It has been seven years. If you had never gotten sick—if you had lived—who would you be now? Would you still love peanut butter sandwiches and fishing in the waters of Puget Sound? Would you still be a golfer and a jokester and the grounding force in every room? Would I still see tears in your eyes when you are moved by social justice? Would you still say to me (now at age 39, almost 40) “Way to go kid”? Memory is sometimes fickle, other times an iron burning a deep mark in wood. Here is one of those deep marks distilled in a poem. Here you are, a version of you from many years ago, still clear in my memory.
WATCHING HIM TIE THE CORDS
for my father
One summer, they come—
pups with wet fur, slick in their amniotic gloss.
My father flops each black body over like a fish
to reveal the pink bellies and the gray umbilicals.
He cuts and ties each cord like a fishing line.
I recognize his gentle one-handed turn,
remember when the knife sliced
the salmon’s pink flesh, scored the scales
and one glazed fish eye stared back at me
across the bloodied sink.
Today, he strokes each tiny body, ties
the cords into knots and places the pups
at their mother’s row of plump nipples
for their first suck of life.
c. Courtney Putnam, 2015
This afternoon I took a walk through my neighborhood park (Ravenna Park) with the intention of 1) moving my body to help with my recent dip into the “Seattle Winter Lethargy” (that’s SWL, for those who need to know) and 2) finding beauty in the dark muckiness of winter in the Pacific Northwest.
At first, the trail ahead of me seemed barren and everything, no matter what color, seemed to have an ashen overtone. I saw three colors, really: brown, gray, and dark green — far from the vibrant greens and blues of spring and summer. I noticed wet decaying leaves marinating in mud puddles; cold naked deciduous trees looking a bit embarrassed; various slimy plant matter drooping and brown; and fallen branches and rotting tree stumps looking lost and discarded.
Even my Instagram filter has a hard time convincing me there is beauty here.
And yet, I know beauty *does* exist in what’s happening in these photos above. What’s happening is seasonal metamorphosis. What’s happening doesn’t look “pretty” because decay isn’t very photogenic. The process of transformation is not often gleaming with vibrancy either. I can’t help but think of the many personal growth spurts in my life. I think of how much muck I walked through, knee deep, in order to find my way again. Detritus is essential for new growth.
But can’t there be true beauty along the way, too, even in the shadow times of our lives? On my walk today I looked for beauty and found it when I got up close and personal with nature. I will be honest: I didn’t see beauty right away and I sometimes had to convince myself to see differently. But this is a good exercise, right? Find beauty in something that you think is ugly.
The wide angle lens proved to be disappointing, but when I paid attention and zoomed in, look at what green gorgeousness I found:
When I changed my perspective, the barren tress turned into art:
When I touched nature, she was surprisingly soft and welcoming:
And when I looked up, the deciduous and evergreen trees embraced the sky regardless of their different states of undress.
There is beauty in the winter, in the shadows, in the decaying muckiness of the season. There is beauty in you during your “winter” season, too. Zoom in, change your perspective, look up, connect. You will find mossy vibrancy and hope inside you. There will be a corner of blue sky peeking at you some days. And those mud puddles? They’re just there to remind you to take risks, get dirty, and play.
Let’s burn those traditional New Year’s resolutions. Take all of your “to-do’s” and “shoulds” and “have to’s” and place them in a pile of kindling. Watch them curl and scorch and turn to ash. Feel your body lift and lighten as the smoke rises. Listen to your heart’s caverns expand. Be present to how those “shoulds” have held you back, kept you from rising. Replace them with “I am” and “I want to” and “I am becoming.” Write your way into a brand new year of self-love, self-compassion, deep listening, and creativity. Listen to your body, write from your body, let your body speak.
The ZenPen journey begins on January 12, 2015.
Join me for body-based writing for healing, personal growth, and transformation.
$69 for the entire six-week e-course!
Give ZenPen as a gift to someone you love this holiday season!
The Goodies: What You Get in this E-Course
- Six weeks of “Lessons,” each covering a different ZenPen theme.
- A guide to body-writing basics, including the “ZenPen Kata” and “Trigger Point Writing.”
- A personal video from me once a week.
- Body exercises to try (breath, movement, meditation, etc.).
- At least five body-based writing prompts per week.
