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Coming Home to Belonging: My Pilgrimage with Soul

January 26, 2019


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is an overhead view of Vitality Vessel, a 24-inch tall vessel I created using torn, painted paper and torn strips of my unpublished memoir.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)

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

November 15, 2015
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.

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.

Compassion Initiation: Reorienting Self-Care toward Stewardship of Spiritual Maturation of Art Therapists

September 6, 2015


This is the rough draft of an article I am working on.  Eventually I will seek to publish it outside my blog, but in the mean time, because the experience of compassion fatigue is so prevalent in the lives of therapy and health care workers, it feels important to me that I make this work available to the public even as I continue to develop my thoughts and research.

A Necessary Shift in Perception

I have been an art therapist for 25 years and an initiate into the dual callings of artist-healer all my life. I spent childhood painting, writing, dancing, and singing as rheumatoid arthritis flared, faded, and flared again in my body. The first three letters of arthritis are a-r-t, so I decided art was the blessing in the disease. In another culture, elders might have recognized the illness initiating me into my adult role as healer. Instead, I have navigated my art therapy vocation despite internal confusion and resistance and with contradictory encouragement and discouragement from family and friends.

After 13 years in the field, I experienced what is commonly called compassion fatigue or secondary traumatic stress, with its cluster of struggles about personal psychological issues; changing beliefs; the demands of the therapeutic relationship; work institutions and environments; social systems and power issues; and physical health (Stamm, 1999). During my descent into these struggles, I schemed for ways to divorce the two components of my work, to be artist but no longer therapist, thinking that the therapist role caused my exhaustion, anxiety, and depression. Instead, external circumstances (the need to pay bills) and internal forces (the need to be whole) never allowed me to divorce from the therapist part of myself. My recovery instead required that I recommit to being a therapist and engage with this work more wholeheartedly.

From the get-go, I struggled with the words used to name this experience: burnout, vicarious traumatization (Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995), secondary traumatic stress (Stamm, 1999), trauma exposure response (Lipsky & Burke, 2009), and compassion fatigue (Figley, 1995). I preferred “compassion fatigue.” I liked that the root meaning of the word compassion is “suffering with.” But the term “compassion fatigue” still felt inadequate. “Fatigue” implies overuse, as if compassion is a thing that becomes injured from repetitive work, like a muscle, or mechanical object. But in that case, recovery and healing of compassion would require using that “muscle” less. However, trying to be less compassionate proved to be both impossible and not at all healing.

In fact, being more compassionate, less defended, less separate was the curative response for my fatigue. I needed to learn more fully how and why I was “suffering with” my therapy clients, my family, and the world. I needed to let go of desire to separate or protect the artist self from the therapist self. I needed to let go of concepts of self as solitary or fixed, and more fully inhabit the shared suffering, both human and environmental, that is our common home.   I needed a deeper relationship with compassion, and this relationship required an ego-stripping reorganization of my life. I needed to identify and address internal and external problems that created, and were caused by, a deprivation of compassion. When I understood this requirement, I had to trust that – despite wanting to fend off or avoid such upheaval – my “compassion fatigue” experience was actually creative, generative, soul-driven, and much more than a pathologic reaction to working and caring too much.

Until I began to recognize these needs, like most people from a modern, secular background, I used the word “compassion” without knowing its meaning, or what, being compassionate involves.   I can now no longer think of compassion as an objectified character trait and have come to understand it as powerful archetypal energy requiring a series of upheavals and transformations that will birth wholeness of Self, shattering the defenses of ego.

When we speak of “compassion fatigue,” these upheavals are what we are trying to name. But, while fatigue is part of rupture and transformation, it is only a fraction of the whole experience. Using the term “fatigue” to describe an individual’s suffering in response to collective suffering is like mentioning only “difficulty sleeping” when we are falling in love. In place of “compassion fatigue,” a far better name for these upheavals is initiation.

The psyche requires initiation of us several times in our lives. Through the process of initiation, we let go of no-longer useful, increasingly false definitions of self, experience ego-death, and then return, rebuilding our selves in more mature, authentic, and compassionate ways in order to be more fully part of community (Moore, 2001; Turner, 1969; Van Gennep, 1960; Eliade, 1958; Levine, 1992). Much focus has been given to the study of initiation and rites-of-passage in non-Western cultures. Psychotherapy is often described as a process of initiation for the client (Corbett, 2011). When I realized that my compassion fatigue was more fully understood as a process of initiation resulting from ongoing engagement with the archetype of compassion, I was surprised to find very little written about the work of psychotherapy as an initiatory catalyst for the therapist. I think this lack is in part due to cultural misperception of compassion as a character trait we already possess before becoming therapists. Like most neophyte therapists, I entered this field believing just that.

After seeing compassion as archetypal energy demanding ongoing initiation, my perception and work has shifted radically. This realization humbled me to the truth that I do not possess compassion. Compassion possesses me.   When I assume compassion belongs to me, as simply part of my character, I run into trouble. I take both self and compassion for granted, and act with only a superficial understanding of compassion’s energy. But when I am aware that, in seeking to develop compassion, I have entered into sacred terrain and am engaging with a divine force whose energy is much bigger than my ordinary human self, I behave with mindfulness, awe, and deep respect for the divine energy that is taking possession of me.

This radical shift in thinking recognizes that self, soul, and compassion are not things, or objects. They are processes, actions. They are, as Matthew Fox (2014) writes, in his exploration of 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart, “spaces where God works compassion and where the love of God is active” and where we experience “the radical level of interdependence that is the basis of all compassion and indeed of our whole existence” (p. 122). In other words, we do not have a soul, a self, or compassion as a personality feature. Instead, soul, self, and compassion are inter-related active processes initiated through our engagement with the active process that is the soul, self and compassion of the Divine. “Until we become a conduit for the Divine compassion,” Fox continues, “we do not yet have soul. Soul is something we birth, and we birth it in proportion to our developing love and compassion” (p. 123).

Reorienting the Work of Art Therapists

Within the therapy community, reflection on personal experiences of compassion initiation serve to help others in the community recognize and navigate the upheavals required by the archetype of compassion for our maturation. Perceiving compassion as archetypal energy demanding maturation has given me a deeper appreciation of “the Self-changing nature of care-giving work” that repeatedly exposes the therapist to human suffering and requires reorientation of the self in response to such suffering (Stamm, 1999, p. xxxviii). Reorientation and reorganization of self toward greater spiritual maturity and selfhood is a key component of the initiatory process.

