Tag Archives: art & healing

Love Sweet Love

What the world needs now is love,” lyrics Hal David, music Burt Bacharach

1-jyoti-black-hatI’m in the shower, preparing to attend a celebration of the life of one of my dearest long time friends, Jyoti King. The first lines of this song come to me….”love sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s still too little of.” I guess it would be natural to think that the world has less love now that Jyoti’s left it, but the event organized by her husband Randall last Sunday, involving 60 or so friends and family members, taught me otherwise.

We gathered in an upper room of a restaurant in downtown Fort Worth Texas, and read Jyoti’s poems and other writings out loud for nearly three hours. Taking turns we added our own stories of Jyoti, whose life has meant so much to each of us these past 30 years. I spoke of my vast personal indebtedness by quoting one of my favorite African sayings, “I am because she is.”

Jyoti and Randall were midwives for Rich and I, for the behavioral health clinic we co-founded and directed, “Iatreia Institute for the Healing Arts. Jyoti was clinic manager for most of its ten years. She helped edit my first book, Stillpoint: The Dance of Selfcaring, Selfhealing, a playbook for people who do caring work. She left the clinic briefly to pursue her writing, but when my youngest son was diagnosed with AIDS, she returned to support me. When a year to the day later, her son was diagnosed with AIDS, we wept together, fearing we’d taken this sister bond too far.

When my friend Rose asked me to come and be with her as she was dying, Jyoti, a former childbirth midwife, encouraged me. “It’s in the coming in and the going out that there is the most light, when the veil between the worlds is lifted. It’s an honor and a privilege to be present at both occasions.”

Jyoti’s exit was one of the long, long, goodbyes that people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and their family members endure. She and her husband and friends lived this journey for 12 years, before her death last month. There were many stories of lessons Jyoti taught before she got sick. Her son, whose ‘s been sober for 25 years now, told how no matter his mistakes, his mother always forgave him. When he had to go to prison Jyoti washed his feet to protect him. “She told me, keep remembering, you are just a visitor there.”

I shared some of the gifts Jyoti gave me during the course of her disease. Shortly after she was diagnosed I moved to Pittsburgh but I traveled back to Texas often. I always visited her, first in her home and then in the memory care center. Each trip on the plane I would caution myself, “She may not know you this time. Get ready for that.” But, though she eventually lost most verbal language, she always knew who I was. Perhaps better than I did.

Once we walked together in the garden of her home when she was still living there. I noted that she felt unsteady on her feet. Her once good coordination would flounder and she’s grab my hand going down stairs or on the uneven path. Having been a nurse, when she entered the memory care center, she saw herself as a nursing assistant, always looking out for the other residents. A film aficionada, she advised a staff member on movies the community would enjoy. On one visit she brought out a musical instrument, and played and chanting for me.

sheila-and-jyoti-2When my second book was in manuscript form, I brought it with me on a visit. I told her I knew she wouldn’t be able to help me with this book as she had the first one. “But I’d like you to bless it,” I said as I placed the binder in her lap. There were no words, but she took the binder and gently hugged it to her heart. She smiled and we both knew we were doing a ceremony.

On what turned out to be our last visit, I found her in the parlor of the memory care center alongside other residents. They were all seated before a television displaying a blank screen. She was rocking in a rocking chair and coming closer, I heard her singing to herself. I couldn’t identify the song but it was clearly a Texas boot-scooting two- step.

Hard Times Demand Playful Dancing

rich-laverne-lynnTwo days after the election I awoke with muscle aches and a hint of a sinus infection I thought I was finished with. But my overwhelming sensation? A savoring, after-glow from the play-based ritual my improv troupe, Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players and I created last night.

We gather for rehearsal most Thursday nights and our practice is to play with “what’s up?” Two days after the unexpected seismic election it wasn’t hard to find the theme strongly on our hearts and minds.

Using dance, song, story, and stillness, (the birthright practices of our ancestors, wherever they came from), we created a safe container and ways to express ourselves as individuals and as a group.

