Where Did 2018 Go? Part Two – The Sorrowing Time

My poetry therapy supervisor, Jill Teague introduced me to this term and I think it’s the most fitting description for how I spent the second part of 2018.

I had cleared my work diary of commitments for the six months after the Flourish Project knowing I would need time to myself to deal with the aftermath of my mum’s death – both practical and emotional.  I also knew that engaging in therapeutic work when I was in the most intense period of my grief would not be good for me or my group members.  This is an essential part of the work I do – taking care of others means taking care of myself too. 

The months between Easter and summer I spent in my own garden, tidying, pruning and reworking planting schemes.  It was the easiest place to be because the garden didn’t ask anything of me and I could cry whenever I wanted.  Not that I mind crying in public.  I believe that tears are a source of strength so I’m never ashamed to find myself crying at the theatre or the cinema when something touches me profoundly.  But crying over the loss of my mum was something I didn’t need to do in public, and in those first months I stayed close to home because the tears came frequently, with force.

During the summer I was able to spend more time with my family. Gratitude for those I still had around me became more accentuated.  I needed to soak up as much as I could get.  Still I cried frequently.  Whilst sitting in a restaurant in Turkey, having dinner with my husband and kids, a song came over the sound system that turned on a river of yearning that took my breath away.  Several people at nearby tables looked on, knowingly.  And even though no words passed between us, I was grateful for their acknowledgement that this is what life is like for the bereaved.  Memories burst in at any time, and they knocked me over in the early days. 

I took part in NEOS (North East Open Studios) in September at the Phoenix Hall, Newton Dee in Aberdeen.  Although this was my third time exhibiting as a solo artist, I was nervous.  As an open studio event, the whole point is that you meet the public to talk about what you do and share your work. And previously I had loved it.  Although I knew I wasn’t ready to facilitate workshops yet, I thought I would find simply talking to the public do-able.  But this was for six hours a day, nine days in a row.  Thankfully, I was exhibiting amongst friends, some of whom are very close to me and that was the main thing that got me through.  My confidence, or perhaps my interest in talking about myself and my work, had waned.  I wasn’t feeling connected to it in the same way as I had before.  I had also lost my ability to concentrate on anything for any prolonged period of time.  Some days were ok, some days were an absolute struggle.  On a couple of occasions I had to leave my table and just be outdoors on my own.  This is where good friends are gold – covering my spot and coming to get me if a visitor wanted to buy something or speak to me specifically.  As a conscientious person, this ‘not being there 100%’ was hard for me.  But my gut instinct told me that taking a break was far better than breaking down in front of the general public.

After that I decided not to return to therapeutic work until after the New Year.  Meanwhile I had a commitment to fulfil for an exhibition at The Inverarity Gallery in Banff called Wild With Words.  It was perfect for my type of artwork and although the idea for a piece came easily, the execution of the work was a different matter.  I had decided to incorporate a poem into a nature-inspired papercut design.  Normally I find papercutting a very therapeutic practice in its own right but my reduced concentration saw me redraw the initial design several times and restart the actual cut itself twice.  Determination got me through to the end, but I’ve never had to spend so long on a piece, ever.

I had times when I worried that maybe my love for what I do, wouldn’t come back.  But my mum’s advice for whenever I went to her with worries about my kids rang out, “It’s just a phase, Elaine.”

Patience has never been my strong suit.  I’m instinctive, sometimes impulsive and I follow my heart.  But that’s what I have been learning during this sorrowing time – that I just have to be patient with my grief.  That I have to attend to it in the same way I attend to everything else in my life – with as much understanding and loving kindness as possible.  That even when I desperately want something not to be the way it is, if I give it enough time, I will find a way to accept it and adjust my life and my expectations around it.

The run up to Christmas was tinged with fear and anticipation of what it was going to be like without her for the first time in 47 years; sharing the day, enjoying the feast and laughing with the rest of us.  The day came and it went, and we had a nice time – but it was a relief when it was over.  And yes, I cried. Copious tears.  Good tears that were healing. 

And then the New Year came and I was able to exhale that fear and anticipation fully.  And this has brought a readiness to interact with the world again.  I’m paying attention to the way the low winter sun casts patterns across my grass.  I’m watching the sky paint itself spectacularly at sunset.  I’m smiling at the memories instead of going straight to tears. 

I have taken time to let sorrow work its way into me.  And I have no doubt I am the richer for it.  I’m looking forward to facilitating writing workshops again after Easter and a labyrinth walking and writing workshop at The Barn in May.  After I finish this blog, I’m headed out to my studio to start on ideas for a new body of work for a solo exhibition I’ve been invited to do.

