The Good Survives…….choosing how we remember

Not the day it said 'No fishing', The day the osprey looked at us.

Not the day it said ‘No fishing’,
The day the osprey looked at us.

The Good Survives

Not the time Jane threw a coffeepot at Don,
but the time they swam with turtles in Puako Bay.

        Not getting drunk and crashing your friend’s car,
        but handing him your #20 Adams, that’s caught fish all day.

Charles Harper Webb

These are the opening couplets of The Good Survives by Charles Harper Webb. This poem was recently selected by Natasha Tretheway in the New York Times Magazine. She said:

As a child, I would often recite poems to banish some painful or unpleasant memory. Words became a kind of talisman, as they are in this poem, a way of willing the mind to recollect all the good that lives alongside what we want to forget.These opening couplets remind us about the selective potential of memory and, more importantly, that we can choose how to remember someone or some event. 

I used this poem in a mental health recovery group; a participant said it reminded her that she could choose the memories that survive and not be overwhelmed by the dark, the sad, the traumatic. These can be the memories that so often come to the fore, obliterating the good and potentially overwhelming someone. Knowing that we have a choice, finding a sense of our own agency, is a powerful part of becoming ourselves. The group wrote their own couplets; a participant said that writing and reading ‘made the thoughts in my head dissipate’ and that writing gave structure to his experience in a new and containing way.

Writing prompt: Write a poem about an event or person. Write in couplets counterbalancing a negative with a positive aspect:

Not………………………………..

But………………………………..

Notice what happens to the memory as you do this.

Writing does give structure to our experience. If trauma is a rupture in the narrative, writing can provide a way of restoring the narrative of experience. Find out more at this workshop in Boulder where we will experiment with different structured writing techniques that have proved to be helpful:

Expressive Writing in Health & Trauma Recovery: Tools for Counseling Practice

September 19th 2015 9.30-12.30pm

Facilitated by:

Kate Thompson, MA, CJT, existential counselor, journal therapist and author of Therapeutic Journal Writing: An Introduction for Professionals

Carolyn Jennings, Journal to the Self® facilitator, author of Hunger Speaks a memoir told in poetry whose journals were key to her recovery from an eating disorder

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Literature & Landscape

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Moose in Brainard Lake

Summer has come late this year, is still coming, not settling. Everything is damp, the air is humid. Visitors from England comment on how green it is here. The landscape is full and juicy, unusual for Colorado in July.

The period of the last two months has been filled with lots of events and activity. This started with the World Congress in Existential Therapy in London in May, where I taught a workshop:

Pourquoi Ecrire? Where Jean-Paul Sartre & Journal Therapy converge

This period has just ended with the July writing workshops I’ve been teaching with my colleague Mary Reynolds Thompson on Landscape & Psyche.

In our workshop Landscape Literature and Imagination: How we connect self and place, we begin by asking participants to think about a book, poem or song in which landscape is a strong aspect, a landscape that they connect to in some way or which made a lingering impression on them.

Journal prompt: List the books, poems or songs that have strong landscapes for you. Think about at what time in your life you discovered them. What spoke to you?

Thinking about this before the workshop I realized that I was brought up on the wild literary landscapes of northern England, in particular the Lake District. This landscape ran like a thread through my reading in the first 20 years of my life.

Copyright Chris Warren

Ullswater: Copyright Chris Warren

First there was Beatrix Potter in my pre-literate days, then Swallows & Amazons and Arthur Ransome’s other novels about children escaping supervision by adults to have adventures on the lakes and in the fells. Then later Wordsworth, The Prelude (to which I still return), perhaps the greatest landscape and psyche poem ever written.

This landscape was also physically real to me, the place of many childhood holidays, the Lakeland fells familiar from many walks and explorations.

Journal Prompt: Choose one of the books from your list. Imagine you are holding it in your hands. When you open the cover there is a picture of the landscape, a frontispiece. It could be a watercolor, a photograph or an engraving. Look at it closely and then, when it has come into focus begin to describe what you see. Describe it in as much detail as you can

From memory to memoir…..

I worked with Carry Gorney on her memoir and am delighted that she has agreed to provide some thoughts about her experience for this blog:

Send me a parcel with a hundred lovely things

Send me a parcel with a hundred lovely things

“I come from a family with heads still in the Weimar republic. My own consciousness eventually leads me to the community arts movement of the 70s. I wanted to produce a far reaching memoir, knitting together my family story and my own.

