Monday, February 24, 2014

A tribute to Edith Kramer, 1916 - 2014

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Jug and flowers from Edith Kramer's home in Austria.
We've all had teachers who have guided us in ways which in retrospect were exactly perfect and I have to say Edith Kramer was one of those teachers for me. (Although at the time I was studying with her I did not appreciate the experience fully, of course.)    I wonder if the appreciation or lack of it had to do with the fact that sometimes what a teacher imagines they are teaching may be different from what a student is actually learning.  For example, while Edith was teaching psychoanalytic theory in art therapy, with a heavy emphasis on Freud, I suspect what I was actually learning was something else having more to do with how Edith lived and worked.  A lot of it had to do with how to live a satisfying life, one filled with inner rewards, inner satisfaction rather than the trappings of our materialistic culture; a life filled with as much art as possible, great conversations with many friends over pots of tea and great bread (from the east village in NYC); a contemplative life, a curious life, an artist's life.  I have a very deep sense of gratitude and debt for the many things that I learned from Edith Kramer.

Edith teaching at NYU, photo by Herschel Stroyman (beautiful gallery here!)
One of the more important thing I learned was the idea of story-telling in the art room, and how appreciative the people we work with are, when we can furnish their minds with inspiring, challenging, sometimes scary and ultimately reassuring stories of resilience, like The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf.   Edith would tell these stories as she helped the Wiltwyck boys master paint and brush at Wiltwyck Boys' School. Their loved the stories of the little boy, Nils, and his struggles to become a real human child.  I can certainly empathize with the boys' identification with Nils and all that he was learning from the old, gray goose, Akka.  I can certainly understand why they begged Edith to tell them more stories about Akka. Both Akka and Edith probably helped many children become human. How satisfying it must have been for them to paint and listen to these stories.  (If you are interested in what this school was like, there was a film made actually before Edith got there, "The Quiet One", but you certainly get an understanding!)

In looking through the slides of Edith's work, her home in Austria, and photos from her family,  I realize that Edith valued history, and the idea of being a part of a lineage.  We learned the things that Edith learned from Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, and of course we can pass these things on.  Lineages are a very good thing to be a part of, we aren't as isolated and separate as we imagine.

One of the best things I learned from Friedl through Edith, was not to wait to do good things in the world. Friedl had told Edith that she thought that something was very wrong with her, that she needed a lot of psychoanalysis because she had never felt more alive than while she was imprisoned for her Communist activities.  Friedl thought this must be masochism and so she should be analyzed right away. In actuality, her ability to remain fully alive under extreme adversity served her and the children she worked with in Terezin very well. This is comforting because I doubt that perfection is anything I could achieve in this lifetime, and if Friedl could do good things without perfection and under such impossible conditions, then surely I could do some good, too, with conditions that aren't too bad.  (There's a lovely write up about Friedl's work here and of course Elena Makarova and Linney Wix have written about her.)

Another aspect of appreciating history and of being a part of a lineage is the sense of community this engenders. I learned to appreciate that so much when visiting Edith in Austria. The sense of history going back generations and the sense of strong, living, supportive community was so very alive when I visited. Edith wasn't just Edith Kramer, artist/art therapist there, she was "their Kramer", in a way held by the community, as if they had created a supportive transitional space with this feeling of history and community.  Just knowing such community and history is possible is more deeply satisfying and comforting than any material rewards could ever be.

Edith and her mother
 Finally I believe that Edith sparked in me the desire to search for things that provide inner satisfaction (more art, more puppets, more beauty, nature and community) and to search for the part of the super ego that is kindly and care-taking, the inner-Akka, or even, perhaps, the inner-Kramer. The search for these things has been the best adventure of all. It must surely compare with Nils' adventures with Akka, and I have learned everything about being human from this adventure.

So for all of these things and for so much more, I would like to say thank you to my teacher and friend, Edith Kramer!

Nils and Akka

Here's a quote from the end of The Further Adventures of Nils, when Nils has become human and tries to say good bye to his friends and companions, the geese:

"He sat down on the sands and buried his face in his hands. What was the use of his gazing after them any more?

Presently he heard the rustle of wings. Old mother Akka had found it hard to fly away from Thumbietot, and turned back, and now that the boy sat quite still she ventured to fly nearer to him. Suddenly something must have told her who he was, for she lit close beside him.

Nils gave a cry of joy and took old Akka in his arms. The other wild geese crowded round him and stroked him with their bills. They cackled and chattered and wished him all kinds of good luck, and he, too, talked to them and thanked them for the wonderful journey which he had been privileged to make in their company." -Selma Lagerlöf

Monday, February 17, 2014

Just a little everyday mindfulness!

"Explore the original universe" collage by Lani, textures by FlyPaper.
This is very cool, a simple way to build happiness into what we already do every day, just slow down enough to really be present.  Just a little everyday mindfulness!  Try it!  #33-44 out of thousand ways to have a happy life.

