Death Notices

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so.
~ John Donne, from The Holy Sonnets, Death Be Not Proud

When I met my husband, his mother had been dead for four months. After a short time, he took me to meet his father, and to see the home that he had grown up in, the home that he had moved back into during the the last year of his mother’s life.

When he opened the door, and I stepped into the foyer, I had the sensation that comes when you walk into a room that someone else has just left seconds before. A palpable electromagnetic wake – the air molecules moving in eddies behind some recent but unknown activity. A purse plopped in the chair near the door. A gum wrapper folded neatly and placed in a decorative dish. A sweater with a tissue peeking out of the pocket slung over the arm of the couch in the living room. She was still there. Her presence, in her absence, remained everywhere, in every nook and cranny of the house.

For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
~ John Donne, from The Holy Sonnets, Death Be Not Proud

A cook book with a page booked marked in the kitchen. A paperback novel, its spine cracked, pages splayed faced down on the coffee table.

It would be several more months after that, long enough for our relationship to consolidate, and for me to understand more about the family’s grieving process, before I would ask David and his father politely and tentatively, if it would be helpful to them in anyway, for me to pack up her things. Yes, they said, it would be very helpful. They were clearly emotionally and logistically at a loss.

When his father was away for the weekend – I spent two full days boxing up a woman’s life while David hid out, painting and listening to Frank Sinatra on the radio up in the small spare bedroom that had been set up as a studio. He had worked hard enough trying to support her through a long and painful dying process.

I began on the lower floors, collecting the objects that were most obvious to me whenever I entered the house. Her purse. Her coats, scarves, mittens and hats. The minty scent of her purse and the perfume lingering on her scarves and coat collar were the first visceral initiation into the profoundly intimate act that I had undertaken.

After gathering the downstairs items, I took them upstairs to set up base-camp, assembling cardboard wardrobes and packing boxes in her bedroom. I opened her closet doors, and discovered her sense of style, her clothes and shoes. I saw that she kept her things carefully and in good condition and had thrown nothing out for many many years – dresses from the 1950’s, 60’s 70’s and 80’s hung throughout the closet, all in the exact same size. She was long, slim, tall, small-breasted, large footed. Her shoes were comfortable and expensive. She wore dresses primarily. Some slacks, but not so many. No blue jeans. Her smell grew stronger, more personal, closer to her skin as I sorted through the clothes.

She liked bright colors, nice textiles, weavings, hand knitted sweaters, clothing embellished with folk lace-work, needlework and embroidery from every culture and tradition. She had formal wear and cocktail wear that was clearly required by her life and her husband’s life in academia – but most of her clothing was beautiful, simple, comfortable, useful, special, one of a kind. No designer labels. Nothing frilly. Never fancy.

Her wardrobe and everyday jewelry showed signs of her Czech-Hungarian upbringing, her familiarity with Europe, the many languages that she spoke, as well as her extensive world travels and time spent living in Israel, in China. Pieces of tile, or hand made ceramics set in silver or mounted as pins.

And collections. Never just one of anything but many: a drawer filled with embroidered handkerchiefs, chests and closets in every room filled with hand woven fine fabrics and textiles. Hand hewn wooden bowls, baskets filled with delicately painted eggs from all over the world, another with hand made painted tops, another with ceramic mushrooms. A box filled with hundreds of carefully wrapped tiny blown-glass animals. Decorative boxes everywhere, painted, or carved, or upholstered in silk – one filled to the top with jade rings in every size. Another with tiny turquoise pins.

I threw nothing away. I placed items that might not want to be saved or given away, in their own marked boxes for her sons and husband to look through for themselves. In this box I placed her tooth and hair brushes, make up lotions, perfumes, powder deodorant, razors and tweezers. The pill bottles from her long sickness. Her under-the-sink-things, her feminine hygiene products, her underwear, slips, socks, bras and panty hose.

I was told to set anything aside that I might want to keep for myself: I selected some textiles and scarves, a yellow linen dress with flowers embroidered around the yoke, a terry cloth housecoat from the 1950’s that was in the back of the closet and had clearly not been worn much at all and not in many years. A short black dress, with a white satin collar and cuffs, also from the late 1960’s, a blue and aqua hand knitted cardigan that fit me perfectly, and that I knew from her basket of yarn and the buttons in her immaculately organized Swedish sewing table that she had knitted herself. They offered me her 1947 Singer Featherweight 221 sewing machine, which is, to this day, my most prized possession.

As the intimacy of these items and this act revealed itself to me, I realized that although I had begun these labors to support those who were grieving: David, his father, I was really doing it for her. This thoughtful meticulous dignified woman, never met, who would have wanted her things collected, regarded, distributed, sorted, as thoughtfully and carefully as she had selected and tended to them in life. Who would have wanted to protect her family from the overwhelm and sorrow of packing her life away.

