The inclusion of culinary arts in Dr. Jamie Marich’s newest book Process Not Perfection was alluring to me. Particularly, as she included it under the tantalizing header of “Nourishment” as it relates to “manifesting” oneself through expressive arts. So, when I was asked to contribute a piece on culinary arts, I was like a kid in a candy shop. I had big plans for canning my latest batch of apple butter and whipping up a batch of tangelo clove marmalade. I am a preserves devotee. The entire process is magic to me: the alchemical transformation of ingredients that results in something greater than the sum of its parts, in my lovely copper jam pot, nay cauldron, is pure magic. I had fanciful dreams of waxing quixotically about the poetic process of mindfulness based culinary practices that increase flexibility and adaptability in a way that nourishes the soul. So, I set out to batch my preserves, like a kitchen witch with my metaphorical pointed hat perched upon my head, and the desire to go deep with some sugar.
By now you may have guessed that this weekend’s canning plans did not result in the whimsical witchy magic potion experience I had imagined at the outset, but rather quickly moved from the delicious “nourishment” category all the way back to the I’d-rather-not-be-here “distress based tolerance” category.
Apples went in the pot Friday evening. I cranked that bad boy up hoping to expedite the process and finish that night. No such luck as they still cooked too slowly. No problem! I’ll just slow it down and finish in the morning! Saturday morning resulted in a two-hour call (a delightful one, but one which would put me just another few hours behind). No big deal! A pro such as myself is certainly capable of conducting magic on the fly! Yet immediately on the heels of that call a pal showed up for a cup of coffee and to pick up a few jars of jam. Still feeling like a casual boss, I spent some time catching up and sent him on his way as my folks pulled in the driveway. “Let’s grab lunch!” they quipped. The panic began to set it. In the 5 minutes between calls and guests, I had begun zesting my tangelos. With the full knowledge that that is a flipping 48-hour process, I headed to an anxiety-ridden lunch, in which my head was exclusively focused on my damned preserves. Upon returning, I ran into the house, finished dissecting a crap ton of tangelos and got the suckers boiling. In a full-on panic now, I flipped on the power burner and filled up the canning pot. While waiting for that SOB to boil up I feverishly washed my jars and filled up a 5-gallon bucket with 25lbs of sugar. You can see where this is going, but I’ll just say the process involved a hammer and leave your imaginations to fill out the rest. The cans went down in the boiler, with apple butter splattered along the wall and after having the rack crash, I somehow retrieved them with only minor burns to my fingers. Somewhere in the midst of all of this, my carbon monoxide detector went off.
This is how the sausage, or jam as the case may be, gets made. The process is always magical in retrospect. From further down the road I can look back at my life and see how painful confluence of events has led to me existing in a satiating place of contentment. I can and do wax poetically about the beauty in overcoming the inherent challenges that exist in life having already moved through them. Beauty and magic are much easier to appreciate when we’ve made it to the other side of painful transformations.
In order to make jam, we are required to employ the right configuration of ingredients and processes in order to break apart the water, sugar, acid and pectin at the molecular level. We must add enough heat to fundamentally dissolve the old molecular bonds, boiling them at near scorching temperatures. The change here occurs under immense pressure. It’s only after that breakdown, that each component begins to re-bond in a new way, and the mixture begins to gel and transform into something completely new and so satiating.
Growth hasn’t always been a product of adding heat and pressure in my life. I’ve grown a great deal through joy and communion with other artists and soul searchers. But in my own life I have found that fundamental self-transformational change has most often come after the application of high heat and intense pressure, and that molecular breakdown and reconfiguration of the molecules that make up my soul has been necessary for reconstituting myself in the most delicious and satisfying ways.
So, with my pointed hat slightly askew, and my witch’s brew splattered all over the damned kitchen, I commence to sweep up the sugar coating the floor and clean up the sticky spots on my counter, and finally bask in the fruits of my labor. The process is painful sometimes, and the beauty of it isn’t always apparent in the midst of it all. The products of all that work, however, can be so damned sweet. For the record, the apple butter is delicious.
