The following posts are from our previous blog, beginning in 2008 and ranging until summer of 2014.
It has certainly been quite the while since I recorded a TLA talk for our growing network of busy-bee language artists. Moving to New York, double jobs, finding time to write, sneaking in the simple pleasures of an avocado or ice cream or a favorite show – who can’t relate?! Our founder Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg usually welcomes newcomers to the Tranasformative Language Arts Network with a note of recognition, saying “welcome home.” It’s not the same just writing it. The familiar words are spelled into new life with her voice every time, warm and tenacious reassurance. When it comes to coming back here with a new interview, with freshly captured breaths, I say the same as about finding this network, about finding a growing body of folks from all walks of life that recognize the budding, picking, arranging, and remixing/inventing (with all the juicy debates lying in that slash) of words as an art worthy of its own naming. I say, “it’s good to be home.”
Where peachy is never a promise, and complicated characters abound! I mean, look at this guy to the left: Mick Foley. Now, look at this guy to the right, also Mick Foley. He is a legendary WWE wrestler, best-selling author, and prolific comedian and voice actor. From vicious body language to the most reassuring of words, there is a specific passion for play with an audience he exhudes – even through the tougher experiences – in the way he performs, speaks or writes. I can see why the up-and-coming author whom I interviewed for you today, Joe Maldonado, is quite enamored with him. Joe’s work of poetry also instills a sense of lightherated welcoming across the thickets of romantic maraudings, political pitfalls, job mundanity, and hope in the smallest of things.
Except you’d need to add a lot more elements than just Mick Foley to shape the complexity of context, the immense home, from which Joe Maldonado’s poetry emanates from. It’s more like this: bring it back to Setauket, Long Island, where both Joe and Mick grew up; throw in some beat speakeasy from Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, Poe among many more classic lit luminaries, hip-hop and punk rock sounds, pro-wrestling and sci-fi themes; and now let them do their dances with one another to a Super Mario soundtrack. And imagine if Super Mario had to pass through challenges in the game where he took on the role of therapist.
In the unabashed words of Joe as he describes his latest book of poems Subterranean Summer, the book is “a collection of poems exolpring life, the universe, and everything.” If you don’t believe me, check out raving reviews of his book here and here. Better yet, join me from your laptop or car radio for a podcast chat with an artist whose centeredness amid the strenuous, the intriguing, and the quixotically fleeting in life is a writer’s sinew regardless of the endless homes and contexts from which a writer is compelled to write. We had this conversation near the end of April, the official National Poetry month. Give us a listen!
And if you are ever interested in meeting an ever-more complex variegated community of writers, poets, musicians, activists, healers, therapists and language artists that congregate from all over the country, please join us for the next Power of Words Kansas conference, which consistently proves to be a home where the boundaries between intellect and craft, love and work, magic and accomplishment dissolve into one robust and truly transformative experience. It just may reset the rest of your year towards openings of voice and will you never expected in you, and in new collaborators and friends. Believe it or not, Power of Words Pennsylvania (2013) is where Joe and I first met, where I bought his book, where his grounded words carried my newfound vigor for fuller-time writing on the flight back to Orlando. Looking forward to talking with you in Kansas.
Also, a quick note regarding quality. Apologies for the echo in my sound while trying to maximize the smooth phone-quality voice of Joe here. Still a rookie at this sound editing/sampling thing, as you may tell, but I’ll acquire the editor’s limbs with practice.
And you might be amused to know that Billy Collins, an all-time favorite of mine who was first introduced to Joe through this podcast, is a new favorite of his as well. I’m chewing on bits of Gregory Corso poetry as I go myself, and am enjoying his blunt imagination very much. Now, for direct musings and down-to-earth imaginings from Joe himself, send the man a tweet @joemaldonado81. Give the Subterranean Summer page a “like” while you’re at it to keep up with book updates and future readings here!
Oh, and one last thing…
“One Last Thing”
Expressions of confusion flicker across the faces of those circled around me. Wasn’t the very reason they signed up for this workshop to learn something?I continue: “I am here to show you how you can learn from yourself.”Smiles break out and the workshop begins.
While this is not intended to be an op-ed on the benefits of teaching critical thinking, how I facilitate is how I believe children should be taught: Teach them to learn for themselves. And this is how I approach my workshops. I give guidance, I provide prompts, and then I sit back and witness my “students” learning from and for themselves (and from the words of others in the room) — not to impress me, the “teacher.”
How does this work with TLA? Galileo Galilei said, “You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him find it within himself.” Transformative Language Arts, or any form of self-expression which facilitates healing change within a person, is, by its very nature, a way to tap into something within: a wisdom, a knowledge, a gnosis that we may not immediately know on a conscious level. It is only when we can know why we do the things we do or feel the way we do, that we can truly learn about ourselves. And when we know we can grow. I could talk until I was blue in the face about the benefits of writing, but until they try it themselves and see that it works, that they have the ability to discover their own truth, I have taught nothing.
While many people want to learn definitive tools, to come away from the class with a bulleted list of techniques or goals accomplished, it is the job of a facilitator to show them why it works. By all means, give them the list to take home (so they can continue self-teaching after the workshop), but it is only by doing it will they truly understand the how and why.
Yes, you may be the “expert” and you do have much information to impart. Indeed, I sometimes get so excited by everything factoid and bit of research I have learned that I want to share it all. But it doesn’t help be a talking head.
Jim Henson wrote: “[Kids] don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” If you are a facilitator, I would assume (hope!) you have done the work yourself. You know the ups and downs of writing on your own road to self-discovery and healing. This knowledge, this self-awareness will show more than you could ever tell.
Yes, give them the tools, the safe space, the opportunity, but then get out of the way. The best teachers instruct by asking questions. When you provide the opportunity for your “students” to ask themselves the deepest questions they may have ever faced, you are giving them a great gift: How to learn from themselves.
Joanna Tebbs Young, MA-TLA is a writing and creativity facilitator, certified instructor through the Center for Journal Therapy, and freelance columnist living in Vermont. Her blog and workshop info can be found at her website, wisdomwithinink.com.
By Miriam Gabriel
Critique. Not the most comfortable of things to do, or to receive. Glorified as the prime tool of social liberation, demonized as the thickest veil of spiritual enlightenment, cited as a rite of passage in the epistemology of college essays, banned from households and work places towards figures of authority. It is either detached from flesh and blood as a cold, intellectual endeavor, or, perhaps out of fear for its power, contained within emotions reframed as disqualifiers: anger, ill will, separation, distrust. All the examples I just cited of how critique is valued or de-valued can be entirely false if your experience engenders otherwise, if the context(s) socially and subjectively you live in, or move across, describes critique differently. Enough flowery language for now. I want to dig in with you on what critique as a social practice can mean, not just what we are taught for it to mean.
And I know our digging will be in good hands when facilitated by a discussion with the up-and-coming luminous cultural critic, Vanessa Fisher. Now, by “good hands,” I mean challenging, grappling, experimenting, author-including, rigorously-critiquing, socially-transforming, actively writing hands.
Vanessa has been a rising voice, across multiple reputed online and print platforms, on the experience of finding oneself caught at the crossroads of spiritual and political practice, both personally and communally. She will not give you a quick-fix reconciliation to resolve it all, such as the much complained-of phenomenon of “spiritually bypassing” the embodied issues of living in a political and economic context, or a denial of any usefulness to an intuitive, intensely subjective way of knowing as simply too mercurial for concrete transformational value for a society. As Vanessa details in this third installment of TLA Talks, she sees the mediation of these more-or-less two worldviews as a processural affair, requiring as much readiness for challenge, even conflict, as for accord or integration. One of the core channels doing the dance of this process is developing a keen sense of critique, of examining the underlying assumptions onto which we build the worldview in the first place, or continue to re-build it with our everyday reenactments of values, biases, and definitions. Through this sense of socially invested critique, we delve into some important senses, or constructions, of being that Vanessa articulates implicitly and explicitly in her work. We explore the thought and lived processes of liminal space and identity, class and gender consciousness, and erotic ways of knowing. Along the way, Vanessa illustrates a way of engaging critique that challenges assumptions about what is usually associated with this word in the North-Eastern hemisphere. She describes how critique comes from a container of love and stake in a society’s well-being, also how it is a form of creativity in its own right: of re-creating a culture without deceiving oneself to think that any re-creation is founded on nothing. Otherwise, the creation ends up being a diferently dressed reenactment of the limitations and injustices of the old. She also elucidates how women are usually discouraged from honing the sharp eye of a critic, an eye that can be equally visionary.
It would be of no surprise to Vanessa that visual artists like the women whose works I collage above are every bit as critical in their work as they are visionary. Both women, although well-traveled, lived quite a bit in the North-Eastern hemisphere of the planet. They are at least a century apart: Remedios Varo lived between 1908 and 1963, and Molly Crabapple, born in 1983, is a very active artist today. As the works I collaged show, they both employ an impressively succinct and creative sense of critique! While Varo’s female subjects display both the domestic, or social, and archetypal, or spiritual, restrictions placed on women in her place and time, as well as visionary images of strong, aware, intuitively powerful women, Molly’s subjects are increasingly becoming an embodiment of the second camp. They’re more and more of the empowering embodiment of a painting, whether it is summarizing social systems or evoking protest-culture sentiments. There are two unique but overlapping processes of critique here: emphasizing sadness and/or anger, centeredness and/or spunk, what needs to change and/or what it is changing into, what the artist envisons it would change into.
Especially if you are woman or female-bodied, Vanessa would encourage you to re-examine if you have been brought up in a social climate that discouraged the importanc eof developing your sense of critical participation, in your language and expression and action, to be an agent of change in the world. While that may be at odds with a dampening standard of being “nice,” it can be an integral tool to being compassionate. And to doing something about the social awareness that this compassion brings, for one’s communities and across communities. After all, as Vanessa reminds us, critique has historically been the discursive practice of the underclasses of a society, long before Western academia took it on as the “critical thinking” standard of a solid, post-modern essay.
Do you want to hear any more of my particularly fancy-schmancy language today? Indubitably not! How about you join us for this podcased talk? I am beyond excited to introduce to you this writer and artist who, I must say, has been a consistently reassuring bedrock for finding my voice as a working-class book worm spiritual seeker who also really cares about doing social change work at every opportunity – even if it’s after clocking out really late at night. And her writing is my favorite kind of bedrock, too: tremulous, slippery, bouncy, “shaking it up,” amoeba-shaped, but shaped nonetheless, and exists. Portable, pocketable, ready for wear and tear. That’s the kind of writing that carries you through a couple of footsteps until you know your way. It’s the kind of art, language, and journalism I am proud to share with you. Thank you for joining us.
For more original works, philosophy, and poetry by Vanessa Fisher, please visit her home page, Poetic Justice. Be sure to sign up for the newsletter to know about her evocative, provocative projects!
For her Dialogue Series specifically, from her website, visit here.
For her most recent article on the Elephant Journal, please visit: “Spirit, Inc.: The Politics of Modern Spirituality and the Stalled Revolution.”
For her earlier writing on the now archival Beams and Struts, be sure to stop by here.
As for the Beams and Struts piece of hers that found me, through which I found Vanessa, please visit: “Undressing Sex: Re-Imagining the Art of Female Eroticism.”
Vanessa’s new book, Integral Voices on Sex, Gender and Sexuality: a Critical Inquiry, co-edited with Sarah E. Nicholson, will be available by July 2014.
By Miriam Gabriel
I don’t prefer to gamble as a method of inquiry, but there is one guess I can safely bet on. I bet that most people I will meet in my life know what it’s like to have worlds upon worlds, lives within and with lives, that they are connected to, reduced to small, unrealistically opaque or silent of categories. Be it by a mass media piece, by a misunderstanding neighboring context, or by a casual encounter at work or on the bus. And the variegated, pulsating, multiversed world you know will be reduced by the simplest of words. As a person strongly weaved with, and by, Hip Hop as an artistic and cultural movement, I certainly know what that’s like. I know what it’s like to be with fellow lives whose first exposure to the movement was reduced to the “entertaining,” or the bubble-gum “pop,” or the aimlessly “angry.” And you feel like you are a part of an anonymous small group of artistic foot soldiers who, for some time or another, breast-fed and breathed and produced hip hop. We open up archival tracks, history pages, intimate memories, and news of global artists and events that spell the opposite. That reverse the quoted spells and re-fill the ink with long-winded sentences, communally-stamped legacies, new work that may not be getting as much media attention yet but we become its media for now. That replace labels with descriptions conveying civil rights’ principles, oral narrative, preservation of underclass history, transmission of communal opportunities to make social changes, consciousness raising. And, of course, style: free-flowing, surrendering, sturdy, complex, Afrocentric yet globally influenced and influencing.
So when I call up one of my favorite poet-MC’s and environmental/social justice activists (well, more like facebook him, but it sounds more authentic to lie and transcribe events as “call up,” right?!) William Copeland, also known as Will See, and ask him to do an interview about just that, about how words can bring down to rubble the most ossified (or, ahem, well-funded) of communicative walls and re-create narratives of self-defined abundance and “underclass” cultural contribution, and I get a yes, I begin to feel a bolder sense of gamble. Renewed risk, incipient yes, but I have a place to start. I have a dialogue to share that begins to shine light on how, maybe one day, I can bet that most of the people I’ll meet in my life will wield some way of using words back to un-box the labels and un-tie the community-to-community sound systems from the monitored satellites. I can safely bet on you finding William Copeland in this interview to be an integral example on how to relentlessly report and create narratives of restorative coalitions and ethically-grounded artistry, not only with the words that go into the music, but those “behind the scenes” in the context of the living heritage he is a part of as a native of Detroit, Michigan. In fact, we start the dialogue with a detailed discussion of Detroit. The split between how it is spoken of in mainstream media, and how it is experienced by its everyday citizens and involved agents, is quite disturbing, and with the works of language artists like Will See, is also progressively reversible. And reversing a disempowering narrative with an honest, empowering one doesn’t come without risk, without opposition from some who may have built their lives around separation, even superiority, conscious or unconscious. But it also never comes without hope. It never comes without the guaranteeable result of opening up minds and lives to the desire to connect, to be conscious and compassionate about where one directs their energies of curiosity, creativity, community, power, livelihood, spirit, wit, and memory. And we discuss it all here in this video! I truly enjoyed this talk.
It’s odd to read myself talk about guarantees and gambles here. But, just for this time, inspired by TLA artists like Will See, I feel like I can enjoy a moment of foreseeable success for the artist that maintains integrity with what wisdom he/she/they may hold. I even bring that up at the closing of the interview, to which he responds with an adage that leads itself into an impetus. “They say we’re all ancestors in the making,” he says. The future I want to bet on, because of what I decide to write today, just might become someone else’s memory. Sounds like a nice chorus, actually, that I could work on into the writing of a song.
