Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Expressive Arts: Using Your Hands to Heal Your Heart

As we embark on the New Year, this article, written by By Rachel Faldet, M.A.W. may provide some insight to you.

One Valentine's Day afternoon when I was in my mid-30s, I sat cross-legged on an oriental rug in our living room.  On my lap was a baby quilt of calico blues and greens, madras plaid purples and reds.  During January, I had sewn together squares, triangles, and borders by playful whim.  Finished with tying the flannel backing to the cotton front with strands of embroidery thread, I was examining my work.  The edges weren't bound, but the gift was nearly done.  The quilt – big enough for a toddler to snuggle in while listening to a good-night story – was for my sister's winter newborn.                                                                                                                          
    Earlier that week I learned that my pregnancy was over, and the doctor suggested that I wait for my body to miscarry naturally.  I had deeply wanted my child  -- and still did.                                                                                                                                
    When I think of that bittersweet holiday in the early 1990s, much of it is a blur, but for the image of my bereaved self threading a darning needle, pushing it through three layers of cloth and batting, cutting and tying thread in knots, and starting the process again.  Reeling from an ultrasound that showed no heartbeat at twelve weeks gestation, I turned to my hands.
    Consider your hands.  Look at them.  Move them.
    Working with your hands can help you navigate emotional turmoil.  Your hands can help you reach a place that University of Chicago psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihaly calls “flow.” Through extensive research, he explored the question of how people can help themselves feel happy when their lives are full of problems and struggle.  He advocates the idea that when people are in emotional pain, they need to do something to actively take them out of sadness for a while.  In Flow:  The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihaly says, “One of the most frequently mentioned dimensions of the flow experience is that, while it lasts, one is able to forget all the unpleasant aspects of life” (58).
    In the months and years after my second miscarriage, I confronted my sorrow with sewing supplies and with paper and ink.  Quilts for winter warmth at our house, and baby quilts for gifts occupied my hands and mind.  I shaped words into prose, sorting through my experience for myself and eventually creating a book containing the voices of many bereaved parents.  Over time, expressive arts helped heal my wounded heart.
    Expressive arts -- such as gardening, painting, following a cross-stitch pattern, sewing, woodcarving, soldering stained glass into jewel-like objects, knitting, writing, singing, playing an instrument, beading, or forming vessels from wet clay – can have soothing and therapeutic power.   When using handwork to help you cope after losing a child, what you create with your hands doesn't have to be perfect, or even good.  It doesn't matter if the end result is beautiful or if it is rustic.  What matters most is the doing itself. It's a way to put some control on an uncontrollable situation.  It's a way to offer tribute to the child.  If you end up with something usable and lovely – like a necklace of iridescent beads interspersed with Bali silver or a painting of brilliant orange-red poppies – that's a bonus.
    Rilla Esbjornson, a founder/leader of a Share group in Montana, can testify to the importance of using your hands in coping with grief.  On a Christmas morning her son, Joshua Michael, was born by emergency C-section and died two hours later.  The baby's lungs were not developed.
    In the bleak winter months after Joshua's birth and death, Esbjornson “spent hours watching soap operas and crocheting an intricate fisherman's afghan, cocooning myself within a grief work that was utterly overwhelming.”   After finishing three-fourths of the afghan, she realized that she had miscounted the stitches.  She “ripped out row upon row of stitches, the undone fiber entangled with my grief.  I crocheted the afghan twice before I got it right.”
    As a teacher who works with college writers, my world revolves around using writing as an expressive art.   In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, beloved author Anne Lamott says to inexperienced and experienced writers, “Tell the truth as you understand it” (226).  I'm drawn to this notion because that's what you do when you work with your hands – as writers or crafters or fine artists – even if you don't consider yourself creative by nature. You try to shape your experiences and ideas into forms that speak to yourself and/or to others.  You try to make sense of your     experiences – the good and the sorrowful.
    The act of writing offers you records of your thoughts:  informal, unshaped thoughts that you would never show another person or formal, shaped thoughts to offer to readers.  After each of my miscarriages, I wrote informally, often slouched at my desk in the dark hours of night, retelling the story privately to myself using pencil and paper.  After my second miscarriage – which spiraled me into serious depression – I wrote a much-revised, polished piece.  It seemed public, I felt a sense of accomplishment, and I craved to read shared stories.  What had others experienced?  How did my feelings connect with theirs?

