Originally I applied an exercise that involves tracing around both hands and creating fun characters on each finger tip with young students in the primary schools.
Initially, we read the classic short story, ‘The Bad Deeds Gang’ and extracts from ‘The Body’ by Stephen King. Time permitting we watched the movie, ‘Stand by Me’ which was based on King’s, ‘The Body’.
Inspired, students loved creating opposing gangs, with gang leaders not to be messed with, weaker characters who could be manipulated and so on. They loved developing stories about the characters in each gang, the family dogs who followed them and writing detailed accounts about some of the altercations that took place.
Not to miss out on all the fun I have found that adult participants in a Lived Experience Course enjoy remembering the gangs that existed in their school days. Similarly, they find it cathartic to recall the bullies who led some gangs that existed back in the day and the long term impact that some of the schoolyard relationships had on their lives.
In a recent Writing for Wellness course, this exercise was applied to effectively draw out material that could be included in any Lived Experience Memoir.
After tracing their hands I asked participants to identify, on five fingers of one hand, the people who had a positive impact on their life (living or dead) and then to identify five on the other hand (living or dead) who had created some issues for them.
Once you have identified these people you may spend some time interviewing them, writing unsent letters to share with them the influence they had, engage in dialogue (active imagination) with them, create detailed portraits or fit them into a piece about a pivotal time.
In 2001 my late husband and I visited Delphi. For me, reaching Delphi was the climactic moment of our six month trip throughout the United Kingdom, Scandinavia and Western Europe. It was my opportunity to all but swim in the famed waters of Castalia, waters said to be a source of inspiration for so many poets and writers. My husband suggested we bottle some of this magical water and I decanted it into small bottles and gave it to those who worked closely with me and believed in its power. Not all of us can reach creative springs like the waters of Castalia but we can take the time to undertake a holy well meditaton.
The first thing I want you to do is to get into a comfortable position. Make sure you are as comfortable as you can be and that your clothing is loose and not binding. Some people like to lie down when meditating, but I often find that it’s easier to fall asleep (which in itself isn’t a bad thing and the dreams you can have is amazing) but I prefer to prop myself up so that I am neither lying down or sitting upright. Also, if you do keep on falling asleep during meditation perhaps it would be better if you change to another position like comfortably sitting in a chair or in the lotus position. I do believe, however, that you should find a position that is comfortable for YOU! Also, if you do fall asleep you should not worry about it as that was meant to happen and perhaps you should try the meditation again sometime.
Take three deep breaths and on the third deep breath close your eyes.
I want you to feel totally relaxed starting with your head. Feel the muscles in your face start to relax, especially with your jaw area. Do not clench your teeth and feel the stiffness fade away. Continue to feel the relaxation in your neck area. Feel it relax and all the day’s tensions leave your body. You are now relaxing your shoulder and arm muscles. Feel them go slack and become as light as air. Feel your torso relax and your heartbeat slow. Breathe deeply and slowly. Do not think of things that have happened today only think of the here and now. Let your back relax and all stress leave your body. Let your legs relax and feel weightless.
Breathe slowly and relax your whole body…
Think of yourself walking on a path on a warm summer day. The path is well worn and you already seem to know the way, and you feel as if you have walked here so many times before. You see before you lush green rolling hills and in the distance a large wooden bridge. As you continue to walk to notice that the path becomes a bit steeper and rocky, first going up and then going down the rolling hills. You exert yourself to walk the path but it feels good and you are enjoying the pace. As you continue to walk you notice that it is late afternoon and there is a slight breeze. It is quiet, except for the bleating of the sheep grazing nearby and the songs of the corncrake and other small birds.
(One Minute Pause)
You walk a bit faster now and the bridge is so close that you can see the wooden moss-covered beams covering the bridge in a green and brown canopy. The bridge spans a small stream and hazel trees grow near the bridge. The gurgling and bubbling of the water feels relaxing. You stop on the bank to pick up, crack and taste the nuts and scoop up the cool clear water to drink. As you pause you see salmon and other fish swimming in the crystal clear stream. The sunlight glints on the water and catches your eyes. Take some time to rest from your long walk and enjoy the cool stillness of the bridge. Refreshed from your break you continue over the bridge into a dense forest filled with huge trees.
