We don’t know what we are messing with

I mentioned yesterday that I led a session on drawing at Northern Voice yesterday. I invited people to be fearless, to draw and to share their drawings. But I forgot how that can trigger deep things in us. My friend Julie Leung pointed me a blog post about an experience of a person in that session, and I am shaken. The blogger has no comments on her blog so I am going to try this. First here’s a link to the post. Read it if you care about people. (and context) NorthernVoice.

Dear Meg

Meg, Meg, Meg

I want to both apologize to you and to thank you. First, apologize because I made light of something important and, as I understand it from your blog post, difficult for you. Second, to thank you for your bravery and what you helped me learn. I feel absolutely torn that we did not get a chance to talk about this and I invite that opportunity if you’d like to.

I learned two very important things as I took my flying leap into this experiment – and one was the reinforcement of the power that drawing can unlock things within us. The second was I need to be more gentle and loving when I offer the invitation to unlock whatever it is we have locked within us.

I feel like I have abused you. I deeply apologize. And I thank you so much for blogging about it and allowing me to learn this.


(I found an email and sent the above to Meg)

As I read Meg’s post, I recalled the day I unlocked my inner artist as an adult. I was attending a weekend-long introduction to painting workshop at a local community college. “Beginners welcome.” We explored black and white. We mixed colors from the three primary colors. We painted with blindfolds and, important for me, with our fingers.

There I was in an old shirt, fingers swirling with acrylic paint feeling the roughness of the primed canvas. Our teacher invited us to think about our lives. I can still recall how my arms and fingers started pulling on their own, dipping into more and more red paint. The angry colors flooded the canvas. I did not know how angry I was, how I was holding all that anger inside of me. I was a nice young mom. I had a great job but I was working for a hurt, damaged man who did all he could to hurt and damage us, especially the women who worked for him. I used to come home and in the shower, curse his name. I wrote his name on the bottom of my shoes. And here all this anger and even hate was coming out of my fingers, channeled through the paint.

On Sunday morning, we were invited to show our paintings and, god help me, talk about them. And there I was, like Meg, with my guts on the canvas and having to talk about it in front of all these people. I started crying. And all that anger that I felt, as a “good girl” came flooding out. Like a gashed artery.

All for a bit of paint, or a marker on a paper, and an invitation to express what is truly inside of us. From an ice cream, to our pain.

Meg, again, I both thank you and ask for your forgiveness.

17 thoughts on “We don’t know what we are messing with”

  1. Without in *any* way trying to minimize what Meg felt in that session, it seems to me that there is always a danger in activities that are meant to open the heart because while it can let light in, it can also hurt. Without facilitating the sharing part of the session, this kind of activity would be more of an “unlocking your inner artist” thing, which would (to me, and possibly inadvertently) discount the fundamental fact that self-expression in the context of blogging and social media involves an audience and what that means.

    I guess I just assumed (and clearly very wrongly) that the whole NV conference vibe around social media implied that participation of this form could and would happen. I can imagine how scared/frustrated/angered I would feel if I didn’t have that shared assumption and found myself in that position. I also hope that, with time to reflect, Meg accepts your apology and that you don’t lose the essential stuff that makes your activities so powerful. And, while not a “justification” (as if such a thing is possible/needed), she might even come to find value in the experience. I know I have in situations that were similarly painful though in many cases it takes a long time while in others it never happens at all.

    And you know what? Meg’s bravery, despite her context and feelings, stood out for me as an inspirational moment in that session and one I was going to refer to anyway. I thank her for that.

  2. Thanks for those thoughts, Chris. What is annoying and what I’m appreciating is that I was not as tuned in to Meg’s bravery at the moment as I wish I would have been, but also that her bravery continued into her blog post. Without that post, I would probably have lost the learning.

    So exposing our hearts is key to learning. How’s that for a mashup of edublogging and the Culture of Love?

  3. I am so touched by this. I wish I had attended your session 🙁

    The fear of drawing is so powerful. It’s been years since I did much “real” drawing and in the few times recently that I’ve done some sketching I heard that blasted inner critic nattering away. I think I have to just push past that, stop procrastinating, and draw more…

  4. Nancy,
    I have been on both sides of this one. I do think all of us who work with visual tools have had participants get deeply triggered. And I have had very powerful things emerge myself.

    I remember one session where I had people creating images of before a transition in their lives, during the transition, and after. Little did I know, there was a woman from New Orleans in the group. Her description of living through Katrina was gut wrenching. That started the tears. And it opened up wounds across the whole group. From moving to the US and going to high school without being able to speak English, to the depths of pain of being bi-cultural. Then the guilt of people who didn’t have those type of stories. We hung in, there didn’t feel like there was much air left in the room. Recently I ran into someone from that group who said that session was transformational for those who attended, and several years later, they are still in touch with each other. So you are right, sometimes we don’t know what we are messing with, and as Chris mentions, sometimes we don’t know for a long time.

