Casting Shadows

You can’t shine a light in one corner with out the other three corners becoming darker.

Who said that? Jung maybe? Or some Jungian? I have no idea – but we’ll go with that… it sounds Jungian enough.

And nothing makes this clearer to me than when I am pressed into large groups of psychotherapists, social workers and psychologists.  Nothing makes me want to leave my profession more than listening to other members of my profession. 

And being terrified that I am hearing myself.

I am usually either lured in by the wish to hear a specific author speak on their area of expertise, or forced (grousing the entire time) by professional mandate to maintain licensure or certification.

And if I can just sit quietly and read a book, or listen to music or embroider before the presentation begins – if I can close out the chit chat, and the jockeying for status and position, if I can just ignore all the narcissistic injuries and the needs and the hungers that seem to be pouring out of all these well-scrubbed people in glasses, with their expensive sweaters and sensible shoes, if I can just get to the part where there is a teacher who is going to talk – and who might even say a lot that is useless for me- but who will hopefully leave me with one or two gems – just a single lovely, good, and useful idea, one new thought, one interesting insight into one case – I will be good. It will all be worth it. If I can just toss up my filter to screen out everyone around me except the person far away on the podium…

But sometimes I can’t. Sometimes my filter is down, or I forgot my knitting bag, or my phone battery is on 12 percent. Sometimes the presenter wants us to break into small groups, or introduce ourselves to our neighbors on either side, or worse: wants to lead us in an exercise.


Then it is inescapable and I see the marks that this profession has left on all of us, the starvation to share our perceptions, to have our work acknowledged. I hear how needy and hungry it makes all of us. How all our profound insight can leave us blinded to each other and ourselves outside of the consultation room. Used to hiding behind our professional persona we are too accustomed to our utterings being treated as the Words of the Gods and are annoyed and agitated when they are not greeted as sacred pearls of wisdom by our peers. In love with our clients, enthralled with their growth, and drunk with the fantasy that we have done something “right” to facilitate their transformation, we overshare uninteresting self-congratulatory details of our client’s therapeutic successes – like way too many baby pictures –  patting ourselves loudly on the back because  as private practitioners it is unlikely that anyone else will. We forget to seek out what may be actually useful or universal in the story we are telling. We forget that those around us are contending with the exact same starvation we are and may not want to feed us. At all. 

Spending our days on the wrong side of our client’s projections – we cannot bear to be mis-perceived, or understood in inexact ways. Or invisible.

Heads nod. Tongues click. Brows are empathically furrowed as case material is laid out. Hands shoot up in the comments and questions portion of the presentation. Points are made. Exceptions are taken. Opinions are expressed. Expertise is demonstrated.

And disagreed with.

“In my experience…”

“But don’t you think….”

“I’ve found that when….”

“I worked with a similar population and one of the things I found to be very effective was…”

Yet somehow nothing at all is being said.

No one says:

“This work is lonely sometimes, do you find that too?”

“This client scared the shit out of me for a long time and I didn’t know what to do- I felt really lost – but then one day they started opening up, started trusting me, started feeling better and I was so relieved…”

“Sometimes I want to be an expert and I feel frustrated when my clients don’t respond to my years of professional experience and training – and then I remember that I am a broken fallible human being too – and it is so much more reliving when I quit thinking of myself as my ‘role’.”

“I don’t know what the fuck I am doing half the time – that is what intuitive work feels like – like wandering in the dark together until we stumble onto something that feels helpful – but it is hard to feel so lost so much of the time with clients who feel lost too.”

“I worry that my world view, or my methodologies are becoming outdated – in the face of new realities how much are my perspectives as a professional at mid-life or beyond really worth? I want to stay open to this world that is moving so fast, but I worry that I am falling behind…”

“I want to be seen as smart and perceptive. I want to say things that my peers and clients will value. I want my career to keep building – I’ve been feeling stuck lately, like I may have hit the top of my capacities”

“I want to appear to be healthier and more appreciative than the rest of the people in this room, so I want to personally thank you for a wonderful presentation that I’m sure spoke to every single person here.”

“What have you accomplished? Is it more than I have accomplished? Should I walk away from this brief interaction feeling superior or inadequate?”

No one says anything like this at all. But I can’t stop hearing it.

No one speaks from their own wound. It isn’t safe enough and we don’t know each other. We speak only from inside our suit of armor and the noise we emit echoes and clangs and deafens.

Our profession casts a dark and reaching shadow, one that can wreak havoc with other’s lives, often claims to accomplish more than it can and regularly appropriates the healing processes of others as our own property.

We are all so aggressively empathetic and such competitively good listeners.

But, I hope,  more of us are in touch with our own woundedness when we are safe in the confines of our own workspace, in brokered relationships with clients that feel safe with us, and with whom we have earned some degree of safety for ourselves.

However we talk, or fail to talk about the work in public, in enforced mandatory community – I hope we are able to tell ourselves more humbling and humiliating truths about our work and our professions in private, and in the safe supervisory and peer relationships that we have built as way stations for ourselves on this lonely path.

And as much as I hate it when my filter is down and I am surrounded by darkeness on at least three sides:  Later I will gather myself and hope that somewhere, it may mean that others are shining a very bright light in their own small corner of the universe.

Ronald, Donald, Carl and Fred

It’s you I like,

It’s not the things you wear,

It’s not the way you do your hair–

But it’s you I like.

The way you are right now,

The way down deep inside you–

Not the things that hide you,

Not your toys–

They’re just beside you.

 But it’s you I like–

Every part of you,

Your skin, your eyes, your feelings

Whether old or new.

I hope that you’ll remember

Even when you’re feeling blue

That it’s you I like, 

It’s you yourself, 

It’s you, it’s you I like.