Here’s how it works –

  • Warm up together physically in order to get in our bodies and to create a sense of a group body. Especially necessary after highly charged experiences that may have shut down our breathing or caused us to exit our bodies.
  • Use an InterPlay improv form or “game” that allows us to hear from each person as they express in words and movements- “what’s up?” for them.
  • Play with a partner to mine our stories about the over-arching topic, elections and U.S politics. In the form, “I could tell about….” we take turns naming memories or images that come to mind.
  • Select forms that allow people’s stories to exist side-by-side, creating for the observer a sense of the larger group story.
  • Using shape and stillness, we dance on behalf of people not in the room who are particularly affected by this election. (Immigrants, Muslims, people of color, disappointed young women and old women who will not live to see a woman president.)  
  • Create a song to lift our spirits to a hopeful future – Last night the line we sang and played with was, “The farther back we pull the bow string, the farther goes the arrow.”

As Mr. Rogers reminded us, “Play is the work of children.” I’m fortunate to have adults in my life willing to join me in connecting with our child within. That’s where our fears, disappointments, dreams, and creative energy reside. Play turns out to be a secret path to accessing what we need to move forward, individually and collectively, into a joy-filled future, no matter the circumstances.

Why Dance?

performing the book sheila twirling1Nearly 25 years ago now, I branded myself a “dancing social worker.” I wanted to connect my two careers, that of a professional dancer and my social work career, which included time as a social work professor, a family therapist, and the director of a behavioral health care clinic. I believe now that I also wanted to lay claim to the power of remaining a person who dances, no matter what career I might pursue.

In my personal life when I would tell people “I’m a dancing social worker,” the frequent response I’d get would be an appreciative laugh. It seemed to me that people recognized that I was owning a more important truth than any of us could articulate at the time.

Scientific documentation for the value of my decision to “just keep dancing,” is now available. Neuroscientists, through brain imaging methods, have documented that dance “bulks up the brain,” sparking new brain cells and their connections. According to Judith Lynne Hanna, PhD, the author of Dancing to Learn: The Brain’s Cognition, Emotion, and Movement, dancing stimulates the release of the brain-derived protein neurotropic factor that promotes the growth, maintenance, and plasticity of neurons necessary for learning and memory. Plus, dancing makes some neurons nimble so that they readily wire into the neural network, improving memory and different kinds of learning.

performing the book sheila twirling5What this means is that dance activity promotes cognitive development by increasing the plasticity of the brain of the mover. At this time of near epidemic cognitive impairment diagnoses in older people, it’s important to note that these advantages continue throughout life. Some sports, martial arts, and exercise regimes, may offer some of these brain enhancing results as well, but they must be as totally physically involving and varied as participating in a variety of dance forms is for the person who continually and consistently continues dancing.

 

The Shift

healthSomething shifted this week, no doubt about it. Suddenly after all the days, weeks, and months of stretching and strengthening activities with the physical therapist and daily repetition of assigned exercises at home, it feels like I may finally be getting somewhere. My progress has been so slow these past three months; it’s been hard for me to perceive it. But whenever students or friends didn’t see me for a couple of weeks they often mention seeing improvements.

This week I noticed I can stand up straight more easily. This makes lots of other movements easier. The lower part of my shoulder seems to be providing support from underneath. As soon as I experienced this change I gave a sigh of relief. “Welcome back. I’m not sure where you’ve been but I’m glad to have you back on the team.”

This clearly perceptible change came the morning after I’d completed a writing project I’ve been working on all summer. Maybe it’s just a coincidence but my body felt a great deal lighter after I pushed the submit button. The next morning I noticed as I went for my walk, my whole body seemed to have rearranged itself into a new, more functional alignment.

“No pushing, no pulling, no lifting,” were the instructions I got when I broke my shoulder. These were critical restrictions and I heard them loud and clear and followed them religiously. But now I’m reaching out to challenge them, claiming and affirming each and every newfound skill and ability. Yesterday I pulled the car door shut from the inside with my wounded hand. Today I pushed open a heavy commercial glass door using that arm. In everyday activities I’m finding myself more willing to use my left hand, to give it a try

magnetAfter the deep relaxation of a Reiki session, I’m developing a new appreciation for the importance of relaxation to my recovery. It isn’t about doing nothing. It’s a purposeful “non-doing” that is as important to my healing as enriching my nutrition and taking plenty of naps for the restoration that only comes from sleep.

