Tree Dream


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Photo by Nerry Burg

In my dream, I was standing next to a tall tree. On the ground, very close by, was a stump. I said to the tree, “That must have been sad, to lose a fellow tree standing so close to you.”

“Yes,” said the tree. “It was there my whole life. When it was cut down, I felt the sun on that side for the first time. It was far too hot and too bright. Light fell on everything. It was so uncomfortable. All the shade loving plants that had stood in the space between us died.”

“I understand how that is,” I said. “It isn’t just the loss of a person. It is loss after loss after loss. It continues.”

“Yes,” said the tree. “Now there is a meadow on that side, spacious and green, but empty. Also, there is this.” It showed me several newer branches that had formed on one side. “These could not have been here before.”

“Oh,” I said. “I had not thought of that.  New branches growing.”

“Yes,” said the tree. “And what will eventually grow in the meadow now that the sun reaches the ground? I still don’t know.”

Anxiety’s Bag of Tricks


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The last few months have brought project after project and change after change, all of them joyous in their own way, and all challenging. From May to June, the Photographer and I were working on our back porch, a project we’d neglected, of necessity, during the winter months, but we quickly realized if we were going to be able to enjoy it at all during the nice weather, we’d best get moving. We spent over a week preparing and tiling the floor, only to finish a couple of days before a housewarming party with about forty people, which culminated in some wonderful time sitting on the porch with the last few remaining friends as the day died down. All in all, it was very worth the effort.

Shortly after that, I moved from my therapy office where I’ve been seeing clients for the last four years to a new space, but not before doing some much needed renovation on the new office. The Engineer drove up to help me spend two days tearing up the old floor and laying down a new one, then soundproofing the space. It was a sizeable effort, and I felt extremely fortunate to have such capable help and good company.

After that, a family beach trip, the moving of furniture into the new office, the navigation of all kinds of red tape associated with setting up business in a new space… the list goes on. My most recent project has been talking with authors and editing a book of their essays to be published next month in time for a book release and authors’ reception in September.

Yesterday, the Photographer and I helped a friend move. As I was packing up the last of her pantry and she was dismantling a kitchen table, we talked about the sort of anxiety that rears its head around times of transition. “I’ve been waking up at 2AM, worried that maybe I’ve missed a class and will find out they’re not actually going to let me graduate,” she said. “Yep,” I said, “I keep thinking I’ve probably missed some sort of business registration paperwork and they’re going to slap me with a fine.” We laughed about it, the sort of laughter that comes from having done battle with this kind of anxiety before. But there was a time when it had a completely different grip on me. As a younger person, I hadn’t yet figured out that anxiety has a bag of tricks, and that once you learn to recognize those tricks, you know when it’s just anxiety talking to you, and when it’s actually a concern that you might need to do something about.

Anxiety pops up when we have the least energy to deal with it, especially in the midst of transition, when we’re tired and feeling beat down. It reminds us that there are terrible, unfair, unlucky things that happen, and that if that is the case, probably those things are going to happen to us. All of them. Right now. When I see this kind of thinking in clients, I start talking about anxiety and what it’s up to. I remind them that job number one is to stop trying to problem solve and work on calming the anxiety. Put down whatever you’re doing. Get some sleep. Take a bath. Spend time with friends. Ask for help. If you try to solve whatever imaginary problem anxiety has thrown in your path, you will only exhaust yourself further, and guess what, anxiety has plenty more imaginary problems where that came from.

What power there is in finally knowing that.

On Values and Worldviews


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Last week I got a rare opportunity to spend some time with my friend Susania (of The Grand Duchy of Susania). I’ve known her a long time. We grew up in the same church and subsequently worked together on various theater productions. She became the big sister I never had and introduced me to many wonderful books, films and British comedies that I love to this day.

