Judith Kerrigan Ribbens

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I fell in love with listening so intently that I memorized every fairy tale, every nursery rhyme, everything my mother read to me. Many years later, after I'd had my own children, she told me I'd driven her crazy begging to be read to and my ability to remember every detail of each story astonished her.

     It was not to last. A bout of measles, accompanied with a fever of 105 degrees F, left my memory wiped out. She began all over again reading to me. The stories came back but I was never able to remember word for word again.

     In fact, I have had a memory problem all my life. I have been good at learning but it takes work and long hours of reading and re-reading. This has worked in my favor in a wonderful way. If I read a murder mystery, after a short while I forget much of it and, if I keep it in my library, why, I have a brand new book to read all over again, since I don't remember what the story was about.

     At the age of five, I fell in love all over again with paint and color. Oh, the lovely drips and blobs of colored paint! For so very many years after that, writing was a colorless chore, a duty, assignments in school, reports at work.

     Reading, however, was not. Well, mostly not. Statistics class was a must. A statistics textbook is a dreadful chore. But since I was reading at tenth grade level while still in fourth grade, and had a color-full imagination, reading remained my entry to the world of writers' imaginations.  English was my very best-loved subject.

     In 1983, I finally began keeping a journal but the idea of being a "real" writer didn't enter my head. What did happen is that poems began to form in my head. True, not many, but I recognized "real" poetry. Long winter nights and summer vacations were spent poring through stacks of fiction from the library.

     From 1985 to 1990 I trained in a master's program to be an expressive arts therapist. While I focused on the visual arts, something magical happened. My training freed my brain for all creative media. I discovered a Muse who, when I open my mind and take up pen or brush, takes over, and whatever I am working on, creativity flows out of me effortlessly. It's a blessing and an amazing experience. I have learned to trust Her, my muse. All I have to do is be open to what She sends through my brain and hands.  Magic! Pure magic!  In 2009 She began sending me a story and today, I am a writer and the old magic of childhood has returned. Bring it on!

In addition to doing art, I am a counselor who uses art to help others heal themselves. This page is my Show and Tell about the Creative Therapies.


      This is the first of a series of blog posts on the creative arts and crafts as therapeutic methods of healing from stress, and either healing from , or at the very least helping to cope with, mental illness.
       You’ve never thought of the arts as therapy? Think again. The idea of using one or more of the arts as a means of therapy is an old one. There is long ago evidence that Hippocrates used to prescribe music for some of his patients as an effective means of treating their emotional, physical and spiritual maladies. Cures of illness have been attributed to dances, such as the tarantella, and color has been used to soothe or stimulate by many cultures. Shamans dance and sing to bring healing to their tribes.
       I bet you’ve even instinctively prescribed the arts for yourself as ‘medicine’. How many times has a song delighted your mind and heart? What were you feeling when you first heard Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters? Or the 1812 Overture? Or I Love rock and Roll? What does a rainbow do for you? How does doodling help you cope during a boring staff meeting? How do you feel after a night of dancing to good ol’ rock and roll? How does retreating to your craft room or hobby ease your day after a week of stress at work?
      I once got a call from a man I knew, a good ol’ boy from Texas, an engineer who had never seen an art show is his life. On my recommendation, he had gone to see the work of Georgia O’Keeffe in Dallas. He was literally choked up as he spoke to me. He said he stood in the middle of the show and cried and “Ah wasn’t even ashamed of cryin’”. He had gone there not long after he realized his marriage was going to end, he was struggling to remain sober, and was facing other serious emotional issues, including sexual abuse from his grandmother. Standing amidst the swirling colors and shapes of O’Keeffe’s flowers and landscapes eased his tension and reached into his heart as nothing else had done.
      This series of articles, then, will be your introduction to the creative arts as therapy.

