Friends, I’ve been absent a long time. It’s a season of busy-ness, but also of things percolating. For now, I’ll offer this link, to a short piece I wrote titled “Reincarnation,” on River Teeth’s Beautiful Things:
Our adopted cat went crazy. Having consulted with friends, the vet, and the almighty internet, we concluded she was lonely and bored, and her doting humans were not going to be able to satisfy. We adopted a second cat from a local shelter. To make a long story short, it did not go well. We tried and failed, and we were heartbroken thinking we might have to find new homes for both of them. Thankfully, we found Ingrid the cat behaviorist (fundamentallyfeline.com), and we set about trying to effectively coax oil and water to peacefully mix.
I found myself consumed virtually every day with cat-related activities. They demanded constant vigilance and frequent intervention. To make matters nuttier, I was seeing cats everywhere. One morning I decided I would go to my office early to have some time away, do some reading, and drink a cup of coffee before my day started. I arrived and started to settle in when I heard a small meow. I opened the door to a storage area behind my office. There was a cat. No kidding.
I started to wonder about the symbolism of this. I was dreaming of cats in various forms: house cats, wild cats, feral cats. I read The Cat: A Tale of Feminine Redemption by Marie-Louise Von Franz. Ingrid assured me regularly that we really were making progress and reminded me how far we’d come. I was tired. I had family visiting in August and desperately wanted to be done with this cat project by that time so I could relax and enjoy.
Project cat was not complete. But, the family arrived to help me celebrate my 40th birthday. I stood with friends and family in the back yard beside a small fire. My friend, Kay, handed me a beautiful object she had made, a stone wrapped in cloth, decorated with beads and insect wings. It glittered in the sunlight. “Sometimes life requires sacrifice,” she said. “Throw it in the fire.” So I did. The ceremony progressed with friends and family sharing words they’d prepared. Meanwhile Kay was quietly tending the fire. A few minutes later, she revealed what had happened to the burned object. The cloth and its decoration had fallen away. The stone took on a beautiful, burnished look. Kay had been quietly fashioning it into a pendant.
The birthday ritual my wonderful friends had created was based on a dream I wrote about last year, in which I’d found myself throwing various things into a fire to transform them. In the dream, I accidentally threw in a ring I inherited from my mother and didn’t realize it until it was too late. That’s life, and sometimes, it sucks. The ritual was intended to emphasize not just the sacrifice but the transformation, and the message hit home beautifully. Sacrifice and loss are not the end. There is something lovely and meaningful on the other side of transformation.
The Photographer and I reflected on all we’ve been through the past several years. There had been no point at which we weren’t working on (or through) a major project. Just after we got engaged in 2012, my mother died. The Photographer graduated, we took a trip, planned a wedding, bought a house that we then rehabbed, and most recently, of course, the cat project. (Thankfully, by September, Project Cat was complete, and miraculously our kitties are very good friends. Thank you Ingrid!)
The Photographer wondered what they next project was. “No way,” I said. “I’m done for awhile. No more projects. I’m exhausted.”
I attended a workshop with the remarkable Avis Clendenen, who wrote a book on Hildegard of Bingen. Among other things, she spoke about how Hildegard’s guiding image was viriditas, which literally means greening. Hildegard was acutely aware of the consequences of exploiting and damaging the natural world, centuries before industrialization. But Hildegard’s image also speaks to God as a “greening” force, to growth and lushness in every sense.
The election happened. I find myself challenged by the demands of the Self that holds an intuitive understanding of the darkness of this situation and the depth and breadth of the response it requires, when of course the ego simply wants to repeat “No new projects!” and go back to bed. Friends, I will not pretend to be neutral on this subject. While I will not join with those angry voices who insist that a vote for Trump was a vote for racism, misogyny, nationalism and xenophobia, those votes did open the door to these very dark forces and allowed them a frightening level of power. We all have an urgent new project, and I intend to be very busy. If that means you disengage from this blog, so be it, but I hope you will choose to stick around.
My wise Aunt Peggy recently reminded me of the symbolism of my fiery dream and birthday ritual. We will come through this fire. It is up to us to enact the transformation, to shepherd was it valuable through the flames, and to bring it through to the other side. The force that guides this work must be viriditas, and it must involve reverance for the multitude of forms life, and growth, and the divine can take.
The house I grew up in was mostly unremarkable. It was like any number of one story ranch houses in our neighborhood, in a decidedly unhip, pre-TV show Nashville. My parents bought the house when I was on the way. We added on when I was about 11, at which time I got my own room. With a great deal of help, the Engineer built a deck that was to be one of the most well used parts of the house for years to come. We planted a garden. The Nurse got very proficient at tricks on a rope swing that hung from a favorite tree. We rehearsed plays for a community theater in the backyard and in the den, and we hosted cast parties and Christmas Eve open houses. Friends came and went via the backdoor and were told never to knock.
When my mother died in 2012, there was much talk among friends about memories of the house: eating pop tarts and watching MASH reruns, favorite plays, and of course parties. At the funeral, one friend spoke movingly about there being a sense of a church in our home, something that in large part I think my mother created, but that we all participated in in our own ways. It was a place people felt welcomed and cared for, a place people wanted to be.
I wrote some time ago about the house next door, which was torn down not too long ago to make way for something much more grandiose, what we call a McMansion. The conversion of this neighborhood has been going on for years, and at this point, our old home looks like a little out of place speck on a large lot, sandwiched between giants. The market is good, the time is right, and the Engineer needs to move on to a new sense of home, created elsewhere, for a new phase of his life. It’s sad to see the old neighborhood virtually disappear, and especially to see it becoming a place I would not necessarily want to live in.
It also has me thinking about that sense of home, church, welcome, and care. As much as the house was a symbol of it, steeped in it, felt through it, it is not in the house. Those intangible things as much as anything are the roots that I grew from. Those things stay with me
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.
There 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.
When 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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.