My Creative Sketchbook: Found Poetry

Week 2 of Dreaming On Paper: The Creative Sketchbook, and Lisa Sonora says that it’s time to play with words. The task is to look through written material for words and phrases that make something inside go “zing” and collect them to use in the journal.

I’ve been collecting words and phrases from magazines, advertisements, and junk mail for years. I have a cigar box full of quotes, phrases, and word clippings.

Sunday afternoon I pulled out an assortment of phrases that caught my attention, and moved them around on one of my painted sketchbook pages. A poem emerged, one that is the perfect sequel to my last post.

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Synchronicity strikes again.

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A Year Gone

No, time doesn’t heal all wounds; that’s not how it works. rather, wounds heal time – you suddenly find, after the hard work of grief, that this hard thing has made you take the hard step and you have grown. You may look more contorted, more wrinkled, more bent, more scarred. But inside the heart beats with a deeper tattoo. Grief does not depart – don’t let anyone ever convince you that it does. When you learned to walk, didn’t you fall? Didn’t it hurt? Didn’t you cry? Your legs didn’t go away, though. And grief, which gives the soul perambulation, doesn’t end. The grief gives you a new way to journey. It allows you to walk, to fly, to purchase new horizons, to see new worlds, to listen more attentively.

“After James Died” by Harry Kelley in KnitLit: Sweaters and Their Stories…And Other Writing About Knitting. Linda Roghaar and Molly Wolf. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002.

It was this day, one year ago, that I returned from my trip to Hampton Court Palace to find the email telling me that Ruth Ann died the night before. At one moment the world was sane and made sense. In the next moment, a skewed and distorted reality took its place.

This year I lived in these parallel worlds, straddling the crack that ran to the depths of my foundation. In one world, all is normal. Clocks tick, water flows downhill, and the sun rises dutifully in the east every morning. In the other world, a river of chaos roars through careening canyon walls, time refuses to move forward, and I am caught in the ever repeating loop of reading the email telling me that Ruth Ann is gone forever. There is no more sunshine. I must find a way to live in the dark.

In one world, I go to harp lessons and to recorder ensemble and to play at the hospital. I walk the dog and practice harp and knit, and resemble a normal person. In the other world, time flows backwards, and is filled with jumbled dreams of travel and temporary dwellings. Strange dream characters have malevolent purposes, and make promises that are empty lies. I awake confused and exhausted into the world that contains the all too real nightmare of Ruth Ann’s death.

Somehow, in this long year, I found a way to balance between the worlds, and survived them both. New roots grew in that sudden darkness. Signs of life are murmuring just under the surface.

I still don’t know what will break through the soil’s crust and emerge into the light, but I know it will happen. And when it does, I will call it Hope.

Looking For Balance

I was filling out a questionnaire in preparation for a harp lesson with Deborah Henson-Conant (which will be an entirely different blog post) and was asked to answer a question about what I thought stood in the way of my creative life.

In yet another occurrence of “I don’t know what’s going on with me until I write about it,” my pen informed me that my creative life was very out of balance. I spend nearly all of my creative energy and time on music. It’s not that I don’t love every minute of my time with my harp and my recorders. But with all my time going to music, I’m not allowing time for writing, for photography, for playing with my art supplies.

Knitting keeps that part of me that needs to make things, that needs to bring something into the world with my own hands, happy and content. But the part of me that thrives on images is feeling ignored and abandoned. I spent all of 2011 creating a 21-page visual journal, yet since then I’ve finished only four more pages. It’s been over a year since I last made a Soul Collage® card.

In France I spent every day exploring with my camera. Every day I thrilled to the feeling in my body that happens when I am deeply looking at the world around me, when, as my mind quiets, I settle into my own skin, totally absorbed by seeing what is revealing itself in response to my attention.

Yet the first time my camera’s been out of its case since the end of my France trip was last weekend in Asheville.

Something had to change.