I imagined who I would want to wrap up my my unfinished business one day, and how I would want them to tend to it.

There is always an aftermath.

And although I do not believe that grief should be pathologized as a diagnosis or a medical condition, there is no psychotherapist who does not contend with the life-long implications of death or the processes of bereavement in some form every single day.

Memories of a weekend spent with the personal effects of the dead woman who would one day become my mother-in-law, are activated whenever I find myself professionally involved in the shockingly intimate processes of supporting people as they mourn the death of people that I have never met. And my mother-in-law’s specter spurs me, as it did that long ago weekend, to remember that in order to support the bereaved, we must, on some level enter into an internal relationship to the deceased ourselves, to understand who they were, to clean up the mess and the grief, to contain the emptiness and tie up the loose ends left behind with the living.

Over the years I’ve sat with parents grieving children, and children grieving the loss of parents, sometimes both at once. Adoptees mourning the death notices of first family members never met. I’ve listened to the unfolding evolving eulogies of siblings, grandparents, extended family, partners, best friends, classmates, chosen family, colleagues, neighbors, acquaintances, friends of friends.

And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and souls delivery.
~ John Donne, from The Holy Sonnets, Death Be Not Proud

We can mourn total strangers too. Death impacts many people who may not ever know the names of those they mourn: eye-witnesses, doctors, nurses, soldiers, first-responders and psychotherapists can be changed forever by intimacies with those who have left their bodies behind.

I hear these sorrows and traumas too.

And although I remain firmly agnostic about such things – I have on more than one occasion had the sensation that the dead have led a client to my office, so I would care for the the good and bad, light and shadow, that they have left behind in the hearts of others.

And as I support the bereaved, I inevitably wonder: What would the deceased wishes be – how should they, would they have wanted the person in front of me cared for? How would they respond if they were here to witness what I am seeing? How would this client’s mother want me to deal with the rage and pain her death has left behind? How would that dead man want his son treated? How would a deceased husband respond to his wife’s relief at his passing? What might that young woman feel if she saw how her brother suffered after her overdose? How would the dead want me to understand them through the things they have left behind? How would their best-self – or their worst, most-defensive aspects – respond to their survivor’s anger, betrayal, relief, sorrow, terror, pain?

I don’t work from a distance. I frankly don’t know how to – the only way I know to support those grieving and bereaved is to try to learn about the size, shape and feel of their loss as specifically as possible. To use my heart and imagination to understand as much as I can about the person being mourned. To sit with those who mourn by entering into relationship with the dead myself. To allow myself to be affected by their life, their absence, their death.

To be caught in their wake.

I’ve listened to death-tales of suicide, murder, illness, accident, chronic self destructiveness, heroic sacrifice, masochism, police intervention, terrorist attacks, and statistically improbable, impossible deaths, as freakish as lightening on a sunny day.

Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
~ John Donne, from The Holy Sonnets, Death Be Not Proud

I’ve learned how they faced death, who they were before death struck and the consequences that followed their lives and deaths through entire communities of people known and unknown to them.

Loss and life spreads out in concentric circles – in waves, in ripples through time and across communities.

This has happened several times, maybe more times than it should:

I have listened to people, who do not know each other and who do not know that they all know me, as they sit in my office and describe the life and death of the same person. Like the proverbial blind men describing the portion of the elephant that they can touch – I hear from one what it was like to be an eye-witness to the accident, from another what it was like to miss them in an exercise class, from a third how it feels to lose the most important relationship in their lives, from a fourth the shock of hearing of the death of a professional colleague, from a fifth sorrow of losing an old college friend.

And like my mother-in-law, I have come to know them intimately, through their most personal details, their character and their residuum.

We all cut a broader path, leave a larger wake, send out more ever widening rings than we can ever realize.

I imagine such circles of inter-connection surround us all the time. Perhaps I have as many interconnections with the man at the deli, the crossing guard, the woman in the high heels in the elevator who smells of strong perfume. If my job were not to sit still in my office, and listen to what emerges, unmasked, unfiltered by social convention I might never consider this.

And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated;
~ John Donne, Meditation #17 From Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

The dead have taught me lessons I could learn from no living person.

Just as my mother-in-law departed before I entered the family, many years later my father-in-law died, just four months before our son came into this world. They never met each other either.

