In My Contemplative Artist’s Toolbox

Posted January 11, 2020 by Liza Hyatt
Categories: art therapy, Uncategorized

Tags: , , ,
deer dream

Deer dream

As a contemplative artist, my tools include metaphor, creativity, imagination, and symbolism. But what exactly are these tools? Here is how I understand these essential human capacities:

 

Metaphor

 

Metaphor is a poetic linking of two unlike things to reveal a deep inner connection between the two. Metaphors are not just a literary device. All creative processes engage in metaphoric connecting. Spiritual experience can only be expressed through metaphor, a dance, an image, an AUM of breath and heart vibration, carrying some essence of the ineffable within them. Metaphors are packed with emotion and sensory, felt experience, which, when taken in consciously, wake those feelings inside our bodies in ways that make us more deeply alive. The roots of the word are from meta(over, across) and pherein (to carry, to bear, including to bear children as in give birth), so in the most ancient, embodied sense of the word, metaphor means to bear across. Engaging in metaphor pushes us beyond the threshold of what we used to know. Metaphors birth new life.

 

Imagination

 

Imagination is the making of images within the dreaming mind. This imagining is active in us at all times. During sleep, the imagination breaks free from the control of the ego and we wander in realms not possible in waking life. But while awake, we also imagine. We imagine as we remember, as we share stories, as we tell our histories, as we plan events, as we create and anticipate the future.  There is a primary imagination, as in our dreams, that comes without our conscious effort, and a secondary imagination, as in our art-making and other creative activities, in which human creativity extends primary imagination into manifest form. The material that primary imagination gives us is made of image and raw emotion within the living body. Because we are disconnected from emotion and the body, we dismiss this primary imaginal material as bizarre and meaningless. But when we learn to feel into it, we discover that every offering from the primary imagination is innately healing, somehow born from the wholeness we have been separated from. Those who engage in a regular practice of dreamwork experience the healing depth of primary imagination.

Imagination is often lumped synonymously with fantasy. This is a superficial misperception.  Fantasy is the ego’s conjuring. Imagination comes from soul.  When I picture my dream house, my ego is fantasizing something it may strive for.  When I am afraid and picture threatening scenarios unfolding, my ego is fantasizing, offering fight-flight stories, which is ego’s speciality. Self-aggrandizing and self-protection, the functions of ego, are the purpose of fantasy. To meet the healing bear in a dream, to write a soulfully true poem, and to paint from deep within, we must learn to clear the ego, and all its defensive fantasy, out of the way, and to humbly meet the frighteningly transformative soul material imagination gives us.

 

 

Creativity

 

Creativity is our way of solving problems while playing.

All humans are creative. We have survived for millennia because we are creative. Many animals are creative too. (To see animal creativity in action, look for the Youtube video of a creative raven using a metal lid to slide down a snowy roof.)  Whether we are figuring out how to sled, fly to the moon, paint luminous flesh-tones, or express emotion in violin patterns, we are engaging with challenging questions, encountering unknowns and seeming impossibilities, and experimenting in ways that increase connection to the materials being used, expand our learning, and awake a desire to keep going, building up on what has come before. Some creative processes feel scary and painful, fraught with many obstacles, seeming failures, and states of feeling blocked or thwarted. Some creative processes feel lyrical and vibrant, richly alive, blessed with states of flow.  Everyone engaged in creativity will feel both these states, and everything in between. To get to moments of flow, many long treks full of unsure stumbling and unsuccessful first drafts will first be logged.

In art therapy, we utilize a framework called the Expressive Therapies Continuum, or the ETC, developed by art therapy pioneers Lusebrink and Kagin.  In this framework, creativity is at the top of the continuum, and involves the engagement of all the other layers of human expression, which are our kinesthetic, sensory, perceptual, affective, cognitive, and symbolic ways of experience and engaging. When we are creative, we engage all these functions.

