodies.  We acted out salient scenes.  We created dioramas, collages, 3-D sculptures.  We played ‘games’ that built community.  We ‘became’ emotions.  We fostered understanding in a non-threatening way.  Students who would never raise their hands used their arms and legs, their stance to make a statement about a theme of a book that would bring tears to my eyes.

Through art, they became the book.  They interfaced with the material in a way not possible by simply seeing the words on the page.  And they expressed themselves in ways that writing or speaking may not have made possible for them.  The text-to-self and text-to-world connections were now concrete, though they shook me to the core.

The PeaceLove Studio

The PeaceLove Studio

Fast-forward six years.  I no longer teach, though I value education and the arts as much as I ever did.  Now, however, my goals for education have entered the realm of mental health.  I discovered PeaceLove Studios, an organization I am fortunate enough to call local.  Their goal is to bring peace and love to the world through expressive arts, thereby eliminating the stigma attached to mental illness.  I’ve been following and applauding their work for over a year now.  A friend, lucky enough to work in a building that houses a mini-art gallery, told me of a PeaceLove exhibition there.  That was my first real-world experience with the organization.  But I’d been longing for a tactile experience with them, to see their space, see them in action.  Last night, with that same friend along for the ride, I had that chance.

PeaceLove offered a workshop called, “Story Shoes”.  Through decorating a shoe, you would represent the path you’ve taken; by inscribing a ‘footprint’, you would tell your story.  First, we engaged in an introductory discussion to get to know the other participants and to get us thinking on what story we’d like to tell.  I had flashbacks of teaching middle school again when we had to count off by twos for this activity 😉 but it gave us that sense of community and safe environment crucial for such an activity.  It also afforded us the mental preparation and space to enter into the introspection we’d need.

My shoe-sterpiece!

My shoe-sterpiece!

As usual, my mind processes surpassed my ability to articulate the many metaphors I laid out.  Surprisingly, my story came about more organically than I expected.  Instead of telling my entire life story, the items and way I chose to decorate my shoe more accurately represented my aura than one specific line of personal plot.  And I think that’s the perfect point to make about mental illness moving toward mental health and its acceptance.  Ultimately, it’s not about the details.  It is about the essence of the person and acceptance of him or her as a whole.

I think I learned more from the other participants sharing of their shoes and stories than I did in creating my own, too.  We set our shoes on a pathway of black paper that wound its way across the slatted wood floor of the old mill building, the flat footprints interspersed in relief with the dimensional shoes.  We walked that path together, with our varied experiences, our varied states of suffering or salvation.  I realized the power of getting outside the rutted paths of our brain to make true discovery; how a totally different use of our minds, our hands can give us that.  Glitter glue and feather and paintbrushes can free the emotions from the fear that dams them.  It happened subconsciously in a nonthreatening medium.

"On the inside, we may feel empty, but we've left our mark nevertheless."

“On the inside, we may feel empty, but we’ve left our mark nevertheless.”

I saw the same looks of pride and empowerment as participants explained their pieces and shared their stories as I did when my students opened up the world of the texts through their movements and creations.  I felt the same well of emotion, the same nod of the head affirmation of “Yes, exactly, I know exactly what you mean.  I hear you.  I feel you.  I am with you.”

I left with that same heady feeling of hope and peace and joy that only a truly transcendental experience with the arts (or nature or God) can give you.  Anything that helps people, especially those weighed down by mental illness, transcend their limitations and expectations is truly smart and a work of heart.

If you walked in my shoes . . .

If you walked in my shoes . . .

Mental Miranda Rights

Blog.  Web log.  Log of Thoughts and Happenings.  Journal.

When one connects the dots, it becomes apparent that writing a blog is essentially opening wide the pages of one’s journal and allowing the world to read.

There are certain thoughts or musings I keep between the covers of my hardcopy journal, but since I’ve started blogging, I do frequent those pages fewer and farther between.

It’s interesting seeing people whom I know read my blog.

Have they read the latest post chronicling my latest neurosis?  When they ask how I’m doing, do they mean, are you stable?  Or have they not read and really want to know how things are going?  Do I update close friends on my true status or will I be repeating myself?  Do I allude to a topic I’ve covered online, thinking they already know the details?  Or am I assuming a steady readership?

