Metabolizing sorrow through art

I was a generally happy kid who listened to sad songs for the inexplicable thrill of experiencing big human feelings. Snuggling my dog, I couldn’t stop my eyes from welling up with each minor key crescendo, goosebumps traveling up my arms and down my spine.

I have always loved rainy days, poetry, and deep conversations. More old soul than new, if you will.

But for a long time, following my son’s three open-heart surgeries, grueling hospitalizations, and traumatizing cardiac arrest – followed by his mesmerizing recovery – I was in what Anne of Green Gables would have called “the depths of despair, ” minus Anne’s dramatic hyperbole. Beyond waltzing with melancholy, I was drowning in it.

In order to shake my depression and continue living a full, joy-filled life in tandem with both everyday and existential sorrows, I closed the door to art-induced, optional melancholy. I acknowledged its beauty, but I kept it at arm’s length. Reality had enough of it. I simply couldn’t handle any unnecessary brooding in the form of story or music.

I closed the door to melancholy In order to teach my kids to read. In order to put together an art project for them. In order to make breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack ad infitium. 

I became the person who finds the positive in every situation. The person who dutifully fills out her gratitude journal. 

You all can watch your television dramas and news networks. I will watch funny animal videos before bed, thankyouverymuch. 

Give me all the happy songs. Tell me jokes. Find humor in everything. Make pretty things. Because if you let something slip by my defenses, say, a slightly sentimental children’s book,  I will cry.  

It’s not that I think crying is bad. It’s just that I worry that if I start, it will be hard to stop. The world is very heavy, and it’s taken decades of putting up fences around my heart to be able to function as a highly sensitive person in a deeply wounded, yet somehow still fast-paced, world.

These fences have been helpful for the last decade or so. I’ve tried not to worry about changing what I can’t change (a medical diagnosis that won’t go away is at the top of my list) and have tried to love (and be mostly happy) in the life circumstances I have been dealt. 

The whole “you can’t choose what happens to you, but you can choose how you react to what happens to you” thing. I was choosing happiness, darn it!

But lately, it’s been harder to choose happiness, for whatever reason. I’ve been feeling raw. Vulnerable. Like life is moving quickly, change is in the wind, and I want to slow down and feel the deeply connective sadness of a tragically beautiful piece of art. 

Last week, I listened to this Creative Pep Talk episode, an interview with author Susan Cain. There were many incredible insights that had me nodding my head in agreement, but then Susan said:

“Whatever pain you can’t get rid of, make that your creative offering.” 

I about stopped breathing, and tears welled up, on a regular day after summer camp drop-off.

I’ve decided it’s time for me to open up to sadness. And, in a sense, return to my roots.

This little crow, pattern by Ann Wood, is a step toward making art, of being in the world, in a way that honors the beauty in darkness. 

Somehow, when I opened up the door to melancholy, to making something imperfect and layered and from a bin of scraps, I experienced a sense of wholeness that I had been missing. 

I hand-stitched this crow during a hard week. The process helped me lean into the sadness, rather than pushing it aside.

Every stitch helped me metabolize my sorrow into its other true form: redemptive, full-spectrum beauty. 

And yes, I seem to have a thing for crows.

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Meg wears a white top with black Arthur Pants
Ashley, Meg and Pam smile together wearing Lichen Dusters

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  1. This is so beautiful – that’s what I love about art. We can create in love, create in happiness, create in the face of adversity – it’s all good. Although I’ve always been creative, a tough past year has made me realise how much I need that creative time to heal and process everything around me. Thanks for the reminder here, too xx

  2. Love this! I, too, have oscillated between keeping myself steady-on for the sake of the life I was tasked with living, and letting myself indulge in the feels because it is my natural tendency. Thank you for sharing – the reminder that I’m not alone in my lean towards occasional darkness has been a lovely start to my day. How on earth did you get the crow’s feet so perfect?

  3. I thank you for your thoughts , words , and art. I fully understand your way of coping with life and the world. Being present fully in moments of our lives is a full spectrum of feelings. I think making is a beautiful way of expressing all those feelings. I knitted 15 sweaters in 2020. Some for me but mostly for my three kids and husband in a way to cocoon us all.
    I wanted to share an author/ illustrator, Ella Francis Sanders. She has a new book coming out this month called Everything Beautiful- a guide to finding hidden beauty in the world. I think it will be a special one , as I have enjoyed her previous work . She has a way of noticing the world with an artist’s eyes and heart.
    Best to you all at Sew Liberated!

