Contemplative Pause

contemplative pause meditative film series

How can art be used in service of a mission, toward a meaningful purpose? That’s the question I was set to address in a summer internship as part of my Master of Fine Arts program at California Institute of Integral Studies. I strongly believe that stories can be healing and lead us toward wholeness. My internship for Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico was a chance to put my beliefs into practice. Could I make something both beautiful and useful that wove teachings from their programs into a semblance of a story narrative that would be meditative and immersive?

At the end of the summer, I did a Q & A about my experience for my program’s blog on medium.com. I share it here for anyone who may have missed it there.

How did this project come about?

This project, which I call Contemplative Pause, arose initially because I wanted to dive more deeply into teachings from a year-long program I participated in at Upaya Zen Center. A group of 300 of us from around the world—representing a variety of religious and spiritual perspectives, not just Buddhism—met twice a month to consider how Buddhist wisdom can be used as fuel for action to make a positive difference in the world. As a service-offering culminating my year in the program, I produced a short, experimental documentary film telling the stories of nurses who provided frontline care for Covid-19 patients in the beginning of the pandemic. My first year of the MFA program coincided with this project. Our interdisciplinary arts workshops that year became an invaluable space for me to receive creative ideas and feedback from classmates and professors.

I wanted to build on the techniques I crafted in that project of creating multi-layered, abstracted visuals designed to focus the viewer deeply on the emotional tenor of the audio narrative. I did not want viewers to simply hear the nurses’ stories; I wanted viewers to have a visceral and bodily experience of their narratives. My question for this project was how might I use those same techniques to create an artful and meaningful contemplative experience from the raw material of over 30 talks given by a wide variety of teachers in Upaya’s program. Further, I wanted to explore how I might use the internship in our MFA curriculum to make art in service to an organization whose mission I admire. I was fortunate that Upaya Zen Center was open to the idea of having me use my internship to create such a project for them.

How did the internship and mentorship classes play a part in your process?

My intention with my summer mentorship with filmmaker and CIIS adjunct professor George Reyes was to expand my visual vocabulary and film techniques. George and I came up with a plan for me to produce short film experiments for our weekly meetings in which I would play with the interaction between sound, silence, voice, music, and visual imagery. I focused in these experiments on how I could use each element in concert with the others to encourage the viewer into deep reflection on the content. At the same time, I was sifting through approximately 50 hours of audio of the Upaya talks looking for short clips that could stand alone as powerful teachings without need for lengthy context. At first it was simply a matter of expedience to use the raw material from my internship project as the basis as the basis for my weekly film experiments in my mentorship. But very quickly I saw that the film results had even more potential for creating an immersive, reflective experience for viewers than the audio-only format I had originally envisioned for my internship project. The internship and mentorship ended up working together very synergistically, which had great benefits for my growth as an artist and the quality of the final project I produced for my internship.

How does this project fit in the context of your larger goals for your art?

The contemplative film series gave me extensive opportunities to test, experiment, and refine my visual techniques for illustrating narratives without relying on the standard “talking head” shots that are more typical of documentary film. I ended up with many experimental clips that never made it into the final project, which now gives me a library of visual ideas to draw from for future projects. At the encouragement of my mentor, I also began to research findings in psychology and neurology about how the brain receives and interprets visual and auditory information. I was fortunate to have access within the CIIS community to immediate resources to acquaint me with such research. Dr. Christine Brooks, a faculty member in the Expressive Arts Therapy Program within the School of Professional Psychology and Heath, graciously gave me an overview of the field and helped me situate my research in the most helpful context for my work. I am excited about the possibilities for insights from such research to help augment the intuitive approaches I am already using.

What’s your next project?

Next for me is a short documentary film in the same immersive, experiential style of my previous two projects. In this film, I will focus on a small group of American Zen Buddhist teachers who hold the master designation known as Roshi. Specifically, I want to highlight the experiences of women who were among the first of their gender to serve in this role. This film is part of an inquiry of mine that began with the nurses project to examine how individual stories can be combined to create a collective narrative in a way that respects the uniqueness of each individual’s story and also highlights the collective threads throughout them all.

