Deep Courage and Pink High Heels

I keep them handy as a reminder.

I keep them handy as a reminder.

Through most of my Life, no one in my world heard me. If you think I’m exaggerating, let me reiterate: NOT ONE HUMAN BEING. Hence my fondness for animals, but that’s another story…

Mostly, what they heard wasn’t what I was saying or doing. They were too busy trying to fix me to hear me (translate that as trying to make me into copies of them) and I hadn’t yet realized that most of what was “wrong” with me was the “wrongness” of trying to please them, which often resulted in caring more about the welfare of others than I did about my own.

On the surface, that doesn’t sound SO awful, does it? I mean, it’s good to be concerned about others, right? Throngs of children are taught this, either directly or indirectly.

Here’s the rest of that dynamic, though. In worrying about everybody else’s needs and in trying to keep them happy (translate that as trying to keep them from getting mad, especially at me, when things went wonky), I had no energy left to learn how to take responsibility for my own welfare. But I was super good at tending to theirs. All that made me look to them as if I knew stuff I didn’t know, so they’d lean heavily on me for support, and then I’d feel put upon and unappreciated. I heard them but I didn’t get heard. So I’d keep trying to get what I needed by being there for others.

It’s exhausting to write it down and it’s exhausting to read it.

Living it was NOT living.

I felt like a little girl masquerading as a grownup, sure that behind the facade of work and family life, my ruse would be found out when I tripped wearing pink high heels that were too big for me.

And of course, none of what I was trying to do was even possible, but it was what I’d been conditioned to do within my family, and I kept doing it until the cycle almost did me in.

Then I got help.

It’s satisfying now when another person hears me and doesn’t offer unsolicited suggestions for how I could be better. It co-creates a space for creativity when another person allows me to simply have my feelings and not act as if there’s inherent danger to feeling.

Yet, there are still those lonely moments when NO ONE hears me, when they can’t shut up, when they feel a need to encourage me. I still hate it when they try to fix me.

It’s lonely when all I need is a witness to where I am.

These moments call for deep courage, the kind of courage that’s a rich pink and vibrant and pointed—like those high heels I keep on the shelf as a reminder of where I’ve come from. Courage hears my own voice and trusts it, even when it whispers, “I don’t know.” Courage speaks the hidden into the light, even when no one else can see it.

They don’t know it, but deep inside myself, I’m beating their voices into silence with those pink heels.  I keep them handy.

~~~jmw

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They watched her

we knowThey watched her
Once again abandon her Life
The one she’d patiently cobbled together

Using the best parts of her fragmented dreams—
The mosaic that sparkled with a vitality that a straight road and a smooth pavement
Could never have mapped for her.

She abandoned the Life she’d consecrated to making beauty from shards
One more time

Desperate

Hoping for the consideration of a family
Who could not value her
Who would not grieve her
Even if she died.

They watched her relentless silent plea to be known by those who didn’t know themselves

Shrivel her into the unrecognizable
A dry shell of the woman she’d once allowed herself to be a
nd they grieved her

While she screamed inside herself
Not aware that she was dying.

~~~Jaylene Whitehurst

My heart is broken open with a recent intense awareness (more intense than usual) of how many of us dear human beings are giving up our own precious lives, because we’ve been taught that we must have the approval or attention or understanding of our families in order to fully live.
I will not tell you that this is easy, this creating a life that those around us likely never will understand.
I also will not tell you that it’s impossible. We do it when we make connection with those who can connect to our longings and when we release the grasping for those who can’t.

