how shamanism is helping me to separate art and pain

I was born an artist.

me as a baby.jpg


You were too. We are all born creatives, and artists. Don't freak out about those words. It is only through culture that our definitions and abilities change.

When I was a child I was also a few other unusual things. I was highly sensitive, and highly reactive to my environment. I couldn't handle clothing in a (what felt like) wide range of insulting discomforts. I couldn't handle sounds, flavors, textures, and social situations. My internal world was so thoroughly sensitive that I was like a pendulum for much of my life, swinging between trying to drown out the "noise" with a lot of other stimulants or conversely shutting myself off from the world, hermit-like. In fact, much to my dismay, these are still some of my most basic coping strategies.

From my earliest memories I was creating things, telling stories, and at war with my body. Any child who is at war with their bodies in this way is also in a fight for acceptance in society, that's just how we do here in America. We have a social agreement that bases our acceptance on appearance, docile behavior, and competition. For some kiddos- the agreement itself stinks for what it is: blindness.

Although I had a side to me that bloomed in exuberant, romping, playful joy around my family (the predictable people who knew me best), I was withdrawn in public, and labeled "shy". It's a word I still unfurl on occasion for a quick social fix, and when I do I know it is a wall. A bland covering for what is really going on: I am overwhelmed with longing, attention to detail, the urge to jump in and run away, stimulus, internal guides have all seemed to flee the scene... I am stranded.

My parents, knowing one fantastic tool for self regulation, gave me what had for a long time become my security blanket between myself and the world:
a piece of paper and something to draw with.

girl in an egg... sketch

It makes so much sense to me now that I know a lot about sensory integration: systems are connected, and disregulated systems show sensory seeking or sensory defense based on a break somewhere in the flow. There's your pendulum.

I could hear better when my eyes were focused. I could learn better when my hands were moving across the page, or occupied, always, with something calming. I don't learn well in social situations unless there is a sense of *relief*, not *taxing* the system. I learned great from books, lectures, experience, challenges where I had a mentor I respected, all exposure to nature, observation and conversation.  I don't learn well from brainstorming, team and class settings, institutional environments, or from charged emotional settings.

Lastly open-endedness (unclear roles, unclear strategy, unclear sequencing) remains one of my personal dragons... which is a big deal to any adult creating her life seemingly repeatedly from scratch, seeking innovations and the creative void, and at the very least- not wanting to live Groundhog Day.

In my adulthood, using my exuberant, romping, playful brain to put myself to work creatively... I have started and sustained a few artistic businesses in my time. Trying, building, failing, tweaking, this is familiar territory for the artist and the entrepreneur. Yet in my process I would always find myself at a boundary that was wildly uncomfortable- moving art way deeper than its original role: self regulation.

Of course, I didn't know how to articulate that until I started practicing Shamanism this year, and gave my self regulation over to something else.. it took a very, very, very long time to name for myself that this is the edge I'm playing with. I am moving into a deeper self knowing, and a deeper connection with humanity. Finally.

Shamanism, which is a brilliant way of getting in touch with
1. the body and nature within,
2. the earth and nature all around us, and
3. rhythm and ceremony
... all of which have given so much to my life in such a short time. Most especially beginning with learning about rhythms, and my own (creative) cycles. In a unpredictable world where time and again I seem to disappear when overwhelmed by stimulus, a greater timeline (what we call "sequencing" for children) was the most illuminating light in my chaotic darkness.

As always, my sister (who is also a brilliant artist and creator, herself) trailblazed the path, and I came stumbling onto it wiping my eyes and pitching my tent to have a look around. Exploring Shamanism has brought me great relief that I could love and still learn about my body. I could even heal after years of trying to fit myself into uncomfortable boxes, push myself, my body and my art way too roughly, or question my intuition (even my intelligence) in light of my constant struggles.

one of my first altars, this one to the earth. though, in truth, I have been making altars since childhood- I only just recently began making them with some intentions beyond aesthetic beauty.

blog secret self.jpg

I have tried to offer my nephews a world where living with Autism was a world of possibility- not a prison, a thing to be curious, open, and accepting about. Just think about what a range of beauty and expression exists on a spectrum! What are your special gifts? I want them to grow up in a world where they can embrace the unique bodies they were born with, and not suffer constantly from (what society does) trying to force, train, or aggressively bend themselves into shapes to make "everyone else" comfortable. Still, I know they get tired. And I get tired. And being misunderstood to such a chronic degree (it IS a communication disorder, after all) wears on the heart in our darkest hours. Will it always feel this way? Who are my allies? Who will sit with me in my rage, in my confusion, after I have made this mistake the hundreth time, and still love me?

Aren't these questions inherently human? Autism is human.

I wasn't shy- not really, and yet I thank God for my creative parents, I thank God for my art and all the trees that gave their life in my rearing so I could find my path. I love my mind! Without it, and my thirst for answers, I would still be exhausting myself in the endless expectation race.

When we treat parts of ourselves as enemies, we feel surrounded by enemies. When we greet all parts of ourselves with kindness and compassion, we feel some of the validation, acceptance, and acknowledgement we seek. -Sonia Connolly Wellspring of Compassion

Studying Shamanism has allowed my spirituality to take the lead (slowly, slowly, as I have learned to let it) in this conversation about my place in the world. I no longer will allow that conversation to be between my productivity and what people say my place is. For women, for the misfits, for those with disabilities, the marginalized- there will always be proof that we aren't wanted, are scorned and unloved.

Collecting that proof is simply just another tactic of the hungry mind trying to understand What I Need To Do To Fit IN. I sat on my mountain for 6 months before I saw how heartbreaking a cycle that was.


My disability has haunted my life for so long because I often saw (well, often FELT first, and painfully)  the limitations it created, and I grieved a life I kept failing at making... a life like everyone else had.

In placing the awe of Creation back in MY hands through celebration of the seasons, monthly rituals, a respect for the earth and its beings, playful curiosity, and exploring new ways of healing (and thanks to my amazing coach), I am just beginning to see a deeper power that I can tap into. I understand that I have my own animal medicine for the healing of this world (and isn't that wonderful and wild???). I know I need more support than that, but it will come. I long for a family, and friends who understand me... but I am learning so much on this path in understanding and accepting, of loving myself. A precious gift of this lifetime.

I can see and feel my sense of belonging without waiting for or needing to ask for a spot to be given to me. My art, and the voice I am beginning to trust, is not the place I go to heal my pain any longer, or solve the question of where I belong in the world. That dear piece of paper was never meant to hold such heavy weight, but it did a good job sailing me through the ocean of my life to a safer harbor. My art is the place I pour everything- all the feelings- and we call that LOVE.


little scraps

Months before having the idea to launch Post, I had been sending handmade postcards to my nephews. What began as an exercise to make small, quick artwork became a connecting tether, a golden cord as I moved from one sublet to the next in Portland's rental upheaval. Neighborhood to neighborhood I made mail. After asking for and receiving birthday cards this year instead of the (now) typical Facebook archive of wall comments, I updated my address book. My canvas stayed much the same but my characters, themes, colors and messengers multiplied. My budget in stamps is serious business.

When I have outgoing mail these days I scan and take photos of the treats I make for friends and family. But on special occasions I also hop over to Kinkos and treat myself to a few old school photocopies. I love making "clip art" out of my drawings. I love shrinking, expanding, and playing with these little visions. I sit around at night and enjoy the zen practice of cutting out paper. Have you ever read Molly Bang's book Picture This, where she uses cut paper shapes to explain how pictures come to express emotions? It's like that. Pure delight in play.

collage material