Tuesday, February 14, 2017

How to Observe Without Absorbing

I have been described by several people in my life, whether it was in the spiritual sense or the social sense, as an empath, and I have a very tenuous relationship with my skills for feeling the energies of other people.

Once, many years ago, I met up with a few friends at a bar called Dirty Franks which was only a few steps from the entrance of my apartment building at the time.  I remember playing darts with them and drinking 2 or 3 gin and tonics before finding myself completely engulfed by a conversation with a stranger at the bar. I don't know what I said to her in those first few moments, but she very quickly shifted to talking about my gifts as an Empath, as well as the burden of such gifts.  I started to cry.  It had never been described to me as something useful before that night, and I had never really collided with another empath who was willing to read me so quickly.  It was touching to feel so understood. I had often been described as 'too emotional' and 'not a ton of fun to drink with' because someone else's energy was always effecting mine.  Could this be a skill? A tool to be mastered?
I felt ready to take a next step in my self awareness.  Over years I started to become more aware of what this 'gift' meant:
1. That I couldn't be friends (for long) with people who focus on negative topics frequently.
2. That, when hearing gossip, I would ALWAYS be compelled to map out the potential inner workings or emotional state of the person being talked about (and that REALLY pisses some people off)
3. That I was most conscious of my ability when I was surrounded by negative energy (because when you're surrounded by positive energy you're just 'having fun' or 'being productive')
The first step in using my skills to benefit me needed to be cutting the fat.  The friends of mine who focused more on the negative actually ended up doing this FOR me, though I didn't come to know or appreciate that until.... now.  But these people were the same ones who, when complaining about someone, would often be on the receiving end of one of my "well, she's going through [this] in her life right now, so she could just be lashing out emotionally and not mean what she said to you..." sidetracks, which most people don't want to hear when their feelings are hurt. So, no harm no foul. Because I was the one being dropped, it was hard for me to appreciate the benefit to my psyche that not having these friends around would supply.  Luckily, I had closer friends who talked me through it, in their way, encouraging me that the energy those people brought to the table wasn't right for me. They convinced me that my lost friends' leaving was necessary for both my sanity, and learning about the places where my ability to empathize with EVERYONE can be useful, and where voicing those views can be insensitive.
Next, I had to become aware of when I was using this "skill." Too often I would find myself in a funk after a long conversation with a friend who needed support in a tough time, or exhausted after watching the news.  My emotions were giving me energy as well as sapping it. I needed to make a note of when it happened and what I was feeling.  When a cold hard pit forms in between my ribs and my immediate reaction is to want to go to bed, I ask myself if I am feeling my own emotions, or absorbing someone else's.  (Having kids helped a lot with this. You can't go in your room and pout when there are dependents in the living room trying to find things small enough to put into their mouths). If it was someone else's emotion I was feeling, I talked myself through it:
"You can't know exactly how she feels, because you ARE NOT HER."
Which brings me to my situation here and now.
I am working on understanding that empathizing is IMAGINING someone else's emotions, NOT FEELING THEM.  I am not that person, with their personality, history, and baggage.  I am my own person and i bring my own baggage that colors my perception of their pain.
My gift is useful insofar as it supports understanding and acceptance.  When I think about this, my immediate reaction is to want to develop the skills to "turn it off," but so far that seems impossible, and causes more discomfort and drama. So how to proceed? I am trying to learn to observe without absorbing, and to understand that my experience feeling the emotional or situational state of other people is a PIECE of empathizing, but it isn't the end result.  I do no service to someone by simply joining them in pain.  I need to use that information (feel it, but not linger there) to inform my next steps.  Sometimes listening is enough for someone, and in that case, feeling their state, and letting it flow through me is the best course of action, so I can be quiet, receptive, and emotionally light for them while I listen.  Other times people will need solutions.  Feeling their pain can be helpful in understanding how to frame information in a way to be most beneficial to them.  Do they need an excited brainstormer to shift the energy? Do they need gentle suggestions? Do they need to be reminded of the positives in the situation?
I also need to keep in mind that, while I do appreciate having this gift, no one else's happiness can be my responsibility.  My empathizing cannot take their pain away (and often they don't want it gone anyway, they feel they have EARNED it), and it should not effect me to the point where my emotional state is now being flattened by a host of other people's problems.
My happiness is in my control, and my happiness and emotional lightness is often what other people need.  More importantly, my emotional lightness is what I need.
I have in no way mastered this.  There are some lessons in life we have to keep re-learning, and this is one of mine.  The desire to make everyone feel good is so compelling for me that I often end up doing the opposite or making myself unhappy... which brings me to my last point...
I am not perfect and I cannot expect my emotional reactions to be perfect.  It is ok.  It is in the nature of emotions to be messy.  I am not a robot that can sense human emotion, I am one of these cartwheeling tornadoes of nonsense myself. Use empathy when it's useful, feel it and move on. If I feel the feelings and think "I shouldn't be feeling that" and tramp it down, it does me no service.  If I feel thankful for my gift and let it flow through me like water, I have more space for my own feelings and for getting shit done.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Thank you, Mr. Bowie.

