Doing What You Came Here For

shutterstock_127094594

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I place on the altar of dawn
The quiet loyalty of breath,
The tent of thought where I shelter,
Wave of desire I am shore to,
And all beauty drawn to the eye.

May my mind come alive today
To the invisible geography
That invites me to new frontiers,
To break the dead shell of yesterdays,
To risk being disturbed and changed.

May I have the courage today
To live the life that I would love,
To postpone my dream no longer
But do at last what I came here for
And waste my heart on fear no more.

A Morning Offering, by John O’Donohue

 

You have been given the gift of life – and, if you’re lucky, a bunch of decades to do your thing.

Alright, what is your thing?

Checking your Facebook page 500 times a day?

Acting like everything is okay when it isn’t?

Fitting in, so nobody gets upset?

Keeping so busy that you never have to be with yourself?

Doing just enough to keep out of trouble?

Putting your head down and just repeating what you did yesterday?

What if you looked at yourself in the mirror every morning, and said,

Well, for cryin’ out loud, here I am again. They gave me another whole day. For all I know, it may be my last. What am I going to do with it? What could I do that I would look back on tomorrow and say, “Kid, you took that precious day and did a pretty good job with it.”

No, I don’t mean being a ‘do-gooder’, though, sure, that may be one thing you could do with it. I’m talking about living from the inside out – ‘manifesting’ (eeww: buzz word alert) who you actually are, out in the world. What is it to be you? I’m talking about coming up with an active answer to the complaint, “I never get a chance to really do what I want to do. I never get a chance to be who I really am.”

Sure, maybe you’re a jeweler and all you ever wanted to be was a newspaper reporter. Maybe you’re working in a day care center and you’re really fascinated by numbers. Or maybe you’re like most people, and you don’t KNOW ‘who you are’. It doesn’t stop you from feeling that you never get to BE who you are, though, does it? You still have that vague unease that you’re not really being YOU, even if you have no idea what that would look like – it still feels frustrating and unsatisfying, doesn’t it?

I can hear some of you saying, “Hey – we can’t all save the world, buddy.” True, but fortunately that has nothing to do with what I’m talking about. I’m talking about incremental steps towards letting the cat (you!) out of the bag – small steps for tiny feet. It might start with this exercise:

I always wanted to _______________ (fill in the blank).

I wish just once I could ________________.

The people I really admire are ______________.

I can hear the classic comebacks:

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

You can wish in one hand and spit in the other, and see which one fills up first.

Yep, I get it. Just wishing alone does nothing. But wishing can lead to more than ‘nothing’: most new things start with an idea, a wish, a concept, a drive, a desire, a ‘vain’ hope – and then, by allowing those things to rattle around in our heads and hearts, they lead to a wish, dream, concept, drive, desire, and hope, that is more realistic, that is a first step, that is a revised version of the original dream.

The hokey saying, “dreams plus effort equal success” is not so crazy after all – because the primary thing holding us back from reaching some version of our dreams is that we give up before we start, mostly because, at the start, we can’t envision the modified version we might end up with. If you talk to people about their lives for a living, as I have done for decades, you begin to hear things – like the fact that, at the beginning, most people had never heard of what they ended up doing for a living. And, if they had, they might have rejected it because it was not “what they dreamed of”.

It takes emotional work to process a dream. Let’s say you start out wanting to be a famous performer. Of course, you know the odds against you are astronomical: you may feel you’re talented, but not that talented – so you give up, accepting “reality”. Now, what would happen if you continued with your dream?

Well, just as a representative example, this was the sequence of events for a woman I worked with, we’ll call her Josephine,  who dreamed of being a performer:

1) You take singing and guitar lessons – you do pretty well, but nobody ever suggests you should go on American Idol.

2) Nevertheless, you do develop your singing and playing ability, and your performance ‘chops’, to the point where you are able to perform at local open mikes. You get some pretty good responses, but again, no one says, “I’ve never heard anyone as good as you, Josie”, either.

3) Hanging out at the clubs, you get to know more and more people in the music scene, and also land a few paid gigs at local spots. It is gratifying, and some people really like what you do. You meet an agent who is in the audience at a local club you are working, and she’s a really cool person. She doesn’t offer you anything, but you talk a lot together, and it’s pretty interesting. Maybe this thing could actually work.

4) You get a better gig, but it’s on weekends, out of town. You are hostessing at a nice restaurant where you live, and on weekends you can make pretty good money, even though hostessing is a million miles away from what you really want to do. But you can’t afford to quit your job just to pursue one gig out of town. What do you do?

5) For some reason, you call the agent you met at that club – you end up talking to her for two hours. She talks to you like a Dutch uncle (aunt?) and says, kindly, “Josie dear, you’re an amazing person, but to tell you the truth, I don’t feel you have what it takes to make it as a performer.” She’s nice about it, but it hurts, bad. But on the other hand, there’s something about her that you trust, so you can’t just dismiss what she’s saying.

She does say, “You should call me sometime, when you’re feeling better. We should talk.” (Whatever that means.)

6) You cry – a lot.

7) You cry more – a lot. (Hopefully you have good friends. They help – a little.)

8) When you get off work late one Saturday night, you suddenly remember that the agent said to call her sometime, when you’re feeling better. You check: Hmmm, you’re feeling better, marginally.

9) You call her, hoping against hope that she has reconsidered her death sentence of you, and wants to work with you on your performance career.

