Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Art Journaling: Attitude of Gratitude Session 4: Feeling Gratitude Towards God

This week, as we come closer to Christmas Day, we put our focus on feeling gratitude towards God.  We challenged ourselves to harness the feeling of gratitude with God at the center of our meditation and used the following scriptures for inspiration.

original drawing by M. Estes Zywar

Ephesians 5:19
Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord,
Mark 12:30
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’
Colossians 3:16
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
The breath prayers derived from these scriptures were to inhale on “Seek the Lord” or “Love the Lord” and exhale on “with all your heart” or “Sing and make music” on the inhale and “from your heart to the Lord” on the exhale.

For our stretching portion of the class, Kris Cross led us in a relaxation process called constructive rest position.  During this time we practiced a method of relaxation where we focused on different parts of the body and relaxed our muscles with the help of a metaphor, visualizing our bodies as a sac of sand.  As we focused on each muscle group we imagined the sand pouring out of the sac and the sac collapsing.   

Our closing prayer for this week:

Dear Lord, as we celebrate Christmas we remember what you have done for us and give thanks for all your good gifts.  We pray that our hearts would be full of praise to you.  Lord, let the light that you have put in our hearts shine for the world to see as a testimony to your love and grace.  May we celebrate fully this Christmas as we sing to you with gratitude in our hearts.  -Amen

original drawing by Brookye Keeney
I hope this workshop was a blessing to those who participated and that it helped you take time to breathe, focus on the joys of this season, find gratitude in your lives and sing to God with gratitude in your hearts!  Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Art Journaling: Attitude of Gratitude Session 3: Meditate on Gratitude

Today, after spending two weeks being mindful about our breath and refocusing on joy, we considered the impact of gratitude on our time in meditation and also on our physiological and spiritual wellbeing.  The self care workshop, that inspired me to create the Attitude of Gratitude Workshop, introduced me to idea of starting meditation from the heart.  Clearing the mind of distraction can be a daunting task, but starting from the heart and focusing on a place or person whom you personally feel gratitude for can be a helpful way to enter into a meditative place that will help you quiet your mind.  The image of your heart pumping the feeling of gratitude to every cell in your body, nurturing it and filling it with gratitude for the places and people you are grateful for was helpful to me.  The leader in the workshop I took had us place our hand over our heart and if, while we were meditating on gratitude, our minds wandered away from that focus we could give ourselves a physical cue by gently tapping our chest to bring our mind back to that feeling of gratitude. 
One coloring page I supplied for my workshop was a silhouette of a person with outstretched arms (a visual image of a person expressing feelings of gratitude).  The rest of the paper left room for you to draw something that reminds you of a place or a person you personally feel grateful for. 
The Bible passages I chose this week were:

A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.
Proverbs 27:9
Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and the pleasantness of a friend springs from their heartfelt advice.
Proverbs 27:19
As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart.
The breath prayer we used today was “A heart at peace” on the inhale and “gives life to the body” on the exhale.  Or “A cheerful heart” on the inhale and “Is good medicine” on the exhale.
I hope this week you can continue to breathe, focus on joy, and find peace in meditating on gratitude.
We closed our time together with the following prayer:

Dear Lord, as we take time to look inward, into our hearts, may we find peace, love and true joy.  May our hearts be filled with gratitude for those you have put in our path.  We pray that this gratitude would overflow, nurturing each cell in our body and reflect in our lives each day so that we might in turn be a blessing to those around us. - Amen

Art Journaling: Attitude of Gratitude Workshop Session 2: Focus on Joy!