Falling: Aftermath

magnetIt’s day 24 since my fall in a Sunday morning dance class ended my life-as-usual routines. Instead of taking a Zumba class this morning I will sit on a chair in the hallway outside the bathroom door, set the timer on my cell phone and use a pulley apparatus to slowly and carefully, exercise my arm and shoulder. When the good arm lowers the wounded one rises. I concentrate on listening deeply to how my body is handling this simple yet dramatic challenge. The goal is to introduce flexibility while not disrupting the proper placement and alignment needed for the bones to heal on their own.

Since my fall I’ve heard many stories of other people falling, including one of my long time friends Jyoti, who has lived in a memory center for close to 10 years. According to her husband someone left a suitcase in the middle of her room while she was sleeping, and when she woke and began moving about she tripped over it. No broken bones but lots of bruises that needed a couple of days in a hospital.

Last week my neighbor Claire saw me walking with my arm in a sling and she offered to check with me the next time she goes to the grocery store to see if I might need anything. A couple of days later she called. “I’m sorry I won’t be able to follow up on my offer to bring you groceries,” she began. “I’m in a rehab center after taking a fall myself during one of my power walks in our neighborhood.” The culprit was an uneven sidewalk, the outcome two broken bones in her left wrist, bruised ribs, and a sore left side

“Falling is part of life” according to the refrigerator magnet my friend Lynn brought me. She had her own encounter last summer with falling and breaking her heal when she walked out of a restaurant in Lawrenceville and turned her ankle in a hole in the sidewalk. After surgery and relying on a boot and crutches and the generosity of friends to get to work and back for 6 or so months, plus lots of physical therapy, she’s now an inspiring example that healing does happen.  IMG_1162

The second half of the magnet’s message, “Getting Back Up is Living,” challenges me to not focus on what I’ve had to cancel, (European vacation, grandparent trip with my granddaughter), or things I can not do (driving my car, taking dance classes, and ballroom dancing with my husband), but on the lessons being provided. I’ve become aware of how attached I am to my competencies. The 4 year old inside me who was ecstatic about being able to tie her own shoes, is still discouraged at herself when she cannot do that or other more important tasks. Looks like she and I are getting the opportunity to relearn many basic skills. I hope we’ll be like we were the first time around, proud and eager to let everyone know of our accomplishments so they can celebrate each small but important victory with us.     

Healing Astronomical Grief

The evening started with a family ritual. My husband and I had been invited to attend a Friday night Shabbat dinner at a friend’s house. I felt honored to be included in what, for this family, is a weekly event. Prayers and blessings were chanted by the hostess, her husband, and her 94 year-old father. I was wishing I understood what the words meant, but the intimacy and celebratory nature of the meal needed no translation. Ritual elements such as the lighted candles, two loaves of challah bread, and the wine communicated the specialness of the occasion.

shabbatt.tableThe hostess’s father was the honored guest, a remarkable man who talked easily of his life in the Nazi concentration camp in German-occupied Poland and of his journey to freedom after the war. As the meal was ending, our hostess invited us to drive to the Jewish Community Day School where she is the principal, to see the new Holocaust Sculpture on the school grounds. The project has taken over a dozen years, begun when a social studies teacher was searching for a way to communicate to his students the concept of six million Jews dying in the Holocaust. How could they, and we, understand the reality of such a humungous number?

At the teacher’s suggestion, the class began collecting tabs from aluminum cans, and years later, with help from parents and the larger community, the school amassed six million tabs.

closeup tabs

Next the school and its supporters searched for a way to display them in a meaningful way and the memorial, “Keeping Tabs” was created. An artist worked with the children to design the sculpture. The one that was chosen was a fractured Jewish star, laid out in such a way as to create a maze for visitors to walk through. Nine hundred and eighty glass blocks were then filled with the tabs and arranged in towers of varying heights.