I didn't like him for cool reasons.  I never saw him in concert and I didn't hear many B-sides until about 3 years ago.  I spent my formative years listening to Roxette, Paula Abdul, and, braggably, REM, but not Bowie.  But I didn't just like him, I loved him.  
I remember so clearly (like 7 million other people my age) watching Labyrinth when I was 6 years old, over and over and over, the same way I had run The Last Unicorn into the ground the year before.  It must have driven my parents nuts.  What I remember the most clearly is being really, deeply confused.  I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that Sarah would reject the Jareth's offer to turn her brother into a goblin muppet and, I guess, marry her or something.  Inside I would be screaming, "Stay there!  Don't you want to stay there?! What's wrong with you?" And at the same time knowing full well he was supposed to be the villain and wondering if there was something wrong with me for hoping the ending would magically change and he would win.
But there was nothing wrong with me.  The man was magnetic.
I joked about my love for him once I got to graduate school and even drew myself riding on the back of a David Bowie centaur, but I was still confused.  I still wasn't really listening to his music even though I liked his popular singles.
It wasn't until his death that I really realized what his role had been in my young life.  He had given me permission. A free pass to do whatever-the-fuck-I-wanted artistically.  To see the beauty in whomever-the-fuck-I-chose to see it in.  And a full grant to do as many different things as I want and not feel like it is thinning my purpose or diffusing my voice.  At an early age this confusing lust was a sort of opening up of possibilities that I felt in the center of my ribcage, and at the time, it tasted like a brand-new and somehow fearless fear.  "Go ahead," he said, "do it."
There have been other artists who have given me permission (or reminded me of my inherent permission) throughout life, but Bowie was my first, so his death felt very personal.
I don't normally cry when a celebrity passes because I feel like it's not my mourning to do- it's not my right.  But I felt like I knew him (which I know is ridiculous), but he was genuine. I cried twice and welled up a few other times.  I welled up talking about the fact that I felt ridiculous for crying so much over someone I hadn't met.  But we don't need to know someone directly to have been touched by them and what they left behind.
He left us elegantly, in the same way he did everything.  Including dancing with muppets.
There was a phrase that kept bobbing around in my head on January 11, so I chose to draw him (probably not for the last time), and I used the phrase that stuck to the inside of my skull as the title:
"I can't believe that's the last I'll hear from you."  I really still can't believe it.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Philosophy for Babies

Like every parent, I believe Asa is a truly gifted child.  Objectively, I know that he is both the most attractive baby, and the most intelligent... But I also feel bad because it's super unfair for one baby to hold such a monopoly. (Yes, your babies are all really cute, too.)
One thing that tipped Dan and I off to the fact that we birthed the ├╝bermensch is that he is pretty close to being literate at 5 1/2 months.  We started reading to him at about 2 months (because he was colicky and awake CONSTANTLY and my God we tried everything), and he paid WAY more attention than we expected him to.  It has been really neat to see him focus... He looks at the type, and then the pictures, and sometimes right at your face while you read.  He gives a big smile and is usually quiet while you're reading (which is not typical) and he enjoys 3 or 4 books in a row.
He has some normal faves like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Rooster Struts.  He also likes the Nancy Tillman books Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You and On The Night You Were Born, which are beautifully illustrated and occasionally make me cry while reading them.  His favorite book, however, was a bit of a surprise to me, and it makes me very, very happy.  Every time I put him in his seat and show him the cover, he lights up and kicks his legs.  It's called We Need a Horse, and it's eloquent, simple, fun and beautiful.  I bought it years ago from a McSweeney's sale and only really flipped through it before putting it on our children's book shelf.  It follows a horse as it finds it's purpose and place in the world, and it is written in a way that is reassuring and uplifting, touching on very important concepts in very few pages.  We are all here for a reason, it's ok to just be, and you can love people FOR their quirks instead of despite them.

