stimulating profound conversations about living and dying well
Real value lives in the small priceless moments
Last night I dreamed that I woke up one morning and realized that that was the very last day we all had before Earth was destroyed. I immediately started stressing out about how to make that last day perfect – to find fulfillment and joy one last time. I worked through many plans in my head and tried several scenarios, becoming more and more anxious as the dream progressed. At one point, I looked around me and saw that everyone was scared, so I just started comforting people – placing my hands gently on a face, holding someone in a hug, stroking someone’s hair. Immediately I felt whole, and I didn’t want to be anywhere or do anything else.
One of my favourite Ram Dass quotes is, “We're all just walking each other home.” The beginning of that process is, I believe, to give someone the gift of your time and attention, and to listen without judgement. It costs you nothing, and is worth every second for what you gain in sharing compassion with a reflection of yourself. Finding opportunities in your life to offer this quality of presence is truly the priceless gift that gives back.
Understanding ancestral land loss as key to living in right relation to the here-and-now
This essay was originally presented as part of a four day permaculture intensive at White Crow Farm on unceded Sinixt territory in August 2015. All gratitude and praises to this beautiful Land; the Sinixt people who are currently defending their ancestral land and culture for future generations; the gentle souls at White Crow Farm; Syd Woodward, who invited me to share these words; and my Elders from St'at'imc Nation and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, whose gentleness, generosity, and determination to protect Mother Earth for the next seven generations continues to motivate and inspire those who breathe with the trees.
The disruption of Earth’s complex ecosystems by human activity is often experienced as heartbreaking – particularly by those who are in direct contact with the Land on a regular basis. Beginning with an understanding of the Land as a conscious entity from which human culture grows, and of grief as a symptom of love for that which nourishes our lives, this talk explores the cultivation of grief as a survival strategy that informs the nature of right relation to the Land, ourselves, and each other.
Spirit of the Land
The terrain of grief is rough going, and for many of us who have not been raised in a culture that celebrates all aspects of the life cycle, it is largely uncharted territory. It is necessary, then, to define some terms that I make regular use of, because we are here to understand each other.
Land: “All Our Relations” (a phrase often used by people indigenous to Turtle Island aka North America), including human and other animals, plants, insects, fungi, the mineral world, water, and air. In short, the entire material world.
Spirit: The internal logic of how things are – the emotionally neutral consciousness that is foundational to the cycle of life and death. It is immanent (indwelling) in all aspects of the material world, and maintains sameness or consistency on both a macro- and micro-cosmic scale. The order that governs the harmonious relationships between all aspects of the Land.
Resiliency: How All Our Relations shift in harmony with each other in response to change; the ability to adapt to both internal and peripheral/externally imposed change.
A Relational Approach
Humans are social creatures – we live in community to meet our physical and emotional needs. The simple and unconscious act of opening your eyes in the morning is a relational gesture – a willingness to do the things necessary for your survival, which include eating and drinking from the Land, moving across it, and manipulating it, often in the company of others.
When speaking of the Land, it’s crucial to keep in mind that human opinions and approaches are always relational, and if you’ve ever been up against a cold night, a rough river, or another animal that would like to make you its next meal, you’ll know that the conversation is a two-way street. This conversation occurs in a language that we were born with and must now apply ourselves in remembering, which, for those of us who were not fortunate to be raised by people who knew how to listen to the Land in a place where it was Land was permitted to speak, must be an intentional endeavour. This re-education and return to the foundational relationships that sustain human life is absolutely necessary if we are to bring children into a world better than the one we were born to, because we are completely ruled by the Spirit of the Land – we are part of it as much as it is part of us – and dependent upon it, regardless of our understanding, for our survival.
Nothing depends upon us humans for its survival, and yet, we are the most dependent species on Earth because we eat and meet other basic needs from all levels of the food chain. We need the Land, but nothing needs us. The Land will adapt to whatever changes are forced upon it; some species may die off, and others will flourish as a new equilibrium is established. It is therefore not the Land that needs saving, but ourselves.