 It’s You I Like

~ By Fred M. Rogers © 1970

I’ve been re-reading a lot of Ronald Fairbairn’s works  lately. An object relational psychoanalyst- writing through the 1950’s – a man who worked with abused children, “shell-shocked” war vets and introverts. He was number one on my theorist hit parade for many years, but dropped off of my radar after reading and re-re-reading him – I  must have decided that I’d digested his message completely (foolish of me)  – and incorporated him into my infrastructure.

I didn’t forget  his amazing contributions to psychoanalytic thought: His most seminal contribution is a construct known as ‘The Moral Defense” : the way children, especially abused or neglected children but also all children,  find their parent’s destructive aspects so intolerable – while they remain so  dependent and for years beyond  – that they take the burden of their parents’  badness onto themselves. Maintaining primal attachments at the greatest cost by talking to themselves in the parents’ bad  voice,  believing that if only they were “good” inside or at least better Mommy or Daddy would love them more, or at all.

I didn’t forget his ideas or even forget to give him credit for his perceptions. I forgot him. I forgot his writers voice, the way that he never stopped advocating for “unanalyzable” clients in the face of the traditional Freudian analysts who had historically rejected anyone who has sustained a real psychological injury, or blamed them for manufacturing their own ills. I forgot his loyalty to sexually abused children and adults, and his belief in them and in their stories of trauma. I forgot that he thought  mandating clients to lie down on the couch to be coercive, and potentially retraumatizing, and really just  a way to protect  analysts from the clients’ relational hunger and legitimate needs.  I forgot his unceasing willingness to stay near his clients – to let them look him in the eyes and to look back – as they talked about their most personal private thoughts and beliefs – about their bodies, about sex, about defecation, about God. I forgot how his belief that clients come to therapy to seek salvation –  forgiveness for their sins and freedom from the demons that haunted them – meant that he was committed to seeing them as loveable in the face of their darkest deeds and secrets, how it meant that he would try never to flinch in the face of their most traumatic memories, and how he would allow himself to be hated, to withstand the full force of his clients hate, so the hatred could be released and modulated.

I missed Fairbairn, as a voice, as a teacher, a role-model, a surrogate.

I realize that when I’ve described myself in the past as a theory-wonk, that is not exactly true: I am really just a theorist-wonk, a psychoanalytic groupie. A goofy geeked-out fan-girl, nothing more.

As a young child I was crazily devoted to Fred Rodgers. (If you don’t know who he is, or if you do you should really read this. Really. Do it. I re-read it all the time.)  I kept my secret devotion hidden well into upper elementary school and beyond. I had his song books and read his gentle lyrics over and over basking in their paternal kindness. By junior high I had transferred my crushing to Carl Sagan, to Walt Whitman. By high school, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, T. S. Eliot. By college: Ibsen, Checkov, Kant, Hegel, Keirkeggard, Buber, Freud.   Graduate school led me to Fairbain and Winnicott, and Kohut.

I realize that one of the reasons that I don’t read as much fiction as I should is that I don’t want to read about imaginary character’s relationships to each other – I want to be in imaginary relationship to the philosopher without a fictional middle-man separating us.

Fred Rodgers would sit down and break the fourth wall of my television screen to show me new things, to tell me about something he learned that day, or something he had thought about. To tell me that he liked me just for being me, to tell me what might come next, or not to be afraid of having “scary bad wishes” because wishes don’t make things come true. He spoke directly to me, giving me guidance that led me through the spiritual thickets of my childhood.

Post-graduate studies brought me many more such guides -Searles, Sullivan, Guggenbuhl-Craig, and most influentially, Jung.

There are women too, a good handful:  Mahler, Miller, VonFranz, Anna Freud,  Klein, Bebee, Ornstien, Stevens Sullivan, – but clearly these imaginal compensatory relationships skew toward my daddy-issues more than my mother-complex.

I read and re-read and revisit these men’s and women’s words over and over – grateful for their mentorship, for the kindness and generosity in their voices, for their willingness to speak their thoughts  out directly, unfiltered. To hear of their patience, and their warmth, their limitations, their forgiveness of themselves and others, their willingness to press or even fight against the prevailing models to be sure that the  client population they served would be considered, to hear them talk of “real relationships” and “life-long self-object needs” – to watch them debate respectfully and civilly even when they disagree vehemently or hold personal dislikes or even hatreds. To watch them battle against practices that they believed re-traumatized or damaged or omitted too many. They are all limited, bound by their histories, pathologies, narcissisms and their own era, but their commitment to psychoanalytic love, love with out using the word, still shines through their jargon and their own woundedness.

To hope to be as brave and clear, committed and creative in my own small way.

To try to give of myself as generously – and not only to my clients – but to offer my own voice – to break through that fourth wall  and talk through the screen to anyone who needs to feel forgivable and worthy of patience, and deserving of kindness.

To say, as all these guides have said in their own language, through their own filter and stance – as Fred Rodgers said to me through the TV screen (as I try to repeat each day in session after session)  over and over, each week, without fail:

“There is no one in the world just like you. And I like you just the way you are.”

Death Ed.

A good friend is visiting, a friend who has a potentially terminal cancer – which is also a potentially survivable cancer. This is a friend who has helped raise my kids, and helped care for my ailing mother. And she needed to talk about death, frankly, explicitly, and very few people in her life are able to talk about it with her without becoming distressed and uncomfortable.
So, if you read this blog – you know I have written a fair amount about death and bereavement. My mother died of cancer a few months ago after a long period of dependency and disability, and before that my grandmother-in-law died (she was very old, almost 102 and we had taken care of her for a long long time) A few years earlier, on the same weekend while I was at Disney World my father  (a fall/ head injury secondary to narcotics dependency) and one of my two oldest and best friends (AIDS), both died.  My father-in-law passed away (after a seven year cancer process) – about thirteen years ago: I know this because it was in the middle of the adoption of our first child, and we paused the adoption process for our mourning and bereavement. And a few years before that – just after I became a social worker – I lost my my “best” friend from high school & college (AIDS).

