Wednesday, November 27, 2013

a gift

yesterday, my soon-to-be 80-year-old client summed up our session with this thought:

"i think the most important job of adulthood is to deal with your family-of-origin stuff, something which can't really be undertaken until one is at least 40 years of age."

i have shared this gift with others since then.

why 40? perhaps arbitrary. but, for example, in the olden days, folks who were younger than 40 were not allowed to apply to doctoral programs because they had not yet inherited and assimilated enough life experience to merit the title of "doctor."

why family-of-origin? because the business of human connection, learned at our parents' knees (or not), is the sine qua non of being human and under girds all of our transactions. whether we (take the time to) acknowledge this or not.

and so i am regifting a gift, this insight, this simple musing about our ancestors, us, relationship, and the beneficent passing of time.

know thyself. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

delicious confession

day in, day out.

cover the same terrain: sleep, diet, exercise, brain chemistry, relationships, feelings, thoughts, actions, plans, planning, relaxation, organization, micronutrients, family of origin, dreams, journaling, reading. stay on track. lean into the feeling, as much as you can.

but the bottom line, i think, is this: what does it mean to live? what is life? what does a life well-lived look like? feel like? is it documentable? does it have to be? how will i know that it's all right? do i have a right to make these choices, these decisions, in my life? will i be judged? is it big things only or is it daily things as well?

we're approaching an interdisciplinary intersection, a place i love and trust. i love this place in the therapy dialogue, the deep, meaning-making place. it might seem strange, but then again it might not. unless you're an academic in the humanities or a novelist, when and where do you have time to think and articulate a coherent proposition for your meaning of life? so, in my office, after we review the oft-covered terrain of sleep, diet, and exercise, we dust off overwhelming emotions about a spouse, a neighbor, oneself, we sometimes are blessed to veer into meaningfulness and "meaning of life" suppositions.

here's the delicious confession.

when i was about 6, during summer vacations, i used to cut up my godmother's older, sleeveless, floral nightgowns and fashion them into dresses for myself. i'd use the cut remnants as belts. i would put on her high heels and clomp around the front yard, admiring my creation while considering further alterations.

when i was about 14, i'd use my babysitting money to buy long, dangly brass earrings that i would have to hide from my strict father. i would put on these earrings when i turned the corner away from the house and take them off before coming home. in the winter months, i would wait until my father's car could no longer be seen in the distance, i would go around the back of the school, remove the pants he made me wear under the plaid uniform skirt, and go merrily into the school, my fashion sense intact.

when i was about 16, i thwarted my then-recently-deceased father's plans for my future attendance at medical school by developing a very rebellious depression, flunking out of physics and pre-calculus, and hiding in the school's art studio. i started drawing again.

between the ages of 7 and 16, i did not draw. except in art class. and that didn't really count. elementary art seems to be more crafting than art, something i've never cared for.

i had a teacher. her name was susan. she used to wear hot pink tights underneath black dresses. she gave me a pin, during my teenage rebellion. it said, quite simply, "problem child." she never said anything about it, i never said anything about it. no one ever said anything about it. it just was. she was right.

i trusted her.

she saw me. she let me be. she encouraged me. steadily. quietly. i made art. she took photos. i entered contests. she photographed my university admissions portfolio. she gave me new tools. she gave me her time.

i have been somewhat postponing the confession, which is this, dear, educated, serious, adult reader: i love fashion. almost all of my drawings during that time were about fashion. i studied fashion magazines to read about cloth, texture, cut, weave, fabric. i replicated, minutiously, interesting images from the magazines. i studied light to see how it affects fabric. i drew. a lot. all the time. i avoided thinking about my authoritarian father's death by drawing. i escaped, dear reader. there was no other help for me. except this. and this had been around ... for a long time. since that summer vacation where i improved my godmother's wardrobe with a pair of scissors.

i went to school for fashion design. a good school that opened my eyes to other media. i got embroiled in that horrid red herring of an argument: "fashion design is not fine art. it is craft." i veered away from fashion design because i wanted to "be taken seriously."  i revolted against a shirt costing 4,000.00USD. i revisited "serious" academic pursuits and became a psychotherapist.