I believe, as does secondary traumatic stress researcher Stamm (1999), that “the greater the demand and/or the fewer the resources the person has with which to make the change, the greater the potential for the stress to be traumatic or even pathological” (p. xxxviii). Within our work environments, deep understanding of the nature of both therapeutic work and trauma is often insufficient and so resources fostering self-care are lacking. When work environments hinder self-care needs, or the therapist does not make conscientious efforts to prioritize self-care, these lapses occur as a result of broad cultural misunderstanding of what trauma is and how compassion is developed, nurtured, and engaged with in assistance of others. In the West, our individualistic, competitive culture does not fully recognize that community is essential for healing.

Laura van Dermoot Lipsky (2009) writes about the need for “trauma stewardship,” through which individuals and communities of trauma workers engage in daily practices to develop “a deep sense of awareness needed to care for ourselves while caring for others and the world around us” (p. 12). Her work on trauma stewardship provides readers a thorough description of the effects of working to respond to trauma and a compass reorienting individuals and organizations toward more mindful self-care.   However, while her writing is an extremely valuable framework, it does not address compassion development. Including a deeper understanding of compassion initiation with the framework of trauma stewardship will help us understand why our initiations into mature compassion are often fraught with the crises and psychopathologic reactions that we associate with compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. We can then acknowledge that these crises and injuries occur, in large part, because, culturally, there is not adequate, supportive, sacred space within which the called-for initiation can occur.

In addition, the path toward mature compassion requires not one initiation, but a series of initiations. “There is no such thing as being finished with your initiations,” states Jungian analyst Robert L. Moore (2001). “Once you get through the initiation you are in now, and get your reconstitution, and you get to this next plateau in your life, then the next one comes along” (p. 117). Compassion initiations happen concurrently with other life-stage transitions. We are students, begin our careers, practice and grow more seasoned, and respond to the world’s suffering as we also marry, become pregnant, adjust to being new parents, enter midlife, divorce, experience our children leaving home, become elders, and grieve for lost loved ones. Our compassion initiations as therapists happen within the complex stages of our personal initiations.

Beyond the layer of personal maturation, human initiations also happen in the midst of, and in large part, because of, the collective trauma that is felt by all within one’s culture, inherited with generations of wounding, affecting the culture as whole (Burstow, 2003; Watkins, Shulman, 2008). Initiation and collective trauma are deeply interconnected. In modern Western society, collective trauma is in part perpetrated because the culture rejects the psyche and instead subjugates psyche into servitude for the industrial state. Every effort to complete the necessary developmental stages of soul-growth requires simultaneous efforts to heal the collective trauma within which our lives take place. Initiation, by its very nature as one of the primary forces of the psyche, breaks us free from this servitude and asks us to know ourselves as beings more soulful, strongly interconnected, and alive than the tamed or narcissistic visions of self that are offered by the dominant over-culture. Through initiation, we shed layers of false-self created to survive within the collective trauma – and we are reborn as more whole, authentic selves who respond, compassionately and maturely, to heal others who are wounded within our community.

Eco-therapist, depth psychologist, and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin (2008) describes how initiation serves to shift adults within Western culture away from “egocentric” worldviews and into “soulcentric” and “ecocentric” worldviews. Initiations that are approached from soulcentric awareness are, according to Plotkin,

designed to assist all members in discovering and living from their deepest and most fulfilling potentials (their individual souls), in this way contributing their most life-nourishing gifts to their community and environment and, in doing so, actualizing the culture’s potential (the cultural soul) and supporting its ongoing evolution. (p. 45)

By acknowledging the initiations at the heart of compassion fatigue, we recognize that within suffering, soulcentric processes of individual and cultural maturation are at work.

In addition to these layers of initiation, an art therapist’s complex initiatory process includes growth into dual vocations as artist and healer. An art therapist’s vocation is most authentically lived from within the center of four polarities on intersecting continuums. At the extremities, we over-identify or under-identify with our roles. We over-identify as healers when we call ourselves shamans. We over-identify as artists when we imagine ourselves Orpheus, insisting that artists are uniquely gifted for deep soul journeys. We under-identify as healers when we act like charlatans with only tricks and techniques to offer, or feel helpless to respond effectively to the world’s huge suffering. We under-identify as artists when we relegate our personal creativity to a hobby that is less valuable, or less necessary than others, failing to make time for our own art, considering commercial sales and gallery shows as the only proof of artistic success, not participating with our local art community and other artists, or not turning to art for self-care. Our work institutions and communities push us toward these poles. For example, in some places art therapy is seen as something anyone who knows how to use a pair of scissors and glue can do. While at the other extreme, art therapists are given the most challenging, traumatized cases because the rest of the treatment team wants the art to help break through a client’s defenses.

Each pole is part of who we are and how our work manifests. As healers, we are indeed called to do what shamans do, and we are in many ways helpless in the face of world suffering. Art does pull us into deep, healing, soul journeys. And sometimes being an artist increases our pain, and demands more time than we can give. It also requires endurance of long fallow periods in which creativity is barren. Balance is reached in the middle between the extremes.

Without this middle ground, we become inauthentic, ungrounded, inflated or deflated. Our experiences of compassion fatigue, burnout, and secondary trauma are in part triggered by personal and institutional undervaluing of what art therapy can offer while also demanding more than is realistic, causing us to feel trapped, unable to resolve the internal conflict of this imbalance. To become balanced, we need to develop mature identities as both artist and healers. In other words, our dual roles as artists and healers require initiation so that we live and work authentically, maturely, and compassionately.

In all these ways, the compassion initiation experience is actually a complex web of initiations that are concurrent and interconnected, permeating every step of our development as art therapists. We traverse personal life-stage initiations while responding to collective trauma and maturing vocationally, as both healers and artists.

A Process for Sharing Compassion Initiation Stories

Art therapists need to tell stories of how we wandered, without a map, into and through the liminal and complex terrains of our initiatory journeys. I have begun inviting colleagues to share with me their stories of compassion initiation. And, as an instructor of graduate level art therapy classes and supervisor of art therapy interns, I warn students that our education and work environments exist within a culture that is mostly ignorant of what compassion and initiation truly are. I work to prepare student therapists for the realities of working long-term within the web of collective trauma, personal maturation, and vocational identity growth, with little training in the spiritual practices of compassion.