  4. Praying for you, Meg. This can’t have been an easy post for you to write. In all your pain, in all your uncertainty, in all your struggles and suffering, Jesus sees you. He knows.

  5. Wow I really appreciate this Meg. I too have been thrown into a dark time this past year. I was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in February. I was 34 with a 3 and 7 year old. My oncologist said that if we didn’t find it when we did, I would have been dead by the end of the year. Shortly after, my dad was diagnosed with advanced leukaemia.

    I went through 16 rounds of chemo in 20 weeks, a radical mastectomy a week ago and have radiation coming. I have found out that I have BRCA1 and two other genetic mutations that cause female reproductive cancers (and colon and pancreatic). It is from my father’s side of the family that I am the first woman in about 4 generations. I am planning a second mastectomy and radical hysterectomy. Menopause at 35.

    And yet, through all of this pain and struggle and loss, I am finding a new way forward. A way forward that isn’t just in avoidance but feeling the gratitude, the pain, and the fact that every day I have, is one that I shouldn’t have. I allow myself to feel that pain, but I don’t let the grief overwhelm me. I enjoy the moments of sadness. They are the grey cloudy days that allow a reprieve from the sun. We need these moments to allow a break from positivity.

    I’d say where you are now is the most healthy place.

    1. Wishing you and your father the best with your good fights. (My father is also fighting cancer at 90 yrs old) It sounds like your way forward is working beautifully for your mental health and outlook on life. <3

  6. Loved your blog! I too am connected to crows. It seems when my mother was a little girl the kids would tease her and call her Black Crow, because of her dark hair and eyes. And there are crows that hang around our house year round. Yours is beautiful. Thank you!

  7. Thats great Meg! Just what I was talking with my Mom about yesterday- really hit home for me.
    Yes I choose joy over a bitterness of all the pain life has dealt me but that doesn’t mean I always have a smile on my face! Its good to let the pain bubble out and melt away in tears and then I can smile again! Blessings to you! I’m really enjoying finishing up my first project with Sew Liberated. I’m loving my new studio tunic or a garden tunic for me as I have no studio!

  8. What a beautifully written post. I am happy for you to have found an outlet, some alchemy, for your sadness. I have made an Ann Woods bird too.

  9. Dear Meg – thank you so much for sharing your experience with melancholy and thoughts on how to accept and harness it. I have my sad days as well. When my daughter was still young we read a marvellous book together by New Zealand author Margaret Mahy called The Five Sisters, about five linked, unfinished paper dolls and their adventures. Each doll receives traits from one of the people who finds and completes them, including sorrow. Here, if you don’t know it: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/margaret-mahy/the-five-sisters/. It was such a gift to share this story with my girl and talk to her about all the feelings! And how they’re ok. It was good to receive this reminder from you.

  10. Thank you for sharing so deeply. I work very hard each day to keep my sorrow and sadness in check so I can function. Creating helps keep joy in my life too.

  11. This is the most beautiful thing I’ve read in awhile; thank you – as a highly sensitive person myself, I relate to so much that was expressed in this piece and found it very inspiring. And I love the crow; he’s perfect.

  12. Just a thought about feeling that if you start crying, you might never stop: Once, when I was overwhelmed by grief, I started to cry and thought I would never stop. I cried for three days, even in my sleep. When I stopped crying, I realized that my sadness and fear might feel overwhelming but they wouldn’t eat me up. I was still there experiencing all of it.

    Have you seen June Hunter Images’ crows?

  13. What a vulnerable and beautiful blog post. I love how relatable it is to me right now, as in today in this very moment. Feels like a tangible grasp on bridging the sadness or difficulties of life with joy and healing. May you continue to find soothing joy-filled creative experiences. I love the crow (and your Halloween costume too). Now I want to make one…

  14. I love crows.

    I used to have that fear that if I started crying, I might never stop, or that if I started grieving, that meant I had to finish. Then one day it occurred to me that in fact no, I did not ever have to be done. I could do a little bit every day. Or maybe some days I could do a lot and some not at all–that there was, in any case, no deadline or timeline I had to follow. Most days I remember that, though some better than others.