- Inspirational quotes, videos, images, and links related to each theme.
- An “Inspire-Me-Thursday” post with inspiration and motivation to keep you writing.
- Responses to and feedback on your posts on CourseCraft and in the Facebook Group.
- A community of like-hearted people with whom to share writing, insights, experiences, and resources.
- A 30-page ZenPen course document that is yours to keep at the end of the e-course.
- Unconditional love and support!
Here’s what ZenPen graduates have to say about the course:
“I love that we incorporate our bodies into our writing — or rather, let them do the writing for us. I’ve been trying to learn more about how to heal through my body and what it remembers, so I’m excited to add one more process in my journey. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to explore and heal here.” — Faith
“Your prompts, and the writing I crafted in response to them, at various moments made me take deeper breaths, burst into tears, listen more closely to various parts of my body, feel connected and warm, mourn, hope, build courage, and so many other things. Thank you.” — Jessica
“I have been journaling and studying all things journaling for four decades and the content here is very interesting and the information was new to me. I know have a whole new landscape to explore in my journaling. Thank you. — Bheki
“That’s why this course has been so helpful: little by little, I am seeing small ways to improve my awareness of my body, and now I can include it in that powerful triumvirate of mind-body-heart. I am only starting on this kind of awareness training, but I am already seeing the benefit: I am more present, less violent with my language towards myself, and much, much more forgiving of my ‘human-ness.’ Your course is tying in nicely with everything else I am learning about right now.” — Lauren
“Courtney is amazing. And I was needing a ‘reason’ to start writing again, but felt like if I just tried it on my own I’d be discouraged with more grocery-list type entries (from the head) rather than really getting some creative writing out. Through the ZenPen process, I learned that my body has a whole lot more to say that my Big Bad Mind won’t let it. Sorta like a stern parent, my mind REGULATES, and so when I can put my mind in time-out, then my body feels free to open up and give me lots of good stuff to work with!” — Jenna
“I learned to not rationalize too much, to listen to my body, to trust myself and my instincts, and to know that it’s OK to not make sense! I struggle with anxieties that something is wrong with me because I find great differences between me and many other people, but I’m slowly learning/struggling/challenging myself to believe that my differences are me and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve gained new perspectives from this course and I am very grateful for you Courtney.” — Hafsia
“ZenPen is helping me to be more present and loving with myself. It is facilitating a deepening relationship with myself that is necessary for me to be more of ME. I love your insights and exercises and the way you share yourself — very inspiring!” — Rachel
“The ZenPen E-course was outstanding in quality and quantity. I liked having lots of things to return to throughout the week — writing prompts, body work, videos, mid-week inspiration, and posting. Courtney’s replies to my CourseCraft posts were the highlight of the course for me! Through the e-course, I learned that I can do what I thought I couldn’t (write from my body) and that it’s an ever-expanding opportunity I can keep returning to and deepening.” — Nicole
A brand new year is on the way. How are you going to show up for yourself in a deep and meaningful way?
For the past six months, I have been in full “teacher mode” at Cascadia College in Bothell, WA. I teach writing and a class called “College Success.” I like to describe this course as part intro to college, part human development, part personal growth, part skills acquisition, part educational theory, and part goal setting — and when it comes to my version of the class, it’s a lot about building confidence and cultivating deep self-awareness.
Teaching for me feels like I’m giving healing sessions, except for the bright classroom lights, the 30 people in the room, and the number of times I break into spontaneous dancing. Other than that, it’s pretty much the same. I guide, I listen, I ask questions, and I create a safe space.
My “touch” is clearly not literal in the classroom, but I make sure that we touch each other with our words, our presence, and our curiosity and compassion. This isn’t always easy to achieve, but every once in a while I feel that transcendent moment when students are really listening — heads leaning in, bodies still, brows slightly wrinkled — when I say, “You are not your test score. The value of your being should not be equated with how many questions you got right out of a hundred.” I sense the relief on their faces mix with an affect of confusion.
I continue, “You are you. You are not your weight, your height, your hair. You are not your salary, your possessions, your savings account. You are not your failing test score, your illness, your challenges. Let’s embrace the idea of self-worth as qualitative in nature, not quantitative.”
