Parting Gifts

Dear Heather
I would like to be remembered for looking after my grandma. These are some of the things that I do for her. I get my grandma tea. I massage her back, I put cream on her legs and I help put her duck away.

I would also like to be remembered for looking after my animals. Here are some of the things I do. I take my birds outside, I give them water and I fill up their food containers

from Laura K

Susan Varley’s ‘Badger’s Parting Gift’ is the book I turn to when I want to give a small gift to someone who is bereaved. It is also the book I pull out in a Lived Experience Narrative or Writing for Wellness Workshop when I want to touch on the sensitive subject of death

I encourage you to watch this video and spend some time remembering not only the parting gifts of those you have loved but your own legacy. What are some of the footprints you will leave in the sand?

To make a footprint take off your shoes and socks and put your foot on your journal page. Trace your foot and then carefully draw in the toenails.

Meditate upon your footprint and consider some of the footprints that you have left behind, the things that people will remember you for, your parting gift. On each toe, write an impression that you have made, a footprint that you have left behind.

Choose one toe and circle it. On the sole of your foot write more information about this particular event and why it stands out.

Now make a footmark in your visual journal and write a letter explaining why you will be remembered.

Footprints also provide a great way to set goals. On the soles of your feet write about the footprints you want to leave behind. Fill a shoebox, decorate insoles, make shoes, write on the bottoms of old shoes, pull out your baby shoes….. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.

Unbottling the Heart – Expressing Difficult Emotions

“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.”
E. B. White.

“I do not believe that I have ever written a children’s book,”
Maurice Sendak

“Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else … may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds.”

There is a wonder and magic to childhood. We don’t realize it at the time, of course . . . yet the adults in our lives do. They encourage us to see things in the stars, to find joy in colours and laughter as we play. But what happens when that special someone who encourages such wonder and magic is no longer around? We can hide, we can place our heart in a bottle and grow up . . . or we can find another special someone who understands the magic. Oliver Jeffers delivers a remarkable book, a touching and resonant tale reminiscent of The Giving Tree that will speak to the hearts of children and parents alike.

We do ourselves and our children a disservice if we shield them and ourselves from difficult emotions. Happily many beautiful children’s books are now helping children make sense of loss and grief. One of my favourites is Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley. Varley’s book provides concrete ways to deal with the grief associated with the loss of a loved one.

Over at Brain Pickings there is a wonderful article about Oliver Jeffers poignant The Heart in the Bottle which also addresses how to cope with the emotions associated with a significant loss.

Another thread that can also be picked up when talking about unbottling emotions can be found in the work of Elizabeth Skye. Skye. Unbottling the Tragedy of Stolen Relatives, a project she initiated, explores the use of pottery to visualize data and tell stories on missing and murdered indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people.

In this work, Skye is consulting with families of MMIWG2 to create personalized, unique bottles representing individual MMIWG2 cases, with the aim of creating an impactful representation of MMIWG2 data, and fostering critical dialogue on this violence.

Skye is creating hand-casted bottles inspired by the shapes of liquor bottles, as a means of representing the history behind the epidemic of violence against indigenous women and girls. Colonization has led to indigenous women and girls being objectified, and like alcohol, consumed and discarded—as empty liquor bottles pollute our homelands, the grief and trauma of the violence against our women and girls pervade our communities.

The bottles created in this work are thus also a representation of the relationship between violation of Unčí Makhá (Mother Earth) and the violation of women and girls. Each bottle will have a label reminiscent of the missing person labels that historically were printed on milk cartons; this is to make the bottles recognizable as calling attention to stolen relatives, and to criticize the irresponsible negligence of federal and local law enforcement in handling MMIWG2 cases, many of which are missing person reports that they fail to adequately document or publicise. The care involved in consulting with families, hand-casting each bottle and creating personalized labels is a reclamation of the sacredness of MMIWG2, and an honouring of the unique spirit of each stolen relative. Bottles will only be made with families’ permission, and the information printed on each label will be determined through consultation with each family. Source: Sovereign Bodies Institute.

Promotional material for a conference about unbottling the vulnerabilities of cities facing the threat of natural disaster included this image of a bottled city, presumably shielded from disaster. Those of us who have read Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death know that barricades are rarely impenetrable. Prince Prospero who reigned over the kingdom in this tale deluded himself when he thought you could keep out the dreaded Red Death. Even the youngest children who I read the opening of this story to know that this story is not going to end well and that the Red Death will prevail.