Simple Apple Butter
6 lbs of apples
3 ½ c. white sugar
½ c. Apple Cider Vinegar
1 tbsp Ground Cinnamon
½ tsp Ground Cloves
Core apples, leaving on peel and add all ingredients to cast iron pot on medium-low head, or crock pot if you’re feeling lazy. Use an immersion blender to blend once apples are soft and let simmer with the lid off until liquid reduces by half. Ladle into clean 4oz jars and can in water bath canner or just eat that stuff. Makes about 12 4oz jars.
When I started in the a 12-step programs I was immediately taught the history of AA and the incredible “coincidences” that transpired to bring the co-founders together, along with the pieces of the puzzle to finally find a solution to alcoholism. I was taught that Roland Hazard was one of those pieces. He spent a year studying with and being treated by Dr. Carl Jung in England before returning to New York and influencing Ebby Thatcher who was a childhood friend of Bill Wilson. As a result of Carl Jung explaining to Roland that he was a hopeless alcoholic who needed a “vital, spiritual experience,” another piece of the puzzle was put in place.
When I started my master’s program to get my clinical social work license, there were endless research papers required for the program. I repeatedly saw Carl Jung’s name as a reference. More specifically, they were quotes from his Red Book. So, I I therefore asked my husband for the book for Christmas and he surprised me and bought 3 different books about or from Carl Jung.
In Carl Jung’s book Memories, Dreams, and Reflections there is a chapter named “Confrontation with the Unconscious.” The name immediately drew me in, because having have been trained in EMDR, which addresses our unconscious and the trauma that is stored in the body. I was determined to become the best therapist I could be, but also knew I had my own healing to finish. I felt resistance from within to dig deeper. One day while praying on the resistance, I saw this book Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, sitting on the shelf and immediately turned to the chapter about the unconscious. In the chapter, Carl Jung discussed facing his own internal struggles with his subconscious. He stated:
“The dreams, however, could not help me over my feeling of disorientation. On the contrary, I lived as if under constant inner pressure. At times this became so strong that I suspected there was some psychic disturbance in myself. Therefore, I twice went over all the details of my entire life, with particular attention to childhood memories; for I thought there might be something in my past which I could not see and which might possibly be the cause of the disturbance.” (p. 173)
He went on to discuss a memory from when he was 10 or 11 years old, stating, and stated “to my astonishment, this memory was accompanied by a great deal of emotion.” I related to the memories that still hold emotional charge. I still am run by so many of my fears developed in childhood. The work I did in the recovery programs had brought me so far and I was living life like I had never experienced before. I had also developed a relationship with God, as I understood God, but my internal world needed more help. I firmly believe my God brought me to EMDR and the Institute of Creative Mindfulness to further my healing and to use my experience to hopefully help others find the same healing. I knew even reading this chapter in Carl Jung’s book was led by that Higher Power. The last line in this chapter that convinced me I needed to do EMDR myself was when Jung discussed his own resistance to looking at his negative emotions and what it was costing him to look at them. He felt he had no choice, but to go deeper and stated, “A cogent motive for my making the attempt was the conviction that I could not expect of my patients something I did not dare to do myself.” (p. 178) I felt my path was paralleling his in some way, and I “had no choice”, but to continue this journey.
Soon after starting my own EMDR sessions, I went to a weekend retreat to learn about expressive arts. We learned to used paints, pastels, dance, writing, poetry, and yoga to encourage the healing and express what our parts inside needed to say. If Jung was not describing dissociated parts, I don’t know what he could have been describing. Jung stated,
“The essential thing is to differentiate oneself from these unconscious contents by personifying them, and at the same time to bring them into relationship with consciousness. That is the technique for stripping them of their power. It is not too difficult to personify them, as they always possess a certain degree of autonomy, a separate identity of their own. Their autonomy is a most uncomfortable thing to reconcile oneself to, and yet the very fact that the unconscious presents itself in that way gives us the best means of handling it.” (pg. 187).
When I returned came home from the retreat, I returned to Jung’s writings because I remembered he had discussed using his imagination to play. He also used yoga to ground himself:. “I was frequently so wrought up that I had to do certain yoga exercises in order to hold my emotions in check.” He used this exercise to calm himself and then he would go back into the emotions. This is just like we do while reprocessing in EMDR. Again, recognizing the parallel to our paths brought me comfort that I am not on this journey alone. Yes, in 1914, they did not call it EMDR or Expressive Arts Therapy, but even then the solution was the same.