Shortly after my son came home I had this dream:

I was staring into a fireplace – watching the flames, and the logs spark and crackle. My father-in-law’s voice is behind me, a voice-over really- he is present and not present simultaneously. An accomplished scientist, pioneer in artificial intelligence, a biological reductionist my father-in-law believed in nothing romanticized or spiritual about death. Brain and mind were the same thing -and souls were non-existent. And as I watched the fire his voice said: “When you teach the boy about death, or when your own comes it is just like this: The fire converts the composition of the wood into another form of energy. See that spark? It breaks away from the body of the log, is carried upwards in the waves of heat and warmth, it burns out, and seems to disappear. But the warmth stays with you, is absorbed by you and those who are near, you inhale the carbon, the charcoal with all is uses remains long after the fire goes out “

And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

~ John Donne, from The Holy Sonnets, Death Be Not Proud

Whatever I believe or you believe or don’t believe I have no question that life doesn’t disappear.  We leave trails, waves, wakes, after-shocks, hang-overs behind us.

Our lives keep living, unfolding  long after we are dead.

And we are all unquestionably of eternal consequence.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
~ John Donne, Meditation #17 From Devotions upon Emergent Occasions 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hard Times


Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh hard times come again no more.
Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
~ Hard Times lyrics by Stephen Foster

I didn’t mean to write this, or intend to write anything – it is probably unwise to publish it, but I suppose I will anyway. Frankly I’ve been thinking I should take a break from writing altogether for a bit.

I’m just not so filled with easy inspiration, or reassuring confidence, or heart warming feel-goodisms.

My husband and I are in midlife and are, like many of our peers, sandwiched in between caring for our elders and our children. All of whom, for the time being are in significant and legitimate need of our support through some more and less challenging medical realities. Testing, appointments, evaluations, treatments, follow up, referrals. We are in the thick of it and it looks like we may be for a while.

A summer which felt like it was ripe with openings, fortune, potential and new growth crashed into a shocking and frightening fall which will unavoidably open up to a tiring cold winter.

It happens sometimes. We’ve faced such things before, and will again. I’ve seen and supported clients and friends and neighbors as they’ve passed through similar hard times.

Just as all human beings do.

But psychotherapists are supposed to be invulnerable, no? Fully actualized? Enlightened? Able to absorb anything that comes their way?

And who would want to see (or read) a psychotherapist in the midst of hard times?

Better to source out some therapist who is perky and happy! Who feels in control of life! Who can make you feel better!

Yet, sometimes life gets heavy. Sometimes there is work to be done. Sometimes we are pulled in many directions. Sometimes our choices are narrowed down by circumstances beyond our control. Sometimes a great deal is required of us. Sometimes, despite our plans and intentions, our possibilities restrict themselves to a very few or none at all. Sometimes our external freedoms become constricted. Sometimes the wolf is at the door.

So, for me, this isn’t a silly, playful, easy season filled with boundless, bouncy energy.

I am sometimes weary. I am sometimes overwhelmed. Sometimes I want to run. Sometimes I am incredibly proud of myself and my ability to keep moving, to get done all that I need to, and stay connected to myself and others. Sometimes I want to spend a day in bed with the covers over my head. Sometimes I am swelling with appreciation for the tender comforts around me, the honesty and intimacy and contact that the relationships in my life, personal and professional, offer me whether they know it or not.

Sometimes this season has offered me glimpses of deeper truths, timeless ones, that transcend and soothe through the rough and jumble of the road I am on for the moment.

I am all right. I’m okay just as I am. Where I am feels healthy and appropriate. To be too cheery right now would be denial of reality, a self-deception, and would pull me further away from the phase of life and the external challenges I am passing through for the foreseeable future. But certainly not forever.

Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more. ~ Stephen Foster

Happiness doesn’t last forever, but nor does sorrow, and neither does trouble. All states have gifts to offer, lessons to teach, blessings to bestow.

Things get heavy sometimes. Its just a fact.

Sorrow has its season.

Even for psychotherapists.

Energy retreats, retracts, and peace can be found in small, still moments, in quiet spaces deeply internal. Fake smiles, chit chat, false reassurances would make me less present, banish me, send me away, exhaust and deplete me more and make me abandon myself, thinning out my resources to connect to others.

“How are you?” Some clients routinely ask – usually I respond, honestly, “Fine! How are you?” Now my response is more subdued, but still honest. “I’m okay. And you?” or “I’m hanging in. What is happening in your world?”

Though her voice would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day,
Oh hard times come again no more. ~ Stephen Foster

To do this work I need to be in contact with myself, and I need to stay in contact with myself, and remain loyal to my own energies, even when it is not comfortable.

Through my professionally arranged face, through my slower, quieter responses, through the circles under my eyes, (which can betray me – no matter how much “concealer” I apply) some still feel the shift in my energies. Some, especially those who come for time limited short term work, to focus on a single issue, or who use therapy as a problem solving space, take it as their cue that it is time to finish up, assuming that if I am offering less, that it is a signal that our work is complete.