 

Symbolism

 

Symbols are object or images that substitute for something that is not itself present.  We create symbols to stand for things and codify collective meaning. Sometimes the symbol substitutes for another physical object. For instance, before my daughter left home for college, I bought us both silver rings on a Mother’s Day art fair outing. Five years later, I still wear my ring every day to feel connected for her. The symbolic ring substitutes for her. Sometimes symbols substitute for an abstract thing. For instance, a nation’s flag symbolizes patriotism, love of country. We have cultural symbols, behavioral symbols, religious symbols, personal symbols, mathematical symbols, language symbols. A stop sign is a symbol standing in for the behavior to stop. The number 2 is a symbol standing in for any group of two things. A drawing of two parallel lines with a bumpy oval shape on top is, in pictographic language, a symbol of a tree. Because we are able to think symbolically, we have created language, writing, and other vast systems of meaning.  When a symbol really means something to us, we connect to it with both heart and mind, like the ring I wear, or specific religious symbols for specific people. Meaning is always connected to symbols. We read symbols, interpret them. There is always a cognitive element to symbols, an encoding of meaning.  Symbols can forge rich personal and cultural belonging. They are essential in how we pass on cultural wisdom. But we may know what a cultural symbol means without experiencing an emotional response. Often, we defend ourselves from feeling by staying in symbolic interpretation and its structures of intellectual scaffolding. For instance, when asked to draw a tree, a person might quickly make the typical stick figure tree they learned as a child, a symbol of a tree, instead of drawing a tree with bare branches and hollow trunk that would potently express their feelings of grief. Our we might interpret elements of a dream symbolically, looking things up in dream dictionaries and compiling vast cultural data on what a bear, or chalice, or hollow tree has meant to people in other times and places, but never experience the anger of our specificdream bear, the thirst stirred by ourdream chalice, or the emptiness inside our hollow tree.

 

 

This Poet’s Most Cherished Words

Posted May 7, 2019 by Liza Hyatt
Categories: Uncategorized

sacred words

From time to time I’ve contemplated what words are most essential to me. My list has grown slowly over time, through lived experience. The first word to become sacred to me was the word “we.” Culturally, we livin in a me-against-you time, and so the healing essence of the word we is even more needed. This year, the word “vessel” became part of my list, as the best word for the deep inner space where soul-life cooks. Here is a list of some of the words that capture the heart of living, forming connection, entering relationship with each other:

we

us

home

empathy

belonging

earth (earth)

poem

tree

roots

breath

ground

weaving

dancing

singing

attached

open

now

cosmos

peace

dream

wonder

wander

feel

vessel

yes

Yoga, Expressive Art Therapy, and Dreams

Posted March 9, 2019 by Liza Hyatt
Categories: Uncategorized

 

It’s been a wonderful year long journey!  I went to Costa Rica in March 2018 and completed training as a Let Your Yoga Dance Teacher.  In September, 2018 I began a 200 hour yoga teacher training program at my local yoga studio, Flourish Yoga + Wellbeing, in Fishers, Indiana.  On March 3, I graduated!!!!

I am already including yoga in my body movement group for eating disorder patients at Charis Center for Eating disorders.  And I am looking forward to starting to teach Let Your Yoga Dance at Flourish and to helping with their yoga nidra offerings.  My long term goals are to incorporate yoga and expressive art therapy into workshops and retreats.

While doing this yoga training, I have also been working with my dreams, with the help of a Natural Dreamwork practitioner. (www.thenaturaldream.com) The combo of dreamwork and yoga is incredibly healing and transformative for me. As yoga helps me unravel and release old conditioned reactivity and blockage within my body, the dreams are helping me untangle the emotional and spiritual wounds within my soul.  I am now a practitioner in training in the Natural Dreamwork tradition. And so, though I graduated from the yoga teacher training, my spiritual learning journey is far from ending.

Before teaching my first yoga class, I dreamed that a group of humpback whales were arriving at the yoga studio and would fill the whole space.  At first I reacted – there will be no space for me!  Where will I teach yoga?!  Then I realized the whales are arriving for my yoga class!  So much living, ancient embodied energy, showing up in to be with me, to celebrate this journey and the new growth and vitality it is bringing me.

I look forward to many more postings here about my new yoga and dreamwork path and how they deepen and expand upon creative healing work with others.

 

Coming Home to Belonging: My Pilgrimage with Soul

Posted January 26, 2019 by Liza Hyatt
Categories: Uncategorized

godvesl3

I belong myself to that which I love. (Toko-Pa Turner)

In the past few years, my capacity to belong to self and World has been healing in ever-widening and deepening ways. I have been discovering how to “belong myself to life” as author Toko-Pa Turner writes. But more is happening than my own practicing of belonging. As I belong myself to life, world and Self are also belonging me to them.