IN THE MIDDLE OF THE TANGLE

THIS MOMENT

THE NATURE OF EVERYTHING

Manifesto reimagined

What if the word manifesto was not a dictum imposed on others but an invitation into your evolving purpose and practice in the world?
Manifesto by Studio-Lu

A recent assignment in my M.F.A. program called on us to write a manifesto for ourselves. My first thought was, “I have no idea how to write a manifesto!” Yet, the moment that thought evaporated, another was close on its heels: “Be particular.” It is a phrase my grandfather used often. Honestly, I am not 100% certain what he meant when he used it, but it became a catch phrase in our family over the years—a response that could suit more occasions than you would imagine. “Be particular” became the beginning of my manifesto.

More words followed easily. I pulled phrases from my website through the years and thoughts I realized had long been guiding principles behind my work. Voila. A Manifesto. Homework completed.

Sharing it with my writer’s circle after submitting it for class, my fellow writers liked the sentiments I expressed but bristled at the word “manifesto.” For most, it conjured notions of “manifest destiny,” of conquering and taking by force. These meanings are the antithesis of what we foster in our circle, where we cultivate deep listening and seek to nurture each of us as writers to find and live into our own voice.

I admitted to the same initial reaction. My feelings shifted, though, when I thought about manifesto as more akin to manifestation than dictum. With that lens, the word became more of an evolving process to me, a sense of creation and offering, rather than an imposed mandate. We talked about reimagining the word as coming from birthing rather than conquering and what that transformation might look like.

 

After the Manifesto by Craig Buckley Columbia University
Searching to see how others are thinking about manifesto in this day and age, I found a book called After the Manifestoedited by Craig Buckley and published by Columbia University Press. While Buckley investigates manifesto in terms of architecture, he captures the spectrum of viewpoints on it in a way that is applicable to uses of manifesto in any genre. Of the various reactions he mentions, I find myself in the “protean camp” at the moment, willing to re-vision what this word means, repurpose it to be more fitting now and into the future. In the spirit of manifesto as an invitation to growth, evolution, purpose and practice in the world,  I offer you my mine. What’s yours? Or, what’s a better word than manifesto that can accompany us with ongoing relevance?
MANIFESTO | BE PARTICULAR  ©2022 Lucy Mathews Heegaard.

A Story of Nurses

An immersive, audio-driven, essay film that bears witness to the experiences of nurses providing care to Covid19 patients at the beginning of the pandemic 

“I don’t know who I am anymore.” The comment gave me chills. Spoken by a healthcare provider who had faced agonizing, life-and-death decisions about patient care in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, I was hearing the comment quoted in a talk by Cynda Rushton (PhD, MSN, RN, FAAN). A colleague of Dr. Rushton’s had made the remark when confiding feelings of mental and spiritual distress to her. Rushton is Professor of Clinical Ethics in the Berman Institute of Bioethics and the School of Nursing at Johns Hopkins University. Her book, Moral Resilience: Transforming Moral Suffering in Healthcare, delves into the moral dilemmas many healthcare professionals face as part of their jobs and the burnout that often results.

The talk was part of a year-long program I participated in at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, during 2021. We met twice a month online to hear speakers and consider ways that Buddhist teachings could anchor and fuel actions to help alleviate suffering in the world. Each of us was tasked with designing our own service project as part of the program. When I heard Dr. Rushton recount her colleague’s anguish, I felt a call to bear witness to the suffering I heard in this statement about loss of identity and knew I had found my project.

Of all healthcare professionals, I chose nurses because they struck me as the frontline of the frontline. In April of last year, I posted an invitation on my website to nurses who had provided direct care to Covid patients. The pandemic had been underway a little over a year, but vaccinations had begun and held promise for relief. I realized I was making a difficult request to ask nurses to revisit memories of what they experienced as they provided care, but I hoped that what felt like a small lull in the pandemic’s progression would offer space for such conversations. My goal was to record audio of a variety of voices offering first-hand perspectives and to create from them a story that reflected the collective experience—a story that would be art as much as documentary, that would connect viewers with feelings rather than facts and statistics, and that would capture what ER, ICU, and Covid unit nurses saw and felt as they cared for patients.

