More living, less dying

Chapin, age 13.5

In the hiatus of favored things
Pain evident in your gait and change of habits
We feared the worst, prepared for the end 

Until suddenly, again, you trotted along the beach
Delighted in old crab shells and seaweed
Then later begged to climb into bed with us,
   Something you’d not done for months
And earlier, chewed on a long discarded bone
Nestled between forgotten toys
Remnants of your younger days

These things seem small, maybe 
But I know they are the sum of everything
Evidence of more living, less dying

And so it is, for all of us
Times of grace, even joy
Smiling into salty waves and leaning into the day
   while knowing. That final day will come

© Amanda Reilly Sayer, 2019

If you liked this, you might enjoy an earlier poem about Chapin here.

Imperfect Approximations in the Sea of Love

Imperfect Approximations in the Sea of Love, 8×8 acrylic on wood panel

I presented my gift to you with no fanfare, no overt meaning beyond, “I found this old box of Uno and thought you might like to have it.” My name had been written on top of the metal lid before you were born. I suggested you could possibly cover my name with yours.

You’d been asking me about playing Uno for several months, asked if I could buy Uno for the office. You seemed pleased I had remembered, but were noncommittal about adding your name to it.

Containers are made to hold things. Sometimes they even become special mementos to keep that which needs saving. They’re also, metaphorically speaking, very relevant to therapy. 

Although your understanding of metaphor is still developing, I suspect you know, even without knowing you do, that the box might be a symbol for something important, something I want you to remember long after we stop working together.

We’ve seen each other once or twice a month for almost 7 years. More than half your life. We matter to each other in ways we both feel, even as we honor the boundaries of our professional relationship.

You’ve grown taller and more articulate about your feelings, the scared kindergartener who threatened to hurt me with his arm cast a now distant memory, even as the old fear of being hurt lingers in your bones. We sometimes talk about the day we met, about how you still want to lash out when you don’t feel safe. We talk a lot about taking space and creating safety inside yourself.

You say you trust me now, the reason you no longer want to hit me. You’re matter-of-fact about this, as if it’s a simple equation. Maybe it is. Simple, but not easy. 

When we talk about safety, you invariably focus on what I’ve done to earn your trust. I, on the other hand, urge you to consider the risks you’ve taken, the work you’ve done. I don’t want the credit.

But I do want you to remember feeling held, of being safely contained by me for a time. And then, as you recall how that feels, even when your heart pounds with fear, I want you to remember to hold yourself in love. Because, strange as it may sound, love is the best antidote to fear, the most powerful weapon you have to manage all that scares you. 

Yes, more than anything else, I want you to remember to love. That you are always, always worthy of love.

*

After thanking me for the Uno, you said, “Maybe I should leave it here so other kids can play with it too.” We’ve worked on empathy, talked a lot about sharing and being a good friend. You’ve learned well. 

“No,” I replied. “There are other things for other kids. This is for you.”


Author’s notes:

Although this piece was inspired by some real events, it is a work of fiction and should be read as such. I share it here because, despite how I’ve chosen to end the piece and our individual and varied needs for external containers, the gifts of love are meant for all of us. Whatever our history and however deep our wounds may be, I suspect we all need these reminders at different times. Consider yourself reminded and loved ❤️

Both the painting and the prose piece were coincidentally finished this morning. The title of the prose piece preceded the making of the painting, but a shared title and pairing for this post seemed just right.

Gift giving in a therapeutic context is a risk and one I’ve only carefully done as part of a deliberate transition/goodbye plan. I can neither encourage nor discourage this practice as a general rule. But I will say, in my experience, true healing of attachment-related wounds happens only from real exchanges that are both safe and heartfelt.

The Challenge of Being

Untitled, 5×7 acrylic on canvas

Sometimes the notes
Play, almost  
Without effort, other times 

Fingers sore from repetition
Dissonance rules
With gnashing teeth

The Buddha said (maybe)
You must become empty, before
Being filled

And that is harder than it sounds
In this time when, doing more
Means doing well

But what if being well
Means simply being?
Allowing, the melody to emerge

©Amanda Reilly Sayer, 2019

*Note: I shared this particular painting with this poem because it was a painting that evolved easily, which isn’t exactly typical of my experience. As a painter (and writer), I am guilty of teeth gnashing effort and that is usually evident in the work, at least to me. To have a goal that is about not trying seems both counterintuitive and impossible, but I know this is a goal worth allowing, if not pursuing.

What say you?

Do You See What I See?

