Tree of Life


It’s the first day of Autumn,  which reminded me that I wanted to share a wonderful activity called The Tree of Life.  I was recently introduced to this exercise during orientation to CIIS‘s Expressive Arts Therapy program a few weeks ago.

The Tree of Life was developed by  Ncazelo Ncube, a child psychologist from Zimbabwe,   who co-partnered with the  Dulwich Centre in Adelaide, Australia  to create a healing exercise for children who had lost their parents to HIV/AIDS.  This gentle project allows people to find strength in their own personal stories using the tree as a metaphor (

This strength-based arts activity has been used in various communities around the world.  For instance, CIIS has partnered with The Glide Foundation in San Francisco in a research study to observe the use of expressive arts therapy with vulnerable children ( This activity is one of the arts-based methods being utilized to help kids develop strengths through their own histories in a way that does not re-traumatize them.

My “Lemon Cohort” classmates and I made our own trees during orientation. When I got home, I decided to incorporate what had gone into my tree that day directly into my journal. There is so much that can go into each level: the roots, which represent one’s ancestry and family history;  the ground to signify current sources of strength and influences;  the trunk to describe one’s skills and abilities;  branches as dreams, hopes and wishes; leaves to signify important people in one’s life and; the fruits – gifts that have been bestowed upon us.

My son worked on his own tree for a little while. He put “babysitter” on his trunk, which is cute, as he’s never babysat for anyone. I’ll take it to mean that this is a skill that he is developing.

I enjoy being back in school, and it’s great to have aesthetic responses and experiential activities incorporated into the curriculum. Naturally, there is also quite a bit of reading, which is why I have not been blogging very much. Life has been busy, which is good. All of these new experiences will find themselves on a future Tree of Life.


A New Personal Chapter … Toward a Beloved Community

It’s August 28, 2013, a fortuitous day that marks a new beginning in my life as a graduate student in Psychology and Expressive Arts Therapy, the birthday of my best friend, Tracie Mastronicola, the wedding anniversary of my sister Melissa and her wife Jennifer, and the 50th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.


During yesterday’s orientation at California Institute of Integral Exchange, there was much talk of the “beloved community” that Dr. King referenced – the creation of a community that would require “a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives”.

We were given the chance to consider ways in which a beloved community was missing in our lives and in our work. Someone lamented the absence of a beloved community in Oakland, which got me thinking about the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir’s overall mission (“to inspire joy and unity among all people through black gospel and spiritual music traditions”), and in particular, OIGC’s focus this year, which is Healing.  (We will be covering and sharing Donald Lawrence’s inspirational song “Healed” this winter).

Oakland is a microcosm of the country, and indeed, of the world. A vibrant urban center,  there is naturally a concentration of our greatest social challenges,  but also a generous amount of compassion, beauty and love that is reflected in its diverse community and beautiful settings.

My personal journey led me to OIGC in 2012, when I listened to a voice that guided me to share my gift of singing to promote healing. A year later, that same voice prompted me to return to school so that I could gain the tools necessary to heal through the arts as a professional Expressive Arts Psychotherapist.


Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to thousands of civil rights supporters in Washington D.C., calling for an end to racism. From the crowd, Mahalia Jackson called out “Tell them about the dream. Martin!” at which point Dr. King departed from his scripted speech. Or so the story goes. Whether or not the “Queen of Gospel” is responsible for what became this legendary call for equality, I like it, as it serendipitously weaves together unity, gospel and community – all elements of my own personal path.


While it can be argued that we have lost some of the passion and urgency of the Civil Rights Era, the field of psychology has evolved in a promising direction. Positive psychology is a relatively new branch of psychology summed up in 1998 by Martin Selgman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: “We believe that a psychology of positive human functioning will arise, which achieves a scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving individuals, families, and communities.” Shifting the emphasis of psychology from analyzing weaknesses to building upon strengths has far-reaching implications. A holistic approach to healing incorporates an individual’s worldview and stresses the importance of gender, culture, and society. When an individual is empowered to make positive changes, change can occur in a broader context.

I am very excited about my role as a creative individual, as a family member, as a member of my Bay Area community, and as a future practitioner in Expressive Arts Therapy. A generation ago, it would not have been possible to celebrate the anniversary of a same-sex marriage, to be a part of a successful interfaith choir community, nor to be studying Expressive Arts Therapy. I am grateful to be where I am today, and thankful for Dr. King and others who have made this journey a possibility.

Art with my Son

My six-year old’s new thing is a DVD called Crash! Road Cycling’s Greatest Crashes! (“You’ll Feel the Pain!) It features crashes and pile-ups from all the famous bicycle races without showing anything gruesome. Perfect for a young kid.