Susania and I both grew up with the idea that one’s actions should reflect values, and when we were children, this was understood to mean specifically the values of our fundamentalist church. The concept of spiritual warfare demanded that we “fight” against ideologies that were not our own, as members of a tribe might fight a rival tribe for land or influence. The assumption was that if we don’t win dominance for our ideology, some other ideology will gain ground, and ours will be snuffed out. While it’s typically couched in less spiritual terms, I still encounter this sort of thinking every day, especially on Facebook.

Susania and I talked about values, and the extent to which they change and evolve over a lifetime. Long ago, we both gravitated away from that church we grew up in, and from any other like it. She mentioned her displeasure at the choices many churches have made over where to take a stand on values, zeroing in on some perceived societal ill or another, something “those people” are doing that “we” must fight against, less some sort of amoral, anti-Christian dystopia come to pass. In the process, other values, like love, relationship and non-judgement, get trampled.

It occurred to me that acting in accordance with one’s values is only part of the story. We are always acting first out of a worldview, and that process, often, is largely unconscious. If values are a light, and worldview is the prism through which that light must pass, therein lies a lot of opportunity for damage. As Susania and I grew up, the worldview of our church was one of war, and as in any war, there were plenty of casualties. While love might have been a value, even a strong one, our church’s warfare stance left little room for it to come through.

In recounting a discussion she had some time ago with friends who were against the inclusion of LGBT folks in their social circles, Susania described how she advocated against the worldview of warfare, rather than arguing about values, or politics, or even facts. She told stories about the experience of people excluded from certain circles by virtue of being LGBT and asked her friends to consider whether or not they wanted to perpetuate that dynamic.

It strikes me as a revolutionary choice to engage in that sort of questioning. It seems to me the most toxic thing happening right now is idea that if I don’t have the ability to shut out of my experience everything of which I disapprove, then something is being forced upon me, and something dangerous is happening for me and for my tribe. That idea can only take hold if our primary worldview is one of fighting a war that must be won. Through such a prism, it appears as if any attempt on the part of some “other” to obtain acceptance, affirmation, inclusion,or civil rights is a plot to dominate or an effort to infiltrate.

If we remove the warfare from the equation, it becomes possible to see the damage done to other lives when we withhold basic acceptance and equality, or tacitly grant certain privileges to some groups and not to others. It becomes possible to question the extent to which inflicting those experiences fits with one’s values, and whether we even want to couch values in terms of disapproving of things or people. In fact, when we stop thinking we are fighting a war, there is less of a need to disapprove at all.

Assumptions & Myth


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I attended a workshop with Dennis Slattery, who writes on the nature of personal myth. His book, Riting Myth, Mythic Writing, uses a series of questions to get at the issue of what personal myth is and how it unfolds across a lifetime. In the workshop, Slattery asked us to explore a two part question that has stuck with me: What assumption (about yourself, the world, or the day) gets you out of bed in the morning, energizes and motivates? Also, what assumption is like an albatross around your neck, stopping you from moving ahead, or making you hesitate to get out of bed at all?

Responses to this were incredibly varied. Some people wrote about feeling they can make a difference in some positive way, that their presence matters. Some of those same people wrote about the pull of depression or inertia, or a sense of unworthiness, a “why bother” sort of feeling.

Personal myth sounds like a big concept, but on its simplest level, it’s the assumptions we make, which inform the terms on which we meet the world. The assumptions that inform personal mythology can be subtle, complex and contradictory. For my part, I wound up writing about the assumption that it does make a difference whether I’m in the world or not, and therefore, it’s important to be here as fully as possible, to not hold anything back that could be given. I know it makes a difference to the people I love. I know this all the more clearly because I’ve suffered the absence of people who couldn’t see how much their presence mattered. I aspire never to make that mistake.

I also wrote about the feeling that comes just on the heels of that, that there is so much to do in this world that no matter what I can finish, it will never be enough. Friends, that thought is enough to make me want to stay in bed some days. It’s certainly enough to keep me from writing some days. But apparently, not today.

