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All will be decided and there will be joy and there will be sorrow in equal measure, Homage to Dürer, gouche and watercolor crayon in altered book, 2020.
One of the participants in the first week of the e-course, Befriending Our Shadow IV, said, when asked the question, “what would the landscape of your shadow journey look like?” that she was at a precipice. I won’t go into the specific conversation that this led us to, but it made me think that the idea of the precipice is an evocative image for so many aspects of the time we are living in right now.
The world situation as a precipice
On the macro level, living on a precipice has been used to describe our world situation as far as climate change. Things are pretty dire from that perspective unless we do some pretty drastic changing as a world culture. But in other smaller ways, we are living at the edge of a precipice right now.
Greetings from a very warm place, Goauche and watercolor crayon in altered book, 2020.
That the seasons change was a precipice to our ancient ancestors
One is that we are at the start of the shift of seasons, which to our ancestors had dire consequences and brought fears of changes that they feared were irreversible. In very ancient times, it wasn’t really certain that winter would turn to spring, that the sun would rise again and that life would go on. The ancients had very powerful ways of coping with these fears, practices that helped and sustained them in a way that was deeply connected to the earth. We have largely lost these ways, but that is a topic for another article. Now, we know that the sun will rise and that spring will come again, we know these things, and yet, in our bones, some of those old fears are still there.
And for those of us, at mid to late life, our lives are at a precipice
And in another way, for those of us, like me, at mid to late life transition, we are at a different sort of precipice, teetering into old age. Maybe not just around the corner, but not as far off as it once seemed. Skills and competencies that we completely took for granted earlier in life, may not be as available now. Many of our support network may have dropped off for various reasons. We just don’t feel the same as we felt when we were younger. And, to top it off, the over-culture we live in doesn’t have a very affirmative, nurturing view of what it means to grow old. Instead of seeing aging as a natural process, with benefits and drawbacks, the dominant culture tends to equate an aging body and mind with an aging machine-that will ultimately break down and need to be thrown out and replaced with a new model.
What matters most is your perspective
Through all of this, what seems most important to me is how we think about the precipice. What does it mean to me, to you? And does it get you to change your view, when you are at a point of no turning back, when an urgent action is called for? What do I mean by this? Let’s say you are at that precipice right now. Take a moment and imagine that you are there. What do you see? I see a vast mountain landscape ahead of me. And I am on the top of one of those mountains, having reached a point in the road where there is no turning back but no way forward either. And before me is a long way down. What to do?
Ancient Bird Spirit Crone, soft sculpture, mixed media, standing, 19 x 12 x 7, 2021.
How fast were you going? This matters…
Several things matter here. One is, how fast were you going when you were on this road? This makes a difference. If you were speeding along at a break-neck pace, you may just go off the edge without even being able to stop. But if you were following a more deliberate pace, there is time to consider options. Such as, do I have alternate ways to move forward? Such as climbing gear, or maybe even wings? Is there help around, or help if I wait? What other resources do I have available that I might not otherwise have thought of?
How you are holding the thought matters
It also matters how you are holding this thought of “I am at the edge of a precipice.” Is it really a precipice or does it only seem like one because of the way you are thinking about it? This can be a tricky one. For instance, when I think about aging from a more loving, accepting perspective, I easily back off from the fears and start to see possibilities. I could go back and do this sort of reframe about the other precipices I was talking about earlier, but you get the idea.
Slowing down helps
To expand on what I said two paragraphs ago, it helps if you are going slow enough to be able to stop and assess the situation and make informed choices. This is a big one for me, because my mind moves very fast and sometimes this can get me into trouble. Sometimes we really are confronted with situations that require immediate action and resources. But it helps if we come into them with a quiet and spacious mind, well as much as possible.
What do you have to call forth from within yourself to best cope with this situation?
Also, it helps to have resources to call on, support networks, knowledge and information that can guide us as to which next step to take. But what I want to focus on here, and end with for now, is a reminder that you already have many of those resources within you.
What I mean by this is that you have within you a portal to tremendous source of strength and wisdom, if you can take the time to access it. We all have this within us. Some of it is immediately accessible if you ask. Some of it might take a little longer to become available. It may have gotten buried under unhelpful beliefs or fears. Here is where shadow work can come in handy. When we have the willingness and courage to reach down deep into ourselves, and paradoxically, this is also a place where we are deeply connected to others and to the earth, we begin to see that we have many answers right there.
How to access that portal? There are many ways but it is not very complicated. Mostly it has to do with listening. Listening to that voice within which knows the right next step. It is a quiet and very patient voice and easy to dismiss. But it is always there if you take the time to listen to it. The way there is also a topic for another article, but for some it is meditation, for some yoga, or slow walks or creative practices such as doll making. This is a huge topic and I am only scratching the surface of it, but I would love to hear your thoughts. More coming soon.
NOTE: I have been sorting through and organizing my gallery page here on my website. It is a work in progress. In this post, I have included some paintings in handmade and altered books, something I have been inspired to do over the past couple years. I will be finding a way to add these to the gallery page as well eventually. I find that the paintings are a wonderful way to find inspiration for my doll making. One of my greatest inspirations has been the work of and classes with the wonderful, Fonda Clark Haight, especially her Down Deep class.
Two shadow flip dolls by (left) Ruth Tamaroff and (right) Linda McNutt
Everything is Better Accompanied...
Today I am featuring the partnership of two participants in the last Befriending Our Shadow workshop. Linda and Ruth had already formed their creative partnership during the pandemic. Each, with the time and inclination to work on creative projects was seeking someone to work alongside of, to make the process more meaningful and rewarding. Then they heard about the Befriending Our Shadow e-course and decided to do that together as well.