Besides running around his train table like a little speed demon, and then wiping out, he has taken to creating pictures and warning. signs. One of his recent signs inspired me to do a collage:


When I showed it to him, he responded with his own piece:


He placed it right next to mine (“Look, Mommy!”) and I could see right away that mine was way too busy! Then he started making more drawings:

sidebyside-22  dommiecrash

He also loves to create construction zones, and plays with such materials as Caution Tape and Danger Tape. I used some of the danger tape in this one, titled “Honest Danger I” (I also used paper from his Honest Kids Juice Packs, thus the name):

honestdanger (1)

I am looking forward to many more years creating artwork with my son.  Last night I had a hard time getting him to go to bed. “One more project, Mom!”


Art is My Therapy, Right?


I guess it is. Because today, on my birthday, a day upon which I can do whatever I like because it is Sunday, and my husband is watching our son, and I’ve already consumed a wonderful brunch followed by three scoops of ice cream at Ici in Berkeley, I decide, against all odds NOT to take a luxurious nap, which is perhaps my favorite decadent pleasure in the world, and instead, to paint and collage. I know – I can’t believe it myself. No one home. My comfy bed calling out to me. But instead of napping, I grab my drawing pad, water color pencils and collaging materials and work from the dining room facing east until the sun goes down. You’ve gotta hand it to those Impressionists – they really knew how to capture the subtle changes in light.  I was pretty happy with my interpretation, nonetheless. And it made me happy doing it.


Game On!


I am thrilled to be starting a new round of Game On tomorrow.  Game On is kind of a diet or fitness program, but it is really so much more. When I told my friend Sandy several weeks ago that I had just completed the Clean regimen,  and was looking for another way to stay on track with my eating and exercising, she told me that she was involved in a game in which you try to lose weight (or meet a fitness goal)as a team sport,  and  that there were cash prizes!  Now this notion really spoke to me. I am very competitive, and am much more likely to stick to goals if it involves accolades and prizes. Not surprisingly, the co-author of Game On has a similar personality.

Krista Vernoff is a writer and producer of the TV show Grey’s Anatomy, and shares that the only thing that got her motivated to get in shape was a contest, proposed by her friend and fitness competitor, Az Ferguson. You see, Krista had put on a little weight after having a child (sound familiar), and as a writer for Grey’s Anatomy, she reports that she rarely left her comfy chair during the long days she spent writing. Over time, all of this sitting and eating and not exercising caught up with her, and she found herself 40 pounds overweight. Az gave her some tips on how to start getting in shape. He suggested exercising for 20 minutes every day, and eating 5 small meals consisting of a lean protein, a small portion of carbs and a bit of good fat every meal. He advised eliminating certain foods, drinking lots of water, and getting lots of sleep. Do it and the weight will come off, he told her. Well, despite whining that she really wanted to lose  weight, Krista only followed Az’s advice for maybe two days. Then several months later, Az proposed following his guidelines as a contest, and all of a sudden, Krista was out of her chair, on her stationary bike and eating 5 healthy meals a day.  Funny how the mind can work.

I was really excited about starting Game On last month.  Our game was administered by the vibrant and supportive Skipper Kim whom Sandy had met at Glide church in San Francisco. Everyone enters data on to an Excel spreadsheet, and everybody has to be honest. It’s kind of like grade school – if you cheat on your homework or test, you’re only cheating yourself, right?

Skipper Kim helped get us ready the weekend before the game began, encouraging us to grill up some chicken and vegetables, and start assembling our Game On (GO) meals. Now five meals a day may sound like a lot, but some of the meals are more like snacks. And there is no snacking between meals except for cucumbers and celery. (Apart from  any one 100 cal snack of your choice if you must). Otherwise, your meals should include one palm-sized portion of protein, a fistful of whole-grain carbs, and a thumb-sized portion of healthy fats.  There is a list of foods you cannot eat from (including any with refined sugar and  fried foods) and a nice list of healthy foods. Here are photos of some of the meals from the book, and one of my own:

Pete's Perfect Oatmeal Puddin' Breakfast

Pete’s Perfect Oatmeal Puddin’ Breakfast

Az's Easy no-Cook Meal

Az’s Easy no-Cook Meal

Turkey Breast, Grilled Zucchini and Millet a la Deirdre

Turkey Breast, Grilled Zucchini and Millet a la Deirdre

Bill's Spicy Stuffed Pepper To Go (stuffed with turkey breast, dijon mustard and olives) and a cup of Low-Fat Milk

Bill’s Spicy Stuffed Pepper To Go (stuffed with turkey breast, dijon mustard and olives) and a cup of Low-Fat Milk

Az's Super-Smooth Smoothie (that even my cat wants to drink)

Az’s Super-Smooth Smoothie (that even my cat wants to drink)

Mandy's Friggin' Awesome Chicken Cacciatore

Mandy’s Friggin’ Awesome Chicken Cacciatore

Kevin's Vanilla Strawberry Almost Ice Cream Treat

Kevin’s Vanilla Strawberry Almost Ice Cream Treat

There are some really good recipes in the book, and plenty of ideas for creating your own healthy combinations.