According to the Dalai Lama (2002), if a person is:

…at an early stage of compassion practice, a more complex environment will be much more challenging, and the person will be less able to deal with it compassionately. At this initial stage, before you have reached a stage of stability, it is much more effective to avoid the situation rather than trying to confront and deal with it. Until you get to the point where it is stabilized, you are much more vulnerable to external conditions. Given this idea, according to Buddhist thinking, if a person who has attained stability in his or her compassion training continues to stay in seclusion, that person is not really doing anything with compassion. That person should now be out, running around like a mad dog, actively engaged in acts of compassion. (p. 91)

An opposite approach is used when it comes to training therapists. In spiritually impoverished, highly stressed modern culture, students do not spend years in seclusion, training in compassion toward self and others before engaging with the world. Instead, after a brief period of protected observation and internship, graduates are sent immediately into complex environments to “run around like mad dogs” engaged in compassionate work with cultural trauma. They are advised to avoid compassion fatigue, by developing adequate self-care, personal creativity, meditation, and mindfulness practices. They will need to learn these spiritual practices on the fly, however. In class, we could only spent minimal time cultivating them.

I tell my students that instability of self and career will occur in response to working to heal our complex, violent, competitive culture. I acknowledge the inadequacy of our spiritual training in compassion. Hoping to better prepare art therapy students to respond to the initiatory responses they will have, I engage my students in an adaptation of Stephen K. Levine’s (1992) “Bearing Gifts to the Feast” student initiation process. In his work, Levine teaches his students about the initiation process in rite-of-passage ceremonies, and facilitates their journey through the stages of preparation, liminal transition, and return, as they create and provide an art-based presentation to the class that makes present “the pain and suffering in their lives” and the “pathos” of their soul. In response to each presentation, the feedback classmates give must “be in an expressive mode, i.e., it must use an artistic or expressive medium” (p. 44, 45).

In my classes, I ask students to contemplate the suffering they experience as they engage in their internship field experiences and to then connect this collective trauma to their own personal pain and life struggles.   I ask each student to, as artist, “sit right in the middle of the karmic struggle, all the sufferers of all times and places hanging on his brush – and then with full awareness to pick up that brush” because “the least mark on the paper” will be “an act of supreme courage in which the suffering of the artist and his world are alchemized” as Stephen Nachmanovitch says (1990, p. 197). Nachmanovitch also points out, paradoxically, the more fully we come to know and be ourselves, including our suffering, “the more universal” our message. As we “develop and individuate more deeply,” we “break through into deeper layers of the collective consciousness and the collective unconsciousness” (p. 179). By accepting and sharing, publicly, the wounds we have rejected and hidden, we become more fully human, and our specific stories are more clearly seen as part of the existential suffering experienced by all.

I also ask my students to dialogue about psychotherapy as a spiritual practice, as a “sacred cauldron”, as Lionel Corbett (2011) describes it, in which both therapist and client are transformed. Regarding the importance of suffering in our client’s lives, Corbett states the following:

We need a perspective that is both large enough to help individuals and also able to guide our cultural response to suffering. It would be helpful to think of suffering as an essential life transition with important psychological effects and developmental consequences. We can view suffering as an initiation into a new level of awareness and a new state of being. The most difficult part of this process involves a temporary stage known to anthropologists as liminality, which is a characteristic of the middle stage of rights-of-passage seen within tribal cultures. In the liminal stage, the initiate or the suffering person is not completely out of the old state…and not quite into the new. He or she is betwixt and between, in a situation of radical change, so that liminal states produce uncertainty and anxiety about the future.   During this period, we lose our sense of who we are but have no idea where we are heading. This stage involves ambiguity and confusion. (p. 290)

In class we talk about this passage from Corbett and the importance of seeing our clients as initiates, and then we talk about seeing our own suffering, as we engage with the archetype of compassion, through a similar understanding of initiation.

Also included in the course is Toward Psychologies of Liberation, by depth psychologists Mary Watkins and Helene Shulman (2008), who thoroughly articulate the dissociation that is felt by all members of traumatized communities and recognize that such dissociation serves “the function of expressing deep distress.” Watkins and Shulman state:

In cultural environments where such distress can be heard and witnessed,   healers may interpret symptoms as calls to put something right in the environment. The whole community may come together to dialogue about and heal the breach. But where such symptoms cannot be heard and interpreted, there may be a descent into a chronic state of psychological  dissociation and the lonely suffering of symptoms that compromise vitality, creativity, eros, and compassion.” (p. 75)

The class is a bringing together of community “to dialogue and heal the breach.” We acknowledge how failure to see our compassion fatigue as a call “to put something right” through initiation prevents us from hearing, interpreting, and witnessing and therefore increases feelings of dissociation, loneliness, and loss of vitality and compassion.

Finally, students use personal image journaling and in-class art reflections throughout the semester. These art reflections track the student’s experiences of Self-change and reorientation in response to suffering. Students shape these art meditations into a final presentation, which is shared and responded to in the last weeks of the semester.

Each year, I continue to refine and deepen the structure of my course to make this initiation process the heart of the class so that students work deeply with their initiation experiences. In addition, I present to the class my own compassion initiation story, describing my own past and current struggles.

Teaching Vulnerability

What I share in my presentation changes as I change. This year, I will show them a new art piece I will make in response to empty nesting grief as my daughter begins college. I will pair it with a monotype of a weeping pregnant woman beside a river of blood, made when I was a new mother and worked at a women’s counseling center/domestic violence shelter (above). I will share the mosaic self-portrait pieced together during the years after I left both my work at the women’s center and my marriage. I will also share a more recent body tracing self-portrait made after my mother’s death, using art materials that belonged to her.  I will talk about how each of these art pieces reveals my own struggles with the experience of being undernourished; I will describe how this theme is encountered daily in my work at an eating disorder treatment center.


My goal in sharing my own story and art, and in engaging students in their own rite-of-passage presentation, is to model how we might witness for each other the initiations we must navigate as we are matured by the archetype of compassion. As artist-healers, we must ask of ourselves what we ask of clients – that we go deeply into our pain and express it through art making. And we must do this repeatedly. With no fixed balance ever attained, we need to make time and energy available for this personal attention in the midst of other obligations, and despite time constraints and community fragmentation within which we live and work.

To be honest, I struggle while sharing suffering and therapeutic artwork with students. In doing so, I reveal the messes of my life, the self-injury I’ve caused myself, the ego-defenses I armor myself with, the foolish risks I take in search of love, the times of wandering and confusion I struggle through. I fear I will look crazy, too openly vulnerable, too revealing of self and therefore entirely unprofessional as teacher and therapist. But I also know that I cannot ask students to be this vulnerable but shield myself behind false, invulnerable authority. In his book, The Archetype of Initiation, Robert L. Moore (2001) states:

When people act “crazy” by conventional standards, they are often searching  for some kind of extraordinary space that will allow them to leave an old phase of life behind and experience initiation into an entirely new phase.   Age-old human  existential issues bring with them a yearning to locate and enter a sacred “temple” where the issues can be addressed, where a constructive reorientation can safely occur, and where the behavior of self and others can once again begin to reintegrate and make sense. (p. 20)

Therefore, I choose to share my compassion initiation stories, my suffering, and my art responses to it, with students, and even at professional art therapy conferences, in front of peers whose work I highly respect. Being “crazy” enough to be this radically vulnerable is essential and serves a two-fold purpose. In addition to the primary purpose of showing, through personal example, the process of compassion initiation as it occurs within one artist-healer’s career, my vulnerability helps us enter sacred space within our therapy communities.


