End of Year Reflections on Life, Brushing Your Teeth and Sisyphus

When I was a child, I was very messy, and it seemed like I was not related to the rest of my family. I remember thinking, Why do the adults tell me to clean up my room? I will just mess it up again. And why do people make their beds every day? they just mess them up at night and have to make them up all over again. At least there is a reason to brush your teeth at regular intervals.

At that time I did not know the myth of Sisyphus, the poor man who is in hell pushing a large boulder up a mountain, only to reach the top and see it go fast down the mountain to the bottom, then to have to go back down and push it back up again, knowing it will just fall down the mountain.

I’ve remembered this myth a lot, especially as a therapist dealing with people suffering from all kinds of things from depression to eating disorders to addiction. This metaphor is so apt for such suffering; the sufferer has the knowledge that life does not seem like that, it actually is exactly like that.

Read the full story: http://www.mythweb.com/encyc/entries/sisyphus.html
we, I included, only seem to remember him as that sufferer doomed to this repetitive task in Hades, however, in life, he wielded the ultimate power of stopping people from dying for a time.

Anyway, for better or worse, most of us just remember this man, seemingly helpless and powerless over his fate, doomed to this repetitive, exhausting task. I’m not sure what changes in knowing the whole story, but still, life seems to be the same as this image. We labor and sweat over pushing a huge boulder up a mountain, only to see it speedily fall to the bottom, and then, without question, we hurry down the mountain, and push it up again. And not just once, but over and over, much like we make our bed over and over, eat and digest our food and get rid of it and then eat again. Most of daily tasks of living involve repeating such things, with full knowledge that we will be doing it again. Same with even things that give people a “high”, like yoga or exercise. You leave the gym, feeling good, but knowing you will have to go back on the treadmill again soon, or back to the yoga class to repeat it all over again. Basically any activity will involve this, some that are pleasant, and some not.

This image is the image of the human suffering, or doomed to repeat over and over. However, there is something to be said for looking at this story from a very different point of view, and reframing it completely, mainly with the basic tenets of mindfulness.

What if you are doing that, but you are supremely focused on what it feels like in the moment to touch this boulder, to push it and see it get larger and heavier as you push it? What if you are looking at the mountain and the ground and observing the weather, the feel of the boulder on your hands, how your hands look as you push the boulder. and what if you are indeed, pushing it up the mountain with the knowledge that it will fall back down and you will start it over again, but it does not seem fruitless and you do not feel you are in a prison of your own making, but actually liberated in the doing of it, because you have realized that you do not care what happens to the boulder, you do not care how heavy or light it is, and you do not notice that it is a repetition, or you do not care, as you are excited to see it fall down the mountain, like a snowball you built up that has melted, but does not prevent you from anticipating the next snow fall with the excitement of a little child?

Do we imprison ourselves in our own suffering? Is the key to liberation simply our own mind setting us free?

I see this with dishes. If you simply notice the feel of the water on your hands, the sight of the leftover food sliding off the dish and watching the drain, feeling the air on your skin, does it matter if you will do the dishes again tomorrow and forever? If we live for the moment with full belief in the moment, and do not look back to the past, thinking of what could have been or what we could have done, and do not project into the future what we must be or need to be or have to be happy, have we not freed ourselves of the worst kind of suffering and pain, the emotional kind?

This is what the artist does. I take a piece of paper and rip it up and glue it on another piece of paper, or take paint on a brush and stroke it over the paper, and then repeat the motion endlessly. There is no final painting or work, there is no complete boulder. I start again every day, if I am open to the process I do not really care what the “product” looks like. In fact, it is indeed ephemeral, even if I see it in my studio the next day. I am on to the next piece of paper, doomed to repeat myself in some new way. Why are the most repetitive things in life, both considered like torture or to be soothing ways to heal from trauma? Emotional pain and suffering and relief from suffering are both in this image of pushing the boulder up the hill. How you feel about yourself, the boulder, the mountain and the environment inside and outside yourself is what makes the difference between doom and complete freedom. Yes, we either live and keep being disappointed, or we can die, or choose to be dead while living, or we can laugh in the face of life and death. There is a choice, the choice itself may be the only thing we have that will not disappear or disappoint. In the moment of the here and now, we have that small choice, and that may be all. Even if it is meaningless, the matter of choosing is of extreme and absurd importance…

The Altered Book: A Great Project for In Session Art Therapy

When I was in graduate school for art therapy, I had never heard of an altered book or seen one, and certainly it did not come up in my “Materials” class. We did not get assigned any kind of Altered Book in any class, whereas now I am hearing from grad students that in some class or other, one of their assignments involves an altered book, which is usually assigned to do outside of class.