Some clients know part of the story, as medical appointments for family members have caused me to cancel, reschedule and rearrange appointments more than I have ever before. Some know the whole story because they dream of it, or read me so closely, and so hard that it frightens them more not to be told what is happening.

Some don’t know anything, or know a little, but need me to protect them from thinking too much about me – as it is hard enough for them to stay loyal to their own experience.

Some become angry with me, without knowing why, because they sense, unconsciously, in their pre-verbal places that part of my psyche is working on my own challenges and conflicts. For those who had depressed or preoccupied early caretakers it is especially threatening, as they are sure that if they sense any dip in my energies that I will become unable, unavailable, to sustain my caring, loving attention.

There are those who are immersed in much harder trials, more consuming, more traumatizing, more violent conflicts, more emergent circumstances and more acute crisis than mine and it snaps my perspective into place, as I move my own experience further down the triage list – and immerse myself in the need that is in front of me with the skills I have accumulated over many years.

Some, who perhaps I have enabled by being more active than was necessary when my tank was full to overflowing, are being given more space to take up the reflective, interpretive work as their own, as I hold back to listen more, perhaps offering less direction or guidance than I might in a more buoyant time.

And there are many moments through my workday which lift and inspire me: A client falling in healthy reciprocated love. Another who feels ready to marry. The birth of babies through hard pregnancies, the courageousness of a client trusting me enough to share the ways that they do not yet trust me. The bravery and integrity of another in the face of danger. A piece of creative work shared, beautiful and transforming. The incredibly powerful, awe-inspiring imagery of dreams. Undeniable growth, accomplishment, achievement, mutual admiration, appreciation. Closeness in all forms, shapes and sizes.

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more. ~ Stephen Foster

And then there are actual gifts that come with hard patches.

When the ability to engage in the Extraneous is eliminated, the Essential reveals itself more quickly and incontrovertibly.

Priorities become crystal clear. And when you trust your exhaustion, you know that it will steer you away from the superfluous, unnecessary.

And when you feel alive and engaged you know you are in the presence of something vital and healing for all involved.

I can feel when I am barking up the wrong tree almost instantly. I can tell when it is better to wait something out, rather than bang my head against the wall. I can spot any opportunity for relieving contact with the healing processes of Life as they move continuously between and around us all.

I have more compassion for myself: if I have a harder time organizing, scheduling, getting my bills done, or it takes me a beat or two longer to understand what is playing out in the room, I know that I am doing my best. I accept and take responsibility for my errors without being tempted to punish myself for them. I am doing what I can do. I can model self-compassionate behavior, a way of being that is less concerned, for now, with pushing past limitations than accepting them.

I may now have less energy for heroic maneuvers, for flashy interpretations. I will not be leaping over tall buildings in a single bound or pulling a rabbit out of a hat in the season ahead – I am currently unable to be seduced by inflation or grandiosity, it is just too tiring – and life is simply too humbling at present. I cannot over-extend, bite off more than I can chew, or take on anything that could prove to be too much later.

I am in exquisite and direct contact with my own needs, and the fact that I am finite.

I treasure and value the impact and the necessity of stillness like never before.

And I understand “self-care” less as a discreet activity or a scheduled event and more as an on-going way of being, moment by moment, in the presence of people who need me – as I negotiate the balance between their needs and my own and attempt to honor them both.

We will all pass through such times. And we can receive something from them as well. And if I can do nothing other than try, and fail, and try again to model an experience of being simultaneously intact and overwhelmed, of staying in caring and compassionate relationship to myself, my family and my clients, perhaps, through hard times that is more than enough.

Never to ask for easier circumstances, but for greater strength, and to accept gladly, (when they come) rest and ease along the road. ~ Pierre Ceresole

Pernicious Hope

Jung hung a plaque on his threshold which read:

“Invited or Uninvited: God is Present.”

The sign that I’ve often imagined placing over my office door, not quite as cozy and inviting as Jung’s, would read as follows:

“Surrender Hope Ye Who Enter Here.”

Although I suppose that a slogan lifted straight from Dante’s Gates of Hell might be a little daunting for new clients.

For some Hope may float, spring eternal, and be a thing with feathers. But very often my job seems to be to squelch, sink or pluck it.

Hope is an angel, but also a demon.

Nearly everyone who walks into this office does so because, whether they know it or not, one way or another, they are trapped in Hope’s dark clutches.

