stimulating profound conversations about living and dying well
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!
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.