The imagination that lives in the body and expresses itself through dreams and art-making is at the heart of this belonging, and is absolutely essential to soul-life. Much happened in my life to sever my connection from soul.  For most of us, the severing begins by just being born in this age of empty materialism and environmental destruction.  We are all wounded by this soul-deadening, imagination-impaired age.

I have been lucky and blessed to have found my vocation as art therapist at the beginning of my adult life and to have followed it for 30 years, through early novitiate stages, through challenging times of doubt, exhaustion, and disillusionment, and into years of deepened learning, increased mastery, and improved self-care. I have been rediscovering belonging every step of the way of those 30 years. And now, as I stand on the foundation of the mastery that I have painstakingly established, I am finding my capacity to belong is ripening, as is my courage to welcome and accept soul’s invitations for ever-evolving belong that arrive in dreams, sacred encounters, wild moments.

The threads of belonging radiate out from within the electric warmth of the body. The threads of belonging radiate out from the heart, from the flesh. They radiate out from every living presence in the natural world, the dream world, the universe.  I have lived too often feeling I am alone, all my threads of connectivity tamped down by hurt, pulled in by fear of further hurt.  In the past couple years, through an intensified engagement in art-based self-reflection and contemplation, I have seen the extreme severing of my connective threads. I have begun to unfurl them again.I have found the eternal vitality in these soul fibers. I have felt myself re-attaching to life, and life re-attaching with loving welcome to me.

The photo above is an overhead view of Vitality Vessel, a 24-inch tall vessel I created using torn, painted paper and torn strips of my unpublished memoir. The entire outside and inside of the vessel is lined with these strips. This vessel is the culminating art piece made during an 18-month period of self-reflection and inquiry into the roots and growth within personal compassion fatigue experiences. During this expressive artist pilgrimage, I wrote both a memoir and a weekly image journal, in which I logged reflections on my own art processes (visual art, poetry, dance, music) and also reflected on how I had been impacted by the week’s complex therapeutic interactions in the expressive art therapy groups/sessions I led. (I took a break from this blog during this time of contemplation, feeling that my pilgrimage needed to be personal and private in order to deeply ripen before I began sharing publicly about what it taught me.)

During this pilgrimage,  I also took retreats to natural settings, where I made art and hiked in the mountains of Massachusetts, New Mexico and Washington and danced and did yoga in Costa Rica. I also interviewed other art therapists about their experiences of compassion, fatigue and vitality. Many of those I interviewed were fellow faculty at St. Mary of the Woods College in Indiana.  We created art about our compassion fatigue/vitality experiences and displayed these works in the first faculty show of the Woods’ Art Therapy MA program.  Vitality Vessel is one of the pieces I contributed to this show.

During my expressive arts pilgrimage, I also looked for and found mentors and guides who could help me deepen into and find the soul-gifts within the journey. Most helpful to me were: depth psychologist Francis Weller, with whom I had monthly mentoring Skype session; art therapist wise elder Maxine Junge, with whom I also had monthly Skype mentoring sessions and who I visited at her home on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound; and Mary Jo Heyen, Natural Dreamwork practitioner with whom I consulted bi-weekly to tend dreams that came (and still come) nightly in abundance, offering healing encounters over and over again.

In the above image of the vessel, you are given a glimpse of the depths within which I searched as I wrote, painted, scribbled, danced, dreamed and journeyed through the profound soul-work passage that this expressive arts pilgrimage became for me.

I was gifted with generous funding for this pilgrimage by applying for and receiving the Creative Renewal Fellowship given to me and 29 other artists and art administrators in Central Indiana. I was the first art therapist to receive this fellowship, which was first offered in 1999. I was a fellow during the program’s 10th round from July 2017 – December 2018.  It took me many years, and many failed applications, to finally receive this generous award. Each application involved learning to validate myself as art therapist and artist, and though each failed application was incredibly painful, the learning and struggle involved to finally receive and embark on the fellowship was essential. I can now say I received the fellowship at just the right period of my life and that all the other attempts were part of what made me so ready, so prepared, to engage fully in the fellowship pilgrimage. In fact, I could say that the pilgrimage included all the years of those initial attempts.