We need to create and protect such opportunities for each other. It is only by being vulnerable that we provide the therapy community a “sacred temple”, where each of us can be held and witnessed as we reveal our suffering, our fatigue, our reactions to trauma. By doing so together, the profession as a whole can be initiated into new spiritual maturity, through which old, inadequate perceptions of compassion will dissolve. Through this, we can make sense of our suffering as therapists, and reorient our work in new depths.   By providing such extraordinary space for witness, we take our turns as elders helping guide colleagues through the complex and ongoing process of compassion initiation. We will continue to learn how profoundly our work, our relationships, our culture, our world will be changed as we more fully respect, value, and engage with compassion as an archetypal, and therefore spiritual force whose energy is much bigger than any of us imagine.


Burstow, B. (2003). Toward a radical understanding of trauma and trauma work. Violence Against Women, 9(11), 1293-1317.

Corbett, L. (2011). The Sacred cauldron: Psychotherapy as a spiritual practice.             Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications.

Dalai Lama, in Davidson, R. and Harrington, A, ed. (2002). Visions of compassion:             western scientists and tibetan buddhists examine human nature. New York:             Oxford University Press.

Eliade, M. (1958) Rites and symbols of initiation: The mysteries of birth and rebirth, trans. Trask, W. R. New York: Harper and Rowe. Reprint edition (1994), Woodstock, CT: Spring Publications.

Figley, C. (1995). Compassion fatigue: Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatized. London: Brunner-Routledge.

Fox, M. (2014). Meister Eckhart: A mystic warrior for our times. Novanto, California: New World Library.

Levine, S. K. (1992) Bearing gifts to the feast: The presentation as a rite-of-passage in the education of expressive therapists. In Poeisis: The language of psychotherapy and the speech of the soul. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Lipsky, L. & Burke, C. (2009). Trauma stewardship: An everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler Publishers.

Moore, R. L. (2001). The archetype of initiation: Sacred space, ritual process and personal transformation, M.J. Havelick, ed. Philadelphia: Xlibris Publishing.

Nachmanovitch, S. (1990) Free play: Improvization in life and art. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc.

Pearlman, L.A & Saakvitne, K.W. (1995) Trauma and the therapist: Countertransference and vicarious traumatization in psychotherapy with incest survivors. New York: W.W. Norton.

Plotkin, B. (2008). Nature and the human soul: Cultivating wholeness and community in a fragmented world. Novanto, California: New World Library.

Stamm, B.H., ed. (1999). Secondary traumatic stress: Self-care issues for clinicians,  researchers, and educators, 2nd edition. Lutherville, MD: Sidran Press.

Turner, V. W. (1969) The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure. Ithica: Cornell  University Press.

Van Gennep, A. (1960) The rites of passage, trans. Vizedom, M.B. & Caffe, G.L. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Watkins, M. and Shulman, H. (2008). Toward psychologies of liberation: Critical  theory and practice in psychology and the human sciences. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.











Upcoming Programs this Spring

March 8, 2015


April 8, 2015, 7:00 – 8:30pm

Reading and writing workshop

Hancock County Public Library

 As part of National Poetry Month, Liza Hyatt reads from her work “The Mother Poems,” followed by a free writing workshop.After watching her angry mother cross a parking lot with a walker, Hyatt began composing one poem followed by another. Her work accumulated into a book-length memoir of their lifelong engagement in love and battle. Despite conflicts, this mother and daughter remained bonded through a mutual love of writing, a testament to the healing and forgiveness that writing about relationships gives when we dig deep and speak openly about our lives.A workshop follows the reading for those who want to stay and write about their own parents. Hyatt will provide paper. Participants can bring a personal journal if it will help with their reflections. Journals will not be read aloud.

April 12, 2015, 7:00pm
Evening With the Muse, Writer’s Center of Indiana
As part of National Poetry Month, Liza will perform poetry in bardic style accompanied by her Celtic Harp, sharing work from her three books and also one or two poems by her favorite poets.
May 1, 2015, 1:00pm and 5:00pm
Indiana History Center
Listen to Your Mother Show
As part of a cast of 13 writers, I will be participating in the Indianapolis production that is part of a national series of readings giving voice to the experience of motherhood. Visit the above link to see videos of past shows and to learn information about purchasing tickets for this year’s show.
May 7, 2015, 6:30pm
Poetry on Brick Street
Sullivan Munce Cultural Center, 225 West Hawthorne Street, Zionsville, IN 46077.
In honor of Mother’s Day, Liza will read from her book The Mother Poems and will also share new poetry.

June 20, 2015, 9:30 am-2:30pm

Oldenburg Franciscan Center–psychology.html

Mining the Dark for Healing Gold: Writing About Difficult Relationships

Speaking openly about conflict-filled and wounding relationships is often such a frightening process that we avoid it at all costs. Yet by not articulating the conflict in these relationships, we deny ourselves access to the whole context of our lives and can’t live our present and future fully. Memoir writing and poetry offer us ways to speak truthfully, patiently, and compassionately about these relationships. When we use such forms of writing as a spiritual practice to acknowledge relationship wounds, we cultivate a profound healing. We cannot brave this mining of our lives, however, without guidance and support from others (therapists, pastors, spiritual directors, friends) aware of our writing journey, sensitive to the impact of trauma within personal relationships, and willing to walk alongside us, listening as we find words to speak what was unspeakable.

Indianapolis poets Norbert Krapf and Liza Hyatt have made such personal writing journeys. In Catholic Boy Blues: A Poet’s Journal of Healing, former Indiana Poet Laureate Norbert Krapf, at the age of seventy, speaks about his abuse as a child at the hands of a priest and the lifelong effects it has had on him, his family, and his loved ones. He speaks in four voices, the boy, the man, the priest, and Mr. Blues. In The Mother Poems – A Memoir: The Warrior Queen Novelist and Her Poet Daughter, Liza Hyatt, as she enters her 50’s, untangles her relationship with her mother, a powerful and inspiring figure also emotionally distant, critical, and unwilling to participate in the details of her children’s adult lives. The Mother Poems begins with Hyatt’s earliest memory of her mother and culminates in poems that give voice to the author’s grief after her mother’s death.

