Thursday, February 26, 2015

How To Start A Journaling Practice

I journal every day.  

Every. Single. Day. 

This might sound impressive, but it's not.  

I didn't mention how many minutes I journal, or how many pages I write, or what I write . . . which varies.  

I wrote 3 pages this morning.  The last time I did that was about a week ago.  Well, if I write every day - then what did my other entries look like?

  • Sometimes I write lists of things to do - I just have to get the junk out of my head before I can write anything for anyone.
  • Ideas on blog posts are a favorite thing to capture.
  • I might print out a FB post I wrote and cut and paste and tape into my book (yes, tape - I'm not archiving my journals).
  • I might sketch something quick.
  • A good TV show or song I hear on the radio is often thrown in there, normally on the tops of pages, so the next time I am in iTunes or looking for something I grab my book and find it.
  • Dreams - not the ones I have in my sleep - but the things I want to do with my life, the vacations I want to take - sometimes these are my favorite entries.  

In other words, every time I have my journal in hand, I am not writing stuff about my feelings, etc., more the stuff of my life.  

I am recording moments, thoughts, things going on in the world, problems I am facing and so many other things that I get excited to pick it up and throw who knows what into it.

Why I think people start this practice and fail is because they put large demands on what their practice will look like.  

They set an intention to journal 30 minutes every day, and might succeed for 2-3 days, then stop, and never write in the journal again.  I have been at countless journaling classes or seminars where people admit to having all these empty journals lying around their house with exactly 3 pages written in them, and the rest is empty.

Here are my tried and true thoughts
on how to start a practice.

Don't time yourself.  At the beginning of starting your practice, you might want to set a time goal, thinking you'll aim to journal for 30 minutes.  That's fine.  If you sit there in that 30 minutes and write nothing, that's fine too.  You are just learning to set aside time for yourself.  Thinking of it this way might help you succeed.

Write whatever comes to you.  This means you might bitch, write a list, write about the fact that you have nothing to write about, describe the awful shoes the woman next to you at Starbucks has on, but write anything and everything.  Look at the blank page and fill it up with the crazy stories from the news or why you hate, and always will, fanny packs.

Don't judge yourself.  It is normal at the beginning of any practice, whether it is starting an exercise routine or starting to date, we all want to be good at it.  But you won't be all of the time.  In fact, most people start journaling and their journals might have nothing but bitching in them.  That is okay.  That is great.  It takes awhile to find your voice.

Worry not whether someone will read it.  This is a tough hurdle for most people. And it took me many years to completely let this go.  Some strategies for handing this are:
  1. Keep your journal in a hidden or secret place
  2. Journal online with a program that is password protected
  3. Make a plan with a friend that if something should happen to you, they are the ones to remove your journals - I have this and once this arrangement was made, man, I write everything.

Just write.  To get me to do this, the book that encouraged me was Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way.  The book  is a 12 week program that makes you start every morning with 3 written pages.  I love a good 8-12 week course on pretty much anything.  I got up every morning while I had an infant, went to Starbucks at 5:30 a.m. (while everyone was still sleeping), wrote my three pages and came back home and got the kids ready for the day. It killed me, but it was only for 12 weeks, right?  You can do anything for 12 weeks, I kept telling myself.  I wanted to be an artist then, yet little did I know, it was really teaching me to be a writer.  Do I still write 3 pages every day?  No.  But when I have an especially busy day of writing ahead, yes, I start with this exercise.  It works.  Trust me.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Why We Should Talk More About How Mental Illness Feels

Last year, I watched producer Dana Perry accept an Oscar and describe how she lost her son, Evan, to suicide. She pleaded to an audience of millions to talk about suicide. I'm glad she was brave enough to share her story to raise awareness.  I often feel our society doesn't really talk about suicide, depression or mental illness or have the tools to do it.  To talk about mental illness, it might help to know more about what it looks like, or what it feels like, especially for the mentally ill person or their family. 