My Mum’s ending is my memoir’s beginning, My own world spirals out of control as we both descend into the chaos of her failing body. We cling to familiar patterns of coffee and knitting needles which clickety-clack through my book as the story unfolds.”

Journal prompt: Is there anyone close to you whose decline has overshadowed the richness of your relationship with them? Write some short pieces about some of the experiences you shared and see if your collages bring them back to you as they were.

Work in progress:

“Sometimes I write about an episode a character, an incident with enthusiasm.

Sometimes I just lift my fingers and something arrives on the page which hardly needs editing; vivid, funny, alive ..

Sometimes I step back into a time long before me; blurred and monochrome yet strangely familiar. I have to grit my teeth and forge ahead with stories that belonged to others. I put dark and dismal passages on to paper. For every personal anecdote, there has to be a historical context, back and forth, between memory and the history book. I lay on the sofa eating chocolates eyes closed, resisting, yet eventually returning to chronicle the elusive before I am allowed to grasp hope, dreams and new beginnings.”

Journal prompt: Research some historical information about your chosen story and write about the connection between history and your personal experience.

Write the bits you can:

“Writing it was making a collage, small pieces, sepia images, letters in brown flimsy envelopes; ‘opened by censor’ stamped on the back. Eventually the fragments came together into paragraphs, chapters and sections, that spanned half a century.”

Thea and John Ernest 1941

Thea and John Ernest 1941

“My life and its procession of characters emerged as if carved out of a block of marble, the structure appeared, eventually the detail, the colours, the smells, the feel of wool between fingers …a whole book was there. It has an orange and grey cover, it’s no longer in my head….it’s out there…you can read it.”

Thank you, Carry.

Send me a Parcel with a Hundred Lovely Things by Carry Gorney is available here and on Amazon

Janus: looking back, looking forward……..

Janus_coin

Janus

January seems to be a time for looking back to last year, and looking forward into this one. Janus, the Roman god depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions, symbolises this as we move through his namesake month. He’s also the god of transitions and links past with future. In fact there’s much more to him than I’d realised, but for now I’m looking at his ability to look back and forwards as we transition from one year to another.

One of the fascinating  projects I was involved with in 2014  was working with Carry Gorney on her memoir, Send me a parcel with 100 lovely things (to read more about this book click here). This book interweaves her parents’  journey from Germany to Yorkshire (including her father’s letters from the Isle of Man internment camp) with her own journey from Yorkshire into a wider world. I was her writing coach and editor throughout the process and was thrilled to receive a copy of the real, physical book in early January. It’s satisfying to see something through from the tentative start to completion.

Journal Prompt: Look back over 2014, notice your activities, the projects that you were engaged in. Did some come to completion? How do you feel about them? Are there some which you wish to leave in 2014? Which ones are you bringing forward into 2015?

January Ice

January Ice

It’s conventional to make New Year’s Resolutions at the beginning of January for the coming year. But why not do this at other times? I now invite you to make Re-commitments to unfinished, abandoned or forgotten practices or projects. Do this without guilt or sense of failure for having let things lapse, but rather with pleasure and satisfaction at being able to bring them into focus again. What do you want to continue or bring to completion this year?

Journal prompt: Imagine that the year is already half over. It’s the end of June and you are looking back at the activities and projects of the year to date. Have some come to completion? What do you want to continue to develop? Which ones are still waiting?

 

 

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here's an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,200 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Wild Soul Stories….

Wild Soul Landscape

Wild Soul Landscape

My friend and colleague Mary Reynolds Thompson (yes, really – no relation) and I love working together – see our upcoming workshop at the end of this post. This week she interviewed me and invited me to tell a Wild Soul Story. When Mary invited me I went to diaries I had kept in earlier life and found an experience from early adolescence to talk about. You can listen to our conversation by clicking here. I could have chosen many other Wild Soul Stories…..Landscape has always been a powerful agent for my relationship with the self.

A Wild Soul Story is an account of an occasion when you and your environment, your inner and outer landscapes engage in significant ways. Mary says:

No one Wild Soul Story is like any other.  To all of us, however, it bridges the false divide between inner and outer nature, Earth and Soul.

Living this story, we come fully alive. We embrace a sense of self that is connected to the Earth and to our own true nature.

Journal Prompt: Think about a time when you became deeply aware of your environment.Write a Wild Soul Story of your own. Write about how it affected you at the time and how you remember it. Has it changed your relationship with yourself or with nature?