As writers who know the difficult terrain that must be traversed while writing such challenging poetic memoirs, Krapf and Hyatt have joined together as presenters. In Mining the Dark for Healing Gold, they read from their work, share the story of how they came to write their own healing memoirs, identify the social supports and creative practices which sustained their work, and engage participants in a discussion of emotions and memories evoked by hearing the authors’ poetry and stories. Hyatt, a licensed mental-health counselor and art therapist, will provide information about ways in which creative self-expression is instrumental in the healing of trauma. Both authors will guide participants in experiential writing activities through which participants can begin to write about their own complex relationship wounds and also develop skills to assist others who attempt such a challenging writing journey. During the workshop, participants may begin to write about a difficult relationship in poetry or prose (a letter, description of a memory or episode, character portrait, memoir chapter, free or formal verse, journal reflections, etc.).

Drawing upon perspectives found in depth psychology and creation spirituality, Hyatt and Krapf unite, in a rare gender-balancing collaboration, to address the spiritual wounding that affects all men and women in our culture. While sharing their individual stories – about a boy being wounded by a man he called Father and a girl being wounded by a woman she called Mother – they also enter into dialogue about our shared need to heal, at an archetypal level, the injured Masculine and the rejected Feminine. In grappling with the cost of this imbalance in their own lives, they celebrate each other’s healing and help workshop participants enter more deeply into such important soul-work.

About the Presenters

NORBERT KRAPF is the 2014 winner of the Eugene & Marilyn Glick Indiana Author Award (Regional). A Jasper native, Indianapolis resident, and former Indiana Poet Laureate, he was inspired to start writing poetry in 1971 by the poems of Walt Whitman and the songs of Delta blues great Robert Johnson. As IPL, Norbert, who has worked with photographers Darryl Jones, David Pierini, and Richard Fields, promoted collaborations and the reunion of poetry and song. He released a CD with jazz pianist-composer Monika Herzig, Imagine, and performs poetry and blues with Gordon Bonham, his guitar teacher.

Of Norbert’s twenty-six books, eleven are full-length poetry collections, including the recent Catholic Boy Blues: A Poet’s Journal of Healing, American Dreams, Songs in Sepia and Black and White, Bloodroot: Indiana Poems, and Invisible Presence. He has also published a prose childhood memoir, The Ripest Moments, edited a collection of pioneer German journals and letters from Dubois County, and translated early poems of Rainer Maria Rilke and legends from his ancestral Franconia.

Norbert is emeritus prof. of English at Long Island University where he directed the C.W. Post Poetry Center. He holds the B.A. in English from St. Joseph’s College (IN) and the M.A. and Ph.D. in English from the Univ. of Notre Dame and was Fulbright Professor at the Universities of Freiburg and Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany. He received the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, had a poem included in a stained-glass panel at the Indianapolis Airport, and held an Arts Council of Indianapolis Creative Renewal Fellowship to combine poetry and the blues. Garrison Keillor has read his poems on The Writer’s Almanac. See and hear more at

Indianapolis poet LIZA HYATT is the author of the books The Mother Poems – A Memoir: The Warrior Queen and Her Poet Daughter (Chatter House Press, 2014), Under My Skin, (WordTech Editions, 2012) and two chapbooks, Seasons of a Star Planted Garden (Stonework Press, 1999) and Stories Made of World (Finishing Line Press, 2013). She has been published in various regional, national, and international journals and anthologies including most recently Reckless Writing 1 and 2, Red Silk, and Branches Magazine. In 2006, Hyatt received an Individual Artist Project Grant from the Indiana Arts Commission and many of the poems within Under My Skin were created with the help of this funding. Hyatt wrote The Mother Poems during the last 5 years of her mother’s life. The poems in Stories Made of World explore the relationship of the natural world to human spirit.

Liza is an art therapist and licensed mental health counselor (ATR-BC, LMHC) with 24 years experience, specializing in art psychotherapy for those recovering from complex trauma. She worked for 13 years at The Julian Center Counseling Center, facilitating the Domestic Violence Awareness Mosaic project and initiating a community open studio program for the agency. In 2005, she began developing medical art therapy programs for IU Simon Cancer Center’s Complete Life Department, including the Cancer Mosaic Collaborative and the Cheer Guild Art Cart program. In 2013 she completed training as a Certified Clinical Musician and now plays therapeutic harp music at IU Simon Cancer Center.

Liza holds a BA in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College (Santa Fe, NM) and a MA in Expressive Arts Therapy from Antioch University (Ohio). Liza is adjunct professor at both St. Mary-of-the-Woods College and Herron School of Art and Design, teaching the graduate level courses Art Therapy and Spiritual Growth, Clinical Art Therapy 1, and Cultural and Social Diversity in Counseling and Art Therapy. Through her work for St. Mary of the Woods, she chose to enter into relationship with the mission of the Sister’s of Providence by becoming a Providence Associate. She has facilitated classes, workshops, retreats, and therapeutic art programs for numerous organizations including The Writer’s Center of Indiana, Storytelling Arts of Indiana, The Spirit and Place Festival, and Young Audiences of Indiana. She hosts a monthly open mike poetry reading on the east side of Indianapolis at the Lawrence Art Center. She is the author of Art of the Earth: Ancient Art for a Green Future (Authorhouse, 2007) an art-based eco-psychology workbook promoting environmental stewardship. For more information, visit





Contemporary American Voices – featured poet and friends

February 4, 2015

One of the best benefits of being a poet is the friendship of other poets.  When we find each other, we do what we can to help each other write because we know three things: that writing is necessary; that there is a communion with all others that takes place when we write; and that we are always up against daily pressures and cultural disregard that prevent us from accessing that communion.

Through friendships with other poets, I am enjoying a deepening of that communion this month.  My dear friend and fellow poet Norbert Krapf encouraged me to send my poems to his good friend, poet, and editor of Contemporary American Voices, Lisa Zaran.  She chose me as featured poet for February’s issue of this online magazine and asked me to pick the month’s guest poets. And so two other amazing Indianapolis poets, and dear friends of mine, Dan Carpenter and Bonnie Maurer, are this month’s guest poets.  I have just finished reading their work in this months CAV and am honored to be sharing the stage with them. Their work is powerful.

I am blessed to be part of the community of poets in Indianapolis. There are so many wonderful poets in this city, and I wish I could have invited them all as guests poets this month. I hope reading my poems and the work of my two friends inspires everyone to keep writing.

Here is a link to February’s Contemporary American voices.

