The Messenger, a guest post by TLAF Certificate student Sharon Bippus

Editor’s note: Sharon is a student in the Transformative Language Arts Foundations Certificate program. This blog post is one of five reflection posts she will be submitting as part of the certificate requirements.

Credit: Sharon Bippus

To be seen is something that I have struggled with since childhood. Growing up in a dysfunctional family, I was the middle child sandwiched between an older sister and a younger brother, my mother’s obvious favorite. I was the second girl when I don’t think my mother even wanted the first one. I felt unloved and neglected. Feeling so shy and awkward, it felt safer to remain hidden and keep my distance.

Fast forward to the present, and I continue to work on this issue. To be sure, I have made progress, and my creativity has played a large role in my healing. My art, whether it is photography or mixed media or collage, is where I can safely express my emotions. It’s where I can relax and play. It’s how I can give back to that little girl inside me that never felt safe or wanted.

Nowadays, I find my creative outlet expanding into writing which is a new way of being seen. While taking Kelly DuMar’s “How Pictures Heal” course with TLAN, I had the opportunity to examine layers of myself, which allowed me to both see myself more clearly and to be seen by others. It was in this course that a photograph of a cardinal taken at a nearby nature sanctuary helped me uncover a revealing message about myself.

For the first assignment in the course, Kelly directed us to select one of our own photographs to use as a writing prompt. I had no idea which of my personal photos to choose, and I spent hours scrolling through the pictures on my phone. A few of them whispered to me, but none of them really jumped out. Then – serendipitously – I was checking one of my social media accounts and saw that a woman, whom I don’t know personally, had tagged me in a photo. She is an artist and a friend of friends, and I follow her on social media. Intrigued, I looked at her comment to me. She had taken one of the photos that I had recently posted on Instagram and used it as a model for her watercolor painting. A thrill of excitement went through me, and my mouth hung open in surprise. Someone who works as an artist had been inspired by my photograph! I was so excited, so flattered, so joyful! 

This was the picture. This was the picture that I needed to explore in Kelly’s class – a bright red cardinal staring straight at me, seeds protruding from his beak making it look like he has buck teeth. He saw me and tried to make me laugh with his fake teeth. Then Sue (the artist!) saw my work, and by doing so, I felt as if she saw me. She saw the beauty that I try to capture and share with the world.

Some people say that birds are messengers, and I believe that is true. This is what my cardinal told me:

People notice me and see my beauty right away.  There’s no hiding it.

I can fly.  I can soar.  I am free.

Nature is my home.  The trees shelter me.  The wind guides me.  The rain cleanses me.

I am nourished here in this sanctuary.  I am bold and determined.  I can look you right in the eye, and I can make you laugh.

Sharon Bippus, PhD, is an ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) instructor who finds inspiration in the intersection of creativity, mystery, and synchronicity. As an undergraduate, she was awarded two scholarships to study in Germany which fueled her desire to learn more about the diverse world we live in. Since that time, she has taught English in Slovakia and China and was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Western Russia. She currently teaches ESOL at a community college in the suburbs of Houston, Texas where she works with students from all over the world. In her free time, she enjoys mixed media, collage, and photography and has received training in trauma-informed expressive arts and nature-based therapeutic practices. She is a SoulCollage® facilitator, a Veriditas-trained labyrinth facilitator, and a student in the Haden Institute’s Dream Work Program.

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Finding What’s Underneath “I’m Fine,” a guest post by Sinclaire Dickinson

I recently led a TLA-inspired workshop at a yoga studio where I guided participants in a movement practice and prompted them to write about how they felt afterward. I’ve been a student of somatic movement and embodiment for a few years and have had powerful shifts in my way of being after certain practices. While you can feel the shifts, they can be hard to articulate. 

In hosting this workshop, I sought to help people capture what arose in their bodies during one of these practices. I planned movement focused inward (interoception) followed by movement focused outward (exteroception) and was curious to see if descriptive words would flow out of people when asked to journal after moving using stems like “My body feels…, my breath is…”.

I discovered that the words may bubble up, or they may stall entirely; it depends how concerned the mover is with getting them just right, as labeling our internal experience with truly representative words can be tricky. Having words flow out can be lovely, but sometimes it’s a slow process to get to a more honest representation of your state—positive or negative.

During our discussion period in the workshop, a couple of the participants expressed having some difficulty and even hesitance in labeling what they were feeling. The labels felt definite and they questioned if they were completely accurate. I appreciate that; words can fall short of our human spectrum of emotions. Still, putting internal experience on paper, crossing things out, workshopping, and finding better words, did bring some insights.

When one student, Erin, first scanned herself, she self-reported to be “fine.” I’m fine, I’m here, I’m not really anything. When she was invited to elaborate with more words, she discovered that what she was experiencing was actually a bit more positive.