I highly recommend.  And good news: it's still available on the McSweeney's site:)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Virtually Sensitive

This is just a quick post to let you all know that my deck is now available for virtual purchase through the Phuture.Me Tarot and Numerology App for iPhone and iPad,

to let you know that now I am available for remote readings!  You can purchase a remote reading of 3 or 10 cards through the BirdQueen Designs website.  I practiced with some friends and acquaintances and got some really positive feedback!

"I asked a very general question about money and my career. The answer and reading Gretchen responded with was so clear and insightful and got the the heart of the matter. My hesitation has been deeper than money it has been about losing a connection. The reading also helped me see that there will be loss but the greater loss is being paralyzed with indecision. I've had readings of other sorts before but never has one actually pushed me into action and motivated me like this one. Her accuracy and specificity in response to such a general question was surprising and made me want more. I highly recommend." -Casey, Philadelphia, PA

Playing Priestess

Instructions for Practice: the daily card reading:
1. Take the deck in your hands and focus on your intention for the reading.
2. Slowly fan the cards from one hand to the other, making sure to touch each card in the deck, and infuse it with your energy.
3. Shuffle the deck as you wish.  When a card pops out at you or otherwise draws your attention in a way you feel is significant, pull it aside.  You may also choose to simply shuffle until you believe your card is on top.
4. When you're ready, look at the card.  Then consult a guide (or website) to find the meaning of your card.
Engage in this activity every day to get to know your deck, and apply the meaning as you see fit.

Today my card is Strength.

Strength is a card that, when I pull it, I feel recognized for my resilience and for the difficulty of my situation.  No one wants to hear that they have it easy, but even just typing this couple of sentences makes me realize the difficulties others face in their lives.  In the big scheme of things, on the sliding scale of human suffering, my problems are miniscule.
This is what I find so rewarding about learning to read tarot; I feel like the metaphor and symbolism forces me to do 2 things:
1. Recognize important aspects about my personality and how they govern my actions
2. Practice mindfulness and empathy through encouraging awareness of the conditions of other people.

There are plenty of other types of readings an amateur sensitive can draw to practice, but this one is the most simplistic; Drawing a Card of the Day.  You can do this for your own advice or for friends and family.  You can find practice guides and thousands of fabulous tarot decks (including the BirdQueen Tarot) at aeclectic.net.

I have enjoyed the focus required to pull cards.  It has been a little like meditation, especially when I am able to pull cards for myself.  There is a certain calm ceremony about it, or ritual.  I breathe deeply and try to focus solely on the question, which is a much- needed exercise for me because I typically have a few things rattling about in my head at the same time, and I tend to be a shallow breather.  I liken it to the psychology of a smoke break:  when a smoker goes outside for a cigarette, they step away from a typically stressful situation to breathe deeply and be still for several minutes.  The same can be said of practicing tarot: the magic happens partially because I am stopping what I'm doing to focus on ONE THING to breathe deeply and slow down my movements for several minutes.  That quiet creates an opening for your inner priestess to state her piece...  And in the quiet, one can actually hear what she's saying.

So all of this magic and ceremony has gotten me inspired, and I started a little experiment in energy to help me with my cloudiness when it comes to my professional future.
I have 8 possible directions written on pieces of paper that I have taped to the back of 8 cardboard drawing plates.  Then I started drawing and sketching.  When the drawings are done I will choose one that I connect with the most, and see what career path is tucked away behind.  We will see if this experiment does anything for me.  If not, I will have enjoyed playing Priestess.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

What I have learned in 2 years and 10 months

First of all, I've missed the hell out of you, my darlings.
It's been way too long, and for that, I apologize.  Much has happened in the almost 3 years that have passed since my last post.  I have had a few exhibitions, as well as many new drawings and pieces of jewelry, I got married, and I even had a baby.  His name is Asa and he's pretty awesome, as evidenced by this pic:

Some other things have also happened... I found a new strength and an undefined spirituality which, unsurprisingly, coincided with the beginning of my pregnancy.  It's impossible to predict how the barrage of hormones will impact any woman.  That being said, pregnancy is a pretty magical thing (save the nausea, swelling, acne and clumsiness), and I would expect that other women have had similar experiences during this biologically transformative time.
In January of 2014, before I found out I was expecting, a friend suggested I illustrate a tarot deck.  I didn't know anything about the tarot, but I was intrigued, and as I learned more, I found that the language used by many guides was extremely positive and supportive.  It was suggested that using the tarot was more like an exercise in perspective, and less of  a form of fortune telling.  This made me comfortable enough to start playing; reading my own cards with the beginner Rider-Waite tarot that my friend had given me and sketching ideas.  My first image came to me suddenly and with some force, and I began illustrating The High Priestess.  She is the representation of our intuition and personal psychic abilities, which some (including me) believe we all have and sometimes need assistance in getting acquainted.  