Calcinatio Dream


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Photo by Tony Puyol

Recently I had a poignant conversation with a friend who experienced a major loss. In the midst of a long term creative project with a mentor, that mentor died, very suddenly and unexpectedly. They’d both been passionate about the work, and they’d believed this would be a multi-year project. Now she finds herself at an unexpected crossroads, still believing in the work, but not feeling equipped to carry it on solo.

A theme seems to be emerging among my cohort over the last few years, and it needs a name. It’s a phase in which our elders seem to be making their exits, either through retirement, or death, or simply a new chapter of their own, and we, while certainly adult, find ourselves with feet still a bit too small to fill their very substantial shoes. Jungians talk about midlife as a time in which a certain depression and a feeling of “what now” may descend, or about the second half of life, when one has built something and survived a great deal, but begins to feel that time is not unlimited and that attention must be paid to something more, even if we don’t know what that something more is. Both of these concepts are useful, but the theme I’m sensing feels a bit different from this, like something still unnamed.

Last night as I was falling asleep, I had a song from a Christmas movie we used to watch going through my head. I have no idea what brought that up, but it made me think of my mother, of the theater and film she filled our lives with during that era, and of her influence in general. I was reminded how much I miss her creativity and joy.

As I fell asleep, I dreamt I had put a lot of things in my life into a small fire. My intention was to transform them into something else. This would require me to let go of them in the form they had been in all my life to this point. I suddenly noticed that one of the objects in this fire was a ring I inherited from my mother. Damn. I had not meant to include that. I reached into the heat and pulled it out, but the stone was already gone and the frame half melted. So I threw it back in. I had no idea what was going to come out of that fire, nor did I know what I would be able to do with it. I just watched it burn.

On Friday night, I heard a talk by Belden Lane, who told a wonderful story about a stream that tried to cross a desert. This stream was young, and before this time it had been able to flow wherever it wanted to flow. But the desert with its dry heat was too much. What stuck with me the most about the story was that a voice told the stream, you cannot remain what you are. You either give yourself to the wind, or you dry up. So the stream gave itself to the wind and became a cloud that floated over the desert.

My fire dream feels like the best description I’ve come to so far for this time of life I’m struggling to name. It’s a kind of Calcinatio, in alchemical terms. Things fall into that fire, whether we want them to or not. We cannot remain what we are. In the case of my friend with the lost mentor, the project cannot remain what it was either. Something new has to happen, and we do not yet know what that will be. But as the poet Galway Kinnell reminds us:

On some hill of despair
the bonfire

you kindle can light the great sky—

though it’s true, of course, to make it burn

you have to throw yourself in …”

Good Questions



If we’re lucky, we have friends we may not see for years, but when we pick up the conversation like it’s been no time at all since we last spoke. Recently one such friend reached out to me and asked how I was doing and what was most fulfilling in my life right now. What a great question. I didn’t have to think about it much. My therapy work is very fulfilling. And break baking, which I have written about before, has been especially lovely lately.

I once heard Robert Bosnak say that the difference between talking to a therapist and talking to your friends is that therapists ask better questions. But it would be great if we could all ask better questions. Recently I read an article suggesting we should find a better way to introduce friends to one another, something more meaningful and real than leading with what that person does professionally, as if that were the whole of a person’s identity. My friend Bethany is exceptionally good at this. She has a story about everyone in her life, and always introduces me as her first hospice volunteer from the days when she was volunteer coordinator. She sometimes talks about how I met my husband, just because it makes for a fun story. These are things I like being known for. She never mentions where my current paycheck comes from, because it isn’t important to her.

If we were to replace the question, “What do you do” with something else, I think, “What’s most fulfilling in your life” would be a great candidate. Friends, what other good questions do you have? What else should we ask?

