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.”

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



























Deep Haven

 “There is perhaps one attitude toward that environment which can be said to be characteristic of the emotionally mature human being… however widely and richly his feelings in this regard may fluctuate, over however wide a range, in the varying circumstances of his everyday life. One can think of this basic attitude as a firm island upon which man grounds himself while directing his gaze into the encircling sea of meanings, more or less difficult of discernment, and some no doubt inscrutable, which reside in this area of human existence.

This basic emotional orientation can be expressed in one word: relatedness.”

~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960


I am simultaneously being pressed by internal forces and consciously resisting writing this. Perhaps that is always the case – but this one feels both like it needs to be written, and that maybe this is not the place.

Is it really about psychotherapy as a practice? Or is it just about me? And to what degree is that the same thing anyway? I seem to understand my client’s experience most when I reach down through some deep point of heavily processed identification, broken down to its nearly universal archetypal core.

So this is personal. And perhaps as it helps me to listen more deeply, reach for unprocessed content, and feel my way into the stories and memories my clients share with me more specifically and thoroughly –  it is also professional.

I was raised, as we all are, in a particular place, in a specific environment, with objects, landmarks, buildings, animals, trees, roads, yards, sidewalks, walls, bus stops, schoolyards, playgrounds, woods, bugs, beaches, and homes – my own and others.

And I see, in my own children, the intense and self-regulating meaning that rivers and bridges, neighborhoods and subways stops – and our little house-like apartment hold for them.

We live in a peopled and people-focused world, and traditional psychoanalytic models focus primarily on our relationships to other human beings – but sometimes we need to value and talk about our relationships with creatures, non-human living things, inanimate objects, places and whole environments.

Winnicott speaks of the almost magical properties that transitional objects – lovies, blankets, pacifiers and teddy-bears have- to soothe and self-regulate – as well as to absorb our aggression in the form of chewing, yanking, pulling, biting, dragging, wearing down and using up. Yet, for Winncott these are symbols, developmentally useful displacements for content that would be otherwise directed toward our caretakers.

They are not relationships in and of themselves. Object-relational theory refers to human objects, and any non-human object is most-likely merely representative of a human one.

You can’t have relationships with a non-human thing – can you?

Jungian clinicians might reach beyond the personal, childhood human caretakers, and explore our relationships to the non-human aspects of our environment – approaching the relationship as a symbolic, numinous manifestation of archetypal content.

I once knew of a client in a psychiatric day treatment program whose psychiatrist wanted to increase his medication because the client held on to a persistent belief that all pens, rings, and water had magical, sacred properties. When this was discussed in team-meeting, I suggested: “Well, then I suppose you will have to medicate me as well, along with every poet and writer, anyone who has ever worn or removed a wedding ring, and all the people who have been baptized or been immersed in a mikvah.”

The universal archetypes that live embedded in the psyches of the human species that organize our instincts around forged metal, perfect circles, writing implements, and purity are present, to some degree, in every ring, pen, and pool of water.

But Searles suggests there is another layer as well, a simpler one:

“…man relates to his nonhuman environment on a dual level. That is, however important is the level of his relating to, for instance, a cat or a tree in terms of their constituting, in his perception of them, carriers of meanings which have to do basically with people (by way of displacement and projection of his own unconscious feelings on to the cat, or the tree, transference of interpersonal attitudes on his part on to them, perceiving them through various cultural distortions and so on), there is also another level on which he relates to them: to the cat as being a cat and to the tree as being a tree.”

~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960


And not a cat that is universally representative of Cats as an archetype, but a cat with a name, and multi-colored paw-pads, and spots and stripes and a temperament that are all unique to him, and a tree that is a certain size, with branches positioned in a specific way, leaves of a certain type and color, that becomes a tree that is known, nearly memorized in all its specificity – loved, that grows with us over-time – and is not merely representative of The World Tree – although perhaps that is present too.

When animals die, trees are torn down, old homes demolished or renovated beyond recognition there is a self-consciousness to our grief. I too often hear clients say: “Its silly of me to be so upset! Its just a…” dog, tree, house, neighborhood…

Kohut might see some of these relationships as self-objects – as experiences and transactions that help us to understand, organize, experience our Selves, discover the shape and size of our identities.

Searles might agree:

“The environment can be seen to provide a milieu… as contrasted to to the interpersonal milieu, in which the child can become aware of his own capabilities (referring here to physical strength and dexterity, ingenuity, and various intellectual abilities) and of the limitations upon those capabilities. In his relatedness to the environment he has opportunities to see, in a particularly clear-cut, realistic fashion, that he is in various ways powerful, but not omnipotent.” ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960

And most of us feel strange and self-conscious speaking of such relationships.

I do to. (See, this hasn’t gotten very personal yet, has it?)

So I’ll wade in:

A book I read over and over as a young child made perfect, exact sense to me for many years:

A friend is someone who likes you.

It can be a boy…

It can be a girl…

Or a cat…

Or a dog…

Or even a white mouse.

A tree can be a different kind of a friend.

It doesn’t talk to you, but you know it likes you, because it gives you apples….

Or pears….

Or cherries….

Or sometimes a place to swing.


A brook can be a friend in a special way. It talks to you with splashy gurgles.

It cools you toes and lets you sit quietly beside it when you don’t feel like speaking.


The wind can be a friend too.

It sings soft songs to you at night

            when you are sleepy and feeling lonely.

Sometimes it calls you to play.

It pushes you from behind

as you walk and makes

the leaves dance for you.

It is always with you

            wherever you go,

            and that’s how you know

            it likes you.

A Friend is Someone Who Likes You,

~ Joan Walsh Angulnd, 1958


And certainly our relationship to non-human organic systems or time spent at your favorite sitting rock cannot entirely compensate for the lack of healthy human love.

“I have no illusion, for example, that a beautiful maple tree, beloved to one’s childhood, can really have made up for the lack of a childhood friend.” ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960

Culturally, we see the idea of having living relationships with non-human objects as childish, as unreal, as not valid, as unimportant, as pretend, as mere anthropomorphizing.

But perhaps we need not think so hierarchically. Maybe all of it is important. Maybe it is all part of how we come to know ourselves, to be soothed, to give back, to experience the limitations and finiteness of the world, and of our own resources.

“Thus the exploration of this whole subject… impinges upon a deeply rooted anxiety of a double-edged sort: the anxiety of subjective oneness with a chaotic world, and the anxiety over the loss of a cherished omnipotent world-self” ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960

What if our expansive childhood sense of connection to the world is a naive template for healthy relatedness to our environment, the first step that can later be forged into mature understanding of our connection to the natural world we are embedded in, and which is too often derailed and subsumed by cultural and economic pressures and demands?

Sometimes you don’t know who

            are your friends.

Sometimes they are there all the time,

but you walk right past them

and don’t notice that they like you

            in a special way.

And then you think you don’t have any friends.

Then you must stop hurrying and rushing so fast…

and move very slowly,

and look around carefully,

to see someone who smiles at you in a special way…

Or a dog that wags its tail extra hard whenever you are near…

or a tree that lets you climb it easily…

or a brook that lets you be quiet when you want to be quiet.

 A Friend is Someone Who Likes You ~ Joan Walsh Angulnd, 1958

So, I stopped hurrying and rushing so fast and looked around very carefully on a recent visit to the home of my childhood: a very small lake community outside of Minneapolis.

At the age of fifty, I had no remaining connections to any people left in the area – the humans and pets that I had been attached to had all died, relocated, or our paths diverged to the point of well-established disconnection. I had only returned once, for four hours, about ten years earlier – and that was my only visit since my early twenties.

I was able, without the distraction of relationships to humans from the past – to visit the town, as anonymous as a tourist, to a place, a location, a lake, an ecosystem, that had introduced me to myself and the larger world – that had given to me, and terrified me and taken from me, and introduced me to my powers and my limitations, and that had vulnerabilities and strengths of its own.

