Sky Above Clouds: A Triumph of Life In Death

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(used with permission)

I recently had a conversation with an art therapist named Wendy Miller that intrigued me. She was discussing her brand new book called Sky Above Clouds: Finding Our Way Through Creativity, Aging, and Illness. Written with her late husband, Dr. Gene Cohen, the book uncovers new clues about how the aging mind can build resilience and continue growth, even during times of grave illness, thus setting aside the traditional paradigm of aging as a time of decline. It also highlights stories of their family's struggle through aging, illness and loss, culminating with Dr. Cohen's death in November 2009.

I was intrigued with how a book finds its way to the finish line after such a heartbreaking loss. What type of new meaning did the book take on following the death of Ms. Miller's husband? I decided to interview Ms. Miller to learn more about her journey in writing the book.

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© Wendy L. Miller (used with permission)

The book, by the way, is published by Oxford University Press and can be purchased via this site.

Ben Arnon (BA): What inspired you to write Sky Above Clouds and how long was your journey of writing this book?

Wendy Miller (WM): This is a question that has a few answers, first of all, because I started writing with my late husband, Gene Cohen, in 2005, and so we both had our reasons then; and after he passed away, I had to come up with a new reason to get myself to continue it without him. So I will give you all the answers.

First of all, Gene started the idea for this book because he wanted to write a fairytale "Phoenix and the Fairy" for our young daughter. It was his way of seeing our family story of challenge and creativity in magical, metaphorical terms that he felt would give him a way to share with her from the very - her very - beginning. He was given a diagnosis of metastatic prostate cancer when she was just 19 months old. Thus this book started out as a co-authored book by Gene and me: a husband-and-wife team, made up of a scientist/psychiatrist and an artist/therapist.

For five years it held our shared vision of a future working and living together, as it reflected backward on the sixteen years of our life together. We originally thought of it as "The Phoenix and the Fairy, and Other True Stories of Creativity, Challenge and Adversity." As it evolved, it became a holding space for our conversations, our shared hopes, expectations, and goals. That manuscript also included Gene's first venture into fiction writing - an original fairytale he wrote for our daughter to use creative imagery and story, as fairytales do, to capture the heroic life journey in which challenges and setbacks, heroines, heroes, and ogres ultimately illuminate our own fears, creativity, and courage. That whole manuscript combining science, art, autobiography, and fairytale, written as if it were a conversation between the two of us, was retitled "Heartsong," and we thought it was ready for publication when Gene passed away in November 2009.

But once he wasn't here, that changed everything. It would have been as if we then added a last chapter that said, "oh by the way, he died." So that certainly wasn't the way I wanted to have a book. And my own years of grief reminded me daily that that certainly wasn't the book we wanted. It had to evolve for me to want to read it and find comfort and help through it.

Gene wrote this describing why he had wanted to write this book:

"My goal is not to describe my own special recipe for avoiding or coping with being sick, suffering, and dying. My story is not one of how-to, but of hope and creative possibilities, of tapping into aspects of yourself you may not have known were there for however long you are able to. It is a story of creativity in connection with loss. There is nothing romantic about loss, but it is part of the human condition when one is struggling to contain or cope with loss, there is also a desire to transcend it. This is a context, however unwanted, for accessing creative potential. So, to provide a series of stories will do justice to the many different ways it can be examined."

For me, what mattered most in writing the book was this: that the book would be a companion on such a walk through hard places in life; that the reader does not have to be on that hard path at this time of reading, but be conscious enough to realize that we will all take these walks. It is not just a walk for ill people or aging people or dying people or grieving people. It is a walk of creativity in the deepest sense, when circumstances (even just reading) slow us down biochemically and psychophysically, and in that slowing down, we have a chance to engage with whatever is present and find meaning in it.