What I experienced and all that unfolded during the fellowship is too complex to describe with any clarity in one blog post.  More posts will follow throughout the coming year going into each of the richly rewarding components of my journey.  Here I want to share that the essential healing theme woven through all aspects of my pilgrimage, which was that of returning home, of re-belonging to self and world. This belonging is experienced as threads of living energy, waking, unfurling, rejoining the vibrant web of life.  Vitality Vessel depicts those out-reaching, in-reaching pulsing fibers of connection. It is a self-portrait of my own healing. It is a portrait of what I call “godding” – another verb that speaks of belonging, as divine energy expressed in living, flowing, all-embracing longing, the soul’s eternal homing.

(Opening quote from: Toko-Pa Turner, Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home,  Her Own Room Press: Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, 2017)

Healing Archetype Monotype

Posted April 30, 2016 by Liza Hyatt
Categories: art therapy

griefangel

Prompt: While listening to music that evokes humanity’s shared experience of suffering, create a small pencil drawing of a figure symbolic of spiritual healing. Place this drawing under a Gelli Plate, and using printmaking inks create a monotype and ghost print. When dry, add paint, drawing, embellishments.

Clinical Experience: Psychological trauma experienced in childhood leaves spiritual wounds of shame, as if one were abandoned not only by human caregivers but also by God. My clients often feel nowhere is safe. Their imagination is especially feared, because it brings nightmares, and haunting images related to their abuse. Recently I worked with a client who said all she could see when starting to draw was an image of her heart infested with maggots. We listen to Goreki’s Third Symphony, and I led her through guided imagery in which the maggots became eaters of infection, cleaning her heart’s wounds. She then wanted to draw an image she called “a tree of life” with her heart at its center. She painted onto a Gelli plate colors radiating out from this tree-heart and described pressing the paper into the paint as “massaging her heart”. Lifting the print off the plate was like “peeling off old skin” and seeing “new life” beneath it.

Personal Experience: I often feel afraid and alone carrying the stories of personal and cultural trauma my clients share with me. I drew this figure while listening to Kronos Quartet’s Night Prayers. I then used a three-color reduction technique, printing layers of yellow, red, and blue process inks to build up the image. The unpredictable process of printing layers of color and watching the image emerge felt as if the image was dreaming itself into being from the collective unconscious. The darkness surrounding this angel is rich with grief. The glowing spiral in her core evokes both existential chaos and the creation of the universe. She is weeping, singing, praying for us all, shielding us with her wings. I feel she has been standing guard since the dawn of human life. Creating her helped me remember that, while trauma is always in our world, compassion is also present in equal abundance.

Mini Red Books – An Amazing Dream-Tending Art Process

Posted March 13, 2016 by Liza Hyatt
Categories: art therapy, dreams, red book

Three Mini Red Books

Three Mini Red Books by Liza

I dream of two Irish passports that are filled with poems, drawings, photos, inspiring quotes, maps, and myths. And so in my art therapy studio, I collage together little passports. My journey through old magazines, recycled paper, and tattered maps leads to one synchronistic discovery after another: standing stones, ancient burial mounds, maps for places I was lost and found my way in, poems for places that loved me, messages for where I am going. I am surprised by how creatively renewed I feel and decide to make passports exploring other dreams.

Next I have a dream in which I am standing at the intersection of two dirt roads. A man from Columbia, dressed in indigenous hat and tunic, is standing in this intersection, holding a 4-necked guitar. He says he is the guardian of the crossroads between life and death, to which I have been walking since my mother’s death, aching to know what has become of her, what will become of me. The crossroad guardian will not let me continue on. “You are not yet ready to visit the land of the dead,” he cautions.

I make a dream passport for the crossroad guardian, drawing him and his unreal guitar. I google “crossroad guardian myths” and find Hermes and his lyre, and Papa Legba from Haitian Vodou. I open a National Geographic by chance to an article about the Kogi people of Columbia who see themselves as the guardians of the Earth. There is a photo of a Kogi man dressed in the very garb my dream figure wore, and carrying around his neck a lyre-shaped medicine pouch. The audiobook I am listening to on my drive to the studio talks about St. Columba, 6th century Celtic missionary. I fill my dream passport with images of Celtic crosses, crossroad mandalas, lyres, myths, and a handwritten request for guidance through mid-life’s letting go, and for the muse’s gift of duendé for my art and poetry. I give the little book a red cover, and realize I have made a small version of Carl Jung’s Red Book, his magnum opus of active imagination and dream-tending.

