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Episode 14: What to Do with Grief and Other Big Feelings with Michelle Favreault

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What to Do With Grief and Other Big Feelings with Michelle Favreault

The practice of art, no matter the medium or your experience level, is a powerful tool for helping us process emotion. Very few people know this better than my wonderful friend Michelle Favreault. Michelle is a multi-disciplinary artist and teacher who helps people find the spark of their creativity, and access it to stay grounded and centered when they’re working through big feelings. I’m so grateful that she’s here to share her wisdom, and I can’t wait for you to hear our conversation.

Mentioned in the episode:

Michelle’s website is https://riteherenow.com

Rabbi Adina Allen, Dr. Pat Allen, and The Jewish Studio Project https://www.jewishstudioproject.org/adina-allen-bio 

The Way It Is, a poem by William Stafford https://grateful.org/resource/the-way-it-is-william-stafford/

You can subscribe to Can’t Wait to Hear You wherever you get podcasts. If you have a question about your voice or how you’re using it, please email letters@mvmusik.com.

Our music is thanks to Katya and Ada.

The show is edited by K.O. Myers at Particulate Media.

TRANSCRIPT

Your voice is unique to you. It grows as you grow. It changes as you change. If you’re curious about the relationship between your voice and your body, your heart and your mind, welcome. My name is Michèle Voillequé and I can’t wait to hear you. 

As I’m recording this, it’s early December 2023, and I feel like it’s time I introduce you to my friend Michelle Favreault. She and I have known one another for more than 20 years. She’s an interdisciplinary artist and teacher.

And, a long time ago, she gave me a poem that has helped me through thick and thin, especially in times of grief and uncertainty. And that just feels like the vibe right now in the world.

So, we had a Zoom conversation that I’ll be sharing with you in just a minute, and we had so many technical difficulties, it was odd. I mean, neither of us are particularly tech savvy, but this was sort of really off the charts. So extra props to my producer, K.O. Myers, for cleaning up the audio and making it as listenable as possible.

And one of the things that we did, but that didn’t work out was, um, her reading this poem by William Stafford. So I’m going to read it to you, hoping that it’s useful.

“The Way It Is,” by William Stafford

There is a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it’s hard for others to see.
While you hold it, you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen, people get hurt
or die, and you suffer, and get old.
Nothing you can do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Michèle Voillequé: You spend so much time with grief and art and helping people through both. Can you talk some about that? Because I just think it’s brilliant work.

Michelle Favreault: Yeah, I think, you know, for me, when I think about life and the highs and lows, one of the ways that I originally, with some intuition, came to cope with the tough stuff, was learning that I would, I would be better able to cope with the big feelings and the hard stuff of life by tapping into my creativity.

So what I think about that, I think about being a young adult and I would have the opportunity to escape from the chaotic realities of my young adult life. And I would take myself to Cape Cod for the weekend.

And the first thing I would do is I would stop at the Christmas Tree Store and I would buy a little box of Crayola paints and a pad of paper. And I would just, you know, put color on a piece of paper, and I would find that there was something in that that was relaxing and calming.

And this was back in the day when there wasn’t TV – where I would be able to distract myself with that or certainly no phones or social media and distract myself with. But there was something about making art that would be relaxing and calming.

Uh, taking photos with an old timey camera, getting out in nature and paying attention to just noticing things, always helped me to feel a little bit better.

And then I have, with regard to grief, um, an experience where I was in a, a group about stress and the holidays, and one of the people that presented in this program described that a way that they coped with grief when things were overwhelming to their body and spirit in a, in a time of, of great loss, this woman described that her practice would be to write a haiku.

That very simple form of syllables, syllables, syllables, simple, simple, simple, but that would be a way. And she described it as, I’ll write as many as I need to until I don’t need to anymore.

And this was an older woman who was talking about the grief after the death of her beloved spouse and she would sit and write and write and write and then she would be back to her day to day.