But shouldn’t I, as their college success teacher, be telling them to study hard and to learn test-taking strategies so that they don’t fail? Sure. But I have realized over the course of six years working with college students that they know this. What they don’t know is how to deal with struggle and failure. What they are challenged by is how to forgive themselves, to see the larger picture, and to keep-on-keepin’ on. The struggle is in learning how to cultivate resilience.
We journaled together at the beginning of every class and I want to share this particular prompt with you. It comes from Danielle LaPorte, author of The Firestarter Sessions and The Desire Map, and here it is:
What is your favorite failure? Think of your failures and then look at the lessons that you gleaned those failures. See the lessons. What is the pattern in the failures? Did you keep making the same mistakes? Were they different? How did your failures change your behavior and the way you approach things?
We often talk about learning from failure, but have we really looked at the arc of our foibles and the depth of our disappointments? Our ability to move through failure is a life skill and we don’t always know how to navigate the waters of loss and disappointment. Failing, falling, foibling, and fumbling hurt sometimes. How do we get up, dust ourselves off, and continue to learn and grow without defensiveness, self-cruelty, or fear? In all, how do we learn to be graceful in the face of our failures?
My question to YOU is the same one I asked my students: How do you deal with your own failures, both miniscule and massive? How might you feel differently if you were able to take the fear out of failure? What might you do differently?
on this journey with you,
Repair by Courtney Putnam
As I try to digest the horrors of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I am reminded of a poem I wrote in graduate school. The setting and context is not about this conflict, or of any war. It’s a poem of yearning for connection and understanding — a kind of resonance that can reach across oceans and through nations and beyond seemingly indestructible barriers. And it’s also a reminder of the energy of children who know no boundaries and exude curiosity and compassion despite politics, religion, distance, and difference.
This poem is for them — for the children.
WHAT RESIDES THERE
“Dear Diary, today is April 26, 1986. I haven’t written in a long time. Today was pretty good. We had some hail. In the Soviet Union something blew up and so radiation is floating around.” –my diary entry, age 11
When St. Helens erupted, my brother
filled Jiffy jars with water,
placed one in each of our bedrooms.
Did brothers in the Ukraine do the same?
As I watched the news flash footage
of Chernobyl’s smoke and flames,
I pictured myself there
filling jars of water, placing them
on nightstands and under beds.
It occurs to me now how the word
here is always part of there—
the way loved ones live
inside me like stones at my core,
the way we nestle inside one another,
curious and unafraid.
The other day I felt paralyzed by fear. The previous night I had had a panic attack, and the next day my nervous system was “wired,” tired, and frayed. I was glued to my bed, pacing in my head, stuck as to what to do with myself. I had a long “to-do” list but had no idea where (or how) to start.
One of my tried and true mottos is “When you’re stuck, move!”
And by this I mean physically move — change your location or environment, take a walk around the block, pull weeds, dance, climb a tree, and create. So that’s what I did: I pulled some weeds in my square-foot garden, organized my closet, and then decided to pull out my journal and write.
An hour later, I had filled eight pages. In that hour, I was so focused on getting all of my thoughts and fears onto the page, I forgot that I had been paralyzed. My hand moved across the page in earnest and I felt myself sigh and breathe deeply every few minutes.
Journaling allowed me to peel myself off the ceiling and feel my body on the earth.
Creating — whether in the form of cooking, playing guitar, flower-arranging, art-making, or writing — gets us out of a stress-stuckness pattern because we are activating the frontal lobes of the brain, leaving our fight-or-flight reptilian hind brain to rest. There are no proverbial saber-toothed tigers about to attack when we are in a flow state of creativity.
Writing, specifically, helps us move through stress and stagnation because when we process our lives through journaling, we connect the events in our lives with our emotions, and that’s the path of healing in action. Even though we usually sit when writing, we still move. We still move our hands across the page or the keys. We still move our minds and emotions to another state and place.
This type of writing isn’t about product or talent or skill; instead, it’s about process. It’s about transformation. You need not feel you are a Writer, with that capital “W.” This isn’t about high art, it’s about moving through pain, heartache, grief, stagnation, confusion, anxiety, and more. It’s also about play and letting go and having a blast with image, language, and metaphor.
Do you use writing as a tool for healing in your own life? If not, what would it take for you to try it?
