Extracts from a Masters Thesis
[part of title: “Moving on from Trauma”]
The “MIECAT process of enquiry” gives trainee therapists a template and guideline for helping clients to process and analyse their arts therapy works (or ‘representations’, as they are called, because the primary raison-d’etre of the artwork is to represent the unseen or ‘not-quite-known’ issues that brought them into therapy). This template includes a straight forward description of the representation, which is written down, then the selection of ‘key words’ from the writing – the words that seem to strike the client most strongly. Key words are grouped into essence statements, and after the collection of enough examples of the issue being enquired into, certain themes can be seen emerging. The synthesis of these themes into a summarising statement often provides a deep insight into the thoughts/feelings/beliefs lying deep beneath the surface. It can be said then, that the ‘not-quite-known’ has been transformed into ‘what I now know’ about [the issue].
The following extract presents the ‘feeling experience’ of doing this process of enquiry on myself, in a thesis devoted to research into whether the MIECAT Process of Enquiry could help someone move on from trauma. Writing the process as a piece of creative prose proved to be satisfying but impractical. It became a small section within a series of narratives that represented the different ‘voices’ of the self that emerged as my story of the ugly duckling was unravelled.
Learning Anew what it means to be a Swan
Told by the Ugly Duckling
The memory of my beautiful birthright came back to me one creation at a time. I drew it back in paint, pastel and pencil. I sang it back in such sad, yearning swan songs that cried out the wild call of my race. And finally, joyously, my memory expanded itself into my very body and became one with me as we moved, danced and dramaticized my story, the story of how as a little cygnet I was forced into exile from my swan community and became an ugly duckling, and stumbled from loneliness to social disaster to rejection and back to loneliness again, until through the process of therapy I learnt who I really was.
However, the story I tell here is not the story of those dreadful years of wandering from one cottage to the next as an ugly duckling, or of the years of therapy that gave me back my swanness. That is a different story for a different time. Instead, I will surprise you with what I have learnt about my swan community that I lost for so many years. Herein is the story of the language they taught me to speak again, the culture I had forgotten and the way they use their swanness to understand themselves and the world. All this I learnt – as if for the first time – and through my own journey into swan culture I will pass on to you my understanding of how we make sense of things.
It will involve introducing some of the swan language and terminology, explaining the rituals and showing you lots of photos to demonstrate them. For example, did you know that when swans bob their heads down under the water and stick their tail feathers in the air, they are actually fishing for ‘key words’? With dexterous beaks they gather lots of key words together in ‘clusters’ for eating – but they don’t call it eating, they call it ‘indwelling’ – imagine those little wriggling key words dwelling in the swan’s inside, unaware they are in the process of being transformed! And reproduction (now I have your attention) is quite complex for swans. They have two kinds of reproduction, one to produce little cygnets, and the other to produce representations of their indwelling process. So they give birth both from their reproductive organ, and from their intuitive organ, located near the heart.
Out on the still water there, swans are always looking for ‘Themes’. A ‘Theme’ always has a capital letter, because it is so important. It is essential to a swan’s wellbeing, because it helps her locate her centre of meaning, her purpose and direction. It is like a compass needle that points to where she needs to travel to find sustenance by which to grow and develop. Later on I will show you what a Theme looks like.
All swans search for meaning. The food they eat is only the means by which they evolve towards this goal. Rather than try to describe and demonstrate this globally, I use my own search for meaning as the teaching tool, the instructive example. It’s nearly always easier to demonstrate through direct example. The elder swans in my new community took me under their wings and passed on the precious knowledge of their ways. Although I cannot tell you everything they taught me, I have been instructed by them to share my own journey from the gathering into clusters of these key words beneath the surface of the water, through digestive indwelling which led me to the discovery of the elusive but ubiquitous Themes, to the profound experience of giving birth from my intuitive organ, thereby both making sense of myself and healing myself in the same process.