And I found that that type of intentionality, like, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m overwhelmed with feelings, but I know that I can grab a pen and the cocktail napkin and just write 5-7-5 syllables, eventually, to be something that would, I’d say today, you know, help me to regulate my emotions, but then it was just something that would help me feel grounded again, help me to feel connected to myself and, able to go on to the next practical duty or activity of the day.

Since then, I’ve learned a lot about why those things came to me and what some of the science and spirituality are behind having those things as opportunities to return to center, um, ways of really getting and connecting to things that are more important than the TV or the social media that could elsewise be distracting, but things that could just help to heal the wounds on the inside and out in the world.

Michèle Voillequé: The first iteration that I remember of this, was, um, for Lent you had, like, “write for 40 days,” with prompts. Was that your first foray into sharing this work with other people?

Michelle Favreault: It really was, it wasn’t the first foray, but I think it was the structure. I think one of the things for myself, and why I’ve really come to incorporate creativity as a spiritual practice, is that there’s something to be said for the repetitive patterns that can come about.

And Lent, the season of Lent, I think is one of those containers a time for intentionality and, um, doing the ritual practice of writing for 40 days.

I remember framing it as like putting words on the page and letting spirit in. Like, letting go of something in order to let something come in. Which, theologically, one might find some threads to multiple traditions and how the season of springtime and Lent has meaning and holds story and tradition.

But I think it’s again, back to that science of self and community regulation, that being able to give expression to things that maybe are wordless, or maybe things that the words just begin to tap the edges of in making meaning, and releasing that energetically and functionally on a page is something that, that does help us to get clarity and calm.

And, um, certainly the, the practice, repetitive practice, repetitive practice, like a prayer or meditation, um, really does help to keep that grounding and centering possible.

Michèle Voillequé: Yeah, I remember, I think it was during the pandemic when the question came, “have I made art about it yet?” as a measure of whether we’re engaging our grief. Or our joy, although it was a lot of grief. I don’t know, have you applied this work to joy yet? Or is it mostly…?

Michelle Favreault: Yes, definitely. But I’ll say that, you know, the idea, that that very particular phrasing and concept is not mine, but as part of the training that I’ve been involved with with the Jewish Studio Project. My mentors, Rabbi Adina Allen and renowned art therapist and teacher Pat Allen have used that question.

Pat really developed it and Adina adopted it as a, as a teenager, you know, her mom would say, oh, you know, you’ve got this big question, this big challenge in your life, “Have you made art about it yet?”

And, um, that’s really a foundational familial experience that is translated into a really special methodology using the practice of art therapy and the opportunities of text study that come from religious tradition to be able to help folks with that full experience of expression, connection and, uh, growth.

Michèle Voillequé: Do you have an anecdote about a way that this process has worked? Without violating anybody’s confidentiality.

Michelle Favreault: One of the things that’s been interesting is a lot of the work that I’ve done over the last few years has been in Zoom rooms.

And every time I lead a workshop using this, uh, particular methodology, it’s always, um, something I enter into with the companions of a little nervousness and trepidation, like, “is it going to work this time? Are people going to enjoy this or find meaning in it?” And that confidence that, like, it always offers opportunity. It always gives us insight.

An experience of this is in working with a big group, I think I had 50…it was a week long workshop, 50 to 70 people, sort of each day of the week.

We would do this practice, which involves setting an intention and doing some time with materials, you know, whether it’s people painting or drawing or knitting or weaving or whatever kind of artistic materials are at hand.

Doing that, doing some descriptive writing, witness writing, we would call it, where we notice what I put on the page, um, and any feelings or thoughts or noticings that come along with that.

And then do, have an opportunity to read what we’ve written out loud to have it witnessed by other folks.

And what I would say is that in this big group, where this, you know, there’s not an opportunity for 70 people to share online, even in the longest workshop, but that there would be invariably, noticings.

I would often have an intention of coming to this room, feeling nervous and excited. And then I have, uh, created something during time with materials, and I can see, I’ll write, notice, I see that I put sunshine on the page.

