The Traveling Postcards Initiative
I’ve been burned out lately.
Not normal work fatigue. Not “need to catch up on sleep this weekend” or “just hang in there until winter break” tiredness.
A deep, bone-settling work burnout.
Why? Suffice to say it is difficult to prevent and educate in a wider system that sometimes seems hellbent on erasure and misinformation (I work in gender-based violence prevention in the US, need I really explain more?)
As I write this, I have just wrapped up a conference. An amazing conference. An informative conference. But even that didn’t quite go as planned. I suppose I have just been waiting for one restful weekend to “cure” my fatigue, one motivating conference to shake off all my self-doubt and discouragement, one holiday to get totally revamped - even though I know that’s not how mental health works.
But I did have an experience at one workshop that I absolutely needed to write about. My eyes are achey with sleepy, I need to catch a cab to catch a plane to commute to work tomorrow and on and on, but I want to share this because I have the feeling someone else out there might need to hear it too.
The breakout session I chose today was a Traveling Postcards workshop hosted by Caroline Lovell, Founder of the Women’s Wisdom Initiative. It was described in the program as “a therapeutic, healing arts workshop that gives voice and comfort to survivors of gender violence and their allies.” I chose this workshop for two reasons. First, I have been hearing more and more from survivors that they wish they had a way to help others not feel alone, because in their trauma that felt so deeply lonely. Secondly, I desperately needed a switch from left brain to right brain activities.
Our small session immediately felt welcoming, with art supplies of all sorts laid out on a long table. Caroline encouraged us to leave our bags to the side, simultaneously a practical and symbolic action. After discussing ground rules and learning more about WWI, each participant was asked to share their feelings about a randomly drawn prompt card.
Mine was power. Not totally resonating with me lately.
“Well,” I stammered. “I’ve been struggling with a lot of things lately. I guess just continuing to show up every day in light of those struggles is a small act of power.”
We moved on to the fun stuff aka glue! stickers! paint! The goal was simple: we were creating a message, a physical reminder, a tactile piece of art that would be, eventually, given to a survivor of gender-based violence. The idea was not to “cheer someone up” - it was to share a human connection. We would never meet the recipients. We would never know who they were. But we would create art for them.
The process of card-making can be therapeutic for both the recipient and the creator. The cards are purposely very tactile - we were supplied plenty of ribbon, textured paper, even thread - which can be very soothing for someone experiencing trauma or high anxiety to hold onto. Using common yet beautiful art supplies, without a presupposition of talent, also allows participants to process and expressed complex emotions without feeling limited by past experience of the boundaries of language.
As I played around with patterned paper and photographs, I felt myself slip ever so slightly into the blissful release of intense concentration that comes from a good hobby. It was the first time in days my mind had been quiet.
I found a black and white photograph of a girl. I wanted her to have a crown. I wanted her to radiate. I wanted her to know that she was stronger than whatever she was feeling at that moment. I put a hint of sunlight in her eye so she would always have a fire.
On the back I wrote, “You will always hold the power and the beauty of the sun.”
I was snapped out of watercolor reverie when we were asked to share our pieces with the group, and describe what message we were trying to send. My fellow crafters spoke of love, of nature, of dark times that would eventually turn to peace.
I hate sharing. I become a shy 8-year-old again.
I hold up my postcard, read the quote I had written.
“I guess I liked the idea of reminding someone that there is always a reservoir of strength there, even if they can’t see it or can’t feel it. Like the sun on a cloudy day.” Sheepishly I put it down and looked at the table.
Caroline asked me to hold up my postcard one more time, and I reluctantly complied.
“Can’t you see how you - how all of you - have created self-portraits here today?”
I almost immediately teared up. Around me, women had indeed created palates of texture and color and word that reflected something deep within them. If I had created this image of power, I, too, must be powerful. Maybe my burn-out wasn’t entirely an issue of resource-depletion - maybe it was an issue of reflecting my own strength and love back to myself.
As the session ended, we ceremonially tucked our postcards into protective plastic sleeves and into a bag. They would be delivered through partnerships with local crisis centers, hospitals, and domestic and sexual violence shelters. We would not see them again, but someone out there would be getting a piece of us that would hopefully help them start healing.
I don’t have a tidy conclusion for this post. I’m still tired. This semester still feels like it has lasted two years. And I’m a tad bit grumpy. But I don’t know - I keep reflecting on how good it felt to create something beautiful and let it go.