Changing Myself with Words: A guest post by TLAF Certificate Graduate Sharon Bippus

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

As an adult, I know I can rewrite my story.

Changing the World with Words is one of the required courses [to be offered again in 2023] in the Transformative Language Arts Foundations certification program. In my opinion, it brings to mind the famous quotation erroneously attributed to Gandhi, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Apparently, this is actually a paraphrase of a longer idea that Gandhi expressed:

We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.

In this vein, I wonder if a better name for the TLAN course would be “Changing Myself with Words.” It seems a slightly easier place to begin before I actually tackle the reformation of the entire world.

In an interview I heard last year, the Irish poet Padraig O’Tuama discussed the healing effects of writing poetry to a younger version of himself who had undergone a severe trauma. He stated:

There’s something so redeeming for me all these years later to be able to speak that poem back to that frightened 18-year-old…somehow eventually to have recovered the capacity to be able to say something back. It doesn’t undo it, but it’s enough. I can somehow feel like I’m able to have a conversation between the me then and the me now. That is enough, and I can examine it.

Like O’Tuama, I have the ability to use my words to examine my past. Through my words, I have the power to write my own narrative and develop a new story for myself. For me, that change in perspective began after attending the first day of Changing the World with Words. When we met on Zoom, we were given five sentence stems to use as we introduced ourselves to our new classmates. One of the prompts seemed innocent enough:

When I was a kid, I wanted to be…

From my perspective, the other participants must have spent a few enjoyable minutes reminiscing about their favorite childhood memories and games – playing dress up, playing with imaginary friends, playing outside with the neighborhood kids – because the answers they shared were exciting and diverse. One wanted to be a dentist, another a potter. There was a teacher, a welder, and an actress. Most people listed multiple future professions and abilities – so many choices that revealed great imagination and inspiration.

My response was, “When I was a kid, I didn’t know what I wanted to be.”

I was embarrassed when I read that sentence aloud. I was the only one in the group without a dream or an imagination. What did I do as a child? I read. I watched TV. I drew pictures and floorplans. In middle school, I took sewing lessons in Home Ec. But most of all, I kept to myself. I had learned at a young age that to reveal any personal information was to open myself to ridicule. Today, as I look at the list of the activities I enjoyed as a young person, I realize that I could have fantasized about being a writer, an actress, an artist, an architect, or a fashion designer, but I don’t recall ever having those thoughts. It’s hard to imagine a future when you’re busy simply surviving each day.

Now, as an adult, I know that I can rewrite my story. I can acknowledge what that little girl wanted to be. She wanted to be held in a warm embrace. She wanted to be encouraged. She wanted to be seen and heard. She wanted to feel valued and accepted. She wanted to know that someone supported her.

She wanted to hear the words “I love you.”

I can’t change the past, but I can use my words to reassure that little girl. I can offer that innocent child-that-I-was compassion and tenderness. I can use my words to work through issues and to achieve clarity, and in turn, the woman that I am now can dream of changing the world one day.

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.

Photo: Pixabay

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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.

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

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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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.

Something shifted within me: An interview with Renu Thomas, recent graduate of the TLA Foundations Certificate

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

I feel challenged to use my voice for social change knowing that however small a stone I may be, I can still cause a ripple.

2021 TLAF Certificate Graduate, Renu Thomas

Renu Sarah Thomas in a BAAT registered Art Psychotherapist, educator and workshop facilitator. She was born in India, raised in England, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. Renu has lived in India but for most of her adult life she has lived in Dubai (UAE).

Renu has a Masters in Textiles and Clothing from Coimbatore, India and a Masters in Art Psychotherapy from Edinburgh, Scotland. She has extensive experience working with adults and children of varied ethnicities and having witnessed their stories, has a growing interest in the field of displacement and trauma.

As a self-taught artist, Renu finds ceramics and acrylic painting centering and enjoyable. However, it is through writing that she has found liberation and empowerment. She passionately encourages others to pursue some form of creative expression, embrace their authentic selves and live on purpose. 

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

Renu Thomas: I would say that it was the sense of achievement and satisfaction I felt on the first course that made me curious about possible certificate with TLA. I felt the certificate would give me credibility in using language as an expressive art form along with art-making in my coaching/facilitation work.

What courses did you find most useful? Why?

In terms of personal transformation, “How Pictures Heal: Expressive Writing from Personal Writing” [with Kelly DuMar] was the most useful course. I found that I was able to engage better than I thought possible. The facilitator’s weekly feedback very detailed, constructive, and encouraging.

I also felt a very strong connection with the others in the group. I read their work and was intrigued by the fact that although we were so different in terms of life experience and cultural background, we had such similar stories.

The Foundations [“Changing the World with Words” with Joanna Tebbs Young] courses were extremely useful in improving my skills and confidence as a coach/facilitator, in workshop design, and in giving me direction as to next steps to improve my reach.

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

Validation.

More often than not I was the only one in the group who wasn’t a writer or had a degree in English. However, the sense of acceptance and belonging was unprecedented and that played a huge role in my wanting to sign up for more courses and complete the certificate.

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

The showcase at the end of the “Your Memoir as Monologue” [with Kelly DuMar] was a very pleasant surprise. I have shied away from sharing my written work because it never felt good enough. The experience of seeing my photo on the flier along side other playwrights and writers and having my monologue performed by an actor and witnessed by people other than those in the group — it shifted something within me.

The Power of Words conference was a unique experience and I am so grateful that it was possible online. I appreciated the vulnerability of first-time presenters of workshops as well as the variety of offerings. It showed me how we can combine our skills, knowledge, and passions in our workshop design.

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

I have used ideas and suggestions from the TLA courses in my workshop design and in my facilitation.

My father has Parkinson’s Disease, so I am hoping to create more awareness of the disease and the abilities of the individuals who are living with it. I also want to have conversations around geriatric bullying which I find to be prevalent in India. In all I do, I also hope to include advocacy for creative/expressive art psychotherapy for mental wellness and health.

I feel challenged to use my voice or social change knowing that however small a stone I may be, I can still cause a ripple. The two certificate foundation courses [now rolled into one] were instrumental in this. I feel grateful.

Would you recommend the certification course to others? 

Of course! In fact, I already have.

Renu can found at www.artspeaks.org

*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.