In 2011, Louie Schwartzberg, famous for his time lapse nature photography, gave a Ted Talk entitled “Nature. Beauty. Gratitude.” in which he said, “Beauty and seduction is [sic] nature’s tools for survival, because we protect what we fall in love with.” When I think of beauty, survival, and love, I think of home – the nourishing foundation of life, and a sense of belonging, or being claimed by a place. Schwartzberg notes that a common response to his work, and to this sense of being claimed, is the utterance of “Oh my God.” He goes on to explain that the “Oh” indicates that one's attention has been harnessed in a moment of awe that transcends language; “my” reflects the recognition of personal relationship to the experience at hand; and “God” refers to the journey of humanity back to its source, and the desire to live in a universe that celebrates and constantly brings forth life. We are all from and of the Land; because our relationship to the natural world-as-home is life-sustaining, it is also the bed that our grief sleeps in.
Stephen Jenkinson – an unwavering voice of sanity in the field of grief education and founder of the Orphan Wisdom School – suggests that to be grief-stricken is the only sane response to relating with the Land in the time we’ve been born to. The “Oh my God” that is uttered in the presence of natural beauty as well as its desolation carries the same love, the same awe, the same recognition of that in me and me in that. It is a very universal thing, felt in a very personal way.
Grief is a powerful indicator of where attention and energy must flow. It is the canary in the coal mine – a felt sense, a reality from which we can begin enquiring with a compassionate and rational perspective as to the skillful application of this experience. That is very important: we have the choice to allow grief to inform our actions for the sake of our survival, for when we grieve, we grieve with our whole being (mind-body-soul/self) as a response to loss – the loss of the Land, which sustains life and is the substance of human culture.
Grief is distinct, however, from bereavement, which literally means, “to be torn apart.” When we are bereaved we experience psychological and physiological symptoms of shock in response to the trauma of loss. And yet, it is possible to be in deep grief without living in a traumatized state of shock. This is what it means for us to be resilient in our time. To do this, we can begin by asking what the nature of grief is, what exactly it is that has been lost forever, and how it can inform the way we relate to ourselves, each other, and All Our Relations.
Rethinking the relationship between grief and loss
In his forward to Jenkinson’s recent book Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, Dr. Martin Shaw offers the Gaelic word Hireath, for which there is no direct English translation. Hireath is The Old Hurt - the cloak of grief that is the defining characteristic of an Elder. It can also be understood as homesickness or longing for a place to which one cannot return. The grief that Elders carry is not just for themselves and the misfortunes of those around them. It is the willingness to know the truth of what’s come to pass - to see it clearly, and hold it tenderly like the dog-earred, water-stained book of their days. Hireath stems from knowing that every effect has its cause: that no event, action, or individual is separable from the story of our planet’s evolution, and that every heartbreaking thing we encounter in our lives is the result of someone else’s heartbreak that came before ours. To carry Hireath is to understand one's role in the Big Story without needing to take on personal responsibility for the current state of affairs, and yet to address it with appropriate action, which can only stem from the ability to consistently hold in one's awareness the heartbreak which is at the root of the ecological devastation that is currently threatening life all over the globe today. This heartbreak at the root demands and pleads with you to know where you’re from, and it’s also the site at which we can consider how this grief - Hireath - and loss are related.
We are all indigenous to somewhere; we all have ancestors whose identity came from the Land that nourished them. Personally, I am of Ukrainian heritage. My people were colonized in the time of the Roman Empire. The traditions and ways of relating that came directly from the Land and which are my birthright are mostly gone. Irretrievable. There are people living in the Ukraine today who are attempting to resurrect the old ceremonies and songs, but the line of transmission from parent to child, elder to village, has been broken so many times that today, ceremonial gatherings involve trying to piece together rumours of tradition like the fragments of a shattered vessel whose original shape is unknown. The forcible separation of a people from the Land they have been living in uninterrupted dialogue with for many generations is the beginning of cultural decay, because the culture is the Land. Even if the colonial system in place allows for the original inhabitants to remain on the land, their cultural identity changes as it is regulated by the new dominant culture. Essentially, if your ancestors aren't from here – and also if they are – your relatives have at some point in your family's history been made strangers and beggars in their own home.