Identifying location of emotions in the bodyOne way to unbottle emotions is to keep a journal and write unsent letters.

Consider how you will you unbottle some of the emotions that Bessel Van Der Kolk maintains are stored in various parts of the body?

Van der Kolk’s book ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ conjures, in my mind, the kind of scene we see on television when someone like Anthony Green is standing in front of visuals, keeping score as they come in from all over Australia.

One way that we begin to unbottle emotions in a Lived Experience Narrative Course is to undertake an extensive body scan. We systematically search, with a good torchlight, all the hidden crevices and locate all the hermetically sealed places where things which need to be unbottled are hiding, but emitting all sorts of toxins into the body.

Upon completion, we mark things on a template like the one shown here and then contemplate which hidden emotion we can unmask.

Let Your Fingers Do The Talking

Old Grumpy’s fence was right behind the cricket wicket and when the balls flew over the fence he sliced them in half, so the bad deeds gang came up with some inventive revenge tactics.

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.

James explored the famous literary figures who had impacted on his work.

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.

The Tell Tale Heart

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.”

 

Little Red Suitcase of Memories

Having shown the group my little red suitcase, filled with a lot of photos and ephemera that was on my fridge in the house I left two years after my husband’s death, I asked them to bring along a case or a shoebox full of bits and pieces. We will randomly draw something out, spend some time closely examining the photo or item, dig deep into the well of memory and write freely for twenty minutes.

Mirabai Starr and Natalie Goldberg have documented guidelines for this kind of writing.

  • Set a timer and write for twenty minutes without stopping or censoring yourself.
  • Lose control. Allow yourself to be naked! Follow your heart and write without restraint.
  • Be quite specific. Stay as grounded as possible and use expressive language.
  • Don’t think! Thinking is the enemy! Just take off the leash and go for broke.
  • Give little thought to punctuation, spelling, grammar, sentence construction. Liberate yourself from any constraints.
  • Remember that this is not about being published. This is compost! You can write absolute twaddle if you like. There will be more than enough time to edit later.

Autoethography of a Writer

Autoethnography is a form of qualitative research in which an author uses self-reflection and writing to explore anecdotal and personal experience and connect this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings.

One way to get into writing about your lived experience is to begin by writing about something as simple as the story of your life as a writer. When you tackle this task write creatively, focusing on as many concrete events as you can. Give your story a beginning, middle and an ending. Make your story interesting rather than telling about it in ‘this happened, then this’ fashion. Make sure to include memories of childhood and adolescent writing experience.

Here are some questions to consider as you begin to work.

Do you remember being taught how to write?
What principles were you taught?
By whom?
Where did you write?
Do you recall any products of your early writing experiences?
What made you like or dislike writing?
When you write now, how do you feel?
What emotions circulate through your body?
Do you feel as if you are a subjectively or emotionally different person when you are writing? Characterize these differences?
Is writing a rational, emotional or spiritual experience for you? Explain or specify.
Do you feel compelled to write or do you avoid writing as much as possible?
Describe the best and worst writing experiences of your life. What made each memorable? How do you write?
Where do you write these days?
Is writing integrated into your daily routines?
Do you write every day or only when you must?
What are your work habits as a writer? How do you get started?
From what sources do you draw inspiration to write?
How many drafts do you typically write?
Do you write with the door open or closed?
In restaurants, bars, or coffee shops?
What is your ideal writing environment?
How do you organize your space for writing?
With whom do you share what you write?
What are your revising or rewriting habits or patterns?
Do you have someone to rely on as an editor, critic or writing buddy?
How do you know when you have finished writing a particular piece?
Do you act “professional” as a writer?
What does “acting professional as a writer” mean to you?
What forms of writing are you engaged in, e.g, poetry, journalism, short stories, memoir? Which do you enjoy most? Why?
What are your hopes and aspirations as a writer?
What are your fears and apprehensions?
What kind of future do you envision as a writer?
What would you like to accomplish?
What will you need to do to achieve this goal?
What obstacles are in the way of your writing?
To what extent do you get distracted by social media, e-mail, text messaging and phone calls?
How can these distractions be overcome?
Do your family members and/or friends understand the importance of writing to you?
Are you able to keep them from disturbing you while you are working?