If you’d like try this type of writing, or you’d like some structure and community support for your journaling practice, I invite you to join me this summer for ZenPen: Body-Based Writing for Healing, Transformation, and Personal Growth. It’s a six-week e-course full of inspiration, writing prompts, body exercises, videos, music, and more. In all, it’s an immersion of your senses so you can write from your whole being–brain, heart, gut, feet, and all!
You can go at your own pace, share your process (or not), and allow yourself to engage that creative part of yourself that is inherently healing. At the end of the course, my gift to you is a 28-page ZenPen e-book of all the content from the course so you can continue your writing journey beyond our time together.
The ZenPen journey begins on July 7 and goes until August 10. You can be on vacation and still do this! It’s your course.
You can also learn more and sign up by clicking this image below:
peace and transformation,
My body loves acknowledgment …
… and I know your body does, too.
I know this because the body responds when we pay attention, listen, and acknowledge. In my many years of being a bodywork practitioner I have not only seen the body physically change its condition — from tightness to softness, from constriction to release — but I have felt these changes with my hands. I have felt tension release its grip without my massaging anything. When my clients paid compassionate attention to the parts that hurt, their bodies accepted these acknowledgments as peace offerings and then decided to let go. It’s as if the body says, “You mean, you noticed me? You mean, it’s okay to let down my guard now?”
It sounds so simple, but it works.
Once one of my college writing students approached me after class in distress. She asked me, “Can you help me with fear?” I was moved that my student felt safe enough to come to me with such a question. I must say I was expecting an inquiry about how to revise her essay, and I felt strangely relieved when her issue was so intensely important and universal.
We sat down together and I knew that no ordinary “pep talk” would do. How can you release fear in five minutes by merely talking through it? You can’t. But what you can do is listen to the body. And that’s what we did.
“Where do you feel the fear in your body?” I asked.
“In my chest,” she said and placed her hand there, rubbing her sternum like she was polishing a stone.
“Good. Just acknowledge that you feel the fear in your chest. Breathe that knowing in and let it be,” I said. “What does that feeling in your chest want to tell you?”
She seemed a little uncertain of my question, but after closing her eyes and focusing inward, she answered, “My body says I am safe,” and she took a full breath and then sighed. Her jaw unclenched. She looked at the clock, aware that we both needed to get going. “How can I feel better this quickly?” she asked.
“Because you were brave and you listened to your body,” I told her.
Our five minutes were up and my student moved forward with a lightness only the body can manifest in such situations. The body is always ahead of the mind when it comes to physical and emotional pain. The body knows how be our best advocate.
The art piece I created above is called “She Asks Her Hand Why it Hurts.” In the scene, the whispering birds represent the kind of dialog we can have with ourselves regarding our own discomfort. Sometimes I imagine a little voice in my mind which asks a little voice in a part of my body (such as my hand), “Why do you hurt?” or “What do you need?” When I listen carefully, I can usually hear a response.
The hand might say, “I worked too hard today” or “I gave too much to others this week” or “You forget all about me when you work on the computer.” When I can quiet the clatter in my mind for a few long breaths, I usually receive some insight. What do you hear when you ask a part of your body how it feels?
Find a quiet place where you can focus inward. Locate an area that you are curious about. Perhaps this area causes you pain or maybe this area is just confusing to you for some reason. Whatever the case may be, ask this place some questions as if it were a close friend or loved one. Ask your questions with curiosity and compassion and be open to hearing whatever it is your body has to tell you.
You can follow up this exercise by writing down the dialog as if you were writing a short story or play. Feel free to give this body part a personality, too! Is your elbow crabby? Is your stomach an excited teenager? Is your neck shy and reserved? Make this body part come to life and give its voice a chance to speak!
Some of you are very comfortable using the word “artist” to describe yourself, but I also know that many of you feel quite uncomfortable.
Some of you may be thinking any number of these thoughts:
“I’ve never been creative.”
“I can’t draw.”
“I don’t think in pictures.”
“I was told not to pursue art.”
“There’s not a creative bone in my body.”
“Nobody wants to see what I might create. It’s not good enough.”
What if I were to tell you that none of the above matters in my world of what it means to be an artist? Would you believe me if I told you that I believe that we are ALL creative and we are ALL artists? I mean it! From the depths of my left heart ventricle, I believe it!