This sense of alienation from the Land is amplified by immigrating to a place that is indeed strange and unknown. This alienation is a bias that colonized people bring with them, and which informs their relationship to their new home. It is further exacerbated when that new home is on someone else's traditional land. This is the heartbreak of Hireath – this old hurt that is passed from one colonized people to another. This is a good place to start your grief work.
To grieve the Land skillfully – to cultivate Hireath – requires the willingness to be fully present to the realities of time and place from a compassionate and rational perspective.
It is necessary to feel into every nook and corner of what is present and true for you when your heart aches for the Land, because it will inform what you do about it. If you refuse to know the inner dimensions of your grief, it will stay with you but it won't die with you – it will be passed on to future generations.
Sometimes bereavement – being torn apart – will seem senselessly intense. Your rational mind may have you believe that you're overreacting. At times like that, keep in mind that the degree to which you are dependent upon the lost thing is directly related to the intensity of your bereavement, and the extent to which the process of cultivating Hireath will have a transformational effect upon your life. This transformation is unavoidable; it can be approached skillfully through the clear lens of Hireath or experienced unskillfully as an unnecessary prolongation of bereavement – the feeling-not-feeling of your pain, the breaking-not-breaking of your heart.
Harnessing grief may look, in the early, deeply-feeling stages, like anything other than mastery. It can look like falling apart. This breaking of the heart is necessary for it to open, to make space for gratitude toward that which has been lost forever. It takes a initial willingness to set aside time to give energy to this process – to feed it, so that the Land will continue to feed us. Invite inner stillness and attentiveness for an unmediated experience of loss – to feel your losses on a personal and global scale, remembering that global losses are personal. And then give yourself permission to lose your mind. Get angry. Become hopeless. Feel what your family must have felt when they became homeless. Can you know what it's like to forget the stories that taught your ancestors who they are and where they're from and what greater purpose their death is for? To grieve laboriously and lavishly is a skill we are not born with, and so must be taught. There are ceremonies, songs, dances, ways of doing this that many of us whose ancestors are not from here have lost. And yet, the body knows what to do – to weep – to shake, to release whatever thoughts or emotions that are blocking you from a direct experience of the truth in front of you. Often, this process doesn’t feel “safe,” because grief, if you remember, is a survival response: a recognition that if things keep going the way they are, we’re not going to make it. So this is very important - to encounter grief for the Land as if you were in mourning for a member of your family, or for yourself and everything that was done to you that was cruel and undeserving.
We are dependent upon each other as much as the Land; in grief, we need to be witnessed because grief is relational and so are we. So, seek out others who are willing to know grief. Those who have the self-mastery to feel big things without being consumed by them. Those who have taken Hireath upon themselves. Find the others. They are your partners in sanity. They will become your friends, and probably your family. They will be the ones who remind you to be grateful at the end of a long hard day when gratitude looks more like work than prayer. When we spread our cloaks of grief wide together, we create a shelter for each other beneath which we remember that the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts.
Relating is complex, and it will challenge everything you think you know about the validity of your personal experience. When you choose to allow grief to inform your life and relationships, you will encounter others whose grief seems deeper and more legitimate than yours, especially when you begin to ally yourself with the people indigenous to the land you make your life upon. Resist comparing war wounds. Rather, acknowledge the depth of that other person's grief, understand that there's nothing you can do to change it, and endeavour to find points of commonality where you both share a sense that life can be different if we all find a way to hold each other's heartbreak in safe and welcoming hands.
Taking action in a world where there is so much to grieve is overwhelming. If you don’t find it overwhelming, I suggest you apply yourself to experiencing bereavement with more focus, more stillness, more openness. There is much to grieve - our collective greed, fear, ancestral forgetting, and what’s been done by it.
