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More or less monthly posts about Transformative Healing Dolls
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!
"Octopus Woman/Ms. Peacekeeper" two sides of shadow flip doll by Joanne Rocky Delaplaine
It's difficult enough when the world outside is challenging...
...but it can become even more difficult when the voices inside seem to be working against us. We have all been in those situations where it seems like our worst enemies are ourselves. I certainly have. We find ourselves repeating too-comfortable patterns of behavior over and over, even though they never seem to get us the results we want. It takes courage and spaciousness to be able to step back and begin to witness ourselves, and especially to begin to witness those parts of ourselves that lurk in the shadows, our "monsters."
Doll artist and participant in the Fall 2020 Befriending Our Shadow course, Joanne Delaplaine, describes her doll this way:
"Octopus Woman can change shape at a whim, squirt ink in her own defense, and escape any trap humans can set. Ms. Peace Keeper thinks making peace is more important than troubling the waters. She knows she has much to learn from Octopus Woman, and knows all life comes from the sea. They are bound together by their curiosity."
I was honored to be able to witness Joanne's process as she created this doll during the Befriending Our Shadow course last fall. When participants approach the making of their dolls. they often think of one side as the ally or guardian and the other as the shadow or foe. At first the octopus came to Joanne as a scary creature, with sharp teeth and a threatening demeanor. Something to avoid and representing fearful elements in her life. But as she dove deep into her process, working with the doll and developing a relationship with it, she began to find that the octopus was shifting, changing its shape, as octopuses (or octopi!) do. She flowed with the process and eventually discovered that the octopus was her ally and friend, as she describes above. She became open to learning from Octopus woman as a part of her willing to challenge the side of her that values peace more.
I am generalizing this phenomenon of seeing monsters within ourselves. I am not sure that this is what was happening in Joanne's case-I'll let that part of her story stay private. Though as I said, it has certainly happened in my life that I find myself battling inner monsters-I am often reminded that we teach what we need to learn. I recently came across a poem, that I share below, which describes in a different way, that sense of having a "monster" within. Strangely, his imagery showed up in a doll of mine many years ago. That to me is part of the mystery of the creative process, how we discover something in ourselves and then find an echo of it in the outer world. Jung called these echoes, "the collective unconscious." More about this below...
"Tumnus, not a Faun" a healer doll from 2015. You can see the panel depicted at right, peeking through on the back of his cloak in the first image. More about this below...
What does it mean to befriend our shadows?
Irish poet John O'Donohue says it very well in the following poem about coming to terms with trauma. In this poem he captures so well that feeling of finally being ready to confront that difficult memory, whether it is a trauma, a loss, or anything that is painful to remember. Something that we have been carrying around as an extra weight on our hearts, or as he says it here so well, "...And whose branches your awakened hands/
Now long to disentangle from your heart."
Working with the shadow is like that, a tender, delicate process of turning towards and beginning to develop a relationship with what we have been hiding from, a part of us that was within us but that we haven't wanted to acknowledge. Here he describes it as a way of getting distance from something that was too close. In this case, in order to develop a relationship with whatever was being carried around from the past, the subject of the poem had to step back and gain distance, and "disentangle" the "branch" from her own heart. Tender and powerful self surgery in a way!
This is a spiritual process, requiring patience, blessings, support and kindness, best done in the company of others.
For Someone Awakening To The Trauma of His or Her Past:
For everything under the sun there is a time.
This is the season of your awkward harvesting,
When the pain takes you where you would rather not go,
Through the white curtain of yesterdays to a place
You had forgotten you knew from the inside out;
And a time when that bitter tree was planted
That has grown always invisibly beside you
And whose branches your awakened hands
Now long to disentangle from your heart.
You are coming to see how your looking often darkened
When you should have felt safe enough to fall toward love,
How deep down your eyes were always owned by something
That faced them through a dark fester of thorns
Converting whoever came into a further figure of the wrong;
You could only see what touched you as already torn.
Now the act of seeing begins your work of mourning.
And your memory is ready to show you everything,
Having waited all these years for you to return and know.
Only you know where the casket of pain is interred.
You will have to scrape through all the layers of covering
And according to your readiness, everything will open.