Cheesy, you say? I don’t mind. Aged cheese often survives as sharp and pallatable food for thought. That’s when you and I know my words will no longer do well here, and watching/listening to William Copeland instead through the link below will bring a lot more lived wisdom, and much more sophisticated, socially transformative metaphors. You’ll find an example of just that when you hear the powerful piece he wrote for us at the end of the interview, which only took about five minutes’ time.
This is our second TLA Talk with Will See, a powerhouse of community art and activism in Detroit, Michigan and beyond. Thank you for joining us.
As promised in the interview, here are some more links to explore the work of this brilliant man:For William Copeland’s music, videos, and art-related press, please check out his ReverbNation link here.
To further explore his music, or purchse his new album “The Basics,” you will enjoy his bandcamp page here.
For the Facebook page, including music, events, and highlights/reflections, please visit, like and explore here.
Also, stay tuned for my next interview with the up-and-coming social critic, author and poet Vanessa Fisher, which is in the editing phase now. I can’t wait to share more talks with you.
By Miriam GabrielNovember and December: months of hibernation (we wish!), taking stock (while pressured to overspend!), and sound reflection… if only holiday traffic didn’t take up so much free time. I grew up at the intersection of three major world religions; the study of religious and spiritual traditions across the years only multiplied my senses of awe, joy, and confusion, especially during these two adorned, celebrated months. Of course life’s tragedies continue, political/communal tensions reveal the unmourned and unhealed, and even family dinners may pry open tears and eye rolls along with the smiles and crack-ups. But, for most people I know, from multiple lineages and paths in life, they grew up with some structured time for experiencing everyday magic and carried-down wisdom at some point during those deep winter months.
I spent those two months planning-intuiting the launch of TLA Talks, an interview series for this very online hub of transformative writers, speakers, scholars, singers, actors, activists, healers and performers. This is such a long list of vocations, hearkenings and social positionings. It sounds like a big challenge. But it is a challenge made so easy by the phenomenal lives that have agreed to the interview series. It is especially easy to have a sense of self-imposed expectation of presenting a very inspiring life utterly shattered yet gently graced when the first person you are abou to interview is Chris Dierkes.
An exceptional healer and wrier at the intersections of culture and spiritual practice, Chris comes from a multitudinous background that integrates seminary work at a socially pregressive church, a private practice of soul-honoring readings, a writing career that covers healing from a theological and socially engaged perspective, experience with reiki, a continuing journey of learning from shamanic ways of knowing, and – very recently – being a father. What I find to be most integrative about speaking with Chris is the overwhelmingly loving, encompassing presence and perspective he carries through his reflections and engagements, even if he is addressing some of the most uncomfortable (transitioning careers, for example) or unjust of enacted energetic patterns (marketing tricks used in some spiritually-oriented media that may further contirbute to social inequalities). I wish you will be able to experience some of this through the podcast I am leaving below of our conversation. It is easy to witness the fine-tuned empathy and communally aware sensibility he brings to what he knows, what he experiences, and what he recounts to me, to those present around him.
During the months of November and December, I corresponded with this brilliant writer and balm of a healer… and quite a silly, good-natured correspondent. During these correspondences, there was always a word or two about the incipient life brewing the womb of his wife Chloe. There was also an increasing curiosity on my part to know how a Soul reading goes like, and what it may tell me about my responsiveness and responsibility to the world and to my communities. Shortly after the conversation documented above, I received a soul reading from Chris, and I feel the fragility of my finger bones typing the coming words. I was raised either mystic or activist, and the two worlds required of me to give up one for the other since childhood. I am eternally grateful for Chris’ reading in addressing this riff in an imaginative, deeply listening way I did not know was possible. Not too long after the reading, I smiled and shook my head with joy at Facebook pictures of Chris’ first born child, a beautiful daughter named Sage.
My interviewee and I got some loaded gifts this holiday season: giving overwhelming love, evoking response and responsiblity. The time to hibernate is coming to a close. The bells ring gently with the patter of rain, fall of snow, crackle of sun. Wherever you are, I hope that you join the babbles and giggles, even the couple groans and grunts, recorded above, keeping you gritty company for this season.To contact Chris and delve into his writing, feel free to check out his blog here at www.ChrisDierkes.com. You may also read his provocative, even occasionally hillarious, pieces at the online magazine Beams and Struts here. Happy, honoring, warm, welcomed and transforming holidays to you. And for those celebrating tomorrow: merry, merry Christmas! And for the day after: have a festive, fulfilling Kwanzaa!
To review the galvanizing people featured in the TLA Talks of early 2014, please check out the profiles of Detroit-based environmental activist, youth educator, and Hip Hop Renaissance artist William Copeland; up-and-coming cultural critic, poet, educator and globally-consciousing Canadian activist Vanessa Fisher, joining us from Seoul; and author, scholar, esotericist, founder of the Phoenix Rising Academy, and exceptionally evocative painter Sasha Chaitow, speaking with us all the way from Greece. Till next time!
The theme for this year’s One City One Prompt is “Begin Again,” inspired by a poem by Kansas poet, writer and artist Nancy Hubble. Nancy is a long-time generous and guiding spirit for many writers and artists in her hometown of Lawrence, KS. Here is her poem, which was also the title poem for Begin Again: 150 Kansas Poems edited by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg (Woodley Press, 2011). To participate in One City One Prompt — facilitating your own writing, songwriting, singing, storytelling, spoken word or other kind of event on the theme of “Begin Again” — please contact Deb Hensley, coordinator of the TLA Network, at TLAN.Coordinator@gmail.com.
Go back and do it again,
my father told me.
And I would lift up my hoe,
dragging my feet through
the dusty rows
of beans and a few weeds
to start the first row
I started an hour ago.
Lifting the hoe for the first pull,
dragging dirt around the plant,
kachunk – flicking out a weed.
The rhythm of pulling in,
the dance of flicking out.
Beginning from the right,
I would fall into the dream
See the hills: watch the horses
beginning from the right come in
and make a straight line
tied to the leather rope
strung between two trees.
The women walk behind,
carrying bundles and babies.
The men stand and wait, watching carefully
and the children run among each other like little goats.
The soft eyes of the young women watch
the unmarried boys
Mother said this needs more work.
Go back and do it again.
And I would put each dish
back into the pan,
scrubbing each dish.
The rhythm of circling in,
the dance of circling out.
Beginning from the left,
I would fall into the dream.
See the road: watch the cars
beginning from the left come in
and make a circle,
headlights pointed inward
against the coming dark.
Women carry pans and dishes
to the tablecloths spread in the field.
The men carry babies, drums and rattles.
The children who can, run
against each other like little bulls.
The soft eyes of the young women watch
the unmarried boys
and begin again.
My father’s garden grows enough
for the critters, neighbors and for our family.
He said, if it doesn’t come up,
go back and plant again.
And I would find the place
where crow had danced,
where mole worked his blankness, and
the bug children had eaten
more than their share.
The rhythm of planting again,
the singing in empty places.
Beginning from the center,
I would fall into the dream
See the storm: watch the water
beginning from the center, come in
and fill the wetlands,
rush the ditches.
Bloom the flowers.
The birds fly through us,
standing on the walkways.
The water changes colors
as we pass through,
while the children expand like popcorn
with the beauty.
And the questions find answers.
Living we go back.
Learning, we come forward.
Our return is our prayer.
We began again.
~ Nancy Hubble
By Miriam Gabriel
Last night, I called into an open conference call last-minute. My laptop has retired a few days ago; its dark-rimmed, clunky embrace with makeshift DIY Ubuntu operating system will be missed. The tablet is slow after a recent software update. The phone is on its last leg. My roomate’s desktop, from which I write this blog, was not something I thought of asking to borrow at the time. It is 6:55PM, and by the time 7:00PM launched the conference call, and well into 7:20, and now 7:45, perhaps 8:00, I have switched between three devices, two apps, and a phone line, as everyone switched from GoToMeeting to Google Hangouts. I felt like a hacker-character from a futuristic movie: the Matrix, or Elysium, augmenting my body with plugs and head phones and second-hand screens.
Or maybe nothing futuristic at all, but a clumsy dance that is quite present in the lives of attendees, perhaps in your life reading this. The juggle of clocking in’s and out’s. The freelance document, the tip, the small grant, the college loan, the ecstatic opportunity for exposure followed by a shakily empty pocket on the way home, or a fuller wallet that can finally allow for the exposure-experience gig. The bill paid and the bill pending, the bill averted and the bill inevitable, and the whispers and cries behind Ben Franklin’s wig: take it off. Replace it anew. Grow some roots, potatoes, turnips, strawberries instead. What can we do? Plug, charger, headphones, laptop asleep forever, tablet in repose, phone will do, an ungainly disco dart to the live camera, hair looks good, and my image cuts off, now back to the dialing…
But it would be a sad reduction to say that this is all that went on. In this daft trudgery, believe it or not, there was a trance. And the Evolver Network is no stranger to trance, among multiple modes of consciousness, when it coms to the discussions and experiences of their meetings. From international locally-bound “spores” to free-acess online meetings to an open-source database to everyday hash-out e-mail threads. No aspect of crating an alternative, sustainably glocal culture is off the table for these dancers, academics, farmers, designers, students, change workers, writers, artists, and everyday folks. Not even money.
While on GoToMeetings, I heard a collaborator speak of her sick parents, the tiresome energy that one feels in the wake of being a caregiver. To come back as organizer to free-form events, with Skyped-in live lectures and follow-up dance sessions, is inevitably herculian. We were siblings listening to a family’s swinging precussions. On the phone, I hear a longtime member’s story of how his village fought corporate influence at the city council recently. He provided such an intricate and well-delivered contextualization of how the abstraction of global capitalism sucks dry the bone marrow of living local power, and we were students beholding our very fibres travel along the renewed awareness of his words.
One very special organizer and newfound leader among the network revivified a discussion of emotional relationship to money (I am on Google Hangouts by now, mind you!), of looking at that long-brewing tie and examining it and helping each other re-shape it. Here we were patients being healed and healing, tending to each other’s worn-out ststches and re-grafting skin with alternative timelines and ties to a form of watermarked paper we may have held much more ofen than the empty sheet. The freshly-printed manuscript, or essay, or lyrics sheet. The lined, the graphed, the illumutaed e-mail screen.
Speaking of the illuminated manuscripts of the Dell’s and Acer’s and iMacs, surfing the waves of information and art, I come across a commencement speech that sounded more like storytelling. Its relevance to my life as a recent graduate and aspiring artist was made even thicker on the soul by the fact that its narrator was a hero of my young adulthood, as well as of many aspiring transformative writers of many experiences and cultures. The narrator is none other than J. K. Rowling of the worldwide best-selling Harry Potter series, speaking to none other than Harvard Universiy graduates. I knew a long time ago that she started from abject poverty of pocket, but not of imagination and drive to write a work that strives to tumble down social structures of domination and re-enchant our social and natural world anew.
I strongly recommend listening to the speech in full, but should you feel the strain of an average modern busy body, check out the segment at 05:32 concerning her personal experience with poverty as a prelude to her shameless ovation to failure. She said this to Harvard graduates, to millions of online vewers, to you and me:
“So why do I talk about the benifits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believe I truly belonged. I was set free because my greatest fear has been realized, and I’m still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I re-built my life.”
Years later, I discover this speech by none other than one of the most powerful spoken-word storytellers in the world discussing the value of failure even after transforming culture, reaching masses, building wealth, and taking some of the most culturally influencial creative risks in America. Of course, I am referring to Oprah Winfery, whose description of her craft as a journalist at 3:25 comes off as nothing short of a TLA manifesto. Further on, she comes to narrate how she came to the following conclusions about failure:
“It doesn’t matter how far you might rise. at some point, you are bond to stumble. Because if you’re constantly doing what we do – raising the bar – if you are constantly pushing yourself higher and higher and higher,… you will at some point fall. And when you do, remember this: There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move you in another direction. Now down that hole, it look like failure,… give yourself time to mourn what you think you may have lost. But then, here’s the key: learn from every mistake. Because every experience, encounter, and particulary your mistakes, are there to teach you and force you into being more of who you are. And then figure out: what is the next right move?
“The challenge of life I have found is to build a résumé that doesn’t simply tell a story about what you want to be but it’s a story about who you want to be. It’s a résumé that doesn’t just tell a story about what you want to accomplish but why. A story that’s not just a collection of titles and positions but a story that’s really about your purpose. Because when you inevitably stumble and find yourself stuck in a hole that is the story that will get you out. What is your true calling? What is your dharma? What is your purpose?”
Oprah’s words here hearkened a lighting ember amid the rush of information, schedules, frantic typing and meals on the go. What are we doing all this for? What is the purpose that drives each artist and artistic community to undergo such risky, profound transformation in their on lives, knowing it will inevitably spill into the work and worlds they build?
My mother called from Egypt that night. It was a moonlit brooding night for me, as skies began to crackle with bird songs and sunlight in Egypt. I told Mama how I missed the sun over revolution-enduring, and revolutionary, Egypt, and she sent me picturs from her balcony. She spoke of her unwavering love for this land, of a God that watches over it and loves it because its people are kind. To what action does this kindness translate? “[Rough translation]People give. Poeple would have nothing and they give. You know: someone needs a surgery, someone needs to go to school, someone needs to get married, and people get together and give. A protestor needs a blanket. Heck, people will have nothing and give. They give, Misho [my awkward nick name from childhood]…
“It’s a rough patch, but we will endure it, because God sees the good that most people do here. Of course you have fools and ill doers, but most people here are kind, and they give. Give it two rough years or so, but we will overcome. I don’t doubt it, Misho.”
I want to feel this shining path emanate Egypt, as much as I want to feel its warmth waft from the vision-encrusted chests of fellow TLA artists – writers, singers, storytellers, poets – the world over. Giving, dismantling, re-imagining, embodying, re-bodying life and communities and co-created “careers” that give back in ever evolving ways. That dismantle walls, re-enchant lives. Oprah mentioned in her commencement speech the lyrics of an old hymn that propelled her into rising from the “hole” of failure: “by and by when the morning comes… Trouble don’t last always. This too shall pass.”
Should you, or me, ever feel like we may be at the brink of hemmorhaging what we have to give, of being sucked dry or simply tired, let us remember that – maybe two years or so – and it may pass. Heck, we may even will the cultural, creative or career storm to pass – be it something as concrete as money or as subtle but no less forceful as an idea of success, resume, or career profile. We can start by creating support networks and sharing opportunities, inspirations, and passions as to why we continue to create. In remembering the Evolver Network conference call, I often overlook that I in fact didn’t leave the frenzy and ecstasy of a device-run conference without leaving a mark, before poor reception cut off the camera feed. A colleague said that these were the last words she heard: “I want to use writing and the arts to help channel scial change.” I didn’t leave the whirlwind of cyber “feeds” without a stated purpose. And I am not walking on without it.
