Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Seven Years of Missing

It's possible I am pushing through solid rock
in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone;
I am such a long way in I see no way through,
and no space: everything is close to my face,
and everything close to my face is stone.

I don't have much knowledge yet in grief --
so this massive darkness makes me small.
You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:
then your great transforming will happen to me,
and my great grief cry will happen to you.

Rainer Maria Rilke


Sunday, May 22, 2016



This year, something unexpected bloomed in M’s garden. It’s like that every year. I meet the new flowers through a text message, waiting for my time to visit, hopefully showing up before they have grown tired of waiting for me. When I finally arrive, I drink them in like water from a fire hose. 

Every spring, I long to put my hands into the earth, to understand the visceral truth about soil: the darker the healthier. 

While light is necessary, growth happens from the ground up.

My first and only garden was planted for me by the previous owners of a house I purchased but never felt was truly mine, a fully mature perennial garden made up of a series of beds so well planned that as one flower died, another bloomed. There was no time for mourning. 

The only role left for me was weeding. My ignorance at the time, however, was such that even identifying weeds required a new education. With a dearth of teachers but a great deal of hope, I weeded the garden with administrative fervour, never allowing myself to sit idle, never stopping to just be with the beauty of my upkeep, not knowing just how quickly it would slip through my fingers.

Fifteen years later, I got to spend hours digging in the dark earth of someone else's garden, removing old roots and stirring in manure, mixing shit with soil that had lain fallow for years, the ground matted with wild trees and flowers to whom I tenderly apologized as I cut their ties, turning the soil again, uprooting more plants, then more turning and more uprooting. It seemed, finally, my education might start from the ground up, from first principles. If I could learn to ready the soil, I might learn to grow nourishment, sustenance, and beauty. 

This time, although the teachers did arrive, I did not. The garden was borrowed. And like in so many of my dreams, I found myself stuck in another city, at a retreat or convention centre, my own home still at large, with no sense of how to get there. For me, home is not a going back. It’s a constant trek, like a soul endlessly walking the distance an airplane has traveled to deposit all the world’s viable lovers into fertilized territory. 

As the jet stream dissipates, I am left with only clouds as guides. I cannot stop walking because there is no back to turn to.

At my current dwelling, I host two planters outside my front door. Dead grasses in one, weeds in the other, snow-burned soil in both, and I wonder if I have the strength to return to a nursery to make a choice. 

Both planters require that I start from scratch. But choosing among annuals feels like choosing among ice sculptures melting in winter sunshine. 

I have grown weary of starting again, of the short term. I'm tired of the recurring dream in which I am at a university or a hotel, but never home. I want the kind of return that means food, the return of worrying over bugs and working to find organic solutions to organic problems, the tending daily to something that has a greater chance of return in full bloom next year if I nurture it in this one.

Today I awoke thinking about small paintings. The kind with simple relationships -- glass and fruit, light and shadow -- the kind I can make in an hour without agonizing over worth or purpose. As I allow myself this small luxury of a future pruned down to a few hours in a single day,  the inevitable question forces its way through my deliberately narrowed focus, like a daisy pushing through concrete. 

For whom?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Forget Therapy

I quit.

That’s right, I quit. Everyone knows September is when the real New Year begins, when we start real things, like school. But I quit. I quit school. I QUIT SCHOOL.

Breathe, Liz, breathe.

Is it a coincidence I quit right around the Jewish New Year? While it’s true I’m a Jew – if one of the world’s worst – the fact that my soul’s new year also begins every September, which generally coincides with Rosh Hashana is, I think, only . . . um . . . coincidental.

Or is it?

There are mysteries afoot in my life right now that make me wonder if coincidence is really random -- coincidence itself not being the mystery but mystery’s symptom, its bell. 

For instance, I recently moved a bookcase from my side of the bed to the side my lover sleeps on. And I changed its orientation (the bookcase’s, not the bed’s or the lover’s), which had faced into the room but now faces the bed so that one can contemplate all those stories lying in wait, especially on sleepless nights when I am alone. 

This new arrangement led to my partner spotting
Amnesia by Douglas Cooper, a watershed book from when his first marriage came apart. “I’m amazed you have this book!" he jubilated. "We've read the same book!” he sang out, identifying yet another synchronicity in a growing list of delicious synchronicities, reinforcing what has felt so right, so destined, so homey from the start.