May you be blessed with a wise and compassionate guide
Who can accompany you through the fear and grief
Until your heart has wept its way to your true self.
As your tears fall over that wounded place,
May they wash away your hurt and free your heart.
May your forgiveness still the hunger of the wound
So that for the first time you can walk away from that place,
Reunited with your banished heart, now healed and freed,
And feel the clear, free air bless your new face.”
― John O'Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings
In the image above of "Tumnus not a Faun," the felted panel on the back of his cloak depicts a woman having branches pulled out of the top of her head. They come out of her head but I very much resonate with the image of disentangling a branch from my heart as well. I love when these kinds of synchronicities occur in art making!
Befriending Our Shadow 2021 now live and ready for registration!
A doll-making e-course about befriending our shadow, using tenderness and compassion to connect with all parts of ourselves. Flip dolls are two sided dolls connected at the waist. These two-sided dolls have the capacity to capture divergent views of reality, dark vs light, joy vs sorrow, love vs alienation. In this course you will have the chance, through exploring and befriending your shadow, to discover hidden strengths within. And at the end of the course, your doll will represent and unite both shadow and light.
Early bird price deadline March 29
Sign up deadline April 2
Course starts April 5
Course ends May 29
Click here to find out more and to sign up.
"I really wanted to explore my own current state of mind and I had a feeling that the class might encourage the deep dive I needed. These simple expectations were met and the more hidden expectations emerged and were met as well. The classes followed a path that was like a stairway down towards an internal place where the psyche and the soul met somehow…”
Barbara Sobol, participant Befriending Our Shadow, Fall 2020
"Carl Jung said 'The shadow is where the gold is.' The process of working on a flip doll in a community of doll-makers under the tutelage of Erika Cleveland was a wonderful way of accessing shadow parts of my personality, those parts of myself I have trouble acknowledging and seeing clearly…”
Joanne Delaplaine, participant Befriending Our Shadow Fall 2020
One side of Blooming and Planted, shadow flip doll by Sam Margarette, created during the Fall 2020 session of Befriending Our Shadow
Sometimes change brings joy and at other times, it can be a bumpy road...We have been and are still going through a very difficult period throughout the world and specifically here in the US. The work that I do in my studio and in the workshops that I lead constantly reminds me of the need to turn inward towards our inner guidance, towards those places of solidity and groundedness, as a way to navigate times of accelerated change like this.
Below and above you can see one of the amazing dolls created in the most recent Befriending Our Shadow course, by a young doll artist, younger than the women who usually participate in my groups but I think this artist is an old soul. She found ways in her doll making to process challenging experiences and to give herself a talisman of hope and inspiration. Below I share a peek into a large doll that I have been working on along with the Befriending Our Shadow workshop, in this case, taking a look at the state of the earth, the ways in which the earth itself must befriend her shadows.
And over the years, I have contemplated the cycles of life in nature as they correspond to the cycles of life for us as women. Just as the seasons cycle from the newly budding growth of spring, to the fullness of summer, the ripening of fall and the dormancy of winter, we as women go through our own seasons. These cycles have been celebrated for ages , going back to the pagan times when seasons were marked by additional intermediate stages in addition to the seasons as we know them. We are approaching one of those intermediate markers, Imbolc, on February 2nd, the midway point between the winter solstice and the start of spring. This is a time of the very first buds, making their way out of the snow. And in a way this also celebrates our own tentative first steps into the new year. I am offering a workshop Tending Your Inner Garden: Imbolc Celebration, as a way to mark this milestone.
Winter 2020 Befriending Our Shadow Showcase: Doll Artist Sam Margarette
I'm so very excited to start to share with you some of the truly amazing dolls that were created as part of the winter session of Befriending Our Shadow...This one is entitled "Blooming and Planted" and is a shadow flip doll by Sam Margarette.
She says of this doll-this is one side and above is the other, "The halo wound up turning into a bit of a wreath with the leafs and flowers, kind of turning them into Spring and Fall spirits (which wound up working perfectly with the rest/rebirth theme), and being more Circle of Life than I expected. Each of them has a pocket on their skirt to hold any notes or reflections I'm worried about or aspiring to, kind of like sending little prayers out to the Universe; they're my little messengers."