Other than that: My mother-in-law died (cancer) a few months before I met my  husband and his family in fresh bereavement.  I’ve lost all my grandparents and their peers by now of course – And I lost many  mentors and teachers and my step-father as a result of the AIDS crisis.  

And I’ve had many clients die, and clients who come to my office to talk about deaths that have transformed their lives – deaths that annihilated their former ways of being and forced them, unwillingly and forevermore  into a new world. And clients who talk or fantasize about their own deaths, their fear of death, or their terminal – or potentially terminal diagnosis. And those who cannot talk about it. I’ve also sat with people – in and out of my office – as they have talked about terminating their own lives– sometimes as part of a conversation about terminal illness and “death with dignity” and sometimes because they were in the throws of a pernicious, torturous depression and contemplating suicide.

And I’ve had too too many clients in the throws of perfectly healthy bereavement processes come to my office simply because no one around them had any willingness or ability to sit and talk and listen about death.

This isn’t just my job, to be able to talk about death. It is everyone’s work. If not yet, soon. If not soon, eventually. We will need to find the words and the capacity to listen and to face our fears for those we love. And for our own sakes.

But believe me most won’t do it until they are forced to. And they will do anything they can to get away from it, using every tactic in the book: denial, avoidance, minimization, magical thinking, victim-blaming, death-denying “power of postive thinking” and sometimes even aggression and just plain rudeness when all else fails.

I’ve  watched this phenomenon throughout my mother’s dying – people in stunned silence when I would name what process we were all immersed in. I see it in the face of some (not all) of my new neighbors when they ask how my recent move went – and I tell them bluntly and directly it was actually crazy traumatizing because my mother began dying in the middle of it all.

I watched people I was generally friendly with – who knew what was happening to us, kind people, “normal” people, refuse to name or acknowledge or ask about or incorporate the reality they knew was upon us.

I felt the extraordinary relief when my mother’s hospice workers arrived who knew how to talk this talk. Explicitly. Without beating around bushes.

It is not a hard language to learn, it really isn’t. You just have to be brave and take a deep breath. To refuse to let fear drive you to abandon those you care about.

You just have to say: “I’m glad treatment is going well and I’m sending you all positive thoughts – but if you ever feel frightened I can always listen”

“I’m with you, and right behind you no matter what lies ahead – either way I’m sticking right by you”

“You never need to worry about burdening me – I don’t need to be protected”

“Lets get together and shoot the shit!  And if you ever need to talk about the harder parts of all this – my ear is always open”

I don’t love the boilerplate: “Oh, I’m so sorry” – although of course I have used it myself – because I have experienced deaths that I was not sorry about at all. Not one bit. And even when I am sad, the statement makes me feel like an object of pity. Pity offered instead of actual support.

Bereavement and dying processes can be a relief, a liberation, temper tantrum, a trauma, a terror as well as – or instead of – a sorrow. There is no one size fits all response to death. Your experience with death is not mine, and mine is not anyone else’s.

And if you ask “So how are you doing?” with furrowed brows, be prepared to actually listen without requiring that those who are contending with death, in one form or another, confine themselves to your preconceived notions about how they are supposed to feel.

I have a wish that more people could be brave for each other when death emerges on the scene. It is not a conversation that anyone wants to have – but if we fail to have it, we abandon those in our community who are (or might be) dying, in their hour of greatest need. It is so much worse to have to hide it, to press it out of polite conversation, to have it silenced and shushed. To be isolated in it for the lack of anyone willing or able to talk frankly and openly.

We have to learn, and re-learn, as a culture, how to be braver in the face of death. To stare down the primal existentialist dilemma for the sake of each other.

Death isn’t a failure. It isn’t shameful. And it isn’t impolite. It can be frightening but it is a moral imperative to be courageous for those we love and care for
It isn’t “negative” to discuss death. It is healthy and self-regarding – especially when it is on the table as a potentially imminent event. We need to develop, as a culture and as individuals, a basic literacy about death, to learn death-talk, so that we don’t have to leave people alone in the hard process of preparing to say good bye.

The best sexual education curriculums teach people how to communicate about sex and sexuality. It is vulnerable, frightening, uncomfortable, exposing to talk about sex, yet – we generally understand that it is healthy and necessary to do so. We have no common curriculum to teach lay people about how to talk about death and dying.

We all need to practice forming the words in our mouths, and listening to threatening content. If you are reading this I encourage you to challenge yourself, challenge others. Initiate frank conversations with your parents, your partners, your children, your friends. Learn how to say the words, learn how to name the fears, learn how to move past the terrors – the fear won’t go away, but it needn’t control us. Practice telling others about losses you have survived or are negotiating. Ask others to practice listening. Let other people talk about their losses, their health or lack of it, their fears.  Practice being braver so that those immersed in death and dying processes don’t have to protect you on top of all the other hard hard work on their plate.

It will probably always be necessary to have “experts” – hospice workers, thanatologists, chaplains, clergy, psychotherapists who will speak and listen into these conversations, but this work should not be reserved for experts. To live in authentic community with each other, we  all need to speak this language.

It is one of the most pervasive  manifestations of ableism – the way we refuse to face our discomfort and anxieties and subsequently abandon those who are facing down death and dying. It didn’t use to be this way. This didn’t used to be a professional specialization.

It is one of the shadow-aspects of psychotherapy as a profession: that as these conversations are relegated to the therapist’s office, everyone else gets to abdicate their responsibility to withstand these conversations for themselves.  We allow our  listening skills and capacity to lay undeveloped and atrophied. We’ve professionalized this conversation so that the rest of us don’t have to face down these anxieties for another’s sake:

“Let me give you my therapist’s card: You really should talk to someone about that.”

