The flow journals started as a way of grounding myself in a chaotic time. As it would turn out, they were the call of a lost part of my own voice and she was asking my permission to come out and dance
When I started the flow journals I was trying to record everything my dad was saying at the end of his life. Before it was too late. That was the foundation. I’d read a magazine article about how important and meaningful —and how psychologically healing, it could be for the elderly to record their life stories in writing or on tape. And how important those stories were to the next generations and how powerful it could be for both generations to sit together and share them. The elders thrived when witnessed, listened to. The youngers thrived by learning about the root system out of which their own story was made, also, I suspected then - and I now know for certain— that knowing where we come from, through these stories and the qualities they brought out in our elders as they lived them, can only help us to better know ourselves.
For example, my grandmother’s profound stubbornness, which I’d heard about all of my life— and which it seemed I’d inherited— came into sharp focus when viewed through the lens of my father’s story. She was the mother who’d defied the doctors who said that my father, who was born with cerebral palsy, would never walk or talk or feed himself. They recommended he be institutionalized - she insisted he attend public school and that his need to learn to read and write, and later, to play baseball alongside his brothers and able-bodied kids be met by the school. My grandmother was a fierce advocate for her disabled son long before the “People with Disabilities Act” put into law accessibility accommodations like wheelchair ramps and classroom aides. There was no mainstreaming in the 1930s. My grandmother invented it and, through my fathers stories, an inherited character flaw - my stubborn refusal to go along with authority— became a super power. How might i put it to use in my life?
So, Dad was telling me all of these stories I‘d never heard before. And I was trying to write it all down. Along with just little things he’d say, jewels of wisdom or humor I wanted to capture, to remember later.
This simple practice helped me to feel more grounded. What had started as a way to keep my hands moving, to occupy myself while he lay in bed and dreamily spoke his memories, became an anchor for me as he moved toward the end of his life. It was also a way to keep myself from feeling trapped as I sat with him those long afternoons, two or three times a week, in his third floor bedroom at Laura‘s house, and later, his room overlooking the Hudson river, at the nursing home.
Now, looking back through the flow journals, I can see that I’d already started using writing to ground me. When my mother had open heart surgery in 2009, as I sat with her for hours in the ICU and, later, in the rehabilitation center, my mother would ask me to read to her from the novel I was working on. She would nod and smile and ask me questions. This encouraged me to keep up with new pages so I’d always have something to read to her. When she fell asleep, I stopped reading and started writing.
It was my time- precious to me. I had already learned, ways of fitting my writing between the cracks of a busy life . I’d scribble a note at the grocery store or while driving. And almost every morning, I’d wake before the children- often before dawn - and sit with my tea, recording a dream or puzzling through a story as the sun rose.
Back then, I was writing toward a book. So that was a different kind of writing. It had a purpose- to invent a world and share a story and perhaps, get published.
This journal keeping was quite different. At times it was like making a pile - A collection of quotes from a book I was reading, something a family member said, and random observations about myself and the world. I just threw everything into the journals and often, when I read back, I find Lists of errands and groceries, reminders to call the dentist, a random phone number with no indication of who it belonged to.
Other entries read as meditations, prayers. Reaching out in gratitude or with a question, hoping for an answer. though I’d never had said that at the time, the journals were my spiritual practice. To me, it was talking things through - the way I might have done with a friend or therapist. Only here, in my flow journals, I was talking with myself, coaching myself through each day and trying to stay grounded.
‘Cuz I was really frazzled back then as I ran between my parents‘ separate lives while maintaining a full-time (plus) job as a magazine editor with a weekly deadline, managing (cooking and cleaning) of our home exactly as I’d done before I went back to work, without a housekeeper and trying, rather desperately, to keep up with the lives of two teenagers in two different schools. one planning for college with all the applications and campus visits; the other, in a clear demonstration that the ‘stubborn gene’ had successfully made its way to the next generation, was dropping out of high school (it’s so boring!) to do a GED at our local community college.
Throughout this turbulent time, the journals were my refuge. Looking back, I wish I had also recorded what was going on in the world. But even that is a record of how self involved I was. living a moment to moment desperation, one foot in front of the other, trying to keep myself from falling apart. I had lived that way for so long that I didn’t notice it.
No, that’s not true. Of course, I noticed it but only as a victim of it. With complaints and tears. It wasn’t until I started reading back through the journals after my father died that I had a glimmer of awareness that I might change things, that perhaps I might be the change agent in all of this suffering.
That was a turning point in the process. The journals began teaching me, showing me how I thought and who I thought myself to be. They showed me what I seemed interested in, how I perceived myself in the world.
It was then that the journals became two things. No longer just a container for other people’s stories and my grief and confusion. Now they were kind of ordering principle, a structure and a system that I could learn from. Now they were teacher AND friend. They were also a record for any future memoir I might attempt for the pages were a goldmine of insight about myself, about our family and, if not a chronicle of this time in history, they were certainly a record of how one woman was experiencing that world.
As I discovered, through my review of the pages, how little interest the journal keeper (Me) seemed to have in the people and places and events of the news or in the natural world, which she had once so loved, I began to give myself assignments, little projects to open and expand the boundaries of my small life. Little things I was curious about which I thought perhaps might become interests I could pursue, maybe do some research about. Perhaps I might learn something with more depth than I had previously been willing to explore. I noticed my own shallowness and pettiness. noticing it in the pages of my journals, led to noticing my limited curiosity, my critical speech toward my husband. He was always inviting me to try new things and I was always saying no. What if I said yes? I wrote first in a journal and then one day the thought crossed over into my mind during a conversation: what if I say yes? I was shocked at the uprising that followed inside of my own thoughts and emotions. I seemed To be terrified. I realized. Why? What am I afraid of?
