The good people at Wellspring allowed me to join the Art Therapy session that takes place on Wednesdays between the hours of 10 and 12.
Devin and I drove Janet to work in the morning. We got to Wellspring about 30 minutes too early. We had a coffee and read the paper.
Art Therapy. I had no idea what to expect and decided to try really hard to keep an open mind. It was not difficult. Last time I had anything to do with painting or drawing was in boarding school in England. I had the dubious distinction of almost failing that class. I mean really, who “fails” at art class? There were too many other things going on in my life at the time, like surviving in an all-white school as the only coloured person. Minor issue.
The room was small with a large square boardroom table. The instructor was still setting things up after the 10AM start time. It really matters little. What else do we have to do? Places to be? The table was covered with a couple of pieces of rubber mats. The type that some people put on their dining room tables to protect the surface. I gather that it was the first time for everyone based on the reaction to the mat and the discussion regarding its fabric. This did not bode well. The mats were covered with dry paint from previous such classes. By the time the dust had settled, there were six women in the room and moi, the sole male. Perfect ratio.
About 35 years ago, in Montreal, I went out to dinner with a bunch of friends and my sister Fetneh. There were 8 of us, if I recall. The waiter kept giving me the hairy eyeball. I was starting to wonder if I knew the guy and had offended him somewhere. It suddenly occurred to me, as I looked around the table, that his look was more quizzical than hairy. He was wondering what a douche bag like me was doing with seven women. The harem, such as it was, consisted of my sister, my oldest friend Nahed Rushdy and a bunch of other platonically related people. Nahed and I grew up in Ethiopia. She pointed out to me the other day, that we have known each other since grade whatever in the 60′s. Just to say, I have been in this situation many times.
The assortment of people was varied. You have to understand that all the goings on at these sessions is strictly confidential. So you can’t just go and blab it out to everyone. You stand on notice. The lady sitting beside me also has colon cancer. Her surgery is done and she is mending. She was very sweet and gentle in her manners. She does not need chemo therapy, lucky her. We will talk more next week. I have to digress again.
I used to be a computer trainer. I noticed at a particular point that people tend to sit in the same seats when they come back for more training. Does not matter if the training is at their location or ours. The person would come back for their second training day, be it a day, week, or month later, and make a bee-line for the seat they had occupied the last time they were there. They were also quite put out and almost disoriented if someone had beaten them to their seat. It is a very peculiar behaviour. Not sure what it means, or how you would go about studying it.
I am sure that we will all sit in the same seats next week. I might even go in a bit late to test this. The instructor set up the room. Lots of paper, bowls of paint of all the primary colours and a couple more, pails of crayons and chalk, markers of all colours. Once settled, we were given our instructions.
We are going to paint, and discuss our paintings with everyone else. No judgments, All positive. No matter that you cannot paint. Let the child within you rear its tempestuous head and take over. Relax. Cry. Put your hands in the paint if you want the tactile feel. Everything is confidential. No recriminations. We are all in the same boat. Cool.
Our first assignment: paint your name. Not necessarily literally, though that is what we all did, but what you feel your name represents. Are you happy with your name? Do you love or hate it? Does it evoke joy? Whatever. The lady next to me folded her sheet in half. These are large sheet measuring 24 by 18 inches. She was being practical since there was little room. I followed suit. I was also being practical. How could I possibly fill up that amount of space?
Some of us sat there looking pensive, trying to not look concerned over the fact that we really did not understand how you could paint your name. Most went ahead and wrote their names down in BIG letters and started to colour them in, adding more and more detail. I decided to draw my name in Persian, just to be a bit different. I can neither read nor write the Farsi language, but I can write my name. It is a complicated language, beautiful, lyrical, but complicated. I painted some grass at the bottom of the page, a tree on the right, and a giant sun above and to the left. My name was front and centre. The sun is shining on me. So many interpretations!
People revealed a bit of themselves in the paintings, which made for a very interesting session. One person drew a heart in which she drew the faces of her family. She cried when she told us what that was about, specially when she said she wants to live. Very poignant. Others added some elements of what they like to do around their names. Statements of fashion design, traveling (planes), and water. Lots of water all around. Seems water has a very calming effect on people.
One person had splotches of purple, and brown and various other colours all over the paper. It was all covered and looked a bit peculiar. Turns out it was her garden of lilac trees. Made perfect sense. You could see the garden come to life in all the splotches and stains covering the wrinkling paper.
