Loosening the Barriers Within – Postscript to “The Barrier Series”

Beach Boardwalk

Passageway through the Barriers © 2015 Bo Mackison

This is the twelfth post–a sort of post-script–in The Barrier Series, a series of posts which chronicle my healing journey. I wrote the initial series in 2013 and updated several posts in the fall of 2014.

I wasn’t sure if/when there would be a twelfth post. I felt I was in-the-midst after I published the eleventh post, that there was more to write. Yet as much as I worked on the twelfth post I was unable to find the right words. A wise friend suggested I wait, and if it was to be, eventually I would find the right words. This post is the result of that wait.

I continue to walk on the journey of healing, the road remains, both the same and different. I gratefully share with you Loosening the Barriers Within, The Postscript.

Perhaps the passage of time is a kind of healing, or a kind of salvation granted equally to all people.”
~ Mizuki Nomura

Loosening the Barriers, Within

Yes, surely there is passage through the barriers

First, a primitive observation,
in the reflection of light a glimpse,
then, a gradual realization
that the grip of self-hatred which dimmed my heart,
insistent and unrelenting, no longer served.
No matter the lesson, how old or well learned
no longer a truth, the acceptance of unworthiness,
no longer the me I had always known – living on the razor’s edge.

A loosening of the grip, so gradual
for a time I stand unsteady and perplexed,
it takes time to trust in reality,
the realization that I am no longer the person I believed I was.
I am not the lies spoken; I am my truth heard.

I sit with unaccustomed contentment
and consider the old me, discordant
with the me uncovered, re-discovered.

In a period of dark, a depression with such depth
I lost hope of returning to the surface.
and drifted in a turbid soup colliding with
gripping emotions, unspeakable memories, unclear thoughts.

A gift perhaps, this dark unpredictable void,
time expanded and contracted, unaware of clock or calendar.

Through the murk, I glimpsed a life delicious with discovery
a life of depth, both reassuring and of concern,
the path uncertain and unknown, of course.
At last I looked through a lens, finally in focus, and recognized
the place I am, must be, need be.

Endless possibility sustains the strength to see anew, to redefine beliefs
and cast away the useless, a pure and nascent purge.
Sparked by sacred conversation, seeking the Divine,
my awareness stood on trembling, newly awakened ground.

I’m uncertain how the circumstances inter-played
but truth spoke out, in a ferocious din:

The less space I allow in my heart, mind and spirit
for thoughts of unworthiness and self-contempt,
for the holding of others’ blame and shame accepting them as mine,
for the belief that I did not deserve life itself,
when those thoughts compressed, new spaces opened.

Infinite space for my truths,
for worthiness, self-love,
for the honoring of my path, my story.
Infinite space for the Divine, the holy, the mystical that
exists in me, in every person, in the whole of humankind.

And my work and mine alone? First, responsibility for myself,
the work resplendent — self-care, self-love, self-respect.
Work that acknowledges my desires, worthwhile and deserved.

How much easier to welcome and acknowledge the Divine in me
when I shove the shit out and make room.

There is a deep connectedness to each of us in our solitude,
connection that offers life, not simply to survive but to flourish
in the experiences of both the
everyday and the glorious — the two, indistinguishable.





Thirty-One Thresholds – A Break in the Clouds, Today That is Enough

A Break in the Clouds

A Break in the Clouds © 2014 Bo Mackison

I should have expected this kind of day to happen, even planned for it.

When I created the Thirty-One Thresholds Project to encourage me to get out of the house and provide inspiration for getting involved in a daily activity, it sounded doable.

There are many places to visit in the Madison area. It is reasonable to expect that I could find a place to go every day. (Though I might have thought a bit more about the effects of weather and choosing outside vs. inside spaces…that is another technical glitch for me to explore another day)

I visited the National Mustard Museum the first day (with the admission that it made the top of the list because of its proximity to my home). One Threshold checked off the list.

Yesterday I managed a cross town trip to Olbrich Botanical Gardens, tempted by the thought of sitting in the tropical conservatory and luxuriating in the green and the warmth. The tropical appeal was enough of a carrot stick. Two Thresholds checked off the list.

Today. Today, though it wasn’t my initial plan, the threshold I crossed was the door of my house as I took Gracie for a pre-sunrise winter walk through the neighborhood. And then the return home after admiring a break in the clouds and momentary glimpse of sunlight.

I did run an errand, so I could have taken a photograph of the double doors of a neighborhood convenience store, but I previously decided that the thresholds of stores, while important, were not going to be a part of the Thirty-One Thresholds. There was also the threshold of the door to the laundry room. Doing laundry is important, too, especially since I needed traveling clothes for the weekend. But again, not a part of the Threshold Project.