I did not say yes that time. I wasn’t able to. But the next time he invited me out I did say it. “Yes!” It leaped out of me. “Yes!” That led to a new experience. And that experience gave me the courage and later the confidence to say yes again and again - to him and to myself— and
It would be dishonest to say that after that string of yeses my life was perfect for it certainly was not. But after that expansion I was able to identify —though still not yet to understand— some of my reactive behaviors (all those no’s) and to locate tightness in my body and closed off places in my heart, all of which seemed to limit me from fully and freely loving and from fully living my life— this one life, the only life I had.
Through revisiting and reviewing — inquiring into- my flow journals, I woke up a part of myself which had been fast asleep. A part that was playful and joyful and creative and fully alive. A part of me that knew what I am and knew what she wanted to do.
As She woke up inside of me, we began to converse. I didn’t know where she came from or even, who she was. I was well aware of the notion of ‘the still small voice within’. This didn’t feel like that. This felt like a moving, loud voice… so clear that i was certain it came from outside of me.
Who was she? An angel ? A delusion? A demon? Was she some trick of chemistry in my own brain?
Later, after putting her through many tests of accuracy and loyalty and good intention, and after I’d experienced several inexplicable miracles - I came to trust her. I still wasn’t certain who she was or where she came from but she’d become a friend.
Later still, a full seven years after I began, i came to accept that she was a part of my own consciousness. This was a truth that I would never have understood - or accepted - at the beginning of the journaling journey. For it would have required me to accept responsibility for my own life - including, my own intelligence, my own wisdom and genius.
Today, even as I write these words, I am still hesitating at the precipice of her full emergence AS me. I can see who she is and how powerful, strong and wise. I can see in her the courage of my grandmothers, the scholarship of my grandfather. I can see my parents in her. I can see all that she and I have been through and still, I have not quite let her take the wheel of my life.
Last week, feeling ready to go deeper, it was Wednesday morning, so it was just four days ago, I met with Stan Cohen, a friend who does similar work to my own. He led me through a process through which I have led my own clients - inviting a younger part of myself into dialogue to see if we could get to the bottom of my difficulty letting myself live into my own power.
Stan asked me how ‘difficulty living into my power’ was manifesting In my life. I explained that there seemed to be something stopping me from releasing and publishing my work, letting go of older work which was finished now, and moving into the light to offer my new workshops and programs.
Stan invited my younger self (I named her “little amy”) to speak. As she emerged (through me) he asked her why she was afraid to let ‘big amy’ emerge into the fullness of her power.
little amy explained the problem. It seemed to constellate around one particular story: the ballet shoes. The day when my ballet teacher took my tiny seven year old foot in her hands, turned it side to side and dropped it to the floor. “You will never be a dancer,” she told me. “Your feet are deformed.”
Now, today, adult me can understand this. Not all feet can support the body’s weight on toe shoes. My dance teacher knew that if I’d stepped into toe shoes, my bones would have shattered. She was protecting me. Little amy did not receive that communication. She experienced, through my dance teachers tone of voice (she was not a warm person) and the shattering of her dream of being a ballerina, a kind of assassination. My dance teacher had killed a part of me that was so precious - and, it had hurt. So much.
From then on, little amy was determined to protect me from ever feeling that way again. She wrapped the ‘inner dancer with deformed feet’ in soft protective wool and built a fortress around her. Now, anytime that dancer tried to dance, to play, to open her body and heart and leap into life, the fortress slammed down around her.
Self-expression was too risky. Creative flow and the joy that it could bring was too painful if it couldn’t go anywhere, if the dancer’s feet were deformed.
Sitting with Stan, I could see all of this - and as I felt little amy’s pain rise within me, the tears came.
Suddenly, more memories began to cascade. The taste of orange soda and a hotdog at the beach shame after two women, drunk on martini’s made a comment about my disabled father. The standing outside the auditorium on audition day, dying to be an actress but too afraid to even try shame. The “you will never be pretty enough for Jeff“ shame. The Brett standing on the porch trying to love me but I was afraid of his powerful genius shame. The Claire is coming over our house is a shithole shame when Katie said, Mommy this is not like you. Who are you being right now? The I don’t matter shame. The lost briefcase in front of Stephanie shame. The falling on the floor sobbing shame. The screaming at Esther don’t talk to my children like that don’t you dare take away his dream of being a doctor shame. The I am getting too big I can’t stop expanding this rage is overwhelming me and I am filling with fire and I don’t know how to stop it floating on the ceiling over my mother shame. The fear that I will lose my memory like my grandma and slide into Alzheimer’s shame. The leaving the laundry the bathtub running and the water spilling over and into the basement shame. The leaving the stove on and the pot burning shame. The unable to organize my work shame. The lack of a credentials college degree shame.
Shame, it seemed, was everywhere. It was in everything. Shame flowed through my life the way electricity flows through the wiring of a house. My body and brain were wired for creativity and joy but they were flowing the fire of the pain of a little girl who would never be a ballerina. And she, clutching th dead body of a beloved ballerina, was damned if she was ever going to risk that pain again.
Oh. Little amy. Oh her sore broken heart.
Stan and I sat with her, holding her. We honored her sorrow and we let her speak. We asked her what she needed then and now. Someone I can trust, she said. Someone to hold me and help me when I’m sad.
We brainstormed ways of providing that, of meeting those needs. We Identified the helpers in her life. We made an agreement That when she felt big feelings rise she would alert big amy instead of shutting things down.
we did some other work I’ll tell you about all of it. There’s more to tell and I’ll share it in letters to come.
For now, having written all of this out I am left with new realization and a question: What if shame is inverted creativity? What if shame is creativity in shadow?
If so, could I somehow replace shame with creative flow? With movement, with writing, with… omg! With dance?!?! What an exciting revolutionary thought?