I snagged these simple, eleven everyday mindfulness ideas from MindBodyGreen:
1. Listen to the music, while listening to music. (not a typo)
We often listen to music, but here's a way to do it mindfully.  Even five minutes will assist your brain towards better neurochemical balance.  Try to hear every instrument that's playing.  Separate the lyrics from the melody.  Try singing along, and feel your vocal cords vibrate with the hum of sound. The idea is to tease out all the separate bits of the experience, in order to be fully aware.
2. Drink tea. Or coffee. Or hot water. 
We usually have a hot drink of some kind every morning. Instead of just drinking it while doing 16 other things, try drink it slowly. Dedicate 5 minutes every morning to this. Close your eyes, and feel the warm liquid roll over your tongue. Enjoy it – right now, this moment is all that matters!
3. Do yoga.  
(If you have never done yoga, you are in for a treat!  Take a look at the Ekhart Yoga collection on YouTube. I linked to her yin yoga exercises but there's lots more.  Lots of 5-20 minute stretches and longer for specific results.) Yoga is a great way to practice mindfulness and presence in everyday life.
4. Turn the morning commute into practice time.
We spend a lot of time in our cars, why not use some of that time to practice.  We could think of it as a little quiet time for ourselves. If the commute is by train or bus, try listening to mindfulness talks during that time.  
5. Take a walk.
Make it a slow one. This can be hard, but try slowing it down into a slow motion activity. Inhale and lift your foot, exhale and plant it. Repeat.  Here's a lovely explanation by Thich Nhat Hanh.
6. Create art.
The practice of art making can be very meditative. Set aside a bit of time for art, and while creating make sure to pay attention, creating a kind of dialogue between hands, eyes, and inner artist.  A few minutes every day and you have a daily art practice.
7. Journal.
For the writer, try Julia Cameron's "Morning Pages"!  Great time to reconnect with our selves.
8. Cook.
This is definitely one of my favorite activities. Cooking can be wonderfully meditative. Try grinding spices, chopping vegetables, and stirring the cooking pots with a smile. "Is food precious?  Is food worth caring about?  Are you precious?  Are you worth caring about?" -Edward Espe Brown
9. Eat.
This one can be done in the same way as listening to music.  Try teasing out all the various parts of the experience. Take time to feel the temperature of your food with your fingers, feel the texture, smell all of the ingredients. Be there with your food before you eat.
10. Give or receive a massage.
Touch is a powerful experience. If you are giving a massage, try putting your whole being into this moment.  Be there with the other: receptive, open, and loving. If you are receiving a massage, try the same thing.  Be there now: receptive, open, and loving.
11. Breathe. The easiest of all! We are always breathing, why not try a little mindfulness while you breathe.  It can truly is the difference between feeling anxious and feeling relaxed, between engaging the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Set aside 5 minutes, use a timer, try a few rounds of 4, 4, 8 count breath. (Inhale for 4 counts, retain for 4 counts, and exhale for 8. Close your eyes. Be slow. Repeat.)  Check in at the end of this and see how you are feeling.

 MMMMMmmmmm! How is your neurochemical balance doing?

Sunday, February 09, 2014

"...Love again the stranger..."

"We all desire happiness" collage by Lani, textures by FlyPaper.
"Love after Love" by Derek Walcott
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

#32 out of a thousand ways to have a happy life; love again the stranger who was your self.  Of course that's a little easier to say than to do.  We grow up thinking it's our job to be good so that our parents will love us, and to keep them happy and everyone safe.  It takes a while to realize that the world is not our family and it's no longer our job to get people to love us, but rather to help ourselves learn to love the stranger who was our self. 

 Lucky for us there are some experts in the self-care/self-love field that can be called upon for assistance when needed.  One of these folks is Jennifer Louden, who was a pioneer in the self-care movement with her first best-selling book The Woman's Comfort Book. She's written 5 more books including The Life Organizer, which I'm just exploring with great joy. 

Basically Jennifer uses daily creative/self-care practices to lead a fully humming creative life, and The Life Organizer is structured to help us do just that, lucky for us!  She has noticed that between the struggling to survive the chaos and busy-ness of our lives and the awesomeness of leading a fully humming creative life, lies a middle ground where we find our minimum requirements for self-care, where we figure out what we absolutely must have to stay in touch with our center. Basic needs, or minimum daily requirements, can be simple things like getting enough sleep, moving our bodies, eating fresh food, or being touched.  But they can be big things like connecting to something larger than ourselves, and listening to our dreams.  

Jennifer has noticed that it can be easy to dismiss the importance of the basics practices (and maybe even let them slide), because somehow getting enough creative alone time or taking time for a nap when we are tired just doesn’t have the excitement as realizing our most fabulous dreams. Of course we can't get to those dreams if we are running on empty or if we have even forgotten how to check in with ourselves.   But that's where this book is such a help.  It provides a way of creating a mindful year, using journaling/art journaling and self inquiry.  It can help us with this daily practice.  The book is full of inspiring stories, mood shifters, happy reminders, prompts and wisdom. It's exactly like sitting in a kitchen over coffee with a best friend.  You can take quite a big peek at it over at Amazon, certainly enough to see it's usefulness!  And you can actually get a free app to use with the book and some other goodies on her website!  So don't delay, come meet yourself at your own door, and find your humming creative life!