Writing about Difficult Relationships Workshop, Feb 21, 205

January 8, 2015

Here is a link to learn more about and register for my upcoming workshop on writing about difficult relationships, Feb. 21, 2015, which I will be presenting with former Poet Laureate of Indiana, Norbert Krapf:–psychology.html

A full description of this workshop can also be found on my blog, on the Upcoming 2015 Programs page.

Upcoming workshop with Norbert Krapf

Upcoming workshop with Norbert Krapf

Two New Book Projects

December 28, 2014

This December marked the launch of two new book projects I was glad to be involved in.  Both of these projects support organizations that help make people’s lives better.  The first of the books to launch was Indy Writes Books: A Book Lover’s Anthology.


Here is the description of the book from the following link, where you can go to buy a copy:

“Indy Writes Books is an anthology of some of the wonderful and generous authors who have been a big part of the first two years of Indy Reads Books. Indy Writes Books has been made possible by a generous grant from the Margot L. Eccles Arts and Culture Fund. All proceeds from Indy Writes Books support Indy Reads’ adult literacy programs in Central Indiana.”

I was delighted when Travis DiNicola, the editor of the book, asked me this summer if I would contribute to this project for Indy Reads Books.  Not only is Indy Reads Books my favorite bookstore in town, but their mission of supporting adult literacy is one I very much want to support in whatever way I can.  Being asked to write about books, literacy, reading, reminded me that reading and writing have been loves of my life since before I could do either. I decided to write all new work for this project, and was surprised by the 4 very different poems that emerged in the month following the invitation from Travis.  In “Household Gods”, which was selected as the first piece in the collection, right after the introduction and preface, I describe how books have been passed down to me and endure in my home as sacred objects. In “Romancing the Book,” I describe how books are an essential part of dating, and marriage.  In “Immram Catherine Meehan (The Voyage of Catherin Meehan), I was delighted to find myself writing about my Irish great-great grandmother, imagining how she learned to read, imagining her voyage to America as a girl, connecting her story to ancient stories of heroic voyagers.  And in “Trilogy” I found myself writing, in poem form, the fantasy trilogy I have often fantasized about writing.

Since the release, I have enjoyed being part of book signings with the other authors. Indy Writes Books is now the bestselling book at Indy Reads Bookstore. It gives me a warm feeling of being part of a community of authors, our book being given as Christmas gifts all around the city of Indianapolis and beyond, and through this book, being part of an effort to help adults, who weren’t given access as children to books and reading, find the open door inviting them into this sacred world.

The second heart-warming book project to launch this December was Writing About Cancer: The IU Health Simon Cancer Center Literary Journal.  I have been working all year with the art and music therapy team at IU Health Simon to make this narrative therapy project a reality, and I spent the fall editing this collection, putting together the various submissions we received, and turning it into a real book.  Here is the description from the back of the book, and a link to the website where it can be purchased.

Writing About Cancer cover image
The poetry and stories in this collection were written by cancer patients, family members and caregivers who found comfort and strength through writing about the physical, emotional, and spiritual impact of cancer on their lives. As part of the IU Health Simon Cancer Center Complete Life Program, this literary journal is the first of what we hope to be an annual poetry therapy project. The authors included here trust that these pages will bring courage to all whose lives have been affected by cancer. This project was facilitated as part of the IU Health Simon Cancer Center art and music therapy services, which are funded through the generous support of the Riley Cheer Guild.
I am proud of this book and look forward to seeing the impact it has on the cancer patients and family caregivers who are able to read copies of it while they are receiving chemotherapy, or are going through inpatient treatment.   I will post more about this book as we start sharing it throughout IU Health Simon Cancer Center.


Gifts from the Muses

June 22, 2014

A lot has happened in just the past month.  Life has been abundant and Providence has been awe-inspiringly bountiful. I hoped to write about what follows as things were happening, but have been busy living in response to the bounty, so will have to recap and document all that has been unfolding in this one post.

In mid May, I went to Archbold, Ohio to attend, for my first time, The Harp Gathering.

I spent the weekend going to workshops on improvisation led by Maeve Gilchrist and Lisa Lynn, both incredibly talented and skilled musicians.  As someone who will always be a lifelong beginner when it comes to music, at times  I struggled to keep up in the workshops, but understood the presenters were packing into each hour and half a wealth of material which was meant to be taken home and worked on gradually. I have been doing this since returning from The Harp Gathering, and already have found my improvisations on the harp have gone through a quantum leap to a new level.

This growth in my playing alone was what I went to The Harp Gathering for.  However, I came home with more than that.  On Saturday evening, during the concert performances, there was a grand prize drawing for a new harp built by Jeff Lewis of  Lewis Creek Harps and Instruments. While I love my affordable and easily transportable Harpsicle harp, which has served me well as I learned to play harp in hospital and hospice settings, I have been longing for a slightly larger, therapy-sized harp, with more resonance and a few more strings to provide deep, low, soothing notes.  But, having a big travel adventure on the horizon with my daughter (more on that to follow) and college costs for her looming in less than two years, I knew that I was not going to the Harp Gathering this year with any possibility of purchasing a new harp for myself.  And so, I placed my ticket in the basket for the grand prize drawing with that longing as a kind of prayer.  As the drawing happened, I thought to myself, “Well, if I am meant to continue the therapy harp path, maybe…” and then I heard my name being read from the winning ticket. The rest of Saturday evening and Sunday morning went by in a state of elated disbelief: I just won  harp! Did I just win a harp?! And not just any harp, but one that is exactly the kind of harp I needed to enhance my therapy harp work.

In the journeys of heroes and heroines, the gods provide some kind of magic gift – a sword, a shield, a seed, a chalice – that will assist the hero to fulfill her calling on the quest the gods have required.  At the end of the journey, there is often a reward of some kind – a crown, an inheritance, a recognition bestowed to proclaim the hero’s true identity.  I feel that the prize-winning harp is both of these gifts for me. It is  the reward after a long journey to build the life I have and the work that fills it. And it is also a surprising gift at the beginning of a new adventure into the next stage of life,  as a woman who has, this recent year, passed through the threshold of turning 50, her mother’s death, and entering menopause, and as a poet and harper as I am finally finding opportunities to share my creative work in the world.  The magical gift of the harp feels sent by the muses themselves!

In the week following The Harp Gathering, my book launch for The Mother Poems happened at Indy Reads bookstore.  It was a great afternoon. Despite thunder, lightening, hail, and flooded streets, at least 30 people came to help me launch the book.  Friends from all stages of my life arrived as well as people I was meeting for the first time who heard a promotional interview on Art of the Matter. 

