Today is the Winter Solstice. The sun’s daily path, as we perceive it from Earth, has stopped. The earth’s axis that has tilted away from the sun is about to shift and tilt towards the sun. Chicago’s daylight has shrunk to nine hours. For my Swedish relatives near Trondheim, Norway, daylight has shrunk to four and a half hours. It is a moment that happens at the same time throughout the planet. The pause in the earth’s natural rhythm invites us to stop, too, and reflect on what this astronomical phenomena means to our earth and to us as humans.
Aligned Rocks and Festivals
In ancient times, knowing when winter’s dark days would begin to lengthen was important news. Any people trying to make their food supplies last until plants would grow again followed the astronomical signs. Evidence of this day’s significance is seen in structures of stone aligned with the rising or setting sun on the solstice. Examples: Stonehenge in England. The passage tomb at Newgrange in Ireland. In Sicily, Italian archaeologists found a 5000 year old rock formation with a 3.2-foot diameter hole, aligned with the winter solstice sun.
From ancient times to today, people have celebrated the shift towards light in this time of darkness, whether specifically speaking of the solstice or not. Among contemporary celebrations are Hannakuh, Christmas, Kwanzaa and Eid Al-Fitr.
Respect for Rhythm
Scientific studies on the rhythms of both animals and humans have shown how tied our bodies are to nature’s cycles, whether we think about and respect them, or not. Richard Heinberg wrote in his book, Celebrate the Solstice:
“Today….we human beings have created a situation unique in nature, as well as in the history
of our own species. We have gradually but decisively cut ourselves off from many of the cycles
of the cosmos and of the biosphere and substituted arbitrary, economically determined temporal
patterns. We have overridden the natural daily rhythms of light and dark with the artificial illumination
of cities; the rhythms of the seasons with greenhouses and supermarkets, jet travel and central
heating. Electromagnetic fields from power lines, house wiring, and appliances drown out subtle
geomagnetic signals from the Earth. Clock times has replaced Sun and Moon times; nanosecond
computer time makes heartbeat time imprecise and irrelevant.” (1)
Heinberg’s book offers information about solstice festivals ancient and current and guidance for people interested in creating solstice rituals of their own.
For many of us, the ability to celebrate during this dark time of year may be difficult. If we have suffered trauma, we may find it hard to open our hearts to the dark we experience inside ourselves. The challenge is to find safe and meaningful ways to consider our lives and to turn towards the light. This week, I chanced on Jeff Brown’s summary of the situation in our culture in his article, Praises For The Trauma Speakers – Let Them Whisper Your Heart Back To Life.
“We are only just beginning to understand the nature of trauma on this planet. We are only just
beginning to understand that we are all trauma-survivors, to one degree or another. We are only just
beginning to listen to the real story of our lives, after generations of denial, victim-bashing, ungrounded
attempts to ‘rise above’ it.” (2)
The challenge for each of us to create safe places where we can be still and listen deeply to ourselves.
(1) p.22, Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth’s Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony, 1993, Quest Books
(2) The Urban Howl, November 23, 2017
Contributed by Kara Jefts*
What are the Stone's Stories?
The multi-faceted Cairn Project has enabled hundreds of individuals to reflect on personal experience through art making. To me, what is so moving about the project is that each stone and token of light were literally shaped by personal experience: where feelings of pain and resilience were worked through and into the malleable clay. When all of the people who have participated are memorialized in the Cairn and Cloud installation, the pieces they created are powerful in their permanence, but I, and I expect most viewers, can’t help but be curious: what are their stories?
Photos of Each Stone and Token to be Archived
One aspect of the project that Peterson deliberately maintained was a system for documenting who shaped which stone. When dealing with hundreds of objects, many of which are difficult to differentiate in their abstract form, this was a monumental task. It is these records that are the foundation of the archive now in development.
Each ceramic stone and porcelain token has been photographed individually, with the same attention to detail that is typically paid to objects in a museum collection. These images, numbering well over 1,000 photographs, will be entered into a digital archive paired with the individual makers and their stories, molded into stone.
This archive effort, also monumental, is still in process and will require volunteers to edit the photographs and to pair each record with the individual who made it. Once the records are compiled, they will be posted on the Cairn Project website so that participants can revisit the ceramic forms they created and reflect on the shared experience of the project.
Digital Archive Presents Each Stone as Valuable
In its physical form, the Cairn and Cloud installation represents a chorus of voices singing in unison. In contrast, by separating out individual participants and their contributions, the digital archive presents each stone as a valuable object in itself, worthy of appreciation; just as each person and their life experience is worthy of attention and respect.
The archive on the website will provide easy access to an illustrated history of the lives of hundreds of Chicagoans as well as lives of those who participated in satellite workshops outside of the city. As the website expands, it will include not only the record of each ceramic piece created, but it will also aspire to create a platform for understanding and will continue to inspire audiences in and beyond Chicago. The archive will exist as a forum for those who don’t pen our shared history per-se, but instead, are the reason for its writing.