10) She doesn’t want to work with you on your performance career – but, she does want to talk to you about something else. She’s a top agent in town, and has noticed that you are good with people, and know a lot of folks locally around the music business by now. She is trying to expand her business, and, maybe, could use someone like you. Of course, you would have to “start at the bottom”, but she feels you might have it in you to grow into a significant role in talent representation one day. You’re flattered, sort of, but inside you’re still really wounded that she didn’t want to talk to you about you-know-what. But, you tell her you really appreciate her time and comments, and you’ll have to think about it and get back to her.

11) You sulk alone. You sulk with friends.

12) Hmmm, you sigh a lot, but it kind of makes sense, what she said: you are a good judge of others’ talent, you are good with people, and you have always liked helping people pursue their dreams, even if you can’t pursue yours.

13) You cry.

14) (Sigh) You call her, and say you’re willing to talk more about it. (Sulk)

15) You do talk more about it. It’s starting to sound like a possibility: Your friends say, “I can totally see you doing it – helping people like that.”

16) More sighing – after all, if you accept this, it means throwing away your ‘real’ dreams, right?

17) Secretly, you’re getting kind of excited about this whole thing: “Wow, I could work for a talent agency: I’d still get to be around performers, watching them, helping them, and I always thought I had a good eye for talent.”

18) Last-ditch sighing, last-ditch crying. First-ditch excitement – all mixed up together.

19) You make a decision: you’re going to do it. It’s not as much as you’re making hostessing, but it’s in the field you love, and the potential in that field is a bit greater than in the field of guiding drunk people to their tables.

20) You have a new dream: Being a talent agent. “Gee, now that I’m a ‘professional’, I have to get some real working-woman clothes. This might be fun!”

Okay, I can hear you (you, reading this – you know who you are) saying, “Oh sure – he came up with an example where it all worked out, but what percentage of the time does that happen? My Uncle Moe wanted to be Enrico Caruso, and now he’s a broken-down bum on Skid Row. Dreams, schmeams.”

Folks – this is the way it REALLY happens, not pie in the sky. No, not every person finds work that is a perfect fit, and yes, this story would sound very different if Josie were a man, say, but I have helped many, many people “evolve” their dreams. And note: in the example I gave, Josephine did NOT “achieve her dreams” – but pursuing it did lead her to people, and circumstances, that made it possible to develop other dreams, that were achievable. And she had no thought whatsoever, at first, that being a talent agent was a possible (or desirable) dream for herself; and if I had been prescient (or stupid) enough at the beginning to say, “Josephine, you should be a talent agent,” she would have been hurt and angry, and rightfully so.

Does this mean,

Buy my new book: Twenty Steps To a New Dream, now with detailed instructions on how sulking can lower your insulin level and burn carbs! 

No – of course not. Every single person has a unique path to follow. You cannot ‘know’ beforehand what someone’s path will be, you cannot know beforehand what it will lead to, and it would be arrogant and disrespectful to try to, but you can know beforehand what, basically, needs to happen – that following a dream, with a lot of support, will lead to something meaningful and authentic, even if the path involves a lot of sighing and crying and rejection. Sure, it might hurt sometimes, but sighing and crying are not end points – they are only emotional way stations: if you are willing, sometimes, to sit with the sighing and crying, and have someone who believes in you (a therapist, in the case of those I have worked with), you will move beyond sadness and disappointment, to a new formulation of yourself and your possibilities, and all the emotional processing you have gone through will bring a maturity that will serve you in good stead in your ‘new’ dreams, a maturity you would never have had if you had instantly achieved your dreams (see Woods, Tiger), or if you had stayed home and never pursued them at all.  With a dream, anything might happen; but without a dream, you don’t have a chance.

So, the next time you stand there in the morning and look in the mirror, ask that sleepy guy or gal you see before you, what he or she can do to make sure the day isn’t wasted. It’s been said: “A dream is just a dream, but a goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline.” Jeez, I don’t know about all that: dreams, plans, deadlines –  why not throw in a bag of peanuts and a partridge in a pear tree, too?

But a dream paired with some courage and some help: now that’s a plan!

Where does your plan start today, sleepyhead?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Ready To Fly

27639423_s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am standing on the edge of the water,

And I am watching the wild birds fill the sky.

And I am longing to be lifted up among them,

I am not dying – I’m getting ready to fly.

Ready to Fly, by Calaveras*

*Check this song out on the link before you go on. No really – go listen. I’ll wait.

(Dum de dum de dum, la la la, I’m waiting for this amazing, perceptive reader to listen to the song and get back to me, because he/she knows I really meant it when I said “Listen to the song first”.)

Oh, you’re back, having listened to the song! Wow – you’re so amazing and perceptive. Oh, I already said that? Well, that’s okay – it never hurts to put some frosting on the cake!

Good – now that we’re on the same wavelength.

Today we’re going to talk about the deep, dark secret of Western civilization:

Life Ends

(Shhhh, don’t tell! Of course, we can talk about it here, albeit in whispers, because everything that happens on a therapy blog is confidential, right?)

So, yes it’s true – we actually do die at some point. If we last that long, we get old, then older, and then, yep, we up and die. Yes, ALL of us, sport! We don’t know when, we don’t know how: it’s like Russian roulette, but without Zero or Double Zero. Of course, we can “take care of ourselves” in the hopes that this will prolong our lives and provide ‘quality of life’ for endless years. Kind of like Robert Mitchum said in Out of the Past when his girlfriend was playing roulette and losing, big:

Mitchum: That isn’t the way to play it.

Girlfriend: Why not?

Mitchum: Because it isn’t the way to win.

Girlfriend: Is there a way to win?

Mitchum: Well, there’s a way to lose more slowly.