I lived lakeside for a decade – walked barefoot or bicycled down every narrow street, the hot, melting tar left sticky spots on my toes. I knew every dock, every patch of sand, every good swimming spot, every duck nest, every climbing tree, every chipmunk hole in the square mile around my home. I knew where the snow banks gathered, the best spots to make snow angels, the secret pathways through the trees into neighbors lawns and the short cuts home when the dinner bell rang.

I haven’t thought about, haven’t spent time remembering this relationship in years. As I sat by the lake, under the railroad overpass, near the old people fishing for sunnies- I realized that I had been to many many lakes in the past thirty years – but none of them was my lake. And, not mine in the possessive sense, but my lake in the relational sense. I had a relationship with this lake, that was like no other, and was representative of nothing else and was too specific to be merely symbolic. It is a relationship, in and of itself.

The lake was as alive as any person to me. A babysitter who rocked and cradled me while floating on my back, or dozing in the sunny bow of a bobbing whaler. A lake that sung me to sleep through my bedroom window with splashes, lappings against the shore rocks. A being that loved and consoled all that was inconsolable. An entity that was always present, and always accepting of my return. A playmate to re-create myself with and within, a toy box filled with shiny rocks, agates, treasures and mysteries, salamanders and snapping turtles.

A mentor that challenged me to strengthen my skills and test my capacities: How long could I hold my breath? How far I could swim?

A being that tolerated no hubris – when I tried to walk across the lake on the muddy bottom and breathe in water as I’d seen in Tom and Jerry cartoons, I learned quickly what I was and was not capable of.

An organism that taught me about the earth’s vulnerability – as one weekend we all awoke to the lake belching up green sludge, a shocking, overnight algae overgrowth, provoked by an imbalanced and ill-use of its waterways. The towns around its shore began to feel sympathies with the “ecology” movement of the early 1970’s and we all donned patches on our jeans and bumper stickers which read “What you take to the lake – TAKE IT BACK!” to discourage polluters and dumpers. Endangered fish, and rare water lilies grew in ponds and inlets – and we hammered signs into the trees warning others not to tamper with the lake’s delicate balance

A teacher who taught me my first lessons about fate, error, injury and death – as children and adults alike succumbed to its powers:  drownings, boat accidents, and floods. The lives of people and animals swallowed through thin ice in the winters or summers’ destructive storms that we watched come toward us across the lake – a violent wall of wind and water, lightening and thunder, snow and hail and ice.

A punitive authority figure: arbitrary and unyeilding, drawing down lightening strikes, tornadoes, slicing uncareful toes on sharpened rocks unseen in muddy shallow water.

A transforming creature, whose shores and trees and wildlife shifted and adjusted with the years and the seasons from liquid to frozen and back again.

A location that instructed me about theft and injustice and my own complicity – as it retained is Dakota name with no trace of the Dakota people, except for a few remaining ancient mounds and middens.

The more we are able to relate ourselves to this environment as it really is – the more our perception of it becomes freed from seeing it to be bathed in Evil or Good or what not – the more satisfying and rich is our relatedness to it. ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960

It was, and is, a relationship – although I own no property there, have no lake access or boat, and have only visited substantially once in thirty years. I had an effect on that non-human entity – I threw rocks, and caught fish, and cleaned trash from its shores, guarded and disrupted its wildlife, tended to it and harmed it as it soothed and warned, scolded, frightened and instructed me in the realities of life and the challenges of living.

I suspect we all have such primal relationships with some environment or non-human relationship specific to us – a city block, a park, a summer camp, a rosebush in the back yard – and it is part of the work of the psychotherapeutic process to help us identify the imprint we leave upon our environment, and the imprint it leaves upon us.

And whatever happens next, as this world heats, and storms, and floods, and bakes – we should not miss a chance for intimacy, for relatedness with the living world around us.

We live in a world of human relationships. And we must all, at this historic crossroads, come to recognize the relationships that we have, as human beings, with the world. We have affected each other. We have been affected.

Whatever happens next: That is relatedness. That is intimacy.












The Dragon’s Pearl



Some say that originally every proper dragon carried a pearl under his chin ~ Ernest Ingersoll, Dragons and Dragon Lore


When a pearl oyster is injured, it will form a pearl sac to contain the wound. as part of the healing process.


For wherever there is a pearl there is a monster lying on it, wherever there is a treasure, there is a snake wound around it… You cannot get near the Self and the meaning of life without being on the razor’s edge of falling into greed, into darkness, and into the shadowy aspect of the personality. One does not even know if it not necessary sometimes to fall into it, because otherwise it cannot be assimilated.

~ Marie Von Franz, Individuation in Fairy Tales




I wake in the middle of the night from a dream:


A young man, dressed in dark clothes, lurks nearby on a dark street, slithering in the dark silently, tight next to the buildings he passes. He is following me. I think nothing of him, I feel safe and at home, until I suddenly lose track of myself and drop my wallet, change spilling all over the street, shining in the moonlight. I stoop down to gather the coins, and feel suddenly uneasy – I lift my head up to see the young man charging toward me, at a remarkable speed, with the wide-mouthed unhinged jaws of a serpent. Glistening teeth the last thing I see before I awake terrified, frozen – heart pounding.


After a few minutes – I drift back asleep – wondering about the young man, and before I know it, I have gone in search of him. I find him in a cave along the banks of a lake near my childhood home. He is hiding, and has made himself a shelter there, in the damp and dark.  I notice an elaborate graffiti mural, a beautiful work of art on a cement wall with a word painted at its center: “Wound.”

I assume this is his tag, and it becomes the dragon-boy’s name to me.

I climb with Wound up a steep hill and show him up into my self-made childhood tree house. I bring him blankets and bologna and white bread sandwiches.

As we sit together in the tree he says: “You didn’t come and visit me for a long time. I think you forgot about me.”

I admitted that I had.

“If you promise to come back sometimes I’ll give you a gift.”

“I’ll come visit again. I’m sorry I forgot. I don’t need a present.”

He insists on giving it to me anyway: He pulls out a red-velvet bag and tugs open the drawstring to reveal an enormous pearl.


In the weeks that followed, I found myself thinking about the sacred gifts that our wounds can sometimes bestow and the dragons that threaten to devour us.

So this is the roundabout story of a dream and where it led me: on a long adventure of mythic research and psychoanalytic theory, in search of an unknown treasure. I got lost along the way in tangential explorations. I forgot my original mission as I wandered through many not-obviously related texts and was engrossed by them. I became deflated as I gathered more and more snippets, pieces and fragments, uncertain that I would ever be able to create one whole cohesive thought. My spirits rose as I saw glimmers of a unifying notion on the horizon, although as I write I remain unsure as to whether or not I have uncovered anything new or valuable, or if I’ve surfaced with any pearls of wisdom at all.


Pearls have not only been seen as archetypal symbols of healing and wholeness- but have been used through history as actual medicine: ground into powder, dissolved in water, ingested and applied to the skin. It is thought that pearl powder soothes pain, slows aging, coats and heals intestinal distress just as it tends to the oyster’s wound.

Perhaps pearls do have healing properties. Or maybe our very wounds grant us magic gifts.  Or both.

And maybe the mini-myth that emerged in my sleep is connected to ideas and images that could be of some value for others as well as myself, about treasure seeking journeys, wounds and dragons, as well as the gnostic awakenings and creative processes involved in psychotherapeutic healing.


Knowledge of the Heart

One of my first associations, as I sat with the dream and began to work with it, was a decades-old memory of the Gnostic poem: The Hymn of The Pearl. It took me several weeks to get around to pulling the text off the shelf, and a week or so more before I had the time and clear head to read it.

Gnosticism refers to a cluster of second-century mostly, but not entirely Christian religions, for there were Jewish and Manichean Gnostics too. Gnosis means knowledge and in this context it refers more properly to revelatory knowledge, or insight. We rely on gnosis as a root word daily when we speak of cognition, agnosticism, and recognition as ways of knowing, not knowing and re-knowing. For the Gnostic sects, the ability to see into our sacred “fullness”, our most whole, authentic self, and our divine, incorruptible nature – is true spiritual awakening.

