Beyond the Solstice….

This is the solstice, the still point

of the sun, its cusp and midnight,

the year’s threshold

and unlocking, where the past

lets go of and becomes the future,

the place of caught breath, the door

of a vanished house left ajar.

Margaret Atwood: excerpt from Shapechangers in Winter a long poem in her 1996 collection Morning in the Burned House.

Now we are past the winter solstice of 2020, a year many people are looking forward to bidding good-bye to. A year that has been defined by Covid, fires, protests, election. People across the world have been in and out of lockdown, restrictions, changes and of course losses of all kinds. And then a different Christmas, not travelling, not gathering, re-inventing rituals, adapting them to smallness.

We stand on the threshold between 2020 and 2021 where the past lets go of, and becomes, the future. How are you making sense of the way you’ve got through the last year, what have you learned? Before Christmas I worked with many of my clients on identifying the strengths, skills and experiences that had supported them in difficult times.

Some people have read their way through the year of Covid, others have watched their way through it. People took up different activities, abandoned others. Making lists is one way to see where we’ve come from (the media are full of end of year lists) and aslo of weaving together the strands of the past. What do your lists look like?

Make a list of:

  • Reading: books, poems, papers etc
  • Watching: films, series, shows
  • Walking: places, routes, observations
  • Eating: changes in habits

Then devise your own taxonomy for your list – put things into categories and write about what you notice. Reflect on what it tells you about your life during Covid. What have you learned?

Christmas Day: I gave myself the Christmas gifts of a long walk in nature and Margaret Atwood’s new poetry collection Dearly. What did you give/receive?
  • What haven’t you done this year?
  • What did you let go of? [These lists will contain both positive and negative allow yourself to be surprised]

One new and surprising activity for me was discovering digital story-making, a fascinating combination of words and images to tell personal and therapeutic stories. I took a workshop with Patient Voices where, under the skilled tutelage of Pip Hardy and Tony Sumner, I found myself making the story I needed to make before I knew it myself: A Story of Death and Birth

Some people wrote books:

My student Yocheved Rottenberg published her book combining the wisdom of Jewish writings with therapeutic writing:

Write Your Way Home: A Torah Guide to Therapeutic Writing

Begin the year with a gentle combination of writing and yoga: The Pen and the Practice: Envisioning 2021 with Journalling and Breath-Centred Yoga is a two and a half hour zoom workshop on January 9th to help you look ahead. Details here.

Honoring Silence……….

What happens when we can’t write? When the ability to write abandons us? How can we make sense of this and explain the not-writing periods?

Selective mutism is a response to trauma where people stop speaking (Celie, the heroine of Alice Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple is rendered mute by the abuse she suffers, eventually writing helps her break the silence). Harriet Shawcross explores the phenomenon of selective mutism in her book Unspeakable, part memoir, part investigative journalism. It happens all over the world.

Yet when writing isn’t happening it’s called Writer’s Block which suggests an external wall rather than an internal response to the inexpressible. Anais Nin, the 20th century feminist diarist said:

We write to taste life twice, once in the moment and in retrospect.

so it seems to make perfect sense that we should not want to taste out trauma twice and that writing would desert us in order to protect us.

There have been two significant periods in my life when I couldn’t write – in my teens and just the last few months (slowly now the ability to write in coherent sentences is returning, but not yet the ability to write story). Both times it was after a major trauma. Yet each time I felt frustrated because the very means by which I make sense of the world and process experience had deserted me.

Having been a journal writer since I could make marks on the page, it was extremely distressing to have a period in my teens when I could not write—I literally could not write—a neurological event utterly disrupted my mental and physical processes. The re-learning was slow. I was unlanguaged and felt cut off from my very self when I could not write.

(Thompson K. & and Wright J. 2015 Honoring Silence in  Adams & Thompson (eds)Expressive Writing  Counseling and Healthcare: Rowman and Littlefield)

I see over and over again that some clients who have suffered childhood abuse find it possible to write before they can speak about it. But this is a slow and tender process, one that must be broken down into small and contained parts. Traumatic memories are stored in the non-verbal parts of the brain and restoring the narrative requires access to words.

Prompt: If writing has become hard or seems to have disappeared then remember that one word counts, that a phrase or an image contains much more than itself. So, write the word  and without context. Do not try to put it into a story. Do not yet try to tell the story of your trauma. Story time will come later. And for once, do not re-read, do not reflect, leave your marks on the page and come back to them when time has passed.

Above all, be gentle with yourself.

 

 

 

Writing in troubling times…….

 

winter lakeAlthough the lake here is full at this time and we have snow on the ground, there is not the same calm and safety for many people and communities that we know. Perhaps you or someone you know is personally affected by the fires, floods, earthquakes indelibly changing the landscape, or perhaps the  news brings it into your awareness with brutal immediacy. In these troubling times, when there are natural disasters affecting so many people and communities, it is so easy to feel paralyzed and helpless whilst simultaneously wanting and needing to offer something in whatever way we can.

So I was delighted when my friend and colleague Mary Reynolds Thompson suggested that we record a series of free audio mini-workshops on Writing for Resilience: Shifting your Emotional Landscape.

You can listen to the first of three mini-workshops here.

This episode offers a three-part writing prompt emerging from our joint work on the relationship between Inner and Outer Landscapes. The intention is to help you ground yourself in these troubling times, whatever challenges are facing you.

We hope it may be useful to you or someone you know.

Writing holds a special place among the activities that people use to calm and heal themselves. It is physical, patterned, organised, rhythmic, and directed at a goal. But it is more. It also creates meaning as it flows.

from Surviving Survival: the Art & Science of Resilience by Laurence Gonzales

 

 

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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They may sneer – but they know it works……

The Guardian Weekly
The Guardian Weekly (Photo credit: noodlepie)

In The Guardian Weekly this week Oliver Burkeman, who writes on the ‘science of happiness’ (his inverted commas), wrote in this week’s This column will change your life  that:

“Keeping a journal sounds cheesy but there is increasing evidence that writing things down can help heal us.”

He cites several academic studies that support this. As many people already know from personal experience, keeping a journal is therapeutic.

If you don’t keep a journal is it because the idea of keeping one is in itself embarrassing, even ‘cheesy’?

If you already keep a journal has it ever seemed to be an embarrassing or inadmissible activity?

I confess that it has taken me a long time to admit the verb ‘to journal’ and all its derivative parts of speech into my idiolect. Burkeman uses journalling (with double L of course) as:

A present participle: ‘you should probably be journalling’

A gerund as noun: ‘you shouldn’t view journalling….’

However he retains the main verb as  ‘to keep or write a journal’ and journal remains a noun.

What vocabulary do you use to describe this activity? Do you use a different term altogether?

Even sardonic and cynical Burkeman admits that keeping a gratitude journal really helps. This is after all one of the most common exercises in the journal repertoire (I believe there are even apps for it).

Journal Prompt – A Gratitude Journal

Every day write down three things for which you are grateful. DSC02799

Just a word, phrase or sentence is enough. They can be anything from the mundane to the sublime – it’s really about paying attention to things that have enhanced your experience in some way.

At the end of the week write a feedback entry in your journal beginning:

When I read my gratitude lists for this week I notice…….