I think my first experience of an altered book may have been at the Outsider Art Fair. I distinctly remember going to this Fair years ago when it was always in the lovely Puck Building, which is still there, located on Lafayette near Houston St. in Soho, downtown NYC. In fact years before that, I had some of my graduate art therapy classes in the Puck Building and we organized the student art show on one of the floors of this building. It is certainly a beautiful building. The last time I was there for an art event was the comic book graphic novel fair a few years ago when I met one of my favorite graphic novel authors/artists, Lynda Barry. It must have been back in 2008 when she had just published this beautiful book about her art making process, called “What It Is”. Anyway I think I saw an altered book years before that encounter in the same building. It was made by a female outsider artist and I remember the book being very thick and beautiful and having a lot of glue on all the pages. It was very inspiring and I wish I could remember the artist and find a photo of it.

I made my first “altered book” years before that without knowing it was an “altered book”. It was not quite what we tend to think of these days when thinking of Altered Books. I took all the pages out of this strange pretty bad dramatic novel I did not read and altered the cover completely to the point where it was not recognizable as having been a book. I put a lot of plaster of paris on it and then mod podged tissue paper collage. Then I somehow found part of a cardboard box and attached the book to it so the top opened up as the cover. I think I used the pages to rip up and glue inside the box. I will take a photo of it. Strangely it was a gift for a close friend, but she was a close enough friend that she told me she found the box to be too disturbing to use or look at, so I took it to my studio, where it has been more appreciated! It inspired one person to make something like it with me, and she ended up taking a dislike to the project and left it with me when she left town after we went through her art that she had done in art therapy with me. I still have that rejeccted box in my studio as well. (It inspires me to write a whole post about “ugly” and “rejected” art work and how it is therapeutic in art therapy!)

More recently, a few years ago I stumbled on an online class about altered books, and in fact I have now taken 3 online classes about it, each class covering different aspects of the art making process involved in altering books. I have been making them with patients for a while now, and by making, I really mean inviting patients to try it out and see if they like it. The first part of the process involves the explanation of what it involves, which is, basically, you choose a book and then you can start anywhere in the book or with the cover or back cover and start picking art materials to use on the book. The first steps also often involve ripping out pages from the book, either to use in the book or to throw out. It is usually good to do this at the beginning as a way to give yourself permission to “alter” the book. We all have pretty fixed notions about the sacredness of books, which I think still exists despite the internet, reading on tablets and other devices, or perhaps, the tablets have made books seem even more precious. Jumping in to starting an altered book project requires a certain amount of adventurousness, ability to tolerate anxiety about the unkonwn and anxiety about trespassing a boundary and destroying something in some way in order to create something completely new. It also involves changing ones mind in framing the idea of that book, from something to be read and kept intact, to an object just like any other “found object” to transform and make your own through your own creative expression.

There are many different aspects to altered books as part of the art therapy session that are quite fascinating, so this post will only touch on the first part, the beginning. Once invited the interested patient will next be introduced to the random assortment of books I have to choose from and pick something that speaks to them to alter. Usually Hardback books are more inviting as it is easier to treat the cover like a canvas, but lately I have seen a few people pick soft cover books, becasue I have a few that are an interesting size, kind of square and with a lot of photos, and a cover that is more sturdy than the usual paperback. So far, nobody has decided to go home and pick out one of their own books. Part of this I think is the therapeutic value of taking a book that’s in my studio already taking up space as a book waiting to be chosen, so the process of accepting this odd art project is made easier as you are not “ruining” one of your own books. And I really have a strange random assortment of everything from dictionaries/thesauruses to cookbooks to spiritual meditation type books. Included is a thick hard back Italian novel and some other random novels as well as several books with pictures about fashion or the styles of certain decades. I have a travel guide. I had a guide for artists about materials and how to use them.