This knowledge, or Gnosis, they did not see as a rational knowledge or even a philosophical knowledge of truth, but rather a knowing that arises in the heart in an intuitive, mysterious manner. ~ Stephen, A. Hoeller, The Gnostic Jung

And of course we should remember here that in Judeo-Christian texts it is the serpent that leads humanity to their first taste of gnosis from the fruit of the tree of knowledge.

Unsurprisingly, Gnosticism had a profound impact on Jungian thought, and Jung’s conception of the individuation process: sorting through and becoming aware of our “fleshly” ego-consciousness and complexes, the public persona that confirms to socio-cultural norms and pressures, and the call to apprehend something of our whole encompassing Self, which contains all of our conscious and unconscious aspects.

The Hymn of the Pearl, found in the Apocryphal Acts of Thomas, recounts the mythic journey of a divine youth, sent by his heavenly parents down to the earthly plane in order to:

Bring back the one pearl,

which lies in the middle of the sea

and is guarded by the snorting serpent.”

The descent is treacherous. The guides who accompany him at the start of the journey leave him to complete his trial alone, as he draws nearer to his destination.


I went straight to the serpent

and settled in close by his inn,

waiting for him to sleep

so I could take my pearl from him.

But the young hero is waylaid, as anxiety pressures him to conform to the cultural requirements of the nearby villagers.

Then I put on a robe like theirs

lest they suspect me as an outsider

who had come to steal the pearl;

lest they arouse the serpent against me


And they gave me their food to eat.

I forgot that I was a son of kings,

and I served their king.

I forgot the pearl

for which my parents had sent me.

Through the heaviness of their food

I fell into a deep sleep.”


The divine Father and Mother see what has occurred, and write a magic letter to their boy:

“Awake and rise from your sleep

and hear the words of our letter!

Remember the pearl…”

The letter magically descends to earth in the shape of an eagle – the rustling of its wings wakens the nameless hero.

“I took it, kissed it

broke its seal and read

I remembered the pearl

And I began to enchant

the terrible snorting serpent.

I charmed him into sleep

I seized the pearl

and turned to carry it to my Father.”

The hero then casts off the “filthy” borrowed robe, and begins the ascent back to his heavenly parents, where the glorious pearl is added to his jewel encrusted royal robe, a robe vibrating with living, divine awareness of all things.

(~ The Other Bible, Willis Barnstone editor)


Decades ago, I’d read The Hymn of the Pearl as historical theology in a comparative religions course – and always found it a disappointment. I yearned for it to move me somehow, but it hadn’t. A title so beautiful, yet as allegory it lacked interesting tension for me. Divine plane: Good. Material plane: Filthy. Appetite-laden, debased. A call to humanity to shake off contaminated earthly garments in pursuit of being enrobed in divine salvation. I liked my religious philosophy more ambiguous than that. Less dualistic. I’d known about, but had never shared, Jung’s identification and passion for the Gnostic literature.


And I’ll admit that re-reading the hymn this time left me just as flat. “Oh, yeah” I thought, “I remember, I never really did like this poem.” But I certainly noticed much in common with my dream: A dangerous serpent, a descent, a deep body of water, enchanting the dragon (although I am not sure that white bread and bologna sandwiches would constitute “enchantment” by any good Gnostic’s standards) an ascent, a forgotten promise, a pearl. So I re-read it several more times and – remained unmoved.

But a few days later, the ball dropped, and flipped my usual orientation on its head: I commonly look to myth to clarify dream content, but perhaps the dream was the key to my understanding the myth itself, as well as the ways that it plays out in my life, and in the psychotherapeutic journeys I undertake in my office each day.

Perhaps mythical dragons are related to our very wounds – and must be pursued, encountered, and contended with before we are granted their treasure.

So maybe this is one way of many to understand pearls and serpents: when we descend to the watery, dark unconscious, to make contact with our wounded, hungry or unacknowledged self-aspects, we fear we may be completely devoured or destroyed.

These dangers are psychologically all too real. The internal energies that are released, the flood of emotion, rage, anxiety, adrenaline, and terror when we approach our most personal vulnerabilities can threaten to consume, flood and drown us.

Fairy-tale and folklore tell us of multitudes who were eaten by dragons, and lived experience has shown us that people can be consumed by their wounds and weaknesses. Too many of us know, among our families and friends, those who go to battle with such dragons as trauma, despair, addiction, denial who do not succeed, who never return, or are never whole again after their encounter. There are many who die of their wounds and the serpent’s bite – some instantly, some all too slowly.

And unsurprisingly, during the arduous process of thinking and writing about this dream and this myth, I would be reminded, both in and out of the office, about how threatening the demons lurking in our psyches can be, how overwhelming the contact with a core-injury, and how visceral the experience of being devoured can be. But they can also serve to peel away the finite, enfleshed self, revealing something beautiful, valuable and timeless hidden under our hard work-a-day armor, growing out of our soft mortal flesh.

The oyster is a fitting symbol of the corruptible fleshy animal nature, but out of it is produced, or there exudes this incorruptible thing… Just as the pearl comes out when you open the oyster, so in death our fleshy existence would fall away and decay, and the immortal part of our personality, the pearl, would become visible.

~ Marie Von Franz, Individuation in Fairy Tales


Our most frightening wounds may be the only things that can ever make us whole.



And what of  the pearl itself? In the Hymn of the Pearl it is a symbol of gnosis: hard won insight into the luminous Center, the fullness of being, Wholeness. In Quakerism it is called the Seed. Some call it Buddha-nature others call it Christ-consciousness. Jung saw it as the transcendent Self at the center of the mandala, and the Gnostics call it the Pearl.

Only what is really oneself has the power to heal. ~ C. G. Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology 

Why a pearl and not a ruby, a diamond, a lump of gold or some other treasure? And what kind of pearl (for there are many in ancient texts)? The Vedic text the Garuda Purana lists a group of pearl stones, all blessing their possessor with various virtues and fortunes: Conch pearl, Boar and Elephant pearl (growing out of tusk roots), the Bamboo pearl, the Whale and Fish pearl (intestinal bezoars swallowed by the animal to aid digestion) and the mythical, powerful Cloud Pearl. The Serpent Pearl, also known as Cobra pearl, is probably also mythical – or perhaps grew as an organic stone from the snake’s gall.

The possessor of the serpent pearl meets with rare good fortune, and becomes a pious and illustrious king in time, with a treasury full of other species of precious gems Neither the serpents nor the Rakshas (demons), nor diseases, nor disturbances of any kind would assail the man amidst whose treasure such a snake pearl would lie. ~ Garuda Purana Chapter LXIX


It was also common for any large sea animal – whales for example, to be categorized as serpents and dragons throughout antiquity

.Pearls were regarded as in the special possession of the sea-gods and water-spirits; and these beings were often pictured in forms far more fishy, or crocodilian, or shark-like, than were the terrestrial, serpentine dragons ~ Ernest Ingersoll, Dragons and Dragon Lore


The archetypal serpent-goddesses, the Naga of the Mahabharata wear strands of pearls in their underwater palaces. In Buddhist teachings the third eye of wisdom and self-knowledge is represented as a pearl, as is the “jewel in the lotus.” (~ J. E. Circlot, A Dictionary of Symbols) Krishna wears the entire universe strung around his neck as a string of pearls ( The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism, The Book of Symbols)  The Tao is also a pearl, and in traditional Christian texts it emerges as an image of the kingdom of heaven:

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man seeking goodly pearls who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (~ Matthew 13:46)

We are  cautioned in The Book of Matthew not to cast our pearls before swine– offer up our souls most sacred, True Self to those who will trample it, and “turn again and rend you (7:6) – while the Book of Revelations summons an image of the gates of the New Jerusalem, each carved from a single pearl.

One of the most stunning images of pearls as immortal transcendent bodies crystallized within the mortal body was documented in the film The Unmistaken Child  following the aftermath of the death of Lama Konchog. The monk’s disciples sift through his cremains for a handful of sarira pearl-like objects left behind after the funereal flames have burned out, viewed as a pure embodiment of the master’s accumulated spiritual knowledge and teachings.