New Advent Season, Familiar Questions


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This Advent season the overwhelming theme has been injustice. Living in the city where Mike Brown was shot, I’ve been working hard to understand more and more fully all the aspects of injustice at work as events unfold around me. I’ve been challenging myself to try to have difficult conversations with people about it. As a member of the white community that has been so problematic here, I have no right to just give up and walk away. White people have been doing that collectively here for a very long time, and that, among other things, needs to stop. In the midst of a heated group argument about racism recently, a friend described how seeing the depth and breadth of it is like seeing the image in a magic eye picture. Once you see it, it seems so obvious it’s difficult to imagine how people can not see it. And you yourself can never choose not to see it again. For some people, that picture still has not come into focus, and even after all these years and a lot of work, I have no idea what to say to people for whom that is the case. I feel utterly useless.

In the midst of that uselessness, my brother, the Deacon, shared something a friend of his had written about the song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” She imagined “home” in the song as a feeling of truly being at home, safe and cozy, pre-trauma. If only we could go back to that feeling. I suspect that has a lot to do with why we don’t want to allow that magic eye picture to come into focus. If we are fortunate enough to live in a safe, cozy, pre-trauma world, where we can still imagine that the world is just, of course we want to stay there. Who wouldn’t? A wise friend of mine who engages deeply with difficulty spiritual questions and knows the sense of loss one encounters upon realizing the answers we once held to no longer work, “I really envy people who have never left the garden. For me, it wasn’t a choice. I wasn’t able to stay.”

Advent is about asking ourselves once again, for another year, what it is of the Divine that wants to be born in (or through) us. It’s about waiting in the dark, and saying yes to the incarnation. That is more difficult to do once we’ve seen the magic eye picture, experienced real loss, or trauma. I have a vague kind of faith that it is possible to find a new sense of “home” again, even from this place of such difficult awareness. I’ve seen glimpses of it. In the meantime, there is something meaningful about waiting in this particular darkness, in the aftermath of death and of riots, calling out for the Divine.

For No Reason


My alchemy group reconvened recently, for no particular reason. It had been two years since our last meeting, and we took a few moments to catch up on what had been happening. Four of us had gotten married since our last meeting (two to one other). Others had weathered health issues, career challenges, and various other things. Some of us talked about poetry. One member shared a poem she had memorized, “And for No Reason,” by Hafiz:

For no reason
I start skipping like a child.

For no reason
I turn into a leaf
That is carried so high
I kiss the Sun’s mouth
And dissolve.

For no reason
A thousand birds
Choose my head for a conference table,
Start passing their
Cups of wine
And their wild songbooks all around.

For every reason in existence
I begin to eternally,
To eternally laugh and love!

When I turn into a leaf
And start dancing,
I run to kiss our beautiful Friend
And I dissolve in the Truth
That I Am.

There was silence for awhile after this poem was recited as we allowed it to set the tone for the evening.

We were asked to comment, also, on where we felt stuck or what felt challenging for us right now. As you can likely tell from the infrequency of posts on this blog, I have not been feeling too productive. I have been productive, but it feels like my energy is going in so many different directions, to so many demands and passions, that I am not feeling quite satisfied with my efforts in any area. I feel scattered and out of focus. (I have written about this problem before.)

When we began the image making, I fell right back into the familiar process, surveying materials, picking up what called to me. As is often the case, I had no plan. I started putting things together and let them become whatever they seemed to want to become. I quickly came to feel like nothing was really coming together. There were objects I knew I wanted to use and was not willing to put down, but I could not bring them together into any one vision that seemed to cohere. As things were winding down, I was tired and felt my project was unfinished, but I lacked the energy to take it any further.

As everyone presented their work and invited comment, I was amazed at the vast difference between how I viewed my work and how the group viewed it. “You made three different things! That’s amazing! How did find time to make three things when I barely finished one?” What looked to me like one fragmented idea that had never came together was actually reading to others as prolific and varied. What if I shifted my picture of other areas of my life this way? What if, instead of one grand idea called my life that is harried and fragmented and not quite coming together to form a big picture there are many different ideas at once: practicing therapy, renovating a house, spiritual practice? What if each aspect is its own work of art that doesn’t need to be part of a bigger picture?

