I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to our Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Eleanor Albanese’s reflection Where Creativity and Spirituality Meet.
My work as a practicing artist has evolved over the decades. The deeper I enter my spiritual practices, the less separation I see between spirituality, creativity, and community. I especially notice this in the way that I engage with the community. Audiences have become participants, the stage is now a forest or park or meeting place, and stories are reciprocated between participants and performers. The projects have breathing space where kindness flourishes.
As someone deeply connected to my ancestors, particularly my grandmothers and great-grandmothers, some of whom were rural midwives and herbalists, I have delved into herbology and folk medicine as an aspect of my spirituality. I’ve adopted my Irish and Italian cultural folk traditions including the use of salt during prayer and ceremony as well as embracing the ancient Celtic festivals. For example, on the eve of St. Brigid’s Day—January 31st—known also as Imbolc, I bake St. Brigid oatcakes as offerings, as well as hang strips of fabric outdoors. These healing “ribbons” or “St. Brigid’s Mantle” have become the focal point for many of my handcrafted items such as quilts, story ribbons, needle felting, community arts, and puppetry. I’m particularly drawn to Brigid as she represents the in-between places, the thresholds between seasons, twilight, and portals into mystical realms. It is in these luminal spaces that creativity flourishes as we’re invited to let go of rigidly held beliefs and enter new ways of seeing things.
I also engage in the practice of observing God-in-the-everyday. What moments in my day are alive with wonder, emotion, surprise, and curiousity? Each day, I contemplate the ignited moments to see what messages and graces emerge. Yesterday, for example, a pair of geese flew above my head, honking loudly as they passed. I then tuned into the car radio to hear John Lennon singing, “And we all shine on, the moon, and the stars and the sun.” Lastly, I took on a task that made me feel queasy—that is, plucking my 94-year-old mother’s chin hairs. I then admonished myself for having those feelings.
Hidden messages emerged from those seemingly disparate and random moments. The honking of the birds invited me to recall a poem by Mary Oliver. “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely/ the world offers itself to your imagination/ calls to you like the wild geese/ harsh and exciting/ over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” The geese, I saw, were calling me to find my place in this wondrous world. John Lennon’s lyrics reminded me that we are all eternal stardust and there is nothing to fear. Lastly, my reluctance to take on a simple task with my mother brought attention to my own fear of aging. “Who will take care of me when my eyesight fails, or I become frail?” was the question I dared not ask.
This practice of paying attention to moments, then threading them together, is also how I approach my creative work. I gather themes, insights, and images from daily life and, in turn, use them as fodder for the next story, artwork, or theatre piece. For example, prior to designing a recent project titled “The Comfort Project,” I found myself in a place of grief and loss. Over a long period of daily prayer and reflection, messages of comfort became the backbone for the project. From there, it evolved into a multi-arts, intergenerational, inclusive community event.
The Comfort Project involved partnerships between organizations with vastly different mandates including a group serving those with dementia and Alzheimer’s, an art gallery, a community-engaged theatre company, and a rural centre that focuses on inclusive gardening, outdoor creativity, and a weekly market. Vendors at the Willow Springs market range from an eighty-four-year-old woman selling her traditional baking to a young maker who works with natural plant dyes. Under the umbrella of one project, we found our commonality in the theme of comfort, and our inclusive practices.
“The Comfort Project”, a three-day event, was placed in a forest setting with an accessible pathway winding through the various stations. The stations were developed, not as mere enhancements to the story, but as contributing elements. The participants integrated themselves into the story and space through their voices, their stories, and hands. They stopped to weave reeds, ribbons, and willow stems into a hanging cradle. People also wrote their own stories of comfort on silk ribbons and found a tree to attach it to.
Over the course of the hour-long experiential “performance”, the participants were served tea from locally foraged plants, walked through a channel of bells and chimes, hung felted birds in the forest, enjoyed a story told through puppetry, all with a highly diverse and intergenerational group of participants from infants to persons in their 90’s. The music and soundtrack were developed with Gather Round Singers, a choir primarily made up of people with disabilities living in community housing. The recorded lullabies were sung in multiple languages and cultures including a Palestinian woman, an Indigenous Elder, a French-Canadian woman, an Italian Nonna, and so on.
Ultimately, The Comfort Project was conceived from my contemplative practice as a starting point, which then expanded outwards like a five-pointed star. Hundreds of people gathered and participated, highlighting that we all give and receive comfort. And we are all storytellers at heart.
Canadian artist Eleanor Albanese has spent her life weaving story through writing, filmmaking, and community-engaged arts. Her artistic works revolve around themes of shared humanity. Recent awards include the Next Generation Indie Book Award (If Tenderness Be Gold), and Vox Popular’s People’s Choice Award (The Cradle of Fiorella.) Visit Eleanor online at EleanorAlbanese.ca.