So is this what we are seeking? Is this what we may receive after facing down a deadly dragon? Self-knowledge? Gnosis? Immortality? Vitality? Power, Wealth or Wisdom? And/or something else entirely?

Pearls, unlike other jewels, are created gems. They are not discovered, mined, or extracted pre-existent from the earth’s crust. Our personal pearls of wisdom, our sarira, should not be cast before swine, because they heal from and grow out of our very wounds. They are valuable, sacred even, because they encapsulate, emerge from, soothe, and heal our injuries.

They are made, formed, and manufactured: a creative response to damage inflicted upon living flesh. The pearl has an embodied and literal function, more primal that its decorative value. It is a creative and created response to injury, and as such represents healing as an inherently creative act. And indeed, we often experience artistic and creative inspiration as something akin to divine revelation, a passing up of deep mysterious knowledge from the unconscious, to the consciousness, and sometimes onward to the benefit of the community at large.


The First Danger: Refusing the call


The mythological literature suggests that there is no easy way to apprehend your own vital, transcendent, creative core. There will always be a serpent wrapped around it.

To have eyes and not see, to have ears and not hear; these are the typical unmistakable symptoms of occlusion to the call of creative vitality” ~ Erich Neumann, Art and The Creative Unconscious

And some will not return, as we know, and others won’t set out on the journey at all.

Which is the greater danger? Is it more dangerous to risk being devoured, destroyed, to face the annihilation anxieties that are activated by the serpents at our wounded core? Or to avoid the central tasks of healing and creative living entirely?

Let’s say that in the severe case all that is real and all that matters and all that is personal and original and creative is hidden, and gives no sign of its existence. The individual in such an extreme case would not really mind whether he was alive or dead… ~ D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality.


The Second Danger: The Descent

And even if we do decide to set out on the journey and seek out a life worth living, the descent can be both steep and treacherous. We may require the assistance of guards, sherpas, and guides who know the path and have skills to usher us over the early obstacles, ward off predators and keep us from getting lost along he way. This may be part of a psychotherapist’s function, although not exclusively. There are all kinds of teachers and elders familiar with the twists and turns, slippery spots and predators that lie along the path to Self-Knowledge.

But no matter how far we are led, at some point we will find ourselves facing the central task of forging a meaningful life on our own recognizance with nothing but our courage, cleverness, and resources.


The Third Danger: Forgetting, Sleeping and Waking Up

There is more than one way to get lost.

The hero of the Hymn falls into full-belly sleepiness – losing track of his mission entirely – as my own dream-myth was disrupted by startling fearfully awake out of my unconscious processes. Whether becoming engrossed in earthly realities is experienced as a falling asleep or as a waking up, the compelling realness of the “real world” poses its own threat to undertaking the journey toward Self-Knowledge.

Money, power, governments, the raising of families, paying of taxes, the endless chain of entrapment in circumstances and obligations, none of these were as rejected as totally and unequivocally… as they were by the Gnostics. ~ Stephen, A. Hoeller, The Gnostic Jung

The pressures to conform to cultural and societal expectations (wearing robes like the others) the sleepy seduction of hedonism (satiated by a heavy meal), or chasing after earthly treasures (in the form of scattered coins on a dark street) can all distract us from the central purposes of our lives.

Whereas the normal man to a great extent pays for his adaptation to life in Western civilization with a loss of creativity, the creative man, who is adapted to the requirements of the unconscious world pays for his creativity with loneliness, which is the expression of his relative lack of adaptation to the life of the community. ~ Erich Neumann, Art and The Creative Unconscious

To withstand the solitary aspects of the journey, to reject the comforts of conformity, to pursue Jungian individuation does not mean merely to live a selfish or unrelated life. The call of individuation, the pursuit of gnosis, puts us in deeper contact with our creative generativity, our most authentic business in this world, a clearer sense of who we are, and what we actually have to offer others.

Although we are all certain to fall asleep and lose the thread of what is important and most central to us, moments of grace also intervene: Grace descends, sends us letters, and rustles its feathers re-awakening us to our life’s purpose. And sometimes, late at night, we can drift back to sleep and Grace may lead us back toward the fading wisp of a dream so that a story can continue to unfold.


The Fourth Danger: Drowned, Destroyed, Devoured

Then there is the danger of becoming lost at sea, flooded, drowned or devoured in the under-water kingdom of the Sea-dragon. The realm of the archetypes lurks deep in the bottom of our watery Unconscious, and our wounds often reside in dark hidden caves. This is Jung’s Collective Unconscious – where instinctive archetypal forces can grant us extraordinary transformational energy – but only if we have the strength, savvy, cunning, skill and humility to prevent those same energies from taking full possession of us, and tearing us to bits in their mighty jaws.

What does this mythological flooding, drowning, entrapment under the sea look like clinically? What happens to clients, or to ourselves when we tangle with archetypally primal forces and they take us over? It looks like experiences of madness and psychosis, transitory or enduring. Voice-hearing in which the voices have full control. It looks like states of depression, of anxiety, of despair so powerful that we could die from them. It looks like soul-shaking panic attacks, annihilation anxieties in all their most flooding forms.

We need sufficient strength, support, and maybe also some accumulated skill and practice at facing down smaller more manageable reptiles before we descend into the watery realm of the Dragon King. Jungian “ego strength” is measured by our conscious and accrued ability to contain, tame, endure, negotiate, withstand, and survive the dangers that lurk in our Unconscious.

We know that the creative power of the unconscious seizes upon the individual with the autonomous force of an instinctual drive and takes possession of him without the least consideration for the individual, his life, his happiness, or his health. ~ Erich Neumann, Art and the Creative Unconscious

But no matter how strong we are, no matter how skilled, practiced, or well-analyzed, none of us makes it through this life without some profound vulnerability or limitation. We are all weakest at the site of a previous injury, and this is where both the dragon and its treasure settle: nearest to our most fragile and broken bits, in the weakened places that require the greatest courage for us to move toward, alongside our most stunted and undeveloped aspects. Only if we can face down powerful archetypal forces in our most vulnerable states will we really have a chance at a life worth living.

And maybe this is also the sacred function of the dragon and the unconscious forces that call attention to the wounds: So that we remain cognizant of them, so we recognize that our injuries and our vitalities are always intertwined, so that we remember to return and visit and comprehend that life without our wounds really just means that we are less alive.

The Fifth Danger: Repression and Defeated Dragons

But if dragons serve their sacred functions, if they are representative of our extraordinary and simultaneous capacity for destruction and creativity, of the forces of woundedness and healing, what future treasures will we lose when the serpents are slain, driven out, or overpowered?

Repression by… consciousness creates an underworld with a dangerous emotional charge, which tends to erupt, to overpower and destroy the world of the victors, this underworld is inhabited by the vanquished and suppressed gods… the dragons which form the perilous substructure of the dominant world of the victors. But as the myth implies, this repression does not transform the powers; it merely chains them temporarily. ~ Erich Neumann, Art and the Creative Unconscious

In “Western” cultures organized more explicitly on dualistic Judeo-Christian religious myths – hanging out in trees accepting the gifts of serpents never leads to good outcomes. That is just simple, obvious heresy. That is what gets you cast out of paradise and sentenced to life long toil. Potentially disruptive gnosis must be repressed and overcome.

…And the powers that had been repressed but not transformed must again – at least according to an absurd dogma – be repressed but now forever. ~ Erich Neumann, Art and the Creative Unconscious

Dragons can be vanquished in too many ways, and there is a danger not only of killing off a powerful source of vitality, but killing off essential aspects of ourselves in the process. In the Yoga Upanishads -
Kundalini, serpent power or life force is depicted as a snake, “coiled round upon herself
 she holds her tail in her mouth 
and lies resting half asleep”

Perhaps there are better and worse ways to gain the prize.