Author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “To listen to a witness is to become one.” I wanted those of us, like myself, who had been safely on the sidelines during the pandemic, to become witnesses—to feel the weight and depth of the experiences endured by nurses in a way that words alone cannot adequately convey. And by reflecting the real and raw narratives nurses shared with me, I hoped the project would offer them a sense of feeling seen, heard, and valued.

From May through September last year, I amassed ten hours of audio through one-on-one conversations by phone or Zoom. Typically, in editing a project, the “sound bites” that move me will leap out as I re-listen to an interview. I know how to distill an hour’s worth of raw material into five minutes that capture the essence of what was said. But this story was different. Many of the nurses spoke in present tense as they remembered moments and narrated them to me. They spoke with an urgency, vulnerability, and authenticity that made me feel I was right there with them. Countless times as I listened and re-listened, I had to stop to take off my headphones and weep. “If I am feeling all of this emotional intensity second-hand,” I kept thinking to myself, “how on earth did it feel to be in these nurses’ shoes?”

Every minute of every interview felt essential. I realized quickly that the nurses’ voices and words carried so much power that my job was to help the viewer listen as deeply as possible. I created the film’s imagery to draw the audience into the emotion of the story rather than to illustrate each moment literally.

“I don’t know if anyone else has talked about all the death,” one nurse said. “It’s not just that they died, it’s how they died.” Unwittingly, she had summarized the common thread of all my interviews. “I’m tired of witnessing so many crappy deaths,” another said. Nurses described the pain of seeing people die without their loved ones present; of struggling to show compassion and care, while covered head to toe in PPE; of yelling through two masks and a face shield to be heard over the sound of a ventilator; of witnessing patients kept alive on machines as their bodies became unrecognizable from their former selves. “We’re moving into a place for which there are no words,” one concluded. “And that was essentially every day.”

Not every nurse who contacted me about the project chose to participate. I traded correspondence with twice as many people as I interviewed. One nurse sent a message back saying, “I may have too much anger, at the moment. Plenty of stories but may be blocked right now.” Even these short exchanges helped inform the film. Of those with whom I spoke, most echoed at least some level of anger, in addition to the fear and grief that may be the more expected storylines of their experiences. Most also admitted that they had barely begun to process all that they had been through. They all affirmed that the relationships they had with their fellow nurses were vital to their ability to bear the circumstances.

By the time of my last interview in September, the landscape of the pandemic had shifted again. The Delta variant was causing a new surge. When I was finishing production of the film in late December, Omicron was usurping Delta. As we have learned more about how to protect ourselves from the virus over these past two years and as the medical community has learned more about how to treat it, the stories from the beginning of the pandemic began to stand out to me as unique because of how little we knew in the face of such a deadly, fast-moving threat. As one nurse said, “We didn’t know what we were dealing with, but we knew we were the ones who had to deal with it.”

Even as the pandemic continues to stress the healthcare system, it is clear that many of us have become accustomed to the successive surges, new variants, and the existence of vaccines that bolster people’s ability to survive the illness. I wondered if we may have already lost touch with the precarious uncertainty that pervaded the pandemic’s beginning. This thought brought me back to my mission to bear witness through this film and reminded me of what one of the first nurses who responded to my invitation wrote to me: “I want to offer my story for this project to be of service to the memory of what we, as nurses, have experienced. This time should not be forgotten.” Through our bearing witness to the stories of the nurses in this film, may we become witnesses ourselves in service to the memory of this time, that it not be forgotten.

An Invitation to Nurses

A collective storytelling project gathering the experiences of nurses on the frontline of care during the Covid19 pandemic.

Pieces of the Story by Lucy Mathews Heegaard

 

WELCOME

If you are a nurse who has provided care during the Covid19 pandemic, this post is for you. Thank you for considering sharing your story with me. If you think your story is not worthy enough, that someone else has a better perspective to offer, I can assure you that your story matters. Every story is part of the puzzle. I hope to attract a demographically and geographically diverse group of participants who have served in a variety of frontline capacities, from ER to ICU to floor nurses to hospice, to any other front-line patient care roles. I welcome all perspectives.