Another drew a house with a path leading up to it. Her name was written inside in all its blazing glory. She craved the safety of the roof over her head. She said she had no idea why she drew what she did, just came to her.
There was a fair bit of chatter, but nothing of any consequence. Strangely no one asked for an explanation of my choice of language. Devin thinks I should take up calligraphy. So I went out and bout some pens, paper and a book to see where it takes me.
The next assignment was to paint our safe place. This smacked a of of the meadow exercise in the relaxations and visualization session. Devin said I should have painted a swarm of mosquitoes. Not very safe. This one took a while. I have never really thought of a safe place. My bed? That is where I go when I am tired, or need to get away from everyone. But I would hardly call it a safe place. Specially when one of the cats decides that any time is good to lie on my stomach. What or where is a safe place? This one took a while. I watched as the others threw themselves into the project with great gusto. The person to my left, of the roof over her head fame, was also deep in thought. Another participant had closed her eyes and deep in thought. It turns out she was doing a deep breathing exercise and centering herself. Interesting concept.
So I sat there. The person to my left requested pencils to draw with. And so we sat, contemplating the safe place conundrum. My colon cancer partner had found a safe place of sorts. She watching the birds swooping in to their nests in the building across the driveway. They felt safe. She felt she had found something. I finally found mine.
The text which you can barely read says:
Nothing like a great Cuban cigar on a warm evening surrounded by friends and family enjoying the times, dinner, conversation.
My painting generated far more conversation than I expected. They wanted to know about cigars, do you inhale? What makes a cigar good? How much does a cigar cost? Do women smoke? The caption under the title: Ramon Alones reads: The ultimate Cuban cigar. 45 minutes of bliss. 45 minutes? Are you kidding me. Hence the safe place. Sit, smoke, enjoy the company and the moment.
One person drew a church, and her house, her garden, and family. Another her time at a cottage that she found peaceful under the radiant sun surrounded by water. Another drew reference to her cottage that always brings solace and peace. My colon cancer partner gave up on drawing the building across the way. Her drawing was the most moving for me. Her thinking evolved into drawing a bunch of rectangular boxes in a bit of a pelle mele from the top of the page to the bottom. Somewhere in the middle of the page, two of the boxes leaned against one another. She drew herself in the triangle that was created by the joining of the boxes. There was great emphasis on the person. She surrounded herself with more protection, dark lines that enclosed her in the space. She equated her safe place with somewhere to feel comfortable and warm, a place to make peace with yourself. I will have to spend a bit more time with her. She is proving vulnerable and terribly interesting.
This is a long post. There is more.
These paintings generated a lot of conversation. Not sure how much of it was intended or not. The instructor was content to let people speak their mind and comment. He was quiet through most of the banter. There was a great deal of respect amongst the participants. No recriminations or judgments. All talked and participated. I took a lot of notes.
How do you define a safe place? Is it internal or external? Mention was made of the people who get caught in disasters losing their homes and belongings. How distraught they are. Have they lost their safe place? Should they consider the material belongings as safe? Is it not better to internalize the safe place? That way you have with you always, taking it with you through good times and bad. Radiating from the inside out.
How do you deal with the well meaning people who surround you with the best of intentions? You keep having to explain yourself and what you are going through. People just don’t get it. They ask the same questions, over and over again. We are dealing with the pain, both physical and emotional, why don’t people understand? We are trying to remain optimistic as we travel this long journey, trying to forge a new identity, a new reason for being. Why don’t people understand? Relatives and friends, all well meaning who criticize you for having a messy house instead of pitching in to help. Why don’t they understand? Should we expect them to understand?
What expectations should we have of others? How do we get support mechanisms in place that would ease the pain? What role does religion play? Is it a panacea? Or a placebo? Giving you false hope and expectations? How does God talk to us?
We talked about making a connection with life, with the earth, digging your hands in the garden and feeling the soil.
Water was in three or four of the drawings and paintings bringing peace and tranquility to people’s souls. Water, vast, in constant motion, calming, at peace with itself.
A couple of people cried, albeit briefly, stifling back the tears and immediately apologising for it. Everyone was quick to offer them tissues. Why apologise? Of all places, this is the one where no apology is required. Don’t they know that we all cry? All the time? We apologise for all sorts of things.
I had a surprisingly good time at this session. It lasted over 2 hours. The instructor had a difficult time bringing it to an end. The group was not willing to let things go. I am looking forward to next Wednesday. Look forward to your comments.