and so. how now?

i love being a therapist! i love talking about important and not-so-important things. but i love having a keen eye for fashion. this will be forever with me. for me, fashion is conceptual, emotive, a possibility, expression, creativity, a sense of self. for me, fashion is important to my mental well-being. for me, a life without good fashion design is a much poorer visual and conceptual life. if i am unable to have a few minutes a day to admire wrinkles in heavy linen or the texture of worsted wool or the frayed ends of a deconstructed skirt, that day will have been a mass-produced, bland and flavorless day. for me, the linen or the wool, the silk, is more than fabric; it is the plant, the animal, the creatures cultivated to produce these materials. the silk worm's cocoon, its caterpillar feeding on mulberry leaves. the dyed wool thread, after it's been spun, dyed in large vats in a pakistani village courtyard. the personality of the fabric, the process it's undergone to become the fabric or the grament, each person who's manipulated that fabric since it was seed. the story of the thing. i love it. it pleases all of my senses. only a good designer knows what to do with each piece of fabric. this is the life essence, i say to myself, this rendition of this fabric as birthed by rei kawakubo of comme de garcons or issey myiake or ivan grundhal.  so many artists. strong lines, opinions, innate knowledge.

in therapy sessions, i shape and organize thoughts and feelings, building scaffolding, holding the entire structure of mental health and well-being in mind for this particular person, this particular client. intrinsic to the structure are beauty and those elements which are essential to optimal health: joy, authenticity, personal satisfaction, connection with like-minded others, the ability and the freedom to express oneself. intrinsic. these re built-in, not add-ons. they are required for a good, meaningful life.

"what did you like to do when you were little?"

yes, i validate fruitless, frivolous pursuits! sitting in the backyard, chewing a gatorade popsicle, wiping off the excess with the back of your hand. cutting up favorite images and taping them to the walls of your house and replacing them once a week. going to that hill in the park and rolling yourself down on its slope along with the neighborhood children. model airplanes. kicking the soccer ball every day after work, putting together a league. groove to that beat that always makes you move your head. this are life's inextricable little joys. or big joys. but they are must-haves.

if i do this for others - give them permission to be "frivolous" - it stands to reason that i while away my free time admiring that beautiful piece of lightweight, gauzy black linen as it hangs from the curtain rod, the late-summer sunshine shimmering playfully in and out of its elongated folds.

and this is my frivolous, delicious confession. and i feel free now. judge me if you will!

Monday, July 8, 2013

girls rule and boys drool

as the mother of a 7-year-old boy and a woman who counsels kids and teens, in my spare time i keep my eyes open for social trends and hypothesize underpinnings of these trends. anecdotally, i am seeing uber-confident girls and bumbling, defeated boys. i am bereft and a bit heart-heavy about my son's future - psychologically, socially, economically - when i see the robust presentation of his female peers. found a book that validates and quantifies what i'm seeing: dan kindlon's alpha girls: understanding the new american girl and how she is changing the world. kindlon has an earlier work published, raising cain: protecting the emotional life of boys. it's in my amazon shopping cart.

title of post is direct quote from alpha girls. this witty little ditty has tentacled itself in my mind. can't get rid of it. i hate it, clever as it is. here's what kindlon says to explain aphorism:

"researchers have observed that young female chimps ... are smarter than young male chimps, at least when it comes to learning how to fish for termites. young female chimps watch their mothers select the right size stick to dip into the termite mound and quickly learn to imitate them. the young males, on the other hand, pay their mothers no mind. they are inattentive, rolling around in the dirt and generally slacking off. the young females start fishing for termites on their own at a much earlier age than the males - on average over two years earlier - and they remain more proficient fishers as adults....this picture of young female chimps as focused, receptive learners fits well with our portrait of academically accomplished girls move in positions of power and prominence, what will happen to boys? will their penchant for figuratively horsing around while their female peers master important life skills mean that they are going to become increasingly irrelevant?"