Why in tales of European dragons is the dragon vanquished, murdered, and her treasure claimed as booty? How is a treasure transformed or contaminated when it taken by violence, trickery, or enmity rather than given freely as a gift?

Perhaps we never get to travel to the depths just once; maybe there are many serpents to contend with, many pearls. Or what if we only have one dragon within us, that produces a
multitude of pearls? One way or another, life may require this journey of us repeatedly.

The heroes that rely on violence and theft are young, untested, frightened men – encountering their dragon-wounds for the very first time. Maybe fear leads to them to overkill, to theft, snatch-and-dash.

Whereas I am a white-haired woman who has spent many years studying the ways of dragons and the energies that surround our wounds. And although I try never to underestimate the feral power of such wild forces, I may have learned through the years of my own therapeutic process and soul-work, that bologna and white bread sandwiches often comfort dragon-wounds. Perhaps without realizing it, I’ve become a little bit of a wound-whisperer, a dragon tamer. I can sometimes teach others how to enter, – cautiously, carefully, respectfully- into relationship with fearsome creatures who may offer up their fortune freely, without need for theft or bloodshed.

So many come to psychotherapy seeking assistance to kill off their wounds, to repress their distress, to eliminate symptoms, to find a way to get away from their pain and somehow snatch happiness from its jaws. They are convinced that the serpent is the enemy. Just like those who petitioned Asclepius, (the Greek God of medicine) for healing, they stare at me flabbergasted when I suggest that they must sleep among the snakes and enter into relationship with their wound in order to be healed. Psychotherapy (as I practice it) is not, after all, the business of dragon slaying. It can only teach us the language of the serpents.


The Treasure

And maybe we will also return from the trial with a treasure: the psychic victory of the creative gesture.

Creative transformation on the other hand, represents a total process in which the creative principle is manifested not as an irruptive possession, but as a power related to the self, the center of the whole personality. ~ Erich Neumann, Art and the Creative Unconscious

This pearlescent “creative principle” is the source of artistic work, both profound and personal. In “From The Wrong Side: a Paradoxical Approach to Psychology” Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig distinguishes between “personal creativity” and “transcendent creativity.” Personal creativity occurs “everywhere human beings are found” in his view; however, transcendent creativity, is rare, moving beyond the creative processes of personal healing, serving a symbolic function for the community as a whole through works of true art. Transcendent creativity is as uncommon as a pearl in nature.

Let us consider the psychological ideas of the majority of us psychologists and psychiatrists. By and large, our ideas are completely unoriginal and collective! We can hardly recognize any kind of creativity and even less something truly new in them. In form and content, these ideas are but repetitions or simply plain hard work. They are not genuinely creative, something really rare. ~ Adolph Guggenbuhl-Craig, From The Wrong Side

So the treasure, the gift, the mystical pearl we receive is unlikely, for most of us, to manifest as a great work of art, although the journey, trials, obstacles, blocks, and dangers are similar. The psyche of the artist offers up pearls of a truly transcendent quality.

Yet, healing is itself a creative act, as is living.

Not an artistic one, in all or even most cases, but a creative act nonetheless.

The creativity that concerns me is a universal. It belongs to being alive. ~ D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality


The Ascent

There is a final task, as well as some potential pitfalls once the pearl is in our grasp. The jewel must be acknowledged as coming from, and belonging to forces beyond our conscious ego.

The impulse to keep the gift, hide, bury, or hoard it, constitutes a psychological danger and a severe distortion of heart-knowledge. A corresponding trap is when we succumb to the narcissistically inflating illusion that we have conscious control over the creative process. Grace has always played a hand. The muses must be courted, and dragons must be honored as magical creatures who grant us talismans from realms beyond our own.

Creativity happens outside of the individual psyche. Phenomenologically, at least, it seems that a power external to the one creating is at work, that the creator is but a tool or a vessel. ~ Adolph Guggenbuhl-Craig, From The Wrong Side

Moreover, as any devoted reader of fairy tales knows, the gift we receive, must be given away and passed onward or upward in some form, or its powers will turn against those who pretend to own and control it. The hero ascends with his booty, his gnosis, and although he is allowed to adorn his robe with it, it is clear that the robe itself carries a mantle of responsibility along with it. We must make sure that the wisdom we accrue serves purposes far larger and more sacred than our own interests – or it is not wisdom at all.

This is part and parcel of the work of a psychotherapist – to offer up the gifts we have received to strengthen not only ourselves, but also others who have begun their own quest.

In the office, I am always fearful when the descent begins. I am  both confident and I tremble inwardly as I accompany clients through the familiar obstacles and dangers, although I try not to show it.  I am often speechless and awe-struck when, after long and strengthening testing, we encounter the wound directly. And I am always grateful when we survive, and I have the honor of watching clients move more fully, more deeply and creatively into a life worth living.

I laugh, and sigh with relief, as I watch a client take possession of the treasure, and begin to carry it out into the world with them:

“I hoped that this is what would happen!” I hear myself saying “I had faith that it would, but nevertheless, it is always a relief to see it become reality right in front of me! These are the times when I wish I had a time machine, and could record this moment, and travel back to the beginning of this process so I could show us both what amazing things would grow out of the journey. It might have been relieving to you, but it sure would have been relieving to me too!”

It is a fear that I have grown used to, and one that no longer threatens my faith too intolerably. And both the receiving and the giving of the gift are always miracles.

So I share the long and winding story of my dream, and its mother-myth here.

I do this because I was reminded, and perhaps others need to be reminded as well, that the processes of healing, self-knowledge and creative insight always depend upon heroic acts of bravery and Divine Grace together.























Smoke and Mirrors


I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.

What ever you see I swallow immediately

Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.

I am not cruel, only truthful—

The eye of a little god, four-cornered….

~  Sylvia Plath, Mirror


We all know the story of Narcissus, and the dangers of falling too deeply in self-love, mesmerized by our own reflection.

And we all know that fairy tales warn us of the black arts of deceptive mirrors which seduce us into the belief that we are indeed the “fairest of them all”

Psychoanalytic theory has wrestled with the idea of the reflected self – and the hunger we all have to see ourselves accurately and completely. The need to gaze at ourselves is simultaneously labeled as narcissistic disease, and the same mirroring gaze is the cure itself.

Self-involvement, self-regard, self-love, self-awareness, self-negation, self-esteem, selfishness and self-reflection. Our fascination with mirrors speaks to our archetypal hunger to see ourselves in both a flattering and an accurate light, our fear of what we may find, the tricks and dangers that lurk through the looking-glass and the wish to know realities that require the aid of the reflecting glass.

For without such reflections we cannot begin to know ourselves at all.


Relationship as Mirror

I  your glass Will modestly discover to yourself

That of yourself which you yet know not of.

Shakespeare ~  Julius Cesar

The first literal and metaphorical mirror we encounter is  “the gleam in the mother’s eye” – a glimpse of our infant-selves, feeding, reflected in the dark pupil of a care provider. For those lucky enough to first see themselves in an eye-mirror that is smiling, admiring, bonded, and loving our most primordial sense of Self will be surrounded in adoration and security. For those with depressed, absent, distracted or indifferent care takers the first glimpse of ourselves may be anxious, disrupted, hopeless or fragmentary.

And some cannot find themselves there at all.

Mothering and mirroring are archetypal functions entangled and intertwined  long before psychoanalysis conflated them:

In Christian art the mirror came to represent the eternal purity of the Virgin Mary. As the medieval writer Jacobus de Voragine wrote:

As the sun permeates glass without violating it, so Mary became a mother without losing her virginity She is called a mirror because of her representation of things, for as all things are reflected from a mirror, so in the blessed Virgin, as in the mirror of God, ought all to see their impurities and spots, and purify them and correct them…”  ~ The Fitzwilliam Museum 

Over time early caretakers wield their parental power with “an increasing selectivity of responses.” As the mother’s face-mirror shifts from admiring to disappointing, approving to disapproving, flattering to shaming it prunes our sense of our own strengths and weaknesses, and helps us to assemble a socialized self – a mask, a false-self, a personae to introduce ourselves to the world.