Seeing the memorial at night from a distance, the lit structures seemed to me a cityscape of ancestral skyscrapers. Walking up the hill from the parking lot on the curved pathway I felt the expectation that I would soon be visiting a sacred site.

cityscapeancestors

Upon entering, each narrow corridor offered different angles and perspectives and a play of light and shadow. Close up, the individual tabs in each glass window, mostly silver, with an occasional red or green one, brought tears to my eyes as I experienced each tab standing in for a person, a life snuffed out forever due to hatred and the evil of attempted genocide. I thought of the enormity of the world’s grief for these lives and all the lives that would have come from each of them.

keepingtabs.angles

Since single human bodies are not built to hold such overwhelming sorrows, the Sculpture does its sacred duty, helping us to honor those people who were lost and provide comfort to those left behind. The Hebrew saying and its translation over the doorway is a prayer for us all. –Hazak, hazak, v’nitkhazekBe Strong, Be Strong, and May We Be Strengthened.” Strong enough to stick to our resolve to never allow such an atrocity again. 
The Jewish Chronicle – Holocaust sculpture dedication draws large crowd

Taking Warrior Mother on the Road

 “How’s your new book doing?” people ask, and I don’t know quite what to say. The official reviews have been wonderful, most of them thoughtful and articulate, better than I could have hoped for. I have felt blessed by such intelligent and crafted responses as different reviewers have picked up on and emphasized, different themes from the book, rather like turning a prism to refract the light into the various colors contained therein.Sheila Performing Book

Friends and acquaintances who have spoken to me or sent me an email after reading the book have had very good things to say. Of course there may be people who read it and didn’t like it, but they’ve failed to contact me. No one so far has demanded their money back. One woman friend I ran into in the grocery store detained me for quite a while with wonderful comments and complements, followed by a pledge to bring several friends to my next book reading. And she did just that.

Amazon rankings have been all over the place, but today the book is number 51 of the top 100 books in the category of parent and adult child relationships. I had a big disappointment when one of the top reviewing companies that had spoken highly of the quality of the book, and had promised to review it, declined to do so at the last minute.  I learned they were concerned it “wouldn’t have wide enough appeal.” (I think that’s code for “it won’t sell enough books to make it worth our while.”) But in the two and a half months the book has been out, this has not been my experience.

There’s the man I gave a promotional post card to, who read the synopsis on the back quickly as we stood together on the street corner. “I’m gonna buy one of these and give it to my daughter-in-law,” he said. When I asked why he said, “She’s been having a rough time. Our nine year old grandson was killed last year in a boating accident.”  Several people have told me they were buying the book for a friend or family member going through grief, or stuck in an old grief, having trouble moving on.

Wing & Prayer Book Performance
Wing & Prayer Book Performance

 

I’ve become very cognoscente of the universal themes contained in Warrior Mother through a system I’ve developed for book readings. In place of a traditional reading, I connect with people in the community where I will be presenting who do InterPlay, (the system of movement, song, and storytelling that I use) and have them join me in “Performing the Book.”  We select themes that emerge from the snippets I read, and link them to an InterPlay form. The improvisational artists then add their own stories and experiences to mine.

At Performing the Book events we’ve explored relating to adult children (or being one), accompanying a friend or loved one through medical diagnosis, treatments, and death, and rituals that heal grief and loss of whatever variety. Feedback from these presentations has given me a realization that Warrior Mother is about finding ways to authentically communicate about, and honor, the human condition. And that condition is that everyone dies. Once we face that reality, we can enthusiastically choose life for whatever moments that we, and our loved ones, are allowed.

Dancing on the Fringe

The streets of Edinburgh Scotland were filled, as they are every August, with performing artists and the tourists and locals who had come to see them. Rich and I, along with 22 other InterPlayers from around the world were among them. RichCatapillerphoto-16Pushing our way through the hordes of mostly young performers on the cobblestone street which is the Royal Mile, we observed the ritual of performers dressed as caterpillars and clowns, giving out flyers, barking as circus midway callers do, to draw attention to the free samples of their art on the makeshift stages of High Street. Though a little less flamboyant, and a good deal older than most of them, we too had came to perform on the Fringe.