In each of the three times I have offered this course, there has been at least one such partnership, sometimes two, of friends or relatives who decided to take the workshop together. In each case, it was wonderful to watch the ways in which they encouraged and supported each other. At the same time they found ways to connect with the intimate group of participants who had signed up on their own.
The importance of accompaniment on several levels
In the Befriending Our Shadow course, I talk about the ways in which accompaniment is such an important part of the healing journey. The more layers of accompaniment, the better. Within the intimate group, each participant can accompany the others on their shadow journeys and at the same time receive accompaniment. There is also the self-witnessing that occurs during guided meditations, journaling and the doll making explorations. Hidden and often previously unacknowledged parts of the self make themselves known and receive accompaniment and love. And once the doll is completed, it also becomes a witness to the process and a resource to return to as a way to witness what has been revealed about the self.
Accompaniment is like butter on a croissant
In the words of writer and researcher, Sarah Peyton, accompaniment is like butter on a croissant. No matter whether the an experience we are having is positive or negative, our systems do better when we allow ourselves to be present to what is occurring. In the process of making croissants, butter is smoothed across each layer of the thin, flaky dough, thus making it more delicious. Our loving presence and the presence of loving witnesses, acts just like that butter on the croissant, helping the experience to soak in and become integrated into our being.
Back to Linda and Ruth. Here is the story of their dolls and of their experience of participating in Befriending Our Shadow.
Ruth had always been drawn to an embroidered face on black fabric that had been given to her on one of her many journeys to exotic locations, such as Bali, with her husband. She wasn't sure exactly what drew her to this face but she knew it made her happy. Linda pointed out several times that Ruth always had this doll face to hand, "why don't you make a doll?" she had suggested. But Ruth hadn't been ready. Finally, for the purposes of a shadow doll, Ruth decided to use this treasured piece of fabric.
Reflecting on the process of aging
Ruth's journey began to be about the aging process, what is lost when one grows older. She spoke of an image of herself from a high point in her life, when she had successfully sold her business, upon retiring. She loved this photo of herself and at times felt sad that she no longer looked this way. Linda suggested that perhaps she would like to use that face on the other side of her shadow doll.
The doll comes together easily
Once the theme had been determined, Ruth set about, with encouragement from Linda to create a doll, with her young self on one side, even adding a skirt from fabric that she had loved to wear when she was younger. And on the other side, this wise black face, perhaps a representation of the Black Madonna, though she wasn't sure. It just felt right.
Linda came to the Befriending Our Shadow class in the midst of a radical transition in career and life. And then the pandemic hit. She made a decision to put her career on hold for a bit, sensing that some deep inner work was needed. She was happy to find Ruth as a partner in this exploration and they decided to meet weekly for sewing sessions, encouraging each other, first on line and then when it was safe, in person.
Inspiration comes in a guided visualization
During a guided visualization, Linda encountered a goddess-like figure who seemed to be coming out of the murk and darkness of a muddy pond. She realized that this murkiness was reflected the way she felt about the path ahead of her, murky and unclear. Linda worked with this murkiness as it became the shadow side of her doll.
As she continued in the journey over the eight weeks, and especially as she began to create this image in her shadow flip doll, the figure coming out of the murk morphed and changed. In the guided visualization and in her stitching the doll, she encountered a new figure, forceful and strong. Perhaps a nature goddess, connected to trees. This became the other side of her flip doll, strong and tall, a woman merged with a tree. At first she added a face to the top but then decided that, no it was going to be part of the tree.
Ruth encouraged Linda throughout and shared of some of the beautiful fabrics from her fabric stash. Linda's completed doll became a representation of both being with the murk of uncertainty and at the same time the feminine strength and power of Mother Nature. Linda was reminded of the strength within her that would guide her on her continued journey, whether through murk or clarity.
Linda's testimonial about the Befriending Our Shadow course
My expectations were more than met. The transformational aspect seemed appropriate for both the transitions happening in my own life, as well as for these uncertain times we’re in. It seemed that it would open some new directions, and I wasn’t wrong. I’m always interested in what involves stitching and healing.
I was unfamiliar with flip-dolls, and I wanted to do something with my friend Ruth. We’d made many dolls and stitching projects over the years, and now that her sewing abilities are declining, it sounded like the class would be appropriate for all levels. I was surprised at the deeper level of inner exploration. What I didn’t realize was that it would become such a personal journey, and how my compassion for myself would grow in so many directions. The process is ongoing. And, you get a really cool doll at the end.
I really enjoyed seeing and hearing about everyone else’s dolls. I felt we became a supportive and safe community. Amazing women, so heart-opening, creative. I so appreciated being allowed into their process. Keeping a journal and making a small Guardian doll were things I wasn’t sure I would do, and they turned out to be very powerful. The journaling was a great place to jot down dreams that came up, or other symbols or images or phrases. I found that many things that I was encountering during those 8 weeks began to inform and influence the becoming form of the doll. Very good facilitating, Erika, thank you.
Ruth's testimonial about the Befriending Our Shadow course
My expectations of the course were that I would learn to make by hand a flip doll. These expectations were definitely met. There were some unexpected surprises, which included the discussions that Erika brought to us about different ideas. My experience of the course was much more rounded than I expected, and I liked it very much..
I enjoyed the eight-week time frame and I enjoyed having the small group Zoom participants. All in all, I enjoyed the process and would be interested in doing it again. Thank you very much.