When Robin Williams died, there was an onslaught of people getting on Facebook talking about "If you need help, please get it." These statements always strike me as caring, yet perplexing. When someone is clinically depressed to the point of contemplating suicide, getting help is sometimes the last thing they know how to do.

This is why.  Walking into a depressed person's house, you might see them unwashed, trash and filthy dishes piled up, mail unopened and phone messages unanswered, etc.  Their daily tasks are too much for them, which now renders their home in total disarray.  If someone is this bad off, can you imagine how hard it would be for them to ask for help?  They are no longer functioning like you and me, so we can't expect them to ask for help, we have to get them help. 
Depression can feel like walking around with 5 wet blankets hanging on you.
I saw these clinically depressed behaviors in my father my entire life.  My father is bi-polar, often referred to as manic depressive. He has 'highs' from the mania that make him incredibly productive, which led to a successful career as a Fortune 500 strategic business consultant and published author.  He also has 'lows' that trigger depression that render him depleted, exhausted and unable to function.  There is a spectrum tool used when describing bi-polar behavior, and a psychiatrist will often ask, "Are you more depressed then you are manic?"  Which side of the spectrum do you gravitate towards?"  For my father, it was the manic side with the depressive side coming after an especially manic spree.

 This is what the mania looked like for my dad.
  • Hypomania - an exuberant feeling that was addictive and made him enjoy and seek manic moods.
  • Inability to sleep for days at a time.
  • Paranoia - thoughts about people making fun of him, thinking they were better than him, or people trying to take advantage of him.
  • Unreasonable ANGER and irritation- this could be triggered by very small things, taken out on an innocent bystander and hard to witness or be the target.
  • An unbelievable amount of creative energy in generating new ideas, projects or solutions to things.
  • Grandiose behavior where he made poor choices believing that consequences did not apply to him.
When he was depressed, it often looked like this:
  • He slept and was in his bed for 2-3 days at a time, sometimes more.
  • His taste buds were off, he had no appetite and would often not eat for days at a time.
  • He had chronic aches and pains.
  • He did not leave his bed to do anything except use the restroom.  His hair would be unwashed, his teeth never brushed, his face unshaven.
  • He was kind, contemplative, slower when he started pulling out of it.  Reflective even.  But at the initial onset of the depression, unable to think, talk and just wanted isolation.

For years, we never talked about my father's erratic behavior, his temper, his mood swings.  We were too frightened as children and too ashamed.  Mental illness had a stigma, and, for my father, was a weakness.  It was his personal secret and our familial secret.  We also didn't have the tools to even know how to approach the subject.   It wasn't until about the late 70's or early 80's that my father got some help. The only reason he did was because the depression was so bad it rendered him unproductive.  
He could live with the mania, but he could not tolerate the depression.
The solution for this disease back then was a mood stabilizer and the one that worked best for him was Lithium.  It still works best for him.  As a geriatric person now, my father faces some of his most difficult moments as the disease progresses at a rapid pace, making the disease hard to live with for him and for the person taking care of him.
I've listened to popular culture use and mis-use the word 'manic' and 'bi-polar.'  They become inter-changeable words for saying someone is an asshole or crazy.  
This is how we talk about mental illness - by labeling one another with terms that we know nothing about.  We don't wonder what it would be like to live with his illness.

For me, one of the hardest things about his disease was watching him continue to deny it.  Some bi-polars do this, and it can be a symptom of their disease.  They question whether they have a problem, because they get into a hypomanic mode where their euphoria level is so high, that they no longer believe anything is wrong with them and stop taking their medication.
To watch him not be compliant with his medication and his treatment is frustrating and exhausting.  What does the term compliant mean? It means taking your medication and keeping your psychiatrist appointments.  

As hard as his continuous denial was to watch, it became even harder to see the wreckage caused by his disease.  His lost relationships with his kids, his divorce from my mother and his wife of 40 years, and his friendships.