My body has a gentle warmth, my mind has no apparent presence of stress, I’m kind of relaxed. She wondered if this might be an appropriate use for the word “happy.”

Erin decided yes, she was happy. Not only was she willing to assign happiness to that moment, she realized there were probably many more times within her life where she checks in as “fine” when she might instead use “happy.”

“How are you?”
“I’m fine.”

With such a spectrum of emotions and words at our disposal, think of how often we assign ourselves “fine” and close off to more nuanced possibilities. What if instead, we open ourselves up a bit more with our words? Even if we don’t find ourselves to be “happy,” we could likely learn more about our own experience than what “fine” will teach us.

I plan to challenge myself and my participants to play with their own labels, not fearing their permanence or precision, but trying them on and seeing what it feels like to embody them. In the same way that donning a smile improves your mood, can donning “energized” reinvigorate you in a mid-day slump?

I approached this workshop curious about how movement would guide diction, but now I’m equally interested in diction’s power to guide movement and experience. It’s a feedback loop that goes both ways.

Thank you to Erin for voicing what I’m calling what’s underneath fine. May we all lift up that dull gray rock and peek under a bit more often.

*Erin’s name has been changed.

Sinclaire Dickinson is a yoga instructor, humane education student, and exploratory communicator from a marketing background. In her writing and studies, she focuses on how we might address problems in the environment, human rights, and animal welfare by becoming more conscious of our daily experiences and cultural norms. Connect with her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/sinclaire-dickinson-3a134557/.

Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash

A deep personal paradigm shift: An interview with recent TLA Foundations Certificate graduate, Loretta Mijares

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of interviews with students who have completed the TLA Foundations Certificate.* Answers may be slightly edited for space and clarity.

The TLA certificate program helped me trust that I have the resources and capacities to bring my vision into reality.

2021 TLAF Certificate Graduate, Loretta Mijares

Loretta Mijares earned her PhD in Literature from NYU and have been teaching college English for over 20 years. She has studied with Linda Trichter Metcalf (Writing the Mind Alive) and Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones), and is certified in Transformative Language Arts Foundations with the TLA Network as well as in Amherst Writers & Artists workshop leadership. Equally as important to her work in embodied writing facilitation is her many years of practice as a Zen meditator and conscious mover, especially Moving with Life (www.zuzaengler.com), Soul Motion®, and Gestalt Awareness Practice. Loretta’s passion is in bringing these practices of embodiment to writing in the context of supportive community, to deepen our capacities for presence and open new portals of creativity and insight.

TLAN: Why did you originally apply for the TLA Foundations certificate?

Loretta: I had started to facilitate small free women’s writing circles and wanted to do more of this, with the hope of creating a livelihood from writing facilitation. I was looking for a foundation of knowledge about facilitation and to learn what other folks were doing with transformative language arts.

What TLAN courses did you find most useful? Why?

Instead of “useful,” I want to say “inspiring” or “encouraging,” since one of the main takeaways for me in my TLAN courses was the affirmation that the kind of writing I had been imagining doing in my workshops was actually a thing. What I mean by this is writing that invited both creativity and personal discovery in the moment—writing in response to photographs or fairy tales (How Pictures Heal, Fantastic Folktales), or that reimagined a hopeful future emerging from our broken world (Future Casting). Having in-the-moment experiences of insight while writing for these courses excited me to continue pursuing my own visions for my TLA work.

What was your greatest learning(s) from the process?

I had a deep personal paradigm shift in Caits Meissner’s Future Casting class, wherein I grappled with my own eco-anxiety and skepticism about the power of poetry (and art more generally) to effect any change in the crises facing our world. The reminder of the long tradition of writers and artists who see it as their responsibility to help us envision blueprints for the futures we want to live in made me realize that even in the face of despair and skepticism, I want to choose adrienne maree brown’s path of the fractal (“How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale”).

What are you doing now (or hoping to do) in TLA and in what way was the certificate helpful?

I am now offering monthly 3-hour workshops combining expressive writing with movement. The TLA Foundations & Art of Facilitation courses helped me think through all the details of space, timing, facilitator’s role, prompts, etc. The certificate program as a whole helped keep me focused on my goals and find the courage to launch. I have so much more that I want to do with MovingWriting (the modality I’m creating), and the TLA certificate program helped me trust that I have the resources and capacities to bring my vision into reality.

Anything else you’d like to add?

One of the most encouraging aspects of the certificate program was the community building that happened, particularly during the pandemic, when so many of us were feeling so isolated. But even absent the pandemic, it was so supportive to share stories, doubts, concerns, and successes with others at different phases of their own TLA practices and goals. Everyone had such yearning to bring more creativity into their lives and the lives of others, and that shared yearning strengthened my own commitment.

Loretta can be found at: movingwriting.com/ and facebook.com/MovingWriting

*TLA Foundations (TLAF) is an introduction to TLA in theory and practice with opportunities for reflecting and acting on ethical work, community networking, and TLA in action, completed on one’s own time over two years. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. More details can be found here.