It was scary to share this poetic memoir, which revealed the darker struggles in my relationship with my mother, as well as the strength and wisdom she gave me in life. But the audience was generous and supportive and I felt them giving to me as I gave to them. It was a wonderful experience, with so many people to talk to and thank for being there.  Another experience of bounty.

And then, my daughter and I took of for Costa Rica!  I had promised her a trip outside of the country, using  a bit of inheritance from Mom to give ourselves an adventure beyond any trip I have been able to provide her before.  During the past winter-of-all-winters, while we were deciding where to go, we began to long for the tropics. We considered Hawaii, but Maggie wanted a trip requiring a passport, and so we chose Costa Rica.

Maggie and I on Tamarindo beach, Costa Rica.

Maggie and me on Tamarindo beach, Costa Rica, 6-6-14.

It was a wonderful week with my daughter at a perfect time. We have come through a difficult stage of adolescence in which she went from easily connecting with me to adamantly pushing away in order to assert her independence – and in which I had to learn how to let go.  I felt glad we have come through this transition and want to travel together!  And Costa Rica was a very hospitable, welcoming, beautiful place to go for this celebration.  We went on boat rides through the rain forest, and hiked on hanging bridges in the tree canopy, swam in hot springs from a volcano, went zip-lining and walked on Caribbean and Pacific beaches. Our favorite place was Tortuguero and my favorite moment was when we saw a spider monkey mother make herself into a bridge for her youngster to scurry over in order to span the gap between trees.  When we returned home, I found myself thinking about how my daughter has acquired a driver’s license, a used car, a job, and a passport all in the past six months and so she is increasingly on her way, needing me to be her bridge less and less.  No wonder the spider monkey sighting brought tears to my eyes.

Since returning from our travels, Maggie has been off with friends and at her job, busy, busy. And so have I! Last weekend, I returned to Indy Reads for another poetry reading, this time shared with two other poets published by Chatterhouse Press – Tony Brewer and Todd Outcalt.

I brought the new harp and finally braved playing the harp while saying a few poems, in the style of the old Irish Bards, a goal I have been working toward this year.  These efforts were well received and I’ve already been asked to be part of a spoken word stage, with the harp, at an event this Labor Day Weekend!

Following the Indy Reads program, I went to The Unbroken Bones Society where singer songwriter Sarah Grain was performing. Unbroken Bones Society is one of the best kept secrets in Indianapolis, where every two months poets, storytellers, humorists, and singer songwriters perform to raise money for a soup kitchen.

Sarah and I met last year at Unbroken Bones and fell in love with each others work.  So we decided we need to collaborate.  Sarah has taken one of my poems (from Under My Skin, “While Replacing an Old Window…) and set it to music, and she performed it for the first time last weekend.  I felt so touched, so honored hearing her rich voice putting such life into the poem. I am really excited about where collaborating with Sarah will take us both.

All this, in just the past month.  Life is good! And I am grateful for such beauty!



The Mother Poems Book Launch – May 21, 2014

May 4, 2014


The Viking Queen in Her Boat

The Viking Queen in Her Boat

On May 21, 2014 at 5:30 pm at Indy Reads Bookstore, in Indianapolis IN, I will be launching my new book of poems, The Mother Poems – A Memoir:The Warrior Queen Novelist and Her Poet Daughter, published by Chatter House Press.  I never planned on writing any poems about my mother, let alone an entire book of them.  In fact, at the beginning, I wanted to write anything but poems about my mother. Now that the book has been written, it feels to me like the book needed me to write it from the day my mother told me what a writer was, when I was no more than 4 years old and could not read a word.

The first of these poems (which is now in the middle of the book) came, when – in the midst of writer’s block during and after my divorce – I found myself writing about the scar on my mother’s hand caused by a cooking-accident grease burn. I struggled with that poem for several months.  Later, after a visit with her, when I watched her hobbling around with a cane, impatient with everyone who wouldn’t slow down for her, I decided to write about the ways I remembered her moving through the world when younger. For most of her life she was impatient with everyone for being too slow and I was the child hurrying to keep up with her.

I imagined maybe 5 or 6 poems, a short series, and then I could move on to other material.  I wrote about my first memory, following her to the pear tree in the pasture beside the first house I lived in. I wrote about hurrying to catch up with her as she charged through the mall when I was a teen.  I wrote about her teaching me to brave the monsters in the basement by singing a battle hymn as I marched down the steps.  I wrote about how she walked outside to survey the damage minutes after a tornado felled trees in our yard.  Before I knew it, images and memories of her in times in between what I had already written also began to speak their way into poems.  I found myself filling in the gaps chronologically, piecing a story together that was not only a story about her, but a story about me and ultimately, the story of our relationship.

The first poem about the scar ripped its way out of me in the summer of 2006.  In the summer of 2008 I had begun writing about how my mother moved through the world and by the summer of 2009 I had accepted that this writing was going to require me to write about our entire lives, the whole story, from my first memory to her death, which I sensed was approaching faster than she wanted to admit.  I did not imagine that the poems would be published. I needed to write them privately, for their own sake.  I did not plan on sharing any of them with her.  I needed to be as honest as possible, from within my perspective, no matter how painful.

By the summer of 2012, most of the poems had been written and along the way much more than poetry had been created.  Unexpectedly, through the writing, I had done a life review of our relationship, and I had discovered my own lifelong love for this woman who could not let herself be loved. I had found forgiveness for her.  And gratitude for what she had given me, especially for the love of writing which she passed on to me.  In the fall of 2012, I decided to publish The Mother Poems while my mother was still alive and to ask her to write her own response which could be also included in the book.  Impatient as ever, her “response” was a brief email to let me know she had read them, found some of them strong, and that she would start writing a response. Then, a few days later, she died, hurrying on to the next adventures of the Warrior Queen.

After her death, I needed to write several more poems.  I wrote about her death. I wrote about other memories from childhood that popped up. I realized that I will be remembering and writing poems about her for the rest of my life.  But I also knew that I needed to give The Mother Poems to readers now, even though there will be more mother poems for me to write.  I have found that every time I have shared a poem from the book, the response is immediate.  Women especially have told me that they want to write about their own mothers and that my poems have given them the courage to start doing so.  I hope to begin scheduling readings and workshops using The Mother Poems as catalyst to encourage other women – and men – to write about their own complex, unique, challenging, and numinous relationships with their mothers.

I don’t have a preconceived agenda for how and where I am going to do these readings and workshops.  I sense that, like the poems themselves, these opportunities will emerge organically.  The poems will touch people, invitations will emerge, the poems will continue to take me beyond where I imagine going, and giving much, much more than I expect to receive, tapping for myself and everyone whom they inspire to write about their own mothers, the mythic mother-load of story, memory, creativity, and healing.