Before considering what can be done, we must consider what has been done, and what has come of it. Trace the Big Story back to your story by looking at a single day in your life and observing what could shift, and how that shift involves others. Start from where you are, with the understanding that to live a life in harmony with the Land is your birthright – a life that isn’t always easy, but that has the beauty of the Land's truth in it – and take a look around for the people who are also desiring that shift back to wholeness. Being present to receive these ideas right now is part of that seeking.
Consider also that those of us who are settlers or settler-descendents whose only home is this place – we are asking a lot of the people who are indigenous to this part of the world: to take us in as refugees and orphans. If we can approach our decision-making from this perspective, as opposed to going forth in entitlement or shame, then I believe there is a sustainable future on the horizon where we all have a place on the land we were born to and which is the only home that many of us here have ever known.
Grief is the compulsory art of moving forward with full understanding that you can’t go back. It is to cry over spilt milk, which I believe is an appropriate response. To not grieve is to deny yourself the rich, life-sustaining stuff of gratitude. It is from this position that I challenge and plead with you to:
I lift my hands to All Our Relations, and thank you for being here today.
My past self reminds me to appreciate the details
I recently rediscovered this piece from 2012 - an assignment to free-write during two minutes in a "silent space." At that time I was studying at Emily Carr University of Art and Design.
I am sitting in my downtown apartment, where the fridge periodically hums and the traffic is perpetual. I guess there's always a good reason to travel at any point in the day or night. It occurs to me that somewhere in the world, at any given time, someone is dancing. That way to use space – that image – contrasts sharply to the cluttered interior I currently inhabit; the marble floors, mocha walls (too dark for such a small space) and black cabinets so desperately evoke a bachelor aspiration toward a house that looks like this, but bigger. My work table resists this cliche and constructs another, strewn with several tubes of paint, sticks of conte, an aerosol can of foam insulation, work gloves, white nylon rope, duct tape, tape measure, notebook, looseleaf chaos, a tube of red lipstick, rose quartz japa mala, my laptop... I approached these two minutes of silence with the goal of detail-awareness; the sky is clear today and the setting sun is reflected into my eyes by the condo building across from my seventh floor bay windows. Hovering above ground I am surrounded by walls of glass. I wait for them to break but they never do. Silence is never absolute and is defined only by what fills it; the presence of the listening observer's auditory apparatus reflects every shift in the air. I close my eyes and listen to my breath.
It might seem morbid, but it's actually a great way to assess your values.
Do you ever wonder what people will say about you when you die? If you want to have your final say on your own life from beyond the grave, consider writing your own obituary, like this 35 year old Canadian woman who recently died of cancer.
Writing your own obituary gives you an opportunity to reflect on what is truly valuable to you, and serves as a reminder that we are all living with an expiry date that may come sooner than later. Look at your obituary and edit it every year: notice how your perspective changes, or doesn't. Make sure to keep an updated copy with your personal documents like your birth certificate, Will, and Advance Care Directive.
The epidemic of seniors dying alone in Japan has become such an issue that there is now a word for it.
Japan has an aging demographic that is more distant from their families than ever before. As a result, more and more elderly people are dying alone. Two particular reasons for this phenomenon reveal insight into a culture in transition.
The most obvious statistical reason for Kodokushi, or "Lonely Death," is that younger Japanese people are having fewer and fewer children, meaning that the aging population is under-serviced in terms of the physical, emotional, and/or psychological care that aging naturally requires. This Business Insider article suggests that there are more people over the age of 65 than ever before in Japan's history, meaning that the workforce is aging out, and there are fewer taxpayers paying into social security programs. Add standardized long work hours to the cultural mix, and we're seeing the return of a tradition called ubasute, or "granny dumping," where elderly people are basically abandoned to social services or simply abandoned to care for themselves.
Another reason for Kodokushi has roots in the 1960s and 70s, when Japan's economy boomed and entire towns were established around infrastructure projects. Many workers moved away from their families in order to support them by working on these projects and, as the economy settled down and the workers aged out, many of them never left, having grown distant from their loved ones. The documentary below explains this is more detail, from the perspective of a "lonely death cleaner."