I was clueless about what I could and would do to bring image-making back into my life until receiving an e-mail from Lisa Sonora describing her on-line art workshops. The one that stood up waving a flag in my face while shouting “pick me, pick me” was Dreaming on Paper: The Creative Sketchbook or “How To Make & Keep A Visual Journal for Discovery, Insight, Healing, and . . .Pure Fun!” The class description promised four sessions of “visual journaling techniques that incorporate mixed media collage, photography, painting, and writing.” Here was a path of return to everything I love to do, and everything I miss.

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I promptly trotted off to A.C. Moore for the recommended supplies: a new journal, fresh glue sticks, and new bottles of craft paint in my favorite colors. All that was left was the waiting for the class to begin.

The first session’s instructions arrived in my inbox last Wednesday. The creative task this week was to experiment with different techniques for putting the craft paint on journal pages, using non-traditional painting tools.

We haven’t yet explored the process of creating a finished journal page in Lisa’s class. But I’ve been thinking about my word for the year, “Vision”, and how I wanted my word and its acrostic to be in the new journal.

I liked the way the painting experiment turned out on this page, so with some rubber stamps, stencils, markers, and torn papers I gave my word a home.

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Lisa’s next lesson will be in my inbox tomorrow morning. And last night’s ice storm will keep me house-bound another day – perfect timing!!!

(All images © Janet Hince, 2015)

 

Please, Give Me A Word

After my many weeks where words stayed just out of my sight and hearing, I was inspired by the Abby of the Arts to seek and ponder a word for the year ahead. Christine Valters Paintner, the online Abbess of the Abby, wrote:

In ancient times, wise men and women fled out into the desert to find a place where they could be fully present to God and to their own inner struggles at work within them. The desert became a place to enter into the refiner’s fire and be stripped down to one’s holy essence. The desert was a threshold place where you emerged different than when you entered.

Many people followed these ammas and abbas, seeking their wisdom and guidance for a meaningful life. One tradition was to ask for a word –  this word or phrase would be something on which to ponder for many days, weeks, months, sometimes a whole lifetime. This practice is connected to lectio divina, where we approach the sacred texts with the same request – “give me a word” we ask – something to nourish me, challenge me, a word I can wrestle with and grow into.

She then asked her readers:

What is your word for the year ahead? A word which contains within it a seed of invitation to cross a new threshold?

What word, phrase, or image is shimmering before you right now inviting you to dwell with it until it ripens fully inside of you?

I pondered and tried on words for many days, without finding one that “shimmered.” Words that I typically would find inspirational, words like “joy,” “adventure,” “truth,” “kindness'” fell like duds, without even the tiniest spark of life.

It was on my morning walk the day after my Alexander Technique lesson that the first gleam of a word appeared.

In my AT lesson, my teacher encouraged me to “use my eyes” to take in the space around me, and to see all the space above me that is mine to inhabit. She asked me to let my eyes sweep across the floor and up the wall in front of me to lead me in standing up from sitting on a chair.

I remembered how my harp teacher encourages me when I am trying to read music to allow my eyes to have a “wider aperture,” so that I will see more than one measure of music at a time. I continue to work on moving my eyes forward in the music so that I will see where I am going, instead of staying focused on where I’ve been.

Then I noticed how I was walking: head down, staring at the pavement, instead of seeing the bare trees etching their shapes against the remarkably blue sky above me. I lifted my head and saw two bluebirds, a male and a female, flitting from tree to tree. I wondered if my word for the year would be “Vision.”

The next morning, again while on my walk, the acrostic that came to me sealed the deal:

Vision requires

Inner and outer

Sight.

Images await your discovery.

Open your eyes and your heart, so that they may

Nurture you.

My word for the year is “Vision.” Now I begin the discovery of all the treasure that this word holds for me.

 

The Words Return

It’s here: The day when the pressure of wanting to write outweighs the pressure to be wrapped in silence. I could be reentering the world from a monk’s cell, where I am allowed neither the input of others’ words nor the output of my own. Some part of the cell is the grief that returned to my doorstep as the first Thanksgiving without Ruth Ann’s earthly presence approached. But the greater part is the need for rest, for time to let my heart’s fields be fallow, for time to allow all the good and the bad, the bidden and the unbidden of this year to settle, to compost and fertilize whatever is next to emerge.