This second round of Befriending Our Shadow met for two months, from October to November, meeting in small groups over the course of the two months and creating their dolls as a way of diving deep into their psyches to explore their shadows.
It was an honor to be able to work with this brave and creative group of women and I will be sharing some of their dolls over the next month or so. I always find that I learn so much from this process, right along with them and I am grateful for that.
The next round of Befriending Our Shadow will be coming in the spring, either mid-March or the beginning of April. I am making some significant changes to the materials that I share as part of the class and some changes to the structure of the program. Each time I offer it, I also learn more about how best to offer it. So I appreciate your patience if you are on the wait list.
What's been happening in my studio...
After the Befriending Our Shadow winter session ended in November, I took the opportunity to dive back into my studio for a while during the months of December and January. Here is a hint of one of the biggest projects that I was able to finish before the end of the year...
This image is a peek at my latest large flip doll, entitled The Living Earth. the Nuclear Light side. In this doll, and in conjunction with the Befriending Our Shadow class, I explored our relationship with mother earth. I envisioned the Nuclear Light side of the doll as a vision of the earth beset by too much light, too much activity and energy. The other side, which I will share soon, I called the Healing Dark, is about the way in which the darkness, the deepest ocean, the night skies, the deepest forests and the parts of the earth that still have darkness, can bring healing for all. I will be sharing more about this doll over the next month.
Guardians and Angels, goauche and watercolor crayon in handmade journal, by Erika
Our True Nature
This round of Befriending Our Shadow course is complete. This week we had our last sessions, the last one being the day before Thanksgiving. Participants in the class have come full circle, from tentatively approaching the shadow, which was experienced as a monster, lurking in the shadows, to acceptance and even friendship with the shadow. More than that, they have come to see more deeply how the shadow and the light are deeply intertwined. They have explored in their powerfully expressive dolls, how the shadow cannot exist without light and vice versa and how one nourishes the other. Fundamentally the truth of our true nature as human beings is coming clearer, that we are beings of light.
Participants in the course have been courageously wrestling with dark emotions of grief and loss, anger and frustration, and questions of identity in times of transition. These deep explorations are mirrored in their dolls, which morph and change, just as the participating artists relationships with these dark emotions shift and change. Monsters shape-shift into partners in growth. Deteriorations related to illness or aging are seen in a new way, as a pathway into acceptance of the full self. Continual change begins to be welcomed as the only reliable constant in life.
Throughout the course we have had guided visualizations, and one of the first ones was a journey to see the hidden light or gold within the shadow. It was very moving to see how brightly the light shone in these meditations and at the same time, how this light was gently held within the shadow. And this week we meditated on how the true self, that core of gold within, is held by both the shadow and the inner guardian. We saw again how closely linked these “opposites” are, not really opposites at all.
Meeting of Light and Dark, goauche and watercolor crayon in handmade journal by Erika
The Light within the Dark at the time of the Winter Solstice
It seems appropriate to talk about these things as we approach the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, in the Northern hemisphere. We usually think of this time as a time of short days. We wake up in dark and before our days are fully done, it is already dark. Yet, the solstice is also the time when the earth shifts and starts its journey towards light again. The pause at the fulcrum of this transition, can be seen as the earth taking a breath. And together with the earth, we can also take a breath, appreciating the wisdom of the dark and anticipating the coming of the light. We are reminded that, no matter how dark it may seem outside, whether because of the time of year, or because of what might be going on in the world at this present time, we can never get away from our true nature as a being of light.
More Guardians and Angels, goauche and watercolor crayon by Erika
The Meaning of Our True Nature as Beings of Light
Last week, in talking with one of the participants of the course in a private session, I said, “in some ways, I feel like I know less about the shadow than I did when we started,” and she laughed in recognition. One of the themes, running as a thread through these eight weeks has been the idea that once we come to a true place of impasse, when there seems no path forward, we are given the opportunity to discover a new way of approaching our problems. This is when we let go of the left brained thinking that is the most common way of approaching problems in our modern day world, at least among what Clarissa Pinkola Estes, of Women Who Run with the Wolves fame, calls, the “overculture,” and turn instead to a right brained more creative way of thinking. This way of thinking is less about “figuring it out,” and more about developing a comfort level with the uncertainty of life, with all the parts that don’t seem to fit, with all the ways in which our world feels “wrong,” essentially the shadow.