This aspect of rejection of the project that began when I made my own rejected “too intense” book box and then an “ugly” book box with a patient is a part of the altered book project. I have had a few people pick out a book and start altering it and then by the next session ask to shelve the project until “I’m in the mood for it. It’s too daunting right now.” The Altered Book will either be seen as a great container that is continually inviting or sometimes it represents being overwhelmed and unable to make any decisions about what to do, resulting in the project getting “shelved”. One of my patients started a first session very excited about all the varied materials I had, wanting to jump right into art therapy and got going very creatively with some book that she even worked on for the first few sessions. At some point I think she started cutting pieces out of the book to create a kind of box within the book, maybe even using an exacto knife. Then in the next session she declared she no longer wanted to work on it, was not in that “headspace” anymore and went to other forms of art making. She made great use of art therapy but never went back to the book until we were terminating and she fondly remembered it as her introduction to me and our work and I think decided to take it with her. The book project just functioned as a jumping in point.

Why do some people get excited to do an altered book in the first one or two sessions of trying it out and then run away from it, shelve it, reject it? Maybe when this happens it is because I, the art therapist, am actually more excited about it than the patient and have high expectations for it being a great kind of project for long term therapy. Perhaps for some people, there is too much commitment too early and they are not really ready for it.

The other interesting thing about doing Altered Books is when people do get invested in them and go back to them every session. Lately that has been happening, probably because a few people in my supervision group randomly chose to work on altered books without my prompting them. Two people have left the group with unfinished books they have taken with them. One person brought her own book to the group to alter with materials from the studio. So that energy of the altered book I really believe was “percolating” for a while in the studio. I had another rejected altered book started about a year ago in one session and then put aside. For a while I was not really focusing on altered books in the studio, just taking these classes and thinking once in a while about it, and learning more ways to approach the Altered Book.

At this moment, my studio feels filled with Altered Books! Like anything that grows in a garden on its own, it feels like this altered book contagion has just sprung up naturally. Just this week I introduced the altered book as an option to 2 patients who got excited about it, chose their books and jumped right in using different media. Last week I had started my own altered book project in the supervision group I facilitate, thinking that now that I have so many patients working on them, I want to do one at the same time. So I chose a book that is a guide to artist’s materials for artists. It was very exciting to imagine taking this book that divides up all the materials and methods and painstakingly describes how to achieve certain effects, and how to “properly” use the different materials and media and rip up the pages and paint on it and collage ripped pieces on to the pages to start the process of making it into a book I hope will be hard to guess exactly what it was even called or to have a vague sense when looking through my book that there are a lot of pictures of how to make art and art materials terms but nothing much else kept from the original book. Synchronicity abounds in doing altered books. For me it came when I opened the book and realized it had belonged to the friend who rejected my first book box project and returned the gift to me. Of course I ripped her name out of the book first.

Anyway, at this moment there are at least 8 altered book projects that have been just begun or are in the mid stages of alteration. If I actually count how many patients have started altered books recently, excluding the person from last year who has not expressed interest in going back to the project, it would be 7, so my guess was not far from wrong, as I am the 8th and then there are one or two people in supervision doing them.

The next post would raise the question: What helps a person stay with an altered book project and continue working on it regularly? and What is it about Altered Books that some people become “blocked” or lose interest after jumping in excitedly.

The one thing true of everyone is that the beginning, that first session of being invited to make one, choosing the book and jumping into it or onto the cover and starting right away to alter it is universally exciting and stimulating. I have only seen people be intrigued and excited when they begin this process. Some express having a weird feeling about “destroying” a book but when encouraged get past that feeling. The fascinating part of the Altered Book is after the initial excitement and embarking on this without a doubt long-term project, there is a moment of remaining with it and committing to it further through getting inside the book and getting going with paint, collage, mixed media, ripping out pages and getting one’s hands dirty. It seems to require about 3-4 sessions at least to determine if one is going to get “turned off” of the project and too overwhelmed, or further jumping in and committing more and more to it. Those who find it to be a kind of safe container stay with it. Leaving it with me in the studio is a big part of that process. I will hold on to their book until they come back to it, so they don’t have to see it for a week. It is very different to work on a long term art project whether it is because the work is very large and will take a long time to finish no matter what or the project by its very nature requires time invested. It is hard to work on a lot of pages at once, especially if you are using any kind of paint or ink. Anyway, leaving the book with me allows the creator to take a break from it and not have to look at it in between sessions. This seems to help the project to become a safe container and holding environment. Even with my own altered book, I decided to try out at first just working on it during the supervision group and leaving it alone, so I also take a week off from it, in order to further get into the experience of my patients and supervisees doing this kind of project…