For our second week of our Attitude of Gratitude Workshop we challenged ourselves to focus on the joys of the season rather than the stress.  One suggestion for doing this was to make two lists in your journal.  The first listing the things that cause you stress and the second things that bring you joy.  Our hope is that throughout Advent we can spend less time focusing on the stressful things and spend more energy on the joyous.  One person took a different take on this list making exercise.  She wrote things that cause her stress in the first column and then in the second, how to deal with that stress.  This was a great approach and a reminder that the journal is personal.  The theme of refocusing is a jumping off point so express it in a way that is most effective and meaningful to you!  If writing a list is not your style feel free to express your list visually.
The Bible passages used for refocusing dealt mainly with reminding us of Christ which is why we are celebrating to begin with. 

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Matthew 1:23
“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
Psalm 62:1
 1 Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from him.
The breath prayer used this week was:  Immanuel” on the inhale and  “God with us” on the exhale.
I hope your journal continues to be a reminder to breathe this season, take time stretch your muscles to relieve tension and focus on what brings you joy!
Our Closing Prayer:
Lord, as we go through this advent season preparing to celebrate Christmas, help us to see you and the true purpose of this season.  Prepare our hearts and clear our minds so that we might not be distracted and discouraged by the noise and busyness.  Let us find joy in this season to celebrate fully with our friends and family. –Amen

Monday, November 28, 2011

Art Journaling: Attitude of Gratitude Workshop Session1 Remember to Breathe!

Original drawing by M. Estes Zywar
A yoga teacher once told me, “If you change the way you breathe you will change the way you feel.”  It is so true.  When I’m stressed I don’t even notice that I’m taking shallow breaths or holding my breath altogether.  But when I am conscience of breathing in a relaxed, even manner it changes how my body holds tension.  I become conscience of my breathing and notice my muscles in my shoulders are tight and I can work on relaxing them.  I breathe and notice my stomach is tied up in a knot and I can release the tension.  Stress has such a physiological effect on our bodies and breathing is a great way to start paying attention. 
For the first part of my four week Attitude of Gratitude Workshop leading up to Christmas I want to start with being mindful of how we breathe.  I started by looking up breathe in the Bible starting with Genesis 2:7 –
Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. 
Breath is found in Psalm 150:6 –
Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.  Praise the LORD. 
 And again in John 20:21-22 - 
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you!  As the Father sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” 
I pasted these verses in my Gratitude Journal. 
I wrote “Breathe” in my journal and doodled around the word while thinking about how I was breathing and working on releasing tension I was holding onto.  There is actually a process for meditative doodling that is called zendoodling or zentangle.  It can be used as a tool for finding a calm state where your mind can be released from stresses and worries and you just focus on the repetitive pen strokes.  My  mother told me about this tool for meditation which she used during her long wait at the airport when traveling to see her father after he had suffered a stroke.  My mother and I also made up some coloring pages for my workshop that people could paste into their journals and color with crayons.  Remember coloring with crayons when you were a kid?  Have you tried it lately?  It can be very relaxing too!
After spending some time in our journals I introduced my group to the idea of a breathe prayer.  It is a concept that has been around for a long time and my husband uses it as a tool for meditation and prayer with parishioners who go on weekly prayer walks in our community.  You take a phrase and repeat it quietly to yourself as you breathe in and breathe out.  For example the most ancient is “Lord Christ Jesus” on the inhale and “Have Mercy on Me” on the exhale.   One that I liked this week was “Be Still” on the inhale and “know that I am God” on the exhale.   Our group warmed up by walking and practicing these breathe prayers before doing a series of stretches led by a professional  dance instructor who is a member of our congregation.

In closing we said the following prayer together.  I hope that everyone participating in our workshop will open their Gratitude Journal this week and be reminded to breathe this holiday season!