Hope this last song by Daft Punk will inspire you to walk on with your purpose, too. As always, please do not hesitate to share your story for potential publication, or e-mail me your questions and queries, by directly contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to respond to your electronic letters as soon and as fully as I can, or to honorably publish your addition to the November “Arts and Livelihood” stories and grow from your narration. Also, do not shy from commenting below. Be conscious, dreamy, ever changing, ever you, and well.
By Miriam Gabriel
Back aching. Uniform stinking. Phone chirping for a break; it is slow at the Subway store where – trust me – you will seldom eat fresh. It’s my ex and best friend Jess calling, whom I heard was in a master’s program by now. “Be right back.”
Here I was, a Bachelor’s-holding, 3.8GPA, published-art-critic, spoken-word-poet Critical Humanities budding scholar and womanist activist, working two close-to minimum-wage jobs on Orlando’s tourism district of International Drive, the transitional trap of sites made of cardboard, glitter, lost tourists and equally lost locals looking for last-resort jobs.
There is no monolithic way that will suffice, that will tell this story. Especially for writers, artists, musicians, journalists, literary academics, aspiring generations, from the starving to the striving and everywhere in between, we feel today the tectonic shifts of institutional non-/recognition and communal non-/support for our crafts, our service, fraught with excitement and risk and joy and loss. The loss is especially highlighted today in America, perhaps not visibly enough for the lives affected. From the New York Times to the Huffington Post to class-conscious coming-out blog posts, an overwhelming flock of media telling and re-telling this story is unavoidable for those among us with internet access.
My biggest concern is that the dryness of cash flow would turn us, contemporary writers, into paper, stealing sundried, watermarked opportunities off one another. My biggest fear is if the virulent pecking order of writing internships, paid and unpaid, based on the accessibility of race, gender, class and epistemology (meaning way of knowing or writing considered superior by a market/institution) become even more unavoidable as more writers buy into it. In other words, I would not want to contribute to a world of writers where we would be mind-washed by a culture’s failure to recognize and reward writers – just as much as I would rather not live in a world mind-washed by its success. What can transformative language artists do to re-write this story?
As transformative writers, artists, scholars (academic and/or rogue), journalists and creatives, I believe that we can vigorously hash-out the re-telling of this story for ourselves and for others. As I traverse the worlds of working-class uniforms and socially transformative writing and performance, I also will humbly give voice to the opinion that not only the well-fed and comfortable can afford to ask the important existential questions for the role of a writer today – and to begin to answer them. Here are some opinions I came across.
Maria Popova suggests that a middle way between creative control and capitalist participation is to be found. Lemony Snicket believes in a complete replacement and reimagining of our contemporary economic system. Charles Eisenstein, as an independent scholar, illustrates a re-imagining where money, or gift exchange or both, are made sacred. He writes in his book Sacred Economics that two key aspects of a sacred participation is the uniqueness and relatedness of the gift.
As money usually is experienced as the complete antithesis of both, standardizing the value of a gift in units of dollar and caught in the abstract cloud of Wall Street, so can art transformed by money. But how did you feel when you experienced art that transformed the money, and its value, and the value of art, and of lives, and of a community or collective consciousness?
I couldn’t afford the free internships after graduation, and after living in a strict household for so long, I felt like I entered my independence with few “real-world” citations on my resume. Volunteering and joining a non-profit was impossible given the cost of food and shelter. In 2010, Jess called me during one of my Subway shifts to tell me that she loved her graduate program at a progressive, independent Goddard College. She said there is a program there called the Transformative Language Arts. It is made for me, she explained; it is what I already do.
I am a year now into graduating with a masters from Goddard. I travel between the lands of mythopoetic writing, blogging, eating out, settling for Raman noodles, reading independently, filling out unrequited applications, getting paid for freelance teaching opportunities at diversity centers, being tired, considering more college debt and epistemological recognition/rejection in academia, thanking the heavens for occasional support from friends and family (something I didn’t always have, some never do), watching Netflix, volunteering irregularly with participatory organizations, meditating for creative emptiness from which loved shapes take form, and working at a homely chinese restaurant as a server.
Can I get an “I can relate?” Or, even better, a “have I got a story for you?” What is your contemporary artist’s story? What has the richness of your creativity and resilience, personal and communal and spiritual, discovered thus far?
Write me, write us, your own transformative tale. Write the infrastructure anew. Speak the concrete-splitting garden into being. And doing. Suggest to your community what to do, and take back gift-wrapped suggestions. Not all gift wraps are made of paper. And so let us not shy away from speaking of love and pain and practice into the im/balance of creativity, social change, money/resources, governance, and local and global alternatives as creatives.
Here at the Transformative Language Arts Network, the Buddhist tenant of Right Livelihood (part of the Noble Eightfold Path) is borrowed to signify what we strive to re-imagine and re-cycle into practice. We are committed to creating self-sustainable, community-supported infrastructures that would reap from the brilliantly impactful gifts of transformative language artists, as well as support them back for servicing with their gifts.
In the spirit of this tenant, I encourage you to contribute to the engaged art of TLA by offering the art of your living, messy or meticulously drawn, survivalist and surrealist and surreptitiously grafting networks of support into the old house. I can be every bit as overwhelmed as I am resilient, overworked as stubbornly daydreaming. Writing dream into reality, for the lives traversing my life, I feel compelled to share my desire, my will, to spring new life into the communal role of transformative writer. I hope you will in return.
Please share your reflections in the comment section below, or correspond with me for consideration of the international TLAN blog community publishing your stories, critical reflections, imagined pathways and other offerings on this crucial topic via email@example.com.
Here was a space where “matter being alive” was more than a mantra jumping off a page. The yoga of rustling Pennsylvania leaves, neither shy nor shrill, not restless but not still, was a mirroring metaphor of the Pendle Hill residency, performing just how utterly vulnerable each attendant fell, swayed, followed the collective dance. And no, you never have the same set of choreography, perhaps any set choreography, when you put a group of Transformative Language Artists together in the same space, even if that space is a muddy menagerie of trails in woods and warmth-emanating cottages. You end up with the gently nerved and the seamlessly muscled, the medal decorated and the spray painted, the battle crying and the bird chirping, and of course the resiliently re-creating, refusing the most glorious or meticulous “the”-prefaced Medal of Honor of a word I can provide. Think that’s a mouthful? Follow me.
Imagine a lush, foundationally-Quaker residency, a bedrock of contemplative silence, resilient political stance, and communion with nature’s elements. Now imagine it housed with writers, poets, artists, singers, activists and teachers whose core focus is healing, reimagining and re-enacting at the levels of self and society; personhood and planetary citizenship; mourning, celebration and reinvention; body and soul. They have gathered to engage, to participate, to stretch and listen and spell wonders in the face of fire and dire trigger of so many calibers. This is the Power of Words conference of 2013, and the featured speakers alone are enough to embody to you the breadth and depth of communal stretches that happened here.
We have Taina Asili in the house, powerful, beautiful singer-singwriter-recent-mother-everyday-queen, from the low-residency TLA sanctuary of Goddard College to activist gatherings to intentional communities to many communal tongues and languages in one song to a killer-skilled little band named La Bande Rebelde. We have Deb Hensley in the house, a soft-featured woman with the transformative power of a bird’s song, which you would be depriving yourself of years of wisdom and joy to underestimate. The bravery in her throat strums at your heart strings should you be in her vicinity, and so rejoice or beware if you seek to melt and be permanently re-molded with more patience and healing powers.
We have Dick Allen in the house, poet laureate of Connecticut, grew up by the Adirondack Mountains of New York, and grew wiser, gentler, and more generous on this earth, sharing poems of witness across the Arab Spring, Democrat-Republican feuds, domestic tensions, and one one-of-a-kind cat named Zen. Finally, we have Michelle Myers in the house, one of the heroines that pampered and propelled my marginalized upbringing. I met her, beheld her, even introduced her to a live audience at in the gorgeous auditorium that held our prayers by morning, and – no wonder – I could not get the script perfectly right. She is like a human filament that stretches so far, and so wide, and never ever snaps: across home and immigration, rage and forgiveness, politics and lives, raw reality and feminist mythology, mixed-race experience and visionary re-imagining of what a collaborative community can be.
As you can see, this was an intergenerational house of many eruditions, trading recipes and tasting the possibilities of cross-fertilizing our gifts and stitches across lands and time, sharing a multi-cottaged ecology but always around the same community-cooked meal for dinner. One of the folks I first met at a dinner there, a kindred soul of many talents named Doug Lipman, taught me wealths within the days about telling a good story, proudly earning your livelihood with writing, trading family stories of migration and family across Jewish-Muslim heritages, and receiving a compliment well from a man who sat oceans deeper and mountains’ heights more accomplished than I.
For my next blog, I will draw from the embodied writing careers of soulful folks like Lippman to reflect on the experience of seeking, and struggling, for right livelihood as writers, artists and educators – one of many tenants of building a Transformative Language Arts practice. In this page, the experience at hand is that of potential family: a supportive network of informed lovers, intuitive fighters, collaborating singers and shouters and workers of silence. The Transformative Language Arts Network is where we gather together and study the topography of each other’s arts as a personally and socially empowering practice, comparing notes and trading breaths for the later harvesting of praxis should a community need to know it is not and won’t be alone, or should we need to know that we still have so much re-building and change work to learn and do. In this sense, the Network is a perfect harbor for bridging generations across language, class, gender, sound, voice, and priority: for the whole priority of a healthy home on this spacious, vulnerablly immense earth.
The 2013 Power of Words conference Oct. 11-13 at Pendle Hill (near Philadelphia) has been featured on two blogs recently. Joanna Tebbs Young wrote “To Taste Like Twice: Processing the Power of Words Conference” at her blog Wisdom Within, Ink. Joanna, a writer and workshop facilitator, will also be teaching an online class for the TLA Network called Voice Quest: Writing Yourself Home. She write of how, at the Power of Words conference, she found her people: “These are people who use words, who guide others to use words, to find the wisdom that connects and overcomes and moves forward. These are people who do not decide their life on fear of lack but on visions of abundance.” Read more here.Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg wrote of how the Power of Words conference brought together a variety of Goddard College graduates, from activist singer-songwriters to software designer-writers to arts program creators. Read more of her post at the Worlds of Change blog here.
The TLA Network is thrilled to introduce our new coordinator, Deb Hensley, who is currently working alongside Callid Keefe-Perry, our present coordinator, and will take the reins Nov. 1. Deb is a singer, collaboratively and solo, and she has performed widely with her improvisational singing group, Improvox. A writer, artist and musician, Deb brings to the TLA Network over 20 years’ experience designing and directing programs, grants projects, mentoring/coaching, and teacher training, particularly in the field of early education. She’s worked extensively with public institutions and non-profit organizations, often focusing on arts-based programs, and she’s the author of a number of books for educators and parents. After two decades as an early education professional, she discovered TLA, or as she tells us, “I feel like TLA discovered me. I had been practicing transformative art in my singing life for many years but hadn’t really assigned a name to it.” She completed her MA in TLA in Goddard College’s Individualized MA program in 2011 and has been working as an arts and education consultant. After the Power of Words conference, Deb will be our coordinator, and Callid will transit out of this position and into the role of Chair of the TLA Network Council. Please feel free to drop Deb a line to welcome her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can contact Callid at coordinator@TLANetwork.org to wish him the best in his new adventure as a doctoral student in theology at Boston University.
The following interview was done via email between Deb Hensley and Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: How did you discover TLA, and was it resonance at first sight?
Deb Hensley: Well, in a way, I feel like TLA discovered me. I had been practicing transformative art in my singing life for many years but hadn’t really assigned a name to it. When I decided to pursue a masters program at Goddard, TLA jumped up off the page and yelled-me me! Here I am! This is the program for you! Yes–resonance at first sight. I mean, I believe all art is transformative and intrinsically valuable– but I also discovered that joining with a group of dedicated individuals willing to give deep consideration to the implications of what that transformation means was further important work for me–beyond the art itself. I have loved investigating how artistic practice cuts across all vocations and eliminates categories of age, race and rank with which we are taught to separate the world; how it banishes boundaries, and fertilizes both artistic and professional endeavor and builds community.
TLA embraces and defines Daniel Pink’s 6 word vision for what he believes professionals and business leaders need to embody in order lead in the coming century in his book A Whole New Mind: Design, Story, Orchestra, Empathy, Play, Meaning. I think he’s saying we need to bring artistic elements intentionally into the world of business and commerce and politics. And I don’t think that’s just a nice option to try. I think it’s vital to our survival as a species. The TLA concentration was an excellent platform for exploring this.
CMG: You explore the voice in your singing, writing and art. Could you share what you’ve been discovering over your life about how opening your voice in one way affects opening it in another (such as how improvisational singing might affect your writing, or how writing might affect “finding your voice” when making a big decision in your life)?
DH: When I started attending to birdsong as a model for re-inhabiting the voice, I paid some serious attention to crows and ravens. Who do not have “pretty” voices. Nor are they cautious about using them. But Me? Over the years I got stuck in a singing voice I believed needed to be “pretty.” Thus I had been overly cautious about using it in new and different, OK bigger ways. Moreover, I actually believed my singing voice was truly incapable of being big. I was positive–I mean absolutely convinced I would never be able to truly belt out the blues or hold forth with soulful gospel. But the ravens got me going in the right direction and with them as a model, I began experimenting with new croaks and sounds and ways of letting my voice out. Oh it was just chirpy and weird at first, but it was a start and I made incremental progress.
Just recently I had a big breakthrough. I was asked to sing at a wedding this past spring and one of the songs requested was “At Last” by Etta James. If you know this song you know it’s a BIG song. With big soul and big sound. Well I thought–no way. I don’t do Etta James. I can’t even begin to sing like that. Not even in the shower. I’ll just have to do my breathy high-voice-white-girl version and hope for the best.
Concurrently, while practicing with my singing group one day, we were working on a song that needed someone to belt out a really strong note at the end. They decided it should be me. I needed to bend the ending note and hold it out strong like a hot jazz singer. I told my singing mates, not me…can’t do it. But they wouldn’t let me off the hook right? So–Ok I thought. I’ll go for it. And I just opened up my throat and did it. Just like that. (…kudos to the Ravens)
Wow. I couldn’t believe at first. There was my voice –doing that thing I never thought it could. I drove home howling. And when I sang at the wedding, I sang “At Last” with that voice. For the first time I sang the blues. I mean I’m no Etta James! But it was wonderful to be set free of that limiting view of myself.