Some more words from Ruth about her doll
Regarding my process I decided to dress my doll in lovely clothes and chose the pink silk for the blouse and the mixed bright colors of the skirt. I had worn the skirt fabric to high school dances and parties and thought it to be a lovely skirt for the doll. I wanted her to look good and think she does look good. As I told the class I named my doll after myself since I used my own photo for the doll's face and related well to the dark face of the doll also. I felt very close to the doll and shadow as I worked on the doll.
Image credit to Matt Paul Catalano, Unsplash
Imagine yourself at the shoreline of an ocean. Sometimes huge waves sweep over you, washing away and scattering everything familiar. At other times, the ocean recedes for a while and you have a moment to breath. What if the world-wide challenges that we have been collectively experiencing, especially in the past year and a half were this ocean?
It can feel like an endless cycle, the washing in and out of these huge waves. And each time the waves recede, it's easy to try settle back into the way it was before, but this is not to be. The only certainty is that another wave is coming. And yet, there is a deeper certainty. The truth that there is a way to find your footing even in the midst of crashing waves....
Down Deep image from my 2020 art journal-Riding the Waves
What if we are living in a collective undertow?
To continue with this metaphor, the waves of challenge seem to be getting larger, to the point that the risk of getting swept away in an undertow seems imminent.*
We are literally out of our depth. What to do then? It is so easy to grab onto seeming certainties in a swiftly changing world. Easy to try to build complicated protective structures, ways of acting or being that might save us. There are so many different directions we can go in, so many potential strategies for coping and many of them are probably just fine. But if these strategies are not grounded and connected to our beings in a meaningful way, they will collapse and be swept away if there is an undertow. Things are changing too quickly.
How do we find certainty in the midst of constantly shifting ground?
What is needed is a certainty that isn’t grounded in things outside of us, that isn't grounded in outward structures or scaffolding. But instead, a way of starting from within ourselves, as a way to look at the world around us in a way that creates space for huge shifts in reality. A flexibility that allows us to bend and pivot, rather than stand rigidly on tightly gripped feet. How to do this? Difficult as it might seem, it helps to turn inward, to find an inner spaciousness and timelessness, where we have access to creative thinking.
It helps to be able to release into a sense of a being stronger than yourself. Yet, even if you don’t have a belief a being greater than yourself, it still helps to take time for a for pause. When nothing seems to be working in the world around you and when there seems to be very little certainty, it helps to pause and take stock. Two of my mentors, Sandra Ingerman and Tara Brach, recently posted about using the “pause” of the recent lockdown as a time to reevaluate their priorities. They both were inspired by the large-scale “pause” of the pandemic, to choose time for themselves to care for themselves, psychologically and spiritually, to let themselves have quiet time.
In order to do this, they are cutting in half their public programs and turning down engagements. This made me think about the impulse to find certainty in the midst of the waves of recent changes. Maybe you can't find certainty, but you can use the times in-between each crashing wave as a chance to reevaluate your life and see what needs to stay and what can be left out. In this way, the time you have seems more precious. In a way, it feels like a wake-up call to alertness and presence.
A wake-up call to alertness and presence
Maybe it helps to see the pandemic and other scary things in the world right now as waves that are waking you up. To see these waves from a broader perspective, as tragic and painful experience but also as a wake-up call, a reminder to pay attention. They remind you to wake up to spaciousness and inner stillness. And they remind you that you have within you a still, small voice that can guide you step by step.
Or, if you don't yet have access to that inner voice, you can start with simply taking time to breath, to connect to the inner wisdom of your body, when the waves of the ocean get too large and scary. And if you are interested in exploring a way of accessing this inner guide, consider joining in the Befriending Our Shadow course which begins in October. See here for more information.
*credit to this undertow idea to Sandra Ingerman and Renee Baribeau’s recent podcast about the Undertow
We are living under a poisonous shadow during this divisive time. The weight of this shadow hangs heavily on all of us, no matter our political or personal beliefs. It might be helpful to look at one of the founders of psychology, Carl Jung’s, concept of the collective shadow to understand more about what we as human beings are facing right now. Jung saw each of us as having a shadow, a sort of internal dungeon, where we throw all the experiences and feelings we don’t want to face. The shadow doesn’t go away but instead weighs us down and influences us from below, influencing everything we do and say.
The collective shadow
Just as this personal shadow weighs us down, we are also affected by collective shadows. Whole groups of people within a culture reject painful feelings and uncomfortable experiences and throw them into a collective shadow dungeon. Whatever this first group doesn’t own, gets projected onto an “other,” usually another group within the culture. The other then becomes seen as not human, not worthy of the same care and empathy, becoming a two-dimensional symbol of everything that is wrong with the world.
An extreme example of a collective shadow from Jung’s time
In Jung’s time, and in an extreme example, it was the rise of the Nazi party, which represented the dangerous effects of a collective avoidance of the shadow. A charismatic leader can take advantage of the suffering of one societal group by claiming that another group is to blame. This targeted group becomes the collective scapegoat, allowing those within the first group to have someone to blame for their suffering.
What gets lost, our ability to empathize with the “other”
What gets lost is the ability to empathize with what becomes the “other.” Whole groups of people, or living beings are seen as not human, or not real, not deserving of empathy. This can happen not only with other humans but also with other living beings, such as animals, trees and protected land. The mind wants to make sense out of a painful reality, to find someone or something to blame. This can make it easy to grasp onto an explanation, especially when it seems to be held by many others.
Collective shadows can take all forms
Climate denial, racism, homophobia, sexism-all of these can turn into collective shadows, but so also can the tendency to reject people or groups who hold these beliefs. Not to say that climate denial, racism and all these collective shadows are not extremely dangerous. But it can be easy to see those who embrace climate denial and other shadow beliefs and throw them into the shadow as well. Finding a balance can seem extremely difficult, even impossible.
