Last year was quite an adventure. Everything I dreamt about when I got in touch with my dreams, during my exchange year in Switzerland, so many years ago. Safe here in my sacred art space and studio, painting away.
I also had the privilege to spend art time with many students of core art, holding the space for them to explore their own way of making art in the moment.
But no writing. Not one poem, all year.
By December I felt congested and blurry. I spent most of the Christmas break writing and reconnecting with myself. Poetry helped me find my way back. It hit me today, after all this time spent writing and painting, that what I most need to feel loved, is to spend one on one time with my love. This goes for my relationship to me as well.
Somehow, having spent so many years writing for a reason: for healing; for articles; for connection; for insights – I had missed the most crucial part. Writing, for me, is an act of self-love. It is a very precise way of listening to the moment and describing it, of looking at myself, my life, my emotions with kindness and deep honesty. There is no desired end result, no agenda, no gain. Just the act of reaching out, spending time with the person I am in that moment.
So, I wanted to ask you, in turn:
What makes you feel loved?
How could you give yourself [more of] that, whatever it is, today?
The process of creating transformative art; a backstory
The big painting has been stuck for a week, almost. I have been gazing, staring, willing it to move. Even dabbing it gingerly with a brushful of transparent red iron oxide. All to no avail.
Until, as so often happens, when I start to focus on a new painting project, the deepening experiences start piling up. When I was in Scotland, re-experiencing Crimson Circle’s SES workshop, I wondered a bit that my mother and my relationship to her did not come up. Ah well.
This week on my birthday, my mother called me. I hadn’t talked to her in three months. At eight in the morning, she was drunk. I listened to her slurry, wobbly words, as always wondering at how the alcohol could completely deprive them of meaning for me, despite her telling me that I was a beloved, expected child. As she talked, I was revising my plan for the day. Usually, when I am in touch with my mother these days, deep emotions may start arising and spread outside my control.
That day I was supposed to lead a core art workshop in drawing. These workshops are intense and require my deep presence as well as all my abilities. I was already in Rastila, waiting for my core art students, scent of coffee in the air. The open art studio was starting in an hour and the first student would arrive any minute.
I suggested to my mother that we meet, but she said she was injured some way and could not move. Alarmed I asked if she needed help and became even more alarmed when my proud mother said yes. Again, thoughts racing, planning, moving the components of the day this way and that, I asked if she needed help acutely and if I was to come to her. When she laughed resentfully and said no, I asked if I could call after work and said I’m here for her. Grating some more piercing laughter, I heard in her voice, this was not good. I ended the call as swiftly as I could.
Diving into the challenge
“Well, happy birthday to me.” I thought bitterly right after the call.
Then I noticed the oozing touch of self-pity and asked myself what I needed. Eating a bit, drinking something hot, doing some deep breathing, I did what I do well; I carefully compartmentalized the little girl inside of myself and the art teacher part of myself in different boxes. While I knew from experience that I would later pay the price of this, at that moment keeping my promises and taking responsibility for all different roles and parts of my life seemed to be of utmost importance.
Although I felt sad and worried during the day, momentarily distracted, always bringing myself back to the present, the core art workshop was gentle, flowing and even fun at times. Once again I was amazed at the power of art, self-made or enjoyed, to transform anything. What I was less aware of, was the automatic mode I was in – I can carry anything, I can pay this bill, I can afford this, I will carry this [for you] because I can.
During my breaks I was in touch with the Engineer and with my dad, so I could get the necessary information and organize the rescue mission of the evening. After work, I and the Engineer went to my mom’s with two bags of groceries to see what kind of situation she had. In the car, I could feel emotion swirl around in my body. Old, familiar poison. My mind was full of thoughts I recognized. I told the Engineer that voicing those thoughts would only increase the emotion and drama I was aware of inside of me. I felt helpless. When we came to my mother’s apartment building I was relieved to see the building door was open, because I couldn’t get a hold of her on the phone. We rang and rang the doorbell. She didn’t open the door. Her neighbours said she hadn’t been home for days. She still didn’t answer her phone. We left the non-perishables behind the door and got into the car.
In the car, my body started trembling. I asked the Engineer if we could stop at a drive through, so I could have a sugary drink and something to eat. That would bring some balance and stability into the moment. The kids were waiting at home for night time stories and the rituals of going to bed. I cherished each bite of the hamburger, sitting beside my husband, each ketchup filled bite. The junk food fit my inside state.
The next morning when I woke up, I had a text message on my phone: “Thank you for the food. Very kind. Give me your account number and I will reimburse you. I am not available tomorrow, I am at a retreat. Hug.”
This is when I snapped.
The visible effects of emotional radiation started. I felt my shoulder blade area shut down completely, as if someone had stitched iron wire throughout my skin and muscles. The thoughts of self-hatred started gushing forth in a never ending stream. Anxiety made it hard to breathe fully. Deep currents of self-doubt ran through my mind, doubting everything from my skills, to my life choices, to my right to exist. Tears started flowing at unpredictable intervals. I staid in bed, lifting any part of my body felt like an insurmountable task.