Once we begin this shift, we begin also to recognize that there is a part of ourselves that doesn’t change, no matter how dark we feel, and that is our inner true self, our hidden gold. There is a story about a treasured statue of the Buddha in Thailand:
In 1957 an entire Monastery in Thailand was being relocated by a group of monks. One day they were moving a giant clay Buddha when one of the monks noticed a large crack in the clay. On closer investigation he saw there was a golden light emanating from the crack. The monk used a hammer and a chisel to chip away at the clay exterior until he revealed that the statue was in fact made of solid gold.
Historians believe the Buddha had been covered with clay by Thai monks several hundred years earlier to protect it from an attack by the Burmese army. In the attack, all the monks had been killed and it wasn’t until 1957 that this great treasure was actually discovered.
We begin to discover our hidden gold or true light, once we release our hold onto the outer shells of our identity and rest into who we truly are, the bedrock of our being. And in so doing, we also connect to that golden light within others and in the world around us. And though this may seem like a small step, if we take this small step each day, we are adding golden light to the world around us. Our ability to renegotiate our relationship with our own light on a daily basis, can contribute in a small way to the healing of the world.
Baba Yaga/Mother Earth, Sculptural needle felted and mixed media and Vasilisa, the Brave, Sculptural needle felting and mixed media in 2019 exhibit.
What helps us through our dark times?
Recently a participant in the Befriending Our Shadow class mentioned the impact that my Baba Yaga and Vasilisa dolls had on her. She has been going through the painful experience of accompanying a close friend through the last stages of a terminal disease and then her death. What could she do to support her friend when there was seemingly nothing left to do? And what could she do for herself to ease her way through her own grief?
These concerns were all exacerbated by her not being able to be with her friend during this time of COVID. She resonated with the helplessness of one of the central figures in the story, Vasilisa, but also with the way this character receives help. She said, “when I translated my experience into Vasilisa's encounter with Baba Yaga it was enormously comforting to me. The story helped me see how helpless I felt in the face of my friend's impossible demands and where I could turn for help.”
The Baba Yaga and Vasilisa Story
Here is the story, in the way that I understand it. There are many variations and in Russia, it is a very common story, as familiar to Russians as the story of Hansel and Gretel is to us. A young girl, Vasilisa, is given a special doll, by her dying mother. Her mother tells her to keep the doll with her always. The mother dies and the “wicked step-mother” forces Vasilisa to go to the woods to get fire for the hearth from Baba Yaga. “Everyone” knows that Baba Yaga, the “wicked witch,” lives in the woods and kills anyone who visits her who cannot answer her questions or perform the tasks she sets them. The evidence of this is the skulls that grace the outside of Baba Yaga’s house and that Baba Yaga wears around her neck. Vasilisa is frightened but she goes anyway. The doll secretly tells Vasilisa the answers to Baba Yaga’s questions, so that instead of killing Vasilisa, Baba Yaga is obliged to give her a flaming skull. There is more to the story, including what Vasilisa eventually does with the flaming skull.
Accompaniment in Times of Grief and Loss
Dying and illness can be a time of isolation and the pain of this isolation can exacerbate the pain of the grief itself. The story of a mother giving a doll to her daughter upon her death symbolizes the passing on of comfort and guidance, from one generation to the next. The story also reflects how we as women can mature into a new way of seeing when we have experienced great pain and sorrow. The doll that Vasilisa receives symbolizes the internalization of her mother’s wisdom and nurturing presence, and of her maturing into her own sense of agency.
Another level to the Baba Yaga story is how we can all access an infinite source of inner guidance when we are faced with losses such as illness and death. It reminds us that we are not alone. The dying mother gives Vasilisa part of herself, which Vasilisa then internalizes and then is able to use in her communication with the scary Baba Yaga. This second exchange between Vasilisa and Baba Yaga is another form of internalization of wisdom. Scary and harsh as Baba Yaga is, she helps Vasilisa by giving her the flaming skull, a symbol of fierce wisdom, which Vasilisa is then able to make her own.