While Kodokushi and ubasute have specific social and cultural roots in Japan, there is a similar nameless tragedy that has been unfolding in Canada for several generations now. The elderly are often given over to long term care facilities instead of being taken in by their family and given the security, comfort, and familiarity of aging and dying among loved ones. While it may be easy to blame this on a cultural trend, it's worth questioning the source of why that trend continues to be so pervasive. Certainly long work hours, and the lack of flexibility and support from employers, contributes to the choice to give over the care of older family members to facilities. A lack of government-funded childcare resources may likewise contribute to this issue. Perhaps there is fear of losing freedom or having one's lifestyle shift when an elderly person in need of care moves into the family home. And maybe the reticence is due to a lack of familiarity with how caring for a dying person is done,
Cultural and policy shifts are accomplished on both grassroots and administrative levels, and it's very much up to each of us as individuals, families, communities, and policy-influencers to decide how the care of our loved ones should look like, and how we would like our own dying time to be supported.
In times of stress and conflict with our loved ones, it is more important than ever to prioritize the relationship over our own needs, which is easier said than done. But it can be truly magical when one person steps out of their own entitlement to their perspective, and reaches across the divide to embrace the other as friend instead of enemy. In that space of choosing WE over ME, truly heart-centred understanding has a chance to bloom.
What is a prayer?
In her poem “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver writes,
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed
This poem is about paying attention – stopping long enough to notice the world going on around you. Long enough to feel that you might be part of the Big Story – to feel, and to know through feeling that you have always been home.
Prayer is the thing you do when you let the intelligence of your heart inform the intelligence of your mind. It’s the thing you do after you’ve exhausted all your strategies for staying in control of your life – to finally surrender to the knowing that wonder and gratitude are at the core of what it means to be fully human and alive.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Oliver doesn’t give us 12 steps to heal our lives – no suggestion as to what it all could mean. Rather, she beseeches us, as meaning-making creatures, to find our own way into an understanding of mortality – to be humbled, grateful, and so blessed by the opportunity we have to be here now. Prayer is a verb, a doing. It is the willingness to wipe the fog from the perfect mirror of your days, by your own hand. It is the understanding beyond all our conditioning that the world is not against us. It is the only way of reclaiming our wildness and kinship with the wilderness, which is the foundation of how we must grow together now.
And so I offer you two more questions, that you may carry them in your pocket as sane companions in this confused and heart-rending time – as rumours of your wholeness and how it all could be:
What if you made a prayer of every choice, word, thought, breath, and movement from waking to sleeping, every day of your life?
This article was originally published in elephant journal.
There’s been a huge internet backlash against the official music video for pop star Sia’s hit song “Elastic Heart.”
This adverse reaction is in particular from those who have their hackles raised against the sexualization of children in mainstream media—and honestly, I’m with them.
But not in this instance.
I see the value shimmering inside the dust that Shia and Maddie kick up—in fact, this is the most beautiful, heart-rending and socially pertinent music video I’ve seen in a very long time.
In my personal experience of being in love – having such a deeply symbiotic connection with another human being that is almost telepathic in understanding, where the wellbeing of one individual is inextricably connected with the other, and where two embodied consciousnesses have the continuous experience of oneness – it is the child in each person that speaks to the other. My partner is my child, lover, and parent; teacher and student; and funhouse mirror image. But it is the unguarded, expressive nature of the child in each of us that forms the foundation of our understanding. It is only when we are raw and bare and in full site of each other, stripped of all narratives, vulnerable and fully present, that we are able to see the most tender, profoundly human part of each other, and touch it gently. That is the foundational experience that builds trust; trust is fundamental to surrender; surrender is fundamental to love, because when we love, we give someone else the power to break our heart.