How do we as individuals resist the pull of the collective shadow?
How do we as individuals, resist the pull of this powerful dynamic to throw whatever we reject into a collective shadow? We are creatures of community; we need each other and we need the company of others. When the communal atmosphere is poisoned by judgments, rejection and other negative emotions, how do we find a place for compassion and kindness? We need to be able to resist dangerous and destructive forces, from a place of inner strength and integrity, rather than from a place of hatred and judgment. As much as we can, we need to reject the temptation to react from a place of shadow, and instead find ways, however small to connect with our common humanity and aliveness.
How can shadow doll work help?
In the shadow doll work, we start with ourselves. We begin to befriend this “other” within ourselves and to see that this part of ourself is worthy of love. We begin to see that rather than a strange and scary other, the shadow, like all parts of ourself, is part of a whole. We can reject it out of hand, or we can try to understand and find potential wisdom within it. And then, from this place of self-acceptance and integrity, we can look at the ways in which we might have joined a collective shadow, perhaps even a shadow inherited from our ancestors. Gradually we become stronger, fiercer and more whole.
Deep and Important Work
The is deep work and important work. And it cannot be done alone. We need each other and we need to find those still places within us and within our society, to have the compassion and forgiveness to let go of beliefs that no longer serve us.
Life is always about change, but sometimes we feel it more...
We are out of lockdown (officially) here in Washington, DC and yet, things still don't feel very certain or safe. This is still a strange time, but the truth is, we are always living with change. Even though our worlds are changing all the time, it always feels like change is awkward and uncomfortable to adjust to. We think, if only we get organized enough, we can avoid the discomfort of change the next time. But there is always a next time, and no matter how much we think we have prepared for the change, we are still caught unaware. We may think that after a difficult year and a half that we have been through that any change would be welcome at this time. And yet there is still always the uncertainty of readjusting to something new. I have written about change in earlier blog posts, such as here.
The Befriending Our Shadow course has just ended. Endings such as this always force me to turn inwards. This course calls for an intense focus, which is deeply rewarding but at the same time I find I need time for deep reflection and rest afterwards. It is an honor to be a witness to the participants' deep work and courageous explorations. I learn so much along with them and find I need time to integrate what was learned and to think of ways to make the course even better next time. And it is almost summer, traditionally a more open-ended time, reminiscent of the school year. Somehow I have never really moved beyond that sense of summer being "time off" even though it isn't really any more.
So, with all of this comes, uncertainty, a sense of nostalgia for a past (before lockdown) that I'm not really remembering correctly and will never be able to go back to. What will the future be like? One thing I have noticed is that I have been re-evaluating the life I had before the pandemic, the habits I had back then. Do I really want do go back to the structure of my days as they used to be? As an introvert, there were ways in which I appreciated the excuse to spend longer hours on my own, in my studio working on dolls or drawings, or just at home watching movies or reading whatever book has caught my interest of late. How can I balance and leave room for these inward times of exploration with going back "out into the world" again?
I am also evaluating the Befriending Our Shadow course, tweaking and adding. This seems to be an on-going part of the process. The course will be offered again in the fall and the basic outline will remain the same, but I'm considering some changes that will make it even more powerful and effective. Stay tuned. Change is a chance to see things, even very familiar things, anew. When the context changes, we suddenly see ourselves and what we have been doing with new eyes. I am appreciating that and trying to take advantage of this new view.
For instance, it was the shutdown that motivated me to offer the on-line course, Befriending Our Shadow, three times, when I was no longer able to teach in-person workshops! It might have taken me much longer to do this without the impetus of the pandemic. So this was a silver lining that came from the pandemic for me. I wonder what the silver linings might have been for you.
Below I give you a peek into what some of those things were that I missed over the past year, when things were shut down. Some artists who I visited in studios that no longer exist. A show (of mine) that didn't happen. And museums and galleries that I visited where I could see the works so close up that I could see the brush strokes on a painting, the patterns of cloth used to construct a doll or wall hanging-not the same as viewing them on-line.
Some of the things I missed during lockdown...
Now that we are sort of/kind of coming out of the lockdown of the last year, I have been thinking about what I missed from before this strange time. One of those things was being able to go to actual museums and to see my artist friends in their studios or shows. Below is a peek at some of my visits in the past with artist friends and to museums and galleries. You can see many of these artists works on-line now and I have provided links. (It's not like I didn't get to visit these artists, see these shows in the past. I did. But who knows what shows and artist visits might have happened if we hadn't been locked down.)
Also I miss what didn't happen for me-a possible show of work that had to be cancelled and now I have to think about how it will manifest in the future. Above is a detail from a book that I wrote and illustrated about the journey of a crone-like woman, named Kalili, who comes up from her underground world, to heal a sickness that has come over the medieval world of the story. In a way, it is a metaphor for our current ecological crisis. In this image, Kalili and her companions are waiting to be let into the gates of one of the main town in the fictional country of Ysadluftvelt.
What I missed...
...being able to do things like visit my friend, Pauline Siple, in her Torpedo Factory studio before the shutdown. She is no longer there, but her paintings, dolls and other works can be viewed on-line.
..being able to see my friend Leslie Blackmon's thesis presentation at her graduation from The Washington Studio School. She shows her work at the Touchstone Gallery in DC, and her work is also viewable on-line.
...being able to visit my artist friend, Susan Sherwin, when she had her studio at Art Blitz Studio, founded by artist Barbara Muth.
