The art studio is the heart and hearth of the building, and this is where we meet.
Afternoon sun pours in through the skylights, refracting off particles of magic that hang in the air like mist along the Northern California Coast. Amy has just arrived.
“Ready for my volunteer shift,” she announces. Amy approaches me with a slight limp and unsteady gait, remnants of the car accident that inflicted her childhood with traumatic brain injury. Sandy brown waves frame her round face, her blue-gray eyes dancing like saucers – one drifts slightly towards the heavens, the other pierces my soul. Like me, she is an East Coast transplant, and our playful, sarcastic banter connects us to a sense of home. She’s happy to be here. I’m happy to see her.
I lead her to the massive art table where only hours earlier art therapist Midge Casler midwived a group of brain injury survivors into their creative depths. Midge is the Art Program Director at Brain Injury Network of the Bay Area (BINBA), where I’ve worked for the past four years. Acrylic paintings birthed onto heavy weight paper stretch from one end of the table to the next, each taped onto a sturdy, rectangular art board.
“Does this make sense to you?” I ask as I hand her a checklist etched upon a scrap of paper. We read it together.
Task: Remove paintings from art boards, label and file
1. Slowly peel off tape
2. Remove painting from board
3. Turn painting over
4. Write title, artist’s name and date on back of painting
5. File paintings in artists’ files in rear of studio
Amy rolls her eyes, and for a flash of a moment I feel like an overbearing mom who’s unconvinced that her 16-year old will properly separate the colored laundry from the whites.
“No big deal,” she assures me nonchalantly. Another roll of the eyes, this time with the slightest of crooked grins. Her game face is on. A part of me is envious. On a good day, my game face feels cracked and worn.
“Well, go to it then.” I hang back and busy myself with sorting through art materials, doing my best to form myself into a strange hybrid of unobtrusive and available. I feel like a chameleon.
A few minutes pass.
“Krista, can you help me?”
The damn painter’s tape. It’s long and sticky and demanding. It wants to be wined and dined. Amy struggles with the delicate act of lifting the edge of the tape off the paper, and once she manages this she struggles to peel the tape without ripping the painting.
“I don’t want to ruin the paintings,” she says quietly. I sense she’s nervous and frustrated.
“Of course you don’t,” I respond, my voice soft and encouraging. With my thumb and index finger, I lift the edge of the tape up.
“Now, try to remove the rest of the tape,” I instruct as I demonstrate how to use one hand to hold the painting down while gripping with the other to slowly lift the tape off the paper.
Again, she attempts to lift the tape, and again the tape digs its heels in, ripping the painting beneath. Her fine motor skills are impaired, her hand strength weakened, her pincher grip loose. What for me is an uncomplicated, thoughtless task requires Amy’s full concentration, patience and energy.
This is the landscape of brain injury, and I take too much for granted.
We continue like this. For now, I remove the remaining tape from the boards myself, making a mental note to consult with our occupational therapist. When she begins to write the artist information over the artwork on the front of the paintings, I remind her to look at step three of the checklist: “TURN PAINTING OVER”. She corrects herself.
With repetition, Amy eventually gets into a groove.
“Don’t get all counselor on me,” she jokes. “I’m doing fine now.”
I trust her. I really do, so I leave the studio and return to my desk. She knows where to find me, and later she does.
“I finished everything on the list,” she proudly proclaims. “I wish Midge was here to see it.”
Yes, you did finish everything. And yes, Midge will appreciate this. And, if you want to improve your pincher grip, the occupational therapist can give you some homework. And, nice work. And, thank you.
“Oh hey,” I call to Amy as she prepares to leave. “Did you receive the Rediscovery Project flier yet?”
She smiles and let’s out a sigh of mock exasperation. “Oh Krista, I got that in the mail three weeks ago. Don’t worry. I’ll be there. I can’t wait.”