Over the last weeks my internal images shifted. I’ve been at sea for months. First, alone and adrift in a life boat, watching as the ship that was carrying me sinks beneath storm-driven waves. Later, my lifeboat sprouts oars, and I can row. No land is in sight. I have no course to follow, and no stars to guide my way. I row anyway, not knowing where I am going, or even if I am going anywhere. There is just rowing, and the vast expanse of ocean surrounding me.

Weeks later, in France, another shift. The wooden lifeboat transforms into a Zodiac, propelled by two powerful outboard motors. I stand at the helm, the throttle open all the way. The rubber craft skips over the tops of the waves, as much borne by air as water. The salt spray stings my face and eyes. I still have no idea where I’m going, but wherever “there” is, I’m getting there fast, and the speed is exhilarating.

In the gentle warmth of January afternoon sun, a new image, a new landscape, emerges. There is a field, with plowed and ready soil, stretching towards the horizon, waiting. I do not know if I’ve already sown seeds that will soon sprout, or if there are yet unknown seeds to be planted.

The field does not give me an answer. In winter, when life is tucked away safely into dark earth, awaiting warmth, both planted and barren soil looks the same. But I know that I’ve tilled the ground, and that it is ready to support whatever new life is ready to grow, be it already planted or yet to be sown.

 

Finding Solace: Knitting A Prayer Shawl

It’s just something about knitting. It has a small, yet commanding voice, and what it tends to say, in times like these, is that it will help take us through the big steps with little steps. And technically, in this case, those little steps are known as stitches. Knitting takes unease and supports it with shawls the way the performers at a big top support a trapeze artist with a net. It underpins transition with a deeper sort of harmony.

– Deborah Bergman, The Knitting Goddess (NY: Hyperion, 2000)

When I made it home from London, the impact of Ruth Ann’s death knocked the stuffing out of me. While I was away, I had all of London to distract me. Back home, there was nothing to keep the avalanche of grief and the immensity of loss from bowling me over, day after day. I couldn’t concentrate enough to read. Writing was beyond me. There are only so many hours in a day that my body can sit on the harp bench and practice. Long walks siphoned off some of my agitation, but there was no way to walk long enough and far enough to escape sadness. I didn’t know what to do for the far too many hours that I was stuck with just being with myself.

Then I found this yarn, dyed by Debbie Davis at The Fibre Studio at Yarns To Dye For.

Tidal Pool by Debbie Davis
Tidal Pool by Debbie Davis

The merino and bamboo blend is named “Tidal Pool.” The yarn held all the colors of the many mornings Ruth Ann and I spent on the porch of a rented beach house, drinking coffee and watching the day’s first light play upon the water. As soon as I saw it, I knew that I would use it to knit a prayer shawl for Ruth Ann’s partner.

 

Searching Ravelry, I found the pattern Simple Shawl for Fancy Yarns by Jen Hintz. It’s perfect for showing off the beauty of the yarn. I cast on the first five stitches on April 12th.

Some days this was the only project I wanted to work on. With every row I thought about Ruth Ann and all the life we shared. The yarn flowing through my fingers was a tangible thread that tied me to her across the emptiness.

Some days I didn’t want to touch the yarn or the shawl that it was becoming. Picking up the knitting needles was picking up and wrapping myself in grief.

Spring’s days and weeks ticked by. The shawl grew slowly, with four stitches added every other row. The weather shifted from spring breezes to summer heat as I added eyelet rows and garter ridges to the basic pattern. I finished the bind-off and took it off my needles on July 18th.

Completed Prayer Shawl
Completed Prayer Shawl
Prayer Shawl Detail
Prayer Shawl Detail

Knitting this shawl was a tangible sign of and outlet for my grief. Each stitch was like a prayer bead that I could, and in fact had to touch and hold as a part of my own coming to terms with Ruth Ann’s death. Now, all these beads are caressed, counted, and strung. The shawl is finished, and sent off to the welcoming arms of Ruth Ann’s partner, with the hope that wearing it will bring her the healing that knitting it brought to me.

The time spent working on the shawl seems to have somehow defined my period of mourning. I feel more ready to move forward into “next,” whatever that may be, and to step into the life where Ruth Ann no longer walks on this earth with me, but stays forever close in my heart.