Why should people in healthy bereavements need to see psychotherapists at all? Only because no one else thinks it is their job to withstand those fears and listen.

I wish we were more willing to be disturbed for one another’s sake.

I used to be fascinated by mediums and their hokey TV shows, because – cold reading or not, con or no, they could talk openly and frankly about death – which I suspect was as relieving to their clientele as any “message from the beyond” that came forth.

And skeptics mock those who turn to psychics to seek comfort – but really how many spaces exist for  those who are being transformed by death and dying ? Mediums, clergy, some psychotherapists, bereavement counselors – Almost everyone else wants to avoid the subject.
And too often the dying can’t even talk to their doctors about it, because doctors are afraid as well.

Such a cruel double bind.

When we don’t let fear control our response – we are rewarded with each other’s intimate company, with presence, with connection and with surprising joys and closeness.

Let’s practice. Let’s get to it. It is the one great universal – it is the single  experience that we must all contend with and it  has the power to connect us as nothing else can.

Let’s us all take it on as the normal work of life.

The Road of the Dead


Myth has portrayed the rainbow as the highway over which the psyche’s supernal emissaries bring their messages to consciousness. ~ The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images, The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism

The soul-spark, the little wisp of divine light that never burns more brightly than when it has to struggle against the invading darkness. What would the rainbow be were it not limned against the lowering cloud?

~ C. G. Jung, the Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, On the Nature of the Psyche, 8. General Considerations and Prospects paragraph 430

A dream, not mine (mine will come later). This is Jung’s dream:

Only the gods can walk rainbow bridges in safety; mere mortals fall and meet their death for the rainbow is only a lovely semblance that spans the sky, and not a highway for human beings with bodies.     ~ C. G. Jung Psychology and Alchemy pp. 58, Chapter 2, paragraph 69.


I don’t know how to tell this story, or if this story can even be told.

Maybe this is a story of the things that we cling to through dark times, or maybe it is a story of new worlds that emerge from disasters, or it could be a story of omens and portents – or just as legitimately one of superstition and magical thinking. Or maybe it is yet another story about how the psyche and our dreaming life can offer care and consolation. Or maybe it is simply a story written to thank someone for a deeply cherished gift, when I have no other way to demonstrate my gratitude.

Whatever kind of story it is, it starts a long long time ago and I have to reach all the way back to tell it.

Winter, 1988: New York City

I don’t remember much about that visit except that we hadn’t gotten along very well. We were clearly on each other’s nerves the way that only friends in their mid-twenties who have known each other since they were fourteen can. And we didn’t hide it either. I was hanging around with a bunch of Yalies – smoking filter-less cigarettes -and discussing the history of German expressionist film and theater over neat scotch. I could see how disappointed he was in what I had become.

Tommy arrived  fashionable and fabulous and ready to go dancing. He wanted to see musicals that I, with my new found pseudo-sophistication, now considered mainstream and pedestrian. He refused to see the subtitled foreign films or performance art pieces that were on my must-see list. (Why didn’t I just get us tickets to see Ludlam in The Ridiculous Theater? That would have been so delicious for us both.) He wanted me to look preppy and middle class instead of depressive and thrift-store revolutionary. He wanted to dress me up so we could go HAVE FUN and meet cute guys.

It was the first time that we had been in the same place without being able to come together. We were 24 years old, totally cocky and completely insufferable. And our life paths were diverging in a way we could never have imagined in high school.

It wasn’t as though we never fought. Rooming together in Los Angeles  had not been conflict free. I was a slob – an Oscar to his Felix -and we’d had our share of squabbles about joint finances, household chores and plenty of expressed and unexpressed disapproval of each others’ boyfriends.

Winter, 1984: Los Angeles

We lived in “off campus” housing together. We threw great parties. Tommy would dress me up – find something for me to wear – usually mixing and matching out of my deplorable wardrobe and his. And we would go dancing. He’d sneak me in into the boys town clubs in West Hollywood since I didn’t have a fake id, and he did.

And we would dance – we had been dancing together since we were fourteen – partnered in high school musicals and summer stock. We would go home too late, buzzed and flushed, sweaty and swing by a little bakery in Glendale, grab a carton of cold milk and a bag of warm apple fritters fresh from the oven at 2:00am – and sit in the living room watching old movies licking the sugar off of our fingers until we fell asleep on our thrift store couches.

This is what adults did, we thought.

Later that year Tommy came down with a mysterious fever – Now it would be diagnosed right away – the fever, fatigue and swollen lymph nodes that signal the “primary HIV infection syndrome.” In 1984 we thought it was some weird flu. Or sun poisoning from at day at the beach. I called campus health services – who told us to administer aspirin and Tylenol every hour. I wrapped him in a damp cool sheet – put him in my bed – and sat up all night checking on him.

We planned that if he ever got what was at the time a mysterious “gay disease” that we would empty all the cash out of our savings accounts and we would travel around the world with whatever time he had left.

Summer 1982: Small Town Southern California

We forged our friendship over musical theater: we were “triple threat” actors/singers/dancers and usually paired together like matching salt and pepper shakers. We danced and sang crawling all over each other -completely safe with each other’s bodies with no sexual threat to separate us. I remember sweltering summers – dancing on hard cement getting shin splints while choreographers hollered: – “Again! No! Stop! What are you doing my dear! ?! Again from the beginning!” Tommy would grab me and throw me – spin me and catch me – high up in the air on a tottery platform three feet wide and twelve feet high in the sky and I was never frightened.

He would never drop me. He would never let me fall. It never even entered my mind. I could trust him like my own breath.