My purpose is to bear witness to nurses’ experiences through a project that is part documentary, part art. In one-on-one conversations, I will receive whatever you wish to share with me about what you have seen, heard, and felt as you have served patients and their families during the pandemic. Once interviews are complete, I will weave your individual stories, in your own voices and words, into one, collective narrative. The result will be a short film that I hope will open the hearts and minds of viewers to your experiences.

Reading news accounts throughout the pandemic about the harsh realities faced by those of you on the frontline of patient care and hearing stories from friends who are hospital chaplains about your bedside vigils with patients, I have been moved by the challenges endured by nurses on all our behalf and struck by how sheltered I have felt as I have been safely sequestered at home. By pairing your voices and words with images, sounds, and music, I would like to create a record of your experiences that honors the physical, emotional, and spiritual toll of your work and helps those who have not had your first-hand experiences to feel the weight and depth of them more fully than the written word alone can accomplish. I hope the film will underscore the vital role you, as nurses, play in general in the healthcare system, as well as the added weight that has fallen on your shoulders during the pandemic.

To listen to a witness is to become one.

 

⏤Elie Wiesel

My promise to those of you who participate is that I will listen deeply and will treat your story and your time with the utmost respect. Author and physician Rachel Naomi Remen has written that listening with attention⏤and I would add intention, as well⏤offers an opportunity for wholeness and healing. I believe that opportunity extends both ways in a converstion, to the listener and the teller. Through the film I hope to give viewers a sense of becoming your listeners and witnesses themselves.

I will strive to reflect what you share with me accurately and will offer all participants an opportunity to review the film before publication to make sure my use of your words feels true to you. I know that entrusting your story to me is a leap of faith on your part and I do not take that lightly.

Listening is the oldest and perhaps the most powerful tool of healing…When we listen, we offer with our attention an opportunity for wholeness.

 

⏤Rachel Naomi Remen

I am undertaking this service project as part of my participation in a year-long program on Socially Engaged Buddhism through Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I will be working on the film production aspect of it as part of a Master of Fine Arts degree I am pursuing at California Institute of Integral Studies.

PROJECT UPDATE


I have concluded the interview phase of my project and am currently in the process of distilling the narratives from these conversations for my film soundtrack. I am extraordinarily grateful to the nurses who shared their experiences with me and hope to have a draft of the film ready in December 2021, for those of you who participated to review. I anticipate releasing the final film in February 2022.

updated 11.22.21

PHOTOGRAPH | Pieces of the Puzzle ©2018 Lucy Mathews Heegaard.

Love Wins

I was once a cat hater. Brought up on dogs, my world view was shaped by slobbery kisses, exuberant wagging tails, and good-natured, “always ready for adventure” personalities.

I had all sorts of preconceived notions about cats and their world: sandpaper tongues, elusive behavior, “I’ll decide when I want you” attitude, claws, and so on. I lumped them all into a single category and held firm to my opinions, despite the fact that I had never spent much time with any of their breeds.My mother was a cat lover. She had them as pets growing up and tried to convince our family to get one on several occasions, but we would hear nothing of it. We were beagle people. And then later rescue-dog people. Cats were out of the question.

Knowing this, imagine me at forty-three with my two daughters at the local animal rescue shelter. It was a hot summer day and they had suggested we have lunch out together and then go pet dogs at the shelter to give and receive some love from them. I said yes. They said nothing about cats.

After petting the pups, they said, “let’s just stop by the cat room on the way out, shall we?” It seemed harmless enough.

I should report one important incident before we continue. A year or two prior to this shelter visit, when picking up our border collies from the kennel after a vacation (my little family had become border collie people by this time), a cat that was staying at the kennel long-term hopped onto the desk as I was paying our bill. She was allowed roaming privileges because she was staying at the kennel so long and had become part of the family there.

As I was writing out my check, she perched on the desk next to my checkbook and inspected me. I ignored her. The next thing I knew she stood up on her hind legs, leaning over to me, and gently placed her paws on either side of my neck. She proceeded to knead my neck and shoulders as if giving me a tender massage. I had never experienced such a thing. It felt like a laser beam of love being sent right through her soft, little paws into my body. At that moment, without thinking, I said these words: “If I ever find a cat like this, I will adopt it!” I told the story to numerous friends afterwards, shocked that these words had come from my mouth.