    A couple of things I have found helpful. I always make sure people know I am going to ask them to talk about their images before they start. If I don’t know a lot about the group, I offer them options or variations (esp if it is a cross cultural/international group) of topics.

  5. Nancy, you are so brave for sharing this story, as is Meg for exposing her fears. I have a personal experience I was afraid would be brought to the surface at NV. I chose to share it with people in advance in case I had to disappear or tune out for a while. I feel fortunate that I was prepared for the emotional depth of the conference, and that I attended with people whom I both respect and trust. This situation can come up in any social experience, whether or not it is designed to engage the heart. Your workshop was beautiful, as are you!

  6. Hello, Nancy,

    I also had the good fortune to be in this session — the love and respect with which you approached the people in your session, and the reverence you have for their creativity, is readily apparent —

    As Chris points out, whenever you have activities that start from a place of open-ended creativity, people will talk about real things — and real things hurt, and are messy. Often, revelations occur precisely *because* you have set up an environment where people feel comfortable.

    Meg — thank you for sharing your drawing out — from your post, I get the strong impression that the experience was less than what you wanted. But, if this amounts to anything, your example of bravery, and taking emotional risks, can inspire others to do the same. Facing the things that scare us or hurt us is never fun, but it’s an important stop on the way to balancing our lives against that pain. Hopefully, there will be some catharsis as a result. Thank you for having the courage and the heart to share your experience —

  7. Wow. Thank you both for sharing this. I often don’t attend sessions like this for the very reasons Meg had problems — I don’t know what deep seated “stuff” will come out and what the psychic effects will be (or I *do* know and don’t want to go there). Having read this makes me less certain that that’s the right strategy; perhaps being braver will help someone else?

    I’s also helped me think about my presence as The Authority at conferences and in the classroom: am I being aware of what’s going on for the others(hard to do sometimes with 5th graders, but it’s something to attempt)?

  8. Wow. Interesting timing. For one of my writing classes last year I wrote a story based on my breakdown into depression last year. At the time I often wished I could run away, so I wrote a story about what would have happened if I did run away. That story was very difficult to write as I was tapping into raw emotions and events, and many times I cried.

    I just got back the story today. 4 – Pass, pretty much like a D. According to my tutors, my characters weren’t engaging enough because their actions weren’t justified and they didn’t have enough motivation. The side character (based on my boyfriend) was apparently mindless.

    Of course the lead girl won’t have any motivation – she’s DEPRESSED! She’s fallen into ennui and everything’s meaningless! Of course her (ex)boyfriend is acting mindless – the love of his life has DISAPPEARED and it may have been his fault! If I added justification or motivation to the story, there would be no story to begin with!

    it hurts to see something that came from the heart be torn apart like that. I’m in my final year of my degree and I’ve felt that taking Creative Writing as one of my submajors was a big mistake because my honesty is being graded on whether it can sell. I want to write for myself, not for an audience’s cash.

  9. Nancy, thank you for your post and for sharing this. This life certainly is a journey with all of what we offer and what we share. Sometimes it is difficult.

    When Nils (Basco5) begins his poster project for us we always have a discussion about what it will be about. We share ideas and then he bravely puts out in his art form those ideas. This year he put it up on flickr and asked for additional input. I could never ever do that. It would be too difficult. But this is the media that he must and does express himself in. He can do it. Some of us do it with words, others art, others something different. It is in finding our means of portrayal that we feel our own meanings have been made. Then maybe, just maybe, it creates the strength for others.

    Thank you Nancy and thank you Meg.

  10. I want to make sure I post this comment to let you know I am “listening” and appreciating how people are adding to my learning here and on other blogs. (For example, see Dave Pollard’s post http://blogs.salon.com/0002007/2008/02/26.html#a2108)

    Lazygal, it is very interesting to think about this in terms of how we do/do not present ourselves as authority when up in front of others. I had not taken my thinking there, but you have stimulated some additional reflections.

    Tiara – don’t let a grade or a teacher diminish your sense of power to reflect and express yourself. Our creative outlets let us tap into things that may JUST BE for ourselves. I applaud your courage and encourage you not to let others dissuade you!!

    Gene (not Glenn! 🙂 ) I thought Nils was very brave to do that. I saw the comments (many of them) and know I would have felt very challenged.

    Long ago in my first online forums experiences, someone said you needed to “put on your teflon jammies.” In a way, that is true. We need resiliance. But too much teflon and we don’t feel.

    Today in the Seattle Times there was a book review about a book criticizing American’s penchant for happiness, that it blinds us to life, to feeling. In some ways this resonates for me. So I’d say teflon jammies, but not full body armor!

  11. It’s fascinating how blogging has facilitated a discussion that most likely would have never surfaced in the pre-internet days. And those of us who weren’t there can channel the insights and lessons that you and the other participants took with you into our own work and relationships. Wonderful!

    Meg Tilly posted a very gracious response: http://www.officialmegtilly.com/blog/nancy/

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