“I haven’t read it,” it pained me to admit. “That’s my shelf of to reads.” How many times had I picked up this book, read the cover jacket, and put it down again because it simply didn’t resonate. This time, I immediately cracked the book to gain insight into my lover – why was this book so significant to him? What I found was my own story. My own story right now, that is. Any other time it would have been a good read but perhaps not a profoundly resonant one. With quitting school just before September, just before Rosh Hashanah, I’m fairly vibrating with

The book is about storytelling. The protagonist splits himself in two, projecting one part as himself-as-storyteller in order to tell himself-as-audience the terrible crimes he committed.
Amnesia is about the stories we tell ourselves in order to forget, the stories we tell ourselves in order to remember. It’s the confessionals we tell a listener to relieve ourselves of the burden of shame and guilt, or stories that toss a rope to those in need, or to those we wish to pull into the vicinity of love; it's the stories that serve as mirrors so that we might see ourselves and be seen in order to judge and forgive ourselves in the hopes that we may heal. 

Two weeks before reading
Amnesia, I had quit therapy-training school. The decision had been painful but, once made, joyous. But not for long. I’m now walking around with deep worry in my heart. If not a therapist, then what, what is my purpose? And what story do I tell others to make this decision make sense, but mostly importantly, what story do I tell myself?

Amnesia, the protagonist's is so preoccupied with home-life traumas that he unwittingly destroys a woman he loves, and who loves him, much the same way Hamlet's obsession about his uncle destroys Ophelia -- not directly, because Hamlet did not seek to harm her. But he was so hell bent on avenging his father that he missed Ophelia's love altogether. He didn't even notice her.

As September approached, I obsessed about quitting all the things I didn’t want to do anymore (which is kind of what therapy is about: quitting bad patterns that are self damaging). 

I quit school because my body felt sick when I thought about going back. And then I quit feeling like I owed an explanation for that decision to anyone, especially to the school. While on this quitting roll, I tried to also quit feeling responsible for people for whom I am not responsible. And I longed to quit avoiding conflict because as much as I hate conflict, I know that whatever disappears from the surface inevitably reappears on a subterranean level and eventually poisons my well.

My quitting obsession transformed me into a cocoon. My mind went numb. Last September, I read a freight train of psychologist, cultural theorists, visionaries, thinkers, and other declarers on the nature of the human condition. I nibbled at a smorgasbord of rational-to-mystical offerings, which left me feeling either empty or full but never really nourished. That was the real problem. I was not hungry, yet I ate. I felt bloated and uneasy in my skin.

Looking back, I wonder if I was trying to put myself into a state of hibernation: consuming in order to conserve. Whatever the reason, I stopped noticing anyone else. My desire to quit became so overwhelming that one day I simply left the table. Burrowing into a tree or underground might have actually served me better since a good depression is rich humus for evolution. But I stayed above ground instead, seeking flat lands. I needed to see the horizon. I didn't trust the dark. I slept with my eyes open.

And the people around me suffered. I began avoiding contact. Even my partner did not get all of me. Friends in crisis could not reach me. Nothing penetrated anymore.

So now I'm growing worried. I'm worried that past events in my life – Andy’s death, for instance – have cut so deeply that I’m not willing to take a deep dive for fear of never resurfacing. I'm worried I've pitched my tent in a daffodil-filled meadow from a sanitary-napkin advertisement in order to avoid the bloody work of digging a foundation.

I'm worried quitting is a form of amnesia, a way to forget things, a way to avoid more mourning.

Two emails arrived this week, however, that have snapped me awake . . .

The first was from a friend with whom I had recently discussed our new beginnings for September, her fall being filled with teaching and getting her long-awaited tenure portfolio ready. But before she could get started, her father required a sudden hip replacement, so she dropped everything and took up residence at his hospital bed located in the “Close Observation Unit.” Feeling helpless, she did the only thing she could do. Closely observed him. 


It was not an email she sent, but a story, a true story, a heartbreaking story. I wept. Her drawing of her father haunted me for days. Only now as I write this do I realize what has been pulling at the corners of my psyche: this is the same story of Rosh Hashanah, of
Amensia. All three are about carved-out spaces in time when our lives may be in the balance and close observation is the only thing we can do, and also the best thing we can do: a time and place of reckoning with ourselves and our loved ones, a deep-dive exploration into our oceanic sides, our hidden creatures.