Try on some of these statements:
You are the artist of your life!
Creativity is broad, vast, ever-expanding!
Art-making is about process, not product.
There is no “wrong” or “ugly.”
When you claim that you are the artist of your life, everything lights up, becomes vivid, clear, colorful! You realize that how you dress, how you arrange your furniture, how you sing a little ditty in the shower, how you garden, and how you cook your dinner are ALL acts of creativity and they come from YOU.
Again, you are creative. You are an artist.
Here’s a video from last year in which I explore the “little a” inside each of us:
It’s a paradigm shift for some us to claim those words because we’ve been told (or we’ve been telling ourselves) that we aren’t creative or artistic for so long. Is it time to tell a different story? I think so!
Why? Because your creativity can be an enormous source of healing in your life. Art-making can feel as therapeutic as a massage or a therapy session (though please please, keep those massages and therapy sessions on your calendar!).
When my father died in 2008, art-making was my healing salve. What I couldn’t say in words, I could scribble and paint and collage. What I was afraid to say out loud came out in journal writing — messy, tear-stained journal writing. It feels dramatic to say, but more than once in my life, art-making has saved my life.
And even in lighter times — times without grief and loss, depression, or anxiety staring me in the face everyday — I have found solace, insight, and deep inner knowing through the act of creating.
I can tell when I need to be creative because my body itches for it. I feel unsettled, off-kilter, out of balance and creating is most often on the top of my “help” list — that and dancing to KC and the Sunshine Band. Don’t you feel that twitchiness in your body sometimes? It’s like your body is trying to wake you up?
My new journey as “Queen Bird” of Rising Bird Healing Arts is to infuse what I know of healing from being a Reiki Master and Massage Therapist into the creative arts — and in particular to help others with pain, heartache, grief, loss, depression, anxiety, and any general stuckness to find their own salve in the act of creating.
Here is a video I recently created of how I get unstuck through art-making, and I even include my creating an art journal entry before your eyes!
Now it’s YOUR turn? How are you creative? How are you the artist in YOUR life? Please comment below and share how you creatively move through the universe!
peace and artful delight,
“The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.” ― Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
I am learning that a feeling of zen (inner peace, calm, and stillness) can happen anywhere — because I bring it with me. Certainly a serene environment can make a feeling of calm and centeredness more possible, but I have found zen on a crowded subway in Tokyo; at the tail end of a panic attack, just when my nervous system lost its grip on my terror; at hospital and hospice beds of dying loved ones; in traffic waiting to cross the 520 bridge on the way to my CranioSacral appointments; and in front of classes of 30 college students who wished they were anywhere but in the classroom.
I have sensed it inside of me while making breakfast, doing laundry, chugging away at my taxes, brushing the cat, and even, dare I say it, shaving my legs.
Do I always feel zen during stressful moments? No. Do I always feel zen during mundane moments? No. But do I sense it there inside me, as part of me, waiting as a potential, sometimes calming me to the core? Yes.
Can you feel your Inner Zen? Scan your body. Where does it live right now? After you have found where it’s located in your body, sense what it feels like? Is it small or large, still or moving, clear or foggy? Is it a particular color, shape, texture?
Right now I feel my Inner Zen lives in the center of my sternum, close to the surface. It is flat, about the size of a penny, but it’s light in weight. It’s yellow and gold and its light radiates out in all directions. When I focus on it, it calms my nervous stomach.
While it is magnificent to find places of peace and serenity to accentuate your feeling of zen– the forest, a creek, the ocean, a spa, a quiet chair in your home — see if you can also cultivate it inside of you and remember to bring it along with you wherever you go. It’s there. Touch it with your mind. Sense it with your body. Listen to it with your heart.
Here are my TOP 5 ways of cultivating Inner Zen:
1. Take out the trash. Sure you can do this literally (and you’ll probably feel better for it!), but I am really talking about clearing the clutter of your mind. Take out a piece of paper and write any and all thoughts that come to you, particularly the nagging, worrisome, disturbing ones. Get it all out of your head. Put it on paper and leave it there. Know that you have not abandoned your “stuff,” you’ve just given it a home that isn’t inside of you.
2. Scan for it. Find a quiet moment to locate where your Inner Zen lives in your body. The key to this is not to think too much. Just scan your body top to bottom and notice where there is a comforting stillness.
