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.

Looking Back

Death will not part us again, nearer to heaven than ten thousand ancestors who dream of me… ~ Rickie Lee Jones
The ancestors possess this in-between quality of the flown soul and the hovering presence ~ The Book of Symbols

Until a short time ago if you googled my name, without initials, credentials or qualifiers you would find only text and images of my most infamous and tragic relative. My name would summon a black and white photograph of a lovely blonde woman, posed formally, in a light-colored taffeta gown, with stiff bows and many strands of pearls. To me, she resembled my father, and how beautiful he might have been in drag. I never knew her, and although she lived in a perpetual vegetative state since my early adolescence – since before the internet existed – her life, her story, preempted my digital footprint until I reached the half century mark of my own life.

I often wondered what clients who googled me would make of it, when my name emerged on their screens attached to her story. Would they glean our association, guess that I was/am her namesake? Probably not. I never met her and my relation is distant enough, and further obscured by an adoption – that it is in no way obvious. It is an inconsequential, silly, tangential anecdote, a piece of Martha trivia shared sometimes at dinner parties when I’ve had a glass of wine or two.

Yet, when I realized that I had dethroned the preceding and deceased Martha Crawford in the digital archives, I found myself examining the psychological legacy I had inherited from our common ancestors and my peripheral relationship to her.

The ancestors are those who have “gone before” (from the Latin ‘antecedere’) all the life that has ever been, leaving behind the traces of kinship ~ The Book of Symbols

When clients first come to therapy, the first thing that a responsible psychotherapist does is to “take a history” enquiring about the biopyschosocial events, achievements, traumas, and milestones that compose a clients history from birth to the present:

“When did you first have these symptoms? Who are the people in your family of origin? How old were you when your brother was born? When your parents divorced? When your mother died? What was school like for you?”

Many clients resist, annoyed, wondering why I am asking about stuff from long ago that “obviously” has nothing to do with what is going on in the present.

Others are protective: “Look, I’m not interested in blaming my parents for my problems. My parents were great.”

Blame is not the point – I am scanning for patterns, for repeating themes, for unfinished business, for unexamined loyalties to the way things used to be, that have grown into present day obstacles, or, at least, are no longer useful.

Thorough clinicians often try to reach back before birth: “Do you know the story of how your parents met? What do you know about your mother’s childhood? What was your father’s relationship with his grandfather like?”

Family systemic therapies look back as many generations as possible, creating complex genograms, family trees graphed out, dotted with triangles, circles, and squares.

I remember in social work school family systems class, as we were all asked to chart out our own multi-generational family histories – the students’ gasps of surprise as patterns suddenly seemed to pop off of the page – recurring generation after generation.

I had my own realizations: My paternal great-grandfather had died when my grandfather was nine years old, my grandfather had divorced and abandoned my father when my father was nine years old, and my parents divorced, my own father seemingly incapable of fathering any longer when I turned nine years old.

Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation. ~ Exodus 34:7 King James Version

Working at a day treatment program early in my career, I sat with the aunt of an African-American client who had severe limitations in his ability to communicate about his own history. Together we sketched out a genogram on a legal pad as I asked her about who had married whom, how many children they had. Suddenly she asked me a question, gesturing to my name plaque on my door.

“Your middle name, is that a family name?”

“Yes” I answered, “why?”

“I just wondered…” she drifted off, her brow furrowing. She tapped her pen on my page as she then wrote in the same uncommon family name, my middle name, into her family tree. Surprised, I couldn’t wrap my head around her question.

“What do you wonder?”
“Any of your ancestors live in the South?” she enquired.

My heart froze, as I realized what she was wondering. I suddenly noticed that the naming patterns in her family and in mine were shockingly similar: the client’s mother (aunt’s sister) was named Martha, and their maiden name was the same as my unusual middle name. There were uncles and brothers who had my brothers’ names, and my own aunt had the same first name as the woman sitting in front of me. As I looked over the page I saw grandparents and great grandparents with similar (or exact) and fairly uncommon first names. My mind scrambled, my heart pounded as I rapidly flipped through that branch of my family tree as I knew it:

“No. Midwestern Quakers, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota – many many generations… Its funny, I see not only my name, but lots of my old Quaker relatives names, here, and here, and here, in your family tree.”