later in his text, kindlon begins to identify boys as perpetually "rolling around on the termite mound."

in conversations with folks - especially moms - tentative mentions of anecdotal observations are vigorously defended against. i am politically incorrect to affirm that the three waves of feminism have really been advantageous for girls, yet have left boys far far behind. i am anti-girl-power if i say such things. listening shuts down, mothers self-righteously label me conservative (!), and stomp off, muttering to their daughters, "she's jealous because you're __________ than her son!"

i respectfully beg to differ. my son has a higher emotional IQ than some of his girl peers at an enlightened montessori. many an afternoon's drive home was spent validating anger and sadness when nicholas reported yet another variation of, "sophia says girls are better than boys. mommy, is that true?" mommy CBT shrink carefully listens, validates, challenges irrational belief, installs rational cognition, and ... prays for a different outcome tomorrow. tomorrow usually brought more of the same. said girl, sophia, oldest of two sisters, daughter of loud, vociferous, know-it-all mother, usually found myriad ways in the span of eight and a half months to impress upon my son that she has it as fact that girls are just so much more than boys.

in thinking (a lot) about these subjective affirmations in which she is the winner, i wondered if this is not some kind of psychological bullying. here i am, teaching my son that we are all different and different is wonderful (!), and there is her mother, teaching her, "you are the best because you are a girl." i began to tell my son that those kinds of statements - totalitarian, subjective, us vs. them - are hurtful, untrue, and indicative of bullying behaviors. he rallied around this heartily! i won. this time. i buffered his flagging self-esteem. but i know my son. he is kind and sniffs out injustice a mile away. is crushed when he perceives unkindness. it renders his tools null and void.

so i revisit this girls-vs-boys thing with my son pretty often. to make sure he GETS it. to make sure he recognizes that girls who affirm, as one of kindlon's subjects does, "i will get what i want because i am aggressive," are bullysih, the statements offensive and unilaterally competitive, whether they come out of a girl's or boy's mouth. beliefs such as this preclude understanding, cooperation, kindness, definitely room for error.

kindlon's - indeed, america's - alpha girls score high on masculine traits. these traits are measured by items such as, "when i play games i like to win." or, "i would rather do things on my own than ask for help."

is this what hundreds of years of feminism has gotten us? girls who score high on masculine traits? it seems that mostly it has. in my practice, i see teenage boys, young men, and older men, all with myriad psychological symptoms, but most of them with the underlying theme of what it means to be a man. i salute the freedoms feminism has gained for women. but even twenty years ago, besotted with it after my first philosophy course in feminism, i had an inkling about the lopsidedness of the argument. i did not identify as a man-hater; i wanted an inclusive world. i wanted a kind and just and fair world. of course this was idealistic utopian wishful thinking; of course it can't come to be as such. however, the empowerment of women (alone) has left a huge gap in its wake whose effects we are starting to see now. no revolution of maleness as a gendered construct has been suggested. shoddy efforts were made to redefine masculinity, but these efforts came from “woodsmen” who called on men (and boys) to take up their axes and tromp out to the woods while beating their chests. far from imbuing maleness with flexibility (as feminism did for girls), these bearded 20th-century tarzans advocated for the continued inculcation of uber-masculine traits in boys.

and where are we now?

well. i, for one, am angry at the reality of alpha girls, contemplative about the male gender role – let’s be clear about this, it IS a socially-prescribed role - and compassionate about my son's fervent tears and disarmament in the face of sophie's bold statements.

one day at a time. one fallacious statement at a time. if we truly want a just society, we would do well to start empowering our boys to cry, to hug and kiss more, to talk about their hurts and fears, to draw and dance and sing and build and cook and cry in the face of injustice and unfairness and to take up "arms" against these injustices. including the discipline to stop rolling around on the termite mound, for God's sake!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

a slippery thing, this "time" business

it's been months since i've put "pen to paper." myriad excuses, some valid, most inconveniently trumped-up. i owe (myself and) my readers a second part to explanation of blog title. i know this. it sits in the back of my neuronal circuitry and sometimes wreaks havoc on my sleep.