And I’ll never tell you that it’s not worth it.

~~~jmw

 

 

 

Consider yourselves hugged.

hugbirdsA hug.
We usually combine those two words with the concept of giving. “Give me a hug.” “Let me give you a hug.” “Need a hug?” Hugs are valued as a way in which we connect with other creatures to such a degree that we’ve had to invent the emoticon version of hugging: ((( ))). We do it in cyberspace and we do it face to face. Even over the phone, we try to hug. As a friend of mine says as we sign off from a phone call, “Consider yourself hugged.”
Traditions about hugging vary from person to person, family to family, culture to culture, but (in my life, anyway) hugging as greeting or farewell, or when deeply touched by the lives of others, is the usual. Hugs happen when we feel connected emotionally to another being and we are moved to act out the connection physically. Side by side hugs, full frontal hugs, neck hugs—we have a style for any occasion.
There are times when a hug is a perfect fit for me. The arms of another person, another shoulder to lean into, is like a womb where I can drop my shoulders, set my deep sigh free, and emerge refreshed. It may be a smidgen of me, but there is an ineffable energy within me that is reborn when I am given a hug.
But, there is a reluctant truth I grew into about this hugging business.
There are times when hugs aren’t given to us, but taken from us.
Nope, I’m not talking about an unwelcome grope, though that’s inappropriate, for sure. Ick. It’s clear with that slimy hug that a boundary has been crossed. The reluctant truth of the taken hugs to which I’m referring is more subtle. It’s emotionally slimy, though the person who’s purportedly giving the hug is probably unaware of it.
When hugs are taken, the action is more about the needs of the hugger than the huggee.
To know the difference, we have to tune in to our own emotional states and operate from a place of curiosity and openness. Otherwise, we’re liable to keep operating on automatic, doing what good little girls and boys do, too often at our own expense. Because we don’t want to hurt the feelings of the other person, out of habit, we let others into our close space and possibly tap into our energy. Our emotional boundaries, as well as our physical ones, are crossed before we realize what is happening.
I know, I know, this is indefinable stuff I’m talking about. We learn the difference only by experience.
My personal bullet points about boundaries and hugging:
• If the idea of wanting a hug from the other person hasn’t even crossed my mind, and I feel that person warming up to hug me, I can be pretty sure the need for touch isn’t mine.
• Hugs that feel nurturing and energizing are hugs of the giving sort; hugs that leave me feeling like I lost energy are about the other person. Without my permission, energy was leeched out of me.
• Others may want to hug me when they want tacit reassurance that things are okay between us, instead of bringing concerns into the open and talking about them. I am not The Queen of Tacit Reassurance.
• Some try to relieve their own anxiety by “giving” a hug. They need to do something, anything, to alleviate intense feelings that have come up inside them, so they reach for another human being, in the unconscious guise of giving a hug. When this happens to me, I feel as if the hugger tried to give me her feelings, instead of dealing with them herself. I cannot do her job for her.
• I don’t have to hug anybody or everybody. Neither do you. It is not an obligation. Only I know how much emotional energy I have and where I want to use it. I don’t have to allow myself to be touched so that another person can temporarily feel better.
• Physical and emotional boundaries are fluid and overlap. A hug that was welcome last week might feel invasive this week.
• I work to read the other person’s body language when I consider hugging another. Usually I go ahead and ask, even if I know the person extremely well. “Would a hug help?”
• I do not know the other person’s experience with touch, so I don’t touch from behind or unexpectedly. Has she been abused? Does he have PTSD? Is touch threatening, for any reason?
• There is nothing inappropriate about not accepting a hug from another person. It may feel awkward to sidestep a hug, but it may feel even yuckier to step into a hug that I don’t want. My body, my energy, my responsibility to manage it.
• BIG BULLET POINT: I ask a child before I hug him/her and I accept their yes or no, without question or judgment. I may be the only one in my grandchild’s life who asks, but I want her and every child to have the opportunity to safely say NO to an adult when it comes to boundaries about the body. Children cannot develop the role of saying NO to possible abusers if we’ve shamed them when they didn’t want to hug (and even kiss) others. They cannot grow into human beings who can say NO if we’ve pushed them into saying YES.
During this season of rebirth and nurturing, I’m especially thankful for those who can truly GIVE hugs, who provide nurture and emotional safe havens during times of transition. They are the Lights in dark times that bring me home.
Consider yourselves hugged. Every single one of you.
~~~Jaylene Whitehurst, the Ragged Phoenix

Grace Extended.

We send ripples throughout our community.

May we each notice the nature of our ripples.
Grace extended journeys on.

Image by Jaylene Whitehurst, copyright 2010

Image by Jaylene Whitehurst, copyright 2010

Kindergarten: Little Eyes Need Resting Spaces

This column was in today’s Daily Corinthian newspaper. With their permission, I share it here.

When I sat down to begin fumbling round with words this morning, I was certain about where this column would begin, if not exactly sure what direction it would take.
Before I settled in with my coffee and key board, though, I took a minute for a quick Facebook check. Maybe you know how that goes? So much for my planned column. My dear friend Donna, a middle school librarian with a passion for all things educational, had shared a link to a New York Times blog that snagged me and completely derailed my plans.
You might want to check out Jan Hoffman’s blog for yourself. Here’s the link to her entry, Rethinking the Colorful Kindergarten Classroom. You read that right. Is it possible that the colorful room is not the best option for learning? Maybe it’s not, especially for children who already have trouble focusing. It’s a thought provoking read for teachers, parents, and anyone interested in early childhood: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/09/rethinking-the-colorful-kindergarten-classroom/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

