A couple of years ago, I saw a 10-year-old client for play therapy. She had a couple of diagnoses that made it challenging for her to remember things, to control her impulses, and to use her executive function to think through consequences in order to make good decisions. She was a kid who was going to have a lot of challenges in her life and need a lot of support. She would bound into my therapy office with a smile and a hug and then say, “What’s your name again?” Lots of challenges ahead for her. And yet. I learned so much from her. I think of her often. She was an artist. She was friendly, kind, creative and very artistic. She often did artwork during our therapy, and she loved to teach me. She created her artwork and she wanted me to follow along so that she could teach me how to make what she made. Her creative process and her adaptability amazed me. She ended up with a wide variety of end products of her artwork: but the product wasn’t what she was interested in, it was the process. As we worked together, I learned that she didn’t start out with an idea for her art. She just started making art and then saw where it took her. If a cut she made didn’t turn out as first anticipated, or she made an extra mark with her pen, she did not view it as a mistake, she just changed the flow of her artwork to go with what was present now. She naturally lived out Barney Saltzberg’s book Beautiful Oops. In the words of Corrina Luyken: There she was, with each mistake, becoming.
She wanted to teach me, and she did. She taught me creativity and adaptability. She taught me to trust the process. Most importantly, she taught me to start even though you don’t know where the end will be.
I love stories. I love children’s books. I love to tell stories to my kids. I love the creative process of starting to tell my kids a story and not knowing where the story will go. I start with a small idea and then I see where the story takes us. I have to trust the process.
I sometimes do this in other ways, too. A while ago, my 3-year-old daughter needed to go pee before bed, but she didn’t want to. I said with enthusiasm, “Come on! I’ll sing a magic pee song and we’ll see if it works and makes your pee come out!” She smiled and her eyes glowed and she came to the toilet. I had no idea what I was going to sing, and I love the challenge of figuring it out in 3 seconds. I had recently taught her the do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do song. To the tune of the same notes, I sang, “This is the magic pee song and it makes the pee come out!” You’ll notice that it has many more syllables and doesn’t fit with the notes. But nobody cared. She peed! And her eyes glowed! The song worked! Now, I use the song sparingly when I know it has been a long time since she has gone pee – so it always works. Just yesterday, we used it at a public toilet when she had to go but was nervous about the sensor. (PS – We just figured out recently that I can put my hand in front of the sensor the whole time she’s on the toilet and then she can move away before I take my hand off the sensor and it flushes. You probably figured this out ages ago, but I only discovered this while travelling this summer, after my son sweetly offered to stand in front of the toilet to trick the sensor while my daughter got on and off the toilet without it flushing. Ha! Smart.)
Stories have power. In her book, Healing Stories for Challenging Behaviour, Susan Perrow discusses the therapeutic power of stories. Stories can gently address a wide range of challenges and offer creative solutions.
Stories promote creativity and imagination – incredibly important skills for solving problems and adapting to different situations.
Furthermore, stories carry cultural heritage and meaning for people all around the world. Joe McLellan has written a series of children’s books based on traditional stories about the Ojibwe trickster and teacher, Nanabosho. McLellan weaves in a contemporary story based on themes such as caring, compassion, empathy, gratefulness, kindness, respect, thankfulness, and wisdom.
I also love Lori Lite’s relaxation books. My favourites are Angry Octopus, Bubble Riding, and A Boy and a Bear. These books are great at teaching kids relaxation techniques.
I sometimes tell my son relaxation stories at bedtime. Using the wisdom I learned from my 10-year-old client, I start out with a nugget of an idea, but I don’t know where the story will go. I start even though I don’t know what the end will be. Before I made up my own relaxation stories, I read him stories from the book Nightlights: Stories for You to Read to Your Child – To Encourage Calm, Confidence and Creativityby Kate Petty, Joyce Dunbar and Louisa Somerville. This book helped me gain a flow and a process for telling stories that are imaginative, vivid, and relaxing.
I start my stories by saying, “You pick up your magic lantern, and you wonder where it will take you tonight,” (this is an idea borrowed from Nightlights). Then the story leads down a path, and the path leads into wherever the story will go: on a magic carpet ride, onto an ice rink, under the ocean, into a cave, floating on clouds.