While I rationally knew that this was an automatic reaction to the interaction with my mother, based on deep patterns unresolved, it was hard to keep on breathing, keep on functioning. In these situations I would love to be able to be calm, collected, instantly healing myself in some deep mystical or instant way. Instead, in the midst of the considerable inner pain, concepts of self-love feel abstract and unreachable. So I attempted to just be aware of what was happening inside of me, not trying to change anything, concentrating on breathing, letting the painful emotions move through me like weather and tried my best to not hold on to any of the venom that was flowing through me.
When the Engineer came home at five p.m. I went to sleep and slept through the night.
What was different this time?
For someone who has never lived with an alcoholic, this reaction may seem way overblown. For me, it’s automatic. Through the years, my needs have had to wait and the needs of my mother have come first. Still, one day a year, on my birthday, there is the expectation that it is my day, something for me. Instead, I spent the whole of my birthday, trying to help my drunk mother, calling forth the emotional reality that was my norm for so long.
Discerning between self-pity and self-compassion has been a challenge for me. Yesterday, someone said: “I wish you would always feel appreciated and loved.”
That moment I realized, the only person who can give me that kind of stability is me. Today, after another twelve hours of sleep, I think the biggest difference between self-compassion and self-pity, for me, are boundaries. After experiencing her twenty years of full blown alcoholism, I have still longed so much for a nugget of love from the mother I once knew, that although I have put my children’s needs before her needs, I have always put myself aside.
I have never said: It is more important that I love me and care for me than that I please my mother and father. Not for my children, for my family, for my relationships. For me. Just for myself.
The practicality of loving self
In conclusion, I am here, sitting with the part of myself who resists the thought of drawing boundaries. Life is clearly showing me the need to do so. To say a clear yes and no to how I choose to be treated. The little girl part of me is saying: “But I want myself to love my mother, the way I used to love her. But I want us all to be friends. I want love to be the norm. I want to be gentle, kind and smiling. I am afraid of what will happen if I am not.”
And I ask in return: “Who am I to think I know what other people need? Who am I to say that the minuscule connection I have to my mother is wrong? Who am I to judge how other people create their lives, to criticize what they choose? The only thing that IS my responsibility is choosing whether I want to participate, to choose how I am willing to be treated. And THAT is done by learning what my boundaries are and then expressing them.”
Self-pity is allowing myself to be badly treated, and complaining, heaping on blame and suffering afterwards. Self-compassion is saying: This is not okay.
From life to painting to life again
What I’m learning, already, from this painting project is that loving myself actively doesn’t make life easier, exactly. It doesn’t decrease my sensitivity, or remove the pain from a difficult experience. What it does is increase my sense of being alive, of having a right to simply experience what I do, as I do. With support and love, whatever comes next. When I allow myself to get lost, in my life, inside myself, I find areas and solutions that I haven’t found before.
Self-love skill number two. Saying no appropriately.
Man, how I struggle with this one. There’s saying it, of course. Hard at times, almost impossible at others.
But before you can say no, you have to be able to feel into what you really really want. Yes or no. You have to be able to say, I’ll come back to you, I’ll think about it for a while.
You need to accept, appreciate and allow your preferences.
Then, you may need to calmly say no thank you. Sometimes forcefully.
So, the practice continues. 🙂
Oh, and what do self-love skills have to do with creativity? My current experience is that the more I make art, the more productive I am, the more time I need for empty space time, bupkis days, taking care of my needs. It’s all part of the whole of creative work. Although the final act of creation may be fast and expressive, what makes that possible is sometimes a lot of time spent incubating, ruminating and in general just containing different kinds of tension.
This means I need to carve out that time by saying no. A lot. Trust the process, trust the need for this time, trust myself.
Sometimes saying no to the outside world is saying yes to your own art, whatever its expression.
What can you say no to today, as a way of practising self-love?
Back from Scotland and my adventures into the mystery of loving self. Things keep getting more hectic here on our planet, more turbulent. I felt an updated skill set in caring for myself would be appropriate. I’m glad I did.
Edinburgh was a beautiful place where it was easy to breathe deeply. I came back with lots of inner space and a collection of non-verbal, not yet painted experiences.
I’ve always thought loving ourselves is a pretty abstract concept. Easy to think and talk about, harder to practice. A quick google search seems to indicate it isn’t an easy concept generally speaking.
It seems to me, loving ourselves is something to be practised, day by day. This way it does increase, helping us to keep center in this ever-changing world of ours.
So while I’m painting my huge paintings around this theme, here in my studio, I thought I would ask my inner crew to give me something more tangible, that can be shared now.
I asked my friends: What is implemented self-love? Here’s the first illustration, T. and Fant style.
This blog should have been written on Saturday, instead it incubated until today, Monday.