Perhaps it’s time to understand that feeling pulled in many different directions at once is just part of the way my psyche operates. Perhaps, like getting lost, this is just how I move through the world, uncomfortable though it may sometimes be. Perhaps this is what my psyche needs in order to flourish. Perhaps this is true, and for no reason.



On Ferguson and Taking the Red Pill


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I was out of town for the weekend when Michael Brown was shot and protests started up in Ferguson, very close to where I attended graduate school to study counseling. But when I heard on the news what was happening, it made sense to me. Something that had been brewing for a long time was clearly boiling over. At least, that’s how it seemed to me. But in the weeks that followed, it became clear to me from talking to people who don’t live in my city (and even some who do) that what was happening seemed completely surprising and incomprehensible. How could we have this much race-related conflict, in this day and age, not even in LA or New York but in a midwestern suburb?

As a white, middle class person, I could pretty easily live my life with the belief that the civil rights struggle ended a long time ago. I could assume that, apart from a few extremist types, we are largely done, as culture, with racism. I could choose to think that I, personally, don’t see race when I look at people, that I am just in my judgements and not influenced by any sort of race-based assumptions. I could make those choices because there is nothing in my life circumstance that forces me to confront some difficult truths. So, if I am really going to live my values, I have to choose to confront those truths. And let me be clear: To get to choose is a privilege. Plenty of other people are smacked in the face with difficult truths every day of their lives.

If you are also a person with the privilege to choose, I ask you to make the same choice. Remember The Matrix, when Neo is confronted with the choice of taking the blue pill, which allows him to wake up in his comfortable bed, believing what he wants to be believe, or the red pill, which will open his eyes to some harsh realities but give him a chance to fight back against an ugly and exploitative system? When you saw the movie, did you tell yourself that, of course, you would be a person who takes the red pill? 


Some difficult, “red pill” truths:

1. Racism is a force that can influence any person and any institution. It’s no longer segregated buses and water fountains. It’s lurking in seemingly acceptable assumptions, beliefs, policies, and attitudes. It’s in truck commercials where “real American” is presented as young, strong white men in cowboy boots and “family values” is often a phrase associated with images of white suburban families.

I have heard people in St. Louis, my own age and younger, voice their belief that when African Americans move into a white neighborhood, property values will go down, that this is “just the way it is.” Recently a local filmmaker made a documentary about Spanish Lake, a nearby suburb that has seen better days. He talked about how real estate companies in the 1970s perpetuated fears among white residents that an influx of African Americans into their community was going to wreck their home values. This tactic allowed them to buy up homes at low cost for resale at a higher value, and it perpetuated the “white flight” into western suburbs that are, to this day, mostly white. This idea, that property values depend in part on the racial makeup of a neighborhood, that this is “just how it is,” is still very much alive and well in this city, and it is predicated on the idea that having African American residents in one’s neighborhood is not going to be a desirable thing to the majority of home buyers. People still act on this belief, thinking that they themselves are not racist, of course. But this is racism, friends. I have also encountered a lot of people here who truly value and would like more diversity in their neighborhoods, and it can be hard to come by. If racism were no longer a factor, it would not be so. Well meaning people can be and are influenced by racism, and unknowingly perpetuate the problem. 

2. We cannot assume that what we’ve concluded about the world based on our own experience is universal truth. We all tend to generalize our personal experience and make conclusions about the world based on that experience. That’s human. I’ve been stopped by the police because I was speeding, because my tags had been stolen, and once by a very courteous officer who merely wanted to make sure I knew one of my brake lights was out but had no intention of citing me for anything. Based on that experience alone, it would seem reasonable for me to assume that the police are largely fair, just, and there to serve. If they stop people, it’s because they have good reason. Unfortunately, this is demonstrably untrue in plenty of cases. I know people who have been stopped, questioned and even frisked simply because they looked “out of place” in a given neighborhood. A friend’s Mexican neighbor had police come onto his property because they drove by and saw him replacing the lock on the front door of his own home. (They had assumed he was a thief breaking in.) All sorts of writers are sharing experiences, in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting, about their own experiences with racial profiling or frightening and humiliating run-ins with police officers who stopped them with no discernible cause. I doubt most of the police officers involved in these incidents consider themselves racist. Perhaps they see themselves as merely protecting the neighborhood, acting on a hunch, etc. But what role do race-based assumptions play in that “hunch?” Statistics indicate that African American drivers are five times more likely to have their car searched during an investigative traffic stop (where there is no alleged violation of the law) than white drivers. What assumptions and beliefs underlie that statistic?