So, it was a slower than hoped for day. And since I am boarding an airplane tomorrow morning for a very important weekend visit, I gave myself permission to indulge in self-care. And that is a threshold in itself — knowing when the practice of self-care takes priority.

Thirty-One Thresholds – Discoveries at the National Mustard Museum? Indeed!


Mustard Suit © 2014 Bo Mackison

Yesterday I created  Thirty-One Thresholds, a self-challenge to “cross the thresholds” of area museums, galleries, gardens, etc. — in an attempt to convince my brain that activity is good for what ails me.

Then I visited the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin, just a few miles from my home.

The Mustard Museum was my first threshold I crossed on my Thirty-One Thresholds challenge. It wasn’t the most exciting choice on my list nor the most cultural nor even the tastiest place to explore. (I don’t even like mustard!) But it was one of my more successful forays into the outside world after weeks of struggling to get out of the house.

The Mustard Museum did have two things going for it. One, it was the closest place to home. And two, it was indoors, important because my thermometer was blinking a chilly 6˚F.

Truth be told, I added the Mustard Museum to my list of places to visit because it was so close and I feared I would lose all motivation one day and not want to go out. Turns out, it was a good plan to get me started.


Keen’s Mustard Display

Once I arrived, I was rather taken with the place. I still wasn’t sure what my “discovery” might be, but I enjoyed exploring the two-floor museum and mustard store.


Arizona Mustards at Mustard Museum © 2014 Bo Mackison

In the basement museum, there are over 5400 kinds of mustard from 79 countries, mustard costumes, a “Mustard Piece Theatre” showing mustard documentaries, old photographs of mustard factories, exhibits on the history of mustard, mustard “art” posters and artifacts.

Plus more…so much more.


Hot Dog Boy at National Mustard Museum © 2014 Bo Mackison

There was much kitsch and mustard-themed comics and puns where ever I looked, I grinned in spite of myself. So, maybe a visit to the mustard museum was just the place to provide some laughs.


Hot Dog Sculpture © 2014 Bo Mackison

Then I read an article about the museum’s owner, Barry Levenson, a former assistant Wisconsin attorney general (who once argued a case in front of the U. S. Supreme Court and Justices Felix Frankfurter and Warren Burger.)

And I discovered THE discovery, a quote about Levenson and his unusual museum from a local newspaper, the Journal Times:

“…why leave a successful law practice to collect mustard, with a business card that calls him a curator and Chief Mustard Officer? It all started with baseball when the Red Sox blew the 1986 World Series.

“Depressed beyond words and unable to sleep,” Levinson said, “I walked the aisles of an all-night grocery store, searching for the meaning of life.”

He figured he needed a hobby to distract him…he insists that he heard a voice from the mustard aisle saying: “If you collect us, they will come.””

Levenson began collecting mustard and mustard memorabilia. His collection eventually became the museum part of the National Mustard Museum. Apparently he followed his bliss, which ended up being mustard.


National Mustard Museum © 2014 Bo Mackison

Hmmm. I don’t think I’ll walk the aisles of the 24/7 grocery store looking for the answer to the meaning of life. But I certainly appreciated his message.

Crossing the first threshold proved more interesting than anticipated. (lesson #1 – Just try it. You might like it.)

I discovered some unusual mustard philosophy in the condiment aisle. (lesson #2 – Follow your passion.)

And a little humor, no matter how little, is good for a laugh. (lesson #3 – Laugh out loud.)

Thirty-One Thresholds – An Art Project to Discover Just What I Need!


Art Works – Threshold © 2014 Bo Mackison

I am starting a new project. It is called Thirty-One Thresholds.

I’ve done similar projects before, turning to art for expression and healing often when I feel mired in a big black space.

I suspect most of us have those black periods sneak up on us at one time or another. It feels like falling into a very dark hole, and then realizing the way out isn’t visible. No matter how frantic the struggle to emerge, no matter the intelligent discourse, or the pleading, or the “just-pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps” conversations I would frequently have with myself back, I remained in the black hole. One particularly bad time was in 2007.

There were situational happenings in my life that made day-to-day living feel a bit a lot crazy-making. Yet, in my not-so-clear thinking, I was unable to extend myself the grace I needed to be kind to myself and to create a much-needed space for extreme self-care.

I tried to fight my way out of the hole, but that only exhausted and angered me, and frustrated the people who cared most. Eventually I asked for/received the help I needed from wise friends, family and health care providers. With plans and medications in order, glimmers of light appeared ever so slowly.