“Oh, Quaker names…” she smiled warmly, obviously relieved and took my hand “I suppose that its just some sign that you are the right person to help our sweet boy.”

It was the beginning of one of the sweetest, warmest, most touching relationships I have ever known with a cherished client and his family.

Yet, this exchange about the historical, cultural realities of our lives – of who our people might have been to each other – of an abomination that my ancestors would have been legally empowered to inflict upon their greats and great-greats – served as a reminder of what had, in fact, been inflicted, of what had been survived, of the strengths and losses of previous generations and what had unfolded for this family in its wake. What could have been between us, and what was, and the attending irreconcilable divergences were as alive in our relationship as the synchronicity of our mirror-names.

Our historical context matters. It lives in our names, in our bones, in our privileges, in our genes, in our family stories, and in our strengths, scars, wounds and failures.

How would we have survived had we not been carried on the shoulders of the ancestors? How would we have found our way had we not been guided by the psychic deposits they have left us as signs….They haunt us if neglected. The bother and disturb us if we do not honor their living presence. ~ The Book of Symbols

I’ve had many clients who saw their parents behavior as mystifying, intolerable, oppressive, unjustifiable. And when we looked into their deeper historical/cultural/generational histories – of curtailed freedom, poverty, oppression, famine, war, genocide – “bad” parental behaviors suddenly became acts love from another time, another circumstance. A crying child – while a family hides from a murderous army – must have its emotional vulnerability suppressed in order for future generations to exist and survive. Parsimony appears withholding and unloving until a family history, a generation or two prior, of extreme poverty is understood and acknowledged. Cloying anxiety about a child’s diet can look merely pathological if a deep family history – of not knowing when they might next eat unconsciously conveyed forward into the present – has been overlooked.

Sometimes awareness of the personal aspects of our deeper histories fade away due to simple disinterest, disrespect for what came before, from passivity, or lack of curiosity and empathy.

And we all know what happens to those who forget history.

The unconscious compulsion to repeat can extend well beyond the scope of an individual life.

The dead may be malevolent or benevolent, feared or admired, given bribes to keep them from mischief or gifts to make them happy. ~ Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend

And there are lost and stolen stories, the broken narratives of disrupted bloodlines: Adoption. Death. Family severance.
There are unspeakable, silent legacies: Trauma. Torture. Abuse.
There are intentionally suppressed histories: Secrets. Shame. Lies.

And certainly the stories and mysteries that surround both the Other Martha, and my grandfather, the events that bound them to each other, have been a hovering presence in my life: legacies which could not ever have been predicted, inheritances painful, joyous, and surprising. And that are also in some form, being passed on to my children for good and for ill.

According to traditional Korean beliefs, when people die, their spirits do not immediately depart; they stay with their descendants for four generations. During this period the deceased are still regarded as family members, and Koreans reaffirm the relationship between ancestors and descendants…

But, I have seen too much to believe that anything is ever really lost, even when we do not have conscious access to our inheritance – our bodies speak, the ancestors whisper in our ears, live in our cells, in our genes and come to us in our dreaming.

They cannot ever be taken away from us completely, nor can we escape them.

They are with us always and everywhere,
whether we like it or not.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

The Seed

To see things in the seed, that is genius – Lao Tzu

At the initial consultation with any new case, I search for the seeds. The small, encapsulated point of contact that is filled with all the potential for whatever might be able to grown between us, as well as the seeds of destruction: the previous patterns and pre-existing conditions that will challenge any healthy connection and may even block our growth together entirely.

And there is something else I am scanning for as well. Something more mystical maybe – something that a good evidence-based skeptic would scoff at; a sense of the soul-seed of the person sitting across from me.