Pandora brought the box of ills and opened it.  It was the gift of the gods to men, outwardly a beautiful and seductive gift, and called the Casket of Happiness.  Out of it flew all the evils, living winged creatures, thence they now circulate and do men injury day and night.  One single evil had not yet escaped from the box, and by the will of Zeus Pandora closed the lid and it remained within.  Now for ever man has the casket of happiness in his house and thinks he holds a great treasure; it is at his disposal, he stretches out his hand for it whenever he desires; for he does not know the box which Pandora brought was the casket of evil, and he believes the ill which remains within to be the greatest blessing, it is hope.  Zeus did not wish man, however much he might be tormented by the other evils, to fling away his life, but to go on letting himself be tormented again and again. Therefore he gives Man hope,- in reality it is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of Man.  ~ Friedrich Nietzsche (Human All Too Human,  71. Hope)

Hope, may be the center of the three theological virtues along with Faith and Charity, but it carries dangerous and pathological aspects as well.

Hope, misdirected, misplaced, can cement our attachments to people and places that are destructive to us. Hope can dangle, like bait, with a sharp hook embedded inside to keep us waiting for transformations that will never come. Hope gone haywire lurks at the root of all addictions – and we all know the “definition of insanity” is doing the same thing over and over and hoping for different results.

Hope can block out necessary grief, forestalling or arresting entirely,  the sweet release of necessary loss and healthy mourning. Hope can deceive us, obscuring realities that we need to face. Hope can keep us waiting for Godot, who will never come. Hope to “get out of” is the root of all denial.

Pernicious hope lures the gambler to go “all in” on a long shot, and invites cowardice to search for means of magical escape. Hoping for divine intervention, waiting passively to be lifted out of circumstances that require our labor and our conscious intention, Hope can bind and paralyze us.

Youth is easily deceived because it is quick to hope. ~ Aristotle, Rhetoric

 Hope can keep us places that we need to leave, and seduce us into leaving places where we should stay.

Hope futurizes, pulling on us to abandon the present moment, and numbing us to it.

Hope insinuates that we can get out of our distress – when our soul’s only salvation may be to go through it.

Where Hope is, fear lurks just below.

We dread the dark lessons, the painful transformations, the inevitable losses  that life requires of us. We do not want to give up on the dirty well. Pernicious  hope tempts us to return to it over and over in search of clean water.

Hope is grippy, sticky, grasping.

It sneaks up quietly and carries a big hook:

Shenpa is the urge, the hook, that triggers our habitual tendency to close down. We get hooked in that moment of tightening when we reach for relief. ~ Pema Chodron

Hope is the ally of quacks and con-men, and the sidekick of all duplicity. We cannot be tricked if we do not hope for an easy solution or a free lunch. Hope helps Illusion disguise itself as Reality.

Hope can distract, divert, drain our energies away from dreaded but unavoidable  responsibilities, stealing our focus, and our acceptance of the task at hand.

Every defense, every resistance, every form of self-sabotage contains, at the bottom of the box, Hope in some form. 

Many describe themselves as hopeless, who are in truth, being tortured by pathological hopes that they cannot let go of.

To surrender hope is an exhausting and terrifying process. Hope is a habit  that is hard to extinguish, a fix we can’t stop jonesing for. It reasserts itself, stubborn, persistent, sneaky, a craving, a crutch.

The work of psychotherapy is often to chase down and sort through the flock of slippery and Pernicious Hopes in all their diverse and daemonic aspects. To capture one at a time, examine it, to challenge and question its true mission, to uncover exactly which god this particular Hope obeys.

To exorcise it.

And the therapist’s hopes can have as much destructive power as the client’s. To hope too much on behalf of a client is a rejection of where they actually are. To hope to cure a client is inflated and grandiose as that prerogative is theirs alone. To hope to rescue someone from their circumstance is avoidant and can instill more fear in the client toward what may lie ahead, implying that it cannot be faced. Therapists may also hope to escape the painful or frightening aspects of a client’s journey and wrestle with the tempting hope, like Jesus did, that the dark cup will taken from them both.

Surrender All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.

And much maligned Hopelessness, always given short shrift, can bring sweet relief. Giving up, surrender, admitting defeat, hitting bottom, allows us to lay on the damp earth, face down, grounded, maybe bloodied, but on the earth, and of the earth for good, for ill.

We can breathe again when Hope releases us from its clutches. When there is nothing left to lose, we are no longer afraid. We can rest, heal up, and when we have gathered our energies, face what is real squarely and without letting Hope deceive us.  Without Hopelessness we cannot embrace our fate or face our destiny.

The great gift of angelic Hopelessness is Acceptance.

To write without hope is the very best way to write.

Dante passed through the Gates of Hell, and descended through its terrible rings before he was permitted to rise up through Purgatory to glimpse Paradise.

