Making Peace with family stories
Today's post is another chapter from the memoir that I am currently writing. Each chapter holds a story from my life, a spiritual message, healing, or escapade and one of my paintings. The likely book title will be Painting Out Loud because I begin each chapter by contemplating one of my paintings, allowing the story it holds to be revealed.
This chapter includes a section in which I detail how I worked with the Dalian Method to transform a painful 50-year-old family story. If you've been curious about the Dalian Method, consider attending an upcoming free presentation or workshop. If you'd prefer a private session, call for a free consultation or appointment.
All families have stories. Some are inspiring; others can be crippling. One of my family’s stories was particularly painful for me. I grew up with two sisters, Louise and Maggie, and we were raised, in part, by Belle, a Southern black woman. Belle was warm, kind, accepting, and loving. Belle was a small, round woman who wore an apron and a gentle smile upon her face. She always carried a piece of peanut-shaped marshmallow candy in her purse for me. On Christmas mornings she was often at our house to share in our excitement over the many presents from Santa Claus. My sisters and I produced countless plays and held ice cream after-parties for Belle, which she endured with wholehearted enthusiasm.
Many of my memories of Belle have faded, yet I remember the way she smelled of baby powder and the way that her ample breasts felt beneath my cheek as I rested in her lap. I remember her Saturday morning pancakes and the sister wrestling matches that she refereed. I can still see Belle at the kitchen stove frying chicken—setting aside a special piece just for me. Most of all, I remember Belle always being there in her patient and non-judgmental way. She was my home, my safety to come back to.
Summer of ‘75
It was the end of summer 1975, and Louise was already away at college, starting her freshman year at Kenyon. My parents were away on vacation, my younger sister Maggie was at church for Youth Group, and I was home watching television with Betty, our housekeeper. When the phone rang, Betty was expecting a call from her sister and picked up the receiver.
“Hello, Mrs. Salmon’s residence,” Betty answered. After a brief pause she continued, “Well, hello, Nina Mae, I wasn’t expecting to hear your voice. Is everything okay?” Another pause. “Oh Lord, no. I’m so sorry. Whatever happened?” Directing her attention to me she whispered, “Belle’s done had a stroke” and then returned to the call.
My ears keenly attuned to Betty’s half of the conversation until she finally hung up. “What happened? Is Belle okay?” I implored.
“No, she’s had a major stroke and isn’t expected to live.”
I did not want to believe her words, my heart sank down into the pit of my belly—I was frightened and confused. I was also angry with Betty, thinking that she must be stupid. Why is she telling me this while reclining in my father's armchair? Did she misunderstand what Nina Mae said? I needed to find out. My world was coming apart. Someone had to do something. Why is Betty just sitting there? I hated her because she was completely powerless, and so was I.
When Maggie returned home that night, I told her what had happened to Belle. I felt completely inadequate to deliver such devastating news. In the morning, my mother was at the kitchen sink when I came down for breakfast. My parents had returned early from their vacation, and their presence only emphasized to me how hopeless Belle's situation must have been. My heart was breaking, and I panicked inside. Belle had always been my comfort. Who was going to comfort me now?
A few days went by as we waited for the news that Belle had passed this life. I was lost, alone in the shuffle, and I remember very little but sadness. Those few days were miserably quiet days, too. I think that I was holding my breath. We avoided conversation because there was nothing much to say. Holding in the grief was all that I could manage. I suppose the rest of my family was experiencing the same.
My parents called Kenyon College where Louise attended school and requested that they find her because there had been a death in our family. Louise was flown home to be in Memphis for the funeral. At the same time inexplicably, arrangements were being made for me to fly back to boarding school before the funeral. Perhaps this made sense in light of our family story—my older sister Louise was Belle's baby, the favorite of the three of us.
My family left for the funeral. The house was quiet and empty as I stood in the front window, watching for my aunt to arrive and pick me up. Tears ran down my checks. I stood tucked inside the window curtains until the glass panes began to fog. Where is my aunt? I gave up waiting and went back to the kitchen table to sit where I felt closest to Belle. We had spent countless hours together in that kitchen talking and eating the food she had prepared. She listened to all my stories. Is this really happening? She had left me without warning.
I don't know why the decision for me to return to school was made or why I didn't ask to stay home. It was the family story, I suppose. It was important for Louise to be at the funeral, but I wouldn't be missed. I wasn't important to Belle, after all, she belonged to Louise. After that day I closed my heart to all the grief and didn't revisit it for 35 years. I shoved it all down and held the sadness and anger and confusion inside.