So that is just one example of how opening my voice has been personally and literally transformative. And as you might imagine, it has carried over into other areas of my personal and artistic life as well as my work as an education consultant. For instance, I feel like a far better leader as I arrange and present trainings to teachers. I have been experiencing increased confidence in stating what I need and who I am personally and professionally. I’ve come forth with bolder ideas and taken bigger risks in my personal and professional life. I have better physical and emotional endurance and care less and less about how I’m perceived by other people. It’s more and more about what feels true from the inside out.
CMG: Where do you find replenishment and inspiration in your life?
DH: Praying, singing (alone and with others), writing and a good night’s sleep. I also like to play outside and take great inspiration from wild nature. I’m fortunate enough to live near the Maine coast with opportunities to sail and fly and I don’t take this for granted. I feel very blessed. I also love love love to ride my bike. I get on my bike and turn immediately into a ten year old. I’m a big believer in what the Early Childhood Ed. world names “primary experiences.” When I ride my bike, or sing, or move, or dance, I have those invaluable primary experiences–the real thing. That’s when I replenish–when I can live in the primary experience–touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, hearing.
CMG: As a Transformative Language Artist, what do you wish to bring to your community? Can you share an experience of helping others find their voice(s)?
DH: Music and singing creates tribes. It bonds strangers and friends, strengthens and heals family ties and connects people with each another on so many levels. It creates meaning. I just want to keep doing it. I’ve brought my TLA practice into school groups (High School and College) professional conferences, teaching circles and early childhood communities. Every time we sing–and especially when we create vocal music in the moment, there is an outpouring of delight at rediscovering the joy of spontaneously singing together. I’ve experienced the joy of bringing improvisational song forms to circles of “singers” and those who perceived themselves as non-singers. Seeing individuals light up with sound and song has been a great source of satisfaction and hope.
One time I was leading a singing circle and there was a woman from Egypt in the group. As we began to sing I noticed tears coming down her cheeks. At the break she came up to me and told me that in her culture and family, singing as a woman, and especially publicly, was looked on very unfavorably and that this singing was the first time she had been able to ever really let her voice out. She expressed deep gratitude for the opportunity and said she was committed to keep doing it.
One time a young woman I know gave her parents the gift of an Improvox Vocal Exploration Workshop for a Christmas present. As she brought her mom and dad into the workshop space it was very clear from the start that her mom was absolutely terrified of singing. As we always do, we did our best to create a safe emotional space and then gently encouraged but never required, participation. Because the improvisational forms we use are non-threatening and created mostly in the moment, she responded almost immediately. Soon she was singing and creating her own music on the spot and completely and utterly delighted about it. We got a three-page thank you letter a few days later expounding on the experience and how meaningful it was to her to find her voice again.
CMG: You name one of your websites, “When did we stop singing?” Can you tell us more of what’s behind that question, and what, over recent years, you’ve been discovering about that question?
DH: I’d love to encourage readers to visit my website: www.whendidwestopsinging.com for the fluffed out version, but for me the question played out something like this: One day I heard about how the medicine man from the Aboriginal culture addresses sickness and depression. He doesn’t give drugs. Doesn’t offer therapy. He simply asks the person who comes to him for help “When did you stop singing?” The message, of course, is clear. Go back to that point. Figure out why you stopped. Then start again. Start singing.
After I heard this I realized something important was missing in my home, my work place, my social interactions–my life. I began to recognize that I had lost that free and easy singing voice I had as a child. That it had been co-opted by expertism. So I decided it was imperative to re-inhabit it.
At the same time I realized the larger culture we live in–our homes, our work places, our street corners, our classrooms (how sad is that?) our social interactions, our marketplaces, our lives–are largely bereft of spontaneous, open, voluntary singing. So I wanted to do something to contribute toward shifting that.
Interestingly, I’ve discovered through my TLA work that what I thought was a project in creating songs related to bird music was also and maybe even more importantly, very much about having that “primary experience” I referred to earlier. All art is about primary experiences, of course. But I didn’t realize until more recently that answering the question “When did we stop singing?” would be so far reaching. That it would create such relevance to my so called “day job.” That it would cause me to inhabit not only my singing voice, but my professional community in a different and far deeper way. Which is the whole point of TLA right? And a very important point I think.
CMG: Some of your work focuses deeply on bird song, and how learning to listen helps us come home to the living earth and to who we are as part of the earth. Could you elaborate on this?
DH: One day I got hold of some old Roger Tory Peterson vinyl birdsong recordings. I put one on our old turntable and the first birdsong to play was the wood thrush. I turned the revolution rate down to 70. Not slow enough. I slowed it further with my finger and listened again. What emerged was so compelling I held my breath– what pure tones and stunning intervals!
From that point on, I made a pact with myself to listen to birds for a whole year and understand what they had to teach me about singing. I learned the reasons they sing, how their double voice boxes allow them to sing duets with themselves and how extensive their repertoires can be. I watched them fly around in my woods filling it with sound and sometimes with silence. I learned how intertwined their songful communities and economies are and how they ebb and flow. I learned their songs as variously, defensive, territorial, plaintive, desire-filled and jubilant. And I watched them just hanging out– bartering beauty for beauty—mostly at dawn, sometimes at dusk and more or less in between.
I learned that their voices constitute their identity as much, if not more, than their feathered bodies do. They sing right on key, and right on purpose, weaving sound patterns into a powerful force field of polyphonic colors. They sing to answer a thousand questions, a thousand dawns, a thousand other birds and simply because they have a song. Moreover they must sing it to survive.
Here’s what the birds said to me: If you really want to sing, listen to us first. Look for holes in the fabric of the air and find your own song. Sing that one. That’s the one the world needs.
CMG: What have you been creating and focusing on lately? Where do you feel yourself being called in your singing, writing, artwork, etc. in recent seasons?
DH: I’m learning to play the harp, which is so very sweet–with the intention of bringing that instrumentation into my TLA practice and songwriting. I’m also fascinated with the architecture of fiction. So I’m currently pretending to be a novelist, practicing what it feels like to create not only nice characters, but interesting, damnable and quirky ones. Oh and kill people– (…like I said, you might want to edit this…). It’s nothing publish-able yet but it’s a wonderful practice. I’m currently in the process of starting a collaboration with another female singer/songwriter/dancer and visual artist. We have begun exploring ways to present “the sounding and moving possibilities of the divine feminine” –which is enormously satisfying. Beyond this, my calling is songwriting and leading song circles when I can which is always ongoing.
CMG: What led you to apply to apply for the position of TLA coordinator, and what’s your intention, wishes and hopes for your work in this position?
DH: My overarching intention is to carry out the wishes of the TLAN council to the best of my ability. My hope is that together we will continue to distill the focus and mission of TLA and fully define it as “emerging field.” I am committed to increasing the membership base, investigating grant-writing opportunities and discovering new fields and venues where TLA might take root. What led me to apply? Instant resonance again. And my love for the arts and how art can transform. A desire to see the concept of TLA succeed and flourish and to be a part of it’s evolution and growth. And because it fits into my life as just the right patch in the piecework quilt I’m calling a career.
Seven years ago, when I was Senior Editor for Epilepsy.com, I helped conceive a “Tell Your Story” campaign for those living with epilepsy. At the time, it seemed like a no-brainer to me, that writing could help those suffering heal. I knew words had the power to transform lives, to give the quiet warriors of life a canvas on which to paint. And in typical Jenna fashion, I threw myself into this project the way I throw myself into everything I believe in—with my whole self. Within in days of launching the campaign, I received hundreds of emails from people from all over the world from places as foreign to me as South Africa and as familiar as San Francisco. I knew the campaign would be a success, but had no idea just how much!
Over the course of two years, I read thousands of stories. I am sad to say I do not remember all of them. I do remember, however, the story of Abebech and her infant son Alem. Abebech was a 21-year-old mother from Ethiopia whose 6-month-old son, Alem, was having 15 seizures a day. She had no access to consistent healthcare for Alem and no one she could talk to about the fear she faced everyday as she watched both Alem’s body convulse and the ticking clock, which showed no mercy as each seizure ravaged Alem’s brain. I cried at my desk that day as I read her words and through my tears I felt admiration for this young mother whose love for her child gave her the courage to write— to share her story with the world. I found a new hero that day in Abebech. During that time, I also found a name for what came naturally to me “Transformative Language Arts” and the founder of it all Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg. I was inspired by the idea that words could heal entire communities, that there were actual people dedicated to doing such systemic work. I wanted to be part of this movement, but had yet to realize what that would mean.
Fast forward five years and I have found my foothold in the world of Transformative Language Arts by bringing the power of words to children all over Boulder Valley. Through journaling, I am helping children access their voice as writers, artists and individuals. Bringing children to the page in a way that is comfortable, fun and inspiring to them is the core principle behind the program I teach. And the best part, for me, is the knowledge that I am helping each child learn how to give themself the gift of writing, which they will be able to use throughout their lives. As a side note, I have only just begun this program, and am slowly building momentum with the Boulder Valley School District as well as the YMCA. Wish me luck! I am sure to have a colorful and exciting journey ahead.
It is also quite a gift to be part of the TLA Network and to be surrounded by such an incredible group of people working to be the change they seek on a daily basis. Thank you everyone!
ORIGINAL ARTICLE HERE
By Jane Feinmann
Producer, Metaphor For Healing
When Jan Alcoe was diagnosed with a difficult-to-treat cancer three years ago, she was shocked by the frightening metaphors that doctors and nurses would use to describe the treatment she was to receive.
“The words were overwhelmingly negative,” she recalls.
“My oncologist said my skin might not cope with the onslaught. The cancer nurse came round to my house to read out the side effects of my treatment – using words like ‘toxic’ and ‘burning’.
“I wanted the life-saving treatment but I felt strongly these images were not helpful.”
Jan told the nurse that she did not want to know about the side effects of her treatment and instead developed her own detailed metaphorical landscape located in a favourite bluebell wood – a refuge from the fears, anxieties and frustrations that accompanied her hospital treatment.
Here, the chemotherapy became “a beautiful golden liquid which my veins opened up to receive with gratitude”, while a metaphorical pool of water cooled her skin after radiotherapy.
At the very least, she says, developing these positive metaphors made a difference to her ability to endure her treatment.
“One of the worst times was having to lie on a table in an uncomfortable position under a revolving radiotherapy machine for several hours every day for six weeks.
“It was a tough place to be. But I was in the bluebell wood, and every buzz of the machine felt like a ray of sunshine coming into my body, feeling good and healing me.”
Jan is not alone in seeing the need to put a positive spin on health care.
A growing number of clinicians believe that, speaking directly to the unconscious, metaphors have a potent therapeutic impact and should be handled with care.
Dr Grahame Brown, a musculo-skeletal specialist at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham, claims he is able to save hundreds of patients from the need to have spinal surgery every year simply by “reframing the negative metaphors that have been unwittingly used by their doctors that can lead to a destructive and self-fulfilling cycle”.
Many of the patients he sees have been referred for surgery after becoming convinced their spine is ‘crumbling’ or that they have ‘degenerating’ disc disease, when in fact they have a prolapsed disc or other normal wear and tear that is common in most people.
Yet anxious patients latch on to these suggestions and become convinced that things are only going to get worse.
Dr Brown, who has trained in the metaphor-based Human Givens therapy, claims that nine out of ten of his patients no longer require surgery after undergoing linguistic treatment.
“I tell patients who work in computers that I’ve examined their hard drive and it’s functioning well but that the software is corrupt and needs to be deleted and replaced with a new, more positive programme.
It’s a wonderful metaphor that makes them laugh out loud – and say, ‘yes of course, why did no-one explain this to me years ago?'” he says.
Another favourite metaphor he uses for people with unexplained pain involves him showing the patient that even a light touch on the skin can cause an agonising response.
Dr Brown then goes on to liken this response to “a country that has gone on red alert to defend itself against a terrorist attack and then, months later, has maintained this inappropriate hyper-vigilance, long after the threat of attack is over.”
“I’ll say to them, ‘The threat has passed, this part of your body can stand down now’.
“And quite quickly, they’ll understand this complex phenomenon that is still not fully understood even by pain biologists. And this helps them progress, to find a more constructive and enlightened way to deal with their symptoms and respond to treatment because you’ve changed the whole way they are thinking about the problem.”
Elsewhere, life coach Matthew Critchlow uses Roger Bannister as a metaphor to inspire people to improve their lifestyle.
“Bannister broke the four-minute mile because, as a doctor, he didn’t believe it wasn’t possible,” he says.
“And once he’d broken that barrier, a flood of runners did it too, not because of a leap forward in evolution but because they suddenly realised it was possible.
“That story is a powerful metaphor for losing weight or giving up smoking by getting people to think about how much their own self belief might be the thing that is holding them back.”
Jan Alcoe has now retrained as a hypnotherapist based in Brighton, and has recorded a CD, including the bluebell wood script, to help others dealing with serious illness.
She cannot say for sure whether eliminating the negative and accentuating the positive really did help her beat cancer. But she had a large tumour and after just two chemotherapy sessions, her oncologist could not see it on the scan.
“He was a man of few words but as he was examining me, he was muttering: ‘This is amazing, this is amazing’.”
The film Metaphor For Healing was broadcast on Tuesday, 27 October, at 2100 GMT 2009 on BBC Radio 4.
© BBC 2011
What is One City, One Prompt?
One City, One Prompt is a series of hosted writing, performance, and community-building events across the country. Through One City, One Prompt, communities can come together to create writing, stories and other arts, and through the process of writing and speaking together, cultivate greater civility, deeper dialogue, and sense of purpose. Each community, working with writers, storytellers and performers with extensive facilitation experience, will write on one theme of importance to that community.
Each experience is unique but collectively threads ideas towards a shared understanding of our greater national community, allowing participants, through the power of poetry, to begin to bridge partisan political views and engage in a civil discourse on community values. These events will culminate through an extensive, interactive website that will share participants’ writing, experience, and each participating city’s communal discoveries about itself through a variety of media, including the written word, audio recordings, photography and film.
We hope you will consider facilitating or participating in a One City, One Prompt event in your community. These events will take place between August 11 and November 11, 2011, in any community where a Transformative Language Arts practitioner is willing to organize and facilitate an event.
Each community as its own collective voice, and in this spirit, One City, One Prompt doesn’t tell you what participants should write about, but instead, offers a process and some possibilities for choosing a topic of relevance to each community.
How Do I Develop a Prompt for One City, One Prompt?
TLAN is currently developing a handbook to provide facilitators with the essential information they need to hold a successful event, from background information about Transformative Language Arts and the Transformative Language Arts Network, to facilitation guidelines, to templates that can be adapted to publicize each community event.
In the meantime, here are some points to consider in designing an event for your community:
All events must be free of charge.
Events aimed for a general audience should be held, as much as possible, in a safe, accessible, well-lit place with good parking.
Facilitators can brainstorm topics of relevance for their community and choose one to focus on.