I was happy to be part of my own natural community again, but a lot of damage had been done during those years in exile, and that damage kept impacting on my relationships with the other swans. I was suspicious, quick to take offense and feel ostracized. I was habitually solitary, finding it very difficult to mingle and socialize. All this made the task of reintegration very problematic.
The elder swans gave me a task which they said would help me. They said I needed to find some Themes, and from these Themes I would get direction to help me integrate with the flock. This seemed a bit mysterious, one of those strange avian rituals I was going to have to get used to. Absurdly anxious to please, I began racing round the pond trying to herd some key words into clusters. “No, no!” they honked, smiling kindly, “the key words have to come to you. It must be your own special clusters, not just anyone’s.” And they led me into the rushes at the pond’s edge, away from the mellow afternoon sun and its distracting sparkle on the water’s surface. There, in quiet and concentration, I was initiated into the rituals of intuitive reproduction.
First they asked me: “Did you ever dream of us or see our images in your imagination?” Yes! Yes! I cried. I had such a longing and urge to draw your images, and I didn’t know why. “Ah . . .” they nodded, their beautiful long necks curving downward to touch my curious face. “Then that was the beginning of your search for us, and those drawings were born out of your intuitive self.”
Next, they asked me: “Would you like to try this process again?” Well, yes, maybe, no, I’m not sure . . . how? I don’t know how. Together we paddled to the edge and climbed up on the bank. I felt a bit embarrassed to see how these wise elders that I looked up to had to waddle up the bank just as awkwardly as I did. Not far from the water was a pile of clean, dry sand, walled off by smooth white river pebbles. Nearby I could see some oval shaped nests of fresh straw, and in the nests were little piles of the strangest things I had ever seen. Little figures, animals, birds, all kinds of shapes, sticks, pebbles, machinery and more, all jumbled up together.
“This is your task to begin with”, they told me. “Put some of these figures and shapes in the sand.” Dutifully I picked up some objects, placed them on the sand-pile, and looked at my elders proudly. I thought I had done very well. Maybe I was ready for the next task now. “And what does this mean for you?” one of the swans asked. I looked back at the row of things sitting on the sand, “nothing, your honour. It doesn’t mean anything.” “Ah ha . . . now you must do it again, but this time let your intuitive heart tell you what to pick from the nests, and ask your intuitive reproductive organ to guide you in placing them in the sand.”
I had not the slightest idea how to do this, but I remembered that my earlier drawings of the swans had been judged to be intuitively generated, so perhaps if I let myself feel like I had then . . . I closed my eyes and thought about how much I loved these beautiful creatures, and how much I wanted them to like and accept me. I could feel a strange sensation in my breast, and my head felt fuzzy and confused. I couldn’t think very well, but at the same time I experienced a different part of me starting to be aware, starting to function. Where was this part located in me? Not exactly my mind, but not exactly my heart either. I began to understand why the swans described the intuitive organ as being ‘near’ the heart but not quite in it. Giving up the attempt to make sense of it all, I simply reached out and took the pieces that seemed to call to me, and took them to the sandpit. A little voice inside me was saying: ‘I want them to like me. I want them to like me.’ And I threw the first pieces all over the sand. It felt good, though I didn’t know why. Then I took the next pieces and pushed them firmly into the sand. Suddenly I saw that one of the pieces looked like a mother and child. A knowing rose up in my breast – “my mother didn’t like me. She abandoned me, and sent me away into exile!” Tears of bitter memory poured out of my little swan eyes and I huddled next to the sandpit and plunged my head and beak deep under my wing. My swan companions snuggled down next to me, watching gently, nodding and cooing. In a moment of unexpected knowing, I understood that my intuitive organ had just opened out, like a fragrant flower in the morning. The nodding, rustling vibration of the companioning swans told me that even though it had hurt so much, something good had happened. Something had been born into the light.