In this video I see a man yearning to interact with his child-self through the vector of an actual child – he recognizes something familiar in her that he believes he has lost, and through her, strives to reclaim. I also see a child who rejects the spiritual calcification the man has undergone; at first she deflects his attempts at contact. She knows what he wants and so imitates, pokes fun at, and attacks him. She sees the hungry wolf in his eyes and mirrors it back at him – the desperate man who doesn’t want to admit to himself what he’s become. But, she also sees the child in him, and so spars with the man until he realizes that the only way he can connect with the girl is to let the boy inside him come to the surface: the tender, vulnerable boy who is trapped in a cage of his own making. When the child passes freely between the bars, we see her assert her autonomy; when she re-enters the cage, establishes contact with the man, and is able to change his stoney facial expression into the silly faces of childhood at the lightest touch, we realize that this video is ultimately about the courage of vulnerability and the prevailing power of tenderness.
Or, maybe this video is about why men are attracted to women who are much younger than themselves – women (and girls) who have not yet been calcified by a world that tells us that grown-ups don’t cry, don’t show emotion, don’t play, and don’t grieve. Or, maybe this video is about why younger women are attracted to older men – beyond the old survival narrative of financial and material sustenance, the nurturing instinct yearns to rescue the boys who have never been taught to become men, and so, instead of dying in a rite of passage into adulthood, get trapped in an adult body.
Or, maybe this video is about the longing we all have to be received in our authentic vulnerability without fear.
A fine art photographer discusses how art helped her cope with the sudden death of her fiancé
This article was originally published on SevenPonds on November 14, 2015.
Today, SevenPonds spoke with Sarah Treanor, (read part one of our interview here), a fine art photographer and writer based in Ohio. Her recent body of work, “Still, Life,” consists of self-portraits that explore her grieving process following the sudden death of her fiancé in 2012.
Juniper: The natural world is featured prominently in your work, and seems to have its own personality that you relate with in a very embodied way. Did this relationship evolve out of your grieving process?
Sarah: I would certainly say that grief has played an integral part in my connection to nature. The natural world has a way of grounding and calming me — particularly places that remind me of the people I’ve lost. The majority of this series was photographed on my late fiancé’s family ranch in central Texas, and some were shot on the beaches of my hometown in South Texas. So the places themselves were some of the most significant in my personal world. They embody parts of my life and my past that run very deep.
Through shooting the self portraits out in these natural spaces, there started to be a kind of partnership between myself and the environment, like we had equal roles to play. It also felt like connecting back to my own soul and to those who have died before me. So this tie to nature for me is a very spiritual kind of thing. When I shoot, I must feel connected to the earth around me, otherwise that connection will not translate in the image.
Juniper: Several of your images depict hands, often with palms exposed in a gesture of offering or surrender, and often covered with mud or other debris. A short series includes hands covered in calf blood. What is resonant for you about how hands express emotion?
Sarah: I became totally fascinated with hands during various times in the series. They are such a powerful and recognizable symbol of our humanity. They mirror back to us our fears and insecurities, our hopes and dreams. They are complex yet simple, strong yet fragile. A small change in the angle or position of just one finger, for example, can completely alter the tone, meaning and feeling of the story you are telling when photographing hands. It’s details like that which draw me in.
I never set out to do a sub-series of hands, nor did I ever intentionally capture them with palms exposed as you mentioned. Most of that came when in front of the camera, doing things unconsciously under the lens and searching for a particular feeling that I connected to. Sometimes it was anguish and sadness, other times it was hope, human connection or surrender. Most of the meaning though, I wouldn’t figure out until after I’d shot them and began writing about them. The bloody ones, for example, were really just experiments after I had shot the image; “Balance,” holding the calf heart with the strings through it. I just kept shooting and playing around, and began to be mesmerized by the images. It was all very intuitive.
Juniper: Your work portrays a raw and honest journey through grief in stunning greyscale, yet the very first self portrait on your blog – taken just months after your fiancé’s death – is in color. What shifted your aesthetic away from color, and do you foresee a shift back?
Sarah: Okay, this is a funny one. There was no big symbolic reason for this – like grief removing the color from your life. I had teal hair at the time! I’d dyed the bottom half of it a few months before. Once I started shooting the images, I felt like it was distracting to the main content. I wanted to keep the teal, and also keep doing the photographs, and so they became black and white! Looking back now, it probably was also a bit of an unconscious decision based on how grief feels — but the initial prompt was just a funky hair color.