Alternatively, at the actual event, the facilitator can present participants with two to three potential topics and have people vote (use little slips of paper with all the topics listed — this way, no one is put on the spot).
The topic should be broad enough to embrace many viewpoints, but not so broad as to mean absolutely everything (such as “write about life”). The topic should be open-ended so that people may approach it as they wish. For example, if your community’s topic is freedom, participants may write about personal freedom, “freedom’s just having nothing left to lose” (or other quotes), historic struggles for freedom in your community, spiritual or political or social freedom, benefits and dangers of freedom, and the like. Finally, the topic should help lift people up (e.g. avoid topics such as “despair” or “degradation”).
Consider the community’s ecology, geography, history, social challenges and potential, growth or change. For example, a town in the Rocky Mountains might want to write about “Living vertically,” a town that was a Civil War site might consider “Freedom,” a community rebuilding after economic devastation might do “Recovery,” a place which recently dropped in population might consider “Open spaces,” an area known for growing or making certain kinds of food could write about that food (or food in general).
Confirmed locations for One City, One Prompt include:
Ft. Kent, ME
New York, NY
See more information about One City, One Prompt events here.
View a video about One City, One Prompt, and contribute to the cause here.
Please contact the TLAN Coordinator if you have any questions, or to add your community to the list.
Suzanne Adams, founder of Write to the Center, as well as “It’s All About You” workshops for girls offered through Artreach, just had her article “Transforming the Stories of Adolescent Girls,” printed in Radical Psychology (vol. 9, issue 1). Take a look at this wise article that speaks to freeing up all silenced voices, in which she writes,
When women choose to come together in relationship with young girls in a meeting of voices and truths and willingness to speak in anger or conflict, a new paradigm is formed. It has the potential to squash society’s false directives while encouraging the emergence of a song never performed in full chorus—the resonant sounds of wholeness in women’s relationships, of awareness and validity of women’s thoughts and feelings, of the power of women’s knowing—refusing to be silenced.
Ann Armbrecht wonderful memoir blending creative writing, narrative, pilgrimage and anthropology, Thin Places: A Pilgrimage Home, is now available in paperback. Here’s an excerpt, examining women’s lives in rural Nepal, particularly focusing on “…what these women’s ways of living have never let them forget.”
Raj was plowing when I walked down to the field, and as he greeted me, he looked at the mud on his clothes and at his bare feet. “You don’t plow like this, in your country, do you?” he asked. “You use machines, and don’t have to muck around in the mud. Isn’t that right?”
I was as embarrassed by his questions as he was by the mud on his arms and hands. I answered as I always did when asked questions like this: yes, we farmed differently, but that did not necessarily mean that what we did was better. I said something about soil erosion from mechanized farming and then told him that I had come to help with the planting. He nodded and went back to plowing.
I took off my sandals, which were too heavy for the ankle-deep mud; climbed over the edge of the field into the muddy water; and asked his mother how I could help. She handed me a clump of seedlings and told me to plant next to Altasing’s wife.
I waded through the mud and began to plant as quickly and as carefully as I could. Altasing’s wife greeted me and immediately started to ask questions. As soon as I answered one question, she asked another. In between questions, she told me to plant closer to the edge, or Raj’s mother would yell at me.
We worked steadily for some time, interrupted every now and then by Raj’s mother coming to see how we were doing. She shouted at her daughter-in-law to spread the mud around the terrace more thoroughly. She ordered her husband to get to work. And she yelled at me to plant the seedlings closer to the edge.
Raj’s mother scared me. Whenever I visited Raj Kumar’s house to speak with Raj, she offered me jad only after Raj had insisted. This beer was thick and slightly sour. It was the only beverage the family drank. Offering it to guests was the hospitable thing to do. As Raj’s mother handed me a bowl, she always commented that all I did was talk and write; that I did not have to “work,” as they did; and that I had not done anything to deserve this beer. I always accepted her words and the beer without comment. She was right. My work was a luxury to the villagers, especially the women, who hardly ever had a chance to sit around and talk. There was nothing for me to say. This was the first time I had gone to help in the family’s field, and I wanted to prove that I was able to do her kind of work.
After what seemed to be a long time, Raj’s mother called us over to the edge of the field, where she had prepared some jad. We gathered in a small circle on a huge boulder. The women talked about how many terraces still had to be planted and where they would work the following day. Raj’s mother passed me a bowl of jad, along with everyone else. She urged me to drink it so she could fill it again.
I often joined the women in the fields, helping with digging and planting and cutting and carrying, doing whatever I could to create something for us to share. Although I was slower and clumsier than they, they welcomed the free labor and the novelty of having me around. During breaks in the work, when we gathered on a rock or under a tree, the women, old and young, would reach for my hands and rub their fingers slowly across my skin. They would turn my hands over and feel the palm, pull the fingers up to their eyes, and comment about how smooth and white they were. Then they would hold up their own hands and feet, which were tough and dark, next to mine. They looked at one another and shook their heads. They lived by their hands, they would say, and I lived by my head.
The women in Hedangna want skin like mine. They want some padding in their lives, want to be able to stay inside for a while and let their bodies become smooth and white and soft. I want skin like theirs, dark calloused skin that lets them walk through their lives barefoot, enduring, not avoiding, the sharp pain encountered on the way.
I was raised in a world where what was valued was what I could know with my mind. I was educated away from my home, taught that there was more to be gained by moving forward than by staying put. I left my home to understand what it took to stay at home, went halfway around the world because I wanted to learn what it meant to live with my hands and my feet and my heart—to remember what these women’s ways of living have never let them forget.
Written by Suzanne Montz Adams
“The saddest thing about life is that you don’t remember half of it,” begins Donald Miller in his memoir, “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.” Amen to that! And yet most of us brush off the loss as part of the unreliable whim of memory, the part beyond our control.
Miller takes an entirely different approach—viewing the loss as an opportunity to “write” a better story of his life, a more vivid and memorable one. If he can sculpt his mundane life into a series of spectacular experiences, then how could he forget those moments?
Of course, as practitioners and followers of TLA, we know that writing down our stories also helps to preserve our memories and to discover the layered meanings or the nuggets of wisdom hidden among the simple facts. Generally, this panning for gold occurs in the deep rivers of the past. Miller suggests that we scoop those gems out of the moving waters of the present. First, however, we have to change who we are and how we act.
When Miller begins writing a screenplay of one of his previous books along with two experienced screenwriters, he creates parallels between the elements of a meaningful and memorable movie with the elements of a meaningful and memorable life. The whole point of a story and a life, he says, is character transformation. Yes, we nod. That’s obvious. But then we read about Miller’s transformation from an apathetic couch potato to riding a bike across America for a cause, from emotionally and physically ignoring his father (who left his family over thirty years before) to finding, meeting, and reconciling with his father, from being lackadaisical with his money to founding a nonprofit called The Mentoring Project to help youth growing up without fathers. It may sound simple on paper, but in reality, most of us are comfort-seeking people who are fine with the status quo, like Miller was when he started his journey. But as he weaves his story of transformation with all his character flaws on display, we recognize our own apathy, our own negative self-assessments, our own doubt. That’s when we realize that character transformation isn’t easy. Yet Miller proves again and again, that it is equally rewarding.
As a writer, I found his simple rules for crafting a memorable story (and a remarkable life) worth remembering. I even jotted down a few notes as I read, thinking, “So true.” One of those rules was that characters don’t want to change. They must be forced into it, even if they secretly desire something more. Being forced typically involves a troubling or even traumatic experience. And though we frequently resist such things, suffering and pain, when kneaded carefully over time, rises within us, and stretches us beyond what we thought possible.
As a fellow human traveler, I could also empathize with Miller’s preference for remaining stuck, unable to view his life from a wider lens. “I didn’t want to get well, because while I could not control my happiness, I could control my misery and I would rather have had control than live in the tension of what if.” Then, he says, Victor Frankl (Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning) whispered in his ear and reminded Miller that he was a tree in a story about a forest, and it was arrogant of him to believe any differently. And the story of the forest is better than the story of the tree. Resisting growth can be viewed, in this way, as a self-centered reaction detrimental to the community of humankind, which puts a whole new spin on things.
While Miller never says anything in this memoir that is completely original—perhaps you’ve heard or read these ideas in a psychological or spiritual context or in a writer’s workshop—when he connects the dots between his screenplay and his life, it’s like watching a math professor working out the algebraic equation on the blackboard rather than reading about the theory in the textbook. It’s the application of the principle that really matters. And Miller applies the theories beautifully, with humor, common sense, and refreshing transparency.
As taken from their website, the storytellingorganization MassMouth, “works to renew the timeless art of storytelling in Massachusetts. We build audience while bringing stories to non traditional venues, from apple orchards to urban street corners, to story slams. We engage a new generation of tellers online, through blogs, websites and by posting video and audio recordings of story in live performance.” Founders of the group were honored at the League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling‘s 2010 Northeast Storytelling: Sharing the Fire Conference, winning the Brother Blue and Ruth Hill Award for their contributions. Now, less than a year later, they are already moving on to exciting, new community partnerships.
At the end of December, the group announced that they would be pairing with the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities and public high schools in the Greater Boston area, creating a program they call StoriesLive®. This new endeavor will “teach 11th and 12th grade students oral presentation and narrative skills that can help them navigate applying to the college or finding the job of their dreams. Students will share meaningful, personal stories in a fun, interactive forum and StoriesLive® will culminate in the first ever High School Scholarship Story Slam on April 30, 2011 which anticipates awarding $5000 in college scholarships.”
To read more about the MassMouth group and their new project, be sure to check out their site here.
Scott Youmans’ new blog, This Energetic Man, is a marvel of a website when it comes to great writing prompts, inspiration, vision and replenishment. As Youmans describes his site, “This Energetic Man is a space on the Interweb to share my work and insight as a Transformative Language Artist. My work involves writing and the use of poetry, literature and myth to provide experiential workshops that help expand and affirm our humanity. The insight I offer, imperfect as it may be, arises from my work and continued interest in personal growth, spirituality and anti-oppression work.”
His recent entry, “A Lesson from Love Dogs: How Can Language Be Transformative?” not only tells a story and answers that question about language, but it leaves the reader with a gem of a writing exercise:
Write about a time you held on too strongly to something—a rule, a way of being, an idea—and later realized that had you only let go, things would have gone differently, perhaps even better. How did you feel when you were holding on? How did you feel after your realization?
Write about a time something hidden in you was revealed to you. I don’t mean a secret you were hiding from someone else, but a secret that your body, your unconscious, was hiding from you that became visible when just the right light was shown upon it. How was it revealed to you? What changed in you after this revelation?
Other entries, such as the “Tiny Boxes Prompt,” offer ways for us to break out of the boxes we are put in or put ourselves in. Check out this site for a better sense of what you have to say to yourself and to the world.
Many TLAers are blogging regularly. Come visit them and share the love! Here is a new feature on the blog or website of a Transformative Language Artist. Be sure to visit and leave some comments (think of your comments as gravy on the tofu or powdered sugar on the donut).
Jeanne Chambers great blog, The Barefoot Heart, isn’t just the “ruminations of a red dirt girl” but powerful good writing about life and meaning, punctuated with ample humor. Jeanne describes herself as “a complicated simple girl fluent only in southern and english, i feel beautiful when wearing dangly earrings and dresses that caper. sundays are my most creative day, so i try to have at least 7 sundays each week. whether telling them in cloth, clay, or chirography, stories are my oxygen, characters my blood.”
Her posts include musings on bioquiltographies, travels with outrageously intriguing characters, explorations of the ordinary in which all manner of magic resides, plans and revisions of plans to live with greater vividness, seasonal transformations of us, and there’s even good eats: occasional recipes. Much of her writing lands on how we can bring ourselves greater power and voice through simple, constant and nuanced awareness. As she writes last fall:
i’ve handed over my body, my soul, my power in a million ways – some small and insidious, some of epic proportions. i once handed over my body (that’s one of the epic proportion episodes i mention), and that handing over saved my life. it saved it and it wrecked it. if you know what i mean.
and once i handed over my soul. at least that’s what being in an abusive relationships felt like, even though i was too young know it was such a dangerous, soul-sucking place until i’d been isolated and brainwashed and threatened into a mute paralysis. it was a long time ago, but there’s still sticky residue in the deep, dark crevices. some things you just don’t forget. for example, on occasion i can still see his lips curled back over his teeth and hear him hissing things like “you are the ugliest, stupidest girl i know.” and “if you break up with me, who on earth do you think will date you?” just your every day run-of-the-mill confidence-building terms of endearment – at least from guys like him – punctuated with the occasional slap or punch.
and my power? oh my goodness. how many times, in how many ways have i handed over my power? there’s simply not enough bandwidth to do this question justice. from being reprimanded for asking too many questions and consequently ceasing to question, to being scolded for getting too uppity and consequently becoming fluent in making my ideas become somebody else’s ideas so they would be accepted. the ideas, i mean.
The intimacy of her voice, the honesty and imagination of her insights, and the expansive nature of this blog is only matched by the sheer beauty of the blog — check out the layout and design, an inspiration for all who love to see good words presented well.
Just found this interesting and incredibly well-done video on Vimeo. com about one man’s life story told through facebook. It’s funny, touching, fast-moving, somewhat less dimensional than a written biography (and certainly way more concise than even a short film), but also fascinating in what it says about how we convey and can convey our life stories. Check it out and share what you think. It’s Here, created and posted by Maxleure, and pretty provocative in what it says about narrative, social networking, and the images, rhythms and storylines of our lives.
Tiffany Beard, a first semester student in the Transformative Language Arts concentration, just started a blog and wrote an article for examiner.com in Washington, D.C. entitled “Hybrid Arts Learning Found At Goddard College.” Here’s a photo of Tiffany at the August residency sometime in the middle of her own learning discoveries. She describes herself as “The quintessential Renaissance Gal. An accomplished writer, singer, and performer; Tiffany is committed to helping fellow artists collaborate for social change.” You can see Tiffany’s blog here. Check it out!
For the last six days, I’ve been immersed in the Power of Words, both lower case (as in how powerful our words can be when it comes to changing the world and our lives) and upper case, as in the 8th annual conference of the same name. For me, this event was a homecoming of many dimensions: the conference was held at Goddard College, my second home (who every knew that this phrase would apply to a dorm room where I live approximately one month divided over three visits each year for the last 15). It was also a conference I founded in 2003. But mostly, I found my way home to that newborn glow of what can happen between us all when we create together stories, poems, songs, performances and exchanges about what matters most.
Maybe that newborn glow also had something to do with the newborn — Nahar Nadi Keefe-Perry — daughter of the TLA Network co-coordinators, Callid and Kristina, who were responsible for organizing the conference. Born less than a month ago, this inquisitive and beautiful new being was a constant reminder to me about how precious, alive, tender and beautiful the life force is. The Network, by the way, is the not-for-profit organization started by Goddard students, faculty and alumni and others who resonate with what we started at Goddard in the name of TLA.