The swans who took me through this initiation were the two elder swans of our little group. In this region of the woods our group was known as ‘them what swim upon the deep pond by sweet tubers’, because our pond was deeper than usual and its deep waters seeped into the fields nearby and watered the tuberous vegetables, which produced plentiful bounty for the wood’s wildlife. The eldest swan was an old male (cob). His name was Falownfar, and he had been to many far places, where he had learnt about the intuitive life of swans. But he spoke and moved very slowly, as if he was tired, and I sometimes wondered if he had flown as slowly as he spoke – for that would surely explain why he had been away so long and taken so long to come back. Falownfar had lived with royal swans in foreign waters and had been allowed to bring their rituals back to his people – strange foreign sounding practices with long unpronounceable names, such as ‘phenomenology’, ‘constructionalism’ and ‘heuristics’.
After this initiation ritual, I rejoined my group and hung out with the younger swans, chasing butterflies and moths and dunking for larvae and little fishes. As cygnets-in-training, we were expected to learn, but as always in the wild, we learnt by experience. The wildfolk of the woods never saw neat rows of swans lined up facing front. We moved, and danced, and sang, made stories in the sandpit, created pictures in the dirt with our beaks, using ochre, sienna, greens and reds from mashed leaves, fruit and clay. It was explained to me that by doing this, we were gradually developing and strengthening our intuitive organ. We were slowly creating a collection of intuitively derived representations of our learning experience, and when the time was right, these would be used to begin the Great Task of every swan’s life – the search for meaning through key words, clusters and Themes.
My life in the Deep Pond by Sweet Tubers brought me happiness that I had forgotten was possible. I often thought about the old days of my exile, and, with encouragement from my companions, incorporated those memories into the representations I made. But I found it very difficult to think about the very, very old days, that early time when I belonged to a swan group that had lived in this same woods. The memories of this phase of my infancy were jagged and fragmented, like a shattered mirror. Whenever I tried to look into the pieces of this mirror, the image splintered and collapsed, and in the space where it had been was a woeful, gaping darkness, and in the pit of darkness I saw wraiths and moaning corpses, dying swans in white feathered dresses and helpless princes leaning over them, frozen in an unending saga of failed rescue. This was the mirror-image of my swan existence, which I saw every time I looked down into the water and caught my reflection pointing curiously back at me. Above water I was downy white, below water transparent black.
As the long summer ended, the group prepared for the falling of the leaves and the arrival of sharp winds blowing from the sea. Our down grew thicker beneath our feathers, and much time was given to fluffing ourselves up deep in the thickets and reedy nests. Looking back, as I tell you this story, I remember that winter very well, for it was the first cold-time that brought the warmth of other feathered, downy bodies, the first that passed in the pleasure of long stories told by wise and travelled elders. It was the first with food for a shrunken belly and manna for a hungry heart.
New life for a swan is always shadowed with the old. As the spiral beat of a swan’s heart joins past and present in the process of growth, so the new life born of her desire for understanding is ever tinged by flecks and patches of doubt. The mother swan lives with these reminders of her misgivings and weaknesses in the faltering steps of her cygnet’s dance and the breathy rasp of her babies’ infant songs. To be a mother swan, a creator of art, is to sing with the angel’s spear embedded in your heart.
In the new season after fall and frost, I should become a mother. A new, young mother through the sacred enactment of memory. Not cygnets for me yet, that would come when the seasons had spiraled around again. Now was time for intuitive reproduction only, and only when I had learnt the meaning of meaning would cygnets come to me at last.
The Creative Synthesis – thesis conclusion as creative art
The conclusion of the Masters thesis in Creative Arts Therapy was both a written analysis at a professional academic level, and a creative production which could be presented in any artistic modality. Mine presented itself to me unexpectedly as an experience, which I wrote up as a story. In undertaking any endeavour, there is always an expectation that it will find a point of conclusion, and that that closure will feel satisfying and fulfilling. In the MIECAT process of enquiry, this feeling of closure is described as a ‘synthesis’ and is presented artistically.
