This week has been a bizarre and challenging one. From the death of an estranged aunt, to reminders of divorce, to readings on the psychology of Gestalt therapy, I’ve been wading my way through some deep stuff.
Yesterday my sister and I had to sort out the belongings of an aunt we’d had little contact with for over 30 years. We knew she was still alive and until recently our mother had kept in touch, but with this lady being the kind of character she was, rifts could happen so easily. Stubborn, strong and wilful but never changing or appreciating others views, she was always right – as the old adage goes ‘you couldn’t tell her anything’. And yet I have some happy memories of her, before her life became more and more challenging, ending in her divorce from her former farmer husband, quite late in life. She ended up on her own, as they never had children, but was stoic and determined, for which I did admire her. She lasted until the age of 78 despite smoking around 40 cigarettes a day. And when we entered her small cramped house, that was the most pervading aspect of her life that came to greet us when we stepped through the front door. She’d lived so frugally through necessity, but never stinted on her ‘cigs’, as she would have called them.
For me and my sister, this was our first house clearance following the death of a relative – I guess we all get our turn as the generations move through time. This aunt had belongings that came from her mother’s house clearance, with family birth and death certificates, linens, china and photographs. She also had masses of accounts and paperwork from her time as a farmer’s wife back in the 70s and 80s, along with a 1970s Volvo parked outside, undrivable and rusting, but kept for her memories of a former life. Finding the decree nisi from this former life, when she and her farmer husband split up very late in the day for her generation, amidst inheritance intrigue, double dealings and betrayal, was moving to say the least. I was told she kept files and ‘evidence’ of all this because she believed that one day it would make a good story. Ironically, I am probably the only one who cares – but maybe that’s the nature of being a writer. She never knew I became a writer, so there is irony there too.
So me and my sisters experience was grim and perhaps it was just as well we had to work fast with not much time for on the spot sentiment. We can try out a little more feeling at the funeral next week and perhaps that’s exactly as it should be.
And that brings me to Gestalt! – the topic of the book I’m currently reading. It’s a person centred therapy which believes that we should cultivate a high degree of self awareness which should always operate in the present, from moment to moment, from encounter to encounter, while we strive to be aware of how our own negative thought patterns and behaviours are blocking true self awareness and causing unhappiness or conflict. In the present, we should strive to make these encounters have satisfying outcomes according to our own nature. They use the terms of figure and ground, which take some getting your head around, but which basically means as follows:
The word figure refers to an individuals need at any particular moment. At any given time there may be several needs operating which have to be met, and when a person is functioning well in relation to their environment or ground (which includes other people) their needs are clearly seen against this background of their awareness. The task is to choose the most important figure or need as it arises, and to satisfy this need so it can fade into the background. This is what is known as an effective ‘gestalt’. If the need isn’t met, the unmet need creates conflict. It’s all about cultivating wholeness. Now if we are self aware and go with the flow of our own nature in the present, I’d like to think this process happens reasonably naturally, and that most of us try not to accumulate a great deal of what we suspect may become unfinished business…
Unfinished business is seen by Gestalt as a developmental disorder, where people with unfinished business resent the past and are therefore unable to focus on the here and now or get closure in relation to the past, in order to be free of it. So if we return to my aunt’s life, you can see she kept hold of her unfinished business – both that of her heart, (clothes, car, ornaments, old Christmas tinsel, and mementos from happier times) and her mind (all the farm accounts and intrigues she believed went on in so many folders symbollically tied together with bale string) – which my sister and I were having to physically and mentally get to grips with the other day. Certainly the past had defined my aunt in her own mind. She never got her closure, one of the major goals of gestalt. Sad indeed, but also a stern reminder to us all to live well and consciously in the now.
As for the now here in the Scottish Borders – it’s wild outside with freezing rain and wind. The Christmas concert I was going to sing in has been cancelled as snow is supposed to be on its way, so I may well set up our bauble tree with lights and get the Christmas wreath on the door. And as I type the word wreath I’m moved to look at why these are intended for both celebration and commemoration. So over to Wiki!
‘’The wreath has significant meaning for the season. It’s circular shape represents eternity, for it has no beginning and no end. From a Christian religious perspective, it represents an unending circle of life. The evergreen, most frequently used in making wreathes, symbolizes growth and everlasting life’’.
So there we have it!
Wishing you the kind of Christmas you enjoy the most, and don’t forget those gestalts if you have any family get-togethers where tensions may ensue. Many thanks for your support of my musings and I’ll be back in the new year.
Here’s a card for you from the artist me, and I hope you have a cosy and warm Christmas time.