 

God is in the Wound Book

Inside pages of “God is in the Wound” Book

Then I have an image-less dream offering only these words: The wound is already there before the injury. The healing is there before the wound. The healing creates the wound, which desires the injury, so that we can learn to participate with the healing. I wake up feeling C. G. Jung is speaking to me, joining the dream-book conversation. Googling “Jung wound quote” confirms this hunch by leading me to a simple statement from Jung: “God enters through the wound.” I make a little red book illustrating the dream message with oil pastel resist watercolor on black paper, each page a dark blooming.

Then I dream of a hermaphrodite who is doing yoga. My internet searches to learn about the hermaphrodite in myth, spirituality, Jungian psychology lead to Shakti and Shiva, Hermes and Aphrodite, the sacred marriage of the masculine and feminine in early Christianity, the Buddhist bodhisattva archetypal figures of compassion that are both male and female like Avalokitesvara with 1,000 arms. I fill my book with stories of this sacred marriage, images of lingam and yoni, phallus and vagina.

And now, after a dream in which a bear comes asking for therapy, I have spent the winter in creative hibernation making a bear dream passport, painting images of the Great Bear Mother, god-symbol since the age of Neanderthals, who has come to ask we give therapy to raped and pillaged wild Earth.

 

Inside pages of Great Mother Bear Book

Inside pages of Great Mother Bear book

The energy that comes as I make each “Red Book” Dream Passport is potent and enlivening. I feel connected to my personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious of humanity, nature, and world soul. I am in awe. Things I do not know are known by my dreams. The creative process leads me to this collective knowing with surprising grace, serendipity, and generosity. Images and stories come from the collage box and the Internet in response to each dream without me sweating, struggling, or feeling alone. It is as if everything is one organic mind and making these little books enters me into dialogue with Self. What began for me as a simple collage process has become a recurring confirmation that the territory of the soul is both infinite and somehow accessible, at every point, by imagination.

 

How to Make Your Own Dream Passport “Red” Book

 

  1. Pay attention to your dreams and practice remembering them. Keeping a notebook at your bedside and writing your dreams down each morning will help deepen your connection to them.
  1. Choose a dream that is vivid, mysterious, challenging, or inviting, perhaps one with an animal, a place that seems unfamiliar of symbolic, or a specific message. Write this dream into a creative narrative or poem, typed so that you can include it within your book.
  1. Use the Internet to explore the mythic, spiritual, and collective layers of the dream. For example, if you have a dream about a turtle, search “turtle mythology” to see the multicultural stories associated with this animal.
  1. Print text and images from Internet searches that reveal interesting details.
  1. Using these print-outs, and a variety of other collage and art materials, fill the pages of a blank book (pre-made, or hand-made if you prefer) with creative responses, text, and stories that help amplify the expanding territory into which your dream-tending takes you.
  1. Take your time. This journey with your dream may provide you weeks, or even months of exploration.
  1. If you find this process as awe invoking as I do, looking through Jung’s Red Book will also inspire you. Your public library and/or art therapists in your area will have a copy.

Pilgrimage: Tracing Path of Daniel Heffernan and Catherine Meehan – Part One

Posted November 15, 2015 by Liza Hyatt
Categories: Uncategorized

1890's window in St. Peter's Church, Montgomery Indiana

1890’s window in St. Peter’s Church, Montgomery Indiana

With funding from an Individual Artist Project Grant from the Indiana Arts Commission, since July, I have been traveling the path of the Indiana’s Wabash and Erie Canal, tracing the history of my great great grandparent’s Daniel Heffernan and Catherine Meehen, who immigrated, separately, from Ireland in the 1830’s. My long term goal for this research is to complete a book of poetry about the canal era from the perspectives of my ancestors. During the early decades of Indiana’s statehood, before the railroads, water travel was the easiest way to traverse the wild frontier and canal-building was an essential part of the young state’s efforts for internal improvement to increase commerce, trade, and settlement.  Irish immigrants did much of the work building the canal and my ancestors were among them.