My garden studio.

I will never stop missing my mum. I will never not feel the ache of her absence on family occasions. And I’m still going to cry often – I’m an emotional person and the depth of this loss is unfathomable still.  However, writing the first part of this blog yesterday reminded me how much my work on the Flourish Project actually helped me cope with the final days of my mum’s life.  And now I’m ready to take what I’ve learned about myself and the ‘sorrowing time’ out into the world of my own work again. 

Mum and I

Where Did 2018 Go? Part One

My last blog post was just over a year ago now and I’m long overdue an update.  So what did 2018 look like for me, and what have I been doing since my last post?

Firstly, I was collating all the work produced during the Flourish Project in 2017 for the purposes of an exhibition. This was held in March 2018 in the Lang Byre Gallery at The Barn.  It presented work created by the various community groups involved in the project alongside a showcase of my own work completed over the year of my residency in The Wild Garden.

It took the full three months I had between the conclusion of the final workshops and the exhibition date to do this.  (Full details of the reason why I took quite this long come in the second part of this blog post.)  It was intense work but highly enjoyable.  How often do we take the time to look back through a year’s work and to really appreciate all we have achieved?

The Flourish project felt like a huge turning point for me in my career as a therapeutic writing facilitator, a writer and an artist.  This was the first time I had been able to draw on all these parts of my practice in one project. 

Initially I wasn’t sure how I would be able to present the work created in all the workshops.  Some, such as the visual poetry workshop were straight forward, but those that involved just writing were more difficult.  Writing for the self is a private matter – it is not created with an audience in mind.  And yet everyone was generous with how much of their work they were willing to share and the decision to show work as it was produced in the workshops, often in its raw form, was taken as the most appropriate way to show the beauty and quality of the work in its first, instinctive out-pouring.     

Aboyne Primary had already provided artwork to go along with their poems but we initiated a new art project for Hill of Banchory pupils to illustrate their group poems for the exhibition.

Once the groups were sorted, I was able to look at how I would exhibit my own work.  Having received funding from VACMA & Creative Scotland to develop my art practice, I had been working steadily on how to create visual treatments of the poems I wrote during the year.  These took the form of artists’ books, poetry sculptures, a ‘traditional’ book of poetry and a series of poetry postcards that paired my cyanotype images of plant forms found in the garden with found poems I created using the 23 words I hung in the garden as their lexicon.    

At the launch event, people were proud, excited and emotional and I had a real sense of touching people deeply with both the intent and the outcome of the project.  It was a very special night.

Watching as people who don’t consider themselves writers read their poetry to an audience, seeing children’s faces light up when they show their parents their work hanging on a gallery wall, observing people with no personal involvement in the project become moved by something they have read – all these experiences are what make this work so special, so important to me. 

The over-all goal of improving people’s sense of wellbeing was, without doubt, achieved.

And of course, my own sense of wellbeing was greatly enhanced by the fact I was given the opportunity and the support of The Barn to lead this project in the first place.  It evolved through my collaboration with Learning & Engagement Officer, Linzy McAvoy.  Her faith in my ability to deliver on the ideas we generated together, and the joy we both experienced working with someone who shares your passion is another reason why I treasure my time working on this project so much. 

Feedback received from visitors to the exhibition included:

“Marvellous exhibition.  Great to see how the children have expressed themselves.”

“I love the whole concept of Flourish, from the notion of a community project, to wellbeing approached from the point of view of writing, moving and connecting.”

“A beautiful exhibition with a very calming effect through all the visual works of art and writing, inspirational!”

And so, once the exhibition was finished, and packed away, I was able to turn my attention to the other monumental event in my life in 2018 – the death of my mum.  She had been diagnosed with cancer in September 2017, and alongside my almost full-time commitment to the Flourish Project I became her primary carer.  Her decline was swift.  I was able to keep her looked after in her own home until December 2017 at which point she moved into a nursing home.  She died in early February 2018. 

It’s hard to remember how I was able to juggle my determination to deliver the project Linzy and I had envisaged and my need to look after my mum.  A few of the workshops I had planned were cancelled when work clashed with care-giving, but the disruption was mostly minimal.  I think it was the very nature of the work that fed me enough to keep me going.  In some ways I thought it was the worst timing, but having had time to reflect, I wonder if it wasn’t also a blessing that the best and the worst experiences of my life were happening at the same time.

And so, while the beginning of 2018 was filled with frenzied activity, the remainder of the year slipped into something aboriginal people call ‘the sorrowing time’.

The second part of this blog will be continued in Where Did 2018 Go?  Part Two.