The other night, when my son asked for a relaxation story, I thought for a few minutes, and envisioned a cave with colourful stones. That’s all. Enough to start. After picking up the magic lantern and starting down the stone path, the path turned to colourful stones. The path led to a cave. And then my ideas stopped for a moment. Sometimes, I choose a friendly stranger guide to lead my son through a relaxation story adventure. But that didn’t feel right for this story. We needed a pause to figure it out. So I said, “You see a chair at the entrance to the cave and you sit down. You take a deep breath.” Lying in his bed, listening to this story, my son takes a deep breath. I take a deep breath. The process of the story has already relaxed us both.
For the story, I decide I want to lead my son into the imaginary cave in solitude. He doesn’t love to be alone, and he can have a hard time with separations, so even in stories, I always connect back to a feeling of safety and love. I say, “You pick up a book that is lying on a table beside you. You open it up.” On each page is someone in our family telling him that they love him and that our hearts are connected by an invisible string made of love, even when we’re apart.
And then my son sets off into the imaginary cave. I describe the colourful stones around the cave. Without knowing where this story will go, I say, “You see a red stone, and it makes you feel safe and warm.” He adds, “And it makes me feel like I can defend myself.” Wow, what? This story really is taking on its own life. When I described red, I was loosely thinking of chakra colours and the grounding of the root chakra. The feeling of being able to defend himself is a feeling of safety. Really cool.
Now the story belongs to him. I say, “You see an orange rock. How does it make you feel?” And colour by colour, he describes this list (shared with my son’s permission):
Orange – makes me think of a friend because it is his favourite colour
Yellow – makes me know I can feel happy
Green – makes me think of our garden
Blue – makes me think of sitting on a dock, at a perfectly clear lake where you can see stones on the bottom, and there are lots of heart-shaped rocks
Purple – makes me remember that boys can like pink and purple
Then the story takes my son back to the chair at the mouth of the cave. In the story, he realizes that the chair is a recliner. He lies back, wiggles himself into a comfortable position, feels how relaxed he is and goes to sleep.
Wow. This story took on its own power. We started without knowing what the end would be. And there it is. His beautiful list of warm, safe, connected, peaceful, free feelings.
I’m inspired. Stories are powerful. But what I’m especially inspired by is the concept that we have to start even though we don’t know where the end will be. For me, that’s where the magic lies in therapy sessions, in parenting, in storytelling. Thoughtfulness ahead of time about intentions, about creating a certain space, about goals, about best practice in the circumstances are all vitally important. But we also have to stay in the present moment, and take a journey together.
There are many times in our lives when planning is important: thinking through schedules to keep a healthy family balance, planning finances responsibly, etc., but there are also times when lists, schedules and plans get in the way of being creatively responsive to whatever is present.
About two years ago, my husband was working full time and I was home with our kids full time. We were ready for a change and a different balance, but we weren’t sure how to do that. Knowing that we each had some employment options, we took a wild leap of faith and he quit his job before we knew what the next step would be. This was absolutely the best decision we could have made! We took a couple of weeks to breathe, and to sort out our priorities. Then we made work decisions and found a much better balance of each spending some time working, and each spending some time caring for our kids. This only came to be because we started before we knew what the end would be.
So start. Start that project. Start that letter. Start that holiday. Start that job. Start quitting that job. Start advocating for social-justice. Start learning about another culture. Start relaxing more. Start exercising. Start reading that book. Start gardening. Start healing. Start praying. Whatever it is. Start. Even though you don’t know where the end will be.
Books referenced in this post:
Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg
Book of Mistakes by Corrina Luyken
Healing Stories for Challenging Behaviour by Susan Perrow
Nanboshobooks (various) by Joe McLellan
Angry Octopus: An Anger Management Story Introducing Active Progressive Muscle Relaxation and Deep Breathing by Lori Lite
Bubble Riding: A Relaxation Story by Lori Lite
A Boy and a Bear: The Children’s Relaxation Book by Lori Lite
Nightlights: Stories for You to Read to Your Child – To Encourage Calm, Confidence and Creativity by Kate Petty, Joyce Dunbar and Louisa Somerville.