I see that I also had a deep sea and used lots of dark blues and greens, and in writing that, it gives me a way of seeing that I’ve consciously and subconsciously processed something by noticing.

And then having the opportunity to share that with others, have it witnessed by others. There’s something really profound, as you know, to just having our story heard, having our, our expression acknowledged and validated and affirmed, even if it’s simply with a nod of the head.

It doesn’t need to be applause and it doesn’t need to be an academy award. It’s just something that validates that what I’m feeling and expressing is worthy. That my creative practice, my creative output is something that is seen and valued just as it is.

Michèle Voillequé: I think that’s just beautiful.

Michelle Favreault: Me too. I mean, that’s really, it’s, you know, we have, we’ve talked over the years and we’ve shared, you know, that, that sense of being seen and valued just as we are, is not necessarily something that we’re, you know, in 3rd grade and experiencing.

Or that our families might have stumbled about in our earliest formation, but there are benefits to community, to have our vulnerabilities acknowledged to have our joy shared, to have the things that are wordless, the things that are difficult witnessed.

And in that way, acknowledged just as really incredibly powerful work in the world. And, um, whether we do it with our voice and with our stories, with our paintings, with our, um, knitting, um, with movement, uh, with gesture, like, there are so many ways that having the, um, attunement of others, that, that recognition is validating and healing and, something that, that helps us be connected, and that’s only to the good.

Michèle Voillequé: Where do you see, um, your work going now that, Zoom, life on Zoom is lessening a little bit. Do you see that changing your work and what you offer and…?

Michelle Favreault: A little bit. Um, you know, one of the things that I’ve really missed in the last few years is the chance to have retreats, um, to be in retreat space.

So that, while I do a lot of three hour retreats on Zoom, which feels like a maximum time for, um, that kind of creativity, to have something where, you know, setting an intention on, uh, in a gathering, and having time to dream about it and, um, getting up in the next morning in the shared space of being able to go a little bit deeper.

And, um, and then go a little bit deeper and have that kind of built-in sense of community and support as well as the practical space to set aside time, uh, to be someplace different.

Entering into retreat time, um, retreat practices as coming back into my world. It’s almost like having to redevelop the muscle where I used to retreat for 3 or 4 days a year, 3 or 4 days at a time, several times during the year, like now, like, “Okay, I can do 1 overnight.

“Okay, now, I think I can plan for the spring of 2024 to do 3, 2 nighters,” you know, to, to really build that, that thing that was so important back up into a way of being in the world, to set that time aside and not have to do it in 3-hour Zoom chunks, but to really get that benefit of relaxation and intentionality, to move through something that that takes time and takes that kind of intentionality.

Michèle Voillequé: I think I know the answer, but I’m going to ask anyway, does the form of art matter? Do you need to know what you’re doing in order for art to save you?

Michelle Favreault: I would say absolutely not. The beautiful premise that I think is held in so much of this world of this work is that we were, we are, we are created to create.

So, whether one looks at that from a theological or biological standpoint, creativity, this active expression, is foundational to being a human being.

And to use that gift, um, to have the opportunity, the spaciousness of, of life to be able to use that gift, is something not to be missed out on.

So, whether it is on a performance level of professional expertise, or it is on the scrap of napkin with a Sharpie, there’s something about getting it out, getting the expression out.

I think that we can engage in different ways, whether we have an expertise or a skill or have developed and refined some skill in some area. I think that there’s plenty to be done for the amateur and professional alike.

And I’ll describe it in this way, part of my personal commitment to some training is that I have found as an, as an amateur in so many realms, as I was participating in workshops, I could find folks who had more training. I’ll say with painting, for example, folks that know how to mix colors and mix materials and make certain types of shapes have a bigger vocabulary than I had with just lines and circles.

So it gave me a desire to want to learn a little more technique so that I would have a bigger vocabulary, but to have a bigger, bigger vocabulary artistically does not, I don’t think it is at all a requirement.