Then there was also more of a professional reason for us, and that includes Teresa Barker too, our co-writer, for writing this book. We all have had professional careers in teaching, sharing information, and helping to improve the quality of life of others. Gene as a doctor, me as a therapist, and Teresa as a co-writer of books in research, health, and parenting. We all wanted to continue our team effort of working and living with serious conditions that confronted health, relationship, and family, to make it visible through our writing so that others could witness it and take from it what would be meaningful for them.

BA: How did you muster the strength to continue writing this after your husband passed away?

WM: Probably the most significant reason I continued, and ultimately what carried me through actually doing this - because writing a book is really hard work - was this: I had a quiet, intuitive voice that over time became a louder, more forceful voice that said: "If you don't edit and publish this book, it will be as if Gene has died twice." And I absolutely refused to let that happen. My commitment to our writing as Gene's legacy and his ethical commitment to both family and community was my "thread from above" that I write about in the book. It was what pulled me up out of the depths of grief and loss. It was my connection to the sky above clouds. Because to be honest with you, it has been very difficult for me to write this book. Yet I always knew that there are readers who are just as isolated as Gene and I were, in their own experience, particularly the aging process, and particularly when there are medical complications.

So much of the isolation or struggle emerges in the course of everydayness, but the roots of it and potential relief lie much deeper in matters of existential identity. It can be uncomfortable for any of us to confront, much less engage in these conversations with ourselves or others, even with those we love. Whatever the reason, it is also true that there are many forms of "magical thoughts" inside all of us that say, if we don't know much about illness then it won't happen to us; that when we actually live through these "hard times" people mostly try to say the platitudes of polite positive hopeful thinking, or give advice, or change the subject, or give us that look that we can't name but somehow ends up adding to our invisibility. We can begin to feel like we have leprosy or some such thing that requires quarantine; we can feel psychically hidden and alone. And I wanted to write a book for those of us in that place, and that number grows every day.

BA: What is an expressive arts therapist and how did that background assist you in writing this book?

WM: As an artist, I am psychological as well as visual, so my creative intention was always to show facets of our psyches as I wrote about how we intuitively experience our lives, including our experience of thinking about our lives, and what creativity in living really comes to mean. Creativity up against health challenge - life - threatening health challenge - changes the way I look at everything.

I have always used imagery in my work as a clinician. I listen for the language through which each person speaks - the visual, the auditory, the poetic, and the kinesthetic. You can hear it in people's language: "I am walking under a gray cloud" vs. "Everything is spinning inside" vs. "The rain tapping on the roof is driving me nuts." Imagery as a language of sensation speaks in different channels for each of us. My work is about discovering what channel is the right one for the person I am working with. That is my life as an expressive arts therapist, where I work daily to help people through experiential approaches and the creative arts in therapy.

My studio and Create Therapy Institute, which houses my expressive arts therapy practice, are behind my home. My studio is downstairs with all my art books, art supplies, sculptures, jewelry, and art works in endless process. The upstairs is my therapy office filled with more art materials, miniature objects for sand tray work, and the furnishings necessary for comfort in the dialog that takes place between me and the people who come to see me. I see into the lives of others: children, adults, couples, and families, into the many ways the family body presents in their stories and struggles. The skills I use to listen closely to the discovery process within my clients' imagery are the same ones I use to listen for it within my own family body in writing this book. The steps that transform are slow and sometimes arduous; they are careful undertakings that happen millisecond by millisecond in one's life. Our work is the practice of emotional intimacy and remembrance: psychic history that I witnessed, recorded, and recalled.

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"Centering in Reflection" (1999), porcelain clay figure with oxides in raku fired bowl, 8 x 7 x 8 inches. Artwork by Wendy L. Miller, photo credit: Joshua Soros (used with permission)

BA: Describe how creativity is associated with aging and illness.

WM: I wasn't necessarily thinking about creativity and aging per se, when this all started, because I thought I could leave making those connections to Gene. But I have grown into it myself now. I am now 65 years old, the age that he was when he passed away. So I may not feel that 65 is very old at all, but that knowledge sits right beside the knowledge that things can happen that change our lives both drastically and instantly. Why do we react the way we do in certain moments? What brings us to impasses and then has us find a way through them? What changes in us day by day, moment-by-moment, in ways that can either free us or shackle us?