I have always shot a mix of black and white and color work. Really most of my photographs do lend themselves better to black and white because I tend to go for high contrast and simple, bold compositions. I love the timeless nature of it. But I don’t lock myself in to it. If I feel like changing over to color, then I do. I certainly think with the new move from Texas to Ohio — especially since seeing all the amazing fall colors these first few weeks here — that color is definitely going to be re-entering my work going forward.
Juniper: Still, Life began as a series of self-portraits, but this concept has recently expanded to include another special person in your life, as depicted in “The Dance.” Do you have plans to continue an exploration around this theme, including other people in your images?
Sarah: I do. In fact, shooting “The Dance” with my new partner, who is also widowed, sparked an idea for a whole new series. We shot a few images of just his hands that day after doing our hands together. He has a memorial tattoo to his wife on his forearm, and that is where it began. This new project focuses on telling the stories of others who have lost someone, using only their hands and arms to tell the story. The backgrounds and any items they hold or wear will tell the viewer other important parts of their story. It will be a memorial project for the people I photograph, and for the people who see the finished work, it will be a glimpse into a private world of grief.
Juniper: You have plans to publish a book based on images and text from the Still, Life project. Can you give us some more details for readers who may be interested in more deeply engaging with your work?
Sarah: The book is in the very early stages right now. I am editing all of the blog content into new essays that will flow beautifully and cohesively within a book format. The wonderful thing about this is that anyone who has followed the blog entries will get some new content in the book.
I’m also considering including some process shots and explanation of process, as well as some of the photographs that I really love that I decided for one reason or another didn’t quite make the final cut. I’m still considering options of going with a publishing house or self publishing. This end of things is all new to me, so I do welcome any and all advice! For now though, my Facebook page is the best way for folks to keep up with my newest work, news, interviews and any updates on the book.
Juniper: You have very recently moved to a new city, and with that comes a new community and opportunities to explore new directions both personally and professionally. Do you have any plans to expand the healing scope of your work to include guiding others through a creative healing process? Have you considered art therapy as a possibility for a future career?
Sarah: I’ve had a very strong feeling since deciding on this move to Ohio that there will be some major opportunities here to stretch myself both professionally and personally. I don’t know what’s ahead yet. I like to listen more than plan, but I feel that it may be expanding in the direction of helping others more directly.
Creativity has truly saved me and helped me transform my grief in incredible ways. Now that I am coming to a more healed place with my own journey, it seems a fitting time to help others learn how to use creativity to cope with life’s struggles. That being said, I am now open for private one-on-one guidance sessions with anyone who is interested in integrating creativity into their healing process and would like a bit of help and support along the way.
It’s funny you ask about art therapy. I was very interested in going to college to study this, but they didn’t have degrees in art therapy back then. So, I went into design instead, and it went by the wayside. It’s something that’s never left me though. It seems to repeatedly come back up in my world (as it is now, with this question!), so I wouldn’t be surprised if that ends up being a path I take in some form going ahead.
Juniper: Thank you, Sarah, for a wonderful interview. Best of luck with your current and future plans!
Sarah: Thank you!
A fine art photographer discusses how art helped her cope with the sudden death of her fiancé
This article was originally published on SevenPonds on November 7, 2015
Today, SevenPonds spoke with Sarah Treanor, a fine art photographer and writer, based in Ohio. Her recent body of work, Still, Life, consists of self-portraits that explore her grieving process following the sudden death of her fiancé in 2012.
Juniper: How does photography help you cope with loss?
Sarah: Photography was initially a positive escape from my grief, but eventually I wanted something more from it. I’d read countless books on grief, and memoirs by widows, but I hadn’t seen what grief looked like. Not the way I wanted to. I wanted to be able to see images that looked like how my heart felt inside, so I decided to start making them. By creating these images, I found a way to explore and express my own emotions more deeply.
Juniper: Does the self-reflexivity of your photographs help you stand at a distance from your story, and see it more clearly?