Facing Powerlessness and Death
One of the most difficult aspects of facing the death of someone we are close to is our powerlessness. We feel powerless, both because we are reminded of our own deaths and because there is nothing we can do to help. Death is scary to look at, especially in the dominant culture where there are no rituals of acceptance of death as a natural part of the cycle of life. Death and grieving are relegated to the shadows in our society.
During a large-scale crisis, such as the one we are currently living in, we are forced to face losses on many levels and yet, still are left with inadequate tools to process these losses. Stories such as Baba Yaga can help us to find ways to wrap our minds around these impossibly challenging realities, by, for one thing, reminding us of our interconnectedness. The many archetypal roles in the Baba Yaga story, “maiden, mother, crone” are all interconnected parts of the cycle of life.
We can be the young child, in her fear and helplessness, we can be the mother, providing guidance in the form of a symbolic doll to our own inner child and our mothering self and then to others who are suffering in grief and loss. And we can also be the crone, softening in response to the answered attuned to our questions and then providing fierce wisdom and power to our younger self. We can align ourselves with all these self-identities, and recognize the ways in which they are all one.
What can we take with us from this story?
No matter where you are along this continuum of a woman’s life, you can benefit from this story. Think for a moment of a time when you have felt loss or grief and have been comforted by those who represent these various archetypal roles. And can you think of a time when you have been able to find these archetypes within yourself? If we can make room in our lives for rituals that allow us to experience grief and loss, we begin to have the inner spaciousness to be there for others as well.
Perhaps you can challenge yourself by creating an image of your inner Vasilisa, mother or Baba Yaga, by drawing it in your journal or maybe making it into a doll. Or you can visualize one of these powerful figures and imagine what she would look like or where she would live in your body. Or you may respond to this story by journaling the ways in which you feel a connection to each of these archetypal representations of a woman’s life stages. We need each other but with a sense of this outward support, we can also have access to symbolic reminders of what can help us through dark times of sorrow and loss.
A participant in the “Befriending Our Shadow” e-course described a dilemma she was facing in choosing a theme for her doll. She said, “I have some ideas but nothing feels right.” I asked her to describe one of the ideas that didn’t feel “right,” and she said, “one aspect of my shadow is ‘feeling like a couch potato’.” But she thought that idea was too superficial and on one level, maybe this was true. She didn’t want to settle for the “easy” thing, she wanted to get to something more real and meaty.
You may be facing something like this in your day-to-day life….you have a big project that you want to attempt, but every time you start, something keeps you from taking the first steps. You just can’t figure out the “right” way to approach it. After careful consideration, you have enough self-insight to realize that your search for the right thing may be a way to avoid getting started. But then it occurs to you that the very most important next step is to take a very long nap. Most likely this means you are dealing with some aspect of the shadow. Nothing wrong with naps of course.
First thought, best thought?
There is a saying, ‘first thought, best thought,” and in the example above, the participant and I discussed how even though “couch potato” could in one way be seen as a superficial theme, there may be something deeper, if she became willing to delve below the surface. We are dealing with shadows here and they can be notoriously trickster characters. They can hide in plain sight or they can morph into the opposite of what you think they are. We can spend endless time searching for the “right” way to do things, yet sometimes we do just need to jump in. Sometimes the first thought is the best thought. Sometimes you have to be willing to do the dance with the shadow, to hold it lightly.
Are you a planner, comfortable with detail, or are you a jump-in-feet-first kind of person?
Another challenge for this participant, a gifted and highly skilled artist, who is especially good at carefully planning out her artworks, might have been that her planning skills were getting in the way. Because we are in the realm of the shadow, a place where planning can go out the window, where our highly skilled and experienced left brain mind has absolutely no idea how to proceed. What to do then? People who are more comfortable jumping in head first and without a plan may have a slight advantage here, but maybe not.