So yeah, sport, you can exercise, you can eat right, you can have so many air bags in your car it would take off if you had an accident. You can ingest vitamins and supplements and Echinacea and ayurvedic balms and homeopathic remedies. You can stand on your head, gobble brewer’s yeast, do puzzles to keep your brain sharp, meditate to achieve mindfulness, and guzzle goji berry juice, acai berry juice and phosphatidylserine elixir, but in the end, there’s still, well,  the end.

There are plenty of books about it, from Living Your Dying to the Stephen Levine books, to The Denial of Death (not for the faint of heart, that one) but all the reading in the world won’t change the fact that, in the final analysis, we’re all taking that long walk on that short plank, and there are no reprieves, last-minute pardons, or stays of execution for the likes of us.

So, all of us are busy interviewing old people all the time, to find out how to do it, to get tips on what aging is like, and to educate ourselves precisely on just what it is to have everyone you know gone, to have no one left who remembers you or your past, to feel all alone in the world, to hurt physically and lose it mentally, right? We just sit ’em down and pick their brains endlessly about adjusting to times they don’t understand, about not having what they know valued anymore, and about how to deal with the fact that everyone’s  younger than them – right?

What do you mean, No? You mean we’re NOT all studying and talking to old people all the time? Are you telling me we just barrel into old age — the hardest thing most of us will ever do – on a wing and a prayer?

What’s wrong with this picture? Can anyone explain this stuff to me?

Okay, let’s pretend you’re an average American young person and I’m teaching your anthropology class, thusly:

________________________________________________________________________

Me: You – you, sir, the one in the back with the shaved head and the nose ring.

Nose Ring: Well, old people are, like, you know – weird and creepy.

Me: What do you mean, weird and creepy?

N.R.: Well, they look kind of gross, and besides, they’re all totally out of it.

Me: Out of what?

N.R.: Look, they don’t know anything, man: music, movies, tech, anything that’s, you know, like, actually happening.

Me: Yes, but they had their version of all those things, right? I mean, they had their music, their movies, even their tech: they’ve been there.

N.R.: Been where?

Me: Life. They’ve been there. They could be a kind of, you know, GPS, to life, to aging, to survival, for the rest of us: pathfinders.

N.R.: That still doesn’t deal with the wrinkles, the sagging, all the stuff that’s gross and basically, you know, depressing.

Me: Why is it depressing? Because their faces are a road map of where we’re all heading?

N.R.: Hmm, maybe. Dude, I just don’t want to see or be around that shit, is all I know.

Me: (Looking at the whole group) Is this true? Does he speak for all of you?

Group: (Hanging heads, looking down, pawing the ground.)

Me: Do I take your silence to mean Yes?

Group: (Hanging heads, looking down, pawing the ground, muttering.)

Me: So, let’s review: For the biggest Final any of us is ever going to take, we are not going to study with the only people who could possibly teach us how to prepare for it, how to take it, how to do well on it, how to learn from it, or how to make it be the best it can be – is that what you’re telling me?

Group: (Shuffling of feet)  Woman in red head scarf raises her hand.

Me: Yes?

Red Scarf: Dr B – just because they’re old, that doesn’t mean they know anything.

Dude In Back: (Waving hand in air) Are we allowed to use our vape sticks in here?

Me: Is that what’s important? Really?

DIB: Totally.

Me: Are you using it to quit smoking?

DIB: Duh – yeah, dude. Well, you know, sorta.

Me: Well then, how about learning how to quit smoking, from a generation that smoked all the time?

DIB: Like Mad Men?

Me: Yeah, but for real, not some fake sissy American Spirit herbal cigarettes on a TV show.

DIB: That’s a thought. But they never vaped, dude.

Me: No – they had a little trick they used: it was called Cold Turkey. And if they could quit that way, and you can’t even quit with the fabulous vape stick, maybe they could teach you some things.

Red Scarf: Excuse me – I was trying to say something.

Me: Oh, I’m sorry – sometimes even the Therapy Blogger makes mistakes. Go on, Red.

RS: I was saying that just because they’re old, it doesn’t mean they know any more than we do.

Me: That’s true – they don’t, necessarily, but just because they’re old, they have at least a pretty good chance of knowing more than you do, wouldn’t you say? Think of it this way: wouldn’t you hope, and expect, that you’d know more at 75 than you do now, at 20-something? And if you were 75,  would you want all you’ve been through, all your knowledge, just discarded because you’re old? I mean, we now have laws about elder abuse, but do you notice no one ever talks about elder use?

RS: Well, what do they have to teach us? What it used to be like? What good’s that do us, now?

Me: You think life was just invented in the last twenty years?

DIB: (Waving hand in air) Excuse me – my vape stick won’t draw. Can I be excused to rewind my coil?

Me: I give up – class dismissed. Assignment for next week: five hundred words on what you would ask if you  put on a Hazmat suit, and actually talked to an old person, face-to-face.

DIB: I’m an artist – do I have to use words? Can I use, like, sketches and drawings and shit?

Me: Listen, Picasso, you can take that vape stick and stick it . . .

RS: Dr. B – please! Don’t forget, you’re the teacher!

Me: Oh, thank you, Red, it almost slipped my mind there for a moment. If a teacher falls in the woods and no one learns anything, is he still a teacher?

RS: Well, you’re trying to teach us to talk to old people, right? Well, you’re old and we’re talking to you, aren’t we?

Me: (Sigh) Didn’t I hear somebody say “Class Dismissed”?