Fall 1994: New York City

I had been aware for several years that Tommy’s lifestyle involved more substances than were healthful, especially with his HIV status- that he partied too much and stayed up too late and in general was not caring for his precarious health. He’d reassure me: “I look great!” He’d met (another) really really cute guy, he was making a lot of money, he got a new print modeling contact – he had a cute new studio apartment… I always hung up more worried than comforted by his cheer.

Today on the phone his voice was totally different. He was vulnerable – unraveling   – He told me that he missed me – he said he had no other friend like me (he’d never said anything so overtly affectionate or emotional about our friendship and that frightened me even more.)

He asked after my mother – and told me that he wanted me to thank her for him- he’d often thought of her kindness and affection for him – He began crying after a while – panicking. He told me he felt contaminated – “There is something inside my body that is trying to kill me!”

I pleaded with him to get to sufficient medical care – people were surviving now with these new meds, protease inhibitors, why wasn’t he taking them?! – My urgency or directive advice shut him down. His tears cut off, he said he was just being silly and dramatic and he hurried to get off of the phone.

I wish I had listened quietly and better, and maybe told him that I was scared too – that I didn’t want to accept death as a possibility either – I needed him to be in this world with me even if we had grown apart   – just to know that he was there – That the thought that he had a fatal illness was almost as intolerable to me as it was to him.

I had no way of knowing that this would be my last and only chance to ever share these feelings with him. I couldn’t know that he would never call me or let me know his whereabouts ever again. I didn’t know that this was my only chance to say goodbye.

Spring, 1996 : New York City

When I received the call informing me that Tommy had died- I couldn’t breathe. Those in our closest circles had not heard from him in too long. The silence told me it was coming – and he had died a only a two weeks before we began to fan out to find news of him. Yet it was still so horrible, inconceivable – I knew many people who have died of this disease – patients, friends, colleagues – and many more who were now surviving. But I always hoped – somehow believed – that Tommy would be exempt – that I simply needed him too much for anything like this to really happen.

For many weeks I carried around an unspoken nonsensical fantasy that Tommy had actually met some handsome older man, fit and wealthy and graying at the temples – who was keeping Tommy in the lifestyle that he aspired to. And that Tommy was just too aware of how judgmental I would be about it to call me. I could almost convince myself that this “death-thing” was a ruse to cover his tracks so the truth wouldn’t be found out.

I comforted myself with the picture of the first moment I met Tommy:

Fall, 1979: Small Town Southern California

We are sophomores in high school – neither of us native Californians. It is an audition/talent show to determine placement in drama classes the first week of school. We are the only people in the room who are not tan. The other boys his age are bigger, hairier and more developed – and he is still a boy – skinny, pale – with freckled skin and graceful fingers. He is wearing a red-checkered shirt like an Italian tablecloth – and a straw cowboy hat. He looks ridiculous. He gets up on stage and I can’t remember what he does – A silly country song? A comic monologue? But I laugh – really hard. Because he is really funny- and I tell him so when he gets off stage near me.

I’m heading up to the stage next to embarrass myself too. I am sick to my stomach stage fright. I start talking loudly into a pretend telephone and I look out in the audience for the boy in the checkered shirt- who’s name I do not know – and he is laughing. Really hard.

The terror dissolves and I am safe.

Sept 13th, 2001 New York City

Three days earlier I had watched, along with millions of other New Yorkers, 3,000 people burn to ashes in front of my eyes. I ran straightaway to a hospital where my husband worked, and volunteered there for the day at the hospital gates – as thousands and thousands of people queued up – to ask about missing friends and family members. I cross checked the names of the missing with a single sheet which listed maybe seventeen names attached to a clip board, a shockingly short list of ER admissions considering the scope what we had all just witnessed. It was unfathomable to consider, that soon after the collapse, that so many thousands had disappeared into smoke and dust. The world had flipped upside down since breakfast. It was only just past noon. I told every single searcher that their loved one was had not been admitted. And the crowd continued on in shock, in single file, winding their way further uptown, toward the next hospital.

Pliny said that the rainbow foretold a heavy winter or a war. ~ Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend

When cell phone signals were rerouted away from the great shattered antennae, and the phones began working again, I called my psychotherapy clients, those who worked or lived downtown first: A teenager whose elderly frail father worked in the courthouse, a child whose non-custodial father owned a business on the subway level of the trade center, a woman who had just started a new job in the financial district. Along with every other New Yorker who lived downtown, I tried to ignore the relentless un-ignorable smell, a stench that would persist for months – the smell of burning jet fuel and melting iron, the smell of flesh and death and shattered glass that hung in the sky, a bright orange haze at sunset, covering everything with a layer of glass twinkling dust and ash.

Tibetean Buddhism speaks of the rainbow body – in which the body dissolves in rainbow colored light – leaving only hair and nails behind.” ~ The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images, The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism

So now, three nights after the attack, after seeing what clients I could in this upside down world – I put on the stereo and stretched out on the living room floor as the sun set and I began to dream:

I am matronly, white haired, in my 50’s living in a large old house, with a porch and a garden out front. I am still married to David, still a psychotherapist. I am a mother of a teenage boy, although I only see his dark head passing by in the periphery.

I am myself – but more so. There is an ease about me that is elusive to me at the age of 37. I am plumper, softer. The sharp and brittle aspects of my personality have been worn down and burned away. I am mellowed, wiser maybe than I have known myself to be.

I answer the doorbell and I see Tommy is visiting, who has been dead for the past five years. The realizations about mellowing and settling in to myself are recognizable to me only when Tommy comes in. I feel these things as he sees them in me.

I am initially nervous about how he will view my corny, Quakerly life. But he is not bored, or disappointed or contemptuous I can’t stop hugging him – even though I know he still not the “huggy” type – it has been so long since I have seen him. And although I know he is dead, this visit feels vivid, crystalline, more real than waking life. I grab his arm. I sit next to him on the couch. I am aware that this can only be a brief visit. He can only stay for an afternoon.