*Kara Jefts is a professional archivist. She received her Master of Arts in Modern Art History, Theory, & Criticism, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Kara has been archivist for the Cairn Project since September, 2016. http://www.karajefts.com/biocontact.html
Contributed by Marsha Baker
I am pleased to introduce Marsha Baker, OTR/L, M.Ed., as our first guest blogger. When she first took my clay class, I was unaware of her expertise. But when she volunteered to help develop the clay workshops for the Cairn Project, I discovered what a valuable resource she would be. Marsha is a pediatric occupational therapist and infant mental health specialist. She earned her master’s degree in child development and certification in infant mental health from Erikson. Most of her career has been working with families of young children with a focus on nourishing the parent/child relationship. At the Erikson Institute, Marsha saw her work with families through a trauma lens. She recognized that the development of young children is affected by the experience of trauma around them.
I became involved in the Cairn Project when it was a gleam in Corinne Peterson’s eyes. More accurately, “The Project,” as we called it, found me at a time when I had just retired and was looking for a new chapter in my story…
Clay and Occupational Therapy
Ceramics was required for enrolling in the school of Occupational Therapy at the University of Illinois in the 1970’s. I enrolled in ceramics and immediately fell in love with the feeling of the clay turning on the wheel. The feeling stuck with me until I finished school. The origins of Occupational Therapy hark back to 18th century Europe where Drs. Philippe Pinel and Johann Reil radically reformed hospitals by using work and leisure activities instead of barbaric chains and restraints to treat patients with “mental” disorders. This approach was part of the “moral treatment” era in Europe’s age of enlightenment. Later in the 20th century, one observer of this approach at Bellevue Hospital stated, “In the psychopathic ward the hand work with the bright colors and pleasant surroundings of the shop have been found to clear bewildered minds. Men as well as women have been found to work enthusiastically at scarf weaving, making rag rugs, toy designing, every sort of pleasurable hand work.”
This nostalgic musing seems far removed from the current state of mental health treatment. However, the idea that creative pursuits and working with one’s hands in a supportive environment can be healing is a cairn(1) on my journey to “The Project.”
Earning an Infant Mental Health Certificate
I began working with families of young children immediately after graduating as an occupational therapist. Although I loved being helpful and providing “parent education and support,” something was missing.
Around 2001, Erikson Institute offered a new certificate program in Infant Mental Health. A paper entitled Ghosts in the Nursery, by Selma Freiberg, was the core of this program for me. The paper is about work with caregivers of babies who are at high risk of bad developmental outcomes or being removed from their families for their safety. The paper compellingly and painfully shows how unresolved traumas from mothers’ pasts were interfering with their ability to parent their own babies. It also discusses how working with the mother’s unconscious pain, through empathic understanding, could reduce the risk of the mother’s history being re-enacted with her infant. This was my introduction to “trauma informed” work.
Everybody has a story. “Difficulties arise not because we have a story, perhaps a very sad or painful story, but because we become attached to our stories and make them an essential part of our very selves.” (Rachel Freed). This is a topic for the next blog I will write.
Working for the Fussy Baby Network in Pilsen/Little Village
After finishing the Infant Mental Health program, I worked for Erikson Institute’s Fussy Baby Network program for more than ten years. For me the most meaningful work was helping to design and implement a weekly drop-in group for families in the Pilsen/Little Village communities in partnership with folks from a local church. We called the group “Pequenos Exploradores,” (Little Explorers). The evolution of this group was the basis for my contribution to the Cairn Project.
The vast majority of families were community members without documents. They were raising families and missing families. The weekly drop-in group became a safe place for parents and grandparents to bring their children to play. Also it became a place to share feelings and be heard, and a place to come for support and resources. Parents and grandparents shared stories of domestic violence, fear, economic struggles, families left behind, unplanned pregnancies, community connections, and of bravery and hope for the future. The church room that housed the group was warm and welcoming.
The local grocery store provided healthy snacks every week. A sister church provided accompanying services for families and volunteers. A local restaurant provided food for celebrations. We received a grant to buy new toys and equipment. Every detail was respectfully planned and discussed. Over the years the group was in existence, many stories were heard and some were changed.
One morning when I was setting up for the group, I learned that my father had died. I stood in the middle of the church room crying in the arms of one of the mothers who had arrived early. I will never forget the unexpected and unbound feeling of comfort.
A New Chapter Begins…
I had taken Corinne’s class, Dreams, Myths and Stories in Clay, several times, and as I was leaving my work with Fussy Baby Network, I asked Corinne a question. Did she know of a community clay project I could volunteer for; murals perhaps? She asked me if I was interested in helping with this new project she was developing. And I said yes.
(1) Cairns are used to mark important or sacred places and as markers along a path.