When I realized that I’d high jacked Donna’s Facebook thread with three lengthy comments, I knew I had the beginning of an unexpected column, one that I was hesitant to dive into because education is not my background. I’ve never been a classroom teacher.
What I am, however, is an artist and counselor, an explorer of the differing ways in which we process this experience of being human. I’m curious about and attuned to the impact of our surroundings on how we function in the world. Most significantly, I’m the parent of a former student who struggled throughout his school years with staying focused and completing tasks.
The blog snagged me because I’ve thought about the very questions raised in the studies Ms. Hoffman references. I wondered about them when my son was in school, but I never raised them. I lacked the confidence to bring this up to the professionals and, I suppose, I felt it wouldn’t make any difference.
As if it were today, I can still hear my young son saying, “Mama, I don’t mean to but I see everything. I can’t help it. There’s so much going on.” It’s no wonder this gripped me.
Ms. Hoffman discusses a study of whether the colorful and highly decorated classrooms that have become typical of kindergarten could, in reality, be hindering learning due to the visual distraction, rather than encouraging it. Many classrooms are brightly colored, some decorated with commercially produced posters and educational material, frequently changing bulletin boards, and colorful borders (you know the ones that are corrugated and scalloped and have been around forever). Lots of color, lots of pattern, lots of texture.
It’s a big business. Design-wise, it’s also a lot of busy-ness.
There’s pressure on teachers about how classrooms should look. Parents may walk in with expectations about the ideal learning environment. Fellow educators may not understand the teacher who opts to provide a less intense atmosphere for students. I’ve thought about what it would be like to be that teacher whose room was more sedate. How is that teacher perceived by colleagues and parents?
This is from the blog entry Rethinking the Colorful Kindergarten Classroom:
In the early years of school, children must learn to direct their attention and concentrate on a task. As they grow older, their focus improves. Sixth graders, for example, can tune out extraneous stimuli far more readily than preschoolers, the study’s authors noted.
But could information-dense kindergarten classroom walls, intended to inspire children, instead be overwhelming? Could all that elaborate décor impede learning? Some experts think so.
“I want to throw myself over those scalloped borders and cute cartoon stuff and scream to teachers, ‘Don’t buy this, it’s visually damaging for children!’ ” said Patricia Tarr, an associate professor at the University of Calgary who researches early childhood education and art education, and was not involved in the study.
Dr. Tarr has long railed against the notion of “decorating” a classroom. In a 2004 paper called “Consider the Walls,” published in Young Children, the journal for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, she argued that classrooms could become so cluttered with commercial posters and mobiles that they obscured the children’s own drawings and writings, posing special challenges to any child with attention deficits.
Over the years, as a parent and with various jobs I’ve had, I have walked into classrooms that had so much visual activity that it set me, an adult, on edge. Bright primary colors dominated. Complementary colors (those that are opposite on the color wheel) naturally make each other “pop” more intensely, so they compete for attention. My eyes felt the strain.
Admittedly, I’m a bit distractible myself, given my quick shift of column topic this morning, but my ability to regulate my response to the stimuli is more mature than a five or six year old. If the visual energy made me edgy, I wondered how a little person could possibly concentrate.
No one wants totally colorless classrooms, though. That would be trading one extreme for another; it’s not even realistic.
From my perspective as an artist, the key consideration is simply the fact that the eye seeks out spaces to rest. In design, whether in a painting or a classroom, the negative space (the open area) provides this necessary visual rest. When there is pattern and color everywhere, it actually becomes more chaotic and less visible. A design stands out precisely because of the space around it. We can see it more easily when resting space sets it apart.
Thinking back to the classrooms I was in at West Corinth Elementary, I pulled out my class pictures to be sure my memory was accurate. There were bulletin boards, pictures of presidents, writing guides, flip charts, and the like. Most rooms had at least a couple of potted plants. The pictures and charts were few but good quality; there was a sense of continuity and a lack of clutter, especially as the year began. I knew that kids before me had sat under that same portrait of George Washington, and that in three years my little brother would too. I wouldn’t have thought of any of my classrooms as austere. Maybe they were or maybe they simply had enough resting space. I called what they had a sturdy warmth.
One of my earliest art experiences was getting to help put up bulletin boards and then later being allowed to design and post them by myself. Our drawings and class projects were proudly displayed and visible. As the year progressed, more of our work accumulated. Our progress was in view, easily seen. By the time I left each room at year’s end, it had become partly mine. I carry my investment in those early learning spaces with me still.
Natural light flooded our space from windows that rose almost to the ceiling. Those windows opened onto a naturally shifting scene. Seasonal and subtle. They’re the display I remember most.
That was another time. A time before lamination and die cuts, back when the mimeograph ruled and stomachs knotted up on test day.
There have been changes to how classrooms look since the 1960s, but stomachs still knot up. Children still take with them beyond their school years the images from their classrooms; they carry the emotions that they felt as they succeeded or didn’t, as they belonged or didn’t. Teachers still put more into the sacred task of teaching than seems humanly possible.
May our young children and grandchildren learn in surroundings with enough to interest them and not so much as to distract them. May they have space where their unique contributions to the classroom are seen and celebrated, where they feel valuable, and where the unfolding process of learning is the liveliest decoration.
May each classroom be a living work of art.
______________
To the teachers in our community, may you have an enjoyable summer break. You’ve earned it.

