I found these three pots in a magical corner of the cloister to Verona’s duomo when I was in the city four years ago – the visit one of my yearly pilgrimages to Italy to mark the anniversary of my father’s death. At the time I couldn’t put into words why the pots pulled me to them with so much heart, but in the years since, as I’ve returned to them again and again through this photo, I have come to understand something of what it is they want to tell me, and the significance of that message in my life.
The meaning – that invitation – I’ve discovered, was and is my desire itself: the very fact that these pots are so clearly full of stories (you can see them written into their misshapen lips, in the thickened patina of time, in that gift of a handle that still looks like it might be warm to the touch), and that I somehow wanted to hold those stories myself, feel their weight in my hands and work the texture of their fibres through my own fingers.
In many ways, meeting these pots felt, and continues to feel, very similar to how I feel meeting each new client I see for therapy: the (profound) gift my clients give me with their raw material and the (privileged) permission this offers me to work alongside them in the crafting of their living stories.
Indeed, as I meditated further, I realised that the stories crafted into the metal of these pots, and preserved there for us as fingerprints, were born of a craftswoman. And my goodness, when we consider the totality of that craftswoman’s stories, these pots suddenly expand to contain a whole universe, don’t they? Her deep struggles and bright loves; the way only she could see the light dancing on the late summer wheat fields as she walked to her work; the sound of her children’s laughter as they ran around her kitchen in dusty bare feet; and how she felt when she held her father’s hand as he slipped towards death. (Maybe this is the point at which I tell you that frequently when I look at these pots I feel the unmistakable crack then slow, shuddering, softening of salt through my ribcage…)
We all have stories in us, just like these. Yet, so often, these are swallowed into the earth with us when we leave. There are so many reasons for this, of course; a tragedy of scars that can leave us feeling small and our stories unworthy of any kind of elevation.
But just look at where these pots are perched. Though it’s not easy to make out, there is iconography in that plinth. Whoever placed these pots there knew they needed a home that was holy. So too our stories: the iconography crafted into our lives has sadly so often been lost to the naked eye, but it is there if we dare look closely enough, and our real, human stories – and the way they contain both our individuality and universality – are holy things.
This is where it gets complicated, for me, though. As a therapist, I have been trained in transparency, a transparency in which my own stories are expected disappear. And while I’m quite sure this contract was only ever intended as part of the wider boundaries of the therapy relationship, which are, quite rightly, sacrosanct, I am also not the first to acknowledge that the drive to self-censor has somehow extended far more widely than this. Indeed, and while I can only speak for myself here, my sense is that this transparency can, at times, become an excuse to hide behind in other areas of life. It’s almost as though the presence of any kind of fingerprints left anywhere visible might mark us out as the beautifully messy, real human beings we (also) are.
Lately, though, I have felt a quite visceral tension in this. Because as a writer – a storyteller – I am increasingly feeling called to work with the rich mineral seam of my own life and stories. And not just because I want to leave those stories behind as a personal legacy – my sense is that these stories, my fingerprints, are what mark me out as a living, breathing craftswoman, alive here and now, too. And my hunch is that this might actually be of broader therapeutic benefit, also.
Much is shifting as we navigate these first turbulent decades of the new millennium: old industrial and capitalist ideologies are dying (and not without trauma); there is an urgent hunger for sustainability and provenance in all of our choices; and above all we are being called to repair the increasing rifts in the fabric of our human societies. Wellbeing provision isn’t immune from these changes, and nor should it be; in fact, I would actually argue quite the opposite: we should be actively leading the conversation.
And so I am starting here, with my own (sacred) stories. And I offer them not as maps, but as postcards from a fellow traveller, a fellow pilgrim, a fellow human being.