If you’ve read this post and would like a Mother Poem  reading and workshop, please contact me! I look forward to meeting you on this journey.

Sharing the Presence of Clear Mind, Wild Heart

March 15, 2014

Clear Mind, Wild Heart , Sounds True

Yesterday, I drove to work listening to David Whyte’s recording, Clear Mind ,Wild Heart (Sounds True ). I can listen all day to his speaking of poetry, his encouragement to live at the frontier of self, and have listened to him on other drives all the way from home to parking space.  But I didn’t yesterday. In the year since my mother’s death, I have been clearing space in my own mind, my own wild heart.  And somehow, in the past month, I have found myself reentering my life, my poetry, my imperfect self, in a way that astonishes me.  And so, yesterday, as I drove, after hearing Whyte’s poem of dropping into the deep well of his work, I turned off the CD and drove in quiet into the city to a day of my own work.

It was a blustery day, so even the weather added to the feeling of space being cleared, old leaves and winter’s debris being moved away so that green shoots can appear. After all the many ways I have told myself that the specific realities of my personality, my way of being in the world, my houses and jobs and choices are not good enough, in the past year I began to experiment with telling myself the opposite:  that all the imperfect details of my existence are so specifically mine that they are exactly the life I am meant to live.  And as I drove to work yesterday, I felt joyfully at peace in my life.

I parked in the parking garage across the street from a complex of hospitals in downtown Indianapolis and wheeled my harp through the pedestrian walkway over Michigan Street.  As I walked, I took a moment to look through the windows of the walkway at an old building built in 1927 as Coleman Hospital for Women.  In 1962, I was born in that building. Now, it is no longer used as a hospital.  But I have occassionally felt a wordless awe that life led me back to this spot and that here, in the same city block where I was born, I am doing what feels like the most meaningful work of my life.  Most days, I rush through the walkway and into the Simon Cancer Center where I play therapeutic harp, hurried, not even thinking.  But yesterday, I decided that from now on, I will try to remember to pause and reconnect myself to this birth place as part of my spiritual preparation for my day’s work.

Once inside the building, I put my coat and purse in my locker, my phone in my pocket and clipped my name tag on my collar and then I called the social worker who gives me referrals for those patients who are actively dying.  I hadn’t heard from her for several weeks, and with the long, hard, very cold, very snowy winter we had this year, during which the first anniversary of my mother’s death was contained, I found myself not wanting to sit in the presence of those actively dying. In January and February, I have instead focused on playing the harp for patients who had not been placed on hospice care.  Yesterday morning though, intuition told me to call the hospice social worker and she sent me to offer harp to a patient on the third floor.

When I reached the room, the social worker, two nurses and the patient’s daughter were in the room. The social worker introduced me and the daughter agreed her mother would like the harp.  I sat down and began to play and the nurses finished their work in the room and lingered for a little while, but soon everyone left, giving space for the daughter to be with her mother as I played the harp.  Before leaving, one of the nurses asked the daughter about a necklace her mother was wearing and the daughter explained she had given it to her mother and that its wishbone pendant symbolized the small ritual they had shared every year at Thanksgiving.

The daughter was younger than me. I placed her as being only in her early 30’s.  In the first few minutes of my playing her phone rang and she talked to someone about how she and her mom were doing.  Later, she got a few text messages and her phone made a soft birdlike sound to let her know.  But most of the time, she sat silently attending to her mother, holding her hand, leaning her head down on the bed, resting there with her.  I watched the wishbone pendant rise and fall on the mother’s chest as she breathed, slowly, deeply.  Sometimes the mother’s face seemed to respond to the daughter’s touch.  I sensed that the harp was comfort to both and I played for at least an hour, losing track of time.

I have come to know that every death is different, and I found myself thinking about how blessed this mother and daughter were to be sharing such peace in this moment.  How lucky they were that their relationship was such that they could share in this way.  I thought about my own mother’s death and how alone she needed to be in it, how alone she made me in relationship to her. I thought about how I hope that I can keep finding my way to  gentle and connected places with my daughter as I grow old, as I die.  Gradually, as sometimes happens when I play for those dying, a simple melody began to come to me and I improvised until the melody began to flow and repeat, change and return. When I left the room, the daughter was breathing slowly and deeply, with her head lying on her mother’s bed, holding her mother’s hand.  The daughter did not lift her head, or stir as I quietly left the room and so I closed the door hoping that she had relaxed into sleep as she listened to the harp.  Touched by this beautiful sharing, this mother and daughter taking care of each other in this way, my eyes welled with tears as I put the harp in its case.

I was too emotionally stirred to go straight from that harp session into another patient’s room.  So I chose instead to go down stairs and play my harp in the open area of the infusion pods.  In the first pod, I was greeted by a couple patients who have been “regulars” for the past year. Playing music for these survivors, who, despite living with chronic illness, have found their zest for living is still abundant,  felt like the right place to be next.  I played the improvised melody that was the mother and daughter’s song, and then merged it into the mix of familiar and Irish tunes I play when in the infusion pods.  The emotions of the morning filled the harp music with an extra layer of expression that carried life into the music.

I took a break for lunch, then played for the second infusion pod. I set up my chair in the open area in the center of the pod, where nursing staff and patients all can hear. Shortly after I started to play two patients who I did not know came over, wheeling their iv poles and sitting in the comfy chairs near a fireplace next to where I sat.  The immediacy with which the harp drew them to sit with me was quite touching. As I played, one of them talked to a nurse about her treatment and I gathered that she was new to treatment and had been in a difficult place the day before. I heard her say, “But I got some sleep and a shower and now she is playing the harp for me, so today is going to be much better.” I felt again how much a lifeline the harp is for people in the hospital and was glad again that I can provide it for others.

As I played, I felt how the feelings of peace and clarity with which the morning began had only continued to deepen throughout my work that day.  I am here, I thought as I played, in my life, being just myself, nothing more, nothing less, doing what I have learned to do, sharing.

I thought back to David Whyte’s encouragement to live at the frontier of our lives and understood that everyone I had interacted with at the cancer hospital that day was doing just that and that when I play the harp for them, I bring myself to the same frontier.  It is not a solitary place, that frontier, but a place that we all share.  And we get there, as David Whyte says, by letting of our old selves and stepping bravely into the unknown.  Yet somehow, when we do just that, we come home to ourselves, we come back to ourselves, we become ourselves as we have been meant to be since our origin, since birth.

This touched me yesterday in ways I am only just entering into.  I wanted to write here about it to begin to express it in some imperfect but explorative way.