Lord, you breathed life into each and every one of us.  Help us not to take it for granted, but rejoice in it; for each breath is a gift. 
Help us to continue to breathe during this season
as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ. 
May we breathe in the sweetness of the Holy Spirit
and exhale tension and stress
Teach us to breathe in the Holy Spirit that we might praise you with each breath. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Art Journaling: Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude this Holiday Season

I’ve noticed during yoga classes that my teacher often directs the students in clearing their minds and focusing on gratitude.  It intrigued me, but I didn’t feel like I really understood why.  I just tucked it in the back of my mind.  Then early this fall I went on a retreat where I attended a workshop.  The person leading the group did an exercise in meditation that focused on the heart rather than on clearing the mind of distraction.  She had us focus on feelings of gratitude to push feelings of anxiety out of the body.  She created a relaxed atmosphere, and then had us imagine that feeling of gratitude being pumped throughout the body and into each cell of our being.  It was incredible how harnessing that feeling of gratitude, even gratitude for something very small, could impact how we felt both physically and emotionally.  Early in November I had an opportunity to make an art journal and do some meditation exercises using visual artmaking.  After these experiences it seemed like everywhere I looked I saw references to the physical effects of cultivating feelings of gratitude.  I kept stumbling on magazine articles that encouraged listing things you are grateful for as you fall asleep at night, writing notes of gratitude, and the simple act of verbally saying “thank you”.  I found research on positive psychology interesting, but also thought that if there are this many articles written about the “pursuit of happiness” clearly it is something that our society is craving. 
Our frantic pace and overwhelming list of obligations are magnified during the holidays.  I love Christmas but find that the joy can quickly be blotted out by the endless pressures of fulfilling the material expectations of the season.  I knew that a friend at my church, who is a dance professor, was interested in teaching a class on stretching and decided to invite her to combine our talents and offer a class to our congregation during Advent.  So we came up with, “The Attitude of Gratitude Workshop: gentle spiritual and physical activities to refresh your weary soul this Advent season.”  I plan to write a blog entry each Sunday night with some of the journaling activities, prayers and ideas to meditate on.  Our hope is that it will give people tools for maintaining a calm, joyful mindset so that the most wonderful time of the year won’t leave us physically worn out and our souls weary.

Directions for making a gratitude journal

  • 10 sheets of card stock
  • scrap of fabric approximately 9”x14”
  • ruler
  • pencil
  • 4 clothes pins
  • an awl
  • rubber mallet
  • magazine or scrap wood
  • heavy thread or crochet thread
  • large embroidery needle
  • 1 large button

1.       Fold 10 sheets of card stock in half and stack inside one another to create a book.
2.       Measure one inch from the top, one inch from the bottom and the center of the fold.  Marking with a pencil.
3.       Line up the fabric cover so it matches up with the edge of the left side of the cardstock (when the cardstock is unfolded and there is an extra couple inches of fabric along the right hand edge.)
4.       Hold the papers and cover together by securing with the clothes pins.
5.       Using the awl poke three holes along the spine of the book where you measured. (if you have a rubber mallet or hammer you can use it to pound the awl through the layers of cardstock and fabric.  Use the scrap wood or thick magazine to protect your work surface.
6.       Cut 2 ½ - 3 feet of thread.
7.       Sew the spine of the book by starting from the outside of the fabric cover through the center hole back out the top hole, in the bottom hole and then back through the center hole from the inside of the book to the outside.  Leave a tail long enough to stretch across the width of the cover and extending a couple of inches. 
8.       Sew the button to the flap extending from the back cover so that you can close the journal securely by wrapping the tail of the thread around the button.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Art in the Orchard: Kid Friendly Art Experiences