Singing For the Cure

We had a sell-out concert last night: 1020 seats filled, and over $25,000 raised for Susan G. Komen. Nothing in the rehearsals prepared me for the energy of our performance. I was still awake at 3:00 a.m., still riding the waves created by our sea of voices. We rocked the house.

Lying awake this morning, I thought about cancer, thought about the fear and pain and despair that cancer creates. Cancer takes away our loves, steals our hopes, trashes our plans, turns our dreams into nightmares. But cancer also gives us gifts, if we can face our fears and look it in the face.

Cancer forces us to know our mortality. Our lives, and the lives of our loved ones are suddenly finite, and more precious. Everyday becomes a gift. Every moment can be alight with hidden treasure – cancer reminds us to look for it. Each breath becomes a gift of presence, in the present.

Cancer, by blocking our chosen paths, makes us gather our courage and take new ones. Cancer made me see that the man I loved and planned to marry was not for me. Cancer invited me to step into a new life, a life free of others’ plans and expectations. Two years after my diagnosis I met the love of my life. This year we celebrate 38 years together.

Cancer inspires artists and writers, composers and musicians, to create and express beauty and meaning in a world that often seems short of both. Sing For the Cure is but one example.

And cancer creates community and connection, inspires reaching across the distances and differences that we think divide us. Last night, every singer remembered the dear ones who are gone from our loving embrace. Every singer celebrated the survival of friends, family, and ourselves. Every singer gave life to the hope and determination that cancer will be defeated, and promised that together we will look fearlessly towards our future, with one glorious voice.

Finding Solace: Singing Again

It is never about how good your voice is; it is only about feeling the urge to sing, and then having the courage to do it with the voice you are given.

Elizabeth Berg

Ruth Ann and I shared a love of choral singing. We both sang in choruses years ago. Then adult life kept each of us from that passion. When I retired, I joined the community college chorus for a couple of semesters, and got to sing in the Verdi Requiem. When Ruth Ann moved to North Carolina, she got to sing in the community performance of The Messiah for two Christmas seasons.

We also shared wonder for the transcendent experiences that joining voices in song will create. I understood her experience of feeling as though she was singing with every choral director she’d ever known as she sang The Hallelujah Chorus. She understood my experience of Verdi opening a portal between worlds with the music of his Requiem.

I didn’t make it to Ruth Ann’s The Messiah performances. The first year I was sick. Last year an ice storm threatened and I was afraid to travel. I thought I would get to go “next year.” Now, there won’t be a next year. This year, I’ve learned not to count on one.

Sing FlyerI was playing harp for my friend Roxann’s memorial service when a choral conductor asked if I would like to sing in this year’s performance of Sing For The Cure®, a song cycle about people affected by breast cancer. I knew nothing about the music, but figured that if I can sing the Verdi Requiem, I could manage to sing this.

And I can. We’ve been rehearsing since the end of June. The conductor broke down the 10 songs into manageable chunks that make the music accessible. I can play the alto parts on my recorder, so I can work on my lines outside of rehearsals. While I have pretty good relative pitch, I know that the chances of me finding and singing a B-flat or a C-sharp out of context is pretty slim. But my strategy for Verdi success – to be in the midst of altos who are spot on with initial pitches – still works.

Being a part of this production is full of gifts. Singing with 100 other voices is amazing, thrilling, and beautiful. These joy-filled sounds, and being a part of making them, creates light and heals dark places in my heart. I’ve cried thinking how much Ruth Ann would love this work. I’ve cried from missing her and from her not being here to hear it. And I’ve remembered how happy and excited she would be for me to be singing, and how much she would like these songs, and felt her presence close by in the remembering.

The music and the lyrics are so full of hope and determination that someday soon, this disease will be eradicated, and until then, no one will ever have to walk this path alone. There lies healing I didn’t expect and didn’t know I needed. This year marks my 40th anniversary as a cancer survivor. I was 22 years old when I was diagnosed with cervical and uterine cancer. Although for the rest of her life my mother denied having taken any medication while pregnant with me, twenty years later my aunt disclosed that after multiple miscarriages my mother took DES.