The first experience of a disapproving mirror casts us from the garden, initiates us into the processes of repression and introduces us to sin and shame.

The most destructive energies within us must first be met with some approval for their self-preserving, evolutionary function in order for us to integrate them into our own self-image, and learn to modulate them and use them effectively.

The consequence of the parental self-objects inability to be the joyful mirror to a child’s healthy assertiveness may be a lifetime of abrasiveness, bitterness and sadism that cannot be discharged- and it is only by means of therapeutic reactivation of the original need for the self-objects responses that the actual lessening of rage and a return to healthy assertiveness can be achieved.  ~ Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of Self.

In Kohut’s model, the psychotherapist creates an opportunity for a corrective experience  by assuming transferred responsibility for these mirroring needs – as a self-object that helps to repair and integrate distorted or unmirrored aspects of the Self. The therapist offers an accepting, admiring gaze, one that allows the client to shed the distorting self-representations left over from being raised surrounded by fun house mirrors.

For Kohut, the need for healthy self-mirroring objects, accurate enough, even through its imperfections, is life long. Psychotherapies that span a life-time are not seen as failed – but as necessary compensations for our ongoing need to see and accept ourselves as we are over time.

No one looks in a mirror just once. We feel the need in to check in on ourselves, to peer and peek, take in and groom our reflections, sometimes several times a day, every day as we grow, mature and decline over for the course of our lives. We wonder if we could know ourselves over time, if we could have a sense of how life passes through us at all without our mirrors.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman

Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish. ~  Sylvia Plath, Mirror

Mirrors & Shadows

In myth, scripture, fairy tale and legend, the mirror as archetype serves far more uncanny functions, functions more dangerous, ambivalent, sacred and transcendent than merely regulating our self-esteem.

Mirrors reveal to us what cannot be shown to anyone else, what we do not know, and perhaps don’t want to know about ourselves at all.

Whoever looks into the mirror of the water will see first of all his own face. Whoever goes to himself risks a confrontation with himself. The mirror does not flatter, it faithfully shows whatever looks into it; namely, the face we never show to the world because we cover it with the persona, the mask of the actor. But the mirror lies behind the mask and shows the true face. ~ CG Jung “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious”

Our truest face, our whole Self includes a shadow that is terrifying to us, as almost every scary movie will attest to. What is more frightening than staring in a mirror, alone, in an empty house, at night with nothing to encounter except yourself in the quiet dark? What horror will be revealed? What chilling doppleganger lurks underneath our daytime persona?

We are horrified and titillated by seeing our denied, demonic shadow selves reflected.

There are destructive creatures lurking in our personal unconscious that can only be vanquished, by taking indirect aim through their reflection, as Perseus defeated Medusa. Complexes that are so potent, that if we attempt to face them too squarely, too directly we could be turned to stone.

There are monsters and entities which are only recognized by empty mirrors which reveal their soul-lessness.  Our undead selves, the haunting self-apsects not alive but not dead either,  vampiric states that drain us when we are unaware, our eyes closed to what has emerged to feed when we were not awake to ourselves.

In Psychology and Alchemy, C.G. Jung details a dream in which a mirror appears as “an indispensable instrument of navigation” referring “to the intellect which is able to think, and is constantly persuading us to identify with its insights (reflections).”

Metabolizing shadow content is one of the functions of psychotherapy too, as well as safely and incrementally,  breaking down the repressions, fear, and judgement which caused those self-states to find themselves banished to the mirror-lands to begin with.

Here the focus of psychotherapeutic work is less on the psychotherapist as corrective mirror,  but more as a warm and accepting guide, who’s job is to usher us into active relationship with our own Unconscious.

Mirrors can also show us glimpses of worlds far beyond our personal unconscious.


Mirrors, Soul and Spirit

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

~ 1 Corinthians, 13:12 King James Bible


Mirrors are windows into alternate universes, to magic realms, to the upside down places, and can transport us to the dream-lands and spirit worlds. They are the looking-glass we can fall through, and the portal which both dark and benevolent spirits pass through to contact us.

Faust on his journey with Mephistopheles first falls in love with face of Divine love – Heavenly beauty, the Anima, manifest as the face of Helen of Troy when her image emerges in a magic mirror. It is this contact with his own soul and the redeeming spirit which, in the end,  will ultimately save him.

And from her living body, lying there

Comes there indeed all heaven my soul to bless?

~ Faust, Goethe

Mirror phenomenon are also representative of the intuitive function: To look in a mirror lit only by candle light reveals the spirits of those who have died. Or practice mirror gazing, catopromancy,  as Pythagoras did, and divine your fate  as it emerges in the glass. Reflection under the moonlight  opens the mind’s eye to  the images, intuitions, and guidance of larger psyche:  the instincts and perceptions unconsciously repressed or consciously dismissed in the light of day.

Without the silvered glass we may never retrieve unknown, forgotten or lost pieces of our own soul.


Soul Loss

It was a maxim both in ancient India and in ancient Greece not to look at ones reflection in the water and …the Greeks regarded it as an omen of death if a man dreamed of seeing himself so reflected. They feared that the water-spirits would drag the persons reflection or soul under water, leaving him soulless to perish. This was probably the origin of the classical story of the beautiful Narcissus, who languished and died through seeing his reflection in the water ~  Paula Elkisch, The Psychological Significance of  the Mirror

Like photographs, when isolated cultures without mirrors were introduced to them for the first time, it was often  assumed that the reflection was their actual  soul, having left the body.

We cover mirrors following a death so the soul does not become lost within them and a broken mirror is an image of a shattered soul in pieces, and it will take  seven years before its wholeness is restored.

If the mirror is “‘a thing that has been made the screen for mans projections” (Elkish)  then through the processes of projection we lose some part of our soul.

So, what then are psychotherapists as personified blank-screens and mirroring-objects gathering up client’s projections and transferences – but soul-stealers and head-shrinkers, holding our client’s souls hostage for a weekly ransom?  As psychotherapists we must always acknowledge the darker aspects of our powers and the archetypes that are present in the therapeutic transaction. As clients, the mirror as archetype reminds us that we must remain always cognizant of the  dangers of becoming trapped, lost, hypnotized by images of our own projected soul.

It seems that the fear of loss of self (or soul) together with the attempt at retrieving the lost makes the mirror so fascinating ~  Paula Elkisch, The Psychological Significance of  the Mirror


Mirrors, Tricks and Miracles

The universe is at root a magical illusion and a fabulous game ~ Alan Watts

Of course stage magicians also rely on mirrors to create pleasurable tricks and amusements.   It is a deception that we participate in happily, willingly, suspending our disbelief to delight in the hidden mirrors ability to make things appear or disappear, or to make something or someone dense, burdensome and heavy transform into something as light as a feather. As we watch the volunteer from the audience levitate, mirrors obscuring the mechanisms of suspension, our own burdens feel lighter too.

Mirrored tricks and illusions can have profoundly healing effects: Mirror-boxes are used to effectively treat phantom limb pain following amputation. The intact limb is placed in front of the mirror box, which masks the missing limb. The patient watches the mirror while they stretch, unfurl, scratch, or massage the intact limb, relieving the discomfort of the missing limb. The mind is not fooled into the literal belief that their missing limb has been restored, but the brain is fooled and the illusion soothes and relieves.

And perhaps psychotherapy is at its very best, a similar curative illusion, a healing trick, a soothing substitution – rather than a literally corrective experience for losses incurred in the past. A trick which both participants must remember is both an illusion and a cure.

Or maybe it is something else:


Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,

Searching my reaches for what she really is.

Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.

I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.

She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.

I am important to her. She comes and goes….