I have still not found comfort in painting or drawing, but I enjoy reading, writing, and singing. All of me becomes one when I am listening, feeling, playing, or experiencing music. This is my comfort, my joy, and my journey. I am about to attend another retreat to learn more about myself and take another step towards healing. My internal world has always made me feel separate or alone, but knowing a great mind like Jung followed this journey and my new friends at ICM, I am no longer separate and I can celebrate my “weirdness."
For years I was scared to buy paint. One of my college roommates was an art major, and it captivated me to watch her paint. She had the capacity to create such beautiful, museum-quality pieces with her amazing talent. I loved to watch her work her magic! To this day I am proud to have several of her pieces and prints in my home, as I’m reminded of those beautiful memories of watching her in-the-zone.
Like many people I’ve worked with through the years, my barrier to painting and to most visual art came from a sense of “I can’t do it,” or “I’m not good enough.” I never seemed to have this issue with music, dance, theater, or writing where there was at least some evidence of my competence, usually in the form of compliments or accolades received. I never had a problem calling myself a writer, for instance, winning many awards throughout middle school and high school. And then came the books…
But to call myself a visual artist? To call myself a painter? Hell no! After watching my roommate work, I still felt you had to have a special artist license to even buy paint…
There is one visual form I felt reasonably comfortably approaching: collage. Born out of my love for making travel scrapbooks, collaging spoke to me because there didn’t seem to be competence involved. And I very much enjoyed the process of taking scraps and allowing them to develop into something meaningful when put together. As I began working with my own expressive arts mentor Christine Valters Paintner, I began to get braver about working with visual arts. Sure, I’d long kept some basic drawing materials in the office for my clients and out at Dancing Mindfulness retreats. Yet when I began working with Christine and realizing just how much Dancing Mindfulness as a program connected with the all-of-the-above nature of the expressive arts, I got braver about exploring my edge as an expressive artist.
I continued with collage and ventured into working with pastels and markers. I quickly found that visual arts had even more to teach me because I didn’t approach them with any kind of expectation about the quality of the product. There’s something to be said about being the worst kid in art class who was never chosen for any shows. Because competence was never my focus in visual art, I was naturally more open to just enjoying it, to being in process, and learning from what making just for fun revealed.
I credit crossing the paint threshold to my ex-husband after he saw how much I liked coloring and pastels. When I was going through an especially rough patch in the Fall of 2016, he bought me a paint-by-numbers kit. Although initially skeptical, I soon found that I enjoyed it even more than coloring books. There was something soothing and containing about having lines in which to work, yet my hand responded to the sensation of moving paint along a canvas. I loved everything about it; the colors, the smells, and yes, even the feeling of accomplishment when I saw the final product. There was some leftover paint and while at my local craft store on a run for some other supplies, I bought a small canvas and decided to use the leftover pain to express something original. I painted a mandala and it spoke to me very much.
I continued with this process for the next few months—finishing paint-by-numbers kits and then using the leftover paint to create something original. After a couple rounds of this process, I got brave enough to order some of my own paint off of Amazon and continue with my explorations. I approached it as something fun to do, something that let me play with color and texture and sensation and not be bound by the shackles of outcome.
A few months into this journey is where the painting that graces the cover of my latest book Process Not Perfection: Expressive Arts Solutions for Trauma Recovery revealed itself to me. And in this revelation came what is perhaps the greatest lesson that I ever received about the power of process: be open to where the unexpected, even the failures, may guide you. A pleasant surprise may blossom when you shed these expectations.
I laid down a foundation in gauche, the first time I ever experimented with this unique form closely related to watercolor. I also played around with using some shimmery paints that you can apply with a spray bottle. I liked the mystical ocean of color that was coming into existence! Then the idea came to me—paint a Hand of Fatima! This blue magic would certainly be an ideal backdrop for this symbol I’d come to adore. I printed out a copy of the hand online to follow. This unique pattern, sometimes referred to as a Hand of Hamhsa, seemed relatively easy to copy or trace, even for someone as unskilled as I. When I looked at the lopsided result of my attempt to paint the hand in white acrylic with a fine brush, I was disheartened.
“See, I ruined my cool blue background,” I huffed in frustration.
In the spirit of process, I rolled with that frustration, angrily ripping away a paper towel and I just started rubbing. I hoped that enough of it would come off so that I might be able to salvage some of the base. What emerged was the cool, rather mystical white outline of a flower that you now see on the cover of the book.