The canal was built in installments, and I have spent the second half of 2015 traveling it in installments. When completed, the canal went from Toledo to Evansville and was over 468 miles long. Originally, I thought that 4 long weekend trips would be sufficient for me to travel the state, making an initial tracing through the territory of the entire path of the canal. As I got into my research, I soon learned I needed to spend longer at this task than originally imagined. At this point, I have visited the areas specifically connected to the story of Daniel and Catherine.

I began in Fort Wayne, where the building of the Wabash and Erie began. In July, August, and September, I traveled through small towns and larger cities, from Fort Wayne, Huntington, Peru, Logansport, Delphi, through Lafayette, and on to Covington.  In October, I began exploring the areas in southern Indiana where my great-great grandparents lived and worked after meeting and marrying in Lafayette.  This post will briefly describe some of what I found on this most recent trip. Other posts will describe my journeys on the northern segments of the canal.

On a beautiful, sunny October weekend day, I drove with my partner Gary to Petersburg, Indiana.  In order to pack as much research into the time we had, we took the most direct route, which included driving on newly built sections of I-69, an interstate project which was protested against by those concerned about its environmental impact, including myself. As we drove on this newly built road, I thought about my ancestors work on the canal, which was the first “interstate” to be built through Indiana’s wilderness and was itself an expensive feat of complex engineering whose usefulness was questioned and debated even as it was being built. I imagined Daniel and Catherine in the car with us, speeding down this newly built expanse of concrete and considering the forested areas through which the highway is yet to be constructed.  They would be amazed by how fast we were traveling compared to the 4 miles per hour pace of the canal boats. They would also be amazed by the many large, costly, and crisscrossing miles of roads that exist in the state. They would wonder aloud about how the internal improvements which they helped start in the state are still going on, with continued disagreement and questionable expense as their era. We would agree, that though much has changed between the 19th and 21st centuries, much is still very much the same.

In Petersburg, we found our way to the Gil Hodges bridge over the east fork of the White River, where parallel to this road bridge runs a train trestle built in the same place as the old aqueduct bridge for the canal.  According to the family story passed on through generations, my great-great grandfather was a subcontractor involved in building bridges for the canal and this aqueduct bridge was one of them.

train trestle bridge over east fork of White River, Petersburg, Indiana

train trestle bridge over east fork of White River, Petersburg, Indiana

The family story also says that Daniel carved his initials on this bridge. All that remains of the work he helped oversee are the stones of the southern abutment of the bridge. These are still being used as the support for the train trestle.  There are stone mason carver’s marks in many of these limestone blocks.  We climbed down under the bridge and explored these stones, not expecting to find the letter’s DH cut into the stone, but wishing they were there offering us some tangible remains of his existence. In the canal era days, the aqueduct would have been a wooden covered bridge spanning the river. Some of the wood used for this bridge has been turned into paneling placed on the walls of the genealogy area of the public library in Petersburg. We found the library and touched this wood. Of course, whatever section of wood Daniel carved his initials into has been long gone for decades.

view of the canal era stone, southern abutment, Petersburg bridge

view of the canal era stone, southern abutment, Petersburg bridge

In order to connect the family anecdotes about Daniel and Catherine’s lives to the history of the canal’s construction, I have relied, with much gratitude, on the hard work of historians such as Bob and Carolyn Schmitt of the Canal Society of Indiana, Allen County historian and author of three books about the canal Tom Castaldi, and Dan McCain, director of the W &E Canal Center in Delphi. For this trip, I depended upon materials published by the Canal Society of Indiana for a tour of Gibson, Pike, Davies, Green Counties in March, 1998. In this tourbook, I found a story of a man named A.J. Hart who, in 1849, was superintendent in charge of about 1oo men working on the canal and then in 1851, came to Davies County with 16 men to work on the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad. I think Daniel Heffernan  must have been one of those 16 men, and he and A.J. knew each other from working together on the canal because according to my family story, after completing the Petersburg bridge, my grandfather next worked on the construction of the Ohio and Mississipi Railroad between Montgomery and Cannelburg, IN before buying land in Montgomery.  After leaving Petersburg, we went to Montgomery to find this section of railroad and the land where my great great grandparents farmed and raised a large family.