Dark Hole © 2014 Bo Mackison

But the real, flood-light change had to come, not from without, but from within.

So in a rather haphazard attempt I latched onto a creative project that both held my attention and was within my temporary limited abilities. (I think that may be how much creative work is born – haphazardly and from great need).  I decided I would take a photograph each day for a year and post it on my recently created blog.

Looking back, this was actually a huge undertaking.  I was a novice with a DSLR camera, but it seemed doable. My only rule was to take a photograph and post it. Every day. For one year. I figured that in a year I would likely be in a totally different and great space.

It was a new to me idea then — I know 365 projects are common photo practices now, but I thought I was inventing…oh..the wheel or something equally unique!

There actually was no easy way. There were no Instagram apps or smart phones in those days, so my commitment required a string of details that challenged me repeatedly, each and every day — take a photograph, download, post-process, upload, write a few words, post to blog, sigh, deep breath. (This meant I also had to get my depressed being out of bed, dressed, etc., etc., etc…)


Reaching Out © 2014 Bo Mackison

Persistence paid off. I posted 365 photos in 365 days.

I learned a helluva lot about photography, but I also learned that I could set a long-term goal way out of my comfort zone and succeed.

And it was in the doing that success was realized.

I felt better about myself. I developed new skills. I met new people. I engaged with living again. Eventually I established a small business, Seeded Earth Studio LLC, featuring my photography and more recently my book art.


Reaching Towards the Threshold © 2014 Bo Mackison

Why am I writing about something that happened almost eight years ago?

Because, once again, I find myself wandering in this dark space. Or to be more exact, stuck in a black space that feels like a wet bed of concrete. I am this barely aware, heavy-booted wanderer trying to maneuver through a mucky, concrete maze.

Again there is struggle.

Again there are life situations which have disrupted my equilibrium – medical issues, family responsibilities. Again there are my particular (to me) crazy-making responses and one of my responses is to want to go fall back into that familiar black hole. Seasonal Affective Disorder has taken its toll despite all the compensatory aids in place. Depression sneaks in. And, as it has been for the last four years, my winter stay in sun drenched Arizona is not in the near future.


The Creation – Threshold © 2014 Bo Mackison

I am not really wanting to spend a lot of my precious time in black holes this time around. And so I needed a plan.

As I have done many times in the last eight years, I enlisted my go-to heavy hitters as my assistants — my camera and a new project!

And by declaring my intentions and posting it on my blog, I exposed a certain amount of accountability.


ART © 2014 Bo Mackison

The new project, entitled Thirty One Thresholds, is quite basic.

The project requires me, first, to leave my house — apparently one of my coping mechanisms is to turn into a hermit, not such a wise thing to do long-term…

Then I go somewhere in the Madison area, camera in hand, and cross over a threshold. 

It could be the threshold of doors of an art gallery or museum, a historical building, a library. Or on milder, sunny days I might venture through the threshold of gates to a park or garden, or the entrance to a local attraction…

And I truly believe, though I’m not sure what nuggets of wisdom I’ll discover as I cross these various thresholds, or exactly what it is I’m looking for…

I’m willing to believe I will find it (or it will find me) and it will be just what I need!

A Riot of Art – from “The Barrier Series” on Art and Healing

Riot Art © 2011 Bo Mackison

Riot of Art © 2011 Bo Mackison

“What art offers is a space — a certain breathing room for the spirit. ~ John Updike

(This post is the seventh in a series of my story, an intimate exploration of art and healing.)

Once I earned off unit privileges, I worked in the art room every day, often twice a day.

The art I created was not beautiful, not appropriate to hang over a living room couch. It was dark, often difficult to create, but always meaningful. My art helped me communicate with the emotions bubbling to the surface so that I did not have to use words to explain  what I did not yet understand.

Working through emotions too raw to verbalize, my art did the speaking – through my paintings, sculpture, and mixed media work.

“Where something becomes extremely difficult and unbearable,
there we also stand already quite near its transformation.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Surprising to me, I was drawn to the woodworking room. It was a small room, once a storage room, and now divided from the open studio area always crowded with other patients and therapists.

There was a center work table, tools hung from pegs and hooks on the wall, and bins of building materials. I had no goal in mind when I began, but I felt driven to create. Linda, in her wisdom, always stayed near while I did the work that needed to be done. She’d perch on a stool in the corner of the room, balancing a pile of paperwork on a lap board. She managed to simultaneously ignore me and still keep watch. She answered questions and found supplies for me, but otherwise she let me create.

