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
This journal keeping was … like making a pile - A collection of quotes from a book I was reading, something a family member said, random observations about myself and the world. I just threw everything into the journals and often, when I read it back, I’d find lists of errands and groceries, reminders to call the dentist, a random phone number with no idea to whom it belongs.
Image Credit: I took this photo of one of The Soul Cards by Deborah Koff-Chapin (with my little ballerina magnet placed on top)
Listen to me read this post to you.
As I read it aloud, the post opened and expanded. You’ll find those expansions through this piece of writing, indicated by italics.
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. I had read a magazine article about how meaningful and psychologically healing, it could be for the elderly to record their life stories in writing or on tape.
Those stories were important to the next generations, too. How powerful it could be for both generations to sit together and share them. The elders thrived when witnessed. The youngers thrived by learning about the root system out of which their own story was made. Knowing where we come from offers an ancestral resonance that is healing and generative for young people and, I found, deeply moving for me as I moved into elderhood.
For example, my grandmother’s profound stubbornness, which I’d heard about all of my life— and which it seemed I’d inherited— came with other qualities. A refusal to give up on people, a determination to defy the doctors who said that my father, born with cerebral palsy, would never walk or talk or feed himself. When doctors recommended he be institutionalized, my “stubborn”grandmother insisted that he attend public school. She demanded that his need to learn to read and write be honored and that his desire to play baseball alongside his two older brothers and the able-bodied kids at school be accommodated.
She was a fierce advocate for her disabled son long before the “People with Disabilities Act” put into law the accessibility accommodations like wheelchair ramps and classroom aides that we take for granted now. There was no mainstreaming in the 1930s when my father was born. My grandmother invented it because she needed it for her son.
Through my father’s stories, an inherited character flaw in me, my stubborn refusal to go along with authority, suddenly became a super power. How might I put it to use - in a good way - in my own life?
In his third floor bedroom at his friend Laura‘s house, at Hoboken Hospital and later, at the nursing home, Dad lay in bed and dreamily spoke his memories to the ceiling, I scribbled in a notebook, trying to keep up.
It had started as a way to tame my own restlessness all those long afternoons. It soon became an anchor. Dad was telling me all of these stories I‘d never heard before and I wanted to capture it all, the stories, the jewels of wisdom and humor, to remember later.
Later, when my mother had open heart surgery, I sat with her for hours in the ICU and, later, in the rehab center. Sometimes, 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.
(I will add here that my mother was a much beloved writing teacher with the Adult Education program in Great Neck, Long Island. And she was a wonderful supportive person to have for a mother and also for a teacher, I imagine. Her encouragement encouraged me to keep up with new pages so I’d always have something to read to her. So in a way you could say, because of her interest and the questions she asked me, I got a good deal of writing done.) 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 working 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, if I was lucky.
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, random observations about myself and the world. I just threw everything into the journals and often, when I read it back, I’d find lists of errands and groceries, reminders to call the dentist, a random phone number with no idea to whom it belongs.
Other entries read in the flow journals 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 then, I was talking things through - the way I might have done with a friend or therapist. Only here, in my flow journals, I was talking things through 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 households while maintaining a full-time (plus) job as a magazine editor with a weekly deadline -
(and those two households, I should explain, were two hours apart. One was on Long Island, where my mother lives, about 45 minutes east of New York City and the other, where my father lived, at Laura’s house near Hoboken, New Jersey. So they lived two hours apart. It was sort of a triangle.)
And managing, which meant cooking and cleaning, 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, my son, planning for college with all the applications and campus visits -
(which I loved doing with him. You get to be alone with your kid, who’s about to leave for college.)
My other child, my daughter, two years younger, 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.
(which, I’ll interupt myself again to say, was the best decision she’d ever made.)
Throughout this turbulent time, the flow journals were my refuge. Looking back, I wish I had recorded what was going on in the world also, but even that omission 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 even notice.
No, that’s not true. Of course, I noticed but only as a victim. 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 could be the change agent in all of this suffering. That was a turning point.