3. Give if form. In order to make our sensations less amorphous, strange, or scary, I like to give them form, shape, and color. What is that stillness inside you like? What color is it? What shape? What weight? Make it real. Use your imagination and go with it. Write down a description of this place of Inner Zen. If you want, make a little sketch of it — even a doodle will do!
4. Active your Inner Zen before you need to use it. As a person who has been challenged by anxiety and panic for the past six years of my life, I have learned to lower my anxiety threshold in general, so the possibility of panic lessons. Before you start your day or before you know you might be in a stressful situation, tap into that Inner Zen place. Locate it, imagine it, feel it, breathe into it. When you’re already stressed it becomes more difficult to access your inner calm because your nervous system is in overdrive.
5. Practice gratitude. Here’s a mantra I use: “Even though I feel this stress, I am grateful for my resilience and inner stillness that resides inside me always.” Thank your mind and body for working on your behalf (and especially when) life feels tough to manage. Find a way to feel grateful anyway. Find a way to thank your Inner Zen even so, for doing so strengthens it simply by your acknowledgment.
Now it’s YOUR TURN. Tap into your Inner Zen. What does it look and feel like? How might activating your place of Inner Zen help you during your times of stress? What do you do to find your place of inner calm and peace? Please let me know in the comments below!
Spine Hawk, mixed media by Courtney Putnam
Alright, creative wonderfuls,
I know that you think about your spine. I just do. During my time as a massage therapist it was a rarity if someone didn’t ask for their back to be massaged. I did not often hear comments like, “You know, today my back feels so loose and free, you can just avoid even touching that area.” So that is how I know you think about your spine. You want someone to touch it. You want relief from its pains.
You spend at least a portion of each day feeling and interpreting sensations in your back and neck as you sit at your computer and take a walk and do yoga and sit to read and do just about anything. I am very conscious of my back right now as I write this blog post. I can tell my back wants to talk. I wonder what she would tell me if I gave her a voice? The spine is fascinating and complex.
First, here are some fabulous factoids you might find interesting to ponder:
- Humans and giraffes each have seven cervical (neck) vertebrae.
- There are over 120 muscles that make up the spine area.
- When we are born we have 33 individual vertebrae. As we age, some of these vertebrae may fuse together, like the five bones that fuse together to form our sacrum.
- Potentially, the spine is so flexible that it can bend to form two-thirds of a circle.
- Etymologically speaking, the word “spine” has evolved from “backbone,” “thornlike part,” “thorn prickle,” and “sharp point.” It wasn’t until 1922 that “spine” also referred to the back of a book.
So I invite you to dive into this writing exercise (below). If your spine were another “thing” in the world, what would it be? No huge time commitment needed. Give yourself just five minutes to write if that’s all you have time for. The point is to check in with yourself and engage with your creativity. No pressure, just a little “push.” Got it?
Writing Prompt: Spine Metaphor
What is the life of your spine like? On a typical day, do you feel expansive in this area or cramped and compressed? What words come to mind to describe how your spine feels? What sensations live in your spinal area? Write about the purpose and function of your spine, as well as how you experience your spine in your body. Don’t worry if the words that arrive don’t seem to make sense. Keep writing. Allow your body to speak to you and through you. Breathe. Press your back up against your chair or the wall.
Now imagine your spine is not your spine at all, but something else. Is it a ladder for your headaches to climb to reach your head? Is it a river flowing from your cranium to your sacrum? Is it a snake? A rain stick? Is your sacrum a drum? Are you half-giraffe? If you get stuck in your writing, I recommend that you connect with your spine by doing some small movements and stretching in your torso. What does it feel like when you gently bend forward, back, or to the side? How does your spine respond when you engage with it? Perhaps this movement will help you to reveal the metaphor.
As always, what comes to you is what is meant to arrive on the page. We’re not going for perfection here; instead, we’re going for connection and expression. What does your spine say? And notice if the sensations in your back shift and change as you give your spine a chance to be seen, heard, and understood. Our bodies LOVE acknowledgement!
After you’ve written, please share a snippet of your writing or a reflection about your writing process in the comments below! I’d be honored to hear from you.
with sacrum drum beats,
ZenPen, my e-course for process-oriented, body-based writing begins on May 5th!