Many of the clients chose to work on projects they could give to friends and relatives, diversional projects which certainly fulfilled a need to create. However I was driven to create in a totally different way, letting my spirit speak through my hands.

My first project was a sculpture of many layers; its creation was a turning point in my recovery.

I began with several pieces of wood, a saw and hammer, and a box of nails. With intense determination, I cut the wood into varying lengths. The sawing stage was short-lived. I was anxious to begin using the hammer and nails. Once I began pounding nails into the pieces of wood, the form took on a life of its own.

I made a base, then angled pieces of wood to construct a teepee-shaped form. I hammered hundreds of nails into five or six pieces of wood, pounding some of the nails so hard, only the nail head was visible surrounded by hundreds of hammer-head imprints. Nails protruded from the edges. Nails bent; I pounded them into the wood until no sharp edges were exposed.

Nothing I created felt wrong; it felt right and empowering. There were no rules, except those for safety’s sake.

Never one to follow rules, I understood the sanctity of the safety rules. I wore safety goggles and a canvas apron. I knew that any misuse of tools or equipment would be grounds for not using the workroom. It was good practice for learning how to express emotions safely. I honored the space, the rules, the tools. And myself.

I managed my emotions within a set of boundaries. And I kept creating.

“Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror.
Just keep going, no feeling is final.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

After the hammer and nails stage, I moved into the plaster of Paris stage.

The plaster was my sculpting material. I mixed bowls full of the thick, pasty stuff. Then I applied it to my wood structure. Layers and layers of white, amassed in globs and streaks. There was nothing considered in its application – just the urge to hide the wood and the nails under a volcanic-shaped mass of white.

I added small human figures which I fashioned from bits of clay.

I pushed the figures deep into the sculpture. I rolled clay into snakes with open mouths. I pushed them deep into the sculpture. Linda  continued to quietly observe from the sidelines. Occasionally another patient would wander into the woodworking room to use tools for a leather project, but for the most part I worked alone in silence.

The sculpture of wood and nails and plaster became a container for my anger, my pain, my wounded self.

I asked Linda for paint. I wanted “buckets of black and red paint.” She left the room, returned with two large bottles of tempera paints – one primary red, one black.

Using a brush more suitable for house painting, I slashed streaks of red and black over the white. Again, I worked in layers. Paint over paint over paint. I worked quietly, yet in a self-directed, controlled frenzy.

A controlled frenzy? That is what it was. I could not stop. I did not act out in rage or anger or despair, although those emotions were simmering on the surface. But I could not stop creating. I had to make this wood-nail-plaster-clay figure-paint structure.

Once I completed the painting part, I went in the woodworking room and sat with my sculpture.

Studied it. Examined it. Stared at it.

Eventually Linda handed me a notebook and markers – red and black – and asked me if I wanted to write about the experience. Thirty pages later, I stopped.

We are product of our past but we don’t have to be prisoners of it. ~ Rick Warren

“I’d like to destroy it, the whole thing,” I said to Linda.

“And how would you do that?” she asked.

I knew that to destroy my art would require a safety plan. There were limits, there were rules, and there was the safety of Linda, the other patients, and me to consider.

“What if I did it when there aren’t people around? It will be loud, the noise and all. I could put a big piece of plastic on the table so there isn’t a mess. And wear the safety goggles and my apron.” I answered. “I really want to smash it.”

Linda nodded her permission. “How about Saturday afternoon, after we close the room for the weekend?”

And that is what I did.

I spent several hours on a cold January afternoon destroying my sculpture which, to me, symbolized man’s inhumanity towards others.

I hammered it into a pile of plaster dust and mangled wood and bent nails. When I was weary of  hammering, I hung the tool on its hook and smiled. A very small smile. Then I broke down, sobbing hard.

Linda helped me to a chair, lightly put her arm around my shoulder, and sat next to me. We sat for a long time. Finally I stopped crying, found tissues, and wiped at my eyes.

Linda looked out the window. “It’s beginning to snow. If you get your coat, we could walk outside for awhile.”

We walked around the hospital grounds. The new snow covered the piles of gray snow in the parking lot. The air was cold and fresh and very clean. It was good to breath the fresh air.

I learned a life long lesson while working with the sculpture over those several weeks.

Art heals.

Not overnight. Not in a week.

But art, practiced over a lifetime, offers the spirit a path towards healing.


This is a re-post the 11-part series I ran in January 2013 on PTSD, art and healing. I believe the story too important to not be retold, in the hope that my experiences will inspire others on their journeys.