I’d wager to bet our perceptions differ, even as we may imagine we’re looking at the same thing. This is a truism. But it’s curious, isn’t it? By default, we assume we have a shared reality, when that is only partially true.

I recently posted to Facebook a photograph of a painting I made, my primary intention being to share what seemed like an amusing interchange between me and my husband. He said he liked the painting; I was less impressed and responded with something like, “If you really like it, you better take it to work with you, otherwise I might not be able to resist painting over it.” I’m known for painting over my work, for ruining a decent painting by changing “just one more little thing.”

The encounter was meant to highlight my struggles as a painter, possibly to invoke a chuckle or two. I can be guilty of taking myself too seriously. This exchange, and the telling of it, was meant to be an antidote.

What happened next was puzzling to me, but not really surprising when one considers how varied our individual perceptions of the same object can really be. In short, many people – many more than usual – responded positively to the painting. Some folks suggested the painting might be my best work. 

I was stunned. Really?

You might imagine I’d be pleased to have my work well-received, which was true to a degree. It feels good to be liked and I always appreciate when people take the time to acknowledge me in some way.

But more predominantly, I was aware of feeling dysphoric, confused. What am I not seeing here?

Have you ever created something you didn’t personally like very much? 

Of course you have!

Have you ever had other people like that thing more than other things? Things you’ve liked better yourself? Worked harder on, been more proud of?

It’s a strange feeling, isn’t it?

In some ways it’s a bit like going to a costume party and having people say you’ve never looked better. Really? Do you not like the real me? 

But who is the real me? Who is the real you? Would you know your true self if you saw it reflected back to you? If your art reveals something about you, do you know what that is?

In a world where wearing masks is a social custom, is it any wonder we get confused about what is real, true, and good?

Wait, are we talking about a painting or about being authentic? Well, I think they’re connected, at least in this example. Because I know it’s possible to hide the truth of who we are, even when we think we’re being open. Just as it’s possible to truly reveal ourselves without noticing, without seeing ourselves. For better and worse.

None of this may be relevant to the painting. Art is subjective; perceptions vary. But when the groundswell of something you’ve created differs so widely from your own opinion, the problem likely lives in your perception of self.

Perhaps it’s time for you to broaden your self perception, to expand the expressed range of who you’ve allowed yourself to be? 

I know that time has come for me.

Are you an artist?

Works in progress, on location, Provincetown, MA

I came to painting unconventionally, with no memories of childhood painting aptitude and little painting experience outside of my elementary school art classes. I’ve always liked to draw, but my ability to render what I saw was never remarkable. Playing sports and being a good student were more my things. 

There is some photographic evidence that hints of my early interest in painting, but being an artist was never part of my identity. I’m not sure what it would mean to claim that identity at age 50. Nor do I really feel I must do so, at least not any more than I’ve defined myself in other ways. Am I a painter? Someone who likes to paint? Is there really a difference? 

I don’t know. I’m just curious about these sorts of things, most especially how each of us develops and claims aspects of ourselves that have been unknown or previously dormant.

Continue reading

Freedom: The other side of loss

Freedom, 16×38 on plywood

Change can be difficult and is often filled with associated grief, but freedom can also be found in the process of letting go. Major life transitions offer a special opportunity to find freedom in change, but it’s easier said than done depending on the details.

We just sold our house. And truthfully, nothing about the related details over the last months have felt close to positive, except the knowledge that we would eventually conclude the stressful parts and be another step closer to our goals – a simpler life, fewer possessions, reduced financial obligations, to name a few.

Anticipated freedom on my mind, I noticed the plywood board sitting on the side of the road – FREE in bold marker written across the surface. Instead of unwanted junk, I saw a new canvas for the old house paint I’d not yet discarded. This idea was so compelling, I actually turned the car around to retrieve the board after initially passing it by.

I’d already made two other paintings with house paint, which turned out to be highly therapeutic, as well as productive. See an example here. But those paintings were made on canvases already in my possession, the benefit of using them more immediately obvious.

In the middle of a move, the last thing anyone needs is to accrue anything new. Nevertheless, I found myself putting the board in my car, unable to resist the symbolic reference and the therapeutic value of a new creative project to soothe me between the packed boxes.

Although I understood FREE would be erased by whatever painting I made, I imagined I’d know freedom in the layers of the painting. I was right.

Freedom is a mindset, not only a consequence of release from unwanted circumstances. Freedom is found any time we allow ourselves to move beyond preconditioned responses. Freedom comes when we let go of expectations.

I am free. You are free.