Mary Reynolds Thompson and I are teaching our popular workshop on December 17th:

WORKSHOP: Literature, Landscape, and

Winter Landscape

Winter Landscape

Imagination

December 17 @ 2:00 pm – 4:30 pm
Book Passage,

51 Tamal Vista Blvd,  Corte Madera,  CA 94925 United States

+ Google Map

A strong landscape has an emotional effect; it creates a type of memory in which the landscape plays a vital role and becomes fused with the self. We will explore how landscapes––real, literary, and imagined––can create a topology of memory that infuses our writing and lives with deeper awareness and creativity.

We hope you can join us.

Let us know if you’d like us to bring our workshop to a location near you.

And when did you last see your father?

The village cricket team

The village cricket team c.1951

My father would have been 88 this week except he died 27 years ago. He’s been dead for more of my lifetime than he was alive. I still write about him.

There are many published memoirs about the death and life of a parent but Blake Morrison’s 1993 book And when did you last see your father?  was one of the first. It alternates chapters about his father in life and chapters about his decline and death from cancer. All written in the present tense.  On BBC Radio 4’s Bookclub recently Morrison was asked who his imagined reader was when he was writing it. “Myself”, he said,  and added that writing the book was a kind of therapy, that what he was unable to speak about, he was able to write about. Some people can write about things before they can speak about them, especially traumatic or complex things.  Another guest on the programme said, “Reading it was great therapy”.

In Moments of BeingVirginia Woolf writes that her mother, who died when she was 13, obsessed her until she was 44:

“Then one day walking round Tavistock Square I made up, as I sometimes make up my books, To the Lighthouse; in a great, apparently involuntary rush……….I wrote the book very quickly; and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her.

…”I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.” p81.

Both Woolf and Morrison understand how writing can be powerfully therapeutic, a way of transforming difficult, painful and inexplicable feelings and experiences into part of the coherent narrative of a life.

One of the challenges of writing about a deceased parent is, as Morrison puts it, how you ‘lift the lid’, how you portray with honesty and with love the complexity of the person and your relationship, how not to ‘beatify the dead’. How do you give yourself permission to show ambivalence and know that it’s ok to show ambivalence? How do you show the mutual frustrations that are present at times in any relationship, especially when there is no longer hope of resolution or understanding?

And when did you last see your father? Frederick Yeames

And when did you last see your father? Frederick Yeames

Journal Prompt:  And when did you last see your father? opens with a vivid childhood memory of going on a family holiday, written in the present tense. We sense that this is a typical view of his father. What typical childhood memories do you have? Write about one in the present tense, situate your parent in context.

Sometimes, as in actor Alan Cumming’s memoir, Not my father’s son, about his violent father, there is no ambivalence but it can be just as difficult to find the words.

What are your favourite memoirs about parents? Please share them in a comment.

What is your experience of writing about your parents? Have you found it therapeutic?

 

 

 

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Inner and outer landscapes…………

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?

Elizabeth Bishop – Questions of Travel

 

This summer I’ve travelled to different places, both new and familiar. Now I’m happy to be home but I still think of places I’ve been.

Colorado landscape

Colorado landscape

In the last few weeks I’ve spent time in other landscapes that I used to call home and still feel viscerally familiar and beautiful. There are landscapes which become part of us, part of our inner landscapes. Just as we imprint the places we pass through, so they imprint us, leaving a trace which we can explore later in writing.

In Autobiography in Landscape: Telling our stories through the places and landscapes of our hearts, minds and souls in Derbyshire this September participants explored places that have been significant to them and also the landscape where the workshop took place – using the present as a doorway to the past and re-discovering aspects of the self in those other landscapes.

When the sun came out we went into the woods across the road to write. It was a different experience to write in nature, to observe closely the scene around us, from the ants to the water, the sounds and smells as well as the sights.

Journal prompt: Write outside.  Take your notebook and pen and go out into the landscape. If wild nature isn’t within reach, find a park or a garden. Write what you observe through your senses (sight, smell, sound, touch). Notice details that you don’t normally see as you walk or pass through these places, distracted by other thoughts or conversations. Write about your experience of the place in the present moment.

Some participants found that writing in the woods reminded them of other woods  – by scraping away the present landscape they were able to find memories of other woods layered beneath. We might call this a palimpsest –  where one landscape has been overlaid by others in our memory and we can uncover those which lie below.