____________________________________________________________

Well, there you have it: we’re all on the bumpy road to Old Age, but nobody wants to do any personal research on it, like we would for any other form of endeavor. My god, if we buy a car, a dishwasher, or even a new set of tires, we do endless study on it, we talk to people, we read reviews and we obsess for weeks before making a decision. But you don’t see anyone knocking on the doors of retirement homes, or seeking informational interviews with the ‘inmates’. There are no unpaid internships with elders, there are no “Aging Gracefully” classes being offered at junior colleges, there are no bestsellers: How to Age Like You Like It, or The Years Are My Best Friend, or Doddering Your Way to Wisdom and Joy. We treat aging, and therefore death, like it was the plague, like even being around old people might be catching, like cooties. And yet we analyze, research, categorize, and poke our noses into everything else that goes on in life. Why not death?

Because we’re scared – and we’re not even subtle about it:

Death?
I don’t want to talk about it.

Aging?
Call my attorney.

Senility? Forgetfulness? Loss of sight, hearing, balance, memory?
Don’t call us, we’ll (not) call you!

Sexual decline? Hair in your ears?  Shaky hands? Having to move out of your own house, to be “put in a home”, where you have the honor of living in sterile segregation from the rest of society – for your own good, of course?
Take a number – a high number.

Reminds me of Casey Stengel, the former manager of the New York Yankees, who, after many years of unparalleled success, and multiple World Series championships, was unceremoniously dumped by management, ostensibly for being too old. His response?

“I’ll never make the mistake of being 70 again.”

Our obsession with youth, our denial of aging, of death, our trying to thwart the years, to slather ourselves with potions to stay the hands of time – these things aren’t just minor societal quirks; they are a rejection of a part of ourselves, of something that all “flesh is heir to”, that should be a mark of dignity, an ‘honorable estate’. I’ve always thought (yes, even when I was a kid) that there is nothing more impressive than a man or woman who has come through the many years intact, who still finds good reason to get up every morning, who still believes in things, takes joy in things, finds things to appreciate, and at long last, has come to terms with, and maybe even found beauty in, our finitude, our limitations, and our imperfections.

This is something to be proud of, just as a couple who has been there for each other through the long seasons of life, for forty, fifty, sixty years – has something to be proud of, for the rest of us to honor, to learn from, to study, to revere. It’s easy to feel hopeful and full of yourself, to feel possibility is unlimited, to rub shoulders with immortality, at 25. But to feel hopeful at 80, to respect yourself, to look in the mirror and see the good, strong years reflected back – that is a big deal. To be an older couple who still loves one another, still laughs together, and cries together, and has found out what it really means to love another person deeply, 50 years after the crush is over – now, that is a big deal.

I mean, we’ve all memorized the Five Stages of Grief, right? What stages do we go through when we are confronted with something new, something hard, that we can’t deal with? : Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, then Acceptance. Well, folks, as a society, as far as aging and death, we’re all, embarrassingly, still in kindergarten: Stage One – Denial. Like the old joke about bringing a knife to a gunfight: in the marathon of life, we’re trying to run the 100 yard dash. Then we’re shocked, shocked, when we get to the last third of the race and find ourselves exhausted and helpless: of course we are – we only trained for the 100! There are millions of older people out there who are at the Acceptance stage: why don’t we ask them how they got there?

But no – our idea of ‘researching’ the aging process is to ask some old guy,

“So what’s your secret?”

And what answer do we want back? Something that takes work, or maturity, or time? Hell no: we want to hear,

“Kale,” or “Raw honey,” or “Bee propolis.” Something easy and quick, that we can take, or swallow, or toss down without addressing anything more than two inches, or two years, in front of our own noses.

So, let us all take a vow to prepare ourselves for aging, rather than just clinging desperately to youth, to open our minds, just a little bit, to older people, to listen to them and not dismiss everything they have gone through, everything they have to offer. Let us try and envision what it would be to welcome old age, to pack away, carefully, all the memories and lessons of our youth, but to ALSO have respect and veneration for those things that it takes long years to anneal, to harden, to forge into something beautiful, but beautiful in a new way, not physically, but spiritually.

Let us all face our older lives with grace and dignity, so that, when it is our turn to go, we can smile and say,

I am not dying – I’m getting ready to fly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Cast Your Fate To The Wind

16972341_s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was one of ’em – those sweet, quiet kids who never really make the transition from elementary school child to junior high school dude. I never really understood, or bought into, the crucial necessity – desperation, almost – to be ‘cool’, to be sophisticated, to act like you didn’t care, like nothing phased you, like you were above the goings on among the hoi polloi, that you were hip, slick and up on all the latest. It always struck me as insecure to not ‘go with’ who you really were, to have to invent a new persona and act it out all day, every day.

Not that I was ‘secure’, mind you – I was a floating ball of uncoalesced gases, looking for a nucleus. But, for some reason,  I knew I wouldn’t find that nucleus in wearing Pendleton shirts, or being a surfer manque, combing my hair a certain way, or spouting the latest jargon. All of that seemed vaguely pathetic to me, like a 70 year-old woman dressing like a teenager. But me, I was on an island of my own – too bright to be totally out of it, nothing overtly ‘wrong’ enough with me to be a true freak, but of a caste so inferior to the cute girls and the popular guys that to even think of approaching their world was sheer folly. Not only that, but I was also too scared, and too sincere, to adopt some crazy ‘indie’ pose – a mad poet, perhaps, or even an intense, brooding, fake intellectual, perhaps wearing the same black overcoat and shades every day. Nope, for me, faking it in any way was out of the question. For better or worse, I had to be what I was.

But what was I?

Somehow, deep inside, I had a hope, however unlikely, that my time might come years later, in adulthood, when we more serious, sincere types might find our niche somehow, somewhere. Of course,  I didn’t have any adults to talk to about any of this – talking to adults was also beyond my pale – and besides, all the ones I knew seemed to be on some kind of grim, eyes-straight-ahead forced march towards a vanilla pudding life, with no questions asked, no alternatives considered, no independent thought allowed. On our block, in our neighborhood, I never saw adults show any deviance worth a damn.