Sarah: Absolutely. Like with any creative expression of our emotions, it gives the creator a more objective viewpoint of themselves. Through these photographs, I found I was able to see myself going through my grief in a way that I hadn’t before, which helped me to learn more from the pain.
Juniper: Of the image “Balance,” you write, “to receive love, to create connections, we must be willing to put our hearts out into the open and risk them being ripped apart.” That requires a lot of vulnerability and inner strength. Is this part of your creative process – showing images of your grief, which for better or worse is largely a private and personal thing in North America?
Sarah: It wasn’t always part of my process to be so open. Before my fiancé’s death, I was not a particularly open person. It was his loss that changed that. I have said often that the thing about being broken by a traumatic loss is that it also breaks down all your walls. You have no choice for a while but to be vulnerable, and over time, you get to choose whether you’ll rebuild those walls or not. I decided not to. I decided I liked being openhearted and sharing my world, because it meant others shared theirs with me too. It’s allowed me to heal so much to let other people into my grief.
Juniper: In your interview with Lucy Lambriex for Innerspacecraft, you explain how your blog posts that accompany your images helped you understand how your aesthetic choices corresponded to your grieving process. How important is it to you that the words you wrote in response to your images are always presented with them? Is the writing more of a personal process or an integral aesthetic element of the photographs?
Sarah: Originally, the writing was more of a personal process for me. I’d heard of the idea of layering writing with other art forms to dig deeper into the meaning of the work, and decided to give this a try. Over time, though, the writing has seemed to hold just as much value for my audience as the images themselves, so I’d venture to say that they now hold equal importance in different ways. I suppose it depends on the format, really. In a gallery, I would have mostly images with excerpts from the writing. There are plans for all the writing to be included in a book of the full series, too.
Juniper: Your recent blog post discussing your photograph entitled “The Promise” reveals that you are moving into a new phase of your life – literally moving from one city to another to be with a new partner and reassessing what “home” means to you. Is the “promise” in this image one of remembrance? Can you speak to the guilt that many people feel in the process of re-engaging with life and love after loss?
Sarah: Yes, “The Promise” is about my own need to say a proper goodbye to the life I’ve known these years since [my fiancé] died, and to the life that he and I will never get to have. It is about honoring not only him, but also those who have supported me in these most difficult years – a promise to always remember it all, and the person it has made me. This was especially important to me in order to move forward. I believe that we have to spend a proper amount of time saying goodbye to one life before we can truly move into the next. Goodbye doesn’t mean we don’t take them with us on the new journeys ahead. It doesn’t mean we stop missing them or honoring them. It just means we are deciding to live fully again, and allow our relationship with them to shift a bit so we can let the new in.
In reference to guilt, I think having proper time to honor our emotions and say goodbye to our old life does help. I spent three years doing so daily. For some, that may only be six months; for others, it may be 10 years. It’s important to spend that time as you need in order to be able to move forward fully and without guilt.
Juniper: Do you have any recommendations for people who are currently journeying with grief?
Sarah: Tell your story in as many ways as possible…writing, talking, art, whatever works for you. Reach out for support, even when you don’t feel like it. Reach out to support someone else going through a similar loss, especially when you don’t feel like it. Try something new; surprising yourself is good during times of grief. Make positive anticipation your ally. I tried to have something exciting planned out about every three months, so that there was always something to look forward to even on the worst days. It doesn’t fix anything, but it helps to remind you that you’re still alive.
Keep only the most loving, supportive and kind people in your world. The ones who know how to crawl down inside your pain and sit with you in it. You are fragile when going through grief, so while it’s important to keep your heart open, also remember to protect it from anyone who doesn’t support your healing. And make sure at least a few of those [people] keep you laughing through the darkness.
Look for the second part of this interview with Sarah next week!
Persephone Passages and Sacred Embodiment Founder Juniper Quin riffs on birth, death, and everything in between. She lives in North Vancouver, BC in the traditional and unceded territory of the Coast Salish nations with her husband, father-in-law, and an ever-expanding family of mostly edible houseplants.