What are these therapies?
      In the visual arts, there is a wide spectrum of possibilities: painting, drawing, sketching, cartooning, printmaking, pottery/ceramics, sculpture, woodworking, mask-making, doll-making, photography, mixed media/collage. The list is long and varied.
      In music, there is the delight of just kicking back and listening to your favorites. And, there is also participation via the use of instruments. Pounding out tunes on a piano or tooting your own choice of horn and flute, beating your soul out on a drum—you name it, it’s satisfying. Vocalization of sounds—like humming, droning, oohing and aahing, groaning, squeeking, squealing, hissing, singing in a chorus or group, and singing alone—all have their place here. Have you ever wondered why so many people love to sing in the shower? Almost all creatures on earth vocalize in some way.
      Dancing With The Stars is currently one of the most popular TV programs. Why? We all would love to dance. Sadly, there are so many people whose upbringing restricted their movements through space to a very narrow range. Physical and occupational therapists work with movement to help those persons who have had restrictive injuries. Exercise and dance tapes, yoga, tai chi and other martial arts focus us on our place in space and control of our bodies, and succeed in helping our minds along with our bodies. Movement therapists use both structured and free form movement to help people gain confidence after serious accidents or trauma. I once observed a movement therapist working with a group of firemen who had been traumatized and injured in a serious fire. She had found a long and wide piece of stretch cloth which she made into a circle. Eight men stood in the circle and took turns leaning far backward, relearning trust in their own movements and the support of their brother firemen, all of whom would need that when they had to risk their lives again.
      Drama therapy includes role-playing, simple “acting out”, performing playlets or portions of well-known plays, creating and acting in one’s own plays, dramatic readings, and carefully staged psychodrama. Here’s a great place to throw an all-out fit and get away with it. Or create a character, a new persona, a different way of acting in response to others.
      The writing arts are powerful. Poetry has the ability to move people to tears. So also does storytelling. Did someone read stories to you as a child? Where did your imagination take you then? Did you make up your own stories? Have you kept a journal, a diary? Do you have a particular genre of books you love to read over and over? You’ve been doing your own therapy.
      Finally, there is what I call Imagination Therapy. Guided imagery, meditation, and color therapy reach into our brains to initiate chemical changes which allow us to soothe ourselves and to cope with stress.
      What I’ve written here is just a quick overview of these arts therapies. I’ll be adding more on each specific area along with a few suggestions on how you can do this for yourself. Let me know what your experience has been if you’ve used the arts as your own therapy. I love to hear and read of how people use the arts as a help in coping with their lives.

What is a creative arts therapist?
      I am a creative arts therapist. That is some kind of miracle, an amazing development in my life. I had only expected to be a wife and mother. To do what I do now was incredibly far from any expectations I had for myself. I had two years of college right after high school in which I was focused on biology as my major. However, marriage interrupted finishing college for fourteen more years. Finally, when my youngest was in kindergarten, I took a class in oil painting and, lo and behold, I loved it and was good at it.
      Being far too practical and brainwashed into trivializing art, I decided that art was “frivolous” and I should do something which would get me a “real job” and a bachelor’s degree, so I majored in Human Development and Psychology. But art will out. I got that practical job and then went back to taking college courses in art, one class per semester, finally getting enough nerve to become an exhibiting artist in local shows.
      Long story short, several years later I ended up divorced, which sent me back to get more education for a better job. I was delighted when I found out that it is possible to use the arts as therapy. I could merge my two main interests, and I did.
      There are lots of us. We may specialize, becoming a registered art therapist, a dance and movement therapist, a music therapist, or use psychodrama as a therapeutic tool. I’m lucky. I found a program, at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, where I learned to use all the arts as tools for helping people. In that program we were made aware, through our own creative process, of all the mental, emotional, and spiritual pitfalls and delights of participation in the creative process.       
     We discovered that this process parallels the process of healing—the pain as well as the joy. Those of us who studied there became intimately acquainted with the steps to healing. I can watch someone in this process and know very well where their journey is taking them. And I walk it with them if they choose to allow that. Sometimes I think of it all as white magic. I hope this series works a little magic for you.


      “WORDS! WORDS! WORDS! WORDS! All I get from you are words!” accused Eliza Doolittle in the musical, My Fair Lady. “Words-- first from him, now from you. Is that all you blighters can do?” Well, for most of us, yes. At least the spoken word. But poetry? I don’t think so. It’s certainly not my experience of the American milieu. 
      Oh, there’s a fancy word—milieu. It belongs in a poem somewhere.
      ​All this is my way of saying that poetry was the farthest thing from my mind as a soothing or self-satisfying medium. Not even in the ballpark.
      BUT. There are “those times” when I awoke from a dream with words floating through my mind which I just had to write down and lo and behold—a poem. Or there were those times when, emotionally, I was so moved I just had to write about it and there it was—a poem. Because I couldn’t seem to make “those times” happen, I thought poems only came once in a blue moon, or even less often.
      Now I know better. There are ways to trigger those times. There are people who find those times within themselves often, who know how to do that for themselves instinctively. I had to be teach myself to undo the carefully taught idea that “You aren’t talented enough to be a poet.”
      Words often serve as a defense against really experiencing the emotions and the senses. Poetry therapy allows a person to discover his/her own personal language. When internal permission is granted to play with words, poetry becomes a dialogue with the self and encourages more personal introspection.
      While writing poetry is often a solitary exercise, group poems can be created. Here’s a way. Children (or adults) sit in a circle and, going around taking turns, each child contributes a word to the “poem”. It can be on a chosen subject or freely adding any word that comes to mind. Of course, someone records it and then it can be shared by reading it back to the group.
      Because words arise from a deep internal space and often have multiple meanings, poems reveal the essence of a person, answering the question, “Who am I?” Each person’s unique perspective is easily identifiable in the word choices made. The final product lasts over time and permits ongoing dialogue with the self and, if shared, with others.
      The following exercise is from the poet, Elizabeth McKim.
      Materials needed: pencil or pen, paper
      This is the “diamante” or “kite” form of poem, named because of its shape.
           Line 1: one noun
           Line 2: two adjectives describing that noun
           Line 3: three verbs telling what it does
           Line 4: four nouns which are images associated with that first noun
           Line 5: three verbs telling what the last noun does
           Line 6: two adjectives describing the last noun
           Line 7: the opposite of the first noun