True, angelic Hope lives on the other side of Hopelessness. It does not protect us from hopelessness or help us avoid it. It is the gift we are sometimes given when we have withstood hopelessness past the point of what we thought we could endure. It is often hidden, buried, or dwelling just past the horizon line of our limited perceptions. Sometimes it is just the sound of water, the smallest trickle, in the far distance. It is hard to hear, impossible to see, and rarely obvious.

Angelic Hope descends as an unexpected visitor, as a moment of grace as something we can never expect, demand, and will turn destructive if we cling to it too tightly.

It comes on its own. And not when it is called.

And we must too often abandon it, surrender it, kill it, in order to receive it again, anew.

And to extinguish hope is no guarantee of its arrival.

It will come in its own time anyway.

 

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

 ~  T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

 

 

 

 

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?”

Uh.

Umm.

Shrug.

“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 time 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.

Suspended

“We are lost, afflicted only this one way;
That having no hope we live in longing” I heard

These words with heartfelt grief that seized on me

Knowing how many worthy souls endured 

Suspension in that Limbo

 ~ The Inferno of Dante, Robert Pinky translator

 

The position of the (hanged) man: upside down, head below, hanging by one foot…. plunges us into the heart of the problem of the relationship between man and gravitation, and the conflicts the relationship entails. ~ Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, by Anonymous

 

I’m not sure what, if anything,  will come of this.

Its all up in the air, and it could leave you hanging too.

 I sit with my clients and listen as they move through their daily lives. Building careers, raising families, moving among and around weekly rhythms – work, commute, dinner, home, therapy appointment, weekend. The world is comfortably, or perhaps even oppressively predictable. The ground underfoot becomes a well-trodden path. The disruptive power of the Unknown, of the Unpredictable, seems reduced to a piffle. Lives are ordered. Choices are made. Cause and effect rule the day –  if x , then y.

Our sense of agency and ability to structure ourselves can appear inviolate. We imagine that we have the tiger by the tail, and that tragic, upsetting, disruptive things happen only to other people, to a colleague you don’t know too well at work, or a friend of a friend, or to the person whose photo is splashed  across the cover of of the NY Post being held by the stranger sitting across from you on the subway.

When suddenly, in a split second, the rules of every day are suspended. And we can find ourselves in a whole new world. A instantaneous slip into an alternate universe, one we did not choose and would never have picked if the choice was offered.

But it wasn’t.

The table turns in a flash – and any expectations that the next day will be better, or even vaguely resemble this one are disrupted. Crisis erupts or we fall into it, it flips us upside down – a job loss, a change of fortune, an unexpected diagnosis, a natural disaster.

Entrapping uncertainty can also creep up slowly:  we can find ourselves bound, against our will,  in long, excruciating waiting periods, slow builds, protracted searches for something or someone that may never be found, precarious processes with unclear prognoses. States where any and all  predictions might be reasonable – and our need to know what might come next is thwarted.  Incrementally or violently pressed into Life’s Waiting Room we thrash and writhe, or go limp and sleepy – we do all we can to escape this In Between Place where Life is neither feast nor famine, neither fish nor foul, neither here nor there.

This is the sorrowful state of souls unsure….

Who, neither rebellious to God nor faithful to Him,

Chose neither side, but kept themselves apart. 

   ~ The Inferno of Dante

There are times when we find ourselves suspended.

And I find myself strung up as often as anyone.

Dante locates Limbo as the first stop on the “deep and savage road.” a  place just inside the Hell-gates of hopelessness.  But we commonly think of it as a  space between Heaven and Hell, where even the noblest souls may suffer.

Will circumstances stabilize? Or deteriorate? Is hope useful or foolish? Should we prepare for the worst? Is this the end of the world as we know it? Or the birth of a better one? Is it the  gateway to a perpetually unfolding tragedy, the horror and losses of our greatest fears? Or will we be granted our heart’s deepest desire?

Whether to invest in our dreams coming true, or resign ourselves to despair there is no way to know. Souls in Limbo are abandoned by the very ability to anticipate or prognosticate.

Those who are activated by anxiety find it a place of tortuous buzzing agitation, as their inherent optimism leads them to believe that proactivity could positively affect the outcome.

Hapless ones never alive, their bare skin galled

By wasps and flies… 

 ~ The Inferno of Dante

 The anxious-avoidant can find passive comfort in the intermission –  some even draw it out – experiencing the enforced break in the action as reprieve from pessimism and fear: at least the worst hasn’t happened… yet.

This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last. ~ Oscar Wilde

 Limbo is an inconsolable, tension-filled deprivation. A lack of. A halting, a freeze, a holding of the breath,  a nothingness sandwich with hope on one side and despair on the other.