Oh sure, there was Phil Little, the guy down the block who had some kind of crazy customized Packard that he had crammed a diesel truck engine into, that he revved in his driveway like a demon unleashed, as fierce clouds of black smoke billowed overhead. Then there was the day he almost burned down his house, trying to clear out his huge, weed-choked backyard  with a war surplus flame thrower. And, instead of the standard brood of children, he and his wife had two miniature dachshunds, Booboo and Boobette, upon whom Phil lavished his alcoholic love. But somehow, this wasn’t the ‘alternative’ life I had in mind.

No, this was it. The San Fernando Valley, tract homes, smog and heat, sameness, conventionality. I often wondered to myself: Man, these people went through the Depression and World War II for this? Shouldn’t all that have made them at least a little crazy, weird around the edges, shouldn’t they be swigging from open bottles on their front porches all night, or retreating to some crazy cabin in the mountains, with a goat for a best friend?  But no – apparently they craved “normality”, and by god, they had sure gotten it.

Mind you, the hippie revolution, the counterculture, drugs, and the possibility of ‘differentness’ were far in the future for me. Oh sure, there were Kerouac and Ginsberg, the beatniks, and proto-Goth girls dressed in black, sitting around coffeehouses and talking vaguely about Zen, but that had all been reduced to comic opera by the movies and TV already, where guys in goatees and berets beat on bongo drums while bohemian-looking girls swooned and sighed, “Ooh – dig that crazy beat”.

And, for anyone who doubted that deviation would be the ruin of you – well, you only had to remember HUAC and the McCarthy hearings. My parents were even terrified that the babysitter, a nice woman from obvious rural roots, would squeal on them for having a copy of Borstal Boy, or Love On the Dole, or some such suspiciously proletarian foreign tome, on their bookshelves, though the thought of this good ol’ gal having the time, or the literary acumen, to run a right-wing surveillance on our reading material was utterly ludicrous. But the paranoia was everywhere.

So what sustained me throughout this dark night of the soul? Music, that’s what.

Strewn in among low-brow fare like South Street, Alley Oop, Big John, Goodbye, Cruel World and The Peppermint Twist, were the occasional instrumentals – that somehow, miraculously charted big, proving, at least to me, that God hadn’t abandoned the universe, or even the Valley. That these droplets from heaven were actually valued by more than a few oddballs like me, meant that there was hope, that  I wasn’t entirely alone. Of course, there was no Internet, no way of finding out who these mythical, far-off people were, these living gods who had conceived and played these life-giving songs. Some of them were eternal and classy, some more down to earth and pedestrian, even raucous, but they were all…well, white kids didn’t have the word then, but later we would have called them soulful.

Two of them were, in my mind, Olympian – towering above the others like beacons of inspiration:

Cast Your Fate to the Wind – I mean, what more do you want? It’s all right there, and no need for words: thoughtfulness, reflection, beauty, melody, creative presentation, a change of pace in the ‘middle part’, and soul, baby. Hell, you could even learn to pick it out on the piano yourself, and get that same feel going, imagining for a fleeting moment that you were the mythical, all-surpassing Vince Guaraldi, one guy who, you figured, could really get away with wearing a beret and a goatee. I distinctly remember the first time I heard it, thinking, “Oh my god, where has this music been all my life? Why have they been holding it back, when I need it so much?” I mean, you felt like just listening to it made you cool. It’s still the all-time instrumental champ for me.

And then, later, when I heard a vocal version with actual words, they seemed, well, perfect as well – but then how could they be anything but, since, as far as I knew, they also were dispensed from Mount Olympus.

Take Five – Holy cow, some guy was hip enough to write a terminally catchy, swingin’ thing like this, in 5/4 time? And call it Take Five? Jeez, I mean, this wasn’t ‘College Bowl’ smarts – this was real-world magnificence, right out there in the open for all to hear. The three-minute ‘single’ version gave you just enough improv to flash true jazz cred, and still hold your interest every second of the glorious way. Again – just listening transported you, transformed you. If every guy who saw Casablanca came out of the theater as Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, shrugging his shoulders and lisping, Dave Brubeck accomplished the same trick in three minutes flat.

And there were others, lots of them, from the late Fifties through the Sixties – glorious sources of hope and most of all, company: Stranger on the Shore, Alley Cat, Apache, Telstar, Last Dance, Tequila (oh, yeah!), Forty Miles of Bad Road, Raunchy, Rebel Rouser, The Lonely Bull, Green Onions, Walk, Don’t Run, Pipeline, Last Night, Out of Limits, Midnight in Moscow, More, Taste of Honey, Washington Square, Wheels, and more. They were there, whenever you needed them; they made you slow down and listen, feel things, they gave you a three-minute swim in a magical sea – they sustained you through the days and nights.

Sure, there had been special instrumentals that I had loved before, in my childhood: Third Man Theme, Moonglow/Picnic, Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, A Summer Place, Blue Tango, The High and the Mighty, and others, but they were ‘old people music’, whereas Cast Your Fate and the others were ours: at last, something of current popular youth culture that I could claim, too, that wasn’t embarrassing, or stupid, that was not Perry Como, but also not Alley Oop (oop, oop oop).

So, thank you to the composers and musicians who held my hand, who bridged the sterile and frightening gap between childhood and college, for me and many others. You were my play, my song, my joy, my rock, my recreation, my belief system, my spiritual path and my companions through the hard years – you carried me into a new world where I once again felt I mattered, where what I had to offer had value, and things started to make sense again.

