August 16, 2019

Then some thoughts that were like an exclusion of thinking, though still made of thoughts’ thoughty stuff.

These threaded through the sprucelands, unspooled across sand, invisibly festooning the estuary with their gel-and-dissove, as with spirit orbs.

& though made of thoughts’ thoughty stuff, to make an effort to think them was to whisk them away instead, as with grabbing a bubble or a handful of mist.

As though they were made of thoughts’ thoughty stuff but not its fixed forms and noise. Word-like, but not quite words: what the exclusion was.

Hovered there (here) where saltwater meets and absorbs the sweet.

So these thoughts are how silence thinks? I half questioned, half-declared.

At which “annoints” came to mind, as though answering a better question than the one I could think to ask.

 

 

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Age of Consent

 

Tensile light of the sagelands linking longing
with thankfulness.

Such a long spell this spring without language to enter through.

As though the language itself was still

injured by the winter words, and had gone
numb and mum.

Then a word, then a slight tumbling
sound as though within a lock.

In The Age of Consent, on an Australian sea island
James Mason and Helen Mirren frolic in Technicolor.

It’s 1969, age of hectic sophistication and naiveté.

I am watching, but my mind is still busy with
listening, which it is in love with.

Look! says the word, impatient with my preoccupation
this day with entelechy, day

so effulgent with being
unfurling and freshly-hatched. 

 

                                                                  –DCH, 8/5/19

After Long Silence,

recommencing here by way of a maybe-series on silence.

Beginning with Yeat’s poem, After Long Silence, which title has been persistently replaying itself my mind for several days.

I had not remembered the poem itself, so looked it up.
Herewith:

 

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                 Speech after long silence; it is right,
                 All other lovers being estranged or dead,
                 Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,
                 The curtains drawn upon unfriendly night,
                 That we descant and yet again descant
                 Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song:
                 Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young
                 We loved each other and were ignorant.

 

 

 

 

 

Crazy

(the following is a repeat of a post published on my mental health blog, Mental Health Matters. Click on the link to find archived posts on that site).

 

“How’s business?” someone asked me at a party recently.

I responded with my standard (and true) answer: that I’m happy in my work, and happy that I get to do it. Then came the joking next question, “So I guess there must be at least as many crazy people around these parts as there are in the city?”

It was a version of the reference to “crazy people” in connection with the work I do that I have heard more times than I can count, and yet it takes me off guard every time, since “crazy” is not a way I think of anyone I see or have seen in my therapy practice. It’s as if someone were to ask me, “Are there as many two-headed green space aliens around these parts as there are in the city?” To which my answer would be easy: “I wouldn’t know— I’ve never seen any.” 

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drawing by “Turnabliss” @ drawception.com

The fact is, the term “crazy” says more about the fear and judgement of those who use it than it says about anyone it is used to describe. Think about it: when you have described yourself or someone else as being “crazy,” haven’t you used it as a term of scorn, a shorthand way to judge, write off, and distance yourself from someone you see as not being able to cope as you think they should, or whose behaviors annoy you, or who seems eccentric in a way you fear?

Which is not to say that there are not people who don’t suffer terribly and persistently from disabling, disorienting, mental or emotional conditions (conditions which are usually treated with medication and case-management anyway, and not counseling). But to call people with severe and persistent mental illness “crazy” is to replace our compassion and curiosity with an all-purpose, scornful write-off label that only contributes to the stigma and isolation that they live with everyday, adding insult to injury, very literally.

Far from being either “crazy” (whatever that means) or being two-headed green space aliens, the people who go to therapy are just like you and me: humans grappling with the ordinary and sometimes extraordinary challenges of being human. Some are dealing with mental illness, which (like any other illness) takes a lot of energy and patience and skill to cope with on a daily basis. Some, faced with a difficult decision, life transition, or loss to navigate, use counseling to create a space in which to hear themselves think and feel themselves feel, the better to figure out for themselves what to do. And the purpose of counseling is to hold that space– a space for people to have a conversation with their own wisdom and emotions, not to get advice, have their problems solved by someone else, or be told how they “should” feel (our friends and families are happy to do that for free, right?)