You know, we might have a vocabulary that’s singing the Beatles, and if you learn Bach, that’s going to be a bonus or, uh, another facet of the type of expression one could manufacture, create with one’s, um, instrument, but it’s not the, the be all end all.

There’s not a requirement or even a hierarchy that one way is better than the other. It’s just different type of vocabulary to be able to use.

Michèle Voillequé: Because ultimately we’re just trying to feel better.

Michelle Favreault: That’s definitely a big deal for me, I think. And it’s not always like, uh, uh, anything, nothing gets fixed.

But, because we have been acknowledged, because we’ve looked at what’s hard, I think that does give us a, a sense of well being that’s different than, “everything’s just fine,” but like, “I can go on, I’ve, I’ve, I’ve seen that I can move through this experience, I can move through this pain, I can move through this sorrow.”

Um, it doesn’t go away, but it does get changed, I get changed. By giving it expression.

Michèle Voillequé: I love that idea that nothing gets fixed. Because you know, like we numb out with TV. We numb out with food. We do all kinds of things like, to avoid, to step away from, to not think about.

“Oh, I’m too busy to learn a new song.” Really? Are you? Are you really too busy?

It feels to me like the art-making expands our capacity to accompany the grief, to accompany the joy. And my arms are going out. I feel like when I’m able to make more art that I have more arms to carry whatever it is that I’m carrying right now.

Michelle Favreault: That is so beautiful, and I think that that sounds so resonantly, somatically true to me, too. You know, if we’re able to let, let something go, we can show up and be more present to what is. And you just put it in such a beautiful way. Like, yay, yay for that, um, acceptance and, and opening.

Michèle Voillequé: Well, thank you. But okay, my brilliance is, has something to do with the fact that I’m talking to you.

Michelle Favreault: You know, we grow together. What a beautiful thing that is.

Michèle Voillequé: Yeah, it’s mind blowing. Well, I, I mean, really thank you for that William Stafford poem years ago. I have read it, reread it at least once a year, probably more often.

Because I fe because I feel, I start to feel lost. I was like, wait, what’s that thing about the thread? I should have it memorized by now. I don’t .

Michelle Favreault: And so, you know, this weekend I’m leading a, um, I’m working on a three hour Zoom retreat about, um, accepting one’s calling in the world. And I think that poem just does give us a little glimpse of, how powerful it can be to have communities, and our own practices that can help remind us of the thing that we can often let go of or forget.

And that poem and the, the visual to me of the thread is such a powerful evocation of the potential and the power of a calling, and we need others to help us remember that in so many ways.

Michèle Voillequé: Yeah. We learn who we are in relation to other people.

Michelle Favreault: Yes. Indeed.

Michèle Voillequé: Navel gazing will only get us so far.

Michelle Favreault: I mean, it can get you pretty far and, you know, maybe get you a, you know, sitcom, but I think that there’s more, there’s more that can offer, be offered to the world from, not that sitcoms aren’t, you know, really another great creative output. So I take all of that back.

Michèle Voillequé: If somebody wanted to find your work in the world and maybe work with you, where would they look?

Michelle Favreault: I have a website www.riteherenow.com. That’s r i t e h e r e now dot com. Though it’s always behind in design and details, it’s where I present my ritualized approach to art and creativity as spiritual practice. So, “rite” as a ritual, “here now” as a practice of mindfulness and presence.

Michèle Voillequé: Yay. Okay. Thank you so much for these minutes and apologies for the technical glitches.

Michelle Favreault: We survived them, though, we managed to survive them. And I’m so thankful for the chance to be with you, anytime.

Michèle Voillequé: Hey, yeah, same.

If you enjoyed today’s episode, please rate and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new people find the show. Subscribing ensures you’ll learn about new episodes as soon as they come out. If you have a question about singing or speaking or being, please send me an email at letters@mvmusik.com.

That’s letters at M as in Mary, V as in Victor, M U S I K.com.

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