“The Sandplay That Wasn’t”
A Symbol of Infinity on Chelsea Beach
– where the end returns to the beginning
Walls of glass surround me. On a high semicircular platform, jutting out into the column of space that rises from the floor of the mall through its three levels to the high ceiling. On the platform, a line of high-back seats and tables of an open-space coffee bar curve around like a box-seat at the theatre, and the people of Eastlands perform for our pleasure. With my daughter and her baby, we are cantilevered half way up the column of space. Below, heads and feet scuttle across the square and duck out of sight behind columns, stairwells, and shops. Straight out in front of us, columns of actors glide past up the escalator and down the other escalator. Above, legs and bodies swing by, heads dangle over the railing, looking down.
Between the performance and us, as the audience, is a wall of thick protective glass set in gold metal railings. The glass is good, just lessening the impact of the performance, allowing some sense of cocoon. My daughter, with her back to the performers, takes off her front, lets down the feeding bra and pulls out a huge breast. Milkshakes are served, and the dairy bar closes, because the performance outside is too much competition. Little baby’s eyes are as big as saucers. Her little head nodding and bobbing, she just can’t take her gaze of the glass, chrome, neon and technicolour spectacle of movement. The café where we sit has been closed since we arrived, so we have the box seat all to ourselves, sitting up there like Lord and Lady Muck (and Junior), surveying our subjects. And they dutifully and respectfully trail up and down the escalators, go in and out of shops, and make sure that we continue to be fed with an endless panorama of human traffic.
That wall of glass is very powerful. Through it we can see them, and although we know they can see us, we also know that they know we are in a sacred space. It’s the holy space of a Coffee Bar, where people sit in intersubjective ritual. You can’t just enter that space unless you pay some money and join the ritual, where the coffee cup is like a Shaman’s pipe. Yet they can also see that the ceremony has been ended, and we are sitting there by ourselves, with no coffee cups, and therefore not really protected by the Shaman. We know that they know they could actually come in and compete for that space, could even make us so uncomfortable that we would want to leave.
And many of the performers do look at us quite intently. Sitting out there in our box seat, jutting out into the communal space, we are really more on show than they are. And one of us has her breast out in public, with a huge nipple on it. So who is watching who?, they seem to say. And then they see the baby, her head tucked down into her mother’s chest or resting on her shoulder, and immediately they communally look away, sacrificing their place as audience and gazers, in a gesture of understanding. And they see me, the mother of the mother, in my role as the older, wise woman, protecting and supporting my offspring and my descendants. They know and recognize the strength of my position as the top female in my particular tree. And the wall of glass sets us just enough apart for me to keep this space unviolated while the baby feeds.
There was a time when glass would have given me no protection, when I would have needed a barrier that allowed no gaze to come in. The gaze of the outside world was literally poison to my body, causing physical and emotional pain. When I began my thesis research, I experienced myself in relationships as a trembling and lonely ugly duckling with a fragile sense of community and intersubjectivity. Now I could sit – in the centre! – of a crowded mall, in full view, and feel not just comfortable, but happy to be there. The fact that many of the passing suburbanites look very different to me in all kinds of ways, is no longer a criteria for rejecting, dismissing or disrespecting them. For I now understand that I am also there, in the same mall. So why should I assume that I am the alien there, so different and apart?
In these kinds of thoughts, or this kind of thinking, is how and where our reality is created. I was alone and isolated, because I thought I was alone and isolated. Now I can sit alone, and not feel isolated from the community around me. But long habits cast long shadows, as ‘the Sandplay That Wasn’t’ showed me.
The MIECAT Association sent out an invitation to its members to come to Chelsea Beach for a Sandplay session together. ‘Come and have fun!’, the message said. What a great idea, to have fun doing sandplay together, hopefully combining traditional beach sandplay with the techniques of sandplay therapy. So, I had an expectation, which might be realized or might not. Other than the feeling of excitement and vaguely conceived expectation, I didn’t think any more about how it would actually turn out.
The morning of the event was occupied with the usual Saturday domestic duties. I forgot ALL about the MIECAT event, until right on twelve Noon. Like Cinderella, I suddenly remembered – the sandplay was finishing now! I’d missed my appointment with time. There was to be shared lunchtime afterwards, so I took myself in my car down to Chelsea anyway.