THE Dollhouse

dollhouse

Atop the bookcase in my blue room sit two metal dollhouses, circa 1950s. They are sentinels over the gathering space of my studio/office, high enough above the mix of chairs and throw pillows that they call no attention to themselves. I suspect some visitors hardly notice them.

The one on the left is the dollhouse I thought I found; the one on the right is the one I did.

When I was young, older than a toddler but not yet school-aged, our next door neighbors were Gladys and Elbert Jobe and their two daughters, girls edging into their teen years. The family doted on me. Martha, Alice, and their parents were a constant presence, keeping an eye on the tot I was, especially when my mother was ordered to strict bed rest while she was pregnant with my younger brother. The almost adolescent Martha was my playmate. I adored her.

My best guess is that I was about two and a half the Christmas that they gave it to me: THE dollhouse.

All I have to do for the memories of my dollhouse to surface is close my eyes and be still. In the quiet, I am there, back in our old living room. The chill of the uninsulated linoleum floor rolls under me, stretched out, stomach down before the open backside of the dollhouse. The chill penetrates my cotton camisole and red corduroy shirt with a shiver, while an insistent hiss from the gas heater is background noise. Warmth and chill coexist as I arrange and rearrange the tiny furnishings and determine the movements of a plastic family that I can control.

Bright lithograph colors on thin sheets of metal, all right angles and structured together with deftly folded tabs, it was sturdy. And that’s a good thing, because it was magic; and a sturdy kind of magic was needed by the child that I was, playing my way through the changes my family was experiencing.

Between the years when I was three and five, my mother buried a brother and her grandmother, both deaths shocking, with the abrupt cruelty of accidents. There was loss on my father’s side of the family too, not so cruel, but change producing, nonetheless.
The adults around me were juggling, emotionally and physically. This wasn’t an era when the impact of death on children was supper table conversation. We were fed, clothed, kept warm, and taken to church.

And we played. My imaginary friend, Mattie, and I held power in the magic realm of the dollhouse.

Somewhere along the years, I suppose my mother gave my dollhouse to another little girl, though I can’t say when that happened. Thinking I’d outgrown it, probably by second or third grade, I imagine her passing it along to a friend’s daughter, maybe a three year old who fit perfectly in front of its tiny rooms.

I hardly let myself miss it.

Until I started tapping this keyboard, pecking around for words that have taken me down a forgotten path, I wasn’t aware that my dollhouse mattered so greatly to me. Nevertheless, I’ve grown curious, fifty-five years after the fact, why the memory of it sent me out, years ago, to find its vintage twin.

One of my earliest forays into the world of eBay was the mission to find a replica of my dollhouse. I saved my search, kept up with new postings, and compared them against the image in my mind. Nope, not that one. Maybe this one…. but no. Oh, this one looks like it. Yep, that’s it!

I didn’t have a clear memory of the facade, since most of my time was spent at eye level with the interior, and I was sure that the one I’d bought was the exact same style as mine, red roof and all. There was no doubt I’d found it.

There was no doubt, that is, until ten years later when I found IT.

A red-roofed image, unexpectedly familiar, caught my eye and a gulp of recognition stuck in my throat. Displayed in a local shop window, I recognized the printed stone design on the exterior of a fifties era dollhouse. The tiny stones were amazingly similar in color to the faux stonework I’d painted during my mural painting years.

At gut level, I knew that I was looking at the origins of my own pink-green-blue-gray rocks. This was imagery that had become hard-wired into me. I cannot paint stone without those tones mixed in. I don’t even want to.

Here in front of me was evidence of how my childhood attempts to make sense of an uncontrollable world had become instinctive, part of who I am at the core. The comfort of my dollhouse with its dependable design, the setting where I could direct the action, the impact in my later life of what I was doing as a three-four-five year old, had been hidden away beneath events that I saw as more significant than my being Mistress of the Dollhouse.
It was all hidden until I began to write this essay about neighbors and loss and finding a dollhouse. Tapping away at the keyboard, gently rapping at the door to poignant and dusty places that want to see the light of day, it began to come together: I still love colored stone and arranging houses and scene setting and red roofs.

I found my old neighbors, still living in my heart.

And I still believe in the power of play.

Now, excuse me, while I dust off my dollhouses.

Children Need….

Beyond being fed and clothed, what do children need from family?

They need authority figures in their lives who own their own tears, who experience their own sorrow, who lean into their own fears—adults who mindfully express those feelings.

They need adults who passionately celebrate themselves, who celebrate the child, who celebrate what it is to LIVE.

They need adults who are in on-going process of awakening to themselves.

And to Life.