 He is still goofy and hilarious. Mugging and wearing a foolish hat for effect. He’s still fussy about clothes and accessories, still cruising for cute guys, still full of hedonistic hankerings. But in the dream his appetites and love of pleasure are not self-destructive but relieving, refreshing life-affirming.

In dream-time I am now many years older than he is, more settled down and my capacity for abandoning myself to play has grown rusty. But being near him makes me laugh harder than I have in a long time, tears streaming down my face, gasping for the next breath. I relish my food and drink more, feel more beautiful, more alive.

He seems happier, more grounded and giving, more empathic and more whole since his death. He is more sensitive to his own sadness, and the sadness of others.

He tells me he has made us an appointment for a manicure. I resist and tell him I have never had a manicure in my life and moreover I have never wanted a manicure. He drags me off to the salon anyway: “A manicure WILL make you feel better.” I’m overwhelmed with love and gratitude for the effort he has made throughout this visit.

I sense his loneliness. And I know, although he doesn’t say it, that he didn’t come only for me – but because the bridge between the living and the dead has opened wide as thousands of souls walk across it – and he came over to comfort himself a little too.

I relish his visit I feel loved as we can only in the presence of our oldest friends – relieved – and then he is gone….

A big dream. An unforgettable dream. A dream that feels more real that waking life. A dream that persists and is carried in my heart for years and years, that I return to, that I share with others who also grieved his loss. A dream I recount to my mother, who also loved this young man and had supported him through his tumultuous coming-out processes and had celebrated him and watched him grow.

A dream, that in my more superstitious moments, made me wonder what linked this projected future to the days following September 11th? Was it a warning? What would happen when I was 50? Would the road of the dead open wide again when I reached the life-stage shown to me in the dream? A disaster? My own death?

Or was the function of the dream to comfort me? To show me myself as I hoped to be one day, in a life I had not yet begun to imagine for myself: – A mother, living more gently, with a garden, in an old house away from the city?

A dream that I would return to over and over and wonder about as my future unfolds – as I grow white-haired, and plumper. As I become an adoptive parent to a dark haired boy.

A dream that comforts and guides me for decades about who I have the potential to become – as life chips away at my brittle bits, and breaks the sharp edges off of my capacity for self-righteousness and petty bitchiness. A dream that teaches me something ineffable about death and mourning and the connections we can sustain with a lost-life that we have cherished. A glimpse of the treasure that might await me at the other end of the rainbow.

Years pass.

A daughter joins the family.

My practice grows.

My marriage deepens.

Friendships emerge and recede, new ones blossom.

Family members and friends die and are mourned.

My mother joins us in the city, increasingly disabled and fragile.

I watch my dark headed children out-grow our city lives.

“Like two trout in a goldfish bowl.” my husband says.

We find a home outside of the city – an old house with a porch for my husband and a garden for me, a climbing tree for my daughter, a work-shop for my son, an accessible and private space to convert into an apartment for Grandma.

And the greatest luxury for a die-hard New Yorker: bathrooms for all.

We prepare to leave the city we have called home for thirty years

April 4, 2015

Tommy visits while I sleep again, and although I dream of him often, this dream has the weight and stunning clarity of his earlier visit:

I am looking through a lens or viewfinder. Zooming through a fancy lobby – of a hotel or an office building. There are large signs pointing to what is ahead and I ignore them. I am certain I know where I am headed. The viewer travels toward annex off to the east – it opens into a small – tiny amphitheater- behind the stage is a river, and deep valleys. 

 When I reach the stage Tommy is performing. He is singing a lovely, well-rehearsed number – at first I think it is “Over the Rainbow” but I realize that it is a different but similar song “Look to the Rainbow.”

 “On the day I was born, said my father said he,

I’ve an elegant legacy waiting for ye

‘Tis a rhyme for your lips, and a song for your heart

To sing it whenever the world falls apart…

 Look, look, look to the rainbow,

Follow it over the hill and stream.

Look, Look, look to the rainbow.

Follow the fellow who follows a dream.

So I bundled my heart, and I roamed the world free,

To the East with the lark, to the West with the sea.

And I searched all the earth, and I scanned all the skies

And I found it at last in my own true love’s eyes.

 Follow the fellow, follow the fellow

Follow the fellow who follows a dream.”

 He was a good singer in life, I think to myself, but better since death, his voice fuller. And something about the song, which I’ve always though of as trite is suddenly moving and lovely, haunting.

 I tell the woman sitting next to me that I have seen this before. It is one of my favorites. I tell her that this performance runs perpetually. 

 Tommy finishes the song and says “This is a important song to listen to and contemplate when you can’t find any comfort around you and you need to pull inward.” 

 Tommy’s performance is over but he is still nearby –and I recall the specific sensation of waiting and milling around backstage for someone after the show to emerge from the dressing room. The woman next to me tells me categorically that Tommy is dead. I become enraged at her: “Of course he is dead, but he is not ‘dead’ at all in the way you think. I can “tune into” him anytime I like. I can TALK to him ANYTIME I LIKE and I DO, and I tell her that it is not in anyway her place to tell me anything at all about my ongoing relationship with my oldest friend whether he is dead or not.

I carried the dream and the song around inside of me for several weeks – like a smooth cool stone in my pocket, a worry bead, turning it over and over – even though I couldn’t know what was coming, or how much comfort I would need in the weeks and months ahead.

“A rainbow is to be used as a bridge. But one must go under it, and not over it. Whoever goes over it will fall and be killed.” ~ C. G. Jung Psychology and Alchemy pp. 58, Chapter 2, paragraph 69.

A house for sale.

Packing up our home, my children’s lives, my mother’s home.

