Traditional Medicine and Art as Therapy

I love to see this kind of thing, like in this KQED article from 2005, “For Day of the Dead, Families Turn to Nicho Art to Ease Grief.”

I like to see art and personal symbolism and storytelling taken seriously, and I really like to see people within the social work and medical professions acknowledge how important social practices, rituals, and cultural events are to health, to the complete person who is so much more than just a skin sack full of organs and systems that need medical “fixing.”

Gonzalez and her husband first made a nicho — a small box decorated to honor someone who has died — in their son’s memory for Dia de los Muertos last year. They decorated it with things Jacob loved, such as green apples, Cheetos, Star Wars figurines and chicken. She says the process of making the nicho brought a lot of tears.

The nicho that Gonzalez is making for her son this year is different. She glues red sequins onto the edge of the box and says she plans on adding a dancing calavera or skeleton. The pain of losing her son hasn’t subsided, she says, but she feels less anger.

“The one I’m doing now is a little bit like resignation, because I know he is connected. Energy always transforms into something different,” Gonzalez says.

This kind of art that Carmen Gonzalez is doing in the article can function as self-expression, an outlet for grief, sure, but it also functions as an actual therapeutic process itself, and it continues to shape her relationship with her son, even though he’s passed on. You could even call this type of creative making a spiritual ritual performed to effect specific change.

That, by the way, is the heart of the Western esoteric tradition’s definition of magic. Don’t believe in magic? That’s totally fine. There are other useful ways to think of it from religion or literature or psychology or whatever. But the main point here, and the necessary first steps –that’s all about conscious, culturally or personally significant symbolic action.

It can be powerful, transformative work. It can be incredibly difficult. But I believe more than ever that it pays off.

Over the last few years as my life changed dramatically in nearly every facet, I’ve become even more convinced than I used to be about how powerful and important cultural rituals, personal symbolism, and storytelling are. It’s not a shallow cliche to talk about making meaning.

The tricky bit, of course, is that it often involves having to first recognize and articulate symbols and systems and paradigms that we’re largely unconscious of ’cause we started absorbing them from birth. Only then can we learn how to use or understand them in new ways or replace the ones we’ve outgrown.

How? Well, for me, for instance, making/creating tangible things can be hugely important, like nichos and artwork, sure, but it could also be floral arrangements or cakes or hedges in the shapes of circus animals. There’s an entire symbolic language in a lot of work like that.

And then delving into and “telling” family history, myth, and lore can be immensely important, too, though it can be difficult if you don’t come from a close-knit family or don’t have any living older relatives. But even so, it might be surprisingly helpful, some of the details and larger “narratives” you can see when you can do a little research. So it’s worth trying, even on a very small scale, to do what you can of “telling history” and articulating the operative mythologies and traditions in your family.

Don’t think your family has any family folklore or rituals? Don’t think your great-grandmother’s cornbread has any particular magical or symbolic qualities? Oh, I bet it does, and if it doesn’t, I bet there’s a Christmas tree ornament or a pocket watch that did. I’ll share some examples to illustrate what I mean next time, and I’d love to hear about any of yours you care to share in the comments, too.

Not sure exactly when the next post will be ready since I’m still working on gallery photos and the Etsy storefront, though, so please do sign up/follow if you want to be sure you catch our updates here. Very much still a work in progress.

And I think we have all our social media functional at this point – I’ll be double checking here in a bit – so you can find us @seraphinstation all over the darned place. Hopefully there’ll be pretty stuff to look at soon.

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