where does the time go?

it goes into paltry little soundbites to still keep myself relevant in virtual-land. a long-time foe of facebook and other social media sites, i abashedly admit that i frequent it too often, rely on it too much, in a soundbite way, to pass on information, share soundbite opinions, rail against injustice.

the meaningful existence required to keep us honest and functional has been relegated to re-postings, with largely nary an "OMG!" addition from me to preface the post.


and so one slips down the tunnel of time-evanescent, time-in-arrears, time-disowned.

lest i berate lack of time to blog, must remember lack of time to do other more significant, equally, if not more so, meaningful things, like cook healthy food for growing boy-child, plant flowers, spend time with friends who struggle with varied parenting challenges. or just spend time. period. lovely, unstructured, free time. where is this time? where has it gone? can i buy some? can i AFFORD it?

blessed summer days. rushing to get to camp and work in the morning. rushing to get the bedtime routine streamlined. boy-child remarks, "we never have time together at home anymore."

ugh. tennis-ball size lump in throat.

must re-evaluate.

must reclaim the seemingly-evanescent time.

Friday, March 8, 2013

i write by hand

not too long ago, at a small dinner party, i had the opportunity to articulate my position vis-a-vis teaching kids cursive handwriting.

the setting was this: in the high-tech saturated seattle corridor, most of my friends' husbands work for microsoft, google, or adobe. good at mathematics and robotics, not so good at arts and letters, humanities and social sciences. so we find ourselves in the seattle freeze, where they - the husbands - fit in quite perfectly, demographically, and the arts-and-letters, humanities-and-social-sciences wives organize coffee klatches and compare notes on the kind and amount of technological devices found in their homes due to their husbands' professions and interests. this technology, goes without saying, right?, is the milieu in which their children grow up. 4 open laptops and 7 cell phones permanently on the "dining room" table, pantries transformed into media & cable lockers, myriad connectors shoved into former catch-all drawers in kitchen. common setting.

and so, the dinner party. psychotherapist - female - at table, munching roasted almonds, alongside 2 or 3 informatics professionals, all male. school shopping for first grader, psychotherapist announces, with pronounced incredulity, "can you believe public schools now wait until 3rd grade to teach kids cursive? why do you suppose this is so?" question averted, IT guy poses question in retort, "why do kids need to learn cursive now when everything is digital?" i don't think i choked on the bit of almond, but did sit back in my chair, stumped, as though the man was speaking pig latin. slowly and thoughtfully regaining composure, i began articulating my position referred to above: "why do kids need to learn cursive?"

because the opposing argument was utilitiarian - what's the utility of learning cursive when everything is or will be done on a keypad or with a swipe of finger across a screen - the argument i constructed (for myself) that night was that cursive is not primarily or solely about usefulness.

it is about ... being human.

returning to a few posts back, where i inquired "what makes us human?" and which seems to be an au courant theme posed by social scientists (sherry turkle, jefferson singer, dan siegel, etc.), it's painfully obvious to me that subjectivity, finesse, the "correlates of consciousness," picasso, chopin, post-modernism, the existentialists, the lascaux cave paintings, gathering information through the senses (and the 3 brains) and processing, storing, interpreting, analyzing, cataloging, retrieving, and using that information are an oh-so-small portion of what makes us human.

decades ago, the precursor to this argument was this: a mathematician friend in NYC - one of my favorite places in the world because of its jumble of (perhaps you've guessed what i'm going to say) humanity - was intent on explaining to me why and how computer art can also be cataloged as art. paint-by-numbers, if you will, using a computer program. an art student at the time, but with burgeoning interests in the social sciences, my gut lurched even though my reasoning was inchoate: computer art cannot be art because art - Art, in the platonic sense of idea - is unprogrammable. art is intuitive and spontaneous and requires complexity of thought and feeling. computer programs cannot mimic human sensibility.