Edinburgh Fringe
Edinburgh Fringe

The Fringe Festival, the largest open access arts festival in the world began in 1947 when eight theatre companies showed up uninvited to the Edinburgh International Arts Festival.  The juried arts festival is still in business but the Fringe, officially organized in 1951, has grown way bigger that that one. In fact it’s bigger than anyone could imagine an arts festival becoming. By 1959 there were 494 companies and by this year, 2013, the festival had over 40,000 performers in 359 venues. Unlike those original participants, we did have an invitation from Mairi Campbell, a well-known Scottish folk singer, http://www.mairicampbell.co.uk/

Meeting up with a dozen members of our US InterPlay community, and joining another dozen InterPlayers from Germany, Finland, England, Australia and Scotland, we formed an improv troupe. After practicing together for several days (which was a big part of the fun of it all, along with time spent with fabulous local home stay hosts), we came together at Venue #127, St. John’s Church in the center of the city. Our performance of the Unbelievable Beauty of Being Human was part of the Just Festival, a subset of the Fringe that focused on social justice, spirituality, and peace.mairiUBBH-17

Our well-attended performance was a fitting tribute to the festival’s themes as we danced, sang and told our stories in the moment and on the spot, highlighting what’s wonderful about being human and what’s not so great about it. As one of the elders in the group, this was my 9th performance of Unbelievable Beauty, having participated in the first series of performances in San Francisco CA in 1997, in Sydney, Australia in 2004, and in Seattle and Chicago in the years in between.  Each improvisational performance followed a similar format yet each was a unique and never-to-be-repeated experience for participants and audiences.

In the 50-page program for the Just Festival, which was a subset of the 390 page program for the Fringe, the program description read: “Re-igniting hope for human kind, passionate, funny, honest, affirming of real people and real living. Performers elevate both the miracles and struggles of every day folk in a daring, spontaneous, fresh way.  Directed by InterPlay founders, the program features InterPlayers from around the world. UK debut”.UBBH.Edinburgh1

And so it was, a never-to-be forgotten, Unbelievably Beautiful Experience!

Excerpt from “Warrior Mother”

People would often say to me, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, children dying before their parents.” They said it when my thirty-one-year-old son, Kenneth, died of AIDS and again, seven years later, when my forty-two-year-old daughter, Corinne, died of breast cancer. When Corinne died, I got a phone call from my cousin, who had lost her own daughter in a car accident twenty years before. “This shouldn’t be happening to you,” she said, in an effort to comfort me. When I asked whom it should be happening to, she said, “Someone who hasn’t already lost a child.”

But I prefer not to think this way. When I am in that place of questioning the circumstances of my own life, I picture the gravestones in the historical cemeteries my history-buff father took us to visit as children. We kids would run from gravestone to gravestone, doing the math and discovering children our own ages or younger buried there. I remind myself that it’s only in recent generations and in a country as fortunate as our own that parents can expect to raise all their children and to predecease them.

So I set out to write about my experiences as a mother who has lost two of her three adult children to horrific diseases. I voluntarily reentered those years of anxiety, trauma, and hope to better under- stand what transpired there. I realized that those of us who survived have been profoundly changed, and so I have written partly for my own healing and partly to share with others the learning and strength I discovered. Many people did not understand my spending so much time writing about this, especially my husband, Richard, whose style of grieving was entirely different. Rich and I finally came to an under- standing several years into this project.

Rich and I are both behavioral health professionals. We share a conviction that many mental health problems are caused by a lack of connection to people’s spiritual selves. In our work and for our own personal development, we use the community- building tools of dance, song, and story. In the jargon of our professions, this is called using the arts for individual and social transformation. For ten years we founded and co-directed a behavioral health care clinic called Iatreia Institute for the Healing Arts. This was the name of the clinic from 1987-1997 until we were purchased by Corphealth. Then it became Iatreia, Inc. You’d think that the experience of our professional careers and the synchronicity of our shared beliefs would have given us some special insight into each other’s grief. Not so.