The journals began teaching me as I read back through them.
So I would write and get all my feelings out and all of my stories out - and also, all of my resentments would go on paper so I didn’t have to say them to people. Because I knew by then that something was wrong: I was blaming my husband, my boss, my circumstances for and I knew that something was not right about that. And I was watching myself. So, having the flow journals created a kind of witness perspective. The journals showed me what I seemed interested in, and who I perceived myself to be 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. 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 one woman’s experience of that time.
How little interest the journal keeper - me- seemed to have in the news headlines and the natural world, which she had once so loved. I began to give myself assignments. Little projects at first, to open and expand the boundaries of my small life. Little things I was curious about- history, gardening, astrology, music. I thought perhaps some of these might deepen into interests I could pursue, maybe do some research and really learn something on my own, often for the first time.
(I was coming out of the idea that you have to go to school to get educated. And I was starting to develop this sense of. Well you know what, we have two kids in college. I probably can’t afford to go to school right now. Even though I ached to. At a time of expansion like this, you’re wanting to grow and the first thing I would think about was: What class can I take, how can I go to school? I felt a little frustrated by that, kind of all the time because we just did not have the money.
I was discovering that I could learn on my own. It was one of the foundational times when the groundwork was laid for my Personal PhD program. It’s become one of my pet projects… where I wanted to have a way for people to have a support group where women and men who are of a certain age. you know, you don’t want to spend a hundred thousand dollars on a Phd program when you’re in your 60s. How can you learn anyway? How can you teach yourself the same things that people in those more formal Masters and PhD programs are studying and learning? )
What if I said yes?
Observing my own shallowness and pettiness in the pages in my journal 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 with him in the kitchen. 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 of saying yes. Why? I wondered. 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!” Yes I do wanna play with you. That yes led to new experience. And that experience led to another. I started to say yes to him and to myself and soon I was living a different life.
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 able 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, reviewing and 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, and I want to say here, I really thought of it as almost another person. Someone was waking up inside of me. I noticed. Someone was noticing. If you’re interested in this sort of inquiry. As she woke up, we began to converse. If there were two people having a conversation. Who is noticing that she’s waking up? And who is waking up?
These are really interesting questions to pursue in your own thinking: Who’s noticing that? And who’s thinking that? Just start playing with those questions. That alone will start to wake you up inside of your own consciousness.)
From the pages, an ‘other’ emerged
We began to converse. I didn’t know where she came from or 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 had become a friend. I trusted her.
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 my journaling journey. For it would have required me to accept responsibility for my own life - including responsibility for and acceptance of my own intelligence, my own wisdom and genius.
(Notice I named three different things there. And I want to underline that here - in this podcast. I have the option of doing that here, in this podcast as I notice it. So, the difference between intelligence, genius and wisdom - think about that. On your own.)
Today, even as I write these words, I am still hesitating at the precipice of her full emergence AS me. I feel her inside of me but I’m not quite willing to let that playful, willing wise genius emerge through me. As me. Not yet.
I can see who she is and how powerful and strong and wise. I can see in her the courage of my grandmothers - both of them, 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 with me, adult me. (So, little Amy speaking with Big Amy.) To see if we could get to the bottom of my difficulty letting myself fully 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, from letting go of older work which was finished now, and moving into the light to offer my new workshops and programs.
(I also told Stan that every time my work would start to gain traction, people would sort of turn toward me. They’d notice the work and interest would start to build and that meant that energy would start to move. There’d be more people in my classes and more mentions of me and more invitations to other people’s podcasts. The more that would build the more frightened I would become. It wasn’t the kind of good frightened. It was the kind that would send me back into hiding. And I would shut everything down. And I am done with this now. I want to know what’s wrong and I want to help little Amy come out to play. I want to live fully now. And so, in order to do that I had to do some work. )
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, which 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 that 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. My feet were not made for toe shoes. She was protecting me - but little Amy did not receive that communication. She experienced, through my dance teacher’s 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 that from then on, little Amy was determined to protect me from ever feeling that way again.