To be continued…

Here are some photos from my own altered book which I have worked on in different situations, first started it in the supervision group I facilitate, then worked on it alongside several patients who are doing altered books as well as in my studio the other day when I added a kind if nest into the book…

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Gift Giving: A Universal Ritual

I started writing this post yesterday and got bogged down in talking about different kinds of gifts I have given recently and the psychology of giving and receiving. Then I was thinking a lot about receiving gifts from patients and all that that means and what to do as well as when to give a patient some kind of “transitional object”… However, I realized that would be a great idea for another post, and that I was straying from my original intention to celebrate cultural rituals.

Not to get on a tangent, but I have worked with patients, especially those with depression or despressive negative thinking about themselves, who have had a hard time receiving gifts, compliments and just good things from others and the universe. Another reason why dogs and cats are so therapeutic. Even the most depressed person will engage in physical love exchange with their animal when they will not talk to any other human.

But I digress. Back to my series about Celebrating Rituals of Different Cultures. When I started it, my intention was to focus on major life events we all share as humans: pregnancy, birth, birthdays, weddings and commitment ceremonies, and funerals.

Gift giving is an interesting ritual to look at and compare attitudes of Westerners and Easterners and learn about specific countries and their customs around gift giving. The Irish people and the Greek people are known for their very wonderful hospitality, which is a wonderful form of “gift” giving: sharing your home with loved ones and even people you hardly know, or just generally making sure people visiting your country feel welcomed. I don’t know if they do this anymore or ever did it, but I swear I’ve seen a lot of movies where, the people are walking down the stairs of the airplane (old movies), and Hawaiians, especially girls in traditional clothing, come and put Leis around their neck (sort of big necklaces made of just flowers… ) Well, I just looked it up and the Honolulu airport has a special welcome recording greeting.

Yes, there are many many different ways of giving and receiving. One of my patients once said of psychological receiving that you can’t “sort of” receive a little of something (like love, compassion, empathy, etc.), you either receive it in full or if you sort of can’t receive it all, you are really not receiving anything…

Japan, of all countries, is known for their rituals of gift giving. I don’t think any other country matches this cultural ritual around giving gifts, physical things mostly, like tea sets, chocolates, Japanese candies which are visually quite beautiful but quite strange tasting to my American taste buds for sweets, vases, etc. as well as envelopes of money. I lived in Tokyo from 1977-1979 and I remember my parents coming home from events with beautifully wrapped gifts. (Nobody comes close to how wonderfully the Japanese know how to wrap gifts. I remember being intrigued and entranced by the beautiful paper and the way it was folded, by the diagonal approach to the paper and trying to imitate the folds of the wrapping many times…) My father would return from business meetings with gifts he’d been given. One man who was a client of his somehow found out I loved music boxes and gave me several beautiful ones that my father would bring home for me. But what is this constant giving of gifts to mark a special meeting, negotiation, business deal, lunch, dinner, party? How did this begin and why is it done?

Here is an explanation of the origin of the gift giving, and no surprise, it actually brings us back to customs around funerals and dead “ancestors”, so I guess this post is still connected to my funeral customs post…: The Japanese have a special holiday for thinking of the dead. Wow. I think that’s a great idea, to devote a day to that.

Major Gift Giving Holidays

The two most popular occasions for gift giving in Japan happen twice a year. Ochugen falls during the middle of the year and Oseibo falls at the end of the year.

Ochugen originated as an offering to families who had a death in the first half of the year and still takes place two weeks before Obon, the Japanese holiday for honoring the dead. Nowadays, gifts are given as a gesture of gratitude to the people who are close to them. Bosses, colleagues, parents and relatives are common recipients.

