The Control Meme


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We live in a time when we expect to have control over a lot of things. I’m not sure why, but I suspect Googling has a lot to do with it. Never has so much information (and misinformation) been so readily available to so many, and this has left us with the impression that we ought to be able to do know more, do more, have fewer (or perhaps no) limitations.

I see these ideas show up in my therapy practice the way memes show up on my Facebook feed.

One person is concerned with diet: nothing processed, all local, only the most nutrient-dense foods will do. Spinach is out because kale is better. He doesn’t understand why food has suddenly become so stressful and feels “not good enough” because one night he was exhausted after working late and ate pasta for dinner. Another person reads constantly about parenting and child development and fights terrible anxiety about the fact that she’s not home schooling her five year old. She feels responsible for personally controlling every aspect of her child’s education. Meanwhile, she’s sure she’s not good enough at her job, and she has a Pinterest board full of ideas for improving her marriage and feels bad about never having done any of them. A grieving person says her sister died three months ago, and she should be “over this” by now. She wants to know how to make herself feel better, because she should be able to, and somehow she must have just missed an important piece of information because she can’t seem to do it. These clients ask me to work with them on how they can do better, make sure they eat healthy all the time, be a better Mom and wife and professional, get over grief. Now. Today. Ok, maybe that’s not reasonable, but surely we can do it in 6 sessions or less?*

Buying into the control meme sets us up to fail. People come to therapy looking for “tools” and “resources” when the very last thing anyone needs is more tools or more resources. The very landscape in which we’re trying to live is where the problem resides. Often, trying to have that conversation is bewildering, and I simply run out of both words and energy.

So friends, today, a simple thought: What if we are not always supposed to be in control?


*Hopefully it goes without saying: Therapy is confidential. These are not stories of real people but amalgams intended to summarize the various manifestations of this phenomenon I see people struggle with.


The Black Dog and the New Year


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weaving-829937_640There is an old story about a woman who lives in an ancient cave, who weaves a garment of incredibly beautiful design. Every so often she stops her weaving to stir soup in her cauldron, and when she does, the black dog who also lives in the cave unravels her whole design. So the old woman begins again. But of course, she never quite finishes.

Looking back on the last year, it feels like a year of a lot of unraveling — horrible violence, destructive prejudice, a changing planet — often a sense of being at a tipping point where it seems the world might fall irredeemably into one darkness or another. Many people seem to feel a renewed sense that they are fighting a war and must double down on their efforts. Many others seem to feel a strong sense of despair and want to retreat inward instead.

It is easy to be seduced by either way of thinking. But the black dog has visited before, and the world has yet to go to hell in a hand basket. Friends, the job seems clear. Whatever it is that you do in the world, pick up the threads and keep weaving.


Promises to Frankie


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imagejpeg_0When I got the news that Frankie had arrived at last, I was in a training class on a particular method of couples’ therapy. The instructor had just been telling us of a study in which women were given small electrical shocks while they were in an MRI machine and then asked for a subjective rating of the level of pain and stress. In the first group, research subjects went through it alone. The second group held the hands of doctors or nurses during the procedure. The third group held the hands of their partners. The study found that the pain and stress was almost completely mitigated for the third group by the simple act of being connected to their partners while the experience was happening.

A major theme of the training was that emotional connection with loved ones is a tremendously healing force. I’ve witnessed its power many times during the era of aunthood that has been the past several years. Kids get hurt, either emotionally or physically, and the fact that someone is there for them makes it bearable. Something wonderful happens, and they reach out to share that too. Because we’ve been incredibly fortunate as a family, these kids generally have multiple someones available at both the good and bad moments. I’m honored to be one of those someones. As she grows, Frankie will be one more someone in that tribe, and this is a remarkable thing.

So, some promises to Frankie: I promise to celebrate the good with you and sit with you through the painful stuff. I promise to help you find your own unique way of doing that for other people. I promise to teach you everything I can about the world we live in, and to pay careful attention when you have things to teach me. I promise to remind your family that you really are a grown up when you are 22 and they are still referring to you as “the baby.”

Morning Meditation (with Cat)



A few months ago, the Photographer and I adopted a stray cat. She’s turned out to be a little high maintenance. She loves to be outside, but her instincts for self-preservation leave a bit to be desired. Since she’s been with us, she has managed to have several pretty spectacular falls, eat all available poisonous plants, and stick her head into a storm drain. She has managed to get lost in our basement more than once (which leads me to wonder, is it possible I actually share DNA with this cat?). In short, this is not a cat that can be allowed to roam freely. I’ve never attempted to walk a cat on a leash before, but for this one, I gave in and tried it. She handled the harness ok, but she hated the matching bungee leash that came with it. The Photographer theorized that it was too heavy and fashioned a homemade one out of clothesline. She likes it much better.

I try to spend at least a few minutes outside with her each morning. To let her be as much of a cat as possible, I give her a long lead. I watch her track and stalk. I try to follow without making too much noise. I requires me to move slowly, to pay attention, and to notice what she notices. We must look completely ridiculous, this small, lithe cat creeping and stalking gracefully through the yard, tied with a clothesline to a large, clumsy human. This is probably the perfect metaphor for my own split nature. There is a part that is totally in the moment, guided by instinct. Another part is thinking ahead, aware of possible danger and of time passing. Spending some time getting those two together each morning seems like a pretty decent idea.

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 bread 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?


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