"Big Bully Boys Rabbits" high fired terra cotta by Susan Halls

Being raised by a mother who is an artist and art educator, my sister and I had many opportunities to take in the art scene while growing up.  We were always included whether it be an art opening at my mother’s gallery, an outing to a museum, or sitting in our lawn chairs listening to live music at the bandstand in my hometown.  I think being included and exposed to the arts shaped my appreciation for them as an adult.  I want my kids to have the same awareness and hope they will appreciate the creativity of the community around them. 
"Zag" forged and fabricated steel
by Matt Evald Johnson
I’m always keeping an eye out for opportunities that are suitable for me to bring along my little ones.  When my Aunt told me about an orchard in western Massachusetts that had a sculpture trail I knew it was a great chance to take the boys on a road trip to visit my family and take in the local art scene.  Sixteen local and regional artists have their work on exhibit throughout the grounds at Park Hill Orchard in Easthampton, MA from Mid August through October.  The owners of the farm have been working to revitalize the land, planting and harvesting over 70 varieties of fruit using sustainable growing practices.  This exhibit is the first of what will become a biennial public art event where visitors can enjoy the beauty of both art and nature.  The works include a range of art media including metal, stone, glass, ceramics, and audio and a variety of genre from representational pieces to more abstract.  Everyone could find one piece that they liked best.  A few pieces were large free standing sculptures that towered over us.  A couple pieces were displayed in the fruit trees themselves.   One was at the center of a labyrinth made from raspberry bushes.

"Prarie Chicken" wrought iron
by Marty Klein
The setting was ideal for my guys who were able to run around, pausing to look at a sculpture when something caught their attention and then stomping in a mud puddle or feeding free range chickens that roamed the property.   We spent the afternoon bouncing from one sculpture to the next watching my boys chase each other around the open space in front of the scenic backdrop of Mount Tom where my father grew up hiking and playing when he was a kid.  We headed out for supper at the Clam Box, our lungs full of fresh air and our minds buzzing with thoughts about the artwork we’d seen.  We were satisfied with the experience the boys had that day and inspired to find more once we’d gone home.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Reflecting on the Breast Milk Baby Doll Controversy

This summer I heard about a new doll that was causing an uproar, The Breast Milk Baby.  Now, I know that breastfeeding is a hot button topic.  This post is not meant to offend anyone.  I personally am pro breastfeeding, but I understand that it is a very personal decision for each mother based on many variables according to each individual’s situation.  Most of my point for writing this particular blog post is to consider how toys we provide for our children inform their playtime and how that will later inform their life choices. 
If you haven’t heard about or seen this doll, it is just another version of a baby doll that is electronically designed to simulate functions of a real baby, in this case breastfeeding.  The child wears a halter style top with flowers on it that have sensors in them that make the doll move its mouth and make sucking noises.  Some argue that the doll will make little girls grow up too fast or that children don’t need to learn how to breastfeed.    
Kids Intuitively Play Make-Believe
One thing that intrigued me was how little some people seem to know about how children play.  Much of a child’s play is pretending to be a grown up.  I don’t have to do any scientific research to know that.  They play dress up, putting on clothing modeled after adults and using props that help them role play.  They pretend to be firefighters, doctors, dog groomers, shop keepers, farmers, hairdressers and waiters at restaurants to name only a few.  They play “house”, by pretending to cook and clean and mow the lawn.   And they pretend to be parents by modeling their own parents.  We give children toys that are small versions of the real thing that they use as props while they pretend to be grownups.  That’s what they do.  This playtime is actually really important to their development.  I read about an experimental preschool program called Tools of the Mind.  In these classrooms the teacher would facilitate imaginary play scenarios that would encourage the children to extend the time they spent playing pretend.  Alix Spiegel did a piece in 2008 on NPR’s Morning Edition entitled “Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills”.