“Wow, the hand now looks like a cloud, or a flower,” I said.
I noticed that my raging by paper towel maneuver also made some very interesting patterns on the canvas that I just began filling in with gold… and then with green. And then as I noticed the flower take shape, I finished off the core image with some of the pinkish-magenta that now composes the flower itself.
I stood back in amazement, declaring, “I did that! It’s beautiful!”
And it was totally an accident, the fruit of staying in process and not being fixated on outcome.
From the moment I began writing Process Not Perfection, I knew that this image would be my book’s cover. For being in the process that birthed this painting is when I truly fell in love with the magic of expressive arts. I adore how the practices of expressive arts therapy invite me into a focus on process rather than perfection, and I am so grateful to be surrounded by a community of other expressive artists who inspire me to carry this lesson into all areas of my life.
To the process, my friends! And to the inevitable magic that will unfold from living a life in process…
Ancient philosophers talked about the good life.
The good life is a sort of craft – the Greeks used the word techne. A call from and response to the world around us, requiring adaptation and contextual awareness. The blacksmith, for example, carefully integrates understanding of his material’s malleability, the temperature of his fire, and the resistance of his anvil in hammering out metal goods. Crafts, nay arts, are doings. These aren’t things that are thought about in the abstract. They require the thoughtful and active integration of material conditions in one’s world in order to produce an put forth or express a product. Likewise, the good life, is an active process in which one’s life is carefully crafted like a work of art.
But somewhere along the way philosophers began talking about what it means to live morally - searching for the correct set of rules or principles to which ones’ behavior or internal compass must conform. Kant is most famous for this with his categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” It’s a rather wordy command, that suggests that we ought to take no actions that give rise to logical contradictions. For example, the notion that “stealing is acceptable” is immoral, since stealing wouldn’t be possible in a world where everyone was stealing from everyone all of the time – it would result in a logical contradiction. Ergo, stealing is morally wrong. What is wrong is always wrong and what is good is always good. We can determine right and wrong, good and bad without any reference to the conditions in which a person lives.
Understanding morality this way is certainly a tidy way to look at the world. But humans are full of contradictions. For example, in one moment I might desire your approval, while in the next I could care less of what you think of me. Some might even say that the contradictory nature of our desires and thoughts are the distinguishing feature of what it means to be human. It is certainly one of the things that makes human beings such fascinating creatures. Humans grow, change, and adapt. We look back on the past in light of new experiences and rethink what those past events mean to us. We look into the future with the baggage of past experiences coloring what we see in front of us. We very often have our minds made up only to let all our old ideas go in the face of a new feeling, experience, or idea, and reform our minds again and again over the courses our lives. Very often we are confronted with experiences thrust upon us by conditions outside of our control, and we are forced to grow and adapt to accommodate these changes.
If we suppose that a “good” life can be understood in moral terms – that is right and wrong – we run the risk of losing what it means to be human at all. Because as much pain as there might exist in growth and change, there is also a great deal of beauty.
Over the course of my life I’ve had the privilege of mentoring and coaching a number of women through life challenges. Of watching them crawl through suffering, wash out their wounds, and trudge along. Inevitably, I find a moment in which we are sitting across the table from one another laughing about something completely inconsequential. And there she is. A fully realized human being, flourishing in her own right. It’s like a dance, an artform, to watch another person begin to integrate the pieces of their lives and reorganize their own narrative moving from tragic victim to laughing friend. It’s a dance that invites us to participate ourselves, reconsidering our own stories and rewriting our own endings.
Living morally is living abstractly – divorced from the world in ivory towers determining what is right and wrong for everyone. Living beautifully, crafting a good life, is done in concert with the world in which we live and each another, taking the time to integrate life lessons, and opening our hearts to grow. To rewrite our own unique stories and invite others to do the same.
It is often thought that someone with a speech or communication disorder must be fixed. They’re broken. The identified disorder is viewed as pathological and treated as such. I know this, I have one. From the age of 2 years old to 15 years old, I spent many a day in the speech therapist’s office focused on pronunciation, how to place my tongue, how to move my lips, how to move my jaw, how to breathe as I speak. So do a multitude of others who visit those very offices.