Transforming the Story Using the Dalian Method
During a five-week retreat at Omega Institute, the grief from Belle’s dying came back to the surface and my healing process began along with an avid desire to know myself—a journey which ultimately led to my teacher, Mada Eliza Dalian, and her creation, the Self-Healing Dalian Method (DM). I didn't fully understand how repressed emotions were impacting my life until meeting Mada Dalian and working with DM. What I did know is that I had a pattern of messy, confusing, and unfulfilling relationships that I couldn’t maintain for very long. Two marriages and four serious relationships all ended the same way—with me leaving.
During one session of the Self-Healing Dalian Method (DM) working with a trained facilitator, I uncovered some of the thoughts, emotions, and false beliefs repressed in the unconscious that were associated with Belle's death and our family story. What I discovered first is that I had a lot of fear around being myself because I hadn’t been me for so long. I was heartbroken, emotionally shut down, and didn’t know who I was. I felt stupid, angry, and was filled with self-loathing. I was not good enough or lovable.
“How could I not know myself for goodness sake? I am 53 years old and totally ridiculous.”
As I expressed and released these first thoughts and emotions, deeper layers spontaneously surfaced. What I found was a lot more anger and blame—directed mostly at my sister. I was infuriated with Louise for claiming Belle’s love. I believed that she was intentionally trying to steal Belle’s love from me and I was carrying a lot of hostility towards her because of this false belief. I felt disdain for my parents for perpetuating the family story and for preventing me from attending the funeral.
“I am angry with you, Louise, for trying to take Belle’s love away from me. It wasn't fair. Belle loved me, too. I didn't believe it sometimes because of you and because of our family's stupid story.”
Continuing on with the method, systematically working with the breath, movement, expression, and the energy field, a turning point in the process and new view of my story began to take shape.
“Belle had the capacity to love all of us. She understood that love is boundless."
What first came into my awareness is that love is not a limited commodity. Belle understood that, and because I did not, I had been withholding love in my relationships and from myself out of fear. What a beautiful gift Belle gave me—to know and experience an unlimited, fearless love. And I buried it away under all the grief of her dying and hurtful memories of not being included at the funeral. Disconnecting from Belle’s love kept me from knowing that I too can love fearlessly and without limits—like I had with Belle.
Turning my back on what I knew to be true was my decision. Neither Louise or my parents were responsible for my misery. I was the one who bought into the story, abandoned what I knew to be true, allowed my sister’s story to overshadow me and withheld my voice and my opinions from the conversation. With the realization that I had given away my power, the blame and hostility dropped away; forgiveness happened spontaneously and a big piece of myself that had been lost was brought into my awareness and embodied once again.
“I am lovable and good enough. I honor my truth and will no longer let others pull me away from my knowing. I do not need to stand in my sister’s or anyone’s shadow. I am strong and free to love without boundaries. I am free to be me."
Using the Self-Healing Dalian Method, I was able to see my life experiences from a different perspective. Letting go of the family story was healing and allowed my memory of Belle to remain pure.
The Beloved: Making Peace
A lot of time was spent developing a concept for a painting titled The Beloved. Gathering old photos and manipulating them in Photoshop was the first step. The baby in the central photo was originally my younger sister Maggie, and I swapped her out with a picture of Louise. I switched out Belle’s head, too, with an image that reflected her gentle, kind nature through a smile which lit up her eyes. Then I applied several filters to give the image an impressionistic quality. From there I used a process called photo transfer to apply the image to the canvas.
“The Help” by Kathryn Stockett was stenciled around the sides of the canvas. It reads, “Baby, you is kind. You is smart. You is important.” Although Belle never used these exact words, she always conveyed how special and loved we were. I added the endearment “Baby” to personalize the quote for my sister.
The creative process in painting The Beloved for my sister Louise was about making peace and finding acceptance. I was making peace with the family story, which had always been painful for me to hear because it made me feel like I didn't belong. I was finding acceptance of what I knew all along—Belle loved me, and Louise, and my entire family. I was also making peace with Louise because I knew that she never intended to hurt me. Painting The Beloved for Louise was therapeutic and a true gift from and for my heart.
I gave the painting to Louise as a Christmas present. My entire family of origin, with each of our extended families, was gathered together in a circle in my home. We were visiting and taking turns exchanging gifts. Eventually it was Louise's turn to open again, and she selected my gift. As she lifted the top and pulled away the tissue paper covering the painting, she burst into tears, and tears collected in my eyes as well. Together, with hearts unencumbered by family stories, we celebrated our love for Belle and the many other blessings of our beloved nanny.
Our stories, limiting beliefs, and repressed thoughts and emotions can be debilitating. They can fill us with sadness, hopelessness, and even hatred towards those we love. By taking personal responsibility and by doing the work to heal, we have the power to transform our stories, our relationships and ourselves.
Madeleine is available for private sessions using the Dalian Method and also offers 30 minute free consultations to discuss whether the Dalian Method is right for you.
Madeleine Newkirk, Artist, Spiritual Junkie, Dalian Method and Art Process Facilitator.