 It turns out that all that time spent playing make-believe actually helped children develop a critical cognitive skill called executive function. Executive function has a number of different elements, but a central one is the ability to self-regulate. Kids with good self-regulation are able to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline…self-regulation is incredibly important. Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ.”
Will they grow up too fast? Or will they grow up to be pro breastfeeding?
There are many dolls on the market that come with bottles.  Does anyone get on the morning news and disparage the toy companies for hoisting formula on the next generation or rushing children into adulthood too quickly?  I think it is an example of how our society views breastfeeding as taboo.   In our culture many feel embarrassed when a woman nurses her child in public.  It shows that our society is unaccustomed and unsupportive of one of the most natural acts of mothering.  I know as a new mother I considered pumping a bottle to take with me, not because I was uncomfortable nursing my child, but I didn’t want to make others around me uncomfortable.  I’m glad that I didn’t make that a regular practice.  What a lot of extra work for me and stress on my child who was used to nursing, and not used to bottle feeding.
What would change in the next generation if children were provided with playtime accessories that encouraged them to pretend to be nursing mothers?   Would the next generation of mothers feel more empowered to nurse their babies?  The children who are playing house today will be raising children of their own when they grow up and will be making these decisions.  I started wondering: what are we providing for them during playtime today that will help them make an informed choice in the future?
When my second child was born I knew that my first born would be very interested in all that went with caring for this little brother.  I was very open with him that his new little brother would eat milk from his mother’s breast just like he did when he was a baby.  I didn’t evade the issue I was just matter of fact about it and didn’t make it into a big deal, it was just life.  I have a newborn he eats only his Mama’s milk right now.  Wherever we go – if he gets hungry his Mama feeds him.  No big deal.  To clarify, I did care a bit that I don’t make people around me uncomfortable.  Not so much that I never left the house or only fed my baby breast milk from a bottle when in public.  But I did sew a nursing cover that strapped around my neck and gave me privacy while being courteous to those around me. 
Natural Parenting Baby Doll Accessory Set
available at
My son, like many big brothers and sisters, has a doll, (we call it “Junior” since when he received it the only name he could think of to name it was his own). When I bathed the new baby he bathed Junior.   When I rocked the new baby Junior was rocked.  When I went out with my baby I would often use a baby carrier.  A friend of mine had made her daughter a mini version of her carrier.  What a great idea!  I made one for my first born so he could carry Junior.  I used cloth diapers so I made Junior one and my son asked me to make two because if he wanted to pretend one was dirty he’d need a clean one to put on.  After seeing this breast milk baby doll on television and the controversy it generated I wondered: If I had a daughter wouldn’t it be nice to have a child sized nursing cover too.  As I’ve said in a previous blog post I’m not super enthusiastic about toys that do all the playing for the child, but playtime accessories that encourage children to play pretend and help launch their imaginations, that I can get excited about. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Excellence vs. Perfection

When I am teaching art, I feel that the most frustrating students, second only to the completely apathetic, are the perfectionists.  It is difficult to be creative when you fear falling short of perfection.   Taking risks and pushing the envelope are such an essential part of the creative process.   Yet our society driven by test scores and GPA’s can quickly quench the creative spirit. 
I remember learning to throw on a potter’s wheel in college.  One teacher challenged me by asking the question, “How can you know how far you can push a pot if you never have one that falls down?”  Anyone who has tried to throw a pot knows that gravity works against you constantly as you try to defy it and keep the soft clay suspended in the air until it can be fired.   You can’t know where that point is unless you have pushed past it and the clay has fallen down. 
I have led students in mural painting projects (and let me tell you painting a permanent, large scale wall in a public place for the first time can be a daunting task).  What if it doesn’t come out right?  Being afraid that you won’t do a perfect job can cripple the creative spirit.  My motto for my art club as they painted the nurse’s office at the school where I worked was, “You can always paint over it.” Taking that pressure off helped free my students to take the risk and plunge into a new exciting project. 
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that we should surrender into being imperfect and thus become lazy.  But what if we shift the goal from striving to be perfect to striving for excellence?  How much more would we enjoy the process of making something if we weren’t trying to make it “perfectly”?  How much more successful would we be?
I wonder how I can help my son become someone who strives for excellence rather than one who is paralyzed by striving to be perfect.  Sometimes I think about this as he plays on his train table (actually he would correct me if I said “plays” instead of “works” on his train table).  He comes up with some crazy ideas as he balances blocks higher and higher.  He’ll try putting the roundhouse on stilts and then parking train cars underneath.  Sometimes the tracks don’t line up and he has to take them down and try a new solution.  Oftentimes it would be easier if I would jump in and build it for him.  But would that teach him that he couldn’t do it perfectly so he shouldn’t bother to try?  There is an article in the September issue of Parents magazine about inspiring creativity.  Leslie Garisto Pfaff writes, “Problem-solving is an essential aspect of creative thinking, which is why you need to step back and let your child find the answers.”  Rather than jumping in and rescuing them she suggests asking open-ended questions that will spark solutions.
I read a book called “NurtureShock” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.  One scenario describes a child painting a picture and the teacher looks at it and gushes about how that is the best picture she’s ever seen.  Scientific research finds that comments like that don’t encourage the child by providing positive reinforcement, but actually stunt the child’s creativity by making her think she has peaked at this early age.  If that was the best, where does she go from here?  This makes me consider how I compliment my child, being more specific about how thoughtfully he’s chosen his colors or, as they suggest in the book, how well he kept his markings on the paper and off the table.  Rather than tell him he did a perfect job I encourage the work he did and the thought he put into it.  Teaching him to be creative, and strive for excellence rather than strive for perfection. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Making Things With and For My Kids