~ Sylvia Plath, Mirror

An image presented itself to me in a hypnogogic state recently – as I drifted in between sleep and waking:

I sat in my office chair, my face hidden from view, my head behind a mirror inside a box  much like a medicine cabinet. I sat across from an unknown Other, who I could see only dimly, but who saw their soul reflected when they faced me. They were transfixed, filled with yearning, with deep hunger for more contact, to forge a deep and lasting relationship with the face in front of them. I was not fooled. I knew that I was not what they sought. But it was nearly impossible to impress the truth upon them: What they thought they could only access through  “me” was merely a reflection of their Self:  “wholeness, totality, the union of opposites, the central generative point where God and man meet… the fountain of our being which is most simply described as God” ~  Edward Edinger – Ego and Archetype

“Mirror”: from the Vulgar Latin, “mirare” to look at,” variant of Latin mirari “to wonder at, marvel, be astonished”  – also the historical source of “Miracle” and “Miraculous”

What you seek is already within you. This reality is subjective, not the outer, objective reality.  ~ Ram Dass, Polishing the Mirror quoted in Parabola vol, 39, issue 1


It is your own lush self

you hunger for 

 ~ Lucille Clifton, Eves Version






















This is What Happened

Someone asked me to write this. Sort of.

They asked me if I could state, in tangible terms, the kinds of healing that I have seen take place in my work as a therapist.

And I can’t. Because it didn’t and doesn’t somehow seem to be my prerogative to codify or co-opt my client’s experiences to say how I think they have been healed, or not. That is up to them to define. I have no idea what they think has helped about therapy unless they tell me.

Sometimes they point to powerful defining words – for good and ill – that  I said, years, even decades earlier, that I have no recollection of ever saying.

I do this to my psychotherapist too. If you’ve read my writing over time you’ve seen me do it, and you should know he is a very good sport about it.

Is healing always even the goal?  Sometimes the goal is just surviving.

Some weeks, it is an extraordinary accomplishment and more than enough that we are all still here, and still pursing hope, meaning and connection and living out of our values in the face of  life’s suffering.

Certainly I’ve seen people transform their lives in front of me: Leaving abusive scenarios behind, finding love, healing relationships with partners, becoming parents and more attuned parents, getting through school, sorting through confusion, negotiating and resolving crises,  mourning deaths and other unfathomable losses, facing down fears, coming out of all kinds of closets, changing careers, owning their true identities, at first managing, and eventually shedding symptoms and anxieties.

But I don’t think these accomplishments were because of me. Sometimes the client does though. When they thank me, I try to stay gracious and not too self-effacing and accept their gratitude as a sign of appreciation of my sticking near them through it.

But often that is all I am doing. Staying near. Bearing witness, and letting what I am seeing change me. Staying out of the way, and trying to clear some thickets here and there that may be blocking their true path. Babysitting their most vulnerable needs until they are ready to value and care for them on their own. Making a dark time a little less lonely, and a little less terrifying. Normalizing some stuff that they worry is crazy.  But the growth is theirs and may have happened without me.  Maybe I made the unfolding a little easier. So I try to accept the gratitude – but it always feels strange to do so.  Like a plant thanking me for its growth and harvest  when all I did was water it once or twice a week.

But here is what I can talk about – and will try to do so briefly. Briefly. Ha!

I will try to talk briefly  (that is hilarious) about almost thirty years as a client in my own psychotherapy.

I arrived in New York City in the year after my 21st birthday, to work in the theater and to  be near a boy – who I thought was a man,  a few years older than me – but I see now was just a boy. The boy fell in love with someone else, and for some reason didn’t tell me. I don’t know why. We weren’t living together, we weren’t committed – perhaps he felt bound by an underlying and crushing dependency that I barely contained – as I lashed  myself tightly to any peer, friend, lover that I could, hoping to survive the sinking ship of a family that I had left behind. Perhaps he feared that if he left he would sink me. And  he was kind of right. But he still should have left for the girl he did love rather than making me feel increasingly crazy, confused, burdensome and complaining about my “jealousy problem.”

I had other problems, certainly. I had inherited them. My father had come from a deeply abusive, very wealthy and epically pathological family – and spent his life trying to expel his pain with unnecessary surgeries – over  20 times under the knife – narcotics, religion and rage. He remarried to a woman with three sons who became his real family and I was at best a tolerated guest. My mother had left him when I was ten, after falling in love with our parish priest, who was also a terrifying narcissist, and ultimately “defrocked” by the Episcopalian diocese.  He also eventually left, taking the house out from under us.

So maybe that is why the boy was scared to leave me. But he agreed to go to couples therapy. So we went. We were matched at a fee for service clinic with a young man fresh out of his internship, maybe about the boys age – 25 or so – much older than me,  so I thought. I don’t remember much of these sessions, except that they eventually  helped me to tell the weak scared boy to go, for Gods sake.

And then I sunk. Which was necessary. Which was practically mandatory – because I thought, up until that loss, that the life I had inherited was sustainable. That it was wacky, funny, unconventional perhaps, but I was sure it was all fine.  And that life would keep unfolding that way and that I could keep making a funny story about it at cast-parties after rehearsal, and that there was no harm done.

And suddenly, it was clear to me that something had happened again, that I never ever ever wanted to happen again, and that there was plenty of harm done. Plenty.

I began seeing the 25 year old therapist myself twice a week. I began noticing that I had symptoms, which I had never noticed as symptoms before. I would spend hours getting dressed, unable to see myself accurately in the mirror not because I was fussy about clothes but because I  unable to tell what I looked like.  I was not a night owl, I had regular, and pretty severe insomnia, terrible nightmares, intrusive memories, flashbacks, night-shame from my increasingly obviously not-so-normal childhood.

I began trying to tell the kind young therapist the story so far – to recount, recall  and reorder for myself  what exactly had happened. I came in to each session and told some other part of the story. I told  him, and myself for the first time what it actually felt like, parts of the story that I had ignored, the distressing, disturbing, terrifying, traumatic memories that swirled in my head instead of sleep. There was no familial or social relationship that would have listened. And my own shame and dissociation made it impossible to tell even if there had been.

This was it. Psychotherapy created the space for me to locate myself in the middle of a swirling tornado of chaos and confusion.

It took me years to tell it all. I barely noticed the young therapist because the need to tell it all was so overwhelming.

At the end of seven years, I said: “I think I am finished telling you what happened.” And I noticed that he was still in the room. And that he hadn’t left, or become terrified himself, or ever once looked away. That he had stayed through all of it. That I finally had a witness, who had heard the whole story, who had traveled from my first home, and then after my family exploded, back and forth, between my parents houses with me – who had made it through with me, and this meant that perhaps, I had made it through as well.

Then there was the present to deal with. How would I protect myself and how could I exist outside of the chaotic family that I loved and was attached to? How could I separate and individuate – and jump into the void and all the unknowns of adulthood  from a platform so unstable? How had I been and how would I continue to repeat this story?  How had I projected it on to others? How was I, without realizing it, recasting the characters from the original script in my adult narrative? How could I do something new, create something healthier for myself? Would I even recognize, or be attracted to available relationships when I encountered them? Would I always over-adapt to compensate for the wounds of others?

The flashbacks receded. I slept soundly through the night most nights. I could get dressed and leave the house easily enough. The panic attacks faded away. I don’t know when. I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t come to therapy for symptom reduction. I came to save my soul.

And eventually this (although for many years this was too terrifying): How did this all show up in my relationship to my therapist himself?  How did fear, distrust, anger, injury, paranoia, anxiety, chaos affect my ability to see him clearly, to connect to him? I began to actively use the therapy as a chance to watch the slow-motion replay: I could see my error, my out-of-bounds, my avoidance, my need, my indirection, my suspicion, my fear as it effected my participation, my attachment, my authentic presence in  therapeutic relationship right in front of my eyes. I saw what triggered my reactions and over-reactions, and learned  that forgivable acts can activate memories of unforgivable ones.

This felt like a super-power, x-ray vision. With this discovery I was suddenly able to see myself, and others  – and assess if I was giving what I should, if I was receiving what I needed. I could sense balance and imbalance, sustainable mutuality, and untenable lopsidedness in my relationships. I began to seek out others who could sense and speak of this too.