I did cast my fate to your winds, and you saw me through, in style.

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

The Mystery of All Beginnings

12880048_s

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a wise child that knows its own father.

And furthermore, it’s a wise child indeed that really ‘knows’ its own father or mother. I was talking to an older patient the other day who is dealing with her own mother’s decline – making decisions about care facilities, sorting through the boxes and boxes that are all that is physically left of her mother’s life. It seems, and is, strange, that a whole life ultimately comes down to someone rummaging through boxes and saying “In” or “Out”, while a rented dumpster yawns outside. It’s enough to make you philosophical, if you’re an upbeat type, and downright sad if you have an unfortunate predilection for tragic sweep, as some of us do.

Anyway, as she picked, sorted and differentiated the formerly treasured detritus of her mother’s life, she found herself pondering just how well she really even knew her mother. And this got both of us to wondering how well our children know us.

I suppose everyone is now familiar with the term ‘transference’ – the mainstay of traditional psychotherapy. This means, in the Freudian interpretation of things, that the patient will transfer (i.e. project) onto the therapist elements of relationship (internalized transactions, views, issues, interactions, identities, images and ways) that the patient experienced with key figures from their past, usually parents. But what one begins to realize after years of doing therapy, is that this ‘transference’ is also in play in how people relate to their own parents, as well. That is, very often the child’s-eye-view of a parent is skewed, distorted, and colored strongly by a myriad of factors, among them the one-off peculiarities of that child’s relationship with the parent, the stage of life of the parent (and the parents’ marriage or other significant relationship) when the child was young, the specific issues that were going on at the time for the parent (that may or may not be characteristic of their life as a whole), and things the child literally does not know about the parent and his or her life.

This is one of the reasons why I often make it a point to meet the patient’s parents personally, if they are still alive. I sometimes hear things that astound me – no, not just “there are two sides to everything”, though that is certainly true – but things I could not have imagined. Things like this:

A mom who was bitterly described as “always distracted and preoccupied” by her grown daughter (my patient). The mother told me, in strict confidence,

Dr. B – I was battling cancer most of those years. I didn’t want to burden the kids by telling them about it, especially since I was a single parent. Oh sure, I guess I was preoccupied, but you have to understand I was all alone with my pain, and terrified about what would happen to the kids if I died. And please don’t tell her now, because after all, we made it through, so let’s just let sleeping dogs lie.

A father who was called “needy and over-involved” by his son, who confessed, tearfully,

I have to tell you the truth now. My wife, may she rest in peace, was having an affair with our minister for at least twenty years before the diabetes got her. I knew it all along, but she didn’t know I knew, and I never could confront her about it. Sure, I guess I did wrong by taking comfort in closeness with the kids, but she was gone a lot of the time, supposedly on ‘church business’, and I guess I covered up my hurt by throwing myself into being a dad. I know it sounds stupid, but I still loved that woman so much, I could never leave her. So, sure, I was a fool for staying, and I was over-involved with the kids, but sometimes, that’s life.

And often, parents say things that not only confirm what the patient has said, but confirm it in spades, such as this revelation by a woman in her fifties:

I know I should never have had a child. I had no business getting pregnant, and should have taken care of business when I did, but I was too scared to get an abortion, and I thought Joe would help out financially, but he disappeared right away. Honestly, it sounds horrible, but I resented every day I was saddled with that baby. I could have done something with my life, but instead I changed dirty diapers, did laundry and lived on hot dogs and beans. By the time the kid was gone, I was too old to train for doing anything worthwhile, so I got into a bad marriage, for financial security, which took even more years out of my life, and now, well, here I am.

Others are just as surprising – not so much in their words, but rather in their presence or personality. A man whom his son once described as “an overwhelming, towering presence” was in actuality a very slight, mousy man, with a barely audible voice. A woman who was said to be harsh and cold described, with obvious warm feelings, how much she had enjoyed baking brownies for her children’s friends.

Do I take all, or any, of this at face value? Of course not – but these things are all part of the ‘stew’ that makes up the complexity of any parent. Often, when meeting the parent, I will notice, with pleasure, things that are not on the ‘agenda’, such as how much the patient’s voice sounds like the parent’s, or certain small mannerisms of the parent that are echoed in the patient, or ways of saying things, expressions, attitudes, that have been inherited, or appropriated, by the child. Sometimes the parent will reveal hidden stories and motivations that are deep-background clues to ‘what happened’, such as the woman who told me she married the patient’s father on the rebound from her true love, or the accountant who told me that he was on his way to being a saxophonist with a top swing band, when his father died and he had to forget his dreams and get a job to support his mother and three brothers. These things matter, because children pick them up on an unconscious level, and often, knowing this information, you can see how these ‘undigested’ elements in the lives of the parents, play out in the lives, and choices, of the children.

Another thing that flavors this stew, is that families often operate on the level of mythology – aspects of the parents’ (and children’s) lives, and unquestioned ‘family values’ become distilled into a kind of handy (and oversimplified) shorthand:

You know Dad – he’s always happy-go-lucky.

Jimmy’s the brain, Johnny’s the athletic one, and Sally’s always been a dreamer.

Mom’s obsessed with cleaning – it’s all that matters to her.

Well, everyone knows the baby of the family is always spoiled rotten.

Mom and Dad never had a real argument in thirty-five years.

And on and on. While most of these things, like all stereotypes, have a basis in reality, we forget that they are merely short-cuts that ‘stand for’ the person, not the actual whole person. In therapy, we often spend a lot of time helping patients break out of these internalized family stereotypes of themselves, these iron maidens of the soul, and sometimes we help them confront their parents about having these simplistic, limiting views of them. But children do this to their parents, too.