  15. This resonates deeply with me. As a highly empathic, sensitive person, I find this a very harsh world to navigate. I know I have many reasons to be grateful, and I work hard to cultivate that gratitude. That said, my life has been full of many challenges, and at 53, I have to accept that it is what it is. No more youthful illusions of, “one day…” How often I’ve shut down tears because of my fear if I get started I might not be able to stop. Thank you for the reminder to seek beauty and to nurture our creativity right where we are.

  16. Meg, your blog touched me. I, too, have shielded my heart from sorrow and find that sometimes the world is Just.Too.Much. I find release in crafting, in losing myself (and my feelings) in fiber, yarn, thread, fabric. I need to have my hands doing something. My husband wonders, “Making something we don’t need?” not realizing that the Thing is not the object – the Making is.

    Thank you for writing what so many of us feel.

  17. What a gift this entry was! All of this resonates perfectly with my Right. Now. Incredible, and affirming. Thank you!

  18. Thank you for writing this. I, too, have made it my mission to be positive through divorce, my cancer, more health problems, and so forth. Being a single mother, I know (or actually I believe) that my behavior has the most profound impact in my child’s life . When we left my then husband (her father) I cried all the time for three solid weeks. She was 3 years old. After that, I have not been able to cry at all: through divorce to (my) cancer, to death (her father) and more health problems . Now she is 20 and well, I would like to let go, but this way of being has become a habit; it works on auto pilot and I am awkward when the steering wheel is put into my hands. And I might not stop crying either – but I’ve been leaking. Sometimes the sadness breaks through the positive. It’s quite a process. I find it remarkable that your expression of this has become focused on birds with black wings to lift you up and carry you through.

  19. Thank you for putting that into words…our roads seem very similar…and I have never been able to articulate why a children’s book (the giving tree is avoided at all costs!) or a sappy TV commercial makes me break down. You are not alone sister.

  20. The world can be a sad place and we all need to process it. Thanks for this beautiful post and bit of creative inspiration!

  21. Dear Meg,
    Thank you for sharing what it is like to find a way to keep going when you have to. My son had two neurosurgeries before the age of two and years of physio, occupational, and speech therapy. It is an on going journey and I put some experiences ‘away on a shelf’ in my memory because that helped me to continue with what needed to be done today. I prefer to watch movies that make me laugh , escape into stories, walk in the forest, and create with my hands. With so much going in the world these past couple of years it is all harder. I am glad that you have let yourself feel and create something that unharnesses the tears.Take good care.

  22. Fellow ‘old soul’ who can watch dramas (to understand other’s behavior) but can’t watch any sports or violence.
    For me, covering up the pain of life with ‘happy’ stuff just feels trite and I walk away. The occasional dog rescue video does lift my spirits acknowledging that there is some good in the world. I actually find it more healing to sit with the pain, feel the pain and eventually it can subside. I also find heavy and sometimes dark subjects quite helpful to understand the truth in the world. And a big part of the solution I have found is ‘non-attachment’ to any outcomes. — Sorry for the very short and likely confusing comment.

  23. Have you read any of Brene Browns work? In particular “Daring Greatly”? She’s got a couple Ted Talks on shame and vulnerability. I, too, hate vulnerability and learned it as a bad thing. Brown shows us how when we see vulnerability in others, we find it courageous and inspiring. But despise it in ourselves. Many of Brown’s books are also on audio if that’s a more convenient way to take it in. Thanks for sharing.

  24. Oh my goodness. I am so thankful for your encouragement and your beautiful prose. It has been a really tough year. My dad has Parkinson’s. My Mom was just discovered in May to have terminal cancer. She passed in one month. Creativity has been the thing that has gotten me through the hard times. It is at a low ebb. I feel a stirring inside me as I read your blog, take the superpower quiz, and vote for my favorite pattern. I fell down a deep well of delight as I finally took a look at Alabama Chanin’s art. I dream of using the hopefully future gauze top as a launching point for my own embroidery exploration. And finally, the Joni video – I cried and cried. I felt so close to Mom right then. So, thank you for opening your heart. I can’t thank you enough.