I am an artist.  Now that I am a mother of two creative little souls I devote much of my creative energy into making things with and for my kids.
The year following my first child’s birth I found ways to continue my art making.  I threw pottery in my garage during naptimes and hired teens from my church to play with him while I glazed.  I painted murals with my son strapped to me in a baby carrier.  He loved grabbing my brushes and watching each colorful brush stroke.  I tried trimming pots once with him in a carrier on my back.  No, that did not work, but I’m not sorry I tried it. 
When my second child was born I decided ceramics just wasn’t working.  Clay required too much attention and so I turned to my sewing machine and paint brush instead.  They were much less messy and I could work in little creative spurts while my boys napped and played nearby. 
I designed and made a fabric playhouse for my son’s first birthday.  He also got a toy kitchen from his grandparents which got me thinking about making play food.  I had worked at a children’s museum the year prior to his birth, so I pulled from that experience along with a textile sculpture class I’d taken in college.   I took actual food and dissected it, making patterns from it and shrinking it to fit my miniature chef and his kitchen.  My husband would come home from a long day at work and I would present him with the product of my day, “Tah dah!  Miniature paella!  Complete with little shrimp and rice made from embroidery floss.  Check out how it fits in the little frying pan!”
The time I had spent making manipulative activities at the museum combined with watching my little ones play and interact with their toys got me really thinking about toys.  Many toys on the store shelves could “play” just fine on their own without a child doing a thing.  I was hungry to find toys that were only as good as the imagination of the child playing with them.  Joan Almon founding director of the Alliance for Childhood says “A good toy is 95% child and 5% toy.”   I couldn’t agree more.  I gravitated towards simple wooden toys.   Toys like blocks and wooden train sets that could be set up and changed and become anything the kids wanted them to become.  I wanted toys that were a catalyst for their imaginations not simply things that entertained them. 
I also wanted them to learn things in a way that they enjoyed so much that they didn’t even notice that they were learning.  When designing my playhouse I brainstormed with a friend of mine, who also happens to be a teacher, I wanted to paint trees on the playhouse with apples you could pick.  Why not make them out of different colors and have matching colored barrels for the kids to sort them?  I had a barn on one side of the playhouse with a basket of a dozen eggs that you could hide and then the kids could find them and collect them.  Why not write numbers on the eggs and have the kids put them in numerical order?  Each idea that became fleshed out with multiple ways to play and learn was so exciting to me.  I couldn’t wait to make the sketches in my sketch book into real tangible objects and start playing with my boys! 
So that’s how I got started and now I hope to share some of my ideas and start some conversations about other ways that parents can encourage their little ones.  By creating opportunities for play that foster creative thinking and problem solving, we as parents can have a positive impact on the next generation.