                    jagged, bluish
          pointing, dripping, pricking
         claws, teeth, dragon, breath
            burning, searing, killing
                                       Elizabeth McKim

Try one on the opposites “happy” and “sad”. Or any opposites.

Taken from the book Beyond Words: Writing Poems with Children by E. McKim and Judith W. Steinburgh. Wampeter Press, Green Harbor, MA 1983.
Elizabeth McKim was one of my teachers at Lesley College for a summer intensive. This is one of poetic forms she taught us.

      Sometimes it takes a bit of inspiration. This is a poem I wrote in response to seeing a beautiful white sculpture of sleeping children in the Boston Museum

On Not Remembering Dreams

     What sleeps within?
     Child? Wolf? Fairy?
     Skin covers eternities of possibilities.
     In sleep do shapes arise,
          surprise us.
     Awakening, truth fades and dies,
           allowing lies.
     Wisdom fades with morning’s light.
     Truth’s encased within the night.
                      J. M. Ribbens, 1989

      Still not convinced you can do it? Here’s a quick method.
      Make a list of ten words that name something (nouns).
      Make a list of ten action words ending in “-ing”

Pillow           scraping
Picture         beating
Apron           screaming
Book            skating
Statue          walking
Frame          hopping
Tree             awakening
Farm            singing
Spoon         sleeping
Coffee         dripping

Now make a three line poem using words from the second column first—two words per line.
      Screaming book
      Walking statue
      Beating pillow.

Now fill it out adding only 2-3 more words.
     Screaming book
     Thrown at walking statue.
     Beating my pillow.

     Well, that’s certainly moody. Let’s see if I can do a happier one. Notice that the nouns can come first too. There is no hard and fast rule to this.

      Coffee dripping
      Scraping spoon
      Awakening farm
Expanded version--
     Coffee dripping brown.
     Silver spoon scraping cup.
     Awakening golden farm
     Light of morning.

It’s all just play. Have fun.


Once upon a time in days of old…
Once upon a time a thousand years from now…
Once upon a time, when I was little…

We all have heard the stories. The old stories from faraway lands of myth and fable. The old tales of times long gone. The secret stories only whispered about in dark of night. The gossipy tales of peoples in villages and towns and cities. The amazing stories. The gruesome stories. The saddest tales. The tales of heroism, of success, of overcoming. The forbidden tales--the elephant in the living room no one talks about, or even acknowledges is there.

What is your story? I am 76. I have lots of stories. And to my children’s chagrin and my grandchildrens’ shock or boredom or delight, I’ll tell them all at the drop of a hat.
Storytelling and story making have long been considered magic. To be a storyteller or maker was to wield great power. Called seanachies by the Celts, griots by some African tribes, and twisted hairs by certain Native American tribes, those who were gifted with this profession were honored above royalty, for they carried the memories—spiritual, emotional, historic, philosophical—of entire peoples in their minds and hearts.
While other arts media may show us a moment in time, storytelling and story making tell us about the continuities of experience across time, in multi-levels of meaning, in enriching metaphors that speak a truth more mysterious and more deeply than we are often able to fathom.
Because they reach so deeply, stories heal. When our very own Personal Story clashes with a Larger Story or someone else’s Story, we can be thrown into a crisis. We can feel wounds at great depth and a new story must be created and allowed to emerge into time. The emergence of a new story is the process of healing.
The essential task of each life is to create his/her own story. We have a choice. We can live out someone else’s story or we can take on the more difficult task—creating and living out our own.

What are the stories you were told about you and your family as a child? About your culture? About the world?
Begin a journal with the words, “The story my family always tells about me is…” and go from there. Write them all down. Write the stories about your brothers and sisters. Write the stories about your parents and grandparents. About your neighbors, your town, your land, your country. When you finish each story, end with “The moral of the story is…” There is ALWAYS a moral, usually unspoken. Do you still live by that moral? Do you want to? Do you like the stories told about you and to you? If not, what would you rather have in its place? Write a new story with your own moral and ending.
And put some fun in it!

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