The soul seems to me to be in this state when no comfort comes to it from heaven and it is not there itself, and when it desires none from the earth and is not there either…

~ The Life of St. Teresa of Avila, quoted in Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism

Few recall Cicero’s morality tale about King Dionysius and his courtier Damocles who wished aloud that he might be king himself, and was cruelly threatened into gratitude for his lowly station. Yet, everyone remembers the heavy archetypal sword, the shiny point dangling just over Damocles’ head, suspended by a single horse hair.

We hope, like Damocles, for the opportunity to be returned to the moment before the threat loomed over us, to go on as we have been going on, to be spared further suffering or any darker transformation of our fate.

In suspense, we find ourselves exquisitely alone, the tension exacerbated by isolation:

The soul is suspended between heaven and earth; it experiences complete solitude. For here it is no longer a matter of ordinary solitude where one is alone in the world, but rather of complete solitude where one is alone because one is outside of the world  – the celestial as well as the terrestrial world ~  Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism

 The therapist needs to be acutely aware of their own and their client’s coping style, for when they are sitting with clients who are dangling between the worlds, one’s strategy may be intolerable to the other. “Let’s-get-this-over-with” mixes with “I’ll-think-about-it-tomorrow” as effectively as oil and water. And any misattunement  merely exacerbates the sense of banishment from the realm of the everyday.

My own experience twisting in the wind reminds me it is all too easy to fall into empathic error with those who are hanging in the Unpredictable In-Between. We cherish our rhythm of life and when we encounter others whose patterns have been disrupted we can too often rush past their powerless pause: “Oh I’m sure it will all be ok!” minimizes potential and looming threats. “Oh my god that is terrible!” smothers hope. Real empathy requires tolerating the dialectic, joining the tension of the opposites: “It must be so uncomfortable to not know what to expect, and to have to wait for any answer – I’ll hope along with you that all will be well, but know I will also be here for you if it doesn’t – I know that both possibilities feel very real right now.”

And although we may not be able to guess which way this cat is going to jump, the archetypes of myth indicate that there are gains to be had, lessons to be learned, from uncomfortable, even fatal suspension.

I know that I hung on a windy tree

nine long nights,

wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,

myself to myself,

on that tree of which no man knows

from where its roots run.

No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,

downwards I peered;

I took up the runes, screaming I took them,

then I fell back from there.

(~ Stanza 138 & 139 of the Hávamál)

The tarot’s Hanged Man is a rendering of Odin, who has strung himself upside down  in order to acquire wisdom. He will die from the suspension and be reborn hanging  from the world tree, a mighty ash known as Yggdrasil.

Perhaps the wisdom that Odin gains from his ordeal, and that suspension imbues is merely this:

We are always in Limbo, whether we recognize it or not. Life itself is a feral and untamed beast. Anything can happen, and many things beyond our control will happen. Even the most ordered and controlled life unfolds in a wilderness of unpredictability. We succumb to inflation when we forget this.

The Hanged Man is the eternal Job, tried and tested from century to century…~ Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism

 And maybe the only cure for such puffery and complacency is to intermittently find ourselves upside down, hanging, in a state of suspense until we are humbled and reminded that living is a wild unfolding, an eternally unpredictable event.

 

 

 

 

The Boy Who Would Not Stop For Death

I’ve searched for the hard copy everywhere. A twenty paged paper typed double space, almost exactly twenty years ago, before personal computers were a household or academic necessity. It must be in the storage bin somewhere, yellowing, with old journals, spiral notebooks and my collected graduate school syllabi.

I remember the grade written on top, I remember the professor, now deceased, who I wrote if for. I remember the main source cited: a small black leather bound book from the NYU library titled: Thanatology, the author forgotten. And I remember the boy, a client who was going to die, as we all will. And who somehow knew, although his mother could not bear to think of it or discuss it with him. A charming young boy who may have grown into a handsome young man, who, with luck and treatment advances, may still be with us, or who may be dead by now, but who is certainly still with me.

It was my first introduction to Death as an entity in the consultation room, although I have learned to recognize that specter as it lives and lurks in every treatment. There are those who specialize in bereavement, but the Psyche of every psychotherapist, every client, every human, has its own language to speak to the experience of death, dying, and grief.

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then ’tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.

~ Emily Dickinson

He was six or seven, and small for his age, the size of a five year old – likely due to the the ultimately fatal illness that will one day kill him, if it hasn’t already. His mother was stiff, strained, overwhelmed, impatient and brittle. I suppose I would be too. In his short life he had multiple hospitalizations, emergency room visits, and surgeries. As soon as his mother left the room he raised his shirt up over his head to show me the large surgical scars on his little round tummy just north of his outie belly button. He was funny, smart and wild. Acting out in school, not sitting in his seat, joking, distracting other children, disrespectful of any parameters. I spent a great deal of our play therapy together using Virginia Axline’s recommended limit setting intervention:
“I know you want to do X…. but you can’t.” And laughing.