Over the past several decades of my own adult life, I have personally seen a therapist on 4 different occasions at least, and each therapist I consulted was invaluable in helping me identify and effectively navigate the particular challenges I was working with at the time. One helped me see the need to develop more self-compassion, and taught me practices to cultivate it which I use and teach to this day. One helped my husband and me endure the challenges of parenting teens more effectively (and I hope more gracefully). Another offered me the kinds of questions to ask myself that made it possible for me to more clearly evaluate and take action on a difficult workplace situation. And one offered simply the anchor of her calm, reassuring, confident, listening presence that I needed to get myself through a scary episode of depression, until it lifted.

Could I cope with these myself without counseling? Of course— I was coping, just like everyone alive is coping: coping is what keeps us alive. The problem for most of us isn’t located in a failure of “coping,” it’s that “coping” alone reduces our experience of living to strategies focused on avoiding pain, at the expense of feeling fully and exuberantly alive. So when people come to therapy, it’s rarely about not being able to cope; it’s about being tired of paying the price of “just coping,” and wanting to also feel more fully (and joyously) alive.

Which makes me think, as I write this, that maybe that is actually a good definition of “crazy:” “being fully alive.” If that makes me crazy, I’ll take it. I’d be crazy not to.

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on “Care of the Soul”

Twenty-five years ago, American psychotherapist and ex-monk Thomas Moore published  Care of The Soul…and it immediately struck such a chord for so many readers that the book spent forty-six weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, and has been reprinted many times since.295132

Gathering some books from my shelves to accompany me on a soul-needed retreat recently, the title caught my eye, and I took it with me. Gratefully re-reading it over the course of my week of reflection, it was as though I was reading it for the first time, reminding me of how timely and timeless Moore’s words remain.

So what was the chord it struck then, and now? Maybe it is in the way the book speaks to the longings of so many among us to find a way to reintegrate spirituality (a sense of connection to mystery and meaning) into our lives—lives that have become weary and guilt-ridden as a result of all that problem-solving and striving for “self-improvement”  that our “can-do” culture tends to pursue (and to encourage), and that many (even most) standard therapy approaches reinforce.

“In the modern world we separate religion and psychology, spiritual practice and therapy,” writes Moore, in the introduction to the book. It is a separation, he says, that was unknown in earlier centuries of healing practices in the western world. But in our nation’s founding zeal to separate church and state in order to ensure for all the freedom to choose and to practice religion (or other spiritual practice) without persecution, we ended up pretty much throwing the “baby” (the conversation about the life of the soul) out with the “bathwater” (the power of any given religion to dictate the lives of its citizens), at least in secular life. As a result, modern psychology has become essentially secular and ego-centered. About the “self” (the ego) that is, but not about the “soul.”

With the soul having become off-limits to the field of psychology, psychology ended up aligning itself at the beginning of the 20th century with medicine: a safely “scientific” field which itself had become interested in understanding and treating mental and emotional disorders.

A result, however, was a severe impoverishment of the earlier scope of modern psychology, and a growing emphasis on “cure” (of symptoms) versus “care” (of soul).

And here’s the big irony: the word “psyche” itself in Greek means “the soul, mind, spirit, or invisible animating entity which occupies the physical body,” with “psychology” supposedly the field of knowledge of exactly that, and “psychotherapy” its tending practice.

In effect, then, we ended up with a “psychology” and “psychotherapy” without “psyche,” and treatment reduced to what could be called (I’m making this up:) “egotherapy.”

And it is that ancient understanding of the psyche/soul (the existence of which was assumed by both secular and religious peoples until very recent centuries) that Moore means when he talks about “soul” in the book: less a “thing” (in the object sense of a “thing”) than it is “the font of who we are […] holding together mind and body, ideas and life, spirituality and the world.” A dimension of our lives with a life of its own, distinct from the ego, connected with all other lives and with the source of life itself. “We can cultivate, tend, enjoy and participate in the things of the soul,” Moore says, “but we can’t outwit it or manage it or shape it to the designs of a willful ego.”

From the point of view of an ego-focused-but-soulless psychology, suffering and its symptoms are assumed to represent some kind of individual or relationship failure or imperfection. Add to that the medical point of view, and we have a way of looking at symptoms as indicative of a “disorder” or a “disease.” From both points of view, suffering and its symptoms represent “problems to solve,” which view encourages ever more striving for the perfection of some idealized self and trouble-free existence— a striving which, being futile, only leads to more suffering.