My joys and sorrows were increasingly responsive to the real events and stressors in my daily life – and less and less and less  about an unprocessed past bleeding out all over a messy present. I created reliable, loving, respectful relationships with friends, and chosen family in the present and the salvageable and loving members of my family of origin.

I mourned for all of those I had to let go.

I took up the profession for myself somewhere along the line, graduating from social work school just after I turned thirty, and eloped, marrying a man I had met five years earlier, the summer before graduation.  And I continued in therapy to deepen my examination of how my limitations and history were activated and projected into the therapeutic relationships in my own office and to keep my relationship with my husband and my in-laws – another family! – growing and healthy. And that parallel process – of being a psychotherapist – and being a client – strengthened and healed me even more.

And the relationship still exists, and always will. I don’t know how a 25 year old boy was able to contain a deeply traumatized 21 year old girl. But he did. And we have grown up together, and practiced parallel to each other now for over twenty years. I see him when life permits or requires. And that is less important than all that is absolutely permanent between us.

So: Can I say, in tangible terms, how I have seen psychotherapy heal, as a psychotherapist?

I guess the answer is yes.

It’s the Relationship…

I sometimes dread being introduced to other psychotherapists.

“Hi! Nice to meet you – you are a therapist too?!  That’s great – I do CBT, Motivational Interviewing and Behavioral Activation – what do you do?”




“I have an office…”  I’ll vague out and drift off.

When faced with the alphabet soup of “evidenced based psychotherapies” I find myself lost and speechless.

I don’t begrudge or devalue any of those interventions for the therapists and the clients that find them useful and meaningful.

But that isn’t what I do.

None of  the methodology, measures, the cognitive distortions or neuropsychological reprogrammings would have pulled me from the quagmire I inherited – there were only a few simple things that had any chance of aligning me with my soul’s mandate and the pursuit of meaning in my life: Image, Words, Metaphor,  Relationship.

I can’t eliminate behavior, and wouldn’t even dare arbitrate which behaviors are healthy or unhealthy. I can’t fix a damned thing. And I don’t practice therapy that fixes anything, because, frankly,  I never wanted to participate in a therapy or enter into a relationship with a therapist who wanted to fix me.

I can’t make anyone’s  problems go away, including my own. And as I get older, and watch myself revisit the same conflicts and complexes in  subtler forms I wonder if “change” in the sense that most people imagine it when they speak of psychotherapy, is possible at all, and if it is even desirable.

Healing is a word that means more to me than “behavioral change”  but only if “healing” primarily means  living with ever deepening compassion for our own, and other’s wounds and vulnerabilites.  I am not a “healer”  who knows how to make wounds disappear entirely, if at all. Scars, sensitivities, vulnerabilities, residues, susceptibilities, remain, even if the bleeding stops.

And often enough life gets better and worse and better and worse  on its own – with or without psychotherapy.

So what do I do?

Its not just other therapists that want to know  – clients also want to know “what kind of therapy” I practice – and they are especially entitled to an answer, and one that is not cloaked in mystification.

And here even the language of depth therapies fail me:  I do not “do” psychoanaylsis or analytical psychology, existential or Buddhist psychotherapy  – although these models and many others feel useful and meaningful to me at times in making sense of my own experience.

So I have an office. I sit in it. People come to see me, or sometimes we go walking together.

I care when the people who come to see me are angry, murderous,  numb, disappointed, in agonizing pain, terrified, lost, stuck, bored, nauseated, lonely – even when it is very hard, very painful, or when they feel these things because of something I have done, or something I have not done or cannot do.

Sometimes when things turn brutal for someone I care about  I’ll  just hang on for dear life. I don’t give up. I don’t turn away. I am not pushed over.

I stick around. I listen and I don’t retreat, and I am not easily scared or chased off.

I try to picture in my mind’s eye the people, places, things, and images that I am hearing about or sensing. Sometimes images, feelings and pictures seem to  float up in my own mind, drawn from my own life experience,  themes from stories I have read, myths I have heard – and I put these into words to see if they are connected to the pictures and feelings that are bubbling up in the person near to me. I remain curious and committed to understanding the words and pictures and sensations that are being communicated to me as precisely as possible. I surf through the waves of my own watery unconscious and the unconscious of my therapeutic partner. I keep my filter down and my aperture open wide.  I try to stay connected in the bumpy, rocky, scary, severe, extreme places where most social relationships will not venture. Where even  familial relationships can’t, won’t or don’t go.

I lend my self out. Not my “healthy ego”  – my Self, my heart, my dreams, the pictures in my head.

There are many of us who work in this way, and who could work in no other way.

I do this because it was done for me, and this meant the world to me.

Once, many many years ago, when I worked on a unit that served severely mentally ill adults, a psychiatrist pulled me aside to offer me some encouragement. “Do you know why your clients are doing so well?” she asked. “Do you know why they are getting better? Its not because you make sure they are compliant with their medication. Its not because you set clear behavioral objectives and treatment goals. Its because you love them like you belong to them. It’s because you take them into your heart like they are your own. You give of yourself, and they feel that and it makes them stronger.  I don’t know why everyone just doesn’t do that.”

At the time I didn’t know what to make of what she said. But I didn’t then and don’t know now how to work any other way.

A few years later, at that same job, I would come to understand the need people had to work from objective and objectifying stances rather than out of their subjectivity.

On the unit we all had small safety windows in our offices – so therapists and mentally ill clients could feel both safe together talking with the doors shut. As I sat at my desk to take my lunch break, and get some paperwork done, I felt several pairs of eyes peering at the back of my neck. I looked out the window to see four or five of my clients lined up to peek in on me, one after another, while I ate.

I opened the door:

“What’s up ? Can I help you guys? I’m on a break right now okay?”

“Come on” one of the older guys said to the crew “we better go so that we don’t use her all up!

I was getting used up, although it was never because of  them. The agency and mental health system I worked in wasn’t designed to support those who worked like me. It was designed to socially control the greatest number of people for the least amount of money. Commitment, abidingness, endurance, resolve, availability, intuition and meaning were far less important than outcomes and measures, and the elimination of unwanted behavior.

Although it is true, then and now, that I must always be vigilant not to give too much, not to give more than is required, or needed. I remain careful not to ever give in a way that will make others feel indebted to me or that leaves me drained or resentful. But that is my job, my responsibility to regulate. And if, and when, I give more than I can afford, or more than others need of me, it is my job to correct and compensate for, and never ever because others have used me up.

On my long morning run just after an introduction to a perfectly nice evidence based psychotherapist who had recited his alphabet soup of what he “did”, I heard these words rising up from my beating heart:

“Its the relationship that heals it is the relationship that heals the relationship that heals. This is my fervent belief and this is where I put my professional faith”

When I got home, I googled a bit trying to locate the rhythm and the cadence of these familiar words and realized that this mantra had resurfaced, slightly paraphrased, from a book I had read only once over twenty years ago:

It’s the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals – my professional rosary.  ~ Yalom, I. (1989), Love’s Executioner, London: Penguin Books, p.91

My acupuncturist once said to me: “I don’t know how you do it. How you work the way  you do.”

I don’t always manage as well as I would like.

When my own life becomes a challenge or crisis erupts for me, or when I foolishly attempt an “objective” survey of the scope of what I have undertaken I can overwhelm myself: Caring for my elders, for my children, for clients. When I attempt to itemize the breadth and depth and range  of all the different forms of care-taking I am immersed in, when I look at my days and weeks and attempt to catalogue all the pain, fear, vulnerability and dependency that is attached to me I sometimes fear that I can be used up and that I could drown in a flood of other people’s needs.

But, when I breathe, and move through my day moment by moment – I see that I am more buoyant than I realize  and that I am tethered not only to my teachers, mentors, guides, and therapists, who stayed afloat with and for me, but that I stay afloat with, for, alongside and because of  the deep and real relationships I have forged with those who pass through my office.

Image, words, metaphor and relationship cannot use me up. They fill my heart and keep me afloat.

It’s the relationship that heals the relationship that heals the relationship that heals.

Both members of the therapeutic couple.

All of us. Always.


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