As an empath, I experience my feelings as both a blessing and a curse. The blast of them, while leading to great aliveness, is at times of imbalance, just way too much. Learning to discern which are mine and which aren’t, helps immensely.
I’m suspecting I’m not alone in saying that life has been full of changes lately. On Thursday, it was time to just rest, which I continued through the weekend. Today, Eren’s comment on my blog gave me the idea to write down self-love ideas that help me with self-care during these times of rapid change.
What does self-love in action mean to you, in the midst of your changing life?
I’ve done this a thousand times. Fit myself into a pair of jeans that hug my legs but leave the rest of me desperately crying out for space or at least a bit of stretch. Finding a high enough waist band to lovingly envelope my curves has been a challenge I haven’t taken time for. So I’ve settled to being pinched, cramped and tied up in discomfort, for the benefit of long looking legs.
Molding myself according to expectations of others is a similar experience. Although it may seem easier, the pain of pushing myself into a default template is ongoing. And just like my muffin top is visible, no matter the kind of sack I wear for a blouse, nobody is fooled by me squeezing myself into the cast of normal/perfect/whatever.
And why is it so scary? I don’t know about you, but for me it is frightening to connect with that part of me that flows over, that needs, that reacts in intense and unpredictable ways, the places that need compassion, acceptance, time. To not cram it into yet another corset, tight belt or behind the mask of a smile.
But to listen. To experience. To see what is.
This week, I’m starting with my body. I bought a pair of jeans with a wide, high waist. Comfy and soft. At the same time I’m letting my feelings roll, jump, hide, run, dig tunnels, whatever. There’s space here, both for a soft belly and whatever sort of feelings that life awakens.
Is there a template in your life that you’ve outgrown and/or are ready to bust out of? If you would surround yourself with tender care and deep acceptance, what would your next step be?
This meant no day care for her, no working for me and a dilemma of how to get firstborn to and from school.
My husband sent me the following picture from his trip to Cape Verde, where he is, alone.
My to do list is two pages, written with font 10.
Do I manage to convey the enormity of my pity party this morning, at all?
The icky, slimy bug of self-pity started hissing in my ear. Thought by thought, my energy faded away. Powerlessness started seeping into my muscles. My ability to receive any nourishment from interactions with my kids or with my friends and family started receding, until I could feel the slippery frosting of self-pity, coating me from head to toe.
Now, rationally I know self-pity is an attempt to defend myself against overwhelm, expectations and demands. On an emotional level, it’s another story.
The thing is, while self-pity may feel like relief, or like self-love – it’s anything but. It shifts the locus of power on the outside of ourselves, puts us in the back seat of our lives.
Of course, the row of set backs continued. My friends couldn’t help with getting firstborn to school, the taxi driver was rude, there was less money on my account than I remembered, my website crashed… It wasn’t until I had sent my website provider an e-mail to ask for help, and they responded they couldn’t and I just had to google the answer, that I remembered Veronica Torres’ tool: “How ridiculous does it have to get?”.
What else would have to happen, until I took responsibility for my own thoughts and feelings.
Ah, well. I asked myself what would take me closer to self-compassion and loving myself in the moment. After a shower, a glass of water and a loving discussion with my daughter, I came back to the computer and easily updated the theme of my website. Now she’s sleeping and I’m feeling happy for the frolicking Engineer again.
I drew this picture to remind myself that there is a better way than self-pity. What would take you one step closer to self-love and self-compassion today?
I painted the first version of this picture on a t-shirt, almost twenty years ago. That was the year I put in an ad on a newsboard [on text-tv, laughing at that a bit now], so I could find out the truth about men. Were they simple beings who could not think, as my mom was fond of saying, or was there something more out there? My soulfriend, the Engineer who would become my husband many years later, bought the t-shirt with this turtle on. He wore it everywhere. The memory still makes me smile.
In addition to musing over that memory, I have been reading and translating parts of this important book about self-harm for a youth project I work in. The book is written compassionately and the text validates the inner reality of anyone who self-harms. Punishment in order to dissolve feelings of shame and guilt, search for emotional relief, making emotional pain clearer and more tangible are just some of the functions that self-harm can have. Most often, in our outcome directed, fast-paced world, an understanding for inner phenomena is lacking. Not so in this book.
Loving ourselves is a skill that is learned when our needs and feelings are heard and responded to, when we see people close to us love themselves and take care of their own needs responsibly, when we can express what is inside and have that received. It is never too late to start learning this skill and building habits that support loving self.
I am watching the car lights disappear.
These days I know nothing. I write trivial stuff.
These days I sit down my fears on the porch of my mind. We
sit and watch the weather change, some days we go
and get a blanket or two. Then we sit again.
These days there is a hunger around my heart. I write.
The hunger devours me. I mourn the death that is needed for new life.
I mourn that I looked at the railways with dark desire today.
This yearning is not meant to be soothed. I sit in my heart and understand.
I would rather close my eyes. I don’t.
I sit in my heart and understand.
Sanity turned out to be the old woman
with stinking breath and eyes of wonder.