The things we do at this conference include the usual suspects for most conference (workshops, big group sessions, performances and panels) along with the less-than-usual (talking circles each morning where each of us could speak deeply in a small group, hearing ourselves through having good witnesses and learning how to listen fully to others). Performances were dazzling:
- S. Pearl Sharp’s performance poetry brought to the surface an artful and soulful combination of ceremony, humor, deep wisdom and the astonishing dance of Nailah.
- Kim Rosen recited the poetry of Rumi, Mary Oliver, Derek Walcott and others with great passion and joy.
- Gregory Orr’s reading and talk on poetry as a way to praise the body of the beloved (which could be interpreted as the life force, Book of Poetry, or whatever we love most) illuminated everything I know and want to know about language.
- Nancy Mellon’s combination of superlative storytelling, mythological weaving and anatomy showed us how our bodies are our stories.
- Greg Greenway’s singing, songwriting, guitar- and piano-playing journeyed us through the heart of music in praise of homecoming, liberation and the hard work involved in being fully human.
- Katherine Towler’s reading from the third book in her Snow Island anthology took us to a small Rhode Island island, just on the edge of time and history, and shaped by a kind of yoga of the imagination so visible in her writing.
- The Coffeehouse of Wonder was so gorgeous, full of the most expansive humor and wildest edges of grief, love, joy and courage that those of us in the crowd went wild every few minutes.
But what brought me home most of us was simply being in such a diverse community, covering age (from newborn to elders), race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and identity, life experience in so many varieties that we made a community that had each other’s backs and hearts. Sitting in the back of the haybarn last night were a pact of African American storyteller-shamans. Walking across the campus was a teenage girl who would still share her full imagination with her mother, both of them attending workshops together. Sleeping in the dorms were people ready to stand up and follow their callings as well as those leaning forward to open the door.
I’m back in Kansas through the magical surrealism of plane travel, but I’m still carrying that dazzle and depth, lightness and weight, freedom and connection of being part of the Power of Words.
Pictures (from top): JNahar in the arms of Suzanne with beautiful mom Kristina looking on; Katie Towler; Scott and friends performing; a gorgeous pact of shamans; leaving Vermont.
TLA Member Sherry Reiter shares this reflection on her recent travel and work in South Korea:
The 2010 Quandaries in Health Care Conference (hosted by the University of Colorado as Aspen’s Center for Bioethics and Humanities) is titled “A Need to Confess?: Writing About the Healthcare Experience,” and it seems like it may very well be of interest to TLA folk. It happens Sept. 30-Oct. 2, 2010 in Aspen, so if you aren’t going to be able to join us in VT, perhaps you can make it out there.
Quandaries in Health Care is a conference series in which keynote discussants, guest faculty and conference participants gather at the Given Institute in Aspen, Colorado, for two and one-half days of large and small group discussions on emergent and perennial issues in biomedical ethics and health humanities.
The theme of the 2010 conference, “A Need to Confess?:Writing About the Healthcare Experience,” explores the literary trend among healthcare professionals to reveal the pressures faced and felt by them, such as the expectations to be perfect, to enact compassion, and to demonstrate respect for patients—even the most difficult ones. These narratives, many of them autobiographical in form and confessional in tone, often detail breaches in those expectations as well as the shame, guilt and anxiety that such breaches evoke.
Additional information can be found here.
One of the Most Powerful Pieces of Writing About Parenting, and Living with Courage & Heart: “Finding Your Voice” Blog
Just wanted to recommend Jennifer Lawler’s great blog, Particularly amazing is her essay, “For Jessica,” which is simply the most powerful thing I’ve ever read about being a parent, loving another person, cultivating courage in the face of the impossible, and what love is truly about.
July 19th, 2010
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine and I were talking about a study she’d just read, which concluded that people without children were happier than people with children; or, to put it more precisely, despite what conventional wisdom holds, the study found that having children did not increase anyone’s happiness.
At which all I could do was burst out laughing. Because, well. Duh. (Read more)
One of the founding voices of Hip Hop, an astonishing songwriter and singer, and a wise voice, Lauryn Hill gives a rare interview on NPR. Hill has a lot to say to any of us who care about the spoken and sung word, and she shares her message with unflinching eloquence in her performances and her reflections on her work. Check it out.
Check out Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s essay, “The Invisible Friend of the Page: Writing as a Transformative Practice” at the website for The Spirit of a Woman, which features stories to empower and inspire women, men, all of us! Here’s the first paragraph:
When I was a child, I didn’t have any human friends. It wasn’t that I didn’t want friends; I just didn’t understand how to get them. Hard-wired for interior sound from the get-go and growing up in a tumultuous home, I found imaginary friends for each day of the week. Monday was an older sister, reserved and confident. Tuesday had straight blond hair and a penance for dolls. Wednesday and I were thick as thieves, and she understood me best. Thursday was a standoffish brother, Friday a party animal, Saturday a patient and exhausted mother, and Sunday, a distracted father. More at this link!
In an exciting piece of news from the poetry therapy front, TLA Network Council Member Sherry Reiter shares that she has been invited to the 2010 “Conference on Humanities Therapy,” sponsored by Kangwon National University in Chuncheon, Gangwon-do province, South Korea.
The conference organizers there are affiliated with The Humanities Therapy Research Institute, which “aims to study wide-ranging theories, methods, and practices to prevent and cure manetal and emotional problems, seeking to improve the quality of life by integrating the curative contents of humanities and its related fields. The goals of Humanities Therapy are to keep one’s life happy, recover peace of mind by preventing and curing mental and emotional problems, and help with quality of life.”
Congratulations to Sherry and past Power of Words presenter John Fox, who will also be part of this fascinating gathering. We hope to hear more when you return!
Thanks to Caryn Miriam-Goldberg who offers us this piece from her own blog.
A few weeks ago, I had the joy of hearing Mary Oliver read, talk about poetry and life, and simply just visit with some of us. I found her to be exactly like her poetry: clear, precise, kind but unwilling to suffer fools, gracious and as excellent at listening as speaking her truths. Thanks to the Hall Center of the University of Kansas for bringing her in. Here’s some of what she said over an evening and the following morning.
* “Don’t be ashamed of anything. Ever.”
* A perfect day? A little love, a little work, a good meal.”
* “Now is the only time there is.”
* “We can wonder if trees have a language” (when asked about multi-culturalism and after praising what we can learn from people in different cultures).
” We’re in a terrible, terrible [ecological] struggle now because we’re too inventive.”
* “The only thing we can do as individuals is to believe in community, and communities of all sorts, and remember how much we need the stories that are in poems.”
* “It’s the first time I’ve been in Kansas, and it occurred to me that I had to land in Missouri to do it.”
* “I’ve had people tell me that when they read my poems, it brings down their pressure, so I’m as good as a dog.”
* She says she had “two friends while growing up: the forest and books of poets.”
* “As I age, my heart grows younger.”
* “I love the earth so much, and I am so grateful for my single life that it doesn’t scare me that I would give my life back one day. I would give the earth everything.”
* While writing something new, “I wonder if Yeats would have liked it. I’ve been writing everyday for 60 years.”
* “I believe in doing something in your life that is helpful to someone.”
* When asked how to practice being present, “The most important thing is that it takes a lot of time.”
* “We need our worlds. We need our first worlds around us to even grasp the larger world, not to mention the stars.”
* “You can’t just write about how you feel about things without the world being in existence too.”
* “The natural world is our warehouse of language.”
* When asked about visiting her on the Cape, “You’re all welcome to come visit, but you won’t find me.”
* “Writing is my way of praying. Writing is my way of praising.”
We’re always looking to find innovative and gripping examples of TLA in action, and Stephanie Sandmeyer in Portland, OR is doing exactly that. Working with families to create audio snapshots and oral histories, Stephanie works to make sure wisdom isn’t lost in the hustle and bustle of contemporary life. She employs what she calls “narrative facilitation,” which utilizes the foundations of TLA work by incorporating tools for the exploration and preservation of individual and family stories. These tools include the recording of oral histories, on-site archiving, workshops and memoir/biography consultation.
To read and see more about Stephanie and her Kairos organization, please take a look at her website.
We recently heard from Brian Moore, who shared about the Cascadia Arts and Healing Center which he is developing to explore the connections between the expressive arts and deep ecology. Brian also facilitates Poetic Pathways and Journal to Wholeness at the Pathways Learning Center, in Eugene, OR, and leads developmental writing groups at the University District, Johnson Unit, of Eugene’s Sacred Heart Medical Center.
For folks looking to learn more about the possibilities between TLA and ecological movements, be sure to check out his website.
I recently came across this fascinating article by Colleen Vojak about how the language social workers use has clear impact on “helper and recepient” relationships, particularly on how marginalized folks develop their own sense of self. From the article’s abstract is this key line:
Social service providers who care about social justice, but do not understand the relationship between language and the larger social vision they want to help create, may unwittingly undermine their own project by reinforcing the language of hegemony.
Right on. This is already evident to many TLA practitioners, and may be of use for those of us interested in other disciplines and academic connections. Take a look if you’re interested.
Looking for funding an art-based social change project? Check out NowArtGrants, a site devoted to matching up artists with funders. To qualify as Now Art the artist/art must:
- Take place outside of a gallery or limited-access space.
- Engage a wide audience in a dialogue about a current social issue.
- Have a component that delivers an aspect of the art directly to those who have funded it.
If any TLA folk get in touch with these funders, let us know how it turns out!
Listen to this new podcast on Alexandra Hartman’s journey from poetry and web design to filmmaking and the disobedient body. Alex’s website, and her entire 33-minute film –
The Word Made Flesh, an be viewed at her website. Her studies that led her here encompassed Embodiment Studies, Transformative Language Arts, Filmmaking and Women’s Studies. Listen to our podcast at this link.
Info from Goddard College’s Worlds of Change site.
I’ve just finished two of the strongest and most transformative novels I’ve ever read: Stephanie Kallos’ Broken for You and her second novel, Sing Them Home. I first learned of Kallos not from the bestseller lists, where she’s rightfully occupied long standing, but when I shared a table with her at the Midwestern Booksellers Convention last September in St. Paul, MN. We were paired up as two authors to each present to a group of bookstore owners and managers about our publications. Stephanie immediately won my heart right off the bat when she said to me, “I’m the keynote speaker, so I’ll get a chance to talk later. Please use my time to talk about your book.” Considering she told me this after I had experienced other authors I was previously paired with trying to dominate our 15 minutes with each group of authors, I was amazed by her generosity. Later, she gave one of the best talks I’ve heard on the writing life, which you can read along with other essays she’s written — all fully of whimsy and depth, love for creating and respect for the mystery and frustration of the process at times — at her website (www.StephanieKallos.com).
Sing Them Home, which I read first, is set in rural Nebraska (where Kallos grew up) some years after a tornado not only lifted a home into the sky but a mother of three, who was never found again. Focused on intertwined stories of the three children, now adults, along with other small town characters, the novel is both mythic and intimate in its scope, showing us the redemptive powers of love and kinship against the backdrop of disease, divorce, catastrophic weather, fear and isolation.Broken for You, which I finished this morning only because I willed myself to put it down and get some sleep last night, is set in Kallos’ current home town of Seattle, and it brings together two women with secrets and seemingly unhealable wounds: one a wealthy, dying woman who lives in a mansion filled with thousands of antiques and not a living soul but herself, and the other, an abandoned young woman searching for the boyfriend who left her in between stage managing local theater productions. By the time the novel ends, after twining through the lives of an elder Scottish man, a Irish drifter with a propensity for bowling, a gay, Jewish, Southern chef, a disposed British nanny, a French researcher, a Holocaust survivor with startlingly red hair, and a handsome handyman, I was breathless and completely thrilled.
How May I Direct Your Call?: Deborah Harris
How may I direct your call?
Direct me to someone
who will listen
with silent attentiveness.
Direct me to someone
who will treat me
with dignity and respect,
for whom I’m not
just a trifling detail
of the day.
Direct me to a power,
a way of knowing
that deepens my understanding
and the universe.
Direct me to knowledge
that allows me
to improve myself
and the world.
Direct me to peace
Direct me to contentment
with all that is good
with that which must change.
Direct me; I’m calling.
Please, direct me.
Debbie Harris is a graduate of Goddard’s Transformative Language ArtsMaster’s program. She is an adjunct English instructor at Hartnell CommunityCollege in Salinas, California. Her focus is on English language development forunderserved populations.
Moving Toward Authenticity: Connecting with Self, Others, and Nature Through Transformative Language Arts
Within and around the earth, Within and around the hills, Within and around the mountains, Your authority returns to you.
–A Tewa Pueblo Prayer
The poem, above, has great significance, for it is in the context of the earth, hills, and mountains–indeed, the landscapes in which we live, move, and breathe–that we express and embrace our own unique authority, connecting with those other sentient beings–human and other-than-human–with whom we share this planet. Through the creative arts, whether it be dancing, painting, or transformative language arts, people can discover and affirm their own unique authority, bringing forth and embracing that which is most authentic about themselves.
The Story of Sherry Forty-five years old and severely depressed, “Sherry” (name changed to maintain confidentiality) was admitted to a mental health treatment center after a failed suicide attempt. While on shift one evening at the center, I discovered that one of Sherry’s interests was poetry-writing. So I knocked on her door and invited her to write poems together. “Sure,” she said, “but then I’m going back to bed.” So we sat at a table, picked out words from a bowl, and used these words as springboards for our poems. After sharing our creations, we spoke about Sherry’s interest in poetry-writing. When Sherry’s condition had improved somewhat, she handed me a poem that she had found in a magazine. The poem dealt with issues of separation and loss, much like those Sherry had experienced through the loss of her marriage. Eventually, she shared with me a poem that she herself had written. In it, she spoke about her desire to “embrace change.” Prior to her departure from the center, Sherry told me that she had begun to write poems regularly. She reflected on the poetry-writing process and how it had helped her unlock emotions and begin to work through her depression. Then she handed me a poem in which she spoke about her desire to “learn new things” and “create something new” in her life. She described the poetry-writing process as a way of “breaking up the log jam.” Poetry-writing was not a magic pill for Sherry, but it did give her an opportunity to begin to work through her depression and to gain some perspective on her divorce. In the short time that I knew her, I witnessed her gradually opening up as she began to express herself through poetry.