The Close Observation Unit is where we wake up to the realities of our lives, where we see how we operate in the world. It's where we open up to our own hidden truths, where we heal and recover.

Rosh Hashanah is just another kind of Close Observation Unit in which God opens the book of life for ten days during which time you get to closely observe (i.e. reflect upon) your sins; and where you get to make amends and then plead your case (i.e. tell your story) in the hopes that God lets you live another year. Since you don't know which fate God chooses for you, all you have left to do is to act in good faith towards yourself and others.

Amnesia, the protagonist undergoes a long, drawn out Rosh Hashanah as he unearths his wrong doings in the company of a witness (even if the witness is another part of himself) in order to take responsibility for his forgetting, in order to remember, make amends, and heal. 

What I find fascinating about this process is that in telling our stories, we reproduce our creator because we presuppose an audience who will hear us and forgive us.

As I look at my friend's drawing of her father, I realize she has reproduced her creator in order to engage in their unfolding story together. Reproducing him is an act of devotion, an act of gratitude for what has been given, such as her gifts and talents, such as her very life. We the children are the lucky ones because we already know the person we reproduce through story telling (or drawing, or whatever form it takes). Our parents did not have that benefit when they imagined us and sought to reproduce us. But our act of devotion is based on a lived relationship, one we have the priviledge of acknowledging. What’s even more lucky for the children is that our relationship to our parents is not the product of our love for and with someone else; it is direct with them. It’s no different to a direct relationship with God. Or with ourselves as the divine.

There is something existential about Rosh Hashanah: the fact of God's will. In other words, you can plead your case through a story, but God will decide your fate in the end. God's will is another way of representing the givens in life that we cannot control. Whether someone loves you, or your fortunes rise or fall, or you get a PhD (or not), you will die. That's a given. Apart from the givens, however, you get to make your own decisions about the rest of your life. How will I choose to be in this world? Bitter and blaming or responsible and grateful? These choices can almost seem like too much freedom. I know it can be overwhelming for me. If not a therapist, THEN WHAT?

What matters, however, is not the answer to that question, but the beautiful freedom I have to choose in the first place. Even to choose to quit. Quitting is just a moment of decision making, and, as such, an act of living and self love.

The second email was from another friend whose father died much more quickly than she or her family can bear. “I’m beyond devastated,” she wrote. “My dad . . .” And I knew exactly what she meant. She had written the only expression possible for such a catastrophe.

For me, this is where surface and depth meet. Where sand whips around my tent reminding me there is no safe space where death won’t take away those I love. This is where therapy begins and ends, where one person tells another person the contents of their heart and other person hears it with all their heart. I wept. And I wrote back whatever support I could offer. 


When I admitted to my partner “I can’t do this anymore,” this being go back to school, he said: “Perhaps you want to live on the surface of things right now.”

And that’s why I love him. Because I knew he would reflect me back to myself. He gave me permission to surface, to come up for air, to cease diving into places that were pulling me under at at time when I couldn't bear it.

But also I knew his meaning was double. I knew that he knew the surface would not sustain me, that this was not an end point, only a beginning. That there would be another diving under later, another fall, another September when I could and would decide what’s next. Decide who I want to be; what I want to do. Just not now.

I feel so grateful for the ten days ahead of me when I get to join the ritual of reckoning, of admitting my wrong doings, of making amends, of visioning what is to come, and of being truly present with those I love, especially with my partner, whose preoccupations never seem to obliterate me. He always notices me. I am awash in the way he sees me, through the eyes of love.

In the Close Observation Unit, life becomes simple and clear: the world
is and we respond; acknowledgement is love.

So whatever I am right now (or at any time, really) -- whether I quit or stay the course -- there are no perfectly right answers; just close observations. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Therapy Actual


The word had been dogging me since starting therapist-training school. Dogging my mind, anyway. My body simply slept through it. In class, in therapy sessions, it was appearing everywhere, like synchronicity in action, but I didn’t really know what it meant. I mean, I knew there was this approach called “primal therapy,” and I knew it had its hayday in the 70s, or maybe it was the 80s, but it had either passed out of fashion or was currently hidden and only practiced by the old guard or in secret therapy societies. I didn’t bother to look it up. 