However, when you think of speech disorders, have you ever thought of understanding that individual? Instead of the passed down language, we inherited our own language and are merely struggling to learn yours?
I bring this up, because this is an important concept to take in consideration when it comes to therapy. When you have someone sitting across from you who speaks a different language, you find ways to communicate with them: a translator or someone who speaks their language. However, with an individual with a speech disorder, that bridge of understanding is rarely crossed. Yes, there is circumlocution in regards to what we’re trying to communicate. Yes, eventually an understanding is meet. Usually through frustration and anxiety. Embarrassment. Irritation. Shame. D) all of the above. All this frustration can be seen in memes posted about speech disorders (either from those living with one or those making fun of it). So why not try to find other ways to support that person sitting across from you?
Language, speech, and communication do not come to fruition until the neocortex, while emotions occur within the midbrain; Way before conscious thought sees the light of day (for more information on this, you can look up the triune brain). Typically, with speech therapy, you’ll see various types of art or games to help bridge this gap. I remember multiple times in sessions, we’d be blowing bubbles, doing artwork while working on pronunciations, learning how to breathe, and what not. This helped the other kids and me tremendously.
Therapy is where all the emotions are meant to be greeted and dealt with. This is where I’ve fallen in love with Expressive Arts Therapy and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), because they don’t necessarily require that much language. The understanding comes from within and the art. If an individual is having difficulty expressing themselves, they can use art to get it across. This is true for the main populace in general, however, has so much meaning for an individual who struggles with speech on a day to day basis. Trying to fight oneself to pronounce shit isn’t an issue when art is involved. This subtracts a good amount of embarrassment and shame from communication, because the focal point is on the piece or with EMDR, they can motion to keep going. No speech necessary.
While this is only a small insight into the world of speech and communication disorders, I encourage you to take a step back and reflect on how you communicate. To reflect on how difficult it would be to have your own body and mind fighting you against communication. Take this reflection a step further and consider how would you bridge a gap of understanding between yourself and another, to support them. How would you redefine you approach to see the individual and meet them where they are?
What makes something art? When we walk into an art museum, what do we see? Paintings, sculpture, perhaps some ancient pottery or baskets. They are shelved on glass-cased pedestals or housed in frames in a building surrounded by kept grounds and large parking lots. To experience these items is an event. Perhaps something undertaken as a Saturday afternoon treat. They exist outside of my everyday existence. Separated and categorized as products of “fine art” that are distinct from the things or experiences that populate my life the rest of the days of the week.
The invention of fine art is relatively new, with Charles Batteux coining the phrase “beaux arts” in 1746, grouping together what we now think of as “fine arts.” Certain forms of art such as painting, and sculpture became distinct from craftsmanship on the basis that the former exist only to inspire contemplation of beauty, while the latter had function and purpose. Over time these fine arts were gathered up and deposited in a museum. Even though much of what we see in museums doesn’t conform to this Enlightenment era idea that art is exclusively for the contemplation of beauty, Batteux’s legacy is intact, in that we often think of these things as fundamentally separate from our everyday experience. They are much more special and somehow distant from us. For me this has manifested in thoughts like, “I’m no artist,” or “I’m not a creative person.”
I couldn’t do what those artists were doing.
However, for most of history there hasn’t been a distinction between fine art and crafts. Rather, works of art were intimately tied to a historical period and existed in a cultural context. Music and poetry came from monasteries written for religious services, metal smiths forged incredible items in the name of wars, and detailed pottery was crafted for service in fine dinners. The artistic act has been intimately tied to daily life for most of human history, existing in a complex network of social, cultural, and historical conditions.
So, in order to understand what art is, we might first ask what constitutes human experience. A heady question, I know. Upon reflection of my own experiences it's a mishmash of anxiety, depression, joy, excitement, anticipation, gratitude, sorrow and more. Often, it is all of these things at the same time. It’s the tension between bringing the component feelings, people, places, and ideas together in resolution. It’s the integration of these moments of past regret and future anticipation into the present, when I’m most fully alive. When I find myself keenly aware of the way in which the past informs me and how the possibility of the future exists like a halo in the present moment, watching a sunset, or listening to the frogs jump in the pond, that is when I am most fully experiencing life in the moment. It’s what John Dewey calls an experience. It is the refined form of everyday experience, in which each component of that experience, whether its physical, emotional, or temporal are harmoniously interwoven and complimentary.