  25. I love this so much, Meg. Yes to metabolizing so it doesn’t metastasize. I have a bit of unsolicited advice, but if you don’t want any advice, please just skip over the rest of this comment!!!

    [insert break so you know where the advice starts]

    My kids are about the same age as yours, and I’ve gone through some hard stuff for the first half of their childhoods. And then COVID (and the collapse of democracy and the fact that no one is doing much of anything about climate change) made everything so much harder. I had to get a lot of paid professionals in my life to help me work through it (to metabolize so it doesn’t metastasize). Our country doesn’t do much to support people through hard times. It wasn’t taught in school when you and I were growing up, there are so few support structures in place that actually take care of people, and our country’s Protestant roots are very focused on picking up your chin and facing forward.

    The most helpful paid professionals who continue to help me along my journey are my therapist, my life coach, a reiki healer, and an acupuncturist.

    I just wanted to share in case it’s helpful.

    I’m sending lots of well wishes your way!

    Sara

  26. Love every word of this. I have been following you for a long time- since your days living in Mexico. I remember reading about your son and all the challenging medical “stuff” your family went through. And then my son was diagnosed with leukemia in November 2018. I can relate to the above in so many ways. And yes, the tears do come easy. I am the person who can find the positive in every situation (I think my kids get sick of it sometimes lol) but I love this idea to use creativity to work through your pain. Thank you <3

  27. Thank you for this deeply personal post that I completely relate to. I too have been making crows using AnnWoodHandmade’s pattern! I had to double check when I saw yours that it wasn’t a blog post from her 😆 I have finished two crows and now I’m making songbirds using her pattern. I find hand stitching to be so therapeutic.

  28. I read this when your email arrived to me. At present time my wife is going through treatment for cancer and there is enough struggle and melancholy that I don’t need to induce it. mind-distracted errors in sewing mean the creative outlet is not always available. However, you do remind me to keep trying. I will avoid the Netflix melancholy but keep trying new and TNT sewing projects. Thanks for your reminder to do what you can. Anne-Marie

  29. Yes! All of this yes.
    When I was pregnant with my daughter, I started bawling after watching a cat food commercial. Now she’s prepping for college and I feel like one more cat food commercial and – I – will – lose – it!
    All joking aside, thank you for sharing.
    This touched my heart today.

  30. This is my favorite thing about sewing. I love slowing down enough to process things. We are often going so fast we have no time to process how we feel about anything. No wonder so many people are stressed out. What a sweet little crow. Looks like a mascot to me! 🙂

  31. This post was beautifully written, and I really relate to it. Thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts! And for sharing your adorable crow . 🙂

  32. “The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before. That’s the deal.” –C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
    It doesn’t hurt any less, but your willingness to NOT shut your heart off, to NOT avoid pain and hurt and discomfort is part of what allows you to see and experience beauty with a heart that’s alive. Well done, sister.

  33. Thank you for this beautiful article. I so appreciate your way of describing how art helped move towards the sadness instead of away from it. I experience the same feeling and am so thankful to have art as a companion through my grief and pain. It is truly healing and transformational – I love the idea of “metabolizing” the sorrow. Thank you for that.

  34. I’ve suffered with depression for years. I did the psychiatrist and the drugs and I didn’t want that anymore. If I’ve learned anything from my depression, it’s that it doesn’t last. It comes on and may last a week or so. Other times, a few days. But, it always passes. When I get into one that is deep, I roll with it. I pamper myself, take bubble baths, eat chocolate, whatever makes my heart happy. Because, I am a cup-half-full-kind of person. I always try to find the bright side of things. I was able to get up out of my bed this morning! That’s something! Right? I practice it! LOL Once I feel I have worked through my depression, I go about my merry way. It works for me. I may have to isolate myself for a couple of days, but, I can as I am retired, living alone.
    Recently, however, I got some bad news that limits my time I have left. I want to scream, cry, get mad, every emotion out there! But, ultimately, I cannot, and will not, let my final days be negative ones. Not if I can help it.
    Your words inspire me to keep on smiling! Thank you!

  35. This stirred something in me. I can’t touch it or put words to it. Thank you. I find crows fascinating.

  36. A lovely post. I, too, shy away from sadness in drama, literature and the news, lest it overwhelm me. And I find an antidote to it in stitching little creatures. Your crow is beautiful.