Little Amy wrapped the ‘inner dancer with deformed feet’ - which is how little Amy thought about that part of me - 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. She was not allowed to dance. Not allowed to fall in love with movement again. It was too dangerous.
Sitting with Stan, I could see all of this - and as I felt little Amy’s pain rise within me, the tears came.
(When this happens in a session, it’s very good news. This is old stored pain - pain that’s been bound up inside that fortress by younger parts of ourselves that is trying to come up so you can feel what you weren’t able to feel when you were too small to understand or process it - so you stuffed it down and you stored it in your tissues so here came all that stored pain in me. As Stan held me in the spaciousness of his attention…. )
… suddenly, more memories began to cascade. The ‘taste of orange soda and a hotdog at the beach’ shame after two women, drunk on martinis made a comment about my disabled father. What they said was, “Oh that poor man.” and I was so angry. I felt rage and shame and love for him. 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, which my friend’s older sister had said to me.
The Brett standing on the porch trying to love me but I was afraid of his powerful genius shame. I just wasn’t big enough for him even though he though I was just fine.
The “Claire is coming over, our house is a shithole” shame when Katie said to me, “Mommy this is not like you. Who are you being right now?” And I woke up from the 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. What was the shame for there? For yelling at her. For being unable to control my emotions. I was SO angry.
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 when I was a young girl. That’s how it felt when my rage got so big inside of me.
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 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 had been 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 the 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 what she needed back then, and we asked: What do you need now? What she needed then, was someone she could tell her story to. Someone she could trust. She Someone to hold me and help me when I’m sad. She said.
We brainstormed ways of providing that, of meeting those needs (for her, for little Amy). 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? In other words, what the wiring is there for creativity but I’m flowing shame there instead? What if shame is creativity in shadow?
Because you know, just before little Amy… just before that ballerina dream was shattered, we took this little test in ballet class. Just before Mischa told me I would never be a ballerina, we had done this little test where all the little girls had lined up at the ballet barre in our little pink tights and we’d each taken a turn doing a little recital for Mischa. At the end we had to leap across the dance floor. And I was so good at it! Seven year old Amy was like, Oh my God, this is so much fun and I am so good at this. And it was beautiful - the feeling of having pure joy, pure creative flow move my body. I was dance and dance was dancing me.
So, of course when you feel that kind of expansion and you’re told you’ll never be able to dance, there’s so much cognitive dissonance there that it shatters the little person. And so that shame filled the wiring where the creative joy had been just a moment earlier. Shame and pain.
(That’s what I’m demonstrating with this essay. But after writing it - after having the experience of letting the pain and shame move up and out, letting the tears come, witnessed by a profoundly gifted facilitator in Stan, I’m able to tell the story, be with littlte amy and understand and she has, of course, softened and opened. The fortress is open. I’m being allowed to take more steps toward my own creativity - allowed by myself, by little Amy, who was the one keeping the fortress locked, I hope you understand that.
And so back to this essay, … all of my work comes from exploration of my own story - and then, I turn and realize things and share them with you. That’s the kind of teacher I am. As opposed to the kind of teacher who goes to the mountain, memorizes scripture, studies with a guru. That was never the kind of learner I was, nor the teacher. I’m a self-study sort of person. Auto-didact is a good name for me. I teach myself. )
What if shame is inverted creativity? Creativity in shadow - creativity held underwater. And so, when we hold a quality that we are underwater - because we can’t take creativity away. We either express it or we suppress it. That’s all that it means, when we talk about shadow. So it expresses itself as the shadow form of creativity, which I think is shame (in this story at least).
If that was true, could I somehow replace shame with creative flow? With movement, with writing, with… omg! With dance?!?! What an exciting revolutionary thought? Could I replace the fire of shame with creative fire and if so, how might I do that?
And so, I leave you with those questions - and I invite you to leave your thoughts and comments on this post.
I really want to talk to all of you who are interested in hearing from me. And I am so interested in hearing from you. Tell me your own stories or ask me questions.
I’m eager to hear from you. Leave a note in the comments. Send me an email.