Art then, is concerned with living. It is the process of weaving thoughts, events, and feelings into that moment of integration. It encompasses the tension we feel in attempting to piece together what feel like disparate ideas and competing feelings, as they are brought together in the present moment. This is fundamentally what the artist does – she applies paint to the canvas, stands back and readjusts, picking up a new color or medium in response to what is felt from the canvas. It’s a process of interplay, adjustment, harmonizing, acting, and reacting until each component part comes together in just the right balance. The act of the artist is no different than the integration that occurs for each of us when we struggle through the tension to find the right balance in any given present moment.
At the end of the day, although our mediums may vary, we are all capable of being artists, because artistry is not about housing pieces in museums, it is about how we live our lives. The tension and resolution may occur for some in the studio, for others it may take place in the garden, or in listening to the frogs jump in the pond while reading John Dewey. Or it may take place while watching the sun set behind the mountains in northern Thailand while writing a blog, considering the events that led me to this moment, what it means for my future, the sounds of the crickets, and dinner being washed up beneath me in the stillness of the evening, punctuated by the chanting of monks in a nearby temple, in solitude and peace. Although I am surrounded by paints, canvases, ceramics, its these moments in which I am most fully alive, crafting life as a work of art.
Hello, my name is Marnie and I have a question: What is in a name? It’s a question I’ve been pondering lately. Our parents decide what to call us before our voices can be heard. These names usually have some sort of significance for them and I remember school assignments on the discovery of name meanings. Our birthnames become our labels. In a world full of labels, our birthnames end up as our number one label we strive to fulfill.
We try to fit into these names. Take into account the name lists that float around Facebook. Being able to find our names on Coke bottles. Our names mean something to us. However, what if we don’t identify with our birthname? It becomes this scratching walls that is suffocating.
You see, I have a speech impediment from childhood trauma and it impacts my processing (mental stutters) and my ability to pronounce anything with a “R.” “R’s” can go to Hell for all I care. And of all the “R” sounds that could possibly exist, my birthname has one of the hardest configurations of that godforsaken sound.
There have been many speech therapy sessions spent on pronouncing my name. Many. Over time, I developed a sense of shame and embarrassment. My number one label, my number one identifier, and I can’t say it. When out and about with friends and family, it intuitively became a thing that they’d pronounce my name for me. I don’t know if they perceived my shoulders dropping in, my split-second hesitation, whenever anyone asked, “What’s your name?” My voice would get caught in my throat and I’d shrink into myself. “Just call me, M.”
It got worse when people asked where my accent was from. From as far back as I can remember to when I was 26, every day I was asked where my accent was from. When I was younger, I would tell people I moved around a lot. It wasn’t until I was 23 that the internalized shame branched off into anger and I dreaded every interaction with new people.
“Where’s your accent from?”
“It’s a speech impediment.”
Whenever I dropped that bombshell, people would begin to squirm. How does one come back from that? This moment is the opportunity I take to remove myself from the conversation. I remember a couple of times when people would learn about my speech impediment and the fact I couldn’t say my name, they kept trying to pressure me into speaking. Into saying my name.
Oh man, I felt small and that shame bubble only got bigger. Each interaction, I shrunk a bit more. It’s not to say I didn’t like my name, but I didn’t feel comfortable with it. There were points when I mentioned it to my family and was met with various responses, “but your name is pretty,” “It’s a good name,” “I like it.” All responses kept me quiet. However, that need to identify with something else, that need to change my name, followed me around.
This past year, the urge to change my name has only gotten stronger. If anyone read my last blog, know I have a pretty strong intuition. It wasn’t until a recent drive down to an Expressive Arts retreat that I felt comfortable playing with another name. “Tell them to use, Peyton,” bounced around my skull until I shared with road trip buddies to use it for the remainder of the trip together. Thankfully, they took it well and supported it. The entire trip I responded to Peyton like it had always been my name. We also realized it sounds like “painting,” which is something I am passionate about. It felt like coming home.
It dawned on me that my speech impediment has become my identity. Who I’d interact with, how I interact, how I presented myself, all revolved around my speech. I put myself in a corner over time and lost my voice in the process. Picking a name for myself has helped me find my voice I previously locked away. A sort of reclaiming a piece of myself.