You know that feeling when you come late? When you walk, late and alone, into the occupied space of the group? But it’s not so bad when that walk takes you through a basalt stone turnstile entrance onto hot, clean, shining white sand lying in delicious avenues between small, tufted dunes, all soaked in a salty breeze. Out of the dunes and across the wider plains towards the transition zone between sea-soak and dry beach. Plod plod, shuffle shuffle, pant pant . . . in the heat.
I expected a crowd, all having fun in a big group. There was none. Through the heat shimmer I saw little huddles of people, in pairs. They were as far away from each other as they could be and still be on the same beach. All conferring intensely over unseen installations at their feet. Jenni Hill, the facilitator, came over to me, and I asked her how she had structured the session. Her first words echoed my vision: ‘I had thought that we would all work in the centre of the space here – but look! Everyone’s gone right to the edges! Isn’t it strange?’ But she had directed the group to work individually, and that had perhaps set the dynamics.
I went and sat down in the beach house, and Jenni appeared again and invited me to share her installation with her, a large installation which she had made right in the centre of the space. It consisted of a large infinity sign made with splashed water, with found objects at the intersection point. Winding out from this intersection were dry furrows that curled round in spirals at the ends. It reminded me of something – couldn’t get what – oh yes! Leunig! We both laughed. Yes, Leunig’s lovely Curly World. Jenni’s design was whimsical, loving and hopeful.
In the group sharing afterwards, some of the individual commenting became bogged down in pontificatory waffle. The sun was hotter and hotter on my head, the heat was closing in . . . waffle waffle, bulldust bulldust . . . who cares anyway? It’s all just words. I felt sick in my stomach, and quietly got up and moved away into the shade. ‘You must do what is necessary to stay safe within yourself.’
The lunch was enjoyable, completed by a Tai Chi session on the sands. But it was not until I drove myself homeward that the significance of the experience became clear.
“I am so glad that I missed the sandplay exercise! I am so glad! If I had been asked to go off by myself, I would have, or could have, slipped into old patterns, into a particular navel-gazing self absorption that was no longer useful.
I don’t want to go off by myself and inspect my navel. I want to be with others in the intersubjective space, delighting in communion, reflecting off each other, gifting each other with love and spontenaity. I want creativity and representation to be alive with laughter, surprise, co-created realities, unexpected epiphanies. I want communal play to be colour and splashes and shapes and movements, singing, screaming, sighing, silence. Lovely quietnesses, silky to the soul. Oh . . . after so much sorrow . . . so much introspection, carving out every maggot from an infected heart. I have had enough. Whatever maggots are left can learn to dance in the sun, sing to the moon and pray to the goddess of butterflies. I will be gone, and they can come with me on beating wings or stay and die.”
I felt that being on that warm, familiar beach, and knowing what I did want and what I didn’t want, and being comfortable to sit with my companions without needing or wanting anything in particular from them, that experience was my creative synthesis.
My creative synthesis is A Sandplay that Wasn’t on a sand-filled beach. And much more than that – this beach at Edithvale-Chelsea was the very beach where I was born after the War last century, and these were the sand-dunes where my little feet first walked. I remember being so proud that I could walk on burning hot sand and not cry. Without even thinking about it, I had made the decision inside myself to come to this beach and stay firmly in the present.
As I drove homeward I had a felt sense of completion of the research process. It felt very tangible, yet is almost impossible to describe. It simply presented itself to me as a vaguely visible image of completeness – ‘The Sandplay that Wasn’t There’ – it was the not having happened that made it complete and finished, as well as the curly lines/infinity symbol of Jenni’s installation. And the image of the glass wall came back to me – a barrier that wasn’t really there. A physical screen that let people through but not in.
Where I began with mirroring in the sand, I finish with glass transparency. The mirror gives back my own image to me, alone. A Self feeding endlessly off itself. The glass lets others’ images come and make contact. A Self in relationship with its own kind.