I mentioned exercise (20 min per day), water (3 litres per day), and sleep (7 hrs per night).  There’s more! You must introduce a new healthy habit and eliminate a bad one. Last time I limited my coffee intake to one cup per day. For my new habit, I committed to at least 10 minutes at the piano each day (which usually led to 30-40 mins). You must communicate with your team mates and opponents on a daily basis. And if you meet your fitness or weight goal, you get big extra points. There’s one day off and one meal off, and a limit on alcohol.

I was feeling great the first week of my last game. I had a perfect score! It couldn’t be easier. Just follow the rules, right? Not so fast,  champ. The second week I found myself snacking during my five year old’s temper tantrum (emotional eating, anyone?) I didn’t have time to do my practicing one day.  And then I didnt make my weight goal. So what happened in the end? My team didn’t win.  But you know what? I think we all won, and that’s why the game is so great. I lost weight, I had developed good habits, and I was feeling good.

Thanks to the daily communication with supportive team mates (and opponents whom we taunt but generally encourage), I have begun to run, and even like it! I bought a snorkel and have been doing laps in the pool (it’s so peaceful – just like snorkeling in the Caribbean minus the beautiful fish).  And I want to try a new art practice called Zentangle.

Don’t get me wrong – I still want to WIN win this next round. But I’m mostly looking forward to the structure, the teamwork, and the benefits.


Martha, My Dear …


In an attempt to expand myself musically, I decided to take formal piano lessons a couple of months ago. I had taken years and years of lessons as a kid, and was even pretty good.  Everything I played came from reading the written note on the page, and for the most part, I only learned classical music.  As a teen and then as an adult, I wanted to be able to sit down at the piano and play some contemporary music. If I didn’t have the  music in front of me, it was quite a challenge. I could play some parts by ear, but was never able to just sit down and figure out a song. I can do it a little better after  having studied guitar as an adult (I began in my 30s! It’s never too late!)

My husband, Les Harris, is an all-around great musician and can sit down and play anything. I don’t know why he won’t just give me some of that talent. My sister Melissa can do the same thing. Sit down and approach music through the chords, not by reading the notes. At least this is what I think they are doing!

My piano lessons are going well. My teacher is Ben Heveroh, whom I know through OIGC (Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir). I have already learned to play some  twelve-bar blues, and a little gospel riff. I’m going through the John Thompson books I learned as a  kid. Some of the songs come back to me quite easily – others not as much. I like that I’m learning piano from several different angles.

I am on the fourth day of something called The Game On Diet ( I will blog more about this later, but suffice it to say I am kicking butt (Go Swan Team!) One of the rules of this game (I love games!) is to commit to a new habit. My new habit is to practice the piano every day, or for the purpose of the contest, at least 6 days a week to earn the maximum points. The hardest part of practicing for me is starting to practice. Once I’ve begun, it is no problem for me to practice for 30-60 minutes.

I wanted to learn some songs I could sing along to. I have a Beatles keyboard book, so I figured I’d start there. We listened to The Beatles a lot as kids, and my sister Melissa was completely obsessed with them. I remember the first time I turned over our  family’s  worn Help album, and saw Paul’s face. Those big soulful eyes.  He was maybe my first childhood crush. Paul was my favorite Beatle as a kid, and probably still is. I  remember Missy sometimes played Martha, My Dear, and I loved that this particular song could be carried on the piano. Of course, the strings and horns in the original version are beautiful, but the heart of it is Paul and the piano.I did a little research on the song. Paul is the only Beatle who appears on it.

I love the syncopated, honky tonk feel of this song.  It is so much fun to play! It’s amazing how much can be done in a song that is only a little over 2 minutes long. Key changes, tempo changes, and a mere  handful of lyrics that really pack a punch. This song was reportedly named for Paul’s sheepdog, who was supposedly named for a stewardess (that’s what female flight attendants were called in the 60s, kids). The object of the song, however, is probably not the dog, but rather Paul’s former fiancee, Jane Asher, and/or  his own inner muse.

If you are reading this, feel free to hold me accountable and ask me to play this song the next time you see me. Until then, when I find myself in the thick of it, I’ll help myself to a bit of what is all around me. Silly girl.