I found a community: An interview with recent TLA Foundations Certificate graduate, Tracie Nichols

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of interviews with students who have completed the TLA Foundations Certificate.* Answers may be slightly edited for space and clarity.

Walking with people through writing experiences isn’t simply a responsibility, it’s a calling, and a sacred one.

2021 TLAF Certificate Graduate, Tracie Nichols

Tracie Nichols, M.A. writes poetry and facilitates writing groups from her small desk under the wide reach of two venerable Sycamore trees in southeastern Pennsylvania. She’s a Transformative Language Artist in process, fascinated by the potential of language to heal and transform people and communities. Putting her master’s degree in Transformative Learning and Change to good use over the past two decades, Tracie has designed and facilitated many virtual and in-person lifelong learning experiences on a truly wide range of topics. She’s just beginning her foray into submitting poetry for publication and has already accumulated a healthy pile of rejections to her few joyfully celebrated acceptances.

Why did you originally apply for the TLA Foundations certificate?

Tracie Nichols: One ordinary Tuesday in January 2020 a writer friend mentioned an organization with great writing classes called the Transformative Language Arts Network. Being a perpetually curious lover of words, I found the website and started excavating. As I explored, I realized that the Transformative Language Arts bring together two foundational foci of my life: my master’s degree in Transformative Learning and Change, and my deep love of writing—especially its power to cultivate understanding and catalyze change. Within days I registered for “Changing the World With Words” and within the first few weeks recognized that I’d found a community of practice where I fit. 

The timing of this recognition collided with my 58th birthday and the milestone of having been in practice as a life and business coach for nearly a decade. Through the preceding winter, I’d had a sense that a pivot was coming in both my life and work. The TLA Foundations certificate process offered me a way to continue exploring both the intersections between Transformative Learning and Transformative Language Arts and the possibilities for making language the focus of this next piece of my body of work. It also connected me with an extraordinary community of artists and facilitators who continue to influence and inspire me. 

What TLAN courses did you find most useful and why?

I have found every TLAN course helpful in its own way. Among the courses specific to earning the certificate, I found “Changing the World With Words” the most useful because it grounded me so well into the concepts and the community. I felt oriented and able to navigate ensuing courses with ease. I loved “The Art of Facilitation” and only found it marginally less useful because, by the time I took the course, I had nearly 20 years of experience with facilitating formal and informal group learning experiences. The course that changed me, that radically shifted my perception of myself and my capacities as a word artist and change maker, was “& They Call Us Crazy” [with Caits Meissner]. I almost didn’t enroll because it felt like such a giant step outside my comfort zone. That stretch was what taught me the most, of course. 

What was your greatest learning(s) from the process?

I learned – viscerally, not just theoretically – that people in all kinds of struggle can use language arts to plant their staff, push outward, and redraw the terrain that is their birthright. They can take up the space that was denied them by terror, trauma, social and cultural oppression, becoming creative forces for change in their own lives and communities.

Is there a particular experience at a conference or in a class, etc. that stands out for you?

Two experiences stand out:

During “& They Call Us Crazy” I learned that I had wrapped my poetic self in a very tiny, tidy package, afraid if I tested my edges, I’d lose the voice I’d spent a decade excavating. I spent the next five weeks repeatedly testing and disproving that assumption, surprising myself with the intensity and candor of my own writing. This was an incredibly affirming experience. 

During the pre-conference panel discussion at the 2021 Power of Words Conference, Joy Harjo invited us to “move with honor and integrity” and a bit later in the conversation said something like, the power doesn’t belong to us—it was given to us to take care of and share. She reminded me that walking with people through writing experiences isn’t simply a responsibility, it’s a calling, and a sacred one. My ears are still metaphorically ringing from that wake-up call. 

What are you doing now (or hoping to do) in TLA and in what way was the certificate helpful?

The certificate process helped me define myself as an artist and as a facilitator by encouraging me to reclaim myself as a poet and as a midwife of words, both mine and other people’s. It reminded me that writing is an exquisitely powerful wayfinding tool in anyone’s hands. 

I have pivoted my business and now offer classes and writing circles centered on personal transformation and cultivating resilience. Though I welcome anyone, an interesting mix of women counselors, coaches, wellness practitioners and artists seem to gravitate to my offerings these days. 

Would you recommend the certification course to others?

Absolutely, yes. For all of the reasons I’ve mentioned above.   

Learn more at tracienichols.com, or connect with her on Instagram at @tracietnichols (https://www.instagram.com/tracietnichols/).

*TLA Foundations (TLAF) is an introduction to TLA in theory and practice with opportunities for reflecting and acting on ethical work, community networking, and TLA in action, completed on one’s own time over two years. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. More details can be found here.