Transforming Life’s Messes

September 17, 2013

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Barn’s burnt down –
now I can see the moon.

 ~ Mizuta Masahide
Debris Mandala

It’s been an interesting (read: stressful) week here in our apartment. The entire roof of our building was being replaced, despite the forecast calling for thunderstorms.

The baby was napping and I was prepping my lunch when water started pouring in through the light fixtures in our apartment. Water began to drip through scattered cracks and down the walls in each room. Overhead (we’re on the top floor) I could hear the workers furiously running across the roof and throwing tarps across the exposed roof. The next day I was walking by the bathroom just in time to hear and see debris falling from the removed skylight and landing all over the floor. My first thought was ‘it would have been nice if they had given us a heads up before removing the skylight.’ My second thought was, ‘wow, I’ve never seen open sky from our bathroom before and it reminds me of James Turrell’s Meeting installation piece.’

James Turrell’s ‘Meeting’ installation at PS1
A rectangular cut-out of the museum’s ceiling

A few minutes later I grabbed a broom and began sweeping up the bits of debris in our bathroom, while occasionally glancing up to make sure the sky had temporarily stopped falling into our apartment. It had already been a stressful two days and it felt as if my body and mind were braced for the next unforeseen issue to arise. However as I swept up the fragments I noticed that the motion of the sweeping was beginning to relax me. I gradually pulled the fallen objects into the center of the bathroom and a circle very naturally began to form out of the debris. I found myself caught up in the process of sweeping and creating this circle and my frustration and busy mind began to ebb. Before sweeping the circle up I snapped a quick picture of it with my phone (see top image). I walked back into the family room and shared the photo with my bemused husband while referring to the picture as my ‘debris mandala.’ Both of our moods were lightened a little in that moment. Our apartment was still a mess with water leaks and more debris to fall, but there was something a bit beautiful about it. A beautiful disaster. Lately I’ve been exploring the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi in my work as an art therapist and as a new mother. I am not an expert or scholar on wabi-sabi philosophy by any means. From my understanding so far though, wabi-sabi is a way of relating to the world and finding beauty in imperfection while embracing the inherent impermanence of objects and life itself…finding beauty in the crumbling leaf, a crack in the wall, the chipped cup, or the debris on our bathroom floor.

Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness. Wabi-sabi is ambivalent about separating beauty from non-beauty or ugliness. The beauty of wabi-sabi is in one respect, the condition of coming to terms with what you consider ugly. Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace.       (Leonard Koren ~ Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers)

Blue Circle ~ Photo: Sara Roizen

I am particularly drawn to the idea of finding beauty by changing our point of view. Each day that I spend with my baby provides me with a unique change of perspective as I observe the objects that he is naturally drawn to. A skeleton leaf dancing in my hand is as fascinating to him as a $30 baby toy. He does not discriminate. He holds everything in his eager and open awareness.

In thinking about my art therapy work with clients I am realizing that so much of my work focuses on gently showing them alternative perspectives and helping to expand their ability to tolerate so called ‘mistakes’ and art that they have deemed ‘ugly.’ Clients that frequently attend my groups smile at my broken record phrases such as ‘there are no mistakes in art’ and ‘take a deep breath, sit back, and see if you can find a creative solution for what you are referring to as a mistake.’ A while back one of my clients spilled paint water on her paper by accident. She was furious (anger management was one of the issues we were working on) and began to swear as she jolted out of her seat. I had a moment of anxiety myself as I quickly assessed the likelihood of her storming out of the room. While looking at the spreading paint water puddle, I became increasingly interested at the shape it was taking though. One of the other group members must have observed the same thing, because she remarked on how neat the color puddle was. I watched as the angry group member glanced again at her ‘ruined’ painting and raised an eyebrow. I could feel the tense energy dissipating as she sat back down. I asked her if she would like to use the accident to create something different and then showed her how to make ‘ghost prints’ from the puddle by pressing pieces of paper directly on top of her original piece. She returned to the first piece later on and continued to work on it, but not before creating a mini-series of ghost prints – playful pieces that captured her inner resiliency as well as creative flexibility.

It’s not always easy to pause when one of life’s messes enters our lives (or the lives of our clients). It can be uncomfortable to sit in the debris or sit with someone else in theirs. But sometimes digging around in the mess for a while is what is required. And it can be beautiful too.

“The world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful.”

        ~ e.e. cummings


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