I certainly did not want to write a book with self-help advice or bullets of magic guidance. I don't like those. The stories in Sky Above Clouds, and the conversations shared in it are offered as tools to activate the mechanism of seeing into one's own life, into one's own intimate psychological territory. This process of inquiry becomes the mechanism for creative knowledge. Creativity is a generative process that happens within our search for meaning when we exercise our full capacity for engagement whether it is in someone else's stories, as the reader finds in the book, or in one's own. In this way, creativity is not merely looking at but truly seeing your own experience, by feeling your way as you move through soul stories of experience.

What is most helpful for this creative engagement to take place is that our twin capacities to receive and reflect on experience occur almost simultaneously. We are existential creative beings, and this book aims to reflect our own existential spaces where you can think about what is happening on the page, and the mirror images in one's own experience begin to reveal themselves. True creativity is something that is released, not something named or analyzed, rather something that becomes its own art of knowing. Our stories model a process, slow us down enough to engage in our own experience, and hopefully offer a mirror so that we can see, reflect, and find meaning in our own interpretation. In such a way, looking becomes seeing becomes art.

BA: Describe the meaning behind the name of your book.

WM: Both Gene and I loved to study psychological development and the creative arts. With his background in aging, he researched artists in the latter part of their lives. He was always in search of new ways to talk about aging, to translate more vividly the exciting emerging science and clinical stories of aging and insight into new images and metaphors that could represent a truer sense of the potential in our development as we creatively age into wisdom. He was frustrated, as we all should be, by the endless supply of stereotypical images that focus on decline in our older years. All we have to do is search for a birthday card for an older friend or family member to see exactly what these images of aging convey. Even taken as efforts of humor, they are not funny. The stereotypes are damaging, if not immediately to the individual then systemically to our culture, a culture that has historically portrayed and perceived older people in a state of decline. He knew that this was a misrepresentation of the truth about aging, growth, and development, and he was committed to changing that image, both literally and metaphorically.

One of our favorite artists was Georgia O'Keefe, who, although she loved to travel, did not fly until later in her life. In her 70s, she painted her cloud series, titled "Sky Above Clouds." In his talks and presentations on creative aging, Gene frequently referred to O'Keefe's "Sky Above Clouds" paintings as the new metaphor for aging. This was the way we should envision aging, and approach it. As O'Keefe indicated in her paintings, even with her fears of flying, even in spite of her age or any illnesses, there is always sky above clouds.

I chose to title our book "Sky Above Clouds" to honor Gene and his vision, to honor O'Keefe and hers, and to honor in each of us in our own process of creative aging, to bring the "sky above clouds" to life for every reader. There will always be clouds, thus there will also always be sky above clouds - that space in which life's complexities have the chance to become clear, where we can make the quantum leap into our own potential and our own vision.

Sure, the clouds can obscure our view at times - believe me I know that from these years of grieving. Looking through the clouds, outside in, we may imagine, for instance, that we know what a person confronting such grief or a loss or a life-threatening illness experiences; or that we know what we ourselves will feel when we are in adverse circumstances. But, we do not and cannot know their reality, or even the one that awaits us, with any certainty at all. What we can know is that clear sky above something else always awaits us; an inner capacity for change and adaptation that is incontrovertible as nature itself. That "something else," the creative faculty is what draws us to life, calls forth our love, our resilience, our strength, and our capacity to choose not only life itself but it is also what enlivens us to life. We make our way through the clouds, whatever clouds may appear. Sky above clouds means that it opens us not only to potential but also to the essential.

BA: What was your biggest learning about life through your journey of writing this book?

WM: That there really is a miracle at the intersection of creativity, illness, and healing. Gene believed, as do I, that this kind of miracle - a life transformed - is accessible to each and every one of us. If I could write my way out of such depths of loss and grief, with all of its physical, emotional and spiritual pain and identity loss, then I can do and be anything.