There are intuitive indicators internal and external: a client who reports a dream that led them to me, a certain kind of swelling identification, a little empathic heartbreak, the wish to soothe and console or a restrained impulse toward all-out rescue. A sensation that makes my heart feel bigger than it was before we were introduced, a rising courage to withstand something I had been afraid of seconds earlier, for the sake of a just-met person whose name I am not quite sure how to spell yet.

This Soul of mine within the heart is smaller than a grain of rice, or a barley-corn, or a mustard-seed, or a grain of millet, or the kernel of a grain of millet. This Soul of mine is greater than the earth, greater than the atmosphere, greater than the sky, greater than these worlds. (The Upanishads, Chandogya 3.14.2-3)

I look for some intuitive confirmation that we may be right for each other and that I can provide the necessary conditions for their truest destiny, the best, deepest, highest, hardiest Self to emerge. I am trying to assess if I have the resources to support them in withstanding and thriving even if the elements are less than ideal, if the therapeutic connection I can provide will prove to be fertile soil.

But even if I spy these tiny potentialities, there is no predicting with any degree of certainty what direction they will grow, or if they will take root at all. What we hope for together may not manifest. Who you think someone will become may bear no resemblance to who they turn out to be. Nothing is as consistent over time as we would hope.

Farmers know this in their bones, there are few certainties.

Except for one:

The Mother and the Mustard Seed
A woman whose child had died asked Buddha to resurrect her babe. Buddha promised that he would do so when she returned to him with a mustard seed from a home that had not been touched by death. She traveled from village to village seeking a home where no one had died. She returned to Buddha without the seed, realizing that death and suffering were inescapable, and vowed to spend the rest of her days seeking to console the suffering of others.

Personas, false selves, and even what were seemingly core identities can, terrifyingly, die on the vine in an instant. As external conditions are always changing, our route to survival and growth can cause us to diverge from any anticipated trajectory. We are epigenetic creatures: we are no fixed thing. There is a step-wise process through which the inner germ of our identities, triggered by external and environmental influences, can lead us to act in ways that we could never have planned for. And which could never be discerned from gazing at the dormant seed, or the picture on the front of the seed packet.

Too many people I thought I had known throughly – both in and out of the office – have suddenly blossomed or gone to seed, flourished or died out, transforming into someone, or some alternate way of being that I could never have anticipated and which surprises me utterly. Sometimes it is a heartbreak as they become something I can no longer recognize, relate to or understand at all. Sometimes the harvest is more abundant than I could ever have hoped for.

And certainly, there are times that whatever I envisioned at the outset – for good or for ill – was just dead wrong. Even the gods don’t hazard such predictions.

Behold, a sower went forth to sow; And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear. ~ Matthew 13 King James Bible

The surprise unfolds in both directions. Cases I thought I was foolish to take on become deeply gratifying. Connections easily established fall to pieces. Perhaps the most surprising is when my initial impressions bear whatever fruit I thought they might.

Survival, and certainly the processes associated with thriving are inherently creative, and therefore surprising acts.

The “Seed of Life” is a sacred geometric pattern, consisting of seven circles in sixfold symmetry – an interlocking pattern of spheres and seeds – which forms a basic component of the Platonic solid known as the Flower of Life. ( ) In Kabbalistic thought it represents the six days of creation and the seventh day of rest.

The creative processes of adaptation and Life itself, which seems to unfold in a straightforward, sequential uninspiring manner, can startle and amaze us with their symmetry when viewed all at once or with hindsight.

The pattern repeats, until we become aware, and sometimes continues, even then, without our choosing. Organic growth rarely shows us where it is heading in advance. We never know for sure if the seeds we have sown will feed us or leave us hungry. It is, too often, only revealed after the fact.

Some seeds never sprout above ground at all, but do their work entirely deep below the soil, in the Underworld.

In Greek myth, when Persephone is kidnapped by Hades she retains every chance of being rescued by Demeter, her mother, assisted by Helios the sun – who locates the missing maiden – and Zeus who demands her return to resolve the global famine triggered by Demeter’s grief-tantrum. Until Hades offers Persephone a quick snack: six pomegranate seeds. Unbeknownst to her, swallowing those six small seeds -certain they were harmless refreshment, something she thought she knew and recognized, and yearned for as familiar nourishment – sentenced her to live as the bride of Hades, Queen of the Underworld, separated from her devoted Earth-Mother and all that she loves above ground for six months out of every year, half of the rest of her eternal life.