I have often heard patients say that, for example at holiday get-togethers, when wine is drunk and old stories are told, they were shocked and surprised by the things they learned about their own parents.

Uncle Joe told me Dad used to be the one who approached the girls first, because he was the one with all the sex appeal.

My straight-arrow Dad used to sneak into baseball games at Candlestick Park.

Aunt Jane said Mom was a real hottie in her day.

I found out Dad used to be the middleweight boxing champ of the First Division.

And sometimes we glean things that are not so benign, such as past criminal behavior, legal and financial troubles, past marriages and/or children, stories, or whispers, of rape, incest, and other abuse, as victim or perpetrator. Often these things don’t ‘fit in’ with our set ideas about who our parents are, or were, or should be. Human beings like things seamless, packed nicely and tied up in a bow. But lives are not really like the movies – people are complicated and multidimensional, not all one thing or another. Therapy often involves helping people navigate the rapids of disturbing complexity: the woman who was molested by her own father, even though he was ‘the nice parent’ (as opposed to the mother), and in some ways a wonderful person; the mother who was always ‘nice’, but on closer inspection, turns out to have only shown a mask to the world, because she was in fact emotionally uninvolved.

Early in many people’s treatment, therapists have a tendency to reinforce patients’ key, monolithic views of their parents, in order to help the patient access, and express, all the unspoken, unprocessed negative feelings that have been crippling them. They must recognize, and ‘claim’, the child’s-eye-view of the situation, in order to establish a baseline self that they can build upon. At this point, if the therapist were to point out elements of the parent that run counter to what the patient is struggling to express, the patient might tend to retreat from manifesting the new self and say, “Oh, so you are saying I was crazy all along”.

But later in the process, when a more consolidated self has been established, it is sometimes possible to begin to broaden their conception of the parent, without it threatening the self – to begin to see the parent as “only human”, and to understand, in a new way, the actual reasons for the parents’ harmful behavior towards the patient, without using it as an excuse, or a negation of the harm, or of the patient’s (hard-won) feelings about it all. And sometimes this ‘humanization’ of the parent can help the patient adopt a more humane attitude towards him or herself as well.

It is a hard thing to see your parent – the being that was once the center of your world, a titan bestriding the earth, the being that all else flowed from – begin to age and fade, to watch a once-transcendent, critically primary life slouch towards obscurity and disconnection with “fortune and men’s eyes”. It is hard – partly because it is such a confrontation with the reality of our own onrushing fate – to see a life reduced to trash bags.

At those times, it feels as if the Government should provide a wonderful biographer for each and every person, to ensure that their struggles, their ups and downs, their failings and their dreams, realized and not, are properly documented for posterity, and maybe, to establish once and for all, who this person really was. Failing a wonderful biographer, we hope that we, as the children, have at least taken from them and their life story what was of value, what was significant, what really mattered. We hope that we have at least been a witness to their times, a fair witness who took to heart the meaningfulness behind whatever they had to give the world.

Though our aged parents’ last chapters are, as often as not, ignominious, we hope that we are at least the torch-bearers of whatever small measure of glory they possessed. Because, whether we really understood them or not, this carrying forward of their essential humanity is all that remains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Yes, Yes, You’re Gonna Lose That Girl

20679512_s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’d rather be a first-class woman than a second-class man.

— A former patient, who had an “I wanted a boy” father, expressing the crowning insight of her entire therapy.

So much is thought, and written, about ‘becoming a man’ in our society, what it means, what it looks like, what it is and isn’t. But not a heck of a lot is said about becoming a woman. What is a “real woman,” nowadays? We know the old strictures are passe: wife and mother, housewife, chief cook and bottle washer – all gone (or are they?). We know things have changed, but what have they changed into?

What I do know is what women (especially  young women) talk about in therapy, ‘behind closed doors’: The pressure to get married, have a baby, judgment by others about how they keep the house, how (and if) they use makeup, their history of makeup and dress-up: Did anyone teach them how and when to use makeup? Show them how, expect them to, diss them for using it, judge them by how they dress, their stylishness,or lack of? All things men rarely have to deal with.

Women are under scrutiny for looks, manners, their sexual practices (‘tramp’ is still very  much in use).  Approaching womanhood is like threading your way through an incredibly complex slalom course, and if you hit the pole markers, you’re a bad girl (this can be good), a good girl (this can be bad), wrong, odd, frigid, loose, immature, too serious, dykie, girly, etc, etc.

We (mostly) don’t call women ‘girls’ anymore – all good, except does that mean the ‘girl’ is not supposed to be there anymore? You can say ‘boys will be boys’ and that gives a kind of benign non-judged permission to be a ‘boy’, because, somehow, it’s all part of being a man. But is being a girl still okay? Have we thrown out the baby (the girl within) with the bathwater (pejorative use of ‘girl’ as a male putdown or dismissive)? Women are judged by women more than they’re judged by men, and more than men judge men – ‘girls’ turn on their own kind! Girls are nasty to each other in middle school through high school, in ways men aren’t. Just read Queen Bees and Wannabes, or Mean Girls, or any number of other books about the nasty stuff girls have to go through on their way through middle and high school, or listen to the heartbreaking stores of female patients, who recount years of ugly whispering, judging, comparing, exclusion from cliques, freeze-outs, put-downs, broken friendships and lies, not from guys, but from other girls.