“For someone who doesn’t have a brain injury, I have a lousy memory,” I quip. She laughs. Self-deprecation is a bad habit I swaddle like a newborn, but today it works.
I founded the Rediscovery Project, a poetry and expressive arts program for people living with acquired brain injury, through a partnership with the Institute of Poetic Medicine and BINBA. I founded this project, because I know in my bones that poetry, art, community and circle are medicine for the soul.
I also know that while modernized medicine and rehabilitation therapies do a wonderful job at helping people survive and regain functionality, the existential and spiritual dimensions of life after brain injury are often lost in the drama of survival.
The souls who bear the questions: Why did this happen to me? What kind of life lies ahead? Where do I belong? Why do I feel so alone? And what of my dreams? My purpose? My identity? My faith? What does this all mean?
These are the people to whom the Rediscovery Project belongs.
The gentle giant with the cane and the gregarious laugh who narrowly survived a motorcycle accident, whose words “Karma and random / thoughts have / been the structure / of my / life” nearly knocked me out of my seat – the Rediscovery Project belongs to him.
The forty-something dancer, mother and business owner who collapsed as a heart attack starved her brain of oxygen, whose words “Flash of teeth appear as I wilt away / to a trembling confused mess / I fall away into sleep / that restores my faith in human kindness” remind us of the nuanced dance between grit and faith – the Rediscovery Project belongs to her.
This circle of “wounded warriors”, as one artistically inclined participant with several traumatic brain injuries under his belt coins it, profoundly humbles me. Because, the thing about brain injury is that nine times out of ten there is no warning. Be it head trauma, stroke, or a virus attacking the brain, brain injury barrels in like an unexpected wind and divides one’s life narrative into two – life before and life after brain injury. It’s a tricky bird.
It’s the kind of phenomena that rocks one’s foundation to the core. It’s the kind of life altering experience that merits the healing elixirs of poetry, art, community and circle.
Many times a week, I find myself confronted with the knowledge that life can turn on a dime. I wonder how it would be if it were my life that brain injury suddenly decided to wrack with pain, fear and confusion.
I wonder if I would have the courage and wherewithal to engage in the potent kind of medicinal that I observe as a healer and therapist – a medicinal that occurs when the timing’s right, when a constellation of psyche and lived experience resonates, when this all converges while creating and sharing in circle.
I wonder if I would be like Amy, who in her writing shares, “My motto is and always will be to never give up even though life is sometimes unfair or difficult to keep on improving.”
I wonder if, like Amy, I would arrive at a place where “I feel that I’m being seen and being heard in the circle of God with the people who understand where my heart lies.”
What I do know is that I’m excited to see Amy, the gentle giant, the dancer, the artist and many others who will join Midge and I in circle at the end of July. I know that I will again be humbled. Arms will again erupt in goose bumps. Eyes will again brim with tears. Hearty laughter will again reverberate throughout the studio.
These are the gifts of poetry, art, community and circle.
Krista Wissing, MFT
is a writer and licensed therapist who has facilitated expressive arts therapy experiences for people impacted by brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease, addictions, mental illness and trauma. She discovered the “medicinal” value of the arts through her own path of healing. She is the Program Coordinator for Brain Injury Network of the Bay Area’s day treatment program and is in private practice.
About the Rediscovery Project
The Rediscovery Project was founded in 2012 to assist people living with acquired brain injury (ABI) to find meaning, reclaim their voice and move out of isolation and into community through poetry and art making. Thanks to the continued support of Institute of Poetic Medicine, Brain Injury Network of the Bay Area and now Bread for the Journey, the Rediscovery Project will continue and grow in 2013. Rediscovery Project 2013 will include: ten group sessions; a printed anthology of the participants’ works; a public poetry reading on Saturday, October 26 at Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA; and a guidebook for individuals and organizations who are interested in creating their own poetry circles for people with ABI. For more information, contact Krista Wissing at 415-461-6771 or firstname.lastname@example.org.