Yorkshire landscape

Yorkshire landscape

 

Journal prompt: Allow yourself to make connections to other places in your life. Follow your own memory trip to other places that have been significant in some way in your life. Find yourself in them and what they mean to you. 

 

What are the places that have been important to you? Share your significant landscapes here.

 

 

A special guest blog on clearing clutter with compassion…..

My last post on clutter received a lot of interest so I invited clutter specialist Carolyn Koehnline to write a guest blog:

I know how to deal with clutter. I’ve been helping other people address it for over twenty years. And yet, when I’m facing my own neglected Carolyn Kpiles I can still sometimes experience that unhelpful but familiar mix of shame, fatigue, and overwhelm.

Clutter is the stuff we want to avoid. It is the boxes, bags and piles connected to decisions we don’t want to make and feelings we don’t want to feel. It is the physical reminder of losses, changes, mistakes, things we meant to do and didn’t. It is the physical evidence that we don’t have everything perfectly together in our lives. Most of us practice ignoring it on a regular basis. When we do decide to deal with it, just looking at it can open the door to whatever judgmental voices we carry around. “You are such a loser! When are you going to grow up?” And in my case, “And you call yourself a clutter coach?”

 

It’s time to reach for my journal – my kind, wise, non-judgmental clutter-clearing companion. Just opening it, I begin to access more helpful parts of my brain. My journal has plenty of room for venting and sob stories. If I’m stuck, it offers clear thinking and fresh perspectives.

Journal prompt:

When you’re stuck try writing down some specific questions and then let your journal answer.

For example: Why is this pile so daunting? What will help?

Often the answers that come will be just what you need to get yourself moving.

 

If I’m overwhelmed, it grounds me with practical, doable steps. Best of all, it is an unending source of compassion and mindfulness –essential ingredients for lasting changes in my environment, and my life.

 

Journal Prompt:

1) When you are trying to decide what to do about an emotionally-loaded object complete the following sentence stems:

If I keep it . . .

If I let it go . . .

Explore all your hopes and fears attached to the object.

I’ve seen it over and over in my therapy practice and clutter-coachingClients try to motivate themselves to clear clutter with shame and self-punishment. Real change comes when they learn to be encouraging support people to themselves. Often it is their journals that teach them how to do that.

Journal prompt:

Complete the following (lists or 5-minute-writes – don’t give yourself time to think)20140819_091439

It is time to let go of . . .  
It is time to keep . . .  
It is time to make space for . . . 

Carolyn Koehnline is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Certified Journal Therapist, and clutter coach. Her website is www.ConfrontingClutter.com. Her book, Confronting Your Clutter: Releasing the excess baggage from your home, head, heart, and schedule is available on Amazon.

 

Thank you, Carolyn

Don’t forget to check out my upcoming workshops in the UK & the US – click here.

Silence

In “The True Secret of Writing”, Natalie Goldberg says:

Behind writing, behind words is no words. We need to know about that place. It gives us a larger perspective from which to handle language.

She hikes with a friend – they do the first half in silence, they talk on the way back. This kind of deliberate silence means choosing not to speak – making silence rather than making utterances.  She recommends spending an afternoon not speaking and still going about your life and interactions.

You’ll be surprised how little anyone will notice you are quiet. Everyone is too busy talking.

Still snowy trails

Still snowy trails

Yesterday hiking alone on the still snow-covered mountain trails the loudest sounds were water, rushing snow-melt,then wind in the trees then birds and animals. I found I was paying attention to and noticing the sounds of nature. I felt connected to my surroundings in a different way.

Journal prompt: What do you hear when you walk in silence? Try walking for 20 minutes or more, paying attention to what you can hear. Write about the experience.

This makes me think about conscious silence and unconscious silence, silence we choose rather than silence we experience in a lack of company. For example, when I hike alone  I am naturally silent, when I hike with others there will often be conversation. lf I am at home alone there may be no human voices unless I switch on the radio or answer the telephone. When other people are present I may be speaking or listening, or being silent together.

 

Sound of water

Sound of water

Journal prompt: What is your relationship to silence?

Did you grow up in a noisy family where you had to fight to be heard, where everyone talked?

Did you grow up in a family where no one spoke  or where some people didn’t speak?

Is silence a politesse or a rudeness according to your social code?

“My personal hobbies are reading, listening to music, and silence.” ― Edith Sitwell

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