There seems to be a tendency among affluent white people who have not experienced this directly to think that these accounts are not true, that they are blown out of proportion, or that there must be some other explanation. We have no reason to disbelieve these accounts other than simply because it’s uncomfortable to believe them. Terribly uncomfortable. We don’t want to think that this is going on. Yet, the evidence is clear. When we discredit people who share their stories, tell them they are jumping to conclusions or imaging things, we perpetuate the trauma and unfairness of those experiences, and we send the message that we, as white people, know more about the world and about the experiences of racial minorities, than they do. This is patently demeaning.

3. Institutional racism is real. When a significant number of people who have drawn similar conclusions about the world based on similar experiences have the power to form rules and policies, institutional racism (and/or sexism, or ageism) is a strong possibility. This is why diversity in organizations and in government is desirable. It is not about individual people being racist; it is about lack of awareness. If I have never been the subject of racial profiling, for instance, and am not aware of that possibility in my day to day life, I am not likely to be able to imagine how to enact policies that can prevent it, or even to be aware that such policies need to be enacted. I may even unknowingly enact policies that perpetuate the problem. This is how we get situations like the Mayor of Ferguson claiming that there is no race relations problem in Ferguson, even as massive protests break out on the streets. It’s why the fact that Ferguson’s police force is almost overwhelmingly white is such a problem. We need voices and influences from people of a variety of different ethnicities, genders, ages and cultural backgrounds in order to effectively govern a multicultural society. 

This is scratching the surface at best, and there is so much more that can be talked about. Other people have spelled out possible actions better than I could, most notably Sarah Milstein who asks us to consider, among other things, “When did you first become aware you were white?”  and Janee Woods, who suggests 12 Ways to be a White Ally to Black People.

You may notice, I have not said anything about the actual events leading up to Michael Brown’s death, or the possible culpability of the officer involved. Those things deserve to be investigated and talked about, but that is not the purpose of this post. I’m talking about looking at how race relations impact the lives of everyone rather than viewing this as a minority problem. I’m talking about understanding how and why things escalated in Ferguson in the aftermath of this incident, and what might have been under the surface long before turmoil erupted. I’m advocating for using events in Ferguson as an opportunity to take the red pill.

Coagulatio, Part II

DSC_2915The Photographer and I are working on a house that we expect to move into soon. As anyone who has ever done any sort of home improvement project can tell you, no matter how carefully you plan, everything takes longer and costs more than you would think.

This is not an easy process for me, and coming across something I wrote years ago about the alchemical process Coagulatio gave me some clues as to why. Coagulatio is about coming down to earth, and setting things in stone. I am much better at the abstract – ideas, words, theories, intuition. The concrete scares me. I wrote, “I wondered what in my life I could possibly want to make that permanent and how I could trust my artistic skill enough to make this work.” 

Working on this house, I find that that is still the question. I have rented the entirety of my adult life, yet here we are moving our lives (and a large chunk of our savings) into a very particular little bit of stone that we are working to fully inhabit. I don’t know if I have the artistic skill, or the comfort with the physical world, to make this home. The Photographer is very at home in the physical world, taking things apart, putting things together, making things work according to his vision. His innate understanding of power tools never ceases to amaze me.

As I read what I wrote years ago about the value of bringing ideas down to earth so that new steps can be taken, and the concept of stepping stones as an antidote to being lost, it occurs to me that some part of me keeps making these choices of permanence, and earthiness, in spite of all my hesitation. I wonder what she knows that I keep forgetting. 


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