Susan is no longer at that artist collective, but Barbara Muth and her artist collective is still there. Susan does wonderful portraits and recently did a series of dinosaur paintings, inspired by her grandson, whom she has also taught to be an artist. He recently has had several commissions and at age eight, is a painter in his own right.
...being able to see this Black Dolls show, curated by artist and doll-maker, Priyah Bhagat. I did post here previously more about this wonderful exhibit, that I was honored to be able to participate in.
Below are some images I saw at the National Gallery at a time before lockdown. The first was part of an amazing series by Thomas Cole. This one was called "Old Age." This series of paintings take you through the stages of life, showing, through metaphor and symbol, what most occupies one at each stage.
And below that is a powerful doll-like image by Bessie Harvey (also at the National Gallery, I think) called Birthing and made of painted wood, beads, rhinestones, sequins, glitter and a nail. I love the juxtaposition of all these materials and the power of the image.
Below are some details of the above scene in the Kalili story, in more detail. Here are the words from this page "I noticed a brass knocker in the shape of a bear...one of the doors swung slightly inward. We could see a brown foot, a leather clad foot and then a petite figure of a person. It was difficult to tell if it was a man or a woman. The figure was covered from head to toe in a dark brown cloak, like a monk's habit. A small voice issued out of its mouth, invisible within the folds of the hood, 'who are you and what is your business here?'" The images are drawn with pen, goauche and Caran D'Ache watercolor crayons.
The Dark Goddess, collage with magazine images, markers and Caran D'ache crayon
Where is the Space for Women's Anger?
We've been talking about anger in Befriending Our Shadow. Especially how women's anger is too often shut down, starting from when we are small children and are told to be "good little girls," to experiences in the workplace of being called things like "psycho-bitch" (yes, this was someone's true life experience,) for expressing anger while serving in a corporate leadership position. And then when we get older, we are really not allowed to express anger, that is if we are seen at all. Old women are supposed to be kind and nurturing but mostly they are invisible. Does this sound harsh? Do you think we have made progress and these stereotypes are no longer true? Maybe some progress has been made, but judging from the lived experiences of the women in the Befriending Our Shadow course and my own experiences, they are still strong enough to shut us down.
Listening to the Dark Goddesses
Too often anger gets pushed down into our shadow as a result of the inability/unwillingness of the world around us to see and accept our anger. Shadow work is the difficult work of allowing space for these difficult emotions, not yet "befriending" them but first, just letting them be, to have some space and some air. As a way to guide us in this difficult journey, we have been visiting with the dark goddesses who have shown up in various cultures around the world and throughout history. The Dark Madonna, Kali and Durga...and of course, Baba Yaga. (I also wrote about anger and dark emotions here.)
In the course, we did a guided meditation to visit with our version of the dark goddess, being willing to be surprised at how she shows up and asking her for help and guidance. Here were some of the results: a fierce warrior, so strong and powerful that the woman experiencing her was brought to tears; a dark hulking powerful figure, almost non-verbal, cursing and swearing but reminding the woman experiencing her of her own boundless power; a fierce, strong woman who would not speak and yet the woman visiting with her sensed that she was there as a guide. And many more. We all as women, know inside that there is a fierce guardian within us, powerful and strong, who is there to remind us of our power and also to protect us from any negative forces. But it takes the courage to be willing to look within and to see her in her scariness and fierceness.
A New Way of Looking at Fierceness and Anger
We talked in the group about Kristen Neff's work with self compassion, and how she has broadened the definition to include that fierce self compassion that allows, for instance, a mother to pull a car off her child. Below is an image representing this new understanding.
We know, instinctively, as women, (and also as men, this is not limited to women but we all have the capacity for this kind of fierce compassion), that there is more to power than what the patriarchy has to tell us. We know that power doesn't have to mean "power over." We know that there is a great deal more strength in restraint and powerful words than in lashing out and using weapons at the slightest provocation. Too long, this wiser way has been stifled and ignored, in the way we treat the environment, anyone who has less power in the world, the animal kingdom.
As we begin to turn inward and revitalize ourselves by reconnecting with our own fierce feminine anger, we are then able to turn that force outward as a means of healing the world around us as well as ourselves.
From Kristen Neff's work with yin and yang self compassion, recognizing that in addition to the passive form of self compassion that we are used to, there is also a fierce self compassion that acts in the world
Durga's Sword-Slicing through Delusion and Illusion
We talked a lot about Durga, from the Hindu pantheon, a powerful manifestation of the goddess Kali. Traditionally she has eight limbs and each holds a tool of enlightenment. But she is best known for her glowing sword. Several women in the group talked about their evolving relationship with Durga, once they began to know her. For more about Durga, see the wonderful Sally Kempton, teacher of meditation and yoga philosophy, who has written extensively about the Hindu goddesses.
One of the participants, perhaps less familiar with Durga, asked, "does she really have to be that fierce?" Another answered, "Yes! Her flaming sword is needed to cut through delusion and illusion. We can get so caught up in confusion and inner fog sometimes when we are trying to squelch our own anger. Sometimes we need that sword of Durga to see beyond this. Or when we are experiencing injustice, we need her to give us the power needed to overcome our adversaries." Another woman said that she had at first been afraid of Durga but felt fond of her now and appreciative of her reminder of the power she has within.