A Consideration of Terms The words “healing” and “transformation” are both employed in transformative language arts environments. The word heal derives from the Anglo-Saxon word haelan, to heal. Related words include hale, meaning in good health, or sound; and holy. Transform derives from the French transformer, which means to change the form of, to give a new form to, or to metamorphose. Whereas the word heal implies restoration to a state of wholeness or health, transform implies movement toward a new state of being. One of the goals of the transformative language arts process is to restore one’s sense of wholeness. Another is to create the conditions whereby transformation is possible. …Whoever you are, no matter how lonely the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting– over and over announcing your place in the family of things. From “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver How does transformative language arts help us deepen our connections with self, others, and nature? Three core tenets are critical to the process.
First, everyone in the group has something unique and valuable to share. As part of the group, people announce their place in the “family of things” through the words they speak, the poems they share, and even through the simple act of announcing their name at the start of every group session. Second, everything in nature is divine. This tenet is reflected in the way in which everyone in group is treated with integrity and respect. We listen deeply, speak from the heart, and practice confidentiality. Respect extends beyond the human community to include Raven, Spider, Cedar, indeed, anything we bring into the process by way of the imagination, experience, memory, or dreams. The third tenet, we are all connected, is reflected in the words of Walt Whitman, in his poem “We Two, How Long We Were Fooled.” He says, …We are Nature, long have we been absent, but now we return, We become plants, trunks, foliage, roots, bark, We are bedded in the ground, We are rocks, We are oaks, we grow in the openings side by side… In group, we discover and express our own essential nature and honor that of others. When we meet, we seat ourselves in a circle, ancient symbol of wholeness, totality, and completion. § I am one who eats his breakfast gazing at morning glories.
Matsuo Bash Poetic stems, creating springboards from poetic lines, and using visuals or aromas are among the many tools employed to help us re-connect with self, others, and nature. Poetic stems invite people to add their own responses to lines of poetry. The line “I am one who,” from the poem, above, can evoke such responses as “I am one who likes to laugh,” “I am one who loves the ocean,” or “I am one who feels sad.” I remember the time an individual responded, “I am one who does not want to share.” We move toward authenticity. Other poetic stems include “If you don’t know the kind of person I am….” (William Stafford) “I am so thankful I have seen…” (Alice Walker), and “In time of silver rain, the earth…” (Langston Hughes). The goal of poetic stems is to give people an opportunity to share something unique and honest about themselves. Springboards are similar to poetic stems, except that lines are used as springboards into longer poems. An excellent example of a springboard is the line, “I have roads in me…” from the poem of the same title by Jimmy Santiago Baca. People begin with the line, then follow it into a poem. In practice, poetic stems and springboards can be utilized interchangeably. It is simply a matter of how the facilitator elects to use them. Other evocative writing approaches include writing in response to visuals, such as photographs or post cards; to items from nature, such as sand dollars or stones; or to aromas. Aroma vials–including rosemary, chocolate, cinnamon, or coffee–stimulate the olfactory sense, but also the sense of taste. Through the memories evoked, they can lead us into a whole pallette of experiences about which to write.
And what if my words, my fledgling poems, were children, were toddlers trying first steps, tumbling, skinning knees, squealing with glee, splashing mud, making a mess, discovering themselves? Would I hold them at arm’s distance, disown them, hide them, say what I imagine others will think— that, after all, they really aren’t very good?… From “As They Are,” by Barbara McEnerney While working at the hospital recently, I invited a patient to participate in an expressive arts circle that I was facilitating. The patient declined, stating, “When I was a kid, I was told that most kids can do art, but that I was the one exception. Ever since that time, I have not done art.” The above example serves to illustrate one of the reasons that critique is not part of the transformative language arts process. Critique can cut off the creative flow at the very time an individual is beginning to open up. Therefore, one of the group covenants is that we operate from a place of curiosity, rather than critique. Operating from the curiosity model, people can say anything they want to about their poem–how they came to write it, feelings and emotions it evokes, or how it is related to events going on in their life. When finished, they may invite reflections from the group. Reflections include listening to the poem and selecting from it a detail that stands out. It can be an image, line, or word; or it can be a memory, association, or question the poem evokes. The curiosity model helps support the atmosphere of safety, security, and trust, which is another goal of the transformative language arts process.
Transformative Language Arts, as practiced by myself and others in the field, continues to evolve. Recently, for example, I introduced group drumming into the process, this as a way of helping people move closer to the underlying pulse of language and of providing a unifying experience before writing. I am also working with authentic movement practitioner Elizabeth Russell, co-director of Bodies in Balance, in Portland, OR, to integrate transformative language arts with authentic movement. We are all creative. It is our birthright as human beings. When we tap these resources in an atmosphere of safety, security, and respect; when we share from a place of openness and honesty, we move toward wholeness and authenticity. Through the creative arts, we are all connected to the sacred web of life.
Brian Moore holds an MA in Transformative Language Arts from Goddard College, in VT, and a certification in poetry therapy. Director of the Cascadia Arts and Healing Center, in Eugene, he facilitates transformative language arts groups at the Pathways Learning Center and the Sacred Heart Medical Center, in Eugene. He also facilitates Healing Landscapes, a writing group exploring the connections between the expressive arts and deep ecology. For further information about Brian and his work, or for information about upcoming workshops and events, contact the Cascadia Arts and Healing Center, in Eugene, at (541) 543-6380. For information about Body Story, Tree Story, an integrated transformative writing and authentic movement workshop, contact the Cascadia Arts and Healing Center, or go to www.bibpilates.net.
Singing Children: A Poem by Itoro Udofia: Itoro Udofia
I hear the children singing against the mourning dove’s cry They tread red earth and praise a blue sky They eat the raw cocoa They tell me it’s sweet I’ve tasted it too I say, “Too bitter to eat.” I hear them humming I’ll try to hum too I’m no longer a child But I can still stay in tune My notes scurry to run with these children of the sun They sing to me that I cry too much, singing, “Mother! Give us your teardrops. We’ll drop some in our eyes We’ll cry into the soil and help you sprout more life When you can cry no longer We’ll cry the final batch out If we do things this way There’ll be enough crying to go around One day we’ll cry less. Laugh more One day we’ll cry less. Laugh more.” Sing the children against the mourning dove’s cry They tread red earth and praise a blue sky They eat raw cocoa They tell me it’s sweet I’ve tasted it too I say, “Too bitter to eat.” I say, “Soon. Too bitter for you to eat.” Itoro Udofia resides in Northampton, MA. She is a student at Smith College and a lover of the written and performed word. She believes in the healing powers of music, performance, language and service and is a happier person because of it. She thanks her family and friends for being loving and nurturing.
StoryCorps, TLA and the Power of Healing Stories
Barbara Esrig tells the story of surviving a car accident that nearly took her life and finding meaning through the power of words — and her story is now featured on the StoryCorps site. Barbara is writer-in-residence in the Shands Arts-in-Medicine program in Gainesville, FL. where she does oral histories for patients to remind them that they are more than just a diagnosis. She’s presently collaborating on a book on these oral histories as well as writing about her own work. Listen to her story and check out her amazing work. Barbara has been a frequent attendee at the Power of Words conference, and she has been active in the field of TLA for many years.
TLA member, Valerie Harris is a recipient of the 2008 Transformation Award from the Leeway Foundation. The award is given to 13 women in Philadelphia, PA and the surrounding area whose art over the past 5 years impacts social change in their communities. Valerie received the award in Literature for her community-based Writers Academy/Teen Writers Academy workshops, publishing, and documentary video projects. The Transformation Award comes with a purse of $15,000. Valerie plans to use part of the funds to complete production of “A Highway Runs Through It…” a documentary that she has written and is producing on the history and current issues of the African American community in Darby Township, a once rural enclave on the outskirts of Philadelphia that has been threatened by redevelopment efforts. The documentary project evolved from a 10-week memoir writing workshop Valerie delivered at a senior center in Darby Township in 2006.
Writing Ourselves Home While Living with Cancer: Kirsten Andersen
The Callanish Society is a small, grassroots non-profit organization based in Vancouver, Canada. Dedicated to improving the emotional and spiritual health of its community, Callanish assists those with an experience of cancer in their lives to explore illness and/or death openly and consciously.
Week-long retreats and ongoing support programs are offered by a team of health care professionals and volunteers who believe that communities can develop resilience in the face of illness and healing, loss and death, by coming together in a process of authentic dialogue and in an in-depth exploration of what it means to heal emotionally and spiritually while living with, or dying from, cancer.
The desire for this depth of exploration naturally lends itself to the use of arts as a means of healing. Through the years, Callanish community members have experienced and witnessed extraordinary transformation through the use of art, music and sound, meditation and circles of support. Writing, therefore, seemed a natural addition to further engage in authentic dialogue about what it means to heal, and, in the spring of 2008, Callanish Writes was born.
Coming together to write as a group for the first time, we “landed” in our new space by considering our origins – who we are, who we were. Utilizing the Amherst Writers and Artists’ (AWA) method pioneered by author Pat Schneider, reading out loud for the first time, writing poetry and responding to each other’s work were firsts for many of us and opened a vast door of possibility.
As the weeks passed, we began to examine the terrain of cancer, from diagnosis to the scars that adorn the body and the mind. We wrote about “gooey emotions,” and gave “cause to pause” on the matters of life, with and without cancer, with and without answers.
Through language, we traveled from the icy peaks of Patagonia to the streets of New York City with a “llama in a limo.” We visited “forests of faith” and mourned “days of hope renewed, but ended.”
Each week we found beautiful and pithy words to “throw off the tongue” and “the grace to move on.” Together, we continued to “let the light (and the bedbugs) bite,” because we had the reassurance that whatever came out on paper could be held by the group – the same support that is such an integral part of the Callanish culture.
Callanish writer, Peter S. reflects on his experience as a participant: When I immersed myself in the inaugural Callanish Writes group, my lymphoma had been stable for a year. Psychologically torn between euphoria for having beat the “Big C” to waiting for the hammer to come down in a possible relapse, I participated in the workshops with an open mind and spirit.
I rediscovered my inner voice, which had eluded me since diagnosis. I was astonished at how concealed words flowed onto the page, and the powerful reaction they evoked. I was humbled sharing the sacred inner thoughts of my fellow writers as they too struggled to articulate their own struggles and perspectives on this journey with cancer. As the weeks passed, writing “in community” was a powerful tool for healing. [I experienced] fear, trust, forgiveness, acceptance, and, most important…love.
Fellow Callanish writer, Eva M., adds: For many of us that have been diagnosed with cancer it is difficult to be truly honest with loved ones about the fear, the trauma, the frustrations that we encounter. For their sake we show our positive outlook. The workshop provided a context which permitted, in fact, encouraged, all expressions that might be locked inside, including the humourous. The group dynamic also allowed each of us to feel less isolated as we discovered similar responses from our fellow writers. Herein evolved the quality of community, sharing the struggles and the laughter.
For Callanish writer Robin F., utilizing the written word as a means of personal exploration was “liberating”: After 60-plus years, I learned to befriend my critics, enough to politely excuse myself from their presence.
Robin further reflects:
A Discovery: Words flowed
Surprising: I made a group of people laugh
Shocking: I spoke in a group of people
More shocking: I spoke my own truth, my own words
Even more astonishing: They listened and responded
Profound: As cancer became one mere aspect of my life, writing became a warm, wondrous expression for me. A welcome tool.
Writing is no longer something I have to do as a chore with feelings of inadequacy.
Powerful: As a result of participating in the workshop I also am aware that to my behavior in all groups has shifted: I am present! With friends, peers, family, experts, colleagues and classmates. I no longer sit in tension, distracted by the fears and critics that used to surround me. Truly transformational.
Eight sessions and thousands of words later, the group published its first collection of writing, Callanish Writes, Volume I, in April of 2008. The brave work of this inaugural group has paved the way for others in the community to explore the written word as a means of transformation and healing during and after illness. As the final entry of the collection, writer Leah C’s poem, “I am,” beautifully articulates the return to wholeness we each seek as part of this ongoing exploration. May such dialogue with ourselves and our community always be part of the journey.
I sense it
the soul cells
taste of wine
a curved neck
a silent mantra
or White Tara
on the radiation table
beside a tree
the inner Sanctum
gives me silver wings
Becoming a part of the Callanish community in May 2006, Kirsten’s ongoing journey with lymphoma has led her to further explore the transformative power of writing during illness. She holds degrees in literature and journalism and her work has appeared across Canada, in print, radio and television. She is also certified by Amherst Writers & Artists as a writing workshop facilitator.
Although the study of Transformative Language Arts is still emerging and defining itself, ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances have been writing down their stories in order to find peace for hundreds of years. As a result, we have hundreds of first hand accounts of circumstances like surviving abuse to survival at sea.
In the coming years we will continue to find examples of this. Recently, I watched an episode of 60 Minutes. One of the stories highlighted veterans recently home from Iraq and the issue of post traumatic stress disorder. Apparently the armed forces are better at training how to kill than with training citizens how to make the transition back to civilian life. One man, Jesse Odom, said he dealt with what he saw and what he did by locking himself in his room with a six pack and writing into the wee hours of the morning. As a result of those writing sessions, those “purification rituals,” his book Through Our Eyes is being published this Memorial Day weekend. It is being heralded as a raw account of what our troops go through on a daily basis in Iraq and is sure to become a record of the experiences of a generation.
Doctor, Heal Thyself
Along with the reminders for doctor appointments, meetings, and family events I’ve begun placing special stickers on my family calendar. These stickers are reminders to spend some time taking care of myself. It could be as simple as sitting quietly with a cup of tea, reading a book I really love, or, if my life has been particularly harried, sitting down with my journal.
Keeping a journal can help you identify the patterns in your life and your business. It can heal old wounds and help you find your way through rough times. Most importantly, it can help you know yourself. In knowing yourself you are in the best position possible to serve others.
In her book, Journal to the Self, Kathleen Adams introduces several journal keeping techniques to help writers get the most from their efforts. I have found the method that works best for me and I invite any of you who keep a journal to write in about what works best for you.
Additionally, Kathleen will be hosting a free teleclass May 8, 2008 on memoir writing http://www.namw.org/. If you’re interested in writing about yourself or your family, check it out!
Creative Written Expression for Children: Heather Mandell
“The limons [sic] are my babys [sic]. If you hurt them, I will hunt you down and kill you.” Alex* read his surprising response out loud to the group. His rotund face raised up towards me with questioning eyes as if to ask, “Was my writing okay?”
“The tree sounds like it is a mother,” I replied to his questioning gaze.
“Yep. It’s a mama protecting her babies,” Alex said.
We were approaching the end of a creative written expression session that focused on a poem called The Tree Is Older Than You Are by Jennifer Clement, a poet and novelist from Mexico. I developed CWE (Creative Written Expression) workshops for a five-month, pilot program in an underserved elementary school near San Jose, CA. Alex’s third grade class consisted of 20 children with a demographic breakdown of 90% Latino, 5% Filipino and 5% Caucasian. Most of the children who participated in the workshops spoke Spanish as their primary language. Some of the poems were written in both Spanish and English to ensure comprehension. The Tree Is Older Than You Are was one of those poems.