Five summers ago, Rich sent me off to participate in a writers’ workshop with the comment, “I hope someday you will find some- thing more pleasant to write about.” When I returned from the writers’ workshop in Iowa City, held a couple of weeks after the town had suffered a significant flood, I brought back two empty sandbags, like the thousands of bags of sand stacked as barricades against the rising waters. My empty sandbags had been decorated and made into handbags by artists in the com- munity and sold to raise money to help the local Habitat for Humanity fund the cleanup efforts. At home I laid out my decorated sandbags alongside a folder of my writing. “My writings are my sandbags,” I told Rich. “We have to make art out of what happens to us, or at least some- thing useful, and we don’t get to pick what that is.”

People have asked me how I’ve survived all the tragedy and loss in my life. Perhaps I’ve written the stories of my journeys with my children, other family members, and my best friend to answer that question for myself. Witnessing how hard both my children fought to stay alive and all that they were willing to endure to gain more life has defined my grieving process. I never wanted to dishonor them by wasting one moment of whatever precious life I am given.

Like a prospector searching for gold, with the help of my journal, I have panned and sifted through these experiences—of birth, death, and the places in between. I have shaken the sieve in such a way as to uncover, among the dirt, pebbles, and debris, the valuable shiny elements in these stories. This sifting and sorting has been, like the experiences themselves, tough at times, but also enlightening. I’ve come to appreciate the many ways that people confront illness, diagnoses, treatment decisions, and, yes, even death, and the many faces and masks of grief. And ultimately, I’ve come to see the demands made on me as a mother as requiring me to become a warrior mother. In our lifelong mother roles, whether our children are sick or well, young or old, like warriors, we engage wholeheartedly in a cause, and like spiritual warriors, we are asked to use our compassion and wisdom to help our children and ourselves grow and thrive through whatever life sends our way.

(from Warrior Mother – Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss, and the Rituals that Heal by Sheila K. Collins PhD.)

Above All – Life

The name of the film is Life, Above All.  “You must see it,” a friend had said. “It’s at the Pittsburgh Filmmakers theater downtown and it’s only here till the 18.th” So my husband and I went. I hadn’t asked any questions about what the film was about. That’s the kind of friend she is. You don’t questions; you just do what she suggests.

The setting is a village in South Africa, probably fifteen or twenty years ago. It opens with a woman rocking her infant while a female voice sings a soulful lullaby.   The child is dead and the family members cannot know why.  The mother of the infant becomes ill, the father is a drunk who blames the wife for their child’s death. We see the story through the eyes of the 12-year-old girl, who cares for the younger children, for her mother, and for a school age friend, whose parents have died of the unnamed disease. Secrecy, shame, and fear are the community disease that give free reign to what we as the audience know, is AIDS.

Into the first five minutes of the film I begin to wonder if my husband and I will be able to make it through. Later, as more characters are impacted by the illness, and by the cruelty of their neighbors’ responses, I hear the sighs and sounds of squirming coming from someone seated behind us. I begin wondering if that person will be able to stay to the end.

I can’t speak for the other audience members, but we know this story. We had a version of it in our own family when our son was diagnosis with AIDS in late 1993.  He was told by the AIDS Outreach Center in our town that if he wanted to keep his job, he should keep his diagnosis a secret. “Don’t even tell your best friend,” they cautioned.  He followed this advice, and protected himself from his workplaces’ negative responses. But this cost him the chance to receive the support of his friends.

“A disease that is kept a secret cannot heal,” I heard an indigenous healer tell a group of people at an HIV/AIDS conference in the mid-1990s. So I’ve written our story and our son Ken’s story in a mother’s memoir that will be published in 2012. The writing and re-reading of our story has allowed my husband and I to carry this story with some ease, most probably to the end of our lives. And as it’s turned out, it has allowed us to stay through the suffering for the transformation in the stories of others.  If you are willing to stay as well, we highly recommend this movie of how we all used to be, and sometimes still are.

To learn more about the film  – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1646111/