So, what’s in a name? For me, everything. My birthname has kept me stuck in a loop of “I’m defective,” because I don’t speak like everybody else. It created this identity of something being wrong with me. A reminder of my trauma history. A reminder of feeling small and powerless. A name is a powerful thing, and everyone should have the opportunity to express who they are, even if it’s a name change. It’s how we introduce ourselves to the world, to people, to ourselves. It can keep us in a box or set us free.
So, hello, my name is Peyton.
Peyton Cram LPC, LCDC III (pronouns They, Them, Theirs) is a Dancing Mindfulness Facilitator, EMDR Therapist, Expressive Arts Therapist, artist, and life-long learner. They received their MSEd in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Youngstown State University and is currently the Outpatient Program Supervisor at Valor Recovery Centers. Peyton is also a Reiki lvl 2.
When I was twenty years old, I woke up one morning and knew I had to get a tattoo. I made the decision in a blend of peer pressure (my childhood best friend just got several) and being hungover. I knew that, whatever I got, I’d have to place it somewhere I could hide it; I chose my right hip. My friend Heather and I made our way to Artistic Dermographics in Boardman, OH and I looked through scores of design books. I asked myself: “If this thing is going to be on my body forever, what wouldn’t I mind having on me at 90?” I found a lovely design—a purplish peace lily growing out of a peace sign. I loved it because I love peace. The image also represented a bit of rebellion against an Evangelical church I was just coming out of that condemned the peace sign as somehow anti-Christian.
I loved getting my first tattoo! Call me weird, I found the pressure of the needles very relaxing; it put me to sleep! While others have hurt like hell (the foot and upper middle back being the worst), there are such wonderful memories accompanying every tattoo—beautiful connections to their meanings, and what I was going through in life during each of them. To look at me you wouldn’t think I’d be too into ink. All my tattoos are in places I could cover if I had to although the older I’m getting and the less I care what others think, the less I want to cover them!
My latest tattoo led to a fascinating discussion with a friend that got the wheels in my head turning about tattoos and their meanings to the individual. Tattoo #8, on my left upper back, is my favorite poem “Blessed is the Match” by Hannah Senesh. I’ve written about my connection to her and this poem on the blog before. Quite frankly, I’ve yearned for some reminder of this poem and its meaning to me on my body for years. I thought about getting a match tattoo, a flame, or the poem in English, but nothing ever resonated. On a recent visit to Israel, a friend shared an online photo of the poem in her original handwriting from 1944. As soon as I saw it, I knew that this was the tattoo. This experience parallels the one I’ve had with every other tattoo on my body. I typically sit with an idea but then wait until the exact design hits me like lightning!
It’s not lost on me that tattoos are generally taboo in traditional Judaism. Between their forbiddance in strict interpretations of kosher law and the historical associations around tattoos as branding emerging from the tragic legacy of the Holocaust, I did reflect on what it would mean for me—a non-Jew—to get this piece permanently affixed on my body. And from these contemplations and meditations arose many of the thoughts I share in this piece.
In my reflections, it dawned on me what all my tattoos have in common. They all represent protector figures—people or ideas that I know exist within me and in the spiritual realm that support me in my healing journey. We talk about protector figures quite a bit in trauma-focused therapy. It means a great deal to my expressive arts therapist soul to have several of my figures literally with me on my body—the peace lily which I came to associate with St. Therese of Lisieux (“The Little Flower”), the Blessed Mother (my foot), St. Hildegard of Bingen (upper back and left forearm), Khaleesi from Game of Thrones (back of the neck), and the ideals of music, art, dance, and yoga (upper right back). The next one I am planning (the art is still in process) will likewise reflect the wisdom of another protector figure.
In addition to the protector figure quality, all my tattoos represent a life credo, a sacred message that transformed me when I received it and highlighted itself as a truth I needed to embrace. The most powerful example is a Latin saying on my left forearm: vis medicatrix naturae (the healing power of the natural state). I received this teaching in Bingen, Germany while on a Hildegard retreat and pilgrimage in 2016 and I knew instantly that I had to get this anthem of authenticity placed on my left side (where we in the West wear wedding rings), right along the heart line. I see the message often on my arm when I dance and practice yoga. I smile at the reminder that embracing the fullness of my authentic self ultimately freed me from bondage. When people ask me what the saying means, I delight to share the translation and its teaching. The unexpected gift of tattoos is to educate others when curiosity leads them to ask questions, just as I have learned much from other people when I ask about their tattoos. In the two weeks since I got “Blessed is the Match,” I told Hannah’s story to dozens of people who asked about it. Not enough people know about Hannah and her heroism and more people need to, and if my tattoo can help me to share it, I am glad it can serve that higher purpose.
