When Words Fail During a Pandemic

August 31, 2020

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“Listen to silence. It has much to say.” (Rumi)

I’ve attempted to write numerous times since this pandemic began. Each time I sat down at the computer, my hands stilled. I grasped for a thread to weave into a narrative. I could share anecdotes, therapeutic techniques, art explorations to try, or ways to cognitively reframe this crazy time we are living through.

I yearned to provide comfort, wisdom, or just plain empathy. My heart broke repeatedly as I watched the news: COVID, an economy in turmoil, systemic racism finally illuminated, and a broken political system. I felt that as a therapist I should muster a helpful written response to this all. So many other therapists, writers, and experts in the field were offering advice and direction. As a creative arts therapist who specializes in trauma, how was I suddenly without words? I knew the trauma protocols, art “interventions,” and useful psychology to help steer others through this time.

And yet as opinions circulated on social media along with countless articles about the pandemic, I grew quieter. At first I attributed my lack of a response to emotional overwhelm. Not an implausible reason given the state of the world. I took leave from my job at the inpatient psychiatric hospital in order to be home with my children, who were suddenly without school and daycare. I battled intense guilt at first. How could I not show up for the patients who benefited greatly from art therapy? I felt like I was abandoning my incredible work colleagues and the patients. I also felt sadness, fear, and uncertainty about what the coming days would bring. As the weeks went on, my conflicted feelings remained. I continued to find myself at a loss for meaningful words. And yet I slowly began to explore how I could spend this unanticipated time at home in a meaningful way.

Slow Pivot
Despite the larger complexities in the world, my day to day became simpler. So many options were no longer available. Our social circle shrank to just our immediate family. And at home with my children I began a slow pivot.  I began to channel my training as an artist and art therapist in a parallel yet different direction. At the kitchen table I began setting up art invitations for my kids. An empty shoe box, some shells, dinosaur figures, tape, and string. Oil pastels and watercolors. A bowl of odds and ends. Foam stickers, scrap paper, and recycled finds.

I noticed how desperately my children needed connection when all of their usual social connections were temporarily removed. We began sculpting connection into our days through collaborative play. As a family we took long walks in the woods. We delighted in finding all sorts of creatures such as snakes, frogs, turtles, hawks, and fish. We raised a tadpole into a frog. (The kids named her Sheila). We watched in delight as she glided back into the pond when we brought her back. I noticed the kids beginning most sentences with “I wonder” before posing their latest question about life.

One day while watching me with the kids, my husband smiled and remarked “you’ve created an entire world for them!” Something inside of me clicked into place when he said that. I was tapping into my background in the creative arts. It was just manifesting on the home front this time.

“Do not speak – unless it improves on silence. ”
(Attributed to the Buddha)
Perhaps the most profound shift of the past few months has been my experience of both time and quietude. Without the usual shuttling between school or camp and work, the days have become more spacious. We’ve had longer stretches of slower uninterrupted time. Of course there have been plenty of not-so-quiet moments with the kids too. Times when the whole family needed to let off steam and then begin again.

In my beginning years as a therapist I often found myself talking too much; trying to fill the void when the room became quiet. Attempting to avoid that awkward silence at all costs. However as the years progressed I learned to relish the silence. To honor the space between words. To tune into the subtle energy of each person in the room. The silence was not empty of feeling. It was overflowing with feeling and potential. Many of my group members had never sat with their own feelings for any length of time. This was new emotional territory.

Going Beyond Words
The current day to day is new emotional territory for all of us. The overused but apt description “unprecedented” holds true. It makes sense that so many grapple with words and how to cognitively frame this time in our lives. Feelings of overwhelm and uncertainty can leave us speechless. I still grapple with this myself.

What I’m proposing is that we lean into that wordless pause. Maybe this is a time to rest between what was and what could be. Holding space for the full range of emotions. In doing so, we might acknowledge that there is no “right” answer much of the time. To send our kids to school, or do all remote learning? To go back to work, or piece it together at home? A socially distanced walk with a friend, or walking alone? Rather than adopt a rigid stance in these moments, maybe we can honor the vulnerability these questions evoke. In doing so, we begin a slow pivot back towards ourselves and our deeper values. Trusting that we have a quiet yet powerful source of creativity to help guide us through this world.

In the moments when words fail, turn to making art, music, and movement. Or turn to looking at art, listening to music, and taking a short walk around where you live. Dig your hands into the dirt and grow something green. Follow the dust motes in the sunbeams as they dance throughout your home. Breathe in and out once before responding. And cut yourself some slack. A lot. These are the things I forget to do daily. And then (sometimes) remember to do the next day.

In my next post I will be exploring ways of navigating this time with the creative arts as a trusted sidekick.

Be well you beautiful souls.
Thank you for accompanying me on this path!

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