In contrast, Moore says, to attend to the soul is to understand that the soul’s life is, by nature, “complicated, multifaceted, and shaped by both pain and pleasure, success and failure.” It is a life “not without its moments of darkness and periods of foolishness.”  But instead of labeling these experiences as “bad” or “good,” or representing “problems to solve,” care of the soul focuses on the opportunities and possibilities that are inherent in all experiences for growing in “self-knowledge and self-acceptance, which are the very foundations of the soul.” It is an approach that also focuses on listening for, and giving the soul what it needs  to cultivate its well-being, many of which things might be quite ordinary: “more time in the garden,” say, or “a change of scenery,” or “taking the time to savor your food without checking Facebook at the same time.”

In essence, says Moore, The aim of soul work…is not adjustment to accepted norms or to an image of the statistically-healthy individual. Rather, the goal is a richly elaborated life, connected to society and nature, woven into the culture of family, nation, and globe. The idea is not to be superficially adjusted, but to be profoundly connected in the heart […] to all the many communities that claim our hearts.”

 

For more (including specific ways to put this into soul-tending practice, get a copy: Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Sacredness in Everyday Life, by Thomas Moore. New York: Random House, 1992.

“Nervously Taking a Seat at the Table of the Unknown.”

Visiting Rattle Magazine’s website just now to submit some new poems, I found the homepage dedicated to the heartbreakingly beautiful poem by Alexandra Umlas,  “Remembering You, Anthony Bourdain, at the Elementary School Talent Show.”     

Written in tribute to celebrity chef (which does not begin to describe him) Anthony Bourdain, who took his life a couple days ago, the poem was just what I needed this morning, in the wake of the “issue of suicide” media response to Bourdain’s death. And it reminded me once again of how much more deeply and truly and reverently the language of poetry meets us at the moist and messy heart of life and loss. It was such a contrast –in fact an antidote– to the news media’s formulaic responses: responses which  use language to aid and abet our collective, existential scramble-for-safety by quickly producing cheaply-made containers of “understanding” for our anxiety and confusion in the face of incomprehensible loss. 

I was acutely aware of the latter yesterday, when –listening to NPR over the course of the afternoon– I noticed how much focus there was on “the issue of suicide” in response to Bourdain’s death, the producers and broadcasters first shaping “the issue” for us that way, and then responding predictably, unimaginatively and heart-numbingly (as is the news media’s purpose, however unconsciously for many of those involved) to our collective anxiety by delivering “the usual” to it: the usual psychology “experts” soberly and expert-ishly proferring some version of the standard trifeca of Explanations, Advice, and Call for More Mental Health Services…none of which may have had any pertinence at all to Bourdain’s own suicide, and all of which collectively fail to honor the gift of his life, however  much longer we might think that life should have been.

Thought experiment: What if Bourdain actually knew perfectly well that he was deeply loved by, and important to many? And what if he knew his life had meaning and purpose? And what if those around him knew and persistently responded as well as anyone could to help him find relief for his suffering? And what if he did, in fact, receive the best that mental health treatment had to offer?

What if, that is, Bourdain’s suicide was not a result of a deficiency of love, of information, of vigilance, or of attitude, nor representative of a mental health services insufficiency? What if all of these resources were in fact present abundantly and in full for him (which I find more likely than not) and he still found his suffering to be too much to further bear?

What if no-one failed, including Bourdain himself?

After 25 years of practicing psychotherapy, I know how often this can in fact be true, and I believe that any truly seasoned “expert” knows it too. So why the bromides that suggest otherwise in the news media interviews?

But maybe the answer is that as “news,” that is not in fact “news we can use” as news, because that’s where poetry (and music, and stories, and all the arts) meet us instead: in that place where the heart is left to find a way to hold all that the mind cannot solve and decide away. And in doing so, it enlarges our hearts’ capacity for compassion, reverence, and joy.

As does Umlas’ poem, which, in the way it honors the life in the life of Anthony Bourdain, in turn honors the way the gifts of every life enlarge the one Life we all share together…

which is  the heart of the matter.

 

You knew how to savor
an experience, how sitting with strangers
makes friends, that what we put in our mouths
matters—you pointed out the thread
spooled between us when we have a mealanthonybourdain_portrait
together, the connection that takes place over
coffee or beer. This morning, after hearing
you were gone from this world, my daughter
danced on the stage, nervously taking a seat
at the table of the unknown. 

 

(from “Remembering You, Anthony Bourdain, at the Elementary School Talent Show,” by Alexandra Umlas; for the full text, visit Rattle.com)

 

 

To see/hear my archived poem,  “To Tinnitus” published in Rattle in 2011, click on the poem’s title