Attaching too certainly to our expectations of others, banking on potential outcomes can take us on dark and harrowing journeys.

When we fall in love, we are attaching to the archetypal Seed in the romantic Other. In the early months of connection, we fall for their potential, who they hope to be, what they might grow into, and who they wish they were – rather than who they actually are. Only time can reveal that.

And we can be proved wrong. Or perhaps we were exactly right, but that seed exists only as one potential among many. We can fall in love with something the beloved does not even know exists inside themselves. Certainly the mustard seed has no knowledge that it can grow into the tallest and most useful of plants.

Sometimes we can believe so much in the unrecognized potential of another that we can help them to manifest it, but only if it is what they yearn to grow into.

Other times, we find ourselves more committed to a Seed in our loved ones than they are. Anyone can choose to arrest or prune their growth, change direction, or yank a potential Self out at the roots. When this happens, attaching too tightly to our favorite Seed or the as yet unmanifest Best Self in our lovers, friends, children, parents, clients – can deplete all of our resources and yield nothing.

In ego-psychological terms this Seed can be thought of as the ego-ideal. In the Venn-diagram of Freud’s tripartite structure – the Ego-ideal lives in the seed shaped overlap, ( a vesica piscis) between the Ego (our conscious sense of self) and Superego (our internalized moral injunctions) It is the seat of our conscious dreams, ambitions and aspirations of who we believe we could and should be.

Then said he, Unto what is the kingdom of God like? and whereunto shall I resemble it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it. ~ King James Bible, Luke 13:18-19

It is our ideal and idealize-able self, the Self that we need never feel guilty or ashamed of. The favorite Self that we wholly morally approve of, the Fulfilled Self, the Be-All-You-Can-Be Self. The Self many of us spend our lifetimes pursuing at a distance, our Actual Self lagging far behind.

Lovers, parents, (and therapists for that matter) need to see this in us, nurture it, admire and believe in it, but not too intensely. If they attach too exclusively this Seed, we will feel abandoned in our daily deficits and vulnerabilities. We will not feel loved for who we are, but only for the potential gratification our Seed-self can offer. We want our shitty, stupid, annoying, pain-in-the-ass bits – to be acknowledged – for that is where our deepest needs lie.

Loving relationships of all kinds wither when they are nurtured in the wrong way, loved too much for incomplete reasons. Too excited for the imagined harvest, there is no quicker way to kill a seedling than by overwatering. You cannot pry open a bud to see the flower or eat the fruit that lies within the pit.

The inherent mystery of the Seed – and perhaps of the therapeutic process itself – is this: It is a small piece of the whole which also contains the whole within it while at the same time it is also nothing definite at all, unmanifest, pre-existent, uncertain.

It is the starting point,
or not,
of a future completely unknowable.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

The Wrong Road

“So what do you think is the right thing to do?”

“So should I leave him?”

“Should I take the job?”

“So are you saying I should tell my mother this?

There is one, simple, correct therapeutic answer to all of these questions:

“What the hell do I know?
What am I? A fortune teller?”

It is true that over the past two decades I’ve had a chance to watch a lot of people make a lot of decisions and I have borne some witness to the outcomes.

There have been trends, there are some patterns that emerge. I do have a sense, an impulse about the kinds of decisions will lead to conflict and chaos, or those that may make life more stable and comfortable.

There are statistical truths. But no one can tell you where one individual’s choices will place them along the statistical spread.

And in my experience, the worst outcomes from bad decisions emerge when bad decisions become cumulative.