That essay became the inspiration to put together – with the help of my friend Karen Fitton -- the anthology Our Stories of Miscarriage. Writing about our own experiences after our pregnancy losses was healing for us, and we believed that others who had miscarried had used writing in their grief work, too. We gathered essays, journal excerpts, and poems from bereaved parents across the country. This chorus of voices acknowledges the emotional pain of miscarriage; the pain that lingers after the physical pain is gone.
Some of the contributors to Our Stories of Miscarriage talk about using their hands to help their hearts.  In journal excerpts titled “Lily in the Garden,” Deborah L. Cooper talks about being a gardener and bereaved mother. In early September, while digging in the garden she daydreams about “my little red-haired girl.  Only seems right to give her the name of a flower -- Iris, Rose, or Lily” (24).   Several weeks later, she miscarried.
 In Cooper's October 17 journal, a month after her miscarriage, she says, “Lots of labor has gone into my garden these past thirty days.  When a woman's body gears up for having a child, there are incredible stores of energy building within.  The flower beds have become my decompression chamber to bleed off that energy, along with my grief and pain.  All the fortitude, the stamina, and the effort associated with childbearing have been forced out through my fingertips into the soil of my garden.  If ever there were fertile hands, green thumbs.  No one knows she's out there…Lily in the garden” (25).
Cooper, through her writing, chronicles and figures out the truth of her experiences.  She crafts her words so they can connect well with others – even if her readers would never consider gardening as a way to deal with emotional pain.
In Listen to Me:  Writing Life into Meaning, Lynn Lauber offers insights about the healing capabilities of writing.  She says, “A death is still a death…but writing about it can provide a certain catharsis, a way of putting it in its place.  By allowing emotional release, writing can help us to handle the anguish of bereavement and loss” (50).  Lauber, who gave up her newborn for adoption when she was a teenager, says “Writing about pain doesn't banish it, but it can sooth it, 'rinse' it…Deep writing can pull you away from your troubles and concentrate your energies in a creative flow” (51).  It's hard not to notice that on page two of the introduction, Lauber says that she never saw her infant daughter because the “policy of the unwed mothers' home” didn't allow that. Her concept of  “rinsing” surely is based on personal experience.
Lauber's ideas about writing as healing certainly apply to other expressive arts.  Substitute “drawing” or “knitting” for “writing.” The notion works.
The people whose ideas I've woven into this essay speak from personal experience.  Like them, I'm not advocating that writing one essay or planting a cluster of tulip bulbs or crocheting one crooked afghan or sewing a quilt will make the pain in the heart of a bereaved parent magically disappear forever.  You never forget the children of your heart.  But I am advocating that by using your hands in creative -- perhaps even in unfamiliar -- mediums, you have an opportunity to help a heart that is spilling over with sorrow.  Seek that place of “flow” where you experience a respite from sadness, as part of your grief journey.
Sometimes the desire to try handwork will come from you – the one suffering.  Sometimes, though, caregivers need to guide individuals to consider using wet clay, Austrian crystals and Bali silver, batik fabrics of sea-green teals and ruby-reds, oil paints and pastels, glass pieces reminiscent of rose windows in European cathedrals, paper for words and cutting, ribbons and mother-of-pearl buttons to fasten to art quilts, basswood for carving figures, and soft periwinkle yarn from Australia to knit into warmth.
Sometimes solo work is best; sometimes group work with its social aspects is best.  Maybe you'll delve into a project immediately after you know the child died, trying to find some respite from consuming grief.  Maybe months or even years later you will feel compelled to push some lingering sorrow through your fingertips.  Or maybe the expressive arts are not for you.  Only you can know.
The Valentine's Day quilt I created before and after I learned that my baby had died in utero is faded from sunlight and washing.  My sister's daughter Kate, its owner, is fourteen this winter. Using my hands, instead of stilling them, was the right choice for me when my world collapsed:  sewing and writing helped me cope with my intense longing for the child of my heart.
 That's not to say that I didn't cry frequently.  I did.  A tangle of overwhelming feelings of loss and grief were often my companions.   Sometimes I felt like I couldn't put on my coat and boots to walk out of my house in the snowy, bitterly cold mornings.   And waiting to miscarry naturally had turned into an emergency room midnight nightmare.  But that much-used quilt of calicos and plaids – the work of my hands and my sorrow -- is a celebration of Kate's life and a tribute to the cousin she never had.
Consider your hands.  Use them.

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