A move to transitional, temporary quarters.

For the Arawak of South America: When (a rainbow) appears on land it is an evil spirit searching for a victim. ~ Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend

 My mother’s rapidly and violently collapsing health

The horror of a terminal diagnosis.

Coordinating care, battling doctors,

Refusing nonsensical and contraindicated procedures,

Preparing for end of school and end of life.

Seeing clients,

Cancelling appointments,

Managing hospice care and final family visits,



Morphine, vomit and shit,

Sleeplessness, fear, exhaustion,

Relentless panic at the intensity and volume of the tasks ahead of me,

Resistance and rage,

Primitive denial and collusion,

Anticipatory grief,

Securing medical and end of life support in a new state, a new community

Frustration and tantrums,

Hypervigilance and unfathomable overwhelm.

Doctors incapable of naming the truth, death, that is staring us in the face.

Insufficient insurance and financial anxiety,

Obstacles to basic care.

And the grief of children: as they leave the only home, friendships, and community they have ever known, as they complete their diorama’s and year end projects on Viking ships and the Norse Gods, their grandmother will die away a little each day as we are all sucked up in a spinning cyclone.

They will lose almost everything at once.
Except us. Except each other.

Among the Semang of Malays the places where a rainbow touches earth are unhealthy. ~ Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend

And their Imo, a cherished chosen auntie/sister, a woman who selflessly and lovingly helped to care for my mother during an earlier phase of illness and disability would discover that she too was contending with her own difficult to diagnose, hard to treat cancer.

And while this all unfolds we must close on an old house and a new one, put our belonging in storage, tour new schools, interview babysitters, pay the bills, and act like psychotherapists.

Our household will be strained beyond anything we have ever known.

The bridge collapses under the destructive weight of the giants – and the gods are unable to preserve it ~ John Lindow, Norse Mythology; a Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs

I will encounter my own limitations and my insufficiency on every front: as I face down the impossibility of caring for my children, my parent, my friends and my clients. I will spend most of my time trying not to feel wholly failed as a mother, a daughter, a friend, a psychotherapist as I stumble and stagger from one challenge, trauma, crisis, grief to another. I must contend with my utter finiteness through this whirlwind of crisis– attempting to address all these needs, and leave profound needs, all around me, unfulfilled or overlooked.

Including my own.

And I will try, usually  unsuccessfully, not to tear myself apart about the things I cannot do.

Underneath the rainbow I’ll peel away my skin

And when I’m done with peeling I’ll let you back in,

Somewhere under the Rainbow.

Underneath the black clouds

There’s sunshine on my floor

And with my nails I’m peeling it

To use it for my skin

~ Somewhere under the Rainbow lyrics – Stephen Jones

When you pass underneath the rainbow everything you have ever come to know about yourself and the world around you will be challenged.

“In Europe it is believed anyone passing under a rainbow will be transformed, man into woman, woman into man.” ~ Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend

I am consumed. I cry and rail and fret at the relentlessness of if all. I don’t know how to do this much, for so many people, for so long, on top of all of my own core-maternal-conflicts – my mother, my motherhood, my children, my childhood.

As a psychotherapist: I am cancelling appointments as medical realities and legal, contractual demands shift on a dime, with little notice. I am logistically less reliable than I have ever been before. I am noticeably exhausted. My bandwidth is narrow. My energies for penetrating interpretations are limited.

But: the hours that I spend in my office are the sweetest and most relieving – I have no decisions to make. I must do nothing but sit and be present for the people who have come to me. I am stripped of anything superfluous. AlI have to give is my time and my presence. I can do that. That is all I can do. I can care, and listen, and breathe and nod, and remember. That is it. I can go on being, with and for my therapeutic partners. And nothing else. Nothing extra.

There is nothing else.

Some clients feel abandoned. Some are enraged. Some feel fearful or annoyed. Some worry about me. Some ask. Some don’t. Some are patient, cutting me a break, and others can cut me no slack at all without harming themselves. Some I tell. Some I protect. Some I don’t trust, and with others we are intimate enough that I don’t trust myself to name what is occurring to me in a detached, processed way. Most offer me an escape into a world of stories that are not my own, that relieve me and give me solace from the mountain of impossibilities and unknowables that flood my own life.

I am hanging on to each moment with white knuckles. Every minute of every day I must negotiate the simultaneous pressures to fall to pieces and to function at the peak of my capacities.

I may have ignored the early signs but in just a few weeks the meaning of the dream had become crystal clear: I would have to sing myself some internal consolation while the world fell apart.

I download Dinah Washington singing Look to the Rainbow and listen to it, or sing it to myself in an endless loop – as I move and work, and change soiled linens and pack and un-pack boxes, and coordinate care and contact care managers and evaluate our finances and try to figure out what to do if she collapses into total medical dependency sooner than we think, or lives longer than we are prepared for needing more care than we can provide or afford.

I am simultaneously my best and my worst at all times. But I know that what offers me the greatest comfort is to be in authentic relationship. It is the deepest comfort I know- whatever I can or cannot do for my mother, my children, my clients I can at least keep my heart wide open – and thankfully, it is also what is most required of me.

The second I step out of the office and back into life, or am pulled out by an emergency: I am humming, or singing to myself, or listening to Dinah:

So I bundled my heart, and I roamed the world free,

To the East with the lark, to the West with the sea…”


 Rainbows are bridges between this world and the next.