why learn cursive? well, the answer is, why learn to play the piano? why develop your own film, manipulating the chemical bath to obtain a suspected and desired result? why make art, for God's sake? this is why we should teach our children to write cursive! so that they have precursors for appreciating beauty. so that they can become complex, interesting and interested human beings. so that they can commune with other human beings about things which have no market value but which make life and the world rich, profound, and painfully beautiful. so that, being able to do these things, they stave off anxiety and depression, go toward meaningfulness and meaning-making, seek solace and plenitude in priceless gifts all around. stop and look at a stone; turn it over. pick up another one and compare it. act like a little scientist-artist. because you can. because you were born a human, not a robot or a dog.

during this recent dinner-party conversation, i also intuited that cursive has its utilitarian value, stimulating and strengthening neuronal networks that only the exercise of recognizing, reading, and writing cursive would activate and carve. brain architecture: every drop of knowledge or information finds a corresponding neuronal network in which to lodge itself, to deepen the brain's convolutions and add complexity to its structure.

but this strand of thought was for myself only, because that night i wanted to champion the idea that we teach our children to write cursive because it is part of the human endowment thus far and merits to be carried forward. like picasso and chopin, sartre and de beauvoir, kristeva and mahler, nirvana and the posies, frankenthaler and giacometti.

we teach our children to write cursive because we are beautiful and complex human beings.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

soulful: a friend's work

i believe in intersections, serendipity, and "no such thing as an accident." depending on who we are and what we pay attention to, we meet who we should meet, people we would want to meet anyways, fellows on paths similar to ours.

during a short stay in eastern washington in 2011, i met an artist who lives and creates in ellensburg.

at first, i met austin's aunt, who owns a flower shop and "trinket" store. i outfitted a good part of my office with finds from her shop. being in a small town, people act accordingly. and so inevitably, i would get a once-over and asked the requisite string of questions, prefaced with, "you're new here, aren't you?" she behaved the same. with her, because of her good taste, i willingly supplied information and made needs known, needs which mostly lay in the visual arts category. she said, "you should give my nephew a call. see if he's got some ideas for your office." and so i did. and henceforth, he's one of the people i've ... collected ... whom i think fondly of and wonder to myself, "what would austin have to say about this?"

my needs were these: business cards and a sculpture for my office. 

i bought cheap business cards from an online supplier. and a frame for 3 2-d pieces of art from austin. he helped me envision a different way to “hang pictures.” so he made me a frame which was like a sculpture. black and thin and simple. 3-d. and minimalist. stunning, but doesn’t detract from that which it’s framing.

the product is but also isn’t important. what remains is the dialogue and the essence of the person. when talking with austin about what i was thinking with respect to art in my office, he thought silently – he does this quite a bit in the presence of another, a comforting stance in a world of ceaseless cacophony – and said, “i think you should be different [than other shrinks] by filling your office with art. lots of it. everywhere. i can see it. it would represent you well.” he has an impish smile; he uses it to punctuate personal opinion.

while moving out of a moldy rental house, i slept in my cozy office, with austin's art sprawled out on the floor in front of the couch. i was considering it, to see how it could “fit” in my office. it was on loan and i would contemplate it and play with it when i needed to clear my head or rinse my eyes with a good visual image. the piece was so strong, visually, that i’ve stored it in my memory network. i can easily bring to mind the pieces of painted, distressed plywood, with large arcs sawed into the surface and burnished with a torch. playful little 12-inch by 12-inch square boxes, like puzzle pieces that could be re/arranged at will. the image they made, individually or together, so compelling, my eyes would steal away to the little squares. i’d squint my eyes and imagine different patterns, the off-white and dark-brown pieces scattered on my off-white-yellow-burgundy kilim. it soothed my ruffled feathers while i was recovering from mold and respiratory illness.

it reaffirmed what i knew: there are many interstitial people. we (eventually) find the connections.

the intersection is this: a visual artist, formally trained in visual arts and music, who makes art mostly by himself, who uses both raw as well as processed material, both natural as well as man-made materials, who makes both fine as well as functional art, who seeks solitude as well as dialogue, who likes working alone and in collaboration, who waits silently for truth and the right message to emerge, who sees beauty and potential in free resources like sunlight and shadow and in discarded or unwanted objects like a rusted metal coil. who expresses gratitude, simplicity, childish joy, evolved insight, possesses a robust visual repertoire, humility, integrity. and a love of connecting the dots. partial self-description: “love to discover new relationships.”

to see him, by way of his art, go look at 3 crescents, his winning entry for a sculpture commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair.  

