the artist's way

The Dark Dog by Melanie Ida Chopko

Today I want to write about grief, about depression, artistry and returning to my center.

When last week brought one of the biggest losses I could imagine, I began practicing very, very precisely every piece of wisdom and compassion I know. This same week I saw a few videos by 'medical experts’ discussing depression and bipolar depression, and I feel grateful to finally respond fully to share my own authority in this experience. I am a vast, sensitive intuitive creative soul, and I want all my friends and fellow artists to have support in holding their vastness, rather than drowning in it.

For 13 years I struggled with near constant depression and anxiety, which prevented me from creating, from knowing community and intimacy, from working. Two years ago I was living in a depression so acute I lost all ability to have a conversation, to follow a thought through to the end, to read or interact. I couldn't imagine I have graduated college. I thought I was going to die. For me my experience of a bipolar mind was actually a respite from this - a few days where I could create once again, where I could touch who I was and see beauty in the world. I lost my period for over 5 months. I had tried every medication possible to come back into my full mind, but nothing worked.

 Depression for me lived as both a physical sickness, a non functioning brain, and a spiritual one, a heavy, isolated, exhausted spirit. The video below visualizes this quite well, though lacks in my opinion, quality solutions. I love Anne Wilson Schaef’s words on the idea of disorder or addiction - "Watch out for who is defining “crazy.” Is it crazy for me to have this kaleidoscope of emotions in response to what I see happening in my world, to what is happening in my family? Maybe depression is just huge emotion unreleased. And maybe all of us are like the ocean - sometimes sweling up with power, sometimes falling back in quiet. “No one ever calls the ocean disordered,” says another creative bipolar woman, Azzia Walker, on Bipolar- A Nuerodiversity Approach.

Everything changed for me when I began talking to other people who were bi-polar and lived with depression, listening to their stories and saying yes to practicing to what felt true. I want to share what has become my constellation of wellness, the elements that make up the north star that leads me back to my self. My constellation includes these elements, and today I will write about one.

A Spiritual, Physical Practice with movement (like yoga, dance, aikido, tai chi)

Somatic, Body-based Meditation and Drawing

Loving Touch 

Prioritizing Rest and Sleep

Creating Music/Singing for all is larger than language

Group Truth Telling and Deep Listening

Time in Vast Places in Nature

Eating Real Food

Among all of these things, I threw myself into training in Aikido at the recommendation of Azzia, who ran Aikido Shusekai. I had no desire to do it, no interest in martial arts or Japanese culture, but I was willing to say yes fully for 30 days. I trained about 5 hours a week. It was hard, humiliating and above all, confusing. I was too confused (which hand? how? leg? foot?)  to ruminate or think. The martial aspect - the ability to be injured - gave me something to focus on, to be absolutely present for. Like doing yoga balance poses - but on the edge of a cliff. And that meditation was medication.

In combination with the somatic practices I had been doing for months, three weeks of Aikido flipped a giant lever in my body - I came back. My period came back. I continued to train 3x a week for that first year, 5-6 hours a week, especially in the winter, and now maintain 2-3 hours a week as a baseline for my wellness.

Two years later, I am just starting to wrap my head around what is so transformative there for me. At the suggestion of one of my other teachers, I began to use the dojo, the place of Aikido practice, to practice with all that is to big for me, all that grabs me - my fear, my anger, my confusion and witness of injustice. 

I can dress myself in white to enter the class, bow,  walk up to a black belt student and ask in Japanese, May i have the pleasure of training with you? And then blast them with a punch holding it all. My training partner makes room for this ‘chaos,’ witnessing it, by reshaping it and throwing me to the ground. An attack says yes, these emotions are real - They plant my face on the floor. I can be humbled by them, these experiences of grief and anger, what I see happening in my life and in the world.  This is maybe the truest thing to do with them.  And, while being thrown by them, I have also learned how to roll back onto my feet, to stand up with grace, with form, with center. 

And then, two minutes later, I can do the same for them - in a rapid oragami fold, shape what every they are bringing into a throw. As I am attacked I can call to mind the most barbed, sticky, uncomfortable bigger than me stuff, remained centered, and shape it into something else. 

More to share, another day!

Well Up by Melanie Ida Chopko

Last night I went to listen to Anaïs Mitchell at the Freight in Berkeley, and filled up my well again. I'm trying to make space for the unmapped, incoherent process that always eventually coalesces/congeals into a song. But this is pretty uncomfortable, and it sometimes feels like I'm scrapping the bottom of a well that is dry for good. Luckily I have drawing to distract myself!

And last night I remembered Julia Cameron's notion from the Artist Way that this is the moment to "fill the well" - to go back to what we most love, to the people and pieces that called us into this commitment in the first place. And I hear that call so clearly through Anaïs' songs - to sew together my personal story and the deep story of my time, the personal and the political. To make the familiar mystical, to use poetry and melody to soften borders and turn faces back to look at one another. 

And I remembered how that call is so much more important, sacred, than my anxiety, the imperfect song written so much more contributing than the unwritten perfect song in my mind.

So I'm off to walk around the lake with the dog and make another draft.