Creating Our Own Reminder and Manifestation of Our Inner Power, Doll Making
I had a funny experience preparing for the class on the dark goddesses and anger shadows. I had the thought, when considering whether I had images of dark goddesses and anger in my own work, "oh, I don't really show anger a lot in my dolls." Followed immediately by the realization that this couldn't be further from the truth! Owning my anger is one of the most difficult parts of my own shadow work. When I look at the way in which emotions tend to be layered in my psyche, anger is way down. So it has been incredibly important for me to be able to express anger and fierce power in my dolls. This representation is almost everywhere in my work. But in that initial reckoning, I "forgot" about this. A funny reminder of how shadows work and how befriending our shadows, is a life-long process, which can be compared to peeling off layers of an onion. But to create a doll that expresses some of these shadow emotions can be a powerful process in itself and then we have a reminder and a representation that we can turn to at times of need. We can put them in a prominent place in our house, such as next to the computer where you write every day, or in your studio or wherever you most need to be reminded and given courage throughout the day.
What is your experience of fierce feminine anger? I hope that this brief exploration inspires you to think about what this means for you. One of the questions that came up in the course was the need for role models of fierce powerful women in the world around us. Who are the role models for you?
Or you can wear her around your neck! Kali necklace, needlefelted
Held in Nature's Embrace, Goauche and Caran D'ache crayons on paper
I struggled writing this blog post because in some ways, the topic didn't fit the times we are in right now. We have come through a very long, hard year of difficulties and around us, at least, here in the Northern hemisphere it is spring and things are opening up, albeit just a bit. It almost feels like there isn't space for grief in the midst of all this beautiful bounty of spring-irises, multicolored roses, peonies, and the trees a canopy of fresh green. And we have the vaccine now. However, there is still grief and loss, especially for those most grievously hit by the pandemic. In a way, this theme fits very well with what I am trying to get across with this blog post today, that we are much healthier when we see grief and loss on a spectrum with joy and celebration, rather than distinct and separate from each other. Jung said, "everything alive creates a shadow," but at the same time, it is the shadows that create definition, form and depth to our brightest experiences.
What if we were to create a bit more space for grief?
Last week, in Befriending Our Shadow, we talked about grief, loss and the "Dark Night of the Soul." I have written about these topics in other posts here or here, so today, I want to focus on the need to create space for grief, in a world that often seems to want to move beyond it. To either shut it down, to distract from it, or to rush past a superficial acknowledgement. What if we were to create just a little bit more space for the griefs that come up in our lives, large and small?
Allowing time for grief
Because and this is the most important thing, if we don't do this, griefs can have a tendency to layer themselves one upon the other, until we are in a place of "impasse" or deep depression and we can't move forward at all. In a previous version of this course, someone in the class talked about what it was like to grieve her mother, when the world around her was ready for her to move on. Her work gave her a certain amount of time to be "done with it," and her friends and family gave her a bit more, but none of it was nearly enough. Luckily, she was in tune enough with her own needs to seek out places where she could talk about her grief and receive support for as long as it took, for her to be able to function, and to even minimally be able to meet the daily demands of her life.
Death as a part of the natural rhythm of a life that is larger than us
We talked about how within some religions, there are structures created around mourning-the wearing of black clothes, covering mirrors, and an understanding of the stages of mourning that someone goes through, without a need to rush them. We talked about how, in a patriarchal culture such as the one we live in, here in the Northern United States, the natural cycles of death and life are cut off and truncated. Death is seen almost as a failure, somehow, a "battle lost." What if instead, it were are returning to a beginning, a part of an endless, ever-renewing cycle of life and death, each informing the other?
Invitations to Surrender
I loved reading a quote in the wonderful Toko-pa Turner in her recent newsletter, "I’m thinking of death also in this moment. Not just as a final passage into a grand remembering, but as a companion who is always with us in every moment we are consumed with fear and regret. Each of these small deaths are echoes from the great death, invitations to practice at surrender. To give way, as the winter does to spring, to the kindness and generosity of allowing." What if we were to allow, not just those large deaths and losses but also the small ones that are a natural part of each day, and what if we were to see them as "invitations to practice at surrender." This isn't something that comes easy to me, but as always, I try to teach what I need to learn. By just sharing these words with you, I hope they create a bit more space for you, whether you are facing a large grief or one of the daily "small deaths," a space to breath and a space to recognize that you are not alone. I know that in writing these words, it helps me as well. And maybe then we are better able to welcome in the joyful colors, sounds and smells of spring!
What's in my studio right now?
I just finished this doll, I think. You can see some of how she progressed in the images above. She emerged out of a desire to work with some powerful dark emotions but she seems now to be a companion and a witness to the shadows of loss and grief. As I have mentioned before, you can follow my process in my studio and other things that come up on my Instagram account.
The Golden Shadow
Last week in "Befriending Our Shadow", an on-line doll making shadow course I am currently leading, participants took part in a guided visualization to meet a guide, possibly someone from their lives, a guardian angel or a representation of their "highest self." As they visited with this guide, they were asked the question, "what would it be like to be seen by the eyes of love." This meditation came from a wonderful book that I had recently been introduced to called "Your Resonant Self" by Sarah Peyton. As in the past, this meditation brought up strong emotions. For some, it was a reminder of a connection with a source greater than themselves, that they had forgotten about but were now reconnected with in a very powerful way. For others, it brought up grief, as they began to connect with a loving presence that they had not experienced to date in their lives or were only just beginning to come in contact with. Or anywhere along the spectrum from those two responses.
This reminds me again, of the quote from Marianne Williamson, "our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us." In a way, to be in the presence of such deep unconditional love, is like being in the presence of our "golden shadow," that part of ourselves that we aren't ready to acknowledge and which includes our very best and highest qualities, including our abilities to love and to love ourselves, In a way, this loving of ourselves is the most important part of shadow work. The more we can accept ourselves as beings of light, the easier it is to bring all the scary, shadow parts of ourselves into the fold.