Alex had responded to a writing prompt that invited him and others in the group to imagine what a tree might say if it could talk. Although Alex’s last sentence was written in an aggressive tone, he wrote empathically from the perspective of a tree as if it was a mother paying attention. It was the first time that Alex paid attention during the writing group, which was drastically different from the previous two workshops when he could barely sit still. Alex’s emotional writing is interesting because of his infamous reputation as a class bully and disruptive student. He spent much time in class making strange noises with his mouth, throwing things, and touching his neighbor on the head or poking the girl who sat on the other side of him. He was quick to get into a fight and was often reprimanded. He was one of those kids who always had to stay in during recess. During many of my creative written workshops, Alex’s disruptions were clearly annoying to the other children in the group. Often his writing was illegible and he made it clear that he was not interested in participating.
At one of the final sessions, I noticed a change in Alex. The day’s topic was on coping with bullies and the group read a poem called Stanley The Fierce by Judith Viorst. When we began our discussion about bullies, some of the children in the group pointed out that Alex was a bit like Stanley and that sometimes he hurt their feelings. In response, Alex raised his hand (this I had never seen him do) and disclosed, “Sometimes I get angry and I don’t know what I am doing.”
“So, it sounds like when you get mad, you stop thinking,” I responded
“Yes, that’s it,” he said frowning a bit.
“How do you think it makes others feel when you say mean things about them?”
“It makes them feel bad and mad?”
Alex tested the waters to find out if his response was appropriate. He remained quiet after sharing. It was the first time Alex asked others in the group about how his behavior made them feel. I looked to the members of the group and invited them to answer Alex’s question. Most nodded and Randy* told Alex that he felt bad and threatened by Alex’s bullying. Randy later wrote about bullies, “This bully tries to threaten me. Sometimes he makes people bleed but sometimes he looks scary. He always makes me feel so bad and so sad.”
Alex became very quiet during the rest of the workshop and he had a remorseful look on his face when Randy read his writing out loud. I invited the children to draw a comic strip about a bully, which Alex did without a word. It was the first time I had ever seen him quiet, sitting in his chair with his hands in his lap. He shared his comic strip and told the group that the bully in his drawing was scary and that the boy who was being bullied felt very bad.
Perhaps it was the first time that he had spoken out loud about making another person feel bad. It seemed that Alex was thinking about his behavior during the workshop. His behavior indicated that he was troubled in some way and writing gave him a small window view into how to act empathically rather than acting out in anger.
For children who have lived through or are living with distressful situations, writing can be a tool to express thoughts and feelings. Many children want to tell their personal stories. Most of the children participating in the pilot CWE workshops shared stories about fathers in jail, brothers that beat them with brass knuckles, communication problems between racial groups, dreams of going into the military or of becoming rock stars, and dreamy summers eating watermelon under trees in their homelands. When given an opportunity, the children shared many of their thoughts and feelings related to emotional events. I developed the workshops to increase the children’s emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and communication skills. My role as facilitator was to model listening and respectful communication. The poems’ metaphors did the rest of the work for me. During the bully workshop, Alex had the chance to look into a mirror and learn how his own behavior affected others around him. He was able to do this through the eyes of Stanley, a character in a poem. Alex’s peers bravely shared the challenges they faced when dealing with real bullies in their lives.
When I was a child, I too wanted to feel safe enough to tell of the challenges I faced as a child witness of domestic violence and alcoholism but instead, I turned to my journal, a safe place where I shared my stories with the blank page. It is for this reason that I am drawn towards work that furnishes an outlet for children to share their personal narratives if they choose to do so. I believe that children who experience various types of distressful events are in need of emotional expression and the long-term consequences of silence can be dire if no outlets are available.
The possibilities are many but there are also limitations that should be pointed out. Children who are appropriate for creative written expression workshops need to be distinguished from the children who are diagnosed with serious psychological disorders. Children in these circumstances should be assessed and treated by a licensed therapist or child psychologist. This creative written expression model was developed for use with developmental groups and may not be appropriate for children who are in crisis situations in which their lives are in jeopardy. For the child who is victim to ongoing physical or sexual abuse, the focus should be on providing a safe environment and crisis counseling first before group written work can take place.
The stories that are shared during CWE workshops are especially relevant for educators, counselors and social workers who take an interest in children’s well being. For counselors and social workers, the model can be used to determine what is going on in a child’s home. It is a process that uses metaphors to help children easily express thoughts and feelings about themselves. In addition, the model can help educators determine why a child might display disruptive behaviors in the classroom. The workshops may also be modified for use in group homes, domestic violence shelters, or other organizations that provide services for underserved or at risk youth. These are the children who can benefit from talking and writing about their lives.
In these times of fear politics and buzzwords such as “Axis of evil” and “Terrorism”, we need more than ever to model for our children how to listen to one another. It is critical to teach them to communicate with words rather than fists, guns and bombs. This is the time to teach non-violent ways of communicating. This is the time to nurture our children’s voices. They have much to say and we adults must be willing to listen and give them the space to speak.
This is the work that will unlock children’s minds and hearts. These narratives open our eyes to the silences behind closed doors. Writing is about sending words out into the world and children without voices need those words to bring the dark, untold stories into the light.
Author’s Note: Names that have been changed are marked with an asterisk (*) next to them. The children’s writing is reproduced exactly as they wrote it. I obtained written consent from each child’s guardian(s) to include their writing in public documents.
Heather Mandell recently graduated from Goddard College with a Master’s degree in Transformative Language Arts. She works at her county library where she enjoys performing baby, toddler and children’s story times. Through a local non-profit organization, Heather currently facilitates creative written expression workshops for children and young adults who have witnessed domestic violence. She lives in Northern California where she enjoys kayaking, hiking and writing about her experiences.
I distinctly remember in fifth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Walkow, asking our class to draw a representation of what we wanted to be when we grew up by creatively using the word for our chosen profession.I used different colored markers to spell “writer,” using the “w” to form two elongated pencils with sharp points.
As a child, I was a voracious reader, a sporadic diary writer, a budding short story writer, and a very lame poet. Words fascinated me. I often wonder if this had anything to do with the fact that I was a very quiet child, a girl who rarely found the right words with which to speak, choosing instead to formulate her thoughts and opinions on the page. Writing was so important to me that I once gave colorful ink pens to my friends as gifts. Reading their disappointed, confused expressions on opening the gift was my first clue that other people did not view writing paraphernalia as treasured possessions the way I did.
But by ninth grade, I was more concerned about my hair, makeup, and clothes than anything else.I no longer visited the library every week, reading less and less as the years went by and my writing virtually stopped.
By the time I entered college, I was certain that I needed to study computer science or business in order to reach my fullest potential.Girls were being supported in these fields as never before and I felt an expectation by parents, teachers, and friends to become a businesswoman.I became a CPA.
But as fate would have it, I was asked to write an essay for our company newsletter in my first year as an employee of a large accounting firm. One of my co-workers teased me when the newsletter was distributed: “You missed your calling,” he said. And despite the fact that he didn’t mean it literally, that one comment broke through all the years of denial. I had learned rather quickly that accounting was not my cup of tea. But after all the education and training and license requirements, I couldn’t walk away and acknowledge the waste.
A few days a week during my lunch hour, I closed my office door and wrote the beginnings of short stories and novels, completed essays, attempted poems. For the first time in over a decade, I felt I was being honest with myself, that I was aligned with my desires. I had opened the door and found that long-buried love affair with words waiting there, a little worse for wear, but enticingly attractive and staunchly persistent. My body instinctively responded. Slowly, ever so slowly, like a shy girl on her first date, I stepped across the threshold, embraced the words, and began the long journey back to myself and my first love.
I attended evening writing classes and read every book on writing I could find. Several years later, when two of my three sons were in school, my first essay was published and I felt ready to embark on a new career with writing more central to my goals. But to complicate matters, my husband, Brian, was offered a new job that required extensive travel. Within six months of Brian’s acceptance, it was painfully clear that my goals would be simmering on the back burner for a while.
In those silent years, I had lost precious hours of becoming better acquainted with all the nuances of my beloved words—how they held up under pressure, how they performed in various settings, how they were perceived by others, how I could improve them. Even though I had more demands on my time than ever before, I was determined not to relinquish my dream so easily. Perseverance became my constant companion as I struggled to learn how to write well on my own along with a creative writing class thrown in here and there.
My first published essay was a reflection on the difficulties of reconciling my full-time motherhood with my personal aspirations—a theme that would thread its way through my life for the next ten years, frequently tying me in knots and blinding me to the ways I could untangle myself and break free.During those ten years, I was convinced by cultural expectations, the community I lived in, and my own insecurities that I couldn’t possibly have everything I wanted.I thought that by spending time and energy in pursuing my own goals, I would be sacrificing my sons on the altar of selfish ambitions.
More years passed as I played with my words until the assistant editor of a national parenting magazine read a submission of mine and called me to enthusiastically compliment my writing.Over the course of the next eighteen months, she published several of my essays.My love and I had truly gone public.We were out in the limelight together and I was ecstatic.
Then we hit the wall.Privately, I was still in love, but the public affair floundered.Interest waned.Publication was a ghost I chased for many years after and in my defense, I wasn’t submitting very much material and I didn’t understand the game very well.I had little imagination or energy to give to my writing when my life as a virtual single mom to three little boys left me depleted beyond words.I blamed myself for not being talented enough, prolific enough.I was incredibly busy, but why couldn’t I find time to write when other women seemed to do it so effortlessly?How could I argue for the time and right to work on my writing when I was not being paid to do so?What was I adding to the family’s welfare?In my husband’s mind, and to some degree, in mine, when writing, I was engaging in a selfish activity with no apparent benefit.
I knew that ignoring my ambition was not inherently right or fair or even justifiable, yet until I could prove my worth as a writer, I also couldn’t seem to wholeheartedly engage in it. Although I thought writing might be my vocation, the doubts were continuously fed by the lack of publication and the problems I encountered in the act of writing itself. My affair had seemingly become toxic to my sense of self-worth.
It was not until I turned forty that my anger became too great to contain and I began to insist on my right to write and in my writing, to fundamentally “see” and portray even greater truths. Anger can be a motivating force for positive change.
I have also learned the power of self-motivation.And in the writer’s world, little can be accomplished without it.Yet, every now and then, I paddle down the River of Doubt, lamenting that my completed novel manuscript might never have a Library of Congress catalog number. Then I always snap out of it and jam that paddle into the muck where it belongs, but still the river laps at the edge of my consciousness.
I will always feel as though my life and my creative work are meant to expand beyond my own imaginings. So I hold onto my love affair, occasionally lonely and weary, but most often, fully and richly alive. I am writing to inhabit my life, to leave more of an imprint than a notation in someone’s Daily Planner, to think and feel in abundance, to be silent not because I am pressured to be or because of the constraints in my life, but because I choose to be in order to write. I am still the eleven-year old girl making a pictogram of her dream, silently writing myself into life.
Suzanne Montz Adams has published essays in Diving in the Moon, Trivia: Voices of Feminism, BrainChild, and Family Life. She recently graduated from Goddard’s IMA program with a concentration in TLA and is currently marketing a novel for representation, writing a spiritual memoir, and facilitating creative writing and art workshops for adolescent girls.
A CALL TO TRANSFORMATIVE LANGUAGE ARTISTS
You tell stories or help others tell stories because you need to, because you know that the story can grow in the listener, and sometimes even the teller, new shoots of understanding, branches of connection, and a canopy of healing. You write because you found that the shortest distance between yourself and where you need to go is across the lines on a page. You do spoken word performance, help others craft community plays, or write and perform songs for the moment you might reach someone. You organize debate for underserved, inner-city youth, conduct anthropological studies of the spoken word, record oral histories for families, or recite poems into the wind because you know there is something that our words hold that can transform the teller and the listener.
This kind of transformation is what a new academic field and emerging profession, Transformative Language Arts, is all about. Transformative Language Arts (TLA) is a meeting ground for those involved in social and personal transformation through the spoken, written and sung word, facilitating work such as storytelling with people in prison, writing workshops for underserved youth, dramatic monologues for elders, or collaborative theatre for community building.
TLA draws perhaps most obviously from literature, creative writing, education, psychology, mythology, and social welfare. TLA looks at the roots of the oral tradition; the pedagogy and psychology involved in effective group facilitation, individual coaching; social change trends and movements related to spoken, written and sung words; and literature and creative writing to create avenues of voice for the voiceless. It also honors the traditions of storytelling, Playback Theatre, poetry therapy, narrative therapy, songwriting for social change, stand-up comedy for diversity, debate and forensics for empowerment, dialogue as a vehicle for drawing diverse voices into civil exchange, healing stories and more.
For those of us who love the spoken and written word, TLA provides a framework to explain what we do without having to shave off what doesn’t usually fit into one box or another. By naming this field and calling people together, those who facilitate, perform, educate and lead can find each other, and through such a discovery, learn more of who they are and what possibilities exist for their work in the world. By sharing the collective wisdom of storytellers, writers, actors and playwrights, activists, community leaders and healers, we can learn more about recovering and celebrating our selves, forging and keeping connections with others and the earth, finding and naming what gives our lives meaning. Such wisdom encompasses how we create our livings and our lives, including everything from facilitating workshops to grant-writing to the ethics of our work to the art of self-care.
In the classroom or board room, at the clinic or retreat center, TLA also bridges organizations, training programs, and models of workshop and coaching delivery that often evolve without the benefit of cross-pollination. There are many valuable educational and training opportunities such as Goddard College’s Transformative Language Arts MA concentration – the first TLA program of its kind, founded in 2000, or Amherst Writers and Artists training and affiliation; and organizations such as the National Storytelling Network, the National Association for Poetry Therapy, and the Writer-in-the-School Alliance. The newly-created TLA Network, a professional organization for TLA, focuses on networking and right livelihood through TLA. Already, TLA-focused courses and essays – such as the ones here – are coming into being, very evident at the annual TLA conference – “The Power of Words”conference – held each fall at Goddard College through the gathering of storytellers, writers, activists, community leaders, artists, healers, therapists, spoken word artists, actors, and singers. Performing, facilitating, organizing, creating and teaching are all life-long arts with life-long learning curves, and we benefit greatly from each other’s company.
In coming together, we gather questions, ideas, experiences, studies, challenges and possibilities for those who are changing the world, one word, one story, one performance, workshops, or coaching session at a time. We also break through the artificial boundaries between the spoken word and the written word as well as between the too-often compartmentalized literary, psychological and political arenas. To paraphrase singer-songwriter Cris Williamson, we each are the changer and the changed, the ones who witness and are witnessed by the stories that change our lives.
excerpted from The Power of Words: A Transformative Language Arts Reader.