In Norse mythology, the rainbow is Bilröst, or AEsir-bridge: separating and connecting the “world of humans and the world of the gods or between earth and heaven” ~ John Lindo. Norse Mythology: a Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs

 In the Prosaic Edda the rainbow bridge makes the “best of” list – it is the very “best of bridges”:

Asked about the path to heaven from earth, H’ar tells Gylfi/Gangleri that it is made Bilröst, that the gods made it, and that it may be called the rainbow… it is very strong, and made with great skill and knowledge but it will break wheh the sons of Muspell (Giants) ride over it. Nothing can survive the harrying of the sons of Muspell, and describing the end of times, Ragnarök, Bilröst will break.~ John Lindo. Norse Mythology: a Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs

 I am reminded of these mythic tales by my kids – as we work together in in our temporary, transitional housing – as one lifetime collapses out from under us and we fling ourselves blindly toward a new world – as I help construct Viking ships of balsa wood and proof-read school reports on Rangarök, the end of times.

The rainbow is a potent, burning transitional place – a shimmering fiery Third created at the intersection of two distinct realities, two disparate worlds.

A synthetic Hegelian Third perhaps, or if you prefer, a vibrant manifestation of Winnicottian transitional phenomena.

For Winnicott transitional phenomena are first seen in early infancy, in our first attempts to self-soothe – by sucking our thumbs, by ruthlessly loving a blankie or teddy bear. Or by singing ourselves songs:

An infant’s babbling and the way in which an older child goes over a repertory of songs and tunes while preparing for sleep come within the intermediate area as transitional phenomena.  ~ D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, pp 2 Chapter 1 Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena

Winnicott is not particularly interested in the object itself -but in the ways that we instinctively use such transitional objects – as a bridge – to transcend the empty space between the absent omnipotent Comforter and our small, finite distressed selves.

Transitional phenomena lead us to a third space: “an intermediate area of experiencing, to which inner reality and external life both contribute. It is an area that is not challenged, because no claim is made on its behalf except that is shall exists as a resting-place for the individual engaged in the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated. – D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, pp 2



~ D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality , Chapter 1 Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,  Figure 2

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad articulates a similar construct:

There are two states for man – the state in this world, and the state in the next; there is also a third state, the state intermediate between those two which can be likened to a dream. While in the intermediate state a man experiences both the other states, that in this world, and that in the next.

In some form or another most of us rely upon transitional phenomena throughout our lives. Dreams and creative processes are in themselves a transitional phenomena, as is psychotherapy. They simultaneously rise up from within us, but they feel as though they exist outside of us as well. Transitional phenomena  bridge the gulf between worlds – between our unconscious selves and consciousness, between brain and mind, between this world and the next, between past and present.

Dreams, and songs and rainbows (and teddy bears and blankies and all other transitional phenomena) are objects of a certain kind – objects which seem to our perceptions to almost have autonomy from our will, some inherent agency.

“It must seem… to give warmth, or to move, or to have texture or to do something that seems to show it has a vitality of its own”   ~ D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality , Chapter 1 Transitional Objects and  TransitionalPhenomena, pp, 5

Was the song I was given as a transitional object a gift from my own psyche? Or a message from a friend long dead? Was I merely processing some subtle intuitive awareness of my mother’s impending deterioration and death by focusing instead on the death of a childhood friend?

Was the dream that produced the song an external or an internal event? A subjective experience or objective reality?

This is exactly the paradoxical nature of transitional phenomena. The rainbow is a bridge that is simultaneously substantial and insubstantial. Transitional phenomena are Both/And, not Either/Or.

So, I don’t concern myself with whether or not Tommy came to visit, with whether or not my psyche dredged up the lyrics of an old Broadway musical I had once danced in when I was young,

I only know that it offered powerful consolation during a protracted period of labor and distress.

“Should an adult make claims on us for our acceptance of the objectivity of his subjective phenomena we discern or diagnose madness. If, however, the adult can manage to enjoy the personal intermediate area without making claims, then we can acknowledge our own corresponding intermediate areas, and are pleased to find a degree of overlapping, that is to say common experience between members of a group in art, or religion or philosophy. ~ D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality pp 14

 I make no such claims, and find such claims – in either direction – to interpret such experiences as merely subjective or merely objective to miss the point entirely, sucking away the mystery and consolation of transitional phenomena.

Jung resisted making such claims as well and interpreted his own dream of the destruction of mortals upon the rainbow bridge as reminder to remain humble and grounded in the face of seemingly “spiritual” experiences:

We should not rise above the earth with the aid of “spiritual” intuitions and run away from hard reality, as so often happens with people who have brilliant intuitions. We can never reach the level of our intuitions and should therefore not identify ourselves with them. Only the gods can pass over the rainbow bridge: mortal men must stick to the earth and are subject to its laws. ~ C. G. Jung Psychology and Alchemy pp. 114, Chapter 3, paragraph 148.

This June, at age 51, a white haired, softer, plumper, me, a mother to two dark-headed tweens, moved into a large old house with a porch and a garden out front.

A few weeks later my mother peacefully, with great consciousness, acceptance and clarity crossed over the bridge that the rest of us had passed under.

Now may it not be that, under certain conditions, something quite new, different from anything that one knows, may come over the mental horizon, something as dazzling and splendid as a rainbow…?  ~ C. G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation, Appendix The Miller Fantasies

And the very next day, the Supreme Court of the United States declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and the world, as I knew it, exploded in celebration of legitimized enfranchised love – a day that Tommy, who had contracted HIV at the peak of the AIDS crisis under a president who ignored tens of thousands of deaths for six years before mentioning the word AIDS in public – could certainly never have imagined. A day where he would have been present in my heart and in my thoughts even if he had never sung to me in my sleep.

…Follow the fellow, follow the fellow.
Follow the fellow who follows a dream…

A day of uncanny consolation as I walked through a world that was suddenly (and would remain so for weeks) completely enveloped in rainbows.

And I am for ever changed by the labors of those who have  traversed the road of the dead in both directions and grateful to my oldest, dearest friend for sending over a gift of such unsurpassing love and comfort.

~ Look to The Rainbow, from Finnian’s Rainbow, Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg




























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