In 1974, mentioning a cancer diagnosis could clear a room faster than dog farts. People acted as though cancer was contagious. My talking about having cancer put them at risk of getting it.

Friends disappeared. My mother drank. My boyfriend stopped touching me. There weren’t many who could stare down their own fears enough to be able to help me with mine. There were no organizations or groups to support cancer patients, and no internet to research treatment options. There was no networking of patients and survivors, and no ribbons pinned to collars and lapels. I walked this cancer path silently and alone.

The songs in Sing For The Cure® create a different reality, one where promises are kept, and hope is alive, and no one has to face cancer alone.  A world where silence is banished as 100 voices sing:

I am one voice; I will not be silent
’til my song is sung around the world
You have only begun
to hear the power of one
I will keep on singing ’til I’m heard.
We are one voice; we will not be silent
We will keep on singing ’til were heard
We are one voice; we will not be silent
’til our song is sung around the world
Let the music begin
and let hope live again
We will keep on singing ’til we’re heard.
WE will keep on singing ’til our work is done
We will keep on singing ’til the race is won
We will keep singing ’til the ribbons that we wear
wave like banners of life in the air!
We have one life; one choice; one hope
We are one voice!

Through Music’s magic the songs I sing this summer can go back in time and heal the heart of the scared young woman I was forty years ago. And forty years on, that young woman is neither scared nor alone. She has a community of people and songs that share her experiences, reflect and acknowledge her feelings, and honor her survival.

 

 

 

 

 

Turning Towards Light

Ruth Ann died five months ago. Meanwhile, the earth completed another quarter of its journey around the sun. Spring’s pastels of iris and dogwood are replaced by bold watermelon pink and purple crape myrtles, scarlet gladiolas, and orange day lilies that defy soaring heat and lack of rain. The last of the magnolia blossoms still perfume heavy summer air. The hours of light grow imperceptibly shorter each day, while the hours of night lengthen towards the darkness of winter.

I live in a precarious balance between light and darkness. Daylight hours of walking, music, knitting, and being encircled in the kindness of friends brings laughter, peace, and grounding among the living. Quiet nights bring reflection and sadness. In daylight, when I remember to breathe slowly and appreciate the fragility of all that I love, grace and gratitude can guide my way. Darker nights assail me with futility, with knowing all will be lost in the end, and leave me relieved to see the sunrise.

Someone had just passed away when I arrived at the Hospice unit last Tuesday. Family had not made it to the bedside before the patient’s final breath. I had unpacked my harp and was playing in the hallway outside this hospital room when the family arrived in a rush of heartbreak and weeping.  Once inside the room a young girl began keening,”No, no, no….I don’t want her to be dead.”

I kept playing. I kept fingers moving on the harp strings while her sobs crescendoed into wailing that echoed down the hallways with desperate cries of “No, no, no….come back, come back.” I hoped that Music could in some way comfort her fear and ease her pain, could in some way say to this family, “The world has felt this grief, and created these tunes to stand beside you on this hard journey.”

I’ve thought about this young girl all week. Thought about how she was able to scream her pain and give voice to the same words I mouthed so quietly to myself when I found out Ruth Ann was dead: No, no, no. . . . Come back, come back. . . . I don’t want you to be dead. And I see how these are everybody’s words, everybody’s desperate desire. The price of love is that we will tumble down in seemingly endless eddies of grief and fear when the ones we love leave us behind on this suddenly empty and lonely earth.

When I was twenty-something, I thought the Buddhist concept of non-attachment meant that we were not supposed to love, not supposed to care. That we were supposed to walk blasély through the world, indifferent to who and what it offered to us. Life and love and loss teach a different translation: that we must care about, and love, all that the world offers with all our heart, but with open hands. Open hands that do not clutch and grab at what is passing from them. Open hands that allow the heartbreak of endings. And open hands that once empty, are willing receptacles for approaching, as-yet-unknown joys.

In the heat and glare of a July day, darkness grows, and winter approaches. But today I remember that it is in the darkness of December, and the cold depths of winter, that the earth again turns towards light.