I was a second year social work intern, placed for the year in a child and family clinic. His mother doubted I could be of help to her. She found him unmanageable and increasingly resistant to the nightly medical interventions that he needed to surrender to in order to keep on living. She didn’t talk to him about his illness, or explain the painful, boring rituals she needed to perform on him at home. And she certainly never told him that she needed his help keeping death at bay, and that one day, they would be unsuccessful.

She didn’t play with him either. He performed and clowned and mugged and joked like the corniest Catskills comedian trying to make her smile. She pretended that she wasn’t interested, that it wasn’t funny, that she needed him to listen to her, not to crack wise. But I could tell she was terrified that if she laughed, and played, and got on the floor and enjoyed him – Grief when it arrived, would destroy her. Instead, she brought him to play with me, and strove to keep soft sounds out of her voice when she spoke. She needed to stay cross with him, her brows furrowed, her mouth pinched whenever possible.

And so the silly boy and I played together twice a week. He chased me around the room, holding a big green stuffed monster-man doll. If the doll caught me I was to be buried. The throw rug pulled over my face like a death-shroud. He found a toy bulldozer on the shelf and dug “graves” in small piles of playdough and had the molding clay “swallow up” the playskool “guys” one after another. And then he would have me dig them up, and we would bury them again. The doctor’s kit was in heavy rotation, and I would be instructed to lay on the floor, while he would “cut me open” from my heart to my belly, and take my insides out, and sew me shut again, sweetly covering my shirt with bandaids afterward. In between games, he would giggle and tickle, wise-crack and tease, and bounce and burp, and laugh and laugh.

At my parental guidance meetings with his mother, who refused her own psychotherapy, I would encourage her consider opening up conversation with him about his diagnosis. She did eventually tell him the name of his illness, and explain what was happening in his body that required so many trips to the doctor, so many operations, so many painful practices to keep him healthy.

His prognosis remained unthinkable, and unspeakable. Once, at a consultation I explained that much of his play seemed to be about mastering an innate awareness of their mutual fears. And wondered if she thought it might be hard for him to sit on top of these terrifying questions alone. She decided that I was threatening to tell him, if she didn’t, that he would eventually die and threatened to remove him from therapy entirely. And although it had never crossed my mind to be the one to inform him, and I promised that would never happen, I could suddenly imagine him asking me directly: “Am I going to die?” I began to rehearse a response: “That is a very important question. What do you think?” as I simultaneously prayed that my inner dialogue would never manifest.

In our final weeks together, before my internship ended, we planned our goodbyes together. Specific treats were requested for our final two weeks and a scheduled review of our favorite games. The green monster-man chase, the “burying and unburying” playdough game, and the operation game. And for the final session: something else. He wanted his mother to join us, and for me to teach her how to play all of our games.

At first she refused. I was good at playing she said, she was terrible. I explained that I was always a stand in, the person he really wanted to work this through with was her. She was the only one he really wanted to play with. She asked about the games, and I made no mention of the internal interpretations that I assigned to our play: He like to chased me with a stuffed animal, and then cover me up with a blanket. He liked to use a bulldozer to dig some little guys out of a mound of clay, and, just like the doctor who they saw so often, and who seemed to be a role model, he liked to pretend to perform surgery with a doctors kit, and listen to my breath with a toy stethoscope, and put bandaids on the ow-ie. She agreed. Uncomfortably, but she agreed.

When she came into the session, he was thrilled. And decided to help her out: “So that no one has to be embarrassed, we will play in the dark!” he announced, flipping the light switches, plunging my windowless office into utter blackness. He agreed, after adult protests to open the door a crack to let a sliver of yellow light in from the hall. “I’ve got the green monster-man!” he squealed as he chased her around the room. They resurrected the buried doll-guys, and I heard his mother giggling in the dark as he tickled her while performing a joyful, and unorthodox surgery.

They left together laughing, his hand in hers. And I shut the door. Breathing in deeply through my mouth, trying not to sob, when there was a sudden knock on the door.

The boy stood there: “Hey!” he said, “HIGH-FIVE! Awww, too slow!” and turned to walk back toward the clinic entrance, with his thumbs tucked under his back pack straps. After a few steps, he tossed the back pack aside, turned and ran at me full speed, and flew into my arms.

Twenty years later, I still remember the smell of his hair.

The smallest sprout shows there really is no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
~ Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

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