And then, in the business world, it’s an unwinnable game once again – you have to be ‘like the men’ to be accepted, but you never really are anyway, plus when you’re ‘like a man’ you’ve lost part of the woman inside, as well as some of the best parts of being a woman, parts that are NEEDED by our society. You want to be ‘one of the guys’ but you never will be, plus along the way you lose being ‘one of the girls’ (oops – there’s that word again)…

What is being an ‘adult’, especially for a woman?  Consider this work encounter reported by a female patient, a very bright mid-level accounting executive at a large corporation. She was sitting at her desk when the (male) COO walked by, spying a stuffed bunny on her desk, and barked, “Lose the bunny.”

She said, “That’s the girl in me.”

He said, “Lose the bunny – and the girl.”

Can you be taken seriously if you don’t ‘lose the girl’? Why does a male get a ‘boys will be boys’ hall pass, and still get taken seriously despite immature behavior, while a female has to “lose the bunny and the girl”?  So the girl inside can be one more sad casualty of our idiotic concept of being an ‘adult’. It means being serious, being exact, being precise, being on time, not being silly or quixotic, or inane, or funny, or anything that is outside of normal shipping channels.

Recently a female patient told me that she always knew her father really wanted a boy. She said that during her childhood, and even into her teens, she used to look at herself in the mirror, and pull her hair back, so she could see what she would have been if she was a boy. She also used to push up her breasts, to see what her body would look like as a male. Do boys (other than those with actual gender identity issues) worry that they should have been a girl? Do they stuff Kleenex in their shirts to see what they would look like with breasts? Judging by what I hear in therapy: No.

What is a woman told to be by our society?

You have to be pretty, and you have to be smart, but don’t be too smart because that’s unfeminine and might scare guys off, and don’t be too pretty because then you think you’re better than other people, but you do have to look good, and hopefully have some style, but not be a slave to style because that’s shallow, and whatever you do, don’t be fat because nobody likes that, although you’re not really supposed to care what guys think about your looks, but of course you know they’re supposed to like your looks, but not to the exclusion of the other things about you, but since looks is all you have when you haven’t met the guy, of course you need that to get his attention, but don’t emphasize it too much, because that’s cheap and self-involved, so emphasize it in a subtle way, but not too subtle, because guys aren’t that subtle, and oh yeah you have to do well in school and be able to support yourself, because you might not find a guy to support you, although you’re not supposed to think that way of course, because that’s so 1950’s, so definitely aim for a career, but don’t get so into it that there’s no space in your life for being married with children, because marriage and children are a given of course, unless you’re not normal, in which case we need to find out what’s wrong with you and fix it, because of course you’re supposed to be fulfilled by having a husband and children and making a nice home for them, though of course you’re not supposed to do only that, because that’s so 1950’s, but it’s still supposed to fulfill you, and you hope you don’t have to be the main financial support of your family, when you of course have one, because your husband is actually supposed to do that, though of course you shouldn’t expect that, because that’s so 1950’s, so to be safe you should really have a great career, and a great marriage, and be a great Mom, because if you don’t, you’re weird and we will worry about you and wonder why you didn’t do the regular thing, though you really want to be a lot more than just regular, but don’t do it in a weird way – is that clear?

Whew – good luck with that, ladies! (Oops – ‘ladies’ is out, too)…

Hey, little girl,

Comb your hair, fix your makeup,

Soon he will come through the door.

Don’t think because,

There’s a ring on your finger,You needn’t try anymore…

For wives should always be lovers, too

Run to his arms, the moment he comes home to you,

He’s almost here…

Yes, folks, this song was a huge hit in 1963, and won the singer, Jack Jones, a Grammy for best performance of the year. It was covered, successfully, by many female singers, including Dionne Warwick. This is called ‘acceptance’, and this means women, as well as men, endorsed the sentiments expressed in the song. At least until the mid 80’s, when a very funny female patient of mine changed it to:

For wives must always be cockatoos,

Run to his arms, just as your kid throws up his stew,

All over you…

(Well, maybe you had to be there.)

One would hope that, as the years pass, we would all loosen the boundaries of what a ‘normal’ woman is, and allow people to be who they are, and what they are. It certainly seems to be happening in the Bay Area, where I practice. In the old days of my practice, almost every woman agonized about whether she measured up to the ideal of womanhood – looks, having a baby, getting married, the whole mishmosh.

Now, there seems to be much more focus on current relationship problems (but not in the “wives and lovers” way), personal identity (what should i do for a living, what should I major in, but not “Is it okay for me as a woman, to become a ___________?”), and that is all for the better – but there is still a lot of pressure put on women from the ‘outside’, about family, marriage, children, being a heterosexual (yes, even in the Bay Area), keeping one’s house clean and ‘presentable’, etc.

Women alcoholics still have to face the prejudice and assumption/suspicion that any women who is a drunk is also a  __________; women who are heavy still face constant judgment and commentary, verbal and non, about not only their weight, but what being heavy ‘means’ about them as a woman; women who are tall still feel “like a horse” at times, and are acutely aware that this limits their choices, and for that matter, ‘girly girls’ still face prejudice from other women as well; the assumption that they are dingbats, politically incorrect and dummies is still pretty prevalent. More ‘advanced’ women often imply that the girly girls are ‘traitors to the cause’, by still playing the old roles, although ofttimes they are only being themselves.

Anyway, things have changed since those days, but while I don’t think most women nowadays would feel they should ‘run to his arms’ when their husband comes home, I’m not sure we haven’t just taken those old expectations and grafted our modern ones onto them: Now, a woman is supposed to keep the house nice (statistics say women still do by far the majority of the housework), and work, and raise the kids (statistics say women spent considerably more time in child rearing than men), and look good in the bargain. Is that progress, or enlightened bondage?

I don’t know what statistics say, but it sounds like a bum deal to me.

I hope that someday, just as boys will be boys, women can just be women.

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.