For weeks we’d been studying Western Mysticism. During our weekend classes, we were introduced to traditions outside of psychotherapy’s more accepted paradigms – we took journeys through forests, many of us meeting spirit-animal guides in meadows, others of us mediating on loving kindness. We built a variety of altars and reconsidered existence through the lens of quantum science, learning that photons fired in opposite directions will mirror each other’s actions instantly – when one changes direction, the other changes in the same manner, despite their being in different locations – suggesting that there’s some other dimension undetectable by our current science in which communication occurs at faster-than-light speed.

But it didn’t matter because I had stopped absorbing. My feelings came slowly, as if from under water, never breaking the surface. The usual insecurities were pulling me under – am I good enough? Will I be loved enough? Will I be loved at all . . . ever . . . WHEN? These questions came in the midst of being loved in the way I’d always dreamed, yet I still had to ask. Nothing was penetrating. Everything had a "but." But it’s probably not real. But it won’t last for long. But nothing ever works out.

And then there were the questions about my life’s purpose: what the hell am I doing with my precious life – not painting, not writing, what and, again, WHEN?! When will my life proper begin, the one where I have a fulfilling and solid career, a sense of purpose? It didn’t matter that I was writing blog posts, or editing my book (that will never see the light of day), or learning a new day job, or studying for my “vocation” (was I really going to be a therapist?!) These things didn’t seem to count. Nothing counted.

Every week I went to therapy and talked, and sometimes mustered a tear or two, but left feeling that while my mind got it, my body was failing the class. It was not therapy’s fault. Something was corked in a deep part of me. I couldn't seem to dislodge the blockage, so I did what I always do when faced with what I perceive as an immovable obstacle: I decided to quit. Quit school, quit therapy, quit dreaming about my future. 

At the end of one particular therapy session in the midst of my doubt, we heard a shattering cry through the wall. 

“Oh. That’s just an emotional release,” said Karen, my therapist, as if she were describing someone’s digestive gurgles. But it was too late. A door had slammed. And it was mine. “I can’t do this,” my mind said, using her inside voice. My body had already slipped into a coma. “I can’t bring people to that place,” I insisted to my interior audience. I was already thinking about popcorn and movies. I was already somewhere else.

“Have you ever been to that place yourself?” A fifth-year student asked me in the waiting room the following week. I was waiting to see Karen. She was waiting to go into Group (which I’ll write about once I’ve done it.) I told the student therapist I was thinking of quitting the program. She told me she'd been seeing patients for two years already and couldn't imagine doing anything else. She loved it. "Have you ever had a primal in therapy?" she asked again.

Had I ever been to a place of total emotional abandonment? I’d come undone before, spent years crying to and from class, to and from work, to and from the grocery store. But letting out a soul-wrenching scream from the depths of my wrenched soul? 

“No,” I admitted.

“Well, that’s why you’re scared,” the student therapist concluded. And she was not wrong. “It’s hard to describe the transformative quality of primal work,” she explained “unless you’ve done it.”

“It’s pretty great!” She added, like describing a ride at the Ex.

Half way through therapy that day, I ventured off the path. “I wonder if what I need is a primal,” I suggested. I had no idea what I was saying. I didn’t even know if that’s how you said it. Was ‘a primal’ a noun?

“We could do that,” Karen said, gamely. My eyes flicked over to the clock. “Well, there’s no time today, anyway. So, let’s do it next week,” I quickly backtracked. Surely a primal required at least an hour, if not longer. There was only half an hour left.

“We could do a dry run today,” Karen suggested, only she had already gotten up to prepare the matt on the floor while explaining what she was about to do. “I’ll be pressing down on your back along its length,” she said, making it sound like a massage. I started to relax, looking forward to releasing some tension in my shoulder blades.

I lay on my stomach and Karen pressed on my lower back. The pain shocked me. Since when do I have pain in my lower back? I had never noticed it before. How long had it been there? Then she moved up my spine to where my pain normally resides. All that pressing felt good, despite the pain. If this was a primal, I was loving it.

Then Karen told me to make some statements as she pressed the pain points. She gave examples like, “I hate my job” or “My mother never let me eat between meals” or whatever else came to mind. Except my mind had gone blank. Shit. I’m going to fail the primal, I panicked. Then Karen pressed really hard on my lower back and a voice broke the surface with the force of the scream from the week before, “I’M TIRED OF WAITING!”