I usually worry that I’m baring my soul to people with whom I’d never discuss such things in a face-to-face conversation.  And will they judge me for it?  Will they see me in a different light now that they know the brand of crazy I am?

We all struggle.  With something.  At some point.  There’s some crazy skeleton hanging in every person’s closet.  But most people don’t write about it and then post it on-line for the world to see (if they so choose).  I’ve never had a good poker face and I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve.  Perhaps I am just the sort of person who would share such details publicly.  But I’ve also always been the type of person who demands that you take me as I am.  I may obsess about whether you will or not.  And worry myself sick if you don’t, but at the end of the day, I am who I am.

So while I might wonder if that pause between words is you calling to mind my self-indicting ones, or if that quiet look is one of pity or concern, I cannot be anything other than truthful.  And there’s no sense pretending to be perfect because everyone knows that’s a lie straight out the gate anyway.  I’d rather be honest and flawed.

Just don’t hold it against me.

Don’t Fear the (Ir)rational

As the sun rose hours after the baby’s birth, I was fading fast.  I had slept maybe two hours of the past 24 and didn’t have the strength to eat my breakfast.  The nurse suggested the baby go to the nursery, I drink a pitcher of water, eat, and sleep.  I did and woke up a short while later feeling a bit more human.  When my husband went to retrieve the baby and came back empty-handed, the feeling was short-lived.  “Where’s the baby?” I asked, panic creeping into my voice.

“Oh, her bracelets fell off, they’re just putting on some new ones,” he answered, easy-going as ever, which could’ve been an indication of my overreaction but went unheeded.  I went through every possible combination of events I could think of: were the bracelets in the bassinet, did the nurses take her out of the bassinet, were there any other babies in the nursery?  What I was really getting at was: how will we know this is our baby?  My husband, thinking with a rational mind, told me it was fine; they were giving her new bracelets to match ours and were checking the serial number on her Baby Lo-Jack, the nickname for the security device affixed to all babies in the hospital.  Still, I balked.

I worried for months, a year after.  I had moments of clarity: an expression on her face as she gazed up at me, identical to her oldest sister when she was an infant; her tiny hands patting me on the back as she wrapped me in a hug; shadows of family members in baby photos.  But always, when I allowed it to seep through, that dark thought,

‘Did I bring home the right baby?’

I was afraid that if I loved her too much someone would come to take her away from me.  The licensed social worker I had started seeing suggested I felt that way because things – the pregnancy, labor, delivery, and recovery – hadn’t gone according to my plans.

It wasn’t until we sped down the highway one day months later that the truth caught up with me.  As I saw the family resemblance written all over my baby’s face, I realized that I hadn’t thought she was mine because I still hadn’t accepted the fact that I was having a third child.  I hadn’t sanctioned it.  It hadn’t gone according to plan.  I was still grasping for some sort of control that I hadn’t felt since being plunged into the chaos of three children awash with my own anxiety.  Did I not see the resemblance because I didn’t want to see it?

Yes and no.  Or yes, but not totally.  It wasn’t my wounded psyche that was totally to blame.  As my therapist pointed out, irrational fears are another symptom of postpartum depression.  I more than filled that box on the survey.  It was a strange split, though.  Rationally, I knew she was mine and accepted her with the unconditional love of a mother.  In the stark predawn hours of loneliness or moments of love bordering on too intense, my irrational self would pull back, fraught with worry and dread.

My husband irresolutely assured me she was ours.  “What do I need to do to prove it to you?” he asked.  “Do you want to get blood tests done?”  “She’s ours, Jen, I know it.”  “I was right there beside you when she was born.”  To which I responded, sometimes verbally – and later as the argument wore out, silently – “But that was before she went to the nursery and lost her bracelets.”

I couldn’t shut off the stream of irrational thought and worry – even though I knew there were holes all over my argument.  I felt silly voicing my concerns, but wanted other people to tell me how much she looked like her sisters or me or my husband.  I needed validation that the ‘voices’ in my head were wrong.  I couldn’t defeat them myself.

And I didn’t.  With love and support from my husband, my fabulous social worker, lifestyle changes, the passage of time, and eventually medication, the irrational worry stopped.  It became definable, ‘boxable’, and I shut it away.  I don’t think it’ll come back, but I think I’ll always remember how real and frightening it was.

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