You are not afraid as your feet move steadily along the thick carpet of leaves and moss. The vegetation is thick and sometimes the underbrush is thorny and scratches your legs. It is dark and hard to walk but your feet always seem to know the way. The smell is very earthy and very fresh and you breathe deeply. As you continue to move through the forest you hear people talking and laughing in the distance, the more you walk, the closer the sound gets.
You soon start to see a light through the trees and the trees and undergrowth start to get thinner. As you walk on the path through the forest, you suddenly come into a clearing surrounded on one side by cliffs. You see men, women and children dressed in colourful clothing – the women have colourful wreaths of different types of flowers on their heads while the men are carrying flowering branches of apple, pear and other types of flowering plants.
In front of you, at the base of the cliffs, you see running water flowing into a round stone well and you are drawn towards it. One of the women walks up to you, gently takes your hand, leads you toward the well and says with a soft smile, “Welcome, we have been expecting you”. As you get closer to the well, you notice that it has been decorated with beautiful flowers, seeds, branches leaves and shells. Much care has been taken in making the design with the natural materials…..
“Go ahead”, says the mysterious woman, “Look deep into the well…the well guardians have much to tell you”. You walk around the well sunwise three times and then you gaze deeply into the inky black depths of the well and the well reveals a vision for only you to see…
(3 to 5 Minute Pause)
Near the well you notice a silver chalice. You take the chalice, dip it into the well and drink deeply. The water is cool, refreshing and healing. You drink until your thirst is sated.
Looking into the well you take a personal item of jewellery or a coin or another item and toss it gently into the deep water. As you do so you thank the divine presence that revealed its message to you. When you are done, you turn from the well and notice that all of the villagers are gone, including your otherworldly companion.
You walk back toward the forest and into the deep canopy of trees retracing your steps. The path seems easier now somehow and you make it easily through the forest. As you walk and retrace your steps you start to become aware of your physical feet. Listen to my voice. Even though you may not want to return to the here and now, you must. You feel your feet and legs now and you are starting to become aware of things around you. You start to feel your physical body- you are aware of your own breathing. Your arms are feeling heavy and you can move them around if you want…wiggle your fingers and stretch. You feel the floor beneath you and when you feel that you are ready you can open your eyes…
Edgar Allen Poe’s story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, like ‘The Woman With Hair of Gold’, as told by Pinkola Estes, tells us much about the toxic nature of secrets. Both the dismembered heart and the golden hair of the murdered woman tell their tale and eventually bring about justice.
In Chapter 13 of Women Who Run With Wolves Pinkola Estes not only spells out just how secrets can slay us but also provides tangible ways of opening the secrets.
In Lived Experience Narrative Workshops we talk about ‘airing the dirty linen’. To ‘launder’ we undertake a body scan that involves listening to what the heart and other parts of the body have to say about secrets that long to be released. Then we work with mandala templates of hearts, colouring and noting scars and secrets that are seeking to be released from the lock proof places where they have been stored. Once secrets have been identified we focus on one and write a stream of consciousness for twenty minutes. We share what we are able to share and the homework is to develop the piece further.
From experience, I know that this can lead to some exciting, incredibly diverse projects. Perhaps Australian author, Gail Bell, began like this. She is one author who has been willing to bring into the sharp light of day shocking family secrets.
I am currently listening to an audio recording of her award-winning book. The dust jacket outlines the basic story for us. “When Dr William Macbeth poisoned two of his sons in 1927, his wife and sister hid the murders in the intensely private realm of family secrets. Macbeth behaved as if he were immune to consequences and avoided detection and punishment.
Or did he? Secrets can be as corrosive as poison, and as time passed, the story haunted and divided his descendants. His granddaughter, Gail Bell, spent ten years reading the literature of poisoning in order to understand Macbeth’s life. Herself a chemist, she listened for echoes in the great cases of the nineteenth century, in myths, fiction, and poison lore.
Intricate, elegant, and beautifully realised, The Poison Principle is a masterful book about family secrets and literary poisonings.”