“That sounded pretty true,” Karen said. “Let’s try something else.” She told me to get on my knees, my torso upright, my arms raised above my head, my hands clasped. She placed a tower of pillows in front of me. Then she assumed the same position adjacent to me and came down on the pillow tower, hitting  it with her outstretched arms, yelling, “I’m tired of waiting!”

I giggled uncontrollably. Karen got up and moved behind me. I started to explain that I would not be able to do that because I felt self conscious, "Karen, I don't think I can do . . ." when she pushed me! I fell forward, flooded with anger, and screamed I’M FUCKING TIRED OF WAITING. I’M TIRED OF FUCKING WAITING. I’M TIRED OF ALL THIS FUCKING FUCKING WAITING!!!!! 

Images flooded me. Waiting hours for my mother to pick me up at school. Waiting for dinner to be ready. Waiting for her to be happy so that I could stop trying to do the impossible. Waiting for my fatigue/resistance to ease up so that I could paint. Waiting to feel qualified at . . . well . . . ANYTHING. Waiting for my asshole neighbour to give in on the right-of-way issue to my front door so that I would not lose the value of my home. Waiting to be able to live alone. And yet tired of living alone. Tired of waiting to one day live with a partner again, waiting to possibly get married, waiting for a family of my own (and really tired of feeling ashamed to want these things) –  

And then I stopped. I stopped feeling. Because I knew I would never have a family. That piece of my life has passed me by (and, truthfully, I'm not sure I want children. But is that because of circumstances or because of an inner truth? I'll never know). The people I have loved in the last decade already had families, ones they built with their ex’s. And those children, those roots, those physical and emotional edifices did not include me. I was tired of waiting for inclusion (and, again, tired of feeling ashamed for wanting it). I was tired of waiting on the fringes of other people’s schedules and priorities and pasts. I was tired of waiting for my own will to live.

When the feelings of loss are too great, I shift out of waiting mode and into resignation, which looks an awful lot like quitting.

Andy’s death is the perfect example. For years, I couldn’t wait for the day when both my brothers would stand up for me at my future wedding the way they had done for each other. But that waiting is futile. It will never deliver Andy to my aisle. I guess it’s one less thing I have to wait for. And suddenly I am flooded with fatigue. Who cares? I just want to go to sleep.

Karen held me as I cried. I didn’t cry a lot, but the wave came from somewhere deeper than usual. “Your face looks so much softer,” she said. But the truth was, my time was up. We had come to the end of the half hour. 

On the two following nights, I dreamt about two women from my past, women who had endured family traumas on the level of Andy’s death and greater. In the dreams, they each came to me for comfort. I have always found both these women somehow remote -- able to describe their trauma but not necessarily express it, or maybe not even feel it. It occurred to me when I awoke that feeling is healing. And that I, myself, had become remote. In the dreams, however, these two women had softened through their pain, through their new ability to be vulnerable, to ask for help. Both had snuggled up to me like children seeking comfort in their mother’s arms. I don’t know what that’s like, to find comfort in a mother's arms, but in the role of mother I felt right at home. I took them in and held them. And something from deep within me radiated a feeling I can only describe as love. I may not ever have children of my own, but perhaps I might still become a mother.

As I lay in bed feeling the deliciousness of being needed, even if only by dream "patients,"  the mantra from a Rolling Stones' song resonated its soulful, human-condition truth from the top of  my head down through my  body like an alarm clock without a snooze button: you can't always get what you want; but if you try some time, you just might find you get what you need.

As for this sense I have of always waiting, well, as one therapist told a friend of mine, my pathology may just be my destiny. Waiting may be the teacher I have been waiting for, pushing me to the point of such exasperation that I stop waiting and start doing. Or, even better, realize that I'm already being.

And here's where primal therapy might do a world of good. It's nothing if not about being. When you can feel the nature of your pain, it unfreezes things, lets lifeblood flow again. All the ways in which I believe I'm forced to wait are not actually the truth. They are just cover ups for a deeper pain -- my sense of deprivation, which goes back to ... well, that part is for me to know and sort out. Like cutting, which is an attempt to feel something other than the pain of a trauma, waiting has kept deprivation at bay. But when I finally got past the surface pain of waiting to the raw pain of deprivation, it loosened its grip. At least for a moment.

I might need another primal or two for a full-body release ...