In my reflections I also realized that if I were to die tomorrow, whoever found me could look at my body and know what I stood for. In these scary times in which we find ourselves, where the different are persecuted—where a Hannah Senesh-level stand may be required of me someday—there is no hiding who I am and what I am about. I strategically placed the tattoo on my neckline for this reason. My neck bears the phrase Be a Dragon, the guidance given to my favorite feminist icon Daenerys Targaryan (Khaleesi) in the televised Game of Thrones saga. I’ve long adored dragons as misunderstood wonders of the mythological realm, and when George R.R. Martin literally gave me a badass dragon queen to admire through his work, the universe smiled upon me.
In Season 7 Lady Olena, another badass feminist, warns Daenerys not to play small for the men. She declared, “The men of Westeros are sheep. Are you a sheep? No. You’re a dragon. Be a dragon.” I wept, trembled, sobbed, and ugly cried in every possible way when this scene played in the early summer of 2017. I knew that if the current U.S. political regime and the forces it represents would ever come after my head either literally or figuratively, I want this message to be the last thing that they see. Many others around the globe choose the neckline for this reason and I take great pride in following their example in honoring my life path on my body, in my heart, and with my soul.
Many of you reading this piece have your own stories of experience, empowerment, and meaning connected to your tattoos. Please consider sharing them in the comments below or, if you wish, submit your story to me as I work with expanding this series on Tattoos and Trauma Recovery. Please send any submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org. You may choose to be credited for your contribution or remain anonymous.
Photography: Mary Riley
I wrote my first Poem of Instruction “As a Daily Prayer” at the invitation of my expressive arts therapy teacher and mentor, Dr. Christine Valters Paintner, in 2015. My poem was first published by Yoganonymous (a now discontinued website) in 2015 and later in Christine’s own book, The Wisdom of the Body: A Contemplative Journey to Wholeness for Women (Sorin Books, 2017). The poem still serves as a reminder to me of what I need to do for my health and my growth, and I read it regularly as an accountability check.
Eat greed foods
Drink fresh water
Repeat as often as possible,
As a daily prayer.
Ask for God’s help
Call upon the earth’s healing energy
Repeat as often as possible,
As a daily prayer.
Laugh heartily from the belly
Move the body with joy
Repeat as often as possible,
As a daily prayer.
Breathe deeply and fully
Connect with kindred spirits, or the silence
Repeat as often as possible,
As a daily prayer.
Know that if you are ever too busy
To take part in these daily sacraments
Then you are too busy…
Ask yourself—what keeps me from
eating green foods
drinking fresh water
asking for God’s help
calling upon the earth’s healing energy
laughing heartily from the belly
moving with joy
breathing deeply and fully
connecting with kindred spirits or silence…
Listen to your breath, listen to your body--
The answer will arrive.
I would now like to challenge you to write your own Poem of Instruction. These do not have to be long; a few lines will do. If your first reaction is “I can’t write poetry,” consider that what makes a poem a poem is that you determine when the lines start and stop. In prose writing, the natural endings of the lines on paper or in the word processing program determines that for us. And poems do NOT have to rhyme.
When I teach the Poem of Instruction, I generally recommend that you set a time for about 10-15 minutes of free writing in response to the question: How can I best care for myself today? After the free writing period concludes, go back with a highlighter or your favorite colored pencil, pen or marker, and notice which lines resonate the most with you. My teacher Christine often uses the word “shimmer” and I am a big fan of that word for these purposes. What lines, what words shimmer for you? Let those become your poem and if you are so inspired, you can even make some visual art or an accompanying playlist to help you further connect to your Poem of Instruction. You are free to share yours here in the comments, although that is not required. What I most suggest is that you leave your Poem of Instruction somewhere that you can readily access it, even using it as a daily reading if possible.
Photograph by Dorit Drori
Institute for creative mindfulness
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