The shape-shifting shadow has a way to get at the non-planners as well, leading them into a path of confusion, with idea after idea piling in on top of each other, higgelty-piggelty. Someone who “usually” approaches problems without a plan, when facing their shadow, may most need to learn to set up parameters, structures and boundaries. Take a moment and consider which is your habitual way of approaching problems? Neither way is better than the other-they’re just different. Side note, what I have noticed in myself is that there are areas of my life where I tend to be the feet first jumping in kind of person, ie with art-making, especially doll making. But out in the real world I tend to be more of a planner.
Maybe this idea is the start of something bigger but you just need to chip at a small piece of it to start?
I don’t know yet what the end of this story was for this participant. Was the couch potato idea the way to go? Maybe this idea was a non-starter and yet maybe it was instead a doorway to something more profound. The idea here is that we have developed strategies for dealing with the usual problems in our life, the things and tasks that occur with regularity. But when confronted with something completely new, we have to start from scratch. And at first it can look like just one big huge couch potato weighing down on us. How to get started? Maybe we just have to start with one tiny bite out of the potato.
Starting where you are
What would that look like? In the class we did an exercise where we looked at the layers of the shadow. You may have tried something like this yourself, a dialogue with your ideas.
1. Use your dominant hand to ask questions and respond to the question with your non-dominant hand.
2. Write down one layer of your "shadow"-a part of you that you are wanting to ignore and ask, "why does this bother me?"
3. Keep going with "why" questions to see what is underneath the shadow.
4. Eventually you may get to some sort of "gold" some insight into what your shadow might be hiding from you.
This is best done in a spirit of lightness and without any expectation of definite answers. Eventually you may get to a place with new information and even possibly a place where you feel a sense of connection and ease.
“What is meant for you cannot miss you…what is not meant for you cannot hit you”
I am participating in a program that is led by a Sufi healer, Mark Silver and he recently shared with us an idea from his Sufi lineage. The idea was profound and yet simple, “what is meant for you cannot miss you, and what is not meant for you cannot hit you.” This idea resonated with me deeply and I have been thinking of it ever since. We spend so much time trying to figure out what the right actions might be, to take this path or the other path. To focus on one area of a problem or another? To work with this person or someone else? ad infinitum. But instead, what if we can just rest into opening the door right in front of us? What if we just trust that we will be guided as we take the steps along the path?
This doesn’t mean throwing away our thinking mind, or planning mind. This part of our brain is extremely useful. But it does mean using our thinking mind in conjunction with a pretty good relationship with the mysterious and the unknown. My highly visual mind sees an image of someone walking hand in hand into the sunset with a very large but strongly grounded on two feet, potato. I wish them well.
Goal is wholeness
Because ultimately the goal is wholeness. That’s what we really want. What a gift it ultimately is to be faced with new paths and new problems, because if we didn’t have that, how would we grow? I have a couple new ideas for e-courses in the works but I’m not ready to talk about them yet. The Befriending Our Shadow class that I talked about above, will be offered again in the spring. I have had several people ask me about in-person classes but those aren’t happening any time soon, with the levels of infection going up across the country. Sending love to all of you and hoping you are able to stay safe and comfortable but that you are also finding ways to challenge yourself with new experiences. Lots of love.
Transformative Healing Dolls
Fall is a time of new beginnings...
...and of immersing yourself into new learnings. Time to learn new or brush up on new subjects, such as languages or if you are creatively inclined, to take art classes. Engaging the mind, body and soul in learning can be a way to cope with the challenges of these strange times.
Everyone around me is struggling with the endless feeling strangeness of life under partial lockdown and of the current political chaos. Feelings can run high and become magnified in these strange times. This time can also be an opportunity for an internal cleansing, working through of the powerful feelings that can arise in the face of frustrations and challenges that our current climate provide.
The Befriending Our Shadow e-course is a way of combining both practical learning and internal cleansing. The class is a deep dive into the shadow, which is a powerful and ultimately liberating process. Note: the early bird pricing ends September 15th.
One of the participants in the previous Befriending Our Shadow class, Marie Sepe (see two sides of her flip doll above), graciously offered to share her intense process of working through strong feelings about cancer as she created this flip doll. I especially loved all the creative choices she made in order to adapt this process to her own, including finding a doll pattern that she adapted to make a flip doll, converting the skirt into a cape which allowed the two sides of her doll to hold hands and choosing to make a third separate doll to witness the entire process.