A portion of the 80 acres where the Heffernan's farmed and built a two room cabin with loft and back porch

A portion of the 80 acres where the Heffernan’s farmed and built a two room cabin with loft and back porch

At the train tracks, we imagined Daniel riding the train as one of its first passengers as the family story says. At the farmsite, we talked about how pleasing it was to find it still existing as a farm.  Having witnessed suburban sprawl devouring many farms to build shopping malls and housing developments, it felt to me surprising and comforting to stand at the roadside watching someone in a distant field bringing in the corn harvest and imagining what this farmland was like when my ancestors first began to clear and work it.

We drove from the farm into the town of Montgomery, imagining ourselves in a horse drawn wagon on a Sunday morning, bringing our large brood of children into town for church at St. Peter’s Catholic church.  When my ancestor’s bought their land in Montgomery in the early 1850’s plans for a larger church were in the works and construction on this new church was completed in 1869. According to the history of  St. Peter’s on the church’s website, a great deal of the work on the new brick church was done by parishioners. I have no doubt that my hardworking ancestors contributed to its building.  http://stpeterallsaints.com/St.%20Peter%20Short%20History.html

I felt a strange current running up my spine as I stood on the front steps of the church and looked down the hill, able to see the land my ancestors farmed on the near horizon, knowing I was standing on a vantage point looking out at their world in much the same way that my great-great grandparents did 150 years ago. I imagined their pride in helping to build this church and in owning and farming a large tract of rich,fertile land. I imagined how it must have felt to have left Ireland when young, to have spent 15 or so years moving from place to place in order to find work as pioneers in a wild land, and then to at last settle onto land they had worked hard to own, and continued to work hard to farm. I could feel how important this church was to them, how rooted it helped them feel.

St. Peter's Catholic Church, Montgomery, IN

St. Peter’s Catholic Church, Montgomery, IN

I entered the old church feeling as if I was stepping through a doorway in time. The beautiful interior drew us in.  We were struck immediately by the stained glass windows aglow with the autumn sunlight.  These Italian stained glass windows were added to the church in the 1890’s, during the last decade and half of my great great grandparent’s lives life. We saw that each window bore the name of a family that helped purchase these windows. “What are the chances,” I said to Gary, “that one of them was contributed by the Heffernan’s?” We each took a side of the church and began looking. Almost immediately, Gary called out, “Here it is!” Knowing Gary’s sense of humor, I expected he was joking, but turned to look. He pointed out the window of St. Patrick and sure enough, at the bottom of the window were the words, “Gift of Daniel Sr. and Jr. and Catherine Heffernan.”

This window was not mentioned at all in the family narrative. Finding it was an unexpected delight, and more than made up for the loss of Daniel’s initials on the Petersburg bridge. I stood in front of the window imagining my great great grandparents as old ones in the last years of their lives, sitting in a pew at this church, near the glowing light of the St. Patrick’s window, contemplating their journey from Ireland to these final years of long and fruitful life.

St. Patrick window, St. Peter's Church, Montgomery IN

St. Patrick window, St. Peter’s Church, Montgomery IN

Our last stop was the St. Peter’s Cemetery. There we found the grave stones of children born to Daniel and Catherine who died young. We also found the gravestone of Daniel’s brother Michael and Daniel’s neighbor and drinking buddy Peter Griffin, also an immigrant from Ireland. Finally, we found the large granite headstone for Daniel and Catherine, located in the center of the old section of the cemetery, not far from the stone of the priest who served their church during my great-great grandparent’s lifetime.

Gravestone in St. Peter's Cemetery

Gravestone in St. Peter’s Cemetery

I sat on the grass next to this stone and felt an unexpected peace and connection. So much of the canal that was a central focus of the first half of my grandparent’s adult lives has fallen to ruin and been lost to time. I had not expected to find in southern Indiana so much lasting evidence of my ancestors, or such confirmation that they had been well loved, life-giving citizens to their community. I knew now more than ever how connected they were to this land, as pioneers in the state’s early settlement, as hard working immigrants, as parents to a large family, and as respected members of their church and small town community. Somehow finding such lasting evidence of their presence in this world makes my own life feel more rooted, more meaningful.