Extensions in the Garden
I created this space to exercise and embody movement, balance and meditation. I believe it's important to retreat and process our thoughts. As I walk upon these extensions from the earth, I connect and confirm my relationships with creative ideas. In movement I realize that God is moving and He loves us.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

pilfered springboard

"I don’t know that psychotherapy in its many schools would think of its goal as the liberation of love from a heart twisted in on itself by suffering. But I have found, in my self-work, and now for many years in my work with others, that as suffering retreats love enters; as self-pain diminishes, care and concern for others ripens. Maybe it is as natural to love as for a cherry seed to ripen into a cherry ... I once read about a seed that had been wrapped away for thousands of years in an Egyptian mummy. Unearthed, brought into the light and planted, it shot out its roots, sent forth its branches, unfurled its leaves. I can’t remember the name of the plant it became but perhaps, whatever it was, it will help us in our work to imagine that love is like that, a mighty seed, often hidden away and hard to reach, but ready to thrive given the right conditions."

Following on my recent acolyte-like experience with Dan Siegel, I stumble - unwittingly - across thoughts, ideas, opinions, expressions which return me to his work, which is, after all, human work, I like to think; it's not like it's branded-Dan-Siegel. When Siegel asserts that the "emotional" brain (love, affiliation, connection) trumps the "thinking" brain (good grades, memorization, historical events, trigonometry formulas) with respect to promoting overall health and well-being, I am reminded of a piece of information I retained verbatim from my Adlerian training program: Emotions motivate people to action. Not thoughts. Not behaviors (which catalyze other behaviors). No. We act (do, behave, speak, think) because of what we feel.

And the time continuum connects these two strands linearly to Kim Chernin's quote prefacing this post, pilfered from her blog earlier today about the alchemy of suffering (trauma), the human heart (feelings), and psychotherapy. Aside from my in-love-ness with "the liberation of love from a heart twisted in on itself by suffering," she makes the connection very explicit: 1. We are born (to love and connect); 2. We suffer (because our selves have been hurt, physically and/or emotionally); 3. Because we suffer, we (retreat and) cannot love (our selves or others); 4. We (re)connect (with a therapist; a guide; a mentor; a true friend) deeply, trustingly, heartfelt; 5. Suffering retreats; 6. The heart opens again (to ourselves and others); 6. We (can) love again, our selves and others.

Equally explicit is Siegel's connection between suffering, disconnectedness, and love, though he would likely call these existential states impaired integration, impaired relationships, and right-brain affiliation.

It's of great interest to me that scientists (albeit "soft scientists" in the social science domains) are spending a lot of resources lately on making love, affection, human contact and warmth, belonging, affiliation, feelings the focus of their musings and research. And they go forth in the public space and unabashedly cry, "Love victorious!" This reminds me of a favorite writer, George Vaillant, who said, "Why should the emphasis of AA on positive emotions work as well as or better than the exploration of negative emotions in which I engaged as a psychotherapist?"

While I take issue with the value valence of "positive" and "negative" emotions - both human, valuable, and inextricable from the totality of our lived experience - social science research is, lately and insistently and almost unanimously, making us recognize that love and affiliation, human connection, care, concern, pathos, deep feeling, empathy, warmth, touch, instinctive alignment with another, are the sine qua non building blocks of health and healing.

Lest mental health professionals decry these affirmations, challenging the recent temporality I'm assigning to this research with the fact that attachment and relational theorists have studied and published about this since the early 20th century, let me join you and say, "You are right. This is somewhat not new. And moreover, new brain research, translatable to 'bedside' therapist blogs, shows that even microscopic molecules proclaim love to be victorious. In the end."