Here are Marie's detailed comments about her process:
"I initially took the "Befriending your Shadow Self" class to spend time creating with a friend; I wasn't certain what part of my Shadow Self needed befriending. At the time I took the class, I was a 1 year survivor of breast cancer and the emotional turmoil of that journey quickly surfaced. I had spent such an extended amount of time either determinedly staring down death during the path of treatment or just placing one foot in front of the other while pushing through the fatigue caused during and lingering after chemo that the explosion of emotion shouldn't have surprised me....though it bubbled to the top and churned for weeks while I created my flip doll and meditated on the meaning of the emotions.
I decided on impulse to sketch out and explore the "Before Me" and the "Cancer Me" in the doll, and was shocked by the brutal honesty of the "Cancer Me" particularly in contrast to the "Before Me" doll. I shared this initial sketch with a long time close friend, who immediately recognized the importance of creating this doll, and not only encouraged me to explore the depth of rawness in the "Cancer Me" but also tasked me with creating a final doll after this flip doll that represented the "Me Now" for closure. The "Before Me" doll was the easy part; I have always had a positive attitude, and I came to call that side "Sunshine Girl". I selected a meticulously detailed, beautiful doll pattern because of Sunshine Girl, which meant that I used the same doll pattern--but defaced--for Cancer Me.
The anger over cancer and its journey that lashed out and created scars and ugly adjectives--along with an explosion of profane epithets--on the "Cancer Me" side surprised me. It should not have. Publically I had kept my ever-sunny attitude in the face of death saying funny things to keep my cancer team laughing and moving forward in good spirits with me, but privately I had stitched up a small handful of "fuck" sentiments going into the mastectomy; I had laughed wildly while I stitched them and kept them close to me even through the chemo portion of the journey. I gathered up the fruits of these profane epithetic stitchings and collected them on the "Cancer Me", whom I had come to call "Anger Girl". As I stitched the painful adjectives on Anger Girl, I also meditated on their meaning and realized that these adjectives were only added to the good adjectives that already existed for Sunshine Girl.
The good that is me still exists in spite of the hurtful adjectives that were added through the experience of cancer treatment, and that meditation helped me push through the seeming dichotomy of concurrently held Sunshine and Anger, and begin to love and heal the Anger side of me--in essence, befriending that Shadow Self. At the end of the flip doll journey, I came to be thrilled that I had bothered to undertake the complex process of making articulated, bendable fingers. The afternoon that I completed attaching the working hands/arms to the doll torsos, I played with the joints and my first impulse was to make the two hold each others' hands. I have left them that way. I delighted in giving Sunshine Girl hair--the burst of joy exclaiming "I have hair!" and waving Sunshine Girl with her wild hair around on the zoom screen for the class was impulsive and really expressed how I felt and feel, months after chemo having my hair grow back just as it was before. How alien I looked to myself in the mirror without hair--in real life--surfaced as I completed the sketch of Anger Girl without hair and then later formed the doll.
I made a chemo scarf for Anger Girl, because I wore one and I know how cold it gets without hair; I took loving care of myself throughout the cancer journey no matter how much I internally rejected it. This process helped me forgive myself for the side effects I gained from chemo; I realized that I did the very best I could to take care of my future self with the quality of life and life-sparing decisions I made early in the journey. I decided to make what was supposed to be a circle skirt (which would have divided them into halves) into a cloak that they can be safe under when they need privacy--and they can decide if they want the Sunshine side or the Anger side expressing the mood of their retreat from the world. As I finished, my dear friend who was taking this class with me suggested that I gift my flip doll with a name that brings the two sides together, since they are completed as holding hands. My flip doll is named "Sol Enojado," or "Angry Sunshine". I call her Jade."
Thank you to Marie for sharing her process here. For more testimonials, and for information about the Befriending Our Shadow course, go here.
I've been making dolls for about five years now. I believe that dolls serve as representations and reminders of the best part of ourselves. I am exited to share with you here my learnings about new methods and techniques for doll making and healing. So glad you are here!