I set up an exhibition with B Square Gallery for June to light a fire under my ass, and by the time the show rolled around, all 79 illustrations were complete, cards were designed, and decks were printed and ready for sale.  It felt good to be surrounded by the drawings and the energy they created.

Since that time, I have been doing amateur readings for myself and friends with my own cards.  I'm thinking about making remote readings available online for a small fee, since it is something I can do from home with the baby nearby.  I'll let you all know if that happens.  
The other piece of the puzzle (which I will delve into more in the coming posts) is a new sense of magic and ceremony in my actions and artwork.
In December of 2014 I was laid off from my job, for which I maintain much affection.  Teaching at a college level felt like a calling.  It came naturally to me despite my speech anxieties and inexperience in the field, and my students and supervisors were consistently pleased with my work.  Rave reviews from my classes would rejuvenate me, and criticisms would spurn excited overhauls of my curricula.  This past quarter, the classes were simply not available, and after 7 years at my job, I still had the least seniority, meaning it was my time to move on.  I oscillated between mourning the loss of a fabulous job with amazingly supportive students, coworkers, and administration, and accepting that this is what the universe intends for me, and being excited about the incredible breadth of possibilities that lay before me.  Now I find myself more firmly in the second camp, but I am dealing with a bit of an identity crisis that I'm sure all the moms out there will be able to identify with;
I don't know who I am supposed to be anymore.
This baby demands a lot.  Much more than I had foolishly anticipated.  And I had not expected to lose my job at the same time.  It turns out the timing is fabulous because I can be home with a high-maintenance little man while I think about what I want most out of my professional future... But the timing is also incredibly difficult.  When I was pregnant, I felt like a uterus with legs.  I had no identity separate from being a baby-builder, and all of my major and minor decisions revolved around the happiness and well-being of this person I had not yet met.  When he arrived, we quickly realized that appetite would not be a problem for him.  He wanted to nurse around the clock.  He would sleep for an hour and a half at best, and I was not comfortable pumping yet, so I transformed from a uterus into a pair of breasts with legs; my sole purpose being to bring food to this very hungry baby.
So, now Asa is 4 months old.  He is happier and less demanding, but still a bit high-maintenance.

The challenge now for me is forging a new identity.
I had always BEEN what I was DOING.  I had never spent any time BEING and getting to know what that means, and my intrinsic value as a person, friend, daughter, wife, artist, and mother.  I have always placed so much importance on product and productivity, and it is difficult for me to go a day without drawing something, selling something, teaching someone, writing something, or, ideally, all of the above.  But I am being forced to figure it out and to see who I am and to love myself for it.
"Asa" is a Hebrew name and it means "healer."  His challenges are gifts to me, and the more I can focus on that, the happier we can both be.  A perspective of gratitude can help me navigate this new territory.  I am a mom, I am an artist, I am a teacher, and I am more than the sum of my parts.  I will do my best to raise this baby to be strong, confident, independent, kind and good, but I will make mistakes, like every mom does, and my baby will learn from those mistakes too.   I will take time to offer myself kindness, even when it seems impossible, and know that there is value in it.  I will trust my intuition and try to help others do the same.

Next time, I will share an experiment in intuition with you.  Until then, much love,

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

An Intimate Conversation in Public

A few months ago, I began working towards a show which will debut at B Square Gallery (614 South 9th St) in July of this year. The series I will be creating is comprised mostly of shrink-film constructions (inspired by my jewelry line BirdQueen Designs) which showcase characters attempting to forge meaningful relationships, suspended in time and space, and debilitated by their own self-absorbed nature and personal baggage. These pieces are not intended to be judgmental about their characters, but rather they are an attempt to show this... inability to take one's focus off of themselves... to be entirely unselfish or completely objective and understanding. That being said, "these things that keep me from you," the piece shown, features 2 characters trying to reach one another, but having difficulty getting to the person behind all of the defensive walls, expectations, and external pressures. It is fascinating to me that we can never truly know anyone inside and out... it's simultaneously frustrating and liberating. Keep an eye out for more pieces from An Intimate Conversation in Public, and come see the show in July!