It is generally true, perhaps, that impulsive, drunken Las Vegas wedding-chapel marriages between strangers are generally not successful – and if you were consulting with me – and if you paused the evenings revelry long enough to place a long-distance call for an urgent phone session and I picked up the phone (this has never happened and would never happen) I would undoubtedly express my concerns. I would encourage you to slow down, sober up, and think about it tomorrow – remind you that it is a decision that doesn’t have to be made tonight, and I would try to understand what lurks behind the intense urgency.

But always with the same caveat:

What the hell do I know?
Perhaps you’ll be divorced in a month, perhaps they will take you for everything you own, or perhaps, you’ll be married happily and prosperously for 50 years.

Chances may be slim mind you, but its possible.

If your intuition is pressing you forward despite all reservations – you will likely go ahead no matter what I say and meet your fate on the road ahead.

Perhaps this is the best or the worst choice imaginable, and either way it could change your life forever. Maybe it is the very wrongness of it that makes it a necessity. Maybe you in fact need to experience the terrible and awesome intersection of fate and free-will in order to face your destiny.

Such fateful decisions and dangerous trials loom at the heart of every myth and fairy-tale:

“Hansel, since you asked: I think you need to proceed with caution if you are planning to nibble nibble on that candy housekin like a little mousekin. And, you should talk to your sister, Gretel about it as well. Of course you are starved and abandoned – but, in my experience such candy houses are generally built by cannibalistic witches who use them to fatten children up for dinner – so be prepared. You do have other, more prudent options: you can collect kindling and try to fish from the nearby brook.”

“But what the hell do I know? Perhaps by surviving this witch, and finding a way to recognize and protect yourself from the Dark, Toxic mother, the archetypal Sow Who Eats Her Own Piglets you will be able to at least hear the song bird of your own psyche leading you back home, to your loving father. You’ll have to make your own choice, and encounter your own destiny. I’ll be here to back you up whatever choice you make.”

Some of the greatest saints and heroes of myth and scripture headed down the wrong road.

And there was no stopping them:

Before he became Saint Paul, he was a political assassin known as Saul, who set off down the road to Damascus “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (King James Bible Acts 9)

And as he set off down the wrong road of murderous intent, Paul met his moment of grace:

“And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven and he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? (King James Bible Acts 9)

An instructor who introduced me to Jungian thought once advised me with regard to a “problematic” case:

“You have to be careful not to take anyone’s Road to Damascus away from them”

Oedipus, on the other hand, did everything he possibly could to mitigate his fate. He tried to make the safest, most self-and-other preserving choices imaginable:

In spite of his beloved parents’ denials and their attempts to protect his royal inheritance, Oedipus struggles with a persistent nagging suspicion that he has been adopted. He decides to seek the guidance of the Oracle at Delphi to uncover the truth.

The Oracle apparently ignores his question and tells him instead that he is destined to “Mate with [his] own mother, and shed/With [his] own hands the blood of [his] own sire.”

Desperate to avoid his foretold fate, Oedipus leaves Corinth, believing that Polybus and Merope are indeed his only parents and that, once away from them, he will never harm them.

On the road to Thebes, he unknowingly meets Laius, his biological father. Unaware of each other’s identities, they quarrel over whose chariot has right-of-way. King Laius moves to strike the insolent youth with his heavy scepter, but Oedipus throws him down from the chariot and kills him, thus fulfilling the first part of the oracle’s prophecy.

And we all know what happens after that… poor man.

Oedipus made the most loving decision possible based on the data at hand – (although perhaps ignoring his own intuition that insisted he was adopted, driving his consultation with the oracle in the first place)

And he too, met his fate on the road.

I have no way of knowing if you are setting off on the road to Damascus or the road to Thebes when you find yourself at the crossroads of a potentially fateful decision.

The blatantly obvious Good decision, the choice motivated by the best intentions can lead to hell.

And the wrong road can lead to an encounter with Grace.

Both possibilities and their opposites exist.

There is no telling.

Whatever “wisdom” I may have accrued, I make no predictions.

I cannot seal your fate. I am no Oracle.

I can listen with you for the “tells” that your own intuition sends out. I can voice my own intuitions and sensations about what may lie down either path. I can help you prepare for what you may encounter. I can stay by your side, and help you respond in alignment to who it is you mean to be.