Oseibo is more widely observed and began from the custom of placing offerings on ancestors graves. Oseibo gifts are typically given to friends, colleagues, teachers, clients or customers, and to anyone he or she is indebted to. These gifts are specifically given to pay back favors received during the year. The value of the gift does matter as the gift reflects the giver’s evaluation of social indebtedness that he or she has incurred. The recipient can accurately determine the value of the relationship by the monetary value of the gift. Oseibo gifts are typically sent out by the 20th of December.

Gifts commonly given for Ochugen and Oseibo range from department store items to food and alcoholic beverages. People receiving gifts for these occasions usually express their gratitude either by writing or calling the person who gave them the gift.”

I also found on this website an explanation of the importance of the way the gift is wrapped. It is considered rude to open a gift when you receive it, which explains why back in 1978 my parents would come home with gifts that were always beautifully wrapped:

When giving gifts or sending presents in Japan, it is customary to show special care not only to the contents, but to the way a gift is wrapped and the wrapping itself. In Japanese culture, gift wrappingcan be as important as the gift, where the gift is viewed as a form of communication between the giver and the receiver. The chosen gift wrapping serves an important role in shaping the messaging associated with the gift. In short, the wrapping is considered as part of the gift itself and should reflect both the gift being given and the emotions behind the gift.

The distinction of a gift being wrapped is an important one when it comes to receiving a gift. Except among close family members, gifts must not be unwrapped in front of the donor of the gift. The recipient should wait until later to open the gift.”

This is from the following website post: http://www.giftypedia.com/Japan_Gift_Giving_Customs

Chinese “Funeral” Paper

To continue where I left off with my “multicultural rituals” series, I will now travel to China. It turns out from my hunting around on the internet, that the Chinese have a very complicated series of rituals. This website has a very long exhaustive description to read (http://www.chinaculture.org/gb/en_chinaway/2004-03/03/content_46092.htm), so I will just point out a few interesting points, although the whole long process is fascinating, and it is much longer than traditional “Western” funerals, actually 49 days, with the first 7 days being most important. I point this out in particular because I like the idea. In the West, mourning is often not given enough time, and there is something to be said for having an extended time to be mourning, so that you really experience how life is not back to normal for quite a while. This feels much more respectful of the dead and the loved ones of the dead. The Irish come the closest to understanding that a funeral and wake need a lot of time and many kinds of rituals.

Some interesting superstitions or beliefs: The Chines cover up mirrors so that the reflection of the coffin cannot be seen or it will mean you will have a death in your family shortly.

Funeral papers, called “Joss Paper” are burned, and it seems the kind of paper used depends on who has died: “Joss paper and prayer money (to provide the deceased with sufficient income in the afterlife) are burned continuously throughout the wake.”

I actually first heard of the funeral papers when one of my supervisees, who loved using my orange and gold and grey and silver special paper from the Chinese “Pearl River Mart” in Soho, told me that actually the paper was funeral paper. I was reminded of the paper today while showing it to someone and remembered that I had not ever researched it or checked to see what was done with funeral papers. And many people have been drawn to that paper from a vast array of choices in my paper drawer. Here is a detail of a small collage painting on board that I made a few years ago, in which I used a lot of this “Funeral Paper”. Most of the orange in it is from the orange background and the metallic colors are from both color papers. As I painted on top of it, you see it after it has been manipulated, but the colors are the same. The piece for me has some kind of funeral evocations as it reminds me of the Twin Towers..

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There are many interesting aspects of the many rituals described on the above website. Here is another involving paper as well, called “holy paper”:

“When the prayer ceremonies are over, the wailing of the mourners reaches a crescendo and the coffin is nailed shut (this process represents the separation of the dead from the living). Then yellow and white “holy” paper is pasted on the coffin to protect the body from malignant spirits. During the sealing of the coffin all present must turn away since watching a coffin being sealed is considered very unlucky. The coffin is then carried away from the house using a piece of wood tied over the coffin, with the head of the deceased facing forward. It is believed that blessings from the deceased are bestowed upon the pallbearer, so there are usually many volunteers.”