Enduring the Beams of Love
One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, puts it this way, (in turn quoting poet William Blake) “We are put on this Earth to learn to endure the beams of Love.” Anne Lamott talks of having to remind herself of this task frequently. It is so easy to get sidetracked by the day-to-day challenges of life and to forget what this quote is alluding to, that we are all already whole, and deserving of love. I know you already know all of this but like many truths, at least for me, I can't be reminded enough.
The image above by Hildegarde of Bingen, is a visual representation of one of her mystical visions. She started seeing these visions at age 4, always with eyes wide open and in a conscious state. In this image, there is a balance between a spiritual experience of connection with "soul" or "living light" on one side, with the golden radiance of soul connecting directly into the womb of the resting woman. The other side represents the challenges of "earthly life." Hildegarde of Bingen is one of my favorite mystics. I go to her for inspiration. To me, this image of the golden light reminds me of the beams of love that William Blake talks about.
Below I share some representative images by William Blake, poet, mystic, artist of the 1800's. To me, they are another way of representing that fantastical vision that Hildegarde von Bingen also spoke of, and which demonstrate so vividly our connection to a loving force greater than ourselves.
I hope that this very brief introduction to some of my favorite visionary artists will inspire you to take a deeper dive into their work. I also hope that they inspire you to consider the ways in which you too are seen by the eyes of love always.
Explorations in the Studio
Below is an image of what I am working on in my studio currently. Inspired by my doll-making mentor, Barb Kobe. I have been having a great deal of fun exploring a new, to me, medium of paper clay, to build faces, feet and hands. I am connecting these paper clay body parts to armatures made of wire, stick or even rolled up paper from paper bags. The images show some of the progression in how I went about putting the doll together. She is a powerful crone and has something to do with finding one's way through the dark. She is not finished. I am working on embellishing her with beads and adding a cloak. I tend to post more frequently on Instagram about my process in my studio. You can find these posts here in case you are interested.
Image from Carl Jung's "Red Book" his private musings on dreams and overwhelming imagery that flooded his mind in the chaotic time just before WWI. He didn't want to let it be publicly seen, so it was literally hidden in a Swiss vault until his descendants allowed it to be reproduced and published in 2009
"Silly me, I thought this was a doll-making workshop!"
These were the words of one of the participants in the most recent version of the shadow doll workshop, "Befriending Our Shadow" that is currently going on. This aha moment became a sort of a theme in one of the beginning sessions of the workshop, the discovery on the part of several participants that this was going to be more than they had originally signed up for. And yet, that this was going to be deep learning in a different and possibly more rewarding way than a workshop in which they would be simply learning sewing and doll construction techniques.
We had been talking about the "trickster" nature of the shadow, how impossible it is to see "the lion that has swallowed you." And truly, it is mostly impossible to see one's own shadow. This participant went on to say that she was grateful to have stumbled into the often confusing, and yet constantly surprising path of self-discover that is shadow work. Also surprising perhaps, in a process that would seem to focus on the dark and scary, is that there is also a lot of laughter in this group. It takes a certain amount of self-trust and a willingness to put aside certainties to do this work. This promises to be a courageous and self-aware group of women who are well able to take on this task. Though they may feel a bit daunted, in their words, they are "all in!" And they have a sense of humor about it all.
Our shock on first encountering the shadow
In What the Shadow Knows: An Interview with John A, Sanford (in Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature) Sanford says "when one first sees the shadow clearly, one is more or less aghast." Our defenses "melt away" and we are sometimes plunged into a sort of depression. This is what I meant earlier by the trickster nature of the shadow. It pulls the rug out from under us, but as we lose our footing, we begin to discover the instability of what we were standing on, like falling through old, rotten floorboards of an old house. We are in for a big renovation project. But what possibilities!... if we are willing to roll up our sleeves and dig into the work of renovations.
Sanford goes on in this article, to describe the benefits of getting more comfortable with the shadow. He says that as we let go of our false self, that self that we put forward into the world in order to fit into outward structures and expectations, we begin to come into contact with something much truer and more reliable. But it is a weird and contradictory path. In our western culture, we are inundated with false images of who and what we are supposed to be. We need to step away from this constant bombardment in order to tune inward and figure out who we really are and what we really stand for....
Jung himself formulated his theories out of a process of "active imagination," as a way to make sense of a disordered and disintegrating reality...
The image at the top of this post is from Jung's Red Book, a series of paintings that he created during a time when his internal and external world was collapsing. He was ostracized from his mentor, Sigmund Freud and Freud's followers, after Jung claimed the importance of the spiritual realm in the process of personal healing (oversimplifying here of course to make a point) His marriage was disintegrating and he, as a sensitive and intuitive being, was feeling and witnessing the ominous signs of what was to be WWI and then WWII. Using a process he called "active imagination," he allowed these waking dream images to pour out onto the page and turn into a sort of hero's journey of personal integration and discovery.
As an artist and doll-maker, I am moved by his use of art as a way to make sense out of his world. He would repeatedly tell his followers apparently to not copy him. He would tell them they needed to create their own Red Books. As an artist and as explorers of my psyche, I take to task his exhortation to develop and discover my own personal iconography and I hope to inspire others to do the same-see my recent paintings above and dolls below.
Still with me? Thanks
So what does this all mean? It means that I want to encourage you to create your own Red Book as well. It doesn't have to be in painting or doll making, Instead choose whatever medium speaks to you. And that could be anything from writing some lines in a journal, sketching images or lying on your back and seeing images in the clouds. It is worth it to your mental health to find your own meaning, your own personal iconography to make sense out of your own life. I leave you with a poem by Wendell Berry that captures some of the sense of what it is like to discover your shadow:
I Go Among Trees
by Wendell Berry
I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.
Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.
Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.
After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.
~ Wendell Berry from Sabbaths
Why Flip Dolls? Still asking this question...
Back in 2016, I wrote a blog post here about flip dolls and it is still the post that gets the most comments on my website. I asked the question back then, why flip dolls? and it seems I am asking it still. Above is an example of a flip doll from 1901, a time when these Black "Mammy" vs young girl flip dolls were very popular. This one was made by Albert Bruckner, a designer who capitulated on the interest in flip dolls by creating a technique that allowed the doll faces to be printed on fabric and more easily reproduced. This doll was then mass produced and was very popular in its time, though it reinforced the unfortunate stereotype of the "Black Mammy."
This flip doll harkened back to the origin of flip dolls, at least in the U.S., of a doll that was made by slave mothers for their daughters during the slave era in the south of this country. See the article in the link above, for more details about this sad origin story. The image below maybe be closer to what those original dolls looked like, though there are not many images available.
I've been fascinated by flip dolls ever since discovering them many years ago and have wanted to transcend and "revision" their function into something more hopeful. To that end I have challenged artists to make flip dolls, worked with homeless women, teaching them to make flip dolls, made many of my own and more recently, used the two-sided nature of the flip dolls as a vehicle to explore the "shadow."
What is the "shadow"?
One of the most obvious characteristics of the flip doll is that it flips, that is it turns upside down so that what was once the top of the doll becomes the bottom. Not only that, the two sides are connected so that whichever side is up one way is upside down the other. When I thought about the ways that the two-sided nature of the doll could be used to explore story, I realized that it would be perfect to explore a particular type of story and that is the story of the shadow.
Throughout history, we have been fascinated by our shadows in different ways. In ancient times, the shadow was what lurked beyond the circle of light cast by the bonfire that we sat around to keep ourselves warm and to tell stories around. Hidden in the darkness beyond the firelight were the scary things that could harm us-mammoths, saber toothed tigers and all manner of "monsters." More recently, with the invention of psychology, we began to discover the "monsters" within ourselves. Though of course shadow was known through myths, fairy tales, and many other forms of writing, psychology made it more specific. And especially psychologist and writer, Carl Jung made it easier to understand what it might mean to have a shadow within ourselves, a part of our personality that was made up of all that we wanted to hide from ourselves.
Image of one side of an early handmade flip doll from United Federation of Doll Clubs DVD. She is an 11 inch doll with hand embroidered features. The DVD narration states that this doll may have been owned by a slave girl in the South. She is very well worn. (Note: I was not able to find the link to this video for this article but you can try contacting the United Federation of Doll Clubs to ask.)
Flip dolls and the shadow-homage to the origin of the flip doll
So, when I thought about bringing together the shadow and the flip doll in the form of shadow doll workshops, I was guided by a couple of intentions. First, I wanted to honor the origin of the flip doll, with its very simple materials, by encouraging participants in these workshops to make dolls out simple cotton cloth material. The women who first made these dolls did not have access to a wide range of materials. They used what was to hand and mostly that was scraps of cloth from feed bags, such as those used for grain or flour. And then these dolls were stuffed with leftover scraps or maybe remnants of cotton. These women did want the dolls to be soft, so that they would be comforting to hold.
In the shadow doll workshops that I lead, I encourage participants to use a simple cloth doll design to make their flip dolls, though they are free to also use their materials. Below is a flip doll created by a participant in the first on-line Befriending Our Shadow flip doll workshop, Naomi Zow, using a cloth pattern but with her own embellishments and story.
"Light/Inner Guide vs Shadow/Inner Critic" Two sides of flip doll created by Befriending Our Shadow participant, Naomi Zow.
Flip dolls-both shadow and guardian within one doll
Delving into one's shadow can be a scary thing. When we have hidden away parts of ourselves, it can be scary to start to look at them again. And often, the deeper these parts are hidden, the more we may have developed resentful and sometimes even angry feelings towards these parts. Yet, we know on some level that what was hidden away contains our power within it, so we know it is worth the work and the fear. But we need a guide along this journey.
The wonderful ability of the flip doll to contain opposites, grief and joy, darkness and light, comfort and fear, makes it possible to combine the shadow with its "opposite" in one doll. This leads to my second intention, to use the two sided nature of the doll as a way to allow both the guardian and the shadow to be connected in one doll. However the tricky nature of this work means that we have to be willing to accept the twists and turns in the road as we go forward. Sometimes what starts of being the shadow, the "monster," can turn into our biggest ally. I have seen this happen time and time again, both in my own work and in the work of participants in my workshops.
Below is a wonderful example of a cloth shadow flip doll from the second Befriending Our Shadow workshop. Joanne Delaplaine found that the "monster" octopus transformed into an ally in this doll.
Ms. Peacekeepr/Octopus Woman, two sides of a flip doll by Befriending Our Shadow participant Joanne Delaplaine
The journey continues...
I don't think I am ever going to get tired of working with, learning about and teaching others to make flip dolls. Last week was the start of the third version of Befriending Our Shadow, an intensive eight week exploration of the shadow within the intimacy of small groups. I am very excited about the wonderful, brave women who have shown up this time to take this class. I am looking forward to seeing what comes up for them and where their journeys take them. I feel very lucky.
Here's a little video about making a tiny flip doll in case you want to experiment yourself!
I've been making dolls for about ten years now. I believe that dolls serve as representations and reminders of the best part of ourselves. I am excited to share with you here my learnings about new methods and techniques for doll making and healing. So glad you are here!