If we talked more about how mental illness feels and what it looks like, rather than about what people should do if they get in crisis, I believe the conversations we have could generate more help for others and more compassion.  I feel terrible sadness for my father, who due to chemical imbalances in his body, has lived a challenging life.  And if my words help illustrate a picture of the difficulties a person and a family faces with these challenges, then my dad's encouragement for me to be a writer has been fulfilled.  

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Folk Artists Don't Break Rules, They Don't Know The Rules

Shock and awe describes my feelings walking into the home of folk art collectors Victoria and Jay Wehnert.  Their house, sitting on a rather sizable lot by the Houston Heights neighborhood standards, looks like a historic home in a faraway small Texas Hill Country town. One swing of the front door and a brief peek inside, I felt as if I was stepping into a jewel box, unable to decide which jewel to gaze at first.

I was standing listening to Jay speak.  I heard words coming out of his mouth.  I know I did.  And words were coming out of mine. But I could not concentrate, as my blood was pumping from the sheer excitement of what I was about to discover. 

Never had I been in a home with this vast of a collection, curated and grouped with such interest, as if each salon style wall was grouped by a professional team setting up for a magazine shoot.

Even their kitchen is surrounded by their collection

The first thing Jay wanted to discuss was the fact that their collection is composed of 3 types of art:

  1. outsider art
  2. self-taught art
  3. folk art   

So, what's the difference between these terms?  The significant difference, as Jay describes, is that folk artists create items that have a utilitarian purpose: a potter makes a bowl to use, a quilter makes a cover to warm someone, a carver makes a decoy for hunting.  When they are making these items, the artists know their work is part of a craft history.  An outsider artist doesn't know they are an artist.  They are creating for more personal and internal reasons.  Their creation has no intended audience, and it is for their own personal use.

Tramp Art cross

Matchstick cross
Types of art that they collect:

Tramp Art       
Matchstick Art

Coin Art

Memory Jugs

Not to mention stamp art, gum wrapper chains, bottle cap art, popsicle art, beaded fruit, and so much more.

Coin Art in the shape of a bald eagle

Memory Jug - Their collection of these made me want to distract him and walk out with them

One artist I recognized when looking around was an evangelical preacher named Reverend Howard Finster, whose work is part of the permanent collection at The High Museum in Atlanta.  Howard created to communicate his Evangelical messages about God, his personal visionary experience and to tell others about his relationship with God. 

What Jay pointed out about the telephone pictured above by Howard Finster is that it may appear funny to us, but it's not a joke. The art is serious and we have to be able to go beyond our amusement of it, and see the endeavor.  Howard wanted people to be able to reach God.

They also have numerous pieces by "The Baltimore Glassman," Paul Darmafall, who they found creating his pieces while living on the streets.  He wanted to put his messages of independence and health out into the universe.  This meant depositing them in trash cans and hanging them on chain link fences.  The idea that someone would hang his work in their home was foreign to him. When Jay started buying his work, Paul's concern was whether the piece was hung close to a window because "fresh air is important."

Glass piece by "The Baltimore Glassman"

Types of messages he was putting out to the universe

What are the initial reactions of people when they come into your home?

They are probably a little overwhelmed.  Once their brains settle down, they are interested in the stories of the artists and how they came to do what they do.

Since space is rare in your home now, how does your collecting continue?

By asking ourselves two questions.  One, where is it going to go? And two, what is it going to relate to?  After being married for thirty years, Jay and Victoria consult and collaborate on everything in the collection.

Jay is a former speech pathologist, who now represents a small group of contemporary artists who share many of the qualities of folk artists, as their perspectives are also on the fringe.  In 2011, he started Intuitive Eye, to expand on his interests and activities in the world of art.  

Along with his wife, Victoria, he has collected Outsider, Self Taught, Visionary, Folk and Contemporary Art for over 25 years. Through Intuitive Eye he has developed collaborative relationships with artists, galleries, institutions and collectors to present the best of the art that fascinates him. 

I want to thank Victoria and Jay for graciously welcoming me into their home and allowing me to take pictures of their private collection and share them with you. And to my high school friend Vivian Norris, who was kind enough to connect me to Jay, I owe you some guacamole.