But, such choices will always be your own.

And listen to this:

Perhaps it is the very process of trying to make the “right” decision – the judgements we create against or in favor of what we perceive as a “good” or a “bad” outcome – that causes our fear and suffering.

Suppose there no merely good or bad option.

Perhaps there is only:
A decision and the consequences, -anticipated and unanticipated – that flow from it.

Light and darkness are always mixed up together. Good and bad luck too.

Darkness can never be avoided. It is present, in some form, in every choice we will ever make.

The question is how will we respond when it emerges.

As therapists, it is easy to be seduced into wanting to protect the people in our care from their own choices. To watch someone making a complicating, challenging mess-making choice can make us yearn to redirect and intervene. We wish we could “stop” it, and help them to make “better choices”

But, sometimes the hard road is the only road where we will meet ourselves.

And we must always bear in mind that everyone simply chooses the road they need to choose. Most often, we make the only choice we know how to make.

One of my kids favorite folk tales is found nestled in a popular children’s book:
Zen Shorts by John J. Muth.

The Farmers Luck is an ancient Taoist tale in which a wise farmer encounters many twists of fate. His horse runs away and the neighbors cluck: “Such bad luck!” And the farmer responds: “Maybe…”

The horse returns with a wild herd, and the neighbors cheer: “Such good luck!” and the farmer responds: “Maybe…”

His son breaks his leg and the neighbors cluck.. and the farmer responds “Maybe…”

Officials come to draft his son into the army, and the broken leg exempts him. And the neighbors cheer…


There is no right road. There is no wrong road.

But what the hell do I know?

Maybe, our task at the crossroads is simply to tolerate the Maybe.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Walking in Circles

“Stories move in circles. They don’t go in straight lines. There are stories inside stories and stories between stories, and finding your way through them is as easy and as hard as finding your way home. And part of the finding is getting lost. And when you’re lost, you start to look around and to listen” – from Writing For Your Life by Deena Metzner

I’ve spent my whole life wandering in circles.

The alarm clock rang three days during each school week at 5 am. Early enough for my mother to dress my half sleeping self in tights and skating clothes and get me to the ice rink before elementary school.

In the olden days of my youth, competitive figure skaters actually skated figures. We studied over 70 variations, increasing in complexity, of figure eights, with loops, half-turns, full turns, forward and backward, inside edges and outside edges, in order to work our way through the eight levels of testing that lead up to auditions for the Olympic team.

We were assigned completely clean patches of damp re-freezing ice freshly wiped by the amazing, magical, mechanical Zamboni. The goal was to move through a single figure eight variation, three full times around the double circle – but to leave only a single tracing on the ice with our blades. The belief was that the concentration, skill, precision and symmetry developed by skating figures created strong, balanced bodies and minds.

Three days a week, in the dark early mornings, a rink full of young girls and a boy or two, slowly, painstakingly tracing perfect circles, in complete silence, each on our designated patch. As the sun rose, the artificial lighting softened and we came off the ice for breakfast, our coaches would crouch on their hands and knees to examine our tracings on the ice.

I learned, before I understood almost anything else, that there were innumerable ways to move through the same circle and that nothing ever repeats as precisely and exactly as we imagine, no mater what we wish, even when we would like it to.

When we are lost we walk in circles too:

I spent years and years in my own therapy wandering around and around encircling wounds and memories, sorrows and rages, until I finally began to recognize the landmarks, and the shape of my own foot prints.

After many years, I grew comforted by the familiarity of the path and confident that I could find my way. I could then move on to new loops, wider-ranging, of increasing complexity and mounting mastery, all of which, even still, return me to the same familiar starting point. When I re-recognize the path around my core self, I know it is time rest or grieve, or remind myself where I come from before I set out again.

“God, you must be so sick of me.
I come in here and talk about the same crap week after week.”

I imagine all clients think it, and many utter it out loud at some point in the therapy when we realize that our conscious choices have led us unconsciously back to the beginning again. In therapy, we are always talking in circles – repeating the same core narrative over and over again, trekking along looping and overlapping trails.