Now, back at the shelter, my daughters called me into a side room with a few adult cats. “You have to meet this cat,” they said somewhat urgently. I sat cross-legged on the floor as they placed an orange, domestic short-hair in my lap. Purring, the four-year old named Daisy stood up on her hind legs, leaned toward me and placed her paws on either side of my neck, giving me a gentle massage. As she did, she rubbed her nose on mine and blinked her half-closed eyes slowly, purring continuously. She seemed to be in a state of bliss I could not understand but that I quickly felt myself.

“We have to adopt her,” my daughters said emphatically.

I remembered my words. I knew the truth of them and the truth of my daughters’ plea. Even still, I felt sweat on my brow and a tumultuous anxiety inside. I couldn’t breathe. How could I possibly adopt a cat? The idea was unfathomable to my thinking mind, but all too clear to my heart mind. I pulled a volunteer shelter worker aside, peppering her with questions in a staccato stream. What about claws and furniture? What if she doesn’t get along with our dog? What if, what if, what if? I hoped desperately that something in her answers would affirm that we couldn’t possibly adopt this cat, and I could go back to my long-held worldview. Instead, the answers I received only reassured all my concerns. Nonetheless, my hand was shaking as I signed the adoption papers. This was for life.

She didn’t seem very attached to the name Daisy, so we renamed her Cat, after the cat in Breakfast at Tiffany’s whom she resembled. She responded favorably to the change. We learned that she was very vocal and began to understand the meaning of her meows. We meowed back and had delightful conversations. We began to recognize her “love eyes” across the room as the message they were to each of us. Meowing to catch our gaze, she would give a long, slow blink and a slight nod of the chin that was clearly deliberate and spoke volumes to our hearts. We always returned the same blink and nod. Over the years, we began to initiate it ourselves, to which she would always respond in kind.

We received endless face rubs along with the kneading, paw massages that had first won our hearts. Our dogs’ love for us was gregarious and physically palpable, laying across our laps, licking our faces, or wagging with such fervor that their whole bodies moved in unison with the wag. Cat’s love was tender but insistent and ever-present, not just in her physical touches but in her meows and her eyes. She taught us a new language of love.

Perhaps the hardest to convince was our rescue hound, Holton. He took a few years to soften, but Cat was patient. Eventually she would win him over. My heart skipped a beat the first time I found them curled up together napping. She delighted in grooming him almost daily, licking his ears and face, and he delighted in being groomed.

I became a cat proponent. I gave unsolicited testimonials about my previous prejudice and my newfound love of felines. I wondered how I had ever lived without Cat in my life and feared having to ever live without her. Of course, I knew the day would come.

After 12 years in our family, at the age of 16, she passed gently into the higher realm and seemed to know the transition was at hand. I believe she was ready for it.

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
― Rumi

Texting with a friend about her death, he responded: “Cat made you a cat person! She has her place in history!”

She does have her place in history— in my history. She dismantled the barriers to love I didn’t even know I had. She needed no sword or shield. My entrenched prejudice against her species was no match for the power she wielded: LOVE.

To my dear Cat—whom we affectionately nicknamed Kitten— I thank you for your life with us, for being so steadfast in the face of my resistance, for making yourself a core part of me, and for never wavering in showing me that love wins.

PHOTOGRAPHS | Cat WATCHING Dog © 2018 LUCY MATHEWS HEEGAARD; LUCY WITH BEAGLE MOLLY © 1969 THE HUNTSVILLE Times; Paw and Hand © 2020 Lucy Mathews Heegaard.

Mo(U)Rning In Minneapolis

“…until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”—Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mourning-in-Minneapolis-©2020_LucyMathewsHeegaard

Many friends and family have reached out to my spouse and me to see how Minneapolis is doing right now, so I took a drive through some of our city neighborhoods this morning with my camera. Click the image above to see the photo story.

PHOTOGRAPH ABOVE | A Community Mourns © 2020 Lucy Mathews Heegaard.