For some period of time, the inevitable return to base camp is experienced as a defeat, proof that we can never escape our past, be done with it, or get over it, or stop repeating. It is exquisitely frustrating to discover that we have stumbled back to the the beginnings again.

Here is some news for you: We never escape our past.

Over time, we can come to have some compassion for ourselves, some acceptance of the inescapable repeat, and hopefully, some awareness that we never, in fact, can repeat the same loop in the exact same way. We repeat differently each time, and our cumulative circling is not without some subtle, valuable accumulated gains. We negotiate ever more sophisticated and savvy variations of the same themes.

Spiral learning.

As we pass over circular pathways layer upon layer of experience and understanding, of self-reflection, and compassion for ourselves and others builds up underfoot.

Sometimes, the encircled thoughts are erecting an essential defense, necessary protection against a frightening external threat. Or sometimes the circle securely incarcerates a perceived danger from within, or guards the treasure of our true, core Self.

The labyrinth at Crete was built at King Minos’ request. The purpose of the circular maze was to house the terrible Minotaur – a monstrous half man and half bull – birthed by Minos’ wife Pasiphae. A punishing curse from the the gods: Pasiphae’s passion for a sacred bull begot a shameful monster child, who at first nursed at his mother’s breast, but whose inhuman, insatiable growing appetite for human flesh had to be hidden and contained at the center of a long, dizzying circular pathway by order of the King.

Our monstrous half-human, blood-thirsty selves – our enraged, rejected, and shamed animalistic states can lurk at the dark center of a series of entwining circles until our conscious heroic self wanders through the maze, around and around the periphery building up strength to face down the internal horrors.

“Once upon a time, Shiva and Parvati decided to find out which of their sons, Ganesha or Karthikeya, was better. So they decided to settle the issue by giving their sons a test. “Whichever one of you goes around the world and comes back first is the winner,” said Shiva to his sons. He had barely uttered these words when Karthikeya got on his peacock and flew as fast as he could around the Earth, while Ganesha found the lazy but clever way out — he simply went around his parents thrice.

‘Why are you circling us?’ asked Shiva of Ganesha.

‘You are my parents and you represent the whole world to me,’ said Ganesha — and of course the elephant god won the contest hands down.”

(as told by Arun Ganapathy, )

We must always circumnambulate around the temple.

It is dangerous and audacious to approach the sacred center straight on. We can be struck down by the gods if we are arrogant enough to do so. The core Self will protect itself at any cost if it perceives an advance that is not circumspect.

This is the source of the circumnambulating interpretation, the indirect round-about, meandering, encircling questions that therapists use to approach central conflicts:

“Hmmm, I wonder if that is ever hard for you sometimes….”
“What do you think it might be like if…..”
“I’m sensing something seems to be replaying, do you have any thoughts about what it might be…”

A slow, wandering, lost, circular pathway is the only respectful road to what is most important to us.

Another memory: from my earliest 20’s, the post-collegiate years. I worked in a theater where a highly-respected, multiple Tony award winning stage & film actress was performing a one woman show. Still lost and unconsolidated I asked her as soon I had the chance:

“When did you finally know you were really an actor, that you were on the right path?”

“Never.” she said.

She continued:
“If you are going to commit to this process, you are committing to asking yourself the same four or five questions- whatever your own questions are – over and over for the rest of your life. You might find some answers here and there, but always, the same goddamn questions will return and have to be faced again”


Forty years later I still wake up each morning and head out of the house to move through my circles. Circle walking is central to the martial arts practice of Baguazhang. So far, over the past 7 years or so, I’ve learned 14 or 15 new ways to move around a circle, and many more forms lie ahead. Every two weeks Master Yang scrutinizes and corrects my forms. His way around is always easier and flows more naturally than my own cockamamie methods and constructions.

Now my ambitions are modified, my goals simpler: Each morning, as I circle-walk, I simply try to eliminate one more of the thousands upon thousands of ways that I make the path harder for myself.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

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